jazzy_dave: (bookish)
Henry Jacoby - "House and Philosophy :Everybody Lies" (J.Wiley)

Students of philosophy and fans of House alike are sure to relish this analysis of the popular television series. While philosophy texts may leave readers cold, this book brings the work of Sartre, Nietzsche, and Socrates to life by applying them to America's crankiest doctor.

It is written at an introductory level for educated persons or undergraduates so you will not necessarily discover anything profound about philosophy but you will find an interesting application of philosophy about a hit TV show, in particular the acerbic, but in some ways lovable, Gregory House, M.D.
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John Ruskin "On Art and Life" (Penguin)

John Ruskin (1819-1900), gave us impassioned critique of a society obsessed with getting and spending that struck a chord that has continued to reverberate with thoughtful individuals across the political spectrum. Ruskin was a seer in both senses of the word: an acutely perceptive observer of art, architecture, literature, and Nature, and an uncannily prescient Cassandra who warned of developing threats - moral, social, economic, cultural, and environmental - to human life and happiness.

Ruskin's politics were something of a paradox. A forceful critic of greed, the profit motive, the degradation of labour, and economic injustice, he was also a staunch believer in hierarchy and authority.

"John Ruskin, the nineteenth-century British writer with the most wide-ranging influence on contemporary thought, has gone unread for a long time. His ideas have lived through the words of other writers while his own works are ignored. Their style suited an age that found the forty mile-per-hour speed of the railway frightening, that never dreamed of multi-tasking, channel surfing, and sound bites. Reading was then a majestic activity in pace and status, total attention demanded by it and total attention given it. We have lost that patience and those skills, so Ruskin's prose seems difficult, and we avoid it. That is our loss". Phyllis Rose.

Some quotes from Ruskin:

"Of all inorganic substances, acting in their own proper nature, without assistance or combination, water is the most wonderful. If we think of it as the source of all the changeableness and beauty which we have seen in clouds; then as the instrument by which the earth we have contemplated was modelled into symmetry, and its crags chiselled into grace; then as, in the form of snow, it robes the mountains it has made with that transcendent light which we could not have conceived if we had not seen; then as it exists in the foam of the torrent, in the iris which spans it, in the morning mist which rises from it, in the deep crystalline pools which its hanging shore, in the broad lake and glancing river; finally, in that which is to all human minds the best emblem of unwearied unconquerable power, the wild, various, fantastic, timeless unity of the sea; what shall we compare to this mighty, this universal element, for glory and for beauty? or how shall we follow its eternal changefulness of feeling? It is like trying to paint a soul.!

I’m a big believer in reading primary texts. I get a little sick at the idea of studying a philosopher without reading the works of that philosopher, but I’m realistic enough to know that for the general reader, primary texts aren’t always a good option. They’re often too long or too involved for someone just looking for a passing familiarity, and so we end up relying on secondary sources. If this little book from the Penguin Great Ideas series is typical, this series is a great way of filling the need for primary texts for the general reader. Plus, with its lovely embossed cover, this book is a thing of beauty.

The 98-page book contains just two essays by Ruskin: “The Nature of Gothic” from The Stone of Venice and “The Work of Iron in Nature, Art, and Policy,” a lecture Ruskin delivered in 1858. My only complaint is that there’s no actual context or introduction provided. Just a few pages of basic biographical and historical information would have made this a perfect little introduction to Ruskin.

jazzy_dave: (Default)
Daniel Klein "Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change it" (Oneworld Publications)

The author was a philosophy major in college and there started keeping a journal of quotes from his favorite philosophers. In this volume, he reviews those quotes with new insights and anecdotes from his life since then. It's a quick read and poses lots of questions for the reader. This is the second book i have read from him , and thus, i will gladly read any others by him.
jazzy_dave: (beckett thoughts)
Here is an Existential Comic - a philosophy comic about the inevitable anguish of living, a brief life in an absurd world.

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John-Paul Sartre "The Age of Reason" (Penguin Modern Classics)

This is one of those philosophy novels, you know the type where philosophers write a novel that contains a lot of their philosophy and that the main characters in the book sprout his philosophy – you know, the way that Plato would do with Socrates (even though Plato's philosophy and Socrates' philosophy tended to be two different things). This novel is set over two days during the lead up to World War II and is about how a guy named Mattheiu who is trying to get 4000 francs because he has accidentally got his girlfriend pregnant, and he doesn't want to either grow up or become a father (which generally entails growing up anyway).

The story explore the concept of freedom, but also the concept of coming of age. This is not one of those rite to manhood type stories because with Sartre the coming of age, or in his words, the age of reason, is when one reaches that stage in life (if they ever reach that stage in life) when they realise that it is time for them to take charge of their life and to take responsibility for their actions. Sometimes an event occurs (such as in Matthieu's case, with him getting his girlfriend pregnant) which forces one to accept the responsibility and, as some suggest, grow up. Other times it simply never happens, and the person simply ends up drifting around the world living in some sort of dream, never actually defining themselves, and never having a purpose or a point.

This is the idea of existentialism (and remember that Satre is considered the father of secular existentialism) in that it is the defining of who we are. It has two effects in that in one case existentialism is us making a concerted effort to define ourselves and the outward effects of that definition, in that people see who you are and respond to this. However, the catch is that while we may define ourselves, in many cases we are the only people who understand and respond to that definition because everybody else perceives reality differently, and in perceiving reality differently, we respond to reality differently. Each of us have our own perception of ourselves, and everybody around us has their own perception of who we are.

Now, there is another essence to this book, and that is the essence of freedom. The question that comes about is what is freedom? Can one be free yet live in a totalitarian dictatorship? My answer to that question would be yes. While the totalitarian dictatorship may attempt to stifle your thoughts and actions, it is the knowledge that no matter what they do, they cannot really control your thoughts, and they cannot take away your joy, or that freedom of choice is yours alone whether these choices are limited or not.

We may live in a country that considers itself free, but we may put ourselves in chains through the belief that we must behave in a certain way, and in behaving in that certain way we are chaining ourselves to society's traditions. While there are restrictions on what we can do (such as killing somebody) in many cases we will restrain ourselves for fear of bringing the wrath of the state upon us. The same goes with a totalitarian dictatorship were we will self-censure ourselves for fear that if we do not we may bring the wrath of the state upon us. However, the question of freedom is always a question of our mindset, knowing that nobody can truly control what we think and how we think, and that if we act in a certain way it is because we want to define ourselves as such as opposed to only acting in that way out of fear.

Sartre also explores the idea that marriage, and the family, is a form of slavery, and this is something that Matthieu feared.

The constant proving to oneself that this life is worthwhile, that the hopes of the past and the dreams of the future won't go to waste. Mathieu keeps to his belief of freedom, to be capable of anything, no matter what constraints have been laid across his living by emotional bonds and societal dictations and past history. In the end he achieves this freedom, and finds that he no longer believes in it. He has reached the age of reason, when he sees that the ideas that once characterized him can no longer be applied to him, unless he wishes to be a hypocrite. In achieving his freedom, he sacrificed for nothing, a nothing that provides a clean a break from everything that had been forcing him into a situation that was no longer; and for what? He may have found a small satisfaction in not being free, now that he had realized that he was waiting for a moment of a lifetime that would never come. Everyone around him either spins out delusions of the future or chases desires that had died long ago, joining him in his everlasting goal of not sinking into regret and despair. A satisfyingly realistic portrayal of the tightrope walk that daily life really is.

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Kitty Ferguson "Pythagoras : His Lives and the Legacy of a Rational Universe" (Icon Books)

For me, this book starts unpromisingly. The author explains early on that little is known about Pythagoras' early life, travels and studies: then takes five chapters detailing all the various ideas and claims made about such events. Fortunately, after that the book gets into gear.

What follows is an exhilarating expedition through the history of philosophers and mathematicians and their works, from the sixth century BC to the 21st century. Her dissection, discussion and explanations of the works of these many illustrious thinkers and practitioners is clear and instructive. She shows - and explains - both their faults and their value; and, of course, the relevance of Pythagorean ideas in their works. The final chapter (on current work) is the most complex, yet is explained as clearly as possible, given the immediacy of these events.

Through this magnificent journey Kitty Ferguson shows how Pythagorean insights still stand: that "rationality and order underlie the variety and confusion of nature"; and that his "music of the spheres" appears still to be valid.
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Michael Inwood "Heidegger : A Very Short Introduction" (Oxford U.P)

The interest in the German philosopher Heidegger (1889-1976) has been revived of late, Witness the many publications from him and about him appearing in recent years. He is considered by many as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century , as well as one of the most inaccessible . This book succeeds in presenting a very readable introduction to the important work of Heidegger. That is a great achievement , although this study is a first , succinct yet thorough acquaintance.

The most important themes of Heidegger are addressed are Dasein ; the world; language; truth and care; time , death and consciousness ; temporality, transcendence and freedom; history and world time, and finally, art . The paragraphs about his life and his attitude toward Nazism are poor and not fully fleshed out in my opinion.

I do not think that Heidegger is personally the most fascinating philosopher ,I have others that i feel are greater than him from modern times, but as an introduction it is a good book , and hnece , recommended for those who do not want to tread too far into his ouvre.
jazzy_dave: (beckett thoughts)
Philosophy has its Categorical Imperative (Kant) and then there is Relativism and Utilitarianism. Is scientific truth more true than religious truth? - i tend to err on the former BTW, or is the absolute truth mathematical truth and its axioms? Discuss.
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Roger Scruton "Modern Culture" (Continuum)

This paperback in the Continuum Compact Series makes an argument for high culture and aesthetics as a civilizing force. The author, Roger Scruton, is a philosopher, a conservative writer, and a critic of postmodern ideas in philosophy, the humanities and the social sciences. His stated purpose in the preface to was to explain what culture is and why it matters. That overstates his point, which is that the critical appreciation of the humanities is being displaced by a less critical, postmodern cultural studies of popular culture. The displacement has occurred in colleges and Universities, and in the arts and entertainment industries. It is manifested by the destruction of critical standards, the chaos of postmodern art and literature, and the fragmentation of culture. The core of the argument is that literature and the arts, like religion, express social emotions and play a vital part in maintaining an ethical culture.

The book is short thankfully , at 158 pages, and clearly written. It spans several topics - the concept of culture, the influence of culture on ideas and emotions, the history of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, the ethical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a theory of aesthetics, and the idea of cultural studies.

His starting concepts are Johann Gottfried Herder's definition of culture as the flow of moral energy that holds society intact, and Wilhelm von Humbolt's idea of culture as something that is learned as a social inheritance, subject to critical scrutiny, and consciously imparted to succeeding generations. The first concept, when applied in a critical way, leads to the anthropologist's idea of common culture, the attitudes and social emotions of an identified set of people - a tribe. Within a common culture, human beings are able to make judgments about social behaviour. The ethical principles embedded in the common culture are founded in collective experience and tradition, and maintain the peace and happiness of the whole tribe. Culture is vital to human identity. In spite of variations - wide variations - it is not accidental, random or spontaneous. It is founded in a real core of human needs. It is an intellectual and emotional web, involving historical attitudes and prejudices under the strain of current needs and impulses.

The idea of culture as inheritance leads to the idea that the literature and art of a culture can be studied critically, and that culture is a form of specialized knowledge. This leads to the idea of high culture. Both sets of concepts describe something that is absorbed by human beings, shaping our sense of identity, our sense of belonging to a particular group of human beings - family, gender, tribe, class, profession, nation - our distinctiveness from the rest of the world through membership in the group, and our identity in the group. Both sets of concepts describe something that influences our social emotions - our sense of what is attractive, what is beautiful, what is good, what is fair.

The common culture and the high culture of Western Europe were historically grounded in a religious view of life. The art and literature of Western Europe reflects the shared ideals and history of the whole society, not the ideals and interests of any particular class. It represents the ethical vision of the common culture. The common culture began to break down during the era known in the history of ideas as the Enlightenment, and to economic historians as the Industrial Revolution. Nevertheless people still learn social emotions that influence their sense of who they are, how they should feel and act, their social identity. The culture that allows for the expression and transmission of social identity is a public or civic culture. Scruton suggests that the dominant influence is actually popular culture, which is the end product of industrialization and globalization, and particularly the entertainment and media industry interacting with the common culture. It is a fluid concept, describing the culture that everyone is exposed to, and that most people inhabit unconsciously.

The Enlightenment is generally viewed as the liberation of humanity from the restrictions of an aristocratic and religious view of life. Scruton's views on the Enlightenment are interesting even if i disagree with him. In his book on modern philosophy, he suggested it was trivial event in the history of philosophy, but a significant event in the history of ideas and culture. The collapse of the old world-view has been described both as the death of God, and the disenchantment of the world, the loss of a fundamentally ethical view of life based in the religious beliefs held by most members of society before the Enlightenment. Scruton argues that the popular idea that the Enlightenment liberated mankind from traditional morality is an ideological construct and a figment of the Romantic imagination. He argues that the Enlightenment was an intellectual and cultural project to rescue the ethical view of life by the heroic work of the imagination.

He describes the Romantic movement as the cultural expression of a yearning for the old order, manifested in a strong commitment to the feelings, particularly feelings about nature, erotic love, and discovering the hidden force at the heart of the world. Romanticism, as it became disconnected from rational principles, criticism and ethics, became an increasingly destructive force. Imagination became fantasy. The ethical ideal of heroic striving became sentimentalized as the agony of the lonely artist. At the same time, the rise of the entertainment industry created competition to create and sell art and literature for consumption. Before the Enlightenment, art was related to religious values of the common culture. After the Enlightenment, the artist's work was increasingly seen as the product of a personal creative process, and an expression of the artist's creative self. The imagination was put in the service of the needs of the self, and imagination and art became a commodity. In this way of thinking, there is a difference between real imaginative work and the cynical manipulation of feelings.

Scruton values the study of high culture as a means of understanding of the evolution of culture as a defence against the dissolution of an ethical common culture. The study of high culture implies a process and logic, a system, known as aesthetics. His theory of aesthetics is based on the ethical philosophy of Kant, and the rational traditions of the Enlightenment. Art has meaning by using symbols within a tradition and common culture. Originality in art is the creation of new images creating new awareness of meaning within a tradition. Art imagines - it creates a symbolic, meaningful image. The art of high culture makes a statement of about meaning and beauty. The entertainment industry tends to produce repetitive and derivative images and stories that manipulate the emotions. Popular art is for consumption, which is why so much of it is unimaginative in his opinion - not mine. Much of it is kitsch and melodrama. Scruton focuses on fantasy and sentimentality. Imagination is critical and objective. Fantasy is subjective, and involves the study of how to use the object for our own gratification. Pornography, for instance is the study of stories and photographs to generate a sexual response. The consumer of pornography relates to the image by using it for sexual excitement, without the inconvenience of dealing with a real person. Sentimentality is worse:

Sentimentality, like fantasy, is at war with reality. It consumes our finite emotional energies in self-regarding ways and numbs us to the world of other people. .... While pornography puts our sexual appetites on sale, sentimentality trades in love and virtue. But the effect is the same - to deprive these higher things of all reality by cynically denying them, or making them insubstantial, dream-like and schematic.

The cultivation of high culture has a fundamental ethical dimension:

A high culture may survive the religion that gave rise to it. But it cannot survive the triumph of fantasy, cynicism and sentimentality. ... A common culture dignifies people by setting their desires and projects within an enduring context. It makes the spirit believable and the commitment sincere, by providing the words, gestures, rituals and beliefs which moralize our actions. A high culture attempts to keep these things alive, by giving imaginative reality to the long-term view of things ...

Scruton is sympathetic to the modernist movement in the arts and literature, the critical vision of Matthew Arnold, F.R. Leavis, and T.S. Eliot, which was realistic, rather than sentimental. He has doubts about Eliot's idea that high culture can create new values, religious values to replace values lost when Western culture lost its connection to a common religious tradition. This makes the modernist project difficult, arcane and ultimately elitist.

His assessment of the postmodern movement is that basically a negative movement, which is dissolving the common culture. Postmodernism follows in the footsteps of Romanticism with the same emphasis on subjectivity and the same quest for freedom from judgment. In the 19th century and 20th centuries it gave us the cult of the counter-cultural artist - the Bohemian, the beat poet, the hippie, true to art and love alone, to the point of suffering. It also spawned the cult of the intelligentsia and the tormented celebrity intellectual, in the style of Nietzsche, Sartre and Foucault. It underwrites the postures of persistent rebellion and fashionable nihilism. The last couple of chapters mount an attack on Foucault and Derrida and the so-called pretensions of the current promoters of cultural studies.

He makes an interesting and clever move in the last chapter. He suggests that viewing high culture as resource to be cultivated to maintain the ethical vision of common culture is not a unique perspective of the elite classes of Western Europe, or an especially of them. It is a cross-cultural perspective, supported in the works of Confucius and the philosophies (rather than the religions) of the Orient.

Scruton is persuasive on many points. His starting assumption that culture socializes and teaches a system of judgment is clearly correct. He implies that people aren't comfortable with judgment, and that a good deal of the philosophy and ideology of the period after the Enlightenment is dedicated to helping people escape from cultural judgment and asserting themselves - which may have a great deal to with why so many people seem to have sleazy pop-culture rationalizations for self-serving, greedy, aggressive and manipulative behaviour. He make a good argument that the study of high culture is important to maintain an ethical public culture. He makes a good argument that the ideology of cultural studies is corrosive. It encourages fantasies of escaping from judgment and disengagement from objective values.

His discussions of aesthetics is good. It is informative and challenging. However his approach to high culture is, notwithstanding his arguments, austere and mysterious. He dismisses almost all of the art of popular culture, including all photography, cinema and electronic media, which seems to go too far. His attitude to popular art is essentially snobbish and, dare i say it , elitist. His view of the process of creating art, in earlier times, is rather like the Christian theory of the Virgin Birth. The conception was a mystery, the gestation invisible and the whole process conveniently funded by the disinterested, patient and tolerant husband of Mary. It is a miracle. It would seem to me that art can be useful and valuable without having to be so pure or to meet such sublime critical standards.

It seems that he have have has lost sight of the less exalted crafts of decorative art, storytelling, play and creative engagement. Much of popular art is honest work for the artist, honest entertainment for the audience. A story can be just a story. Popular art can be acquired and consumed honestly and harmlessly. It is idle play, escapist. His theory of the distinction between imagination and fantasy works sounds logical, but the distinction is more psychological and spiritual. Problems arise, I think, when popular art is manipulative and sentimental, when it pretends to be meaningful. The problem is that people can start to use fantasy, not as play or as an escape from reality but as a means of filling social needs and manipulating reality. This is the very raison d'être i love fantasy and science fiction. It seems to me that a full critical theory should recognize popular culture and judge it by proper standards.

To some degree, he has ignored the fact that pop culture, fluid, liberated and Romantic as it is, makes moral judgment possible, and teaches the techniques of instinctive moral judgment. Take for instance "Batman Begins". The story presents the spiritual struggle of Bruce Wayne as he becomes a violent, private guardian of the public interest. There is a theme of decadence and fear of the masses, which seems to inspire the same fantasies for public order and security that were realized when the Fascists took power in Italy and Germany in the 1930s. It is fact the same world that T.S. Eliot described in The Waste Land, viewed in the medium of graphic art and cinema. The decadence and corruption inspires fantasies of violence, but it also inspires a vision of moral action: "It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me."

This is not the first time i have come across Scruton's oeuvre whose critique of postmodern ideas is antithetical to my philosophical outlook.

They Live!

May. 5th, 2016 11:04 pm
jazzy_dave: (beckett thoughts)
I was watching a short Zizek documentary on a forgotten classic fiom frrm the eighties that predates The Matrix - They Live.


jazzy_dave: (beckett thoughts)
Love this short video clip - Germans do tend to think about the metaphysics of throe shit.

From Open Culture -

It’s been part of Slavoj Žižek’s schtick for years. He’s mentioned it in talks about Donald Rumsfeld and America’s misadventures in Iraq. In lectures about architecture in Spain. In English-language talks. And other languages too. Maybe you’ve never heard Žižek’s spiel about finding ideology in the unlikeliest of places. Yes, toilets. If you’ve missed out, this new animation has you covered.

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David Papineau "Introducing Consciousness: A Graphic Guide" (Icon Books)

This is part of the Introducing… series that presents various topics in graphic form. It takes a very complex issue and shows that you do not need to be a great philosopher or have a very deep understanding of the science, to understand why it’s a complex issue and what the fundamental questions we’re dealing with are. Despite being highly approachable, this book is a serious piece of work that gives a great overview of past and current thinking about consciousness, especially from the philosophical perspective. In fact it’s mostly about the philosophy of mind, with particular reference to consciousness, and while it mentions science here and there, that’s really not the main focus: where it mentions the science, this is done to describe potential methodologies with which to address the philosophical questions that have been raised.

A good introduction.
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Christopher Hitchens "Letters To A Young Contrarian" (Basic Books)

This slim volume by Christopher Hitchens is aimed at igniting the “contrarian” (as he calls it) in all of us. Letters to a Young Contrarian mimics Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet" (which i read years ago) , except instead of writing on the subject of poetry, Hitchens writes on the subject of dissent.

He describes what it means to be an oppositionist, and recognizes that the title of “dissenter” is to be earned; this view deflates the egos of all the self-proclaimed “dissenters” out there. He also elucidates a few other intellectual positions, mainly: argument is good, and people are much too comforted by the thought of being apart of a crowd. As he says, “I don't think that the solidarity of belonging is much of a prize.”

As usual, Hitchens' wit and erudition shines through in his writing; he gives the reader prose that is simply delightful to read. It is simple, however what he writes about is nothing of the sort. Often, one can get lost in the references to certain historical figures and events. It isn't entirely over the heads of the average, well-educated person, but prepare to find out who people like Jean Jaures, Karl Liebknecht, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are if you don't already. Hitchens also sprinkles Latin isms here and there throughout his letters. Obviously the books is not to be taken as an easy read, for Hitchens expects the reader to have a good grasp of history and its great men and women. If not, well, one will gain an education just by reading the book.

The figures in history Hitchens refers to are Emile Zola, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Paine (to name some of the more well-known ones), people who represent what it means to be a dissenter. He notes , drawing from his vast knowledge of history, politics, and philosophy, that dissenters are rarely the people one expects them to be. More often, it's the person on the corner that's rarely seen sober; one day he is put in a situation in which he must choose to speak out, to act in the name of Justice, to do what is right without being told by anyone that he should do so.

Hitchens makes an eloquent case for oppositionism, convincing the reader that it is an honor to be known as an iconoclast, as contrary. What you get from the author is graceful prose combined with an uplifting message. That message: "Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence."
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Natalie Haynes, writer and critic, gives a talk entitled "The Ancient Guide to Modern Life" at Emory University (January 22, 2014). Talking bout Aristophanes and the sex strikes in his play The Clouds.

His powers of ridicule were feared and acknowledged by influential contemporaries; Plato singled out Aristophanes' play The Clouds as slander that contributed to the trial and subsequent condemning to death of Socrates although other satirical playwrights had also caricatured the philosopher.
His second play, The Babylonians (now lost), was denounced by the demagogue Cleon as a slander against the Athenian polis. It is possible that the case was argued in court but details of the trial are not recorded and Aristophanes caricatured Cleon mercilessly in his subsequent plays, especially The Knights, the first of many plays that he directed himself. "In my opinion," he says through the Chorus in that play, "the author-director of comedies has the hardest job of all."

LOL! Funny and informative.
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Through the eyes of "the angriest man in the ancient world," the satirist Juvenal, comedian and classicist Natalie Haynes reveals how the search for the meaning of life has stood the test of time.

Natalie is a reformed comedian who is a little bit obsessive about Ancient Greece and Rome.

Funny and informative.
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Roger Penrose "The Emperor's New Mind : Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics" (Verso)

Roger Penrose isn't just any old boffin: he is the Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and has been knighted for his services to Science. The Emperor's New Mind is his attempt to crack that perennial philosophical chestnut, the Consciousness/Artificial Intelligence problem. Penrose's view is that Strong AI is simply wrong and that a computer could never replicate (functionally or actually) what we know as "consciousness".

Originlly published in 1991 this was a long, grueling read. I won't say I clearly understood (or even dimly understood) all this book. At times my eyes glazed over, and my comprehension phased out only to resume later usually after long passages of mathematical symbols ,though the math in this book was relatively simple, and i had encountered Hamiltonians and vector spaces in an O.U. second level pure mathematics course.

It helpd that I'd read other things about artificial intelligence, computers, relativity, cosmology, and quantam physics. By his own admission, Penrose finds it difficult to explain mathematical things verbally and his arguments often go on and on without tying them into the central question of the book - is algorithmically based AI possible? In the end I think they all show to be relevant.

Penrose ventures into widely speculative ground by saying he believes consciousness will be better understood when quantum mechanics and relativity are joined, probably, he believes, by quantum gravity. He makes the startling the proposal that the brain is a quantum computer computing numerous quantum possibilities until gravitational collapsing the quantum wave-function and realizing one quantum reality.

Penrose concludes with some intriguing paradoxes in time perception. Do we really, as certain experiments suggest, experience everything two seconds behind and are limited by a half-second delay before conscious action is realized? Penrose doubts it, but it's intriguing. Penrose isn't afraid to consider philosophical questions which most scientists shy away from and firmly grounds, unlike most philosophers, human behavior and consciousness in the physical world and its laws. Some of Penrose's approaches were different than the usual treatment his topics get, particularly de-emphasizing quantum mechanics' indeterminism and imprecision as others do, but, rather, the precision and predictions the theory does allow.length to explain, and their relevance, without having to get your head around every complicated equation.

I think that some of his theories are enticing, and altogether this was a good read, but perhaps could have benefited from a more decisive outcome. The ending comes an an anti-climax, but getting there is worth the whole trip.

jazzy_dave: (beckett thoughts)
Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] andrewducker for this thought experiment on fictional transporters.

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John Gray "Straw Dogs : Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals" (Granta)

A problematic, frustrating book that i chucked often in outrage.

Gray argues that humans are no better than other animals; like animals, we are driven mostly by instinct and by half-buried, inchoate passions. We may think that our free will separates us from other animals, but Gray retorts that free will is an illusion - everything in the universe has to have a cause, and why should our decisions be any different? We may think of ourselves as self-aware (unlike, say, plankton) but Gray points out that our everyday experience is one of fragmentation and confusion; the idea of a continuous, consistent identity as an individual is not an ideal we live up to in actual practice. Humans are certainly bigger, stronger, smarter and more adept at controlling their environment than dragonflies, but it's not clear that this is of any ultimate benefit if the result is nuclear war or environmental disaster. We ought to accept that our sense of identity as "persons" is misplaced, that any conception of our free will or autonomy is a pathetic deception, that our lives are of no ultimate significance, and that it would be no great loss to the planet if humans were all killed in some catastrophic disaster. (Gray stops short of actually predicting the collapse of Western democracy and the deaths of billions in a Malthusian population crunch, but only just.)

No so cheery stuff. But it's only the ultimate conclusion of Gray's longstanding critique of Enlightenment rationality and humanism (see, for example, Enlightenment's Wake), which he sees as a secularized version of Christianity. If God doesn't exist and we're not created in his image, why should humanity have any special status? If a walrus doesn't have the power to transcend the limitations of nature and strive toward a just society, what makes us so special? Gray pursues this line of argument relentlessly and unsentimentally: the death of God is not the passing of some petty tyrant, but a major event forcing us to reevaluate our entire worldview and confront all our illusions about ourselves. In this he follows Nietzsche, of course, although even Nietzsche is too optimistic for Gray (no Übermenschen to be found here).

There are problems with his reasoning and presentation, however. To label humanity as self-deceiving, and free will as illusory, implies that the author has access to a privileged perspective free from such delusions - precisely what he condemns in secular humanism. Other points are backed up in odd ways - Gray approvingly cites Alasdair MacIntyre's traditionalist Catholic account of virtue ethics and, while you stare incredulously at him, suddenly starts talking about something else. One gets the sense that there is a certain lack of seriousness at work here; the entire book consists of brief mini-chapters ranging from a single paragraph to a few pages, a device which allows Gray to change the subject whenever he presents some particularly controversial or counterintuitive assertion. You feel as though Gray is still trying these ideas on for size, and that you'll have to buy the sequel if your preference is for sustained argumentation. In the meantime, this is a brief enough book to be worth reading if you want to see an intelligent philosopher pursue a certain atheistic train of thought to its nihilistic logical conclusion.
jazzy_dave: (beckett thoughts)
Happy Birthday  (yesterday) to the American philosopher and previous winner of the Philosophy Now Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity Noam Chomsky! Most known for his work on behaviourism (criticising the doctrine) and linguistics, Chomsky is also known for his political activism.


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