July 5th, 2008


"Me too"???

Every once in a while you hit a book that just plain ought to be better than it is. I'm afraid that my main take-away of Franz Metcalf's What Would Buddha Do?: 101 Answers to Life's Daily Dilemmas is along these lines.

One gets the feeling that this book exists primarily as a reaction to all the insufferably smarmy “What Would Jesus Do?” pablum out there. It's easy to imagine the author (holding a Ph.D. in Religion from the University of Chicago) getting sick of seeing all those WWJD things and deciding that it was time to do something for the Buddha. However, while Christianity is all about rules and blame and guilt, Buddhism does not lend itself to a “flip through the file-cards” approach of finding out what the “regulations” are for a particular situation. Now, it appears that Metcalf is a practicing Buddhist (and teaches Buddhism in college settings), which I am not, so my complaints are, perhaps, totally unjustified; but I have read a great deal of various Buddhist teachings and traditions, and believe that I have a competent sense of Buddhism, and feel that it's closer to a “Bill & Ted"-esque” “be excellent to each other” way of living than to a “let's look this up in the rule book” approach.

This discrepancy is where the book is weakest. Were one to be following a Buddhist path, it seems to me that one would not be framing questions like “What would Buddha do when feeling frustrated?” or “What would Buddha do when he can't resist having dessert?” or “What would Buddha do when waiting in the snow for a taxi?”, having a pattern of behavior (and a set of moral attitudes) which would steer towards appropriate thought/action in these assorted situations.

Also, out of the “101 daily dilemmas” in the book, at least a dozen would only be substantial concerns for hard-core liberals, and be unlikely to come up as a “top 100” for most folks (from his bio, I'm guessing Metcalf spends most of his time with the “fruit and nuts” part of Los Angeles culture, so for him maybe “What would Buddha do about gun control?” is a “daily dilemma” rather than an affront to the Constitution).

Another weakness here is that most of the answers to the “what would Buddha do?” questions don't come from the Dhammapada or the various Sutras, but are based on the writings of other Buddhist teachers, from Zen classics to quotes from the Dalai Lama. The format here is to state the question, provide a brief quote (2-5 lines), and follow up with a couple of paragraphs of the author's commentary (grouped into 8 “thematic” sections). Ultimately what the book contains is “what Franz Metcalf says one should do in various situations, justified by quotes from various Buddhist traditions” ... which, while no doubt having a certain value in and of itself, the specific instances frequently lack the gravitas of being a definitive statement clearly based in the teaching of the Buddha.

Again, my perspective on this might not be the most constructive ... it's certainly not a bad book, but one that could have been so much better. If “101 answers to life's daily dilemmas” from a Buddhist perspective sounds like something that would enhance your existence, by all means, do check this out! This seems to still be in print in a paperback edition, but you can get “very good” used copies of the hardcover for 1¢ (plus, of course, the $3.99 shipping), and “new” ones for as little as 35¢ from the Amazon new/used vendors.

This is one that I really had hoped to like, but it disappointed me. However, as always, (with hat-tip to Dennis Miller) “your mileage may vary” and this could well be a book that would “float your boat”.

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Mind ... but not the machine?

After sitting around in my “to be read” boxes for the better part of two decades, I finished this a week or so back, and have been trying to find “the right angle” to take in dealing with it in a review. While a very interesting book, William H. Calvin's The Cerebral Symphony: Seashore Reflections on the Structure of Consciousness doesn't ever seem to get where it purported to be intending to be going, but is a most engaging journey on the way.

The book is somewhat oddly structured, sliding in and out of observations of the environment of Woods Hole, MA where Calvin worked for three years. He will, for instance, start discussing a sea bird that frequents a particular location, and spin off into musings on evolutionary strategies. He doesn't, however, quite get to the point (that he speaks of in the introduction) of what he refers to as a “Darwin Machine”, a conscious machine that would evolve by means similar, but vastly speedier than, that in the natural world.

Consciousness is fundamentally a process, not a place or product: How is the fundamental question, not the where or what of the classical “seat of the soul” searches. ... We are conscious machines (among other things), and we can probably create mechanical consciousness as well. Creating “mind” in a machine comes closer to “playing God” than any amount of genetic tinkering -- and to exercise suitable caution, we must understand our own mental processes ...
Again, the fifteen chapters here all are based on things observed on Cape Cod, and around the Marine Biological Laboratory, and the “reflections” keyed by these observations, so take a rather meandering course. Basic concepts of evolution come in, the “good enough” solutions, the “random with rules” behaviors that look purposeful, etc. and are related to various structures and behaviors. He posits how some core adaptations (such as “hammering” or throwing) can be the basis from which the “wiring” for higher behaviors such a language and music are based, and looks how the innate organization of these are “borrowed” between systems (think of trying to talk when attempting an accurate throw).

Multiple scenarios evolving simultaneously suggests, however, that there is more to Darwin Machines than just the set of railroad sidings, evolving away to create a dominant sequence -- it seems as if there are various collections of sequencers, subpopulations with their own internal evolution.
Reading that particular bit, one would hardly guess that it sprung from the relating of a discussion that Calvin was having with his wife regarding a fluid leak in the car on a trip to the beach!

Perhaps I'm being too hard on him in expecting that a book written in 1990 would have a solid vision of what a conscious computer would look like ... after all, Moore's Law has been happily churning along for nearly 20 years at this point, and we still don't have machines that think. He sort of stakes out some markers to triangulate what this would entail, but it's frustrating that he chooses to not go for the big (and, no doubt, eventually embarrassing) proclamation for the mechanical version, and leaves it to just define our own minds as the “wetware” version of this.

My minimalist model for mind suggests that consciousness is primarily a Darwin Machine, using utility estimates to evaluate projected sequences of words/schemas/movements that are formed up off-line in a massively serial neural device.
Let me point out, however, that The Cerebral Symphony is a delightful read, something like half a scientist's personal journal, half the technical by-ways that his thinking about the things he encounters lead him to. The text covers a wide range of considerations, from cultural development, coastal erosion, glacial cycles, music, coastal communities, and many discussions springing from the local fauna (some of the 2-legged variety).

I'm happy to say that this is still in print (if in a paperback edition), but you can find it in the hardcover from the Amazon new/used guys for as little as 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping) for a “very good” copy, and around a buck for a “like new” copy!

If you're interested in contemplations of consciousness, a “look under the hood” of evolution in systems (both biological and theoretical), and are willing to cut Calvin some slack of never quite getting around to pulling the tarp off that that thinking machine he posits, this is quite a rewarding read.

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