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The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, From Animals to Aliens Hardcover – 23 Jun. 2022
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Understanding the human mind and how it relates to the world of experience has challenged scientists and philosophers for centuries. How do we even begin to think about ‘minds’ that are not human? That is the question explored in this ground-breaking book. Award-winning science writer Philip Ball argues that in order to understand our own minds and imagine those of others, we need to move on from considering the human mind as a standard against which all others should be measured.
Science has begun to have something to say about the properties of mind; the more we learn about the minds of other creatures, from octopuses to chimpanzees, to imagine the potential minds of computers and alien intelligences, the more we can begin to see our own, and the more we can understand the diversity of the human mind, in the widest of contexts. By understanding how minds differ, we can also best understand our own.
About the Author
- Publisher : Picador; Main Market edition (23 Jun. 2022)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 512 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1529069149
- ISBN-13 : 978-1529069143
- Reading age : 18 years and up
- Dimensions : 15.3 x 4.1 x 23.4 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 23,186 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer reviews:
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A lot of the book is taken up with animals and to what extent they can be said to have minds. Ball bases his picture of a mind on a phrase that is reminiscent of Nagel's famous paper on being a bat. According to Ball, an organism can be said to have a mind if there is something that is what it is like to be that organism. (You may need to read that a couple of times.) At one end of the spectrum - apes, cetaceans, dogs, for instance - it's hard to believe that there are no minds involved, though few would probably argue that, say, a bacterium has one (some do).
A mechanism Ball uses is to consider 'Mindspace' - a conceptual multidimensional space with axes corresponding to the different factors that seem to go together to make up the idea of 'mind' - things like experience (meaning depth of feelings, rather than life encounters), agency (the ability to do things and exercise control while doing so), intelligence (whatever that means) and consciousness (ditto). It's an interesting approach, though ideally we need more than the page's two dimensions at a time - and even deciding where different entities fit in this space seems to involve a lot of guesswork. There's even a position given by some for dead people and God.
Unexpectedly, for me, the two most interesting parts of the book were not about the more predictable subject of animal minds, but rather about the potential for artificial intelligence and aliens to have minds. As Ball points out, it's almost impossible not to keep coming back to an anthropomorphic understanding - when, for instance, we think of the mind of an alien, it's very difficult not to give it a nature that is like what it feels like to be human, because our whole concept of 'mindedness' is based (inevitably) on human experience.
I enjoyed this book, and, as is always the case with Ball's writing, it stimulated me to think more about the topic. Even so, I found the book a touch over-long. This isn't helped by the sheer quantity of ideas about minds and their nature that seems to be unsupported by any good scientific evidence. At one point, Ball writes 'some researchers believe...' and this seemed to me to highlight the problem. Much of the discussion of minds isn't really science, but philosophy. It's what people believe to be the case (often holding wildly conflicting views) and there seems to be little chance for evidence to ever untangle the reality.
If we come down to the tag line of the book 'how to understand ourselves and other beings' (I'm aware the author doesn't always write this), it's a bit of a fail - a more accurate description would be 'how to understand that it's pretty much impossible to understand ourselves and other beings.' Despite this (and a couple of references to HAL 2000, which I can only assume was the younger cousin of the HAL 9000 computer in 2001, A Space Odyssey), this is a worthwhile and interesting book, particularly where Ball does go beyond animal minds to explore the more exotic possibilities.