▸ philosophy

Read: Are Markets Moral?

A complete waste of time.

“Are Markets Moral?” is a transcript of a one day inter-disciplinary workshop on the question that is this book’s title.

Presenters regurgitate ideas that they have presented much more eloquently and convincingly earlier, often in other, much longer books of their own, or they speculate about issues, social phenomena that they have absolutely no clue about. The discussions are shallow; the discussants talk at cross-purposes, don’t try to synthesize, or if they respond they resort to cheap attacks, free from empirical facts with the sole purpose to discredit an opposing (and reasonable, evidence-driven) opinion.

The composition of the group of participants is seriously biased. Everyone seems to have (just) their own pet peeve and no genuine interest in answering the workshop’s big question. I pity the poor souls who attended in the hope of gaining new insight.

Much more enjoyable, instructive, and insightful are Daniel Friedman’s “Morals and Markets” and Paul Zak’s “Moral Markets."

Read: Small Gods

From one perspective Pratchett’s Small Gods is a very accurate depiction of the basic principles of institutionalized religion. Its power stems from its followers. (And [this] power corrupts [its leaders], doesn’t it?) Its original ideals may get distorted over time. If there were any “ideals” to begin with…

That is, however, not the reason why I like the novel (I am not a particular fan of any religion, so maybe it contributed to me liking it); I like all these clever references to philosophy in general. Great ideas explained in very simple terms. And all the other puns as well, of course. A great time filler for any [train] trip.

Read: Replay

Even though science fiction is one of my favorite genres I seem to have read rather few SF novels recently. High time for another classic.

Grimwood’s Replay is such a classic.

Some science fiction novels or series just do not let their protagonists die, the protagonists enjoy or suffer from relative immortality and the story spans several thousand years telling the tale of changing society and technology. Other achieve basically the same by reincarnations or regeneration. Time goes on and on. The characters stay the same.

Grimwood does the opposite. Time repeats itself, again and again. It’s the protagonist that changes with each replay of his own life. Always dying at the same time, the same day in 1988, and then regaining consciousnesses in his own younger body to live his life again with the full knowledge of all his earlier experiences. Doing things differently, taking other paths than before he first seeks riches, then meaning, then happiness.

Grimwood achieves the perfect balance between detail and advancing the story. There is no razzle-dazzle, everything seems rather credible. Replay is thus an almost modest account of this afflicted man’s journey through life.

By withholding an explanation for the repeated replays Grimwood leaves the reader with one question: Why? Not getting an answer to this question may be disappointing for some. I think, however, it is a good choice.

Read: A Brief History of Infinity - The Quest to Think the Unthinkable

Infinity or infinitesimals really are something that can boggle your mind. Similar as zero, infinity was not always there in our (mathematical / philosophical) toolbox. Even though we nowadays use the concept of infinity and its reciprocal the infinitesimals almost nonchalantly, we do so without really considering the philosophy and history behind it.

Brian Clegg provides such a history. And if his book was not part of a larger series the books title would be the first pun: A brief history of infinity. There are others. The book even closes with one. Correspondingly the whole book has a rather light tone; Clegg’s rhetoric is almost colloquial. This makes the book rather enjoyable, the topic could have certainly also presented in a much duller way.

For anyone more generally interested in mathematics the book is, however, a disappointment. The focus is clearly on the history of infinity and not the mathematics or the deeper philosophical questions that are only commented upon en passant. And even the history part is certainly – as the classifier “brief” in the title indicates – not a complete and authoritative treatise. The author may also have padded the text with some material that seems to belong more to his own personal interests. There is surprisingly much space dedicated to Roger Bacon. Or, it is rather not so surprsingly; earlier Clegg wrote a whole book about this medieval scholar. In Clegg’s defense, Bacon really did contribute to the discussion on infinity.

Read: Pyramids

Terry Pratchett’s novels are all just hilariously funny (at least the ones I have read so far). That is why I like to read them; especially on long trips or on the train to the office. They brighten my mood and sometimes they may even be instructive in one way or another. Pyramids definitely has instructive elements. It is a blend of physics, philosophy, politics, and ancient history. There are references to ancient Egypt (obviously), Greek, and Rome sprinkled with references to modern culture.

The references are so plentiful that – I have to admit – I most certainly did not “get” everything. Luckily, others already (ok, the book is some twenty years old) provide some annotations

Read: Free Riding

again, to an economist, rational behavior is just behavior that is logically consistent with a person’s preferences that, in turn, need to conform to only a few innocuous axioms. (Ok, I am understating.) He argues that if an action is in some way efficacious and therefore causal for the ultimate result, it has to be rational to perform the action. He presents a rather long winded argument about negligibility that in my opinion ultimately does not necessarily support his conclusions. And it seems, this is not just my opinion

In brief, I do not agree with Tuck. At all. And this is not because I just do not like some of his implications. Still, his book is a rather nice historical account of the notion of rationality of cooperation in public good and competitive scenarios in philosophy, political science and economics.

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.