Monday, August 24, 2015


The rain comes down and I retreat into books.


You can't hurt a hammer but we have a society which prevents cruelty to animals. Could you hurt a computer running a suitable program? I read "Consciousness and the Brain" by Stanislas Dehaene hoping for some illumination (if that isn't too subjective a stance).

The Global Workspace of Consciousness

Dehaene is an experimental neurologist, adept with fMRI scanners and EEGs. His book promotes the Global Workspace Theory of consciousness, a two layer model where primary sensory and motor processing is done by local subconscious neuron modules, while consciousness resides in higher-layer cortical modules characterised by long-range neural structure and 'global activation'.

He describes lots of experiments.

Dehaene is an interesting, influential and compelling writer. I can't say I was surprised by anything he said but he provided detail and texture. Degeneration in the cortex and/or lack of cortical activation leads to a kind of fade-out of consciousness, seen particularly in dementia. Perhaps this is reassuring.

The 'hard problem' alluded to in my opening remarks (subjective experience, eg the sensation of pain) is completely unaddressed by all this brain surveillance and modelling. Even the fact that it remains totally mysterious is mysterious.


Novels can bring the past to life. If you ask me about mid-19th century Russia I might give you a picture of a stagnant and antiquated society with brutish peasants and a proto-working class, a decadent aristocracy and an anaemic and stillborn middle-class of deeply-frustrated professionals. That's the picture I got from reading Lenin and Trotsky.

But I have since read Dostoyevsky and I really know better.

Adrian recommended "Fathers and Sons" by Ivan Turgenev. Here's an extract from the Wikipedia plot summary.
"Arkady Kirsanov has just graduated from the University of Petersburg and returns with a friend, Bazarov, to his father's modest estate in an outlying province of Russia. His father, Nikolai, gladly receives the two young men at his estate, called Marino, but Nikolai's brother, Pavel, soon becomes upset by the strange new philosophy called "nihilism" which the young men advocate.


The two young men remain at Marino for a short time, then decide to visit a relative of Arkady's in a neighboring province. There they observe the local gentry and meet Madame Odintsova, an elegant woman of independent means who invites them to spend a few days at her estate, Nikolskoe.

At Nikolskoe, they also meet Katya, Madame Odintsova's sister. Although they remain for only a short period, both characters undergo significant change: their relationship with each other is especially affected, as they both find themselves drawn to Madame Odintsova. Bazarov in particular finds this distressing because falling in love goes against his nihilist beliefs. Eventually, he announces that he loves her. She does not respond to his declaration, and soon after, Arkady and Bazarov leave for Bazarov's home.

... They leave almost immediately and return to Arkady's home.

Arkady remains for only a few days, and makes an excuse to leave in order to go to Nikolskoe. Once there, he realizes he is not in love with Odintsova, but instead with her sister Katya. Bazarov stays at Marino to do some scientific research, and tension between him and Pavel increases.

Bazarov enjoys talking with Fenichka and playing with her child, and one day he gives her a quick kiss. Pavel observes this kiss and ... challenges Bazarov to a duel. Pavel is wounded in the leg, and Bazarov must leave Marino. He stops for an hour or so at Madame Odintsova's, then continues on to his parents' home. Meanwhile, Arkady and Katya have fallen in love and have become engaged.

At home, Bazarov cannot keep his mind on his work and while performing an autopsy fails to take the proper precautions. He cuts himself and contracts blood poisoning (septicemia). On his deathbed, he sends for Madame Odintsova, who arrives just in time to hear Bazarov tell her how beautiful she is. She kisses him on the forehead and leaves; Bazarov dies from his illness the following day.

Bazarov is the centre of the novel, a charismatic and highly intelligent young man bristling with arrogance, conceit and more than a touch of sociopathy. The programme of the nihilists, an offshoot of the western european rationalist enlightenment, was to take nothing on authority. Everything was to be rethought from rational first principles.

This intellectual 'zero-based budgeting' doesn't work too well with entrenched and reactionary power structures (cf Dostoyevsky's Demons which is winging its way to me via Amazon as we speak) and is profoundly mistaken about human relationships, traditions and culture. It's really pure 'blank slateism' showing that the most contemporary of ideologies were already in circulation in 1860s provincial Russia. The remaking of society along rational lines rarely works out well.