The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

May 2, 2011 · Posted in Blog, Book Reviews · Comment 

Reviewers are talking about Sam Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape, available from Amazon.  Harris’ first book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason attacked religion ( see my discussion of it here) but in this book he is preposing science as a source for ethics. This sounds like Harris might be a naturalist, but he doesn’t think morality is directly measurable in that way, but rather that morality is linked to wellbeing and wellbeing can be grounded in measurable things.  He discusses it in Radio 4s Start the Week, available here.  It’s on my reading list.

David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

April 24, 2011 · Posted in Blog, Book Reviews · Comment 

Eagleman was recently interviewed on Andrew Marr’s Start the Week (  In his new book ‘Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain’ he explores the brain and presents, in an accessible way if the reviews are to be believed, his case that decisions are made by the brain all the time and that we are usually not aware of the reasons for the decision.

“In a recent experiment, men were asked to rank how attractive they found photographs of different women’s faces. The photos were 8 x 10 inches, and showed women facing the camera, or turned in three-quarter profile. Unbeknownst to the men, in half the photos the women had their eyes dilated, and in the other half they did not. The men were consistently more attracted to the women with dilated eyes. Remarkably, the men had no insight into their decision making. None of them said, “I noticed her pupils were 2 millimeters larger in this photo than in the other one.” Instead, they simply felt more drawn toward some women than toward others, for reasons they couldn’t quite put a finger on.

But their choices weren’t accidental. In the largely inaccessible workings of the brain, somethingknew that a woman’s dilated eyes correlates with sexual excitement and readiness. Their brains knew this, but the men didn’t—at least not explicitly. Presumably, the men also didn’t know that their sense of beauty and attraction is deeply hard-wired, steered in the right direction by programs carved by millions of years of natural selection. When the men were choosing the most attractive woman, they didn’t know that the choice was not theirs, really, but instead the choice of successful programs that had been burned down deep into the brain’s circuitry over the course of millions of years and hundreds of thousands of generations.”  (page 6)

Read more here:

For philosophers and politicians the question here is if our decisions are largely made by our brains, rather than ‘us’ (and by us we mean the conscious self) to what extent are they free and therefore to what extent can we be blamed for our choices, for example to commit crimes. Eagleman thinks this is the wrong question to think about.  The right question is what to do with an individual who has done something, in the light of the brain that they have.  He thinks that punishments should be individualised to the particular individual, rather than universalised.  If human judgments are the result of the particular developments of the brain caused by decades of experience  and inherited genes, the important thing to do is work out what needs to be done to that individual to prevent a repeat of the offence.  It is simply not a question of moral responsibility which is something Eagleman finds mysterious and perhaps inaccessible.    Eagleman is not a hard determinist in that he believes there is some space for free action, but it is a small space.

This leaves questions for religious systems that place a lot of importance on moral responsibility, such as those that consider ‘sin’ an important feature or karma.  Eagleman’s work is based on neuroscience, not theology, but surely theology must respond to these new understandings of our brain operations?

You can buy the book here:

Puzzle of God by Peter Vardy

February 28, 2010 · Posted in Book Reviews · Comment 

The Puzzle of God
By Peter Vardy (FOUNT:UK,1990)
ISBN 0 00 599223 – 0

Peter Vardy was described by Theology as “a gifted communicator. He is the best popularizer of philosophy of religion currently working in Britain.”. This book provides a readable introduction to the Philosophy of religion covering all the classic arguments and discussions. There are questions for each section and a reading. It is suitable for A Level and should be considered for your class sets.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy by Honderich

January 28, 2010 · Posted in Book Reviews · Comments Off on The Oxford Companion to Philosophy by Honderich 

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy

edited by Ted Honderich (OUP:Oxford, 1996)

ISBN 0-19-866132-0

The Observer described it as “that rarest on things: a philosophical work that is genuinely entertaining … by far the best – and best value – philosophical reference book on the market.” Another excellent contribution to the reference shelf.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers by Urmson et al

January 28, 2010 · Posted in Book Reviews · Comments Off on The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers by Urmson et al 

The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers

Ed J.O. Urmson & Jonathan Ree (Routledge, London, 1991)

ISBN 0415078830

An alternative paperback dictionary of philosophy with readable definitions, adequate for students and teachers who don’t want to splash out on the more expensive titles.

Philosophy in practice by Morton

January 28, 2010 · Posted in Book Reviews · Comments Off on Philosophy in practice by Morton 

Philosophy in practice, an introduction to the main questions

by Adam Morton, (BLACKWELL: Oxford, 1996)

A very different kind of introductory philosophy textbook, focussing on activities rather than simply theories. It is very well suited to A Level teachers and students and makes for interesting lessons as it is activity based. As each chapter progresses easy explanations move on to harder ones with activities sewn into the progression.

A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion by Quinn et al.

January 28, 2010 · Posted in Book Reviews · Comments Off on A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion by Quinn et al. 

A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion

Edited by Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro

(BLACKWELLS, Oxford, 1997)

ISBN 0-631-21328-7

An essential addition to the Reference shelf for teachers with articles from many authors on all the mian topics.

How to Understand God by Morin

January 28, 2010 · Posted in Book Reviews · Comments Off on How to Understand God by Morin 

How to Understand God

by Dominque Morin (SCM Press: London, 1990)

ISBM 0-334-024-51-x

An excellent resource and candidate for class sets with chapters onteh Philosophical approach, the histiry of God, the influence of the modern world on images of God today, God and Science, Human freedom, proofs for the existence of God, and Evil. It has readable text on the topics and longer extracts from many key sources making it very valuable.

Philosophy of Religion by Richards

January 28, 2010 · Posted in Book Reviews · Comment 

Philosophy of Religion

By H J Richards (Heinemann:Oxford, 2000)

ISBN 0-435-30259-0

Designed to be accesible to students covering the key topics for Philsoohy of Religion this text book is a useful contribution inlcuding many short queotes from the classic thinkers, short texts introducing the main issues for all the classic topics. Chapters include God talk, the arguments for teh existence of God, the Nature of God, Religious Experience, Evil, Science, Miracles, The Afterlife, and the death of God. A useful book especially for starting off enquiries and very usefl at AS.

An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Davies

January 28, 2010 · Posted in Book Reviews · Comment 

An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion

By Brian Davies ( OPUS:Oxford, 1993)

ISBN 0 19 – 289235 – 5

Brian Davies’ introduction is a classic and an essential text and would make a good class textbook although it is aimed at the undergraduate level. 11 chapters cover talking about God, Evil, The Ontological argument the Cosmological argument, the argument from design, experience and God, eternity, morality and religion, miralce and life after death. There are chapter notes and an extensive bibliography. A definate teacher text and quite plausable Astudent text for more gifted pupils

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