A while ago I read a book titled This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works. Edited by John Brockman, it was a collection of responses from a range of thinkers on their favourite theories or ideas, that had significant explanatory power.
In a related way, I wanted to try and start a list here of books that I’ve read that I thought had interesting or important ideas, in understanding different aspects of people / society / the universe. I think explaining everything is a tall order, so this is just a list of books that I found interesting on a range of topics. In a way it’s also a useful list for me, of keeping track of books that I think cover or explain useful or interesting theories. Obviously, a mention here isn’t an endorsement of the book or the author, etc.
I’ll try to keep it updated as I come across other interesting pieces. But in the meantime, tell me what you think: What are the books that explain essential, profound or important ideas? What have I missed on this list?
It’s been years since I read it (and please be aware this isn’t an endorsement of the author), but reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins was a useful introduction to evolutionary theory. Interestingly enough, evolutionary theory is one of the ideas that cropped up quite frequently in This Explains Everything as a powerful idea.
James Gleick’s books on information theory (The information: A history, a theory, a flood) and chaos theory (Chaos: Making a new science) are fascinating, approachable introductions to very important branches of mathematics.
It’s been a long time since I read it, but I found a book on Popperian hypothesis testing and falsifiability useful (unfortunately I can’t remember the title).
Philosophy and ethics
There are a few books that I found interesting here – but it’s a complex area, and not one that I have a deep understanding of.
- The Intentional Stance by Daniel Dennett was an interesting read; I think particularly in how to think about people and intentionality from a materialistic viewpoint. If I can paraphrase, Dennett essentially argues that intentionality is a model that we have of behaviour in the world, so that we conceptualise other people as agents, with goals and mental models.
- Elbow Room by Daniel Dennett was also an interesting set of ideas, in how to reconcile a materialist viewpoint with questions about free will and ethical responsibility. Essentially, (if I can paraphrase many years after reading it), Dennett is arguing that traditional debates about free will and determinism define things in the wrong way; that if we think meaningfully about what free will means, we can have a useful form of free will, in a deterministic universe. Having said that, I think there is something to this webcomic sending up his approach – that it may feel a little too much like a glib redefinition.
- Reason and Morality by Alan Gewirth was a difficult book. It took me several months to wade through, when I had the time to read in-depth. But I think meta-ethics is an interesting and important philosophical topic, and this is one of the more satisfying reads I’ve found. To very loosely paraphrase, Gewirth argued that for any agent that acts towards desired goals, there are implicit assumptions that, if logically carried to their conclusion, necessitate valuing the agency of others.
- Beautiful souls by Eyal Press isn’t a particularly deep theoretical book. But I think it’s valuable to think about the factors that lead us to make courageous decisions, and for that reason this is well worth a read, as Press examines four ordinary people making courageous choices.
- The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger wasn’t an easy read, but an interesting one. He argues that consciousness is our experience of transparent self-model, as part of our mental model of the world we move through.
- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann is an excellent read, and a tribute to the work he’s done, particularly in conjunction with his former collaborator, Amos Tversky. Thinking Fast and Slow explains two systems of thought – the rapid, intuitive and error-prone, and the slow, deliberate and logical, and how biases can arise from our thought processes. It’s an excellent book built on years of excellent research.
- It’s been years since I read the book, so I unfortunately can’t remember the title, but I found a book on Theory of Mind helpful in unpacking an interesting and important theory. Interestingly, Dennett appears to have been one of the philosophers to first suggest the practical outlines of how to test for ToM.
Perhaps because I read a bit of fiction, story-telling is one of those things that fascinates me. What makes a good story? Why do we find some stories gripping, and others dull?
- Story by Robert McKee is an interesting read. It’s not foolproof, but it works to break down the key components of what McKee thinks makes for a good story: difficult choices and unexpected consequences.
There are a lot in this category – perhaps because I’ve been reading quite a few since the blog started, where as other categories I read more of before I was taking notes.
- The Dance of Legislation by Eric Redman is a fascinating first-hand account of a set of power struggles involved in the passage of legislation. It’s useful as an insightful account of the role chance and relationships can play in day-to-day political outcomes.
- Collapse by Jared Diamond and The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter both deal with how a society collapses. Diamond’s thesis rests on five key factors: environmental damage, natural climate change, war, weakened allies, and the ways societies choose to respond to these pressures. It’s a compellingly detailed historical account that societies can collapse because of poor responses to external pressures. Tainter’s thesis centres around diminishing marginal returns to complexity.
- The Master Switch by Tim Wu is an excellent account of how media empires rise and fall. It’s particularly valuable because it identifies cycles over time, rather than analysing a static moment. He argues that as new technologies emerge, the field is fragmented between many contenders, before it gradually merges into a smaller number of firms. Given that media can influence political outcomes, these cycles are important.
- The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge is an excellent outline of something that’s so ubiquitous it’s almost invisible – when did companies emerge? They make the compelling case that the legal structure of a company has a significant influence in our society.
- Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels is an important read. They argue that our ideas of how democracies work are wrong, and set out a strong evidence base of how a range of voter behaviour theories are contradicted by particular pieces of evidence. It raises interesting and important questions.
- The rise and decline of nations by Mancur Olson an analyses of why some nations succeed, and why others fail. He sheds powerful light by focussing on the relationships within a society, and how particular groups can have an incentive to take action that is detrimental to the society overall. Interestingly, it seems that since publication, his thesis has held up reasonably well.
- Manufacturing consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky is an interesting read, and one of the few pieces I’ve read that focuses on the structural relationships between media entities and government. Have you come across any other good ones?
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a powerful reflection on race in America.
- The origins of political order by Francis Fukuyama is an impressive attempt to tell a unified, theoretically grounded story of how political frameworks emerge. I may not agree with all of his conclusions, but I wish there were more books tackling questions like this on this scale. He writes about the historical emergence of the state, the rule of law, and democratic accountability.
- Economic Justice by Stephen Nathanson sets out, very simply, a set of ideas about how resources should be distributed in society. For all that it’s very simple, it’s actually quite useful: there’s real value in a clear, simple exposition of basic ideas.
- While not explaining deep theories, I wanted to quickly mention both Neil Chenoweth’s Murdoch’s Pirates, and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, because they’re both well researched pieces that set out in some detail the mechanics of how particular entities interact with the political / media system, in ways that aren’t always obvious.
Paper promises by Philip Coggan isn’t an excellent book, but it is a starting point on an interesting question – what is money? How does it function? Essentially, it’s a store of value, a unit of exchange, and a unit of measurement. But fundamentally, money works because we expect that we can trade it with other people for something. This is, on some level, obvious, but occasionally easy to forget.