Philosophy and the Real World, An Intro to Karl Popper by Bryan Magee

Sunday, June 29, 2008

There are two ways of interpreting this title: 1) Idiots guide to Karl Popper or 2) Short book for someone too lazy to actually read Karl Popper's works. Both are valid in this case. Karl Popper is an Austrian philosopher who spent the majority of his adult life in the UK. He is a philosopher on science whose main theories carry over into modern society as well. He was introduced to me (not physically) through the two books by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. Fooled by... is a book I highly recommend reading, Black Swan less so. Taleb is certainly a disciple of Popper. To learn more on Popper I decided to seek out a book introducing him to a layman like myself. I have read very little philosophy in my life for the simple reason that it puts me to sleep - and not in the metaphorical sense. I always held the belief that when the time was right philosophy would come to me because I was ready. I don't know if that time has come, but I did make it through this book without falling asleep (too much).

Popper's central argument revolves around the following example. It is not possible to make the observation statement "all swans are white" even if you have observed one thousand, ten thousand or one million white swans without seeing any other colored swans. However, it takes just seeing one black swan to derive the statement "not all swans are white". What I took from Popper was that in science you must look for problems, i.e. black swans instead of searching for occurrences that confirm your hypothesis. In this quest to falsify your findings is when true discovery happens. However, this is difficult for scientists and humans because being "right" just feels so damn good.

By seeking out the problems with your argument is the manner in which you strengthen it. Popper is a true believer in critical feedback stating that people should be eager to receive feedback on their work because it gives them the opportunity to truly improve upon it.

Being right feels good. Taleb in his two books takes this idea to the financial world and points out the problems this can cause. However, it also holds true in politics as well. There is growing concern of tribalism in America according to The Economist. As Norman Mailer said in an interview before the 2004 elections. "How is Bush going to win? I don't know one person voting for him." There is more and more tendency to surround ourselves with people who are more willing to confirm what you have to say instead of opposing it. This certainly may make for more peaceful dinner parties but it is not going to really spur interesting political debate.

Remaining on the subject of society and politics, it was Popper's argument that it is the government's role to minimize avoidable suffering. This falls in line with his overarching belief in addressing problems in order to arrive at improvements. It seems very practical to me. Seek out the low hanging fruit of societal suffering and make it better. He feels this to be the proper direction because it is impossible to determine what defines happiness but it is quite easy to know what makes people unhappy such as sleeping under a bridge or not having food to eat. It is interesting to think of the USA's protection of the endless pursuit of happiness.

I recommend this book. The ideas that are touched upon can be applied to business, society and science. So each person can take something from this introduction to Popper.


Awakenings by Oliver Sacks

I have never been very interested in science and more specifically medicine and have read few books on the subject. It is my impression that disease and medicine are fields that people seek knowledge about when they personally become effected by the subject matter. Fortunately, I have not been confronted with such at this point in my life. On a friends recommendation, I read Dr. Sacks' book. It is excellent.

Dr Sack's spent seven years working with patients effected with severe cases of Parkinson's disease. Over this time period he was responsible for administering the "miracle drug" LDOPA to the patients. He kept a journal on how each of these patients reacted to drug. The responses were incredible. Parkinson's is a terrible disease that left many of those affected in this book without the possibility to move or speak. Many were considered "living dead" for how severe they were afflicted. LDOPA immediately increased levels of mobility and speech. However, this is just one part of it and the amazing aspects of its effects are best left for the reader to discover. One interesting aspect was that LDOPA has a coming down phase I can only imagine is very similar to what illicit drug-users would experience as well.

The story of LDOPA is told through the individual journal entries of each of the patients. Yet this is only one component which makes this book so impressive. Sacks' writing style is exceptional when compared to any writer - even more so the case when recognizing that he is a medical doctor by trade. His ability to examine modern Western medicine as a whole adds an additional level of intrigue as does the way he intertwines the subject with philosophy.

His biggest concern with the direction we are taking in modern medicine is how doctors approach diagnosing a disease. What is lacking is a holistic approach in the process. Doctors must recognize that past experiences contributed in some way to the development of the disease. These experiances go back way before the patients "first symptom". A disease cannot be boxed and packaged and is never the same because we, as people, are not the same. The true answer to the cure may be in understanding the person before checking boxes to determine what type of disease they have. Sacks recognizes the important role Freud played in his psychoanalytical study of human nature. Past history, be it a result of genetics or events, both have their effects on the present. This point, as well as the reference to Freud, lead nicely into the next review on Karl Popper.


The Good Rain by Timothy Egan

Monday, June 16, 2008

I would recommend this anyone raised in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) who is currently living away from home and is a bit nostalgic. I will be curious to know the thoughts of non-PNWers or PNWers still living in the area if they have read or decide to read this book.

Timothy Egan is the Seattle correspondent for the New York Times. I came across his writing in a very particular way. One morning while purusing the NY times online, I read an editorial written by a Stanford undergraduate student studying in Italy. She was writing about the impressions she had of being an American in Bologna while another student from Seattle (Amanda Knox) was being held in an Italian prison as a murder suspect after her British roommate was found fatally stabbed in their apartment in Perugia. Anyone from Seattle, Italy or the UK will know of this story.

I was very impressed with the article written by the Stanford student. Only later, while reading an Italian paper, was it mentioned that the writer's father wrote for the NY Times. This same article inferred that this was the reason her article was published. Regardless, the father is Timothy Egan, author of The Good Rain.

The Pacific Northwest is truly a region without borders. It stretches into British Columbia and moves down through Western Oregon. There is certainly something that links people from this area. The terrain plays a role as people from the area are comfortable both with the ocean and in the mountains. The long gray and drizzly winters become normal for those adapted but standout for the new arrivals.

Egan certainly loves the PNW and represents it very well in this book and in his Times articles and blog . Even when he writes about the Iraq war you can tell he is not doing it from the 42nd floor of a Manhattan skyscraper.

This book is about the history of the region. He travels from one area to the next tying in current events with historical ones. He justifiably declares the importance of the geography giving particular focus to the Columbia river and Cascade Mountains. He also drives home the message (perhaps too often) that the Army Corp of Engineers mutilated a lot of rivers in the area with dam construction thus drastically reducing the salmon runs. As a result, the way of life of the Indians in the area was altered forever because they were no longer able to fish the rivers they had depended on for 10,000 years. European Americans push west certainly did not help the situation either as Indian land was snatched up with support from the federal government and was only relinquished after drawn out court rulings, which were often too late.

This book was written in 1990 which in Seattle terms is a lifetime ago. The city has changed so much since then. This book demonstrates how European Americans moving west wanted to take as much from the land as possible in the shortest amount of time. They also felt that the power of man could conquer the massiveness of the terrain mainly though engineering. Land protection, zoning laws, pollution, were not terms that were digested well by the new arrivals. My fear is that these same issues are still not given enough consideration as the population in the Seattle region is estimated to reach four million over the next two decades. Many things I am seeing, hearing, and reading are convincing me that a book such as Egan's holds vital messages that are still relevant today.


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