Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Review of "Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth" by James Lovelock

While scholars such as Capra, Laszlo, Bohm and others have continued to examine the unexplainable anomalies impenetrable to physics, scientists in the field of chemistry have simultaneously been hypothesizing on the fundamental nature of life on earth based on atmospheric and ecological data. Like their physicist colleagues, rather than dividing the molecule into smaller components as an atom is sub-divided by classic physics, these scientists have approached the interaction of elements and compounds holistically, seeking the underlying patterns which fashion the manner in which primary changes, reformations, and coexistence in compound matter occur.  One such theory, controversial since its emergence in 1979, is Gaia Theory, expounded by James Lovelock in his bestselling book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.  

Immediately clashing with the mechanistic worldview, Lovelock contends that modern science’s approach to knowledge is like reading only specific subsections, let alone whole chapters, of a book.  The ensuing narrow view renders knowledge of the book as a whole—a holistic view of the earth—“unnoticed and unexamined” (xii).  For Lovelock, putting the known pieces—the subsections—together into a cohesive and meaningful whole is of utmost importance when seeking a path toward mitigating the concerns raised by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, that is, of the environmental issues seemingly brought about by modern technological development. 

Employing a “top-down” instead of a “bottom-up” perspective on life on earth, Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, rather than seeing earth as a collection of parts functioning independently, proposes that the whole of earth and its biosphere are in fact a large “meta-organism,” an entity he names Gaia after the Greek goddess (x).  Lovelock defines Gaia as “a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet” (10).

Lovelock’s arguments for the existence of Gaia are founded upon simple logic and draw upon intuitive experience to conceptualize the structure and processes of his model, namely the stability of the earth’s temperature through the eons, the consistent existence of life in a state of non-equilibrium, and the planet we know seems representative of the cybernetic system all other forms of life exhibit.  From these observations Lovelock infers that the earth, the biosphere and its inherent interactive systems cannot be seen as anything but an interconnected being.  “The entire range of living matter on Earth,” he writes, “from whales to viruses, and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers beyond those of its constituent parts” (9).  No more a holistic version of life on earth could be imagined.  

Gaia Theory proposes that the earth, as a living organism, is a collection of systems within a larger system wherein each system maintains importance relative to the others, like the heart compared to a finger.  In such an organic system, Lovelock, not surprisingly, considers human life equal to other animate forms of life, each fighting for their space and resources in true Darwinian style.  However, it is important to note he does not accord humans the particular importance Protagoras did when he said “man is the measure of all things.”  Nor does Lovelock subscribe to what Christianity affirms in the book of Genesis, according mankind dominion over “the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground”.  Rather, Lovelock explicitly states: “it can now be demonstrated… that a diverse chain of predators and prey is more stable and a stronger ecosystem than a single self-contained species” (21).  Implied in this statement is a thought that one species’ attempt to isolate themselves in the overall web of life does not lead to a strong and healthy ecosystem.  In fact, Lovelock relegates humanity and the variety of animals and plants to the periphery of importance, seeing other, more significant forms of life as existing closer to the heart of being, more crucial to the healthy functioning of the overall organism.  Places such as continental shelves, salt marshes, forest ecosystems, and freshwater wetlands which cycle oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other important chemicals through the air to keep our biosphere stable are given precedence.  

Despite early criticism, Gaia Theory has since come to be considered a viable scientific theory.  Numerous books, papers, and articles have been written either directly utilizing Lovelock’s tenets.  Regardless whether the theory is correct, the environmental sensitivity and awareness of need to alter humanity’s present course remains an even more fundamental message of Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, and is worthy of reading for that alone.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Review of "Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything" by Ervin Laszlo

Metaphysical phenomena, such as the earth’s biosphere behaving like a massive cybernetic system or the wave-particle paradox of physics, have been interpreted in a variety of ways as humanity becomes increasingly aware of its existence.  In recent decades these and other phenomena have been utilized in combination with other less scientific but more theological and pedagogical ideas to formulate concepts regarding the fundamental nature of reality - as Bohm and Lovelock have done.  Another example of such an amalgam is the work of Ervin Laszlo, especially as expressed in his 2007 Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything.

Based on the anomalies discovered in the fields of physics, biology, and psychology, Laszlo extrapolates on the Buddhist idea of an Akashic field, utilizing it figuratively in combination with relative scientific knowledge to explain the indeterminate fashion in which life exists.  According to Buddhism, the Akashic field permeates all things and forms “the womb from which everything we perceive with our senses has emerged and into everything will ultimately re-descend” (xi).  Primarily a metaphor for the lack of language to describe the interconnected, cyclical harmony Laszlo sees the earth and life as existing within, the Akashic field, much like Bohm’s implicate order, serves as an omnipresent field, a suffuse, indeterminate substance through which reality is ordered into a totality of life.  

In the end, Laszlo’s book will interest readers who enjoy the work of Fritjof Capra, David Bohm, Rupert Sheldrake, James Hillman, and other researchers, scientists, and scholars who incorporate less rational ideas into conventional scientific research and writing.  Laszlo’s style is smooth and easy to read, and offers evidence from physics research to support those claims for which intuition is not needed.  An interesting read in the least.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review of "Altered Carbon" by Richard Morgan

Gouting action and mystery like a severed artery, Richard Morgan’s 2001 Altered Carbon holds no punches.  Its worldview cutting to the bone of human vice, the novel’s content is a combination of a variety of sources.  The storyline has the shape of a Raymond Chandler detective novel; the technological creativity has the intuition of Greg Egan’s sci-fi; and the world has the overall feel of Neuromancer.  More visceral than Gibson, however, Morgan combines these influences into a blood-soaked, tech-feast that will divide readers along a few different lines.

Altered Carbon is the story of Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-military convict brought out of storage to solve the mystery surrounding the suicide of a wealthy entrepreneur.  Human bodies like hardware and personalities like software, the USA of 500 years in the future features up- and downloadable personas.  Called ‘sleeving’, Kovacs wakes up to find himself occupying another man’s body, assassins and Meths (people who’ve sleeved for centuries to keep themselves alive) hot on his trail.  In typical noir fashion, a variety of busty dames and gutter girls arrive on the scene to provide valuable input - the sexual side of what is otherwise a very violent existence for Kovacs.  The gory details unabashed, Kovacs shoots, stabs, is tortured, and slowly blasts his way, one death at a time, to the heart of the mystery.

And many have noted the explicit nature of the novel.  Rightfully so; few chapters pass without a drop of blood or sweat.  Morgan’s philosophical view forms the foundation of the novel’s content: humanity will forever be subject to its vices, no matter the century or degree to which technology has integrated itself.  It is here that an interesting point can be made regarding the book’s nihilistic worldview.  While Gibson’s Neuromancer – a book Altered Carbon is often compared to – remains indifferent, leaving the door open for discussion regarding the fundamental nature of humanity, Morgan closes it, pushing the storyline of Altered Carbon steadily forward under the assumption humanity’s base desires for sex and violence will forever be its motivation.  Depending on the reader, this aspect will either amuse, disgust, or enthrall, no matter how justifiable the actions of Kovacs are.

Its thematic disposition aside, there are other criticisms of the novel.  As with most detective noir that attempts a complicated story, there are bound to be plot holes, and Altered Carbon is no exception.  In lieu of dropping spoilers, its perhaps best to simply say that while reading, the attentive reader will on several occasions shake their head and say something to effect “Well then, why didn’t Takeshi just…..” or “If that bit of tech is in place, shouldn’t they have been able to….”.  Those reading for fun will not notice; logicians will cringe.  The other missing aspect of the novel is mood.  While the scene at hand is sketched by Morgan in detail that nicely balances the flow of story, the feel for San Francisco 500 years in the future, however, is lacking.  There are no short passages scattered throughout which establish the tone of the story.  There are only pockets of setting based on where the action happens to be for the moment, the hotel, the whorehouse, the mansion, etc., nothing more to build the world.

Light on theme, but dripping, breathing, bleeding heavy with action, Altered Carbon is a plot driven novel to the core.  In fact, its plot structure could be the carbon copy of a 50’s pulp detective novel if it weren’t that Morgan dresses the story up with the mouth watering-devices of sci-fi - a techy/who-dunnit arising in the mix.  Thus, for action junkies looking for a rollercoaster, (knife) twisting, both barrels blazing, ride of a mystery in the 24th century, by all means have a go.  But for those who enjoy having their ingenious futuristic devices fleshed out for their relevance to the human condition or moral imposition, perhaps you should look elsewhere.  Those who can handle both will at least say the novel was interesting, but perhaps never read it again.

Review of "Panpsychism in the West" by David Skrbina

In existence since pre-Socratic times and undergoing sporadic retreatment throughout the millennia since, panpsychism is one of the oldest ideas regarding the interrelationship of substance, material, and life.  A meta-theory, panpsychism does not seek to define life or matter scientifically, religiously, or psychologically—as the name might imply—rather, it is a statement about theories.  From Anaximenes’s pneuma to Leibniz’s monad, Lovelock’s Gaia Theory to Bohm’s Implicate Order, these and similar theories which to various degrees deny the linear, mechanistic view and attribute more life-like or “thinking” qualities to all matter—not just that in animate or human form—are examples to be found under the umbrella theory of panpsychism.  In his 2009 Panpsychism in the West, David Skrbina offers the most recent reworking of the subject. 

A thorough survey of panpsychisms’s evolution to date, the book summarizes the millennia of panpsychist theories and suppositions, bringing the author to conclude that panpsychism is a view verified by modern holistic science.  However, rather than seeing panpsychism as “the view that all things have mind or mind-like quality” (2), Skrbina discards the term “mind” in favor of “experience” and claims that “all objects or systems of objects, possess a singular inner experience of the world around them” (16).  This idea is elaborated upon with three distinctions:

(1) Objects have experiences for themselves; that is, the mind-like quality is something internal or inherent in the object. (2) There is a sense in which this experience is singular; to the extent that a structure of matter and energy that we call an object is one thing, this one-ness is reflected in a kind of unitary mental experience. (3) An object is a particular configuration of mass/energy, and therefore any configuration or system of mass/energy should qualify in the same sense. (16)
While the majority of Skrbina’s book surveys the millennia of theories which impute mind or soul-like qualities to matter, from the Greeks to modern science, the idea that objects have “a kind of unitary mental experience” remains central.  Skrbina’s explains that “the panpsychist asks us to see the ‘mentality’ of other objects not in terms of human consciousness but as a subset of a certain universal quality of physical things in which both inanimate mentality and human consciousness are taken as particular manifestations” (17).  He explicitly states “discussions of panpsychism should avoid the most heavily anthropocentric terms, which cloud the discussion more than they provide clarity” (18).  

Religious fundamentalism and conventional science’s main thrusts of criticism fall upon the question: to what extent does panpsychism assign consciousness or mind-like qualities to inanimate objects?  Reflecting perennial philosophy as well as the revelations of modern science, in response Skrbina outlines a hierarchy of all matter in the following four categories: 1) humans: self consciousness, cognition, 2) all animals: thought, consciousness, 3) animals and plants: sense awareness, sentience, emotion, 4) all animate and inanimate: experience, mind, mental state, what-it-is-like, qualia, nous, psyche. (18)

In the end, of interest is that this hierarchy does not lower humanity to the level of inanimacy, as many conventional scientific theories of a mechanistic, unthinking world do; rather, it elevates the position of inanimate objects to a minimum of “experience” quality: rocks remain incapable of decision-making, but gain a degree of participation in the overall experience of existence.  Students and scholars in need of research material on panpsychism, as well as those interested in the subject in general, will benefit most from Skrbina’s thorough and lucid survey, historical to modern day representation.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Review of "The Confusion" by Neal Stephenson

The Confusion picks up where Quicksilver left off, the themes and characters introduced in the first volume fleshed out in more detail.  Numismatics, Alchemy, the history of European commerce, metallurgy, daily life in the world at the turn of the 18th century, and political intrigue drive their influence even deeper into the reader’s understanding of this, the second installment (or 4th and 5th, depending on perspective) of Stephenson’s epic Baroque Cycle.

Daniel Waterhouse once again appears as a focal point, and, as usual, plays the important role of acting as a window into the political, scientific, and philosophical happenings of the British nobility.  His role is far out-weighed in page time by the doings of Eliza de Zeur and Jack Shaftoe, however.  A behind the scenes wheeler and dealer, Eliza continues her devious speculation and chess moves on European markets, trying to influence the larger political and economic picture of France, Germany, Holland, and England.  While triumphing on certain occasions, she suffers irrevocable personal loss at others, the reader getting a clearer picture of the exigencies of life the people of the time – rich or poor – had to be wary of and prepared for.  Though starting as a barbary slave in the Mediterranean, Jack’s plight quickly picks up speed as he and his cabal cast off their fetters in a high risk plot to capture Spanish gold – a specific batch of gold whose progress has been carefully followed every wave across the Atlantic by not only bankers, but by some of the leading minds of the time, Sir Isaac Newton among them.  The adventures Jack and his gang subsequently become a part of take them around the world, the precocity of the gold explained without.

For those looking for more action and less table-setting, then The Confusion will be of more enjoyment than the opener Quicksilver.  Detailed expositions on a variety of subjects, including watered steel, shipbuilding, and the Inquisition still exist, however, as the scene has already been set, events and action freely spill off the pages.  “Swashbuckling” is a word used on the book’s back cover, and upon reading Jack’s exploits, it’s impossible not to agree.  Eliza too, while not wielding a blade or navigating through pirate infested waters, nevertheless finds her life not as predictable as it once was, the political games and investments she makes holding just as much risk as Jack’s.  In the end, if you’ve read Quicksilver and are interested in continuing, then The Confusion will only make you want to finish the Cycle.  And so while the book wraps itself up all too fast – half a world covered in under 200 pages – and in rather implausible fashion, readers will nevertheless be satisfied with plot progression into the final volume, System of the World.

Review of "Integral Psychology" by Ken Wilber

Fully aware of the subtle nature of consciousness and mentality, Ken Wilber, the modern American psychologist and philosopher seeks to transcend both the ancient and modern perceptions of psyche and forge a new path towards acceptance, if not understanding of, the mind in all of its quantifiable and unquantifiable aspects.  In his 2007 The Integral Vision, Wilber founds his hope on the idea that “for the first time, the sum total of human knowledge is available to us—the knowledge, experience, wisdom, and reflection of all major human civilizations—premodern, modern, postmodern—are open to study by anyone” (16).  From this standpoint, Wilber intertwines the knowledge made available by conventional science, recurrent teachings, and the individual’s intuitive experience into one, all-encompassing theory of mind, a theory he calls Integral Psychology.       
Endeavoring to “honor and embrace every legitimate aspect of human consciousness,” Wilber draws upon important concepts of the mind, the perennial philosophies of the East, observations taken from the roots of modern psychology in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the more rigorous developments of present day psycho-dynamics and neuroscience in outlaying a totalizing theory of consciousness.  Believing that the “the whole discloses new meanings unavailable to the parts,” Wilber aligns the variety of psychological and philosophical theories and their supporting data alongside one another.  By doing so, he seeks to integrate the mind, body, spirit, conscious, unconscious, and dream states across every possible psychological spectrum—worldviews to ethical values, needs to self-identity, and others.  When comparing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with Vedanta Hinduism, for example, varying degrees of understanding, instinct, experience, awareness, and so forth are found inherent to each.  Analyzed graphically on a variety of axes, Wilber thus sets about finding the ideas and concepts fundamentally inherent to the whole of perennial philosophy and psychological theory to date.  

By interrelating the sum of these to date, drawing parallels and juxtapositions according to the individual stages and phases delimited by each, Wilber comes to the conclusion psychological development occurs in “waves.”  Preferring to call them waves because the term “emphasizes the fact these levels are not rigidly separate and isolated, but, like the colors of a rainbow, infinitely shade and grade into each other,”  Wilber understands human psychology to originate in the most basic of modes, such as egocentrism, archaism, or physiology, depending on the axis, with the potential to rise to great heights of supermind, self-transcendence, and transpersonalism (7).  As each wave builds upon and incorporates the former, all towards achieving the highest spiritual dimension, modes of operation, such as transpersonalism, are seen as being higher on the scale of development than altruism.  Wilber is, however, quick to point out that the spiritual dimension he purports as the highest plane achievable to the human mind is not religious by definition.  Rather, it is a transcendent mode which synthesizes altruism with personal awareness toward a better understanding of the nature of human existence.  

In the end, Wilber is a love-him or hate-him kind of writer/scholar/philosopher.  His fundamental view that the modern social paradigm is incapable of leading humanity towards greater spiritual heights is the reason he propounds Integral Psychology as a means of eliminating the issues currently facing mankind.  He states that his theory “is simply a great morphogenetic field that provides a developmental space in which human potential can unfold.” (27).  Thus, be warned that this book, though delving deeply into animism, religion, and modern psychology, nevertheless moves to the next level of universal spirituality.  Practical rather than mystical, however, thankfully no crystals or chanting are admonished.