Friday, February 26, 2010

The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester

A remarkable biographical adventure that follows the life of Joseph Needham with a focus on his creation of the masterwork Science and Civilization in China. A fascinating man with a stunning intellect and sexually progressive ideas, Needham was the primary driving force behind the creation of one of the largest written works every created. The goal was to demonstrate scientific developments in the context of both Chinese and scientific history, with an emphasis on describing those things that the Chinese had invented first. It is a truly staggering list, such as the compass, paper (money, wall, toiler), movable type, the abacus, toothbrush, kite, chess, playing cards...etc. (As for exactly why this output stopped around the 1500s, it is unknown.)
I had not heard of Needham nor the work so the book was very educational and Needham a character worthy of story telling. Some people achieve amazing things (the fact he was trained as a biochemist and just happened to learn Chinese and then compile perhaps the most comprehensive history of China’s scientific develops is all the more impressive).

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama

An excellent book that explores and contrasts scientific findings of the last century with various Buddhist practices. The subtitle of the book is “How science and spirituality can serve our world” and the Lama succeeds in this effort as the information is presented in a conciliatory manner. Although I disagreed with some of the limits he puts upon science, I was pleased to see how much he embraced scientific thinking, and supposedly how much certain forms of Buddhism do the same. For example, the importance of empirical evidence was evident when he stated that if science has conclusively demonstrated something to be false (or true) then Buddhist practices must follow suit. (He could be being sneaky here as nothing is ever “conclusively” demonstrated in science, but that the evidence becomes overwhelming, but I give him the benefit of the doubt.) Additionally, independent replication, one of the gold standards of science, also has a place in some forms of Buddhism. Apparently, meditative mind states are supposed to be replicated by the individual meditator at different times as well as other meditators to ensure that one is not experience a delusion or fanciful cognitions.
The Dalai Lama displayed a sophisticated understanding of metaphysical naturalism versus methodological naturalism (the latter is the assumption used to do science that all phenomena are natural, while the former is the philosophical assumption (i.e., worldview) that everything is natural. Disappointingly though, he later says some absurd things about how people who have died could have maintained their posture and showed no signs of decay for over a week. This seems quite unlikely.
The notion of mind put forth is one that embraces many scientific concepts but seems to be holding out for something magical. Happily, Buddhism seems to be anti-essentialist and they are not going along with Descartes mind-body dualism – there is no soul and things are always only temporary. Personally, I found it hard to disagree with the ideas of appreciating the fleeting moments and trying to reduce suffering (but that doesn’t validate a philosophy or practice, they are just good ideas). I sometimes forget how sophisticated various spiritual practices can be (likely because many followers do have the opportunity or inclination for such sophistication).
This book is an excellent primer on relativity, quantum theory, evolution and cognitive science, so it is great for those who want to learn more about science (and Buddhism) but be careful how much weight you give his circumscription.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The idea of progress

Excellent article from the Economist (that was actually inspiring!)

TRC #70 - #74

Here are some of the podcasts that we recorded over the past month.
The Reality Check #70: Trepanation + Conspiracy Skeptic Interview + New Year's Eve Driving Risk
(I did the final segment)
The Reality Check #71: Neurological/Moral Reactions + The G-Spot + Twinkie Shelf-Life
(I did the first segment. I thought this was a good show - we had fun.)
The Reality Check #72: Gamblers Fallacy + Cryonics + Super Freakonomics Review
(Loved the musical intro and I did the book review of SuperFreakonomics)
The Reality Check #73: Quantum Mechanics + Creation Movie Review + Drinking Myth
(I sat like a bump on a log contributing insight and wit :P)
The Reality Check #74: Counterfeiting + Daniel Loxton Interview + Celery Myth
(I did the celery myth)

The Rights Revolution by Michael Ignatieff

The Rights Revolution (aka, the 2000 Massey Lectures) was a decent exploration of how the language of human rights (or ‘rights talk’) has had an increasing role in public and political discourse over the past several decades in Canada. Iggy examined the differing perspectives on increasing rights, the importance of increasing individual rights as well as the feelings of dispossession of the majority. He reminded us there are costs to everything (i.e., unity sacrificed for individual freedoms) and that Equality doesn’t mean treating everyone the same because rights are about respecting our differences.
Much of the content was general or hard to disagree with as I hold many similar views. Consequently, there were few moments of unique insight or impressive sophistication, but the work was still useful as the lectures are almost what one might come up with if they had a lot of time to think about such things (but, really, who has the time?)
Lecture 3, about group and individual rights, was probably the most worthwhile to me.
Check it out if you're curious.

Realizing it is hard to beat an encyclopedia (even a free one); here is a decent summary from Wikipedia:
In The Rights Revolution, Ignatieff identifies three aspects of Canada's approach to human rights that give the country its distinctive culture: 1) On moral issues, Canadian law is secular and liberal, approximating European standards more closely than American ones; 2) Canadian political culture is socially democratic, and Canadians take it for granted that citizens have the right to free health care and public assistance; 3) Canadians place a particular emphasis on group rights, expressed in Quebec's language laws and in treaty agreements that recognize collective aboriginal rights.