The Large, the Small and the Human Mind, Roger Penrose (ed. Malcolm Longair), CUP.
Is Roger Penrose’s new book The Large, the Small and the Human Mind better than his mammoth The Emperor’s New Mind? In most respects, yes. It’s thinner, with fewer equations, and has more user-friendly typography. And, what’s more, it’s easier and more enjoyable to read.
But there are a few minuses as well. Penrose uses many of the same illustrations as in The Emperor’s New Mind, which can be quite boring for someone who also read that book: it adds to the feeling that this is not really a new book – just a condensed rewrite, albeit a good one. And, on top of that, there is no index. Shame on you, Cambridge University Press.
However, these are just minor remarks – it’s still extremely interesting. Penrose’s ideas are easier to understand here than in any of his other works, not only because it is better edited, but also because it’s differently organised. At the end of the book, Penrose’s ideas are criticised by three superstars, namely Abner Shimony, Nancy Cartwright and Stephen Hawking; and in the very last chapter Penrose replies to each and every one of them. This dialogue adds flavour to the book, and makes it more interesting and valuable.
What Penrose is doing: is trying to find a holistic view of the universe (the Large), the atomic world (the Small) and the mind with the help of mathematics, physics and philosophy. And he’s not someone who is content with some patchwork or loose ends here and there. No, he wants to understand not only the overall view, but also the nitty-gritty details and all the connections between them. In chapter four Abner Shimony says, “What I admire most in Roger Penrose’s work is the spirit of his investigations – the combination of technical expertise, daring and determination to get to the heart of the matter.”
So what is his thesis? One thing he wants to do is to figure out what kind of worlds we have around us. In the beginning of chapter one he introduces what he and, as he says, most mathematicians think, namely that the Platonic World (of mathematics and other abstract “things”) is a world that must exist in order for the Physical World to exist. In other words: the Physical World seems to emerge from the abstract, timeless and independent Platonic World, because the mathematical rules of the Platonic World are used as a basis for the Physical World. But he points out that even if we can see that mathematics is a fundamental building block in nature, we’re still left with the question, why is mathematics so successful in describing the physical world?
In chapter three he expands this world-view by adding a third world – the Mental World, which emerges from the Physical World. But hold on – that’s not all. Penrose now makes a very interesting move: he introduces circularity between the three worlds. That is, the Mental World not only emerges from the Physical World, but it’s also the basis of the Platonic World; In other words, the Platonic World emerges from the Mental World. This is in short how Penrose sees the relationship between mental events, the abstract world of mathematics and the non-abstract physical world.
But what does he say about consciousness? He sets out four different views on awareness (A, B, C, D), where C represents his own view: “Appropriate physical action of the brain evokes awareness, but this physical action cannot even be properly simulated computationally.” And later in the book he stresses once again that he’s not a computational functionalist, “…Searle’s Chinese room argument provides a convincing case against the ‘strong-AI’ position that computation alone can evoke conscious mentality.”
Now Penrose describes view C in more detail. He divides it into two sub-views: “weak C'” and “strong C”. “Weak C” is the view that if the scientists look carefully enough inside the known world of physics, then they will surely find certain types of actions that are, as Penrose calls them, “beyond computation”. But this is not Penrose’s own view – he likes the “Strong C” position better: that there must be something outside the known territory of physics that has to do with that observed non-computability, and that our understanding of consciousness today is therefore very incomplete. His conclusion, then, is, “… we [should] look for the non-computability in the physics which bridges the quantum and classical levels.”
And how should we do that? Well, according to Penrose we would first have to develop a new kind of physics, which, he admits, is a big job. And when we’ve done that, we need to apply it to what’s happening inside the brain. First then will we be able to explain (and predict) the brain’s actions correctly – and only then will we really understand what consciousness and awareness are all about.
Anyone, university student or not, who is serious about mathematics, physics (especially quantum physics) or the philosophy of mind will find this book very interesting. Get it as soon as you can – it’s worth it.