~Sometimes, it’s to find out which books aren’t worth the trouble… 

Such as The House of Wisdom by Jim Al-Khalili, an Iraqi-born physicist, and reviewed by John Noble Wilford in the Sunday Times (May 22, 2011).  The book details the contributions to the sciences made by Muslim/Arab cultures after the fall of Rome, retelling the old (and true) story of how the West would have lost Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc., had the Muslims/Arabs not preserved and translated the works during the thousand or so years that the light of reason lay blanketed in darkness in the West.  All well and good.  Islam spread rapidly through the Middle East and Mediterranean after the fall of Rome.  So far as the advancement of knowledge is concerned, Islam picked up where the Greeks and Romans left off, only to pass the baton back to the West in the Renaissance.

But knowledge of and understandings about the universe around us are not cultural things.  Knowledge and understanding about the universe are a human thing.  An advancement in knowledge by one culture is eventually an advancement in knowledge by all cultures.  The universe doesn’t care which minds; Arabic/Islamic, Western, Eastern, Indian, et al, discover its secrets.  And neither should mankind.  So the last several sentences of Wilford’s review explaining the importance of science and the problems of scientific advancement in Arabia were painful to read:

Al-Khalili spreads the blame widely, citing inadequate financing for research and education, sclerotic bureaucracies, religious conservatism, even an ingrained fear of science. The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, perhaps the greatest Muslim scientist of the last century, won a Nobel Prize in 1979 and did what he could to promote a scientific renaissance among his people, without success. “Of all civilizations on this planet, science is weakest in the lands of Islam,” Salam said in despair. “The dangers of this weakness cannot be overemphasized since the honorable survival of a society depends directly on its science and technology in the condition of the present age.”

By recounting Arabic science’s luminous past, al-Khalili says, he hopes to instill a sense of pride that will “propel the importance of scientific enquiry back to where it belongs: at the very heart of what defines a civilized and enlightened society.”

No, no and no.  It does not matter in the least from which culture or society hail the scientific pioneers; so long as the scientific fields are plowed somewhere by someone, everyone will (eventually) reap the harvest.  It may be a matter of societal pride that a particular society happens to be producing more scientific pioneers than another at some point in time, but societal pride is rarely something worth encouraging.  The history books are brimming with tales of death and destruction wrought by peoples primed to kill and destroy because of their societal and racial pride.   The honorable survival of a society depends directly on its ability to employ scientific advancements from whatever quarter they arise.  The people of Egypt didn’t develop the social media (Facebook, Google, cell phones, etc.) that they employed in ousting Mubarak, and it really doesn’t matter who developed the technology; the technology was available and the society was open enough to accept it and take advantage of it when the need arose. 

So this book sounds like something of a racial/cultural diatribe against the West for having ignored the contributions of Arabs in the past, while cajoling Arabs in the present and future to get busy with science.  The West would do well to understand its history a bit better, and quit trying to forget the fifteen hundred or so years between the fall of the Greco/Roman empire until the ascendancy of the British/American one, but it’s doubtful a book such as this, written by one with an obvious cultural bias, will do much to help along the understanding.  The notion of British cum American exceptionalism is far too robust; the ignorance of history that such a self-image requires is far too pervasive, for a lonely diatribe such as this to matter.  Americans will think their culture superior to Arabic cultures–in all realms, not just the scientific arena–so long as Arabic cultures are subject to American exploitation and influence.   When the slowly-turning wheel of history returns Arabic culture to a place of dominance in the world, it would be a remarkable matter indeed if the Arabs were advanced enough to consider that investigating and understanding the universe is not an enterprise that understands or requires nationalistic impulses.

~Sometimes the Book Review provides a lesson in how little we know, but reveals much we think we know…

Such as the review by Alison Gopnik of Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey.  Humphrey’s book joins the shelves with legions of others about how perception is created and consciousness achieved.  Gopnik has an interesting understanding of perception:

For example, why does the moon look so much larger when it’s at the horizon than when it’s overhead, at the zenith? This is a question about conscious experience — about how the world looks to us — not about behavior and brains. And there is a clear and convincing evolutionary explanation.

The visual system wasn’t designed to deal with objects that are thousands of miles away. It was designed to accurately judge the size of close, evolutionarily relevant objects like apples. As an apple moves closer or farther away, it will project a larger or smaller image on my retina. But I don’t see the apple expand and contract. I see an apple with a concrete, stable size. This is because my brain evolved to combine information about the size of the retinal image with information about distance to create a single, constant visual experience.

The retinal image of the moon is always about the same size. But the horizon looks farther away than the zenith, perhaps because we see that other objects are in front of the horizon while the zenith is unoccluded. The brain determines that the horizon moon must therefore actually be larger than the zenith moon. And, voilà, the rising moon looks much bigger.

Silly me.  I look at an apple across the room, and the apple appears much smaller than it does when I reduce it to possession and take a bite out of it.  My perception must be somehow terribly defective, because I do see the apple expand and contract in size.  Yet I am consciously aware that the apple hasn’t changed in size, just in appearance, due to the change in distance.  The moon, and for that matter, the sun, also change in apparent size according to their elevation in the sky, and probably for the same reason.  Our mind perceives the horizon as the most distant of places, so when the moon or sun rises or sets, the same size that we saw without any referential size and distance markers during their trajectory across the sky will look larger as the horizon is approached, if the actual image on our retina stays roughly the same.  It is a defect of perception that natural selection hasn’t seen fit to remedy.

The manner with which we perceive the world has vexed philosophers and scientists for eons.  Plato said that all we see of reality relative to what is really there is like viewing shadows of real objects on a cave wall.  He said we perceive the shadows, but almost always fail to perceive the underlying reality that creates them.  There was a raging argument in philosophy begun in the late Renaissance and carrying on until today about whether there is such a thing as an “objective” reality.  Bacon, Hume, et al, said the mind is a tabula rasa, a blank slate, upon which sensory vesicles write their perceptions, and that no such objective reality exists.  Others, Kant and the German idealists in particular, said we are born with a priori understandings, such as that 2 + 2 = 4, that require no sensory perceptions to gain.  Then of course, Einstein observed that all of perception is subjective, changing according to the relative position in space-time of the observer.

But the evolutionary purpose for consciousness is not a mystery.  In some way or another, consciousness enhances survivability for creatures that have it or there wouldn’t be any creatures that have it.  That doesn’t mean, like the reviewer implies, that we understand exactly how consciousness enhances survivability.  We know that it does, or it wouldn’t be such an important part of our existence, but we don’t know the how or why it does so.

There is always a great deal more that we perceive, or perhaps, I should say “sense”, than which our conscious mind is aware.  The body constantly senses and responds to threats to its continuation from microbes, but we rarely become consciously aware of the battles being waged.  The body senses every photon of light striking the retina, but we are consciously aware of only a select few that our subconscious essence deems necessary for forming a useful image of the world in our minds.  Through the skin, the body senses ultra violet light, i.e., light that is invisible to our eyes, using it to synthesize vitamin D, but does so completely out of the purview of our conscious understanding.   Consciousness is one of a number of weapons we have developed to fight the war for survival; its use and the perceptions gained thereby, are directed and regulated by the survival impulse, which perhaps explains much of its mysterious nature to us.  Survivability is not enhanced by understanding the source of consciousness, nor is it impaired if we don’t, so consciousness doesn’t bother to include in its repertoire an explanation how, at the direction of the survival impulse, it creates a view of reality upon which we can act to survive and propagate. 

So this book might or might not be worth reading.  But please do so with the realization that the nature of consciousness is something we don’t know much about, and the speculations of the psychologist that wrote it are just that.

But understanding all that is a good reason to spend a lazy Sunday hour or so perusing the New York Times Review of Books.