Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

Breaking the Spell–Dennett on religion

Friday, January 28th, 2005

Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is due out at the beginning of February.

As one of America’s leading contemporary philsophers, Dennett’s choice of this topic gives it great legitimacy. The book will be a must-read for anyone interested in the area (although personally I’ve always found Dennett’s writings tough sledding).

Dennett is not just out to explain religion here. That would have been a different book, probably very much like Boyer’s “Religion Explained”. No, Dennett wants to stomp out religion. It’s a prehistoric vestige, overgrown belief in ghosts, a bunch of old superstitions gussied up with guys in mitres. Look at the title again: Dennett wants to break the spell. He “elegantly pleads for religions to engage in empirical self-examination to protect future generations from…ignorance” (right). In one interview, Dennett stated: “I have absolutely no doubt that the secular and scientific vision is right and deserves to be endorsed by everybody, and as we have seen over the last few thousand years, superstitious and religious doctrines will just have to give way.”

I’m sympathetic to this line of reasoning as far as it goes, but it does not nearly go far enough. As I mentioned in my review of Boyer’s book, this type of strictly static evolutionary and sociological analysis omits two critical factors from the equation: transformation and transcendence . Looking past traditional religions and doctrines to a spectrum of belief systems, practices, and frameworks, where do they map onto the space of types of personal transformation? And what is the nature of transformative, transcendant experience, and in particular what is its biological basis, if it does in fact have one as neurotheology assumes?

Without looking at questions like these, we are left with a crippled, fragmentary account of religions. We cannot understand Christianity, even as it exists today in its calcified state, without thinking about what happened to Jesus during his 40 days in the wilderness. We cannot understand Buddhist thought without reference to its tradition of introspective practice. And we can understand neither completely without a model of neurobiological precedents or consequences.

The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language

Monday, January 17th, 2005

Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

That’s the translation of Matthew 6 from “The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language” (Amazon ), by Eugene Peterson (Wikipedia entry), said to be directly translated from the Greek and Hebrew texts.

Predictably, people either love or hate this. (Bono of U2 fame apparently loves it and has sung some of its lines.) The two sides are aptly summed up in an Amazon commentary by Allan Smalling :

…I am really disappointed in the newly-released, full-volume work of Eugene Peterson’s bible account, marketed as “The Message.” Ironically, many of the most biblically sophisticated people will love “The Message” and praise it for its freshness and relevance to today’s world.

Ummm…why was that ironic again?

We can argue over which, if any, of [many extant translations] is the best, the inspired, the most correct or inerrerant Bible. Regardless, if you have read any of the above, you can honestly say you have read THE Bible.

Gee, I wonder what these capital letters are supposed to mean. In addition to THE Bible, is there also the BIBLE and THE BIBLE?

In my opinion “The Messsage” is not a bible at all…way beyond a paraphrase, more of a morphing of the bible text into late 20th-Century American Culture.

Well, any translation is “way beyond a paraphrase”, because it’s taking one language into another. All translations are “morphing”. And if you were not going to take the text into late 20th century American culture—which is where the people reading it happen to live—where would you prefer? Seventeenth century England?

Our reviewer grudgingly admits, though, that:

The power and the passion do get through. And I must admit with no trace of irony that people who are far better biblically versed than I will probably like “The Message” better because they crave a new way of hearing God’s Word…

Very odd. You think Bible-knowledgeble people will like this free-form translation better, and yet—you still say it’s “not a bible at all”?

Book Review: Soul Made Flesh

Monday, January 17th, 2005

Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain—and How it Changed the World is Carl Zimmer’s panoramic tour of medicine, philosophy, and science in the 17th century, primarily in England, centering around Thomas Willis (portrait), known as the father of neurology.

A little too panoramic, perhaps. Too many people whiz by, not all of them that interesting. The ones we do care about—Hobbes, or Locke—fly by too quickly. Zimmer’s treatment of the historical and political context, while obviously necessary, seems rushed and incomplete. The book ends with a hurried tour of modern neuroscience, racing through fMRI, dopamine, emotions, and pathology—trying to tie these developments back to Willis.

What was striking to me was that, on the one hand, Willis was one of the first people to actually look at the brain scientifically; among other breakthroughs, he identified things called nerves. He documented his work relentlessly, and created beautiful atlases with his collaborators, including Christopher Wren. So why did he continue to stick to theories involving “spirits” and “vapors” throughout his life, in the absence of any empirical evidence that they might exist? Why did he continue to treat his patients (he was a practicing doctor) with leeches and odd concoctions, none of which apparently worked?

And how did Willis get so rich? Based on the descriptions in the book, it sounds like he was worth several tens of millions of today’s dollars. Sure, I know doctors make lots of money but how did he make that much?

Overall, though, this book is highly readable and immensely educational. Recommended to anyone interested in the history of medicine and the brain.

Book Review: Eihei Dogen, Mystical Realist

Sunday, January 9th, 2005

Hee-Jin Kim’s Eihei Dogen, Mystical Realist is a scholarly work by a respected Dogen scholar, placing Dogen’s thought in the context, primarily, of Buddhist philosophy and its history.

I enjoyed the early parts of the book, describing Dogen’s life. Here’s an interesting account of his enlightenment experience:

In 1225, a decisive moment of enlightenment in Dogen’s life came at long last during an early morning zazen session at geango (i.e., the three-month intensive meditational retreat). In the course of mediation, a monk next to Dogen inadvertently had fallen asleep. Upon noticing the monk, Ju-ching thundered at him: “In zazen it is imperative to cast off the body and mind. How could you indulge in slepping?” This remark shook Dogen’s whole being to its very core, and then an inexpressible, ecstatic joy engulfed his heart. In Ju-ching’s private quarters that same monring, Dogen offered incense and worshiped Buddha. This unusual action of Dogen prompted Ju-ching to ask: “What is the incense-burning for?” The disciple exuberantly answered: “My body and mind are cast off!” “The body and mind are cast off” (shinjin-datsuraku), jointed the teacher, “cast off are the body and mind” (datsuraku-shinjin). Thus, Ju-ching acknowledged the authenticity of Dogen’s enlightenment.

I was also interested in Dogen’s visit to my old home town of Kamakura (Wikipedia Wikitravel) during late 1247 and early 1248, where he preached before Hojo Tokiyori (Wikipedia). According to Kim, “there are different speculations as to what Dogen recommended to or discussed with Tokiyori during his stay in Kamakura.” I’d also like know where he stayed: could it have been at Enkakuji, the huge, dignified Rinzai temple in North Kamakura?

I have to admit to most of the rest of this book flying over the top of my head. It’s copiously annotated and clearly authoritative. It’s just that I’m not that interested in Buddhist philosophy—for instance, how Dogen’s concept of Buddha-nature differed from that of some Indian guy from the second century. Here’s a flavor:

Thus, temporal passage in the intra-epochal whole of a realized now, as Dogen saw it, was perhaps best descrbed in terms of the Hua-yen philosophy of simultaneity.

Kim uses his own translations of Shobo Genzo which are, unsurprisingly given his lifetime of Dogen study, superior to virtually all existing published translations. Examples:

As you maintain such efforts throughout the months and years, you further cast off those months and years of efforts (from Dotoku).

Many sages do not realize that “cutting” consists in cutting entwined voines with entwined vines. Nor do they understand entwining entwined vines with entwined vines…a vine seed grows into branches, leaves, flowrs, and fruits that are intertwined in harmony with one another (from Katto).

I can recommend this book, but primarily to those with scholarly aspirations.

Book review: Living with the Devil

Thursday, January 6th, 2005

I must be getting cranky. I’ll pick up a book and find myself arguing with the author right from the first page, sometimes even the first sentence. That’s what happened with Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, a book on Buddhism by Stephen Batchelor (shown), who is a Buddhist teacher and writer. He starts:

This is a book for those like myself who find themselves living in the gaps between different and sometimes conflicting mythologies—epic narratives that help us make sense of this brief life on earth.

Hmmm. I don’t “find myself” living in any such “gaps”.

Whether the myths we inherit from the past come from a monotheistic religion such as Judaism or Christianity or a nontheistic tradition such as Buddhism, they share the view that a human life is fully intelligible only as part of an immense cosmic drama that transcends it.

This seems like a funny thing for someone with Zen training to say (Batchelor was a Zen monk in Korea for three years, after also studying Tibetan Buddhism). I don’t think Buddhism says that human life is “fully intelligible”, with or without any “immense cosmic drama”.

Both believe hidden powers to be at work—whether of God or karma makes little difference—that have flung us into this world to face the daunting task of redeeming ourselves for the remainder of eternity.

No, I don’t think Buddhism holds that there are “hidden powers”. And certainly it’s wrong to equate God, whoever/whatever He/She is, with karma. We were not “flung” into this world (if we were, from where?). And what exactly are we supposed to be “redeeming ourselves” from?

For me this is overly reminiscent of the unlikely creation myth I was taught as a child. That particular cosmology held that a flesh-and-bones God and his wife, living on a distant planet, copulated and created non-physical “spirit children”, including me. The spirit children embodied some kind of eternal essence of each person, which had existed from the “beginning”, in exactly what form is unclear. Those spirit children hung around until humans down on Earth themselves copulated, creating physical bodies that the spirit children came down and inhabited, deprived of their “premortal” memories, to be subjected to a test of obedience and faith to determine their eventual eternal status. I’m not kidding, there are really people that believe this.

Batchelor then goes on to facilely, relativistically, and post-modernistically conflate modern day science with such fairy tales:

A dominant myth of modernity is provided by the scientific understanding of the world, so compelling that we refuse to acknowledge anything mythical about it at all.

Sure, it’s useful to have a perspective of science as a contingent belief system. But science is fundamentally distinct from religious myths in its nature.

Human knowledge is invariably limited and partial…Whatever a person knows is mediated through his senses, his reason, his brain. No matter how well it can be explained, reality remains essentially mysterious.

But this misses the point that at their heart the mythic explanations are different from the scientific ones in their nature. And something merely being mysterious does not mean that the explanation has failed, or that the explanation is a “myth”—unless you want to call any belief system a myth.

I do not believe in God any more than I believe in Hamlet. But this does not mean that either God or Hamlet has nothing of value to say.

But Hamlet is a fictional character in a play—we all know that. We don’t need to “believe” in him or not. We know that his lines were written by Shakespeare. God, on the other hand, cannot be defined. We cannot even say what it means to “believe” in Him/Her. We don’t know what He has said or is saying, or what relationship what is written in the Bible has to this “God” idea.

Whew. That was all just in the first three pages. The rest of the book is mainly about the Devil, which is not a useful metaphor for me in any of the cultural or religious guises presented here. I guess I should have thought about that before buying the book, since the title, after all, is “Living with the Devil”.

I’ve adopted a new pattern for reading books. I skim them, I jump around, I skip parts. Sometimes I just put them down—life is too short. And, sad to say, that is what I ended up doing with this book as well.

Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom

Thursday, January 6th, 2005

The Universe in a Single Atom is the Dalai Lama’s latest book, subtitled “The Convergence of Science and Spirituality.”

I liked this book. It was lots of fun. but pretty disorganized. It contains a lot of interesting stuff about the Dalai Lama’s childhood in Tibet, his exile to India, his international activities after that. But it’s also somewhat of a random mind dump.

If I had to say what the overarching theme of this book was, it would be honoring humanity. The Dalai Lama uses expressions such as “impoverish the way we see ourselves” with regard to e.g. scientific materialism, which he unfairly conflates with nihilism. He contrasts a view of ourselves as “random biological creatures” with that of “special beings endowed with the dimension of consciousness and moral capacity”, claiming that this decision will “make an impact on how we feel about ourselves”.

But…ummmh…we are random biological creatures. I thought Buddhism already accepted that. “How we feel about ourselves” is some grade-school self-esteem issue—do we need to affirm our unrandomness in order to feel good about ourselves?

“Humans may be reduced to nothing more than biological machines, the products of pure chance in the random combination of genes, with no purpose other than the biological imperative of reproduction.’”

Frankly, this sounds more like the Pope than the Dalai Lama.

In the interest of making my posts shorter and more readable, I will stop here, but threaten to analyze the remaining 90% of this book here later.

Raybassa and Benjamin on translation

Tuesday, May 25th, 2004

Gregory Raybassa is a literary translator from Spanish and Portuguese into English who I have never heard of. But I was struck by an a recent interview with him in the New York Times where he quoted Walter Benjamin, the German literary critic, as saying:

No translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original.

Review of Eric Baum\’s \”What is Thought\”

Sunday, March 21st, 2004

In What is Thought, Eric B. Baum claims that thinking is like a computer program running. Or, that humans are like computer programs. Or something like that, or maybe not, since it’s impossible to tell what he is really saying, or what he thinks “thought” is to start with.

One real good argument Baum has is that many computer scientists think the mind is like a computer. Well, I have a gardener who thinks that the mind is like a garden. Actually, sometimes he thinks it’s like a rake, he tells me.

Baum starts off saying that Turing’s model of computing was intended to capture the essence of thought, so that proves that humans are like computers, since Turing is God. Except that even Baum later admits that Turing was at best trying to model human theorem-proving behavior; certainly “thought” is more than just that.

I’m going to come back to some specific topical comments I have about this book, but first of all I just wanted to mention that reading this book I was seriously scared that my brain was going to rot away. That’s why I actually didn’t read the whole book. I worried that if I did the damage might have been too much to undo. For instance, take the following sentence, right in the first section where he’s laying out his basic ideas: “The execution of a computer program is always equivalent to pure syntax.” This isn’t merely stupid—-it goes beyond that to just being completely meaningless. “Mind typically produces a computer program capable of behaving.” Huh??? Is mind producing the program, or is it the program, or what? “The mind exploits its understanding of the world in order to reason.” Except, apparently, in the writing of this book. “Mind is essentially inherent in the DNA, in some sense.” Yes, in a sense that we will never understand from this gibberish.

Baum’s writing gives new meaning to the word “circular”. He asserts that the mind has “subroutines”, and then that proves that it’s like a computer program. I guess he’s a few decades behind in his computer science, or else he would have said the mind is “object-oriented.” “Awareness is awareness of meaningful quantities.”

In a book like this, the author of course could not omit a discussion of neural networks. Baum thinks that neural networks are a “model of brain circuits”, which by the way is wrong—-they’re a computing model vaguely inspired by brain physiology. He’s right when he says the collection of weights generated by training a neural network is in general completely opaque—humans cannot figure out how the neural network works. Nothing in a trained neural network corresponds to a “human” understanding of the problem the net has learned to solve. So if the brain is a neural network, how does this correspond to the “semantics” he talks about? If the mind is composed of subroutines, and evolution is a neural network training process, how does a neural network generate subroutines? More critically, a neural network has its initial topology defined by a human; is he saying that evolution can also evolve the appropriate network structure? He says “it is impossible to…evolve…code unless it is modular.” But trained neural networks are precisely not modular.

“Neural circuitry is akin to an executable. The DNA is more like the source code.” A cute analogy, which might work real well in the term paper the sophomore at MIT who took philosophy for his one required humanities course had to write. But what does this mean? Is the DNA what is being created by evolution? In that case, what is the equivalent of the compiler?

Baum doesn’t do much better with basic philosophy. He asks the big question: What are objects? Are they just in your mind or is there an outside physical reality to them? He then imagines he is somehow addressing this question by jumping to the question of how we know a cup is something to hold by its handle and then drink a liquid from. Sorry, Eric, saying that “the mind is an evolved program” (using a subroutine for the cup problem, of course) does not answer any questions about the nature of reality.

Baum goes on to talk about the process of individual humans learning as being the acquisition of new subroutines. This is weird. We have some built-in subroutines coming from our DNA or something and then we learn new subroutines? Are these subroutines we learn encoded in the same “language” as the ones coming from our DNA? How do they interface with them?

Now we take a big jump, to an agent-based model. There are lots of little agents running around each with their own agendas and utility functions. This model is sort of proved to be right by the fact that it’s also a model which can describe market economies. Taking a sudden right-wing detour, Baum posits that the agents work so well because they have “property rights” and try to conserve money. The agents compete and cooperate. But who set up the system within which these agents (which are also subroutines, I suppose) operate?

“Evolution has learned to search in semantically meaningful directions.” So now we have not only a learning process embodied within evolution, but a meta-learning process governing the process of evolution itself. Evolution evolves!

I’m a go player, and well-versed in the issues facing computer go. So I was particularly interested in Baum’s thoughts on this topic. I found them to be shallow, poorly informed, and lacking insight. Besides getting basic information, such as who developed what program, wrong, always a bad sign, he offers tautologies such as “Go masters play remarkably strong Go.” First, he says that we have a pre-evolved “program” for “causal” analysis. Then, he says we have a large number of “computational modules…that may very well be directly coded into the human genome”, including topological concepts like “connected”, “surrounding”, and “inside”. Besides the problem that these supposed pre-programmed modules have no connection with “causality”, the fundamental point that these modules being wired deep into our DNA, compared to computer programs which have to calculate the same concepts in a “computationally expensive way”, accounts for human strength at Go is, frankly, absurd. If Baum cannot come to a more sophisticated understanding of the complexity of go, he should not write about it at all.

I’m having a very hard time understanding why people who should know better, like Nathan Myhrvold the former Microsoft executive, would put their names on the back of this book.

Of course, we also need a theory of language. Baum has the answers here as well. Language is just “attaching labels to computational modules”. I see! He sums up his insights succinctly: “All that is needed is to attach a label to a computational module, and the particular module indicated will often be quite salient, because we share inherited inductive biases in the form of modular structure.”

“Evolution thus designed the mind for the purpose of making decisions leading to propagation of the DNA.” “I suggest that this picture will…qualitatively explain everything about our consciousness and our experience of living.” Thank God, I was afraid no-one was ever going to figure that out.

And a last bit of good news: Baum has also solved the age-old paradox concerning whether or not humans have free will. The answer is simple: DNA has evolved a mind which has free-will subroutines!

Doctorow on e-books

Saturday, February 14th, 2004

Cory Doctorow gave a speech at an O’Reilly conference on Emerging Technologies called Ebooks: Neither E, nor Books.

But I don’t think he’s got it figured out quite yet. He says, “The distinctive value of ebooks…revolves around the mix-ability and send-ability of electronic text.” But that’s not the disinctive value. The distinctive value is that the experience of reading them on the computer can be richer, more engaging, more educational, more impactful, and more fun. Assuming you have the right technology to do so, such as Infowalker.

Speed-reading, a word at a time, on the web

Monday, February 9th, 2004

Trevor F. Smith has put up a speed reader version of Cory Doctorow’s new on-line novel Eastern Standard Tribe. This is an ultra-cool technology based on some Xerox PARC research, which flashes the book, one word at a time, in large type, up on the screen. I just wish there was a pause button…