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.


I’m back, and trying something new Monday, Dec 17 2007 

Yep, finals are over and I am hung over mentally. I typed about 50 pages worth of paper last week, which sucked, and presented a paper on the most difficult subject I’ve ever encountered. So now, I get to hang out and read, which does not suck. Now, I know you may be thinking that I am going to bring out a list of books that put me in some pseudo-intellectual, self-serving light, but fuck it. I am going to read World War Z.

This book absolutely rules, I’ll tell you that right now. The author is Mel Brook’s son, and he is probably sick of hearing that. Whatever, this book kicks ass, and follows George Romero’s classic example of (not so) subtly implanting political/social themes in some freakin’ sweet horror prose.

In other news, I picked up one of the greatest pieces of music I’ve heard in a long, long time- Jar of Flies  by Alice in Chains. I am a big grunge fan, and this is the best acoustic stuff out there. It is a little short with only seven songs, but the songs are long and kick major ass. One song that stood out in particular was Don’t Follow. You can get a  preview of the song over at Amazon, so check it out (click on the picture):Buy that song off iTunes, rip it, steal some money from your grandma, whatever- get this album. Infinity stars.

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.

Back Sunday, Nov 25 2007 

A small break from blogging/homework was just the thing that the doctor ordered. I had a wonderful thanksgiving, and took the time off to read some material on the founders. Right now I find myself entrenched in 1776 by the venerable David McCullough. This is an astounding book, and one that I am a little upset that I passed over for so long. I cannot recommend this book enough. The only thing that I wish was a little different is the amount of time spent on the political game that was being played, but I hear this is remedied by his other book on John Adams.

Anyway, vote Ron Paul!

Stephen King’s "Cell" Thursday, Oct 25 2007 

I found this book in a bargain bin, so Nagel is going to have to wait a few more days. Frankly, I had never read a King book before so I thought I’d give it a try. Zombies absolutely terrify me, but this book, at least through the first 150 pages, has been kind of boring. Maybe I’m desensitized from me recent mental scarring- that scene in 28 Weeks Later where the husband kills his wife by beating the hell out of her and then pushing his fingers into her eyes is still burned into my psyche- but the violence has been kind of blah. I hear that Eli Roth of Hostel fame is going to make this into a movie, so that should be brutal.

In any case, this has been a trippy read. Not too scary, though. If you want to know what scares me the most check out Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych. I could barely sleep after reading that one.

A warning note to anyone who hasn’t fucked up already- DO NOT WATCH MULHOLLAND DRIVE

Reading Antony Flew Wednesday, Oct 24 2007 

There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind

Antony Flew is no one’s bitch. In spite of a career composed of his vocal rejection of religion, in spite of famous essays arguing the contrary, and in spite of public debates denying God’s existence, Flew has switched sides and now believes in a God. He has huge balls. I remember a few weeks ago how proud people were of Sam Harris when he took all that flack for saying nothing of consequence, but imagine multiplying Harris’ intelligence by negative 10 (because Harris actually makes people dumber), add 50 some years of dedicated atheistic work and stamp it all with your name, and you have what Antony Flew did.

In any case, the book actually isn’t that impressive. At least, if you are interested in a book that gives a detailed case of why he was an atheist and why he converted (deconverted?) you are in for a bore. Nothing much for anyone with a mediocre background in philosophy. It reads a bit like a biography- some history, some anecdotes, some surprising confessions- and finishes with a smattering of design-type arguments of shallow substance.

This isn’t to say that it is a bad book by any stretch. It simply isn’t what I expected. Further, the inclusion of a question and answer period with N.T. Wright was interesting in the way any authority on some topic should be, but seems out of place. Flew isn’t a Christian, and merely sketches his path from atheism to theism. So why N.T. Wright? Who cares, though, it was an appendix anyway. Skip it if you would find resurrection stuff boring.

Next on the list: The Last Word by Thomas Nagel.