Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Life: Work declines but a novel begins to form

It's been a while since I wrote here about my own life. Perhaps, it's because I think my own life just isn't that exciting. Still, things have happened and I'd like to give all of you an update. I'm out of school now, and have been on winter break for over a month now. The first bit was nice and busy with work and Christmas preparations, but as soon as that passed my schedule cleared up to an insane degree. My hours at work have dropped off to near non-existent levels, and so I've got a great amount of free time. I have, of course, been making use of this time - some of that use productive, some not so much.

As far as the non-productive activities go, games and TV Shows have been the order of the day. I bought Fallout 3 after Christmas and spent a week absorbed in that world. It was a fun time, but alas too short. After I finished Fallout 3, I began the monumental task of watching all of the ten seasons of Stargate: SG-1. My family owns the DVDs and enjoyed the show greatly when they watched it, but I was not around to see most of it. I'm currently in season 4 and certainly won't be finished before school starts, but it's been fun.

The other activities I've engaged in have been far more productive. For one, I've actually begun real work on the novel which I announced I was starting several months ago. It's not that I was exactly idle before, I was doing background writing and plotting out the story in my head, but I had not actual put finger to keyboard on the work itself. Now I have. I began late last week and have written around twenty pages of text. The challenge will be keeping up with the work once school starts on the thirty-first.

I have also done some reading, and have spent time with friends, both of which are endeavors worth pursuing. At the moment, I am reading the book called Red Mars, as well as slowly making my way through Gregory Boyd's book God at War. Expect reviews of both when I finish. I will also be starting my reading for next semester's literature class some time in the next few days.

This coming semester will be my final one at Orange Coast College before I move on to a four-year university. I hope to make it into the Philosophy program at UCLA, but if not UCI is secured thanks to their "Transfer Acceptance Guarantee." It's going to be a busy semester, as I'm taking five classes, but I'm looking forward to all of them. They are: British Literature after 1800, History of the US to 1876, Elementary German 2, Contemporary Philosophy and the Teaching Profession. It seems, in some ways, like going backwards because these are general education type classes, but they were required by the philosophy major at UCI. Nevertheless, I managed to get ones that interest me. The last class is the only one I'm taking that isn't required, but I wanted the chance to learn more about the career I'm going into, especially since the class is taught by one of the better teachers I've ever had. Sadly, because of the huge loss of hours at work, I'm looking for a new job and I may have to drop that class in order to be available for more hours at a new job.

All in all, I've been having a good break and am looking forward to a good semester. I hope everything is going well for all of you. God Bless and goodbye for now.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Book Review: The Speed of Dark

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

2004 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel

Every once in a while, a book comes along that manages to achieve a special transcendent quality that lifts it above the pack. These books are certainly well written and excellently plotted, but it is something else, some indescribable quality, that resonates with the reader on a level greater than the sum of its parts that truly makes them stand out. Books like these are treasures when you find them, making one giddy with delight when discovered. Sadly, books like these are exceptionally rare. Fahrenheit 451 was such book for me, likewise American Gods, and I am pleased to say that The Speed of Dark easily joins their ranks.

The story is of a high functioning autistic named Lou. It is set in a near future world where scientific advances have led to cures for many diseases and handicaps. Among these is a process for early intervention in Autistics that "cures" them of Autism. Lou is too old to have received these treatments, but his unique perspective allows him to solve pattern problems for the company he works for and otherwise radically effects the way he views the world. Close to the outset of the story, a group develops an experimental treatment that will reverse autism in adults. Lou is given the chance to test this cure and his dilemma raises fundamental questions of identity and humanity. Does he want to try this cure? How much of what makes Lou Lou is part of his autism? Throughout the story, there are those who want Lou to change, and those who want him to stay just how he is. What decision Lou comes to, and whether it is ultimately up to him to change or not, I will leave to the reader to discover. Suffice to say you will not be disappointed with the journey you take in Lou's mind. Elizabeth Moon is a deft writer and her skill elegantly transports the reader into the mind of an autistic. Make no mistake, this is a journey that will change the way you see the world.

The book is written in first person, and really nothing else could convey Lou's mind so perfectly. It's rare for authors to write first person well, but in this Moon excels. Moon is the mother of an Autistic and has also done her research, these two facts help the perspective to come alive as a mind different, and yet oh so human.

This book has heart, humor and a clear understanding of the human condition and, ultimately, I think it should speak for itself. Believe me - read it. You'll love it.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Philosophy: Talking with Aliens

In the fiction I enjoy, sentient alien civilizations are extremely common and frequently interact with humans. It is generally acknowledged that universes like those of Star Trek and Star Wars, where practically every solar system has a sentient and usually humanoid race, are next to impossible. It is recognized by everyone as something extremely fun, but not an idea to be taken too seriously. Nevertheless, there is a general expectation in the circles I frequent that there is an alien race of sentience out there somewhere. A great deal of money is spent every year to fund the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) with the expectation that once we find this alien race we will be able to communicate with it. This is something of which I am not convinced for reasons I will lay out below.

Before I directly tackle the issue of alien races, it is useful to discuss the term "qualia" for the purposes of this discussion. Philosophers, in discussing the way we perceive the world, have often made a distinction between the world itself and the way we perceive it. When I see a red flower, what exists in the actual world is a series of molecules of certain composition so as to reflect light of a particular spectrum. When perceived by me, this light enters into the human eye. Rather than seeing things as such, however, I see red. The aspect of this sensory experience that we label "red" is referred to by philosophers as the experiences "qualia." The reason for explaining this will become clear later.

I am not, in my understanding of the world, a complete empiricist. That is, it seems apparent to me that there are some aspects of human understanding that come to us before experience. Nevertheless, I am well aware of the monumental role that experience plays in our formation of ideas and especially in our use of language. When I and friend get together for a coffee and comment that the coffee is particularly bitter that day, we understand each other because of our agreement on the word "bitter" as referencing a certain qualia in our experience. Or, earlier in this article, when I talked about a red flower, you understood my meaning on the basis of your association of the words "red" and "flower" with given qualia in your experience. It even seems that many of our more abstract ideas are ultimately derived from empirical experiences of certain kinds. Basic concepts of cause and effect, spatial relation, the basic distinction between subject and object, and even mathematics, are quite possibly a priori (existing before experience), but other abstract concepts, such as society or friendship, stem from experience.

This aspect of language development becomes an impediment when our sensory experience of the world differs significantly. One needs look no further than the case of a man born blind. Such a man might have color words in his vocabulary, but they are essentially meaningless. I have heard that some blind people can distinguish color by touch, but even here there association for color vocabulary is tactile and not visual and therefore substantially different from the average seeing person's experience of the world. For our purposes, however, let us discuss a blind man who is unable to make even this distinction. For him, color words simply refer to a vague experience which he knows others have, but the qualia of which he has never experienced. If this man hears a poem talking about a women's raven black hair, or has a friend talk to him about a brilliant red sunset, he cannot really fathom what is really being said. This is not a lack of intelligence, but merely a lack of relevant experience, and because of his blindness he has no way of gaining this experience. The blind man does, however, have the rest of his common human experience to draw on in conversation, and this more than compensates for his handicap.

But what of a being possessed of an entirely different kind of experience? It is probable that any alien race would evolve (or be created) with an array of sensory organs utterly foreign to creatures of earth. Being bound by human sensory experience, I can't really imagine what this would be, just as the blind man can't really imagine what seeing is like, but that does not make it impossible. Indeed, given the fact that an alien would be of entirely different genetic makeup (if it even had genes), this scenario seems most likely. Any number of ways of sensing the world could be just as effective as our sensory modes without being related at all in their qualia. And, unlike the blind man, such an alien would have no common human experience upon which to build a connection. A blind man may not see, but he can still feel and hear and his experience of emotional qualia is effectively the same. Given the probability of the alien's otherness, and the nature of language discussed above, how likely is it that an effective form of communication could be developed with an alien race?

There is, however, one solid objection to the claims made above that deserves attention. I was talking with my friend Jon Shiefer regarding my ideas about communication with aliens and he brought up the possibility of mind reading. If aliens were psychic, wouldn't that solve the problem? I had thought about this some, but had not given it too deep of consideration. It did seem to be at least a possible solution. Ultimately, though, given the considerations I have brought up above, I think it, too, ultimately fails for two reasons: the first is that an alien possessed with telepathic equipment would have it for the purposes of reading other minds of his species. There is no reason to think it would even be equipped to tune in to the human brain. Even if it did, however, the alien would experience a set of bizarre and utterly foreign qualia that would mean nothing to its mind. Essentially, it would seem that any telepathic ability would consist of some system that was able to pick up the electrical signals of another's brain and interpret them. Again, a human seeing a flower has a certain set of photons enter his eye, which his brain then interprets into colors using a specific part of the brain that functions for sight. In other words, a human brain possesses a specific faculty for interpreting human sight impulses. What faculty would the alien possess that could interpret the signals?

Therefore, given at least purely naturalistic considerations, it seems that communication with aliens would be impossible and that programs like SETI would be a waste of time. There are, however, two possible considerations that deserve attention. The first, following the naturalistic outlook I have assumed for this article, is that of a common genetic ancestry. Some stories have it that the world was genetically seeded by aliens, others that at some time in the past being of terrestrial genetic origin left Earth. If this happened, then there would be a common genetic heritage that might lead to a similar experience of the world that could possibly allow for communication between species. Finally, there is the possibility that is the one most significant to me. If one believes, as I do, that the universe was designed by God, a wrench is thrown into the purely naturalistic model, and I don't just believe in any God, I believe in the God of the Bible. According to that text, humans are made in the image of God. It is widely regarded by theologians that our minds are a crucial part of that image. To be sentient is at least part of what it is to be made in the image of God and apart from this image sentience cannot exist. God is not embodied (apart from Christ), but might there be something native to conscience itself that would lead any sentient being, once embodied, to experience the world in a certain way? Even lacking this, might two separate sentient beings created by God have some common ground in their spirituality, even if not in their physical experience of the world? If these common grounds existed, then they could potentially form the basis for a shared language. I cannot say that they must exist if God is added into the picture, but then I also cannot see anything that would forbid them. If then, God exists, there might be some hope that someday, if we meet aliens, we might find a way to talk with them.