Wow, I've never felt so mentally humbled in the shadow of a biologist. In the realm of arrogant physicists and mathematicians, biologists are seen asWow, I've never felt so mentally humbled in the shadow of a biologist. In the realm of arrogant physicists and mathematicians, biologists are seen as the housewives of science - keeping things clean and tidy while the real men do the work. I've met enough intelligent biologists to know that this is only the case most of the time, but Maturana is a giant. I feel no shame in admitting that this was one of the most difficult books I've slogged through and that I'd often spend 10-15 minutes on a single page. That said, it was worth the slog.
My reactions to this book are a mixture of the following three three-letter phrases: "wow!", "duh...", and "wtf?!" The "wow!"s were accompanied by large-scale synaptic migrations as my paradigms regarding life and cognition were scrambled. The "duh..."s were my response to Maturana's incessant repetition of ideas only a Baptist alligator wrestler from the Deep South would argue with - evolution is a blind and local process, biological systems are recursive, blah, blah, blah. This might, however, be as unfair as accusing Shakespeare of adhering to every stereotype in Western literature, as I'm pretty sure Maturana was an early pioneer in the still fledgling field of theoretical biology and that many works I've read since are derived from his ideas. The "wtf?!"s were in response to Maturana's needlessly complicated lexicon of undefined terms. It seems like he and Varela went off and lived in a forest for 20 years, shielded from civilization, and developed their own strange and impenetrable vocabulary that only they understand.
The "wow!"s occurred almost exclusively during the first essay of this book: "The Biology of Cognition". I was much less impressed by "Autopoiesis", probably because the central idea of this book, recursion, has since spawned a closet industry of books ranging from masterpieces of human thought to crackpot theories on how Gödel’s theorem proves that God invented the internet.
As usual for books that woo me, I'll reserve my fifth star for another few weeks/months to see if my infatuation with the ideas in this book is nothing more than a teenage fling or something truly special and lasting.
Finally, the following are the main ideas I drew from the two essays. These notes are mainly to aid my aging memory, but you're free to treat it as a poorly executed synopsis. My criticisms of the text follow afterwards.
Cyclical (Autopoietic) Systems
A living organism is a cyclical system whose pieces provide for their own synthesis and maintenance (call this process "autopoiesis"). The disruption of this cycle destroys the organism. This cycle relies on the environment; it continually makes predictions about the environment by requiring and expecting certain resources. If these predictions fail, the organism may die. One goal of an organism is to expand its environmental requirements (and thus predictions) into broad classes rather than very specific conditions. In this way, the organism becomes more robust to environmental change. These cycles (autopoietic systems) may be nested, smaller cycles being the components of larger ones. There may even be level-mixing in which interactions play roles on multiple levels. There is some wiggle room in which an autopoietic system can be perturbed and yet still carry out its autopoietic self-genesis. That wiggle room constitutes the cognitive domain. It is the space of biological deformations that do not destroy an organism. As autopoiesis defines an organism, the relations between the components that constitute that organism are far more important than the components themselves. Organisms are fundamentally ontogenic. Development is not a process that culminates in an organism. The organism is the entire spatio-temporal pattern that includes development.
An organism's niche is not a subset of the environment an observer describes. The niche is defined in terms of the organism's domain of interactions with its environment. The observer necessarily describes the environment in terms of his own domain of interactions. This is a major barrier to explanation and understanding. An organism may interact with its environment in ways unobservable to others. An organism may (perhaps dysfunctionally) interact with its environment in ways unobservable to it, but observable to others. Communication is the orienting of one organism to a particular internal state by another organism. Note that the cognitive domains of the two organisms are different, so it makes no sense to speak of "information transferred" in the absolute. Absolute denotation of communication exists only in the mind of an observer who notices a relation in his simultaneous interactions with both organisms. Two organisms may only communicate if their cognitive domains have significant overlap. Otherwise, they are incapable of orienting one another to corresponding appropriate internal states.
Only that which leaves a signature on the nervous system may enter the cognitive domain. That which does not affect the brain is invisible to the organism. Interactions that leave the same neural signature are indistinguishable to an organism, be they between the organism and its environment or between internal cognitive states. It is possible, however, that an external observer may be differentially affected by similar interactions and be quite capable of distinguishing them. Neural systems can give a representation to "pure relations", expanding the cognitive domain to include abstract ideas. With this, pure relations may begin to independently interact with one another. Interesting view of a neuron: spatial system of possibly overlapping affector and collector areas Neural systems function in the present. The past only plays a role to the extent that it leaves a signature in the brain that carries on to the present. In general, for the past and predicted future to play a role in cognition, they must be abstracted and represented. The brain is local in interaction but not representation. Computation proceeds physically via matter affecting matter (interaction is local). Ideas, stimuli, and other neural states are distributed across the brain (representation is not local). Internal states represent spatiotemporal interactions with an organism's sensory service and subsequent internal activity. There are at least three time scales to consider:
Immediate - stimuli transiently affect neural activity Lifetime - (repeated) stimuli more permanently affect the organization of a neural system (learning) Evolutionary - evolutionary pressures affect the "base genetic model" that prescribes an organism's development
Neural systems change continuously and non-predictively. For a system to evolve between two states, the intermediate states must be accessible and viable. Interesting domain in which to study neurons: the I/O domain
Fix I, vary parameters, and watch O change Fix I/O, examine reduced parameter space that preserves that particular I/O relation
What are the fundamental units of the nervous system? What are the fundamental units of any information-processing system? That is, what should we treat as primitives in order to explain what neural systems do?
That said, the 40-year old essays do contain some outdated material, namely the (oft repeated) doctrine that neurons are deterministic. Neurons are not deterministic. Their input-output mappings are pretty friggin' stochastic, owing at the very least to the fact that channel dynamics dip into the quantum world of chemical reactions.
I also suspect that the reason Maturana and Varela resort to such a tangled web of undefined jargon is that many of their ideas are less developed than the Olsen twins (warning: my bag of pop culture references has not been replenished since the mid-90s). First, how exactly does autopoiesis define unique topological boundaries for an organism? If the autopoietic cycle that defines an organism is so deeply interwoven with the environment, how does one separate organism and environment? Every organism relies on its environment for resources. How to draw structural boundaries is obviously much clearer to Maturana and Varela than it is to my feeble brain. Second, Maturana and Varela stress that our descriptions of the functioning of organisms are fundamentally flawed due to the domain distinction problems mentioned in the notes above. Why is their description of autopoiesis immune from these mistakes? Why are they so certain that autopoiesis is the definitive characteristic of life when they argue throughout the text that the true character of organisms is forever unknowable in our restricted cognitive domains?...more
Reading this book was a bit like listening to my grandpa rant about LBJ's foreign policy decisions - he's probably right, but without the background tReading this book was a bit like listening to my grandpa rant about LBJ's foreign policy decisions - he's probably right, but without the background to appreciate his frustrations, all I can do is listen and squirm awkwardly in my chair.
Batchelor's book is a polemic against the modern transformation of Buddhism into something as dogmatic and unquestioning as Western religions. He points out that Buddhism is a personal practice of continual awareness and questioning, not a set of beliefs, commitments, or rituals. His insights into Buddhist practices were thought-provoking but being a man of science (and therefore atheist, culturally bankrupt, anti-humanities of course), I didn't have the religious or historical background to appreciate many of his complaints about the disfigurement of Buddhism.
This short book is meant to be read slowly. Each chapter offers ideas worth taking the time to reflect upon and some also suggest particular meditations. Unfortunately, I was borrowing this from a friend at university and had to power through it in two evenings before leaving for the summer.
I likely won't return to this book again though, because my interests in Buddhism are related to cultivating continual awareness, not in defending it against a deplorable watering down for the masses....more
Interested in cybernetics, theoretical biology, and philosophy but still find Dan Brown novels to require mental gymnastics? Put on your philosophicalInterested in cybernetics, theoretical biology, and philosophy but still find Dan Brown novels to require mental gymnastics? Put on your philosophical training wheels and give "Tree of Knowledge" a spin! A mixture of dated scientific ideas, profound frameworks for thinking about living organisms, and unnecessarily complicated jargon, ToK is essentially the children's menu version of Maturana and Varela's Autopoiesis and Cognition papers on living organisms, communication, and consciousness.
The rest of this review is a summary of the deep and profound wisdom I gleaned from the Chileans, so you may want to skip it if you haven't read the book yet.
ToK's more gentle approach (along with post-reading conversations with a Chilean economist and Italian physicist) helped clear up a question I had after Autopoiesis and Cognition: if a unity is so deeply coupled with its environment, how does one uniquely define its morphological boundaries? It may seem obvious to look at me, carve a 2D surface over my skin, and call me a closed system, but give me a week without a consistent supply of low-entropy energy and I'll quickly succumb to the second law of thermodynamics. The key trick is this: unique boundaries there are not. "Everything said is said by an observer." An observer selects the features by which a unity will be defined through their shared domain of interactions. Different observers (and even the same observer at different times with different goals) will have different domains of interactions and will define a unity in a different way. For example, a given university may be a set of assets and liabilities, a collection of students, a football team, a physical space, or some combination of these things, depending on who you ask.
Some more notes:
Referring to a unity implies an act of distinction.
Replication, copy, and reproduction can be distinguished by the amount of historicity in each process. Replication (repeated generation) is ahistorical. Copy (creation from a mold) is historical if iterated. Reproduction (the fracture of a unity to create two unities of the same class), however, is necessarily historical.
Heredity and variation are strongly complementary features. Heredity is the preservation of structure in a historical series of unities. Variation are the differences of structure in that series. Different components of a unity may exhibit different degrees of heredity and variation.
Unities may couple via inclusion (think organelles) or recurrent coupling with the maintenance of individual identities (individual humans).
The environment does not instruct an organism; it only triggers internal dynamics. To phrase it differently, the space of possible reactions to an environment is defined in the internal structure of an organism; the environment does not inject behavioral commands into an organism in any way. To phrase it differently yet again, environmental stimuli modulate, they do not control. Environmental input is imply one more "voice" in the "conversation" of internal dynamics.
Organisms must exhibit variance of the time scale of their environment (and in a complementary "direction") in order to adapt (remain coupled).
Adaptation in response to a single change in the environment affects the organism in a global way. A small change in structure may occur to accommodate one new feature of the environment, but through an internal domino effect, alter the way an organism interacts with other features.
The simplest neural systems allow detection of correlations between inputs on a sensory surface.
A nervous system expands our possible behaviors by inserting a network with a huge range of possible patterns between our sensory and motor surfaces. ...more
I dove into this book excited to learn how the minds of great scientists churn but instead was reminded of the great danger that accompanies reading oI dove into this book excited to learn how the minds of great scientists churn but instead was reminded of the great danger that accompanies reading old science texts - lengthy discussions of crackpot theories (i.e. phrenology) and passionate defenses of well-accepted ideas (i.e. not all mental activity is conscious). Taken as a survey of late 19th/early 20th century thinking on creativity and thought, the book reveals how stubbornly we humans cling to the mech warrior hypothesis of behavior - that every nugget of our activity stems from the conscious control of a homunculus nested in his HQ and peering out of our eyes like little windows on a spaceship. Many psychologists and philosophers quoted by Hadamard actually deny the existence of nontrivial unconscious processing in creative thought. If this doesn't shock or disgust you and you find yourself sympathizing with this notion, go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
Even so, this short book is worth a skim - the survey questions in the appendix alone are worth the price of admission. Hadamard used these questions to drill all his scientist/mathematician buddies on how they think, imagine, and work. The list is even more than a set of questions though - its a set of suggestions. If you're as narrow-minded and habituated as I am, you'll likely discover entirely new ways to approach problem-solving and find yourself exclaiming, "People think like that?!" I highly recommend reading the survey before the book itself, as this will get you thinking ahead of time about how you think and offer more context for understanding and possibly assimilating the habits of Hadamard's buddies.
The writing (or at least the translation) is also pretty amateurish. Parts of this book read like the dinner table reports of a 4th grader telling his mommy and daddy what all his friends did in class today... except instead of eating boogers and tricking Suzy into thinking she was adopted, Hadamard's friends invent special relativity, bifurcation theory, and cybernetics.
If you can tolerate or skip the many faults of this early thought experiment on thought, however, you're sure to not only learn something about the great minds of the late 19th/early 20th century, but your own feeble brain as well.
Book Notes (Warning: not guaranteed to be interpretable to outside eyes):
Invention is combination followed by selection.
Selection is the more difficult step. The selection process seems highly emotional. Understanding the emotional character of selection would teach us much about invention.
Two benefits of incubation:
reset (replenishment of mental resources) restart (retract assumptions and avoid mental ruts)
The incubation paradigm changes the role of the scientist to that of a mental farmer - toil hard in the fields of conscious effort (and failure), then later reap the benefits brought on by subconscious processing.
Ways mathematical minds may differ:
accessibility of thought/depth in unconscious (logical vs. intuitive thinking) narrowness of thought (logical vs. scattered) different auxiliary representations (geometric, verbal, auditory, etc)
Two kinds of invention:
Set goal, seek means Discover means, seek application (more common in mathematics)
I wonder how many grand ideas remain just out of reach in the antechambers of the minds of geniuses, perhaps consciously acknowledged but under-appreciated by them, perhaps tacitly assumed, or perhaps subconscious and nebulous.
The scientist whose aesthetic sense (passion) draws him to discoveries with profound implications is what we call a genius.
"Play" has saddled up alongside "innovation", "social entrepreneurship", and "network" as a buzzword for the early 21st century. Written decades befor"Play" has saddled up alongside "innovation", "social entrepreneurship", and "network" as a buzzword for the early 21st century. Written decades before, however, Carse's book is a unique and fascinating attempt to adopt the "game" as a framework for all of human behavior.
The essential dichotomy is between those who play "finite games" for results, prizes, and recognition and those who play "infinite games" for the sheer joy and challenge.
I read this on a plane ride over the Pacific and loved the first section but was not in the proper mental state to decode some of its more cryptic elements. The book is written in a style meant to be more quotable, playful, and thought-provoking than direct. Rather than offering polished philosophy, it offers loosely defined ideas from which the reader is expected to draw meaning.
For some, Carse will be the wordsmith who puts many old thoughts of their own into words. For others, Carse will offer a challenging yet fascinating world view that enables them to grow with the book. For the rest, Carse will simply by an eloquent charlatan, pumping out more fluff than Durkee-Mower.
I'm reserving my judgment until after a second, more cognizant reading....more
'The Fountainhead' is the only book I have ever read that made me feel as though I were standing up and shouting triumphantly from my lazy position dr'The Fountainhead' is the only book I have ever read that made me feel as though I were standing up and shouting triumphantly from my lazy position draped over a chair in my living room. It is the most honest account of what it is to be human that I have ever read.
'The Fountainhead' is essentially the meaning of life in paperback. That doesn't mean it holds the shortcut to happiness. There is none. Instead, it reveals that the path is one of the most challenging of all: to live fully and utterly for one's self.
"And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement."...more
Truth and meaning are perhaps two of the most polarizing issues one can write about. Humans are generally quite defensive about their core beliefs andTruth and meaning are perhaps two of the most polarizing issues one can write about. Humans are generally quite defensive about their core beliefs and unwilling to accept direct criticism on them. Most books that attempt to do so simply end up pandering to their already faithful disciples (just how many evangelicals do you think have read The Gold Delusion?). Those who back "science" often declare it the absolute monarch of knowledge, place it atop an unassailable throne, and condemn all who refuse to bow as mentally bankrupt. Given that I was a staunch royalist, finding a book that probed me on these issues was surprising and enlightening.
To irresponsibly sum it up in one sentence, Against Method's message is: "Science is not a particular set of values, rules, or methods; it's simply whatever works." This argument has two main parts. First, how we actually do science has very little resemblance to how we say we do science. Second, how we say we do science would be an awful method anyways.
Below are my notes while reading. They are not necessarily from the book but they are certainly inspired by it. Following, I present a few issues with the book (though if you've read the book yourself, you'll notice I take issue with the book in my notes as well).
EDUCATION -Scientific theories are passed on naked of their historical context. Argument occurs and only the results are passed on. The strengths of opponents and weaknesses of the idea are lost and what once had to be qualified and carefully argued as an "enemy theory" is now taken for granted and may even be taken as platitude. -Mainstream theory is so crystallized in education that it becomes taken for granted and no longer carefully examined or criticized. -Like the humanities, science must encourage debate and theory in class (for example, a TA might lead with "Can you explain inheritance without genetics in an attractive way?).
ACQUIRING KNOWLEDGE -Experience and observation are colored by perceptual tools, prevailing theory, culture, and the intricacies of the human brain, at the very least. -Intellectual play makes science more productive and more fun. -Adventurers consult maps but also ignore then "correct" them. -Results are starting points for further explanation. In science, you never "arrive" at your destination.
NATURAL INTERPRETATIONS -Natural interpretations are biases so common they are "natural." -They can arise from ubiquity in education, continual human sensory experience, and historical precedent. -They are extremely difficult to detect. One way is to assume a competing theory is correct and discuss what must change.
OBSERVATION LANGUAGES -Observation languages, like verbal ones, seem absolute until you encounter others. -Certain observation languages are great for basic survival but the goal of the scientist is not survival; it is discovery. -Unfamiliar and counterintuitive observation languages are often great vehicles for discovery.
COMPARING THEORIES -Prevailing scientific theories are a product of politics, history, power, economics, religion, culture, philosophy, evolution, neuroscience, memetics, and many other influences. Divorcing them from their stories discards a great deal of important information. -Ideas are often presented before the means or modes of thinking to verify them are available and are therefore often prematurely disposed of. For this reason, we cannot ignore old passed-over ideas on the assumption that they are wrong. -Historical precedence is not a virtue. Yes, we may need to print new books, change university courses, etc but perhaps we must rethink such rigid investments instead of compromising on the ideas. -No theory agrees with all the facts available, so disagreement with facts is no criterion for disregard. -New theories are like grains of sand in a clam and can, though seen as an irritation at first, seed an aggregate of new ideas that form a pearl of science. -New theories don't necessarily have to solve or adhere to the old problems of old theories. Theories describe their own problem spaces.
OTHER DISCIPLINES -We cannot ignore the "non-sciences." People believe in them for some reason and by investigating this reason, we, at the very least, learn something about memetics and the human mind. -Other disciplines may also discover productive world views capable of framing observations long before those observations are actually possible. Looking to them for assistance, particularly in times of new or unexplained data, could prove to be helpful. -One major goal of science is personal pleasure. Attacking other disciplines for their focus on personal pleasure is indefensible for science.
ISSUES -The anarchistic approach to science is particularly compelling for the individual scientist because it is free of restrictions. It grants him the freedom to study whatever he likes in whatever way he pleases. Scientists as individuals then might be necessarily biased towards it. -The anarchistic approach to science also, however, grants credence to fields traditionally outside science (like Chinese traditional medicine and homeopathy). This approach challenges science's unassailable claim to the purveyor of all knowledge. Science as an institution then might be necessarily biased against it. -I believe science can be defined, not by method but by intent: Science, united under the shared goal of discovery, is the open and continuous questioning of nature accompanied by predictions and, to the greatest extent possible, their verification. (Alternatively, science is a bundle of current and possible procedures unified under the shared goal of understanding and predicting.) -This book does not stand alone particularly well. Significant parts of it are responses to debates and other books that aren't always introduced. I'd highly recommend reading "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn first. It presents much of the backstory for "Against Method" in a more self-contained and accessible way....more