The best books on making reality

Harry Collins Author Of Gravity's Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves
By Harry Collins

The Books I Picked & Why


By Jorge Luis Borges

Book cover of Labyrinths

Why this book?

This is fiction by the famous South American writer. It is a collection of short stories playing around with our notions of reality. It is good to read but also an introduction to the problem of what we think of as real.  In order to understand the problem and get somewhere with it, you have to detach the mind from everyday reality so as to make yourself puzzled about how that reality exists. Borges is an entertaining way of getting away from the everyday.

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Fact, Fiction, and Forecast

By Nelson Goodman

Book cover of Fact, Fiction, and Forecast

Why this book?

The philosophical key to getting yourself estranged from the everyday is the famous ‘problem of induction’, which goes back to the philosopher David Hume, and asks why we expect things to carry on in the same way: might my garden be a fiery pit next time I open the front door? 

Nelson Goodman invented a new version of the problem – ‘the new riddle of induction’. This book might come across as a bit technical, but the general drift of the new riddle is that every bit of evidence and experience we have for the grass being green is also a bit of evidence and experience for it being ‘grue’ – roughly ‘green every time I’ve seen it but blue tomorrow;’ think about it!  You can extend this argument as much as you like, and Goodman takes us through the counterpart colour ‘bleen’. Goodman thinks our expectations of stability are based in our language and it is, indeed, hard to see why it should be that we live in a blue-green world rather than a grue-bleen world – after all, we live in a world in which our expectations are formed by words like ‘deciduous and mortal’ – those are my examples.

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

By Thomas S. Kuhn

Book cover of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Why this book?

Said to be the best-selling academic book of the Twentieth Century, this is a bit more technical in so far as it deals with the history of science. Kuhn introduced the idea that science isn’t just a collection of facts but undergoes periods of radical cultural change – the most well-known example is the switch from Newton’s to Einstein’s view of the physical world. Kuhn said these ‘paradigm shifts’ involve ‘incommensurability’ – you cannot experience both ways of seeing the world at once and they cannot be translated into one another. It is an enormously influential idea.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

By Ray Monk

Book cover of Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

Why this book?

Wittgenstein is the key philosopher of how what we do and what we think combine to give us a view of the world and a set of things we take for granted – our ‘form of life’.  It is almost impossibly hard to read his book, Philosophical Investigations and, in any case, philosophers disagree about what it means.  But Monk entertainingly and interestingly explains his ideas through his biography: he makes Wittgenstein’s later philosophy readily comprehensible. 

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Alan Turing: The Enigma

By Andrew Hodges

Book cover of Alan Turing: The Enigma

Why this book?

I knew Ray Monk and when I told him I thought his book was much like Andrew Hodges’ account of Turing, he was delighted because he said it was his inspiration. Turing is not dealing with humans, you might say, but in dealing with attempts to mimic humans he is exploring what humans are.

Here his famous ‘Turing Test’ for intelligence is described. It was inspired by a parlour game in which men pretended to be women and vice versa; Hodges suggests this interest arose out of Turing’s homosexuality and that is how he came to invent the Turing Test. The deep point is that Turing is really looking at different cultures in imitation games and whether someone from one can pretend to be someone from another – see how it goes back to Kuhn? And see how Goodman, Kuhn, and Wittgenstein are really all about cultures – and so are the big problems of artificial intelligence.

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