Archive for November, 2011

Book: “The Road to Reality” by Roger Penrose

November 9, 2011 4 comments

I just started The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe by Roger Penrose (2004, Vintage Books). Read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

I’ve only ever read short pieces by Penrose, before, or else excerpts from his stuff quoted in other peoples’ works. It seemed like a good move to begin with this approximately 1050 page leviathan before diving into his other books for the simple reason that The Road to Reality is sometimes considered to be Penrose’s magnum opus.

The first 16 chapters, according to Penrose’s brutally honest preface, are devoted to the ideas of modern mathematics, and the entire book is peppered with mathematical exercises to help the reader to understand what mathematicians and physicists think about a lot of the important and profound ideas of cutting-edge science. It is also, he says, his humble attempt at demonstrating the beauty of maths to a population largely terrified of the subject. I welcome this sort of approach from a popular science book for the same reason I appreciated Brian Greene’s inclusion of maths in the endnotes of his books: I’m one of those people who was brutalized by mathematics early in life, but instead of resenting maths I have chosen instead to resent the presentation of it which I suffered. As a rationalist-at-heart, I know that maths are vital to understanding the reality with which we are presented daily; as something of a Platonist (a self-identification I share with Sir Roger Penrose), I also understand that mathematics have a beauty, even a poetry, all their own, and an independent self-existence, which all speak to the very nature of the cosmos more directly than most certainly any other language. So, I relish the anticipation of digging-in and trying my hand at Penrose’s exercises all the while enjoying his flowing prose explanations of the ideas the maths embody.

So here, it seems, is an exercise in not just popularizing science (though certainly that), but also in respecting the intelligence of the readership enough to challenge them in multiple levels. No mere Dawkins-esque “Everything you know is wrong, which is why I am a better man than you,” Penrose seeks not to bully us with his ideas but to use them as tools for treating us as his equals. I would expect no less from a man often called “one of the world’s most original thinkers.”

Book: “The Mystery of Consciousness” by John R. Searle

I just finished The Mystery of Consciousness by John R. Searle (1997, New York Review of Books, Inc.). Have you read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

This little book is constituted of some revised and expanded articles of John Searle’s from the New York Review of Books, circa the mid-1990s, each being an extended review-and-response to a major philosophical and/or scientific book on consciousness studies. Its an interesting read, and a pretty quick one, and serves as an excellent introduction or refresher on a number of influential viewpoints and important modern thinkers in the area of the nature of consciousness and conscious experience. It is especially good as a quick introduction to Searle’s own position: briefly, Searle is of the mind(!) that consciousness is an irreducible feature of the universe (unlike traditional materialism), but that it is entirely biological in nature (unlike traditional dualism). He often compares consciousness to digestion or photosynthesis, and considers it to be sourced in equally physical/chemical processes of the brain, though he also emphasizes that unlike digestion or photosynthesis it is not reducible to those biological processes for the simple reason that the appearance of consciousness (ie, the fact that you and I each think that we are conscious) is the fact of consciousness (that is to say, if a being thinks it is conscious, it necessarily is because the thought, “I am conscious,” requires consciousness). The contrast, here, is that consciousness, while arising from biology, cannot be reduced to biology, while in the case of digestion we can reduce it to the individual chemical and physical processes which go into the breaking-down of food and the extraction of nutrients, etc., without risking the loss of subjective, first-person experience. In analyzing conscious experience, you can only look so far down into the biological underpinnings before you find that you are no longer dealing with conscious experience but instead with peptides, calcium ions, electrical impulses, synaptic knobs, clefts, and post-synaptic receptors, etc., etc., and have forgotten “first-person consciousness” back a few layers up the causal chain.

Whether or not one agrees with this position, it is at least logically consistent, as far as I can see, and certainly has longer legs than, say, Daniel Dennet’s or Patricia & Paul Churchland’s “functionalist” (a sort of “post-behaviorist” behaviorism) view which says simply (and naively) that all that exists are the physical brain-states, but there is no consciousness at all in reality. Searle is at least intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that “consciousness is as consciousness does”, and if we think we have it, well then we do. If nothing else, The Mystery of Consciousness is of value for pointing-out just how wrong Dennet, et al, really are.


Projects & Books

Sorry to those who occasionally look around here in hopes of finding some new yammering out of me. I’ve been spending all of my mental energy working on a large writing project and an even larger research project (with an eye toward getting a large-scale writing project out of it!), so there really just hasn’t been much to devote to this little blog of mine.

So in the meantime, while I work on the bigger stuff, I’d rather not leave the Magical Messiah to totally languish. In that spirit, I’m going to start posting short descriptions of books I’m reading (or have just finished reading) in the hopes that those others who have read it may tell me what they think, or those who have not read it can post questions or comments about the book or its subject matter. That way, even though the blog itself won’t have a ton of new content (until a shorter article idea pops-up, anyway) there might still be a little bit of discussion here and there to keep things interesting.

Thanks in advance to anybody who chooses to participate!

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