What I've Been Reading

13 August 2018

  • Cheryl Misak: Cambridge Pragmatism

I sometimes wish the discussion and history of Pragmatism would focus less on the issue of truth. There’s much more to classical Pragmatism than an account of truth which is bond up with James’ dubious take on it. But it would be too much to ask of Cheryl Misak’s book on Cambridge Pragmatism to acommodate my take on this matter, after all the controversies of the time gave truth a central place and the key figure Frank P. Ramsey left us a manuscript bearing the title On Truth. As a result much of the book is devoted to the Pragmatist account of truth.

I consider Misak one of the leading scholars in the history of classical Pragmatism and her book fills an interesting gap in the scholarship, connecting the dots and showing how philosophers in Cambridge, Massachussetts, and Cambridge, England, engaged in pivotal debates. While she clearly has a philosophical agenda and as a result critics of Pragmatism are presented as either missing the mark or having more in common with Pragmatists than they themselves thought, Misak sees the weaknesses of James’ texts and grants the incompletnences of Ramsey’s work. I doubt there is a better text concerning this particular moment in the history of philosophy.

  • Nick Bostrom: Superintelligence

Bostrom’s book about the future intelligence explosion serves as a reminder that what determines the future of humanity might not be the political issue making headlines today, but the trajectory and curve of social and technological progress. An explosion of cognitive abilities, paradigmatically the abilities of AI, could remake the world and threaten the existence of humanity.

Much of the book consists in Bostrom bringing up ever further considerations which complicate the picture and Bostrom excels at this activity. Every attempt runs into a variety of difficulties when we face a superintelligent opponent. I started to wonder whether Bostrom introducing ever further reasons to take into account might not undermine his aim of pushing for AI safety. The cognitive overload might lead to us shrugging our shoulders rather than put in place sensible safety policies. I am sure Bostrom has thought of this effect himself (perhaps he even mentioned it somewhere in the book?). Personally, I would have preferred if he had discussed existing technologies at greater length, instead of bringing in ever more hypothetical scenarios, but that might result from my general take on the technology. I tend to fall on the moderatly skeptical side regarding Artifical General Intelligence (AGI) of at least human level: It is achievable, but I’m not holding my breath for now. I doubt we’ll see human-level AGI and the intelligence explosion in the next 50 years. That stance reduces the force of Bostrom’s speculations, but I could be wrong and the event could be fatal for humanity.

  • Bryan Lee O’Malley: Seconds

Bryan Lee O’Malley is truly a master of the pop-cultural grapic novel. He breaks the fourth wall, having narrator and protagonist argue with each other, without becoming obnoxious. He caters to his fans with the Scott Pilgrim reference on page 135 (“Bread makes you fat?”). But what makes him truly great is O’Malley’s awareness of the limitations his comics have as pop-cultural products. In the case of Seconds he subtly points that the moral of his graphic novels doesn’t go beyond the content of the Serenity Prayer - and that it doesn’t really matter.

In contrast to O’Malley’s Lost at Sea, which succeed exactly by limiting itself to a short episode and just picking out a key moment without providing unnecessary details, Seconds might have profited from a longer exposition. I would have enjoyed further development of the characters. How did Hazel become the person she is? How do Max and Andrew differ as partners?

  • David Makinson: Sets, Logic and Maths for Computing

I’ve read Makinson’s introductory text to refresh and broaden my grasp of formal methods in face of my upcoming computer science MPhil studies. Usually I tend to neglect exercises in such textsbooks too much. Makinson, however, integrated them in such a way that I found it easier to face them. Whether the book taught me enough of the foundations I need to know, I will see in the nine months following September.