BOOK REVIEW: Reality: A Very Short Introduction by Jan Westerhoff

Reality: A Very Short IntroductionReality: A Very Short Introduction by Jan Westerhoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If one has an inquisitive nature and finds oneself with a bit of time on one’s hands, one is likely to question reality eventually. What is reality? What does it mean to be real? (Yeah, just like Morpheus’s “How do you define ‘real?’”) How could we know if we weren’t in the reality we think we are? Does it matter? i.e. If we aren’t in the reality we think we are, do we have any other choice than to behave as if we are—in other words is there any hope of escaping whatever unreality our consciousness exists in?

Does the quantum world not make a lick of sense relative to the world as we know it because the ancestors who are simulating us never expected us to get far enough to investigate that scale before we crashed? And now, like the writers and directors of an unexpectedly popular and long-lived TV show, they have to find a way to cobble some convincing story together because their overlords aren’t willing to scrap a perfectly functional simulation as it’s churning out huge amounts of data. Of course most people quickly dismiss such possibilities as sci-fi, but—then again—that dismissal is what one would do if one was programmed to be psychologically pained by the idea that the lunatic shouting and running naked through the streets may have found freedom, while you–who appears to be fully successful in living life—are an automaton, a slave pure and simple?

Philosopher Jan Westerhoff provides a brief survey of the many ways reality has been questioned over time and what evidence proponents cite—or, if not evidence per se, what inexplicable phenomena at least make the possibility seem feasible. The book consists of just four chapters. The first chapter offers a context by discussing dreams and simulations. Dreams are one of humanity’s first sources of doubt about reality. This was most famously summed up by the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s quote “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” The simulation hypothesis suggests that societies eventually develop a capacity to run extremely advanced simulations that would feel very real, and, furthermore, the proliferation of such simulations would make it much more likely that we are in one than in a real world.

The next three chapters examine three subjects where reality is taken for granted, but which each face challenges. The author starts with the most basic component of reality, matter. If you ask someone how they know the world is real, they might just knock on wood or kick a stone. Of course, that response only goes so far because there are a lot of entities we consider real that aren’t made of matter (e.g. is an economic recession real?) and so it’s definitely not a complete way of looking at the topic. There’s also the fact that all this hard and solid stuff we experience is mostly empty space. In this chapter, Westerhoff spends much of his time examining the basics of quantum mechanics, and the quantum strangeness that has put it in the minds of many that the world is probably not what we think it to be.

Chapter three explores the reality of a person. This is where people have the hardest time questioning reality, because most of us are quite certain that we exist. Descartes statement of: “I think, therefore, I am” nicely sums it up. But is there a place associated with personhood, or is it an emergent property? If it has a point of origin, where is it? Westerhoff describes the famous rubber hand experiment that shows that the connection between mind and body is more illusory than we think. He discusses many of the syndromes that challenge our intuitive beliefs about what it means to be a person, e.g. Cotard syndrome, in which individuals firmly believe that they don’t exist. (Note: this topic—at least the scientific dimension—is covered in detail in Anil Ananthaswamy’s book “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”)

Chapter four explores whether time is really what we think it is, and what it feels like to us. A lot of this chapter takes up findings about free will. A famous study in the neurosciences showed that before people make a decision at a conscious level, there is activation of subconscious parts of the brain such that what feels like a decision freely and consciously made is actually already made before the consciousness ever becomes aware of it. This study, now overwhelmingly validated by replication, presents a major challenge to our notion of free will—which isn’t to suggest we’re necessarily being fed a decision from some mysterious elsewhere but if some combination of our limbic and enteric nervous systems are making decisions without conscious input, then what is the nature of freedom in free will?

The book has an interesting Conclusion that gives the reader a map to consider the various ways reality might exist (or not.) This isn’t a dichotomous question—i.e. it’s not necessarily a matter of the world is real or it’s not. Instead, it can be thought of more as a continuum between everything is real and nothing is real with various way-points in between such as “I am all that is real” or “Everything is real, but me” and various ways of considering how some of the world might be real while some of it is not. Among the latter models, the relevant factor maybe consciousness (i.e. conscious may be unreal or maybe it’s the only thing that’s real.)

There are a number of graphics used to support the text, most of these are photographs and artworks, but some are diagrams. There is a “References and Further Readings” section in this book that is more substantial than most of the ones I’ve seen in AVSI (A Very Short Introduction) series books. It’s organized by chapter.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in the topic. I think the author does a great job in a small space of introducing various conceptions of reality. He draws on well-known works of film and literature to help clarify issues, and provides many thought-provoking ideas. It’s readable and doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction by Eleanor Nesbitt

Sikhism: A Very Short IntroductionSikhism: A Very Short Introduction by Eleanor Nesbitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I picked up this book before a trip to Amritsar. While Sikhs are arguably the most visually distinct religious adherents, it’s one of the least understood world religions with respect to internal aspects like beliefs and practices. And a major religion, it is. With 23 million followers, it’s between the fifth and eighth most widely practiced religion in the world (depending upon whether one aggregates traditional religions in China or Africa.)

This book offers a 150 page overview of what it means to be Sikh, and it explains it not only in religious, but also in cultural, political, and historical, terms. If one needs deep insight and great detail about Sikhism, this may not be the book for you. But it gives one the big picture quite nicely, and with a scholar’s balanced view (as opposed to that of a theologian.)

There are eight chapters in the book. The first chapter introduces one to Sikhism. Besides the basics, this chapter discusses what makes Sikhism a distinct religion, and how it has been influenced by other religions—most significantly Hindu and Islam, in that order. It also discusses what it means to be Punjabi, in contrast to what it means to be Sikh. To understand the subject of the second and third chapters, one has to know how the leadership of this religion unfolded. There were ten human teachers (Guru), and then a book of scriptures assumed the mantle of Guru. The second chapter is about the human Gurus (and mostly about the first one—Guru Nanak, with a little about the next four, and almost nothing about the last five.) The third chapter is about the Guru Granth Sahib, which is the book of scriptures that has served as the religion’s guide since the early 18th century.

Chapter four discusses Sikh religious practices–including the five K’s that serve to give Sikhs such a distinct physical appearance. The 5 K’s are: kesh (uncut hair), kanga (comb), kirpan (sword), kachh (cotton breeches), and kara (steel braclet.) While only the Khalsa (i.e. the community of initiated) necessarily practice all of these, it’s common to see at least some of these features among the community at-large. The wearing of turbans, beards (though often not completely uncut), and steel bangles are ubiquitous in Punjab. The chapter also delves into turbans, ethics, symbols, and the controversial question of vegetarianism (some Sikhs are and some aren’t.)

The fifth chapter offers a history of Sikhism over the past few centuries from the era of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 19th century to the dire events of early 1980’s (there was a massacre of Sikhs by government forces in 1982 and in 1984 Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh bodyguards, leading to yet more violence.) Chapter 6 discusses the topic of Sikhs abroad. While Punjab is consider the Sikh homeland, there are Sikhs around the world—but particularly in a few areas where there numbers are sufficient to constitute a community—e.g. in the United Kingdom. Chapter 7 investigates the theory and practice of Sikhism with regards to a few key issues of life on the Indian subcontinent including: the caste system, gender, and attitudes toward other religions. (In many regards, Sikhism is comparatively progressive, but practice hasn’t always followed the scripture—e.g. high girl child infanticide rates.) The last chapter considers the future of Sikhism moving forward.

There are graphics of several types throughout the book—most notably black-&-white photographs. There are a few helpful ancillary features including a “Further Reading” section, a timeline, and a glossary of terms.

I found this book useful, and would recommend it for anyone seeking background on Sikhism.

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