Past Articles


How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed by Ray Kurzweil

#25. A Summary of How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed by Ray Kurzweil

Preview: When IBM’s Deep Blue defeated humanity’s greatest chess player Gary Kasparov in 1997 it marked a major turning point in the progress of artificial intelligence (AI).  A still more impressive turning point in AI was achieved in 2011 when another creation of IBM named Watson defeated Jeopardy! phenoms Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter at their own game. As time marches on and technology advances we can easily envision still more impressive feats coming out of AI. And yet when it comes to the prospect of a computer ever actually matching human intelligence in all of its complexity and intricacy, we may find ourselves skeptical that this could ever be fully achieved. There seems to be a fundamental difference between the way a human mind works and the way even the most sophisticated machine works—a qualitative difference that could never be breached. Famous inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil begs to differ

To begin with—despite the richness and complexity of human thought—Kurzweil argues that the underlying principles and neuro-networks that are responsible for higher-order thinking are actually relatively simple, and in fact fully replicable. Indeed, for Kurzweil, our most sophisticated AI machines are already beginning to employ the sample principles and are mimicking the same neuro-structures that are present in the human brain. Read more…


Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

#24. A Summary of Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Preview: The adage ‘you are what you eat’ is no doubt literally true, but when it comes to getting at the heart of what we are it is certainly more accurate to say ‘you are what you think’; for our identity emerges out of the life of the mind, and our decisions and actions (including what we eat) is determined by our thoughts. An exploration of how we think therefore cuts to the core of what we are, and offers a clear path to gaining a better understanding of ourselves and why we behave as we do. In addition, while many of us are fairly happy with how our mind works, few of us would say that we could not afford to improve here at least in some respects; and therefore, an exploration of how we think also promises to point the way towards fruitful self-improvement (which stands to help us both in our personal and professional lives). While thinking about thinking was traditionally a speculative practice (embarked upon by philosophers and economists) it has recently received a more empirical treatment through the disciplines of psychology and neuroscience. It is from the latter angle that the Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman approaches the subject in his new book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Ream more…


Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves by George M. Church and Ed Regis#23. A Summary of Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves by George Church and Ed Regis

Preview: DNA was only discovered about a century ago, and it’s structure remained a mystery until about half a century ago, but since this time our knowledge and understanding of DNA has grown immensely (indeed exponentially). What’s more, this understanding has evolved to include not just an understanding of how DNA works, but also how it can be manipulated to help advance our ends. The most glaring example here is the phenomenon of genetically modified food. Though not without controversy initially (and some fringe opposition that lives on to this day), it is fair to say that genetically modified food was one of the major scientific advances of the 20th century. Over and above this, our understanding of DNA appeared to reach its most impressive manifestation with the successful sequencing of the human genome in the year 2000.

For the genetics professor and pioneering genetic engineer George Church, however, genetically modified food and the Human Genome Project are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of genomics. Indeed, since the year 2005, the exponential growth rate in our ability to read and write DNA has increased from 1.5-fold per year (a rate that matches Moore’s law), to the incredible rate of 10-fold per year (p. 243). This explosion in scientific and technological progress has resulted in dramatic advancements in the areas of biochemicals, biomaterials, biofuels and biomedicine. What’s more, advancements in these technologies are but in their incipient stage, and the future of genomics promises to dwarf these initial achievements. In their new book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves George Church and science writer Ed Regis take us through the developments that have occurred recently in the area of genomics, and also where these developments are likely to take us in the future. Read more…


The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail--but Some Don't by Nate Silver#22. A Summary of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t by Nate Silver

Preview: Making decisions based on an assessment of future outcomes is a natural and inescapable part of the human condition. Indeed, as Nate Silver points out, “prediction is indispensable to our lives. Every time we choose a route to work, decide whether to go on a second date, or set money aside for a rainy day, we are making a forecast about how the future will proceed–and how our plans will affect the odds for a favorable outcome” (loc. 285). And over and above these private decisions, prognosticating does, of course, bleed over into the public realm; as indeed whole industries from weather forecasting, to sports betting, to financial investing are built on the premise that predictions of future outcomes are not only possible, but can be made reliable. As Silver points out, though, there is a wide discrepancy across industries and also between individuals regarding just how accurate these predictions are. In his new book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t Silver attempts to get to the bottom of all of this prediction-making to uncover what separates the accurate from the misguided. Read more…


'The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction' by Larry Young and Brian Alexander#21. A Summary of The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction by Larry Young and Brian Alexander

Preview: Love and sex play a central role in the human drama. But when we talk about the emotions and decisions that we make in connection with them, we tend to remain strictly at the macro level, referring to people, and relationships, and our freely made choices. However, in their new book The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction social neuroscientist Larry Young and journalist Brian Alexander contend that our biology and chemistry play a much bigger role in love and sex than most of us ever acknowledge (since Larry Young is the scientist behind the book [and responsible for the ideas therein], I will refer to him as the main author throughout). Young explores everything from gender identity (and sexual orientation), to romantic relationships (and parenting), to monogamy (and infidelity), taking us inside our bodies to investigate the genes and hormones that influence our approach to love, sex and relationships. While the focus here is on us humans, the evidence comes not only from our own species but from a host of other animals that exhibit similar biology and behavior. Read more…


How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough#20. A Summary of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

Preview: When it comes to a child’s future success, the prevailing view recently has been that it depends, first and foremost, on mental skills like verbal ability, mathematical ability, and the ability to detect patterns–all of the skills, in short, that lead to a hefty IQ. However, recent evidence from a host of academic fields—from psychology, to economics, to education, to neuroscience–has revealed that there is in fact another ingredient that contributes to success even more so than a high IQ and impressive cognitive skills. This factor includes the non-cognitive qualities of perseverance, conscientiousness, optimism, curiosity and self-discipline–all of which can be included under the general category of `character’. In his new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character writer Paul Tough explores the science behind these findings, and also tracks several alternative schools, education programs and outreach projects that have tried to implement the lessons–as well as the successes and challenges that they have experienced. Ream more…


higgs: the invention and discovery of the god particle by jim baggott

#19. A Summary of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ by Jim Baggott

Preview: Up until very recently, news out of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) regarding the progress of the new Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had been slow in coming, and nary a major discovery had been announced. On July 4th, though, all of that changed. As on that day CERN announced the discovery of nothing less than the Higgs boson, the ‘God particle’.

The potential discovery of the Higgs boson had been one of the principal reasons why physicists were so excited about the LHC; and therefore, within the scientific community the announcement was cause for a major celebration indeed. For most of the general public, however, while the announcement was certainly intriguing, there were many basic questions yet to be answered: Just what was the Higgs boson, and why had it been labeled the God particle? Why were physicists expecting to find it, and what did the discovery really mean? Adequately answering these questions was more than what journalists were able to do in their compressed news segments and newspaper articles–and, besides this, it was a task that many journalists were not up to regardless.

Jim Baggott’s new book Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ is meant to remedy this situation and provide the necessary context that the general public needs in order to understand the discovery of the Higgs boson and what it all means. Read more…


'Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep' by David K. Randall#18. A Summary of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep David K. Randall

Preview: We spend up to a third of our lives sleeping, and yet, unless we are not getting enough of it, and/or are experiencing a sleeping disorder of some kind, most of us hardly ever give our sleep a second thought (other than to rue over how much precious time it takes up). Science too largely neglected sleep for the longest time, treating it mainly as a static condition during which the brain was not doing much of anything interesting. However, ever since rapid eye movement (REM) was discovered in the 1950′s the science of sleep has really taken off, and the discoveries that have come out of it go to show that this unconscious period is more interesting than we ever could have imagined. It is these discoveries that writer David K. Randall explores in his new book Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep. Read more…


The Violinist's Tumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code#17. A Summary of The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean

Preview: In a sense the story of DNA has two strands. On the one hand, as the blueprint of all that lives and the mechanism of heredity, DNA tells the story of life (and the history of life), from the smallest, simplest microbe, to we human beings, who have managed to figure all of this out. Of course, there is still much about DNA that we don’t know. But given that we didn’t even know of its existence until a lowly Swiss physician and biologist named Friedrich Miescher stumbled upon it in the 1860′s, you have to admit we’ve come a long way in such a short time. And this is just where the second strand of the story of DNA begins: the story of our unraveling the mystery. While perhaps not as grandiose as the story of life itself, this detective story is significant in its own right, for it has transformed how we understand all that lives—including ourselves. This is especially the case given that the latest chapters in this story have revealed not only our own genomic blueprint, but the (deeply daunting) fact that we have the power to change this blueprint and thus became the masters of our own future as a species. While each of the strands of the story of DNA could fill a book in their own right (if not several), the author Sam Kean has managed to weave the two together and fit them both in his new book The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code. Kean’s project may seem like a particularly tall task, but he manages to pull it off by way of focusing in on only the main (and/or juiciest) moments and characters throughout. Read more…


The Honest Truth About Dishonesty How We Lie to Everyone Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely#16. A Summary of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely

Preview: There is certainly no shortage of lying, cheating and corruption in our society today. At their worst, these phenomena do substantial damage to our communities and the people in them.  Picking on the corporate world for just a moment, consider a few high-profile examples from the last decade: the scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, Haliburton, Kmart, Tyco, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and a host of banks in the financial crisis of 2008.

If you are a particularly pessimistic person, you may think that people are fundamentally self-interested, and will engage in dishonest and corrupt behaviour so long as the potential benefits of this behaviour outweigh the possibility of being caught multiplied by the punishment involved (known as the Simple Model of Rational Crime or SMORC). On the other hand, if you are a particularly optimistic person, you may think that the lying and cheating that we see in our society is largely the result of a few bad apples in the bunch.

Given that the way we attempt to curb cheating and corruption depends largely on which view we think is correct, we would do well if we could come up with a proper understanding of these tendencies, and under what circumstances they are either heightened or diminished. Over the past several years, the behavioral economist Dan Ariely, together with a few colleagues, has attempted to do just this—by way of bringing dishonesty into the science lab. Ariely reveals his findings in his new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves. Read more…


End This Depression Now! by Paul Krugman#15. A Summary of End This Depression Now! by Paul Kurgman

Preview: Since the housing and financial crash of 2008, America’s economy has been stuck deep in the doldrums. Indeed, GDP has remained well beneath pre-2008 levels, and employment levels have failed to recover. In an effort to resuscitate the economy, the American government tried first to jump-start it through stimulus spending, and has now replaced this approach with greater austerity. Nothing seems to be working. For Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, though, the answer is clear: the problem is that the original stimulus effort was too small, and, since that time, the government is moving squarely in the wrong direction. Indeed, Krugman argues that America’s current situation bares a striking resemblance to the stagnation of the Great Depression, and that history has taught us what to do in such situations: the government must take an aggressive approach to stimulate the economy into recovery. This is the argument that Krugman makes in his new book End This Depression Now! Read more…


'The Real Crash: America's Coming Bankruptcy--How to Save Yourself and Your Country' by Peter Schiff #14. A Summary of The Real Crash: America’s Coming Bankruptcy—How to Save Yourself and Your Country by Peter Schiff

Preview: Since the housing and financial crash of 2008, America’s recovery has been tepid at best. Unemployment has remained high; manufacturing has not returned; personal savings are as low as they’ve ever been, and personal debt as high; housing is still a mess, and banking not much better; and, to top it all off, government debt is awe-inspiring and seems completely insoluble. According to financial investor, commentator and author Peter Schiff, while all of this is certainly disheartening, it should not come as much of a surprise. Indeed, Schiff argues that all of this economic slumping is a natural result of America’s misguided economic policies; including especially the Federal Reserve’s manipulation of interest rates, the government’s uncontrollable borrowing, and, in connection with this, the maintaining (and even expansion) of unsustainable social programs. For Schiff, these same policies led directly to the crash of ’08 (which he correctly and very famously predicted), and are leading the U.S. directly into an even worse crash now. In his new book The Real Crash: America’s Coming Bankruptcy—How to Save Yourself and Your Country Schiff outlines how America got itself into this mess in the first place, what the end game is likely to be, and what the nation and its citizens should do to make the coming unpleasantness the least unpleasant as possible. Read more…


'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking' by Susan Cain#13. A Summary of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Preview: Being the quieter, more reserved type, introverts are not as inclined as others to broadcast just who they are and what makes them tick, much less honk their own horns. However, given that Western culture has increasingly pushed introverts aside, and is intent on celebrating their opposite, it is high time that introverts stepped out of character, made themselves heard, and proclaimed to the world that they have much to offer indeed. This is the campaign that Susan Cain launches in her new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Read more…


'Imagine: How Creativity Works' by Jonah Lehrer#12. A Summary of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

Preview: When we are lucky enough to be stricken with a particularly imaginative thought or creative idea, it often feels as though it is coming from outside of us—as though we are but the vehicle for its transmission. As a reflection of this, in the past artistic creativity was thought of as a force that was sent down from above, a gift from the gods that the artist was required to wait patiently for; the artist being but a vessel through which the force could act. The moment of epiphany is so sudden, so seemingly without precedent or cause, that it may seem to defy logical explanation, and hence to be outside of the bounds of scientific study. However, according to journalist and author Jonah Lehrer, science is beginning to understand how creativity works, and how it can be fostered, and it is this understanding that he brings to the table in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Read more…


'The Social Conquest of Earth' by E.O. Wilson #11. A Summary of The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson

Preview: Since the dawn of self-awareness we human beings have struggled to understand ourselves. This struggle has found form in religion, philosophy, art and, most recently, science. The most pivotal turning point in science’s quest to understand humanity came with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection in the mid 19th century. While the application of this theory to understand human behaviour has taken time (and engendered a great deal of controversy), enough progress has now been made to outline the story in full, and to fill in several of the details. It is just this task that legendary biologist E.O. Wilson takes up in his new book The Social Conquest of Earth. Read more…


'The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion' by Jonathan Haidt#10. A Summary of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

Preview: The old saying goes that we are never to discuss religion or politics in polite company. These topics are singled out of course because they tend to be the two that people are most passionate about, and which therefore have the greatest potential to cause enmity and strife. According to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the fact that we disagree over politics and religion is not necessarily such a bad thing. For him, though, the current wrangling between political and religious (and non-religious) factions has gotten rather out of hand, as it has recently reached such a pitch in the West (and particularly in America where Haidt resides) as to be threatening the very fabric of our nations.

Now, according to Haidt, at least some of the enmity and strife between people of different political and religious stripes is caused by a failure to understand precisely where these beliefs ultimately come from—as well as a failure to understand how one’s opponents understand their own beliefs. In an effort to remedy this situation, and to bring a degree of civility back into the ongoing debate, Haidt sets out to supply just these understandings in his new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Read more…


'The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business' by Charles Duhigg#9. A Summary of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Preview: It is often said that we are creatures of habit, in that many of our daily activities end up being a matter of routine rather than direct deliberation (just think of your morning run-through). While this is no doubt true, author Charles Duhigg insists that this is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact that habits have on our daily lives. Indeed, in his new book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business Duhigg argues that habits pervade not only our personal lives, but that they have an integral role to play in the businesses and other organizations of which we are a part, and that they are also at the heart of social movements and societies at large. Read more…


'Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think' by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler#8. A Summary of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

Preview: It has come to the point of cliché to say that, since the industrial revolution, and particularly in the past one hundred years or so, our level of technological innovation has advanced at an unprecedented rate and reached astronomical heights. It is clear that this innovation has provided us with countless benefits, and an enormous increase in our standard of living—at least for some of us. Indeed, it is equally clear that most of these innovations have benefited the developed world much more so than the developing world. Nevertheless, the gains have been so great, and the promise so overwhelming, that much of this period has been pervaded with a palpable optimism that we would eventually reach a stage where the whole world would benefit from the largesse, and we would perhaps even reach a technological utopia.

More recently, however, this optimism has given way to uncertainty, if not an outright crisis of faith, as it has become ever more clear that our technological innovation has left us with new and increasingly pressing problems, such as dwindling resources, global warming, and a population explosion that threatens to confound (and in some cases already does confound) our advances in agricultural production and medicine. Indeed, the problems that we face are so deep and pervasive that many have come to believe that we may have to pay for our era of decadence after all, and that the future is more likely to witness a collapse than the dawn of a utopian age.

However, in their new book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler argue that we needn’t discard our techno-optimism after all. Indeed, according to Diamandis, the world is on the precipice of another explosion in technology that will soon bring refuge from many of our current problems and abundance to our doorstep. Not content to let the goal or the timeline remain vague, Diamandis is happy to hang a more precise definition on each. When it comes to abundance, Diamandis defines it as “a world of nine billion people with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, and non-polluting, ubiquitous energy” (loc. 317), and, to top it all off, the freedom to pursue their goals and aspirations unhindered by political repression. With regards to the timeline, Diamandis claims that it “should be achievable within twenty-five years, with noticeable change possible within the next decade” (loc. 580). Read more…


'The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good for You)' by Simon Laham#7. A Summary of The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good for You) by Simon Laham

Preview: Lust, greed, gluttony, anger, sloth, envy and pride. The seven deadly sins are recognized as an integral part of the Christian (and especially the Catholic) belief system, and of Western culture more generally. Contrary to what many believe, though, the seven deadly sins did not make their first appearance in the Bible, but in the commentaries of Christian authorities in the early Middle Ages between the 4th and 6th centuries AD (loc. 2281). Equally unknown is that when the seven sins did arrive on the scene, they were meant primarily as a guide to monks in how they should conduct themselves in order to make monastic living as harmonious and holy as possible (loc. 60).

Despite their late arrival in the annals of Christian belief, though—and despite the somewhat niche audience that they were originally intended for—the seven deadly sins have since developed into an important component of the Christian faith. In fact, the influence of the seven deadly sins in Western culture extends well beyond the Christian realm. Indeed, even the atheistic among us are likely to regard the seven characteristics perhaps not as sins, but at the very least as character flaws, or vices.

Nevertheless, despite the near universal acknowledgement of the reproachfulness of the seven deadly sins, the psychologist Simon Laham takes a very different approach to these so-called sins in his new book The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good for You). Indeed, as the title suggests, Laham maintains that the seven deadly sins are not nearly as bad as they are cracked up to be, and in fact the author argues that much good can come of them, so long as they are approached in the right way. Read more…


'That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion' by Rachel Herz#6. A Summary of That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz

Preview: At first glance it may seem like our sense of disgust is a fairly marginal and narrow aspect of our everyday experience (not to mention being a little icky), and therefore, not the most appetizing candidate for deep exploration. Nevertheless, in her new book That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, psychologist Rachel Herz demonstrates that there are in fact several aspects of disgust that make it unique among the basic human emotions (which include happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust), and worthy of closer attention. Read more…


'A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing' by Lawrence Krauss#5. A Summary of A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

Preview: Our best science tells us that the universe is an ever expanding entity consisting of some 400 billion galaxies that began with a very powerful and very hot explosion from a single point precisely 13.72 billion years ago. The degree to which our best science here has advanced in the recent past is reflected by the understanding of the universe that we had just a century ago. At that time, it was thought that the universe was static and consisted of just one galaxy: our own. In the past 100 years, though, Einstein’s theory of relativity revolutionized how we understand space and time and the physical processes operating at the very largest of scales, while quantum mechanics has revolutionized how we understand these processes at the very smallest of scales. It is the development of these theories in particular that has provided us with our current understanding of the universe.

However, the picture of the universe that these theories have furnished us with still leaves us with an apparent problem: What existed before the big bang?  Surely something must have existed beforehand, for if nothing existed then something (indeed everything!) came from nothing, which seems absurd. Indeed there are few things more intuitively implausible than that something can come from nothing. In the philosophical community ex nihilo, nihilo fit (from nothing, nothing comes) is appreciated to be a self evident premise, and one of only a handful of postulates that are completely indisputable.

The apparent contradiction between the universe beginning at a finite time, and the premise that something cannot come from nothing, has often been used as an argument for the existence of an uncaused cause, or creator (most often understood as God). However, in his new book A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing renowned physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss argues that a full understanding of the science that has yielded our current picture of the universe also allows us to see that something can indeed come from nothing. Thus, for Krauss, science can in fact do the work that it is often thought only God could manage. As Krauss puts it (borrowing a line from the physicist Steven Weinberg), science does not make it impossible to believe in God, but it does make it possible to not believe in God (p. 183). In introducing us to the science that allows for the possibility of something coming from nothing, Krauss takes us through the history and evolution of physics and cosmology over the past century, beginning with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity in 1916. In the course of this journey we learn about what our best science says about the basic make-up of our universe (including the existence of dark matter and dark energy), as well as what our best science tells us about how the universe (likely) began and where it is (likely) heading in the future. Read More…


'Who's in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain' by Micahel Gazzaniga#4. A Summary of Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael Gazzaniga

Preview: The question of whether or not we truly have a free will has vexed humans for ages. On the one hand, it certainly feels as though we do: when it comes to the decisions that we make and the behaviour that we engage in, we experience the world as though it is ‘I’, the conscious self, who is responsible for these choices. Indeed, even though we may acknowledge that there are certain physical, biological, and social forces that influence our decisions and actions, we nonetheless feel as though ‘we’ are somehow separate from these impersonal forces, and that rather than being at their whim, it is ‘we’ who are the final arbiters in making the choices that we do. The experience of being able to choose as we wish is what we call free will, and it has traditionally been thought that it is an essential, if not the essential feature of what it means to be human.

However, as the study of the brain has progressed over the past century (and particularly in the past 40 years), the evidence seems to point more and more towards the idea that our sense of freedom, and our being in control of our choices, is a mere illusion, and that our thoughts and actions are in fact as determined as the physical world around us. The idea of a determined self not only challenges our traditional understanding of ourselves, but has practical repercussions in terms of our understanding of issues such as agency and responsibility, and forces us to ask whether we can legitimately hold people accountable for their actions. Indeed, if people truly are determined to behave as they do, then they could not reasonably be considered responsible for their behaviour, and hence it would seem to be unjust to punish them for their actions, thus throwing our entire judicial system into question. These issues have already begun to surface in our court systems, and have in fact had an impact on certain court decisions to exercise leniency on convicted offenders where this would not have occurred previously (p. 190-4).

According to neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, however, this whole line of thinking is both dangerous and misguided. This proves to be the case because, for him, the findings coming out of brain science do not in fact imply a determined self. Indeed, Gazzaniga claims that the idea of a determined self is based on a misinterpretation of the relationship between the mind and the brain, and that the proper interpretation of this relationship reveals that there is room for both responsibility and accountability. This is the argument that Gazzaniga makes in his new book Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Read more…


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'The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined' by Steven Pinker#3. A Summary of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

Preview: We are fresh out of a century that featured two world wars often considered to be the most destructive in history (not to mention numerous inter-state, civil and tribal wars and genocides), and are persistently submerged in news coverage that features more than its fair share of military conflict, terrorism, murder, gang violence, rape, domestic violence, child abuse and animal cruelty. As such, we may be forgiven for thinking that human beings are at least as violent as ever, if not more so. Indeed, many are persuaded that the onset of civilization some 5000 years ago has had none but a de-civilizing effect on the world and its people, and has led to an increasing level of violence as state hierarchies have grown in size and complexity, and military technology has advanced.

However, in his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, the Harvard scholar Steven Pinker argues that, all appearances to the contrary, an in depth look at the evidence reveals that violence has in fact decreased world-wide and in virtually every category we can think of since civilization began (albeit unevenly in both time and geography, and with a few blips along the way). The evidence comes not only from anecdotal and narrative tales but from an exhaustive look at the statistics, which is altogether very convincing. Read more…


'Debt: The First 5000 Years' by David Graeber#2. A Summary of Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber

Preview: Debt is certainly a topic of deep interest and import these days, what with future prosperity seemingly threatened on all sides by a combination of personal, commercial, and national debt. A fact that has been brought home with particular poignancy in recent times by the role that debt played in the latest global financial crash of 2008, and the continuing threat of growing consumer debt and national debts in places such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and now Italy, and, of course, the US. According to Anthropologist David Graeber, author of the new book Debt: The First 5000 Years, debt takes on an even larger significance when we trace its history, since this exercise allows us to gain a new and more complete understanding of economics as a whole, and our modern capitalist system in particular (not to mention several other aspects of the human condition to boot). The story of debt takes us from the origins of money itself; through to the age of slavery and conquest; on to the origins of the major world religions (with their near universal prohibitions on usury); through to the middle ages, and the beginnings of capitalism and the modern banking system; and finally on to the modern age itself with its national currencies, central banks, and commitment to market capitalism.

While this story is interesting in its own right, Graeber’s main argument here is that tracing the history of debt unearths some uneasy truths and deep flaws in the nature of modern capitalism, and it is high time, he proposes, that we rekindle the conversation about how and with what we might replace it. Read more…


'Brain Bugs: How The Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives' by Dean Buonomano#1. A Summary of Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives by Dean Buonomano

Preview: As much as we rely on our brains to navigate the complex world before us, anyone who has ever forgotten someone’s name, or misread a situation, or made a poor decision in the heat of the moment knows that the brain does not always work as we would want. In his new book Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives, neurobiologist Dean Buonomano explores the brain’s many pitfalls and mistakes (and how and why it makes them), and also offers up some advice on how we can best manage these so called ‘brain bugs’ in our everyday lives. Read more…


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