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The Large, the Small and the Human Mind [Hardcover]

Roger Penrose , Malcolm Longair
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

27 Feb 1997
In this book, Roger Penrose presents a masterly summary of those areas of physics in which he feels there are major unsolved problems. These ideas are then challenged by three distinguished experts from different backgrounds - Abner Shimony and Nancy Cartwright as Philosophers of science and Stephen Hawking as a theoretical physicist and cosmologist. Finally, Roger Penrose responds to their thought-provoking criticisms. This paperback edition has been updated to include a striking and easily accessible example of Gödel's theorem, and a ground-breaking proposal for a physical experiment designed to test some of Penrose's most novel ideas about quantum mechanics. Penrose's enthusiasm, insight and good humour shine through this accessible, illuminating, and brilliant account of 21st-century theoretical physics.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 201 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (27 Feb 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521563305
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521563307
  • Product Dimensions: 22.4 x 14.5 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,189,547 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

Will quantum physics let us reduce consciousness to computation? Roger Penrose says "no" with great force and eloquence in The Large, The Small, and the Human Mind. Originally prepared as a series of three lectures in Cambridge's Tanner Series on Human Values, the material is both meticulously thought out and informally presented, including many illustrations by Penrose and others. For publication, the author sought out rebuttals and commentary by philosophers Abner Shimony and Nancy Cartwright as well as his own colleague and occasional rival, the well-known theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, then reserves the last word for himself, as is his prerogative. The result is a sharp but polite argument on the nature of thinking and its reducibility; readers familiar with The Emperor's New Mind and Shadow of the Mind will find the arguments from quantum physics fleshed out in greater detail but also attacked with good-natured aplomb. Those who missed out on Penrose's older forays into this territory (or are somehow disinterested in the nature of thought) will find this an excellent, if broad, overview of the modern conception of physics from subatomic shenanigans to the radius of the universe as well as a stimulating debate among several great modern thinkers. Despite Penrose's certainty that our brains can't be modelled by computational systems--and hence that strong artificial intelligence will remain in science fiction--the argument continues, and will continue for some time. The Large, The Small, and the Human Mind crystallises that debate for readers who want to keep up with the latest thinking about thinking. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to the Paperback edition.


'To see a scientist of Penrose's ability, stature and achievement toss large parts of modern physics into the air as though juggling balls and try to keep them aloft while marshalling them into a coherent pattern is a thing to behold. It is a wonderful illustration of a first-rate scientist doing what first-rate scientists have always done: make bold conjectures and display them for others to confirm, refute or amend.' Keith Devlin, New Scientist

'When Oxford physicist and mathematician Penrose … has something to say about general relativity, quantum physics and artificial intelligence, we would do well to listen.' Publishers Weekly

'The book is an attractive and stimulating introduction to some fascinating issues, on some of which (such as the intelligibility of the universe) theists would certainly be able to offer some alternative insights.' John Polkinghorne, Science and Christian Belief

'… a very interesting and stimulating book.' Brian Josephson, The Times Higher Education Supplement

'… a stimulating and compact review of Penrose's own thinking.' Bernard Dixon, The Independent

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
A previous commentator claimed that this book was not readable enough for a mass audience--I have to disagree with this view wholeheartedly. I would say that his previous works, especially "Shadows of the Minds" were difficult to digest due to the amount of mathematics contained in almost all of the chapters (this doesn't negate the power of his ideas--he just makes them hard to understand). This latest work presents all of his major ideas on cosmology, quantum physics, and the nature of the mind in an extremely clear manner. His treatment of quantum physics is the best I've seen to date in a popular work. A short and rewarding read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Just amazing 22 Nov 2013
By GUT1967
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A real joy to read, it is beautifully written and nice to peer into the mind of a national treasure.
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6 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Hard to follow, not for the Layperson. 2 Nov 2001
By A Customer
I was disappointed with this book, I found the arguments both overly convoluted and often assumed the reader was familiar with physics graduate level concepts.
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4 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Typically good and heuristic Penrose 8 Nov 1997
By A Customer
My one line summary is praise enough, but I will say that one of your reviewers appears to be miffed because a particular paragraph appeared to be arcane. I had expected, then, to read something about, say, Penrose's writing style. How could I have had such an expectation when that reviewer writes, ". . . there are a number . . ." There are a man who should read books on different topics. There are a man who should buy a book on grammar. There are no chance that he will do so!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
72 of 75 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Penrose: Science needs a "revolution". 12 Mar 2003
By Wesley L. Janssen - Published on
Let me first say something about Roger Penrose. One notices how certain other mathematicians and mathematical physicists speak of him. He is not only admired and respected; it seems that he is positively enjoyed! This may be a bit surprising when one notices that Penrose is something of a thorn in the side of several popular ideas in contemporary physics (and psychology). Cosmic inflation theories and ideas regarding the fundamental nature of quantum uncertainty find a formidable and articulate critic in the Oxford mathematician. Of the somewhat less popular, but ever fanciful "many-worlds" interpretation of quantum superpositioning, Penrose says "[the 'many-worlds' view] is not a very economical description of the Universe but I think things are rather worse than that for the many-worlds description. It is not just its lack of economy that worries me. The main problem is that it does not really solve the problem." He brings the same mental rapier to what he has called "the missing science" of mind and to the idea of computational / artificial intelligence. It is the problem of superpositioning described by Schrodinger and the decoherence caused by quantum measurement that prompt Penrose's search for an 'objective reduction' (OR) of quantum state vectors, the key ingredient in a "revolutionary" physical theory that remains a mystery. He speculates that this physical mystery may be related to the mystery of consciousness. He is unconvincing in this regard, but his ideas and arguments are quite interesting.
Well, let me now take this a bit further. Penrose also seems to terribly irk certain others! In particular he really raises the hackles of proponents of strong AI and the Dawkins/Dennett camp of 'consciousness-is-merely-mechanism' dogmatists. His views are much closer to those of perhaps most mathematicians and philosophers and stand on a deeper logical footing than do the doctrines that the human mind is mere biology. Let me say that I agree with Penrose in that the 'simple biology' view is never going to win this argument for reasons that can be demonstrated by the application of mathematical logic. To say that Penrose "doesn't understand biology" is to miss the point. The author freely admits, "there is a good deal of speculation in many of these ideas". Of course there is; science is largely -- we might even say wholly -- speculation. A more perceptive analysis would suggest that those committed to a rigid materialistic aesthetic don't understand (don't want to understand) the mathematics. Those who summarily dismiss Penrose do so unwisely. Given his contributions to mathematics (e.g., Penrose tiling, computability, mathematical logic) and his stature within the mathematics community, and given that the history of mathematics is essentially written by mathematicians, Roger Penrose may come to be considered the greatest mathematician of his generation. Given his work on black holes and space-time geometry (he recognizes the apparent "flatness" of the universe but suggests a more elegant geometry to describe that flatness), he may be one of his day's greatest physicists as well. Should his hunch ("OR") one day prove "true", his stature would approach that of a Newton or Einstein. The point being that any scientist who avoids or ignores Penrose's views, or is inclined to dismiss them by erroneously characterizing them, does so, as I say, unwisely.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 are challenges to Penrose from A. Shimony, N. Cartwright, and S. Hawking, respectively. Apart from Shimony's discussion of A. N. Whitehead's views, its not on a par with the author's discourses; Cartwright suggests that nature may be a mess of "patchwork" laws (her view itself seems a horrible mess), and Hawking is disappointingly flippant. Penrose certainly meets these challenges.
I must say that the "controversy" over Penrose's Platonism is nothing less than nonsensical. Hawking complains "basically, he's a Platonist," as though calling him an offensive name and thereby granting the reader cause to disregard Penrose's arguments. That's unfortunate. Most of history's great minds have been Platonists; even Aristotle*, so often cited as the philosophical godfather of reductionism, was arguably a Platonist. Augustine, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Leibniz, Kant, Linnaeus, Einstein*, Schrödinger, Gödel, Whitehead -- the list of Platonists is long and impressive. As Penrose has said, "... it is my direct personal impression that the considerable majority of working mathematicians are at least 'weak' Platonists." Yet it seems as if some who call themselves "positivists" feel a calling to be science's mind-police. I suggest that this should be the real controversy... So-called positivists would do well to honesty consider Gödel's observation that the idea that mind/mentality is simply material is nothing more than the "prejudice of our time."
There is a rather child-like glee in the way Penrose sees and uses mathematics. His investigations and speculations are those of an extremely astute mind having fun! In his aggressive curiosity, his boldness, his clear-eyed honesty about the frailties of human thought and the limits of science, it seems to me that Penrose is something of a treasure and an inspiration. As he candidly states, "... the world-view that present-day physicists tend to present may well be grossly overstated as to its closeness to completion, or even to its correctness!" This volume presents a concise look at the Penrose ideas/arguments and even if nothing much ever comes of these arguments, they present a shining example of the kind of creative thinking that moves science into new frontiers.
*(footnote: While recognizing that it can easily be argued that Aristotle and Einstein were not "strong" Platonists, it seems obvious to me that they were each Platonists in some fundamental ways. I consider them to have been "weak" Platonists.)
56 of 63 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars For physicists, mathematicians or geniuses only 30 Jun 1997
By A Customer - Published on
On the back of the book jacket it states that this book provides an "accessible" introduction to Roger Penrose's ideas. This is simply false, unless you are a physicist, a mathematician or a genius. For all others (in which category I fall), this book is close to incomprehensible.

Roger Penrose is brilliant, has a wonderfully clear mind, and can write beautifully and clearly. I think that _The Emperor's New Mind_ and _Shadows of the Mind_ are wonderful books. Penrose can make extremely difficult ideas wonderfully clear, by breaking down complex arguments into clear simple steps. Some pages of Emperor's and Shadows take a long time to understand, (I must admit that I have read quite a bit less than all of either book), but the argument is spelled out so clearly that with effort and patience it can be fully understood. Penrose, I think, understands the questions he is wrestling with as well as any one alive, and his is a mind of great depth as well as clarity. Even if you don't find his arguments entirely convincing, you can't help but learn a great deal from these books, and develop insights of great value. What went wrong with _The Large, the Small and the Human Mind_?

I think the key to answer lies in a comment Penrose makes on page 105, where he writes "The first 200 pages of _Shadows of the Mind_ were devoted to trying to show that there are no loop-holes in the argument that I am goind to give you." He then gives his argument in a few pages. The main part of the book (not including the replies of others and Penrose's replies to these replies) is just 139 rather small pages long. The book has many paragraphs like the following:

"The first is the Geroch-Hartle scheme for quantum gravity, which turns out to have a non-computable element, because it invokes a result, due to Markov, which asserts that topological 4-manifolds are not computationally classifiable. I shall not go into this technical matter, but it does show that this feature of non-computability has already come up in a natural way in attempts to combine General Relativity and quantum mechanics."

If, like me, you don't know what the Geroch-Hartle scheme is, and you don't know what topological4-manifolds are, you really won't know what to make of this paragraph. By "not going into this technical matter" Penrose is not omitting a minor technical detail of interest only to a select few, he is leaving readers like me completely baffled.

Penrose tried to write a short book that would give a clear idea of his basic ideas, and I think he failed. I know that he can make complex ideas wonderfully clear when he takes the time. In this book he has shown that, at least on this occaision, he can not write a book that is both brief and clear.

Here is another example, this time from Penrose's response to Abner Shimony's comments: (pages 176-7)

"Abner mentions Mielnik's non-Hilbertian quantum mechanics....In ordinary quantum mechanics, the space of density matrices consitutes a convex set, and the 'pure states', which would have a single state vector description, occur on the boundary of this set. This picture arises from an ordinary Hilbert space, being a subset of the tensor product of the Hilbert space and its comples conjugate (i.e. dual)."

Did you understand that? If so, you might learn a great deal from this book.

There are a number of topics that I have read about previously in other books, for example, non locality, Schroedinger's cat, the EPR experiment. In almost every case, Penrose's presentation was the worst I have seen. Probably everything he says is quite correct, but the presentation is so compressed that it was usually almost impossible for me to follow.

There are sections that I could follow, but even there he was so sketchy that I ended up with only a vague idea of _why_ he believes what he does, even when it was clear _what_ he believed. For instance, on pages 100-101 he is concerned with four approaches to awareness, which he labels A through D. "D" is as follows:

Awareness cannot be explained by physical, computational, or any other scientific terms.

Here is, in its entirety, what he has to say about "D":

Finally, the is always viewpoint D, according to which it is a mistake to look at these issues in terms of science at all. Perhaps awareness cannot be explained in scientific terms.

Penrose likes one of the other four positions, which is clearly stated, as is "D." But I would have liked to see Penrose develop in detail the reasons for his rejecting D. He does this only indirectly, by arguing for his preferred alternative, and this quite briefly.

I think that I understood enough of the book to say that if Penrose turns out to be even roughly correct, he will be regarded as one of the great geniuses of the century. His proposals are bold, and deal with questions of the greatest interest. If only I could have followed his arguments!

I hope that somebody who can follow his arguments posts a review.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The clearest statement of Penrose's philosophy to date. 2 Dec 1998
By A Customer - Published on
A previous commentator claimed that this book was not readable enough for a mass audience--I have to disagree with this view wholeheartedly. I would say that his previous works, especially "Shadows of the Minds" were difficult to digest due to the amount of mathematics contained in almost all of the chapters (this doesn't negate the power of his ideas--he just makes them hard to understand). This latest work presents all of his major ideas on cosmology, quantum physics, and the nature of the mind in an extremely clear manner. His treatment of quantum physics is the best I've seen to date in a popular work. A short and rewarding read.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lucid approach to establish a quantum-based mind theory 6 April 2004
By Nodas Boukovalas - Published on
Penrose concisely manages to give us an overview about 3 somehow interconnected fields, the mathematically described large-scale world, the deterministic quantum microcosm and the recently emergent mind science. His major aspiration is to see the new generation of scientists erecting a bridge between the quantum world and the always controversial substance of conscience.
Having in his mind (in a neo-platonic way) the idealistic nature of mathematics that apply to the physical world as a well-justified model, he firstly presents some themes from cosmology and abstract mathematics (e.g. hyperbolic, Riemann geometry), and why, in his opinion, Guth's inflationary universe theory, has weak points (see also Penrose's book- Difficulties with inflationary cosmology) In chapter 2 ,quantum physics related, he gives us interesting examples (the paradox& puzzles reference shows his great sense of humor) and explain us how wavefunction's reduction can assist us to deal with the probabilistic nature of events in this level.
In the most interesting third one, he is concerned to lay an in-depth foundation between quantum procedures through neurons, so as to explain his main belief - brain function (that creates conscience) can't be simulated through A.I. Even though I tend to prefer J.Searle opinion (presented in his book Mind,Brain & Science) Penrose's points are adequately justified, thus leaving an open window for Free Will.
In the next three chapters certain Penrose's point's are opposed from Shimony (physician, philosopher) Nancy Cartwright(logician, philosopher) and the renowned Steven Hawking.
Shimony in a formalistic language, but slightly excessive for the common reader, finally makes a conjecture about a hyperselection law, in order to avoid quantum dualism, while Mrs Cartwright sets a contronversy against the usefulness of a perception that sets Physics the only explanatory science for mind theory and not for example Biology.(which for Penrose is reduced to Physics)
Hawking denies an indispensable and direct correlation between quantum gravity and the yet inextricable conscience and in chapter 7 Penrose responds to all so as to end this dialectically fair and fruitful discussion.
Overall this was worth my time, not only for this subject's great interest but because Penrose explains his thesis, clearly and distinctly.The uprising need for 'popular' science is reflected and adequately satisfied through this lucid book which succinctly presents a contemporary overview in a 'hot' scientific field.
Even non-expert readers (no special background in maths or physics is needed) will be able to follow and admire the ongoing revolution of scientific thought.Given it was written in'97 I'm looking forward and will benevolently embrace another similar work of a splendid thinker such as Penrose
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars With reservations, a fascinating discussion 29 Jun 2003
By magellan - Published on
As my background is mainly in the brain sciences, I was most interested in what Penrose had to say about consciousness and the brain in this book, so I'll concentrate mostly on the chapter that had to do with that. This is not to say I didn't enjoy the other chapters, just that I'm not as qualified to critique those as I am the one on the brain. There has been a lot of speculation in recent years about such things as computability and the brain, quantum consciousness, and so on, and I was interested to find out what Penrose might have to say about that.
One of Penrose's major ideas in this chapter is his demonstration that consciousness, although perhaps mathematical, isn't computable, in the sense that you could program a computer to simulate it. Penrose uses the example of geometric tilings or polyominos that are deterministic in their coverage of the Euclidean plane, but that aren't computable, to show this. Since, as Penrose points out, there are plenty of mathematical concepts that aren't computable and that can't be done on a computer, but that the human mind can understand, Penrose concludes that there is something beyond computability in both pure mathematics and the human brain.
This is interesting, and Penrose might be right about that. However, I must point out that while consciousness itself may not be computable (and I'm not really prepared to conclude this for sure at this point, because of what I'm about to say), nevertheless, many aspects of the brain's functioning have been shown to be computable, so I'd like to discuss that briefly.
For example, sensory neurophysiology has been shown to be both quite mathematical and computational as a result of the work of a pioneering mathematician by the name of David Marr 25 years ago, whose ideas revolutionized neurobiology almost overnight, after which the field was never the same. Marr examined a number of different fundamental sensory mechanisms, and showed, for the first time, that the way in which the visual system was processing light information was consistent with the operation of certain sophisticated spatial-frequency filtering transforms that are well-known in many engineering applications. To mention just a few of his important ideas, Marr's demonstrations that retinal receptive-field geometry could be derived by Fourier transformation of spatial-frequency sensitivity data, that edges and contours could be detected by finding zero crossings in the light gradient by taking the Laplacian or second directional derivative, that excitatory and inhibitory receptive fields could be constructed from "DOG" functions (the difference of two Gaussians), and that the visual system used a two-dimensional convolution integral with a Gaussian prefilter as an operator for bandwidth optimization on the retinal light distribution, were more powerful than anything that had been seen up to that time.
It was as if vision research suddenly acquired its own Newtonian Principia Mathematica, or perhaps General Relativity Theory, in terms of the new explanatory power Marr's theories provided. Basically, in one fell swoop sensory neurobiology also became an area of theoretical physics rather than purely biology, giving the area a rigor and elegance never before seen--an amazing achievement for a young man who died so prematurely from leukemia at the age of 36.
The main point of all this is that all of these mechanisms are both mathematical and computable, although the way in which they're done in the brain is probably more like how a computer would use numerical analysis to solve a differential equation, rather than using the original equations in a purely analytical way themselves. Since Marr's time, there has been further progress in this area, such as the great Bela Julesz's demonstrations that the visual system can extract and compute binocular disparity cues point-by-point for depth information from abstract, non-representational pictures or textures such as random-dot stereograms, the extension of Marr's ideas about monochromatic edge detection into color edge detection, the mathematical bases of non-linear visual field distortions present in optical illusions, and many other areas.
Furthermore, in the last few years, the nature of consciousness itself has been shown to be composed of many different separate mechanisms in the brain that are being coordinated in time in order for consciousness to occur. It simply isn't one process or central program that runs in the brain, nor is there a "master" brain center that one can point to where it can be said that consciousness resides. I'm sure the progress of this research will also have implications for ideas about the nature and computability of consciousness.
So overall, a fascinating and enjoyable discussion about the brain and consciousness by Penrose, even if I don't completely accept one of his major ideas about it for the reasons that I discuss above.
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