PositiveWall Street JournalIn \'What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us\'—the title itself suggests that things are open-ended—Mike Mariani tests Nietzsche’s maxim through the tales of six men and women who underwent horrific traumas in early adulthood...Mr. Mariani’s subjects choose not to leaven the harms they suffered with the good things that followed...Nor do they adulterate the good things they experienced by connecting them to the bad...They just move forward, day by day, taking the good with the bad but never toting them up on any kind of scale...If there’s one demon that never shapes their amazing lives, it’s Nietzsche’s.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... an engaging analysis of the highest of our faculties and perhaps (ironically) the least understood ... Mr. Pinker tells a compelling story. But competing with it is a counter-narrative: It’s not so much that humility generates the greatest feats of reason as that those who have accomplished such feats are the most humble. On this account, human reason doesn’t march in a linear progression, as Mr. Pinker suggests, bringing more and more of reality under its ambit and leaving less and less remaining outside. Rather reason discovers, as it advances, the limits of its comprehension, making the unknowable appear ever larger: an experience that induces humility. Mr. Pinker doesn’t discuss physics. But many physicists now wonder whether reason has the capacity to penetrate inside the smallest, quantum bits of the universe ... Nor does Mr. Pinker discuss the possible limits of reason when it comes to comprehending the world within our heads ... One great Catch-22 of our species is that, while humility is necessary for reason to flourish, as Mr. Pinker rightly says, reason is ultimately necessary for humility to take root.
Andrew H. Miller
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... an expertly curated tour of regret and envy in literature ... Mr. Miller, an English professor at Johns Hopkins, writes from a perspective that presumes we exercise free will over such choices; his aim is to palliate the pain we experience when, so we think, we have made the wrong ones. He slyly notes that regret often involves a kind of unjustified self-flattery ... By approaching regret and envy from multiple angles, Mr. Miller’s insightful and moving book—both in his own discussion and in the tales he recounts—gently nudges us toward consolation.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalTrue, as Ms. Churchland would say, even though we know a Monet painting is made up of chemicals, that knowledge doesn’t stop us from valuing its artistry. But we don’t, at the same time, view the pleasure we get from such artistry as a mistaken theory, a mere folk explanation for the work that chemicals do. Nor do we root the Monet’s value—say, its emotional power—in the way it generates oxytocin ... Ms. Churchland’s previous books have advanced a potent philosophy of the human mind. But it falls short in explaining the cherished human values we choose to designate as moral.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWhat is it that religion provides us that nothing else can? And what can’t religion give us that might be supplied elsewhere? Neil MacGregor’s Living With the Gods helps us think about these matters from the widest possible perspective ...The artifacts in Living With the Gods link the natural elements, each with its own degree of controllability and predictability, to the origins of human religious order, in which priests, laity, experts and craftsmen all found a place. Indeed, this is Mr. MacGregor’s main thesis: that religion, above all, produces community. It unifies a people through ceremony and ritual ... Yet as Mr. MacGregor moves forward in time to the major living religions, principally Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, his objects begin to suggest something different. What strikes the reader is not so much the cohesion of unified belief communities as the development of divisions within each ... In response [to questions about what religion can supply to worshippers], the objects in Mr. MacGregor’s book quietly offer the most potent of replies.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAs Michael Shermer shows in Heavens on Earth, his inviting and informative tour of humankind’s various conceptions of where God locates himself, heaven is built to resolve such paradoxes … In bringing so many heavens together, Mr. Shermer does us a service. Among other things, he shows us why we are lucky that not everything can be fully grasped by our limited capacities. In our minds can be found the mixtures of immanence and transcendence that we call ‘heavens.’