RICHARD DAWKINS - BY THE BOOK

[ Mon. Sep. 16. 2013 ]

The author of "The God Delusion" and "An Appetite for Wonder" doesn't care for "Pride and Prejudice": "I can't get excited about who is going to marry whom, and how rich they are."

What's the best book you've read so far this year?

I've been reading autobiographies to get me in the mood for writing my own and show me how it's done: Tolstoy (at one time my own memoir was to have been called, at my wife's suggestion, "Childhood, Boyhood, Truth"); Mark Twain; Bertrand Russell; that engaging maverick Herb Silverman; Edward O. Wilson, elder statesman of my subject. But the best new book I have read is Daniel Dennett's "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking." A philosopher of Dennett's caliber has nothing to fear from clarity and openness. He is out to enlighten and explain, and therefore has no need or desire to language it up like those obscurantist philosophers, often of "Continental" tradition, for whom obscurity is valued as a protective screen, or even admired for its own sake. I once heard of a philosopher who gushed an "Oh, thank you!" when a woman at a party said she found his book hard to understand. Dennett is the opposite. He works hard at being understood, and makes brilliant use of intuition pumps (his own coining) to that end. The book includes a helpful roundup of several of his earlier themes, and is as good as its intriguing title promises.

Who are your favorite contemporary writers and thinkers?

I've already mentioned Dan Dennett. I'll add Steven Pinker, A. C. Grayling, Daniel Kahneman, Jared Diamond, Matt Ridley, Lawrence Krauss, Martin Rees, Jerry Coyne — indeed quite a few of the luminaries that grace the Edge online salon conducted by John Brockman (the Man with the Golden Address Book). All share the same honest commitment to real-world truth, and the belief that discovering it is the business of scientists — and philosophers who take the trouble to learn science. Many of these "Third Culture" thinkers write very well. (Why is the Nobel Prize in Literature almost always given to a novelist, never a scientist? Why should we prefer our literature to be about things that didn't happen? Wouldn't, say, Steven Pinker be a good candidate for the literature prize?)