In Figments of Reality
, mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist Jack Cohen's thesis (or schtick) is that human minds are produced by complicity between human brains and culture. In their earlier book The Collapse of Chaos
, Stewart and Cohen used the power of Humpty Dumpty to redefine complicity
to mean properties that emerge from the mutual interaction of complex systems. "Our minds, our societies, our cultures, and our global multiculture, are all evolving within a reality that we mould in images of our own creation. We are a figment of reality--but reality is increasingly a figment of us."
Reality is not the only figment in the book. Stewart and Cohen use a group of eight "weird alien beings from the planet Zarathustra, resembling fluffy yellow ostriches but with much stranger habits" as a sounding board, as comedy relief, and as a philosophical-experimental playpen. To quote:
"Ringmaster: What is this?
Liar-to-children [=teacher]: A continuing educational narrative of some kind, Ringmaster. Based upon a revered/reviled (delete whichever is inapplicable) ancient text. [Watches the screen and interprets the tale that unfolds--a long and dramatic story of an exploding universe, elements born in stars, complex carbon-based molecular machines, a doubly-helical genetic molecule, the origins of life, evolution, sense organs, brains, minds, and intelligence.]
R: What a fascinating narrative.
LtC: And such a convincing story.
Destroyer-of-facts [=scientist]: Such vigor and power! Such unified scientific insight!
R: Not a word out of place, no loose ends--amazing!
ALL: [In unison] Must be wrong, then."
Read it and think, read it and giggle, read it and come back for more. At long last, a worthy successor to Gödel, Escher, Bach
, updated, twisted, and put through a Monty Python filter.
From Library Journal
Mathematics and geometry professor Stewart, who writes the "mathematical recreations" column in Scientific American, and biologist Cohen are witty, erudite, clever, at times funny, and generally clearheaded in this rationalist's view of the universe and human evolution. Their thesis is that the human mind evolved in response to the complexity of the world and that language?and, indeed, culture?are inextricable parts of this process: there could be no mind without evolution but no evolution without mind. As is apparently mandatory in books on this subject, the authors include examples, anecdotes, and samples from literally every field of human and animal endeavor to illustrate, illuminate, and elucidate their thesis, making their case by seemingly having on hand millions of bits of information. A delightful but heavy read that is excellent for academic collections and general collections with a highly literate readership.?Mark L. Shelton, Univ. of Massachusetts Medical Ctr., Worcester
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.