Friday, August 3, 2018

J.B.S. Haldane had ideas as to what the Future would hold.




Daedalus: or, Science & The Future – J.B.S. Haldane (1924)

This is yet another great recommendation by the one and only Rudy Rucker.  Whereas my previous review was of a large compendium of philosophy relating to the topic of panpsychism, this is a short and tight book, complied from the speech given by noted English scientist J.B.S. Haldane to an audience at Cambridge University.
The year was 1924, the Great War was over, and scientists had been grappling with new advanced discoveries in physics, biology, and medicine.  Mr. Haldane used his platform at this Cambridge meeting of scientists to deliver a predictive talk.  In the course of this short book, Haldane discusses so many possible outcomes for the study of science.  A few were bound to be wrong.  Just as many of them were correct.  He was the first man to utilize the prediction that England’s coal and petrol reserves would not last  beyond a few hundred years, and provide alternative methods by which energy could be harnessed, and the soot and smoke of coal and petrol fires be banished forever.  His idea was that in the future, England would be dotted with giant metal wind turbines, which would rotate, create electricity, and then be stored to be used in breaking the atomic bonds of water, creating vast amounts of oxygen and hydrogen.  Hydrogen is the most efficient energy storage material there is.  Petroleum, gas, and even nuclear fuel, are not as efficient in creating heat and energy.  J.B.S. Haldane would have been excited to drive through the deserts of west Texas, seeing the thousands of non-polluting wind turbines creating electricity through renewable resources.
He discusses the vast difference in life expectancy that the medicine at his time had achieved.  Just a hundred years before his birth, a man was lucky to live to age 40.  He stated how this life expectancy shaped so much of the world in England.  A man, upon his death, would pass on his lands to his eldest son.  When a man lives to 40 or so, his oldest son will be around 20, and will have no experience of anything other than running the family estate/business/farm.  However, when life expectancy increased, men lived to 80 years old, dying and leaving their estates to men who were in their 60’s, had fully developed personal lives and families, and would likely not know anything about how to run the family enterprise, having had to make a living outside of it for 30-40 years.  These seemingly small things, such as vaccination, pasteurization, and hygiene, have massive effects on the world we live in.
J.B.S. Haldane continues on to describe possible future outcomes based on the expected progress of scientific achievement.  He discusses so many things, in such a short amount of text, that it is truly an amazing speech.  It should have blown away anyone who heard it at Cambridge back in 1924.  He even describes his use of Daedalus as his theme, for he saw Daedalus as the first truly modern human in myth, unconcerned with the will of gods, or the whims of fate, but instead using his mind and reason to make sense of the world around him and to control it.  Too often, his story is told solely based on the myth of his son Icarus flying too close to the Sun, and plummeting to his death as a result.  However, Daedalus was an engineer, an architect, a biologist, a surgeon, and so much more.  It is a cool reminder that myths are valuable because of the richness of meaning found within, and not just solely for moral lessons.  This would be a cool book for young researchers and scientists to read.  I think it would help focus their goals to the betterment of humanity.  It would also help them understand that, while we stand on the shoulders of giants, we ourselves are the giants that the next generations will be standing upon.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Is Mind inherent in all of Existence? How can it not be?





Panpsychism in the West – David Skrbina (2017 Revised Edition)

      It has been almost 4 years since I first began posting reviews of the books I read on this blog, RXTT’s Intellectual Journey.  One of the most gratifying and unexpected outcomes of this project has been the ability to correspond with some of the authors of the books I read.  It always thrills me when they reply to my communications.  One of the many who I have had a chance to correspond with has been mathematician, educator, and cyberpunk O.G. Rudy Rucker.  I always make sure to ask these authors if they can suggest any reading recommendations, and Rudy Rucker told me that this book, Panpsychism in the West, was one to check out, as he had recently enjoyed it very much.  The name David Skrbina was familiar to me based on various references to him and his writing in other books I read.  It was awesome to have such a great recommendation, and greatly appreciated.
      This book details the development, discussion, history, and possibilities of the philosophical idea called Panpsychism.  This idea suggests that the entity we call Mind is inherent in all of existence, and that this should affect everything about how we see ourselves, life, and the whole of existence.  Many of the Greek philosophers, who first pondered the reality of the world around us, our bodies, and our minds, came to the conclusion that Mind, consciousness itself, was an underlying part of everything that exists.  One of the arguments for this was that human beings feel they have a mind separate from the nuts-and-bolts physicality of their brain.  However, Humans are created from the very same stuff as everything else, and because of this our “Minds” cannot be a special occurrence.  Some form of “Mind” must exist in any and all life, and possibly into inanimate matter we deem to be not alive, perhaps even to the basic building blocks of matter.  They saw the human body as an aggregate of its many parts, and because of this, the parts themselves must have had some sort of “Mind”, just as the bigger systems around us, the atmosphere, the water cycle, the Earth itself, must also have a “Mind” constituent. 
      Later Greek philosophers would turn from this idea and head towards a mechanistic and non-spiritual perception of the Universe around us.  These ideas led to the Materialist universe in which modern humans exist.  We are told that the Mind is either purely a god-given trait solely found in Humans, or that the Mind sprang up only in Humans because we were the only ones to have a  complex enough nervous structure and brain to achieve this.  These human-centered objections to panpsychism have been put forth by philosophers and scientists throughout human history.  They only serve to point out the inherent bias among thinkers who ascribe all experience value based on their personal state, that of being a human on Earth.  They demean the experiences of animals, plants, and even rocks as purely mechanistic, even as they aggrandize the human experience.  This seems a contradiction to me. 
      Once the mechanistic worldview of Isaac Newton and classical physics began to influence the world, philosophers sought to discredit the idea of panpsychism by exclaiming that it was unscientific, in that there was no empirical way to test whether a rock or a tree has a Mind.  The blind-spot in their arguments is that, as of today, there is no way to empirically prove that a human has a Mind!  If it cannot be proven to exist in us, how can they be so sure it does not exist in the world around us?  Too many people run with this argument and fail to understand that panpsychism is not a scientific idea, but a philosophical one.  Empirical science can analyze a brain, the neurons and axions that make up the physical brain, and the various blood vessels that nourish and clean the brain, but they cannot in any way analyze the Mind.  Psychologists have tried, with varying degrees of failure, to analyze Mind as separate from the physical brain.  Psychiatrists try to utilize medicines and chemicals to force the physical brain into adjusting the process of the non-physical Mind.  It is a very confusing state of affairs.
      David Skrbina has done a great job of compiling not only the various supporting ideas and players throughout human western culture to discuss panpsychism, but also of the many philosophers and scientists who sought to deny panpsychism.  He explains how they came to their negations, and the ways in which they misunderstood the basic concept of panpsychism.  Many philosophers would push these ideas only to negate them later on in life.  Yet others, people who decried the possibility of panpsychism, came around in their later years and admitted that there is no way to discount the idea.  How their ideas went on to influence those that followed, and how the possibilities inherent in panpsychism would change the entire world-view of the whole of humanity is a focus of the later part of this book.
Philosophy as a field of study for me is very frustrating.  I find it hard to read the conclusions and assertions of philosophers whose base assumptions are inherently opposed to how I see the world around me.  It is very hard to argue with a dead philosopher!  I love to know the history of human thought and the development of our ideas on ourselves, but so much of it is purely fantasy, conceptualized reactions to embedded presumptions.  I feel that, as a basis of thoughtful exploration, it is much more valuable and realistic to assume that, just as we are part of the Universe, and have a level of awareness we call Mind, that every other constituent part of the Universe, both smaller and bigger than the cellular aggregate we call a human being also shares in this noetic quality.  It is impossible to draw a line of demarcation where Mind exists and then where it does not.  For example, we can say humans have Minds.  Many of us feel that our pet dogs and cats have their own Minds and personalities, independent of their physical being.  Is that the end?  Why wouldn’t smaller animals, such as mice or beetles or even amoebas, also share in this feature of existence we label a Mind?  If a one-celled organism can have a Mind, what about the single-cells that make up all living beings’ body structures?  If a cell can have a sliver of consciousness then what about the component parts of that cell?  Digging lower, what about the individual molecules and atoms?  What about the constituents of atoms?  No one can provide a definitive answer to where the line should be drawn.  Going bigger than humans, are larger aggregates like cities, mountains, oceans, planets, galaxies all possessed of a higher level of mind that we humans just cannot comprehend?  This book has given me quite a lot to think about.  It is highly recommended.

(The 2017 Revised edition of this book is available for purchase here:  https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/panpsychism-west-revised-edition )

Friday, July 6, 2018

A Tour Through the Human Body and the World It Creates For Us




Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form – Michael Sims (2003)

      While I am a huge fanatic of reference books, and of highly detailed and deep dives into very specific topics, there is another type of book I find very entertaining.  Those would be the books that aggregate data from widely ranging fields, but which all serve to shed light on a specific subject.  This book, Adam’s Navel, is a great example.  It explores the visible human form from head to toe, and draws from the obvious sciences, biology, anthropology, anatomy, as well as the humanities.  This helps to paint a much greater picture of the history of how humans have seen their body and how they have used the parts of that body to develop their view of the Universe at large.
      I found out about this book while perusing the bibliography of a different book I recently read.  Luckily the amazing M.D. Anderson Library at the University of Houston always hooks me up.  The author, Michael Sims, developed the core of this book while he was incapacitated due to a serious medical procedure.  His inability to move left him alone with his thoughts, and he began to write about the various things he associated with the currently not working parts of his body.  Those original thoughts informed this work.
      Starting at the top of the head, Michael Sims describes not only the biological nature of hair, the various types, and the hair of our closest primate relatives, but he discusses several of the rules, myths and legends humanity has created in regards to hair.  From Samson in the bible, whose power came from his uncut locks, to the attitudes of certain christian fundamentalists who believe that they must collect their life’s hair to be “complete” upon the resurrection, to the hairlessness of certain ascetic monk groups worldwide, humans have assigned so much meaning to hair, a substance made from keratin, the same material our fingernails, and certain animal horns are made of.  Every single visible part of the body is explored in this manner.
      This was a very fun book to read, and helped me better understand the way in which our corporeal form is used as a prism by which we analyze the entire Universe around us.  Our ten fingers inspired our decimal system of mathematics.  The size of past ruler’s body parts determined measurements. The eyes, by virtue of their power to see the world around us, have always been treated as gateways to see the inner self.  Even something as simple as the shape of the ear has been conflated by desperate, or deluded, people into providing intimate details about that ear-owner’s personality traits.  We live our lives in these ever changing bodies.  It is understandable that our bodies helped shape our ideas about the world around us.  For anyone who is interested, this is a great resource and a really fun read.

Friday, June 15, 2018

My first dive into Russian literature pays off




One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962)

      The name Alexander Solzhenitsyn was known to me.  His place among the great writers of Russian literature was something I was taught as a matter of fact.  I knew very little else than that  when I picked up this, the author’s first published work, a novella that details the happenings of an entire day, from waking to sleep, of a man imprisoned in a Soviet-era prison camp.  It was only after finishing this oddly humorous book that I looked up Solzhenitsyn’s life, and learned that, like Ivan Denisovitch, he too spent some years of his life in a Soviet prison camp.  This came after he had served with honor in the Soviet military, rising to the rank of Captain.  His crime?  It was much like all the other stupid and tyrannical “crimes” used by despots to crush their people.  He was claimed to have made seditious statements against Stalin after his private letters were intercepted and read by the Soviet government.  After he was released from the prison camps, he turned to writing and this novella was the only one of his works to be published in his native Russia.  It is a sad shame that the writing that helped him win a Nobel Prize in literature had to be published surreptitiously in the West, and smuggled back into Russia.  Down with tyrants and despots everywhere!  Burn them all down.
      In this book I found a man who had become so accustomed to his life, and it was barely life, inside the prison camps that his every single thought, from waking to sleep, was concerned with his immediate concerns and needs, with no thought given to escape or freedom, and very little thought given to the state of the world outside the prison camp’s fences.  The tone of the novel reminded me of a Russian Vonnegut, the otherwise ordinary characters matter-of-factly resigned to the stupidities and irrationality inherent in the world they inhabit, finding cold comfort in gallows humor, and seeking every single opportunity to stretch the rules, gain a tiny advantage, or finding ten minutes somewhere to try and keep warm.  Nearly every second is spent by Ivan either plotting on how to make his current situation slightly better, or in watchful fear of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, or even looking at the wrong person for fear of retribution from the camp guards. 
      As Ivan tells it, there are very few moments of true rest for the prisoners.  One of them is the first moments of wakefulness after the morning alarm has been rung.  Ivan stated that, in these fleeting minutes, still in bed, eyes still closed, and his body somewhat warm, he was “free.”  There were no obligations for these few minutes, and he tries to make them last as long as possible.  One of the other times he stated he felt free and that his time was his own, and not the state’s, was the ten minutes he was allotted to eat his servings in the mess hall during breakfast and dinner.  The hour before meals was hectic, with lines, pressing, queues, counts and recounts of prisoners, all in an attempt to feed them in an orderly fashion.  That hour of stress was relieved by the ten minutes of quiet, slow eating.  The instant he was done however, the manic thoughts and worries return. Sad but true.
      As Ivan goes through his day, Solzhenitsyn has his narrator describe the nearly-fractal levels of bureaucratic bullshit that permeated every aspect of life in these Russian prison camps.  One small example is the numbers assigned to the inmates, and painted on their hats and shirts, making it easy for the guards to single them out individually from a distance.  There were several older trustys that were permitted to paint and touch up these white numbers on a black field, for a price, and theirs was a tricky art.  They had to make sure the numbers were legible, for illegible numbers would constitute a violation and ten days in the “cage.”  However, the prisoners requested that the numbers be slightly blurred, just enough that guards further than a few meters way would have trouble reading it.  It was a delicate balance, like everything in the prison camp.  This level of insanity suffused everything in the camps.
      Solzhenitsyn does an amazing thing with this novella.  As I read it and progressed through Ivan Denisovich’s day, I became filled with a dread.  Throughout the day Ivan had managed to save himself from bad situations, plan for the day ahead, manage to finagle two bread rations, get a little tobacco, find a piece of broken hacksaw blade, and lead a work crew building masonry.  I waited for the hammer to fall.  I expected tragedy to spring forth and engulf our narrator, for everything seemed to be going as well as it could for him.  This was not to be.  Solzhenitsyn is not after that.  Instead, he shows us a “good” day, but a day not unlike the hundreds that Ivan had before, and the hundreds that were yet to come.  In this way, it really hit me how BIG this novella was.  We humans can conform to nearly every horror, and assume it as our new normal.  We can go to work and see our fellow citizens be killed and mistreated, and we see it as the normal day to day life we lead.  This nightmare, this waking delusion, is what lies at the heart of all tyranny.  In showing us a non-tragic, normal, ordinary day in the life of a normal, ordinary man, Solzhenitsyn shines a harsh light on the true tragedy involved, that hundreds of thousands of normal, ordinary people were tasked with imprisoning and torturing millions of normal, ordinary people, all at the request of a distant, rich, and aloof government.  It is a great book.
     
(This book can be purchased here:  https://www.amazon.com/One-Day-Life-Ivan-Denisovich/dp/0451531043 )

(When Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, he was afraid to leave the USSR and go to Stockholm for fear of not being allowed to return.  He sent in a written acceptance speech, which is amazing and well-worth reading.  The speech is found here: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1970/solzhenitsyn-lecture.html )