Archive for the ‘books’ Category
Since my roommate is spending his evening occupied with unselfconscious creativity, I figure I can do a little better than dredging up interesting photos from flickr. As alluded to in my 4th of July musings, I just finished Interpreter of Maladies, the Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, which I bought on a whim to console myself after my latest bicycle-buying misadventure. The stories are excellent (as you might imagine, given, you know, the Pulitzer and everything) in their own right, but I think I enjoyed them, in large part, because they nearly all revolve around things, my relationships with which I’ve recently been reconsidering: India, New England, and academia. Similar themes dominate Lahiri’s The Namesake (on a superficial level, at least), which I grabbed on a whim as I was walking out the door on my way to Indiana, secretly a little distraught to be leaving home again so soon after arriving. Even though my own experience is obviously, radically different from those of the characters in the stories, most recently arrived from India, outsiders trying to make lives for themselves in the place I was born and raised in, I can’t help but think that the difference is, in someways, not of kind but of degree.
Coming back from my time abroad, a rather unexpected digression from my planned academic trajectory, has somewhat predictably led (warning! cliches ahead!) to changes in perspective, and in a way I might even say that because of these as-of-yet-unexamined shifts the place (or places: Williams, New England, America) I’ve come back to is not the one that I left. I suppose this is the “reverse culture shock” that we were warned about, warnings I mostly ignored, since I didn’t think that I suffered from terribly bad non-reverse culture shock to begin with. Maybe I’m just being melodramatic, what with all the reading and coffee drinking and cooking and introspecting I’ve had time to do lately, or maybe I’m just indulging a burgeoning nostalgia for my time spent in India with a close group of friends, and mistaking that for nostalgia for India itself, but right now I’m inclined to think that my interest in and attachment to those places and people and culture and history is meaningful and lasting. And that, combined with missing New England and lots and lots of confusion about what my likely career in academia really means, makes Lahiri’s stories absolutely captivating.
It also can’t hurt that I’ve been absolutely starved for good fiction recently. Recently as in the last few months. At this point I will eagerly solicit suggestions for summer reading, be it fiction or non-fiction, edifying or merely entertaining.
Yesterday I read C.S. Lewis’s The Case for Christianity and, surprisingly, found the gettin-saved parts far more compelling than his philosophical argument for the existence of a god. In large part, I think that this is due to the unflappable zeal with which he conjures up dichotomies, simplifies complex issues to the point of inanity, and spends little time on what I felt were the most difficult points to defend.
Basically, I didn’t like his philosophizing because it was, well, philosophizing. The major challenge for writers of philosophy is to engage both those sympathetic towards their position and also those who are most critical. This is really hard to do when you’re just talking to the page, since you don’t have the benefit of conversational give-and-take with your opponents to get a sense of exactly what you have to rebut. It is immensely frustrating to try to follow a philosophical argument when it feels like the author keeps trying to slip statements in without seriously considering them.
I know that this is something of an unfortunate reality about any sort of argument, since you need to assume that some things don’t need supporting; your argument has to “bottom out” at some level or else you’d spend eternity justifying the last thing you said.
Anyway, the worst example of this in The Case for Christianity was (for me, as a cognitive scientist) when Lewis blithely declaims that since a) we have special access to what’s going on in our minds (not heads!) and b) anything that only has our behavior to go by (which, for whatever reason, does not include language!) it follows that…I don’t honestly remember, something about our innate moral compass (whose existence I do not dispute) being God talking to us…if I wasn’t so lazy I’d go and get the book and look this part up.
First of all, I should point out that introspective access (a) is something that I have a big problem with but that, historically at least, has been pretty uncontroversial, so it’s really unfair of me to expect Lewis to defend it. However, excluding language from human behavior is ridiculous, as is the idea that from behavior alone we get no sense of what’s going on inside the heads of others. Au contraire, behavior is the only way we have of even getting to the point where we might attribute mental states to another person.
Like I said, I was really moved by the parts about Christ and salvation, but I was nothing but turned off by the philosophy parts. In fact, I was moved very much in the same way as I am by the soteriological aspects of Buddhism, and perhaps to an even greater extent, since Christianity is something that I’ve always wanted to “get,” but never really felt like I could. Perhaps Lewis’s philosophizing, irksome as I find it, makes me more receptive to his soteriological message.
Minnesota! I am happily ensconsed in my sister’s dorm room at lovely Macalester College, in balmy, tropical St. Paul, Minnesota. The last two and a half days consisted of bumming around Cambridge, catching up with Boston friends, and playing Super Smash Bros. with Jue and company. Before that was a nice, low-key celebration of my birthday on Monday with the family (as part of which I received both The Bread Bible and The Joy of Cooking!). However, getting home was probably one of the most harrowing experiences of my entire life, and I am now absolutely convinced of the utter insanity of trying to travel in a snowstorm (never mind in rural New England). The icing on the cake is that, two days before, it was 70˚ and sunny in Williamstown—welcome to March in New England, folks.
I really need this break, and am really enjoying traveling and doing very little that’s productive. This semester is kicking my butt a lot harder than I predicted, so it’s nice to get away from the cycle of waiting till the last minute to do everything, get caught up on my reading and sleep, spend some quality time with my family, and remember why I love school so much so that I’m actually excited to go back and power through the rest of this semester. On a more optimistic note, I think I’m getting over the vague, righteous anger that I’ve been struggling with recently, which I’m going to interpret as a sign that I’m feeling more comfortable with the material we’re covering in Consciousness. I’m still feeling somewhat displeased with my math class(es), but I killed my cryptography midterm, and knot theory is getting a little more rigorous/formal (or I’m getting used to drawing pictures for proofs…), so I guess I shouldn’t worry.
Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to hanging out at home next week, cooking, baking, and playing Ocarina of Time (only the best video game ever). And, hopefully, at the end of that I’ll be ready to hit the books with renewed vigor.
I’m worried about consciousness. Really worried. I’m not worried about consciousness being too “hard” a problem for science to handle. If it makes a difference, I think that there is no such hard problem, just like there’s no “hard” problem about what makes living things live, no elan vital, once you understand well enough all of the little processes involved in living. No, I’m worried that statements like this one have a place in serious, scholarly discourse about consciousness:
[...] we can arguably imagine someone psychologically identical to me who experiences something different. (Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Unified Theory p. 21)
By way of clarification, what Chalmers means when he says “psychological” is “the concept of mind as the causal or explanatory basis for behavior.” (p. 11). Well, David J. Chalmers, I for one CANNOT imagine such a situation. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. I invite you, dear reader, to attempt a similar thought experiment. Imagine me, sitting here, typing these somewhat angry words, but instead feeling something totally different than what I am really feeling right now (whatever that means). I can’t do it, and if you can you must have some sort of imaginative (or delusional) capacity that I am lacking. Read on, o intrepid reader