Reading in 2019

I do read a fair bit, though not nearly as much as I used to. I think this is true for many people. Of course, I watch a lot of YouTube videos about a wide range of things, but I’m not sure how well any of this gets lodged into my memory. While reading affords the luxury of time to contemplate ideas and respond to the author’s arguments, the passive nature of videos requires some form of extravagant stimuli to ensure retention. In general, however, I have a terrible time remembering what I’ve read or watched. I sometimes wonder what the point of reading is if I never remember any of the key ideas. Are there benefits to be gained from the reading process itself, even without retention? I am not sure, but I do know that I’d like to remember more regardless.

So, I’ve decided to try and keep a more formal record of what I read/watch to see if that helps.The first book I finished was a novel by Carl Hiaasen. He is a Florida author, and the story is about the politics of bass fishing in Florida. Although I had not heard of this author, apparently he is rather well-known for his rich characters and outlandish plot twists that seem not so outlandish when contextualized as a Floridian storyline. While I found the story to drag on a bit towards the end, I will read a few more selections from this author.

One of the more colorful characters in this novel is a televangelist named Charles Weeb. He is first and foremost a businessman (though not a great one). The underlying mockery of religious phonies highlights the maliciousness of the exploitation of religious belief for monetary gain, and this element of the story was familiar yet still poignant.

The next book I’m working on, Enlightenment 2.0, is by Joseph Heath. This book chronicles the evolutionary history of the development of reason and argues for a new understanding of rationality that encompasses not just individual knowers, but networks of others and artifacts that scaffold individual rationality and compensate for the tendency to exploit cognitive shortcuts that have facilitated our evolutionary successes.

Chapter 1: The calm passion-Reason: its nature, origin, and causes

Our brains have evolved to solve problems as economically and efficiently as possible, according to this author: “Our brain is more like a bureaucracy or a customer service center, which strives to solve every problem at the lowest possible level” (Kindle Locations 474-475). This is not always the most effective, however, as expediency often comes at the expense of investing in the cognitive work necessary to develop the capacity to solve more complex and sophisticated problems. “Thinking rationally is difficult, which is why most of us try to avoid doing it until absolutely forced” (Kindle Locations 523-524). Of importance in this chapter is the introduction of what the author refers to as two systems of cognition: intuitive, heuristic and rational, analytic. This is reminiscent of another book that I have on my reading list: Thinking Fast and Slow, by Kahneman. We’ll come back to this book later.

The thrust of this chapter is that evolution has endowed humans with a variety of cognitive shortcuts to enable survival, but cognition has been assembled piecemeal in response to survival challenges. It was not intentionally moving towards rationality, and in fact, rationality seems to be an exaptation (the byproduct of other adaptations). “Thus the way that your brain feels after writing an exam is like the way your back feels after a long day spent lifting boxes—neither was designed for the task that it is being asked to perform. This is of enormous importance when it comes to updating the ideals of the Enlightenment. Reason is not natural; it is profoundly unnatural.” (Kindle Locations 827-830).

This reminds me of a TedTalk that I regularly show in my class. I agree that rational thinking can be difficult and uncomfortable, but I never really get this conceptual divide between “natural” and “unnatural”. Unless one assumes that there is something beyond or outside of the natural, this conceptualization makes little sense.

Bottom line from this chapter: thinking is hard because evolution is/was lazy.

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