Book Review: A Brief History of Thought

Luc Ferry’s A Brief History of Thought recently caught my eye as I wandered through the library. The book promised a brief summary of human thought and its evolution across significant historical epochs within a meager volume of pages. Who wouldn’t wish to entertain such a prospect?

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The book’s strength is in Ferry’s ability to summarize various complicated worldviews with such simplicity, and conciseness. While I can’t call upon an extensive knowledge of philosophy to critique Ferry’s work, I certainly identified my share of agreements and disagreements with the opinions and perspectives proposed in the book. In this review, I will summarize Ferry’s claims and arguments, which while insightful and highly educational, personally, fell short of convincing by the final pages.

Ferry begins by addressing the question at the heart of human existence, a quest for salvation (an answer to the mystery that is death), which he identifies to be the vital aspect of every philosophical system. Characterizing philosophy as more than an act of reasoning and logic, Ferry asserts that philosophy is also a measure of human thought that “claims to save us – if not from death itself, then from the anxiety it causes, and to do so by the exercise of our own resources and our innate faculty of reason.”

From there on, Ferry uses this argument as a guide to expound his views and perspectives on the various philosophical movements that have spanned the history of human thought: Stoicism, Christianity, Humanism, Postmodernism (Nietzsche), and Contemporary philosophy (post-Nietzsche). The book flows smoothly from one time period to another while providing an effective summary of the relevant aspects of each philosophical movement. By the end of each chapter, the reader is able to identify the questions and answers that serve as the foundation for the consecutive movement.

We are first acquainted with the Greeks and their establishment of Stoicism, the representation of the world as a perfect cosmos, an ordered logos where transcendence and immanence are united; a cause that the human strives to be a reflection of.

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Cosmos refers to the explicit complexity, and perfection of the external universe. Logos defines the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, providing it order and meaning.

The impersonal  approach towards death and salvation in Stoicism is rectified by Christianity where the human is the focal point of the argument. Unlike in Stoic reflections, salvation is personalized through the evocative belief  in a Son of God, a motion towards “love in God,” promising fulfillment and an immortality where we maintain our personal identities.

The foundations upon which both Stoicism and Christianity rested soon come crashing down with the advent of science. Modern physics reveals “an infinite chaos devoid of sense; a field of forces and objects jostling for place without harmony.”

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Thus, mankind is once again alone in a cosmos void of a logos or god of any kind. Reality is marked by chaos. The Stoic measure for study or contemplation and the Christian revelation fall flat against the ensuing chaos.

The human is once again the focal point of the argument, but this time, “it was going to require man himself…to introduce some order into a universe which seemed no longer to offer any of its own.” Man’s ability to devise a personal history distinguishes him from his animal brethren resulting in a Humanism that takes the reigns in a movement where humans forge the history of the world through the ideals and laws we invent to judge our actions and their consequences. Nevertheless, humanism stumbles in offering a solution to our quest for salvation, leading to a well-defined struggle that lasts to this day between the various pantheons of human thought.

The cycle doesn’t end here as we alight upon the arrival of Nietzsche and Postmodernism. Nietzsche dismissed both science and religion. His critical deconstruction of the conventional philosophies of the time focused on their inseparable similarity that adhered to a disregarding of the essence of life, and instead building metaphysical constructs/ideals to allow the human to find “salvation” or a purpose.

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“People don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

All of which Nietzsche believed was nothing more than a lie, a negation of life from what it essentially is by supplanting it with transcendental ideas of god, and the ideal human being. Nietzsche’s nihilism would fuel his famous ideas for the “will to power,” an attempt for control in a deconstructed universe by the self physically, emotionally, and also morally.

Ferry concludes his work by providing an assessment of modern day Contemporary philosophy in the wake of the revolutionary movements summarized above. This concerns a world where there is no longer a universal meaning towards human existence, but rather an incessant and a seemingly directionless promotion of progress for the sake of progress, a morose form of materialism.

In conclusion, Ferry provides a wonderful and enlightening primer on the various philosophical attitudes that span the history of human thought. I would certainly recommend this book for any philosophy enthusiast. The reader gets a taste of the major aspects of Western philosophy over the vast vista of time. Nevertheless, the  fact that the book is a philosophical overview for a mass audience makes it a tough prospect in accurately capturing the more subtle facets of the various philosophies discussed. While this can be seen as a weakness, it is also a strength, as it will drive the interested reader to learn more about the topics involved (it did for me). Though Ferry himself stumbles in deriving a clear answer to the human quest for “salvation,” his work succeeds in emphasizing the significance of said journey in that it is defining of our very humanity, and individual spirit. In that vein, A Brief History of Thought is a wonderful journey in itself.

 

Getting Fired Up!!

Hi everyone, here’s a quick update!

The last few weeks have been intense, and I’ve been quite busy. Having finally completed the proofreading for my second book, I’m now all set to move into the production phase, beginning with some illustrations.

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All art begins with imitation, and as such I have spent the last week pouring over a compendium of images, and ideas I had contemplated for this stage. While progress has been slow (thanks to my perfectionist ideals), I look forward to getting the book out by this fall.

In the meantime,  I also recently finished the three-part series covering various facets on the phenomenon of climate change. The first entry was posted almost a month back on June 25, 2017. Little did I know then that in the days to follow I would successfully secure a research topic for my PhD addressing the very issue I was writing about on my blog. As of now, I have begun my “doctoral” adventures focusing on interdisciplinary research involving “semiconductor mediated artificial photosynthesis…”

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In simple terms, my research will involve studying, and creating technologies to assist in the mitigation of steadily increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, a major global scientific challenge of the 21st century. Carbon capture is an important issue in the context of climate change as well as the looming global energy crisis; my research, will take inspiration from nature, namely the process of natural photosynthesis (the chemical reaction at the basis of life), and mimic the same behavior through electro-mechanical systems of higher efficiency, or “artificial photosynthesis.” If I were to exaggerate slightly, it would be the same as planting artificial trees that are consistently more efficient in helping recycle the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Having spent the last few days reading an assortment of research papers on this topic, and looking like this for the most part of it,

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I’m hoping to put my brain to good use, and to a certain measure, come up with something awesome during my degree, so that one day I could celebrate like this,

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Beyond all this research business, I still intend to keep up to date with my blog despite my busy schedule. In that vein, my next post will be a book review on Luc Ferry’s,

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I’ve also decided to move along from my extensive summaries on Carl Sagan’s “Dragons of Eden.” Instead, I will provide a rich synopsis of the remainder of the book, while skipping on the gory details. This way I can encourage you, my readers, to read the book itself while not giving away the majority of its contents.

So when all is said and done,  I’m fired up for what’s to come in the next few months.

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The Pensive Reverie will also continually evolve as I intend to implement a few minor, but significant changes in its content organization. Once again, I thank you all for your patience. The next post should be up very soon!

 

 

Climate Change – Part III – What can be done?

With the veritable amount of evidence that has been laid out before us, why is it that people aren’t concerned about global warming? Despite scientific consensus on the subject, some people think global warming isn’t happening at all. There are several reasons for this, and they cover various overlying and conflicting themes on global communication, and an incentive towards environmental action.

Beginning with the common lay-person, a popular speculation is formulated in the form of this question: If simple forecasts can’t get next week’s weather right, how is it that we can trust the predictions that have been made on the basis for decades or centuries from now?

The answer to this is quite simple, and once again highlights the necessity towards scientific communication, and public education. Weather and climate are not the same. Weather relates to individual, and day-to-day changes in the atmosphere; climate is the statistical average of such changes. Weather is short-term, and of a chaotic nature, thus making it inherently unpredictable beyond a few days. Meanwhile, climate is long-term average weather, controlled by the composition of the atmosphere, and is thus more predictable on the time-scales considered.  A simple analogy is provided at the Climate Communication website,

While it is impossible to predict the age at which any particular man will die, we can say with high confidence that the average age of death for men in industrialized countries is about 75. The individual is analogous to weather, whereas the statistical average is analogous to climate.

Stepping beyond the individual, we encroach upon a global dialogue between, and within political and scientific institutions. While most scientists recognize the phenomenon that is global warming, there still remain a few who believe that there is nothing to be worried about. The latter argue that the Earth is more resistant to climate change than proposed. Many of the consequential changes are, in their opinion, not disastrous, and that cutting down the emission of greenhouse gases may result in economic damage far more potent than any of the effects of global warming.

The uncertainty that exists within the scientific community has been carried over to the political realm. Skeptics use it to argue for postponing action, while contenders point out that there are various other facets of life that require action in the face of uncertainty, such as buying health insurance. The IPCC has also pointed out that confronting a large-scale task such as climate change will not occur in an economic dissolution. As quoted from the 2014 report by the IPCC’s Working Group III,

Climate policy intersects with other societal goals, creating the possibility of co-benefits or adverse side effects. These intersections, if well-managed, can strengthen the basis for undertaking climate action.

Ultimately, what can we do about it? It isn’t possible to simply “stop” climate change. Even if we turned off every fuel-burning machine on Earth, the planet would warm at least another 0.5 degrees Celsius as the climate adjusts to the greenhouse gases that already have been emitted. Nevertheless, progressing toward the future, we can still make efforts in decreasing activities that may help propagate and positively reinforce global warming.

On a local level, we can do this basically by not using as much of the stuff that creates greenhouse gases as well as using less energy. Electricity governs much of the modern world, and much of the electricity that operates many of the devices in our homes comes from a power plant, which most likely burns fossil fuels to generate that power. The simple action of turning off lights when they are not in use, and using a fan or an air-conditions only when necessary can help. Similar initiatives can be taken in the view of using public transportation, efficient recycling and waste management, reforestation etc. Beyond all of this, we need to develop non-fossil fuel energy sources. Hydro-electric power, solar power, hydrogen engines, and fuel cells could help in this initiative towards a global change in energy sources.

In conclusion, much of this is easier said than done but that doesn’t mean we should give up. Given the global nature of the climate problem, we all have a hand in contributing to the solution, and in confronting the necessary alternatives and options we must also be willing to face agreements and disagreements in faith of positive communication. The real power to enact significant change rests in the hands of those who devise national and global policies. International and scientific collaboration on technology sharing, effective communication and education of the public supplemented by an efficient transition toward alternative, and green-energy initiatives would help make a difference in the long run.

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The environment’s role in our survival, and the importance of its preservation is common sense. There is nothing wrong in creating a better world. We have a moral responsibility in protecting and handing the planet over to the next generation. 

Climate Change – Part II – Consequential Symptoms

The Symptoms

So far, we have had a taste of the basic science behind climate change or global warming. Now, it’s time to look at the consequences. Let’s dive right in.

There is a lot that is happening now which may serve as prelude to what may happen in the future. Briefly, the major consequences of global warming would involve: extreme heat (a warmer Earth), extensive floods and droughts (but not everywhere), a big melt (say goodbye to glaciers), rising oceans and stormy weather (friendly neighborhood hurricanes and other storms), as well as ravaged ecosystems and agriculture (a price for life inclusive of all species on Earth).

Rising Temperatures 

Much of the effects of global warming comes down to discussing the effects of an average rise in the planet’s temperature. Remember, small changes in climate can equate to major effects around the world.  The “Ice Age” was caused by an average drop of just 5 degrees Celsius over a time period of thousands of years. So, what can we say about the opposite scenario? What will happen in the Earth’s average temperatures increases a few degrees in just a few hundred years?

Graph of global mean temperature from 1880 to 2009 (NASA).

Note the shorter time span. Why? Well, as humans, we have had quite the impact on the planet. Picking up around the era of industrialization, we have come far, and in our development, we have meted out a measurable influence in the biosphere. Global warming is a significant increase in the Earth’s climatic temperature over a short period of time due to human activity. We are living in the Anthropocene epoch (the term itself is yet to be deemed official).  The largest human influence has been the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, thanks to the heavy utilization of fossil fuels.

This is a big deal. To put things in perspective, natural changes in climate would follow rises, and falls in temperature amounting to 1 degree Celsius over thousands of years. The Earth’s climate can change due to volcanic activity, plant life, solar radiation, and atmospheric chemistry. Significant evidence from the IPCC now shows our role in accelerating these changes over shorter time periods.

Glaciers and Ice Shelves 

One of the most publicized effects of global warming is the melting of glaciers and ice shelves. This is quite a problem as ice plays a prominent role in reflecting solar radiation away from Earth. Thus, the loss of large surfaces areas of ice could accelerate global warming. The chain of effects, mentioned earlier, pretty much follow in response.

An immediate result of melting glaciers would be the rise in sea levels. As glaciers  melt, they are adding to the water already in the Earth’s oceans. While the rise in sea level may be modest, amounting to an inch or two, this can still cause various problems, namely the flooding of low-lying coastal areas. The scenario is particularly dire if the West Antarctic Ice sheet were to melt. This would push sea levels up to 10 meters, and many coastal areas would completely disappear.

Research predictions indicate rising sea levels up to 22 inches by the year 2100. As of now, the main big melt is occurring in the North Pole where the ice is not as nearly thick as at the South Pole. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the possibility of a summation of gradual increases in temperature to slowly, but surely, affect all corners of the planet.

A poster child for the consequences of climate change, the nation of Maldives is facing a rise in sea levels and the bleaching of its coral reefs. 

The Age of Storms

With a rise in the overall temperature of the ocean, tropical storms and hurricanes will increase in force. This is most evident in the North Atlantic where ocean temperatures have risen through long-term warming, and the cyclical nature of Atlantic currents. Think of it as a cyclic storm generator. In fact, the tropics as a whole are experiencing a general trend towards ocean warming that follows global warming.

Now, despite these projected trends, one cannot tie any single devastating hurricane or other weather event directly to global warming. This was a popular opinion when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. While the devastation, and damage caused to the city were horrible, it is well understood that Katrina’s impact also takes into consideration the storm’s track, the weaknesses of levees, and many other factors. Nonetheless, the verdict is that for the storms to come in the future, there will be an overall strengthening of winds and rainfall.

A Changing of the Seasons 

While global warming will cause a certain lengthening of the seasons, its most devastating effects, the ones that are most difficult to predict, involve its impact on the world’s biosphere. Changing seasons may benefit certain parts of the world, while other temperate parts of the world would face long droughts, and a general decrease in precipitation.

This will be particularly influential to the ecosystems that currently thrive on the planet. Ecosystems are delicate, and even the slightest change can kill off several species. Furthermore, ecosystems are interconnected, and so what may begin as a simple symptom may develop into a chain reaction that will ravage the biosphere.

Mapping vulnerability and conservation adaptation strategies under climate change   James E. M. Watson, Sept 2013 Nature 

Life, in essence, will once again become a competition revolved around a species’ ability to adapt to the shifts in climate, though it is highly likely that many will become extinct. The most drastic example of change, in light of global warming, is actually displayed on the documentary Planet Earth where we are shown how the tundra in Northern Canada has turned mostly to forest.

Last, but not least, much of this will have a human cost. It is hard to quantify the exact amount but we can expect a greater number of medical occurrences involving heat-strokes, and other heat related trauma. Poor, and underdeveloped nations will suffer the worst effects as they do not have the financial resources to deal with the problems that follow. Prolonged droughts may lead to desertification of areas, and widespread starvation. Decreasing precipitation would limit crop growth, and coastal flooding would result in a spread of water-borne illnesses. All in all, the world’s economy will take a wallop, and so will the condition of life on Earth.

It Does Not Compute!

So, after all is said and done, why is it that some people still aren’t concerned about global warming? Despite a scientific consensus on the subject, many believe global warming to be a farce. In Part III, we shall bring this discussion series on climate change to a conclusion by addressing quite possibly the two most crucial elements of the crisis: communication, and the incentive towards action.