Friday, July 25, 2008

Review: The Science of Good and Evil

Title: The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule
Author: Michael Shermer

Summary: great book, Shermer writes very well and presents theory and argument equally well.

Some of the topics discussed in the book that I found interesting:

1. The origins of morality, why we (humans) are moral and how we are moral etc, based on a fascinating mix of evolutionary processes, anthropological studies and historical examples.

2. The evolution of morality itself, based on the needs of humans and the size of the society they lived in etc. through the ages and across various cultures, religions and tribes in history.

3. Debunking the prevalent myth of religion being the only basis for morality; in many ways, follows the recent atheist/agnostic arguments for morality being independent from religion. He also argues that religion is generally something that comes about when a human tribe or society grows beyond the point where approval/disapproval can be communicated on a peer to peer basis. Hence, the invention of religion as a way to codify moral rules that were needed and appropriate for that society to thrive. Over time though, religion becomes complex of its own and you get the modern organized religions which are multiple levels removed from why religion started in the first place.

4. Free will and determinism: this is a common problem in moral philosophy - if natural and unchangeable processes (or laws) govern how we act, then do we still have free will? One answer to that is that the deterministic processes are so complex that we cannot know all of them, and from that ignorance, comes free will. I felt Shermer's treatment of this topic was a little dense through the introduction of some verbal jugglery.

5. Historical examples and analogies: analyzes several events such as Hitler's final solution and the Columbine tragedy.

All in all, a great read, written logically and eruditely for the most part. Shermer's treatment of the historical evolution of morality is riveting, though the predicted or suggested evolution of future morality using fuzzy logic and probabilities sounds less convincing and perhaps even impractical.

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