And we’re already on the second book… Things tend to progress when you do them, right? Anyway, let’s start with a little segue as to why this comes after Marcus Aurelius. As you might recall, we were elbow-deep in Stoic philosophy there, which… let’s just say it hit home for me.

In such cases of “love at first sight”, however, my first reaction – let’s call it a safety net against gullibility – is usually to check out the counter-arguments and criticisms, so as not to be accidentally seduced in the wrong direction. Well, fortunately, I found no evidence of wrongful seduction this time. That is not to say that there weren’t plenty of negatives to go with the positives, but interestingly enough, that was not the most interesting thing I found.

Rather, it was how much it was compared to other philosophical schools. In its introspection it is just like Zen/Buddhism, its attitude to pleasure is exactly the opposite of hedonism, it agrees with Epicureanism in X and Y, but disagrees in Z… This immediately set the ball rolling for me: after all, every philosophical movement is trying to cover and explain the same reality. And most of them are not exactly fresh off the press. So there must have already been someone who’s written a comparison of these trends; and with whose help I can perhaps get a more comprehensive picture more quickly.

And lo and behold, it exists. Overcoming all my anti-social tendencies, I asked in a philosophy subreddit – from real people! – to see what they would recommend, and that’s how I ended up with Think by Simon Blackburn, which, according to its subtitle, is a “compelling introduction to philosophy”.

Well… it wasn’t what I expected! I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s very informative, it clarifies a lot of concepts, and it lays an excellent foundation for any further philosophical exploration; so it’s definitely worth going through my notes. But if you’re expecting a typical self-help book with a few easily summarize-able takeaways, then take a deep breath now, because this is going to be a tough ride.


Thinking about the “big things in life” is not just for specialists, which is why this book tries to give you a toolkit that is A) already useful by itself, and B) makes it easier to understand further concepts as well. After all, a philosopher is nothing more than a “concept engineer” trying to understand the mental constructs used in everyday life. And the method of analysis, despite the long, intelligent-sounding words, is essentially to ask “Why?” after each question, like a fucking 2-year-old.

But there’s a bit of a problem with deep philosophical questions: not only do we not know the answers, we don’t even know how to find them – or even understand them, if someone were to tell us. So it’s not so much a question of knowing more, but of how to think better about what we already know.

Let me say that again, both for emphasis and to preempt disappointment: there are no answers here, just a few new grooves to think along! And why is this useful, you might ask? Well, we get three separate answers to that right out the gate.

The high-level, somewhat patronizing, “sticking your pinky out while holding the teacup” kind of answer is: what do we mean by “useful”? (I warned you that everything is questioned here…) The author does add that, as with anything practiced at a high level, philosophy can be pursued for its own sake. But that’s not a very convincing argument for its usefulness, unless you’re already convinced.

The mid-level answer is that introspection has a direct effect on practice. How you think about something can drastically change both your attitude and your specific actions. Philosophy is ultimately practical!

But the low-level answer, while the “ugliest”, might be the most convincing: without philosophy, there can be disaster (as there has been, and probably will be, sadly). Terrors like segregation, oppression, war and genocide all start with groups of people who refuse to tolerate anyone questioning their way of life. But there is a more personal dimension to this as well because, in a way, our own freedom depends on self-analysis. If we don’t know who we are, or where we stand, how the hell would we know where we are going and how much progress we’ve made?

So, armed with the motivation we need, we can start to explore the following 8 meaty topics:


An intro to epistemology, where we question whether we can know anything at all. We begin in an era where science was just beginning to “outgrow” the Catholic worldview; which was nothing short of dangerous. Descartes (you know, the coordinate-system dude) tried to resolve this contradiction in his “Meditations”.

We encounter the famous “I think, therefore I am” statement, which takes him to a point in his great void of distrust where at least he himself is known to exists. There are some who would question even this much, but let’s designate it as our base camp for now. The problem is that we get stuck almost immediately, because we assume that an imaginary Evil Demon can deceive all our senses. So what else could there be but ourselves? Descartes solves the deadlock by invoking God (not surprisingly, considering the times he lived in), and from there it’s smooth sailing. But how he gets to God leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a noble goal to try and build up everything logically, from scratch, in a mathematically provable fashion, but the idea fizzles out pretty quickly.

An example of a counter-argument is natural foundationalism. Here we still need a solid foundation to build upon (hence the name), but at least we can now trust our senses, because they are part of the foundation. As with practically everything in this book, this assumption can be argued against as well, but let’s be optimistic: it was nature that shaped our senses in the first place. If they were not indicative of reality, we probably wouldn’t be alive.

The harmony between our minds and the world is due to the fact that the world is responsible for our minds.

Another counter-argument is coherentism, where there is no need for any basis at all, and the focus is on the web of independent bits of knowledge. This way, everything we think we know can be supported by many other pieces of knowledge, but no single one can support everything. Again, this is not very convincing, since there’s nothing stopping Descartes’ Demon from shaping its lies into a coherent web. Moreover, the filter bubble effect prevalent today shows that we don’t even need the Demon if we ourselves believe only in a highly incomplete (but at least consistent) subset.

The last big approach is skepticism, which simply says that we cannot know anything “for sure”. Essentially, we just have to believe that what we perceive does have something to do with reality (and that we are not just brains floating in mason jars, hooked up to the matrix).

The conclusion, of course, is that there is no conclusion – feel free to get used to that takeaway in this book. But at least we are now aware of the most common ideas of the field and can think consciously about what we really know.


A metaphysics primer on how our minds are connected to our bodies, but only as a quick outline:

One approach is dualism, stating that the mind and the body are different (either in substance or just in properties). This is effectively the “ghost in the shell” analogy. Possible critiques include the “zombie” theory (physically similar to us, but no mind… how would we know?) or the “mutant” theory (physically similar to us, and with a mind, but it works very differently from ours… how would we know?). There isn’t any proof that zombies or mutants don’t exist – they might be the only things to exists besides us. Nor can we say anything concrete about how physical stimuli get to our minds, if “mind-matter” is really different than physical matter. Does God, in his great mercy, just happen to conjure up the exact right kind of mental pain when I stub my toe on the door frame while going to the toilet at night?

At the other end of the spectrum is the Leibnizian notion that there is a perfectly rational explanation for how the mind works. Just because the connection is not trivially detectable doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and we could understand it in theory. He gives the example of an ellipse, the projection of which onto a correctly inclined plane can become a flat circle – and from the circle alone, it would be pretty fucking difficult to tell that it was originally the projection of an ellipse. To the two people who found this explanation helpful: you’re welcome!

There was also some middle ground, stating that there is a connection, but we have to investigate the phenomena and only then can we figure it out… And a thorough analysis on how we see colors, which leans more towards Leibniz again… Khm! I would be lying if I said I understood everything perfectly in this chapter. I think we should stick to the two extremes for now; at least those were still pretty clear.

Free will

The theme of this chapter is whether free will exists at all, whether our actions matter, and whether we are responsible for them. The simple answer, unfortunately, is no. This is known as hard determinism, meaning that each moment is a direct consequence of the infinite number of moments that came before it, like a huge automaton. But although it is logically simple, it is completely incompatible with our common conception of freedom, and therefore not particularly useful. However, there is a funny limerick about it that I can’t help but share:

There was a young man who said, “Damn,
It is borne upon me that I am
A creature that moves
In predestinate grooves –
Not even a bus, but a tram.”

At the other end of the spectrum is interventionism, whereby the “True Self” controls the machine from within (literally “intervenes”). But this is hard to defend, because if the world around us is deterministic, then why isn’t our “spirit”? Which brings us back to the problem of dualism from above.

So let’s aim for a middle ground here, too, which is aptly called compatibilism. It accepts determinism (that everything is predetermined), but it refines it a little. In the compatibilist view, it is not necessary to exclude each other from accountability because it is exactly through ourselves that the past influences the future. The mental model is the following: the subject acted freely if he could have acted otherwise but didn’t. But the interpretation of the “could have acted otherwise” really matters here!

First, let’s try it this way: he would have acted differently if he had made a different choice. Critique: what if he was brainwashed by, say, mini-Martians? Not his fault!

Second attempt: he would have acted differently if he had made a different decision, and would have made a different decision under different mental states/thoughts. Criticism: and how was the poor man supposed to know about these different states of mind? He wouldn’t have drunk the poisoned coffee, but what would have made him think it was poisoned? It is not his fault!

Third time’s the charm: he would have acted differently if he had made a different decision, and would have made a different decision under the influence of different, real and available states of mind. Now that’s not so bad! Of course, we can still argue about how coldly we are dehumanizing people, but if this information does not replace our humanity, only complements it towards a fuller understanding, then I don’t see the harm. Flexibility is still very important, of course, because a bad mental model does more harm than good.


In this chapter, we move on to the question of who the “self” is and whether “I” can survive the death of my body? If our “soul” is simple (i.e., not complex), then there’s nothing to decompose/decay (i.e., die), so our soul can survive to the next round. What’s eyebrow-raising here is that our souls would need to be un-complex. Also, it’s not proven anywhere that disintegration equals death…

And what if our souls are not physical matter in the first place, but soul matter, which can’t die (there’s that damn duality again). The answer remains similar to the previous attempts at duality: yes, it’s an option, but in this case we don’t, and can’t, know anything more. So there is not much point to the whole thing.

Let’s tie identity to life, then, which is of course much more logical and easier to defend. Even if we physically replace our cells every 7 years or so, we still remain “us”. However, life after death can be flushed down the toilet this way. Some people can stomach this; some can’t… For now, let’s just keep thinking.

What if we tie the self to consciousness, mostly just to cause more trouble. For example, is amnesia enough to make me not me? Or if (1) as an adult I still remember my childhood, and (2) as an old person I remember my adulthood, but (3) the old person version of me no longer remembers my childhood, then am I still the same person I was as a child? This way, not only is there no life after death, but there is no guarantee of continuity even during life. (I could point out that the problem here is the lack of transitivity in a supposed equivalence relation. But who in their right mind would willingly write such a sentence?!)

And what if the “I” is just a package of experiences? Again, that’s not very good, because then any experience package could exist, say a dent without the car. Ok, then what if we are the viewpoint of our experiences? Someone had to live them, right? And that’s surprisingly good. But just because we can mentally live many other experiences from our own point of view doesn’t mean that we have an infinite life as a result. Try and sort this mess out, if you can…


This chapter is basically a fictional debate where a believer tries to prove the existence of God and an atheist tries to disprove it (and spoiler alert: the believer gets his ass handed to him).

The first attempt is the ontological argument: you can imagine God as the most powerful being, so he exists in your mind. But he would be an even more powerful being than that if he really existed, which is a contradiction ⇒ therefore God really exists.
Rebuttal: the properties of real and imaginary things are incomparable. I can, for example, imagine a 500 pound turkey that is both lighter than an ordinary turkey (because it is imaginary) and heavier (because it is 500 pound). So what?!

Cosmological reasoning, then: everything has an origin. There has to be a beginning, otherwise the chain is infinite ⇒ therefore God does exist.
Rebuttal: the original premise was that everything has an origin, but then we accept that God hasn’t? If there has to be an origin, then what created God? If there doesn’t have to be an origin, then why do we need God? Why can’t we just say that the world itself is the origin?

OK, then, intelligent design: the world is very similar to the things man usually design, only on a much larger scale. It shows that it must have been designed by someone ⇒ therefore God does exist.
Rebuttal: if we want to take an empirical example, it is much more likely that our world is the result of some generative, gradually evolving system; not an intelligence, which is very rare even within our known world. But even if we assume design, we don’t know anything else afterwards. Maybe this is God’s first attempt at world-building, for which he got a C-, and it’s been gathering dust on the corner shelf ever since.

In fact, let’s go further: the concept of God is not very useful just because it exists. Where is the unconditional love? Why is there so much evil in the world? This was already bothering Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

Besides, if God is so “unfathomable” (and therefore, his concept of “good” might be completely different from ours), then why would we bother with him? We can’t know anything about him anyway. And according to Wittgenstein:

A nothing will serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said.

We can’t even say that evil originates with humans because, on the one hand, not all evil is human, and on the other hand, a “good” God ought to be able to keep human evil in check.

There is still the argument of miracles, which is really nothing more than “And how do you explain THAT?!”
Rebuttal: lying, deception, confusion, and gullibility are all a bit more plausible than miracles.

When I leave for the office in the morning, my wife might warn me against the cold, or the traffic, or my colleagues. But she doesn’t warn me against flying elephants, being taken into sexual slavery by Martians, or conversations with the living Elvis.

And finally, the “Why not?!” argument, because it can only benefit us if we believe…
Rebuttal: not necessarily. What if, say, you end up going to hell precisely because you were weak-minded enough in life to believe in things like this?

From a utilitarian viewpoint, perhaps it would be more useful to look at religions through the lens of what states of mind they cause, and how admirable and worthy of following those states of mind are. I mean, I understand that for thousands of years people have needed ceremonies, stories, and music to scratch a certain social itch. But with religion… let’s just say it’s not unheard of for it to end in hatred and violence. Couldn’t we get our social dose from some less dangerous source?


Few people would think by default that this is part of philosophy… But from a certain point of view, everything is part of philosophy. So, to help us make our arguments waterproof and avoid contradictions, here is a quick overview of logic.

The most basic form is propositional logic, where we meet the logical (two-valued, true or false) variables, what operations can be expressed between them (and, or, if/then), and how to interpret them (with truth tables). And while it’s fine for a start, but these statements (which can only be true or false) can’t really distinguish between, e.g., “there is a philosopher” and “everyone is a philosopher”.

That’s where first-order logic’s predicates and variables come in (let P(x) be true only if x is a philosopher), which allow us to say something like “there is such a case when it’s true that” and “it is true in every case that”. And we can even add some probability calculus. All of these can help us think rationally (obviously), but it wouldn’t be this book if it didn’t immediately rub it in our faces that formal logic is not so easy to use in the real world, for real languages and real situations.

The important thing to see from a philosophical point of view is that most arguments and explanations require an uncomfortable amount of faith. The expectation to make statements “formally describable and unfalsifiable” would tie our hands too tightly, but we cannot generalize blindly either. What we can do is break things down, experiment, and try to understand the world the best we can, often without conclusive evidence.

One more note: most breakthroughs tend to happen when we start thinking differently, not just about different things. We tend to try the same patterns, expect the same types of results, etc. When that changes for some reason, we suddenly understand a lot more.

And this “for some reason” occurs suspiciously frequently when the fields mix, and, say, a non-physicist starts thinking about physics in a decidedly non-physicist way. So let’s not be afraid to get into something just because it’s “not our thing”. If we study it persistently, time will weed out the bad ideas, and we can only grow.

The world

Up to this point, we’ve been looking inward, so let’s take a quick peek at the outside world; for instance, let’s see if it exists at all. One answer is the theory of mind-independent realism (i.e., “yes, it exists, duuh”), which is hard to defend because of the mutant-zombie objections mentioned before. If this is not accepted, our fallback will most likely have to be some kind of idealism.

A version of it is idealism based on secondary attributes, where objects have primary, inseparable, real attributes (the space they occupy, for example, or their solidity), and the rest is just secondary fluff, added by our minds (like color, smell, etc.). This way, the secondaries may differ from observer to observer, but if the observers are equally well adapted to their environment, then they will all form equally “correct” impressions for themselves.

The question may arise, though: “Why isn’t the space something occupies also up to our minds?!” I’m glad you asked, because that’s when dualism collapses, and who knows what’s left. Anyone who says “nothing” is a subjective idealist. Everything is just some kind of force, and objects are just different pieces of space with different forces. Another suggestion (transcendental idealism, in case you’re not tired of these fancy words and phrases yet) is that we have it all wrong. Kant, for example, says that we do not simply have impressions of real things, but that things must conform to our organizing principles (such as space and time) in order to be perceived.

Still others categorize according to the rules and concepts by which we understand anything. Realism says the rules are real and we just somehow know them exactly (who knows how?). Conceptualism, on the other hand, says that we make up the rules ourselves to help us understand what we experience. A middle ground between these two is natural realism, where our minds make the rules, but our minds are made by nature, so there must be some real basis for what we imagine. Lastly, nominalism says there are no rules, and everyone can just do whatever the fuck they want (thanks for nothing!).

What should be done?

Finally, a bit of practical philosophy about what we should be doing. As a first approximation, maybe what we want to do? Well, not really… For example, we definitely should mow the lawn periodically, even though we don’t really want to, because it’s just the right thing to do.

Then what if we do what we think is important? Much better, but of course not that simple. For example, we can’t stop at what is important to us personally (egoism). Also, there is a difference between what we identify with as important and what we can objectify. In the latter case, it is easier to change stuff, because it becomes an end in itself, and it doesn’t matter how we achieve it. But if we identify with it, then a simple “symptomatic” treatment will not be enough.

These are the kinds of questions ethics is concerned with. What is a “good life”? What should we strive for? What should we expect from others? And what should they expect from us? And just so there is no universal agreement by accident, there are (at least) two major groups of opinions battling here as well.

According to cognitivism, we consider certain things to be important because we know they are good reasons for action. This would require a clear, infallible code of right and wrong (which is already suspect), and then we should not only follow it to the letter, but optimally we should also feel like it.

The opposite is noncognitivism, which literally just reverses the above sentence: we consider certain things to be good reasons to act because they are important to us. It is more logical in that we can then do what we feel is right. But there is no clear feedback as to what we should feel is important. What if, say, I like kicking cats?!

One more comment on moral cooperation: the aim is never to persuade or manipulate (and certainly not to deceive)! Instead, it is to help the other party better understand the situation. Or, if they already “get it”, then help them to realize hidden correlations and motivations that they may not be aware of. Or, if those aren’t hidden either, then just argue as best we can and seek to reach an acceptable compromise.


True to the book’s title, there was indeed sufficient food for thought. Epistemology made us question whether we can know anything at all; metaphysics dealt with the relationship between our minds and bodies; we discussed the question of free will, and who the “I” is. Then there was some religious philosophy about God and some logic about… well, logic. And as a cool-off, a bit of ontology about the existence of the world and a bit of ethics about what we should be doing.

Honestly, reading this book was a lot like being told in school why learning maths is worth it: it’s not the maths knowledge itself specifically that’s important, but how learning it teaches us to think. I don’t mean me, by the way, I liked maths – as well as the logic chapter here, which provided a little breather since I’ve already encountered most of it before. But all in all, I think I felt about the same as someone else would feel in maths class. It was a struggle to get through it, but despite it – or maybe even because of it – I can appreciate what it did for me. Hope it does something similar for you, too.