The Right Kind of Fantasy: An Evening with Roger Penrose

Roger Penrose is my favourite living physicist. He has had a prolific career to date, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

I first encountered Penrose’s work after reading In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat by John Gribbin. The book sparked my interest in quantum physics, and after a while I stumbled upon The Emperor’s New Mind and then Shadows of the Mind by Penrose.

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Fear And Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard

Fear And Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard is my favourite book. I re-read it every so often, because one can never have too much Kierkegaard.

Here are some of my favourite quotes from one of the times I read it. I’m sure there will be more to revisit at a later date.

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Augustine: Conversions and Confessions

Robin Lane Fox,  Emeritus Fellow of New College, Oxford and Reader in Ancient History, University of Oxford, has recently released a new book about Augustine. I picked it up the last time I went into Waterstones, because it had a pretty cover and because I find Augustine’s views generally interesting.

Winner of the Wolfson Prize for History 2015, the book charts Augustine’s life up to and including his writing of the Confessions. It compares and contrasts his path with those of other thinkers of his time, including the pagan Libanius.

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Some thoughts on truth, lies, and belief

A couple of weeks ago, two of my friends came over for dinner. One is a committed atheist, the other a vague Christian. And me, a… well, a scar.

The conversation turned to religion at one point, and my atheist friend said that she didn’t understand how anyone intelligent could possibly believe in a god. How she is stunned to see scientists and people like them expressing beliefs in entities whose existence can’t be empirically proven.

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Mathematics Is More Than Just Complicated Adding-Up

Numerosity is the concept of someone being able to look at a group of items and determine the rough size of each. Presented with two pictures, one with five dots and one with five hundred, for example, they should be able to comprehend the five hundred dot image as more numerous than the five dot image.

This is a quality possessed by many animals, from apes to invertebrates. It makes sense for this to be the case: if you’re a sardine, you’re going to want to be able to differentiate between a group of five other sardines, and an entire shoal. This has certain evolutionary advantages, not least because many animals group together for safety.

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Reasons Why I Love Kierkegaard – Part One

My first ever introduction to philosophy was reading Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder when I was twelve. I was quickly hooked, and devoured as many philosophy books I could throughout my teenage years. I’d still say, though, that my first true introduction to philosophy was through Kierkegaard.

I’m not sure quite how to define the difference. I’d loved chewing over the big philosophical questions for years; I read Plato on the train, imagining myself at the Academy, taking part in the conversations. But Kierkegaard was how philosophy became personal to me.

I was seventeen years old and trying to decide what to do with my life. A lecturer at one of the universities I’d applied to sent me some quotes from The Sickness Unto Death, which he thought would be helpful. They were.

I went to my local library and asked if they had The Sickness Unto Death. I wanted to read the whole thing. They didn’t, but they did have a copy of Fear and Trembling. I checked it out, took it home and read it. And philosophy became real to me. All of a sudden I understood how I could create my own philosophical arguments; how I could look around at the world and think more deeply about it, without having to lean on texts that had already been written. It also helped me to make my decision about what to do with my life. It is a very special book to me. And I’ve had the same experience ever since: whenever I pick up a book by Kierkegaard, it seems to have entered my life at precisely the right time.

A couple of weeks ago I was wandering around London when I found myself in a bookshop. You know how it goes. Suddenly you have eighty-three books and no money. It wasn’t quite that bad, but I did find a biography of Kierkegaard for £7. It had to be mine.

Usually, I read obscenely quickly, but this is one of those books which I enjoy so much that I’m savouring it – reading slowly, reading other things in between – because I never want it to end. One of my favourite extracts so far:

“When I look upon the many and varied examples of the Christian life, it seems to me that instead of strength, Christianity… has deprived such people of their manhood, and that in comparison to the pagans they are like a gelding compared to a stallion.”

This amused me. In context, it also spoke of a similar phenomenon to one which we have studied as part of the Pilgrimage Project: that Pagan rituals are often less structured and ‘freer’ than Christian ones. By this I don’t mean that they’re superior. There’s a lot to be said for ritual that includes a level of gravity. The Catholic rituals we encountered on the Pilgrimage Project were often serious, perhaps even sombre: each part of the ritual including a sort of solemnity that underlined just how sacred the Catholics’ god is to them.

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The Pagan rituals, by contrast, often felt like more joyful affairs. Perhaps to some this might seem inappropriate for a religious or spiritual setting, but it is representative of Pagan spirituality in general, or at least the parts of it I’ve studied. The goddesses, gods and spirits of the Pagans are more earthy, more real. They don’t bring to mind a faraway, unreachable being who may or may not be listening to entreaties from its followers, so much as a cacophony of voices who are accessible and somehow quite human – or perhaps not human, so much as ‘having personhood’.

A Pagan Beltane ritual

A Pagan Beltane ritual

Well, there you go. I have a few other quotes in my notebook and I was going to write about all of them, but this has taken up more words than I’d thought it would, so I shall leave it there for now and continue my raving about Kierkegaard in some future posts.

photo credit: Beltane 33 via photopin (license)

photo credit: White Wafer, Body of Christ, Film ‘Angels and Demons’, “Cardinal Strauss”, fictional depiction of the Catholic faith via photopin (license)

Ten Classic Philosophy Texts

A while ago, one of my Twitter friends (@SDMumford) tweeted about his ten classic philosophy texts to read before you die. His picks:

  1. Plato – Republic
  2. Descartes – Meditations
  3. Locke – Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  4. Hume – Treatise of Human Nature
  5. Kant – Critique (which one? I’d go for one of the ‘reasons’. Probably both).
  6. Spinoza – Ethics
  7. Aristotle – Metaphysics, Physics or Ethics?
  8. Berkeley – New Theory of Vision
  9. Mill – System of Logic
Hmm, that seems to be only nine. Unless you count Kant’s critiques as two, which would make sense.
 
This got me thinking about my top ten philosophy books – or the ones I think everyone should read. Honestly, it sort of depends which stage of philosophy you’re at, but assuming you haven’t read any at all, I’d go for:
  1. Russell – History of Western Philosophy
  2. Plato – Republic
  3. Descartes – Meditations
  4. Aristotle – Metaphysics
  5. Kant – both critiques
  6. Kierkegaard – Fear and Trembling
  7. Locke – Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  8. Hobbes – Leviathan
  9. Montaigne – Essays
  10. Sartre – Being and Nothingness
What would your recommendations be?

Book Review: Words of Wisdom

Books about quotes often fall into the trap of being a bit twee. Wise words from the ancients are recycled all the time, taken out of context, not thought about and bantered around as if you can boil down a whole philosophy into a couple of lines.

This is my usual rant about quotation books. Luckily, it doesn’t apply to Gareth Southwell’s Words of Wisdom. There were many, many things I loved about this book, so I’ll start with arguably the most important: Southwell’s analysis of the philosophies (and philosophers) he’s quoting. It’s evident that he’s thought deeply about all the meanings, that he’s read them in context, and that he’s spent a lot of time studying philosophy. The descriptions are well thought out and not at all cloying.

Whenever I open a book, I also open my notebook and jot down any interesting passages I find. In a book about quotes, I expected these to be numerous, and they were. The surprising thing was that many of the most interesting quotes in the book were from Southwell’s descriptions as well as from the philosophers he was paraphrasing. His sense of humour shone through and provided an easy-to-read but still in-depth analysis of philosophy from ancient to postmodern.

Which brings me to my next point: the number of modern and post-modern philosophers in the book. Often I find myself slightly irritated by the proliferation of quotes from Plato, Confucious and so on. Sure, they’re fantastic, and they have a place in any book about philosophy, but there are a lot of people who have been around in the past 200-300 years whose views are also well worth sharing. Southwell devotes a significant part of the book to these guys, thus avoiding the trap of writing a fusty, outdated tome and instead showing the relevance of philosophy to life nowadays, which is especially important in an age in which philosophy seems to be viewed more and more as ‘just people waffling on about their own empty opinions.’

Yet another thing I appreciated was the fact that Southwell doesn’t only treat writers as ‘valid’ philosophers if they have a philosophy degree and lectured in it at some point. The inclusion of Helena Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley pleased me especially; controversial figures many people would shy away from, but still leading lights in the philosophy of spirituality.

All in all, a glowing review for a fantastic book. I think it would make an excellent introduction to philosophy, and also a great point of reference for anyone looking for inspiration. It took me about four times as long to read as most books do, because I kept having to stop to jot down ideas that had been inspired by the writing. Definitely worth a read.

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