I often add a short note to my reading list on Goodreads. These are not reviews, but just my immediate reaction, primarily intended as a reminder to myself. It is often hard to recall how we reacted to a book on first reading, and sometimes it can even be surprising as our opinions and taste change over time. However, i include them in this blog just in case someone finds them useful.
The Life of the Mind (**)
The topic of thinking should be of natural interest to anyone who spends time in any organized intellectual activity. However, my first disappointment with this book is Hannah Arendt’s narrow focus only in the type of thinking done by professional philosophers. Had she lived a few hundred years ago then this bias was justifiable, because until the 18th century most serious questions were tackled by philosophers. Here I use the term “tackled” instead of “answered” because philosophy rarely gave any definite answers. By restricting itself to pure thought, it could not verify its conclusions against reality. That’s where science succeeded and started coming up with explanations of the universe that is based not only on reason, but experiments and validations. The great benefit of this approach is that you cannot be wrong for too long as some evidence will correct your conclusions. This is why science tends to progress in fits and starts, while it is hard to find such a definite direction in philosophical thought. Since the advent of modern science, philosophy has been losing ground. What were once the domain of philosophy are being effectively tackled by different branches of science, from physics to psychology, from biology to neuroscience.
The author however is only interested in classical philosophy, and all her references come from the writings of well-known philosophers. She brings in some references to modern physics, including relativity and quantum mechanics, but her understanding of these sciences and the related scientists is pitifully shallow. She handpicks a few quotations out of context and tries to justify her essentially pro-classical and anti-modernist perspective. She is a strong disbeliever of the notion of “progress” and believes our world would be better if we could return to more classical values. I also find it totally uninteresting when she tries to build philosophical arguments based on theological (essentially Judeo-Christian) philosophies of thought that tries to reconcile contemporary thinking with biblical texts.
The book does an amazing job of organizing the various schools of philosophies related to various aspects of thinking. It is mesmerizing to see the intellectual brilliance of these philosophers in their ability to ask deep questions and then form self-consistent structures within which such questions can be discussed. Undoubtably, these are some of the best examples of human ingenuity and scholarship. I would have remained poorer if I didn’t get a taste of such thinking and logic. Yet, standing today, I find most of these arguments mostly unhelpful for me to understand the universe or myself. For example, if I need to understand the role and reality of Will, then I’d rather look at psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience than expect to get any answers from philosophers who did not have access to these deeper mechanisms of our brain, and hence had to speculate. They did what they could within the limitations of their time, but it is time to move on.
I don’t believe philosophy is dead. It still is very relevant and important in raising the right questions. However, I would not look for answers there. Our best hope is to see a proper collaboration between these two disciplines. Science is better at answering questions, but philosophy is necessary to question our methods, and look for questions we haven’t yet asked or are just beyond the reach of today’s science. Above all, philosophy is necessary to decide which science we should do – to answer the question of value.
A Burning (****)
This is a surprising novel that came to us from a newcomer. It surprised me in many ways.
She is a very powerful storyteller and created a page turner out of a story with no mystery as such. The fate of the characters was mostly guessable, yet at the end of each chapter, you will want to know what happens next. It has the majestic power of the inevitable movement of history, like a broad river, mostly predictable, even though you would want to change the course.
The language she used to differentiate the three main characters is very innovative. It is clear that the characters are narrating in their mother tongue, Bengali, yet it is written as if each person is speaking in an English that captures their social status, and their relative comfort with this foreign tongue. This choice of language also becomes the literary mirror of the society she is trying to depict -- ruthlessly ambitious and morally precarious. Everyone is clamoring to become middle class, where command of the English language is a must. There is the ever-present contradiction of enormous wealth gap intermingling with the equalizing illusion of social media. Where rampant consumerism is completely out of step with the economic reality.
Yet, it is not a novel without its weaknesses. Some of the situations and interactions seem a little contrived. This is especially true of the events in the lives of the nameless teacher character and the aspiring actress.
I have spent the first 30 years of my life in the same city where the story unfolds. I grew up during a period of idealism, and the belief that fundamental social change is the ultimate inevitability, no matter how tough. It hurts me to see how far we have changed. Maybe we haven't changed at all. Perhaps we were all delusional, and the same ugly forces were always there, just suppressed. The author is young, and grew up in the new society, where unbridled ambition is the new religion, and anything is justifiable to reach that end. It is wonderful to see that we haven't accepted it as the inevitable reality. There is still hope.
I will be anxiously waiting for her next book.
The Third Policeman (***)
It is a strange novel that is difficult to be categorized. It is certainly very funny in an odd sort of way, and incredibly innovative. The strange world it creates will stay with me for a long time, and I may never see a bicycle the same way again.
Leonardo da Vinci (***)
Isaacson, Walter *
While judging a biography it is very easy to confuse the person it is about with the book. I am even more in awe of Leonardo da Vinci after finishing this book, but the biography itself left me a little less enthusiastic. It is probably very well researched, but something was still missing. He is a very complex person to write about, and I was perhaps hoping to see that complexity in this narration. Whatever the book lacked in its literary quality, was made up in the last chapter, where the author uses his life as an inspiration to all of us.
The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta (***)
I have spent my entire childhood and most of my youth in Calcutta and left the city a few years before the author went back there to work in a Newspaper office. Even though my connection with the city was never severed, as I was making several trips a year, I was no longer an insider. My main curiosity about this book came from the expectation of seeing the city again, beyond the time of my departure, through the eyes of an insider-outsider. The author is not a pure Calcutta, and sees the city with eyes that have seen a larger world, yet, he was living right there and struggling to survive in a city where survival itself is a struggle.
I enjoyed the shared nostalgia of the city -- its smells and sounds and people, but for that I could go to many books and essays written by other Calcuttans, or sit down in an adda with a few fellow Calcuttans. So the real value comes from the understanding of these realities and seeing it in the perspective of history and the world. That's where I felt the book left me only partially satisfied. There are glimpses of that deeper observation and understanding, but just as often his views seemed to be shallow and lacked complete understanding.
For example, one cannot talk about the city without talking about its leftist past, including the bloody Maoist phase in the late sixties and seventies. The author acknowledges this history, but it was before his time. So he tries to see it through people he met who lived through it. He dismisses most of it as the act of a few delusional people, a few adventure seekers, and many who just wanted to take advantage of it. Perhaps he didn't meet the right people who could have also showed him the deep ideological and moral conviction that many people carried, and not all of it was in vain. It is also risky to judge that political phase only by looking at what happened in the big city, ignoring the rest of the state.
It also seemed to me that his exposure to the local culture through its literature, theatre, cinema was somewhat limited. As a result, it remained mostly a series of vignettes and personal impressions, which is not bad in itself, but inadequate, especially when he starts analyzing the city and its culture. In the end, I feel it is a great first draft, but a lot more has to happen to make it a memorable book.
Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science (*****)
While reading this book, the feeling that constantly circled around my mind was what I would give just to be a fly on the wall when all of this was happening. I doubt if there was ever another time in history or place where so many brilliant minds came together and tried to figure out the nature of the universe and the meaning of everything.
It is an amazing story of the Vienna Circle that formed in the early part of the 20th century. It was perhaps the turmoil that we were going through between the two world wars that gave rise to such incredible explosion of original thinking, both in the fields of science and philosophy. But it was strange that all this congregated around a single city - Vienna.
This brought together people like Mach, Hilbert, Russell, Wittgenstein, Einstein, Victor Kraft, Karl Popper, Kafka, Klimt, Freud, Neurath, Godel, Pauli, Moritz Schlick, Carnap, and many others into intellectual contact and debate. The most unusual aspect of this conglomeration were two facts -- they didn't agree with each other, and that the interaction happened between people of such diverse interest and profession. In today's over-specialized world, we rarely see serious interaction between scholars of different specializations, or even between sub-specialities of the same subject. Not only they were talking, but they were debating some of the most profound issues of the 20th century.
An amazing read! It is also a perfect companion to Eric Kandel's The Age of Insight.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (***)
A fascinating read about brain development of cephalopods (octopus, squids etc.) from a behavioral and evolutionary perspective. Full of surprising and fascinating personal anecdotes, the book goes beyond that to propose tantalizing possibilities about these creatures possessing an inner mental life akin to consciousness. However, most of these claims are still somewhat speculative, as very little scientific experiments/observations have been done so far. One thing we know for sure is that this is the closest example of an alien mind that we have encountered so far.
What is more exciting is the fact that we (humans, apes, all mammals and birds, even fishes and insects) branched off on a different evolutionary branch from the cephalopods from a simple worm-like creature more than 500 million years ago. The only common thing between these two branches were the early signs of a nervous system. Even eyes were not there yet, but perhaps some light sensing cells on the body. Yet, these two branches independently produced large and complex brains, with many similarities (but also significant differences). That is a strong evidence that evolution of complex brains, and probably minds, is inevitable in multicellular creatures, because it happened at least twice on our planet, and therefore is likely to happen on other planets with multicellular organisms.
A Pale View of Hills (***)
I wish I could find the characters and their interactions a little more convincing.
A Room of One's Own (****)
She wrote this essay a hundred years ago to satisfy a request to give a lecture on women in literature. Reading it today I feel both sad and elated. Sad, because what she said, to some extent, is still true. We are still living in a society where women artists still face challenges that prevent them from reaching their heights. But there are still many things to rejoice. In just hundred years so much has improved.
Virginia Woolf could not have imagined that my own personal friend circle of artists today is composed of more female artists than men, yet she would have guessed right that even today majority of large-scale museum solo exhibitions are by male artists.
She draws an astonishing picture of how you cannot find anything about a woman's life in literature until the nineteenth century. Even after that, where women enter the scene, it is mostly through male writers. She then explains why it was so difficult for a woman to write -- lack of exposure to the world outside her confinement, lack of educational exposure, lack of physical space to write, overburdened with familial responsibilities, and lack of personal funds. And above all, the prevailing male attitude towards female intelligence and creativity.
Yet, she broke all rules and created literature that we are still in awe. Even after a hundred years, she sounds contemporary.
The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind (****)
Gazzaniga, Michael S.
A very useful and thorough review of the progress that has been made in the last couple of decades in understanding the nature of mind and consciousness from a scientific perspective. There is also a well-argued section on why philosophy failed to shed much useful light on this problem for two millennia, other than raising extremely useful questions. Perhaps that is why need philosophy -- to raise good questions, and we should not look at philosophers to explain the world we live in.
The last part of the book tries to connect quantum mechanics and the inherent unpredictability of the microscopic reality to explain why biological systems are qualitatively different from the inanimate world. By extension, the author claims why consciousness is not reducible to simpler mechanisms at a lower level. He is definitely not a mystic, and fully believes that consciousness is a physical phenomenon, but he believes that the physics of it is such that only biological systems can display this property, and therefore a machine can never be conscious. I had a hard time understanding his argument here, but I am not knowledgeable enough in this area to refute it either. A lot of food for thought and will try to explore this avenue further.
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (*****)
Wilson, Edward O.
I may not have come across this remarkable book unless I read the review written by a fellow Goodreads reader, whose opinion I have come to trust. That, to me, is the greatest utility of Goodreads. Reading in an expensive activity, especially at my age. There are only so many books I can manage to read before my ability to absorb them fades away. Therefore, I want to minimize the chance of reading something and then discovering it to be useless. I don’t need to agree with the author, but it is highly desirable that I am transformed in some way between the before and after. This book definitely met that criteria.
Transformative non-fictions come in two variety – books that expose some unknown intellectual territory, and books that connect things that were already known in some surprising way. This book falls in the latter category. It allowed me to make better sense of my intellectual landscape, and more importantly, it covered all aspects of my curiosity, be it physical and biological sciences, philosophy, social sciences, or the arts. In fact, that is the central thesis of the book.
Science, as a way of thinking, has surpassed all other modes of thinking in terms of successfully explaining the world around us. No other discipline can claim nearly as much progress in their entire history as much as achieved by science in just a few hundred years. If Plato attends a modern-day academic seminar on Philosophy, once he crosses the barrier of language and terminology, should have little difficulty in following what is being said. But no such luck for a scientist from even two hundred years ago. The reason for this lies in the methodology of science. The entire body of scientific knowledge must ultimately agree with each other, no matter from which branch of science. No biological principle can contradict anything in chemistry or physics. If we find a single observation that contradicts a theory in physics then either the observation has to be proved false, or the theory is wrong, no matter how many great scientists may be involved in creating that theory. This rigor is what made science progress at the rate it has progressed.
The author wants to bring this same methodology and rigor into the humanities. He admits that the domain of humanities deals with systems and processes that are far more complex than what science deals with, and therefore, achieving similar success will be incredibly more difficult. However, that that is no reason to give up and not even try. Ultimately, all branches of humanities deal with activities of human beings, and as a creature we are bound by the same laws of physical sciences. No matter how we want to view ourselves, we cannot deny our biological self and our evolutionary history. Following this argument, the author tries to establish why denying our biological nature is not only inadequate, but can actually lead to neatly self-consistent, but wrong understandings of reality.
Even though I agree with his argument, some people may find his dismissive attitude towards conceptual pillars such as Marxism, Post-modernism, and Cultural Relativism a little too harsh. I think Steven Pinker does a more thorough job of dismantling these views in many of his books. Anyone interested in this topic will probably benefit from reading this book along with Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, Enlightenment Now, and The Blank Slate.
The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer (***)
An eye opening and hopeful book about a mode of cancer treatment that took many decades to establish itself but showing tremendous promise in the last few years. Best of all, it uses our own immune system to fight the disease and also explains many spontaneous recovery anecdotes which are often attributed to bogus treatments.
The story it tells is exciting and often reads like a thriller. However, that is also its weakness. The author tries too hard to make the book exciting and to get the reader excited about the possibilities. I could not but compare his style with Siddharta Muklherjee’s cancer book, which uses a much more reserved tone, thus making the book more convincing and humane.
Having said that, I am really glad that I read it. I was mostly unaware of the recent breakthroughs in this field and the promise of this new weapon against some forms of cancer.
Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (****)
Another intriguing approach to explain consciousness as a physical phenomenon, and dismissal of the idea of a mind-body duality, or the idea of classical free-will. The only thing I found abrupt was the unjustified connection between quantum mechanics and unpredictability of many brain and other biological phenomenon. There are far more macroscopic ways to explain unpredictability based on regular chaos theory. Most biological systems are complex enough to display chaotic non-linear behavior, and quantum behavior is an unnecessary complication, which can be true, but not particularly needed to explain the observed facts.
Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny (****)
The book deals with questions that should intrigue most of us -- why are human minds so very different from all other animal minds, and particularly those of the great apes, with whom we share so much of our evolutionary history and genetic makeup. There are several dimensions to this question -- what are the specific differences; how do they manifest as a child grows up; what specific advantages these changes might have offered as these traits developed during our evolution; and finally how much of these differences are influenced by different human cultures and what are universal.
This is an academic book, intended for scholarly audience. Therefore, there is no attempt to tell an enjoyable story or explain things in detail. It assumes that the reader is either already familiar with all the references made or can make the connection. I, being an outsider, had to read very slowly and closely, often rereading parts to fully comprehend the argument. However, that only made the book a little more difficult to understand but not impossible.
The author tries to answer all the questions he raised through the evidence of other research work and the substantial research done by his own group. The argument seems rock solid to an outsider like me. There may be flaws in his theory, but that can only be questioned by other researchers in his area. To me, it not only sounded very convincing, but it also harmonized with everything I have read before in the areas of mind, consciousness, neuroscience, and early childhood development.
If the questions raised by the book intrigues you then perhaps you should give it a try. It was very rewarding for me.
I Am a Strange Loop (*****)
Hofstadter, Douglas R.
I read Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach in my college days. While I loved the book, looking back I realize that the appreciation was not deep enough. I was impressed by the novelty and surface gloss of his thinking, but I was not yet ready to understand the depth of the book. Then I purchased The Mind's I in the eighties, but never read the whole thing. I browsed through it, and read bits and pieces, but never did a close reading. I think I was finally ready to understand his work when I started reading this book a few weeks ago.
Some of the best experience in life is when you nurture some thoughts for a long time, and gradually they take shape in your mind, and then one day you read a book that articulates those same thoughts, but in a more organized way. That was my experience with this book.
I have been reading a lot about consciousness for the last few years. They covered a wide spectrum from strong dualist views who are convinced that there is something non-physical about our mind, to people who believe that consciousness is a quantum phenomenon, to people who believe it is an universal field-like thing giving every object a degree of consciousness, and then people who believe that it is a very powerful illusion that is almost impossible to shake off. This book makes a very strong case for the last viewpoint.
If you are interested in this topic then I think this book should be in your reading list, irrespective of which point-of-view you currently support, as long as you have kept an open mind about it. The arguments here are very strong. Though, I have to say, at times he takes his analogical methods a little too far, and someone can find holes in the parallel he is drawing between the real problem and the analog. Even in those cases his intelligence and insightfulness come through, and the text remains enjoyable. What he presents here is not a scholarly argument. It is intended for curious readers interested in this deep question and nudges them towards accepting his view. You may not be convinced, but I'll be surprised if he cannot introduce some serious doubts in your current perspective.
The book left me in a trance, with a jumble of questions about my own identity, my relationships to the people and things that surround me, and ultimately about my sense of self, consciousness, and meaning of it all. It is not a book that resolves any of these questions, or even tries to, but rather makes one think of these things through the diary of a completely alienated man. It creates a strange world that looks intimate and familiar, and at the same time mysterious, detached, and distant. It is this atmosphere that kept lingering in my mind and forced me to go back and reread some passages because I didn't want to leave this strange place and the people that populated it.
Ultimately it deals with the question of self-identity, the agony of conscious existence, and about consciousness itself. This is a very difficult issue for me because on one hand I can feel what the author feels as he experiences these issues, but at a different level I believe I can see through this, at least conceptually, and have some idea of why we have a sense of "I", or consciousness, or the notion of free will. That is, on one hand these feelings are not only real to me, but the only reality I can bet my life on, but I also seem to have a fairly strong guess what mental processes can generate these illusions. It puts me in that uncomfortable place between feeling my own consciousness, and then stepping outside my own mind and looking at it from outside.
Above all, the book created just the right mental state where I looked back at myself far more critically than I am comfortable doing, and I looked at all the people who surround me and are important in my life.
Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance (****)
This is the second book written by Gawande. Though it may not have the depth and appeal of his 2014 book - Being Mortal, it is still a very thought-provoking book. Even though he only talks about medical issues, the lessons and insights should resonate with any profession. We all face the problems of limited resources, imperfect information, and complex problems, and we try to do the best we can under the circumstances. However, very few professions deal with such direct and dire consequences as medicine. Therefore, learning how doctors deal with these problems is a great way to realize that if they can do it, so can we.
Gawande is a great storyteller.
Waking Up (****)
I always wanted to hear someone explain meditation without the distraction of religion. This is finally that book, which talks about spiritualism without the supernatural. It is not a neuroscience book that is trying to explain the effects of meditation, but rather the personal experiences of a rational atheist describing his experiences of a lifetime of chasing the ultimate goals of meditation. He describes his encounters with meditation, psychedelic drug use, and spiritual practices, to better understand the nature of our consciousness and our sense of self. He makes a really compelling case, where I truly feel like giving it a try, but he also makes it clear the the efforts involved are enormous. The chemical path is easy, but it is random and undirected.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (****)
King, Stephen *
The Denial of Death (****)
It was a remarkable read that offered a different way of looking at life and the human condition. Becker puts fear of death as the central driving force of all human thought. It paints an absurd picture of life which is not pretty; where every life form is biting into and tearing up other life forms and excreting it out as foul substance. We, humans, are probably the only species on the planet that is aware of our ultimate end in death, and that plays a central and profound role in how we live life. How we deal with this truth is the subject of this book.
In my personal life, especially since I have gotten older, I can feel the tremendous effect death has on how I operate. Everything worthwhile that I do, including making art, acquiring knowledge and understanding, and reading, is an expression of the finiteness of available time that I am acutely aware of. It is the ultimate driving force for all that is passionate and non-mundane in my life. This may sound very negative to some, but if you think deeply enough, and avoid the positive imagery our cultures create to combat this very idea, I think you will realize that if we were immortal, there would be little reason to create, to fall in love, as you can always do it tomorrow. The urgency in life comes from the realization that it is finite; extremely finite.
In spite of its great central theme, the book necessarily spends most of its pages on Freudian psychoanalysis and it many variants. I am not educated enough in psychology or psychoanalysis where I can argue against it, but it always felt a little too contrived to me. It seems to me a bunch of extremely clever people trying desperately to make sense of a complex thing as our mind in terms of some basic assumptions, that are shaky at best. Is our subconscious as clever and inventive as these great thinkers? I doubt.
Neo4j Graph Data Modeling (**)
Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data (****)
I generally avoid talking about books written by friends, but I have to make an exception for this one because I honestly feel that anyone who works in today's corporate world must read this one. Anyone who is part of the current business world can feel the pressure of data-driven decision making. With all the technological improvements in computing, communication, AI, machine learning, and robotics, our businesses are becoming more data centric. This is an obvious move as it makes the businesses more efficient and profitable. However, many people can also see the negative impact of too much data centricity, but so far, I haven’t seen anyone voice it with such clarity and with a balanced perspective. It is especially powerful because it is coming from someone who has always been at the cutting edge of this technology driven transformation, and often predicted and it and pioneered such transitions.
Rishad Tobaccowala is certainly not a luddite. He is not against the use of data in decision making, but his prescription is to make a healthy balance between data and emotion, human and machine, or in his language, spreadsheet and story. His argument for it is not based on some lofty idealistic perspective but pure business sense. He has collected anecdotes and arguments to show why this balance is essential for today’s businesses to survive and grow. Rishad is a good storyteller, and he told this as a rather compelling story. Each chapter in this book is self-standing, and as pointed out by the author, can be read in any order.
If you are starting your career now this book will provide a great perspective to view your workplace and make smart career decisions. On the other hand, if you are a leader this book is even more essential. As I was reading the book, I could see so many ways I can improve my working style, and in so many ways the businesses I worked for could benefit from it.
Exploiting Linked Data and Knowledge Graphs in Large Organisations (***)
Pan, Jeff Z.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (***)
The author presents a powerful thesis to view the new technologies and industries that made a business out of our personal data. She first sees this change in the historical perspective of prior shifts in how we create wealth and value. In the feudal times we discovered the value of extracting wealth by accumulation and ownership of land. In the industrial phase we extracted value out of physical materials and labor. According to the author we are entering a new phase where the largest companies are generating wealth out of our personal information. In a relatively lawless situation, they are not only taking our information without our permission but finding newer ways where we voluntarily give up more and more of our private lives to be commoditized and turned into profit.
Her arguments are strong, and her evidence is often compelling. However, it is a book written by an activist, where every sentence is loaded with adjectives and metaphors that exposes her hatred for these businesses and practices. As a result, as with any activist book, it will reach her audience who are already convinced of her argument but may fail to reach those who are not convinced yet or trying to make up their mind. While her examples are mostly appropriate, in many cases she takes it too far and I had a hard time accepting them as valid. She also commits the activist’s mistake of almost completely ignoring the true benefits of some these technologies. Thus, potentially alienating people who are not already in her camp.
I, for one, would have preferred a more scholarly tone and a more balanced portrayal. There is a wealth of powerful thoughts here, but they get a little diluted by her rhetoric and one-sided analysis. This is a very complex subject, and any simplistic analysis will not resolve the issue of whether we are better off with all the information this surveillance system is producing, or we would rather guard our privacy and give up on the benefits. We should also be very careful about equating this loss of privacy with the questionable issue of free will.
Invisible Cities (****)
I cannot describe this book or put it in a bucket. All I can say is that it is the work of a dreamer narrating the dreams of another dreamer, Marco Pollo. He describes many cities in a language that is exquisite and vivid. Did these cities really exist in the past or in the future? We cannot put our finger on why he is telling these stories, but like all good poetry, you get into a trance before you can figure out the meaning, and then you realize there need not be a meaning. Recursion casts its magic, and past, future, real, unreal, living, and dead all get mixed up, and we are left in spellbinding awe.
The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes (***)
Hoffman, Donald D. *
I thoroughly enjoyed the process of reading this book, because it made me think all through, but in the end, I could not agree with what it was trying to say.
The author uses game theory and mathematical simulation to understand how evolution shaped our perception of reality. He claims that we evolved to create a perceptual mechanism that is not trying to model the physical reality, but rather it creates an interface through which the physical reality is mapped into our perceptual world model in order to maximize our fitness — that is our ability to make babies and to take care of them.
The traditional view of visual perception believes that our visual mechanism approximates the physical reality, and in higher animal the process is fairly accurate. That is, what we see is very close to the physical reality. The author is challenging this view. According to him and based on a few game theoretic things he and his colleagues have proved, the claim is that the probability that a higher evolved perceptual mechanism will reflect reality is vanishingly small. In other words, our perception does not capture reality at all. He then extends this to say that our view of space and time is all an artifact of our perceptual system, and the physical reality perhaps has neither space nor time. To support this fantastic claim, he is delving into modern physics, where there are questions about the fundamental nature of reality, which is also sometimes highly nonintuitive.
I love challenging ideas, but his claims seem implausible to me. Here is a few thought experiments to challenge it.
Let’s say I am perceiving I am in an empty room and there is a solid cube one meter away. My visual system is telling me so, which he believes is an artifact created by our cognitive interface. That is a fair assumption. Now let’s say I use a long stick, close my eyes, and try to probe the object with my stick and try to guess the position and shape of this object. Again, my conclusion will be identical to what I saw. The author would say that the interface is still fooling us because it created a self-consistent model, no matter with perceptual mechanism we use. Now let’s say I use an electronic echo device using ultrasonic sound to map my surrounding. Based on the time it takes the reflection to come back I can once again determine the position and shape of the object, and I will get the same answer. Now the author will have to say that the interface that evolved over millions of years of evolution also made provisions for this electronic probe and made sure our illusion is maintained. No matter which cutting-age tool we use to measure the position and shape of this object, the answer will always be the same, and somehow evolution anticipated all these modern innovations and adjusted for each. This is almost absurd to me, rather than assuming that the interface is not reality, but it is approximating the physical reality, and that is why there is such agreement between the different measurements, irrespective of the mode of measurement.
When the author claims that some modern physicists are close to abandoning space and time, he is once again making a strange leap. All that physics might me saying is that space and time may not be fundamental concepts, and there is something deeper that creates space and time. There was a time when we believed atoms are fundamental particles. Eventually we discovered that there are more fundamental building blocks. Discovery of protons, neutrons, and electrons did not make atoms vanish, but just robbed its fundamental status.
It is also strange that while the author is claiming that space, time, and objects do not exist and are just artifacts that our conscious mind creates, and yet he is constantly referring to and arguing with physical objects such as the brain, nerves, and all sorts of objects that live in space and time. While talking about color and color perception he is talking about electromagnetic waves and frequency, but how can there be frequency without the concept of time? That is, he conveniently uses physics based on space-time and then tries to prove that it is not real.
He then proceeds to explain consciousness based on his previous ideas and dismisses any possibility that physical systems can ever explain consciousness. That is again a strange claim to make when any serious scientific enquiry into this area is fairly recent. It is like dismissing the possibility that we will ever understand why the sun is hot in the 15th century. In reality a lot of interesting possibilities are opening up and there is no reason to believe that we have exhausted all avenues of research.
Here is an interesting case of a very smart person coming up with an interesting idea, and then falling so much in love with this idea that he is trying to twist things to fit this world view even when there are perfectly good alternatives available. I would still recommend my friends to read this book because it raises very interesting and tantalizing questions in many disciplines.
Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (****)
This is a simple book about a complex and painful situation that many of us are compelled to experience. The author is the single child of two aging parents. At one point she realizes that the roles have reversed, and she is the adult taking care of two childlike helpless people.
She tells her story as simply as possible, and with brutal honesty. There is no ornamentation, no philosophizing, just stating of mundane facts. And it is this simplicity that makes the book so poignant and powerful. It is hard to drive it out of our mind.
It also hit me personally as I recently been through a very similar scenario. My parents were also in their late eighties and nineties, gradually losing their body and their minds. First came the indignities of old age, followed by the ultimate insult to humanity, when they could no longer think well. They both died in the last three years, leaving behind a complex set of emotions.
I am also at that age where I can no longer pretend that old age is something that happens to parents and other people. I am 65. In another twenty years I will be in the same place, and twenty is not an unthinkable number. I still distinctly remember the millennial new year and September 11, as if it was yesterday, and that was just twenty years ago. I already have a hard time remembering names and forget some details. When people close to me gets annoyed at my minor memory lapses, I feel upset not just because I forgot, but because I know they may not be random events but the beginning of something worse.
I know I am putting myself in a very small minority here by disliking this classic. Hesse's philosophy, or at least the philosophy he is championing in this book, is not for me. I find the basis of this philosophy unappealing and unconvincing. Believers can easily dismiss me as not having the spiritual depth to understand it -- so be it. This is not the place to argue it, but I have my own reasons to discard this way of thinking.
Setting the philosophy aside, just the story telling also seemed very weak to me. I do not know if that is a result of the translation or if it is in the original text. I was mesmerized by the magical language and atmosphere of The Glass Bead Game, but I could not find that lyricism or the magic in this book.
Overall, I finished this book underwhelmed, and disappointed.
The Myth of Sisyphus (****)
Memories of My Melancholy Whores (****)
García Márquez, Gabriel
Very few authors understand the irrationality of love as Marquez, and almost no one can express it better than him why love is best antidote against the tyranny of age.