Kurt Harris MD

An Archevore is someone who eats based on essential principles, and also someone who hungers for essential principles. Take your pick.

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Friday
Feb112011

Philosophical Influences


The universe works on a math equation

That never even ever really ends in the end

Infinity spirals out creation

We're on the tip of it's tongue, and it is saying:

We ain't sure where you stand

You ain't machines and you ain't land

And the plants and the animals, they are linked

And the plants and the animals eat each other

-       Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse – Neverending Math Equation

 

I think this beats the King James Bible for plausibility and A Brief History of Time for accessibility. Isaac has surely read Dawkins if not Darwin.

I get quite a few emails from readers similar to the one that follows, which is from Simon.

I really enjoyed your post today and decided to shoot you a line. Been following your blog for a while and have been meaning to ask you if you could give me a reading lists for your favorites outside health/nutrition. I'm no stranger to Philosophy of Science, Political Phil etc. but I'm curious which books (you've mentioned Rothbard, Foucault, Kuhn etc.) have influenced you and your world view the most. I'm currently doing a year of research at Vanderbillt on Obesity/Diabetes (our lab colloborates with Stephan's) before medical school. I'm trying to take the (relative) free time I have to get as much culture in me before school work takes over. Again, thanks so much for your blog, especially your post today. The perpetual existential/somatic crisis of the health blogosphere is quite troubling!

 

-Simon

Not sure how much I can help to acculturate anyone. Fair warning, you might end up a skeptical intellectual dilettante like me.

Let me start by first saying that the way to become a writer is to read. A lot. And the way to become a thinker is to read more than you think. And it is best if you both read and think much more than you write.

When I was in college and even medical school, I’m pretty sure I read at least 2 or 3 pages of non-assigned material for every page that was assigned. Currently I average several books a week. I regret that I’ll die before I get to everything I’d like to read. I find it so pleasurable that it mystifies me that everyone doesn’t look at it the same way I do. But I suppose that’s how it is with anything a person can enjoy.

Aside from Isaac Brock, there have been many influences on my world view and thinking.

I won’t expand much on the influence of medical school hazing and 23 years of reading xrays, CTs, MRIs, et cetera, but this has been a huge influence, especially in making me a medical nihilist.

A medical nihilist posits that in a world where the entire medical system (alternative and complementary not exempted) disappeared in some selective rapture, that the net effect would be positive for the economy, and no worse than neutral for the aggregate level of health and wellness*.

My experience and years of observation of the medical sausage factory have made me a medical nihilist.

But Simon is already planning on medical school, and so he will already be offered the same opportunity at learning to be a heretic that I had.

And he’s only asked me about books, so here is a list of books, in no particular order, that have influenced the way I think about, well, everything.

Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature – Richard Rorty

Philosophy with a small p. Never trust anyone who claims to be a “Philosopher”. The most important book I’ve ever read.

Contingency, Irony and Solidarity – Richard Rorty

Argues that the values of classical liberalism cannot be grounded outside of our empathy and a kind of faith. Not as good as PTMR, but worth reading.

The Rhetoric of Economics – Dierdre McCloskey

Fascinating person from my alma mater – The University of Iowa. Most famous for having formerly been “Donald”. Rhetoric of Economics is a Wittgenstein inspired critique of method and science that any thinking person can and should read. McCloskey is now a prominent libertarian thinker.

After Virtue – Alasdair MacIntyre 

Proposes ethics based on classical ideals. Nice counter to christianity, but ultimately fails, I think. An important book, though.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Simply stunning American novel on every level.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig.

First read this when I was in 9th grade – got me thinking about these things for the first time. Making a shim for your BMW with a beer can really is quality. Your reaction to this kind of kluge may determine if you are a person of substance.

Psychological Defenses in Everyday Life – Robert Firestone

I’ve read all of Firestone’s books, but this one is the best. The title is deceptive. It’s really an ethical how-to manual and a great one at that. He comes at things as a psychodynamic therapist, but ignore the details of the theories. They are mostly correct, and if you are a pragmatist like me it makes no difference exactly why he is right.

Alice Miller – Prisoners of Childhood 

Eye-opening thoughts on what most affects our behavior in later life.

Zen Mind, Beginners Mind – Shunryu Suzuki

Great introduction to zen

Opening the Hand of Thought – Uchiyama

Another good zen book

Breath by Breath – Larry Rosenberg

A very good book on vipassana meditation – the kind I try to practice now.

The Science of Enlightenment – Shinzen Young

A series of audio lectures that present a very appealing and pragmatic unified field theorem of consciousness.

Pema Chodrom – When things Fall Apart

All of her books are good but this is the best.

Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon

Famously long and dense postmodern novel with soulless two-dimensional characters that is nevertheless fun to read. When I first read it I thought it was profound, but now I know it’s not profound, it’s just a salad of ideas and purposefully dark inscrutability. Are you brave enough to point out that the emperor is naked? Or do you think Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol are artists? Bad analogy, Pynchon is entertaining, at least. The real Ulysses is fantastic, by the way.

Richard Dawkins – Everything by Dawkins.

No one understands and communicates evolutionary biology and what it means better than Dawkins. And I wish I had read The God Delusion in high school.

Christopher Hitchens – Anything by Hitchens

  - especially God is Not Great. No nits to pick with may favorite former Trotskyite, other than his support for the Iraq debacle.

Sam Harris – The End of Faith

Sam is simultaneously too pessimistic and overestimates the degree of reason among even atheists. Compartmentalization is what allows peace, not eradicating religion. His current attempt to ground ethics in neuroscience is, well, probably groundless. Most of his critique in End of Faith is spot-on, but I about choked when he started talking about Rupert Sheldrake

Anything by TC Boyle

Comic genius who finds inspiration in actual historical events. No need for fantasy.

Here are some more philosophical influences. I did not read them in the original greek. I can’t quote all the exact titles and sources as much of my library is packed away in boxes.

Greek Pyrrhonists and Skeptics – that should be obvious, huh?

Plato – ruined things for all time

Aristotle – tried to undo the damage and was ruined by the Christians in turn

David Hume – Way ahead of his time

Ludwig Wittgenstein – learn from secondary sources or primary

Arthur Schopenhauer - learn from secondary sources or primary

Ayn Rand

Learn from as a negative example. Fountainhead is an inspiring book. Atlas Shrugged is am overwrought tedious slog with cartoon characters and not an ounce of wit. Rand’s formal “philosophy” is highly derivative, weak, and in operation, is lacking in imagination and needlessly cruel. Homo economicus as the model ethical agent? No thanks.

Friedrich Nietzsche –

What does not destroy me makes me stronger?

Except for when what does not destroy me just causes permanent damage.

Learn from him as a negative example. Even translated from german, he's pretty easy to read.  A perennial staple of college kids everywhere. Considered individualist by some, but more rightly seen as reflecting a deeply authoritarian and collectivist urge in Europe, and an inspiration, along with Henry Ford, to Adolf Hitler. Bet you think I am kidding about Ford, huh?

OK, I’ve tried to do all this without looking at the bookshelf so the most influential are reflective of what comes to mind the easiest. And like I’ve said, many of my books are packed in boxes, so I can’t quote all the titles. I’ve been too lazy to make amazon links for each one, but you can click through my portal and then search for them easily. If you buy any, I’ll get a small kickback to help support the blog.

I’ll do a separate one on economics, finance and politics some time, as that deserves its own post, really.

 

* This does not mean that some medical interventions are not highly useful, just that in the aggregate they are balanced out by all the negative ones - the side effects and the nutritional advice, etc.

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