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Figments of Reality: The Evolution of the Curious Mind [Paperback]

Ian Stewart , Jack Cohen
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 28 1999 0521663830 978-0521663830
Peppered with wit and controversial topics, this is a refreshing new look at the co-evolution of mind and culture. Bestselling authors Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen (The Collapse of Chaos, 1994) eloquently argue that our minds evolved within an inextricable link with culture and language. They go beyond conventional views of the function and purpose of the mind to look at the ways that the mind is the response of an evolving brain that is constantly adjusting to a complex environment. Along the way they develop new and intriguing insights into the nature of evolution, science, and humanity that will challenge conventional views on consciousness. The esteemed authors tantalize the reader with these bold new outlooks while putting a revolutionary spin on such classic philosophical problems as the nature of free will and the essence of humanity. This clearly written and enjoyable book will inspire any educated reader to critically evaluate the existing notions of the nature of the human mind.

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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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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First Sentence
that this matter is organised in a different manner. Most of the interesting features of our personal universes are people and their activities - friends and lovers, enemies and acquaintances from our work or our play. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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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4.0 out of 5 stars Evolution of mind and human culture 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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5.0 out of 5 stars Life, consciousness, mind, and reality explained Sept. 9 2003
Format:Hardcover
How does life arise from inanimate matter? How does consciousness arise from life? Is consciousness of the universe an illusion? Or is mind itself an illusion?
The British authors of this book are a mathematician and biologist pair who boldly tackle these classic questions in philosophy with some original approaches. Maintaining that life, consciousness, and culture cannot understood by reducing them to the material elements from which they arise, the authors deftly develop a set of interesting concepts. Some of these are not especially original, but they are presented in an unusual light particularly as the authors ably illustrate them with very accessible descriptions of complex biochemical pathways of living matter.
A key concept is that of emergence - well established in philosophy and roughly equated to the popular idea of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. The authors couple this concept with one of their own - complicity, or the interaction of different things which lead them to become entirely new things. A third, among several others, is that of extelligence which arises from the interaction of the intellegences of individuals and is rooted in human culture. Using these and other concepts, the book, which is at the nexus of science and philosophy, seeks to explain how life, consciousness, culture, and reality arise and the relationship between them.
Be prepared to wade through these pages slowly to enjoy the masterful exposition of this book. Or, if you find this tedious, enjoy the elegant prose which uses the lens of science and philosophy to describe events which we might normally frame in different language.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Gets one thinking along new channels. 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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