Here are my notes about books I read during the last three months (July to September of 2022).
Death by Water (**)
This is my second book by Kenzaburo Oe. The first one disappointed me, and I felt I was in the minority considering his reputation and his Nobel. Therefore, I wanted to try again, but the results were still the same. Perhaps this is not for me.
As with the previous book, the author mixes his personal life experience with fictional elements to build this novel. I once again felt that the author decided on a clear path and is manufacturing characters and situations to get there. Of course, that is probably the method behind many works of fiction, but I prefer when I cannot catch the intentional design, and things look more natural. That is, I don't like when everything looks so contrived. The ending of this one is particularly forced and unconvincing.
One intriguing feature of the novel is how the author uses the process of developing a theatre production throughout the story as a literary vehicle for going beyond reality into an abstract zone.
The entire book is built out of long, uninterrupted monologues. There is no attempt to make them sound like real dialogues between people, with short sentences and interruptions. This strongly reminded me of Dostoyevsky's novels. Alas, they did not have the philosophical depth that I found in the Russian classics and just sounded unnatural and long.
When I do not like a translated work, there is always a nagging thought that it could be the translation. However, there is no way I will know if a better translation could have had a different impact on me. As it stands, I think this is a novel that I will forget soon.
I have never read a graphic novel before but wanted to try. So I asked a Goodreads friend, Jen, for a recommendation. This is what she suggested, and I am grateful for such a great suggestion.
Through ten chapters, we follow the protagonist's life, an obit column writer in a Rio newspaper. But the story is not chronological and jumps around different phases of his life. The only consistent thing is that he dies at the end of each chapter. Through this unique narrative device, the authors explore their take on life, death, meaning, friendship, and love. The philosophical views are not particularly surprising, but the way it is told is unique and powerful.
I always wondered what the essential difference between a literary novel and a graphic novel is. I think now I know. In a literary work, outside of the dialogs, the atmosphere is built using words. In a graphic novel, the job of building an atmosphere and mood falls on the shoulder of the illustrator. In this book, the images are hauntingly beautiful and create an atmosphere that juxtaposes the joy of living and the melancholy of existence.
The images from this book will stay with me for a long time.
Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (****)
Chalmers, David J.
The book deals with several philosophical questions that may seem a little contrived today but are likely to become relevant to our day-to-day life in the near future. The primary focus here is to gain a broader understanding of what we call Reality. At a superficial level, we only call the physical and verifiable surroundings Real, like the chair, the orange, the sun, and you and me. However, increasingly we are entering alternative realities in video games, Augmented Realities, Virtual Realities, and other computer-simulated environments. So far, these synthetic realities are easily recognizable as distinct from the Real world, but inevitably, over time, the two will come closer. The author tries to argue that intrinsically these digital worlds are as real as our physical world and makes a strong case for why we need to broaden our definition of Real.
This argument becomes more poignant when he brings up the issue of whether we are already in a giant computer simulation. Many other philosophers have discussed this possibility, and people like Nick Bostrom also tried to argue that based on statistical reasoning, we are more likely to be a simulation than not. If we accept this point of view, then the thing that we call our objective reality may itself be a construction of the simulation we live in. There is no obvious way to prove that we are not in a simulation.
While I could agree with the first claim that we need to expand our notion of Reality, I am far less convinced of the simulation argument. I am not claiming it is provably wrong, but I believe there are arguments to show that it is extremely unlikely. Here's one example argument. If someone tries to simulate the current world in which the simulation is taking place, then this simulation must also include a simulation of the computer on which the simulation is happening. Whenever a computer tries to simulate itself, the resulting simulated computer will have to be many times slower than the original computer because it must simulate all the internal states explicitly. This does not pose a conceptual problem because if the original computer is incredibly fast, the simulation can still run at a decent speed. However, the simulated computer cannot have the same memory capacity as the original computer since every memory location of the simulated machine must be represented by a memory location in the physical computer. If the physical computer is simulating a whole world, which includes many such simulated things, including this simulated computer, then the simulated computer will have a tiny fraction of the memory capacity of the original machine. Therefore, it is not possible to simulate a world that is at the same level of technology. The best we can do is to simulate an ancient world. I can think of many such arguments that can progressively weaken the probability that we are in a simulation.
As a pure thinker and as a philosopher, Chalmers' approach makes little distinction between what is possible and what is plausible. In his approach, anything that is possible is a plausible reality. I have a more realistic mindset, and therefore while I intellectually enjoy wild speculations, after a while, I find contemplating highly implausible scenarios a waste of time. For example, I don't want to spend too much time pondering if my mind is a Boltzmann Brain (a random arrangement of matter that has the same structural properties as my brain).
This is an important book as it raises questions that will become extremely relevant soon. However, the book could have been much shorter. I think in order to reach a philosophically less sophisticated audience, he made the book repetitive. There is also a propensity to tackle problems that are more akin to brain teasers than actual problems. The book also touched me at an emotional level because I spent several years more than a decade ago creating a series of mechanical art pieces, and the series was called "Synthetic Realities." I wanted to explore our emotional reactions to physical objects, like a pendulum, that look and feel real but are simulated and deliberately distort some physical principles (e.g. gravity)
The First Man (****)
Perhaps not his best, but still a moving novel that is also most autobiographical. The characters in this unfinished novel resemble his own family and his trajectory while growing up in a poor family in Algeria. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the beautiful meditations are also drawn from his own life. The most remarkable truth that comes out is that poverty looks the same everywhere. The experience and realizations of the characters in this novel, living in an impoverished corner of Algeria, is not all that different from the experience of poor people in India, where I grew up.
Memories and nostalgia are things that only the privileged can cherish. The greyness of poverty makes every day the same, just a struggle for survival, and memories get lost in the sameness.
The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Sparked an Atheist Revolution (***)
After reading and liking the arguments against religion by each of these four individuals in their respective books and articles, I was curious about a conversation between them. Perhaps I should have watched the original video of this session between Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris rather than reading the transcript. In an unrehearsed conversation, one should not expect the same cohesion as a written argument, but my expectation was distorted because I was reading it rather than watching it. Consequently, the arguments were a pale shadow of the solidly constructed arguments that one can find in their books. Not sure how someone would react to this if they have never read their books, but I would still recommend the books by these authors on the same subject rather than scattered conversation.
Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (*****)
Another brilliant book from a brilliant thinker. As in all his other books, Pinker tackles the issue with open-mindedness, reason, sharp logic, and without any fear of challenging some accepted notions. He tackles all aspects of what we call reason and rational thinking and exposes all the pitfalls of rationality. I can bet that even the smartest readers will benefit from recognizing these pitfalls because we all make these mistakes of reason all the time. Getting them exposed will not make us perfectly rational creatures but should make us more careful thinkers. The root of these mistakes lies deep in how our brain evolved, so it is a constant battle to fight against the natural tendencies, but exposing them may help us recognize the traps.
The book is also extremely timely since, as a society, we are going through a period where globally, there is a huge decline in rational thinking. A growing section of the population is engaged in irrational and often dangerous beliefs that are rapidly transforming our political landscape. We are indulging ourselves in creating alternative realities that are very far from the truth and, in the process, denying the institutions that maintained our societal commitments to reason. I am not sure the book will reach that segment, but at least it should make the rest of us understand that we, who believe we are rational, can be just as vulnerable. It once again made me aware that ideology and reason are enemies, irrespective of our political leaning.
At a personal level, I feel proud and happy that Steven Pinker recently agreed to write the article on Rationality for Encyclopaedia Britannica, the company I work for (www.britannica.com/topic/rationality)
Making Sense (*****)
This is the most influential and thought-provoking audiobook I have read in recent times. It is a selection of conversations taken from Sam Harris' podcast of the same name. Sam Harris is one of my favorite contemporary thinkers both because his range of interests coincides with mine and because of his sharp intelligence. In this collection, he talks with a range of thought leaders who have some of the most interesting things to say about our mind, consciousness, morality, free will, the future of humanity, and artificial intelligence. Even though I have read most of the books written by these authors, Sam Harris can bring dig deeper into these ideas by asking the right questions.
If nothing else, I am sure listening to these conversations, you will feel a little smarter and feel proud that we share the planet with such intelligent and original thinkers. If there is one book you read this year, this could be it.
Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective (****)
Stanley, Kenneth O.
The authors of this book performed an interesting experiment in 2006 where they created a web-based application called Picbreeder, which is still available for anyone to try. The program generates an array of small images with very little details, and each very similar to the rest except for some small random variations. The human user is supposed to pick one of these images to trigger the next generation of images, which are small variations of the selected image. The same user, or someone else, can continue this selective "breeding" as long as desired. The strange finding was that ultimately it ends up generating surprising images that resemble recognizable objects such as a human face, a car, an insect, or a candle. The important observation here is that the users did not aim to create these images from the start, and it can be shown that if they aimed at something, most likely they would never get there. That is, the most surprising results are obtained when that was not the objective, and it reaches this state via a series of unrelated interesting images, which the authors call the "stepping stones".
In this book, the authors try to generalize this observation into a much larger principle. They claim that while small improvements can be achieved through a goal-directed approach, really ambitious things can only be achieved when we allow ourselves to wander around without specific objectives. For example, the first computer, Eniac, used vacuum tubes, but if someone wanted to create the first computer, say a hundred years ago, they would not have discovered the vacuum tube in the process. The discovery of the vacuum tube happened for a very different reason and acted as a stepping stone toward designing the first computer.
Their main attack is on the present culture of objective-driven processes in the world of science and technology. Starting from how research is funded and evaluated to how we are trained to think, the focus is always on specific objectives, and according to the authors, that is a very short-sighted approach and is a hindrance to spectacular discoveries.
They also try to view the process of natural evolution through this prism and present an alternative interpretation of the evolutionary process. The group also tried to apply these principles in an AI search algorithm that only looks for "novelty" in the search space, rather than maximizing some objective function, and show that in some cases, this approach produces better results than an objective-based algorithm.
It is certainly a powerful and novel idea that offers a new way of looking at many things. I certainly felt intellectually enriched after reading the book. However, I also felt that the writers fell into a common trap many others fall into after they come up with a powerful idea -- that of over-generalizing the scope of the idea. They start believing that this one idea can be applied everywhere. In this case, the authors do talk about this mistake but still fall into it.
First of all, they never discuss real-life cases where their ideas may not apply. For example, they talk of extremely successful individuals who did not aim at what ultimately made them famous but never mention other successful people who set their ultimate target very early on in their lives and doggedly pursued it till they reached their celebrity. They criticize the current process of objective-based policies and explain why greatness cannot be achieved that way but do not try to look at thousands of spectacular innovations that happened in spite of these restrictions.
Finally, they fail to offer a pragmatic alternative to objective-based thinking. In a world where resources are always limited, how else can we allocate those precious resources without some sort of practical constraints? In reality, most of the scientific and technological improvements that happen are due to unambitious small steps done by mediocre people. The system asks us to predict an outcome and then go for it. However, in this sea of mediocrity, there are a few brilliant individuals who can see a little further or are just more creative, and they discover something that is away from the original objective. It is these leaps that form what the authors are calling the stepping stones. That is, spectacular progress still happens, despite our uninspiring processes, and the objective-based paradigms ensure that the majority of mediocre innovators make the best use of the resources.
I am not suggesting that the process that exists today is ideal or optimum. Thinking like this can certainly drive us towards a better system. However, I don't believe the removal of the objective-based process altogether can be very efficient.
A great, thought-provoking book that I'd highly recommend. However, I think the book could have been much shorter without losing much of its communicative strength.
A Fortunate Universe (****)
Lewis, Geraint F.
The book deals with a fairly old problem in Physics, and to some extent, Philosophy. The problem is, why do we live in a universe which allows the existence of life and us? Since the beginning of modern science, it has been clear that a number of things have to be just so for a planet like earth to exist that can generate and nurture life. While the problem was always there, the details of the problem changed over time. Initially, many things seemed to be necessary to support life. As science progressed, we had fewer and fewer independent physical laws, and a cleaner and simpler picture of the universe was emerging. Today, most of the universe can be explained by a small number of generalized laws that can be written in just a few pages of mathematical equations. This is a remarkable achievement in just a few hundred years.
However, as the book explains, these laws depend upon a handful of numbers that cannot be predicted by our theories and must be measured in nature. The problem is, if we try to imagine slightly different values of these constants, we realize that the resulting universe cannot sustain any complex structures which are essential for life. In most cases, the resulting universes would not even have chemistry or even any elements beyond Hydrogen. This is known as the "fine tuning" problem. That is, why do we live in a universe where the values of these constants are in the tight regions that make life possible. Of course, there is the argument that had it not been so, then we would not have existed to ask this question. However, this anthropic argument is somehow aesthetically unpleasing.
There are many potential solutions, but the book tries to show why all of them either shift the problem rather than solve it, or are logically weak. In the end, it also discusses the theistic angle and discusses how the existence of a God could be one potential explanation. They also discussed some of the Matrix-like ideas where the universe we live in is just a numerical simulation.
What I found a little strange is the authors were completely dismissive of String Theory, which promises to offer a parameter-free theory of the universe. True, this theory got into a lot of problems and seems to be less promising than it initially looked. However, if we could come up with a theory that came close to it, why would we be so hopeless about other such theories. After all, String Theory is just a few decades old. Based on the tremendous success of modern Physics over the last 200 years, I think it is a little too hasty to give up on it after the first failure and go for entirely speculative alternatives such as God or a simulation.
However, if this topic interests you, this is the best book I have read that explores this problem thoroughly and in a balanced tone.
The Unreality of Memory: And Other Essays (****)
It is a wonderful collection of essays that cover a range of related topics from our ever-increasing exposure to various types of disasters; the role that media plays in keeping us on edge; empathy fatigue; the crisis of activism; and growing numbness to all the bad things that surround us. As I was reading these essays, my initial reaction was positive, but nothing extraordinary. However, they started to grow on me as the thoughts percolated through my mind. I am also not a fan of writers who overflow with empathy and try to make a career out of their virtue of being sensitive. I was initially afraid that I was getting into another such writer, but she remained reasonably grounded and never tried to impress me with her superior levels of empathy.
It can be a good companion to deal with the present world we find ourselves in.
Life is Elsewhere (****)
Only Kundera can ridicule all sorts of sacrosanct values -- motherhood, artistic inspiration, revolutionary fervor, nationalism, and youthful romance, yet never sound caustic or harsh. He creates a beautiful story around a young poet with tenderness and sensitivity, and gradually dismantles all conventional values in the most convincing way. Structurally the novel is almost perfect, and his wordplay is hard to match (even though I was reading a translation).