Consciousness Explained

consciousness-explained-500x500Consciousness is a tricky subject and how we come to be aware of ourselves is something not well understood. In Consciousness Explained Daniel C. Dennett explores the idea that consciousness is not something extra in us, that it is, instead, a by product of how our brains work.

First, Dennett dismantles the ghost in the machine argument. This is the idea that the mind is different to the brain/body which leads to the idea of a soul that continues after we die. It’s an observer, a translator of the processes in the brain, a someone that makes decisions, holds beliefs, acts. Then the book explores what else it might be that creates our sense of self and how it might have evolved.

Along the way, we learn a lot about the state of the science of the brain (or at least where it was in 1991 when the book was published, I imagine it’s moved on some way) and how things really work. There’s a lot of time spent looking at how vision works. I always thought that the eye fills in the gaps created by the pupil, but actually it doesn’t. It doesn’t have to fill in anything because it’s not recognizing the gap.

So, what’s left if there’s no ghost in the machine? No soul? Well, Dennett says that consciousness is a by-product of language and evolved because we tell stories. We are figments of our own imaginations, fictional characters in the story of our lives. Which, as a writer, I find charming.

“Our tales are spun, but for the most part we don’t spin them; they spin us.”

This is a hard read, no question. It’s a real work out for your brain muscle and I felt very virtuous reading it. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in knowing how your brain works, but I won’t lie, it takes some reading.


Physics of the Impossible

physicsimpossibleIn Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku tackles some of our favourite technologies from science fiction and parapsychology to see whether they are actually possible.

It includes chapters on force fields, telepathy, robots, time travel, perpetual motion machines and lots more. The chapter on robots was particularly interesting, because robots is something that we’re talking about a lot at work. That then leads to a discussion about artificial intelligence and its complications.

The technologies are classified into three classes. Class I technologies are things that are allowed in the laws of physics and will likely be seen within the next century. They include things like invisibility, phasers and starships. Class II technologies are theoretically possible but require resources that could only be at the disposal of a much more advanced civilization.

Lastly, there are two technologies that break the laws of physics as we understand them today. Of course, it’s entirely possible we don’t fully understand the laws of physics yet.

I really enjoyed this. It’s the kind of thing that makes me feel really excited about the future of humanity and our capacity to survive. It’s an easy-ish read, given the subject matter, and a lot of fun.

Periodic Tales

Take the periodic table and make a book full of interesting facts and factoids about each of the elements. What a brilliant idea. How could that not be a great idea? I was so full of hope about Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersley-Williams. The concept seemed to be all things I love; random useless nuggets of information, vaguely science-y but mostly history and culture, and a general attitude of ‘stuff is brilliant‘. I so wanted to like this book.

I didn’t even get past the first chapter. It is dull and leaden. At the point where I realised I wasn’t enjoying myself, and I was far enough past the introductory parts that I should be, I started trying to work out whether I was bored by what I was being told or by the way in which it was conveyed. The passage I was reading was about gold and its cultural value, its rarity, and its usefulness. This was followed by how platinum is only considered more valuable than gold because of marketing. This stuff should be fascinating.

As I’m writing this now, I find I really want to give the book another chance because these are things I want to read about, things I think are inherently interesting. And somehow, the author managed to tell these stories in a way that sucked all the life out of them. It’s definitely about the writing. Maybe there were too many nuggets so that none of them could be explored in sufficient depth or maybe it’s because the storytelling got lost in favour of a list of facts.

If anyone knows of another book that tells really good stories about the elements, please let me know.

The God Species

The God Species by Mark Lynam is about how humans are affecting the planetary environment and about how some of the things the environmental movement are proposing as solutions aren’t helping. Lynam explains why and suggests alternatives. Basically, technology has got us into this mess and only technology can get us out of it.

As a long time environmental activist and journalist, Lynam challenges some of the central tenets of the environmental movement. He explains the concept of planetary boundaries and shows how we can identify a point of no return for several issues including biodiversity, nitrogen, land use and ocean acidification. Given these boundaries there are some solutions that will work and some that are contributing to the problem. Lynam says that the environmental movement needs to embrace some technologies it has been vociferously against in order to achieve its goal of saving the planet.

I’m persuaded that humans are affecting the environment in ways that are damaging and that we have to do something about it. I recycle, buy organic food and try to be energy efficient. And I feel guilty that I don’t do more. But for sometime I’ve been uncomfortable with the smug, judgemental attitude that seems to go along with environmentalism, and a lot of that seems to centered around food. You’re a bad person if you don’t grow your own vegetables, eat only organic, natural food, and cook from scratch. Except that I don’t want to. It’s time-consuming and boring and I’m quite time-poor right now. Lynam argues that organic farming takes up more land and can’t support as many people. While it may be better for biodiversity than non-organic farming, Lynam argues that it is not as good for biodiversity as giving the land over to wilderness, so a better solution is genetically modified crops that need less land and more wildlife parks. I’ve never really understood why GM crops are bad, except for the practices of big agribusiness, so I like this idea. GM crops can also be developed to fix their own nitrogen and be pest resistant, meaning less use of toxic fertilisers and pesticides.

The other big issue is energy generation. Lynam argues that it is futile to take a sack-cloth and ashes approach to how we will live and says that the challenge is to find another way to meet our energy needs. The only credible answer is nuclear power supported by renewables. This is another point I’ve never understood – that nuclear is so much more scary than carbon fuels. The French have been using nuclear for ages with little apparent problem.

I enjoyed this very much. It was stimulating and caused me to change my mind about some things, and to think harder about other things. It left me feeling very positive about the future of the planet and for humanity. Defintely worth a read.