Reading list: Consciousness

  • The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself – Sean Carroll AmazonMy notes
  • Consciousness and the Social Brain – Michael S. A. Graziano Amazon | My notes
  • What Technology Wants – Kevin Kelly Amazon | My notes
  • The Ego Trick – Julian Baggini Amazon | My Notes
  • The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity – Bruce Hood Amazon | My Notes
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman Amazon | My notes
  • Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain – David Eagleman Amazon | My notes
  • The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self – Thomas Metzinger Amazon | My notes
  • Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness – Bruce Rosenblum Amazon | My notes
  • Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe – Robert Lanza Amazon | My notes

The Big Picture

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. By Sean Carroll

Life is a process, not a substance, and it is necessarily temporary.

For a long time, there has been a shared view that there is some meaning, out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered and acknowledged. There is a point to all this; things happen for a reason. […] Gradually, our confidence in this view has begun to erode.

“Life” and “consciousness” do not denote essences distinct from matter; they are ways of talking about phenomena that emerge from the interplay of extraordinarily complex systems.

At a fundamental level, there aren’t separate “living things” and “nonliving things,” “things here on Earth” and “thinks up in the sky,” “matter” and “spirit.” There is just the basic stuff of reality, appearing to us in many different forms. […] We will ultimately understand the world as a single, unified reality, not caused or sustained or influenced by anything outside itself. That’s a big deal.

The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.

The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it.

(The) answer to the question “What determines what will happen next?” is “The state of the universe right now.” […] The entirety of both the past and the future history are utterly determined by the present.

The universe is something like a computer. You enter input (the state of the universe right now), it does a calculation (the laws of physics) and gives you an output (the state of the universe one moment later).

Conservation of Information – implies that each moment contains precisely the right amount of information to determine every other moment.

Realistically, there never will be and never can be an intelligence vast and knowledgeable enough to predict the future of the universe from its present state. […] To simulate the entire universe with good accuracy, you basically have to be the universe. […] The future may be determined by the present, but literally nobody knows what it will be.

We don’t know any way to predict what a person will do based on what we can readily observe about their current state.

The Principle of Sufficient Reason: For any true fact, there is a reason what it is so, and why something else is not so instead.

Just as there is no reference to “causes” in the fundamental laws of physics, there isn’t an arrow of time, either.
There are over 100 billion stars in the Milky Way and at least 100 billion galaxies. By coincidence, the number 100 billion is also a very rough count of the number of neurons in a human brain.

The Big Bang itself, as predicted by general relativity, is a moment in time, not a location in space. It would be the moment prior to which there were no moments: no space, no time.

Information about the precise state of the universe is conserved over time; there is no fundamental difference between the past and the future.

Different moments in time in the history of the universe follow each other, according to some pattern, but no one moment causes any other.

Belief (is) anything we think is true regardless of whether we have a good reason for it. […] The beliefs we choose to adopt are shaped as much, if not more, by the beliefs we already have than by correspondence with external reality.

The universe evolves by marching from one moment to the next in a way that depends only on its present state. It neither ames toward future goals nor relies on its previous history.

Most of the interesting things it is possible to know are not things we could ever hope to “prove,” in the strong sense. […] Math is all about proving things, but the things that math proves are not true facts about the external world.

Science has a simple goal: to figure out what the world actually is. Nat all the possible ways it could be, nor the particular way it should be. Just what it is.

All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life — objects, plants, animals, people — are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.

What we see when we look at the world is quite different from how we describe the world when we’re not looking at it. (the fundamental feature of quantum mechanics)

There seems to be no obstacle in principle to a universe like ours simply beginning to exist.

To a poetic naturalist, “mind” is simply a way of talking about the behavior of certain collections of physical matter, just as “heaviness” is.

To imagine that the soul pushes around the electrons and protons and neutrons in our bodies in a way that we haven’t yet detected is certainly conceivable, but it implies that modern physics is profoundly wrong in a way that has so far eluded every controlled experiment ever performed.

Life is a way of talking about a particular sequence of events taking place among atoms and molecules arranged in the right way. […] What is “life” anyway? Nobody knows. There is not a single agreed-upon definition that clearly separates things that are “alive” from those that are not.

Our brains construct models of their surroundings, with the goal of not being surprised very often by new information. Subconsciously, the brain carries with it a set of possible things that could happen next, and updates the likelihood of each of them as new data comes in.

We are all just complicated collections of matter moving in patterns, obeying impersonal laws of physics in an environment with an arrow of time. Wants and purposes and desires are the kinds of things that naturally develop along the way.

What you can see has a dramatic effect on how you think.

Episodic memory and imagination engage the same neural machinery.

What we call a “thought” corresponds directly and unmistakably to the motion of certain charged particles inside my head.

The human brain contains roughly 85 billion neurons, each of which is connected to a thousand or more other neurons, so we’re talking about a hundred trillion or more connections in total.

Memories are physical things located in your brain.

Like “entropy” and “heat,” the concepts of “consciousness” and “understanding” are ones that we invent in order to give ourselves more useful and efficient descriptions of the world.

Who “you” are is defined by the pattern that your atoms form and the actions that they collectively take, not their specific identities as individual particles. It seems reasonable that consciousness would have the same property.

Our mental experiences or qualia are not actually separate things, but instead are useful parts of certain stories we tell about ordinary physical things.

If consciousness were something over and above the physical properties of matter, there would be a puzzle: what was it doing for all those billions of years before life came along? […] Some things just come into being as the universe evolves and entropy and complexity grow: galaxies, planets, organisms, consciousness.

(Meaning, morality, and purpose) aren’t built into the architecture of the universe; they emerge as ways of talking about our human-scale environment.

LibraryThing (update)

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 11.09.48 AMI started using LibraryThing to manage my library in 2005, about a month after the service launched. I was using a spreadsheet for this task but quickly fell in love with the tools and features LibraryThing provided. I find their smartphone app very handy.

I have 740 titles in my LibraryThing long ago gave away most of the books. Someone calling themselves eandino2012 has more than 81 thousand titles in her/his LibraryThing.

If you’ve considered using a service like LT or Goodreads but dreaded the task of uploading all your book titles, LT has a good import tool (see below) and their smartphone app can scan ISBN barcodes. Neither of those were around back in 2005 so I entered mine one at a time.

LT does some fun stuff (total cubic feet of your books; how high if stacked, etc) and some useful (to me) stuff: list of all characters in the books in your LT.

height characters

I know of no better use of my time than reading. Books are important to me. LibraryThing is a way to extend the pleasure I get from books.

The Inevitable

inevitable“Thousands of years from now, when historians review the past, our ancient time here at the beginning of the third millennium will be seen as an amazing moment. This is the time when inhabitants of this planet first linked themselves together into one very large thing. Later the very large thing would become even larger, but you and I are alive at the moment when it first awoke. Future people will envy us, wishing they could have witnessed the birth we saw.”

“This very large thing (the net) provides a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall, planetary scope) and a new mind for an old species. It is the Beginning. […] At its core 7 billion humans, soon to be 9 billion, are quickly cloaking themselves with an always-on layer of connectivity that comes close to directly linking their brains to each other. […] By the year 2025 every person alive — that is, 100 percent of the planet’s inhabitants — will have access to this platform via some almost-free device. Everyone will be on it. Or in it. Or, simply, everyone will be it.”

While reading Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable, I underlined passages so I could post them here for future reference. I do this with each book I read. I’m not going to do that for this book because my highlights filled 11 pages but you can find them here.

Reading becomes social

I’m burning through highlighter and Post-It flags as I read Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable. In the chapter titled Screening, he writes about what books have been and what they are becoming and it is good stuff.

With screens we can share not just the titles of books we are reading, but our reactions and notes as we read them. Today, we can highlight a passage. Tomorrow, we will be able to link passages. We can add a link from a phrase in the book we are reading to a contrasting phrase in another book we we read, from a word in a passage to an obscure dictionary, from a scene in a book to a similar scene in a movie. (All these tricks will require tools for finding relevant passages.) We might subscribe to the marginalia feed from someone we respect, so we get not only their reading list but their marginalia-highlights, notes, questions, musings.

For years I’ve been transcribing underlined passages from books and posting them to my blog. When Google Drive came along I started posting them there as well. This task got easier when I put TextGrabber on my phone. Now I snap a photo and the app converts to text.

500 Days (minus 1)

I try to avoid talking about meditation. (Those who know don’t talk. Those who talk don’t know.) I’ve been meditating for years. I started listening to guided meditations but for several years now simply sit (30-45 minutes) each day, “following the breath.”

A simple app (Equanimity) helps put me on the cushion every day. Had something of a streak (371 days) going last year when a bout with pneumonia caused me to miss a day. But that’s okay, the only day that counts is today. Today is 500 consecutive (almost) days on the cushion.

I bring this up for those who might have thought about this practice. It’s the best half hour of my day. Here are a few books (and some quotes) I’ve found helpful.

Books on Meditation

  • Living As a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change – Bodhipaksa
  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki
  • Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice – Kosho Uchiyama Roshi
  • Meditation Now or Never – Steve Hagen
  • Still the Mind: An Introduction to Meditation – Alan Watts


  • Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at the bottom is about _not_ trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.
  • (We meditate to realize) “…that things are already perfect.”
  • Meditation is about deeply seeing what’s going on within your own mind.
  • At the heart of meditation is the intention to be awake. (To experience) Reality as it is,before goals, ideas, or desires sprout. … Meditation is never a means to an end.
  • Meditation is a matter of zero or 100 percent. Either you’re present or you’re not. There are no in-betweens.
  • Meditation is awareness.
  • The desire of one who is awake is simply to be awake.
  • Meditate just to meditate.
  • Most people who believe they are meditating are merely thinking with their eyes closed. Meditation is a technique for waking up.

Apocalypse (Twenty Thirty)

I confess to a love-hate relationship with stories about the apocalypse. Cringe-watching through my fingers, if you will. Thought it might be fun to collect a few of my favorites here. We’ll start with a couple of excerpts from Albert Brooks’ Twenty Thirty.

In the summer of 2018 two things happened. A heat wave swept over the East Coast, unprecedented in the United States, and caused temperatures to remain close to 105 during the day for almost six weeks. Global warming was not challenged anymore, not after the Lambert Glacier in Antarctica melted three hundred years before anyone thought it would. Sure, there were a few scientists who would say man had nothing to do with it, but it didn’t matter anymore, it was happening. Sometimes during very cold winters, there were still people who pooh-poohed global warming altogether. “Look outside, it’s a blizzard,” they would say. But of course the terrible winters were a sign of even further erosion. And when the eastern seaboard had forty-five consecutive days above one hundred degrees, skeptics melted away, along with everything else.

And something else happened late that summer. The United States had always said that the likelihood of a nuclear or biological attack was greater than fifty percent. And people always thought about it the same way they thought about earthquakes: They knew something was coming, but what could they do? Well, it wasn’t a nuclear attack, but on August 15, 2018, people started getting sick with flulike symptoms in San Francisco. Before anyone realized it, a smallpox virus had contaminated the city. The government’s best guess was that five or six terrorists had come into the country already infected with the disease and worked their was crowded streets, department stores, schools, supermarkets — everywhere it could be spread. Before it was over, twenty thousand people were the city came to a halt, the stock market fell fifty percent, and the fear level increased tenfold.

And as though things were bad enough, Mr. Brooks tosses in an earthquake.

So this was “the big one.” This was the one scientists said in 2010 had a fifty percent chance of happening in the next thirty years. Fifty-fifty. Red or black. The San Andreas Fault had not moved substantially in over three hundred years. “Overdue” was an understatement.

The initial shake was a 9.1. The first aftershock was an 8.7. The second was an 8.2. The third, an 8.0, was bigger than anything that had ever been predicted.

Los Angeles was not prepared for this. No city could be. No freeway was drivable, no buildings were okay, and many came down completely. Ninety-eight percent of the property in Los Angeles County was severely damaged.

The death toll was close to fifty thousand and the number of injured was incalculable. First reports said up to half a million people were seriously hurt. Hospitals could do nothing. They were damaged beyond repair; all they tried to do was keep the patients who were already there alive.

And then, after all was said and done, after all of the damage and death and destruction, there was one looming issue. Where in God’s name would the money come from to fix America’s largest city? For a country so deeply in debt, this seemed like an impossible task.