July 6, 2010

Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , , at 8:56 pm by Jeremy

Here’s a working draft of the Introductory section of my book, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.  I invite constructive comments from readers of my blog.

[Click here for a pdf version of this post].

 


 

FINDING THE LI: TOWARDS A DEMOCRACY OF CONSCIOUSNESS

 


 

 

Introduction.

Imagine a satellite being launched into geosynchronous orbit, but its controls aren’t working too well.  If the trajectory gets too steep, the satellite will break through earth’s gravity field and soar into outer space, leaving earth behind forever.  On the other hand, if the calculations were wrong, the resistance of the atmosphere might become too great, and the satellite would come crashing down to earth in a fiery ball.  Only if everything is managed with great care will the satellite achieve its stable orbit, locking into synchrony with the earth.

I see our human trajectory like that satellite.  Our ever accelerating rate of technological innovation has allowed the human race to accomplish things that couldn’t have been dreamt of even a hundred years ago.  And the daily advances in areas like microchip technology and genetic engineering offer promises of ever more fantastic achievements.  At the exponentially increasing pace of this technological change, it won’t be too long before artificial intelligence transcends human intelligence and human DNA can be safely enhanced to produce an improved species.  That’s the analogy of the satellite breaking through earth’s gravity field to leave its home planet behind forever.

But there’s no guarantee that this is what the future holds for our species.  Our technological progress has been based on exploiting our world’s natural resources at an ever-increasing pace, to the point that the current rate of material progress appears unsustainable on many fronts.  In addition to the threat of climate change, there is a rapidly accumulating list of equally daunting issues such as capacity limits in crucial resources like oil and water, deforestation, desertification, oceans emptying of fish and a massive extinction of species.  If the convergence of these multiple threats becomes too much to handle, our global civilization might face a total collapse.  This is the analogy of the satellite hitting too much resistance and crashing down in a fiery ball.

To me, and most likely to you too, neither of those scenarios is attractive.  But is it possible for the human race to manage the trajectory it’s on closely enough to reach a stable orbit?  What would it take for us to achieve that?  That’s a question this book attempts to answer.  But the approach taken in this book has very little to do directly with global economics or environmental politics.  There are plenty of other books currently being published offering plans for social and political transformations that could help to put us on a more sustainable course.  The fundamental problem, however, is that as long as each of us continues to live according to the values infused in us through our culture, it’s not realistic to expect any real change in the human trajectory.

This book is based on the premise that there are some fundamental, structural elements to our modes of thought that drive our global culture on its accelerating and unsustainable path.  Understanding those foundational structures requires looking deeply into the historical and psychological sources of how we currently think.  It may not be a simple journey, but it’s only when these foundations are clearly understood that we can explore possibilities to rebuild our patterns of thought in ways that might permit us to enjoy a sustainable future on our planet.

This book takes us on a journey into the depths of our modern consciousness and identifies some faults in the foundations.  At the same time, it offers an alternative foundation of thought, based on a fusion of scientific insight and traditional wisdom, that could provide us with a sturdier basis for the next phase in our human project.

In order to accomplish this exploration, the book is divided into three parts.  The first part attempts to understand what happened historically to our collective consciousness that put us on our current trajectory.  It offers what I call a “cognitive history,” an investigation into the major historical factors that structure our modern consciousness, from the earliest days of the human race to the present day.  The second part examines the biological source of our consciousness and explores the new view of life as a dynamic, self-organized system proposed by leading thinkers in biology and complexity science.  The final part of the book integrates learnings from the first two parts, offering a way of thinking about ourselves and our relationship with the natural world that synthesizes major themes from both Chinese and Western thought traditions, proposing a worldview that could bridge the chasm that currently exists between science and spirituality and could potentially offer a path for sustainable living on our earth.

What follows is a more detailed description of each of these three parts.

Part I:  An archaeology of the mind

The first part of this book conducts what may be thought of as an “archaeology of the mind.”  It attempts to uncover the layers of cognitive structures that comprise our modern consciousness and investigate how they were originally formed.  In order to do that, we have to go back to the very origins of our species and determine what it was that made homo sapiens unique in the history of our planet.  From that foundation, we take a look at the worldview of our hunter-gatherer ancestors  who have accounted for the vast bulk of human history.  Then, layer by layer, we’ll trace how the phenomenon of agriculture transformed the world, and how this in turn paved the way for the great early civilizations that spanned the continents.

At that point, though, our archaeology dig stumbles on a strange bifurcation in its cognitive search.  We’ll take a close look at how, roughly twenty five hundred years ago, a unique confluence of cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean led to the emergence of an unprecedented dualistic cosmology, a complete separation of the eternal and sacred from the material and profane, which has formed the basis of our modern worldview.  At the same time, we’ll see how in China, separated by the Himalayas from their contemporaries in the West, a sophisticated and fundamentally different cosmology emerged from earlier shamanistic and agricultural traditions.  We’ll begin to explore the significance of these contrasting worldviews, and see how they led to a divergence in the way people understood themselves and their relation to the natural world.

Back in the West, we’ll trace how the Christian view of the universe permitted the astonishing transformation of thought that led to the Scientific Revolution, the gateway to our modern world.  We’ll see how fundamental concepts that we take for granted nowadays, such as Reason, Truth, Measurement, Time and Progress, evolved over the past two millennia into their modern forms.

The tyranny of the prefrontal cortex

As we conduct our archaeology of the mind, we’ll be viewing our findings through a lens that’s been provided by recent developments in neuroscience.  A major thesis of this book is that a crucial part of the human brain – the prefrontal cortex – has played a central role in the human story.  The prefrontal cortex (hereinafter referred to as the “pfc”) is that part of the brain responsible for mediating those cognitive abilities we view as uniquely human, such as symbolic thought, abstraction, planning, rule-making and imposing meaning on things.  It’s a part of the brain that’s far more developed in humans than in other mammals.

Neuroscientists have already established for some time now that the pfc is a central component of human uniqueness.  But this book’s thesis goes beyond that.  It argues that the unique evolutionary expansion of the pfc in the human brain, combined with the dynamics of culture (itself a product of pfc activity) has created a positive feedback loop leading to an imbalance within the human psyche, both collectively and individually.  Within each culture, a cognitive network of symbols constructed over countless generations imposes itself on the mind of each child growing up, structuring the pathways of that child’s cognitive perception.  This structuring gives each individual’s pfc a greater role in shaping a person’s consciousness than it would otherwise have.

This has been true for all the different cultures that have evolved throughout the world over the millennia.  But this book proposes that, along with the rise of a dualistic worldview, something unique happened to the relative power of the pfc within human consciousness in the Western world.  For the first time in human thought, the pfc’s function for abstraction became a core value in itself.  Reason was separated from emotion.  Abstraction became conjoined with the notion of an eternal and omniscient monotheistic God.  The human soul became defined on the basis of the abstracting function of the pfc, and viewed as eternal and holy, the link between human and God.  Conversely, that part of the human experience that we share with other animals and is less dependent on the pfc – our instincts and our physical sensations – became viewed as inferior.  Paralleling this dualistic, split view of the human being, mankind’s relationship with nature experienced a similar divergence: nature became increasingly seen as something separate from mankind, something that lacked an eternal soul.

While the pfc’s capability for abstraction was forming an eternal God in its own image in the Western world, a very different cosmology was developing in East Asia.  Over the course of a millennium, two indigenous Chinese thought traditions – Taoism and Confucianism – became infused with Buddhist ideas imported from India, leading to the flowering of a philosophy known as Neo-Confucianism.  Around the time that William the Conqueror was invading England, the Song dynasty of China was conceiving an integrated view of the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds that placed the pfc-mediated functions in harmony with the other aspects of human experience, in direct contrast to the dualism developing in the West.  Specifically, the Neo-Confucianists thought of the universe in terms of dynamic patterns, or li, which organized how matter and energy, or ch’i, were manifested.  They saw the living world as one gigantic, interconnected organism, and in fact their cosmology has been referred to as an “organismic” worldview.

In recent centuries, however, traditional Chinese thought – along with other indigenous cosmologies around the world – has been overwhelmed by the modern, scientific worldview which hitched a ride along with the global military and industrial conquests of the Western powers.  And the first section of this book goes on to examine the cognitive roots of the scientific revolution that has so transformed our world.

In the traditional narrative of European history, the rise of the scientific worldview is generally seen as being in opposition to Christian theology.  The current ongoing raucous debate between the two sides may be presented as evidence enough for this.  But viewed from the lens of the pfc’s influence over human consciousness, the scientific revolution appears as yet another stage in the pfc’s rise to power.  In fact, “power over nature” (including our own human nature) may be identified as the hallmark of the scientific revolution, a theme introduced by Francis Bacon in the 17th century that has since become a foundation of modern thought.  And the systematic application of reason has now become generally viewed as the only way to arrive at an objective truth.

I’ve called this cognitive imbalance the “tyranny of the pfc” over the rest of our consciousness.  The choice of this term is designed to communicate the notion that it’s both an unnatural and unstable dynamic.  In fact, this tyranny of the pfc has been responsible for creating the current unsustainable trajectory for the human race.  Whether it continues to successfully harness technology to take us into a future of genetically engineered super-humans and artificial super-intelligence, or whether it ransacks the desacralized natural world into ruin, either way life as we know it will be headed for extinction.  Either our humanity or our civilization is at risk.

Part II: An exploration of the pfc, consciousness and life

The term “tyranny of the pfc” is used in the first section to describe how our modern set of values overemphasizes certain characteristics of our thought processes that are mediated by the pfc, to the profound detriment of both our own experience of ourselves as well as our relationship to the natural world.  The second section explores the fundamental question: since the pfc is a central part of our human uniqueness, is the “tyranny of the pfc” an inevitable outcome of humanity’s cultural evolution? Or is there in fact another basis for us to understand ourselves and to experience our relationship with the world around us?

The section begins by using recent insights from neuroscience research to examine the ways in which the pfc makes us uniquely human, and then starts digging down into the very roots of consciousness and life.  It distinguishes between the kind of pfc-mediated consciousness experienced only by humans, conceptual consciousness, and the kind that we share with other animals: animate consciousness.  But where does animate consciousness come from?  As we uncover the remarkable complexities of other life forms and the astonishing workings of individual cells,  we begin to see how even individual bacteria make choices.  This exploration leads us to a form of intelligence existing at a cellular level, which has been described as “the intelligence that lurks in nonhuman nature,” and which I refer to as animate intentionality.  Understanding animate intentionality takes us on a path that opens up a different perspective on human consciousness and indeed, on life itself.

Finding the li

How do creatures without a brain – plants, fungi, bacteria – figure out what to do?  How do creatures with tiny brains – ants, bees, termites – act so smart as a group?  Biologists have achieved major insights into these puzzles in recent years by analyzing what is known as self-organization: the principles by which highly complex living systems can achieve sustained levels of intelligence, order and flexibility.  This has led some biologists and philosophers to the fundamental notion of life itself as a self-organized system, which becomes a cornerstone for the new way of looking at ourselves and our world proposed in this book.  In this view, the dynamic organization of a system, the ways in which each of its parts interrelate, are more significant than the physical matter of which the system is comprised.

Think of a photograph taken of yourself when you were a child.  Most of the cells that were in that child no longer exist in your body.  Even the cells that do remain, such as brain and muscle cells, have reconfigured their own internal contents, so that probably none of the molecules forming that child in the photograph are part of you now.  So what is it that still connects you to that child?  It’s the principles of self-organization in your body, the ever-dynamic but remarkably stable interrelationships existing within and between the cellular components of your body and your brain.

But these interrelationships don’t just stop at the boundary of your body.  In fact, these principles of dynamic self-organization apply to all living systems, from the tiniest cell to the largest ecosystem.  From this perspective, all living organisms can be seen as both comprising smaller self-organized systems, and at the same time being a part of one or more larger self-organized systems.  In this view, no living system is self-sufficient, but is interdependent within what is known as the holarchy, a conceptual model of systems acting within systems.  The largest system of all in the holarchy would be the biosystem of the Earth, which is sometimes referred to as Gaia, named after the Greek goddess of the Earth.

If this description of life reminds you a little of the Neo-Confucian view of the world as one giant, interconnected organism, this is no coincidence.  Remarkably, the principles of self-organization that modern biologists and complexity theorists have uncovered may be understood as the very same dynamic that traditional Neo-Confucian philosophers in China described as the “li.”  In both cases, the emphasis is on understanding the interrelated, dynamic qualities of a living system as its most important feature, rather than merely analyzing the system’s physical components.  However, whereas modern scientific investigations use advanced mathematics and computer modeling to understand these principles, the Neo-Confucianists used their perspective on the li to achieve profound spiritual insights.  This astonishing and informative congruence of modern scientific thinking with a sophisticated, traditional worldview that flourished a thousand years ago becomes a major theme in the final section of the book.

Part III: Towards a democracy of consciousness

In Part I, our archaeology of the mind identified some flaws in the foundations of our modern worldview.  In Part II, our journey into the heart of consciousness revealed an alternative biological view of life that connects with the Neo-Confucian “li” from a thousand years ago.  The third section pulls together learnings from the past and the present into one integrated worldview, proposing an approach that bridges science and spirituality to lead us away from the tyranny of the pfc and towards a democracy of consciousness.

In our modern world, the tyranny of the pfc described in Part I has led us to a chasm that separates science and spirituality.  But other, non-Western traditional worldviews never experienced that split.  How did they deal with those attributes of the pfc that make us uniquely human?

The classic Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, begins with the words, “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the everlasting Tao,” and many of the following pages reinforce this theme.  Language – that uniquely human and most powerful of all artifacts created by our pfc – is seen as anathema to an understanding of the Tao. Similarly, when we turn to Buddhist thought, we find a systematic attempt to undo the constraints of the pfc’s conceptualizations.  The Buddhist emphasis on living in the present moment can be seen as a way to avoid the constructions of past and future that are the hallmark of pfc-mediated activity.  Interestingly, these traditions shared an emphasis on cultivating the mind through the practice of meditation, to integrate mind and body and to quiet the incessant chatter of our pfc-based inner narratives.

Of course, in the West, there have been those who fought against the tyranny of the pfc, but they didn’t have a systematic foundation of thought like Taoism or Buddhism to turn to in their struggle.  I call these people – such as Wordsworth, Blake or Van Gogh – “pfc rebels” and as such they have tended to surface in the arts, a social safety valve that has allowed Western mainstream thought to keep its structure secured.  And there has also been a philosophical tradition, from Aristotle to Spinoza and the 20th century phenomenologists, which has attempted to see the world from something like the Neo-Confucianist perspective of the li, but it’s generally been hidden by the glare of mainstream Western dualist thought, and as such I call it the “moonlight tradition.”

In our modern Western world, even without the practices of Taoism and Buddhism, there are still plenty of ways that each of us, on an ad hoc basis, finds moments to escape pfc tyranny.  Some people have experienced moments of pfc-liberation through taking hallucinogenic drugs.  The vast majority of us have known those special moments, in sporting activities, walking in nature, looking a loved one in the eyes, or making love, when the constructs and abstractions of the pfc melt away and we’re fully in touch with our animate consciousness.  Perhaps the most common form of ongoing “pfc disobedience” is music, that pervasive and primal vehicle of communication that we humans most likely used for millions of years before language evolved.

Liology

Yet all these ad hoc moments of freedom from pfc tyranny are not enough.  Individually, our lives are controlled by values that are not entirely our own; and globally, we’re all doing our part to drive that human trajectory on its unsustainable crash course with the Earth.  We need a more systematic framework on a stable foundation to move towards a democracy of consciousness.  The one that I propose is called liology.  The very word liology is designed to demonstrate that it is a fusion of Western and Eastern worldviews: the Neo-Confucian notion of the li merging with the Western scientific tradition (the “ology” part which is Greek for “study”).  Liology means a study of the organizing principles that link all living entities, a project (in Heraclitus’ words) “to know the principles by which all things are steered through all things.”  But it’s not just a “study” in the conventional Western scientific meaning of pfc-based analysis.  It’s also an investigation of ourselves and the natural world using both our animate and conceptual consciousness.  And the “li” that is studied is both a scientific and spiritual term.  In liology, there’s no fundamental distinction between the two.  Liology is proposed,  not as a substitute for conventional Western science, but as a complement to it.  Realizing the intrinsic connectedness of all things, liology would tend to lead to solutions that emphasize participation with, rather than control of, natural processes.

What liology means for us as individuals is a framework to achieve a democracy of consciousness within ourselves, to harmonize and integrate our conceptual and animate consciousness.  This has major implications for the values by which we choose to live our lives.  Liology will tend to emphasize a new set of values linking our human identity with the natural world, extending our circle of empathy beyond other humans to the interconnected li of other living entities all around us.  The destruction of the natural world, along with transcendence of our humanity into an abstract super-intelligence, would both be anathema to the values arising out of liology.

Finally, liology opens the possibility for broader spiritual growth.  The integration of our conceptual and animate consciousness, combined with an increasing awareness of the connectivity of our li with the li all around us, offers a path to transcend the fixed sense of self that our pfc-oriented culture locks us into from early childhood.  A practice of liology can help us to experience the world that Neo-Confucian philosopher Chang Tsai described over a thousand years ago:

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and such a small creature as I find an intimate place in their midst.

All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.

Enjoy the ride!

May 31, 2010

The Strain Toward Transcendence: Axial Age Values

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Values and the pfc tagged , , , , at 3:04 pm by Jeremy

In the span of just a few short centuries, between roughly 750-350 BCE, human society in Europe and Asia was transformed by an array of original thinkers and new systems of thought never seen before in history.  The list is astonishing: Lao Tzu[1] and Confucius in China; the Buddha and the Upanishads in India; Zoroaster and the Old Testament in the Middle East; and Plato, Sophocles and so many other great minds in Ancient Greece.

Confucius: just one of the foundational philosophers of the Axial Age.

The German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, was the first to remark on this phenomenon in his book, The Origin and Goal of History, published in 1949.  He called it the Axial Age, because as he saw it, this period was like a great axis, when  “we meet with the most deep cut dividing line in history.  Man, as we know him today, came into being.”[2] Since then, the Axial Age has been a favorite subject of books and symposiums, with scholars trying to figure out exactly what was happening during those times, and why.

A general consensus has evolved that the new systematic ideologies that arose, speculating on mankind’s place in the cosmos and offering new sets of values for how we should interact with each other, were a result of the greater size and complexity of society.  Cities were getting bigger; empires covered vast tracts of land, incorporating multiple diverse cultures.  Author Robert Wright offers a good summary of some of these changes:

Certainly [the first millennium BCE] is a millennium of great material change.  Coins are invented, and appear in China, India, and the Middle East.  Commercial roads grow, crossing political bounds.  In the course of this millennium, markets… supplant state-controlled economies.  Cities get accordingly big and vibrant and, in many cases, more ethnically diverse… [M]ore and more people found themselves in an environment radically unlike the environment natural selection had ‘designed’ people for.[3]

But in fact, as I’ve described in a previous post on agricultural values, people had already evolved new sets of values for thousands of years that separated them from the hunter-gatherer values we’d been selected for by evolution.  So to be precise, the Axial Age, in my view, represents a second step away from that original value-constellation.

Why did Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia get bypassed by the Axial Age?

But there’s a big issue that’s not explained by the simple theory of society getting bigger and more complex.  The Axial Age revolution didn’t happen in all the great civilizations of Eurasia.  In fact, it completely bypassed the two civilizations that were among the greatest of them all: Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, as has been noticed by classical scholar Benjamin Schwartz among others.[4] Why was that?

My own theory is that Mesopotamia and Egypt were simply too stable and monolithic.  Things generally worked there.  Sure, there were all kinds of crises and invasions, famines and catastrophes.  But through all their dynastic turbulence, the fact remains that both the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilization and culture continued in a fairly stable form for thousands of years.  Meanwhile, in each of the areas where Axial Age values did erupt, societies were enduring centuries of social and political instability and political fragmentation.

In China, Lao Tzu and Confucius emerged during an era known as the Warring States Period, when regional warlords were continually jostling for power with each other.  This only ended with the unification of China under the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE.

Not too much is known about the political structure in Northeast India at the time that produced the Upanishads and the Buddha, but the celebrated German Indologist Hermann Kulke describes it as a time when Aryan settlers from the northwest were bringing their ancient Brahmanical traditions into contact with the indigenous populations.  As he describes it:

Nowhere in the whole of Northern India the contrast and even opposition between Brahmanical and monarchical institutions on the one side and indigenous and heterodox cults and pre-monarchical institutions on the other side seem to have been more striking than in the eastern countries.[5]

And once again, politically, the area was fragmented into a collection of “strong chieftaincies and small kingdoms.”

Exile to Babylon: one of the many catastrophes that led to the rise of Axial Age values.

The picture of instability and fragmentation is the same when you consider the Hebrew experience of constant invasions, destruction of their temple, and exile to Babylon.  And finally, while the Greeks were fortunate to avoid the catastrophes of the Hebrews, their culture was highly fragmented politically, with their city-states constantly at war with one another, uniting only temporarily to face the Persian threat from the east.

It took the existential angst of seeing communities continually beset by war and uncertainty, along with a lack of a central, unifying socio-cultural force, to generate the intellectual ferment that could give rise to the great breakthroughs of thought characterizing the Axial Age.  So what were these breakthroughs?  And did they share any common features, or where they all unique?

Probably the most important feature shared by all these Axial Age breakthroughs in thought was what Benjamin Schwartz has  called a “strain toward transcendence.”  Here’s how he describes it:

If there is nevertheless some common underlying impulse in all these “axial” movements, it might be called the strain toward transcendence… a kind of standing back and looking beyond – a kind of critical, reflective questioning of the actual and a new vision of what lies beyond.[6]

Following Schwartz, we can think of Axial Age philosophers observing the catastrophes occurring in their societies as a result of people following the primary values of the agricultural age, which I refer to as the Age of Anxiety.  These values extolled wealth and social hierarchies, glorified destruction of enemy nations, and emphasized propitiation of local, ancestral gods as a means to success.  Perhaps each of the foundational philosophers asked themselves how to transcend these destructive values, how to find a system of thought that could provide greater meaning and fulfillment to their communities.

If this was their aim, they seem to have succeeded, for in each Axial Age breakthrough we see a universalization of cosmological explanations and a broadening of the moral community to extend beyond the borders of a particular nation or empire.  As the philosopher of comparative religions, Huston Smith, has noted, each Axial Age breakthrough system established a form of the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would want them to do to you.  In his view, “these counsels of concern for the well-being of others were one of the glories of religion during its Axial period.”[7]

While each Axial Age breakthrough had this transcendent characteristic in common, their other notable element was how unique each new systematic philosophy was.  For the first time in history, different cultures established their own intellectual foundations for a worldview and began to evolve their thought traditions accordingly.  In China, India and the Eastern Mediterranean, three very different traditions evolved, each of which would affect the future course of their region’s history.

In China, the Taoist and Confucian traditions agreed on the underlying nature of the Tao as an intrinsic, dynamic force that harmonized heaven and earth.  They disagreed on how to interpret this force, whether to emphasize individual fulfillment or social harmony as a way to live one’s life, but they didn’t question the underlying cosmology.

The Buddha: his philosophy was in opposition to the prevailing Upanishadic doctrines.

In India, the Upanishads began to develop a systematic interpretation of the cosmos, linking the individual’s soul, or atman, with the universal being, or Brahman, and describing a spiritual path whereby a person could unlearn the habits of the mundane world and realize this universal linkage between himself and the universe.  The Buddha’s philosophy was, in some senses, in radical opposition to the Upanishadic doctrines, emphasizing a middle way between the alternatives of holy asceticism and worldly suffering.  However, even this radical departure continued to accept some underlying cosmological foundations of the Upanishads, specifically the belief in the soul’s reincarnation and the ultimate goal of release from the continual cycle of rebirths.[8]

In the Eastern Mediterranean, the two major Axial breakthroughs of Hebrew monotheism and Greek rationalism at first seem very different.  They do, however, share a structural element that underlies both the Christian and Islamic cosmologies, forming the foundation of the monotheistic worldview that has since dominated vast regions of the world.  This structural element can be summarized as the world’s first truly dualistic worldview, a universe comprised of two utterly different dimensions: an eternal dimension that is sacred, immaterial and unchanging; and a worldly dimension that is profane, material and mortal.  This same dualism is applied to both the external world and to the internal world of human nature, splitting the human being into two: a body and a soul.

This extreme dualism[9] is so pervasive in our modern world that many of us just take it for granted without even questioning its origins.  But in fact, it’s unique in the history of human thought, and following the conquests by Christian and Islamic powers over so much of the world,  it’s had a powerful effect on billions of lives and the direction of our entire world.  The next post will examine the sources and implications of this relatively new and powerful layer of human values.


[1] In fact, most scholars nowadays believe that Lao Tzu was not a real person, but that the Tao Te Ching was a compilation from multiple authors.

[2] Cited by Watson, P. (2005). Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, New York: HarperCollins.

[3] Wright, R. (2009). The Evolution of God, New York: Hachette Book Group, 238-9.

[4] Schwartz, B. I. (1975). “The Age of Transcendence.” Dædalus, 104(2), 1-7.

[5] Kulke, H. (1986). “The Historical Background of India’s Axial Age”, in S. N. Eisenstadt, (ed.), The Origins & Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[6] Schwartz, op. cit.

[7] Smith, H. (1982/2003). Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization, Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

[8] Whether the Buddha himself accepted the doctrine of reincarnation, or whether his followers infused the Buddha’s original ideas with some of the trappings of the contemporary cosmological speculations, remains a controversial topic.  See Batchelor S. (2010). Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.

[9] I call it “extreme dualism” to differentiate it from a fuzzier kind of “dualism” intrinsic to human thought, whereby a certain “essence” or “spirit” is seen to exist separately from the material body.  However, in earlier forms of “dualism,” the spirit is still thought to have a material existence, frequently associated with the breath, the wind, or something with a much finer essence than the body.

March 31, 2010

Avatar: A 21st century aspirational cosmology

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Infinition tagged , , , , at 3:01 pm by Jeremy

In most of the world, seeing Avatar in 3D is a recent phenomenon.  But in India, Avatar’s already been around in 3D for about three thousand years.  What I’m referring to, of course, is the original word “avatar”, which meant the manifestation of God in a material form that humans could see and hear.  In a famous scene from the Bhagavad Gita, prince Arjuna is leading his army, lined up and ready for battle, when he suddenly loses his nerve and asks his charioteer, Krishna, what to do.  But Krishna is no ordinary charioteer.  He is actually an avatar of Vishnu, come to earth to teach Arjuna the nature of the Supreme Being.

Mohini, female avatar of Vishnu... Note the resemblance to the Na’vi?

At first sight, this might seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with James Cameron’s megahit movie.  After all, we all know that an avatar in today’s parlance is just your online persona, how you choose to be seen in the virtual world.  But Cameron takes the technology notion and twists and bends it as far as it will go without breaking, pulling it into a metaphysical world which is strikingly similar to the cosmology of the Jains and Hindus of India.

Even that might not seem particularly noteworthy, until you consider the massive popularity that Avatar has commanded.  I suggest that, in addition to the beautiful 3D effects and the uplifting Pocahontas-style storyline, one of the subliminally powerful attractions of Avatar is that it appeals to an unresolved desire of our generation for the kind of mystical cosmology that’s been on offer in India for millennia.   Only in Avatar’s cosmology, the path to eternal salvation doesn’t require meditation or renunciation, just a plugging into the high tech, organic network of the planet Pandora.  It’s an aspirational cosmology of the 21st century.

Critic Daniel Mendelsohn has written an insightful article in The New York Review of Books where he sees the techno-organic abilities of the Na’vi – the native people of Pandora with “their organic connector cables, their ability to upload and download consciousness itself” – as the “ultimate expression” of James Cameron’s “career-long striving to make flesh mechanical.”  Mendelsohn sees in all this “something deeply unself-aware and disturbingly unresolved within Cameron himself.”  Now personally, I don’t care too much about James Cameron’s psyche.  But what I want to explore is whether Avatar’s phenomenal success is partially driven by something “disturbingly unresolved” in the psyche of our modern world.  Something that harkens back to the original meaning of that word avatar, to the roots of an ancient cosmology that lives on to this very day in the longings of our modern soul.

An increasing number of Americans are having mystical experiences.

How could this be?  We typically think of the United States as an overwhelmingly Christian nation.  But a recent Pew survey shows that, in addition to their traditional Christian faith, “significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs.”  For example, 24% of the public, and 22% of professed Christians, say they believe in reincarnation.  And three out of ten Americans have “felt in touch with someone who has already died.”   Half of those surveyed (49%) say they have had a religious or mystical experience, and about a quarter (26% of public, 23% of Christians) believe that spiritual energy exists in natural objects such as trees.

It’s this yearning for something beyond either pure science or traditional Christianity that I believe Avatar has tapped into.  It’s a cosmology ancient in its origins but updated by Cameron to the 21st century.  The key to understanding this phenomenon lies in the central metaphor of the world of Pandora, the flower pistil-like appendage sported by the native Na’vi that critic Caleb Crain has dubbed a “ponytail-USB port.” At the end of the movie, the flesh-and-blood human hero, Jake, permanently crippled in an accident back on the “home planet,” is plugged in to the all-pervading animist spirit of the planet, named Eywa, and his consciousness transferred to what was previously just his avatar.  Through the mystical powers of Pandora’s world-spirit, Jake has transcended his earthly incarnation.  As Crain amusingly described it:

on Cameron’s Pandora … the afterlife is more or less equivalent to cloud computing. Once you upload yourself, you don’t really have to worry about crashing your hard drive. Your soul is safe in Google Docs. In a climactic scene, rings of natives chant and sway, ecstatically connected, while the protagonists in the center plug into the glowing tree, and I muttered silently to myself, “The church of Facebook. You too can be reborn there.”

Crain is mocking the same cosmological commingling of themes that leads Mendelsohn to see something “disturbingly unresolved” in Cameron.  But in their critiques, I think they’re glossing over some fascinating cosmological implications of this central metaphor that achieves a fusion of technological motifs (Internet, electricity grid, data transfer) ecological themes (interconnectedness of nature) and spiritual aspiration (immortality).

In our western monotheistic tradition, the absolute duality of body and soul doesn’t permit the kind of metaphorical fusion that Cameron accomplishes in Avatar.  Souls are immaterial and eternal.  God is infinite and separate from the changing world.  We humans are a schizophrenic creation with both bodies and souls.  “With my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin,” said St. Paul in a foundational statement of Western dualism.[1]

In contrast, the same Indian tradition that gave us the word “avatar” offers a different take on hard-core body/soul Western dualism.  Hindu and Jain cosmology posits a soul or jiva that’s more like the electricity that runs through the grid.  Here’s how the great classical Indian scholar, Heinrich Zimmer, describes it:

Jainism regards the life-monad (jiva) as pervading the whole organism; the body constitutes, as it were, its garb; the life-monad is the body’s animating principle.  And the subtle substance of this life-monad is mingled with particles of karma, like water with milk, or like fire with iron in a red-hot, glowing iron ball.[2]

Unlike the abstract Christian soul (inherited from Platonic dualism), the Jain/Hindu jiva (which comes from the same Indo-European root as the Latin word vivus “alive”) is what makes dead matter come alive.  What’s more, this life-principle jiva pervades the whole cosmos:

According to Jaina cosmology, the universe is a living organism, made animate throughout by life-monads which circulate through its limbs and spheres; and this organism will never die.  We ourselves, furthermore – i.e., the life-monads contained within and constituting the very substance of the imperishable great body – are imperishable too…[3]

Now is this beginning to sound more and more like the world of Pandora?  For the Jains, Indian scholar Arthur Basham tells us, “every plant is the home of a soul or a colony of souls and, moreover, there are souls in rocks, water, and air.”[4] As the avatar Krishna tells Arjuna on the battlefield, “I pervade the entire universe in my unmanifested form.  All creatures find their existence in me, but I am not limited by them.  Behold my divine mystery!”[5]

Now, in the traditional world that sourced these ideas, it wasn’t too easy for a regular guy to gain access to this transcendent world.  “Every being dwells on the very brink of the infinite ocean of the force of life,” Zimmer tells us, but diving off that brink required a lifetime of devotion to the intense spiritual practices of traditional yoga.  The Katha Upanishad gives a sense of how difficult this journey could be:

The Self is not to be sought through the senses… This self cannot be attained by instruction, nor by intellectual power, nor even through much hearing… Not by speech, not by mind, not by sight can it be apprehended.  There the eye goes not, nor the mind; we know not, we understand not how one can teach this…

When the five senses, together with the mind, cease from their normal activities and the intellect itself does not stir, that, they say, is the highest state… This they consider to be Yoga, the steady control of the senses….[6]

Well, that doesn’t sound like a very appealing journey to our 21st century mindset, does it?  After all, for us moderns, instant convenience is the gold standard of value.  And that’s where Cameron swoops in to perform his technological wizardry, substituting arduous Yogic austerity and self-discipline with the wonders of the pistil-like USB port.  Wouldn’t that be so great, if technology could do for transcendence and immortality what it’s already done for calculations, picture-taking and music?

The thing is, there are people out there who really believe this notion of immortality through technology.  Futurist Raymond Kurzweil longs for the “singularity,” when artificial intelligence becomes smarter than the human variety.[7] Danielle Egan reports from a convention of so-called “transhumanists,” who “plan to bypass death” through technology, “eventually merging people with machines to make us immortal.”[8] Respected biologist Lynn Margulis, a leader in proposing the theory of endosymbiosis – which tells us that every cell in our bodies evolved from a fusion of different single-celled entities – speculates about a future “superhuman” organism:

individual humans should not be surprised if the aggregate of planetary humanity shows unexpected, emergent, seemingly purposeful behaviors.  If brainless bacteria merged into fused protists, which cloned and changed themselves over evolutionary time into civilization, what spectacle will emerge from human beings in global aggregation?[9]

But wait a minute… Let’s get back to that “disturbingly unresolved” issue that Mendelsohn mentioned.  This is our world we’re talking about now, not the world of Pandora.  A world that’s digging deeper for the last of the oil, that’s turning rainforests into palm plantations, that’s emptying the oceans of fish, that’s on an unsustainable, accelerating collision course with environmental disaster.  How can that be resolved with the notion of technology as spiritual salvation?

Plastic rulers bend… but they can also sometimes snap.

Remember those flexible plastic rulers we used back at high school?  Some of them were bendy enough that you could take one end and bring it round to touch the other end.  But occasionally, one would be made of a more brittle plastic, and if you tried that maneuver, the ruler would snap into two parts.  In a sense, Avatar offers us a vision of a world where the two poles of technological progress and spiritual transcendence bend around and meet each other, closing the circle.  But is our world flexible enough that this could in fact be achieved?  Or will the center snap while we’re putting all our energy into bending the ends together?  Avatar may offer an aspirational cosmology for the 21st century, but whether our world will actually get there without the center snapping may turn out to be the biggest question facing humanity in this century and beyond.  No wonder Avatar beat all the box office records.


[1] Romans 7:25.

[2] Zimmer, H. (1951/1989). Philosophies of India, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 227-9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Basham, A. L. (1989). The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism, New York: Oxford University Press, 127.

[5] Easwaran, E. ed. (1985). The Bhagavad Gita, E. Easwaran, translator, Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 132.

[6] Cited in: McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press, 190-192.

[7] Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near, New York: Penguin Books.

[8] Egan, D. (2007).  “Death Special: The Plan for Eternal Life”, New Scientist, 13 October 2007.

[9] Margulis, L., and Sagan, D. (1995/2000). What Is Life?, Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 235.

February 22, 2010

Stages in the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex: an overview

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Language and Myth, Monotheism, Pfc tyranny: overview, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:26 pm by Jeremy

[Click here to open pdf file: “Stages in the Tyranny of the Pfc” and view the table that accompanies this post.]

In this blog, I propose that the prefrontal cortex has created an imbalance within our human consciousness, gaining power over other aspects of our cognition.  I’ve called this situation a “tyranny.”  That’s a pretty dramatic word, and I’ve offered a detailed review of why I think it’s appropriate.

In this post, I’m going to trace a high-level overview of the historical stages I see in the pfc’s rise to power.  It will be much easier to follow this post if you click here to open a pdf file in another window, containing a table that summarizes what I’m describing.  If you can keep both windows open, you can follow what I’m describing more easily.

For each stage of the pfc’s rise to power, I’ll briefly describe the main human accomplishments and primary new values arising from that stage.  Also, I’ll touch on the changing view of the natural world.   Whenever you want to drill a little deeper, click on the section’s title (or the links in the pdf file) to get you to a blog post that describes the pfc-stage in some more detail.  I’ll be continually adding more detail on this blog, so keep posted.

Pfc1: Stirrings of Power

Stirrings of symbolic expression: female figurine from over 30,000 years ago

The pfc’s stirrings of power began with the emergence of modern Homo sapiens, around 200,000 years ago.  These ancestors of ours were all hunter-gatherers.  Basic tools and fire had already been mastered by previous Homo species (such as Homo erectus).  But Homo sapiens began a symbolic revolution which erupted around 30,000 years ago in Europe, comprising symbolic communication in the forms of art, myth, and fully developed language.[1] The prevailing metaphor of Nature was probably something like a “generous parent.”  Uniquely human values began developing, such as “parochial altruism” (defend your own tribe but fight others), “reciprocal generosity” and fairness.[2]

Pfc2: Ascendancy to Power

Specialization of skills: writing tablet from Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

Roughly ten thousand years ago, in the Near East, some foragers stumbled on a new way of getting sustenance from the natural world and occasionally began to settle in one place.  Animals and plants began to be domesticated, evolving into forms that were more advantageous for humans and relied on human management for their survival.  Notions of property and land ownership arose.  Hierarchies and inequalities developed within a society, along with specialization of skills (including writing).  Massive organized projects, such as irrigation, began to take place.  Cities and empires soon followed.

New sets of values arose with these sweeping changes in human behavior.  Property ownership and hierarchies elevated the social values of wealth and power.  Patriarchy became a driving force, leading to increased gender inequality and the commoditization of women.  People’s identity began expanding beyond kin and tribe, to incorporate national identity.

The natural world was increasingly seen through the metaphor of an ancestor/divinity that needed to be worshipped and propitiated.  Nature could cause devastation as well as benefits to society.  Human activity was seen as integral to maintaining the order of the natural world.

Pfc3: The Coup

Saint Paul: Early Christianity merged Platonic and Judaic themes

In the Eastern Mediterranean, about 2,500 years ago, a unique notion first appeared: the idea of a completely abstract and eternal dimension in the universe and in each human psyche, which was utterly separate from the material world of normal experience.  Humans had always posited other-worldly spirits and gods with different physical dynamics than the mundane world.  But these spirits were conceived along a continuum of materiality.  Now, for the first time, the idea of a universal, eternal God with infinite powers arose, along with the parallel idea of an immaterial human soul existing utterly apart from the body.

Christianity merged the Platonic ideal of a soul with the Judaic notion of an infinite God to create the first coherent dualistic cosmology.  Islam absorbed both of these ideas into its doctrines.  Together, Christianity and Islam conquered large portions of the world and brought their dualism along with their military power.

For the first time, people identified themselves with universal values (such as salvation of the soul), which were seen as applying even to other groups who had no notion of these values.  Increasingly, mankind was viewed as separate from the natural world.  Following Genesis, Man was seen as having a God-given dominion over the rest of creation.

Pfc4: The Tyranny

Descartes: the natural world was increasingly seen as a soulless machine

In the 17th century, a Scientific Revolution erupted in Europe, leading to a closely linked Industrial Revolution, beginning a cycle of exponentially increasing technological change that continues to the present day.  Although the seeds of scientific thinking could be traced back to the 12th century (and even to ancient Greece), a radically different view of mankind’s relationship to the natural world caused a uniquely powerful positive feedback cycle in social and technological change.

Nature was increasingly seen as a soulless, material resource available for humanity’s consumption.  The natural world and the human being were both seen through the prism of a “machine” metaphor.

Multiple new values arose, that were seen to be universally applicable, derived from newly developed intellectual constructs, such as: liberty, reason, democracy, fascism, communism, capitalism.  These values all shared the underlying assumption that natural resources were freely available for human consumption, and differed in their proposed division of power and resources within human society.


[1] The precise timing of these developments continues to be fiercely debated.  The biggest open issue of all is the timing of language (anywhere from one million to one hundred thousand years ago), and whether a proto-language existed for a long time before modern language developed.

[2] Some of these values have been seen in modern chimpanzees and bonobos, but they are far more developed in humans.

February 4, 2010

Monotheism By Numbers?

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Monotheism tagged , , , , , , , at 7:15 pm by Jeremy

Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia

By Jean Bottéro

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001

Elsewhere on this blog, I argue that dualism and monotheism have caused a profound change in our collective consciousness over the past two thousand years.  Underlying the monotheistic/dualistic thought pattern is the notion that two different dimensions exist: a worldly dimension of the body, and an eternal dimension of the soul.  If my argument is correct, then prior to the advent of Platonic dualism and Judeo-Christian monotheism, people around the world must have viewed their cosmos with blurrier distinctions, not conceiving of two utterly different dimensions.

Jean Bottéro’s Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia is an authoritative but accessible assessment of one of the major worldviews that existed before the advent of dualism and monotheism.  Bottéro is “one of the world’s foremost experts on Assyriology,” having studied it for over fifty years and the book certainly delivers on its title, reviewing Mesopotamian religion from the perspectives of religious sentiments, conceptual representations, and behaviors.

So, does Bottéro’s review support my position?  I think it does, especially when you compare some of the themes he describes in Mesopotamia to the contemporary religious worldview in Ancient Egypt.  Although these two civilizations come from very different traditions, it’s fascinating to see how some of the underlying structural aspects of their worldviews are at the same time so similar to each other, and so fundamentally different from the later monotheism of Christianity.

One of the intriguing dynamics shared by both Mesopotamia and Egypt was the tendency to pray to a particular god as if he or she were the only god, or at least the only god that mattered.  This is known either as “monolatry” (from the Greek “single worship”) or “henotheism” (from the Greek “one god”).  Bottéro describes it as “a profound tendency… to encapsulate all sacred potential into the particular divine personality whom [the Mesopotamians] were addressing at a given moment.” He gives a few examples:

Anu was ‘the prince of the gods,’ but so was Sîn.  The ‘Word’ of each god was ‘preponderant’ and ‘was to be taken above those of the other gods,’ who were subjected to it, ‘trembling.’  Each god was ‘the ruler of Heaven and Earth,’ ‘sublime throughout the universe,’ supreme and ‘unequaled’.

Over in Egypt, they were doing just the same thing.  Egyptian scholar Erik Hornung describes how, “in the act of worship, whether it be in prayer, hymn of praise, or ethical attachment and obligation, the Egyptians single out one god, who for them at that moment signifies everything.”[1]

At first sight, this seems like a form of proto-monotheism, but Bottéro takes pains to deny that, asserting that “contrary to what has sometimes been believed… a true monotheism could scarcely be born out of this religion, which assuredly never ceased to intelligently rationalize and organize its polytheism, and which, in truth… never departed from it.”

One of the crucial ways in which Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmologies – indeed the cosmologies of every historic polytheistic culture worldwide – differed from monotheism was their acceptance of the gods of other cultures.  This goes beyond the notion of religious tolerance.  It was inconceivable to either the Mesopotamians or Egyptians to question the existence of another region’s gods.  Gods presided over specific areas, so it was quite consistent with polytheistic beliefs to worship your own gods even while your neighbors – and perhaps your enemies – were worshiping theirs.  Bottéro gives a helpful analogy, comparing this view to how we might think of political offices in the modern world:

The foreign pantheons were tacitly considered as what they were: the product of different cultures, with their members playing a role analogous to that played by the indigenous gods of Mesopotamia.  It was as if, on the supernatural level, they had recognized the existence of a certain number of divine functions, of which the titularies bore, depending on the lands and the cultures, different names and personalities – a bit like political offices, which were pretty much the same everywhere; only their names were different, as were those of the individuals who held the offices.

With this analogy, we can see how denying the existence of another region’s gods would be as nonsensical as Hillary Clinton traveling to China and denying that they have a Communist party.  Again, the Egyptians shared the same mindset.  Egyptian scholar Jan Assmann tells us how:

The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship.  The distinction I am speaking of [monotheistic true/false] simply did not exist in the world of polytheistic religions.[2]

Perhaps the most subtle yet profound disconnect between early polytheistic worldviews and monotheism was their lack of sharp distinctions between the realms of human and divine.  Gilgamesh was a mortal, an ancient king of Mesopotamia, and yet his parents, Lugalbanda and Ninsuna, were semi-divine.  The Epic of Gilgamesh tells us that “two-thirds of him is god; one-third of him is human,” leading Bottéro to conclude that “the notion of ‘divinity’ was somewhat ‘elastic.’”  Once again, over in Egypt, Assmann tells us, we see an “interpenetration of the cosmic, the sociopolitical, and the individual,” such that “the Egyptians did not view their gods and goddesses as beyond nature, but rather in nature and thus as nature.”

If monotheism represents such a vast disconnect from previous polytheistic thought, it’s reasonable to ask what were the underlying factors that led to this great shift.  My proposal is that certain functions mediated by the human prefrontal cortex – the capacity for abstraction and symbolization – gained increased prominence in our collective consciousness until they became values in themselves: the pure abstraction of an eternal, infinite God.  Interestingly, Bottéro identifies the seeds of this transformation in Mesopotamian culture: not in their polytheism, but rather in their attribution of divine value to their number system.

Bottéro notes how the number 60, the “supreme round number” (the Babylonians used the decimo-sexagesimal system), was attributed to Anu, “the supreme chief of the divine dynasty”, and 30 to Sîn, the moon god.  He explains how they were evaluating the divine nature of the gods by “assigning them the most immaterial and abstract concepts, the least ‘tangible’ they had available – numbers – as if they knew that to speak righteously of the gods it was necessary, insofar as was possible, to go beyond the material and carnal reality of humans.”

This “attempt to stress both the transcendence and the mystery of the supernatural world” might possibly be seen as a precursor to the Pythagorean assignment of transcendent meaning to numbers, which became a foundation for Plato’s dualistic worldview.  And the rest, as they say, is history.


[1] Hornung, E. (1971/1996). Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, J. Baines, translator, New York: Cornell University Press.

[2] Assmann, J. (1984/2001). The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, D. Lorton, translator, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

November 18, 2009

A False Choice: Reductionism or Dualism

Posted in Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , at 4:18 pm by Jeremy

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato fired the first shot across the bow in the debate that – to this very day – structures how we view our world.  He was arguing against the earliest known thinkers of the classical Greek world called the Presocratic philosophers, some of whom had come up with notions that we would regard as quite modern even today: for example, that the whole cosmos can be broken down to tiny particles of atoms, colliding mechanically with each other.

Plato hated this so much that he proposed five years of solitary confinement for people who held these opinions, followed by death if they hadn’t reformed.  What got Plato so riled up?  It was, in his own words, the notion that:

By nature and by chance, they say, fire and water and earth and air all exist – none of them exist by art – and … the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars were generated by these totally soulless means… not by intelligence, they say, nor by a god, nor by art, but … by nature and by chance.[1]

Plato was railing against the mindset that’s currently known as “reductionism” – the notion that everything in the universe, no matter how complex, mysterious or spiritual it might seem – can be theoretically reduced into a series of “nothing but” descriptions: nothing but atoms, nothing but neurons, nothing but genes.  And Plato’s response to this was, again, something very familiar to us: he posited another dimension, a dimension of the soul, a dimension of eternal ideals, which existed apart from the material, everyday world, and somehow infused it with meaning and spirit.  This is the Platonic dualism which underlies our Western tradition of thought (discussed in another post).

Science scans the universe but doesn't find God

Many people still accept the prevailing dualism and lock into the construct of an external God and an immortal soul within us which will join Him in heaven some day.  But this belief structure is under ever increasing empirical pressure from a scientific methodology that scans the brain and finds no place for the immortal soul, that scans the universe and finds no place for God.

Consequently, many others in today’s world have switched to the reductionism of science, summarized so clearly by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule:

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.[2]

But this approach delivers a world devoid of meaning, as described by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg: “The more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears.”[3]

No wonder that so many of us would empathize with the deeply felt existential longing of biologist Ursula Goodenough, as she confides her inner fears:

… all of us, and scientists are no exception, are vulnerable to the existential shudder that leaves us wishing that the foundations of life were something other than just so much biochemistry and biophysics…  My body is some 10 trillion cells.  Period.  My thoughts are a lot of electricity flowing along a lot of membrane.  My emotions are the result of neurotransmitters squirting on my brain cells.  I look in the mirror and see the mortality and I find myself fearful, yearning for less knowledge, yearning to believe that I have a soul that will go to heaven and soar with the angels.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  I believe that the choice between reductionism and dualism is a false choice.  I propose that it’s perfectly possible to embrace both science and spirituality.  The premise underlying this proposal is that the coldly mechanical universe offered by reductionist science is plain wrong: it’s a simplifying metaphor that’s proven very powerful as a way to analyze and predict elements of the natural world.  But it’s no more than a metaphor and its simplifying assumptions are beginning to limit what science can offer us in the 21st century and beyond.

In order to understand reductionism a little better, I’m going to look at the three leading versions of it in today’s world, which I call genetic reductionism, neurological reductionism, and spiritual reductionism.[4]

The great popularizer of genetic reductionism is biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the best-seller The Selfish Gene.  As Dawkins describes it, genes are the irreducible unit of biological replication.  Genes are virtually immortal, and they use our bodies as the vehicle for their “selfish” purpose of replication:

… they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world… manipulating it by remote control.  They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.[5]

DNA: the housing for the “selfish gene.”

For Dawkins and his followers, all evolution can be explained by the underlying power of the “selfish gene.”  But a growing number of biologists are showing that the selfish gene is, in fact, nothing more than a simplifying assumption, and an increasingly erroneous one, at that.  “We have taken,” says biologist Richard Strohman, “a successful and extremely useful theory and paradigm of the gene and have illegitimately extended it as a paradigm of life.”  “The mistaken idea,” he explains, is “that complex behavior may be traced solely to genetic agents and their surrogate proteins without recourse to the properties originating from the complex and nonlinear interactions of these agents.”[6]

Ultimately, as philosopher Evan Thompson points out, the obsessive focus on the selfish gene is such bad science, it doesn’t even deserve the name:

This notion of information as something that preexists its own expression in the cell, and that is not affected by the developmental matrix of the organism and environment, is a reification that has no explanatory value.  It is informational idolatry and superstition, not science.[7]

Neurons: Crick’s view of the building blocks of our humanity.

What about neurological reductionism, the view summarized so well by Francis Crick, that “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”[8]?  The problem with this approach is that it ignores the most salient aspect of our consciousness: its dynamic, ongoing self-organization.  Even if you could map out every neuron in the brain and analyze each one, molecule by molecule, you wouldn’t even come close to explaining consciousness, because it’s the complex, dynamic patterns formed  by their interactions that cause us to be who we are.  “In cognitive neuroscience,” writes neurobiologist A.K. Engel, “we are witnessing a fundamental paradigm shift.”  Classical views of the mind as a passively programmed computer are inconsistent with modern findings.  “Current approaches emphasize the intimate relationship between cognition and action that is apparent in the real-world interactions of the brain and the rich dynamics of neuronal networks.”[9]

Mind is not the “pack of neurons” described by Crick and others.  It’s only when we try to understand it for what it is, “a spatiotemporal pattern that molds the … dynamic patterns of the brain,”[10] that we can make real progress.  As neuroscientist Scott Kelso puts it: “Instead of trying to reduce biology and psychology to chemistry and physics, the task now is to extend our physical understanding of the organization of living things.”[11]

Which takes us to spiritual reductionism, the dead-end view described by Nobel Prize-winner Roger Sperry that “man is nothing but a material object, having none but physical properties” and therefore “Science can give a complete account of man in purely physicochemical terms.”[12] What this view misses is the same principle that the other two forms of reductionism also miss: that we can only begin to understand the nature of complex systems – cells, organisms, even consciousness – when we focus on the ongoing, dynamic patterns of interactivity formed by these systems, rather than just the molecules, neurons and genes of which these systems are composed.

And when you begin looking at these interactions, something transformative happens: the emergent patterns caused by these complex systems affect the very system itself, causing an even greater spiraling of complexity.  This is known as “circular causality” or “downward causation.”  Biologist Brian Goodwin summarizes this dynamic as follows:

The important properties of these complex systems are found less in what they are made of than in the way the parts are related to one another and the dynamic organization of the whole – their relational order… To understand these complex nonlinear dynamic systems it is necessary to study both the whole and its parts, and to be prepared for surprises due to the emergence of unexpected behavior…  In this sense the study of complex systems goes beyond reductionism, which focuses on the analysis of the components out of which a system is made.[13]

There are still many scientists, grounded in reductionist thinking, who like to dismiss these approaches as somehow unscientific or even “mystical”.  That’s getting to be an increasingly difficult position to hold, as more and more scientific fields embrace the approaches of dynamical complexity theory to make inroads into their thorniest problems.  Solé & Goodwin describe the current situation:

The concept of emergence, once regarded by many biologists as a vague and mystical concept with dangerous vitalist connotations, is now the central focus of the sciences of complexity.  Here the question is, How can systems made up of components whose properties we understand well give rise to phenomena that are quite unexpected?  Life is the most dramatic manifestation of this process, the domain of emergence par excellence.  But the new sciences unite biology with physics in a manner that allows us to see the creative fabric of natural process as a single dynamic unfolding.

-Solé, R., and Goodwin, B. (2000). Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, New York: Basic Books.

Nobel Prize-winner Roger Sperry: an early proponent of emergence theory.

Reductionism, in its falsely compelling rigor, tells us “we’re all just nothing but… and that’s all there is.”  Dualism, in contrast, posits an entirely different dimension of divinity and soul, and gives us the choice of taking it on faith, or falling back to the hard, cold ground of reductionism.  However, when the full implications of the dynamics of complexity and emergence are understood, then, in the words of Roger Sperry, “the very nature of science itself is changed.”  Science no longer needs to be the voice of spiritual despair.  When science embraces dynamic complexity, as Sperry elaborates:

In the eyes of science… man’s creator becomes the vast interwoven fabric of all evolving nature, a tremendously complex concept that includes all the immutable and emergent forces of cosmic causation that control everything from high-energy subnuclear particles to galaxies, not forgetting the causal properties that govern brain function and behavior at individual and social levels.[14]

“Thus we have,” says complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman, “the first glimmerings of a new scientific worldview, beyond reductionism.  In our universe emergence is real, and there is ceaseless, stunning creativity that has given rise to our biosphere, our humanity, and our history.  We are partial co-creators of this emergent creativity.”[15]

I’m going to explore this theme, which I think will be central to the search for authentic meaning in the 21st century, in the sister blog to this one, called Finding the Li.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a thought from Heraclitus, perhaps the first Western complexity theorist and ironically one of those Presocratic philosophers that Plato wanted to throw in jail:

For wisdom consists in one thing, to know the principle by which all things are steered through all things.[16]


[1] Cited in Vlastos, G. (1975/2005). Plato’s Universe, Canada: Parmenides Publishing, pp. 23-4

[2] Crick, F., (1995), Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.  Scribner.

[3] Quoted by Kauffman, S., (2008). Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. New York: Basic Books.

[4] Ironically, the original form of reductionism from physics, “we’re all nothing but atoms”, has dissolved in the quagmire of “spooky” quantum mechanics and string theory, only to re-emerge in the biological sciences.  For a history of this shift, see Woese, C. R. (2004). “A New Biology for a New Century”.  Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews,  pp. 173-186.

[5] Dawkins, R. (1976/2006).  The Selfish Gene.  New York: Oxford University Press.

[6] Strohman, R. C. (1997). “The coming Kuhnian revolution in biology.” Nature Biotechnology, 15(March 1997), 194-200.

[7] Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[8] Crick, F., (1995) op. cit.

[9] Engel, A. K., Fries, P., and Singer, W. (2001). “Dynamic Predictions: Oscillations and Synchrony in Top-Down Processing.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 2(October 2001), 704-716.

[10] Kelso, J. A. S. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[11] Kelso, op. cit.

[12] Sperry, R. W. (1980). “Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No.” Neuroscience, 5(1980), 195-206.

[13] Goodwin, B. (2001). How the Leopard changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[14] Sperry, R. W. (1981). “Changing Priorities.” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 1981(4), 1-15.

[15] Kauffman, S. (2007). “Beyond Reductionism: Reinventing the Sacred.” Zygon, 903-14.

[16] Cited by Marlow, A. N. (1954). “Hinduism and Buddhism in Greek Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, 4(1:April 1954), 35-45.

November 10, 2009

More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

Posted in Book/article Reviews tagged , , , , at 5:27 pm by Jeremy

More Than Human Cover - SmallestMore Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

By Ramez Naam

New York: Broadway Books

Johnny Ray was a healthy Vietnam vet who, one day, suffered a massive stroke, paralyzing him from the neck down.  In More Than Human, Ramez Naam describes the miraculous intervention of technology, whereby Ray, in 1998, received a neural implant, permitting him to move a cursor on a computer monitor using nothing but his own thoughts, imagining he was moving his hand.  As time went on, Ray stopped having to even think about his hands: he simply willed the cursor to move, and it moved.  As Naam describes it, “In some sense, the computer had become a part of him.”

This, to me, is the crux of Naam’s book about the promise of re-engineering the human organism.  Who could possibly deny someone like Johnny Ray the ability to regain some small part of his existence?  But then, where does the line get drawn?  The unthinkable possibilities of one generation become the avant-garde of the next, and the mundane realities of the generations to follow.  As Naam would have it, this is a good thing.  A very good thing.  In fact, he sees future biological enhancements as the next step in the great human tradition of using technology to improve our lives, from the Stone Age onwards.

In a recent post, I’ve traced the near-mystical vision those who believe in the benefits of a merged cyber-human future, back to the mind-body dualism of Plato and his followers.  Naam is clearly in this camp, but he deserves a considered hearing.  He writes his book with humanity and sensitivity.  He’s interested in the improvement of people’s real human condition in the here-and-now, and believes he’s simply exploring the path that we’re destined to take to a benevolent future.

But what a future!  Naam describes in some detail a sci-fi type of scenario where getting a neural implant becomes the de rigeur activity of the time, a bit like getting a smartphone in 2009.  The neural implant essentially puts your conscious mind on steroids, improving your power over your own bodily drives in addition to turning you into a power-web surfer simply by thinking your queries.  But then, when you and your implant communicate with other equally-empowered individuals, you’re in a whole new world.  In just the way that the network of the Internet transformed the power of an individual computer, so neural-implant communication with others would transform the very definition of being a human.  As Naam puts it:

You routinely trade memories and experiences with other implanted humans.  You learn to view the world through other people’s eyes.  You let others see through yours… You can no longer imagine a disconnected life.

What I find most fascinating in this discussion is that it’s really the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) and its “conceptual consciousness” that’s being enhanced.  (You can see the pfc’s unique attributes summarized in another post.)  Ever since the rise of what neuroscientist Merlin Donald describes as “external symbolic storage”[1] – humanity’s entire collection of symbolic constructs ranging from cave art and necklaces to writing and computer code – each individual consciousness is structured from birth by what I can the “external pfc”.  In Naam’s future, this external pfc breaks down the barrier between external and internal and begins to morph into a gigantic superorganism.  Here’s how Naam describes it:

We individuals are, in a sense, like neurons in a global brain – a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and innovations.  The more power we gain to communicate with one another, the more integrated that aggregate brain becomes.  In the last few centuries, we’ve taken tremendous steps, from small isolated pockets of computation in individual tribes and civilizations to the World Wide Web… The next step is the integration of our biological brains: unlocking the inner ideas and experiences we have, and allowing us to share them with one another, to weave them together into thoughts in a world wide mind.

The pfc’s “tyranny” over our consciousness transforms, in this scenario, into utter domination.  “L’état, c’est moi,” in the immortal words of Sun King Louis XIV – “The state?  It is me.”

To me, what’s most interesting is to see how people like Naam eliminate the distinction between our humanity and the attributes of the pfc.  If you think of yourself as a pfc housed in a body, then of course you’ll be delighted to consider a future world where your pfc is enhanced.  To understand what I mean, consider this passage, where Naam quotes from bio-ethicist Leon Kass:

The human soul yearns for, longs for, aspires to some conditions, some state, some goal toward which our earthly activities are directed but which cannot be attained in earthly life.  Our soul’s reach exceeds our grasp; it seeks more than continuance; it reaches for something beyond us, something that for the most part eludes us.

Here, Kass is describing “our soul” purely in terms of pfc-mediated functions: forward planning, aspirations, abstractions.  This is to be expected, since our Western notion of “soul” is so closely interlinked with the Cartesian, dualistic notion of “mind” (as described in another post.)

But now let’s see where Naam takes this idea:

This hunger, this reach that exceeds our grasp, this aspiration to attain something ‘which cannot be attained in earthly life’ is the force that has built our world.  It has produced our art, our music, our philosophy.  It has built our deepest understanding of the mysteries of the universe.  Never to say enough, always to want more – that is what it means to be human. (My italics.)

Now, here’s where I profoundly disagree with Naam.  What he’s describing is not “our humanity”; it’s one of the consequences of the dominance of the pfc in our human consciousness.  As I’ve argued in another post, even this seemingly defining human characteristic, roughly comparable to what the Buddhist name dukkha, may have emerged in its current form only with the development of sedentism, agriculture, and the consequent rise of the notion of private property and hierarchy.

Have you ever experienced moments when everything seemed just right?  After making love, perhaps, or in the middle of playing sports, or hiking in the countryside?  Have you ever looked at a sunset and lost yourself in its beauty?  Did you stop being human during those moments?  Or did you, perhaps, experience the sensation of what life feels like when the never-ending grasp of our pfc quiets itself, and harmonizes with the rest of our consciousness?

I would argue that our humanity is, in fact, the result of the dynamic interaction between our animate and conceptual consciousness.  When we’re taking a piss or enjoying a meal, we’re still human.  These are just aspects of our humanity that our pfc-dominated culture tends to ignore, because they’re, well, like all the other animals.  What’s going on is that Naam – along with most people in Western culture – has conflated the features that make humans unique among animals with the definition of our humanity.  And those things that make humans unique are, by and large, incorporated in our conceptual consciousness, the attributes of the pfc.  The result of this conflation is that humanity becomes defined by the pfc.  And if we humans are our pfc, then what’s wrong with biological enhancement, neural implants, and the full-blast acceleration to cyber- immortality that (in another post) I’ve called “infinition”?

Naam chose an interesting title to his book: More Than Human.  If you think about it, it gives the game away.  Our humanity is implicitly defined as a collection of attributes that differentiate us from our animate consciousness: our rationality, our will-power, our intelligence.  Therefore, permitting technology to enhance those attributes makes us “more than human.”  But if, in fact, our humanity also incorporates our animate consciousness, then what do these enhancements make us?  Less than human?  Dehumanized? New form of human?  Human 2.0?  This, I think, it the crucial issue we need to delve into as we debate the implications of biological enhancement.  Are we as a species making ourselves extinct in paving the way for Ramez Naam’s future?  And if so, is that a good or a bad thing?


[1] Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

 

November 4, 2009

Infinition: Our acceleration to the infinite

Posted in Infinition, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , at 6:07 pm by Jeremy

“Our existence resembles the course of a man running down a mountain who would fall over if he tried to stop and can stay on his feet only by running on.”[1] So said German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer over a hundred years ago.  He’d be amazed how his prediction has played out.  By now, the human race is taking off from that mountain.  But the underlying dynamic remains the same: we have to keep going faster and faster to avoid crashing.

Atlantis_taking_off_on_STS-27

Infinition: our prefrontal cortex-driven conceptual consciousness is taking off

What this means in global terms is only too apparent: the impact of our technology-driven civilization threatens the world’s climate stability – and any eventual solution is likely to require even more technology.  But the ever accelerating speed of human existence applies equally to our individual humanity.  Our conceptual consciousness (that unique attribute of our prefrontal cortex) is forging its own path away from our animate consciousness at an ever increasing speed.  I call this dynamic the acceleration to the infinite, or infinition.

In Western culture, the drive towards the infinite has been inextricably linked with our dualistic sense of a  soul or mind[2], that abstraction of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) perceived to have a separate existence from our “miserable” material bodies, which have a habit of getting old, dying, and wasting away.  It’s amazing to see how the idea of the eternal soul (the evolution of which I discuss in another post,)  is morphing in the 21st century into the notion of an eternal mind/computer interface.

Futurists write breathlessly of the fast approaching moment when computers become more intelligent than humans.  With their religious-like zeal, people who call themselves “transhumanists” are taking the pfc’s idea of its own immortality to a new dimension, blending metaphor with reality as they speak longingly of the merger of man and machine.  In the words of technologist Ramez Naam,

Playing God’ is actually the highest expression of human nature.  The urges to improve ourselves, to master our environment, and to set our children on the best path possible have been the fundamental driving forces of all of human history.  Without these urges to ‘play God’, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist today.[3]

the rapture

"The Rapture" as envisaged in the Christian tradition

I’m certainly not the first person to see this linkage of Western body/soul dualism and modern transhumanism.  In an interesting 2008 article entitled Waiting for the Rapture, Glenn Zorpette compares modern “singularitarians”[4] believing in a future when you can “upload your consciousness”, with those who, over the ages, have “yearned to transcend death.”  In his words, we’re witnessing the “rapture of the geeks.”

And in a prophetic article over twenty years ago, The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century, Morris Berman saw the home computer as “the modern fulfillment of the Gnostic vision,” warning that our culture is acquiring a “computer consciousness… disembodied, a form of pure mental process.” [5]

These observations are not just metaphors.  Our human brains really are, bit by bit, becoming more like the computers they created.  In a 2008 study, Small & Vorgan report how Internet usage causes increased activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the pfc that mediates abstract concepts, while “the pathways for human interaction and communication weaken as customary one-on-one people skills atrophy.”[6]

Cultured neurons

Cultured neurons placed onto a multi-electrode array (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Reading)

And at the other end of the spectrum, we can already see the first traces of a future merger of man and machine.  A 2008 article in Science Daily reports on a robot developed in England “which is controlled by a biological brain formed from cultured neurons.”  It’s early days yet, but the borders between silicon-based artificial intelligence and cellular-based human intelligence are beginning to get a little blurry.

There are some who just can’t wait for this moment when mind and machine become one – the so-called “singularity.”  Perhaps the most mystical of these is the technologist, Raymond Kurzweil.  For Kurzweil, the mind/body dualism is clear.  Bodies die.  That’s bad.  If you want to live forever, get moving to that singularity as fast as you possibly can.   As he sees it:

Whereas some of my contemporaries may be satisfied to embrace aging gracefully as part of the cycle of life, that is not my view.  It may be ‘natural’, but I don’t see anything positive in losing my mental agility, sensory acuity, physical limberness, sexual desire, or any other human ability.  I view disease and death at any age as a calamity, as problems to be overcome.[7]

Kurzweil continues the age-old Platonic tradition as purely as if he were Plato himself.  For him,

…the purpose of the universe reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge.  Our human intelligence and our technology form the cutting edge of this expanding intelligence.[8]

In Kurzweil’s Platonism, intelligence will one day literally make us God, as our computer/mind interface pervades the universe.  “In my view,” he says, “the fate of the universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.”[9]

It might be easy to dismiss Kurzweil as a quixotic figure, tilting at the windmills of time, but there are plenty of other transhumanists following the same path, if a little less mystically.  And even within the Christian tradition, there have been influential modern thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin, who held the belief that “the destiny of humans and human culture is to transcend the natural world and natural processes… as a way of liberating humans from Nature’s constraints.”[10]

This transcending of natural processes is the acceleration towards the infinite – or infinition – that I’m talking about.  And once we’ve taken off, there’s no going back.  English cybernetics professor, Kevin Warwick warns ominously of the “slippery slope”:

There is a clear incentive to go down this path.  Given a choice, people will prefer to keep their bones from crumbling, their skin supple, their life systems strong and vital.  Improving our lives through neural implants on the mental level, and nanotechnology-enhanced bodies on the physical level, will be popular and compelling.  It is another one of those slippery slopes – there is no obvious place to stop this progression until the human race has largely replaced the brains and bodies that evolution first provided.”[11]

I would argue that, in fact, we’ve been going along this path for hundreds of years, since the birth of the scientific mindset and its foundational ethic of exercising power over nature (described in another post.)  It’s an ethic described by nuclear scientist Freeman Dyson as “irresistible… an illusion of illimitable power… what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”[12]

So why complain about infinition if it really is capable of transcending our natural constraints?  It really depends on how you define your own humanity.  If you see yourself, deep down, as a mind inhabiting your body, then jump on board the Infinition Express.  But if you see your humanity as embodied, as part of the natural world, intertwined through 4 billion years of evolution with everything else around you, then there’s every reason to be concerned.  In the words of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas,

Surely it is our animal nature that recognizes the divinity of the natural world in all its mystery and beauty, despite the distressing habits and limited perception that afflict our species.  So perhaps our hope of redemption lies in the fact that we are animals, not that we are people.[13]

the organic worldview

The natural world: cornerstone of the "organic" worldview

There’s a profound conflict here, between an “organic” worldview and the worldview of infinition.  The organic view embraces the wonder of life, from the smallest microbe to humankind, seeing the same life force, the same “spirit”, the connectivity of all the living parts, integrating in complexity and harmony.  The force of infinition, by contrast, comes from the pfc.  Its very nature is non-organic.  Its view of the organic world is something apart, something to conquer, to control.  It’s the cause of the destruction we’ve wrought on the organic world.  And it will destroy our own organic existence unless we find a way to harness its power.  This is the true dualistic struggle: not between good and evil, not between body and soul, but between the organism and the abstraction, between our own organic existence and the power of our own pfc.  It’s the ultimate epic struggle of humanity.  And it’s a struggle in which each of us is one of the warriors.  We are all on the front line.

Is there a middle path, a way to reconcile this struggle, or are we destined on the one hand to take off into the stratosphere of infinition leaving our earthly home behind, or on the other hand to experience a dire collapse of civilization through overreaching?  I believe there may be a trajectory that, in effect, keeps us in earthly orbit, but in order to reach that trajectory, we have to find the path within ourselves that mediates between our conceptual and animate consciousness.  Each of us – as individuals – has to begin to define our own humanity not in terms of “pure mind living in a body” nor “pure animal afflicted by mind.”  Instead, we need to work towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness”, where our attention harmonizes with the never-ending dynamic between bodily impulses, abstract thoughts, and the vast realm in between.  Only if we re-integrate our own minds do we have any hope of bridging the chasm that has developed in our society between science and the spirit, between the “cybernetic dreams” of technology and the precarious beauty of our natural world.


[1] Quoted by Batchelor, S., (1994). The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Berkeley Parallax Press.

 

[2] What was viewed as the soul in Platonic and early Christian thought was largely transformed by Descartes into the modern view of the mind. See Macdonald, P. S. (2003). The History of the Concept of the Mind: Speculations about Soul, Mind and Spirit from Homer to Hume, Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

[3] Quoted by Kurzweil, R., (2005). The Singularity Is Near. New York: Penguin Books.

[4] Called such because they believe in a future event called “the Singularity” when computers will transcend the human mind.

[5] Berman, M. (Spring 1986). “The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 24-51.

[6] Small, G., and Vorgan, G. (2008). “Meet Your iBrain: How the technologies that have become part of our daily lives are changing the way we think.” Scientific American Mind(October/November 2008), 43-49.

[7] Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near, New York: Penguin Books.

[8] Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.

[9] Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.

[10] Sessions, G. ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala Publications, pp. 292-4.

[11] Cited by Greenfield, S. (2003). Tomorrow’s People: How 21st-Century Technology is Changing the Way We Think and Feel, London: Penguin Books, p. 4.

[12] Cited by Joy, B. (2004). “Why the future doesn’t need us.” Wired Magazine(August 2004).

[13] Quoted by Bekoff, M. (2002). Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions and Heart, New York: Oxford University Press.

October 28, 2009

Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain

Posted in Book/article Reviews tagged , at 12:09 am by Jeremy

descartes_errorDescartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain

By Antonio Damasio

New York: Penguin Books. Damasio, A. (1994).

I’ve been reading Damasio “backwards”.  One of the first books I read three years ago to try to understand the neuroscientific view of consciousness was Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness published in 1999.  That gave me a solid grounding in Damasio’s view of embodied consciousness, which has become a foundation of my thinking.  Later, I came across Damasio’s paper on the somatic marker hypothesis, which powerfully rejects the idea that abstract thinking can take place without a direct connection to the body’s bio-regulatory processes.

With this context, when I finally read Descartes’ Error, (probably Damasio’s most cited book), it had some of the characteristics of a quaint, historical document, making the case for embodied cognition as though it were a radical new idea: “Surprising as it may sound, the mind exists in and for an integrated organism.”  I guess that shows the enormous impact Damasio himself (and others such as Edelman, LeDoux, etc.) have had in changing perceptions about consciousness in a mere fifteen years.  Thanks to these ground-breaking neuroscientists, “we’ve come a long way, baby.”

I can only agree with the array of distinguished names that cite Descartes’ Error as a key book for understanding human consciousness.  Through Damasio, Phineas Gage has become a household name (in certain households!) – the emblematic tragic figure whose prefrontal cortex was severely damaged in 1848, and whose consequent experiences paved the way for the neurological understanding of the prefrontal importance in regulation of emotion, complex decision-making and general executive functioning.

I think there are two fundamental take-aways from Damasio’s classic: (1) the mind is embodied and without this foundation, no approaches to higher cognitive functions or theories of consciousness have much validity, and (2) the prefrontal cortex (pfc) is the crucial mediator between our “innate regulatory circuits” and our self-aware consciousness, with its attributes of reason, willpower, symbolization, abstraction, etc.

Damasio’s work is a significant resource for my research project.  However, an initial impression of my thesis of “the tyranny of the pfc” might be that it’s incompatible with Damasio.  After all, if the pfc is the key bridge between bodily regulation and self-awareness, how can there be a “tyranny” of the pfc?  And what sense does my distinction of conceptual and animate consciousness make if conceptual consciousness is fundamentally connected with animate consciousness?  In fact, though, my approach is not only consistent with Damasio, it relies squarely on the work of Damasio and others for its evidence.

My argument is not that an individual’s prefrontal cortex is, by itself, a “tyrant” of our consciousness, but that our Western cultural milieu, imposed on an infant’s perceptions before s/he has even learned to speak, shapes the individual brain in such a way that our sense of identity and values give an inappropriate priority to pfc-mediated attributes (such as planning, reason, abstraction, logic, etc.) at the expense of a balanced self-identity emphasizing such attributes as integrated mind/body experience or full awareness of the present moment.

Here’s a key passage from the book which relates to my notion of a split between animate and conceptual consciousness:

From an evolutionary perspective, the oldest decision-making device pertains to basic biological regulation; the next, to the personal and social realm; and the most recent, to a collection of abstract-symbolic operations under which we can find artistic and scientific reasoning, utilitarian-engineering reasoning, and the developments of language and mathematics.  But although ages of evolution and dedicated neural systems may confer some independence to each of these reasoning/decision-making ‘modules,’ I suspect they are all interdependent.

What Damasio describes as the “collection of abstract-symbolic operations” is essentially the same as my idea of “conceptual consciousness.”  As he pointedly emphasizes, they are “interdependent.”  But Plato, St. Augustine, Descartes and the whole momentum of Western civilization have idealized the conceptual consciousness as “the soul,” as the proof of our very existence, and as the foundation for science and civilization.  It’s only when we begin to re-balance our values to give equal import to our bodily existence that we can begin to move towards a ‘democracy of consciousness.’

So thanks, Antonio Damasio, for your ground-breaking classic.  Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in gaining a serious understanding of human consciousness.

October 22, 2009

The Pfc’s Coup: Monotheism

Posted in Monotheism tagged , at 11:52 pm by Jeremy

In my last post, The Rise of Dualism, I described how Plato and his Neoplatonic followers embedded the notion of body/soul dualism deep in the bedrock of Western thought.

From Plato’s time, our Western tradition of thought has consequently been structured by a cascade of dualities: mind/body; soul/body; eternal life in heaven/temporary life on earth; reason/emotion; man/nature.  These dualities are fundamental to the way we think.

But it was when Christianity arose, merging the Hebrew idea of an omnipotent God with Plato’s idea of the abstract Good, that the pfc was able to take virtually total control of human consciousness.  In the first few centuries of our common era, as Christianity pervaded Western thought, the dualism first conceived by Plato became the only acceptable view of existence.

Mosaic of Saint Paul (Vatican)

Mosaic of Saint Paul (from the Vatican)

Our bodies became vessels of evil.  In the words of St. Paul, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”[1] Or as the Book of John says: “he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.”[2] And the hatred of the material world, combined with a love for eternal salvation, continued unremittingly down the generations.  The Cloud of Unknowing, a highly regarded spiritual text of the 14th century, describes the body as a “foul stinking lump”:

For as oft as [the soul] would have a true knowing and a feeling of his God in purity of spirit… he findeth evermore his knowing and his feeling as it were occupied and filled with a foul stinking lump of himself, the which must always be hated and despised and forsaken, if he shall be God’s perfect disciple.[3]

Hundreds of years later, New England clergyman, Cotton Mather was urinating against a wall and was disgusted by the sight of a dog relieving himself too.  He came up with a unique response:

Thought I; ‘What mean and vile things are the children of men… How much do our natural necessities debase us, and place us… on the same level with the very dogs.’

My thought proceeded.  ‘Yet I will be a more noble creature; and at the very time when my natural necessities debase me into the condition of the beast, my spirit shall (I say at that very time!) rise and soar’…

Accordingly, I resolved that it should be my ordinary practice, whenever I step to answer one or the other necessity of nature to make it an opportunity of shaping in my mind some holy, noble, divine thought…”[4]

The examples are endless.  For over a thousand years, people of European descent thought of themselves as a “strange hybrid monster”[5] composed of two disconnected parts, a soul and a body, fighting against each other.

Rene Descartes, 1596-1650

Rene Descartes, 1596-1650

This culminated in the seventeenth century, when the philosopher René Descartes who, after Plato, has probably had a greater impact than any other philosopher on modern Western thought, transformed this dualism into a form that would work for the modern world, with his famous conception of “cogito ergo sum” – “I think therefore I am”.  Only our thought was truly reliable.  Our sensations couldn’t be trusted.  In Descartes’ own words “there is nothing included in the concept of body that belongs to the mind; and nothing in that of the mind that belongs to the body.”[6] The body was just a machine that wore out, a temporary abode for the immortal soul.

God granting dominion over Nature to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

God granting dominion over Nature to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

And if the body were just a machine, then it followed that animals were nothing other than machines, because they didn’t have human souls within them.  In fact, all of Nature was just a machine.  A machine that’s there for the purposes of mankind, since didn’t God say in Genesis that Man shall “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth”?[7]

This is what I mean by the pfc’s coup.  First, Plato established the idea of  the pfc’s conceptualization function as a separate dimension existing in its own image: an eternal world of abstraction.  Next, the rise of Christianity gave a name to that abstraction – God – and assigned it infinite, universal power.  Finally, the pfc (although of course it wasn’t known by that name) was  identified as the only part of each human being that could connect with that infinite power – the abstracting mind, the immortal soul.

And now that this dualism was firmly established, everything else was fair game.  Nature was there to be used for our purposes.  Other peoples needed to be conquered in order to save their infinite souls that they didn’t even know they had.

In my next post, I’ll look at how the the rise of science permitted the pfc to expand its power even further – establishing a true tyranny over our consciousness.


[1] I Corinthians 15:50

[2] Book of John, 12:25

[3] Quoted in Huxley, A. (1945/2004). The Perennial Philosophy, New York: HarperCollins, p. 37

[4] Quoted in Orians, G. H. (2008). “Nature & human nature.” Dædalus(Spring 2008), 39-48.  (p. 40)

[5] Lovejoy, A.O., ([1936] 1964). The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[6] Quoted by Capra, F., (1982/1988). The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture. New York: Bantam Books.

[7] Genesis, 1:26