Have you ever felt odd? Perhaps an odd feeling came upon you one morning at the market. You saw the piles of vegetables and the cuts of meats covered in clear plastic. You noticed, with particular attention, the little signs above the individual fruits giving their names and prices. Suddenly, it seemed unaccountably odd that any of this should make any sense to anyone. How very strange that these numbers and words and pictures and physical objects are all related, you thought. It was a warm morning and you walked out into the sunlight with a beating heart and a sheen of sweat on the palms of your hands. For a few more moments you trusted neither sun, nor earth, nor sky. All aspects of reality seemed as arbitrary to you as those signs above the fruit in the market. And then the feeling faded and you were back in the… More…

David Hume turns 300 on May 7. It is fitting, I suppose, that a man so resolutely mortal should be enjoying such immortality. Most of Hume’s contemporaries are long forgotten. Hume, somehow, endures. His old pal Adam Smith (author of The Wealth of Nations), relates that in Hume’s dying days he told his friends, “I have done every thing of consequence which I ever meant to do, and I could at no time expect to leave my relations and friends in a better situation than that in which I am likely to leave them: I therefore have all reason to die contented.”

 

It was that ancient and ugly Greek, Socrates, who first made the claim that philosophy is a preparation for death. He said it just before taking his hemlock, so we can assume that he was being… More…

Twenty percent of art can now be explained by neuroscience. That, at least, is what V.S. Ramachandran thinks. Ramachandran is the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Distinguished Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is, in short, one of the top neuroscientists around at the moment. He is also a clear and engaging writer. His 1999 book, Phantoms in the Brain, brought him much popular attention and his most recent book, The Tell-Tale Brain, is doing more of the same.

The Tell-Talle Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran. 357 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

Much like Oliver Sacks, his friend and admirer, Ramachandran comes to many of his insights about the human brain by observing its dysfunction. Problems in… More…

Saint Teresa of Avila is best known in her ecstatic state, as captured in marble by the sculptor Gian Bernini — her arched back, her body caught in an orgasmic wave, the moan from her parted lips almost audible. She felt the presence of God as an erotic power, the connection between the divine and the mortal as an energy unlike any other. This chaste 16th-century nun wrote about her soul being penetrated by the arrow of the angel, “so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish it to cease, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God.”

Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by Rebecca Goldstein. 304 pages. Schocken. $22. Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. 432 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28. How… More…

Exactly one day after the Fall 2010 semester ended, a student in my technical writing class appeared at my office door to explain why he had not submitted a major assignment. He had tried to start writing it, he told me, but, for some inexplicable reason, he found he “couldn’t be in the moment.”

 

Be in the moment! Now, I could have lectured him on the myth of writerly inspiration, that “one fell swoop” ideology created by the 18th-century romantics whereby the entire work descends, like a tongue of fire, upon an especially sensitive soul, a mystification of the writing process designed to elevate themselves to the level of the wealthy patrons upon whom they depended and to efface the self-abjection they felt because of that dependence.

But I did not lecture him, for I found that I… More…

Since the age of the Druids, bees have been a symbol of wisdom. The Greeks and the Celts used the symbolism as well, as did cultures in India and Egypt, Sumerian mythology, and Christianity. Bees were the symbols of sun gods, earth goddesses, and the Virgin Mary. In the Jewish story, Deborah — whose name means “bee” — was a prophet who saved her city from invaders. In English, Welsh, Irish, Greek, and assorted other languages, the word “bee” is caught up by sound or by root with the word for “to live” or “alive.” Even Charles Darwin was scared of the knowledge to be found in the bee hive, afraid their cooperative, altruistic lives could disprove his theory of evolution, perched as it was on that vicious idea of survival of the fittest.

Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S…. More…

 

 

Martin Heidegger was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Heidegger was also a Nazi. He was obsessed with Hitler’s hands (his hands!). I suppose they seemed like the hands of a serious man to Heidegger, the hands of a peasant intellectual. Heidegger liked to dress up in his little Schwarzwald outfit and parade around his university campus as if he were head of the academic SS. He proclaimed the essential greatness of the German people and kicked the Jews out of Freiburg University. He looked out, in 1933, at the triumph of National Socialism and decided that it was good. He wasn’t ambiguous about it either, saying, “The Führer, and he alone, is the present and future of German reality, and its law.” Even in 1943, after the devastating German defeat at Stalingrad,… More…

Berlin in the 21st century is something of an experiment with aftermath. How does a city that has been through so much and caused so much pain carry on and heal its wounds? You can’t just get Old Testament on the place, burn it to the ground and salt the earth. If we Sodom and Gomorrhaed the location of every atrocity, we’d have no place left to live. And so post-World War II and post-Berlin Wall, various techniques are explored. There was a taboo phase, and the bad things were never discussed. Then there was an “educate the children” phase. A writer told me that the children used to be forced into six-week-long courses on the Final Solution. They were told that their parents were responsible or at the very least participants, and if they were told any differently, they were being lied to.

“For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.” — Isaac Bashevis Singer

One morning recently I woke up and found I no longer wanted to eat meat. It seemed a sudden and unaccountable distaste. I had seen the images and read the books decrying animal slaughter over the years, and they had provoked the predictable sense of horror but no change in my eating habits. Why would I now, for no apparent reason, see things differently?

I’ve asked myself this question, even hoping that my newly acquired aversion would dissipate. I’ve always found vegetarians annoying. There’s nothing that can reduce the pleasure of a steak dinner like sitting opposite someone eating stir fried vegetables. I didn’t want to be the person who got the vegetarian option at the wedding and whose entrees were served first, with the kosher meals, on the airplane. I don’t travel in vegetarian circles. Sure, people… More…

For several decades in the early 20th century, it looked like mysticism, mathematics, physics, philosophy, and religion would become cozy roommates. Physicists, excited by the new quantum arena, were looking for God in the particles. Mathematicians were pondering the infinite. The best minds from Einstein down were embracing the idea of God. It didn’t last long, and science and math have returned to being secular endeavors, but a spate of new books on this time when scientists were pondering the infinite suggests that perhaps the seemingly separate worlds are coming back together.

Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity by Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor. Harvard University Press. 256 pages. $25.95 Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung by Arthur I. Miller. Norton Press. 368 pages. $27.95

The story… More…