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Figments of Reality: The Evolution of the Curious Mind Hardcover – July 28, 1997

ISBN-13: 000-0521571553 ISBN-10: 0521571553 Edition: 1st
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Amazon.com Review

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (July 28, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521571553
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521571555
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,548,899 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Atheen on March 4, 2003
Format: Paperback
Okay, okay, I admit it; I should never argue with Steven Haines about a book. I had first discovered the title Figments of Reality while reading another author. When I finally got the book, though, I discovered that I really couldn't get into it, but Steven Haines' review was so enthusiastic that it suggested that the book might be worth the extra effort, so I tried again. I'm glad I did; it's a wonderful book. It is however, very dense with information, and like D. C. Dennett's books, requires a lot of active participation in the learning process.
Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen are a biologist and a mathematician team who have worked together to write a book on evolution; and not just biological evolution either. They discuss the origin of life, intelligence, consciousness, concepts of reality, social order, cities, and global civilization all within a 299 page volume.
Each chapter is opened with a charming quote, usually drawn from the lore of the behavioral sciences, that illustrates in capsule the content of the chapter. My favorites were the woman scientist and her chimpanzee subject, the viper with its "dead snake" pose, and the parrot whose protest over going through a boring word list made his intelligence far more apparent than reciting the list ever could.
Addressed in these chapters were some pretty heavy duty concepts. It's not that I hadn't come across them before in my reading, but that the authors' approach was novel, at least to me. Their treatment of the statistics of evolution and especially their analysis of the "Mitochondrial Eve" hypothesis were particularly enlightening.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Richard Brodie on August 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
How could a game with such simple rules, such as evolution by natural selection, produce such complexity? Well, chess has simple rules and we still don't know a sure-fire way to play and win every game. The idea that simple rules may interact to produce wonderful complexity-"simplexity"-is only one of the brain-bending ideas authors Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart gush forth with in this rich and entertaining popular science book. The flip side of "simplexity" is "complicity"-a game where the very act of playing the game changes the rules. Hmm...this looks like evolution again! It's a wonderful exploration of the science behind evolution cast into many different allegories and scenarios, including comical heated discussions among the eight-sexed Zarathustrans, an invention of the authors that does beautifully at reflecting our own egocentric assumptions about the nature of reality -- and the figments of reality.
--Richard Brodie, author, Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on October 28, 2001
Format: Paperback
Scientists advocating a thesis, whether their own or others, tend to adopt a crusader's approach. Cohen and Stewart here campaign for a new view of the evolution of human thinking. Their technique rests on the idea of recursive development of human cognitive capacity; building from simple foundations through increasing complexity. Their most innovative technique is a comparison of human outlook on nature, the cosmos and humanity with a fictitious alien culture based on eight. The Zarathustrians, who need eight members to be an "individual", can be equally rigid in their thinking, but the framework is wholly different from ours. The technique provides a compelling means of looking at our evolutionary record from a different viewpoint and allows the posing of questions we should all be asking ourselves about who we are. The technique adds entertainment to a highly original and readable book.
Arguing that humans are "in nature but not of it" the authors separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. What makes us different is our mental complexity. We can control our thoughts, make choices, impact the surrounding environment instead of merely responding to it. How did we come to be that way? The record of evolution shows that life's origins were clearly very simple. Perhaps, as they relate, a beginning as simple as some molecules "hitching a ride" on crystals as a step in learning the process of replication. From such origins, life progressed through building complexity in gradual steps, with some branches able to increase in complexity leading to such as you and i. The mechanism works in "phase space" by combining simple forms in a process they call "complicity.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Edwin Slonim on March 20, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A thoroughly enjoyable synthesis of many views concerning the evolution of mind, consciousness, free will etc.
Clearly written, with wit and parody where appropriate. There are dialogs which recall Goedel Escher Bach (although with perhaps fewer levels of meaning), and depth.
The authors clearly distinguish between facts and their opinions, and confess to less than absolute certainty on occasion, which is refreshing.
Highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Alwyn Scott on April 14, 2004
Format: Hardcover
While there is relatively little about the brain itself in this book, the authors do consider the importance of symmetries in neural processing. Thus, a discussion of the recognition of male and female faces takes advantage of an eigenvector (or eigenface) that embodies the difference between an average him and her. (Enthusiasts of the quantum mind approach to consciousness studies should note that such ideas are the coin of modern nonlinear science, and not at all dependent upon the extrapolation of quantum theory to the macroscopic world: a point that was clearly made by Niels Bohr back in 1933.)
Unfortunatly, there is no mention of recent research by Hermann Haken and his colleagues in connection with this work, although this sort of eigenvector analysis is closely related to ideas presented in his book Principles of Brain
Functioning (1996).
A short chapter on free will is interesting but ultimately somewhat disappointing because the authors seem to be sitting on both sides of the philosophical fence. Recognizing that the assumption of free will is necessary for the orderly functioning of any culture and scornful of the inflated claims of genetic determinists, they note that theoretical reasons can be imagined for anything that occurs. To me, at least, this is as true as it is unconvincing. It is always possible to cobble together some sort of explanation of whatever transpires after the fact. Does this imply that the future is determined by the present? What might such an assertion mean? This chapter ends with the statement: ``Therefore free will is not just an illusion: it is a figment rendered real by the evolutionary complicity of mind and culture'' (p.241). Maybe I am dense, but this doesn't mean much to me.
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