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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Let’s face it – I’m not a great critic, nor a great writer, nor even a great reader these days.  And, maybe that’s ok. I like to read, and I like to write about what I read. Today, I made one of those joyous reading connections that I love, and just wanted to share it with …whomever. I have been reading, and enjoying, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” a smart, sweet novel featuring the “atheist with a soul” Cass Seltzer who has become famous for his book “The Varieties of Religious Illusion.” The book features a truly suspenseful debate at the end – when Cass faces off against a right-wing neo-con apologist for faith in a packed Harvard auditorium.  That’s where I am right now, and I fear Cass is going to be destroyed as being the famous intellectual was for him a rather accidental happening, one in which he can’t quite believe and a role he is having trouble really inhabiting. When we don’t really mean what we are or what we do is when life gets dangerous, I think.  Anyway, at the library, I just happened to pick up “The Angels of Our Better Natures” by Steven Pinker. It’s about the fact that violence has declined, even though it doesn’t seem that way if you watch or listen to any news stations. I’m very early into the book, but enjoying his engaging style. Surprisingly, in the preface to Pinker’s book, I came across a pair of words, new to me, that had occurred earlier in Goldstein’s book:  “endogen0us and exogenous”, meaning influenced, respectively, from the inside and the outside.  Or, in Pinker’s words:  explaining forces for change, “Social scientists distinguish between ‘endogenous’ variables — those that are inside the system, where they may be affected by the very phenomenon they are trying to explain–from ‘exogenous’ ones – those that are set inmotion by forces from the outside.” (preface, xxiii).  Then, in Goldstein’s book, she mentions her “partner, Steve Pinker.” I am just delighted to be reading both their books right now. What fun!

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Dennett

Finally finished “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” I really liked it. Dennett’s writing is elegant and witty, rife with metaphors and analogies (although it must be admitted that quite a bit of it was over my head).

I couldn’t possibly summarize the book, so I’ll just list some of the ideas that resonated for me:

“QWERTY phenomenom” – The letters of the typewriter were arranged that way because the pattern separated the keys most often used because keys tended to stick. Now that keyboards no longer stick, we are ‘stuck’ with QWERTY because that’s the way it’s always been done. The social cost of change ensures that keyboard configuration will remain as it is (look at the difficulty we’ve had in converting to the metric system). Evolution too may have come up with solutions for problems that have disappeared while the solutions remain.

“The Mephistophelian dice game” – If you propose to make one person the winner of ten consecutive dice throws, then discard each loser, you end up with a winner (someone has to win), who might think himself ‘a chosen one’. This in answer to those who think the universe was especially designed around us (the lucky winners).

Lots of stuff about ‘reverse engineering’ and ‘adaptionism’. The power of adaptionist thinking – figuring out what Mother Nature had in mind by adopting the intentional stance (an innate talent that humans seem to have).

“Biology as Engineering” was a tough chapter. I had flashes of understanding around the refutation of Locke’s “mind first” doctrine, that ‘there can be a gradual birth of function and the concomitant birth of meaning or intentionality.’

“Reverse Engineering” – figuring out ‘the why’ (also called adaptionism). ‘One must grant the premise of the argument from design’ – a found watch exhibits a tremendous amount of design work. Darwin’s path honors Paley’s insight by supplying the idea that intelligence could be broken into tiny, stupid bits (algorithms) distributed through time and space. Beware the Panglossian fallacy that natural selection favors adaptations that are good for the species as a whole (the best of all possible worlds).

The Role of Language – this got very interesting as Dennett takes on Chomsky and Gould, among others. More to follow.

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