Once again, clearing up some enjoyable reading of the past few months:
- Thomas Paine. Rights of Man. One of the original libertarians, a term that has pretty much lost its original meaning these days. The core ideas that came forth from his work, radical at the time, are simple. That rights are inherent in individuals, not for governments to erect or destroy as they wish, and that the only legitimate government is one in which free individuals enter into compacts with one another for their common good. Not only did it pre-date, but it influenced the ideas about inalienable rights that soon appeared in the American constitution. The response of the British government to his ideas? He was tried in absentia and convicted of seditious libel for suggesting that hereditary monarchy was perhaps not the best way to appoint a head of state. I’m currently working my way through one of his other masterpieces, The Age of Reason.
- Ian Mortimer. A Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England.In Nineteen-Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s character O’Brien challenges us to wonder whether the past objectively exists. Ian Mortimer seems to think so, presenting history almost as a living, existent thing. The book is written like a travel guide, overflowing with sumptuous and graphic detail about what to expect when you travel back to England during 1300–1400. The sights, sounds, smells, attitudes, dangers, and customs you will encounter are all recounted vividly. Well-recommended.
- Bertrand Russell. An Outline of Philosophy.I stepped rather far from my speciality when purchasing this one, but I’m glad I did. My only knowledge of Russell thus far was his contributions to discrete maths (like Russell’s paradox, paraphrased as: “This sentence is false” — is it true of false?) But his contributions range far and wide: maths, philosophy, logic, social criticism, and recently I can’t get enough of them. Others disagree with me, but I think his introduction to philosophy is very clear and readable (yes, OK, the language is a little complex), and it served as a gateway for me to his many other works. I’m particularly glad that I discovered his social critiques, revealing his proudly humanist stance and his inexhaustible empathy for human nature.
- T. Edward Damer. Attacking Faulty Reasoning. When I was much younger, I thought that the politicians I saw so often were masters of argumentation. The words they spoke seemed to come together into elegant, water-tight argument that I could never hope to counter. How disappointed I was when later I began to learn what logic and reasoning actually are, and that most politicians rarely make any real use of either. In part, I learnt this from Damer’s handbook, a recent re-read for me, which shows both how to construct arguments that are logical and how to spot the flaws in fallacious ones. Once you learn the problems with things like causal fallacies, straw manning, and “thin end of the wedge” arguments, you’ll rarely be able to keep you hair on when you watch a politician. Part monologue, part catalogue of fallacies, this is an indispensable guide on how to call people on bullshit arguments.
- Jim Butcher. Storm Front. I was recently persuaded by my girlfriend to return to reading some fiction, after a long time keeping my nose in non-fiction books. She passed this my way, the first of a series of books about Harry Dresden, a wizard living in modern-day Chicago. I found myself pleasantly surprised by the way the story drew me, presenting Dresden as a magical Phillip Marlowe, stumbling Indiana Jones-like from one scrape to the next. Clever and intriguing writing from Butcher.
Articles & Web
Matt Dillahunty. I’ve constantly been meaning to send some link love this man’s way. There’s little reason why you should have heard of Matt Dillahunty if you live outside of Austin, Texas, where he hosts a public access TV show about atheism, but, thanks to the Internet, that’s no reason for stopping him from becoming an international web-celeb. Raised as a fundamentalist Christian, he lost his faith in adulthood after an autodidactic education and now spends his time defending atheism. Not only is he extremely sharp and witty when it comes to debating and communicating, but he seems a genuinely thoughtful and intelligent guy, with proven capacity in scepticism, rationality and philosophy. In fact, it’s hard to choose the best from his writings, but start with his response to a theist on the subjects of belief and justice, and also check out the Atheist Experience blog (where he posts as Matt D). Furthermore, he runs ironchariots.org, a counter-apologetics website. Lastly, typing his name into YouTube will get you lots of hits providing hours of entertaining food for the mind.
Stephen Fry. I can hardly say anything about dear Stephen that hasn’t already been said. If you only know him as the insane General Melchett or the host of the sublime QI, you should definitely look into one of his other facets as a… well… a thinker. I recently re-read his excellent essay on the BBC and public broadcasting in general, and I cannot recommend enough his appearance at the Intelligence² debate on Catholicism (you’ll find it on YouTube I’m sure). There he joined Christopher Hitchens (the erudite anti-theist, who collects the heads of religious apologists as trophies) in speaking out against the religion, and although it is Hitchens who is famed for his ability at routing the religious in debate, Fry delivers the most superb rebuke of the evening. It also helps that he is a defender of free software.
- Richard Feynman. Quite simply the most watchable, the most readable, and the most absorbing spokesman that science has so far had. Shamefully, I own none of his books, but I have read many of his wonderful essays on science. But, frankly, I much prefer to listen to the man. YouTube (yes, YouTube again) is filled with clips of him explaining the pleasure of finding things out. Try this one to start with. Also, something that is a pleasure to watch is, after he is asked a question here, he spends a good minute or so giving his response, but immediately retracts it when he rethinks his opinion — something that is not so easy to do, if we allow ourselves to get attached to our own view simply because it belongs to us. He was memorably the fly in the ointment of NASA’s management when he was asked to investigate the 1986 Challenger disaster, exposing the outrageous self-deluding “reasoning” they had used to predict the shuttle’s safety.
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