Top five books 2023

In 2023, I had the good fortune of reading around 40 primarily non-fiction books, not all new ones. Indeed, I delved into some classics. as a matter of principle. Even if the details of a book are dated, when it comes to facts of technology and science, it is often worthwhile to follow the thrust of the original thinking just for its brilliance and as an example to follow. I have also tried to keep up with new thinking in several areas, along with the classics, since our knowledge is still progressing in many fields. Some books on this list are more well-known than others, but this is my subjective reading list, not a gauge of the current market for non-fiction. 

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

This is the kind of book any academic dreams about writing: lucid, rigorous, groundbreaking. You can almost feel it as a new planet in the solar system of knowledge: it will be there forever and influence all other planets in one way or another. Time has shown the impressive staying power of the thoughts (the book is from 1976), even if details have been disputed. It has supplied a large amount of fertile ideas and notions. Most well-known is that of the meme, which has drifted into the common vocabulary globally. But the most exciting idea, and one that Dawkins himself values most, is that of the extended phenotype. This idea is radical in that it postulates that the phenotype, the organism the gene determines, may not be confined to the traits of the individual organism but also include the effects they have on the environment. The beavers and their dams are a case in point of how the extended phenotype works to improve natural selection. The thinking and prose are always transparent, even though new knowledge in biology may have been acquired since then. It is surprising to see how much Dawkins already envisioned that would later be elaborated on. Even if you probably know much of the conclusions since they have become common knowledge, it is a pleasure to read the thinking and arguments that established them in the first place. 

William MacAskill: What We Owe the Future

I must admit I came to this book following the controversy after the fall of Sam Bankman-Fried(SBF). He was a vocal proponent of effective altruism, and his companies, FTX, and Alameda Research, were built according to this philosophy. The movement developed after 2000, and the name was only coined in 2011, so it is one of the newest philosophical directions. MacAskill is one of the central influencers of this movement. The core of MacAskil’s book is to provide a long-term view of ethical action and evaluate the effect of actions far into the future rather than the immediate term, which has been common. He advocates an evidence-based view of moral action that maximizes the impact. For example, it is rumored that MacAskil convinced SBF to build a company and earn money that he could later donate rather than focus on volunteering since this was more likely to have a more significant impact. The views are thus grounded in a consequentialist ethical framework where the impact of the action is what is essential.

The obvious problem, of course, is that it is very hard to know the future and the effect your actions will have. I myself wonder if he nailed it when it comes to AI or climate change. Even if the intention is commendable, the execution can quickly be cast in doubt and shaped by subjectivism. For example, as a vegan, MacAskill discusses at length how farming animals is terrible and gives many examples of the alleged abuse of farmed animals by farmers. As someone who grew up on a farm, I can recognize these views (as indeed do many farmers not proficient in philosophical debate and therefore silent) as uninformed due to a detachment from how food is produced. This is typical for modern “city dwellers” with only a limited and selective experience of animals, particularly farm animals.

Given that MacAskill argues for an evidence-based approach to ethical action, why not consider all evidence? Why only the bad evidence? Farm animals, as opposed to wild animals living a free life in nature, have access to excellent healthcare, more than adequate food, water, and shelter. Wild animals are subject to disease, predators, and high infant mortality, which are harmful effects. Possibly, farmed animals live longer lives with a higher quality of life even if they are not free. Still, the book is definitely a refreshing new perspective compared to the default Christian deontological ethics, which is much more short-sighted and self-centered. 

Bernardo Kastrup: Decoding Schopenhauer

A book about a book by an obscure philosopher that very few take seriously or even pretend to understand written by another obscure philosopher might not strike you as a candidate for any best book list. Indeed, I wondered myself why I had bought it when it arrived before I swiftly put it aside. But for some reason, it beckoned me from the stack of books, and I gave it a chance. The simplicity of a commentary to a book appeals to me as a classical historian, having grown up with commentaries as the only way to squeeze out maximum information from texts. In this book, Kastrup “reads” (or, more appropriately, “fuses”) Schopenhauer’s metaphysics with his own. This makes for an exciting ride since Kastrup’s prose is always clear and follows a progression. The book shows how the will is the fundamental force in the world, blind in stones, water subject following natural laws. The crucial break happens with the rise of organisms, where the most simple, like plants, can react to stimuli, and the higher can represent knowledge. Only humans have the ability of re-representation. From this view, a coherent view of the world arises that explains natural laws, emotions, and ethical behavior with reference to one entity, the will, even if that word is sort of a misnomer. 

Hannah Nydahl: View, Meditation and Action 

Rarely have I picked up a book where the prose and presentation are so crisp and clean as Hannah Nydahl’s book on meditation. It is based on a series of lectures that have been transcribed, which makes the clarity all the more impressive. Hannah Nydahl was the wife of Lama Ole Nydahl, who brought the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism to the West. She spent years studying ancient texts in Tibetan and Sanskrit and interpreting for the 16th Karmapa and other Tibetan Lamas. This has provided her with a depth and clarity that is as profound as it is humble. In her short book, she describes the view of the world we need to realize. From a Buddhist perspective, the world is empty of real existence and through meditation, you can realize this and change the habits of mind. Meditation is a practice much like going to the gym, where you train the mind to remain neutral. The insight thus acquired should lead to action, particularly patience, generosity, no harm, and honesty. In this book, Hannah Nydahl ties very complex Buddhist metaphysics, meditation practices, and consequent ethical actions in an impressively simple fashion into a coherent whole.  

Andy Clark: The Experience Machine

Every now and then, a new paradigm emerges that has the potential to revolutionize the way we think about things. In his book, Andy Clark, one of my old heroes, explains how a new paradigm of human cognition can account for a vast array of phenomena and bring together various fields of study.

Throughout the history of philosophy, it has been widely believed that human beings learn about the world through their senses. This idea was further developed during the cognitive revolution, which proposed that the brain receives information about the world through perception, processes it, and then acts accordingly. However, the paradigm of predictive processing presents a different perspective. According to this theory, the mind is constantly constructing models of the world, and perception is responsible for verifying the accuracy of these models. This idea has far-reaching implications, as it can explain a wide range of phenomena, from chronic pain and placebo effects to schizophrenia. It also offers novel insights into the nature of consciousness and how these insights can be applied to develop new treatments.