Philosophy

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Read: Why We Cooperate

While Michael Tomasello cannot give an ultimate answer to the question on why we cooperate his book is an interesting contribution to the ongoing discussion. And thus his book’s form is also more styled as an discussion. In the first part he presents his own research on primates and young human children and his own conclusions. In the second part some additional prominent scientists from the fields of developmental psychology, anthropology, and philosophy are allowed to respond with their opposing views on his interpretations based on their own research.

It is clear that the different authors do not agree on the details but there seems to be some overlap. All in all it is a nice cooperative effort. By allowing opposing views to be voiced the whole endeavor becomes more balanced and the reader gains a more comprehensive picture of the research on human cooperative behavior.

Though I was already more or less aware of the various approaches there was something I did not consciously know so far. Tomasello distinguishes three domains of altruism: goods, services, and information that translate to the actions sharing, helping, and informing. As Tomasello points out, these domains entail different costs and benefits. Therefore I am inclined to adopt this categorization for my own research.

Read: Experiments in Ethics

Experimental philosophy is not as young an academic field as it might seem. Not only do I know philosophers that already relied on (economic) experiments far longer than wikipedia dates the birth of the field, Appiah quite correctly points to a number of ancient and classical philosophers who relied on empirical research. And he points to a number of empirical scientist in psychology, sociology, and economics who without hesitation can be classified as philosophers as well. Indeed, I am quite convinced that all these academic disciplines not only share some of their objectives but have a substantial overlap.

Appiah’s Experiments in Ethics is a remarkable historical and methodological account of morality from the philosopher’s perspective. He offers a balanced view, he never sugarcoats problems with the philosophical methodology and does not shy away from picking to pieces what he thinks is a futile exercise in thought experiments. He advocates a joint approach of the different disciplines to “sustain what’s good in our lives.” He never entertains the illusion that there is a simple answer. In contrast, he candidly admits the complexity of research on morality, what constitutes goodness.

Even though the book – as seems typical for a philosophical treatise – poses more questions than it offers answers I rather enjoyed reading it…

In the end, one of the most important insights that Appiah is offering his readers is in my opinion: “In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.”

Read: Anathem

Here is another instance of my last December’s book buying spree: Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. I loved this guy’s Cryptonomicon.

While being compelling Stephenson’s books also have a big downside, they are huge tomes. It takes ages to finish one – or rather you are so captivated that everything else is afflicted. I do not think that I will start his Baroque Cycle any time soon for that reason.

Yet, Anathem made it on my reading list. In contrast to Cryptonomicon it’s more obviously science fiction even though both novels won the Locus Award for the best science fiction novel. Anathem’s story does not even take place on Earth. Also in contrast to some of his other works it does not relate to (the advancement of and effects of) technology, its focus is much more philosophical. Thus, as a side effect you’ll learn something about Philosophy.

I’d like to point to a similarity and contrast to a completely unrelated work. As Tolkien did, so does Stephenson. Both invented a new language that is spoken in their fictional worlds. Both authors like to sidetrack from the actual plot and include lengthy elaborations. Granted, Stephenson did not go to the same length as Tolkien when inventing a new language, his diversions are, however, certainly not shorter. Yet, they do not feel like diversions at all. They are integral for the story. And this is something that many (me not included, though) do not seem to feel about Tolkien’s detailed elaborations on Middle-earth’s landscape. I think this clearly speaks in favor of Stephenson.

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