Some books I enjoyed and use as inspiration for writing! 😃
I take detailed notes from every book and paper I read in Roam and often draw mindmaps in ViewYourMind. They are an incredible resource for my creative output. Some people have asked me whether I sell access to this database, which I’m considering. So let me know if you’re interested (you can get in touch by replying to a newsletter).
Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought by Jonathan Rauch. Social epistemology studies who determines truth, by what criteria do they do so, and how those conceptions have changed over time. This wonderful 1993 (!) book got me hooked on the subject, and is as relevant as ever in today’s times of both left-wing and right-wing illiberalism.
Democracy and Truth: A Short History by Sophia Rosenfeld. Even if truth in a democracy has always been up for grabs, and we’ve always had politicians use fake news, that still raises the question of whether we require some fundamental baseline of truth to have an actual democracy. Read this book if you want to know the answer.
The Story of Us by Tim Urban. Not technically out as a physical book yet, but whatever. A magnificent explanation of many technical social epistemology concepts such as the constitution of knowledge, the Overton window, the marketplace of ideas – with drawings!
Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich. ‘Truth Decay’ is a couple things: an ncreasing disagreement over basic foundational beliefs, a blurring of the line between opinion and fact, the increasing relative influence of opinions and emotions over facts, and declining trust in experts and society’s central information-gathering and -disseminating institutions. This (somewhat scholarly) report has an interesting analysis of these four trends, drivers, historical context, and likely consequences.
True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo. What I took away most from this book is how cognition research about selective exposure, selective perception, naive realism, and the like, helps explain why people accept different facts. (Not just societal trends or people losing interest in truth.)
Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game (Key Issues in Modern Sociology) by Steve Fuller. This book is very academic, and hard to follow at times. Nevertheless, Fuller makes a compelling argument for why we should see post-truth as a battle over the conditions under which under which a knowledge claim can be true or false. Not just – as the Oxford English Dictionary defined post-truth when it declared it as word of the year for 2016 – as something like “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
How we know things
The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. I really enjoyed this (long) book. A lot of puzzles surrounding why we believe what we do dissolve once you see knowledge as fundamentally communal rather than individual. (Many remaining puzzles about human beliefs get an interesting twist once you realize that we have most of our beliefs not for their truth value, but for how others react to us for having those beliefs. See The Elephant in The Brain below.)
Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe by Hugo Mercier. Great debunking of the the narrative of widespread gullibility, in which a credulous public is easily misled by demagogues, charlatans and fake news.
How Do You Know? The Economics of Ordinary Knowledge by Russell Hardin. How do people come to know or believe what they do? Most of our knowledge depends on testimony, and is grounded in hearsay from a supposedly credible source which we can no longer remember. For knowledge, use is what matters to most us most of the time, apart from when we might be doing science or philosophy. Truth might happen to be a part of what some bit of knowledge useful, but it need not actually be a part of what makes for usefulness.
Cognitive science and rationality
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. The classic. Huge, thorough book. Especially liked chapter 5, about how cognitive ease is our proxy for truth. But of course, whether a statement feels true to us is determined by other factors – Kahneman mentions repeated exposure to the statement, the clarity of its display, whether we’re primed, and our mind – than whether the statement accurately describes reality. Truthiness is not evidence.
The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler. The title is misleading. It’s way less pop-psychy and more ‘deep’ than you’d think. Beliefs aren’t often in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of of the underlying incentives, which are frequently about social usefulness rather than accuracy.
Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking by Richard Nisbett. “Once you have the knack of framing real-world problems as statistical ones and coding their elements in such a way that statistical principles can be applied, those principles seem to pop up magically to help you solve a given problem.” My girlfriend still has to get used to my language when I ask about her sample size of observations after she tells me of her new coworkers peculiar personality.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. Our intuitions don’t tell us when we ought to stop relying on them. Being biased and being unbiased feel the same. On the other hand, as behavioral economist Ariely notes in this book: we’re predictably irrational. We screw up in the same ways, again and again, systematically. If we can’t use our gut to figure out when we’re succumbing to a cognitive bias, we may still be able to use the sciences of mind.
He who does not trust, cannot know
Reputation: What It Is and Why It Matters by Gloria Origgi. Italian philosopher argues that we are experiencing a fundamental paradigm shift in our relationship to knowledge. From the ‘information age’, we are moving towards the ‘reputation age’, in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others. This is because the greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it. What makes this paradoxical is that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous, but renders us more dependent on expert judgments regarding the information with which we are faced.
Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – and How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David Freedman. A little bit too American at times, but does a good job of building John Ioannidis‘ work.
Don’t be Fooled: A Philosophy of Common Sense by Jan Bransen. This book has a great way of showing how most properties we care about (such as ethical, mental, and legal ones) are response-dependent, and so their correct criteria of application have to be reflexively determined by all of us, and are not ‘out there’ to be discovered by scientists. The book also worries that we’re loosing our “investigative attitude”, since we’re discouraging people from exercising their individual judgement, given the increasing normative weight invested in expertise. The result is that we are breeding a culture of intellectual deference. Ostensibly, this constrasts with the increasing popularity of conspiracy theories.
Inadequate Equilibria: Where and How Civilizations Get Stuck by Eliezer Yudkowsky. This is probably the book that taught me the most the last couple of years. This little gem is many things. It’s about a generalized notion of efficient markets, and how we can use this notion to guess where society will or won’t be effective at pursuing some widely desired goal. And about the question of when you should trust social consensus versus your own reasoning. Surely you could only do so if certain conditions held – but could you trust your own opinion about whether those conditions hold? And so we we come back to the core hard question in the rationality of disagreement: how can you tell if you are neglecting key signs about your (lack of) meta-rationality? The book is quite complex, but very good and entertaining (it includes a chapter-long hilarious fictional dialogue and dramatic personal examples).
The Great Endarkenment: Philosophy for an Age of Hyperspecialization by Elijah Millgram. Fascinating exploration of the consequences of hyperspecialization, and how the division of labor in the production of knowledge requires acceptance on faith of what others have come to know. Does that mean the Enlightenment ideal of intellectual autonomy is officially outdated? (The book gets quite niche towards the end.)
Capitalist Realism: Is There no Alternative? by Mark Fisher. Makes some interesting observations, but a little too much Žižek, not enough finesse, and too much crude overgeneralizations from idiosyncratic examples of arcane cinema. Only one line that stood out to me, on the relationship between mental illness and capitalism: “The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. All mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation.” (The books by Elliott and Verhaeghe, see below, touch on the same theme.)
Books of knowledge
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. According to many, this is the best non-fiction book ever written. I don’t disagree. If you make the effort to understand all the mathematics in here (there were days when I only read like three pages an hour because I was busy doing the maths, and the book has 777 pages, so go figure), this masterpiece makes for an amazing journey.
Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets & Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Taleb. Is The Incerto – Taleb’s collection of non-fiction works, philosophy? Economics? Finance? Statistics? Complexity? What they are, is really good. They are a stream of consciousness on how to think properly about what is happening around you.
Factfulness by Hans Rosling. The important message of this book is that the world is generally better off than we think. Using example after example, Rosling shows that we are working our way out of poverty, overcoming long-held myths about population, education, health, longevity, and more. Also be sure to watch his amazing TED talks.
Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away by Rebecca Goldstein. Cool dialogues, fun to read. There is, among some scientists, the sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see, because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. It’s obvious to us, for example, that things like class and gender and religion and ethnicity don’t matter insofar as individual rights go. That would never have occurred to Plato.
History & Future
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Like almost everyone, I loved this book. Especially its combination of stories and data. The core premise that homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights sounded controversial at first, but makes a lot of sense when you think about it.
Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond. Some environments provide more starting materials and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions and building societies than other environments. Geography is the is most important factor that shaped how history unfolded across the world. As for societies, so for individuals: in explaining behavior, situational factors are often more important than dispositions. Too bad we often tail to notice these influences.
Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World by Rutger Bregman. Universal basic income. A 15-hour workweek. Open borders. Eradicating poverty. Exciting and inspiring argument for such ideas.
Outliers, Blink, The Tipping Point, & David and Goliath, all by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell is very entertaining to read. Especially imprressive how he selects his anecdotes from a wide range of sources and diverse locales and weaves them into a coherent narrative arch that also teached you something about society.
Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson. The idea that a large portion of the human mind is unconscious was Freud’s greatest insight. But, thankfully, the modern adaptive unconscious is not the same as a the psychoanalytic one. The most important thing to know about the unconscious has nothing to do with suppressed sexual desires. It’s that it’s terrific at solving certain kinds of problems that the conscious mind handles poorly if at all, because it registers vastly more environmental information than the conscious mind could possibly notice. Indeed, most of cognition consists of intuitive thought that occurs below the surface of consciousness: although it feels like we have access to the workings of our minds, for the most part we don’t. Which is why it’s wise to doubt what I and others say about the causes of their judgments and behaviors.
We Are Our Brains: From the Womb to Alzheimer’s by Dick Schwaab. This book made a big splash here in the Netherlands at the time. It argues that everything we think, do and refrain from doing is determined by our brain. But, thankfully, nothing much follows from this. People’s choices are determined by physics, but by physics that includes the actions of human beings. Physics underlies our decisions and includes our decisions. It does not explain them away.
Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World by Sam Sommers. Interesting to contrast this approach with any neurological determinism you come across. Try it for yourself!
The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do by Judith Rich Harriss. The reason I tell my girlfriend that it doesn’t really matter that much how you raise your kids as long as you don’t really screw it up.
Happiness & Well-being
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Not at all new-agey or shallow, as the title might suggest. The very helpful insights on affective forecasting, hedonic adaptation, the ‘psychological immune system’ forever changed how I approach my own happiness.
The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science by Jonathan Haidt. I adore the genre of philosophy-mixed-with-science books. Every culture rests on a bedrock of folk wisdom handed down through generations. The pronouncements of philosophers are homespun by our grandmothers, and find their way into our common sense: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Happiness comes from within. But are these ‘truths’ really true?
Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream by Carl Elliott. When the science of our brains is finished, we could control which desires, needs and wants we have to begin with. If man is just a bag of chemicals, once we know what these chemicals are, we can re-mix them at will. And by re-mixing them at will we can give ourselves whatever character we like. But if we can choose a character and desires at random, what shall we use as grounds for taking any decision? It’s not a coincidence the end of Sapiens (see above) reads: “Since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, perhaps the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.”
What about Me? The Struggle for Identity in A Market-Based Society by Paul Verhaeghe. I sometimes worry about the heavy burden on recent generations of young people to strive against one another under the auspices of meritocracyand under the watchful eye of increasingly demanding parents. As Alain de Botton says: “I think we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods.” One problem with this way of thinking is that there’s a lot of randomness in the ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ process: accidents, genes, location of birth, illnesses, lucky coincidences, et cetera. (See also Fooled by Randomness above)
The Happiness Industry by William Davies. I wrote my one of my two MA theses on the similarities and differences between how Aristotle and the field of positive psychology view happiness. The question of under what conditions measures of happiness or life satisfaction, understood as subjectively experienced mental states, can serve as proxies for well-being still interests me greatly. This book deals with it, although I did not particularly like it. Many of arguments are too quick and some are quite ad hominem. They give the impression that the author thinks he can get good information about a technical debate just by psychoanalyzing the personalities involved.
On What Matters by Derek Parfit. I’ve almost completed a dissertation in meta-ethics, so I figured I’d include a few books on the topic. Parfit’s book is the one I enjoyed most, because of its clear arguments and personal touch. That said, some things are really, very arcane and I think his meta-ethics is borderline incoherent.
The Sources of Normativity by Christine Korsgaard. Forcefully asks what justifies the claims morality makes on us? In some sense, an answer to this question can be found in What We Owe to Each Other by Tim Scanlon (which you might know from The Good Place (one of my favorite shows)). Perhaps it’s constitutive of any moral sytem that it’s composed of principles that no one could reasonably reject.
Ruling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning by Simon Blackburn. This book is less abstract than the two above. For Blackburn, an ethical proposition is essentially an expression of our attitudes, rather than an expression of belief. Despite this non-cognitivism, he also wants to insist that the expressive nature of the moral proposition does not stop us from acknowledging that it can be legitimately true or false. Both ideas seem wrong to me.
Ethical Intuitionism by Michael Huemer. In my PhD research, I investigate what the world must be like for things to matter, and for acts to be right or wrong. Non-naturalists such as Huemer claim that the fundamental level of reality (also) contains ontologically basic moral facts, which are independent of human minds and make things be right and wrong. On this view, moral facts are so-called non-natural ones, meaning (roughly) that they are fundamentally different from any facts of a kind that would ever be studied in science. In the largest part of my dissertation, I argue that we have no reason to believe there are any such non-natural facts, and we could not know about them even if they existed. (Taking Morality Seriously by David Enoch is another good (albeit wrongheaded) book defending non-naturalism (hence wrongheaded)).
Choosing Normative Concepts by Matti Eklund. Argues, I think rightly, that meta-ethical non-naturalism can’t address the worry while there may indeed be ways it’s right to live, for example, there may also be ways it’s right* to live, ways it’s right** to live, and so on, where these variant terms or concepts just ascribe different properties to actions, and do so in way that bottoms out in ultimate parity, with nothing to decide between them—except, of course, trivially for each in its own terms. Norms were made for man, not man for the norms. Pair this with the novelle Three Worlds Collide.
- Oogklepdenken: Waarom Iedereen Altijd Gelijk Heeft door Ruben Mersch. Heel leuk en knap geschreven. Goede expositie van de literatuur over waarom de meningen hebben die we niet werken. Ook mooie introductie over Bayes.
Kinderen van Apathe: Over leugens en waarachtigheid door Alicja Gescinska. Het essay voor de Maand van de Filosofie 2020, die als thema ‘Het uur van de waarheid’ heeft. Gaaf dat de Maand van de Filosofie dit jaar aandacht besteedt aan een thema dat te maken heeft met de publieksfilosofie die ik zo leuk vind. Interessante analyse van de dynamiek tussen relativisme en dogmatisme in de uitspraak ‘ieder zijn waarheid’. Daarnaast een terechte nadruk op wat Bernard Williams “truthfulness” noemt, dat het post-truth tijdperk ook vooral gekenmerkt wordt in een afname in waarachtigheid en onze interesse in waarheid.
Het Grote Niets: Waarom we te veel vertrouwen hebben in de wetenschap door Rosanne Hertzberger. Goed overzicht van problemen en misbruik van de wetenschap waardoor het geen toeval is dat de meeste gepubliceerde onderzoeken onwaar zijn (dat wil zeggen, ze claimen een niet-bestaand ‘effect’ te hebben ‘gevonden’), zoals we nu zien met de replicatiecrisis. Soms is dit boek kort door de bocht. In een middagje uitlezen.
Het Volk in de Grot: Waarom mensen geen feiten willen door René ten Bos. Enkele scherpe observaties over de morele waarde van de waarheid, en de waarde van feiten in het sociale verkeer. Net wat te veel minder interessante stukken.
Waarom vuilnismannen meer verdienen dan bankiers door Rutger Bregman en Jesse Frederik. Roept goede vragen op over de manier waarop wij ons geld verdelen.
Moeten wij van elkaar houden? Het populisme ontleed door Bas Heijne. Overtuigend betoog er is te weinig ruimte voor discussie binnen het klassiek linkse discours. Grappig om te realizeren dat die druk richting ideologische conformiteit tien jaar later (we hebben nu cancel culture) alleen maar is toegenomen. Net als Ten Bos hierboven zet ook Heijne zich trouwens af tegen het neerkijken op de hang naar gemeenschap, naar identiteit, naar een verschil tussen wij en zij, naar niet van iedereen houden. Boeiend boek! (Soms is het alleen een beetje te veel zijn eigen oude columns aan elkaar knopen.)