To Light the Flame of Reason
– Clear Thinking for the Twenty-first Century
By Christer Sturmark with Douglas Hofstadter
”In today’s darkening world, if any country stands out as a beacon of enlightenment values, it is probably Sweden. And in Sweden’s public square, Christer Sturmark has done as much as anyone to uphold reason and humane critical thinking. As a publisher, he has always chosen to promote, and in many cases to translate, important, intelligent books rather than simply to make money. And now his values are gathered and refocused in this, his own book. As a bonus, the translator, the eminent writer and polymath Douglas Hofstadter, adds his own distinctive lustre to an already luminous volume.”
– Richard Dawkins, author and professor emeritus in The Public Understanding of Science (Oxford University).
”In an era in which the ideals of the Enlightenment need all the help they can get, we’re lucky to have such a lucid, stylish, and intelligent exposition and defense. This is truly a book for our time.”
–Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
”As a publisher, Christer Sturmark is unique. In the books that he champions you can see his passions for reason and tolerance, for the full flowering of human potential. And now those passions are on full display in a beautiful book of his own, as lucid and illuminating as it is warm and inspiring. What a world it would be if there were more Christer’s populating it. Let enough people read his book and maybe there will be.”
-Rebecca Goldstein, professor of philosophy. Her award-winning books include the novelsThe Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light, and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and nonfiction studies of Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spinoza. Her latest book is Plato at the Googleplex.
”We live in a highly polarized world. Knowledge resistance, conspiracy theories and fake news make it ever more difficult to navigate. In To Light the Flame of Reason: Clear Thinking for the Twenty-first Century. Christer Sturmark reflects on our place in history as well as on our potential future as a more united and reasoning humankind. He gives a credible and sensible voice to the new enlightenment-oriented worldview.”
–Björn Ulvaeus, lyricist, songwriter, former member of ABBA
”The author of ’To Light the Flame of Reason’, Christer Sturmark, has personally met and interviewed an impressive number of today’s intellectual giants. He always manages to make the discussions highly interesting with straight-to-the point questions, thought-provoking angles and analogies, and a good sense of humor. Likewise with this impressive book. If a book like this had been available when I was in my late teens, it would have saved me years of collecting and contemplating important information about human thinking – and its failures. Today’s youth need these insights even more, in this period of knowledge resistance, filter bubbles, internet trolls, fake news, false accusations of fake news, not to speak of dogmatic religions. Research indicates that the senior generation is even more gullible regarding social media. Thus, many adults too will benefit from reading this comprehensive collection of arguments – if they still have an open mind, i.e., open to rational reasoning and logical arguments. The translating contributor Doug Hofstadter of course needs no presentation. His enthusiasm for Sturmark’s text says it all.”
–Dan Larhammar, Professor, President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
”Not only is Christer Sturmark and Douglas Hofstadter writing with clarity and passion about our urgent need for the values of enlightenment in this sad time of populism and scorn for science. They also have this wonderful page turning quality in their prose, that completely captures you like a good crime novel. ”
–David Lagercrantz, the New York Times number one bestselling author of The Girl in the Spiders Web.
This book is all about the art of clear thinking. I think this is needed more than ever in the world we now live in. The book is not written just for academics who have studied science or philosophy at the university; it is written for anyone who wants to navigate better in this world filled with populist dogmas, anti-science attitudes, and pseudo-philosophy.
The book provides a set of simple tools for clear thinking, as well as a deeper understanding of science, truth, naturalism, and morality. It also offers insights into the rampant problems of extremism and fundamentalism – and suggestions for how the world can move towards a new enlightenment.
When I was young, I was deeply fascinated by the mysteries of the universe. But I soon came to see that although there was plenty of mystery around, there was also a way to study and to penetrate much of the mystery — namely, through science and mathematics. I therefore threw myself into the study of those disciplines, and also into related activities that involved serious thinking, like chess. What came out of my intense engagement with the world of ideas was a conviction that careful reasoning and precise experimentation give rise to a kind of truth that transcends all dogmas, superstitions, and religions, and that if humanity as a whole were to embrace that sort of truth, it would open up a marvellous period of enlightenment, and could even bring about world peace.
My personal involvement with science gradually turned into an impassioned crusade for a rationality-based tolerance of people of all races, lifestyles, cultures, and belief systems. I discovered that there was already a worldwide movement of kindred spirits who thought along these same lines. Secular humanists advocate benevolence towards all humans, not for religious reasons but out of a belief in the power of tolerance and clear thinking, and also out of a vivid sense of our collective fragility on this tiny sphere spinning its way among billions of stars, themselves among billions of galaxies. In other words, a sense of profound humility inspired me to strive to get along with the other beings on this planet, rather than falling victim to prejudice-driven hatreds and engaging in vicious battles with supposed enemies.
I wrote this book to show reflective and questing people how careful reasoning, rather than reliance on ancient scriptures or modern flashy phrases, can lead to a serious understanding of the world around us and even can provide a basis for human morality — an openness to diversity and a pathway to collective survival.
The book is filled with personal anecdotes and humorous eye-opening episodes, but also with shocking testimony to what happens when people let themselves be driven by superstitions without any support or by scriptures proclaimed to be sacred. It alternates between scientific and historical chapters and more contemplative short meditations called “interludes”, and its style is always down-to-earth and engaging.
When I was a teenager, one book deeply changed my life. Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid completely mesmerized me, and turned my attention to computer science, mathematics, music, and artificial intelligence. Its author, Douglas Hofstadter, became one of my intellectual heroes. When I came to know Douglas in person 35 years later, at a conference on The Limits of Knowledge, I realized that he speaks fluent Swedish (as well as Italian, French, and German, and some Russian and Chinese). I gave him my book in Swedish and he read it enthusiastically, and wrote me an email saying that he thought this book ought to be translated for the English-speaking market. He said that the deeply alarming anti-enlightenment developments taking place throughout our world, including his own country, the United States of America, meant that the world really needs this book. And as a gesture of friendship, he offered to translate the book himself!
I was of course completely blown away by this offer, and immediately accepted it. Over time, the translation process developed further to a writing collaboration that made the process even more amazing. The English-language version is now a joint writing project, with a lot of larger and smaller contributions by Douglas, here, there and everywhere. The English manuscript is now so much better than the Swedish original.
To Light the Flame of Reason will appeal to adults who are trying to figure out how to deal with the ever-increasing daily bombardment of conflicting messages about what is right, true, sensible, or good, and it should appeal even more to teenagers and university students who are struggling to find a believable and reliable philosophy of life that can help guide them in their choices of what and whom to trust, and how to act, both on the personal and the social level.
Christer Sturmark, born in 1964, is an author, publisher, and public intellectual in Sweden. He has a background in mathematics and computer science, and during the 1990s he was an entrepreneur in information technology, taking one of Europe’s biggest Internet consulting firms to the stock market. Today he is the author of six books and he directs the publishing company Fri Tanke (meaning “Free Thought”). He often appears on television and in public gatherings to defend science and to argue against dogmas, superstition, and pseudoscientific thinking. He lives on the island of Lidingö, just outside Stockholm, with his nine-year-old son Leo, and enjoys playing piano, guitar, and chess.
Douglas Hofstadter, born in 1945, is a professor of cognitive science and comparative literature at Indiana University. His first book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. He is known for his writings on minds and machines, analogy, and translation.