The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (****)
Chalmers, David J.
Before I go into any detailed discussion of this book, I must admit that even though I could not agree with many of the claims made by the author, I was still deeply impressed by his arguments and his willingness to accept that his conclusions could be wrong. That is the only way, at this point, we can hope to tackle the most difficult intellectual problem ever faced by humankind. Consciousness is so hard because we all believe we are conscious, and our inner perception is the only fact in the world we can be sure of, yet none of us can demonstrate to another person that we are conscious. In this book, Chalmers is entertaining a form of dualist view where there are two separate entities -- matter and mind. Still, unlike most other dualist thinkers, he is convinced that consciousness is not limited to living things but is substrate-independent. With the right organization, a machine can be conscious.
Very early in his argument, the author concluded that the phenomenal aspects of consciousness, that is, the hard problem of consciousness, are beyond material explanations. The arguments that he builds beyond that are all based on this conclusion. I was not convinced by the arguments that led to this conclusion, so the remaining 90% of the book, where he builds upon this conclusion, seemed less convincing.
He argues that a strict definition of consciousness is not essential to discuss the concept, and a graduated definition is sufficient. I agree with that position since we cannot even strictly define a "table," yet we can certainly talk about a "table" with coherence and purpose.
The author starts the book with the statement that he repeats every so often, that he takes the problem of consciousness "seriously," and he is only concerned about those who take it seriously, as opposed to those who explain it away. As the book develops, his definition of taking it "seriously" becomes synonymous with those who agree with his dualist view that there is something to our consciousness that just cannot be explained by physical and material factors. We must bring another notion of "mentality" to describe or understand it. In his view, anyone taking a non-dualist point of view is not taking the problem "seriously." This is an argument where he can always convince himself that he is winning the argument because any other view is not serious enough.
As he builds his argument, he presents all possible counterarguments, which is wonderful, but then he tries to refute all of them and conclude that his view must be correct since he has eliminated all other possibilities. The fallacy here is that his mathematics-like proof lacks the rigor of mathematics. A philosophical argument is not like a proof in mathematics simply because every statement is weakened by linguistic vagueness and semantic ambiguities. Yet, believing what he is doing is as rigorous as mathematics gives him a tone of sureness that seems somewhat misplaced.
This reminds me of a similar problem we face with the definition of "life." No matter how we try to define it, we can always find edge cases that can challenge that definition. This analogy goes deeper. There was a time, not too long ago, when a majority of thinkers and philosophers believed that there is the existence of elan vital. This life force distinguishes living things from the inanimate. We now know no such mysterious entity is required to understand life, and the living process can be completely understood in terms of the physical world. Yet, we are reencountering the same problem with consciousness. Philosophers like Chalmers refuse to entertain the possibility that, like everything else we know of, this last bastion of magic will also fall under the same hammer of materialism. We will eventually find a purely materialistic explanation and understanding of this most enigmatic phenomenon.
Of course, optimism is not logic, and there can be this one strange thing that will require something outside of the laws of physics. That is entirely possible, but unlikely, based on our history. However, I'd argue that this new entity, whatever it is, would then be part of our physics, as it would be needed to describe and fully understand the universe we live in. If this new thing follows logic, it should be part of our logical system, which we call physics.
Chalmers uses a clever thought experiment of a zombie, which is in every possible way like us, physically and psychologically, but does not have any conscious experience. The problem is in imagining that it is possible to think of a creature that is identical to me, but without any conscious experience, he is already assuming that the two are separable and that there is something outside of the physical world that is responsible for the phenomenological experience. My challenge would be that such a thing is an impossibility. That is, he is possibly trying to separate two inseparable things. Borrowing a conceptual tool he uses throughout the book, can we separate "water" from "wetness"? That is, can we imagine a world where water is not wet?
He talks about the epistemology of conscious experience and claims that since we can feel it directly, without any intermediate medium, it is intrinsically different from all other beliefs. We know that we are conscious. But why shouldn't it be so if we imagine that it is part of our mind that monitors and listens to some of our thoughts? Isn't it almost expected that a complex system such as our brain will evolve to have a mechanism to self-monitor? Such a mechanism will naturally feel directly connected to our thoughts. A lot of neuroscience research is pointing us to this possibility. A well-developed area of study deals with the Theory of Mind, which allows us to imagine that if I can think about you, then you can also think about me. We are all aware of this recursive mechanism as we imagine that I am thinking of what you are thinking of what I am thinking, round and round. We have even found neurological evidence of this mechanism. If we can do that with other minds, why wouldn't there be a mechanism similar to this that is self-reflexive? There are several candidate proto-theories of consciousness based on such ideas.
Of course, it is a hard problem because the experience is entirely subjective, and we cannot prove to someone else that we have conscious experiences. But this subjectiveness would be a direct consequence of a self-reflexive mechanism, and there is no way for a self-reflexive brain to externalize this experience. Despite the hardness, significant progress is being made, and there is no strong reason to believe that the materialistic approach will fail us just this one time.
I am not quite sure why someone like Chalmers would give up so quickly and adopt a dualist position with a painful prefix like "natural dualism" and introduce different physical entities. Of course, we should be ready to bring in new factors when everything else fails, but we are not even close to that state. For Chalmers, the main reason to do so is that he feels that conscious experience is so very different from everything else; it must need a special tool to explain. I have a different theory, however. There was a time when every problem in the world was a philosophical problem; over the years, during the last few hundred years, most questions that were once philosophical questions have been reduced to scientific ones. We do not need philosophy to understand the physical world anymore. Then it was life itself, which is now entirely understandable in terms of the physical world. Slowly the domain of philosophy is shrinking. It is still a handy tool to question and analyze our knowledge and discuss our moral positions. But when it comes to understanding the world, it has very little to offer anymore. The only area where philosophers may still have something to say is about our mind in general and our consciousness in particular. Therefore, it is not surprising that some philosophers would gravitate towards ideas that keep this last bastion away from the materialist and reductionist onslaught.
The final section of the book tries to connect the interpretation problem in Quantum Mechanics to his dualist view of the mind. Though he is not alone in seeing a quantum-mechanical link with our mind, and many other thinkers speculate such connections, I find these arguments unnecessary and, therefore, uninteresting.
Bel Canto (***)
Probably based on a real hostage-taking incident that took place in the Japanese Embassy of Peru, it is a powerful story that thrives on a successful amalgam of extreme danger and delicate tenderness. It is one of those books that you would want to finish in a single session. It is also a book that may nudge you to look at your own relationships in a different light. All the interpersonal relationships that develop between the hostages, the hostage-takers, and a red-cross negotiator seem unforced, intricate, complex, and often unpredictable. The fact that the hostage group is divided into many different language speakers, only connected by a single polyglot interpreter, makes the whole atmosphere strange and beautiful, perhaps reminding us of the world we are living in where we often talk past each other without understanding.
Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality (****)
The book does an amazing job of telling a coherent and beautifully organized account of how modern physics understands the universe. While reading the book, at every stage, I was awed by the depth and beauty of what we have been able to achieve in a matter of a few hundred years of science. Born with extremely limited ability to sense the world around us, being stuck in one corner of an unremarkable galaxy, and gifted with a tiny mass of tissue we call the brain, we could create such a detailed and far-reaching view of the universal laws. What we created are not just fanciful stories but rigorous descriptions of the reality that are incredibly self-consistent and can withstand the onslaught of millions of experimental observations. Any person who ignores this feat of human intellect is missing out on one of the most profound things we can experience. Unfortunately, a huge fraction of humanity, perhaps most of us, chooses to remain poor and ignorant, and let this spectacle pass us by.
The only thing I had a hard time accepting is when the author tries to justify the coexistence of the spiritual view and the scientific view in terms of the principle of complementarity. I would not try to explain this view in the small space of this note but would love to have a conversation with someone who can defend this view.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost (**)
After reading her other book The Faraway Nearby, I should have realized that I should try to stay away from her work as my sensibilities do not match hers. But the title and description of this book drew me in, and I once again came out with very mixed feelings.
There are beautiful passages here and a few haunting anecdotes. I wish I could just filter those out and leave the rest, but that is not possible with literature. Her constant self-indulgent pining comes in the way. She is all too conscious of her sensitive self and she is a little too eager to impress us with her sensitive nature, which becomes insufferable after a while. To prove her acute sensitivity, she would inject poetry into nature where no poetry is needed, as the phenomenon is intensely beautiful without any such human intervention. She tries to mystify things that need no mystification. I like understanding what is understandable and try to understand what is not. The author, on the other hand, takes something that is beautiful in its clarity and tries to make it obscure and mysterious for no meaningful purpose other than to demonstrate her ability to do so.
I know there are readers who like such intellectual calisthenics, but it neither appeals to me nor do I find it intellectually honest.
A Personal Matter (**)
Kenzaburo Oe wrote this novel in 1964 and is often considered his most significant work. Obviously, my expectations were very high for the "best" novel by a Nobel Prize winning writer. However, I may be in the minority of one as I did not find it inspiring at all.
From the very beginning, the characters and the situations they are in seemed extremely contrived. The theme is powerful and brilliant, but the execution is so contrived that I found it impossible to get emotionally involved. It constantly felt like the author is manufacturing the characters and the situations only to advance his thesis. Of course, all works of fiction try to do just that, but the trick is to hide the synthetic nature and make it believable.
The actions of Bird, the main character, the character of his lover Himiko, Himiko's father-in-law, and the doctors, are all unrealistic and utterly synthetic. Of course, one can challenge me by saying why do characters have to be realistic? They don't have to be if the author conditions us to accept a touch of magic. In this case, the author seems to be trying hard to ground the story in reality, but failed to make it convincing. This is particularly surprising since the author himself, in real life, had a son who suffered from the same birth defect that the protagonist's son suffered in the novel.
I would love to meet someone who liked the novel and try to understand how they could overlook these defects, and like the book.
Life's Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive (***)
The book explores what is it that defines something as living, and in the process exposes that the question is not that simple. While there are many surprising examples of systems that would challenge our normal perception of the living world, overall the book has little new to offer in terms of deeper insights.
Exploring Metaphysics (*****)
Johnson, David Kyle *
The lecture series takes the listener through a fascinating journey of the mind that covers a wide universe. From fundamental questions about reality, consciousness, the mind, the brain, and free will, it goes into relativity, quantum mechanics, and musings about time travel, multiverse, and reality as a simulation. This exciting journey happens through a series of extremely well-articulated arguments. It has the clarity and elegance of mathematical proof. A trained philosopher may be less convinced about his chain of arguments, but that is inevitable when dealing with such fundamental ideas.
I would highly recommend this lecture series to anyone interested in these basic and essential questions.
I had to read it because so many of my friends recommended it, and also because of its huge fan following. But I must say it is not my cup of tea. Of course, it is an immensely well-crafted story that I just could not put down. It is one of the best page-turners I have read in recent times. But still, I find this mixture of science fiction, magic, and fantasy somewhat unappealing.
As a science fiction novel, I have a hard time accepting the coexistence of sophisticated space travel, force shields, knives, and swords as illogical and absurd. If it is not hard science fiction then it could be a metaphorical tale. If so, the underlying message is trivial and uninteresting. Then, what remains, is that it is just a fantasy and a palace intrigue to titillate our minds. I guess that is a valid objective, but it is not for me. I am getting old, and there are better books to compete for my precious time.
The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood / Youth / Dependency (*****)
Based on my personal experience of trying to write a candid journal that I never intended to share with anyone, I concluded that it is nearly impossible for a person to be entirely honest. I realized that our desire to justify our acts is too deep and innate to allow for true honesty. Even when I tried to be self-deprecating, somehow, I was still glorifying myself for my courage to do so. Since that experiment with myself, I decided that I would remain skeptical when reading any autobiographical work. When I revisited my favorite autobiographies since then, I tried to read them through this lens, and I think I could spot the same weakness among these authors. I am not questioning the facts there, but how the author uses even rather damning facts to paint a heroic image of themselves.
Tove Ditlevsen's trilogy is probably a rare exception. I did not sense any attempt on her part to use her negative experiences to portray a positive image of herself or to romanticize it. She does not even try to evoke any pity among the readers. She dispassionately lays down her life in front of us without any adornment, and it is mostly a terrible life. She is merciless in exposing her callously selfish self for all to see. She does not want us to look at her as a victim. And there is no attempt to impress us with her ruthlessness.
Successful creative people are almost necessarily self-centered. However, we tend to lionize this trait. If they fail to become famous, this trait is seen as selfishness, but if they become famous, we see it as a virtue and a sign of their focus and determination. Ditlevsen views her self-centeredness as just that. She is neither proud nor apologetic. This detachment makes her such a fascinating human being, but not one that you would like your own life to be.
This book will stay with me for a long time.
by Magda Szabó
The only other Magda Szabo book I read was Door and I loved it. This is an earlier work (1970) and very different in tone. It draws a fascinating picture of Hungary during World War II while staying away from all the major happenings of the war. The novel is a reflection of the war, as it was reflected inside a girl's boarding school in eastern Hungary. At once it is a psychological novel, following the lives of a group of rebellious students and quirky teachers, a political novel capturing the confusion and brutality of the war years, and above all a tense thriller. A wonderful read.