At the Existentialist Café, Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell, Other Press, New York 2016

When Philosophy meets up with the actualities of life that are happening on your doorstep, what happens? Bakewell takes existential philosophy out of the theoretical and abstract and breathes life into it with stories of the challenges, arguments, loves, and bitter fallings-out amid the world changing crises of the times that the most well-known expounders experienced.

Heidegger, Sartre and Beauvoir, Camus, Merleau-Ponty and others are fleshed out with the colors of the events that formed the stage they played their scenes on in Paris, Berlin, and wherever else they were driven at times to flee.  The passionate questions they asked and the unsettling answers they variously found helped shape a generation of thought that sent echoes still vibrating now in the 21st century.

Not your grandfather’s philosophy textbook but a book that offers fertile ground for understanding that ideas of life come from people who have done some living outside of the ivory towers their works may end up in. What answers would we find today for what it means to be free, is human nature variable or fixed, how does morality mesh with loyalty, what does it mean to live authentically?

A few interesting questions for our own times, this is the way philosophy should be taught, in my humble opinion. Bakewell has given us an ideal primer.

Heretics The Wondrous and Dangerous Beginnings of Modern Philosophy

Heretics The Wondrous and Dangerous Beginnings of Modern Philosophy by Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford 2017

If anything might entice you to explore the philosophical development of the 17th century this book would do the job. People whose names might be only vaguely familiar, like Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Newton, and others, and about whose specific views we may not be quite clear, suddenly come alive. This is a graphically illustrated telling of why and how they challenged the accepted wisdom of their time. The story that is told is also about how dangerous thinking ‘outside the box’ has been at times in our human history.

In many ways Nadler and Nadler have given us a teaser.  While describing the arguments, disagreements, and risks that these thinkers involved themselves with we are drawn into taking sides and arguing back. We react to the various theses and find our own reasoning process activated.  This is the slippery slope that lands us in the philosophical soup of exploring our own views on religion, government, spirituality, ethics, the nature of reality and everything else we think we believe.  Actually, not a bad place to be – an environment that invites and encourages questions and the very value of questioning itself. In the words of Socrates “An unexamined life is not worth living.”  If you like the idea of thinking for yourself let this book tickle you into doing it.

A Brief Tour of Higher Consciousness

A Brief Tour of Higher Consciousness by Itzhak Bentov, Destiny Books, Vermont, 2000

Some time or other you may have come across a book that provoked and teased you into looking closer at some habit of thinking you had or to examine things you hadn’t spent much time thinking about at all. Itzhak Bentov’s A Brief Tour of Higher Consciousness is just such a one for me. A small paperback book, about 5”by 8”, 112 pages with a scattering of drawings, it purports to introduce the reader to the structure of the cosmos, singular and/or plural, as well as including the evolution of consciousness along the way.

The author, with whom I was not familiar, is presented as a scientist, an inventor of bio-medical instrumentation and an early exponent of consciousness studies among other things. Introductory notes about him in the book are enticing.

     “In his search for the cosmic connection, Ben offers us a delightfully ingenious cosmic comedy on the nature and structure of ultimates. Here are traveler’s tales such as you rarely find- metaphysical jaunts from one end of the universe to the other.” page xvii, Jean Houston, Ph.D.

I settled in to be entertained. I didn’t expect to be challenged. Relaxed enough about the idea that the thoughts of all human beings were connected and in turn affected the universe, and about the vibrational nature of manifest creation, after all, Einstein had already told us that everything is energy vibrating at different rates, I got stalled and turned off by phrases like interference patterns, reference beams and coherent light. I had skeptical reactions to the notions of devas and luminous Alephs. But I soldiered on, prodded by agreeing with the notion of an ever-expanding cosmos, liking his “egg” analogy, and being somewhat impressed by the high regard his earlier and longer work, Stalking the Wild Pendulum, seemed to engender among apparently intelligent people of some repute.

So – I googled some phrases I wasn’t familiar with, coming across ideas from physics that were as wild as some of what I had read in Bentov’s work, and went back and read it again. Halfway through I stopped and ordered a copy of his earlier and longer work, and after finishing the second read, got on the computer to look for an online course in cosmology.

If you are willing to look into the apparently absurd and follow the thread of logic shining through it you may have a surprising experience reading A Brief Tour of Higher Consciousness and end up studying the latest in cosmology with an MIT professor, free, online as I have just signed up for. There’s nothing like curiosity to keep life interesting.  Find out what Wikipedia has to say about Itzhak.

What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics

What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker, Basic Books, New York, 2018

From wandering around the cosmos [see my earlier adventure with Bentov], I somehow ended up trying to understand what quantum physics was talking about.  Not quite as much of a disconnect as you might imagine seeing that particle physicists began expanding their interests into cosmology in the 1970s in search of new grand unified theories, something that had long been their holy grail.

First googling the term “quantum”, [Wikipedia: In physics, a quantum is the minimum amount of any physical entity involved in an interaction.], I was fortunate in putting my hands on the recently published work of Adam Becker.  Anyone interested in, or even slightly curious about, the fundamental nature of the physical world we inhabit will likely benefit from and enjoy the storytelling style of Becker, as I did, following the tale of how this world’s most currently eminent scientists have bickered about what is really real for almost a century now.  From the debates between Danish physicist Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein to Schrodinger’s cat to Hugh Everett’s suggestion that all is explained by the theory of parallel universes, we are introduced to a science of physics that challenges the imagination.

In the midst of this, while the reader is given a sampling of the studies being engaged in, Becker demonstrates how the socio-political environment within which the work is being attempted has influenced the structure of the research being done. Science, after all, works within the world in which we all live and only occasionally breaks free to expand our thinking. This is a telling that goes beyond equations into a very human history of how we stumble sometimes towards new learning and the forces that may help or hinder us.

I recommend this as an entertaining and educational trip to the least possible speck of what is considered (by some) to be real to find out that it won’t stand still long enough for us to understand it, measure it, or agree about what it is.  Somehow, I find it reassuring that the mystery is still there.  Find out more about Adam and physics Adam Becker.