Scott's Book Review

Vices of the Mind by Quassim Cassam

Scott

Of all the species known to have existed on planet Earth, 99% are now extinct.
(https://curiosity.com/topics/99-percent-of-the-earths-species-are-extinctbut-thats-not-the-worst-of-it-curiosity/) and
(https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/extinction/massext/statement_03.html) There is no adequate reason to believe our species will defy the odds. Humans will suffer extinction either by environmental catastrophe, global pandemic, asteroid (or similar) impact, substitution by artificial intelligence or self destruction. Two recent books make clear how it is likely we will be the agents of our own elimination.

Quassim Cassam (https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/philosophy/people/cassam/) and (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quassim_Cassam)
gives an account of the nature and importance of ‘epistemic vices’, which include closed-mindedness, intellectual arrogance, wishful thinking, and prejudice. In providing the first extensive coverage of vice epistemology, Vices of the Mind uses real examples drawn primarily from the world of politics to show the terrible fragility of human existence. Cassam argues that as well as getting in the way of knowledge these vices are dangerously reprehensible. Key events such as the 2003 Iraq War and the 2016 Brexit vote, and notable figures including Donald Trump are analysed in detail to illustrate what epistemic vice looks like in this highly dangerous modern world. A creature disfigured by such structural imperfections has no long term future.

224 pages in Oxford University Press

First published February 2019

ISBN 978-0198826903

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Follow Cassam’s unsettling book with Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (02 April 2019) by Justin E.H. Smith.(https://www.jehsmith.com/)

Smith destroys our comforting belief that reason will always (or ultimately) prevail. This is a belief that has its origins with Plato in the Western intellectual tradition. Plato argued that existence is essentially rational, and that reason is the defining characteristic of goodness and humans who become aware of pure ‘Forms’.
(https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato/)

Smith offers instead a sweeping account of irrationality from antiquity to the present day, from the fifth-century BC murder of Hippasus for revealing the existence of irrational numbers to the rise of Twitter mobs and the election of the blatantly irrational Donald Trump. The author argues that, from sex and music to religion and war, irrationality makes up the greater part of human life and history.

Rich and ambitious, Irrationality ranges across philosophy, politics, and current events. It challenges conventional thinking about logic, natural reason, dreams, art and science, pseudoscience, the Enlightenment, the internet, jokes and lies, and death. History reveals that any triumph of reason is temporary and reversible, and that rational schemes, notably including many from Silicon Valley, often result in their polar opposite. The problem is that the rational gives birth to the irrational and vice versa in an endless cycle, and any effort to permanently set things in order sooner or later ends in a reversion to unreason. Because of this, it is hopeless to try to eliminate irrationality. It is an ineradicable feature of human life.

At the very moment when the world appears to have gone mad again, Smith’s book is provocative, and timely. His arguments complement those of Cassam in suggesting that humans will not have the restraint to prevent the species from self-destruction. Enjoy all irrational pleasures in the time left to you. These may include reading books.

344 pages in Princeton University Press

First published April 2019

ISBN-13: 978-0691178677

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Smith’s thoughts are very much in line with a clutch of books I read in 1981. These were Irrational Man by William Barrett (1958) (ISBN
978-0385031387
), The Greeks and the Irrational by E.R. Dodds (1951) (ISBN 978-0520242302) and The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer (1818) (ISBN 978-0521871846)

Check whether any of these thought-provoking titles are stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue here at https://www.sllclibrary.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/OPAC/BSEARCH

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