There’s a large collection of books growing in front of me, expanding faster than I can possibly read. Most of what I’m staring at and admiring is an antilibrary.
I did manage to read more last year than I have in any other year. A little over 13 books (a few are part-way through). Some fiction, others non-fiction. A good balance, a healthy diet. Let’s see if I can read more this year, but first I’d like to reflect on some of the books I enjoyed the most.
I’ll pick my favourites, but in no particular order. Perhaps I should mention they were not released in 2023—in fact some go back a ways—this is simply when I read them. The links included are affiliate links—if you buy something through them it will help me out at no extra cost to you.
May you will find them as interesting and thought-provoking as I have!
By Steven Pinker
“Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds. The ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is.”
Given the shear diversity of languages—both alive and extinct, spoken or gestured or typed—it would be easy to think we are a blank slate when it comes to learning them, empty of any structure until the sounds of our culture come streaming in and shape our minds to accomodate them. How else do we account for their stark differences?
But like most things, language is a case of both nurture and nature. Pinker shows through numerous arguments that the brain does in fact come with some preinstalled language instinct, a mentalese or universal grammar with an underlying logic for dealing in nouns, verbs, adjectives, and other features of language, including some types of phrases.
It’s this mentalese that our eventual mother tongue stands upon—the actual words that make up those lists of nouns and verbs, as well as certain rules specific to each language, will depend on who we grow up with.
We are born with an urge to speak. Every society on earth has some form of language. We’ll talk to inanimate objects, and silently to ourselves. There’s neural real estate in the brain devoted to language, in Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Children learn languages without formal instruction, and often display an underlying logic even if what they say needs some refinement, like “don’t giggle me”.
“It must be some kind of mental computation that makes John likes fish similar to Mary eats apples, but not similar to John might fish; otherwise the child would say John might apples.”
By Peter Godfrey-Smith
The philosopher Thomas Nagel asked what it’s like to be a bat, as a way of probing the nature of consciousness: “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.”
From the perspective of the human mind it’s difficult to comprehend what it’s like to be a bat. We’re limited by the senses we have, and by our imagination. But if exploring the mind of a bat is difficult, Godfrey-Smith wants to delve into the mind of a vastly more alien consciousness: that of the octopus.
There are many other creatures we consider at least somewhat intelligent—elephants, birds, dolphins, dogs, chimps—all of these are much closer to us on the evolutionary tree than octopuses, with our last lizard-like common ancestor living around 320 million years ago. The octopus, however, split on it’s branch of the evolutionary tree around 600 million years ago.
They evolved an intelligence all their own, independently of the other forms of intelligence we generally recognise. Vertebrate brains have common architecture, but octopus brains’ don’t map well onto ours, for starters they have more neurons in their arms than brain. Vertebrates have a central hub, while cephalopods have a distributed system.
“Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over.”
By A. C. Grayling
People have been endlessly arguing over good and bad, right and wrong. Perhaps it’s because, as Hume commented, morals can’t be grounded in facts, you can only discover what is, but this doesn’t tell you what you ought to do.
Grayling won’t tell you how to live (so if you’re looking for that, look elsewhere, as a number of Goodreads reviewers also suggest), what he does is highlight the tension between two primary sources of moral guidance:
“Mankind’s quest for the good has been a struggle between humanism, on the one hand, and religious conceptions of the world, on the other hand.”
The humanist approach is to find value and goodness within, through feeling and experience. Religion looks outwards, finding value in transcendental or mystical forces. The humanist studies and questions everything, while the religions promote faith-based dogmatism. Grayling is very much a humanist.
For many Greek philosophers a life well lived was one focused on the here-and-now (not in pursuit of an afterlife), the examined life was one spent learning, contemplating, and appreciating beauty in the world around you. The Romans arrived with cynics, epicureans, and stoics, branching off into other schools.
Unfortunately the Roman philosophies were not always easy for the common man to get a hold of, or to act on. Life was harsh and the lessons coming from the likes of stoicism didn’t sell as well as the afterlife that Christianity offered. Out went the humanist, for many years, until the scientific revolution and age of enlightenment once again acquainted us with the power of the old ideas.
By David Eagleman
Most of what happens is our heads is unknown to us, modules and systems process the swath of information streaming into the brain via the senses and internal environment without our awareness. The conscious mind is a little CEO that often takes credit for end result, failing to acknowledge the work the rest of the organisation.
Ideas and memories pop into our heads at opportune times, triggered by cues or random mental meanderings. Something in our gut tells us when we ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ a food or a song or a person, and we rationalise it all after the fact.
Sometimes thoughts just get in the way of actions that are better done on autopilot—a golf swing, hand writing, running from an angry dog. How easy it is to think a thought that moves your arm in a way to bring a beer to your lips, but imagine all the nerves, muscles, and tendons that need to coordinate themselves to make that possible!
We don’t see the world as it is but rather as it is presented to us after certain mental processes have taken place. People who have spent years blind but recover sight can learn to see colours and shapes, but struggle to identify objects and faces. Meanwhile a certain form of brain damage can leave people claiming they cannot see anything, yet able to navigate physical spaces and objects unconsciously—called blindsight.
“Most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The vast jungles of neurons operate their own programs. The conscious you—the I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning—is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain. Although we are dependent on the functioning of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show.”
By Neal Stephenson
Snow Crash was published back in 1992, and became one of the most significant additions to the cyberpunk genre. The story is set in an LA that’s no longer part of the US, a city run by big businesses and private security.
We follow Hiro Protagonist, who delivers pizza for a corporatised Mafia—Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc—while also living in a virtual world where he’s a sword-wielding warrior/hacker. There’s a virus going around this virtual world, passed about in the same way people pass about drugs—and it’s called snow crash. The consequences of taking the “drug” extend beyond the digital realm.
The virtual world is called the Metaverse, and while that term is commonplace today, Snow Crash is where it first appeared. “So Hiro’s not actually here at all. He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse.”
The Metaverse is filled with people in their avatars, and programs called Daemons. One Daemon that Hiro interacts with is the Librarian, who helps Hiro conduct research on language, ancient civilisations, and to go down other rabbit holes—much like how some people use ChatGPT today, but more factually reliable.
“We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information.”
By Ted Chiang
Another sci-fi addition but from 2019, and it’s a collection of 9 short stories covering a variety of philosophical conundrums, including free will, time travel, entropy, digital pets, multiple dimensions, the problems with a perfect memory, alien intelligence, creationism, and our relationships with robots.
The titular story explores entropy through the journal entries of a scientist. This scientist is a member of a strange race of mechanical beings that need to swap their lungs each day to replenish their pressurised argon levels.
While he’s at a filling station having his lungs replaced, he overhears someone talking about a recitation that normally takes an hour, but the clocks chimed early. This happened in several places at once, so it can’t be a single malfunctioning clock. He investigates—including dissecting his own brain, a device filled with tubes and gold leafs that act as switches. He comes to the conclusion that the clocks are fine, but that his and everyone else’s brains are running slower.
“The universe began as an enormous breath being held. Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I’m glad it did, because I owe my existence to that fact. All my desires and ruminations are no more and no less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe. And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on.”
I also really enjoyed the Difference Engine by William Gibson, an alternative history of the industrial revolution in which Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace successfully built a analytical engine and ushered in computers much earlier.
Talking to My Daughter About the Economy by Yanis Varoufakis, an exploration of the history of economics framed as a conversation with his daughter, a great ‘explain like I’m 5’ approach that helps for someone as unfamiliar with the domain as I am.
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan, a story about the relationships between two neighbours and their fancy new human-like robot, a glimpse of things to come I imagine.
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, in some respects states the obvious but does so quite convincingly—stop eating crappy processed foods and eat the stuff that doesn’t need advertising and marketing: basic fruits and veges and meats.
And now onwards, to more textual nourishment in 2024!