books miscellaneous

90 Second Book Review: The Righteous Mind

I need to pick up the pace on getting these quick reviews done, with the goal of getting them hammered out pretty much as soon as I finish the book.  I finished this one a week ago and have already picked up and read into a couple of other books.  As a result, this review may not be as sharp (if any of them are ever sharp) since new ideas have started to take the place in my short term memory.  Nonetheless, I wanted to get this review out since I did thoroughly enjoy The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.
Haidt reveals his motivations for writing the book become clear about midway through: as a self described liberal (in the modern, not classical sense) he was trying to help liberal politicians appeal to a broader audience in order to fare better in popular elections.  He felt that the characterization than conservatives simply triggered fear mechanisms in their constituents was far too simplistic an explanation which caused the left to miss something important.  He set about to answer this question through a combination of moral reasoning, psychology and group level selection as an evolutionary mechanism.  The result is an interesting view into how the human mind actually works, presented in three basic premises.
His first premise is that “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second”.  The analogy he uses to explain this premise is the elephant and the rider, where the rider is our rational consciousness and the elephant is our intuitions and emotions.  Haidt’s idea is that the elephant is in charge most of the time.  The rider can have influence now and again, but usually the elephant starts to head in a direction and then the rider just has to hold on and try to warn everyone who might be in the elephant’s path.  He argues that most people waste time when trying to influence others by talking to the rider, when they should be talking to the elephant.
His second premise is that “There’s more to morality than harm and fairness”.  This is where the book got really interesting.  The analogy he uses here is that of taste buds.  Just as humans have a distinct set of taste buds for sweet vs salty, etc they also have a distinct set of moral receptors that are sensitive to various moral questions.  Examples of these include the care vs. harm receptor or the fairness vs. cheating receptor.  He outlines a total of six different morality receptors, and even discusses a reformulation of one of his original receptors as he accumulated more data.  In researching this premise he found an answer to his original question.  What he found was that self described liberals are highly sensitive to three of the six moral receptors, where as self described conservatives are equally receptive to all six.

Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much trouble since 1980.  Republicans understand the social intuitionist model better than do Democrats.  Republicans speak more directly to the elephant.  They also have better grasp of the Moral Foundations theory; they trigger every single taste receptor.

His final premise is that “Morality Binds and Blinds”.  There are more fascinating ideas here as well.  The analogy he uses here is that the human mind is 90% money and 10% bee.  He admits to resorting to a somewhat controversial theory to support this idea, namely that of group selection in evolution.  This theory states that the principles of Darwinian evolution can also be applied to groups of individuals as well.  He gives a good example of this principle in action in discussing an experiment conducted on egg laying hens.  When highly productive individual hens were selectively bred to produce the next generation, overall egg production in the flock went down.  It turns out that highly productive hens have some characteristics that make them poor neighbors in a coop.  However, when the most productive coops (i.e the group) was selected as the basis for breeding the next generation, overall production did increase.  After defending the group selection theory, Haidt goes on to show how adaptations arising from group selection have driven us to bind together as a group as well as cause us to hold other groups at a distance.
The most interesting application of this idea are his ponderings on Religion as an outgrowth of this “hiveishness”.  The “Religion is a Team Sport” chapter is worth the price of the book in my opinion.  In this chapter Haidt lays waste to the popular atheist theories about religion (brain parasite model…not actual parasites, but rather conceptual) and suggests an adaptive evolutionary based model that isn’t dependent on supernatural concepts that demand acceptance without proof: groups with religion outcompete groups without.  The explanation of the origin of all religions as overactive agency detection (that being an evolutionary adaptive trait) was also fascinating.

We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects.  That’s what religion is all about.  And with a few adjustments, it’s what politics is about too.

Overall I have to say I really enjoyed this book.  Haidt’s writing is clear.  He explains his ideas, uses analogies, presents data to support his claims, admits where he has blind spots and biases and summarizes succinctly.  If you have ever wondered why your perfect line of logic has failed to persuade someone, you might want to give it a read.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

An oldie but a goodie this week.  This was another one that was on my “to read” list that made it’s way on to “to buy” list as a result of a quarterly trip to Half Price Books and then on to my “reading now” list as I was looking at my stack before a recent trip to Germany.  It was a timely selection.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) was written by Robert Pirsig in 1974 and is considered by many to be a modern classic of philosophy.  It’s a combination travel log and philosophical treatise all wrapped into one.  This was actually my second time through the book, the first more than 20 years ago when I was in high school.  I can’t say I got much out of it then.  I don’t think I had enough miles on the speedo yet to really understand what the author was getting at, nor did I understand the argument he was trying to make against one of the classical foundations of western thought: rationality.
To be clear, I am not sure I accept all of the ideas that Pirsig presents, but I do find them all worth entertaining in an Aristotelian fashion (which would probably drive the author nuts).  For example, at one point the main character (a never named first person narrator whom everyone presumes, correctly I think, to in fact be Pirsig) claims that in the battle between Socrates and later Aristotle and the Sophists, it was actually the Sophists who had things right.  That is interesting, but is going to be hard for me to accept.
The central theme of ZAMM is what the author / narrator calls Quality.  The whole book in fact is an attempt to explain what Quality is, where it comes from and where it fits in the hierarchy of reality.  It’s in attempting to define Quality that the Zen in the title is introduced when Pirsig invites the reader to look beyond subject vs. object duality and realize that both the classic (i.e. functional) and romantic (i.e. holistic) view of reality aren’t really separate, and don’t really oppose each other.  In reality they are, Pirsig claims, inseparable and its only rationality that divides them.
It’s not all highly theoretical philosophy – there is plenty of practical advice to go around.  Early on there is a detailed description of how a chain tightener works on a motorcycle, although to be honest I am not sure how many modern motorcycles have manual chain tension adjusters anymore.  I crashed the motorcycle I had (or in a subject / object view, I was crashed into by another careless driver) before I had need or chance to find out.
Perhaps a little bit more universally practical, Chapter 25 is loaded with some very practical advice about so called “gumption traps” and how to avoid them:

As far as I can see there are two main types of gumption traps.  The first is those in which you are thrown off the Quality track by conditions that arise from external circumstances and I call these “setbacks.”  The second type is traps in which you are thrown off the Quality track by conditions which are within yourself.  These I don’t have any generic name for -“hang ups,” I suppose.”

From there the rest of the chapter goes into techniques for recognizing you are caught in one of those gumption traps and approaches to get out of them as well as to avoid them in the first place.  In some ways the advice reminds me quite a bit of the stoic ideas about circle of control/influence vs. circle of concern.  Perhaps another sign that Buddhism (kissing cousin of Zen) and Stoicism are brothers by another mother.
In what is perhaps a case of confirmation bias in my book selection or what could be just accidental syntoptical reading, I do see some common themes emerging from the philosophy, psychology and mathematics books I have been reading.  In many passages throughout ZAMM, Pirsig gets pretty close to the idea of a strange loop that Hofstadter talks about in Godel, Escher and Bach (a book I need to pick up again and finish…) and as I already mentioned, a number of the Zen (Buddhist) concepts are extremely similar to the stoic ideas in books like The Obstacle is the Way.  There is even a thematic connection to the book I picked up after ZAMM (and just finished), The Righteous Mind by Haidt (review coming soon).
Overall I found ZAMM to be extremely enjoyable and well worth reading.  As I mentioned, I took it with me on a trip to and from Germany and got so into it, I read half of it on the plane ride over and half on the ways back, still managing to sleep a little both ways.  Sometimes you find books and sometimes books find you.  This is one that found me in the right place at the right time…at least the second time around.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: The Obstacle is the Way

I first heard of Stoic philosophy a little over a year ago.  It immediately appealed to me (another book I just started would say that was more intuition than reasoning, but that review will come later) and I downloaded a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (the link is to the translation that everyone says you should buy, not the one I read…will pick it up in one of my quarterly book buys eventually) on my Kindle.  I made it about halfway through and stopped.  Not sure whether it was the format, where and when I was trying to read it (intervals here and there throughout the day) or my mindset, but it just didn’t take.
Fast forward a few months and I picked up a copy of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and this time it took.  Everything in Irvine’s book was clear and had just enough explanation that understood not only the what but the why,  I was able to go back shortly thereafter and finish Meditations in a few sittings.  I’m not sure I will read it yearly, but I do have a sense that it will be one that I revisit from time to time.
In this third book on stoicism, The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday gives his spin on Stoic ideals without getting bogged down in a lot of metaphysics or epistemology.  Holiday focuses on three main topics: perception, action and will.  His main thesis is if we can master these three aspects then we can live happy, directed and fulfilling lives.  While not exactly a “classic” grouping of stoic topics, he weaves the more traditional stoic practices such as negative visualization, accepting things as they are and present moment throughout.
The Obstacle is the Way was a quick read for me.  I read each of the three 60-70 page sections in a day or so.  Again, Holiday’s goal is not to construct an argument from base principles into a fully formed philosophy, but rather to simply describe how Stoicism looks and what it produces when its put into action.  He readily admits that there are plenty of other authors who have come before that do the former, so he spends his time providing a connection between these ancient ideas and the troubles of modern times.
If you are looking a complete and consistent justification about why Stoicism is a good way to live, you may want to look elsewhere.  If you are “fan of philosophy”, interested in Stoicism specifically, or even just want to figure out a better way to be, I highly recommend you pick up a copy and give it a read.  Looking at things from different perspectives is the first step at turning the obstacle into the way forward.