Now reading: Proust Was a Neuroscientist Monday, Mar 3 2008 

A while back I noted that Emily Dickinson had stumbled onto the problem of ‘qualia‘ well before our dear David Chalmers made such a splash in the mid-nineties with his so-called “hard problem of consciousness“:

A color stands abroad

On solitary hills

That science cannot overtake,

But human nature feels.

That is an absolutely wonderful passage that illustrates the difficulties of that feel of conscious experience. While we have only been debating this at an academic level for, I don’t know, 30 years (at least since the publication of that famous essay, What is it like to be a bat?) Ms. Dickinson had apparently stumbled upon it in a brilliant moment of philosophical clarity. It really makes you wonder how many people throughout our history have had similar insights into future discoveries and problems facing a study of the mind. After all, we all enjoy equal access to consciousness that is unparalleled with any other phenomena. Mightn’t thinkers of ages past thought things that are now receiving empirical support? If you have wondered about any of those things, then Jonah Lehrer’s new book Proust Was a Neuroscientist is a must read.

I know the year is still young, but I am going to predict right now that the chapter on Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf (the first and last chapters, respectively) are the most interesting chapters I am going to read in 2008. Whitman was an easy decision for me for the sole reason that that particular period in America’s history produced my favorite authors and America’s greatest intellectuals. But even if that wasn’t enough, there is enough history, poetry and science intertwined to keep even the most giddy readers hooked. If you haven’t picked it up yet, Jonah has done some serious homework for this book, and it shows. Something of note: I had no idea that Whitman spent time pondering the mysteries of phantom limbs. It is quite engaging to see how folks with such a limited supply of resources would react to people who claimed pain in a nerveless space. In any case, Whitman wrote extensively on the importance of the coherence of the mind and body in a time when transcendentalism was at its peak. I promptly bought a copy of Leaves of Grass after I had finished this chapter.

I don’t have the time or space to exhaust all the things I enjoyed about this book, but I can say that if you like to read non-technical books that draw from a very diverse group of fields and knit them into a diverse tapestry, this will be the best science book of the year for you.


Books to watch for Sunday, Dec 2 2007 

I am a lover of books, and sometimes I come across one that I just cannot wait for. Here are a few of those:

The Black Hole War

From amazon’s little blurb:

What happens when something is sucked into a black hole? Does it disappear? Three decades ago, a young physicist named Stephen Hawking claimed it did-and in doing so put at risk everything we know about physics and the fundamental laws of the universe. Most scientists didn’t recognize the import of Hawking’s claims, but Leonard Susskind and Gerard t’Hooft realized the threat, and responded with a counterattack that changed the course of physics. THE BLACK HOLE WAR is the thrilling story of their united effort to reconcile Hawking’s revolutionary theories of black holes with their own sense of reality-effort that would eventually result in Hawking admitting he was wrong, paying up, and Susskind and t’Hooft realizing that our world is a hologram projected from the outer boundaries of space.
A brilliant book about modern physics, quantum mechanics, the fate of stars and the deep mysteries of black holes, Leonard Susskind’s account of the Black Hole War is mind-bending and exhilarating reading.

Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up

Are there any logical reasons to believe in God? Mathematician and bestselling author John Allen Paulos thinks not. In Irreligion he presents the case for his own worldview, organizing his book into twelve chapters that refute the twelve arguments most often put forward for believing in God’s existence. The latter arguments, Paulos relates in his characteristically lighthearted style, “range from what might be called golden oldies to those with a more contemporary beat. On the playlist are the firstcause argument, the argument from design, the ontological argument, arguments from faith and biblical codes, the argument from the anthropic principle, the moral universality argument, and others.” Interspersed among his twelve counterarguments are remarks on a variety of irreligious themes, ranging from the nature of miracles and creationist probability to cognitive illusions and prudential wagers. Special attention is paid to topics, arguments, and questions that spring from his incredulity “not only about religion but also about others’ credulity.” Despite the strong influence of his day job, Paulos says, there isn’t a single mathematical formula in the book.

And finally, the man himself:

The Character of Consciousness

What I’m reading Friday, Nov 30 2007 

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

I’m only four chapters into it right now, so maybe I should not comment on it. I will anyway though. This has been an absolutely delightful read this far. To be honest, when one thinks of intellectual history we tend to ignore early America, but this book shows how wrong we are. I’m knee deep into the story of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and I must say that I’ve been shocked by quite a few of the things I’ve been reading. For example, I never knew the struggle between the unionists and the abolitionists was that bad. I also didn’t think that Emerson had much to do with that entire political and ethical scene going on in the North (but be honest, reading Emerson detaches you from political scrums). Apparently Wendell Holmes and Emerson had quite a bit of contact with each other, and even a feud.

More to come on this later.

Being Stephen King Sunday, Nov 25 2007 

I found this kind of funny:

“I’m in the supermarket one day with my cart, and there’s this woman, about 95,” King recalled at the Regency the other day. “She says, ‘I know who you are. You write those stories, those awful horror stories . . . I don’t like that. I like uplifting movies like that ‘Shawshank Redemption.’ So I said, ‘I wrote that.’ And she said, ‘No, you didn’t.’ And that was it. Talk about surreal. I went to myself, for a minute, ‘It’s not very much like my other stuff. Maybe I didn’t write it!’ “


Doris Lessing wins the Nobel Prize for literature Friday, Nov 16 2007 

And has this to say:

What a doll.

Now Reading Thursday, Nov 15 2007 

Crazy for God by Francis Schaeffer‘s apostate son Frank. Well, nearly apostate son. Frank left the religious right that his father helped kick-start, and now is one of it’s most literate critics. I very much enjoyed his balanced presentation of his parents- I can imagine that it would be very hard to write a book revealing the wrongs of a movement your parents started. Well, actually I can imagine it because we are kind of in the same boat, except for the literate part and the whole I’m in the closet yet. But hey, I’ll take whatever I can get.

Emily Dickinson on qualia Sunday, Nov 11 2007 

Sorry Chalmers, she has a leg up on you here:

A color stands abroad

On solitary hills

That science cannot overtake,

But human nature feels.

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