Enlightened Reading ?

I’ve barely blogged or posted anywhere in the last few months, almost none in the last month. Just too busy with the day job, and in a temporary state domestically. We move into a longer term place next weekend.

I have however found some disjointed time to do some reading.

I think the last things I blogged about were;
Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”, and
Daniel Wegner’s “The Illusion of Conscious Will”

I also found time to finish both;
Robert Magliola’s “Derrida on the Mend”, and
Jay Garfield’s translation and commentary on Nagarjuna’s “Mulamadhyamakakarika – The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way”.
The former refers to the latter at length. Both excellent recommendations from Paul Turner. I made endless mental and marginal notes, but I think I’ve blogged or posted only incidental passing references anywhere so far. I really must collate some more thoughts on these. Magliola’s language, like the Derrida he is reading, is very tough in places, as are the subtley not-quite-repetitive aphorisms from Nagarjuna translated and interpreted by Garfield. That said there are some excellent gems that draw together the totally “aontic” buddhist view of reality and causation as emergence or “dependent arising”, with some worthwhile nuggets from the totally deconstructive “there is nothing beyond the text” of Derrida’s “On Grammatology”.

Waiting for my library to arrive from the UK, and finding it difficult order on-line until we get the longer term address sorted, we wandered into Barnes & Noble on University Drive, Huntsville, and found it amazingly well stocked. So I’ve also been reading …

Henry Frakfurt’s “On Bullshit” – an ironic and very brief treatise on truth and lies. Essentially it’s about rhetorical tricks and the focus is on intent rather than truth values of statements made. Making a false statement knowingly or making a false statement in ignorance being distinct and quite separate from anything said to achieve a higher moral outcome.

Christopher Maurer’s translation and introduction to Baltasar Gracian’s (1647) “Oraculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia” (Pocket Oracle – The Art of Worldy Wisdom”). A series of 300 one paragraph aphorisms on rhetorical and behavioural tricks for getting along in the world successfully. Know your friends but know your enemies better – kind of stuff. Trips up between the cynical Machiavellian (1513) exploitation for personal gain, and the pragmatic game-theoretic scheming towards higher common ends. Highly recommended by both Nietzsche and Shopenhauer.

Meanwhile I received a book re-directed from an order I placed in the UK some months ago …
Michael Talbot’s “The Holographic Universe”. I preferred Talbot to Capra in terms of their earlier (1970’s) independant works linking Taoism / Mysticism to the New Physics, but in this 1991 book Talbot takes the holochoric metaphor into an explicit – the world really is a hologram – territory of Karl Pribram and David Bohm. At some level, maybe I buy the “interconnectedness” – the whole world in a grain of sand concept – but a large proportion of the book uses this premise to explain all things paranormal. Psychokinesis, telepathy, and all varieties of shamanic magic, all backed this up with masses of personal and other documented evidence and anecdotes. Hmmm. I struggled to keep going beyond 2/3 way through with credibility fading fast. I guess the masses of references must have been known to the likes of Sue Blackmore, who actively pursued the paranormal before concluding she could find no repeatable evidence. Another scientist with a similarly open mind, Brian Josephson gets mentioned by Talbot. Must ask Sue and Brian what they make of Talbot.

Anyway, continuing … I read :
Earnest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea’ by way of brief intoduction. As advertised, it’s a very simply worded, but powerfully descriptive story of man and boy but mainly man and nature as noble beast. Even more reminiscent of Melville than Pirsig. I’ll definitely try some more Hemmingway. B&N have plenty of the beautifully presented Scribner Classics hardback editions.

At last I picked-up and started to read :
Edward O. Wilson’s “Consilience”. What a great intelligent read, both content and almost laconic style. So far I’ve read his potted histories of relevant modern thought, leading to his main subject – consilience – the convergence of all “valid” sciences and ologies towards common fundamental threads (The term coined originally by William Whewell in 1840). He proceeds from the Ionian Enchantment, through the Enlightenment and Modernism and all things post-modern including Derrida and Foucault as well as brain physiology, dreams and mind-altering drug (ayahuasca from the Banisteriopsis vine) amongst Ucayali region Indians, and so on. So far he is staunchly defending the mercilessley objective, analytic, reductionist intent of scientific method, whilst extolling the synthetic art of scientific hypothesis and theory – put me in mind of David Deutsch. I’m not sure I agree with him more than 80% yet, and despite defending science in principle, he explicitly says “science is not a belief system”. I think we’re just playing with words – it’s system that doesn’t tell you “what” to believe, just “how” to believe contingently – a meta-belief-system perhaps, but you have to buy it, believe in it, to make any progress all the same. Anyway he draws from across spectra of opposing extremes in my kinda synthetic way, so I’m hooked. Looking forward to continuing with this one. No danger for the excluded middle here.

Finally, at last, lying beside the bed I have waiting a copy of
Niccolo Machiavelli’s (1513) “The Prince”. See above.

5 thoughts on “Enlightened Reading ?”

  1. Thanks for that Matt.
    Just checked the summary so far.

    I guess the Rorty line is metaphysics is dead / redundant – there need be no common “foundation” ontological or otherwise.

    I’m not done with Wilson yet, and I don’t wholly agree with him yet either. He is definitely however aiming at valid “sciences” rather than knowledges in general, and freely acknowledges the usefulness of non-scientific views – the art of intelligent speculation about hypotheses and theories.

    I’ll finish Consilience, before I read the references. Thanks again.

  2. Hey Ian,

    Glad you are back writing to us and doing a little light reading besides.

    I am just completing “The Moral Animal” by Robert Wright, probably one of the first evolutionary psychology tomes, written in 1994 and unread by me until now. It has given me some more insight into Wegner’s observations about the illusion of conscious will.

    I read the Rorty commentary about Wilson’s ideas. In my opinion, he starts right out by subtly misstating Wilson’s position as suggesting that minds are best described in neurological terms. He then goes on to describe the mind-brain distinction as analogous to the hardware-software distinction. So right off I think he sets up a straw man argument.

    I will agree with Rorty when he says that Wilson thinks that we would/could be better off if we knew more about how the mind works. Rorty apparently doesn’t hold this notion in much high esteem and doesn’t seem to feel Wilson’s need to represent things the way they really are. Rorty mentions several writers who he doubts would be better off having known more about how the mind works, one of whom is Wolff. I think she would have welcomed more insight into the workings of the upper chamber, since she drove herself mad trying to do the investigating herself.

    Whether or not metaphysics is dead, useless, or at the end of its road, I see no harm in Wilson’s notions that we benefit from the confluence of ideas from all sectors.

  3. Hi Alice.

    I’ve completed Wilson (and more) just been away on business this week after moving apartment into a bigger long term place last weekend and Monday.

    Wilson I end up agreeing with 95% plus. I guess the issue I’m struggling with (with Matt) is “So what is Rorty on about ?” I still don’t really understand, and it seems important (if Matt thinks it is.)

    More blog later today.

  4. The issue between Rorty and people like Wilson and Stephen Pinker (like in his review of The Blank Slate in Daedulus, “Philosophy-Envy”) is that, in a broad sense, sometimes scientists think that science can solve philosophical problems. That’s not true. More specifically, Wilson and Pinker think that finding out more about the mind or our biology will tell us something about human nature. More specifically than that, Rorty sees Wilson as suggesting that finding out more about biology will tell us what to do.

    That’s the main issue, as I see it. It’s not that Rorty “doesn’t seem to feel Wilson’s need to represent things the way they really are”, as Alice said, because that seems to imply that we _can_ “represent things as they really are”, which is itself the exact issue between pragmatists like Rorty and realists like Wilson.

    The issue of the consillience of knowledge, which is slightly different than biology guiding morals, is that Wilson thinks we need to find a single vocabulary in which to state all of our knowledge. Rorty is roughly saying, “Are we really going to state the superiority of Seinfeld in terms of bouncing particles?” Wilson’s idea of consillience looks like the old reductionist impulse of the logical positivists.

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