Friday, 24 July 2015

Eight Books

(A response to Neil deGrasse Tyson's list of eight great books). 

In December 2014 Maria Popova's excellent site Brainpickings published a list of Neil deGrasse Tysons 'Eight books that every intelligent person should read'.  Tyson suggests that: 'if you read all of [these] works you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world'. The list is an interesting one, and he is right up to a point. But his list is based on a reading of the world founded on a number of assumptions, some of which emerge in his comments on the books he recommends. I give his list (and his comments) here:
  1. The Bible (public library; free ebook), to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself
  2. The System of the World (public library; free ebook) by Isaac Newton, to learn that the universe is a knowable place
  3. On the Origin of Species (public library; free ebook) by Charles Darwin, to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth
  4. Gulliver’s Travels (public library; free ebook) by Jonathan Swift, to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos
  5. The Age of Reason (public library; free ebook) by Thomas Paine, to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world
  6. The Wealth of Nations (public library; free ebook) by Adam Smith, to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself
  7. The Art of War (public library; free ebook) by Sun Tzu, to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art
  8. The Prince (public library; free ebook) by Machiavelli, to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it.
I focus here on Tyson's principal assumption. His second choice, Newton's The System of the World, is chosen because it teaches us that the universe is 'a knowable place'. Up to a point this is true. Aspects of it have some kind of intelligibility for us - we can treat it as an objectively real thing which can be measured and described by mathematics (which is what he means). But it isn't the case that it is actually known by us. We know its regularities, and we can define these (and we have). And that capacity to understand its regularities and uniformities is indeed crucial to the development of the Western world in the centuries since Newton. The efficient cause has become so important to us that the other causes which were recognised in the ancient world are now seen to have no explanatory power at all, and consequently are ignored.   

All of Tyson's choices are about force and struggle, which is what  the real nature of the world becomes when you are confined only to an understanding which is based on the efficient cause. It doesn't matter if it is understood in terms of money, political power, military power, or even reason itself - the efficient cause is the underlying explanation. So his list is probably a wise one, given the universe in which he understands himself to live. 

The power of Newton's approach was such that even seventeenth and eighteenth century divines felt compelled to embrace something of this new way of looking at the world. The uniformitarian outlook was the result. Science could explain and describe the orderliness of the cosmos, as it presents itself to us, and this orderliness became the proof of the role of God in the world. This was nonsense then, and is nonsense now.

The orderliness is the consequence of the force of gravity, which Newton managed to describe so precisely, that he was able to deduce that it was a universal force, as capable of determining the motions of the planets in the heavens, as it was in determining the behaviour.of objects in motion on the earth.

But, we know nothing of what gravity is. We know what it does, and understand (in terms of mathematical description) its association with matter. But we don't know why it is there (though clearly if it wasn't there, we wouldn't be in a position to discuss it). We don't know why any of the apparently objective world is there, rather than not. Such questions of course are beyond the remit of the modern mathematical approach to physical reality that Newton inaugurated, and so are questions which are rarely addressed. This reluctance is probably wise, but it does represent an implicit admission that the universe is not a knowable place. No matter how far we press the efficient cause as an explanatory mechanism for what goes on, and no matter how far we explore it with the power of mathematics and physics, the universe will not actually be made known to us. We can have knowledge of it, but not actually know what it is. Not as long as we remain confined to an approach based on the efficient cause. 

These questions of knowability are however addressable from a different point of view, and were so addressed in the ancient world. How these questions were addressed in antiquity, and the evidence for the age of such questions, is a major component of The Sacred History of Being

The list which follows (my alternative to the Tyson list) contains books which can be profitably read by those who want to know the wider scope of the questions we can ask about the universe, and its knowability, as well as something of the intellectual history of the world: 

1. Plato's The Sophist. To gain an insight into the absolute unfathomability of some aspects of Reality
2 Carl Jung's On the Nature of the Psyche, for an understanding of the apparatus which has a key role in making the unfathomable real.
3. Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science. To have some understanding of the importance and scope of abstract concepts in our apprehension of Reality.
4. Robert Temple's Conversations with Eternity. One of those rare modern books that make it possible to gain insight into the meaning of ancient cultic life. On the practice of Divination, east and west.
5. Bertrand Russell's Problems of Philosophy. Our connection with the world through Knowledge by Description, and Knowledge by Acquaintance.
6. Machiavelli's Discourses upon Livy. Machiavelli's Prince is based on his study of ancient life and politics through Livy's writings, and one is the mirror of the other. But the Discourses is the better book.
7. Richard Onians The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate. One of the great unexploded scholarly bombs of the twentieth century. Discusses in great detail the other way of seeing, now lost to us, which runs all through the fabric of the ancient world.
8. Jean Seznec's The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art. Where Hellenism went in Europe after the fall of Rome, and what it did.

If you need my choice number 9, anything by Mark Twain.

Thomas Yaeger, 24 June 2015