The Things (2010)

In this short story, Peter Watts re-envisions the 1982 SF movie The Thing, from the point of view of the alien entity. As in his novel Blindsight, Mr. Watts shows an interest in neuroscience and the nature of consciousness. Maybe this subgenre could be called NSF – Neuroscience Fiction.

As an aside, there was a 1951 movie entitled The Thing from Another World, with a similar plot (alien creature discovered) and polar setting (but Arctic rather than Antarctic); the 1982 move was a re-make of this earlier movie. And yet another movie version, apparently a prequel, is due for release in mid-October this year.

As another aside, 1982 was the same year that the great SF movie Blade Runner, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, was released.

Some Thoughts For T.

I would be very interested in hearing the views of the person who commented with a comparison of traditional doctors practicing trad and holistic medicines. Your views on that as well – if this is something you can share.

Hi T., thanks for your comment. I think I can share some of my thoughts, but first I need to admit that I have received some training as a “traditional doctor” and have an M.D. (although I abandoned clinical medicine as a career over a decade ago), have worked in mainstream science as a research scientist, and am currently employed as an imaging scientist / scientific programmer / software engineer. I have also finished a Master’s program in biostatistics about a year ago! So, I might have some natural bias towards mainstream science and medicine.

That said, I am most definitely not a fundamentalist Materialist. By “materialist”, I mean that philosophy — sometimes it seems to me to be a full-blown religion unto itself — that contends that there exists nothing except matter and the four forces of nature. Once can make these minimalist assumptions (Occam’s Razor; the Wikipedia entry has some interesting stuff about Controversial Aspects of the Razor and Anti-Razors) and go quite far, but just because you assume something doesn’t make it true. For example, they are now beginning to consider the possibility that there are actually five forces of nature; so the assumption that are are only four forces of nature might actually be incorrect.

I have friends who are true-believers in materialism. Their argument in support of materialism often seems to be as follows.

  1. Based on the materialist philosophy, science has accomplished impressive things: computers, modern medicine, the NASA space program, etc.
  2. Therefore, the materialist philosophy is correct.

I hope you can see the fallacy of this argument. An analogy might be negative numbers (or irrational numbers, or transcendental numbers, or imaginary numbers) in mathematics; one can derive a lot of true theorems based on the assumption that there are no negative numbers (or irrational numbers, etc.), but that doesn’t make the assumption correct.

Another argument in support of materialism that my friends seem to use is:

  1. All smart people believe in the materialist philosophy.
  2. Therefore, the materialist philosophy is correct.

I hope you can see the fallacy of this argument as well.

Another thing that I have noticed my materialist friends doing is mistaking a scientific model for reality itself. They are forgetting that The Map Is Not The Territory.

I would consider myself an open-minded skeptic; open-minded enough to consider the possibility that there’s more to reality than physical matter and the four (five?) forces of nature. Still, I have become a little pessimistic about the ability of the human mind to understand certain things, especially consciousness itself; in this respect, I think my sympathies lie with “the New Mysterians”. This doesn’t mean that I think that no research should be done on consciousness, or that you should abandon your investigation of the relation between consciousness and BodyTalk; it just means that I think it quite possible that the human mind cannot understand how the human mind works. My friends who have a strong faith in materialism (they are, after all, true-believers) insist that science will some day explain everything; this sounds to me like promissory materialism.

See also my recent post about the Decline Effect; just because something makes it into the scientific literature doesn’t mean that it’s true. Also, something that always bugged me during my medical training was that some of the things being taught didn’t seem to have any basis in science; instead, they seemed to be traditions that were foisted onto mainstream medicine by strong-willed — but wrong — scientists/physicians in positions of power.
See, e.g., this recent online article about spinal fusion. This reminds me of an old saying: “If you go to a barber, he’ll tell you that you need a haircut.”

For some thoughts about the problems with materialism,
I strongly suggest the book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
by Stephen Barr, who is a practicing physicist. Another book of potential interest is Charles Tart’s The End of Materialism, but I have to admit that I haven’t finished that one yet.

Baptism, Flood Myths, and the Symbolism of Water

For K.C.

There’s some interesting symbolism to the baptism ceremony. OK, for Catholics baptism is more than symbolic, since it removes Original Sin, but for some Protestant denominations it’s purely symbolic.

These days during my morning commute I’m listening to a Teaching Company audio CD-ROM course entitled Myth in Human History, taught by Grant L. Voth. I’ve learned that some creation myths start off with a large, dark, body of water, a “sea of chaos,” out of which a deity brings the universe. A big example is the Egyptian creation myth. So the water is a sort of primeval state of potentiality, out of which the universe is realized.

(Makes me think of quantum mechanics. My limited understanding is that the wave function is only a distribution of possible outcomes, a state of potentiality, a “sea of chaos”; but you need an Observer to “collapse the wave function”, and only then does a physical event actually happen. “Wave” in “wave function” reminds me of the waves in the “sea” of chaos.)

Here’s a quote from a book I’m reading entitled Parallel Myths, by J.F. Bierlein:

“In Jungian psychology, water is a dream symbol manifest in the myths and the unconscious mind and the wisdom contained therein. Thus, our dreams of bathing in or drinking water may be interpreted as symbolic of the quest for wisdom or for communication between the conscious and unconscious mind. Another possible Jungian approach to the water motif in the Creation myths is the dawn of human consciousness.”

Water can be destructive, too — lectures #9 and 10 in the Teaching Company course are about flood myths. (Of course you’ve heard of Noah’s Ark , but have you heard of Utnapishtim’s Ark?) Still, Dr. Voth points out that in these flood myths, the world is given a second beginning after the flood recedes, and that the Flood is therefore a sort of second creation. So, one symbolic component of the baptism ceremony is of a rebirth of the person getting baptized, a new beginning.

I read or heard somewhere — possibly in one of the Teaching Company audio CD-ROMs — that in the days of early Christianity, some people thought that you shouldn’t baptize babies or children, because they aren’t fully responsible for themselves yet. They felt that you should baptize only adults, who can make a conscious, informed decision to become a Christian. And some people thought that baptism cleanses all your sins, and that you could be baptized only once. So their strategy was to have a lecherous, gluttonous, sinful life, and get baptized only way at the end, on their deathbed; that way, when they die they have a clean soul and they go to Heaven. Somehow, I doubt that God would respect their bid for Heaven.

Addendum: (09/10/10):
Sea of Chaos at the time of Creation: Big Bang Was Followed by Chaos, Mathematical Analysis Shows

A Taxonomy of Meditation

I once dug up a paper by James Moffett, philosopher of education, teacher of teachers, entitled Writing, Inner Speech, and Meditation (College English, Vol. 44, No. 3. (Mar., 1982), pp. 231-246). In this paper, Mr. Moffett suggested that meditation is good for writers. He argued that the “inner speech” or “internal monologue” that continuously goes through our mind like a ticker tape provides raw material for writing, and that writers would benefit from learning to harness that inner speech.

Then Mr. Moffett gives a taxonomy of meditation. I adapt his figure below (hmm, I may need to re-capture the figure to make the text a little clearer; I don’t know how to make those arrows in HTML):

Moffett's Five Categories of Meditation

Moffett's Five Categories of Meditation

In his book How to Meditate, psychologist Lawrence LeShan gives two systems for classifying meditation practices (Chapter 6 of the book). In the first classification system, there are two types of meditative practice: structured and unstructured. In structured meditation, one’s meditative practice is precisely defined. LeShan gives as an example a simple breath counting exercise, wherein one counts one’s breath up to four and then starts over; any time you notice your thoughts straying from the exercise, you gently but firmly bring them back into line. In unstructured meditation, one allows one’s thoughts to wander on some selected topic, and merely observes thoughts, feelings, and memories one has on that particular topic; in essence, it is developing a thought chain on the topic. Thus, there are two components: (1) the topic itself, and (2) one’s feelings about it. LeShan warns that it is not just lazily musing or daydreaming about some topic, but instead involves an active act of will. LeShan’s structured meditation seems to map to Moffett’s “focusing inner speech” category; on the other hand, LeShan’s unstructured meditation seems most like Moffett’s “witnessing inner speech” category, but restricted to a particular topic.

LeShan’s second classification system divides up meditative practices into three classes: inner, middle, and outer ways. In the inner way (a.k.a. the way of expression, or the way of surrender), you just observe your own stream of consciousness; this seems to be the same as Moffett’s “witnessing inner speech” category. In the middle way (the way of emptiness), one strives towards an emptiness of the mind. It is not a trance-like, drowsy, or “spaced out” state of mind, but exactly the opposite: an alert mind with no conscious thought. This seems to be the same as Moffett’s “suspending inner speech” class. LeShan states that in the Byzantine desert Christian mystical schools, i.e. the Hesychast tradition of Mount Athos, it is known as “the way of the man with a silent mind”; and he warns that this is a difficult way, fraught with hard work and certain “traps” which he doesn’t specify (I once wrote him a letter asking him to elaborate, even going so far as to enclose a S.A.S.E., but unfortunately I got no response). In the outer way (a.k.a. the way of forms), one focuses on some externality such as an object, word, image, or event, and explore it actively with the eyes in as nonverbal a way as possible. This doesn’t seem to fit easily into Moffett’s classification system; an externality is involved, so on the one hand it seems like “focusing inner speech”, but it is to be done in a nonverbal way, which on the other hand sounds like “suspending inner speech”.

I found the bit about the middle way very interesting, because it sounded extremely familiar: I believe I’ve been practicing this method since high school, without realizing it was “meditation”. To me, it was just a challenging mental exercise, a sort of fun game. It is very difficult to maintain your mind in an alert, awake state, but clear of any verbal content for prolonged periods; try it and you’ll see. An interesting exercise is to take a walk and pay attention to the things you see as you’re walking, but maintain your mind in a nonverbal state. You see a car coming at an intersection, and you don’t cross the street because you don’t want to be hit; but don’t allow the words “car” or “accident”, e.g., to pass through your mind.

Maintain inner silence: very difficult.

One thing that I have learned is that it is possible to suspend inner speech, but in a way that you’re not really alert; you’re more “spaced out,” which is exactly the opposite of what you want. I was stuck in this dead end for about a year before I realized that it was probably the wrong thing to do. Perhaps this is one of those middle way “traps” that LeShan hinted at.

Just this past year (2008), a scientific paper by Lutz et al. from the University of Wisconsin appeared, entitled Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation (Lutz A et al., Trends Cogn Sci. 2008 Apr;12(4):163-9). Lutz recognizes that there are different meditative practices, and stresses the importance of distinguishing between them. He writes:

The term ‘meditation’ refers to a broad variety of practices, ranging from techniques designed to promote relaxation to exercises performed with a more far-reaching goal, such as a heightened sense of well-being. It is thus essential to be specific about the type of meditation practice under investigation. Failure to make such distinctions would be akin to the use of the word ‘sport’ to refer to all sports as if they were essentially the same.

(I heartily agree; if a group of scientists are going to study something, they need to make sure that they’re talking about the same thing.) Lutz then proposes a binary classification of meditative practices. Lutz calls the first type of meditation focused attention (FA), which maps readily to Moffett’s “focusing inner speech” and to LeShan’s “inner way”. The second meditation type in Lutz’s system is open monitoring (OM), which seems to be the same as Moffett’s “suspending inner speech” and LeShan’s “middle way.”

I think an interesting study for somebody (Lutz?) to do would be an fMRI study with the following conditions: baseline condition in which subjects are allowed to engage in the inner dialogue, then different sorts of meditation (e.g., FA vs. OM, or inner vs. middle vs. outer ways, or Moffett’s classes). Then do a 1-way ANOVA with planned comparisons, making sure to do a correction for multiple comparisons.

In summary, meditative practices seem to be concerned with practicing and exercising the ability to control one’s attention: to simply be aware of it, and to direct and focus it. Control of inner speech seems to be distinct but closely related. I think it is no accident that Lutz’s scientific paper has the word attention in its title.

P.S.: I suppose I should have used the plural and entitled this TaxonomIES of Meditation, since I have discussed more than one system of classification. But A Taxonomy of Meditation sounded better!

P.P.S.: Interestingly, a paper by H.S. Kim entitled We talk, therefore we think? presents evidence that Asian Americans don’t use inner speech for thinking as much as European Americans. And from the abstract of a paper by Pagnoni et al. entitled “Thinking about not-thinking”: neural correlates of conceptual processing during Zen meditation, we read:

While behavioral performance did not differ between groups, Zen practitioners displayed a reduced duration of the neural response linked to conceptual processing in regions of the default network, suggesting that meditative training may foster the ability to control the automatic cascade of semantic associations triggered by a stimulus and, by extension, to voluntarily regulate the flow of spontaneous mentation.

Regulating the flow of spontaneous mentation sounds like regulating the flow of a thought chain.

P.P.P.S.: Has it ever occurred to you that suspending inner speech might be useful in the case of an alien invasion? Suppose telepathic space aliens invaded the Earth and were able to track down humans by listening for their thoughts. If you were able to keep your mind silent, you might be able to evade the aliens! 🙂

Along the same lines, I recall a scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Stalking Luke Skywalker with a drawn light saber, Darth Vader mocks him, saying, “Your thoughts betray you.” This indicates to me that Luke hadn’t yet learned how to suspend inner speech! Maybe Yoda didn’t have time to get to that lesson.

Soul vs. Spirit and the Duality of Consciousness

I once read a very interesting book entitled The Lost Secret of Death: Our Divided Souls and the Afterlife, by Peter Novak. The thesis was that in ancient times, people made a distinction between soul and spirit, but that in modern times we have forgotten the difference. In a nutshell, spirit is a sort of spark or particle of consciousness or life, whereas soul is some sort of psychic capacitor which accumulates one’s thoughts and life experiences, good and bad. According to this system, human beings are made up of three things: a soul, a spirit, and a body.

Mr. Novak claims that if you do a careful reading of the Bible, you’ll find that this subtle distinction is maintained. He also listed many cultures which make the soul-vs-spirit distinction, which I summarize in the table below. I’ve also included in the table parallel distinctions that Mr. Novak makes between two types of ghosts and between two kinds of afterlife.

If I recall correctly, according to some ancient belief systems, if a person’s soul and spirit remained “attached” after death, then that person’s consciousness would survive death. Otherwise, that person’s consciousness would be lost forever. With special training (special prayers to the gods? meditation exercises? mastery of lucid dreaming?), one could increase the chances that one’s soul and spirit would remain attached after death, in which case one’s consciousness would survive in the afterlife.

A disembodied spirit without an associated soul results in a poltergeist; a disembodied soul without an associated spirit results in a haunt. I suppose that a spirit attached to a body without benefit of a soul may result in a Philosophical Zombie; perhaps a soul is required for qualia.

In the November 17, 2008 issue of the New York Times, an article appeared entitled Found: An Ancient Monument to the Soul . In there, the Egyptian distinction between ba and ka is mentioned. So, Mr. Novak wasn’t making it up!

I have also read a book on lucid dreaming (a topic of great interest to me) entitled Stop Sleeping Through Your Dreams: A Guide to Awakening Consciousness During Dream Sleep, written by Charles McPhee (a Princeton alumnus), a.k.a. The Dream Doctor. Mr. McPhee writes:

“When I worked in sleep research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, I once asked sleep researcher Dr. Wallace Mendelson to define human consciousness for me. Much to my surprise, my existential question did not cause Dr. Mendelson to blink an eye. “Consciousness is easy,” he explained. “Consciousness is a duality. It is the seemingly paradoxical ability of being able to experience sensation and, at the same time, of being able to experience oneself experiencing that sensation.

“When Dr. Mendelson first gave me this definition of consciousness, I was unsure of what I had my hands on. Over the years, however, my appreciation of this definition has grown steadily. It is the best understanding of consciousness I have ever encountered.”

I must admit that I very much like Dr. Mendelson’s definition, too. Sometimes when people are talking about consciousness, I get the impression that they are really talking about one or the other of Dr. Mendelson’s two components of consciousness. I like the recursive aspect of the second component, that of “being able to experience oneself experiencing a sensation.” I believe that Douglas Hofstadter had a similar idea about the underlying etiology of consciousness.

I wonder whether Dr. Mendelson has written anything on consciousness. When I go to PubMed and do a search on

mendelson w [au] AND consciousness [tiab]

I find only this paper.

Another very interesting book that touches upon similar topics is Human Devolution: a Vedic alternative to Darwin’s theory, by Michael Cremo. Deliciously intriguing, and very… unorthodox, shall we say. See this paper to learn more about ancient Sanskrit metaphysical teachings on consciousness. Fascinating!

OK, here’s a table listing the words, ghosts, afterlives, and consciousness components as they relate to soul and spirit. I have added a few of my own ideas.

Ancient Christianity (?) Soul Spirit
Greece Psuche Thumos
Egypt Ba Ka
Israel Nephesh Ruwach
Persia Urvan Daena
Islam Ruh Nafs
India Jiva Atman
China Hun Po
Haiti Bon Ange Ti Bon Ange
Hawaii Uhane Unihipili
Dakota Indians Nagi Niya
Academic Fields of Study Arts and Humanities Science and Engineering
Peter Novak’s descriptions of soul and spirit Subjective, dependent, fertile, emotional, nonverbal, recessive,
passive, responsive, in possession and control of the memory. Emphasizes unity with the external.
Objective, independent, logical, verbal, dominant, active, possessing independent free will. Emphasizes distinction and separateness from the external.
Ghosts Haunts
(stereotypically, a ghost tied to a specific locale, moaning about his past life, and clanking chains like Marley’s Ghost)
(pure motive force, no emotional content, throwing things around)
Afterlife Eternal Bliss or Suffering
(Heaven and Hell; acyclic)
Reincarnation (cyclic)
Split Brain Right Brain Left Brain
Freud Unconscious Mind Conscious Mind
Dr. Wallace Mendelson’s definition of consciousness as a duality. Ability to experience sensation. Ability to experience oneself experiencing sensation.
Dungeons and Dragons Wisdom (clerics) Intelligence (magic users)

It was with great interest that I discovered that many psychic readings of Edgar Cayce (pronounced “kay-see”), “The Sleeping Prophet” (I wonder whether he experienced lucid dreams), have been gathered into a single book entitled Soul and Spirit. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to make much sense of the readings! They are raw and largely unedited (the editors didn’t want them to be colored by someone else’s interpretations), and are very challenging to read. You can try reading a sample here; maybe you’ll do better than me.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates states that there are three parts to the “soul”: reason, will, and desire. This isn’t quite the same as the spirit-soul-body triad, but I thought it was interesting enough to mention in this post.

Addendum (07/18/09): I just found a series of articles from 1913 entitled Spirit, Soul, and Flesh, by Ernest D. Burton, published in The American Journal of Theology. Here are the references (if you do not have a JSTOR account, these links may not work):

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: I. Am J Theol, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Oct., 1913), pp. 563-598.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: II. Am J Theol, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan., 1914), pp. 59-80.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: III. Am J Theol, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jul., 1914), pp. 395-414.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: III. Am J Theol, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Oct., 1914), pp. 571-599 [yes, for some reason ‘III’ was repeated; this was probably an error]

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: IV. Am J Theol, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Jul., 1916), pp. 390-413.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: V. Am J Theol, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct., 1916), pp. 563-596

Whence Consciousness?

Do Subatomic Particles Have Free Will?

Seems to me a more satisfying hypothesis of where consciousness comes from. Better than the currently fashionable thinking that it is an epiphenomenon arising from highly complex interactions between neurons, which for me is deeply unsatisfying, mere hand-waving, not better than an appeal to magic. Sure, a highly complex neural network might result in behavior that simulates consciousness, might even pass the Turing Test, but I doubt that the resulting system would actually be conscious. I think it would instead be a Philosophical Zombie.

Boiling water will spontaneously form ordered columns moving up and down, from bottom to surface and back. This is a classic example of self-organization, where something new arises spontaneously from the collective actions of a group of simple units. But does this mean that if we boil the water in a special way (e.g., boil it at superheated temperatures, or boil it for a very long time, or boil it very quickly) or boil special water (heavy water?), then the water will spontaneously develop consciousness? Sure, it’s possible, but I doubt it.

Maybe I am too dour and skeptical and should just buy into the neural network hypothesis?

Addendum (6/29/09): Conway’s Proof Of The Free Will Theorem: “If there exist experimenters with (some) free will, then elementary particles also have (some) free will.” The Free Will Theorem (PDF file); see also The Strong Free Will Theorem (PDF file). Via MetaFilter. Apparently, the term “free will” may be too politically charged for some: “If you don’t like the term Free Will, call it Free Whim – this is the Free Whim Theorem”.

I am currently reading a 1989 paper by Colin McGinn entitled Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem? (Mind, New Series, Vol. 98, No. 391 (Jul., 1989), pp. 349-366). In the second footnote, Dr. McGinn writes:

I would also classify panpsychism as a constructive solution, since it attempts to explain consciousness in terms of properties of the brain that are as natural as consciousness itself. Attributing specks of proto-consciousness to the constituents of matter is not supernatural in the way postulating immaterial substances or divine interventions is; it is merely extravagant. I shall here be assuming that panpsychism, like all other extant constructive solutions, is inadequate as an answer to the mind-body problem — as (of course) are the supernatural ‘solutions’. I am speaking to those who still feel perplexed (almost everyone, I would think, at least in their heart).

The term panpsychism is new to me. But it sounds akin to what Conway and Kochen claim to have proven. I wonder whether Dr. McGinn is still alive, and knows about Conway and Kochen’s work. Hmm, Wikipedia says that Dr. McGinn accepted a position at the University of Miami in 2006.