Friday, October 17, 2008

Three New Books

Ah yes, book reviews. Like I need more books than I already have. But here are three books that look interesting.

[I hope to be posting a few personal reviews in the coming weeks, including a new book by Steve Pavlina and a new book by Richard Schwartz.]

* * *

Second-order Change in Psychotherapy: The Golden Thread That Unifies Effective Treatments
by J. Scott Fraser and Andrew D. Solovey
American Psychological Association, 2007
Review by Rosemary Cook
Oct 14th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 42)
Research has determined that psychotherapy does indeed work. The question at hand now is "How does it work?" The authors of this book submit that the answer to this question has ramifications for all those involved in the practice of psychotherapy including professors, students, policy makers, insurance providers, and practitioners of all sorts. To answer the question the authors set out to provide a theoretical framework that cuts across all of the therapeutic approaches that have been empirically shown to be effective.

In the past, those claiming to answer the question of how psychotherapy works have polarized into two opposing groups. These are referred to as the "best practice" group and the "common factors" group. The best practice group argues for specific therapy protocols for specific therapy populations, whereas the common factors group maintains that a positive client-therapist relationship, among other factors, is most significant in issuing forth positive change in therapy. Since each side presents a compelling argument the authors were (themselves) compelled to find a unifying factor that each side might share.

Read the whole review.

* * *

The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World

Owen Flanagan, The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, MIT Press, 2007, 288pp., $27.95 (hbk), ISBN 9780262062640.

Reviewed by Peter B. M. Vranas, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The primary objective of this book is to promote what Flanagan calls eudaimonistic scientia, or eudaimonics for short, namely the "empirical-normative inquiry into the nature, causes, and conditions of human flourishing" (p. 1). A secondary objective of the book is to show that eudaimonics can be pursued while adhering to naturalism, which Flanagan understands as reining in "temptations to revert to dualistic and/or supernaturalistic ways of speaking and thinking about human nature" (p. 3). Another secondary objective is to reconcile spirituality, which according to Flanagan contributes to human flourishing, with science, which according to Flanagan motivates naturalism. A third secondary objective is to show that one norm "that eudaimonics favors is that we ought to seek to flourish with the truth by our side" (p. 108), avoiding superstition and wishful thinking. And a fourth secondary objective is to defend eudaimonics against objections, including (1) the objection that eudaimonics tries to derive norms from facts and thus founders on the is/ought thesis, and (2) the "internalist objection" that eudaimonics cannot adjudicate between competing conceptions of human flourishing corresponding to different cultures. In what follows I examine some of the above objectives in more detail.

What are, according to Flanagan, the "nature, causes, and conditions of human flourishing"? I find it hard to answer this question, for two reasons. The first reason is that Flanagan uses a variety of terms apparently related to "human flourishing": he talks about "happiness" (p. 1), "well-being" (p. 50), "a good human life" (p. 38), "excellent human lives" (p. 167), "truly rich and meaningful lives" (p. 167), and "a life that really matters, that makes a positive and lasting contribution" (p. 1). With the exception of "happiness", which Flanagan tentatively sets apart (p. 245, n. 13), it is not clear whether Flanagan takes the above terms to be roughly synonymous; to make headway, I will assume that he does. The second reason is that what seem to be parts of the answer to the above question are scattered over the book; nowhere did I find a comprehensive summary. For example, concerning necessary or sufficient conditions for human flourishing (or for living meaningfully, and so on), Flanagan makes at least three kinds of claims. First, Flanagan says that "recent work in the field [of positive psychology] claims a comparative consensus on the virtues that are mandatory for eudaimonia" (p. 50): justice, humaneness, temperance, wisdom, transcendence, and courage. Second, Flanagan says that flourishing "can't be achieved unless fitness is" (p. 55), and seems to take the fulfillment of certain basic needs like "food, water, shelter, and sex" (p. 54) to be necessary for achieving fitness. Third, Flanagan says:

Meaningful human lives . . . involve being moral, having true friends, and having opportunities to express our talents, to find meaningful work, to create and live among beautiful things, and to live cooperatively in social environments where we trust each other. If we have all these things, then we live meaningfully by any reasonable standard. If we have only some of them, we live less meaningfully, and if we lack all these things, especially the first two, our life is meaningless. (p. 58)

It is not clear whether the claim that the virtues of wisdom and courage are necessary for flourishing is compatible with the claim that being moral, in conjunction with having true friends and so on, is sufficient for living meaningfully: why can't those who are not wise or courageous (but are not foolish or cowardly either) still be moral, have true friends, and so on? Similarly, it seems that lack of fitness makes being moral etc. hard but not impossible. Another worry is that, according to a standard that Flanagan mentions, being moral, in conjunction with having true friends and so on, is not sufficient for living meaningfully. This is the standard of making "a positive and lasting contribution" (p. 1): if my friends, family, and students (and their descendants) die and my work is irreversibly destroyed at the time of my death, I make no lasting contribution. Yet another worry is that arguably having true friends and living cooperatively are not necessary for living meaningfully: a hermit who proves what are, unbeknown to her, important mathematical conjectures can make a positive and lasting contribution (suppose her notes are found after her lonely death). The above worries are addressed in a large philosophical literature; oddly enough, Flanagan fails to engage with that literature.

Read the whole review.

* * *

Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life

Louise M. Antony (ed.), Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, Oxford University Press, 2007, 315pp., $28.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780195173079.

Reviewed by George I. Mavrodes, University of Michigan

This book is a collection of twenty independent, freestanding essays, apparently all written especially for this volume. The twenty authors, all evidently professing atheists, are professional academic philosophers. Two of them work at British universities, and the rest are associated with American institutions. David Lewis, of Princeton University, died in 2001 (before finishing the paper included here). So far as I know, all of the other authors are still living.

This collection strikes me as an excellent example of how comprehensible philosophical writing can be at its best. By and large, the essays are written in a clear and direct style, free of philosophical jargon. Most of them can readily be understood, it seems to me, without requiring anything near a professional level of knowledge of the history of philosophy, or of technical logic, or anything of the sort. And many of the essays display a level of passion that is not common in academic writing. These authors, by and large, are writing about something that concerns them deeply. And I think that many who read it will find themselves also engaged at a level that is not merely academic.

Many Christians who read these essays (and I hope that many of them will read them) may find themselves recognizing a genre with which they are already familiar in Christian literature. A lot of these essays are, at least in part, personal narratives. They are "testimonials" -- how I became an atheist, what atheism means to me, what it's like being an atheist, how I get along without God, how atheism has improved my life, etc. And those of us who are on the other side of the table -- we Christians, or other theists -- may look to see whether we can recognize ourselves in the pictures that are here drawn of the religious life that some of these authors have left behind. It is useful to be reminded of the fact that atheists too have their testimonies, and their life stories

Some others of these essays, however, deal with more general topics -- the role of reason and rationality in an atheist or a religious life, the question of whether the available evidence favors atheism over belief in God, the prospects for morality without God, how thoughtful atheists and thoughtful theists can (or should) engage with each other on an intellectual level, etc. In this review I will deal mainly with a few papers of this latter sort. I am a professing Christian myself, so it will be no surprise if my discussion has a noticeable critical orientation. But I hope that I can avoid an unreservedly critical stance, and I would be glad if my comments here serve to whet an appetite for some of the interesting and provocative issues that come up in this volume.

Read the whole review. This is a lengthy review that I think spends too much time on a single contributor to the anthology, so take it for what it's worth.

No comments: