Saturday, July 25, 2015

Wildly Implausible, Wildly Entertaining: A Review of The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku

futuremindThe portions of Michio Kaku's The Future of the Mind which I found to be most helpful were the brief summaries of current progress scientists and engineers have been making in understanding the brain, robotics, artificial intelligence, latest scientific efforts toward discovering alien life, etc. I found these to be by far the most interesting parts of the book. Unfortunately, they comprised 10% or less of the book's total content (I listened to the audio book so it's difficult to estimate accurately).

Juxtaposed between these helpful tidbits were: 1. Highly entertaining but only marginally relevant references to dozens of science fiction stories, TV shows, and movies: While I appreciated the author's obvious passion for science fiction and enjoyed the story summaries, they did little to substantiate the points he was trying to make or anchor his arguments in reality. 2. Page-after-page of highly entertaining but highly questionable speculation: These too I found to be engaging (helped keep me from nodding off in my daily commute anyway!) but not exactly what I was hoping to learn when I began listening to the audio book.

Time and again I noticed this repeating pattern: 1. Introduction of New Topic: "In the future it may be possible...." 2. page after page of rampant, highly implausible speculation... 3. Section Conclusion: "Of course, at the present time, none of this is possible."

With regard to all the rampant, groundless (to me anyway) speculation, at the time of this review I have also been reading "What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions" by Randall Munroe. "What If", like "The Future of the Mind," is highly entertaining. However, the two books may serve as bookends in that while Munroe starts with absurd questions and applies scientific thinking, Kaku, in contrast, begins with a supposedly legitimate topic and launches off to produce mounds of barely supportable, ungrounded speculation. At least nobody is taking Munroe's book seriously! I couldn't always tell how seriously Kaku expects us to take the stuff he is dishing out.

Near the end of the book, in a section entitled "The Miracle of Science", Kaku says: "There is the criticism of science that says to understand something is to remove its mystery and magic. Science, by lifting the veil concealing the secrets of the mind, is also making it more ordinary and mundane. However, the more I learn about the sheer complexity of the brain, the more amazed I am that something that sits on our shoulders is the most sophisticated object we know about in the universe." Yet earlier in the book Kaku himself often seems guilty of this removal of mystery. For example, on the one hand Kaku's materialistic world-view leaves little room for spirituality in general or for the existence of specific gods or God. In fact, he implies the reason people believe in God or gods goes back to how their brains are "hard-wired" (hardly a fact!). Later, he also makes a disdainful reference to "religious hysteria". And in a highly irrelevant appendix to the book (see next paragraph), he makes another negative reference to "God" in reference to the former Catholic practice of selling indulgences. Yet Kaku's materialistic world-view still has room for the possibility that in the future humankind will use laser beams to stream individual consciousnesses to surrogate computers or robots stretched across the universe on other planets, or better yet, do away with the surrogates all together! We will exist as "floating beings of energy". Immaterial consciousness in pure energy form is not impossible according to physics.

Fortunately, either Kaku or more likely his publisher, quarantined additional material off into its own little appendix. The purpose of the appendix appears mostly to give Kaku additional time and space to prattle on about whatever he wants to talk about, no matter how remotely connected it is to the subject of the book. Here he deals largely with multi-universes (how is this supposed to be linked to the human mind?) and whether or not humans have free will.

I want the next serious book about the mind or brain I pick up to read to be written by someone uniquely qualified in the fields of cognitive psychology, molecular biology, and especially neural science (perhaps someone like Eric R. Kandel, whose "In Search of Memory" I recall having liked quite a bit), not some quack physicist way out of his sphere of expertise. I have heard Kaku's other books related to physics are good, but this book makes me feel highly suspicious. It also leaves me wondering how trustworthy and/or based in reality his work and that of other contemporary quantum physicists really has been in recent years. In conclusion, I'm so glad I didn't waste any money purchasing this book... Thank heavens for library audio book loans!

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