Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

01 APRIL, 2013

Was Shakespeare Shakespeare? 11 Rules for Critical Thinking

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To be or not to be certain — an exercise in the art and science of doubt.

It’s been argued that Shakespeare changed everything. Yet even if this is true, it’s true of the literature we consider Shakespeare’s legacy — which, it turns out, might not be Shakespeare’s after all. So holds the Authorship Question — the age-old debate about whether or not a single man we refer to as Shakespeare authored the legendary sonnets and plays. Currently, there are three contenders for the authorship throne: “Startford” (the man from the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, or Traditional Shakespeare), “Oxford” (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford), or “Ignatus” (an unnamed and unidentified third person).

In AKA Shakespeare: A Scientific Approach to the Authorship Question (public library), Stanford astrophysicist Peter Surrock, who lists as his credentials “a love of literature and a fondness for attempting to solve problems … coupled with a conviction that scientific thinking need not be restricted to scientific problems,” presents a DIY kit for assessing the Authorship Question, applying scientific principles to the four-centuries-old dispute. Surrock writes:

Why another book about the Shakespeare Authorship Question? Because the identity of the author we know as “Shakespeare” remains an open question. Most scholars of English literature maintain that he was a gentleman of that or similar name who was born and died in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the County of Warwickshire in England. However, there are a growing number of independent scholars who dispute that contention. The scholastic community has not persuaded the independent scholars to see the error of their ways. But neither have the independent scholars persuaded the orthodox scholars to see the error of their ways. The Authorship Problem therefore remains unresolved.

Unusual in both form and format, the book is written as a dialogue between four characters of various skills and perspectives — a Shakespeare-Is-Shakespeare believer, a fierce skeptic, and two participants of neutral disposition who are there to shepherd the scientific process. What emerges is part choose-your-own-adventure novel, part Baloney Detection Kit, tickling your critical thinking and guiding you through various pieces of information as you make up your own mind about The Bard’s identity.

The the toolkit — being a product of science — does involve some number-crunching, a tool on the book’s companion site affectionately named Prospero will analyze your judgments of the evidence and produce a result in favor of Stratford or Oxford or Ignotus.

But perhaps best of all is the checklist of credos that underpin the analytical tool. Dubbed Prospero’s Precepts, these eleven rules culled from some of history’s greatest minds can serve as a general-purpose guideline for critical thinking in all matters of doubt:

  1. All beliefs in whatever realm are theories at some level. (Stephen Schneider)
  2. Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong. (Dandemis)
  3. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. (Francis Bacon)
  4. Never fall in love with your hypothesis. (Peter Medawar)
  5. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts. (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  6. A theory should not attempt to explain all the facts, because some of the facts are wrong. (Francis Crick)
  7. The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that is most interesting. (Richard Feynman)
  8. To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact. (Charles Darwin)
  9. It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. (Mark Twain)
  10. Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong. (Thomas Jefferson)
  11. All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, second, it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Itching to solve the age-old mystery for yourself? Grab a copy of AKA Shakespeare and head over to Prospero to calculate your final degrees of belief, which Surrock and his research team will add to those of others before publishing a summary of the crowd-sourced results.

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01 APRIL, 2013

Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah: An Uncommon Portrait of Alan Turing, Godfather of Modern Computing

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“He might ask you … whether you think a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or could make you fall in love with it.”

It is to Alan Turinggodfather of the digital universe, voracious reader, tragic hero of his era’s inhumane bigotry — that we owe an enormous amount of today’s givens, including my writing this very sentence and your reading it. In Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age (public library), philosophy professor and Turing Archive for the History of Computing director B. Jack Copeland turns to conversations and correspondence with some of Turing’s closest friends and collaborators to explore the life and legacy of this man of uncommon genius with unprecedented depth and insight.

Copeland succinctly captures the magnitude of Turing’s contribution to contemporary life:

To Turing we owe the brilliant innovation of storing applications, and all the other programs necessary for computers to do our bidding, inside the computer’s memory, ready to be opened when we wish. We take for granted that we use the same slab hardware to shop, manage our finances, type our memoirs, play our favorite music and videos, and send instant messages across the street or around the world. Like many great ideas, this one now seems as obvious as the wheel and the arch, but with this single invention — the stored-program universal computer — Turing changed the way we live.

The first personal computer (Image courtesy Harry Huskey)

Indeed, it took an exceptional mind — one inhabiting the outermost fringes of the obvious, in every imaginable way — to conceive of such world-changing technology. Copeland goes on to paint a portrait of Turing more dimensional and moving than ever before:

He was a Spartan in all things, inner and outer, and had no time for pleasing decor, soft furnishings, superfluous embellishment, or unnecessary words. To him what mattered was the truth. Everything else was mere froth.

[…]

What would it have been like to meet him? Turing was tallish (5 feet 10 inches) and broadly built. He looked strong and fit. You might have mistaken his age, as he always seemed younger than he was. He was good-looking but strange. If you came across him at a party, you would certainly notice him. In fact, you might ask, ‘Who on earth is that?’ It wasn’t just his shabby clothes or dirty fingernails. It was the whole package. Part of it was the unusual noise he made. This has often been described as a stammer, but it wasn’t. It was his way of preventing people from interrupting him, while he thought out what he was trying to say. ‘Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah.’ He did it loudly.

If you crossed the room to talk to him, you would have probably found him gauche and rather reserved. He was decidedly lah-di-dah, but the reserve wasn’t standoffishness. He was shy, a man of few words. Polite small talk did not come easily to him. He might — if you were lucky — smile engagingly, his blue eyes twinkling, and come out with something quirky that would make you laugh. If conversation developed, you’d probably find him vivid and funny. He might ask you, in his rather high-pitched voice, whether you think a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or could make you fall in love with it.

[…]

Like everyone else, Turing craved affection and company, but he never seemed to quite fit in anywhere. He was bothered by his own social strangeness — although, like his hair, it was a force of nature he could do little about. Occasionally he could be very rude. If he thought that someone wasn’t listening to him with sufficient attention, he would simply walk away. Turing was the sort of man who, usually unintentionally, ruffled people’s feathers — especially pompous people, people in authority, and scientific poseurs. … Beneath the cranky, craggy, irreverent exterior there was an unworldly innocence, though, as well as sensitivity and modesty.

Alan Turing

Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age goes on to trace the making of an extraordinary mind and extraordinary life, from the invention of the Universal Turing Machine — the granddaddy of the modern stored program computer — to Turing’s codebreaking feats during WWII to the tragic and mysterious circumstances of his death.

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01 APRIL, 2013

How Abraham Maslow and His Humanistic Psychology Shaped the Modern Self

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What 1960s counterculture had to do with the timeless quest for self-actualization.

Legendary American psychologist Abraham Maslow, born on April 1, 1908, is best-known for creating the famous Maslow hierarchy of needs and endures as the founding father of humanistic psychology — the movement to focus on people’s capacity for goodness and transcendence, rather treating them as a pathological “bag of symptoms,” which blossomed into the Human Potential Movement and eventually gave rise to positive psychology. “The new age which is already upon us is essentially the product of the turning inward to the self,” he famously observed, echoing Anaïs Nin’s insistence on focusing on individual psychology and presaging Martha Nussbaum’s championing of inner life.

In Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (public library), cultural historian Jessica Grogan weaves a dramatic narrative tracing the origins of humanistic psychology in the 1950s and its blossoming in the counterculture of the 1960s, intertwined with the sexual revolution and the psychedelics underground. Grogan introduces the project:

In telling this particular story, my purpose is to make people that seriously a movement that’s been largely dismissed from the academic circles in which it arose and that’s been gratuitously associated with the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s. I also hope to remind people of a truth to which humanistic psychology was keenly attuned — that individuals in all their messy complexity should remain at the heart of psychological study and practice.

The narrative, of which Maslow is the central hero, revolves around three central arguments about the value of humanistic psychology: its emphasis on the innate human capacity for growth; its bold defense of the complexity and subjectivity of the soul; its return to William James and the roots of American psychology, humanizing a discipline that had strayed too far off into scientific reductionism; is championing of crystalline awareness as the root of fulfillment; and its wide resonance in fields as diverse as civil rights, executive management, and philosophy.

She writes:

Abraham Maslow … once asked himself in his journal how he would define the [humanistic psychology] movement in one sentence. … It is, he wrote, ‘a move away from knowledge of things and lifeless objects as basis for all philosophy, economics, science, politics, etc. (because this has failed to help with the basic human problem) toward a centering upon human needs & fulfillment & aspirations as the fundamental basis from which to derive all social institutions, philosophy, ethics, etc. I might use also for more sophisticated & hep people that it is a resacralizing of science, society, the person, etc.’

In this engrossing short film based on the book, produced by Grogan’s husband, Daniel Oppenheimer, she takes us on a journey into Maslow’s extraordinary mind and lasting legacy:

Maslow thought that we should be striving for self-actualization. That could differ for everybody, but it was this process-oriented thing, where we’re always trying to improve, we’re trying to become less guarded, less defensive, more appreciative of beauty, more in the moment, more aware, more perceptive. Feeling more, experiencing more.

Encountering America goes on to explore how Maslow and his humanistic psychology shaped the course of everything from education reform to the understanding of consciousness to the women’s liberation movement.

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