REVIEW: Answers for Aristotle by Massimo Pigliucci

A4A_coverMy grandpa was no philosopher (in fact, he was an engineer, which might be considered the exact opposite) but he used to say, “There’s always room for improvement.” Upon reflection, this may have been relevant to engineering, but I remember him saying this when I asked him why he gave our pizza a 4 out of 5 when I thought it was a fine pie. This sentiment has stuck with me, and it influences a lot about how I comport my own affairs. In my life, I too strive to constantly be improving, and have often struggled with being content while simultaneously wanting better. Now either this is a common philosophical problem for a human to have or Massimo Pigliucci is a mind-reader, but either way his new book seems written just to help people with this sort of problem out.

The ambitiously titled Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life presents a novel framework for how to approach some of life’s biggest questions, a partnership between science and philosophy appropriately called “sci-phi.” Pigliucci deftly demonstrates in each chapter how the one-two punch of these fields is an appropriate, measured, and practical way of viewing and interacting with the world and within our own lives.

There are many people along the non-believer spectrum who write about the majesty of science and discovery absent of any sort of supernatural presence. Some people cross over into actually suggesting that science itself can give our lives meaning and purpose. Pigliucci keeps this distinction clear by often reminding the reader that science says what “is” NOT “what ought to be,” which seems to be the root source of the aforementioned overstepping by other authors. Pigliucci makes no such claims and shows how science can tell us what is true about our reality and that philosophy can then help us decide how to incorporate reality into our quest for eudaimonia (literally “a good/true demon”), or a sense of deep happiness that can only come from a fulfilling life.

One thing that surprised me is how little of this book is about philosophy of science. I guess just hearing the two words in close proximity primed me to think about that disparate idea of philosophically analyzing science and the scientific method. This is familiar territory for anyone, myself included, who read Pigliucci’s previous book Nonsense on Stilts, which very much is a primer of philosophy of science. However, Answers for Aristotle is not a sequel to Nonsense on Stilts. The philosophy covered in Answers for Aristotle is not about critiquing what the science says about the world we live, instead the philosophy builds on the facts as understood by science to give a sense of meaning not fulfilled by the act of scientific inquiry in and of itself.

Epicurius, creator of good demons and good food. Obviously.

Epicurius, creator of good demons and good food. Obviously.

Besides being ambitious, the book is dense with information. It’s divided into six sections, beginning with the very question of what morality is and where it comes from. This includes everything from neuroscience to evolution within the veneer of the most prominent moral theories present in philosophy. The book then delves into how we know anything at all, who we are (more neuroscience but also the philosophy of free will), relationships with other people, politics, and god. Clearly Pigliucci does not feel the need to pull any punches. If that sounds like a lot of ground to cover in a handsome 312-page package, it’s because it is. Pigliucci fully admits when he’s forced only give a cursory explanation of a given topic, but he supplements his necessary brevity with references relevant to the topic of each chapter yielding 16 pages of other works to go check out after finishing this one.

When we had Pigliucci on the show, I mentioned that I considered Nonsense on Stilts a valuable enough resource for the critical thinker that it sits on my shelf next to Carl Sagan’s seminal Demon-Haunted World. However, I cannot say the same for Answers for Aristotle because I expect this book will be constantly find its way into the hands of friends and family, both those who agree that the unexamined life is not worth living and those who think us non-theist science-types can’t lead a rich and moral life.

Ultimately, Pigluicci presents his case for sci-phi with succinct snappy prose that manages to convey a lot with bogging down the reader with trivia. Answers for Aristotle is as potentially useful as it is interesting. Pigliucci opened this scientist up to the power of philosophical inquiry with Nonsense on Stilts, now he’s taught me how to apply that power with Answers for Aristotle.

 5 out of 5 Brachiolopes

Hear Massimo Pigliucci on Episode 112 – Philosophy… sort of.

Also check out Massimo Pigluicci’s own blog and podcast Rationally Speaking.

And of course, if you’re so inclined, buy the book on Amazon.

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  1. Episode 163 | La Bella Vita | Science... sort of - 1 February, 2013

    […] science literacy. Plus some of the specifics for finding your own eudaimonia. Make sure you read Ryan’s review of the book and buy your own copy! Thanks again to Massimo for giving us some of his time and make […]

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