Saturday, 18 October 2008

Day of leisure (sort of)

Yesterday I have spent almost a whole day reading a book. What made it unusual was that the book was a Science Fiction novel. I have been a voracious SF reader some years ago, but gradually it has become harder and harder to find a book that would satisfy my desire for scientific plausibility and a good plot. For years the favourite was Timescape by Gregory Benford. But the trend to write `for the public', to use the easy Universe of swishing swords and zipping magical missiles has got me less and less interested in modern SF/Fantasy -- with the obvious exception of Terry Pratchett.

So, waiting in line to get some schoolboks for my daughter, I have leafed throug some books on display and I have found one that contained a bibliography! Moreover this bibliography contained rather unusual comments. I thought why not, and bought the book. And spent the whole day reading it.

The book is Blindsight, by Peter Watts. It is no easy read, but it offers a refreshing departure from the world of fireballs and enchantments, even though it does feature vampires. Since then I have learned that one can read the book for free, but I do not begrudge the price I paid, hoping that at least a part would reach the author.

The bibliography notes that caught my eye are worth noting. They are introduced as:
References and remarks, to try and convince you all I'm not crazy (or, failing that, to simply intimidate you into shutting up about it). Read for extra credit.

Many are papers and books that I have encountered during my wanderings (as may be seen in the Country of Blindfolded). But some were a discovery, for example works of Metzinger. Because who, in a sane mind, could refuse an invitation like this:

This is the heart of the whole damn exercise. Let's get the biggies out of the way first. Metzinger's Being No One is the toughest book I've ever read (and there are still significant chunks of it I haven't), but it also contains some of the most mindblowing ideas I've encountered in fact or fiction. Most authors are shameless bait-and-switchers when it comes to the nature of consciousness. Pinker calls his book How the Mind Works, then admits on page one that "We don't understand how the mind works". Koch (the guy who coined the term "zombie agents") writes The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, in which he sheepishly sidesteps the whole issue of why neural activity should result in any kind of subjective awareness whatsoever.

Towering above such pussies, Metzinger takes the bull by the balls. His "World-zero" hypothesis not only explains the subjective sense of self, but also why such an illusory first-person narrator would be an emergent property of certain cognitive systems in the first place. I have no idea whether he's right— the man's way beyond me— but at least he addressed the real question that keeps us staring at the ceiling at three a.m., long after the last roach is spent. Many of the syndromes and maladies dropped into Blindsight I first encountered in Metzinger's book.

What a language! Not an usual, watered down peer-review blah-blah. So, as I finished the novel, I hooked up to the Scholar and hunted for Metzinger. While the book is obviously not there, I have found some papers which I hope to skim through soon.

The Subjectivity of Subjective Experience: A Represent at ioualisl Analysis of the First-Person Perspective Networks, 2004, 3--4, 33-64 ,

Précis of Being No One PSYCHE, 2005, 10, 1-35,

The emergence of a shared action ontology: Building blocks for a theory Consciousness and Cognition, 2003, 12, 549-571,

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