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Posted February 8, 2004
Knowing my strong interest in the subject, one of my friends said, 'Philosophy is bunk!' He didn't catch the irony of his misstep: By debunking philosophy, he was philosophizing! If you have ever wondered where the universe came from; why there is something, rather than nothing; whether computers can think; whether time travel is possible, or whether it's morally acceptable to design children genetically, then you were thinking philosophically. In The Philosophy Gym, Stephen Law, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of London and the editor of the new philosophy journal, Think, presents '25 Short Adventures in Thinking.' (A more appropriate subtitle for would be '25 Short Exercises in Thinking.') Law categorizes these chapters according to three levels of difficulty: 'Warm-up' (six essays), 'Moderate' (ten essays), and 'More Challenging' (nine essays). The essays deal with metaphysics ('Where Did the Universe Come From?' and 'Does God exist?'), epistemology ('What is Knowledge?' and 'Is Creationism Scientific?'), aesthetics ('But Is It Art?), logic ('How to Spot Eight Everyday Reasoning Errors' and 'Seven Paradoxes'), and ethics ('Can We Have Morality without God and Religion?', 'Is Morality like a Pair of Spectacles?,' 'Designer Babies,' and 'What's Wrong with Gay Sex?'). Law discusses subjects such as rationalism and empiricism, deductive and inductive reasoning, science and pseudoscience, determinism and free will, circular reasoning and fallacies. He quotes philosophers such as Plato, Descartes, Locke, Voltaire, Bentham, Mill, Hume, and Wittgenstein. A personal disappointment with this book is that my favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, is nowhere mentioned. How can one write about the problems posed by culture, morality, values, and truth and ignore Nietzsche? When I began reading Law's work, I anticipated an enjoyable experience, for the book is laid out in accessible, user-friendly chapters that contain humorous sketches and cartoons, much as one might expect in a book titled 'Philosophy for Dummies.' Also, most of the chapters contain 'Socratic/Platonic dialogues,' arguments and counterarguments, examples and counterexamples, on various philosophical problems. After a while, however, Law's approach begins to wear thin. I finished the book feeling that the author's cutesy clever approach trivializes philosophy. By seeking to make this a work for everyone, Law courts the danger of making it a book fit for no one. On the positive side, Law provides an intriguing examination of the conflict between 'common sense' and skepticism: 'We don't know what we think we know.' The conclusions of skepticism seem absurd, but they are difficult to refute philosophically. At the end of each chapter, Law gives suggestions for further reading. Good advice! Perhaps, instead of buying Law's book, you should purchase those he recommends, such as Philosophy: The Basics, by Nigel Warburton; Philosophy: Basic Readings, edited by Nigel Warburton; and Thinking Through Philosophy, by Chris Horner and Emrys Westacott. Don't work up a sweat over this one. WEBSITES OF INTEREST: http://examinedlifejournal.com/thinkaboutit/index.php http://www.royalinstitutephilosophy.org/think.htm http://www.niz.or .org/features/fallacies
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