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Review - De La Mettrie's Ghost - Chris Nunn 

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For most readers that title could mean almost anything. But it looks like we're given a bit of a clue to make the decision on whether or not to be interested in this book. According to the subtitle it's The Story of Decisions. At first sight this might be more a business book than popular science - books on decision theory have been popular in management sciences for many years. And that, in a sense, is the starting point for the most difficult decision of all - how to rate this book - bits of it are great, but as a whole, I'm not sure it does what it says on the tin, nor does it read as a fluid whole. The three star rating it has ended up with is a huge compromise. The best bits are five star, the worst the other end of the spectrum.

It's necessary to get one disappointment out of the way first - that aspect of decisions. A book about how we make choices, about the theoretical logical approach - evaluating different options by giving various criteria weightings, then scoring the options against them to see which comes out on top - set against the real world approach which often differs so significantly - how and why - would be a fascinating popular science book. Decisions are, after all, a vast part of our life. Instead, though, it's not about the decision making so much as where the decisions come from... do we make decisions at all... in fact lurking underneath is that hoary old chestnut (though no less important for being that), is there such a thing as free will.

The introductory chapter, where we meet De La Mettrie (an 18th century Frenchman who had to go into swift exile for daring to say than man is no more than a biological machine) suggests this is going to be an enjoyable read, and so it often is, nicely written by Chris Nunn, but don't expect it all to be easy going. Perhaps unwisely he drops us into the hands of the philosophers at the opening of the first true chapter, and the reader is left reeling (and perhaps wondering what some of the arbitrary guesswork that often passes for philosophy is doing under the heading of "science"). But luckily we are returned fairly swiftly to the fold... and so it goes on.

I can pick out particular chapters that are truly fascinating. For instance, when Nunn is explaining how ME cannot really be a physical disease, and the lengths to which organizations have gone to avoid the psychological label. Also when he is talking about "cognitive objects", which seem like the old medieval idea of types and shadows, that have influenced the way people behave. All this is wonderful stuff, brilliantly told. Even his two fictional chapters, following the life of "Susan" and where her life decisions come from (the main lesson seems to be let your children watch Doctor Who on the TV, as they'll be imbued with a sense of right and wrong). But there are almost as many chapters, particularly earlier in the book, when we are presented with a melange of theories from different scientific and quasi-scientific disciplines that really don't tell us anything about the way we make decisions. It's almost as if each chapter were a separate entity, strung together without making a cohesive whole.

In the end, Nunn's final conclusion of how we sort of exert free will despite being deterministic, based around the idea of story, is interesting but isn't well supported by the rest of the book. It's truly a mixed bag. If you approach it like that, though - like a collection of essays, some of which are a lot better than others - you'll get plenty out of it.

Only in hardback

Reviewed by Brian Clegg


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Last update 05 June 2007