This is an excellent review of recent theoretical and empirical work in the search for consciousness. Some of the biggest names in the philosophy of m...moreThis is an excellent review of recent theoretical and empirical work in the search for consciousness. Some of the biggest names in the philosophy of mind and all areas of human and animal neuroscience come together in this volume to discuss their respective approaches to the "big question." In such a compilation, it's only natural that some essays speak loudly to a given audience while others provide (generally, but not always, fruitful) points of disagreement; in this particular book, some authors even make direct responses to others and the contrast between them serves a higher use than either alone. I was especially piqued by David Papineau's and Adam Zeman's critiques of the entire endeavour, as they provided viewpoints I'd not seen formalized before. By contrast, essays by LeDoux, Rolls, Milner, Heyes, and Dickinson-- those more firmly planted in empirical psychology-- were more like refresher notes on theories I'd already heard and the evidence to support or refute them. That's in no way to suggest they weren't interesting or useful, but I think more cross-talk with philosophy is going to be necessary to answer this ostensibly neuroscientific question. Indeed, several of the empiricist contributors make a special note in their respective pieces of the value of philosophy in solving some of the "tangles" inherent to the quest.
More than anything else, the book was a reminder that it's an exciting time to be in this field, asking these questions. They are in no way solved yet, despite excellent and rigorous work from all angles. My own views on the nature of consciousness only appear quietly between the lines of those presented here, so I leave the experience both invigorated and reassured that any contribution I can make will find a place in the literature.(less)
A short and accessible historical gem that explores, well before its time, points of convergence and divergence between natural and artificial intelli...moreA short and accessible historical gem that explores, well before its time, points of convergence and divergence between natural and artificial intelligence systems. It's particularly interesting as a meter stick of progress between the 1950's and the current day: whereas the computer side of the question is in some ways quaintly outdated, von Neumann's outline of the human nervous system and the functioning of individual neurons remains near the limit of what we understand even today. Not quite exactly at the limit, but certainly not as dreadfully short of it as 1950's computer science is to our current level of technological understanding. Psychologists often point to the youth of our field as if it were an apology for the slow progress-- still waiting for our Newton or our Einstein--, but the contrasts laid out in this book, as a modern reader, question the validity of the excuse. Computer science is younger still than psychology, yet the speed of knowledge acquisition dramatically outpaces that of psychology.
Nevertheless, as von Neumann outlines presciently, the points of divergence may overwhelm the points of convergence, rendering the comparison moot. The essay stands as a reminder of the limits of artificial intelligence when compared to biological intelligence: we may never be able to build real brains from artificial components running current computer architectures. I was especially piqued by his closing remarks that the mathematics of the nervous system may reflect different mathematics than the ones we currently understand. He compares our known mathematics to assembly language and the hypothesized neural mathematics to higher-level programming languages, suggesting that we may simply not have found the right method for interpreting the latter.
I really enjoyed the quick read and recommend it to anyone who works with computers, brains, or-- most especially-- both, as an important historical document.(less)
This books should more accurately be titled "Letters to a very young field biologist," or "Anecdotes from an entomologist that may only be of minimal...moreThis books should more accurately be titled "Letters to a very young field biologist," or "Anecdotes from an entomologist that may only be of minimal interest if you have no interest in bugs."
Thankfully, it was a quick read.
E. O. Wilson is clearly a successful and prolific scientist, but success in biology does not good-general-science-advice make. It's always interesting, to me, to hear about how researchers started their careers. Oftentimes it's encouraging to learn that some favourite minds fell into their fields by sheer chance, by randomly uncovered passion or talents, or by circuitous routes through esoteric areas of knowledge or counterculture. Wilson, on the other hand, wanted to be exactly what he become since childhood and followed a very standard route to get there: beginning as a boy scout and camp counsellor and ending up at Harvard. This is as straightforward an origin story as a scientist gets, and, while admirable, the story of a very precocious passion and intelligence followed linearly through to PhD has little to offer any student who didn't find their passion early on. Most scientists will not set their life trajectory by age 9, and most certainly will not go to an Ivy League school. Most, moreover, will not study biology. Some of us who consider ourselves scientists do not even study the "natural" sciences (gasp!).
I was disappointed, as a young scientist, to find a book of this title written decidedly not for me.(less)
Full disclosure: I have a serious admiration-crush on Commander Hadfield, so I may be biased.
I LOVED THIS BOOK. A non-linear autobiography spun as a s...moreFull disclosure: I have a serious admiration-crush on Commander Hadfield, so I may be biased.
I LOVED THIS BOOK. A non-linear autobiography spun as a sort of motivational handbook to living well, this book uses anecdotes-- the terrifying, the humorous, and the profound-- from an impressive career to illustrate some of the ways in which life as an astronaut can inform, and indeed improve, everyday life on earth. The writing is uncomplicated but never simple, the voice of humble intelligence with experience in communicating complicated ideas efficiently. Hadfield himself comes across as both ordinary and extraordinary, seasoned but wide-eyed, content but as determined as ever to contribute to the society that allowed him to fulfill his lifelong dream of space travel.
The tenets of the philosophy Hadfield espouses are straightforward: (in my own words) work hard, work with passion, work with others, work for others, take pleasure in the little things, be prepared for anything, humble yourself, and learn, always. In these ways, Hadfield has managed to find happiness and maintain it over a lifetime of stress, long hours, travel, and endless learning, and even after his final stint in space was complete and his retirement nigh.
There was a lot to love and enjoy over the course of these pages. Hadfield is a sharp, witty guy, and his memory for, and appreciation of, the little details gives his stories a sort of earnest magic that draws you in. The one thing that I think will stick with me is the notion of seeing life (and careers) laterally, with moments of importance, pride, and value in every single day, instead of as a ladder to climb. The latter, Hadfield argues, will leave one in the position of never being satisfied at any rung below the top one, where no human can remain even if they're one of the lucky few to ever reach it.
I really recommend this book for anyone who wants to feel good about life, science, exploration, and the value of our tax dollars in supporting beautiful minds like this one.(less)
Michael Pollan is swiftly solidifying his position as "somebody I want to know." He's a clever writer, an inquisitive journalist, and a creative story...moreMichael Pollan is swiftly solidifying his position as "somebody I want to know." He's a clever writer, an inquisitive journalist, and a creative storyteller, as well as a shining light of simple food consciousness in an era of either not asking at all or asking far too much.
This book is equal parts natural history, social history, regular history, botanical musing, plant biology, evolutionary theory, and psychology, with a smattering of classical mythology, memoir, neuroscience, and investigative journalism to hold the threads together. Pollan sets out with the aim of tracking four plants along their coevolution with society, tying each to a human desire that shaped it into what it is today: the apple and sweetness, the tulip and beauty, marijuana and intoxication, and potatoes and control. What he ends up writing from this neat little package of a thesis is something much greater than the sum of its parts, a veritable exploration (I use the word a lot but I think it really applies here) of what it means to be human in a determinedly natural world.
One of the ideas he returns to often is that our relationship to the natural world is a balancing of Apollonian (controlled, geometric, structured, artificial) and Dionysian (frenetic, shifting, chaotic, and natural) forces, and I think he really hit the nail on the head with the notion as much as with the conclusion that it's a much more complicated relationship than it first appears. The complexity of the question is due in part to the many human urges (such as morality) that don't fit cleanly in either camp, and in part to the ambiguity of the agent in control within the framework of nature's chaos. It's an impressively thoughtful approach, and the broad reach allowed by a philosophical, as opposed to purely scientific, foundation means the reader gets to learn a little about a lot along the way.
I won't spoil anyone's enjoyment of the book by divulging details of HOW each plant and desire is examined, but I will assure you that the how is not as straightforward and easy as you'd expect. This is becoming a mark of Pollan's writing as much as it always has been a hallmark of great writing: a clear and simple idea considered with breadth and depth in a manner so well-organized that you don't realize how much you're learning until you're done. I cannot wait to read more of his work.(less)
Michael Pollan proves himself once again as a prodigious mind and a bastion of honest journalism in the sea of lies, double-talk, cover-up, and market...moreMichael Pollan proves himself once again as a prodigious mind and a bastion of honest journalism in the sea of lies, double-talk, cover-up, and marketing that surround the food industry. This book documents an insightful and often alarming collection of journeys through the food chain, following different pathways of food sources from the starting line to the dinner table. Running the gamut from the highly industrialized, government-subsidized, and deeply impersonal ecological nightmare that brings us processed and fast foods, down to the gritty and very personal realities of a hunter-forager lifestyle, Pollan's exploration is as thorough as it is fair. It's clear that while he has an opinion, he is not writing to push any agenda and is quite willing to have his views changed by what he learns. That he then shares what he's learned and encourages his readers to decide for themselves is a rare openness in what is often a heated and divisive topic.
It's so refreshing to see a writer of non-fiction admitting his ignorance and then striving to solve it, heartening to see someone so evidently concerned with environmental issues nevertheless give a balanced consideration of the real benefits of unsustainable farming (namely, it feeds a lot of people), and contagiously thought-provoking to see such breadth and depth of thought given over to food. It certainly doesn't hurt that Pollan is a great writer, hitting humour and tragedy at all the right moments and letting the facts speak solemnly for themselves when they should, and a phenomenally engaging storyteller.
Rather than hear my thoughts on the various sections of the book (though, spoilers, the part about sustainable polyculture farms blew me away and brought me nostalgically back to an age when I naively believed all farming to be like that), I really encourage anyone interested in Pollan's work to just read it themselves. You won't regret taking the time, and his full treatment will be in any case far more interesting than my summary.
If you're interested in how food happens, but don't want to be emotionally manipulated into an opinion, this is the book for you.(less)
Sort of an elaborated version of Pollan's Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, which I had mistakenly read first, this one didn't add too much *new* informa...moreSort of an elaborated version of Pollan's Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, which I had mistakenly read first, this one didn't add too much *new* information above and beyond what I'd learned from previous reads, whether of his or of someone else's. Nevertheless, I appreciate the full treatment given to the vital but oft-unheeded battlecry: the Western diet is killing us only slightly slower than it can spread its fingers into new hearts and minds and stomachs around the world-- an insidious promise of easy short-term gratification (economic, caloric, and political) without consideration for the enormous long-term havoc being wrought on ecosystems at all levels of analysis. He moreover ties the myriad major American industries together into what might be the greatest unplanned money-making scheme in human history, as measured by breadth, depth, growth and duration, a symbiotic market that fattens itself in perpetuity on the shoulders of its consumers (the world's first real soylent?).
The scope of the issue is really laid bare in this careful and probably, to be honest, conservative criticism of nutritionism, the young quasi-science that is stretching well beyond its current capabilities to influence public food and health policies in alarming ways. A clever mirror against the reductionist tendencies of the budding field, Pollan shifts blame for modern endemics (obesity, diabetes, depression, heart disease...) from one likely factor to the next, to eventually strike upon the broader picture of what culture and evolution have to say about diet as a whole.
Whereas a lazier author could easily have spun this yarn of legitimate concern into a web of alarmist nightmare, Pollan is careful to offer solutions within full reach of the reader. He details with simplicity the thankful fact that what is best for your health is commonly in harmony with what is best for the environment, from soil to chemical waste, and bluntly points out that every consumer of a vital resource cast votes for the future with the every purchasing choice made. He cites the rise of community supported agriculture programs-- a local example of which I am proud to be a part--, the desperation of food processors to maintain a growing veneer of health-consciousness, the growth of organic produce at both public market and private garden scales, and the steadfast persistence of some traditional food cultures in the face of fast food's yawning reach, as some examples that all hope is not yet lost. I, for one, submit as further evidence the popularity of Pollan's incisive and tremendously readable critiques. I'll continue to vote with my stomach and my money, and will do so more simply and intelligently than before thanks to the insights garnered from these books.(less)
It's difficult to treat this statistical hallmark fairly from a modern perspective, and particularly from the perspective of a social scientist. Fishe...moreIt's difficult to treat this statistical hallmark fairly from a modern perspective, and particularly from the perspective of a social scientist. Fisher's work, while undeniably fundamental to current statistical techniques in psychology, lay firmly in the applied realms of genetics and agriculture. Whereas it is possible to read his treatment of Latin Squares in plots of land, for example, as generalizable to the design of factorial behavioural experiments, holy hell is it tedious: it demands not only a translation of antiquated scientific prose to modern equivalents but also a translation of agricultural terminology to that of participant groups. His approach is, moreover, deeply mathematical. I skipped over much of the final chapter which, near as I could tell, dealt with algebraic proofs of the sufficiency and biases of parameter estimates-- topics that I had a hard time following in more accessible terms in my courses, lacking as I do a strong mathematical background. Having both taken and taught the topics covered in the book, I know that most students in my field have a difficult time with this dry approach to statistics, preferring instead to have the concepts bootstrapped to their research programs. Nowadays, very few experimentalists are statisticians, and vice versa.
Nevertheless, the book certainly has value as an alternative perspective for those already familiar with the techniques. Fisher illustrates the fundamentals of the exact z test, single sample and paired t tests, confidence intervals, factorial tests, chi-square tests, and others. The way he explores them is vastly different from how I learned them, but the comparison was a worthwhile exercise. My existing knowledge allowed me to better understand his approaches to the same concepts, and to expand my understanding of their theoretical foundations. Old tricks, new angles. And a few fun jabs at Neyman and Peason, to boot!
I would not recommend this book to anyone without a strong grasp of the Fisherian tradition of data analysis. Those few of you well-equipped, on the other hand, may find it worth your while.(less)
Rather than profane this marvelling ode to Nature-- pure poetry from the lifestyle it chronicles to the words painstakingly arranged to capture it-- w...moreRather than profane this marvelling ode to Nature-- pure poetry from the lifestyle it chronicles to the words painstakingly arranged to capture it-- with my fumbling praise, I've chosen to simply share some of its most breathtaking phrases, with the promise that this far from exhausts them and the hope that this illustrates how I feel about Walden in general:
"I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I now as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience."
"A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air. It is continually receiving new life and motion from above. It is intermediate in its nature between land and sky."
"I fear that we are such gods or demigods only as fauns and satyrs, the divine allied to beasts, the creatures of appetite, and that, to some extent, our very life is our disgrace."
"The farmer is endeavouring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself. To get his shoe-strings he speculates in herds of cattle. With consummate skill he has set his trap with a hair springe to catch comfort and independence, and then, as he turned away, got his own leg into it."
"We know but few men, a great man coats and breeches."
"So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate, but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant."
"There is some of the same fitness in a man's building his own house that there is in a bird's building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical notes."
"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, and end which it was already but too easy to arrive at"
"I never dreamed of any enormity greater than I have committed. I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself."
"...a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."
"Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep."
"We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep."
"Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business."
"The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can ear them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically."
"Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost."
"Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and make no mistake."
"At length the sun's rays have attained the right angle, and warm winds blow up mist and rain and melt the snow banks, and the sun dispersing the mist smiles on a checkered landscape of russet and white smoking with incense, through which the traveller picks his way from islet to islet, cheered by the music of a thousand tinkling rills and rivulets whose veins are filled with the blood of winter which they are bearing off."
"At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable."
"There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate such incredible dulness."
"I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good."
"By this fluctuation the pond asserts its title to a shore, and thus the shore is shorn, and the trees cannot hold it by right of possession. These are the lips of the lake on which no beard grows."
"I had withdrawn so far within the great ocean of solitude, into which the rivers of society empty, that for the most part, so far as my needs were concerned, only the finest sediment was deposited around me."
"You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steady course before it reaches the ear of the hearer, else it may plough out again through the side of his head."
"What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another."
"The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph."
"They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions."(less)
Okay. This book and I didn't get along terribly well, but the experience was nevertheless a valuable one. So, 3 stars, even though I disagree fundamen...moreOkay. This book and I didn't get along terribly well, but the experience was nevertheless a valuable one. So, 3 stars, even though I disagree fundamentally with some of the theory and the style of presentation. This will be a long one; bear with me.
To put it simply.... Jeff Hawkins is a very intelligent computer engineer who thinks he understands brains in ways that no neuroscientist ever has before, mostly because he is willing to stand by a grand picture where most neuroscientists want to investigate every small chunk before declaring they've solved brains. He has read a lot of books about neuroscience and has spoken to a lot of neuroscientists, and has trudged up a (not patently incorrect) theory from the 1970's and used it as a foundation for what he considers the first general theory of cortical brain functioning (it isn't). He then equates "cortex" with "intelligence" and takes off on a grand tour of his theory: that we can build intelligent* machines to perform complex pattern recognition tasks in much the same ways that he proposes an organic cortex does.
*NOT human-like, though you wouldn't know it from the wording in any blurb you read about the book, including the book's own jacket summary.
There are a lot of theoretic assumptions in this book, and unpacking them is quite unfortunately left up to the reader, who may not have the requisite background knowledge to separate out responsible assumptions, backed by data that Hawkins rarely mentions in order to keep it digestible to a lay audience, from irresponsible ones. There are many of the latter, detectable only by those who know the field or the scientific method well enough to know a red flag when they see it. Hawkins plays loose on owning up to these assumptions, even when they are cornerstones without which his theory loses a lot of its appeal. I was relieved when he admitted to the oversimplification of his view at the end of the chapter on neurology, but it felt like an afterthought that could (should?) have been used to temper his conviction and factual flippancy up to that point. The tone of the book is occasionally that of a conspiracy theorist who has figured it all out, against all conventional belief, and pulls you along a fast sequence of premises and conclusions while waving his hands and telling you the details of the premises are too complicated to get into.
One of the bafflers that stood out to me (this is a bit technical, sorry) was the notion that the basal ganglia and cerebellum are old structures whose functions have been largely subsumed by the neocortex, and thus were unnecessary for a theory of intelligent motor behaviour. The balls it takes to make that claim, when such vastly debilitating diseases as Parkinson's, Huntingtons, or Ataxia exist, blew my brains out a bit. At that point, it became clear that Hawkins was so fixated on the neocortex that he was willing to push aside contradictory evidence from subcortical structures to make his theory fit. I've seen this before, from neuroscientists who fall in love with a given brain region and begin seeing it as the root of all behaviour, increasingly neglecting the quite patent reality of an immensely distributed system. It's pretty natural, and honestly not limited to neuroscientists: when you stare too closely at one piece of a puzzle, you begin to forget that there are other pieces. For most scientists, however, this view need not be a detriment, because they generally aim their research programs at very specific questions-- questions that this atomized focus are fit to answer. In the case of Jeff Hawkins' general theory of brain function, however, it's entirely disingenuous.
Putting aside my qualms with his approach to the theory, there is actually some overlap between his views my own, and some points of valuable and probably instructive disagreement. Hawkins views intelligence as a result of hierarchical and recursive neural organization: basically, there are higher and lower levels, with communication tracing both upwards (from sensory input) and downwards (from higher levels of analysis) via patterns of activation. What we experience is a complex interaction between external input and internal input from memory, resulting in a continuous stream of online prediction. Up to this point, my theories of what we might call consciousness match his theory of intelligent pretty well. Where we differ is in the details (and in our respective convictions that we are correct!).
In neuroscience, there is a theoretical construct called the 'grandmother cell,' to illustrate the ludicrous idea that there is a single neuron in your brain that represents your grandmother, another for your cat, and so on. The grandmother cell has been disproven time and time again: the brain is a HIGHLY distributed system, and a given representation is the result of patterns of activations across many cells, not one cell. Jeff Hawkins acknowledges this.... before proposing instead that representations in the cortex are handled by (my term, not his) grandmother cellular columns. Briefly, the visual cortex has been shown to have a columnar organization that traverses six parallel layers of anatomically and biologically different cell types, such that cells at Point X of layer 1 respond to the same sorts of basic visual information (e.g., line angles) as cells at Point X of layers 2 through 6. Because the rest of the cortex also seems to be organized in six distinguishable layers, Hawkins suggests that the entire cortex operates in columns, such that the composite idea of your grandmother should be represented by a given cellular column in a high-level area of cortex. He never states these logical conclusions outright, but they follow from the way his theory proposes hierarchical organization to work. He briefly admits the oversimplification at play, and then nevertheless uses the oversimplification as the foundation for the rest of the theory. This is not a novel theory so much as it is an outdated theory with the goalpost pushed back one step. And while oversimplifications are a necessary evil in scientific progress*, they need to be acknowledged and admitted so that they can be refined, again, especially where a general theory for a lay audience is the goal.
*as my advisor says it, the goal of a scientist is to maintain a productive level of ambiguity.
The rest of the book was (to me) less controversial. There was the requisite chapter to answer such questions as "does this mean animals are intelligent!?" for readers who've never thought about the implications of a physical and evolutionarily-derived brain before. Yawn. This was followed by a chapter on what I assume is the whole reason Hawkins wrote the book: the prospect of intelligent machines.
Having defined 'intelligence' as 'cortex,' he rather plainly announces that an intelligent machine will be one organized with recursive and flexible hierarchies, a reveal that will shock or excite no cognitive scientist. He very clearly explains why current artificial intelligence built on existing computer memory structures are not up to the task, an argument that AI researchers have been ignoring for decades. Much to my pleasant surprise, again given the blurbs on this book, he then laments the cold hard reality that we will never have viable machines that are intelligent in the way humans are: humans are intelligent the way humans are because of all the sensory and proprioceptive input coming in from their human bodies to shape their brains. Unless we build almost impossibly costly and cumbersome human-like bodies to go with our fancy intelligent machine brains, it's a moot point trying to make machines like humans-- and why would we want to anyways? Hawkins outlines some realistic goals that are achievable (e.g., self-driving cars, diagnostic machines, weather prediction machines...), none of which I particularly disagree with except for the optimistic time-frames forecasted.
However, I can't help feeling that most readers are set up to be vastly disappointed by the propositions. With the majority of the book devoted to neurological theory, it's hard not to anticipate that the machine intelligence he will eventually propose will mimic neurology. The book jacket itself claims that Hawkins' theories will "make it possible for us to build intelligent machines, in silicon, that will not simply imitate but exceed our human ability in surprising ways." But nothing about the analogical applications of his neurologically-based theory are intended to imitate humans. He expressly states, in fact, that the aim to build artificial humans is wrong-footed and fated to fail. The message is a bit confusing, and while I would have personally been offended to hear him say what most readers likely wanted to hear-- that we can build human-like machines by analogy to human cortex-- I again get a sticky sense of disingenuity, this time to sell book copies.
Overall, this was an interesting but infuriating book that takes some great ideas from existing cognitive science, laudably exposes them to a lay audience in ways that most cognitive and neuroscientists won't bother to, shoves them into a flawed neurological framework, and then announces brains to be solved. The ego involved is staggering, the conclusions less so, and the applications underwhelming. I am admittedly very interested to see, hopefully in my lifetime, just how intelligent Hawkins' intelligent machines can get with only an analogical neocortex. Since he never discusses this fact, spoilers: a neocortex is not enough for either humans or nonhuman animals to function, let alone intelligently. The (rather expensive...) exercise of trying to evoke intelligence from cortex alone could provide us with a better appreciation of subcortical structures, much needed in this species-self-congratulatory era of cortical fixation.(less)
I have to start by pointing out a serious rift between why I was recommended this book and why I kept reading it: a philosophy major drunkenly trying...moreI have to start by pointing out a serious rift between why I was recommended this book and why I kept reading it: a philosophy major drunkenly trying to defend free will told me I might be impressed by the book's arguments, and I took it as a challenge. I'd love to see an intelligent response to determinism, a sharp knife to poke at the thick skin of my convictions.
To be frank, I did not find that in this book.
Koestler's arguments against determinism are, to my perspective, peripheral to the bulk of his thesis, which is that evolution has landed man in a blind alley by giving him an exponential growth of cortex that he hasn't yet figured out how to use in concert with the older and more slowly developed subcortical structures. Yet the determinism arguments are treated as foundational in light of the strongly behaviourist tendencies of the scientific era against which he was battling. The result is that he ends up debating a macro-level stimulus-response caricature of determinism that few determinists today hold as sufficient-- a straw man by current standards but, sure, admirable and fairly unique for psychological science circa 1960. It could even be that such relentless (and at the least witty and delightful to read) attacks on behaviourism helped to open bright minds to the cognitive revolution, so we won't hold that against him. But we will hold it against that philosophy major for bringing a knife to a gunfight, and encourage him to read some newer books....
Much of the remainder was a fascinating read, however. Koestler takes us through evolutionary theory and hierarchical systems theory, tying the two together to look at the larger whole of humanity in terms of some evolutionary phenomena.
One of his focuses is on the "blind alley" in evolution, in which a species becomes overspecialized for its environment and then can't adapt properly to new changes in that environment. In the history of evolution, this has happened a number of times, but nature has a way of getting out of it: paedomorphism, basically extending the growth phase of development and evolving off younger forms of the species. This is a process that Koestler calls reculer pour mieux sauter (roughly: taking a step back to jump better), and it's one of the more interesting of the ideas he applies to other levels of the human hierarchical system. For example, he cites this process as the means to creativity in both art and science. Breakthroughs are obtained by breaking down the existing state of thought and working from older ideas in combination with new knowledge (and thus is hit upon the very reason I read old and outdated books like this one).
In a later thread of his theoretical mixology, Koestler takes a closer look at the structure of hierarchical systems, in which each element is both a whole on its level and a part of the level above it-- a duality which he calls a holon and which term is probably this book's most enduring contribution. A holon in a hierarchical system embodies a fundamental tension between integrative (i.e., parts of a whole) and self-assertive (i.e., each part is a whole in itself) tendencies. He not only explains humour, art, and science as lying along a continuous spectrum on this dimension, but also proposes that most of human woe can be explained by the dichotomy. Specifically, that whereas overexpression of the self-assertive tendency can lead to small scale violence, overexpression of the integrative tendency moves the behaviour one step up in the hierarchy and leads to large-scale violence. So nationalism, religion, cults, etc., are a submission of the "wholeness" of the part to the benefit of the larger whole, and lead to destruction on a broader scale. I'm not generally one for such broad theorizing, but I love this idea.
After hitting that broad and impressive peak, he reels the magnifying glass back down to the level of the individual human and argues that we've evolved into a sick blind alley that makes us prone to the delusions inherent in closed systems. A closed system doesn't behave hierarchically, but locks its parts into the part role and leaves the larger closed system the only whole, rejects opinions from outside the system, and so on. Whether these delusions are expressed in terms of mental illness or social illnesses like nationalism/religion, the result is the same and it is not good. Also generally on board with this idea, and at this point I began to develop expectations about where he was going with it...
And then suddenly the message begins a glorious spiral of WTF so far off the mark of the natural extension I'd extrapolated from the book's brilliant middle portion that it took me and my incredulity an entire two weeks to read the last few chapters. Basically, Koestler sketches the need for a drug to "unlock the potentials of the underused cortex" by somehow allowing more distributed communication with subcortical structures, and thereby evading the closed system that amplifies the part/whole tension and leads to our madness as a species-- a madness defined by what he calls the absolute certainty of self-destruction by nuclear war. If the leaps in this synopsis are hard to follow, I'm sorry, but his elaboration doesn't do much better. The 1960's come through loud and clear in these pages, and it's such a pity that he ends on this note, to the tune of my repeating the word NOPE. Not to mention that in the same breath as he expounds on the virtues of such a drug, he deeply misunderstands Huxley's proposal for the virtues of hallucinogens. If there's an afterlife, I hope Mr. Huxley and Mr. Koestler have by now discussed, over magical heaven tea, that they completely agree about what drugs can and cannot do with the contents of a human brain, because wow what a misreading of Huxley. BUT I DIGRESS.
Take the last bit with a grain of salt and forgive Koestler the hubris of assigning a much-deplored relic of psychology's past as his arch-nemesis, and this is a profoundly interesting extrapolation of known scientific processes to new milieus, with at worst thought-provoking and at best insightful results. With the reality of those elements however, it's hard not to take the rest with at least a half-grain of the same salt. If one's foundational assumptions are outdated, it's difficult not to question the validity of anything built on them. Nevertheless, it was delicious and surprisingly far-ranging food for thought and I'm glad I got into a drunken debate with a philosophy major. Even though he's wrong.(less)