Reading Updates

Just a few sketchy holding points for now …

Finished Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach. Excellent to the end. Skimmed the tougher mathematically and notationally detailed sections – seemed important to get the thrust on trust, which I think I did. I think his final dialogue, almost explicitly explaining the “fugue” underlying all the dialogues throughout the book is almost superfluous – ie if you hadn’t already spotted it, I can’t imagine how you would have found the book intelligible up to that point. Although he focusses on the possibilities of AI – back in 1979 it seemed to be the exciting new subject – I think his main messages are about the emergence of consciousness and itelligence, and hence what those things really are. I buy most of his story there I think. In a nutshell – Properties emerge at higher levels in patterns of interaction between things at a lower level, that are not actually present in those lower level things. “It’s the interaction, stupid”. I actually think it’s where I started, or certainly where I’d already arrived, so it’s quite exciting to find that so strongly reinforced.

Having completed GEB, I’ve started and now more than half-way through “The Mind’s I”, collected, edited and reflected upon by Hofstadter and Dennett. Wondereful stuff. I didn’t realise this book was the source of popular published copies of those seminal pieces by Turing and Nagel, and that it was the source of the whole family of “brain in a vat” pieces including Dennett’s own. Matrix fan’s can start here, as indeed David Chalmers did I believe, though personally I’m with Dr Hfuhruhurr on this one. Not finished this collection yet, but I’m going have to read all the original Dennett stuff (including Branstorms – one not actually in the un-read pile yet, although Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea both are.) How did Dennett come to be an espouser of “consciousness is just an illusion” stuff after this collaboration with Hofstadter ? Maybe he didn’t, despite what Sue Blackmore seemed to have concluded ?

In the meantime read a large part of Owen Barfield’s “Saving The Appearances”. Barfield is a common port of call for Pirsig scholars, and I was prompted to pick him up again after a string of MoQ threads referring to Barfield’s “particles”, and posted this …

Despite claiming to be a fan of Barfield (on the strength of Poetic Diction and History in English Words) I hadn’t read Saving the Appearances until I saw all his “particles” floating past in a couple of recent threads. I couldn’t comment so I just had to read it. In fact I’ve had the book for ages, and now recall why I stopped reading it.

His physics is completely wrong. [See post note below.]

He’s right that one way or another since Kant, philosophy seems to be mainly about the difference between (or interface between) what we perceive and what is “out there”. (whether we’re talking “immediate experience”, the Quality “event” triplet, or Peircean “firstness”, etc.)

He’s right that most 20th century philsophical writing has ignored the implications of “modern physics” – except where written by physicists, who understand it, naturally – a big recurring gripe of mine, you’ll recognise. Barfield is not one.

He’s right that “trees” are more “tangible” than “rainbows” (they do more than interact with light for a start). Metaphorically both are made of “particles’, but quite a different mix of particles on quite different physical levels. He’s right that we only see light, and we only hear sound, everything else is “mental” (alpha or beta thinking).

But his Netwonian, classical, physics is up the creek, before we even get near “new physics”.

There is nothing about a rainbow that depends on human (or any animalian) eyes seeing, in order for it to exist, individual or shared, any more than a tree. The refracted light from rainbows is more “diffuse” and “non-localised” than the reflected light from a tree, but the light rays (photon streams whatever) are as real in both cases, whether eyes exist to see them or not. (All the stuff about where in space and relative to distant hills and hands in your field of view is just not true – poetic, but wrong none-the-less.) I can make a rainbow between me and this computer screen (or behind it) by blowing a raspberry in the right place.

His stuff about hearing due to having ears, rather than sensing sound waves, is suspiciously close to the same evolutionary fallacy that no being could see (sense light) until the eyeball had come to exist. Just plain wrong “watchmaker” creationist meme.

(There are particles and there are particles, and as it turns out there is information more fundamental to any. But that’s another story.)

Pity. I have read on almost to a conclusion, and there’s some good stuff in there nevertheless, but with recurring references to his erroneous start.

[Post note : The thread on MoQ-Discuss includes an exchange with Scott Roberts which points out that despite any physically inaccurate statements about rainbows, Barfield does in fact make the point that the issue of immediate sensing vs interpreted representation of the sensed, is the same for both ephemeral rainbows and tangible trees, so his error is not material to his story – that’s good – count me as a Barfield fan again.]

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