11 February 2013

Does the cosmos have a purpose? Is it us?

It was an idea long consigned to the dustbin of scientific history. ‘Like a virgin consecrated to God,’ Francis Bacon declared nearly 400 years ago, it ‘produces nothing’. It was anti-rational nonsense, the last resort of unfashionable idealists and religious agitators. And then, late last year, one of the world’s most renowned philosophers published a book arguing that we should take it seriously after all. Biologists and philosophers lined up to give the malefactor a kicking. His ideas were ‘outdated’, complained some. Another wrote: ‘I regret the appearance of this book.’ Steven Pinker sneered at ‘the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker’. The Guardian called it ‘the most despised science book of 2012’. So what made everyone so angry?

The thinker was Thomas Nagel, the book was Mind and Cosmos, and the idea was teleology.

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.

19 December 2012

Genes, Cells and Brains, by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose

We have outsourced the job of interpreting ourselves to the modern life sciences. The decoding of the human genome will tell us who we really are, pledged the gene-merchants. Brain scans will tell us who we really are, swore the neuro-hustlers. And what did we get? We got suckered. It turns out that humans have roughly as many protein-encoding genes as a fruit fly, and that fMRI scanning is still such an inexact art that a team of satirical neuroscientists have demonstrated significant “brain activity” in a dead salmon.

This fascinating, lucid and angry book by the sociologist Hilary Rose and the neurobiologist Steven Rose (they are married) boasts abundant targets and a lethally impressive hit ratio. They decry the entrepreneurialisation of science – “wealth creation is now unabashedly formalised as the chief objective of science and technology policy” – not least because it actually impedes science. (“PhD students can work for months on a project only to find that they cannot continue as they have run into a patent.”) They lambast the “armchair” theorising of evolutionary psychology, with its ungrounded assumption that we have “stone-age minds in the 21st century”. They scorn the “neuromyths” sold to the educational establishment, with the result that schoolchildren become the unwitting subjects of uncontrolled experiments in applying alleged lessons from animal psychology to the classroom.

The book performs in high style the necessary public service of recomplicating the simplistic hogwash hysterically blasted at us by both uncritical science reporters and celebrity scientists.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

8 November 2012

On the history and future of human enhancement

In The Matrix, one of the machines’ sharp-suited kung-fu enforcers, Agent Jones, is standing over Neo on a rooftop, about to kill him. Jones looks down and sneers: “Only human.” Arguably it is something like this contempt for the merely human — or a kind of embarrassment at it — that has driven humans themselves, over the millennia, to pursue self-enhancement. For a long time now, indeed, few of us have been “only human” in the sense of getting through life solely on what biology has given us. Spectacles, contact lenses, dental crowns and implants, pacemakers, running shoes — all these are technological improvements to the capacities of a human body, and thus enhancements. Even clothes, adopted according to the Bible after a moment of Edenic shame at what is “only human”, are enhancements, enabling us to live in hostile climates. Now, improvements in cognitive pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering and hi-tech prostheses enable some to dream of a future of accelerating species enhancement, reaching a point where we will have become — what? Übermenschen; cyborgs; post-humans? Or just better versions of ourselves?

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.

6 September 2012

The neurovision wrong contest

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism — aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash — and it’s everywhere. Continued →

21 April 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer (Canongate)

How did Bob Dylan write “Like a Rolling Stone”? The pop-science writer Jonah Lehrer wasn’t there, but he pretends to know anyway. Inspired by Dylan’s own description of “vomiting” forth the song’s lyrics, Lehrer peers inside the singer’s 1965 skull and announces confidently that the “right hemisphere” of Dylan’s brain was combining “scraps” or “fragments” of existing songs and poetry in a “mental blender”, before spitting out a set of “lyrics that make little literal sense”.

Strange, because “How does it feel / To be without a home” and so forth makes a fair amount of literal sense to me. Continued →

26 June 2010

Living in the End Times, by Slavoj Žižek (Verso)

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has an admirable form of reply to the near-continuous dribble of attacks on him, whether from the bienpensant liberals he so enjoys provoking, or even, as last year in the conservative American magazine The New Republic, a crazed and borderline illiterate review alleging that Zizek was a “fascist” and also anti-Semitic. He simply writes another book. Continued →

7 November 2009

The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen (Allen Lane)

Humans are often misled by abstract nouns of their own making, and sometimes the bamboozlement can last centuries or more. Because one can say the word “justice”, one might conclude that a singular thing or essence called “justice” actually exists. And so one could spend a life trying to figure out what this abstract animal called “justice” really is, and fail to pay much attention to problems of justice in the world.

The eminent professor and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has chosen for his deeply interesting synthesis of political philosophy, economics, and “social choice theory” a title that might at first appear rather bland, but it is holding two opposing ideas in a kind of dynamic stasis. Half the implication is indeed that it is possible to spend too much time on justice-as-a-mere-idea. But the other half is an insistence that justice-the-idea could be reengineered to work better as a basis for “practical reasoning”, such that it might improve the world. Continued →

28 February 2009

The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind, by Jonah Lehrer (Canongate)
The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica (Allen Lane)

A great self-help current of philosophy, from the Stoics to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, conveys one simple message: you cannot change the world, but if you understand the bad habits of your thinking you can change how you react to the world, and that way lies wisdom. Modern popular neuroscience often holds out the same promise: armed with the knowledge of what scientists have learned from magnetic imaging of the brain, the reader will end up master of his own mind. If you know how that muscle inside your head works, you can exploit it better. Continued →

7 March 2007

Jean Baudrillard’s death did not take place. “Dying is pointless,” he once wrote, “you have to know how to disappear.” The New Yorker reported a reading the French sociologist gave in a New York gallery in 2005. A man from the audience, with the recent death of Jacques Derrida in mind, mentioned obituaries, and asked Baudrillard: “What would you like to be said about you? In other words, who are you?” Baudrillard replied: “What I am, I don’t know. I am the simulacrum of myself.”

Baudrillard, whose simulacrum departed at the age of 77, attracted widespread notoriety in the early 1990s for predicting that the first Gulf War would not take place. During the war, he said it was not really taking place. After its conclusion, he announced, imperturbably, that it had not taken place. This prompted some to characterise him as yet another continental philosopher who revelled in a disreputable contempt for truth and reality. Yet Baudrillard was pointing out that the war was conducted as a media spectacle. Rehearsed as a wargame or simulation, it was then enacted for the viewing public as a simulation: as a news event, with its paraphernalia of embedded journalists and missile’s-eye-view video cameras, it was a videogame. The real violence was thoroughly overwritten by electronic narrative: by simulation. Continued →

21 October 2006

The View From the Centre of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos, by Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams

Let’s try an experiment. Take a piece of chalk and draw a circle around yourself on the ground. Think of something else for a minute. Now look down. You’re in the middle of a circle! Doesn’t that make you feel special?

This is the recommended therapy for people suffering from a kind of transgalactic ennui. Blame scientists. Ever since they showed that the Earth goes round the sun and not vice versa, humans’ place in the universe has seemed increasingly marginal. As the cosmologist Carl Sagan put it: “We live on a hunk of rock and metal that orbits a humdrum star in the obscure outskirts of an ordinary galaxy comprised of 400 billion stars in a universe of some hundred billion galaxies …” How insignificant we are, on the vast scales of space.

Such is the received wisdom and, like all received wisdom, it is worth challenging. Husband-and-wife team Primack, an astrophysicist, and Abrams, a philosopher of science, understand our pain. They know the temptation of what they call “the existential alternative”, as exemplified by Sagan. They give the feeling a rather beautiful name: “cosmic homelessness”. And they promise to prove, using the latest cosmological discoveries, that the idea is wrong. Science itself, they say, demonstrates that we are actually central to the universe. Continued →

16 March 2006

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief, by Lewis Wolpert (Faber)

Let’s say I have a theory about how language evolved in humans. It’s all to do with fruit, you see. Early members of homo sapiens needed to warn each other about what berries were poisonous. Since a grunt and a look of alarm could be misinterpreted as indicating the presence of a tiger, or as a mere ruse to distract the finder and steal his fruit, grunts became semantically differentiated and turned into a handful of words. Then songs could be sung in praise of the banana, and words turned out to be useful for lots of other things too, for example whispering about what Ig and Ug got up to in the cave last night. From there it is but a short hop to Shakespeare.

Such a theory might be more or less plausible, depending on how it brushes up against our prejudices about fruit. But how will we ever know whether it is true? Maybe one day we will make contact with a far older and more advanced alien civilization. They will say to us: “Oh yeah, we checked up on you guys a few hundred thousand years ago. You had only just started talking about fruit, so we thought we’d come back later.” Bingo. But until that happens, our little theory is merely a guess, a just-so story. In particular, there is no reliable way to decide between it and other, perhaps even more compelling explanations. So it goes with Professor Wolpert’s theory, explained in this book, that language, and “belief” in general, evolved because of tool use. Continued →

27 March 2004

Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton (Hamish Hamilton)

Alain de Botton is the kind of public intellectual our debased culture deserves. This prince of précis, this queen of quotation, pastes together entire books by citing and then restating in inferior prose the ideas of great writers from centuries gone by. Aping the forms of philosophical thought in tones of complacent condescension, he provides for his readers the comforting sensation of reading something profound at little cost of mental effort. Continued →

14 March 2000

Smoking with Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard’s lecture in London last Friday did not take place. But don’t be alarmed: the aim of thought, after all, is not truth or reality. Thinking is the art of making things disappear. Let’s try, then, to make this impish, septuagenarian matre à penser disappear too.

Picture, if you will, Baudrillard in the chemistry lecture theatre of University College, London. Gazing down from a side wall is a vast chart of the periodic table, whose elements huddle together for comfort, anxious at the appearance in their midst of this unpredictable catalyst. Baudrillard looks wonderfully like a hyperreal cafe Frenchman: short, rotund, in a crumpled suit, with tufts of golden-grey hair poking out from his temples. But that appearance is a mask. Continued →

17 December 1998

An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, by Roger Scruton

Culture is a fuzzy idea. Biologists know that a culture is something you grow in a petri dish; and indeed, the oldest recorded uses of the word “culture” refer either to agricultural cultivation, or to divine worship, both meanings stemming from the Latin colere, to attend to. Those who read Roger Scruton’s new book (presumably after passing an IQ test set by inscrutable, purple-robed bookshop mandarins) will learn that his idea of “culture”, too, is an ancient one: high art is a replacement for religion. Continued →