Eastern and Western Philosophy @ BYOB Party in Feb 2019 (Part 1)

This time we had the BYOB Party on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Image result for atlas shrugged amazonAnish kickstarted the discussion with Atlas Shrugged, a book that he found difficult initially and enjoyed more on a later read. Ayn Rand’s philosophy matches the tenor of this age- the same brush with economic depression, the same economic competition, and socialism. There were readers in the group who were through with their Ayn Rand phase and others who read Rand’s slimmer volume called Fountainhead at an impressionable enough age to question everything they knew based on the articulate expression of Rand’s philosophy. “It’s not a fast read,” Anish said. “I advice you to go back to it again and enjoy the read.”

If you would like to know more about Ayn Rand’s brand of objectivism, watch this video.

Krishna likes to read fantasy and philosophy. He spoke about Vadiraja’s Refutation Of Sankara’s Non-Dualism: Clearing The Way To Theism by L. Stafford Betty. Vadiraja was a sixteenth-century Hindu philosopher who challenged the Advaita and spoke in favor of Dualism. L. Stafford Betty chanced upon his work and went ahead with the translation of the philosopher’s polemic.  You can learn more about Stafford Betty’s ideas in this interview.

Image result for Vadiraja's Refutation Of Sankara's Non-Dualism: Clearing The Way To Theism amazonKrishna explained that there were various traditions of schools of thought in India. Unlike Dvaita or Dualism, Advaita or Non-Dualism subscribes to the idea that there is only one super-consciousness and everything else is non-reality. Vadiraja was one of the last of his ilk; philosophy in India went to sleep mode post the sixteenth century. Other philosophers like Madhvacharya and Nagarjuna were also discussed.

There is an idea that eastern philosophy is not considered important enough but Abhaya refuted this. It isn’t lack of interest in eastern philosophy but the accessibility of western philosophy that is the problem. So the comparison to writers like Bertrand Russell is inevitable. In a very light-hearted manner, Russell pierces through the foundation of western philosophy keeping in mind that he is addressing a modern audience. Unlike the patronizing proponents of ancient culture, Russell’s writing is accessible. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Surendranath Dasgupta are good places to start when it comes to Indian philosophy but somewhere down the line a lay reader may find it tedious or lacking in citations. Surprisingly, there is no good book on Indian philosophy in Hindi either. It doesn’t matter if great thoughts are lost in translation as long as we can preserve some of it, Jaya mused.

More books in Part 2.


Short Book Review: Justice by Michael J. Sandel

SBR: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? is a book for our times. It isn’t a self-improvement text about what an individual should be doing, as people sometimes tend to infer from its subtitle. It is about what a just society should look like. In addressing that question, the author draws on ancient to current (western) philosophical thoughts, current and recent (mostly American) political discourses and many legal battles that bring some difficult questions about right and wrong to the fore. If you identify yourself as a liberal in political and social thoughts (like me),  it is easy to start believing that in espousing freedom, individual dignity and correction of systemic biases, you have covered all the issues of morality, justice, and social cohesion. But it isn’t so easy. And this book does a good job of making you realize that and to help you question more. If you find liberalism to be just gibberish and think that some good, old values you have learned from tradition are what makes a good society, then you definitely need some of these questions in your life. The limitation of the book for an Indian audience is that it focuses on Western philosophy and American society. But that affects relatability, not the relevance of the book. The book is also immensely readable.

To read or not to read: Yes.

Short Book Review: Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams

Stand Out of Our Light by James WilliamsSBR: I picked up this book because it won the inaugural The Nine Dots Prize whose mailing list I was on. Stand Out of Our Light questions what Silicon Valley driven technology is doing to us, how it is affecting our attention and engagement, and whether it is really helping us pursue the goals we want to pursue. It pushes the discussion around technology beyond the realms of economics and techno-utopia Silicon Valley sometimes seems to fantasize about. Yet, it isn’t just a nostalgic whining.

The book is important, although not necessarily earth-shattering. It wasn’t really an eye-opener for me. Although it can be so to someone too enamored with and too sold on Silicon Valley dreams.

To read or not to read: If you are a Silicon Valley fanboy (or girl), or if you aren’t, but are struggling to articulate what’s wrong with it, you can try this book. The eBook is available for free [PDF]! Otherwise, no harm in skipping it.

Self-help, Philosophy and Habit @ BYOB Party in November 2017 (Part 5)

The debate about whether to read self-help books or not continues. Somnath spoke about how the book Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson has inspired him so much that he reads it every day before going to work. This business parable features four mice: Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw, each of which have human traits that affect their performance. Somanath believes that there is always room for improvement and self-help books can aid this process; however, many of the techies in the room couldn’t see eye to eye with self-help literature.

Sreeja got a self-help book too called The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Dr. Joseph Murphy. This bestseller book is eye-opening, Sreeja says, and she follows affirmation techniques that Murphy has prescribed. “It works,” Sreeja affirmed.

Deepak talked about how the non-fiction book that really got him started on reading was Homo Sapiens by Yuval Hariri. However, he spoke about a different book-  A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine- a book about philosophy, particularly the stoicism of ancient Rome. Irvine uses the lessons he has learned from this ancient

philosophy to provide clarity for those who deal with dissatisfaction. He talks about how people can control their anger, minimise their distress and use awareness to lead fruitful lives.

Tanay got a popular book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This road trip philosophy is also a must read if you intend to take up motorcycle travel. “The book is a treasure trove of quotes,” Tanay said. This bestseller tells the story of a motorcycle trip by a father and son. The motorcycle works brilliantly as a metaphor as well.

Mukesh picked up The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning business reporter. This heavily researched book explains the significance of habit formation and how individuals and business benefit from creating positive habits. Habit formation is an integral part of living in a community and organizational culture. Duhigg delves into many spaces, including advertising, customer service and the Civil Rights Movement.  Habits can be changed, manipulated and created- Duhigg explains how.

More books in Part 6.

Book Recommendation: The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph

The Illicit Happiness Of Other PeopleThe Illicit Happiness of Other People is melancholy, humorous and philosophical, all at the same time.  When I first read the book a few weeks ago, I found the first few chapters a drag. I was, perhaps, wondering why I am being presented with bits and pieces of a decently smart, but an intellectually megalomaniacal teen’s philosophy, which, in its entirety, would most likely be borrowed wisdom that sounds profound, but means nothing. I held on because the writing was good and the dig at the typical middle-class Madrasi’s life* humorous. I am glad I did. I read the initial chapters again recently to see if there were other reasons for finding them such a drag. Surprisingly, I no longer found them so, perhaps because by the time the novel ends, the author ties up many of the threads he introduces in these chapters. So I was discovering a purpose in them now.

The philosophy of Unni Chacko, the dead teenager around whom the plot revolves, won’t help you find the ultimate truth, but it will make you smile, or think or wonder if there is any difference between wisdom and mental illness and what really defines normal vs. delusional.

Ruminate over the following, if you like.

It is the misanthrope alone who has clarity.

Or this.

Truth usually shows humanity in a poor light.

And here is the delusion explained.

The fundamental quality of a delusion is that it is contagious. The very purpose of every delusion is to transmit itself to other brains. This is how a delusion survives. On the other hand, truth can never be transmitted, truth can never travel from one brain to another. Movement is a quality of delusion alone.

In case you are wondering why?

Truth is not consistent. It changes from brain to brain. The truth of every neurological system in unique and it cannot be transmitted. It cannot be told, it cannot be conveyed, it cannot be searched for and found.

And sainthood deflated.

The distinction between a delusion and a lie is the very difference between a successful saint and a fraud.

And if you thought language was the best thing that happened to humankind.

Language was created by nature to guard its secrets, not to reveal them. We are trapped in language. Even thought has become language.

The reference to a wife plotting to kill her blissfully unaware anarchist husband (overstated) in the book description, a cartoon for the cover and the publisher calling it a ‘darkly comic’ story gives an impression of a very different kind of book. You might go in expecting a satire. But that’s not the case. There a dry, dark humor in the book, but it is very different from satire. The overall tone, in fact, in rather pessimistic despite the humor and wit. It is possible to get depressed with the wise pessimism. But you will survive it. Do read the book.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.

Seventeen-year-old Unni Chacko has done something terrible. The only clue to his action lies in a comic strip he has drawn, which has fallen into the hands of his father Ousep, an anarchist. Ousep begins investigating the extraordinary life of his son, blissfully unaware that his long-suffering wife is plotting to kill him. Set in Madras in 1990, this is a darkly comic story involving the relentless pursuit of a failed writer who has found purpose, an adolescent cartoonist’s dangerous interpretation of truth, the plots of a brilliant housewife, and the pure love of a twelve-year-old boy for a beautiful girl.

Purchase Links

Other Books by the Author

Manu Joseph’s first book Serious Men was widely praised and won multiple awards. I have not read it, but by all indications, it is a satire worth reading.

  • It could have been a dig at the typical middle-class life pretty much anywhere in India, except perhaps Karnataka, where the JEE craze was not there, at least until a decade ago.

Short Book Review: The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

The History of Western PhilosophySBR: Reading this book is a great way to get introduced to the gamut of philosophical thoughts and tradition in the west starting from ancient Greeks to the beginning of twentieth century. What really works is that the author doesn’t feel the need to treat philosophy or philosophers with reverence just for being ancient or famous. He takes us on a journey of understanding and is ruthless in the pursuit. If that means that even the powerful people and ideas of past do not make sense to a modern mind, then they just do not. There is no need to be defensive about it.
Russell is also generous with his opinions, analysis and critique of the philosophers. Because it is clear at most places from the text when he is just narrating the philosophical thought in question and when he is offering his own opinions, it works well. For a novice, modern reader of philosophy, it is important to see those opinions in order to make sense of the ancient and obscure stuff.
Although condensing centuries of philosophical though in one book, even at over eight hundred pages, means that the treatment cannot be exhaustive or most scholarly, this isn’t necessarily a “for dummies” book. Most of the material of the book comes from a series of lecture the author gave, and it seems to talk to the fellow philosophers more than the lay readers.
The chapters of Bergson and Dewey didn’t work for me. They were the contemporaries of the author, and he seemed to have set the detachment of the historical chronicler aside in those chapters. The contemporary rivalries or exchanges dominate there. I needed to go elsewhere to understand what these philosophers really said.
To read or not to read: If you want to start delving into western philosophy, you should pick up this book sometime sooner than later. It might help to have read something beforehand. Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, a very accessible and readable work, worked as a good starting point for me. I picked up Russell after reading that. If you are also just starting on the subject like me, this is the sequence you can follow too. Even then keep Wikipedia, Google search and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy handy for the unfamiliar references that would invariably pop up. (It’s kind of funny that Russell is covered in Durant’s book. Historian becoming a subject of another history!)

Article of the Week: Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? by Oliver Burkeman

The article I have selected for the week addresses a curious question. Curious, because depending on which camp you are in, it is either the most important question humanity and sciences face today, or it is not a question at all. We know a lot about how our brains work. We understand how we learn, how memory works and how we perceive things. But despite all the progress in neuroscience and related disciplines, we don’t have an answer to the question of why “should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from inside”. How does any of it result in Consciousness? The question has come to be known as “the Hard Problem of Consciousness” (the article describes how this phrase came to be).

But does the problem really exist? Is Consciousness really something that needs explanation? Apparently for many people, it doesn’t.

Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness. Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat. Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on. To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with.

Some think we are never going to understand consciousness, and some others have the notion that we probably already understand it, although the implications are bizarre.

in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and Koch among them, have begun to look seriously again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age. This is “panpsychism”, the dizzying notion that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations.

It appears difficult to agree on even the question where consciousness is concerned, much less the answer. The views on the question almost seem a matter of faith rather than of understanding. Everyone seems to find their position to be the obvious one and nobody seems to have argument enough to convert people from other camps.

Read the complete article on The Guardian and let us know where you stand on the Hard Problem?

Article of the Week: Without immigrants, none of us would be here

Let me accept at the outset, the article by Ian Goldin that I have picked up is weak. It’s call for “Fresh thinking and bold action” is based on diffused reasoning and it doesn’t look like he understands or wants to think about the motivations of the people he is addressing. Even purely on the merits of argument, it isn’t as solid, factual or fool-proof as you would expect from an academician. You might wonder why I picked this article as a recommended read, if it appeals strongly neither to  my logic or emotions.

The reason is the bold (even if carelessly made) assertion in the article that immigration has been made too difficult in present times and it should not be so. Think of it. The Europeans persecuted for religious, political or legal reasons in earlier centuries found refuge in India, the Americas, China, Hong Kong and a bunch of other places across the globe. Today Rohingya Muslims have nowhere to go. We may regard national boundaries as sacrosanct, but is it just? Is there anything natural about it?

Yes – I understand that countries cannot  give up overnight their immigration restrictions. It will bring nothing but chaos. But is making the borders rigid by the day the way to go for the human race? Read the complete article on The Conversation and think about it even if you don’t particularly like the article.