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Review of “OrphanX” by Gregg Hurwitz

This was a book I purchased in Doha, Qatar, for the second leg of a 31 hour international flight. I like to read action novels on long flights, maybe for the adrenaline rush? Anyway, I finished it just before landing, in about 14 hours. I’ve never read any of the author’s books before but he has quite a few, and is apparently very popular. None of that matters to me, however, because I’m a little more critical than the average reader or critic these days. There is no such thing as a master story teller to me.

First, as you might expect from an experienced author like Hurwitz, the grammar and punctuation are good. The style is ponderous, the way my early drafts tend to be. Readable but slow going at times. I noted that the second half of the book was less well-written than the first, a tendency I’ve noted before. The first half gets read more and thus cleaned up; also, the author can get impatient towards the end, especially when they know they’re going to make a gazillion dollars.

As with so many best-selling authors (read inflated egoes), there is a lot of explanation of minor points in the story, such as the mechanics of print/paint art restoration. Unrelated to the story. I suppose they’re meant as diversions from the main plot, which was easy to figure out as soon as the contributing elements were revealed. In an effort to keep the story interesting to a reader who had already figured out who did it and why, several side characters were introduced, again contributing very little to the story. There was supposed to be some introspection by the protagonist but it wasn’t very convincing; how could it be with a guy who murdered people for a career and for whom a violent solution is the first choice, in every situation?

The author does a good job describing violent scenes, like fights and murder. However, after two or three such depictions of physical prowess by the protagonist, I was wishing they had been either shortened or deleted. I guess that’s how it’s done when you have a reputation to keep up: repeat ad nauseam whatever made you famous. At least the hero lost a few times.

Overall, it was okay but I skipped a lot and had to go back and read it because my motto is “I read every word.” I did, even if it hurt.

Review of “Tokyo Ueno Station,” by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles

This is a short novel translated to English from Japanese, so this review is of the original story, as much as it’s still present, and the translation. I think stories like this are difficult to translate because they are a mixture of stream-of-consciousness and standard narrative, with subtle variations in the narrator’s mood. In this case the story is told in the first person by the central character, examining his life and what brought him to his current situation. An interesting style which the translator did a good job of capturing (as far as I can tell).

I only found a half-dozen grammatical errors, mostly missing words. It was easy to read, but a little on the stilted side, which was probably intentional. The translator knew the author well and spent a great deal of time studying the locations described and talking with Yu Miri, so they probably got it right.

The central story is sprinkled with rather long and confusing segments of historical background. I had to go to Wikipedia to get some of this straight. I’m sure it’s technically accurate, but was oversimplified either by the author or translator; after all, this isn’t a historical novel. These soliloquies are thinly disguised as the words of characters sometimes but also are introduced by the narrator.

Otherwise, the writing style is terse, like the simple thoughts of the narrator. Very short paragraphs indicating someone who doesn’t have deep thoughts. Very evocative of their state of mind. However, a major decision that created the situation described in the book is utterly without explanation. Not a single word of justification. Nothing. If this behavior is common for people like the narrator, that could have been at least referred to. It’s like the author took a break at that critical juncture and, when they continued writing, forgot about the reason. There is an explanation of why some men do as the narrator, but no evidence at all that he would have made this decision. It left me confused.

This is a short review because this is a short book, even with all of the historical material, not much more than a short story. I would have preferred it without the extra material myself because it detracts from the real story. I would recommend it if you like to read about human experiences that are all too common, and very unpleasant, and learn a little Japanese history in the process.

Review of “Burn-In” by P.W. Singer and August Cole

I stumbled into this book. I don’t usually read science fiction because that was my favorite genre for more than 10 years when I was young, but what the hell. It was available, so here’s what I think about it.

First, the overview. This is an old story in the SF genre; a cop (FBI in this case) gets a robot partner to evaluate, then all hell breaks loose and they save the city/nation/world from a scheme devised by either anarchists or the wealthy elite. I’m not saying. The central character is the robot but they’re not cute or anything. The character develops realistically, using its deep-learning capability to grasp insight from the behavior of the real central character, Agent Lara Keegan. A human story is introduced through her life, which is falling apart even as Washington DC is assaulted. This is an interesting part of the story because the robot (TAMS) becomes a part of her private life, even though it’s only a robot, Well done.

The second thread of the book is the thriller plot. It’s run of the mill. Not even that big a deal and unlikely to work, even if hugely successful. Pretty much every SF gadgetry you’ve heard about is integrated into the story, which is set in the not-too-distant future. Several unrealistic scenes are set up to take the story forward, which makes Keegan look either stupid or naive, to be an decorated ex-Marine and FBI agent. These kind of inconsistencies are why I don’t read SF anymore, and also avoid international conspiracy novels. I’m not referring to the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy SF, but rather the integration of personal stories (like Keegan’s) into a SF theme.

The authors’ use a lot of footnotes, with a long list of references at the end. This is confusing because, rather than explain the footnoted text, there are references to books, magazine articles, on-line blogs and new stories, reports, etc, all with internet addresses. This might be okay if I’d read the book digitally and could click on the links, but I read a hardback copy. It doesn’t make sense. Instead, I Iooked up some of the high-tech references on a computer. This was annoying.

The handprint of two authors is visible in the two threads. I’m guessing that one author wrote the personal story and the other focused on the action. They are written in different styles, both wordy and ponderous. This is a typical style for first-drafts that I’m familiar with.

This draft was not ready for publication. It is wordy (to say the least), has too many examples of bad grammar to count, and is full of cut-and-paste errors. Sentences that change meaning in the middle are more than annoying. I don’t like to read paragraphs over and over, not in a novel, to guess at their meaning. The authors were either in a hurry or are simply sloppy–I don’t care which.

Overall, I can’t recommend this book because, despite Keegan’s personal problems, it’s not that good a story. If it had been cleaned up, I would recommend it. It’s close enough to the thumbs-down line that the bad punctuation and clumsy writing killed it for me.

Review of “Death of a Salesman,” by Arthur Miller

I didn’t know this was a play when I bought it. It’s the original version, with stage notes throughout and even a list of characters and the actors who played them at the beginning. It also turned out that two-thirds of the book consists of analyses of the original play by a number of literary critics, including the playwright himself. I’m writing my review before reading any of that so that I can compare my comments to theirs. Should be fun.

THE SCRIPT

The play was written in 1949. The vocabulary is awkward even for that era. I’m not sure why Miller wrote it this way, but I guess he wanted to convey the image of the Loman family without a narrator. He had to use dialogue. Thus, my review will focus on the dialogue.

A lot of the dialogue is clumsy, I guess because the actors are supposed to say the words, rather than a reader using them to get the gist of the conversation. This is pretty realistic, with sentence fragments and misspeaking throughout. I got a good sense of these people, what motivates them, etcetera. The Loman family is not well educated and it comes across clearly. I didn’t like any of them, but I guess that was Miller’s purpose. The play reveals the inner workings of a dysfunctional American family and its patriarchal basis. As the title suggests, Willy Loman is going to die. The story is a series of flashbacks of his life, his two boys (both of whom are having trouble getting ahead or being honest) who are in their thirties. The flashbacks are all completed on a set that doesn’t change, so it was a little confusing when movements on the stage were described.

There isn’t a whole lot to say since the story consists of dialogue only. The characters are simple people without depth, no growth being revealed in the flashbacks. A bunch of one-dimensional people who ended the same as they began, except for Willy’s oldest son, Bif, who realizes what he is and insists on being honest at the end of the story. I guess one could argue that the story is really about him, if one assumed it had a plot, which it doesn’t. This is a character study.

The best aspect of this story is how Willy is showing signs of dementia and begins thinking about suicide. Very well done. The flashbacks slide in whenever he’s having a fugue episode. When the story ended, I had a pretty good idea of what made this family tick. I guess that was Miller’s objective, so he succeeded.

I don’t recommend it as a reading exercise but I’ll bet the play was good because there are a lot of emotional scenes, which always look good on stage.

THE MOVIE

I watched the 1951 film production. Fredric March deserved his Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The movie followed the play to the word except for several missing scenes, those where his sons were too young to use the adult actors to play them. It was fine without them. One problem I had was that the movie didn’t improve on the confusion created by the frequent flashbacks. The movie was black and white and the actors’ makeup wasn’t different enough for the memory scenes to be easily identified. Willy was shown over a fifteen-year period and there was no noticeable increase in gray hair (he was 63 in real time). This may have been a problem with the time transitions, which were smooth in the play, too smooth for the production techniques of the time. It left me a little disoriented, my confusion reduced because I’d just read the play.

The film gave me a greater appreciation of the play however. The director was also nominated for an Oscar and it was well deserved. He turned a confusing play script into a coherent story, which I’m sure the original play director did as well. I would love to see this on stage. The problem was the swiftness of emotional scenes, brought on by mental illness, turning into memories. This is a very difficult transition to do under any circumstances.

So, whereas I can’t recommend reading the play, I give the 1951 film a very positive review as an accurate and excellent presentation of the original play. My only regret is that Lee J. Cobb, who played Willy Loman in the original Broadway production, didn’t play the role in the film; however, he reprised the role in a 1967 made-for-TV film production.

LITERARY COMMENTS

I’m also going to comment on the literary analyses that made up the bulk of the book. Several essays by Arthur Miller (the author) and an interview give some insight into how he perceived the story. What is most telling about these commentaries is how they reflect societal views of cognitive degeneration (e.g., Alzheimers Disease). The author’s view is evident in the play itself; Willy’s sons comment that people think he’s crazy because of his increasingly eccentric behavior. In one commentary, Miller refers to Willy Loman as being the kind of person who would speak to himself on the subway. Maybe, but that’s not what he did in the play or the movie.

Here’s a quote from a 1957 commentary by Miller: “He [Loman] is literally at that terrible moment when the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present.”

Wow! The author didn’t even realize that he had to create a terminally ill man to create the kind of emotional violence he desired, so that he didn’t have to have a plot but only reveal the elements of Loman’s destruction. He refers to Loman as “Mad” at one point. That is how these people were treated when the play was written. In his essays and interview (included in the copy I have), he makes vague references to integrated or disintegrating personality, popular terms from psychology in that era.

Other reviewers seem unaware of Willy’s cognitive decline. His bizarre behavior is referred to as “fatigue” of his mind by one, written in 1950. Another reviewer refers to Willy “losing his mind.” I have no idea what one reviewer means when she says that “…most of us have experienced delusions wilder…than this.” Is she kidding? He’s in the front yard yelling, planting seeds at midnight…I’ve never had a delusion like that, or met anyone who did.

There’s even a review by a psychoanalyst who wrote popular books. This guy’s gotta nail it. He refers to “insanity” and a “disintegrating mind.” Getting close. He refers to Willy’s hallucinations in psychological jargon, even referring to the “Oedipus complex.” He drops the biggie (for the era): Willy is “Mad.” He never gets past “Exhausted” in recognizing what’s wrong with Willy Loman. Not even a practicing mental health professional recognized cognitive deterioration in 1950. One analysis, from 1958, actually refers to the “advance of modern psychology” and then talks about Freudian concepts which the author (Arthur Miller) explicitly denies in his essays. Go figure.

A critical essay written in 1962 by Joseph A. Hynes refers to Willy’s “Dementia.” Finally, someone at least acknowledges a neurological illness, rather than just “madness.” But even here, it is treated as being nothing more than a point of view, which Willy can change at will.

ANALOGOUS STORIES

Some excerpts of stories about salesmen were appended as part of the literary context of Death of a Salesman. One was from 1915, a lot of anecdotal comments suggesting that a salesman has to be more committed to his work than himself. The author felt that too many salesmen were blow hards and mediocre at selling things.

There was a short story written in 1941 about a salesman who gets lost on a country road in Mississippi and is helped by a couple subsisting in the woods. He’s been sick with the flu for a month and is still tired. The author spends a lot of time discussing his heartbeat, using metaphors. He feels strange and decides to leave in the middle of the night, despite being given dinner and a place to sleep. It turns out that he has a heart attack and probably dies in the dark. Nice lead-up to the tragedy.

There’s a one-act play about a 78-year old traveling shoe salesman (same as in the previous story) who has heart problems (another curious similarity). It was written in 1945 by Tennessee Williams. He’s complaining about changing times but doesn’t die in the play.

The last, analogous story (published in 1941), is the best because it focuses on a man in his thirties who had reached the pinnacle of his life in college, as an athlete. Willy Loman’s son, Bif, had been a football star in high school.

These stories/plays are all older than Death of a Salesman. It is very likely that Arthur Miller had read them because they were by popular writers. The common theme between them and DOAS is the past that led to the present, which in every case was not where the protagonist had expected to be. Overall, they are a bleak collection of rusty lives with very little to show for them.

SUMMARY

The play script is confusing because of the flashbacks, which are presented in continuous dialogue, and movements on a stage set that isn’t available to help. To be newer than the examples, I find the language of Salesman clumsy and incomplete, not even up to the standards of the 1915 story. Maybe Miller was trying to show how illiterate and ignorant the Loman’s are. Maybe. The reviews varied from adoring to bored. Remembering that the reviews are based on viewing the play performed by actors, the range of responses makes perfect sense. The positive critiques focused on the innovative stream-of-consciousness approach used, which was easier to see in the movie. The negative reviewers acknowledged this clever technique, but pointed out all the inconsistencies and irregularities in the play.

I guess I’m on the fence.

I was right

I wrote my review of “El obsceno pájaro de la noche” before reading several essays by the author (added as appendices), written year later. I nailed it. José Donoso had a reaction to morphine given to him for pain after surgery for a serious stomach ulcer, and became schizophrenic. The book had been imagined based on several experiences of the author, but it was written when he was literally “out of his mind.”

I added this post because it’s rare to find someone suffering mental health issues capable of writing anything. I respect his decision to leave it in its original form when published.

I am speechless…

Review of “El obsceno pájaro de la noche,” by José Donoso

This book was over my head. I think it is too difficult for someone who reads Spanish well. I found it on a web page that recommended books for intermediate Spanish students, which I admit I am not. But I wanted to be introduced to more writing styles. I sure got that. It took six months to finish this novel, but I can say that I have as good an understanding of it as anyone, except maybe someone with a large Spanish vocabulary who could have read it in a couple of days or weeks.

Okay, now for the book itself. First, the grammar and punctuation. There was none. Sentences sometimes lasted for pages, especially when the “Narrator” was sharing a stream of consciousness, paragraphs for many pages. There was no attempt to use proper punctuation. Commas were tossed around like paper boats in a hurricane. This was what made it so difficult to read for a beginner or even intermediate reader. Prepositional phrases were not identified with commas and Spanish is a little weak on conjunctions.

As with other Spanish authors and even translated books, pronouns were avoided at all costs. To make it worse, the author used the present subjunctive conjugation more than the present tense; the PS in Spanish is the same for first person and third person singular. Also for third person and second person plural. When the narrator is speaking in first person, describing what someone else is doing…you can see the potential difficulties.

I don’t think the story has a plot. Some chapters describe historical events in Chile’s history completely in the third person, and aren’t too difficult to follow. These scenes are less than a third of the book. Most of it is the first-person narrator jumping between perspectives, occupying every character’s mind at some point. It was an interesting style, which was taken too far because this head hopping occurred in mid-sentence as often as not. I read a lot of paragraphs (single sentences) several times to verify this. Bizarre is an understatement.

Several of the threads made sense. For example, the actions of two of the characters and their families’ histories is straightforward, as is some of the action at a run-down church that serves as a homeless shelter/orphanage. There is another thread (maybe multiple — it’s hard to say) based on the assistant of a central character (Jeronimo de Azcoitía), who appears to be stark, raving mad. Paranoid delusions abound and this guy talks to imaginary characters and is pursued by newspaper photos. There’s an entire chapter of such outrageous behavior that the story wanders into Monty Python territory. This floating narrator even becomes an infant, but they are predominantly a man who apparently had a nervous breakdown and fled from his employer (Azcoitía), seeking refuge in the church.

I don’t want to forget about the deformed child of Azcoitía and his wife, who was walled into a country estate and surrounded by naked deformed people. This was a major thread that ended without settling or explaining anything. It’s like the author lost interest. Strange. The relationship between this thread and another (involving a 15 year old girl who’s pregnant) was never explored and also dropped without notice.

Finally, the book just ended. The narrator spent the last five pages imagining being sewn into a sack (in the mind of the infant) and trying to escape, and failing. Nothing happened. The story just ends with an old woman who isn’t one of the central characters from the Church/homeless shelter.

The preface is written by another Chilean writer, who warns the reader that this book was written over a period of years (1962-1969) when the author had mental health issues. That would explain the coherent chapters and those that are in never-never land. To me, despite the lack of a plot, any explanations, or an ending, I kind of enjoyed reading this novel because it gives a lot of insight into what goes through the mind of someone who’s suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, or something like that. I couldn’t help getting the impression that the bizarre, stream of consciousness thread was a reflection of the author’s own suffering.

I was disturbed by the evocative images of depredation, created for no purpose but which the narrator couldn’t get out of their mind, whichever mind they were occupying at the time. Some of these will take years for me to forget.

This novel is available in an English translation. I don’t know how that would work because of all the untranslatable sentences and words. The English version can’t be more than an educated guess at what the author had in mind. (He didn’t translate it himself although he probably could have, having lived decades in the U.S.)

I suggest it for anyone who wants to see what it’s like to lose your mind.

We are all actors

We don’t get paid as much as Hollywood stars because we’re not very good at pretending to be someone we’re not. That’s the only difference. They simply have a talent for forgetting who they are, allowing them to step into someone else’s mind. It’s possible that actors have the best-developed Theory of Mind of anyone on the planet.

Being able to get inside someone else’s mind isn’t the same thing as understanding their situation. I’m digressing so I’ll get back to the point.

We are all actors. And like professional actors, we have some capacity for understanding another person’s plight, and like professionals, we treat the subjects of our curiosity as objects. Our attention lasts only a few seconds, or maybe minutes. The length of a scene. Our lives are a series of scenes, and cinema has simply found ways to reproduce the perceived reality we share in the discontinuous manner our brains are accustomed to.

The next time you watch a movie, consciously place yourself in the story, not as a viewer but as a participant. You have of course been doing this all your life; my point is to think about it, and maintain that sense of being in the action. You will find that it is reality.

This is the reason for the title of this post. We play roles, a well known fact, but the sociologists don’t dare go further. They can’t say what is obvious: Most of us shouldn’t waste our time thinking but just go with the flow, and play our roles.

It’s good to know your role. Just do it!

Unfortunately, I can’t do that…bummer; however, I can write these blogs that no one will read…

LOL.

Review of “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” by Tom Robbins

I focus on writing style rather than story in my reviews. It’s important to understand the difference because I didn’t enjoy any of the books I’ve read as part of my reading comprehension hobby. Like everybody else, I know what I like to read and I avoid reading those books. In case I’m sounding a little masochistic, let me add that I write my favorite novels rather than read them. I guess I’m narcissistic. Writing is a lot more fun than reading my favorite genres because it takes months rather than days. However, I have spent months reading some of these books. This one took more than a month to finish.

First, this book is well written, which means that it has few blatant grammatical or punctuation errors. So, it was relatively easy to read.

This book was published in 1976 and its pedigree is obvious in every page. About half the book consists of monologues by the author, sometimes thinly disguised as the words of the characters. These come in two types. The first is a summary of the first year of college. No subject is skipped, from geology to business. This was written when an encyclopedia was the best source of information and that’s how it reads. I checked a lot of the facts and they were accurate, especially for the time. The second kind of monologue consists of political and social diatribes, covering the gamut from the environment to women’s rights. This category also includes goofy ramblings on transcendental topics. Most of these diatribes are on subjects completely outside the scope of the story, which brings me to the story.

There is a story buried in all those regurgitations of Geology 101, Philosophy 101, Biology 101, etcetera, but it isn’t much. The story of Sissy Hankshaw is at most a novella. And don’t believe anything written about this book by reviewers, especially what’s printed on the back cover. Until I read this, I thought there was some kind of unspoken oath to be honest in the publication industry. No, there is not. The author spends so much time remembering (sometimes fondly) his college days, that he never got around to writing a novel.

The central character is a paper cut out, who periodically changes to a different person with no explanation, other than self-serving nonsense muttered by the author during frequent interludes. This is a cartoon disguised as a novel. It doesn’t even qualify as social satire because the author simply rants against his pet peeves, rather than presenting them within the context of a story.

For example, when the author realized he’d gotten carried away with some scenes that were special to him and presented them out of chronological order, he bragged about his error and, to prove who was smarter than us (we’d bought his book and given him money), ranted about the power he had over the reader. At another point, he went on a page-long tirade about sentences. These interruptions were continuous.

I don’t think any of the reviewers whose glowing comments I read, actually finished this book. My certainty of this was verified when I read the plot summary on Wikipedia. Wow! That’s not the book I read word after excruciating word.

This book is the worst I’ve read in my reading comprehension study, even below the Koran. It has no redeeming qualities. I can only hold it up as an example of a meme in the pre-digital age. Reading monkeys don’t actually read, but they like to pretend they do.

As a bonus, I was going to review the movie, but I couldn’t see it here in Australia. It wouldn’t play. The best I could do was see a 15 minute summary, using original film marked up to support the author’s faux-feminist concepts (my interpretation). Looking beyond the magic marker comments, I think the casting was excellent. It may have been a good movie, although it definitely varied widely from the novel. The movie outtakes I saw didn’t start until the second half of the book, and the male romantic lead never showed up, not even being listed in the credits. I don’t know if the many diversions are in the movie. I may watch it someday, just because I’m stubborn.

If I weren’t too lazy, I would tear every page out of this book, burn them, and spread the ashes in the ocean, so that no one else would have to read it.

It’s that bad, but this is only my humble opinion, as one of two or three people who read it cover to cover. (I don’t think the author was one of them.)

Zombies Revisited

In the last post, I examined the usefulness of the Zombie metaphor as a proxy for consciousness. I think I demonstrated that it depends on the definition of consciousness one chooses. The Idealists and Physicalists are using different definitions but won’t budge on their semantic representations.

It seems clear to me that the Physicalists win the first round of the fight because they can show with empirical evidence that consciousness resides within the brain and is associated with distinct electrical and chemical signatures. That doesn’t mean they’re right about everything, however, because as I said, that only means that consciousness is manifested as a physical process.

This is not what I’m talking about.

I’m going to examine the Idealist view of consciousness briefly, and what it suggests about reality, and what it means to be a zombie. Idealism represents two overlapping views of reality that share the central concept of subjective reality as opposed to the physicalist view of objective reality. Subjective Idealism, as the name implies, posits that reality is a subjective experience, unique to every conscious entity in the universe. Objective Idealism, on the other hand, proposes that there is an objective consciousness that somehow is the core of reality, independently of a human mind. This sounds a lot like some religions to me.

Reality is an illusion from the subjective perspective; however, it is a personal experience, not supplied by an external source like a god or the cosmos. I am the center of the universe, even if my illusion puts me in the worst situation imaginable. Talk about making bad choices.

Am I a zombie?

According to the subjective view, I am not a zombie, but YOU are and vice versa. I can’t help but take this thought experiment (I can’t really treat it as a serious model of reality) to the next level and ask: Does this mean that I’m the only person in my universe? A real person I mean: a non-zombie. The question of agency arises, at least in my mind. If I’m the only person in my world, why don’t I make myself happy and fulfilled, whatever that entails? Why am I not wealthy? Where are my awards and prizes, and all that money?

I don’t have to be a philosopher to answer that question. I’d give the same answer as all the religions that have ever existed: You are a god (maybe God?) and you work in mysterious ways. This is what you really need, or you’re dealing with something more important that has nothing to do with the plane of reality where you’re reading this, and living this life. Of course, the successful might have gotten it right and be living–never mind, they’re nothing but zombies in my world. It’s pretty lonely here.

If the objective idealist viewpoint is correct, we are all zombies. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds, the way I worded it. To the cosmic consciousness, we are zombies, unconscious entities who stumble around, running into each other, unaware of the Big Picture. That’s a pretty accurate image of the world. Remember that we have empirical evidence (for whatever that’s worth in the objective idealist universe) for consciousness, and my thought experiment from the last post. In this view, I am an ephemeral entity, created by some great, cosmic consciousness for their own amusement but, even though I’m a zombie, I have a sense of being alive because my brain (whether real or not) perceives. This world kind of sucks too. We’re all zombies and nothing we do matters, not to us anyway.

I can understand the popularity of the Physicalist’s perspective after giving the subject some thought. Who cares if I’m a figment of my imagination or the cosmic consciousness? I’m stuck here dealing with what seems pretty real to me, so I may as well accept the fact that I’m really living this life. The down side to this perspective is that there is no hereafter: no heaven, but no hell either (that’s a nice idea), but only oblivion just like the birds, bees, fish, trees, rocks, earth, sun, universe.

That’s not so sweet either.

I don’t know if this brief discussion satisfies you, but it’s sufficient to keep me happy for a few months.

After all, the great cosmic consciousness wants me to be happy.

Am I a Zombie?

Subjective Idealism posits that nothing exists unless it is perceived. A cornerstone of this philosophy is the existence of consciousness, a phenomenon that isn’t required by physicalism. From a physicalist perspective, if it walks like a human, talks like a human, and acts like a human, it’s a human, whether conscious or not. The idealist doesn’t accept this, claiming that consciousness is the key to being human and without it the physicalist’s human is nothing more than a zombie. They use some sketchy logic to prove that the physicalist argument is wrong, that there is no objective material world of which everything, including consciousness, is part of. Hence the title of this post. 

The gist of the argument is this: everything in the world is physical; physicalism predicts the existence of a parallel universe that is exactly the same as ours, but lacking consciousness [because it is not physical];  imagine a world full of unconscious zombies (if you can imagine it, it’s possible); thus physicalism is false by a logical method called modus tollens.

I find the assumption that consciousness is not a physical phenomenon somewhat self-serving and don’t accept it. I don’t think it convinces Physicalists either, but this introduces an intriguing idea, one I’ve been exploring in my Dao De Jing blog. I don’t think the philosophers took the zombie world thought experiment far enough. 

Let’s begin with my a hypothetical question: What would it be like to be a zombie?

I have my own thought experiment to address this, without using the word, consciousness, which the philosophers appear to be hung up on.

Imagine a day like this: you get dressed, have breakfast, and go to work, recalling a movie you watched the night before, so that you don’t recall the commute; you have a lot of busywork to do, forms to fill out and mindless emails to answer; your work day is interrupted by lunch with some coworkers talking about their new house, which they’ve been describing all week; you don’t recall the unmemorable drive home and make a dinner you’ve prepared a thousand times, talking to your family about school and other familiar topics; you clean the kitchen and watch TV until bedtime.

Question: Did you ever engage your prefrontal cortex in complex problem solving, analysis, or making plans? Remember this is a thought experiment, so brief interludes of thinking about a nagging problem don’t occur. This day was successfully traversed using only heuristic memory, your automatic behavior modified slightly using Bayesian estimation. This is a technique built into our cerebellum and thus requiring no active thinking. 

Are you a zombie?

Of course, I did the same as the philosophers, switching the definition of consciousness without telling you. My story defines consciousness as being aware (as in I AM AWARE thinking) of what you are doing. But if you can’t recall the drive to work immediately afterward, were you conscious of it? Considering the rest of this boring day, in which your mind basked in the afterglow of a movie you loved (an emotional response stimulated by memory), were you ever really conscious?

It seems to me, therefore, that the concept of a zombie world is an axiom rather than a thought experiment intended to show that Idealists are more clever than Physicalists. Such a world does exist, only not as a homogeneous universe filled with permanent zombies. We are all zombies, unconscious beings who walk, talk, act, and behave like humans much of the time.

The only prerequisite to being a zombie appears to be that the entity is unconscious. Zombies have brains with neurons, axons, and electrical signals flashing to and fro within their gray matter. Hormones are secreted by their limbic system. They have emotions. They are human. But they are also zombies, just not all the time.

I’d like to add a word on the sophistry of these arguments. There is overwhelming empirical data that demonstrates the neurological manifestation of consciousness. The brain reveals conscious acts through electrical activity. Thus, even if there is something vague called universal consciousness as proposed by Objective Idealism and there is a mind-body dualism, this unknown entity, whether physical or metaphysical, functions through the brain to create consciousness. It seems inescapable therefore that consciousness exists in the physical world as a concrete, measurable process–a process that acts on matter even if not itself a material substance. 

Next time, I’ll discuss another interpretation of the zombie concept, this time with a decidedly more idealist perspective.