Saturday, July 25, 2015

Review of “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

tfsIn Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman introduces and explains 3 sets of characters. First he introduces two imaginary systems (imaginary because they do not really exist in the brain although they explain many things about how our minds think). In the first set, there are two systems. System 1 is automatic, intuitive, and thinks fast. System 2, on the other hand, extends more effort and is rational. It is what we THINK we are. However, it is slow as it monitors system 1 and it tends to be lazy. It typically does not want to be double-checking system 1's analyses.

Secondly, Kahneman introduces two species: Econs, who live in the world of theory, and humans, who live in the real world. And thirdly, he introduces two selves: the "Experiencing Self" which does the living, and the "Remembering Self which keeps score and makes choices.

This book serves as a compilation of Kahneman's life work and a celebration of his long career and collaboration with his deceased colleague Amos Tversky. Some reviewers say Kahneman "is a bit late to the party" (even though these were apparently originally his ideas). However, since I am hardly an expert in the fields of behavioral economics, psychology of judgment, and decision-making,  I nevertheless found this book to be highly engaging and enlightening from start to finish. That does not mean it was an easy read. The content was often difficult for me to understand upon first (and sometimes 2nd or 3rd) hearing, and prompted me to hit the "rewind" button many times when my attention was diverted during daily commuting.

The content of the book is even more difficult for me to apply practically but I'll try:

1. At the very end of the book, Kahneman applauds applications related to measures of well-being, “libertarian paternalism” and "choice architecture" as proposed by Thaler and  Sunstein in their book “Nudge”, but I need more time to process some of the implications.

2. When seeking to rationally think through decisions, I need to seek to re-frame questions and problems, understand the effects of priming, etc. It would be nice if I could simply seek to engage my so-called "system 2" more frequently and deliberately.  However the author himself concedes at the end of the book that he has not really been able to improve much in this area himself in the years since he first undertook this research. It is the thinking processes of others which he thinks he understands more. We can make much more progress in recognizing the errors of others than their own. As Kahneman says in his concluding remarks, we need to seek to ask for reinforcement from system 2 when entering cognitive mind fields. But he also says he is writing not not to individuals and decision makers but to organizations because it is only in the context of the group/organization where the decision-making climate can change.

3. One practical team decision-making exercise I may be able to put to use some time in the future is to encourage everyone who is about to rubberstamp some massive undertaking or expenditure in a team or organizational setting to imagine that one or two years down the road the new project has turned out to be a stupendous failure. Then encourage everyone to write down and share every particular way it turned out to be a failure.

4. When living in the worlds of "experiencing" or "remembering" I am reminded to seek to be attentive to the passing of time and to earn to cherish the moment. Interestingly, on the same day as I was listening to this portion of the audio book, an article appeared in the Washington Post (07/23/2015) entitled Why Half of the Life You Experience is Over by Age 7.  Though the science behind the article may be suspect, the point is that some points in our lives seem to pass more slowly than others. Later that same day, I was listening to The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku when the author quoted Steven Pinker: " I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift." Coincidentally, that very same day I re-watched an old Star Trek TNG episode entitled Timescape. At the conclusion Data comments to Riker that "Recent events compel me to study how humans perceive the passing of time. For example, time seems to pass more slowly in one instance, or quickly in another.  Riker replies: "I suppose it's how people perceive time. Every situation is different. It depends upon how you feel."

In conclusion let me say for now you may not feel like you're enjoying every moment as you read through Thinking Fast and Slow and if you are like me you will need to spend a lot of time digesting what you take in, but it will be worth your time and effort in the end.

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!