But was she conscious – as much as the women who’d help build her would have been conscious if, for a few seconds, they’d forgotten themselves and focused entirely on their simple tasks: thinking of a word, matching a picture?
Still, at most it could only be a transient form of consciousness – with no conception of itself to underpin a fear of extinction. Splicing Fariba, and a thousand variants of her, into narratives in which they played no active part wouldn’t bolster their fragmentary minds into something more substantial; that was just the illusion that human players would receive. The Faribas would still live – if they lived at all – in an eternal present, doing their simple tasks over and over again, remembering nothing.
– Greg Egan in Zendegi
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Greg Egan’s newest novel, Zendegi, is that it’s the most grounded and hence approachable of any of his books. Inspired by the real-life events in Iran in 2009 and backed by a personal trip that the author made to the country, the book starts out being more of a spy thriller than a hard science-fiction novel. In 2012 as Iran readies itself for a fresh round of parliamentary elections, Australian journalist Martin Seymour makes a break with his previous life as he is sent to cover them. However the elections turn out to be more exciting than anticipated when a scandal involving a member of Iran’s Guardian Council is unearthed, with Martin right in the heart of the events, making news rather than just covering it. This leads to a massive uprising that eventually leads to the reinstatement of true democracy in the country.
Continue reading Zendegi
One of my personal habits is that I like to know how other people think. It’s not even the decision or idea itself that is necessarily interesting. What I’m constantly curious about is the chain of thought that led to a specific decision beginning from the person’s basic assumptions and observations to the step-by-step logic that they perform based on those assumptions. Most of the time, I end up being disappointed because people mostly do not make decisions through a conscious, deliberative process but act impulsively or instinctively instead.
Some of the most puzzling decisions on the world stage in recent history have been made by the late Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Why did he send contradictory signals over whether or not he actually possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs)? Why was he so stubborn in not allowing weapons inspectors full access to Iraq when in fact he had no WMDs? Why did he even choose to invade Kuwait in the early 90s? This blog post answers some of these questions and illuminates some of the thought processes that were going on inside the dictator’s head.
For example, it turned out that he was so nonchalant about the prospect of being invaded by the U.S. because he believed that he had won against the U.S. and its allies in the First Gulf War. His reasoning was that the coalition of over 30 countries had tried to overthrow him in 1991 but he survived, therefore he had won and if the U.S. wanted to try again, history would just repeat itself. In reality, the U.S. deliberately left his regime in place because George Bush Sr. feared the chaos that deposing him would unleash.
Another example showing how out of sync with reality he was: he had WMDs in 1991 but was afraid to use them because he believed that if he did, the U.S. would unleash its own chemical weapons on Iraq. In 2003 he did not have WMDs but didn’t want to admit that because he was more afraid of an internal coup than of an invasion by foreign forces. The blog post is full of more examples of such convoluted thinking.
Once again, this shows that dictators, surrounded as they always are only by yes-men, quickly become delusional and lose all grasp of reality. But it’s also a reminder to everyone how important it is to constantly reassess your fundamental assumptions and beliefs to ensure that what you believe is indeed the truth.
Contrary to traditional scientific opinion, feelings are just as cognitive as other percepts. They are the result of a most curious physiological arrangement that has turned the brain into the body’s captive audience. Feelings let us catch a glimpse of the organism in full biological swing, a reflection of the mechanism of life itself as they go about their business. Were it not for the possibility of sensing body states that are inherently ordained to be painful or pleasurable, there would be no suffering or bliss, no longing or mercy, no tragedy or glory in the human condition.
-Antonio R. Damasio in Descartes’ Error
Descartes’ error, as meant by neurologist Antonio R. Damasio in this book, and one that has insinuated itself deeply into mainstream thought, is as he puts it: “the abyssal separation between body and mind, between the sizable, dimensioned, mechanically operated, infinitely divisible body stuff, on the one hand, and the unsizable, undimensioned, un-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff; the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgment, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the body. Specifically: the separation of the most refined operations of mind from the structure and operation of a biological organism.”
In other words: thinking is inescapably a biological process. It is expressly not true, as many people take for granted, that “thinking, and awareness of thinking, are the real substrates of being.”
Continue reading A Book: Descartes’ Error