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Philosophy books


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Philosophy is a subject that fascinates many of us. I have only a one term course in epistemology (the study of knowledge) under my belt but one day I would dearly like to study the philosophy of science. The books reviewed here are about philosophy rather than being works of thought in their own right. I have included books that I think would help someone keen to grasp the basics of philosophy, especially theistic philosophy.

A History of Western Philosophy
Why I am not a Christian
Modern Philosophy - an Introduction and Survey
Darwin's Dangerous Idea
The Puzzles of Ethics, God and Evil
Science and Creation
Great Thinkers on Great Questions
God, Chance and Necessity
Atheism: the Case against God
The God Delusion
The Probability of God

A History of Western Philosophy
Bertrand Russell

I expect that very many people have thought they might read this one day but have never quite got around to it. I cannot recommend it highly enough as the best possible introduction to the field. Russell starts his survey before Socrates and keeps going until about 1900. The journey is by no means easy and at times very hard going. However, it is never dull and will equip the reader with enough knowledge of the names and ideas to read what might be called 'real' philosophy.

Russell, is of course, one of the great thinkers of the last century in his own right. His popular works such as 'The Problems of Philosophy' and 'Why I am not a Christian' are far more widely read than his ground breaking work on logic and mathematics. That he managed to produce as much as he did while still finding time to seduce TS Eliot's wife is a tribute to his enormous energy and industry. However, the reader of this book will find that Russell's own expertise is a two edged sword. On the plus side, his own comments and asides are valuable in their own right. However, he often expresses his own views as if they represented the consensus. In the fifty five years since this book was written some of what he says has been thoroughly refuted and some was never taken seriously in the first place.

There is very little point in trying to comprehend everything in this book. I gave up on Leibniz's monads and Kant's antinomies but found I was not disadvantaged later on by not understanding every point. I do think that this book should be read from cover to cover rather than being treated as a reference or a series of summaries. Russell does arrange his material into a coherent whole.

I must recommend this book as the best place to start in any journey into philosophy. Yes, it is hard going at times but the subject as a whole has a deserved reputation for being difficult.

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Why I am not a Christian
Bertrand Russell

I was really rather disappointed by this book having become something of a fan of Russell. Hoping for rigorous and witty arguments against my religion that would challenge and provoke me, I found instead the writings of a man far too prejudiced to make a strong case. The book is a collection of essays that cover over fifty years but are all vaguely related to religion. Also included is a servicable account of when Russell's appointment to a New York university was dropped due to his atheism and a debate with Father Coplestone that was broadcast in 1948. This last item is by far the best thing in the book.

The title essay (which you can read here) fails utterly because, through no fault of his own, Russell completely fails to understand modern physics (it was a lecture delivered in 1927) and his arguments against the existance of God have now been overtaken. In another essay (which you can read here), when he asks if religion has done any good he sounds like one of those atheists on a discussion board with no grasp of history at all. The Internet atheist has the excuse of ignorance but Russell does not. In the essay on what he believes, Russell quickly sails off to the utopian wonderland that nineteenth century freethinkers dreamed of. Here science can solve all our problems and only religion stands in its way; crime is a disease we can cure and should not be condemned; children should not be taught but allowed to find things out for themselves; everything goes and the only sin is intolerence. Bitter experience has taught us otherwise.

Given Russell's own experience of bitter divorce and alienated children, it is actually quite sad to read him pontificating about morality and ethics when his own life was such a disaster. His latest biographer, Ray Monk, said he practically hated his subject by the time his work was completed. This is a bit strong but although he was one of the great logicians, as an ethicist and metaphysician Russell left a great deal to be desired. As for his diatribes against religion, there is better and more up to date work on this subject to be found at the Secular Web.

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Modern Philosophy - an Introduction and Survey
Roger Scruton

I understand that Scruton has described himself as the second cleverest man in England and if this book is his idea of an introduction then I can believe it. Scruton also has a fully deserved reputation for being very right wing but apart from his contempt for modernism this doesn't shine through this book too much. It is however, worth knowing because of his occasional snide asides and a poor chapter called 'The Devil' which is in fact mainly about Marx!

If you've just finished Russell's book above and want to bring the story of philosophy up to date then this book is ideal. But for goodness sake, have a bit of a breather first. Scruton is not such a good writer as Russell (but then, who is?) but more than up to the task, most of the time. The trouble is modern philosophy is often even more technical than Kant at his most opaque so this book is even heavier going. There is the enormous risk that in reading a passage without really paying attention you'll realise that you haven't taken in, let alone understood, a word of it. This happened to me rather a lot.

Although Scruton doesn't cover all his topics with equal panache, the chapters on language, science and mathematics are very good. He is also interesting and clear on free will and consciousness. Subjects that were not so well handled (at least from the point of view of an ignoramus like me) included meaning and perception. I just didn't feel I had much more of a handle on these topics afterwards than I did before I started.

I recommend this as both an excellent introduction to modern philosophy and as a warning about how difficult it is.

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Darwin's Dangerous Idea
Daniel C Dennett

I almost feel I could write a book about this great book. It is, without doubt, the best book I have ever read that is entirely wrong in both its premises and conclusions. It has caused a fair bit of controversy and it is possible to selectively quote from it to show Dennett is an anti-religious maniac. This would be entirely unfair because Dennett is a very careful thinker without a hint of malice in him. All the polemic in this book is aimed at his fellow materialists - he is attacking heretical scientists and not unbelieving Christians.

So the arguments here are not aimed at someone like me who isn't even on Dennett's side. The existence of God is simply assumed false. There is no attempt to argue the point. Likewise, Dennett succeeds in not being the slightest bit embarrassed by his admission that both the origin of life and the origin of the finely tuned universe are utterly unknown. God can't be the explanation because there is no God. Period. He also admits that Darwinism, although he initially hints it has the answers to everything, cannot show us the difference between right from wrong.

So why do I rate this book so highly? It is because there is so much fascinating stuff here. Dennett tells us about John Horton Conway's "Game of Life", Stuart Kaufman's "Complexity", Stephen Jay Gould's "Punctuated Equilibrium" and much else besides. The fact that the "Game of Life" is a pretty good argument for theism doesn't concern him as he knows God doesn't exist. But as the reader, you can work this out for yourself pretty easily and smile at Dennett's feeble attempt to wave away the unpleasant implications.

His attempts to show why he believes in strong AI (that is computers that could be sentient and truly intelligent) are also fascinating as is his attack on Roger Penrose's use of Godel's Theorem.

The central reason why this book is a joy for a thinking theist is that all Dennett's opponents are scientific materialists and Dennett shows they are all wrong. But he also utterly fails to show us that he is right and so one can only conclude that it is scientific materialism that is the problem, not whether you are in the Dennett or the Gould camp. Still, the argument has a long way to run and I suppose it is possible that the intelligent design movement will make all these disagreements between Darwinists pretty irrelevant.

The Puzzle of Ethics
The Puzzle of God
The Puzzle of Evil

Peter Vardy

For those interested in the background to these three areas of theology, Vardy's books are fantastic. He writes in a style that is easy to understand, assumes no prior knowledge and provides a good background to the subjects at hand. Vardy is a Christian but it took me ages to work it out as none of these books give his own inclinations away.

The Puzzle of Ethics first runs through all the most significant thought on the subject. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant each get a chapter and more modern perspectives are also covered. Vardy (with his co-author, Paul Grosch) manages to communicate what each of these philosophers had to say while presenting the challenges they have received fairly. In the end, one comes to the conclusion that no thinker has been able to encapsulate ethics precisely and we are left to make our own minds up. The second part of the book examines practical issues such as war, abortion and animal rights. All these questions can give rise to heated opinions and Vardy is careful to tread a careful middle line.

The Puzzle of God offers a broad survey of theistic philosophy. The different points of view are first explained and critiqued. Then the classic proofs are examined before we move onto subjects like prayer and miracles. The chapters on exactly what terms like 'omnipotence' and 'omniscience' actually mean are especially helpful and clarify some old chestnuts like "Can God make a weight to heavy for him to lift." We also learn about realist and anti-realist views of God as well as how petitionary prayer and praying for forgiveness differ.

The Puzzle of Evil helped me a great deal. Vardy first examines what evil is and also formulates the problem of evil. Evil does not disprove God, it only suggests He might not be worthy of our worship. For a Christian this is just as disturbing. Next the free will defence is examined and found wanting. Vardy argues as a sensitive human being and rightly rejects attempts to rationalize evil and pain as part of a greater good. He also looks at natural evil from which even the free will defence is no escape. I am pleased to say that the fall of Man as the reason for our suffering hardly gets a look in here. In the second half of the book Vardy goes some way to reaching a solution to the problem of evil but in the end admits that we must accept it and try to defeat it.

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Science and Creation
John Polkinghorne

Previously the Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge and a colleague of Stephen Hawking, John Polkinghorne took early retirement to become an Anglican priest. Thus he proved at a stroke that both science and religion can both find a happy home even in the finest of minds. He has since written a number of books about the relationship between his two careers all of which are highly recommended. This one is probably the most philosophical and it deals with issues like where the universe might have come from, how we can understand natural laws and the origin of mind.

Polkinghorne is a good but not great writer and this book is not really suitable for someone with no background in either science or theology. But as a mind expanding exercise for those who do feel they have a grounding in one of these subjects it is excellent. I particularly enjoyed Polkinghorne's thoughts on the relationship between being and becoming with the natural laws that govern each of them. He is also suitable scathing about some atheist scientists' attempts at metaphysics.

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Great Thinkers on Great Questions
edited by Roy Abraham Varghese

Great Thinkers on Great Questions is a collection of essays from philosophers prompted by questions from the editor. Almost all the thinkers featured are Christians and names like Swinburne, Plantinga and Meynell will be familiar to those who are interested in Christian philosophy. The book really functions as a reader in a variety of fields such as the existence of the soul and God, the problem of evil and free will. For this reason it is worth having when you are grabbed by a particular question and want to know what has been said about it.

Highlights include George Ellis on the current state of play in cosmology, Richard Swinburne on Evil and Alvin Plantinga's opinion on nearly everything.

This is a book I recommend as a more high powered selection of answers to the ultimate questions than found in most apologetics. Although the book is undoubtedly written from a theist point of view it should be of interest to non-theists wanting to find out about the other point of view.

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God, Chance & Necessity
Keith Ward

There can be no doubt that this book promises much but sadly it disappoints. The title is a back handed tribute to Monod's classic Chance and Necessity while the cover promises to take on Peter Atkins and Richard Dawkins. Indeed, Ward is a colleague of theirs at the University of Oxford where he is Regius Professor of Divinity and they have taken part in debates together.

The first couple of chapters fillet Atkin's Creation Revisited without too much trouble. The problem is that Ward is simply not comfortable writing for the layman and hence his prose is stiff and awkward. This is presumably what a life of writing terse academic articles does for all but the finest of stylists. He also cannot help slipping into 'theology speak' from time to time which would lose any non theologian who happens to be reading. I fear that he would have put the knife into Atkin's pomposity much more effectively he did not seem to be suffering from the same affliction.

He then lays into Dawkins who appears to have really pissed him off. There is something delightful about an scholarly scuffle after the gloves have come off and in the next few chapters Ward is wonderfully insulting. Unfortunately his central idea about theistic evolution seems to me to be badly flawed and is not one I subscribe to. I would prefer to say that the rules that eventually produced humans were rigged from the start as opposed to requiring tweaks from time to time to get to the desired goal. But Ward's central point - a theory that makes what it is supposed to explain appear to be highly contingent isn't much of a success - is well made. As a reply to the new materialism this is probably the best thing available but I do so wish there was a writer of Dawkin's calibre on our side.

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Atheism: the Case against God
George H Smith

I hesitate to dignify this book with the label of philosophy but I suppose that is what it is - the sort of philosophy one finds down the pub at a table of drunk students. But if anybody were actually to have their opinions changed by its contents I would doubt their sanity.

So what is wrong with it? I'll start with a blatant ad hominem. Smith is a right wing libertarian who's answer to Jesus' command to love your enemies is simply to ask "why?". His favourite author is Ayn Rand from whom he takes his entire argument on ethics. That Rand fails to make it into any of the surveys of twentieth century thought doesn't concern him much nor does the fact that her philosophy is basically one of selfishness. If you want to stop being a Christian so you don't have to try and love people you don't like and want to do as you please then Smith's creed might be quite appealing.

He argues a lot about faith but defines faith in such a way as it cannot really be defended. He claims that faith is something that allows us to believe something without evidence. In fact faith in God is trust in and love for God in much the same way as faith in our partner involves a close and personal relationship. Our belief in God rests on personal experience of Him - not an arbitrary decision to ignore all the evidence. Smith is also keen to paint religion as anti-reason which is interesting considering how much of our scientific tradition was born of Christianity. Finally, he attacks natural theology and the various arguments for the existence of God. Like all good atheists he's read his extract from Hume but his tackling of these admittedly difficult questions would not be acceptable from an undergraduate. Smith claims he is writing for the common man and as the success of his arguments would depend on the ignorance and stupidity of his readers, he clearly has a very low opinion of him.

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James Hannam 2002.
Last revised: 6 April, 2002