The solar system is a dead loss right now – dumb all over! Just measure the MIPS per milligram. If it isn’t thinking, it isn’t working. We need to start with the low-mass bodies, reconfigure them for our own use. Dismantle the moon! Dismantle Mars! Build masses of free-flying nanocomputing processor nodes exchanging data via laser link, each layer running off the waste heat of the next one in. Matrioshka brains, Russian doll Dyson spheres the size of solar systems. Teach dumb matter to do the Turing boogie!
– Charles Stross in Accelerando
Accelerando is a hard book to recommend to anyone. At times it reads as if author Charles Stross wrote it by first making a bullet-point list of cool stuff he wanted to include: effective cyclists! Rubberized concrete! Agalmic economies! Corporate regulations written in Python! Distributed Internet reputation servers! As the exclamation points suggest, every mention of the latest and greatest toys is suffused with breathless enthusiasm. Only afterwards is the story worked in and the characters, in this case, three generations of the dysfunctional and idiosyncratic Macx family, created to serve the plot.
Continue reading A Book: Accelerando
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
Where do we go from here? History can’t guide us. Evolution can’t guide us. The C-Z charter says understand and respect the universe… but in what form? On what scale? With what kind of senses, what kind of minds? We can become anything at all – and that space of possible futures dwarfs the galaxy. Can we explore it without losing our way?
-Greg Egan in Diaspora
Australian writer Greg Egan has consistently produced some of the most innovative, ambitiously speculative and technically rigorous science fiction stories of the 1990s. As an avid fan of the genre, my opinion is that Egan’s influence in the field goes far beyond what is evident in simple sales volume or media attention since many other writers seem to have taken note of his style and have attempted “Eganesque” stories or novels of their own. With his sixth novel, Diaspora, he probes the future of humanity, going farther than any other writer has ever gone before.
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The chief movement of modernity, Kierkegaard holds, is a drift toward mass society, which means the death of the individual as life becomes ever more collectivized and externalized. The social thinking of the present age is determined, he says, by what might be called the Law of Large Numbers: it does not matter what quality each individual has, so long as we have enough individuals to add up to a large number – that is, to a crowd or mass. And where the mass is, there is truth – so the modern world believes.
-William Barrett in Irrational Man
First published in 1958, Irrational Man is something of a dinosaur next to the sexily titled and slickly paced philosophy books that fill today’s bookshelves. Despite its age and the sad fact that some of the ideas in the book have aged less than gracefully, it remains as its back blurb says, “widely recognized as the finest definition of existentialist philosophy ever written”.
These days existentialism takes a back seat to its offspring, postmodernism, and it is unfortunate that in the minds of most people, the “scientized” sophistry, sometimes frivolously so, and abstruse language that so characterizes contemporary postmodern literature is inevitably linked to existentialism as well. It may therefore be surprising that I, the author of a site dedicated to reason, identify strongly with some of the central tenets of existentialism.
Continue reading A Book: Irrational Man