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Scientists' Nightstand: William Hirstein

Greg Ross

William Hirstein is chairman of the philosophy department at Elmhurst College. He is the author of Brain Fiction (MIT Press, 2005) and On Searle (Wadsworth, 2001).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? William HirsteinClick to Enlarge Image

I have unintentionally positioned myself somewhere between psychology, philosophy and cognitive neuroscience, which I suppose makes me a cognitive scientist. I think members of each discipline suspect I am actually a spy for one of the others, and there is a certain amount of truth to that. I approach traditional philosophical questions about knowledge, doubt, consciousness and representation using simple scientific techniques: construct hypotheses and try to knock them down, using data from any discipline, or any source, including introspection.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I've been reading some of the new books coming out about consciousness in preparation for writing something on that. Funny the way that, 30 years ago, no one dared to write about consciousness; now apparently every other adult person on earth has a book out on it. But it makes this a very exciting time.

Sam Harris's new book The End of Faith (W.W. Norton, 2004) is pretty interesting reading. It certainly is about time that someone suggested that religion has a role in our current malaise. I suspect, though, that religious leaders who use fear, ignorance and conflicts to feed their personal power and wealth are more the source of the problem than religion itself.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I do my best reading late at night, when both my mind and the outside world quiet down to allow me to pay attention. I find that reading in this state is also good for creativity, especially when reading certain writers.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

I like James Agee a lot. He was a novelist and screenplay writer, e.g., The African Queen and Night of the Hunter. But reading fiction requires a sort of infinite trust in the writer, something I'm often not able to muster. I did read David Lodge's Thinks— (Viking, 2001), and found it entertaining, although I couldn't recognize my mental life among those of the academics he portrays. If there are people with mental lives like that, I suspect they would be alternately bored and appalled by mine.

I love reading science articles these days. Unlike most philosophers, scientists have no problem getting to the point; rather than writing a grand essay on the topic, just tell us what you think is true and what you did to try to prove it.

I return to A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad (1898) and Last Poems (1922). I like things simple and clear, and often in a minor key, in both writing and music.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). The book conveys the excitement of Freud's discovery: a hidden mental universe with a language of its own. I still think that Freud is right in claiming that dreams contain an underlying message that some brain process has disguised, so as not to activate another, censoring brain process.

Plato's Apology of Socrates. Unlike some of other significant figures in human history who were unjustly executed, Socrates did not go quietly. The Apology is Plato's recounting of what Socrates said in his defense at his trial for impiety.

René Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). "Meditations" is a good name for the piece; there is an immense quietness and calmness about it. Although most philosophers do not believe Descartes succeed in establishing an absolutely certain foundation for our knowledge, we can find his mistakes only because his writing is so clear.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

John Searle's 1983 book Intentionality (Cambridge University Press) was a bit of a revelation to me. I had been trained in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was the most important current philosopher when I was in school. One of his fundamental ideas is that philosophical questions can't coherently be answered, and that one should provide a sort of antiphilosophical therapy for anyone tempted to ask them. Searle's book showed, it seemed to me, that our ordinary ways of thinking about the mind and consciousness are capable of being formed into a theory that can begin to allow us to answer our questions.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

I'm pretty creative at thinking of reasons not to read some of the new books coming out, since one can only read so much. But Christof Koch's new book The Quest for Consciousness (Roberts and Co., 2004) looks good. I noticed that both Daniel Dennett (Sweet Dreams, MIT Press, 2005) and Michael Gazzaniga (The Ethical Brain, Dana Press, 2005) have new books out, and I can't skip them.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

The Tao Te Ching is the central work of Taoism. It describes a worldview completely different from the aggressive, macho worldview we Americans favor, but which the rest of the world has apparently had about enough of. Much of what it says applies to science: Don't push nature around, but rather, let nature push you around; let the data tell its story.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Michael Shermer's books (e.g., Why People Believe Weird Things [W.H. Freeman, 1997], The Borderlands of Science [Oxford University Press, 2001]) are fun and very accessible.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

Phantoms in the Brain (William Morrow, 1998), by V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, captures the thrill of working with a creative experimentalist such as Ramachandran. It also drives home the vital point that scientists are not forced to choose between boring tractable problems and interesting intractable ones; if one is clever enough, the interesting problems can be made tractable.

Antonio Damasio gets better with each book. Looking for Spinoza (Harcourt, 2003) is his latest effort. He combines a massive knowledge of the mind/brain with a very sensible approach to issues of consciousness and sense of self.

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