Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

30 OCTOBER, 2012

Mind and Cosmos: Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Brave Critique of Scientific Reductionism

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How our hunger for definitive answers robs us of the intellectual humility necessary for understanding the universe and our place in it.

“The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder,” Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky famously noted, “but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.” And yet, we live in a media culture that warps seeds of scientific understanding into sensationalist, definitive headlines about the gene for obesity or language or homosexuality and maps where, precisely, love or fear or the appreciation of Jane Austen is located in the brain — even though we know that it isn’t the clinging to answers but the embracing of ignorance that drives science.

In 1974, philosopher Thomas Nagel penned the essay “What It’s Like To Be A Bat?”, which went on to become one of the seminal texts of contemporary philosophy of mind. Nearly four decades later, he returns with Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (public library) — a provocative critique of the limits of scientific reductionism, exploring what consciousness might be if it isn’t easily explained as a direct property of physical interactions and if the door to the unknown were, as Richard Feynman passionately advocated, left ajar.

To be sure, Nagel is far from siding with the intellectual cop-outs of intelligent design. His criticism of reductive materialism isn’t based on religious belief (or on any belief in a particular alternative, for that matter) but, rather, on the insistence that a recognition of these very limitations is a necessary precondition for exploring such alternatives, “or at least being open to their possibility” — a possibility that makes mind central to understanding the natural order, rather than an afterthought or a mere byproduct of physical laws.

He writes in the introduction:

[T]he mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.

[…]

Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning, but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole.

As a proponent of making the timeless timely again through an intelligent integration of history with contemporary culture, I find Nagel’s case for weaving a historical perspective into the understanding of mind particularly compelling:

The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day.

[…]

The greatest advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world. This has permitted a quantitative understanding of the world, expressed in timeless, mathematically formulated physical laws, But at some point it will be necessary to make a new start on a more comprehensive understanding that includes the mind. It seems inevitable that such an understanding will have a historical dimension as well as a timeless one. The idea that historical understanding is part of science has become familiar through the transformation of biology by evolutionary theory. But more recently, with the acceptance of the big bang, cosmology has also become a historical science. Mind, as a development of life, must be included as the most recent stage of this long cosmological history, and its appearance, I believe, casts its shadow back over the entire process and the constituents and principles on which the process depends.

Ultimately, Nagel echoes John Updike’s reflection on the possibility of “permanent mystery”:

It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development.

Though Mind and Cosmos isn’t a neat package of scientific, or even philosophical, answers, it’s a necessary thorn in the side of today’s all-too-prevalent scientific reductionism and a poignant affirmation of Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”

Image: Orion Nebula; public domain courtesy of The Smithsonian

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29 OCTOBER, 2012

Stunning Black & White Engravings by Ian Hugo from Anaïs Nin’s Hand-Printed Under a Glass Bell, 1944

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Stunning artwork from a hand-made book that presages modern self-publishing entrepreneurship.

Anaïs Nin may have become best-known and celebrated for her remarkable diaries and letters spanning more than six decades, but she also published a number of short stories and novels. It wasn’t until the publication of the short-story collection Under a Glass Bell (public library) in 1944 that Nin’s work began to garner attention from the literary pantheon, propelled by a favorable review in The New Yorker by Edmund Wilson, whom Nin qualified in her diary as “the highest authority among the critics.”

But the book’s story itself is a fascinating piece of cultural history and a heartening, timely exemplar of everything from self-publishing to woman-led entrepreneurship to the maker movement.

In 1942, when Nin couldn’t find a publisher for the book in an industry bent under the weight of wartime financial pressures, she started her own publishing house, Gremor Press, in a small loft on Macdougal Street in New York. She taught herself typesetting and fell in love with the letterpress. Her husband, banker-turned-artist Hugh Parker Gulier, who went by the artistic pseudonym Ian Hugo, created all the line-on-copper engravings for the book, and Nin herself set the type by hand. She eventually printed 300 copies in the first edition, sold via an innovative subscription model, which sold out in three weeks, and another 100 a second edition.

I was recently fortunate enough to hunt down one of the few surviving original hand-printed copies and have scanned Hugo’s stunning engravings for your viewing pleasure:

The book comes complete with an endearing typo in the endnote, a souvenir of the humanness that brought this handmade book to life:

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29 OCTOBER, 2012

The Etymology of “Hangover”

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What George Washington and coarse French fabric have to do with the language of drunkenness.

The fringes of language have a special kind of allure, especially when it comes to the unsuspected origins of common words. That’s precisely what Mark Forsyth explores with equal parts wryness, curiosity, and erudition in The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (public library), based on his popular language-geekery blog The Inky Fool. Among Forsyth’s fascinating, meandering stories of linguistic historicity is that of the hangover — a phenomenon encrusted with rich empirical familiarity, and even some scientific knowledge, but paltry etymological grasp.

[George Washington] had an elder half-brother and mentor called Lawrence Washington who had, in fact, been a British soldier. Specifically, he was a marine in the Royal Navy. As a recruit from the British dominions in North America, he served under Admiral Edward Vernon in the Caribbean, and was part of the force that seized a strategically important base called Guantánamo, which has some minor position in modern history.

Lawrence Washington was very attached to admiral Vernon. So loyal was he that when he went home to the family estate, which had been called Little Hunting Creek Plantation, he decided to rename it Mount Vernon. So Washington’s house was named after a British admiral.

Admiral Vernon’s naming exploits didn’t end there, though. In 1739 Vernon led the British assault on Porto Bello in what is now Panama. He had only six ships, but with lots of derring-do and British pluck, et cetera, he won a startling victory. In fact, so startling was the victory that a patriotic English farmer heard the news, dashed off to the countryside west of London, and built Portobello Farm in honour of the victory’s startlingness. Green’s Lane, which was nearby, soon became known as Portobello Lane and then Portobello Road. And that’s why the London market, now one of the largest antiques markets in the world, is called Portobello Market.

But Admiral Vernon’s naming exploits didn’t end there, either. When the seas were stormy he used to wear a thick coat made out of coarse material called grogram (from the French gros grain). So his men nicknamed him Old Grog.

British sailors used to have a daily allowance of rum. In 1740, flushed from victory at Porto Bello and perhaps under the pernicious influence of Lawrence Washington, Vernon ordered that the rum be watered down. The resulting mixture, which eventually became standard for the whole navy, was also named after Vernon. It was called grog.

If you drank too much grog you became drunk or groggy, and the meaning has slowly shifted from there to the wages of gin: a hangover.

The rest of The Etymologicon traces curious linguistic origin stories connecting concepts as seemingly unrelated as sex and bread, Medieval monks and cappuccino, sausage poison and botox, and much more.

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26 OCTOBER, 2012

Susan Sontag on the Creative Purpose of Boredom

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“Most of the interesting art of our time is boring.”

Artist Maira Kalman believes that it’s very important not to be bored for too long. And yet the history of boredom shows that boredom has an essential function in the history of art.

From the recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, censorship, and aphorisms, and her illustrated insights on love — comes a meditation on the creative purpose of boredom as a form of attention:

Function of boredom. Good + bad

[Arthur] Schopenhauer the first imp[ortant] writer to talk about boredom (in his Essays) — ranks it with “pain” as one of the twin evils of life (pain for have-nots, boredom for haves— it’s a question of affluence).  

People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us.  

But most of the interesting art of our time is boring. Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.  

Maybe art has to be boring, now. (Which obviously doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.)  

We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art.  

Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye— but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented). Possibly after repetition of the same single phrase or level of language or image for a long while — in a given written text or piece of music or film, if we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 is the sequel to Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, which gave us Sontag’s rules and duties for being 24, her 10 guidelines for raising a child, and her love, death, art and freedom.

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