Books : reviews

Stephen Law.
The Philosophy Files.
Dolphin. 2000

rating : 6 : unfinishable
review : 15 November 2013

Contains some of the most mind-blowing thoughts ever thought!

How do you know your parents aren’t virtual? Why does the universe exist? Could you become a robot? Is there a God?

Dip in and be amazed at philosophical puzzles as old as the hills and as topical as today! Get ready to encounter aliens, disembodied brains, virtual reality and even a talking pig.

The Philosophy Files is the brainchild of Stephen Law, a young philosophy lecturer from Oxford. It captures his infectious enthusiasm for thinking and arguing about some of the biggest questions of all.

I hesitate to review this with an “unfinishable” 6, since I realise that I am somewhat older than the target audience for this book. Also, I enjoy Law’s philosophy blog. However, I didn’t finish this book.

Written for teenagers, this discusses some of the big problems in philosophy. I read the first three files: Should I eat Meat? (on vegetarianism), How do I know the world isn’t virtual? (how can I tell if I am a brain in a vat?), and Where am I? (Am I my body, my brain, my soul, or something else?).

The book is very well written, amusingly illustrated, with an engaging style, discussing lots of pros and cons, providing no easy answers, and with the issues being personified in vivid memorable characters. This is the good bit.

However, I found some of the arguments a little unconvincing (and I don’t think this is some deliberate pedagogic ruse).

For example, in the meat-eating chapter (caveat: IANAV), the whole argument is about whether we should eat animals, yet no discussion is made of why that should be the line of interest. The argument is put forward that being speciesist is just as bigoted or prejudiced as being racist or sexist. However, simple speciesism can’t be the real point. Vegetarians eat plants: why isn’t is speciesist (or maybe “kingdomist”) to say that this is fine? What if we were instead to eat clay: why isn’t it “vitalist” not to condemn this? Clearly (clearly? always a dangerous word!) that line is drawn too far; not all species are equal. So why is the line that is drawn at animals not examined? I suspect that most people would think there’s a difference between eating a locust, a shrimp, a trout, a chicken, a rabbit, a sheep, a chimp, or a human – yet they are all animals. There seems to be a missed opportunity here, to go to an extreme in order to show that the position is different there, and then to discuss where the line should be, rather than pre-drawing some arbitrary line, and discuss with that as the given. (Not to mention the missed opportunity to rail against the drawing of crisp lines in what is essentially a continuum, either.)

Where am I? is engagingly written, but I think it has been handled better by Dennett in his identically titled chapter in Brainstorms (although being second best to Dennett is nothing to be ashamed of), and by science fiction writers such as Wil McCarthy in his Queendom of Sol series. The issue here is simultaneously going too far (with the trivial ease of the thought experiment) and not far enough (we are suspicious of new things, but once things become commonplace, our attitudes, and our philosophy, will almost certainly change). I found the conclusion particularly hard to believe: after having been teleporting around the galaxy for months unharmed, with perfect continuity of selfhood, why would you suddenly then decide that you weren’t you, after a short thought experiment? I'm not convinced (although maybe a philosopher would be!).

So, engagingly written, and thought provoking, but maybe not thought provoking enough? Still, as I said, I am not the target audience: if you are, you might well find this a good first step in thinking about twisty problems. I will try one of his other books.

Stephen Law.
The Outer Limits.
Dolphin. 2003

Travel to the Outer Limits with Stephen Law, and get to grips with some of the greatest mysteries of the universe!

Do you believe in flying saucers? Is time travel possible? Is it ever right to kill somebody? How do you think the world began?

In a text that sparkles with wit and ingenuity, Stephen Law argues each point of view and asks: What do YOU think?

A brilliant follow-up to The Philosophy Files, showing you just how to think your way out of the box.