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28 MARCH, 2012

Philosopher Daniel Dennett on Memes, Luck, Consciousness, and the Meaning of Life

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“Every living thing is, from the cosmic perspective, incredibly lucky simply to be alive.”

Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett is one of our era’s most important and influential thinkers on philosophy of mind. His insights on purpose and consciousness get to the heart of what it means to be human. To celebrate, here a few quotes from his writings that have stayed with me over the years:

A reminder of how fortunate we are, you and I, from Freedom Evolves:

Every living thing is, from the cosmic perspective, incredibly lucky simply to be alive. Most, 90 percent and more, of all the organisms that have ever lived have died without viable offspring, but not a single one of your ancestors, going back to the dawn of life on Earth, suffered that normal misfortune. You spring from an unbroken line of winners going back millions of generations, and those winners were, in every generation, the luckiest of the lucky, one out of a thousand or even a million. So however unlucky you may be on some occasion today, your presence on the planet testifies to the role luck has played in your past.

A meditation on memes from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life:

[I]f it is true that human minds are themselves to a very great degree the creations of memes, then we cannot sustain the polarity of vision we considered earlier; it cannot be “memes versus us,” because earlier infestations of memes have already played a major role in determining who or what we are. The “independent” mind struggling to protect itself from alien and dangerous memes is a myth. There is a persisting tension between the biological imperative of our genes on the one hand and the cultural imperatives of our memes on the other, but we would be foolish to “side with” our genes; that would be to commit the most egregious error of pop sociobiology. Besides, as we have already noted, what makes us special is that we, alone among species, can rise above the imperatives of our genes— thanks to the lifting cranes of our memes.

The ultimate testament to the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, from Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness:

Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.

On the significance of chance, which we’ve just explored earlier today, also from Freedom Evolves:

Isn’t it true that whatever isn’t determined by our genes must be determined by our environment? What else is there? There’s Nature and there’s Nurture. Is there also some X, some further contributor to what we are? There’s Chance. Luck. This extra ingredient is important but doesn’t have to come from the quantum bowels of our atoms or from some distant star. It is all around us in the causeless coin-flipping of our noisy world, automatically filling in the gaps of specification left unfixed by our genes, and unfixed by salient causes in our environment.

Lastly, some proper philosopher’s self-deprecation from Consciousness Explained:

Philosophers’ Syndrome: mistaking a failure of the imagination for an insight into necessity.

For more of Dennett’s singular brand of insight, be sure to watch his mind-bending TED talk on consciousness.

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28 MARCH, 2012

The Last Journey of a Genius: Richard Feynman’s Quest to Visit the Remote Lost Land of Tuva

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“I’m an explorer, okay? I get curious about everything, and I want to investigate all kinds of stuff.”

Richard Feynman — Nobel-winning physics icon, curiosity champion, graphic novel hero, no ordinary genius. In the last years of his life, Feynman — an explorer above all else — set out visit the remote lost land of Tannu Tuva, a satellite state of the former USSR. But Cold War bureaucracy got in the way and fate played a cruel joke — the day after Feynman died, a letter finally arrived from the Soviet government, authorizing him to travel to Tuva. The Last Journey of a Genius, originally aired in 1988 mere months after Feynman’s death, captures his dedicated and, in the process, delves into various aspects of Feynman’s character and life, including his conflicted relationship with the Nobel Prize, his problem-solving patterns, his passion for stamps and bongo drums, his philosophy on the heart of science, and a wealth more.

I’m an explorer, okay? I get curious about everything, and I want to investigate all kinds of stuff.

Feynman’s enthusiastic quest gave rise to the phrase “Tuva or Bust,” which later became the title of a book documenting his tireless efforts to reach Tuva.

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27 MARCH, 2012

William Gottlieb’s Iconic Photos of Jazz Greats, 1938-1948

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Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gilespie, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mister, Billie Holiday’s dog, too.

In the 1930s, a young reporter by the name of William Gottlieb set out to cover the boom of the jazz scene for the Washington Post, only to find the paper didn’t care to dispatch an official staff photographer. So Gottlieb, a self-taught photographer armed with his Speed Graphic and an ample supply of flashbulbs, took it upon himself to photograph the subjects of his interviews. Between 1938 and 1948, he documented the jazz scene in New York City and Washington, D.C., and created what eventually became some of history’s most iconic portraits of jazz greats. The Golden Age of Jazz gathers 219 of those, including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan (who would have been 88 today), Billie Holiday, and Thelonious Monk, along with original text from the photographer contextualizing the images and their subjects.

On February 16, 2010, Gottlieb’s photographs entered the public domain and are now available online, courtesy of The Library of Congress, who also have rare footage of Gottlieb speaking about his photos.

Sarah Vaughan, Café Society (Downtown)(?), New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1946

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Thelonious Monk, Minton's Playhouse, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Joe Thomas, Pied Piper, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Ella Fitzgerald, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Nina Simone performing, Town Hall, N.Y., 1959

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Lennie Tristano, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Ernest Tubb, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., Sept. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Charlie Ventura, William P. Gottlieb's home (table tennis room), N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Henry Wells, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. Jan. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Josh White and Mary Lou Williams, WMCA, New York, N.Y., ca. Oct. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Cootie Williams, New York, N.Y.(?), between 1938 and 1948

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Louis Armstrong, between 1938 and 1948

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Tex Beneke, ca. Jan. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Gracie Barry and Dick Stabile, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Sy Synclair

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Joan Brooks and Duke Niles, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Vivien Garry, New York, N.Y., Dixon's, ca. May 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Mary Lou Williams, New York, N.Y., ca. 1946

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Dizzy Gillespie, New York, N.Y., ca. May 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Buddy Rich, Arcadia Ballroom, New York, N.Y., ca. May 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

June Christy, 1947 or 1948

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Louis Jordan, between 1938 and 1948

Photograph by William Gottlieb

William P. Gottlieb, WINX, Washington, D.C., ca. 1940

Photograph by Delia Potofsky

Mister (Billie Holiday's dog), New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948

Photograph by William Gottlieb

At once a time-capsule of cultural history and a stunning treasure chest of visual micro-narratives, The Golden Age of Jazz is a fine addition to other rare glimpses of the jazz scene at its peak, including W. Eugene Smith’s Jazz Loft Project and Herman Leonard’s photos of jazz icons.

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