The Philosopher at the End of the Universe (Review)

I haven’t posted a book review here so far so this will be my first. The book in question is by Mark Rowlands and is entitled The Philosopher at the End of the Universe.

I came upon Philosopher by chance in the public library and took it “on spec”. Once home, I picked it up and decided I would probably not bother reading it. In the end, I tried the first few pages and was immediately riveted. I liked it so much that I looked up the author on the Web and sent him an email to express my appreciation, receiving a very friendly reply.

The questions you will want me to answer are likely to be “What is the book about?”, “Why did you think you wouldn’t like it?” and “What got you so excited about it?” Well, they’re the questions I am going answer, anyway.

Mark Rowlands is a professional philosopher, in fact a professor of philosophy. He knows what he is talking about and is very good at explaining it. Philosophy has until recently been an unpopular subject with ordinary people but is now beginning to show signs of increasing interest, perhaps partly because ethical dilemmas (such as the Iraq war, provision of medical care for the elderly, “green living”, etc.) are being given top billing by the media and partly because there is a cohort of writers such as Mark Rowlands himself, A.C. Grayling and Julian Baggini writing books and articles with a strong appeal to ordinary readers.

Why is this a good thing (assuming it is)? Philosophy is one of those academic disciplines, along with astronomy, history and perhaps even mathematics, that the amateur can get involved in. The difference is that while we can go through life quite happily without astronomy, history or mathematics, the same is not true of philosophy. Whether we realize it or not, we “do” philosophy all the time: deciding who to vote for, whether to buy “green” products, whether to be religious or not, how to relate to others in a multi-cultural society, etc. – these are all philosophical questions and we deal with them on a daily basis. Good books on philosophy not only help us to improve our reasoning abilities but are fun.

I didn’t think I would like this book because the author has chosen to illustrate his themes with famous sci-fi films, such as The Matrix, Bladerunner and the Terminator series featuring Arnie Schwartzenegger whose “philosophical development”, Prof. Rowlands humorously traces in the book. I thought this signalled a rather frivolous approach but, I am glad to say, I was completely wrong. Prof. Rowlands uses the films skilfully and with delightful humour to bring out his arguments. This is a classic case of being educated while being entertained. To see what I mean, read the book! I think if you just browse the first few pages in the bookshop or library that will be more persuasive than any amount of words from me.

What impressed me about the book was how the author presents his subject matter with utter rigour while rendering it comprehensible to the non-expert. Not only comprehensible but also fascinating. Prof. Rowlands’ love of the subject and skill as a writer makes this a most enjoyable book. I challenge anyone to read it and not learn a lot about philosophy (both subject matter and techniques) on the way. Subjects covered are The Nature of Reality, Good and Evil, Morality, Personal Identity, The Mind-Body dilemma, Free Will and Death and the Meaning of Life, all of them hot topics of modern philosophy but also topics that the ordinary reader can relate to.

It is customary to conclude a review with a general statement, summing up the mood and thrust of the whole review. Here is mine:

Read the book!

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About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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