I doubt if there is a greater intellectual challenge facing humankind than the problem of understanding our own minds. Some philosophers even believe this is a problem that cannot ever be solved because how can a system of a given complexity figure out the complexity of itself. This problem can be broken down into two, potentially interrelated, problems -- that of understanding human general intelligence and understanding consciousness. Of these two, the first one is significantly easier because there are functional descriptions of what intelligence does. However, when it comes to consciousness, we don't even have a way to describe it precisely. I cannot prove to anyone that I am conscious, as the experience is purely subjective. Yet, none of us have any doubt that there is a conscious world within us, and we feel it most when we temporarily lose it, as in during anesthesia.
In the 20th century, a new branch of philosophy evolved out of the work of German philosopher Edmund Husserl that dealt with the conscious experience of phenomenon, and Phenomenology was born. However, at the other end of the spectrum, neuroscientists and cognitive researchers were also trying to understand consciousness, and they were trying to find neural correlates of consciousness. During the last couple of decades, a number of candidate theories of consciousness have been proposed. At one end are ideas that completely disregard phenomenology and try to view consciousness as essentially an illusion that the mind creates. There are other theories that want to view consciousness as a natural outcome of a very complex system that develops some self-reflexive properties.
In this book researcher, Anil Seth is proposing a very different approach. In fact, this is the first idea I have come across where consciousness is not minimized by calling it an illusion or treated as a necessary outcome of a very complex system, but rather accept the basic precepts of phenomenology and explain how a living system can develop such a quality. To do this he is bringing together a number of powerful ideas that have rarely been applied together -- Cybernetics, Free Energy Principle (FEP), and Integrated Information Theory (IIT).
Cybernetics was popular during the mid 20th century as the science of control but lost its glamor as traditional computer science and information theory grabbed center stage. On a personal note, I got interested in AI only after reading a brilliant book by W. Ross Ashby called "A Design for a Brain", and later did my Ph.D. under a direct student of Ashby. Cybernetics shows how a complex system, like any living being, can maintain certain essential variables, like body temperature, heart rate, etc. within a tight boundary.
Free Energy Principle applies basic ideas of thermodynamics and entropy to explain how a living system can take action to maintain itself in a low entropy state they expect to be in. The author uses this mathematically rich theory to connect to his idea of what he calls controlled hallucinations. Here he claims that all living systems encounter a wide array of possible scenarios through their sensory mechanisms, and then apply Bayesian techniques to actually perceive the most likely version of these hallucinations. Incidentally, I remember reading a book by Terence Deacon called Incomplete Nature where he was also bringing in the notion of entropy and thermodynamics to understand the emergence of Consciousness.
Integrated Information Theory is also mathematically rich and defines a measure of consciousness based on how such a system is more than the sum of its parts. To have a high value of this quantity, the system as a whole must have high information (that is rule out a large number of possible goal states), but it must also have the property that the sum of information of its constituent parts must be less than the information as a whole.
The author has been able to integrate these three areas of research to come up with a plausible theory of Consciousness. If he is correct then only living things that try to control a huge set of parameters to keep them in a narrow band, and do it at every level of its structure (including at the cellular level) can experience what we call consciousness. That does not preclude machines to have intelligence, as he is separating the two. In this approach, something can be intelligent without having subjective consciousness. It also does not rule out the possibility of a machine that is designed like a living entity, that tries to control a large number of internal essential variables, may develop intelligence. It just says that a very complex intelligent machine will not automatically develop consciousness, even though it may fake it perfectly well.
I think it is a must-read for anyone interested in Consciousness. One may or may not agree with what he is saying, but there is no doubt it is a significant milestone in this field of research. However, one word of caution -- even though it is written for layperson readership, it may be a little difficult to follow unless the reader is somewhat familiar with this area of research.
Art Cinema and India's Forgotten Futures: Film and History in the Postcolony (****)
This is a wonderful scholarly book about a period in Indian cinema that flourished during the 60s and 70s, but gradually eroded away in the subsequent decades. The author, Rochona Majumdar, is a professor at the University of Chicago in their film and media studies department, but her training as a historian was the main intellectual tool she used to understand and analyze this period.
She starts with a detailed analysis of the Film Society movement in India and how it created the groundwork and the audience who were ready to accept a different kind of cinema. She also covered the role the state played in financing some of these groundbreaking films.
In the rest of the book, she analyzes three filmmakers from that era who had the most impact, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak. For each of these filmmakers, she picked three films each, which were made during this period and are often referred to as Calcutta trilogies. It is hard to analyze these films without understanding the socio-political environment in the country, and specifically the city of Calcutta. The author did an excellent job of painting a vivid picture of that turbulent era.
Apart from her intelligent and incisive analysis of these nine films, I was personally affected by an entirely different reason. The period covered by this book coincides with my formative years, starting from middle sçhool to early college days, growing up in the city of Calcutta. It so happens, I was also growing up as the son of one of these three filmmakers. Therefore, all the people and events described in the book came to me initially as conversations in our household between my parents, and with my father's friends. I witnessed the movement unfold as an inside observer. It is a strange experience when a scholarly discussion and historical analysis collide with one's own personal nostalgia and childhood memories.
Breasts and Eggs (***)
The novel is unique in its style and subject, but ultimately underwhelming. There are two parts to this book that are mostly disjointed, except for the protagonist and a few characters that cross over. They were written as separate pieces but later joined together in this book. The first part is far more interesting to me, as it creates an oppressive atmosphere around two sisters and a pre-teen daughter, where the older sister is obsessed with the possibility of getting a breast implant. The second part felt far too long, and the central issue it tackled, that of motherhood, female sexuality, and conception through donor sperm, a little too forced.
Global Brain: The Evolution of the Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (***)
The author claims that evolution is not just limited to individual living things and genes, but sees it as a universal phenomenon that is manifested everywhere, including the evolution of the early universe. Like Richard Dawkins, who coined the term Memes to describe an evolutionary process at work in the evolution of human thought, the author here is extending it to the idea of a global intelligence that includes not only multicellular organisms, but also bacterial and viral networks, and even the subatomic particles.
I do not see anything illogical in his approach, but it all revolves around the definition of intelligent processes. If we broaden the definition to any system that appears to be goal-seeking then perhaps one can see any stable system, living or inanimate, that moves towards increased organization, as an intelligent process. However, I am not sure if this perspective provides any deeper insight into reality.
One thing that must be said, his prescience about political radicalism and the pandemic, sitting in 2001, is incredibly accurate.
The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (****)
Amitav Ghosh is mostly known for his fictional work, and in most of his novels we see his characters as both pawns and actors in some grand historical milieu. They are at once being tossed around by the tides of history and they shape history. In his 2004 novel The Hungry Tide we are introduced to a different force, nature, in the form of a massive cyclone. More than a decade later Amitav Ghosh has come back to nature again, but this time in a nonfiction book and to talk about Climate Change.
In this book he raises an interesting and urgent question. In the past any major societal event, like a war, a revolution, or a famine, got reflected in contemporary fictional literature. Why is it that one of our biggest societal event is hardly mentioned in serious literature of today? The rest of the book is devoted to analyzing this question.
In the process he explores the evolution of current literary forms, the barrier we created between what is considered high art and what is ostracized as science fiction, how industrial growth paralleled the dominance of capitalism and imperialism, and why our present day political institutions are failing to manage this crisis. His conclusions are sobering and scary. According to him modern day nations are built upon the model of imperial power, and therefore are incapable of managing this crisis. Because of the interests they serve, they will not only fail to achieve their climate change goals, but they must also act as resistance to any honest climate change movement.
He puts most of his hope on climate change activism, and believes the only meaningful pressure to act responsibly will come as and when these movements accumulate more power. One question that keeps hanging is how will these movements actually achieve their goal? Will it be by forcing the nation states and the big private businesses to finally act? It appeared to me that he already proved that to be impossible. If not then how? This problem is too big to be resolved through the actions of small groups. Entire nations have to plan and execute massive changes, along with huge technological innovations. I do not believe we can do it without technology, without the help of the private industry, and definitely not without governmental participation. It is ironic that technological exploitation is how we got here in the first place, but there is no way we can get out of it without appropriate technologies. The lesson we should learn from our present day predicament is not that technology and innovation is bad, but uncontrolled greed can certainly kill us.
I am also not sure about his categorical statement that the whole world cannot have two cars, a washing machine, and air conditioning. We certainly cannot have it with available technologies, where most of the energy comes from burning fossil fuel. But I can imagine alternative pasts, and certainly alternative futures, where everyone on the planet can potentially enjoy these conveniences, without toppling the entire ecological balance. If we continued to develop nuclear energy options rather than abandoning it in the 60s, we could have kept the carbon dioxide levels down. True, they have other issues like accidents and storage of radioactive waste, but both were far more solvable problems than global warming. We could have also developed many of the renewable energy alternatives a long time ago and gradually replace nuclear with solar, wind, and other renewable sources. So, the problem was not that of technology, but as the author points out, in the structure of political power in the world.
In spite of some disagreements, it is a must read book that will certainly make you think.
The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (****)
I decided to re-read this book again after reading a book on dark matter and energy, and wanted to refresh my understanding of the big bang. It is still a very good read, but it is also opening to realize how many things have changed since Weinberg wrote this book less than 30 years ago. It was not known whether the universe will continue to expand indefinitely, or gradually slow down, and therefore there was no notion of dark matter or energy, which we now believe constitutes 96% of the universe. What will the next 30 years bring!
Music, Math, and Mind: The Physics and Neuroscience of Music (****)
During my high school and early college days a question started bugging me -- why do we find some sequence of sound musical and melodious. I could not find any books that could answer my question, and sitting in Calcutta I had no other access to such information. Therefore, I used by interest in electronics and built a very simple electronic synthesizer where I could tune each individual note and also play with the shapes of the waves and their envelope. A very poor man's analog synthesizer where strips on tin from a can served as the keyboard. Using this, and my home made frequency meter, I tried to figure out the mystery of the musical scales and also tried to generate some algorithmic music to figure out what constitutes a melody. It was a lot of fun. If I had access to this book then, I would have been deprived of the joy of discovering something using really primitive tools.
This is a great book to learn about these and many other things about music and hearing in terms of physics, mathematics, and neurology. In fact I have not come across any other book that takes this approach. Most books about music theory are written for musicians and not for the scientifically curious.
The sad thing is while it confirmed many of those things that I had discovered on my own in my younger days, it also busted many of my theories that I cherished for the last 40 years as truth. You win some, and you loose some...
The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality (***)
A fascinating book that chronicles some recent developments in Cosmology and Particle Physics. Over the last century our understanding of the cosmos have gone through many twists and turns, and the latest series of evidence suggests that all the universe we can sense, all the planets, stars, galaxies, and galaxy clusters, only constitute about 4% of the universe's total mass and energy. The other 96% of the universe is hidden in what is termed as Dark Matter and Dark Energy. We still don't have much of an idea what they are, but progress is being made.
What is most awe inspiring is how much of the universe we have figured out. This totally insignificant mass of matter that we call "us" and the even smaller mass called the brain, stuck in an insignificant planet, in the suburbs of an unremarkable galaxy, just one of 100 billion of them, have figured all this out!
I once thought of writing the story of a very smart goldfish that lived its life in a fish bowl but it tried to figure out the world around it through logic and reason, and it figured so much out. Our situation is not too dissimilar to that of this lonely goldfish. If there is anything we can be proud of, and is worth preserving, is the incredible accomplishment of our species as a thinking and conscious entity.
Paris in the Present Tense (*)
Reading a book is far more expensive, in terms of time, than say watching a film. Therefore, I try to be very careful in selecting my books, and it has mostly worked. This time I failed miserably. I realized my mistake early on, but partly due to plain curiosity, and to a lesser extent hoping against hope that the novel will finally redeem itself, I ended up finishing it. In fact I don't remember any case where I abandoned a book halfway, and that is a personal weakness. What a waste of time.
Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (*****)
Here's a science book that reads like an unputdownable thriller. Historians, archeologists, paleontologists, and anthropologists have always tried to paint a picture of our past, but as we go further back, the evidences become thin and fragile. As a result human prehistory, especially the movement of our species across the globe, was always shrouded in mystery. Experts tried to piece the puzzle together from little that remain, and had to make many assumptions in the process. Consequently, the theories they put together were frequently based on unsubstantiated beliefs and they often contradicted each other.
In the last decade or so a new and incredibly powerful tool got added in the form of genetic analysis of ancient DNA. Technical progress made in this area are nothing short of breathtaking. The author describes the work done by his and other labs, and the astounding progress they have made in terms of accuracy and cost of analysis.
Using these tools they can extract analyzable DNA from ancient pieces of bone, and the genetic code they reveal can tell a far more accurate story of our many migrations. This data is breaking all sorts of oversimplified notions we had about our origin, destroying many of our myths about the purity of our heritage. Of course, not everyone is ready to accept these facts as they challenge both political positions and academic orthodoxy.
The story they are uncovering is just starting to unfold. We have to hold our breadth to hear about the rest of this fascinating and complex story.