All posts by Psybertron

When it comes to Anthony Gottlieb’s “Dream of Enlightenment, my anticipation would be an understatement.

When in 2004 I read and loved his earlier “Dream of Reason” (Greeks to Renaissance) and noted a second volume was in the pipeline, I was on pre-order lists with the publisher, and retail outlets, I even followed-up with enquiries about forecast publishing dates over many years, all to no avail until eventually it dropped off my radar. When, just last year in 2015, reading and reviewing Kenan Malik’s “Moral Compass I saw this as maybe plugging the gap in bringing the story up to date, at least as far as moral philosophy is concerned; Malik in fact cites Dream of Reason as a significant source – from Russell via Gottlieb to Malik I opined.

As with Reason, Enlightenment is not only thoroughly researched and referenced, and selectively comprehensive regarding the canon of Western philosophy, but written with engaging style and wit. Great fun as well as educational, and a longer-term reference resource to boot. Recommended if for no other reasons.

The review below is full of spoilers and favourite quotes, partly to illustrate the style, but also to gut and capture the jumping-off points for my own agenda.

Firstly, we already know there is a third volume on the way. The scope here takes us from the renaissance through the transition of the enlightenment to modern philosophy, from Descartes to Hume. The journey through modern philosophy is for the later volume, hopefully beyond post-modernism to PoPoMo in my case – or will there be a fourth?

Chapters focus on the key thinkers, with other important contributors woven in. Fascinating are the overlaps in meetings and correspondence between all of these. Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Leibnitz and Hume are the headliners but as well as the dependencies between these, the interactions with Bacon, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Bayle, Voltaire, D’Alembert, Montaigne and Rosseau are manifest. The whole story takes place in the 150 years between the 1620’s and the 1770’s.

I’ve read around two thirds of it as I write this, having read the whole apart from Leibnitz and Hume, and having skipped ahead to read the Pythonesque concluding chapter “What has the Enlightenment Ever Done for Us?” I’ve paused to write where I have because Leibnitz feels like he’s going to be all new and important for me, and Hume is the focus of my current reading generally, so I wanted to brain-dump all the notes I’ve garnered to date, and proceed unhindered.

The 10th November 1619 was pivotal when Descartes suffered a nervous breakdown or intellectual enlightenment, (a common modern confusion IMHO), as he stumbled upon his:

“foundations for a marvellous science”

… apparently whilst dreaming of his encounter exactly a year earlier when Isacc Beeckman translated a puzzling Flemish billboard into Latin for him. On hearing in 1633 of Galileo’s troubles,

Descartes was keen to avoid rows with the church. At this point his scientific researches pretty much came to an end. One lesson of Galileo’s trial was that religion and science could not ignore one another.

Descartes is famous in popular imagination for his “cogito ergo sum” generally translated as I think therefore I am. But the idea that whatever one thinks rightly or wrongly about what exists in the world, the fact that I am thinking it means it’s a given that I exist, is as old as philosophy itself. St. Augustine wrote variations on

“If I am deceived, I exist”

on at least 6 occasions, harking back to Sextus Empricus two centuries before, if not Epicurus and Plato long before that.

There is much misunderstanding of both Descartes and his critics over his dualist model de res extensa and de res cogitans and the extent to which space and matter are one and the same extensa. Either way it is debatabe that Descartes believed in a hard – zero extensa-cogitans interaction – kind of dualism, but Gottlieb notes wryly:

Fortunately for the survival and development of mankind, the desire to make use of inanimate materials has not been confined to those who have been convinced by the dualist strain in Descartes’s writings.

In his warning to metaphysicians like Malbranche, in his 1648 words to his student Frans Berman, Gottlieb notes:

He [Descartes] was delivering the same message as some of today’s anti-philosophical scientists, who scoff that philosophers should  focus on up-to-date physics or biology and [get a real job].

[However] Descartes the philosopher waxed just as Descartes the scientist was waning.

Rather than dividing philosophical (and scientific) schools into competing teams, Gottlieb suggests:

Bacon maintained that there are really three kinds of philosophers: ants, spiders and bees.

Empiricists [of external experience] are like ants. They simply accumulate and use;

Rationalists [of internal thought], like spiders, spin webs for themselves.

Bacon advocated the way of the bee: one should [synthesise the best parts of the empirical and the rational]. Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibnitz and Hume all aspired to be bees, though none of them quite put it that way.

Hobbes is one of those philosophers I know mainly by repute rather than any actual reading, so Gottlieb’s chapter was enlightening. In translating Thucydides in 1629 Hobbes found a timely political view he shared:

[Preferring] government when it was democratical in name, but in effect monarchical.

[Not liking] democracy, because it left people prey to demagogues who led them [by popular appeal to their emotions] into a mess of inconsistent resolutions.

[Noting that] anyone in Athens who gave the people good advice was rewarded with unpopularity.

For me this is very much the memetic problem that puts governance at the core of my agenda. What is popular is easy to communicate and share, essentially self-fulfilling, whereas what is good is likely to be more subtly nuanced than an appeal to the obvious. Corbynism springs to mind, but over the pond:

Media preview

In Hobbes mechanical view – what I might think of as a systems view – he like Rousseau is applying drivers to the component parts of the “commonwealth” (system) and prescribing the best forms of government. They had opposing views about the relative positions of brutish vs enlightened motivations, but in reducing either of them to a single paramount view of one element driving the whole of human nature we do them and ourselves a disservice.

Closer to home, I see this as very much what has become known (after Maslow) as the hierarchy of needs. The framework and its components are important and valuable, but the generalisation needs to recognise individual contexts when applied wisely. Wisdom is more than the mechanical application of arithmetic. Yes, Mr Pinker, “nowadays we can do better.”

Plenty more good stuff on the subtleties of Hobbes (and Rousseau) to come back to in Gottlieb’s Dream of Enlightenment.

Spinoza is the subject of the next chapter. He shared Hobbes’ admiration for geometry, though this did him considerable less harm than it did Hobbes. Both men were condemned by their contemporaries, and by several subsequent generations. But although Spinoza was once at least as vilified as Hobbes, he came eventually to be regarded [as the] most lovable of philosophers.

Hobbes has not won such affection.

Spinoza the lovable, pantheist, renegade-Jew is, unlike Hobbes, someone I’ve both studied and loved, so for me little entirely new in the next chapter. Given my main route to Spinoza has been via Rebecca Goldstein, and given my ongoing interests in linking Spinoza with Gödel, Einstein and Wittgenstein, Gottlieb makes this interesting remark:

Perhaps the most famous self-proclaimed disciple of Spinoza in the twentieth century was Einstein, who, when asked by a Rabbi whether or not he believed in God, replied, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all being, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men.”

Eisntein was probably just being diplomatic. Spinoza’s God is, after all, a convenient deity for those who might more accurately be described as non-religious. The “religion” of Spinozism is in fact rather close to modern secularism.

(Heine, 1835) “There is in Spinoza’s writings a certain inexplicable atmosphere, as though one could feel a breeze of the future.”

Locke, important as he is for we British, though less so than Hume in my view, has had his work summed up in the words of C S Peirce as “Men must think for themselves.” Clearly part of the tradition of British empiricism, Ryle & Russell concluded he may even have invented “common sense”:

[Lock] most typifies the down-to-earth and commonsensical virtues that are now seen as essentially British. He was even interested in Gardening.

He wrote, self-effacing his own contribution, what has been taken to be a statement of the proper aims of philosophy. Standing on the shoulders of giants, with an intriguing use of Capitalisation he suggested:

The Commonwealth of Learning is not at this time without Master Builders, whose Mighty Designs, in advancing the Sciences, will leave lasting monuments to the Admiration of Posterity; But every one must not hope to be a [Boyle … Huygens … or the incomparable] Mr. Newton, with some other of that Strain;

’tis ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the Ground a little, and removing some of the Rubbish that lies in the way of Knowledge.

Leibnitz and Hume to come, in a later post. As I’ve said already, Gottlieb’s Dream of Enlightenment is a very much recommended follow-up to his Dream of Reason in both readable style and educational content.

Weekly collection of bookmarks that fell into TL/DR  category and not blogged or linked elsewhere, yet.

Dave Edmonds (of Eidenow & Edmonds “Wittgenstein’s Poker” fame) writing In Defence of Moral Experts in the OUP Blog:
With links to BBC Post-Brexit Points of View including philosopher contributions already noted here, and to his own book including the same amongst many more.

Rupert Myers pre-emptive in GQ on post-leadership-election Labour split. And Prospect Magazine piece too.

Michel Petheram in New Humanist on what’s wrong with Ancient Wisdom.

Knowing The Wise Path from Lee Beaumont

Forensic science as junk in Washington Post:

Zero-Censorship contribution to the academic safe spaces debate – Bollinger in Chronicle of HE.

Julian Baggini and James Graham in Prospect Magazine on party whips in adversarial politics.

Beth Lord in the LSE Forum on Spinoza and Moral Equality

Paul Mason back on message on more radical changes to discredited economic models.

Brian Cox interviewed by Tim Adams on his new book (and upcoming Whole Universe project with Eric Idle?). Apparently as scarily dumb as I might expect given emails from Alan Rayner and friends. Cox on about “how to think” that’ll work.

Larry Krauss on “few limits to scientific knowledge” add to the Cox pile above.

Dark Matter doubts raised by Galactic Rotation study? (Part of universal bootstrapping / anthropic bias agenda – and Krauss above – simple sequential classical multiverse solution, without inflation hacks, etc.)
And here the original paper on Arxiv. Hat tip to Rick.

Brain-Mapping Collaboration. Where also is recent Brain-Mapping results paper?

Andrea Wulf’s prizewinning biography of Alexander von Humbolt “The Invention of Nature

Talking Heads. A John McWhorter (Christian) review of Charles Taylor “The Language Animal” on what makes human language distinctive.

The Free-Will piece from New Scientist “Metaphysics Special”
Blogged special edition earlier.

Cixin Liu trilogy Three Body Problem.

Richard Marshall interview of John Garrett “Having Cake and Eating it with Hume & Spinoza

The Society for Judgment and Decision-Making sounds right up my street?

Also need to unpick the Aquatic Ape kerfuffle
Attenborough / BBC R4 / Adam Rutherford / Alice Roberts
Pretty sure no-one was actually pushing any exclusive Aquatic Ape hypothesis explicitly just using some of same evidence and narratives to illustrate early human relationships with living near water.
Of course Adam Rutherford has a new book out on the whole of human heritage – scope reminds me of Seven Daughters of Eve?

Whatever the detailed level of agreement with the content of this Grauniad piece, the whole premise and conclusion is pretty much the point of my own efforts here on Psybertron. Not just in scientific endeavours, but for any academic “received wisdom” on any topic that affects governance of life.

(Is this based on the same content, in The Atlantic?)

Any reduction of “critical thinking” to the crass idea that two opposing views finding fault with each other will inevitably lead to “good” progress is not just simplistic but positively dangerous and degenerate. Somehow our only choices are between war and the safety of the echo-chamber. Between inter-human conflict and the idea that anything goes so long as it’s not in my back yard.

Evolution, even Darwinian evolution, is much more subtle and nuanced than dog-eat-dog, red-in-tooth-and-claw survival of the fittest. Fittest somehow implying that the strongest are successful by beating the weaker, whereas the term fittest really means “best dynamic fit” with others and the environment.

Just strolling around my little patch outside, checking up on today’s crop of fungi, I’m re-amazed every time at the complexity of parasitic-symbiotic relationships between n-different fungi and n-different other living plants and animals of every kingdom. Complex webs of life, our lives. Competition is one localised phenomenon, localised in space and time, but a gross mis-representation of the whole.

Coincidentally also today, in the real-politik of dealing with pragmatic reality of a value-laden topic like the EU-refugee crisis, this piece on UK PM Theresa May’s hard line on applying the “first safe country” rule picks up the quasi-Darwinian fight epithet even in its headline.

“Theresa May’s quasi-Darwinian fight to dilute right to claim asylum.
British PM will use first UN speech to try to block refugees’ escape routes and push for poorest countries to bear brunt of crisis.”

Following my own scare quotes rule, that would be


Not even wrong – and I’m talking about the journalists, not the PM. Where to even start? It’s the simplistication that is dangerous, not the universal acid of Darwin’s evolution (after Dennett). Such power needs sparing and caring use.




[Post Note: I added the reference to the May / refugees story mid-draft when a twitter exchange happened with @CliveAndrews:


I use Clive as a test audience for my own communication. He indulges me.

I was genuinely seeking to clarify if Clive really saw “May’s words confusing the proximity and responsibility issues” in her hard-line application of the “first safe country” rule. I hadn’t seen her confusing, conflating or implying any causal correlations or simple dependencies between those two (binary) issues. I simply saw two examples in a web of a thousand issues being referred to in the same piece.

Of course it’s “unfair” that the closest states – and their own population – may be those with less resources and a greater share of their own problems, and even closer countries like (say) Turkey have additional sets of issues. Unfairness is a natural possible consequence of the rule (and I’m the first to point out that “rules are for the guidance of wise men and the enslavement of fools” – see below.) If it weren’t unfair there would be no need for the rule.

But, to point out the unfairness is no new information at all, unless it was indeed the case that some conflation or confusion was involved – hence my interest.

The proximity and responsibility issues are distinct.

Close-to-home is fundamental to the idea that the migrants are refugees, they actually want to be at home, they want to return home when possible. The more remote and dispersed they become in the interim, the less likely that end will be achieved.

Responsibilities for assisting the refugees, welfare now and homeland future, are shared by humanity as a whole; EU, UN, and direct aid funding and assistance from any individual sources.

Of course all rules have exceptions when applied by the wise, but the general rule still applies. (And there are a thousand other issues around refugees / migrants and political stability in neighbouring countries, but they’re all distinct issues, even those with causal relations between them.)

My point in the original post, is not particularly to debate the refugee crisis itself, nor even the rights and wrongs of specific (unfair) decisions – we can do so, but it’s complicated – but rather to point out that the binary view is the prevailing (degenerate-Darwinian) meme, that simply looks for choices between pairs of issues.

In the specific case, more proximity and more responsibility are not mutually exclusive.

The side issue that caused the tweets to diverge from the more long-winded point above was that – again obviously – Clive disagrees with May’s decision on balance of fairness etc, and that’s fair enough, but it’s quite different to suggesting that May’s words confused or conflated the issue(s). Which might be a tad pedantic, if it weren’t for my main point.]

This one’s a keeper for a little unpicking later, but worth listening right through.
(BBC World Service – Outlook 10 min documentary piece from Sao Paolo by Gibby Sobel on Gisele Marie Rocha.)

The language of music. Love the way the tone of the conversation (through a translator) changes from the point 1/3 way through where she belts out her first riff.

“I never have any problem with the neighbours.”

Catholic woman in a catholic culture, classically educated in a musical family converts to Islam – full black niqab and chador – never having met a Muslim, after having taken up heavy-metal, on hearing Black Sabbath and adopting black goth dress fashion. The mind boggles.

Could take a very cynical view as a marketing PR publicity stunt, but doesn’t come across that way. Cultural appropriation anyone?

(Closes on a fine riff too, if you’re into heavy rock.)

Reading Simon Blackburn on Hume and Truth as I was just a couple of weeks ago, I highlighted, that effectively we need clearer understanding of our working definitions of reason and rationality themselves, before we even get to reasonable agreement on any other topics under investigation. I say working definitions, since expecting ultimate once-and-for-all definitive understanding is a stretch too far and we will always encounter contexts when broader and/or narrower definitions are most appropriate.

Or thick and thin definitions, as Julian Baggini says in his introduction to “The Edge of Reason – A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World“. Hat tip to Nick Spencer for bringing Baggini’s latest to my attention, and highlighting Baggini’s own attention to respecting positions that many of the more scientistic rationalists would dismiss or mock as religious irrationality. Talking past an interlocutor is no dialogue; no value.

Baggini’s position is pretty much my own, being on the side of rational reason for sure, but recognising that it is we therefore who must be most scrupulous in keeping ourselves honest, because:

“If we do not debunk
the grandiose myths of reason
then its enemies will do so
far more destructively.”

“Reason has only been knocked off its pedestal
because it was raised up too high.”

So whilst defending better definition of rational reason we are explicitly starting with the acknowledgment that rationality is beset with its own problematic myths:

[Myth #1]
That rationality is purely objective
and requires no subjective judgement.

[Myth #2]
That [rationality] can and should
take the role of our chief guide.

[Myth #3]
That [rationality] can furnish us with
the fundamental reasons for action.

[Myth #4]
That we can build society
on perfectly rational principles.

Hallelujah, I say.

If the more scientistic rationalist cannot appreciate those myths for what they are, then reading Baggini’s latest is highly recommended. If like me, you have a philosophical bent that already takes these starting points as givens, then we will find and recognise resources to progress the necessary understanding. Recommended either way.

This week’s New Scientist “Metaphysics Special” has this front cover:

Which carries the headline:

“How Science Answers Philosophy’s Deepest Questions.”


If they really are metaphysical philosophy questions, deep or otherwise, then they’re not going to be answered by science. That would make them science questions. Sure, some of the tools science shares non-exclusively with other rational disciplines will be useful in addressing them, but will the target audience or casual reader believe the headline or be more generous in their scepticism?

So much more honest to go with the idea that science and philosophy can work to solve mutual metaphysical problems rather than set-up science as the hero on the white charger to answer all our questions.

I already know many a philosopher turned-off by the aggressively over-reaching marketing before even opening a copy to read what may be actually being argued. Which might be a pity:

Metaphysics special: How do I know I exist?
Metaphysics special: What is consciousness?
Metaphysics special: Why is there something rather than nothing?
Metaphysics special: What is the meaning of life?
Metaphysics special: Where do good and evil come from?
Metaphysics special: Do we have free will?
Metaphysics special: What is reality made of?
Metaphysics special: Is time an illusion?
Metaphysics special: Can we ever know if God exists?

These are are clearly classic questions with a philosophical dimension, in some cases properly metaphysical questions of existence and meaning maybe before they can even be scientific questions. At least the leader article gives us hope:

Metaphysics has much to offer the study of the natural world.
The branch of philosophy known as metaphysics overlaps with modern science and the two can push the boundaries of knowledge together.

That’s the spirit. I’ll write more when I’ve digested more of the content, but why the antagonistic click-bait headline in a journal of science?

Mentioned I was catching up on Hume, reading Simon Blackburn’s contribution to the “How to Read” series. Hume is one of those philosophers – “the greatest British philosopher” – that I’ve absorbed from secondary sources over the last fifteen years, but never bothered to read and research directly until now. In fact similarly, until three encounters in person in the past two years, I had peviously allowed myself to be only vaguely aware of Blackburn. Said I needed to put that right, but it’s taken a while to find the space.

Been reading his “Truth, a Guide for the Perplexed” and finding it excellent and readable in style, even if I have previously absorbed much of the content of the various classic rehearsed arguments on what makes something true – the kinds of truth worth having. A good read and a good resource – organised, as advertised, as a guide. Maybe more later.

How to Read Hume” I’m finding plenty of Humean content new to me, yet again already finding it reinforcing my own philosophical understanding generally. Striking is the Human Nature / Human Understanding angle. Everything from Hume is indeed Natural and Human. Hume the Humanist philosopher.

“Hume’s philosophy was anthropocentric through and through.”

Blackburn’s opening chapter is entitled Science of Man. Plenty of scientists and humanists, particularly those of the more dogmatic scientistic, “new atheist” persuasion are likely to resist that take, but as Blackburn points out, if you’re not prepared to get to grips with Hume’s rhetoric in context, then you’re not going to understand the subtley of his arguments.

“[T]he science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences, so the only solid foundation we can give to this science must be laid on experience and observation.”

So we’re off, unpicking what exactly we might intend by science, experience and observation. And already I’m a fan of Hume’s “Mitigated Scepticism” – only the other night I was having to qualify to a sceptic audience what I meant by my being properly sceptical.

“[E]xcept in trivial matters,
the light of reason proves to be … unreliable.

Reason even undermines itself …
so it is fortunate that nature bypasses it.”

So we must add Reason to Nature, Science, Experience and Observation as terms we are going to need to unpick before we can agree meaningful definitions. If you’re already sure you know that Science is Nature and Reason and that the only Experience and Observation that matters is the kind of objective evidence that science admits, then Blackburn might have trouble selling Hume to you. It will certainly take some effort for you to buy it. And that’s the point.

When you add misunderstanding his critics and misunderstanding that they misunderstood him, why would you bother?

Perhaps because a lot more people are gonna get killed if we don’t take the trouble to understand.

A Different Kind of Safe Space by Ted Gup – hat tip to tweet from Kenan Malik.

In all the safe-space and free-speech debates I keep pushing the original idea that education was / is a “safe space” within which to push the boundaries, say & do, hear & experience, anything you can where the longer term risks and consequences are minimal. The idea of it ever being a place safe from things you might not find pleasant was a total perversion from the off.

This quote captures it:

“[Non-fiction writing course] is a lesson not only in the power of words, but in democracy, free speech, and responsibility. Words are dangerous, but not as dangerous as efforts to suppress them, be it by government or dean — and certainly not as insidious as self-censorship.”

I’ve said plenty about the non-absolute boundaries to free-speech – they exist in reality despite what many believe – but the word “insidious” captures the self-censorship aspect like a precise mot juste.

Self-censorship is good and necessary, under your own free control, naturally, but you must always consciously understand when you’re doing it for reasons of appropriate tact and strategic timing. Context is everything – and the safe space of education is the place where the gloves can (must) be off most. The danger is when, like political correctness itself, it becomes embedded unconsciously in patterns of dialogue. Insidious is the word.