BOOK REVIEW: Reality: A Very Short Introduction by Jan Westerhoff

Reality: A Very Short IntroductionReality: A Very Short Introduction by Jan Westerhoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If one has an inquisitive nature and finds oneself with a bit of time on one’s hands, one is likely to question reality eventually. What is reality? What does it mean to be real? (Yeah, just like Morpheus’s “How do you define ‘real?’”) How could we know if we weren’t in the reality we think we are? Does it matter? i.e. If we aren’t in the reality we think we are, do we have any other choice than to behave as if we are—in other words is there any hope of escaping whatever unreality our consciousness exists in?

Does the quantum world not make a lick of sense relative to the world as we know it because the ancestors who are simulating us never expected us to get far enough to investigate that scale before we crashed? And now, like the writers and directors of an unexpectedly popular and long-lived TV show, they have to find a way to cobble some convincing story together because their overlords aren’t willing to scrap a perfectly functional simulation as it’s churning out huge amounts of data. Of course most people quickly dismiss such possibilities as sci-fi, but—then again—that dismissal is what one would do if one was programmed to be psychologically pained by the idea that the lunatic shouting and running naked through the streets may have found freedom, while you–who appears to be fully successful in living life—are an automaton, a slave pure and simple?

Philosopher Jan Westerhoff provides a brief survey of the many ways reality has been questioned over time and what evidence proponents cite—or, if not evidence per se, what inexplicable phenomena at least make the possibility seem feasible. The book consists of just four chapters. The first chapter offers a context by discussing dreams and simulations. Dreams are one of humanity’s first sources of doubt about reality. This was most famously summed up by the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s quote “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” The simulation hypothesis suggests that societies eventually develop a capacity to run extremely advanced simulations that would feel very real, and, furthermore, the proliferation of such simulations would make it much more likely that we are in one than in a real world.

The next three chapters examine three subjects where reality is taken for granted, but which each face challenges. The author starts with the most basic component of reality, matter. If you ask someone how they know the world is real, they might just knock on wood or kick a stone. Of course, that response only goes so far because there are a lot of entities we consider real that aren’t made of matter (e.g. is an economic recession real?) and so it’s definitely not a complete way of looking at the topic. There’s also the fact that all this hard and solid stuff we experience is mostly empty space. In this chapter, Westerhoff spends much of his time examining the basics of quantum mechanics, and the quantum strangeness that has put it in the minds of many that the world is probably not what we think it to be.

Chapter three explores the reality of a person. This is where people have the hardest time questioning reality, because most of us are quite certain that we exist. Descartes statement of: “I think, therefore, I am” nicely sums it up. But is there a place associated with personhood, or is it an emergent property? If it has a point of origin, where is it? Westerhoff describes the famous rubber hand experiment that shows that the connection between mind and body is more illusory than we think. He discusses many of the syndromes that challenge our intuitive beliefs about what it means to be a person, e.g. Cotard syndrome, in which individuals firmly believe that they don’t exist. (Note: this topic—at least the scientific dimension—is covered in detail in Anil Ananthaswamy’s book “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”)

Chapter four explores whether time is really what we think it is, and what it feels like to us. A lot of this chapter takes up findings about free will. A famous study in the neurosciences showed that before people make a decision at a conscious level, there is activation of subconscious parts of the brain such that what feels like a decision freely and consciously made is actually already made before the consciousness ever becomes aware of it. This study, now overwhelmingly validated by replication, presents a major challenge to our notion of free will—which isn’t to suggest we’re necessarily being fed a decision from some mysterious elsewhere but if some combination of our limbic and enteric nervous systems are making decisions without conscious input, then what is the nature of freedom in free will?

The book has an interesting Conclusion that gives the reader a map to consider the various ways reality might exist (or not.) This isn’t a dichotomous question—i.e. it’s not necessarily a matter of the world is real or it’s not. Instead, it can be thought of more as a continuum between everything is real and nothing is real with various way-points in between such as “I am all that is real” or “Everything is real, but me” and various ways of considering how some of the world might be real while some of it is not. Among the latter models, the relevant factor maybe consciousness (i.e. conscious may be unreal or maybe it’s the only thing that’s real.)

There are a number of graphics used to support the text, most of these are photographs and artworks, but some are diagrams. There is a “References and Further Readings” section in this book that is more substantial than most of the ones I’ve seen in AVSI (A Very Short Introduction) series books. It’s organized by chapter.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in the topic. I think the author does a great job in a small space of introducing various conceptions of reality. He draws on well-known works of film and literature to help clarify issues, and provides many thought-provoking ideas. It’s readable and doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae.

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BOOK REVIEW: Memory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan K. Foster

Memory: A Very Short IntroductionMemory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan K. Foster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Everything we think, do, or say relies upon–or is influenced by–memory, and yet our memories offer a much lower fidelity and more highly corruptible recording than we tend to think. Even those events that lead to “flashbulb” memory (i.e. JFK’s assassination, 9-11 terror attacks, or the 3-11 tsunami in Japan) aren’t remembered particularly well. You may remember where you were and what you were doing in broad brushstrokes, but you probably wouldn’t test well on the actual details of the event. Old memories are constantly over-lain with a corresponding loss of accuracy. This brief introduction explains the basics of how memory works, and—as importantly—how it doesn’t.

The book is part of Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” [AVSI] series, and it follows that approach. It’s under 150 pages, and written for someone looking for a “ground-up” explanation of the subject. It has minimal ancillary material, just a couple of pages of “Further Reading” after the book’s seven chapters. There are a few black-and-white graphics throughout the book, a combination of photos and diagrams.

Chapter 1 introduces the reader to what memory is and what it isn’t. One learns about the three-part process of memory (encoding, storage, and retrieval), an idea which will be important throughout the rest of the book because these stages mirror the structure of memory failures and the means to build a better memory.

Chapter 2 explores the landscape of memory, which is a great deal more complex than the short-term v long-term dichotomy that we all learned in school. There’s working memory, procedural memory, semantic memory, and episodic memory.

In chapter 3, the reader learns about how memories are retrieved or recalled and the immense power of context in the process.

Chapter 4 explains the many ways in which memory fails us from simple forgetting to false or corrupted memories. We learn how being knowledgeable improves our memory, but also how it can lead us into error.

The next chapter advances the same theme by looking at amnesia. While amnesia is one of Hollywood’s favorite plot devices, the subject is generally poorly understood because of the simplified and myth-filled nature of the entertainment form of the affliction. Here you’ll learn what one isn’t seeing in the soap operas.

Chapter 6 is entitled the “The Seven Ages of Man” and it looks at memory over the lifespan, with particular attention to the ends of the spectrum. On one end, why do most of us remember nothing from our first few years—and what we do remember is often quiet suspect (false memories from hearing stories about one’s infancy?) At the other end of the spectrum, we are all well aware of how memory degrades with age—particularly those of us buying and reading books on memory. However, one learns that it’s a great oversimplification. While our episodic (event) memory degrades, some elements of memory are quite robust to aging.

The last chapter discusses what does (and to a small degree, what doesn’t) work with respect to improving one’s memory. As it’s a short chapter in a short book, this should be taken as an outline of the subject. If this is one’s main purpose for seeking out a book on memory, one may want to keep looking.

At this point, I’ve read and reviewed many books in the AVSI series, and I found this one to be typical. It’s not among the most engaging of the titles in the series, but it gets the central concepts across in a way that is readable and soundly organized. Because there’s a lot of definitional and conceptual material to cover, there’s not a lot of room for the narrative approach, which isn’t to say that there aren’t brief descriptions of key cases here and there.

I’d recommend this book for someone wanting an overview of the subject of memory.

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