Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In this book the author delves into the perilous depths of predicting the future. Regardless of where you come down on the issues and his prognostications you will be thinking about this book long after you have put it down. The author takes two technologies still in their beginning stages, biotechnology and data processing coupled with ever more powerful AI algorithms and extrapolates the impact these two fields will have to economics, humans and the value of human life. The author uses a broad brush so the reader gets everything from the ‘rose colored glasses’ scenario to a bleak dystopian future chronicling the last days of the human race. One comes away with the impression that both scenarios are possible; it all depends on who gets their hands on the technology first and their subsequent ability to control it.
Of particular interest to me were the authors treatment of two subjects: free will and Humanism. Discussions regarding free will have become increasingly popular with a number of authors such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett recently releasing books on the subject. Dr. Harari’s treatment of free will is as good an introduction as I’ve seen to the subject. His treatment of Humanism is even better and, while I still have some issues with specifics he has forced me to rethink some of my assumptions and change some of my views. I would love to see Dr. Harari’s next book delve deep into Humanism. His historical approach to understanding a subject would work quite well with Humanism and add a great deal of value to the current discussions.
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The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom by Michael Shermer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was an interesting read/listen. Shermer presents a number of arguments to show and explain the apparent correlation between the advance of science and the advance of our moral sensibilities. Having considered Shermer’s arguments I am still not fully convinced that it is the rise of science and reason that is informing and driving the moral insights of society and is the prime mover of ‘bending the moral arc’ as Shermer calls it. We have had science and scientific progress in any number of societies over the course of history; the Chinese and the Arab world are two that come to mind yet there was no corresponding rise in either the standard of living or moral sensibilities which mimic Western society over the past 100 years. While I would agree that science is a necessary condition for moral progress to occur I don’t think that Shermer makes the case that it is a sufficient condition.
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This is a good primer for those interested in Stoicism. There are a number of Stoics, both Greek and Roman, whose writings are available to the modern reader. In this book Pigliucci stresses the writings and thoughts of Epictetus and the reader is introduced to Stoicism through that lens. Had this book been written by, let’s say, former President Clinton it would be through the lens of Marcus Aurelius as President Clinton lists “Meditations” as one of his top books to read. As an introduction to Stoicism this book offers the reader two main benefits that other introductory books may not. First, a cogent and thorough history of Stoicism and how it fits into the different threads of Greek philosophy. The historical approach to studying philosophy, especially in the beginning stages, is the method I was schooled in and experience has shown it to be the most fruitful in gaining a thorough understanding of the subject matter. Pigliucci does this exposition well. The second thing that the author stresses is that Stoicism is first and foremost a practice that one undertakes in order to achieve ‘eudaimonia’ or the good life. Pigliucci again gives this a very good treatment and I would say work and discipline to achieve the good life is the main thread that knits together the entire book. Wherever he can, Pigliucci uses personal anecdotes to illustrate the point he is making chapter by chapter and how it relates to achieving ‘eudaimonia’. By the end of the book you may very well be looking at the world through Stoic lenses and notice the internal changes that this view brings. It did for me and the book has motivated me to explore and practice the disciplines of Stoicism in my daily life. Well worth the read.