This has been, for a few months, my “coffee table book”. It is one I have close by in the living room and dip into from time to time. As the subtitle “(and 99 other thought experiments)” implies, there are 100 little scenarios put forward, each of which takes about 3 pages to fill. First, there is a statement of the issue and then Baggini gives us some brief thoughts on the matter.
So it’s great to look at for 5-10 minutes and have a little think, if you get such pockets of time available at points dotted through a day. What it isn’t is a book to sit down and read cover to cover over a rainy weekend. The shortness of each section shouldn’t deceive you, Baggini doesn’t just provide food for thought, he gives us a taster menu taken from a wide range of (mostly) western philosophy, ranging from Plato to Chomsky, taking in the likes of George Berkeley, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Soren Kierkegaard and David Hume along the way, along with some ideas taken from modern fiction, including Philip K Dick and, of course, Douglas Adams, whose idea gave rise to the title of this work.
The idea is not really for Baggini to pontificate (though he does this on occasion) but for him to oil your mental gears and get the reader thinking. If that is his aim, he does, for the most part, an excellent job. Some other reviewers of the book seemed to miss this point entirely, as they were disappointed he didn’t go into more depth. While I think that theirs is an invalid criticism, there are others which are more pertinent.
For one, the whole approach of the book is to look at philosophy, predominantly moral philosophy, at the boundaries of possible experience. The idea of the thought experiment is useful in many areas, not least those used by Einstein in thinking through his special theory of relativity. Yet here, what we end up doing is trying to feel our way around the borders of the room, without looking into the centre of the room. Here, I side much more with Stanley Hauerwas’ view of ethics as a whole way of being rather than a mere exercise in “what to do if…”
In addition to this, when you read through a few of the mini essays, one gets the distinct impression that Baggini has a clear idea of what morality entails and how a moral person might behave, yet in looking at the fringe scenarios, the basics seem rather taken for granted and go unquestioned. Perhaps a little more probing here might be welcome. As it is, it seems that these assumptions go some way to shaping the conclusions Baggini reaches. So whilst happy to (rightfully) probe at the assumptions of those he disagrees with, a fair treatment must do the same to Baggini himself. As might be expected if one has read some of Baggini’s other works, he is rather biased and muddled when it comes to matters of religion. Mostly, these are examples of questions which, though not wholly leading, are phrased in such a way as to incline the reader in a certain direction. These are examples of particularly non-neutral questions I mentioned the other day. The other point I would note is that a fair few of the scenarios either centre on or at least involve utilitarianism.
Given the piecemeal nature of the chapters, can one assess the book as whole? Well, it is a good introduction to many ideas in philosophy, which are made readily accessible. The fact that he provides references for most of his scenarios allows the reader to follow up on any points that pique their interest. If one reads through this and finds no such points well….maybe philosophy isn’t your thing. This is a fun book, with an edge of seriousness, not an academic treatise. So please do read it, think about it and enjoy.