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Book: “Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction” by Eliot Deutsch

December 28, 2011 1 comment

I just started reading Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction by Eliot Deutsch. Read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

This book kept popping-up in my Amazon.com shopping trips, as well as in various bibliographies and the like, so I finally ordered a copy (along with two jars of Branston Pickle, because Amazon.com doesn’t want me to ever leave my house again). It just came in today, and I’ve started my usual pre-read skimming, and just finished reading the preface.

The subject is of particular interest for me, as I have spent a lot of time over the past several years pondering similar philosophical problems in relation to Gnosticism, Christian mysticism, and Hermeticism. The author’s main objective—one which I stand behind on principle—is a reconstruction of Advaita-as-philosophical-school according to a modern Westerner’s view of universal philosophical problems. How does Advaita address “problems” such as God’s existence and nature, the nature of consciousness and unconsciousness (or, more precisely, nonconsciousness), karma and morality, experiential (direct) and observational & studied (indirect) epistemology, and so forth.

As up-my-alley as this book seems, I must say that I’m somewhat skeptical of the author’s ability (really anybody’s ability) to fully deconstruct the cultural and historical context of Advaita in order to put it clearly in view of the broad strokes of Western philosophy. I certainly intend on giving Deutsch enough of the benefit of the doubt to read the book and see how much I can learn from it, but “religious systems” and “spiritual philosophies” (for lack of more precise terms) more than not defy this sort of deconstruction-and-reconstruction; please accept as evidence the utter failure of so-called “Neopaganism” to produce a viable path of spiritual growth. (Apparent examples to the contrary are almost always practicing some combination of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Hermetic methods with a light dusting of Neopagan terminology on top, leading an astute observer to the realization that they would be much better off dropping the Neopagan trappings altogether and devoting themselves to that which is of real worth in their systems.) Deutsch’s approach remains to be seen by this reader, though, so he could very well still surprise me.

Book: “The Road to Reality” by Roger Penrose

November 9, 2011 4 comments

I just started The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe by Roger Penrose (2004, Vintage Books). Read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

I’ve only ever read short pieces by Penrose, before, or else excerpts from his stuff quoted in other peoples’ works. It seemed like a good move to begin with this approximately 1050 page leviathan before diving into his other books for the simple reason that The Road to Reality is sometimes considered to be Penrose’s magnum opus.

The first 16 chapters, according to Penrose’s brutally honest preface, are devoted to the ideas of modern mathematics, and the entire book is peppered with mathematical exercises to help the reader to understand what mathematicians and physicists think about a lot of the important and profound ideas of cutting-edge science. It is also, he says, his humble attempt at demonstrating the beauty of maths to a population largely terrified of the subject. I welcome this sort of approach from a popular science book for the same reason I appreciated Brian Greene’s inclusion of maths in the endnotes of his books: I’m one of those people who was brutalized by mathematics early in life, but instead of resenting maths I have chosen instead to resent the presentation of it which I suffered. As a rationalist-at-heart, I know that maths are vital to understanding the reality with which we are presented daily; as something of a Platonist (a self-identification I share with Sir Roger Penrose), I also understand that mathematics have a beauty, even a poetry, all their own, and an independent self-existence, which all speak to the very nature of the cosmos more directly than most certainly any other language. So, I relish the anticipation of digging-in and trying my hand at Penrose’s exercises all the while enjoying his flowing prose explanations of the ideas the maths embody.

So here, it seems, is an exercise in not just popularizing science (though certainly that), but also in respecting the intelligence of the readership enough to challenge them in multiple levels. No mere Dawkins-esque “Everything you know is wrong, which is why I am a better man than you,” Penrose seeks not to bully us with his ideas but to use them as tools for treating us as his equals. I would expect no less from a man often called “one of the world’s most original thinkers.”