Summary: a wide-ranging intellectual history of the world that prioritizes ideas over a simple catalogue of thinkers and texts. The author makes the persuasive case that ideas drive history and that much of what we believe is the result of the intellectual work of others—whether or not we’re aware of the origins of those ideas. To truly become an independent thinker, and to fully comprehend our collective history, requires understanding and grappling with the intellectual currents that made the modern world. While the book is mostly objective, the author does fail to recognize the epistemological conflict between religion and science, downplays the danger and divisiveness of faith in politics, ignores the moral element of science, and mischaracterizes atheism as “just another religion” while minimizing the importance of secular moral philosophy.
While democracy can be difficult to define and challenging to implement, the primary purpose can be stated as the prevention of minority powers from dominating majorities. The rule by one (monarchies and dictatorships), or the rule by few (aristocracies and oligarchies), gives disproportionate power to one person or a small group, allowing the minority group to impose their preferences on the majority, often at the majority’s expense.
Democracy, under the ideal of “one person, one vote,” is established to prevent this tyrannical rule. However, the introduction of democracy introduces its own challenges, the main one being the inverse problem of the “tyranny of the majority” imposing its preferences on minority groups. Democracy, unabated, can result in disastrous consequences for minorities and moral atrocities, the earliest example being the execution of Socrates by Athenian democracy for his crime of “corrupting the youth,” i.e., teaching people how to think for themselves.
The argument is familiar. It begins with an honest account of the mystery of consciousness and how there is, as of yet, no adequate or complete scientific explanation for how subjective experience of the material world can arise from the material world. The subjective experience of seeing the color red, for example, is very different from the scientific accounts of wavelengths of light or electrochemical activity in the brain.
It is then pointed out that there is no direct external evidence of consciousness, and that only one’s own consciousness can be known with any degree of certainty. The problem of the “philosophical zombie,” however improbable, is nevertheless unnerving as there is no way to definitively prove that consciousness is driving the behavior of others. Consciousness is therefore one of the deepest mysteries in the universe.