Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Books, Books, Books!

It takes me about ninety minutes to get to university in the morning and sometimes two hours to get back if I end up staying late in the lab. I now use this time to read, rather than the previous tactics of zoning out, sleeping or checking out females. As much as I enjoy immersing myself in books of fiction, I currently have had a hankering for books which make me think.

The first four books I got from Amazon.com were

V.S. Ramachandran : Phantom's In the Brain
Daniel C. Dennett: Consciousness Explained
Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time
Daniel C. Dennett: Breaking the Spell - Religion as a natural phenomenon


Phantom's In the Brain
I couldn't put this book down. Each page was a fascinating journey into the mind and how, when things go wrong, we can work out, almost as if by reverse-engineering, how the brain works. Ramachandran is a fantastic public speaker who has captured my imagination numerous times and presents his work in such a way that even non-experts in the field can understand what is going on. (Some of his works can be found on YouTube and Google Video's)

This was the first time I actually got to demonstrate to myself where my blind spot was and the associated phenomeon behind how we fill it in so we don't notice it.

The best story in the book for me was asking people who have large blind spots if they could still "see" despite no conscious recalling of events. It turns out they have a better than chance of "guessing" whether stimulus occured. This implies that although our consciousness may not see something - unconscious processes in the brain can still "see".

Consciousness Explained
False advertising! Having just read Phantom's In The Brain - my mind was geared into thinking about the mind and consciousness which is why I picked up this book. It was a tough read, on one hand the wording seemed geared to those who already had an inkling into this subject area yet I believe it was aimed at the lay person. I started to get into the book about 1/3 of the way in - and there on in, I was entralled. Sometimes I had to put the book down and spend the last part of the bus or train journey thinking about what was just written.

The most poignant memory I took from this book was the question on when consciousness occurs in a causal chain of events.

Let's say there is a woman who walks by who does not have glasses on.

You report after seeing her that she did have glasses on. (You only saw her fairly quickly and you remember seeing someone like her at a party who was wearing glasses)

The question is - did you "see" her wear glasses and recall this event (a so-called Stalinesque show trial) or did you "see" no glasses but recalled her with glasses (so-called Orwellian because the of the rewriting of history)

The answer to this sets the stage for Dennetts Theory and explanation of consciousness, which attempts to finally dethrone the circular notion of the Cartestian Theater.

A Breif History of Time
I cannot really comment on this book as I already knew everything that was in it! I actually thought there would be something more - but I suppose this book really is aimed at the average Joe. Still - there were some pretty pictures and if I could explain things in the way Hawkings does, then I will be very pleased.

One critisism is the loose use of the word "God". The last sentence says it all really
"If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for them we would know the mind of God." If you want to know what the question was - get the book!

Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Daniel returns with the question "Should we break the spell of religion?" Most atheists would spontaneously react with an emphatic YES to this question but Daniel want's to investigate this scientifically lest we regret it!
The answer is obviously yes, otherwise this book would not exist. (An anthropic principle of sorts...)

Again Dennett has a habit of being tediously boring to start with (to be fair, its tedious because it's thorough) before delving into the interesting and thought provoking questions. The most interesting chapter for me was on "Belief in Belief" where Dennett makes the bold claims that many religious people only belief because thats what they are instructed to do and it makes it hard for researchers to find out what they really believe because this differes from what they are told they need to believe.

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The following arrived in the last two days:

Economics
Freakonomics: Economics of the unusual

Animals and People
Alex & I : A story of a bond between a talking parrot and a scientist
Next of Kin: Conversations with a chimpanzee
The Selfish Gene: Richard Dawkins' Classic

Politics
Noam Chomsky on Anarchism

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