Tag: philosophy

Book review: How the world thinks by Julian Baggini

Whilst economising during a period without work I thought I would turn to other books in the house to read and review. This is how I came to How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy by Julian Baggini. This is not to say I am uninterested in philosophy but, as a scientist in the Western tradition, philosophy was a substrate on which I worked without thinking.

How the World Thinks aims to provide an outline of the major schools of philosophy around the world, Baggini alludes to the fact that in the Western world university philosophy departments are more accurately described as “Western philosophy” departments. Comparative philosophy, apparently, is not really a thing. Baggini also talks about how “academic” philosophy impacts the culture in which it sits – a process called sedimentation. Baggini cites the 5rd-3th centuries BCE as when the major philosophical traditions were born (know as the Axial Age), when understanding of the world started moving from myth to some sort of reason.

How the World Thinks is divided into four parts and an additional concluding part; these cover the nature of philosophy in different traditions, the nature of the world, who we are and how philosophy impacts the way we live. The text typically covers Far Eastern traditions (China and Japan), India, Islamic and Western traditions with some references to African philosophy. Rather strangely he mentions Russian philosophy in the final part, only to say really he hasn’t mentioned Russian philosophy!

Western philosophy is built around “reason” and nowadays is largely separate from theology, there are empiricist and rationalist schools within this. Empiricists believing on observing the world and building models based on observation, whilst rationalist believe the world can be understood with pure thought. East Asian philosophy is more concerned with a “way” of living in the world which is difficult if not impossible to explain in words. Indian philosophy lies between these two. Interestingly yoga is part of a philosophical tradition which sees it as a way of better seeing how the world really is.

The next part of the book concerns the processes that govern the world: time, karma, emptiness, naturalism, unity, and reductionism. Karma is a particularly Indian concept, and is linked by Baggini to the caste system which DNA evidence dates back to the 6th century AD. East Asian philosophy is more concerned with emptiness / nothingness then Western philosophy – it struck me reading The First Astronomers that Australian Aboriginal constellations include the absence of stars into their constellations. Naturalism, a regard for nature which links the natural world to the human, is stronger in East Asian philosophies – Chinese art incorporated natural scenes long before Western art. Islamic philosophy is strong on unity, whilst Western philosophy likes reductionism.

Part 3 concerns the self, contrasting the East Asian view of the self which is defined in relationship to others, similarly in Africa, with the indivisible, individualistic self of the West. There is even the idea that the self does not exist, as such. Baggini refers to the indivisible self as “atomistic” which harks back to the ancient Greek definition but for a modern scientist this is a bit confusing because an atom is a very different thing. Indian philosophy thinks in terms of a self that is reborn but need not hold any recollection of previous selves. Perhaps not made explicit in this part but one gets the feeling that other philosophies have a strong sense of being concerned with individual self-improvement, by acting in the right way, leading the right life one improves through each rebirth.

The final part of the book concerns how the world lives, how the philosophy discussed in earlier chapters is reflected in culture. This starts with a consideration of the idea of “harmony” in China, this can have elements of hierarchy and misogyny. Although Baggini highlights that it is understood that hierarchy is not bad in all cases, or even most. There is a chapter on “virtue” which as much as anything highlights that the meanings of words when translated can shift. We might think about the importance of “ritual” in Far Eastern cultures but equally we could call it “cultural grammar” which has different connotations in English .

I found How the World Thinks straightforward enough to read, the chapters are a convenient size and the style is readable. It also thought provoking, in that it challenges the deepest assumptions about the way I lead my intellectual life – in some ways it parallels The First Astronomers by Duane Hamacher in this respect.

Book review: Other minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

other_mindsOther Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith is about consciousness through the lens of cephalopods, a group comprising octopuses, cuttlefish, squid and the nautiluses.

Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher, rather than a scientist. This reflects the theme of the book, Godfrey-Smith’s idea is to understand our consciousness by looking at a creature with as radically different a consciousness as he can find. So his book is more a philosophical rather than a scientific view on consciousness which to my mind is no bad thing.

I was particularly impressed by Charles the octopus, one of three which experimenters used to try to measure octopus intelligence. The other two octopuses in their study put in some effort to carry out the tests presented whilst Charles insisted on squirting water at the experimenters and being otherwise uncooperative. It does make you wonder whether measures of animal intelligence are more a combination of willingness and intelligence. Perhaps the smarter animals just can’t be doing with intelligence tests. Squirting water at lights in aquariums to put them out seems, apocryphally, to be quite common behaviour amongst octopuses.

Mrs H is undertaking a doctorate in education and it strikes me that her mode of doing research, qualitative with relatively few subjects has more in common with this type of study than the experimenters care to admit. In this type of experiment the narrative rather than the result may be more important. So measuring the intelligence of the octopuses, or the time it took them to complete a learning task, is less important than the narrative of how they performed in the experiment.

The book weaves together cephalopod biology with Godfrey-Smiths own observations of cephalopods in the wild. I was intrigued to learn that the octopus brain is wrapped around the digestive tract which has been observed to lead to problems when attempting to eat particularly spikey foods. More generally, the neural material of an octopus is not all to be found in the “brain” it is distributed around the body. Octopus legs appear to have a degree of autonomy in at least deciding how to achieve a goal, even if the “brain” decides what the end goal might be.

Cuttlefish and octopuses have amazing abilities to change their appearance both in terms of colour, but also physical texture – they can make themselves bumpy. Interestingly, as far as we can tell they are unable to see the colours they produce – the photoreceptors in their eyes are of a single type. However, there is clearly something else going on – photoreceptors are found throughout the body of the cephalopod, and they are able to match background colours exquisitely. Furthermore, with the chromatophore and other colour producing structures also present a different mechanism for producing colour sensitivity is quite feasible – for example using those chromatophores as a filter “wheel” that sits in front of the light sensitive cells.

Godrey-Smith highlights that, although the cephalopods have a huge ability to make signals, because they are not a social species their ability to use those signals is limited. This is contrast to species such as baboons who have a more limited ability to generate vocal signals but, as a social species, have a much greater ability to interpret those signals in terms of establishing their position in a hierarchy and understanding how the hierarchy has changed.

Close to the end of the book, there is a terrible denouement: the typical cephalopod lifespan is only a couple of years. These creatures, so full of potential, are but brief inhabitants of the earth. Godfrey-Smith draws parallels with the Replicants in Bladerunner here. Their brief lives are understood in terms of their dangerous environment which has led to an evolutionary strategy of large broods of young, easily lost.

The book finishes with a discussion of “Octopolis” a location in Australia where octopuses, unusually, congregate and where Godfrey-Smith did a large part of his observations discussed throughout the book. Also we find here that he is involved in scientific publication.

Overall, one is left with the feeling of cephalopods having been an opportunity missed in the consciousness stakes. They have all the mental machinery but their truncated lives and limited social behaviour means that in all likelihood the opportunity is unfulfilled. This is a consciousness-centric human view, no species is striving for consciousness or intelligence they are doing what is needed for there species to continue in the niches they find themselves.