There are many books that have influenced and shaped both who I am and the directions my life has taken. I can’t mention them all, but I’d like to note a few highlights.
Robots and Artificial Intelligence
The first robot book I remember was Isaac Asimov’s I Robot, a collection of science fiction short stories about robots, especially the “Robbie” story. These stories introduced me to the idea of “intelligent robots”, and had enormous impact on my career choice to pursue studies and work in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. It inspired me to commit much of my life to what I consider one of the most challenging and fascinating intellectual questions: What is intelligence, and How does it work. Studying human intelligence is just part of that quest – a deeper understanding, I believe, is to be gained by discovering the fundamental principles of intelligence (in all its manifestations), and applying that understanding in creating new forms of intelligence, significantly in machines such as computers and robots.
Another brilliant book is Mindstorms by Seymour Papert, my advisor in grad school at MIT. I highly recommend it to anyone with interests in learning and education, AI, and understanding thinking. There are many important ideas in this book, but the single one that most deeply influenced me was Papert’s analogy between “artificial intelligence” and “artificial flight”. He pointed out that studying neurons in the brain in order to understand intelligence, was rather like studying feathers in order to understand flight. Early attempts at engineering flight tried to mimic bird flight, with mechanical flapping wings. In hindsight we realized that the fundamental principles of flight involve aerodynamics and not flapping motion or feathers! The conclusion suggested is that machine intelligence will grow out of a deeper understanding of higher-level principles governing thinking, and not the low-level substrates such as neurons (or electronic gates, for that matter). This argument convinced me to abandon studying neurophysiology to gain insights into how the the brain (and intelligence) worked.
Douglas Hofstadter’s book Godel, Escher, Bach was another tour-de-force. He brilliantly weaves together themes from mathematics, logic, and computation, with Escher’s graphic art, and Bach’s music. The book is an exploration of self-reference and formal systems. Truly fascinating! It had enormous appeal to me, given my diverse interests in math and computation, my passion for music, and my enjoyment of Escher’s etchings, especially their exploration of visual-spatial ambiguity and self-reference.
I have already mentioned how deeply I was influenced by the writings of Martin Gardner, including his many collections of recreational math puzzles and essays. Another of my favorite “logic puzzle” books is Raymond Smullyan’s brilliant Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. It is a book of chess puzzles, but not traditional “mate in 2 or 3 move” puzzles, but rather retrograde analysis puzzles, where one has to reason backwards from a given position. Typical questions posed are “What was the last move?” or “Is it legal to castle in this position?”. The reasoning and logic of these puzzles is incredibly rich and deep, and naturally appealed to me both as a puzzle-lover and a chess-player. Smullyan brilliantly presents these puzzles in the context of stories about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, with occasional references to Moriarty thrown in! A truly whimsical and thoroughly enjoyable presentation of a delightful collection of retrograde chess logic puzzles!
I also loved the Winning Ways volumes by Berlekamp, Conway, and Guy. I’m totally in awe of the amazing recreational mathematics collected in these volumes! Deep analysis of many fascinating games and puzzles. I thought I had become fairly expert at “peg-jump solitaire” puzzles, with my discovery of “macro-operators”. but I was humbled to discover the depth and breadth of the analysis covered in Winning Ways — yes, they had “macros”, which they called “packages”, but they went so much further in developing mathematical tools for analyzing questions that I hadn’t even thought to pose, as well as solvability of classes of problems. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish reading all of the collected puzzle and mathematical wisdom in Winning Ways, but it is an amazing menu of “food for thought”!
My spiritual journey has been long and winding. I plan to devote one or more future blog posts to recounting this journey in more detail. There are a number of books that have greatly influenced my spiritual seeking and thinking. Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy started me thinking about many fascinating questions, including “Is there a God?”. After reading about the thinking of many philosophers on this issue, I came to the conclusion that there was no way to “prove the existence of a God”. I particularly esteemed the philosophical approach called Empiricism, which reflected my scientific world-view. I couldn’t see how any experiments could bear on the question of God or the supernatural, so I concluded that the simplest explanation was that religions and the notion of a “God” were based on myths and fables, with no bearing on “reality”.
In high school and college, I came across Edgar Cayce, famously known as “The Sleeping Prophet”. The book There is a River by Thomas Sugrue is a fascinating biography of Edgar Cayce. This book, in particular (which I highly recommend to anyone), opened my mind to the possibility of the reality of psychic phenomena. I followed up with additional reading in the area of psychic phenomena, and discovered the scientific field of Parapsychology, and the rigorous work of researchers like J.B. Rhine at Duke University. My thinking shifted dramatically — if psychic phenomena were genuine, and could be scientifically studied, then that pointed (at the very least) to the existence of dimensions of reality, or the operation of physical phenomena beyond our ordinary scientific and every-day experience. Perhaps these studies would lead to a “science of the soul” . If psychically gifted individuals can know things at a distance (without conventional sensory observation) and predict the future with results that are statistically significant), then our understanding of sensory experience, along with time and causality, needs to be revised and expanded!
This line of thinking led me to revisit my conclusions about religions and the existence of a deity. I began reading and learning about the various religions of the world. I had been raised in Protestant (Lutheran) Christianity, but rejected it early on when I learned about missionaries, and couldn’t see any rational basis for believing that any one religion was “more correct” than any other. Now I became curious to learn more about religions and spirituality, with the thought that there might be some common core of truth, even if no single viewpoint was “correct in itself”. Recall the parable of the “Blind Men and the Elephant” that I mentioned in last week’s blog post. It seemed that a more complete understanding of an elephant could be arrived at by collecting and comparing the various blind men’s reports of “elephant experience”. Perhaps similarly, a deeper understanding of the spiritual and supernatural could be gleaned by studying and comparing the various teachings, thinking, and experiences of various religious traditions. I greatly enjoyed the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith which was an excellent survey and point of departure in my explorations.
The 1960’s and 1970’s were a time of great interest, especially among the youth culture, in Eastern philosophies, traditions, meditation, etc. The Beatles, especially George Harrison, made pilgrimages to India, and studied and practiced meditation. I found myself similarly fascinating with “Eastern thinking”. I especially was drawn to writings about Yoga, which seemed to offer a scientific (empirical) approach to religion. One was encouraged to “know God” through personal experience — spiritual practice and meditation. This was very appealing to me — I had always distrusted dogmatic pronouncements (“This is true because we said so”, or “The Bible says it, so it’s true”). The book Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda (published by Self-Realization Fellowship) deeply influenced me. It is a fascinating account of Yogananda’s spiritual journey, from his early experiences to his passionate quest to find teachers (guru’s) and to grow spiritually to know God. It led me to affiliate with SRF, and practice mediation for many years.
Another book that had enormous influence on me was Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss, M.D. This is a book by a medical doctor (psychiatrist), steeped in the scientific world-view, who used hypnosis in his therapy practice, and stumbled upon the phenomenon of past-life regression. His conventional scientific paradigm could not account for the phenomena he was observing, that patients could regress to past-lives through hypnotic suggestion, and that the recollection of past-life traumas could lead to nearly instantaneous remission of present-life symptoms. Among other things, this book reinforced my growing belief that reincarnation was genuine, and that we have a soul-consciousness that survives physical death – a notion I was first exposed to in reading about Edgar Cayce. I believe that a truly open-minded scientist must take note when other scientists report observations that run counter to the accepted scientific paradigms. That is, in fact, the history of scientific progress – initial rejection of data that contradicts the existing paradigm, and later acceptance of these “contradictory facts”, leading to revised or novel theories that account for the “new phenomena”. Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a wonderful exploration of this dynamic in the history of science – another book that I recommend highly!
Books on Philosophy
I already mentioned reading Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy, which provided me an excellent overview of the history of philosophy and various flavors of philosphical thinking. In college, as an undergraduate, I stumbled upon E.R. Emmet’s excellent book Learning to Philosophize. This book was about how to do philosophy, and greatly influenced how I view the enterprise of philosophical inquiry. Memorably, it described the practice of philosophy as one of posing deep questions, carefully defining terms, and examining alternative proposed answers to questions. I recall that this book got me to thinking deeply about the meaning of “meaning”, which I find a very fascinating subject (and of course involves my love of self-referential ideas).
As with many of my generation, I was profoundly shaken by the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. I remember marveling at how quickly (within only a few hours) the media were reporting information about the “suspect”, later identified as Lee Harvey Oswald. It set off a slight sense of doubt as to whether we were receiving the truth through the media, but I ultimately accepted the Warren Commission conclusions at the time the report came out. It wasn’t until later, in my college years, that I began to seriously explore alternative theories of the assassination. There turned out to be a remarkable amount of evidence that contradicted the Warren commission, and suggested that the assassination was the result of a conspiracy. I read many books and articles on this subject (too many to list here), and have concluded that we have been lied to by our government, and that the JFK assassination was an instance of a coup in our home country! I believe this has profound implications for understanding our country’s subsequent history, including our involvement in Viet Nam, and our more recent “wars of empire” in Iraq and Afghanistan. For me, the deep questions here include: “Who really controls our government?”, “Are we being systematically manipulated by our media?”. I plan to write much more about this in future blogs.
Recently I read two very informative and insightful books about our current political-economic situation: Corporations Are Not People by Jeffrey Clements, and Who Stole the American Dream? by Hedrick Smith. These books opened my eyes to the fact that the decline of the middle class and the rise of corporations is not an accident — it is the result of a sustained and systematic campaign by Corporations to increase their political and legal power and influence. I learned that the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court was not an isolated thing, but was instigated by Justice Lewis Powell, who, through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, advocated for corporations to work together to increase their influence over legislation to obtain corporate-friendly laws. This all began back in the 1970’s when Powell worked for Nixon, and before Nixon appointed Powell to the Supreme Court. The doctrine of “corporate personhood”, as foolish as it sounds, and as famously and ineptly referred to by Mitt Romney in his sound bite “Corporation are people, my friend”, only developed over time. The Citizens United decision, further opening the floodgates to unfettered corporate influence on our elections and legislative processes, was just another small step in corporations march to amass vast political power and influence. If Fox were reporting on this they would call it the War on the Middle Class, but they won’t, because they are another tool of corporations, working to manipulate the uncritical populace into further supporting the “job creators” (corporations) — this would be a funny and ironic joke, if it were not so devastatingly real and harmful to those of the “99%” (middle and so-called lower classes), not to mention harming the health of our country, our economy, and our political processes. We are facing a crisis – and I promise to devote some posts in the future to more deeply exploring these important and critical issues.
I have tried to commit my life to personal growth – to becoming the best person that I can be. My commitment is to life-long learning and self-improvement. I have ready many books in this area, but the single most inspiring and influential book was a work of fiction: Musashi by Eiji Hoshikawa. The story (saga) of Musashi Miyamoto is a Japanese epic set in Feudal Japan, and recounts the life and development of Musashi from an angy, undisciplined, rebellious, and ambitious farmer into the finest and most expert Samurai swordsman in all of Japan. Along the way he learns that becoming the best he can be is a lot more than developing skill and proficiency in swordmanship. It has as much to do with humility, respect and love for others, and learning in all aspects of ones life. I had first encountered the Musashi story through the movies – a series of three movies called The Samurai Trilogy. I loved the epic story on many levels and saw the trilogy multiple times (I now own the set of dvds), and it was gripping and inspiring to read the book as well!
to be continued …