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Review : A Beginner’s Guide to Reality by Jim Baggott

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Walking around with my pile of soon-to-be-purchased books, I noticed a font, the font from The Matrix. Then the word comes in to focus, the word REALITY, and my mind, if there is such a thing, starts to ramble. I then spot a cute bunny rabbit on top in lieu of Neo with green lines faded in the background mocking The Matrix code. I had to buy it, there was no denying it, and this book was going to be good no matter what. And it was… it is.

Jim Baggott unapologetically admits that The Matrix influenced his inspiration for writing A Beginner’s Guide to Reality, but iterates that the book is not about The Matrix and it isn’t. The Matrix served only as a jump point to get into the matter of reality. Because where Jimmy goes is much deeper than Alice ever went chasing that rabbit, deeper than the Wachowski brothers could have been permitted to go and keep their budget.

We start off with the original sin of philosophical discourse on reality, Plato’s cave allegory, travel down the timeline, stopping by for croissants in vats with Descartes and eventually trying to grip Beaudrillard’s quirky logic about hyperrealism&#8212which was the starting point for the Wachowski’s philosophical aspect of The Matrix. Beaudrillard believes that we are already living in a hyperrealist world. As an example, from earlier readings, he suggests that most people know what a polar bear looks like from images, but that the vast majority of people will never set their eyes on a real polar bear in its environment. The polar bear in the image is the reality, the real bear.

But it only gets heavier from there. We got through so many views on consciousness and reality from all the great philosophers. Plato, Kant, Descartes and much more, all to, in the end, have a Socratic epiphany. All we know is that we know nothing.

So since philosophy doesn’t have the answers he jumps into Quantum theory. We meet with Newton, Quantum’s original bad boy, Einstein, and of course, trekky favorites such as Heisenberg and Hawking. And we meet the Banes to their Neos and learn about the Copenhagen interpretation&#8212which I won’t explain here because I’m just a rank amateur when it comes to such science. By the end we learn that science has little more to offer for answers than do the philosophers.

Jim Baggott, the author, is one serious head-case and I mean that as a compliment. He’s the philosophy teacher you wish you had back in college. He actually reminds me of my teacher on Philosophy of Art, who, to get us to understand the “science” of art went on a 45-hour rampage on the golden mean, fleece, whatever you want to call it. 45 hours of 1.618 sounds intense, but it was my favorite class&#8212and we never did get around to talking about art in truth.

Jim Baggott loves his philosophy, dines on quantum particles and sips the nectar of strings. He dishes it out relentlessly and you better take notes. But boring he’s not. He’s also very down-to-earth and a pop-culture-junkie god amongst other pop-culture junkies. He makes so many references to pop-culture classics and little jokes here and there that you can’t help but admire him. And I have to mention the little comment he makes after explaining how to collapse a wave function. He states:

Readers with an appetite for vicious circularity might at this point like to return to the beginning of chapter 5, and keep reading until they disappear in their own cloud of probability.

Yeah, nerdy joke, but I love nerdy jokes as much as the dirty ones. And it’s more effective once you’ve read the context.

Where Jim leaves me cold is his materialist world-view. But I can’t blame him; he’s a scientific philosopher more than a metaphysical philosopher. As an IT specialist and amateur philosopher, I often use the computer-to-brain/mind comparison when having such discussions. Where as I try to locate the user (or the thinker, the doer, in Buddhist terms), Jim leaves it to the ONs and OFFs of circuitry, the ones and zeros. He believes that our mere being is only the result of simple brain states. He reduces sentient beings to simple sensory enabled machines just bouncing off the walls of reality. This is where I disagree. A computer has no purpose, no reason of being if there’s no one to use it. No user, the computer would not have reason to be. I believe the universe to be intelligence and we are its manifestations. But this is best left to a debate, not a review.

Despite his materialist point of view on things, this book makes for a very captivating read. Even when he drags the reader into doing some math with Quantum mechanics as a background&#8212which is where I kind of got lost in a haze&#8212he keeps the reader’s full attention. Once that chapter reaches its end, to the reader’s relief, Jim hits you with String Theory and M-Theory. He states that no one knows what the M stands for, but I suspect the nerdy trekky M classifaction given to hospitable planets to be the culprit. He ends the book on The Persistent Illusion, ripping from a well-known Einstein quote.

Upon telling us that we have come full circle and we realize we know nothing more than when we began, he says this little point of wisdom.

You might be concerned that here, on page 238, we appear to have come full circle. You shouldn’t feel cheated, however. If you take reality for granted without understanding why you believe in it, then you are what philosophers call a “naïve realist.” Having made it this far, you are no longer naïve.

So is this review real? Is the book real? According to Jim Baggott we’ll never really know. A Beginner’s guide to Reality admits that we are stuck in Plato’s cave learning the many ways to skin Schrödinger’s cat. But we had fun learning it.

I give it a 0100 out of 1000

Edited: PC

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About David Desjardins

  • http://www.madebymadison.com Madison

    Fantastic review.