Review: What Does a Martian Look Like? by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart

what-does-a-martian-look-likeCreatures… that are born pregnant; with twenty different sexes; that eat their own children; that can survive without water for a quarter of a billion years. Absurd? Not at all.

These are creatures alive on planet Earth. And they show us just how different alien life could be from anything we know.

What does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life (also known in other editions as Evolving the Alien) sets out to do something seemingly impossible: to scientifically describe something we have never seen. The question it asks is what we can know about extraterrestrial life. Of course, we have never found any of that. And yet, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart also argue against imagining it will be just like life on Earth. Continue reading


On multiplexity and the Zarathustrans

In my last post talking about simplex–complex–multiplex, there was one angle missing from what Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart say about them. I’ll write about it in a post of its own but also add it there afterwards.

In both their book The Collapse of Chaos and the previously mentioned Figments of Reality, Cohen and Stewart sometimes illustrate their points with stories about the fictional aliens called the Zarathustrans. In Collapse, human space travellers encounter Zarathustrans on their own planet, whereas in Figments, Zarathustrans observe the Earth. They look vaguely like flightless birds, but this resemblance is superficial, and they’re both very alien and very human at the same time. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that they have evolved not to be entirely independent individuals but to live in groups of eight Zarathustrans (plus one symbiote of a different kind). This means not only that they are obsessed with the number eight and see numerological significance based on it everywhere, but also that they naturally think in a multiplexual way and find simplex thinking hard. Continue reading

Simplex, complex, multiplex: A collection of quotes

Samuel R. Delany’s science fiction novel Empire Star introduces an intriguing trio of concepts: simplex, complex and multiplex. They concern how much a mind is stuck in one world view or how much it can think through multiple ones. Unfortunately, the concepts as “explained” — and more often exemplified — in the novel are left very obscure. I first ran into them in books by the scientists Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, but reading the original novel almost made me more confused about them. Yet, I have found the concepts as best I’ve been able to understand them to be useful for describing at least one thing: why and how people see contradictions where there really are none, or don’t see how points of view can be reconciled when they can.

I looked on the internet for an analysis of the concept trio, but didn’t find much of one. I did find a collection of quotes from Empire Star, which is included below. I don’t yet feel up to writing an analysis simply saying what the concepts mean, but I thought it would be helpful to create a bigger collection of quotes about them — including from Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, who may or may not have understood them as the original novel intended, but in any case make use of some version of the concepts. They both explain them more clearly than the original and give additional examples of their application. Some other authors have also said relevant things and will be mentioned here.

So: If you want to go straight to the clearest definition, click here to see one by Cohen and Stewart. If you want to start with quotes from the original work, click here or just scroll down a bit.

I am using the concepts myself in another article, which also provides examples of how to apply them, though I won’t copy the text in this article. I recommend seeing this other article as well, though: “A synthesis of religious belief and naturalism?” Continue reading

Mitä filosofia oikeastaan on?

See here for the English version.

En ole varma, mitä ihmiset luulevat filosofian olevan. Tiedän kyllä, mitä itse luulin: että se on niin epämääräistä ja mukamas syvällistä ajattelua, että siinä ei ole mitään todellista sisältöä. Tässä kohdassa mieleeni tulee aina Veturi-lastenohjelman jakso jossa, sikäli kuin muistan oikein, filosofi vieraili päähenkilöiden luona ja Oiva juuttui istumaan hänen kanssaan keksimässä vertauskuvia sille, millaista elämä on. Tyyliin “Ehkä elämä on… kuin omena” (mitä seuraisi selitys siitä, miten se on kuin omena, ja en suoraan sanottuna viitsi keksiä sellaista). Continue reading

What Is Philosophy, Anyway?

See here for the Finnish version.

I’m not sure what people think philosophy is. I know what I used to think; that it’s thinking so vague and supposedly deep that it’s void of content. An image that always comes to mind when I think about this is of an episode in a Finnish children’s TV show (Veturi, which word if anyone is interested means a locomotive) where, as far as I can remember, a philosopher came to visit the main characters and one of them ended up doing nothing but sitting down with him thinking up analogues for what life is like. In the lines of “Perhaps life is like… an apple” (followed with an explanation of how it’s like an apple, and frankly I can’t be bothered to make one up). Continue reading