Skip to content

Book review: Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

As readers of Francis Crick's book The Astonishing Hypothesis will know, Koch collaborated with Crick in the research on consciousness that occupied the latter years of Crick's life. In this book Koch talks about this work and what it tells him about consciousness, and he also considers the philosophical and religious implications of his research. The book is a mixture of science, philosophy, and autobiography. These are not always clearly demarcated from one another and this makes it difficult to discern a sustained line of argument in the book.

Koch was brought up a Roman Catholic and although he has lost his formal religious faith he is not free of the need to search for transcendence that his upbringing inculcated. He tells us that he started studying consciousness to justify his "instinctual belief that life is meaningful". This explains his choice of subtitle.

[I am] reductionist because I seek quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses; romantic because of my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky above us and deep within us.
Read more

Book review: Who Wrote the Bible?, by Richard Elliott Friedman

The long-running BBC radio programme 'Desert Island Discs' provides its castaways with two books by default, the Bible and Shakespeare, to which they can add one further book of their choice. They are allowed to substitute a different book for the Bible, but hardly anyone ever does. This is evidence for the continuing importance of this book in modern life, even if fewer people actually read it than previously.

For Friedman, 'Bible' refers to the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), which corresponds to what Christians call the Old Testament, although there are some differences. The question of who wrote the text is probably not one that has occurred to many secularists or Christians, and one might think it would be of interest only to biblical scholars. But Friedman has managed to produce a book that reads like a detective story and will hold the interest of anyone who recognises the central importance of this book in the history of Western culture. Read more

Book review: Admissions, by Henry Marsh

As readers of his previous book, Do No Harm, will know, Marsh is a neurosurgeon who has written with profound insight about his work. At the end of that book he was at the point of retiring from his post as a NHS surgeon. The present book is mostly about his life after retirement, although he was still teaching and carrying out surgery in Ukraine and Nepal.

Like the previous book, this one is cast as a memoir, with some descriptions of surgery but much else besides: travelogue, reminiscence, philosophical reflections. Although Marsh was only in his sixties when he wrote — he was born in 1950 — he is very conscious of age, mortality and the possibility of a descent into physical or mental incapacity. Read more

Book review: The Other World, by Janet Oppenheim

This a detailed scholarly account of spiritualism and psychical research in England in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Oppenheim chose to restrict her study geographically to keep it in manageable bounds and she ended it at the outbreak of World War I because the context of spiritualism changed after that time.

The Victorian era was marked by sometimes agonised questioning of traditional religious beliefs, caused partly but not wholly by science. This is the broad framework in which Oppenheim examines her subject. The book has three parts. Part I, "The setting", looks at mediumship and the growth of spiritualism since 1850. Part II, "A surrogate faith", covers a lot of territory, including spiritualism and Christianity, psychical research in relation to agnosticism, and the influence of the Theosophical movement. Part III, "A pseudoscience", describes attempts to evaluate spiritualism scientifically, most notably by the founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR); there are also chapters on evolution in relation to spiritualism and the ideas of physicists concerning psychic phenomena. Read more

Book review: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahnemann

The ideas in this book originated in large part from a collaboration lasting many years between Kahnemann and his colleague and friend, Amos Tversky. The central insight on which the book is based is that our minds can function in two ways, which Kahnemann refers to as System 1 and System 2. System 1 gives a quick appraisal of things that is often biased emotionally or in other ways. System 2 is slower and analytical; its operation is effortful, so the default approach to a problem is usually System 1. This is not always wrong, but it often is. Read more

A reluctant conversion to Kindle

I've long resisted the lure of e-readers, insisting that I prefer to read proper paper books. But I've now had to eat my words; I've bought a Kindle Paperwhite. There were several reasons for this.

1. My eyes now make it difficult to read small print, at least with any enjoyment, and most of the paperbacks I buy, and even some of the hardbacks, have eye-straining print. Now I can enlarge the text to whatever size I like.

2. I review nearly all the books I read on my website, and this usually needs me to take notes while I'm reading. Hitherto I've done this either on a laptop or on paper, provided one of these was to hand when I was reading, but it wasn't ideal. The Kindle allows me to make notes on the fly, save them, and email them to myself to use later when writing the review.

3. Also in relation with reviewing, I often want to find a particular passage in the book to quote. Sometimes this can be done with the index, but often it can't, and then I have to thumb through the text to find the passage I want, which can be a lengthy business. With an e-book I can search it easily.

4. Our house is literally overflowing with books and there is nowhere to put new ones. I often want to look something up in a book which I know we have, but finding it often entails a long search through different rooms which may be ultimately unsucessful. So I expect most books I buy in future will be e-books.

5. I often come across a reference to a book I decide I want to read. If there is a Kindle edition it's usually cheaper than the paper version, and another advantage is that it is delivered instantly.

I gather that sales of e-readers such as the Kindle are declining as more people are reading e-books on either a mobile phone or a tablet. I don't have or want either of those. I could use my desktop or laptop to read the books, but that isn't pleasant. I wanted a device that was as book-like as possible, hence the Kindle. And I have to say that I am pleased with it. The screen is excellent - clear, sharp, and book-like -- so much so that I sometimes forget it isn't a paper book and find myself trying to turn the page over in the usual way!

The only thing I don't like is the absence of external buttons to operate the book; it's all done by tapping the screen to access menus. But that aside, I'm considerably impressed.

It's taken me a long time to reach this point. It was an article in The Author that finally convinced me to take the step, quite late in life. I'm glad I did. Probably there were people in the fifteenth century who lamented the replacement of manuscript books by this new-fangled printing process with moveable type, but I expect most of them were converts in the end.

Book review: The Russian Interpreter, by Michael Frayn

The novel is set in Cold War Russia, some ten years after the end of the second world war. Paul Manning is living in Moscow, where he is writing a thesis. He receives a visit from Gordon Proctor-Gould, who had attended the same Cambridge college as Manning although they did not know each other at that time. Read more

Book review: Towards the End of the Morning, by Michael Frayn

This is a novel about a kind of journalism that no longer exists. John Dyson and Bob Bell work for a newspaper that seems to have some literary pretensions, never sacks anyone and would certainly have folded long before the end of the twentieth century, let alone with the arrival of the Internet. The two men are friends and share an office where not very much work gets done. John is approaching middle age and has the ambition to get on television, which he thinks will transform his life. Bob, who is younger, eats sweets for comfort and has no ambition of any kind; he seems destined to potter along as a third-rate journalist for the rest of his working life. His ultimate future is probably foreshadowed by the third member of the office, 'poor old Eddie', who spends most of the day asleep, waking up occasionally to reminisce about old times and long-dead journalists of his acquaintance. Read more

Book review: What We Cannot Know, by Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy is a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and in 2008 succeeded Richard Dawkins as Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Like Dawkins, he is an atheist, but unlike Dawkins he intends to focus on science rather than religion. And yet religion does surface in this book, in which he considers whether there are things we can never know. Read more

Book review: The Young Visiters, by Daisy Ashford

This novel was written in 1890 when the author was aged nine. She rediscovered it in a drawer in 1917 when she was 36 and it was published two years later, spelling mistakes and all; the only editorial concession made was to insert paragraphing to aid readability. (Incredibly, a reviewer on Amazon recently complained that the publishers should have corrected the spelling!) The book was an instant success, being reprinted 18 times in the first year alone; it is still in print today. Read more

Book review: How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker

This is a book about evolutionary psychology, which Pinker explains at the outset as follows.

The evolutionary psychology of this book is in one sense a straightforward extension of biology, focused on one organ, the mind, of one species,Homo sapiens. But in another sense it is a radical thesis that discards the way issues about the mind have been framed for almost a century.

The view outlined here includes a number of ideas: that the mind is a set of modules whose organisation is genetic, that it is an adaptation designed by natural selection, and that the goal of natural selection is to propagate genes. But Pinker cautions us that none of these ideas should be pushed too far. Each of them contributes part of the explanation but none gives us the whole story. Read more

Book review: A Life in Questions, by Jeremy Paxman

This is a memoir but not an autobiography because, as Paxman explains at the outset, he does not say anything about his family: 'what they choose to disclose about themselves is up to them.' The first three chapters describe his early upbringing and education. He went first to a preparatory school and then to a minor public school, Malvern College. He was not greatly impressed by either of these institutions, which he saw as designed to foster class prejudices in those who attended them, but in the end he got an Exhibition (minor scholarship) at St Catherine's College, Cambridge, where he read English and edited the student newspaper Varsity . Read more

Book review: Yoga Body, by Mark Singleton

Yoga is becoming ever more popular in countries outside India and it is claimed to have all kinds of mental and physical benefits. It is also widely believed to be an ancient practice and this is an important part of its appeal for some. But Singleton presents a wealth of evidence to show that modern yoga, with its emphasis on postures (asanas), is not rooted in ancient traditions (whatever these may have been) but instead owes a lot to Western gymnastics and other physical culture techniques. Yoga has also been cross-fertilised with Indian nationalism and New Age spirituality. Read more

Book review: The Closing of the Western Mind, by Charles Freeman

This book covers much the same ground historically as the author's later book A New History of Christianity, although its time span is wider, starting with Plato and Aristotle and ending with Thomas Aquinas. And rather than being purely descriptive, Freeman wants to advance a thesis,which he summarises at the outset like this.

We begin by returning to ancient Greece and exploring in particular how reason became established as an intellectual force in western culture. Then we can see how Christianity, under the influence of Paul's denunciation of Greek philosophy, began to create the barrier between science - and rational thought in general - and religion that appears to be unique to Christianity. Far from the rise of science challenging the concept of God (as is often assumed by protagonists in the debate) it was Christianity that actively challenged a well-established and sophisticated tradition of scientific thinking.

The first seven chapters present a survey of events and ideas in the ancient world before the advent of Christianity. The classical period in Greece was followed by Hellenism after the conquests of Alexander; then came the establishment of the Roman empire with its absorption of many Greek ideas. All these periods were characterised by plenty of intellectual activity. Christianity was to bring about a major change, although not immediately. Freeman's book is intended to explain how this came about. Read more