A Place for Consciousness

This is the book about consciousness that I noted a little while ago, and I’ve just got around to reading it. It’s very good.

In the first section, Rosenberg raises most of the problems about consciousness that had occurred to me. In short, no matter how good a physical description you have, there is nothing in there about where consciousness comes from, so something has to be added to physical theories to say “and this gives rise to conscious experiences”. It seems very likely that that is the way to go, since even if global waves of electrical activity across the brain are the physical correlates of consciousness, current theory does not say that they would be conscious, so something must be missing. However, if we add consciousness properties to electrons and the like, it is deeply obscure how they could give rise to the unified conscious experience that we have.

While these problems are not accepted by everyone, they are fairly generally known. However, the fact that Rosenberg was promising to address the problems I see head-on was very promising. The meat of the book, then, is his solution to the problems.

The basic outline of the solution is very simple. He creates a new theory of causation, in which there are both effective and receptive properties, which combine to make individuals. Effective properties are conscious experiences, and a receptive property is a field of conscious experience. These receptive properties exist at different levels, so there is no reason why there cannot be a single receptive property for human minds, which would explain why we have a single unified experience.

Obviously, I’ve cut all the arguments and details from the above. However, it’s a very clever move. There are definitely problems in the theory of causation, and this theory does answer some of them. His argument that Humean theories have no way to define the universe was particularly interesting; I suspect that he may be right. Humean theories say that there are just individual events, with no links between them, and causation is simply the patterns that occur. However, in strict Humeanism you construct space, time, and causation from the events, which means that you can’t define the universe as “causally linked events” or “events in the same space” or “events in the same time”. You need the set of events first. That means that Humeans need a reason to exclude Tolkien’s Middle Earth from the universe. “It’s made up” isn’t enough, because they have no obvious way to pick out the set of “real events”, other than arbitrary stipulation. And the fact that Middle Earth does not exist is not an arbitrary stipulation; it reflects a deep truth about the universe.

So, back to the main argument of the book. The claim that metaphysics needs “real” causation is quite convincing, and Rosenberg’s split between symmetric and asymmetric constraints has the potential to do a lot of useful work. Similarly, the argument that the relational properties of physics (negative charge is just different from positive charge, there is nothing inherent about them) need some sort of categorical basis is prima facie convincing. Using conscious experiences to fill the role is, frankly, a brilliant idea. They are categorical properties that we know exist, and so it is metaphysically parsimonious to do things this way.

This is by far the best attempt to grapple with the hard problem of consciousness that I’ve ever seen, and I’d say it’s essential reading for anyone interested in the issue.

I’m not, however, fully convinced. One problem is that I’m not quite sure how the causal theory will work out in detail. This is simply due to the fact that I haven’t gone through it with a fine tooth comb yet; it’s possible that, when I do so, everything will be fine, or that there will be small changes that solve the problems. (The theory is unlikely to be perfect at this point, even if it is fundamentally right.)

I do have a more philosophical worry, however. The experiential basis of a particular physical property could be anything. There might be good reasons for all the visual experiences being based on the same sort of thing, but none were canvassed in the book. The unity of the physical process is not, by itself, enough; that does not feed down to the level of the experiences. Thus, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why red isn’t a sound rather than a colour.

More fundamentally, it seems entirely possible that pleasure could feel like pain, and vice versa. That is, something could be exactly the experience that pain is, and not be aversive. It is, on this theory, pure good luck that we have evolved to seek out things that feel good. We were bound to evolve to seek out things that feel, since an experiential basis was needed for those causal properties, but the experiential basis could have been agony. If it had, we would seek out agony, say we liked it, and call it “pleasure”, but it would still feel horrible.

I’m not entirely sure that this is even coherent as a thought experiment, but since failure of imagination is a poor philosophical argument I’ll let that pass. The other problem is that it means that the theory means that there is no possible investigation that can tell us anything about conscious experiences. We might be able to determine whether something has them or not, but even that is a bit tricky. We certainly wouldn’t be able to determine what they were like. (Parsimony would let us say that other people had similar ones to ours.) Now, this might be the way the world is; there is no reason why everything should be accessible to investigation. However, given that we are only just starting to investigate consciousness, I think I’d like to try a more optimistic approach first.

Of course, that means coming up with an alternative theory of consciousness, and given how thin on the ground they are, that’s far from a trivial proposition.

So, this book is great. But I think I hope it’s completely wrong.

A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic

The title of this book is slightly less self-explanatory than you might think; its range is the North American Arctic, and thus primarily the Canadian Arctic. There’s nothing about Greenland or Scandinavia, nor about Arctic Russia.

The primary target audience is people who are going to the Arctic and want to know what they are looking at. I do not fall within that group, at least not immediately. Granted, I have always wanted to go to see northern Scandinavia or Iceland, but that’s not likely to happen in the immediate future, nor is it why I bought the book. This was research material. I’m writing something with an Arctic-style setting (it’s set in a fictional world), and I wanted to know a bit more about the kinds of animals, plants, and terrain that should be around.

For those purposes, the book is almost ideal. It does discuss all the aspects (although I would have liked a bit more on sea fish, which are barely mentioned), and it provides enough information about behaviour and appearance for me to include plants and animals in a work of fiction. I also learned quite a lot; I hadn’t realised that ravens lived in the Arctic all year round, for example. That has to be one of the most striking examples of anti-camouflage going. Another striking realisation was the level of life in the Arctic. Yes, it’s a harsh environment, but there are still large mammals living there, as well as lots of small ones, and birds, and quite a range of plantlife. The environment in piece I’m writing will be rather more lively than I had previously planned, which is all to the good.

As well as suiting my purposes, it looks like the book would also suit the purposes for which it was intended. It is illustrated with drawings rather than photographs, which tends to make identification easier, and focuses on what you are likely to be able to see. There are a number of genera of plants that are treated all together because there is no way that a visitor to the Arctic would be able to tell the species apart, for example. While I was reading it, I did think that it might be nice to visit the Arctic, and actually see some of these creatures. While there still is and Arctic to visit.

The Pure

This is a book for White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Forsaken line, detailing the “bad werewolves” of the setting. Naturally, with it being a horror game, the “good werewolves” are not exactly models of virtue and restraint, but they are supposed to be much more sympathetic than the Pure. The Pure are driven by an unwavering belief in their own virtue, and a genocidal hatred of the Forsaken, the “good werewolves”. They are the religious fanatics, the “master race”, and the merciless hunters of the setting.

The book struck me as a solid, workmanlike performance that covered all the necessary bases. But it didn’t inspire me. This could be just me, of course. There’s a lot of material in it, and plenty of things that could be used in a game to showcase the ways in which the Pure differ from default werewolves, so anyone who found the Pure inspiring, whether as villains or as flawed protagonists, in the core rules would probably find a lot of good stuff here. I never did, and that may well be the problem.

On the up side, there is plenty of material here that I could use if I decided to include the Pure in a game, and it would certainly save me a lot of work; there are sample characters, Rites, Gifts, and fetishes, and discussions of the sorts of things that the Pure get up to. But that extra spark is missing. In the terms I used when marking essays, it’s a solid II:i, but it’s missing that something special needed to make it a first.

The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Another fairly self-explanatory title… The series of Cambridge Companions aim to provide a range of scholarly essays on a topic or philosopher, to help advanced students to get to grips with them. Thus, they are introductory from one perspective, but very far from superficial, which makes them an interesting read.

One interesting thing about this book was the number of important medieval Jewish philosophers I’d never heard of. Given that I’ve studied medieval philosophy in some detail, that was a little surprising; not even the names had come up with any frequency. Of course, there were some, Maimonides and Gersonides, most notably, of whom I had heard; I’ve even read Maimonides. One question running through the book is the degree to which Jewish philosophers engaged with Christian and Islamic philosophers in the period, and vice versa, and in many cases the evidence for engagement seems fairly slender. Maimonides and Gersonides are exceptions, which might well be why they were the two I’d heard of; I’ve tended to approach medieval philosophy from the Christian direction.

Another interesting point was the discussion of Judah Halevi, an early twelfth century philosopher who wrote a book known as the Kuzari, dramatising the conversion of the Kazars to Judaism. In this text, he apparently argued that the Jews were racially superior to all other people, and that only Jews could ever be truly virtuous. Conversion was not an option; you had to be a genuine blood descendant of Israel. It’s the first time I’ve come across clear ideas of racial supremacy in a medieval context; the Christians were big on ideological and religious supremacy, but don’t seem to have cared very much about races. Jews (or Muslims) who converted to Christianity were just as good as those who were born that way. Of course, Halevi may have been isolated; certainly, Maimonides seems to have been much less racist. But it was still something of a shock to come across such a pure form of racial supremacy in a medieval text. It’s also something of a shock to come across Jews being racist; they are normally the victims of prejudice in the period. (Not just in the medieval period, either, of course.)

The book also discusses the origins of Kabbalah, albeit somewhat indirectly. Kabbalah tended to be mystical rather than philosophical, and some of its practitioners were opposed to philosophy. Similarly, there was a strong current of medieval Jewish philosophy that thought Kabbalah was a load of rubbish. However, there was also a group, quite important in some areas, that combined Kabbalah and philosophy, generally in a Platonic way. They influenced some Christians who were important in the Renaissance, such as Pico della Mirandola, and that seems to be how Kabbalah broke out of the Judaism and found its way into the mainstream of European occultism.

The book covered far more than I’ve mentioned here, and I now feel like I have a much better grip on what was happening in Jewish philosophy in the period, which should help when it comes to studying Christian philosophy from the same era. It’s rather specialist, but I think it’s a good book.

Shadows of the UK

This is the World of Darkness sourcebook for the UK. That may, indeed, be fairly obvious from the title, not to mention the cover image, but it still seems like a sensible place to start talking about it. Most of the authors are British, as far as I know, and quite possibly all of them. Certainly, I didn’t spot any gross errors as I was reading through, and quite a few points picked up on things that are of contemporary concern in the UK. (As far as I know from reading the Guardian website from Japan, so I suppose that Americans prepared to do research could have managed it equally well.) The proof that at least some of the authors are genuine Britons is the reference to the Wombles. Mind you, I’m not sure that I could work the Wombles into any variety of horror game.

The book was published as part of the general World of Darkness line, rather than as part of one of the subsidiary game lines. However, it reads as though it was originally written as a Werewolf supplement, and then moved after a policy decision that there would be no more regional sourcebooks for the individual games. There is a lot of emphasis on the werewolves of Britain, with details of packs and fully-statted sample members, and much less on the vampires and mages, although not nothing. There is also some material on other horrific things to be found around the UK, both from old legends and from more recent events.

On the whole, I thought it was well done. However, once again I felt that there was too much emphasis on the created characters, who could fit in, with few changes, anywhere in the world, and not enough emphasis on the background of the UK. More UK legends and haunted places, with suggestions on how to use them in stories, or tie them to different kinds of supernatural creatures, would be more to my taste. As a halfway house, maybe have some supernatural groups tied strongly to local legends, and then sketch how they might also interact with other, slightly more generic groups. This isn’t really a criticism of the authors, because they have done a good job of what they were, doubtless, told to do. It’s not even really a criticism of the editor, because I’m not absolutely sure that my idea would be an improvement. It’s more a general expression of something I think should be tried for a regional book. Until it is tried, we won’t know whether it’s actually better.

Waiting for Wolves in Japan

This is a very interesting book, concerned with attitudes to wildlife in the mountain villages of a small region in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. It’s more interesting than that makes it sound, because that draws in attitudes to nature more generally from all across Japan, although the focus is on the one small region where the author did fieldwork.

Throughout the book, he considers the perspectives of three groups; farmers, foresters, and hunters. However, he makes it clear that a large number of people belong to more than one of these groups, because it is very hard to make a living doing any one of them exclusively. Indeed, many residents of the villages have other sources of income as well. The central focus of local attitudes is the damage that wild animals do.

After an introductory chapter explaining the basic situation in Japanese mountain villages, the following chapters consider one type of animal each: Wild Boar, Monkeys, Deer and Serow, Bear, and, finally, Wolves. Wolves stand out because they are generally believed to be extinct in Japan, although there are a few who believe that they are still there in the deep mountains, and the debate is largely about re-introducing them.

None of the animals are subjects of pure hostility, although the damage they do to crops and tree plantations is enough to inspire farmers and foresters to commission hunters to employ lethal force. There is still a recognition that post-war forestry policies have left the animals with little choice about where to get their food, and the declining and aging population of the villages means that it is increasingly difficult to simply scare the animals away.

The clearest message that came from the book was that the rural areas of Japan need a new approach. Since no Agriculture and Forestry Minister has lasted longer than a couple of months this year (one suicide, two resignations, and one who lost his job when the Prime Minister who appointed him resigned), it seems rather unlikely that any leadership will come from the centre. This may be all to the good; it seems that the people living in the mountains believe that the people living in the cities neither understand nor care about their problems, so it is probably better for them to change things for themselves.

The problem with local change is that, when half of the village population is over 60, there isn’t a great deal of surplus energy, and the villages tend to be poor. Since an effective policy is likely to involve tranforming the forests on the mountains, among other things, it’s something that needs long-term commitment, substantial resources, and a lot of energy.

It seems quite possible that people will simply cease living in the mountains of Japan. There are already a number of villages that are completely abandoned, given back to the wild. I’ve seen a couple of documentaries visiting them, and they’re rather eerie. There were no disasters; everyone simply left, when the local authorities could no longer afford to maintain basic services, or when there was no-one else willing to live there. I’m not at all convinced that this is a good trend; the cities are already very crowded. But the imagination and leadership necessary to reclaim the mountains, and create a way of life in which both people and animals can survive, seems to be almost completely lacking.

Shadowrun, Fourth Edition

Shadowrun is a cyberpunk roleplaying game with elves and magic. It’s set in, in this edition, 2070, after magic returned to the world in 2012, awakening dragons, elves, dwarfs, orks, trolls, and magic. The player characters are freelance criminals who do dubious work for corporations. Although, since large corporations are effectively countries, they might better be described as freelance secret agents. The ethical background of the player characters is, to say the least, rather dubious. Despite this, it’s a game that I’ve liked since the first edition, and I have the rule books for all four editions, along with some supplements. I’ve even managed to play it, once, which is more than can be said for a lot of the games I have on my shelves.

Compared to the previous editions, I think that the fourth is an improvement. The rules have been simplified and streamlined, making it look a lot easier to run. At a glance, the general balance of the systems also looks good. By far the largest apparent improvement, however, is the better integration of deckers into the game. Deckers are the characters who deal with computer matrix, and in previous editions they would always have little solo adventures without the other player characters, and then have nothing to do while the others did their thing. That’s bad game design.

The new edition makes use of wireless networking to bring the deckers along, although, as they no longer have cyberdecks, they are now called hackers. Most of the time, a hacker is only partially in the matrix (Shadowrun has called its virtual world the matrix since long before the film came out, but it never seemed to run into a trademark clash), and thus can participate in actions in the real world as well. He can become fully immersed, but this is set up as being something that he does briefly, before rejoining the real world and moving on.

That’s the biggest difference. Shadowrun has a metaplot, which means that the background has moved on since I last looked, but it’s still recognisably the same world. It still feels like Shadowrun, and I still like it. I’m really not at all sure why, though. Some sort of atavism, perhaps, and the same reason that pirates are popular. Shadowrunners are a lot like pirates, after all, in that they kill and steal for a living, but still manage to be somehow heroic. When I played, I think my character was rather less violent than the setting assumed…

Still, it’s well put together, and I like it. Another recommended game.

A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism

I’ve been reading a lot of books about bilingual education, and this is the latest. Actually, I’ve read three, and the other two are both recommended in the back of this one, which is quite encouraging. They all have distinctly different approaches, but they also all agree on two points.

First, raising your child bilingual is a very good idea, and very good for the child. Second, it’s a lot of work. You have to think carefully about the language environment, and try to balance it.

I think it’s inevitable that Yudetamago will grow up with stronger Japanese, unless we move out of Japan (no plans for that at the moment), since Yuriko and I will continue speaking to each other in Japanese; I’ll talk to Yudetamago in English.

Anyway, the main difference about this book was that it is more focussed on schools, and on minority languages. This is no doubt due to the author’s background: he lives in Wales, and his children are English/Welsh bilingual. Thus, there is a lot of interesting information on how to set up schools to support bilingual children, and on what to look for in a school. I suspect we won’t get as much choice as we might like, although sending Yudetamago to an English-medium school would be an option, if we had enough money.

Another interesting point was that this book confirmed something I strongly suspected based on personal experience. Older children and adults learn foreign languages faster than young children. The difference is that younger children tend to end up with a better accent, and have more years to study in total. I was convinced that my Japanese was better than a Japanese seven-year-old, and it’s nice to be told that I’m probably right. In another eight years, I might even be able to write grammatically-accurate Japanese.

Overall, I think that this book will be less immediate use than the others, due to its emphasis on schools, but in a few years’ time it will probably be very useful indeed.

Ghouls

Ghouls is a book for the World of Darkness, specifically for Vampire: the Requiem. It concerns humans who are given vampire blood to drink. They become addicted to the blood and, fairly quickly, come to regard the vampire supplying it as the most important being in their world. The blood also gives them access to some of the powers of vampires, making them stronger than normal humans, but they do not suffer the limitations; most significantly, they can go out during the day. Thus, they are the perfect servants for vampires, and that is their main role in the game.

This book thus serves two purposes. First, it develops ghouls in more detail as supporting characters, serving the player characters or their opponents. Some ghouls manage to maintain a precarious independence, and they can be allies or antagonists in their own right.

Second, it considers the possibilities of ghouls as player characters. Bound by their addiction and forced adoration for a master who is normally abusive, they are not in a particularly pleasant situation. However, for a series of roleplaying games that are about personal horror, this is not at all inappropriate. Indeed, I think they would make a very good viewpoint for examining the horror of the World of Darkness.

There is, however, a problem. Ghouls are almost all bound to vampires. This deprives them of the freedom to take the initiative in setting up stories and adventures, and this is a significant limit on a roleplaying game. What’s more, it would be unusual for a vampire to have enough ghoul servants to make a viable group, and even if he did, he would be unlikely to use them as a group. Mixed groups pose their own problems. Mixed ghouls and vampires face the problem that ghouls are active in daylight. Mixed ghouls and non-ghouls raise the problem of why the vampire allows the ghoul to associate with the others.

In short, the problem is that, although I can see how to build good stories around a single ghoul, I cannot really see how to work them into a group. The book does do some work towards dealing with this, and, of course, this is not the primary intended use of the material, so this is certainly not a major problem.

On the other side, however, a lot of the detail in the book is unlikely to see much use unless there are ghoul player characters. The information on how different clans and covenants of vampires tend to treat their ghouls is interesting, but player character vampires get to choose their own approaches. Similarly, the detailed rules on character creation are redundant if the ghouls are NPCs, and will thus be created to reach an appropriate power level. The information on ghoul families may be an exception to this; it can be used to create a new and interesting antagonist for a chronicle, or a background for a character who takes on a role other than ghoul.

In sum, this is a good book, with good ideas that make me want to use it. However, I’m not sure just how easy it would be to really use most of the information given here. If it had that extra bit of information, it might be a great book.

Caring for Your Baby and Young Child

Or, as I like to think of it, “Paranoid Parents’ Problem Primer”. Seven hundred pages of things that could go horribly wrong with your child.

OK, it’s not quite as bad as that. The first chapters are all about normal development, and thus much less paranoia-inducing. They do talk about the things that can go wrong, but they also talk about what “going right” looks like, which is likely to reduce the level of worry. Those chapters are divided by age, and each includes a box on things you should do to help your child’s mental development. A few things appear on every list: “Provide a loving environment” is one of them. Another is “Speak a foreign language at home if you know one”, so it looks like the consensus in favour of raising Yudetamago bilingual is overwhelming.

The most paranoia-inducing section was the chapter on accident prevention. “All accidents can be prevented!” Translation: “If your child has an accident, it’s your fault.” Actually, this chapter felt like it was written by the AAP’s lawyers, not its doctors. Some of the advice is actually impossible to follow. For example, when shopping, it says that you should not take your eyes off your child even for a moment. To, for example, choose items of the shelves, get money out, or pay. So, if you’re a working single parent, you cannot shop and still be a good parent.

I’m going to be taking the prevention advice with a pinch of salt. Some bits are clearly right; I’ll be getting child covers for the unused plug sockets in the flat, for example, and a fire extinguisher. Other bits add up to being silly. In the section on preventing sunburn, they say that you should not let your child play outside between 10am and 4pm. In the section on preventing insect bites, they say you should not let your child play outside around dawn, late afternoon, and dusk. Obviously, letting your child play outside in the dark is dangerous. Best to keep them inside, safe in their disinfected padded rooms.

The book is also clearly American in a number of ways. One is the discussion of insurance plans, but another is the discussion of moving your baby. The only modes of transport discussed are cars and planes. No discussion of buses and trains. Bicycles are mentioned, but only to say that it’s far too dangerous to mount a child on a bicycle. This is mildly annoying, since we are likely to be transporting Yudetamago on buses and trains, and some advice on how would have been very helpful.

The second part of the book (a bit less than half) is a list of things that could go wrong with your child and what to do. I can see that this will be very useful when Yudetamago is ill; looking through will help to decide whether we need to call the doctor, or whether kissing it better will be enough.

Sometimes, however, it is less encouraging. “This is a serious and perplexing disease”, “However, despite intense research, no bacteria, virus, or toxin has been established as the cause of the disease”, “In most cases the blood vessels return to normal after a few months, but in some cases they remain weakened”. This is the sort of mysterious illness that parents get really paranoid about.

The fact that it is called Kawasaki Disease is not helping.