Lifelong Dewey

Reading through every Dewey Decimal section.

Category: 120s

123: As Luck Would Have It by Joshua Piven

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123.3: Piven, Joshua. As Luck Would Have It: Incredible Stories, from Lottery Wins to Lightning Strikes. New York: Villard, 2003. 181 pp. ISBN 1-4000-6055-9.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 120: Epistemology, causation, and mankind
  • 123: Determinism and indeterminism
  • 3: Chance

In As Luck Would Have It, Joshua Piven investigates nine chance occurrences and how they inform our view of the world and the circumstances of our lives. It’s a quick little book, to say the least. It covers the following stories:

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126: The Mind’s I by Hofstadter and Dennett

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126: Hofstadter, Douglas R. and Daniel C. Dennett. The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflection on Self and Soul. New York: Basic Books, 2000. 464 pp. ISBN 0-465-03091-2.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 120: Epistemology, causation, and humankind
  • 126: The self

Neither Douglas Hofstadter nor Daniel Dennett are easy writers to read quickly. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Hofstadter’s Surfaces and Essences are two of the most demanding books I’ve picked up in the recent past. Luckily, in The Mind’s I, an effort that combines both their talents, they find a way to better let their readers in. This book looks at the philosophical concept of the self—how a mind views itself—through the writings of other people. Hofstadter and Dennett use historic and imaginative accounts written by Jorge Luis Borges, Alan Turing, Richard Dawkins, and many others as points of reflection from which they can get into their intended philosophical discussions. This helps accomplish two very interesting goals: pointing the reader towards other authors they might not have known before and helping the reader through some of the more complex thought experiments surrounding the concept of the self. All throughout the book there are smatterings of philosophy, fiction, physics, and even free will. They manage to steer clear of the more tautological loops that philosophy sometimes falls in to, and in the end, arrange a very good book that makes the reader think deeply without straining themselves. An intense but intriguing read.

128: Death and the Afterlife by Samuel Scheffler

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128.5: Scheffler, Samuel. Death and the Afterlife. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 207 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-998250-9.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 120: Epistemology
  • 128: Humankind
  • 128.5: Human death

One of the headiest question that you can ask is: what happens after we die? Is there a place or perspective where our consciousnesses go to live on in another form? Or is this it? Are we doomed to a single existence in a single body? And, moreover, how do our answers to these questions affect the way in which we go about our lives? Noted philosopher Samuel Scheffler was asked to deliver the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at the University of California at Berkeley and engage in a conversation about what it meant to envision an afterlife. In Death and the Afterlife, his lectures and the commentaries of other philosophers investigate the nature of catastrophic events, the value of the preservation of life, and the values that an afterlife brings with it.

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122: The Why of Things by Peter Rabins

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122: Rabins, Peter V. The Why of Things: Causality in Science, Medicine, and Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. 253 pp. ISBN 978-0-2311-6472-6.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 120: Epistemology
  • 122: Causation

Peter Rabins’s The Why of Things tries to get to the philosophical root of everything. He’s not trying to find a single underlying cause for all actions and entities in the universe, but rather develop a system of thought that helps the thinker come to useful and fundamental conclusions about observable phenomena (and even some unobservable phenomena). Rabins’s system involves thinking about the world using three different facets and then breaking them down into different subfacets. Looking at things as a model, you have categorical, probalistic, and emergent models; using differing types of logic, there are empirical, empathic, and ecclesiastic logics; and using differing levels of analysis, we find predisposing causes, precipitating causes, programmatic causes, and purposive causes. All these would take far too long to explain here, though.

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129: Spook by Mary Roach

129: Roach, Mary. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. 295 pp. ISBN 978-0-393-32912-4.

The Dewey Decimal Classification, for all of its ease of use and formulaic predictability, is also very Christian-centric. The 200s are devoted to religion, but the non-Western religions are relegated to the 290s. Contrary to what you might believe, works on the origin and continuation of individual souls falls under philosophy (the 100s). This is because the soul is an object identified when human beings start to wonder where they come from and where they are going after death. It is more a question of consciousness than religious belief. That being said, there are numerous works on the existence and fate of one’s soul.

Mary Roach, known for her witty scientific investigations of human coitus (Bonk) and corporeal decomposition (Stiff), tries to get to the bottom of the soul question. Does it exist? Can it be quantified? What can science help us to understand about it? Her journeys take her to India to investigate alongside a reincarnation specialist. For there, she visits mediums, biologists, quantum physicists, “ectoplasm” experts, and near-death experience researchers. Since no one has provided conclusive evidence for souls and their nature, the researchers she visits have to be (by default) operating just outside of the normal sphere of science. The great thing about that is that they have to. No great research was ever lauded for staying inside the current mode of thinking. The experiments they are trying are slightly odd and cumbersome, but try to answer real questions.

Roach’s immediate skepticism is readily apparent in all of her encounters, but she is willing to keep a partially open mind (most of the time). It’s very hard to keep a straight face when you’re sitting in a class, learning how to become a medium for ghosts when you don’t have a firm hold of your own beliefs. Coming at this from the cold light of science is the rational thing to do. Her humor is brilliant, however. There were many times when I had to stifle laughter (in public) for fear being labeled “a nutter.”

I honestly think this book has something for everyone. If you whole-heartedly believe in the soul, then you should be excited to see that there are scientific minds at work trying to prove it. And if you don’t, then you can laugh and enjoy the blow-by-blow account of all the weird articles published by the Society of Psychical Research. After reading her earlier book Stiff, I am looking forward to her other two.