Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

Friday, April 30, 2021

Is the brain a spiritual organ?

The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience

Kevin Nelson, M. D.
Nonfiction 326 pages

Concentrating on near death experiences (NDEs), and to a lesser extent, other spiritual experiences, Kevin Nelson asks how these experiences arise in the brain. He identifies the brain regions and conditions typically involved in NDEs and related experiences. For example, one cause of NDEs can be loss of blood flow to the brain. When blood is cut off to both the brain and the eyes, tunnel vision may result. This may explain why people who have had NDEs report traveling down a tunnel. The bright light they report at the tunnel’s end may be light observed through partially closed eyelids. When blood is cut off to the temporoparietal area, patients may experience an unobserved presence or a sense of being outside their bodies.

Fright is another factor that can trigger a NDE. Nelson cites the NDE experienced by the Russian author, Dostoevsky, when he faced a mock execution in front of a firing squad.

Near death experiences arise, Nelson believes, in a unique state of consciousness that is neither wakefulness nor sleep. This is the state that some people experience just prior to falling asleep, upon awakening, or occasionally while awake. Those who have had NDEs are more likely to have experienced dreaming while awake than are those who came close to death without experiencing the unique consciousness associated with NDEs.

Normally, we are either awake or asleep. Several microscopic components in the brain’s locus coeruleus act as a switch, toggling us between wakefulness and dreaming. Pain, low blood pressure, or lack of oxygen can cause a portion of the switch called the vlPAG to flip us into a dreaming state or rapid eye movement (REM) consciousness.

When the vlPAG suddenly flips their consciousness, some people may report having an out of body experience (OBE), often accompanied with a sense of well being. After being bitten by a lion, explorer, David Livingston, experienced, “… a sense of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain or feeling of terror …” Although such experiences occur when the body is in crisis, they can occur at other times as well. Nelson quotes a woman who was “lying anxiously in bed, halfway between being awake and asleep,” who had a sudden OBE.

Two portions of the brain, the temporoparital, and the dorso-lateral prefrontal, regions use little energy during REM sleep. They can be said to be turned off. However, during lucid dreaming,  the dorso-lateral prefrontal region remains turned on. People experiencing lucid dreams are aware that they are dreaming. For hundreds of years, some practitioners of Buddhism in Tibet have trained themselves to experience lucid dreams. Trained lucid dreamers have reported experiencing emotions ranging from fear to ecstasy. Nelson quotes a lucid dreamer’s report of a joyous out of body experience. Afterward, “The euphoria lasted several days, the memory, forever.”

There is a strong similarity between the experiences reported by those who have had vivid lucid dreams and those who have had near death experiences. If the vlPAG suddenly flips consciousness into REM while the dorso-lateral pre-frontal region remains turned on, then one can be dreaming while awake, and perhaps having a spiritual experience or NDE.

Such experiences can be life-changing, but do they prove life after death or the existence of God? There is no reason to think so. However, if the brain is the locus of human experience, that doesn’t refute the possibility of an afterlife or of God’s existence. Countless souls have staked their belief in the divine on their spiritual experiences, regardless of whether or not those experiences arise in the brain.

Those who have had spiritual experiences, as well as, 42 percent of those who have had NDEs report having felt a sense of unity, peace and joy. However, Nelson is unconvinced that spiritual experiences are necessarily accompanied by REM sleep intrusions into wakeful consciousness. He feels that such experiences arise in the brainstem and specifically involve serotonin receptors which are numerous in that region. He cites the experiences of John Lilly who experimented with sensory deprivation chambers and later with LSD in conjunction with sensory deprivation.

The use of powerful hallucinogens does not guarantee spiritual experience. Some experience paranoia rather than bliss. Nelson quotes a man named Frank for whom psychoactive substances brought about a religious delusion. Frank was able to shake his delusion but experienced depression in the process. Clearly psychoactive drugs aren’t toys.

Hospital patients can choose either to be, or not to be, resuscitated. There may come a time when those nearing death can choose whether, or not, to be raptured. When science allows us such choices, it risks offending the religious. Never-the-less, Nelson is hopeful that a new wisdom will arise from considering the brain as a spiritual organ.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Too good to be true?

Extra Sensory: The Science and Pseudoscience of Telepathy and Other Powers of the Mind

Brian Clegg
Non-fiction, 321 pages

If you’re looking for proof of psi phenomena you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll read a history of poorly designed research and questionable results. This is interesting in itself as an explanation of what constitutes good experimental design and what doesn’t. Although the author describes several theoretical mechanisms that could explain psi phenomena, he also notes that only minimal evidence supports its existence.

 In his conclusion, Brian Clegg notes, “… coming at this with an open mind while frankly wishing that ESP did exist, I have to conclude that the existing experiments have demonstrated nothing more than coincidence, artifacts of the experimental design, misunderstanding, and fraud.”

 Another physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, became a good friend of psychiatrist, C. G. Jung. The two collaborated together on a book with each contributing a section. In Jung’s section, the psychiatrist describes what he calls synchronicity, a phenomena consisting of meaningful coincidences, and considered to be an acausal connecting principal. Pauli himself experienced a type of synchronicity as the jocularly known Pauli Effect. Reputedly equipment malfunctioned whenever Pauli entered a laboratory in response to the Pauli effect. Jung’s synchronicity as well as Pauli’s Effect is largely based on anecdotal evidence and not achievable in a laboratory as a significant percent of correct guesses regarding the next cards in a deck.

Clegg feels that current methods of testing psi phenomena will never produce significant results. “What the researchers seem to have totally forgotten is that they are attempting to verify the validity of hundreds of years of anecdotal evidence. … Real-world ESP is not about small statistical variations; it is about clear, specific communication.”

Friday, April 16, 2021

Gravity. Bet you fall for it too

Gravity: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped Our Lives

Brian Clegg
Non-fiction, 335 pages

Books like this don’t have happy endings. In fact, they don’t have proper endings at all. They begin with questions and end with even more questions. I like to read them anyway.

Clegg begins with history: What were the earliest notions of gravity and how did they evolve? When people think of gravity they often think of Isaac Newton, but the idea of gravity had precedents in ancient Greek thought. Later, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and others elaborated on the ideas that later influenced Newton. Then in the twentieth century, Albert Einstein introduced an entirely new framework for understanding gravity.

 About the time Einstein was tackling gravity, other scientists were developing quantum physics. Now a new problem arose. Einstein’s gravity is very good at explaining the behavior of large objects like stars and planets, while quantum physics can account for the behavior of small objects like atoms and particles. However, the two theories don’t play well with each other.

 In the latter half of the twentieth century string theory was developed as a means of unifying the two theories. String theory, however, introduces a number of unanswerable questions.  Clegg discusses several newer theories that may help resolve the problems of string theory. One of these was inspired by graphene, a one atom thick layer of graphite. When graphene is cooled to an extreme temperature, it appears to violate the rules of special relativity. Peter Horava wondered about the implications of this finding. Einstein gave us the concept of space-time. Horava’s theory breaks space and time apart again. By doing so, he is able to make general relativity and quantum physics work together.

 All of the recently emerging theories will require further research. Gravity, the weakest of the four forces, has remained elusive. Gravitons have been hypothesized, yet never found.

Friday, April 09, 2021

Ephemera? I don't think so

Brain Wars the scientific battle over the existence of the mind and the proof that will change the way we live our lives
Mario Beauregard
Non-fiction 250 pages
HarperOne. 2012

Mario Beauregard introduces his book stating, that according to materialist science only the brain exists; that mind, soul, and consciousness are ephemera produced by the brain and as such, cannot exist independently of the brain. The Cartesian model of brain/mind dualism is false. Only the brain exists, nothing more.

This is essentially the view taken by several materialist theories. The author argues, however, that none of these theories provide a satisfactory answers to what David Chalmers calls the "hard problem "of consciousness which ponders how experience arises from brain processes.

Chalmers is a philosopher. I am not. I wonder if subjective experience isn't just another ephemera produced by the brain. On the other hand, my subjective experience seems real enough that I wonder if those who question the materialist view are correct after all. Beauregard claims that, "multiple lines of hard evidence show that mental events do exist and can significantly influence the functioning of our brains and bodies. They also show that our minds can affect events occurring outside the confines of our bodies, and that we can access consciously transcendent realms—even when the brain is apparently not functioning."

I'm not sure that I buy the first of Beauregard's premises, that mental events exist and can influence body and brain. In the first chapter, "The Power of Belief to Cure or Kill" he shows how Voodoo can kill and placebos can cure. But how does this refute the materialists? Why can't mental events and beliefs be products of the brain, and therefore ephemera?

In his sixth chapter, Beauregard cites psychic (or psi) phenomena such as extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis as evidence that consciousness exists apart from the brain. Since psi phenomena are non-local, how can they be produced by a local mechanism such as the brain? Although Beauregard's argument has become more compelling, I am still inclined to reject it.

Many skeptics reject the existence of psi phenomena. However, Beauregard and others make a compelling case for its reality. Although early psychic researchers were sometimes taken in by charlatans, contemporary researchers use more rigorous methods. Using sophisticated procedures to insure accuracy, they still achieve results that are highly unlikely to be due to chance.

Today, it is not the psychic researchers but the skeptics who are biased. Psi is an established fact. However, the fact that it occurs does not mean that it occurs frequently and dependably. It remains a rare human experience. Does it prove that consciousness can exist independently of the brain? I don't think so. People have claimed to pick up radio stations through the filings in their teeth. Perhaps the brain occasionally acts like a radio and picks up non-local information. That wouldn't prove that consciousness exists apart from the brain.

In his seventh chapter, Beauregard makes his most persuasive point. If consciousness is merely a phenomena of the brain, how is it that people report being conscious during near death experiences? More remarkably, how is it that they report such vivid experiences when their brains are working at greatly reduced capacities?

Other books have addressed these questions. One such book, "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience", examines near death experiences (NDEs) in great detail. Author, Kevin Nelson neatly explains all the phenomena associated with NDEs as products of the brain responding to particular conditions. Although he dissects each phenomena thoroughly, his cumulative explanations do not adequately explain the detailed and complex narratives that some people have reported after returning from the brink of death.

It is because NDE narratives can be so complex and detailed that I am inclined to think that diminished brain function can only explain the grosser aspects of NDEs and not their details. However, other factors may be involved. Perhaps in some cases NDE memories are simple confabulations, false memories invented by troubled brains to explain what they can't understand.

Beauregard presents several very compelling cases of NDEs. One such is the case of Pam Reynolds. Prior to brain surgery she was chilled to a point of near-death. Blood no longer pumped through her brain. Her eyes were taped shut, yet she reported observing her operation while outside her body. Is this a case of invented memory, or did it actually occur? If so, does this prove that consciousness exists independently of the brain?

For his final arguments, Beauregard looks toward mysticism and quantum physics. In 1976, biomedical researcher and atheist, Dr. Allan Smith had a life changing mystical experience while observing a sunset. While NDEs are often reported after body and brain trauma, there was no apparent cause for Dr. Smith's experience. Throughout history people have had mystical experiences in which they perceive themselves to be one with everything and no longer confined by a mortal human existence. Psychiatrist, Richard Maurice Bucke, gave the phenomena a name. He called it Cosmic Consciousness.

Early in its development, quantum mechanics encountered a problem—one that remains a mystery to this day. The problem is this: the act of observation influences the phenomena that is observed. Scientists have attempted to explain this in a number of ways, but never to everyone's satisfaction.

Some people claim that consciousness affects external phenomena, yet this is only one way of viewing the interconnectedness of observers with observations. It may be that the human mind lacks sufficient language or logic to understand the reality. It may be that the theory of quantum mechanics is missing an undiscovered piece. This is what Einstein thought.

Einstein knew that quantum mechanics allowed for the possibility of entangled particles. These are particles that mirror each other, seemingly instantly and at any distance. Einstein and his two collaborators wrote that because non-locality, or "spooky action at a distance" isn't possible, then something must be missing from quantum mechanics.

Einstein was wrong. During the final years of the 20th century, non-locality was proven to exist. The implication of non-locality is that everything is connected and indivisible. That means the mystics are correct. Each of us is indeed one with everything. Consciousness is not dependent on the brain.

Yet countless books on neuroscience make it plainly clear that if certain regions of the brain are damaged, then profound changes in personality emerge. The same can be said for changes in sense perceptions, speech, mobility, etc. How then, can it be said that consciousness does not depend on the brain?

Books like this, as well as those which attempt to prove an opposite view, often fail to define consciousness in a thorough manner. An initial omission of definition flaws the ensuing discussion. Whether consciousness is ephemera produced by brains, or whether it is non-local and nondependent on brains, is a question that can't be resolved until we agree on just what consciousness is.

Friday, April 02, 2021

We have met the enemy and he is us.

The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle

Steven Pressfield
Non-fiction, 167 pages

"The War of Art" like Sun Tsu’s similarly named, “The Art of War,” is about winning battles. Both brief volumes address their themes through a series of short chapters which build upon and clarify earlier chapters.

While Sun Tsu addresses war on the battlefield, Steven Pressfield addresses the artist’s battle against resistance. Although artists, particularly writers, comprise Pressfield’s primary audience, the problem of resistance is universal. Resistance can prevent anyone from achieving life’s higher purposes, whether those be artistic, altruistic, educational, entrepreneurial, healthful, moral or spiritual. Resistance is a force that inhibits those activities which lead to personal growth but not activities performed to appease our lower nature. Some of these activities (think instant gratification) are themselves symptoms of resistance.

Symptoms of resistance include: procrastination; instant gratification, through abuse of alcohol, junk food, television, etc.; attention getting through trouble-making, grandstanding, etc.; creating life complications by creating personal dramas, playing victim or martyr, etc.; and being cruel to, or critical of, others. Procrastination is resistance’s most typical symptom. Resistance’s closest ally is rationalization; procrastination is extremely easy to rationalize. Once rationalized, procrastination becomes habitual. We may even find ourselves believing our rationalizations.

Resistance causes personal dissatisfaction; a sense of boredom, antsiness, listlessness, joylessness and self-loathing. As resistance mounts, bad habits and mood or behavioral disorders begin to emerge. Our consumer culture further complicates the resistance problem. Consumerism fans the flames of resistance while selling us panaceas offering temporary relief.

Fear underlies resistance, and though, Pressfield doesn’t dwell upon it, it also underlies consumerism. We fear no one will like us if we don’t buy the right deodorant or laundry soap. We fear boredom; that’s why the radio and television are always on. We fear being alone; that’s why we take our cell phones everywhere.

We fear many things. We fear rejection. We fear failure. We even, and especially, fear success. Fear, in all its forms, drives resistance and resistance prevents us from achieving personal growth. Borrowing from Jungian psychology, Pressfield considers the self to be the source of creativity and personal growth, while the ego is the source of resistance.

Resistance can be countered through the act of “turning pro.” The difference between a professional and an amateur is that for the amateur the stakes are small making it easy to rationalize procrastination and other forms of resistance. The professional treats his art like most people treat their jobs. People may not like going to work every day but they go anyway, arriving on time and staying the entire eight hours. Professionals don’t permit themselves excuses when it comes to their art. They stick to their art regardless of criticism, lack of remuneration, and setbacks. They stick to their art out of love, because it’s important to their self-development, and they stick to it even when it’s unpleasant and difficult.

Pressfield’s book is more of a ‘challenge’ than a ‘how-to.’ It’s earthy, and it de-glamorizes the artistic life. Still, Pressfield’s arguments make sense, and his style is engaging. “The War of Art” is well worth reading.

*Title is a quote from Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip

Friday, March 26, 2021

Keeping its secrets

Incognito: the secret lives of the brain
David M. Eagleman
Nonfiction 290 pages
Pantheon. 2011

You may think you know who you are, but according to David Eagleman it’s a case of mistaken identity. We consider the contents of our awareness as belonging to ourselves. Yet, that awareness, what we call consciousness, is only a small part of what goes on in our brains. Consciousness is like an iceberg’s tip – visible above the water’s surface. Much of what runs us is below the surface and well beneath our awareness.

Most of us realize this to some extent. After all, our hearts pump and our lungs breathe without our awareness most of the time. But most of us don’t realize the extent to which non-conscious mental activity controls our behavior.

Eagleman tells us that the brain is composed of interacting systems, running a myriad of mental routines, and very little of this activity makes it into our awareness. It’s as if our brains are run by a team of rivals with different viewpoints to match different circumstances. When teammates interact appropriately, we make good decisions most of the time.

It’s natural for us to prefer people like ourselves over those who look different. But, the dark side of this preference may be behind xenophobia and racism. Psychologists have used word association tests to tease subjects’ inner-racists into showing themselves. Most people keep their inner-racists well under control, but brain dysfunction or alcohol use can disturb the balance between the rivals in our brains. After visiting a Jewish friend, actor Mel Gibson, was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Later, a sober Gibson apologized for the anti-Semitic remarks he made while intoxicated. The question arises, which is the real Mel Gibson, the sober or the drunken one?

Eagleman’s answer is that both are real, because Gibson’s brain, like everyone’s, is composed of interacting rivals. Most of us behave in socially appropriate ways most of the time. But, there are exceptions. One of the symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome is coprolalia, that is, inappropriate vocal outbursts. While a normal person might experience an inappropriate thought, a Tourette’s sufferer might involuntarily vocalize it, much to his embarrassment.

People suffering from frontotemporal dementia act out socially inappropriate impulses that they formerly kept well controlled. For example, they may shoplift, make unwelcome sexual passes, act aggressively, and even publicly remove clothing. They lose the ability to know that this behavior is inappropriate.

Eagleman argues that legal systems need to be reformed to take into account criminals’ capacity to change their behavior. While society should be protected from criminal behavior, punishments having no effect on those unable to change, should be replaced with other interventions. Eagleman discusses the case of a man who committed murder while sleep walking. Although, this seems unlikely, electroencephalogram findings demonstrated an abnormality that caused the man’s brain to attempt rapid transition from sleep to wakefulness without passing through the intermediate stages that most people pass through. This occurred 10 to 20 times per night. The man was acquitted.

As neuroscience discovers more precise ways of uncovering brain abnormalities, the legal system will need to accommodate these new findings. Asking if a criminal is blameworthy will ultimately become an irrelevant question, Eagleman believes. Instead we should be asking how to prevent him from committing future crimes. An experimental technique, called the prefrontal workout, shows promise for eliminating undesired behaviors. The technique uses real-time biofeedback to reduce the strength of unwelcome urges.

In 1848, a premature explosion sent a tamping rod through Phineas Gage’s head. He survived, but his personality did not. After his accident, he was no longer capable of socially appropriate behavior and judgment. Those who knew him described him as, “no longer Gage.”

Who was he then? Did he lose his soul along with some of his brain? Do we even have souls to begin with or are we simply collections of parts? Eagleman tells us, “If there’s something like a soul, it is at minimum tangled irreversibly with the microscopic details. Whatever else may be going on with our mysterious existence, our connection to our biology is beyond doubt.”

Eagleman’s first book was “Sum: forty tales from the afterlives.” One might expect a man who constructed 40 possible afterlives to have more to say about the soul. Alas, he only writes a few words on the topic in “Incognito: the secret lives of the brain.” So let me offer up a theological question or two. If part of the brain is injured, does part of the soul vanish? If a good man turns evil after a brain injury, will he be eternally punished or spared through God’s mercy? Just which pieces of the brain house the soul, anyway?

Eagleman discusses a type of epileptic seizure in a “sweet spot” in the temporal lobe that causes religious conviction, writing on religious topics, voices from apparently divine sources, and a sense of divine presence. Is the sweet spot a gift from God that allows Him to communicate with his prophets or merely the reason the prophets invented Him?

Eagleman concludes his book with a discussion of the weaknesses of reductionism as a means of understanding the brain. It isn’t practical to break the brain down into a collection of parts. Regardless, he tells us, it’s the model that most neuroscientists bring with them into the lab. I wonder how a sense of personal identity can arise from a collection of parts.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Allied Alchemists

137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession
Arthur I. Miller
Nonfiction 363 pages

Despite the title, you’ll have to read the final chapter before you learn much about the number 137. But that doesn’t hurt this double biography. Along the way you’ll learn about the numbers three and four and what they meant to Johannes Kepler and Robert Fludd, one a pioneer of science, the other a mystic.

While three is the number of the trinity, four is that of the cardinal directions. C. G. Jung and Wolfgang Pauli both examined the symbolism of these numbers.

Their relationship began when Pauli approached Jung for therapy. Although, Jung referred him to one of his pupils, Jung took an active interest in Pauli’s analysis. As their friendship developed, Pauli found an outlet for his mystical, intuitive side. Jung hoped that Pauli could lend a more scientific foundation to Jung's brand of psychology.

Jung believed that the human psyche was populated by archetypes which supplied symbolic meaning. Certain numbers, among them three and four, could take on archetypal qualities in dreams and visions. Just as these numbers appeared in myth and alchemical texts, they also appeared in Pauli’s dreams and in his efforts to discover the structure of the atom.

Early in his career, Pauli worked with Niels Bohr whose theory of the atom hinged on three quantum numbers. But the theory wasn’t complete until Ralph Kronig proposed that electrons had a spin of one half and others provided evidence. Spin became the fourth quantum number, but its addition meant that electrons could no longer be visualized.

Pauli and Jung both believed in the paranormal, unlike Jung’s mentor Sigmund Freud. Once while arguing with Freud about parapsychology, Jung experienced a feeling like his diaphragm was turning into hot iron. Just then, a loud noise came from Freud’s bookcase and both men jumped. Jung remarked that the event was an example of “a physical effect brought about by a mental thought.” Freud was merely dismissive.

Pauli was a believer in what his colleagues named the Pauli Effect. The frequent failure of equipment in the presence of Pauli made the theoretician unwelcome in physics laboratories due to his Pauli effect. People suffered from the Effect as well. On one occasion the chairs to Pauli's right and left of Pauli simultaneously collapsed, dislodging the women seated upon them.

Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to account for a type of paranormal phenomena. Synchronicity is what Jung calls meaningful coincidences that have no apparent cause. For example, on one occasion a woman was discussing her dream of a scarab when one tapped on Jung’s office window. The coincidental appearance of a real scarab profoundly affected Jung’s patient and allowed her to benefit from her therapy. Telepathic and precognitive dreams are other examples of synchronicity.

The causal universe of Newtonian physics was displaced early in the twentieth century by the arrival of quantum physics. Events at the quantum level could no longer be said to be causal – they are probabilistic. Both Pauli and Jung were well aware of this and Pauli had no difficulty accepting the possibility of synchronicity.

The friendship between the two resulted in the 1952 publication of “The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche,” a volume containing two essays — Jung’s "Synchronicity: an acausal connecting principal" and Pauli’s “The Influence of Archetypal Ideas on the Scientific Theories of Kepler.”

Returning to 137 — the number occurs several places in the book. Bohr’s theory was tested by examining the spectral lines created by the light emitted when an electron drops from a higher to a lower orbit. Some of these were found to consist of closely spaced individual lines known as the “fine structure.” The distance between the lines of the fine structure of a spectral line, Bohr called “the fine structure constant.” Pauli was able to determine that this constant is a pure number equal to 1/137 or 0.00729. He wondered why 137 and not some other number — a question that was to occupy much of his professional life.

In addition to being a prime number, there are several other interesting facts about this number. The values of the Hebrew letters which spell the word Kabbalah total 137. So do the Biblical phrases, “The God of Truth” and “The Surrounding Brightness,” and the Hebrew word for “crucifix.”

But perhaps the oddest coincidence was that the hospital room in which Pauli died was number 137. When Charles Enz visited Pauli, he informed Enz that the room was number 137, “I’m never getting out of here alive.”

Miller’s book is an interesting mixture of biography and science and very hard to put down. For those who understand the math, Miller supplies a bit to ponder. But for the most part, the book can easily be enjoyed by non-scientists.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

Lisa Feldman Barrett
Nonfiction, 180 pages, 2020

This is a book of essays. It could have been a textbook, but in that case, it would have been far lengthier. The essays make up two thirds of its length. Detailed footnotes fill the final third. Although brief, this book will change the worldview of many readers. This summary can’t do it justice.

The author begins with the half lesson:
  • Your Brain Is Not for Thinking
It was designed to aid in predicting and regulating bodily processes and ensuring survival.
  • You Have One Brain (not Three)
As I learned somewhere, we have a dinosaur brain, a cat brain, and a rational neocortical brain all piled on top of one another. This theory is bunk. Lisa Feldman Barrett shows us why.
  • Your Brain Is a Network
Have you heard that we’d be geniuses if we used our whole brains instead of a mere ten percent? That is also bunk. The parts of the brain’s network are always connected, and functioning a part of a whole. Neurons that don’t connect are pruned from the network.

Older, less accurate brain models point to locations where special functions occur. But the brain behaves holistically as well as locally.

“Your network is also dynamic in another way. As neurons change conversation partners, a single neuron can take on different roles. For example, your ability to see is so intimately tied to an area of the brain called the occipital cortex that the area is routinely called the visual cortex; however its neurons routinely carry information about hearing and touch.”

Neurons multitask and some are multitasking pros, “Some neurons in your brain are so xibly connected that their job is to have many jobs.”

Little Brains Wire Themselves to Their World
Many animals are able to walk shortly after birth. It takes baby humans about a year to start walking. Human brains aren’t fully wired until about age 25. Perhaps because our brains wire slowly we have unique intellectual advantages. Barrett describes in detail the ways baby’s wire themselves to their environments.
  • Your Brain Predicts (almost) Everything You Do
"Neuroscientists like to say that your day- to-day experience is a carefully controlled hallucination, constrained by the world and your body but ultimately constructed by your brain. It's not the kind of hallucination that sends you to the hospital. It's an everyday kind of hallucination that creates all your experiences and guides all your actions."
She continues,
"I realize that this description defies common sense, but wait: there's more. This whole constructive process happens predictively. Scientists are now fairly certain that your brain actually begins to sense moment-to-moment changes in the world around you before those light waves, chemicals, and other sense data hit your brain. The same is true for your body—your brain begins to sense them before the relevant data arrives from your organs, hormones, and various bodily systems. You don't experience your senses this way but it's how your brain navigates the world and controls your body."
Following further explanation, Barrett concludes:
"If your brain has predicted well, then your neurons are already firing in a pattern that matches the incoming sense data. That means the sense data itself has no further use beyond confirming your brain's predictions. What you see, hear, smell, and taste in the world and feel in your body in that moment are completely constructed in your head."

When a police officer mistakes a cell phone for a gun and fires, his brain has likely responded to its prediction and not to its incoming sense data. Sadly such mistakes get innocents killed. The triune brain theory originated with the ancient Greeks, as did our notions of human rationality. While rationality is a prized quality, people don't always behave rationally, especially in tense situations. Our culture and legal system are still influenced by ancient Greeks and Roman notions about rationality. We need to update our old ideas to reflect our new knowledge about the brain. Perhaps we can rethink and restructure our policing methods to prevent unnecessary deaths.

Three more chapters tell us what else is unique about the human brain.
  • Your Brain Secretly Works With Other Brains - It’s "A brain that regulates other brains so invisibly that we presume we’re independent of each other""
  • Brains Make More Than One Kind of Mind - Your brain is "A brain that creates so many kinds of minds that we assume there’s a single human nature to explain them all"
  • Our Brains Can Create Reality - Your brain is "A brain that’s so good at believing its own inventions that we mistake reality for the natural world."
The reality our brains create is largely a social one.
"The human brain misunderstands itself and mistakes social reality for physical reality, which can cause all sorts of problems. For example, humans vary tremendously, like every animal species does. But unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we organize some of this variation into little boxes with labels such as race, gender, and nationality. We treat the labeled boxes as if they're part of nature when in fact we built them."
It's useful to know how our brains work instead of just trusting how we think they do. Once you know how your brain works, you can tap its strengths and dodge its illusions. But you cannot look at your world in the same way ever again.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Jung at heart— the psychiatrist’s memoir

Memories, Dreams, Reflections

C. G. Jung. Recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffe, Translated by Richard and Clara Winston
Non-fiction, 430 pages

Carl Gustav Jung wrote his fittingly titled, "Memories, Dreams, Reflections" late in his life. As Jung recollects his childhood, youth and career, readers gain insight into his intellectual development and the origins of his theories. Even at an early age, Jung knew his understanding of God was different from that of his minister father. His understanding was intuitive, bordering on mystical. His father understood God in a more conventional and rational manner. Though Jung had a scientific mind, he also possessed a sense of wonder in the natural world, an understanding of myth and an acceptance of the paranormal. Though highly intelligent, his unconventional thinking earned him scorn and disrespect from teachers and peers. Even after Jung became well respected, many of his peers questioned his theories. Regardless, Jung was, and remains, a major influence in psychotherapeutic and personality theories.

Early in his psychiatric career, Jung was influenced by Sigmund Freud. Initially Freud considered Jung the likely heir to his theories. Jung, however, could not accept Freud’s emphasis on sexuality as a major force behind psychic activity. To Jung, man was far more than his sexuality.

To Jung, psychic phenomenon encompasses not only the unconscious and conscious, but also anything that can be conceived by the psyche, including the opposites of those conceptions: “The fact, therefore, that a polarity underlies the dynamics of the psyche means that the whole problem of opposites in its broadest sense, with all its concomitant religious and philosophical aspects, is drawn into the psychological discussion... Leaving aside their claim to be independent truths, the fact remains that regarded empirically—which is to say, scientifically—they are primarily psychic phenomena. This fact seems to me incontestable. That they claim a justification for themselves is in keeping with the psychological approach, which does not brand such a claim unjustified, but on the contrary treats it with special consideration.”

Freud used the myths of Oedipus and Electra to explain children’s sexual desires toward their parents and their developmental adaptations to those desires. Like Freud, Jung used myth to explain psychic phenomena, but Jung went further, developing the concept of archetypes, and mining myth for richer meaning. Speaking about the need for myth, Jung states, “Meaning makes a great many things endurable—perhaps everything. No science will ever replace myth, and a myth cannot be made out of any science… We cannot explain an inspiration. Our chief feeling about it is that it is not the result of our own ratiocinations, but that it came to us from elsewhere.”

Though no substitute for a basic primer on Jung’s theories, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” provides insight into the nature of the man himself. Jung was a complex personality, willing to be both rational and mystical at once, a man who embraced both scientific empiricism as well as philosophical speculation. Unlike many scientists of his time, Jung doesn’t dismiss subjective experience as unscientific. He embraces his intimations, dreams, visions and paranormal experiences and attempts to understand them.

Jung’s description of his near death experience is especially fascinating. Unlike other narratives of this type, Jung doesn’t encounter a spiritual being in heaven. Rather, he meets his attending physician. During his convalescence, Jung realizes that he encountered his physician because the doctor is, himself, close to death. When Jung later learns that his doctor has died, he concludes that his intuitions had been correct. Jung’s memoir contains several paranormal anecdotes, which Jung treats with both an open mind and a desire for explanations.

Jung’s memoir will interest historians of psychological thought, Jungian practitioners and interpreters of mythology. Others will appreciate Jung’s candor in revealing his personal life—especially his ability to reconcile belief in both the natural and the supernatural and his appreciation for both scientific and mystical knowledge.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Of butterflies and dreaming sages

The Grand Biocentric Design: How Life Creates Reality
Robert Lanza, MD and Matej Pavšič with Bob Berman
Non-fiction, 289 pages

In this third book on biocentrism, Matej Pavšič joins the authors of the first two, but it is Lanza who speaks loudest. The book offers several new scientific findings and four additional principals of biocentrism to the original seven.

The first third of the book reiterates points made in the previous two: 1) on the atomic level everything remains in superposition until an observer collapses a wave-function and brings things into existence. More , 2) time and space are tools of the mind rather than qualities of reality.

At this point new evidence is introduced. Consider the eighth principle of biocentrism: 

“Biocentrism offers the only explanation of how the mind is unified with matter and the world by showing how modulation of ion dynamics in the brain at the quantum level allows all parts of the information system that we associate with consciousness to be simultaneously interconnected.” 

I don’t fully grasp why this is important; I hope a commentator will explain it to me.

Another piece of evidence supports the idea that reality is an invention of the mind. Speculating that it’s possible for “two observers to experience different, conflicting realities,” a group of physicists used six entangled particles to create separate realities for each observer. The study was published in Science Advances in 2019. “Realities can be made incompatible so that it is impossible to agree on objective facts about an experiment. These results suggest that objective reality does not exist.”

This begs the question, if objective reality is observer dependent, how can there be any sort of consensual reality? The authors answer:

“If you learn from somebody the outcomes of their measurements of a physical quantity, knowing those outcomes will also influence the outcomes of your own measurements, freezing the reality according to a consensus between your measurements and those of other observers. In this sense a consensus of different opinions regarding the structure of reality defines its very form.

Recall that time itself, as well as the direction of the arrow of time, becomes defined due to the process of wave function collapse (or decoherence). Once such temporal collapse happens, one can start asking questions about the dynamics of the process of decoherence for other physical quantities that we as observers can measure. These dynamics—how quickly the collapse of quantum blur toward a particular realization of measurable quantities happens, how long it stays collapsed, the detailed structure of the probability waves defining observed reality—strongly depend on how the measurements or observations by different observers are distributed within spacetime. If there are many observers and the number of observations made by them is very large, the probability waves of the measurement of a macroscopic quantity remain largely ‘localized,’ not spreading much, and reality is largely fixed, deviating slightly from the consensus only every once in a while.”

Another new idea in this book addresses an old problem. Quantum physics does a good job of explaining three of the four fundamental forces, while relativity theory does a fine job of explaining gravity. However the two theories of quantum physics and relativity can not be unified into one. The authors claim that when the role of observers is considered, gravity becomes compatible with quantum theory.

Despite new research and more in-depth explanation, this book leaves a lot out. In the second book on biocentrism, the authors wrote that death is an illusion. Here they take it further:

“In your awakened State, you experience your consensus reality. Then you go to bed, fall asleep, and start dreaming. And when you wake up, you find yourself again existing as a person in a consensus reality. Through dreams you enter alternate worlds and switch from one consensus reality to another, from experiencing the life of one organism to that of another. Once awake, you can find yourself as being any person, at any time without having memories about ever being another person or animal. You can even find yourself as a newborn, without any idea about the reality you are living. If so, gradually, piece by piece, you discover your reality, your world. By observing your world, you keep collapsing probability waves, and thus you effortlessly create an ever-more detailed world that includes comprehensive reinforcing memories. The observations also include what others tell you about the world and its history and still you build your consensus reality.”

How can this be? I didn’t wake up as someone else this morning, or did I? I remember Chuang Tzu wrote of something similar:

“Formerly, I, Kwang Kâu, dreamt that I was a butterfly, a butterfly flying about, feeling that it was enjoying itself. I did not know that it was Kâu. Suddenly I awoke, and was myself again, the veritable Kâu. I did not know whether it had formerly been Kâu dreaming that he was a butterfly, or it was now a butterfly dreaming that it was Kâu. But between Kâu and a butterfly there must be a difference.”

As Chuang Tzu said, “there must be a difference.” If there were no difference, “mind” could control any body at any time. And in that case would mind be a singular or plural entity? That question and others of similar nature are not addressed, yet require answers if biocentrism is to become a strong theory.

If mind is the thing that creates matter, what is mind?

“Biocentrism shows that the external world is actually within the mind—not ‘within’ the brain. The brain is an actual physical object that occupies a specific location. It exists as a spatiotemporal construction. … The mind is what generates the spatiotemporal construction in the first place. Thus, the mind refers to pre-spatiotemporal and the brain to post spatiotemporal. You experience your mind’s image of your body, including your brain, just as you experience trees and galaxies. The mind is everywhere. It is everything you see, hear and sense.”

And after that explanation, I still don’t know. If biocentrism is to become a useful theory, it will need to explain what is meant by mind. Replacing one mystery with another isn’t helpful. 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Thanks for all the fish

Saving Fish From Drowning

Amy Tan
Fiction, 508 pages

The relationship between mothers and daughters is a theme frequently associated with Amy Tan’s writing. In Saving Fish from Drowning she barely touches on this theme, leaving room to explore several new themes.

After sampling some of the book’s reviews on Amazon, I concluded that more than a few of her fans rejected the book for exploring new territory. That’s foolish. The book is excellent on its own merits; it shouldn’t be faulted for not following the path of its predecessors.

If it places less emphasis on the relationships of mothers and daughters, it places more on that between fathers and sons, citizens and governments, religious beliefs and superstitions, honest folk and swindlers. This novel addresses a number of themes, and addresses them well.

According to Andrew Solomon in his 2005 New York Times review, Tan’s apparent emphasis on humor is unsuccessful. It didn’t make him laugh. However it did make me laugh, and if her satire is not as biting as that of Evelyn Waugh, it is gentle and considerate of natural foibles. Solomon says Tan's characters “sorties into political incorrectness …” are “obnoxious and even colonialist …” But that’s unfair. Traces of colonialism, do linger on. Even in Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise bends the prime directive so often as to make it clear that those traces will linger well into the future.

Tan understands and elucidates the cultures from which her characters derive. If at times her characters seem foolish, it’s because they are. She’s not being judgmental, merely observant like a good anthropologist. The narrator, Bibi Chen isn’t perfect. Neither are her characters. And if this gives rise to humor, so be it— laugh and learn.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Hopes of glitz and glory

The The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today
Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner
Fiction, 448 pages

Whatever your politics, numbers don’t lie. Too many are displeased. Something stinks in Washington. During the early 1870s, two writers also suffered offended nostrils and together wrote a novel about it. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner called their era the Gilded Age. That’s gilded, not golden. Their era lacked the solidity of deep values, having instead only a golden coating upon an unworthy foundation.

The book begins before the Civil War but largely details the years that follow. Historically this period marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and some of the book’s characters are among its unwitting victims. This period saw massive capital investment in railroads and machinery as well as massive displacement of small business men and landholders. While the book’s events occur at the beginning of the age, its title lent its name to the era itself.

There are parallels here to our own age. At its height, the Gilded Age brought about massive income inequality. Some grew enormously wealthy while masses of others suffered in dire poverty. Since the 1980s our own society has moved in this direction as well. While the incomes of the top ten percent have stayed even with the living costs, those of the bottom 89 percent have not. The incomes of the wealthiest among us have soared, yet unlike Icarus, they show no signs of falling toward Earth. The technology sector with its high salaries distributed among relatively few workers echoes the effect of industrialization, though some writers fear that this time workers won’t eventually share its benefits after robots and AI eliminate their jobs.

The book touches upon industrialization as several of its characters seek speculative wealth from a new railroad line. However the bulk of the action takes place in Washington DC. Laura and her brother, George Washington Hawkins, as well as the ever optimistic and ever impoverished, Colonel Beriah Sellers, enjoy the patronage of the pious Senator Dilworthy. Since the book contains much satire, the reader is not overly surprised when Laura approaches the good senator in his study as he reads from an upside down Bible.

Washington in 1873, just like today, is a place where corruption prospers. Unlike that of today, however, the corruption is almost quaintly innocent. This book was the first novel from two authors who would subsequently write a good few more. It’s not their best. That said, it’s not that bad. Twain at his worst is better than most and Warner also writes well. However, the work doesn’t flow as well as what one would expect from authors with email and modern equipment. I’m glad I read it though. Along with satire it packs plenty of drama and provides a taste of what life was like in earlier times.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

How we think we're driving when we're really just along for the ride

The Hidden Brain: how our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, and save our lives
Shankar Vedantam
Nonfiction, 270 pages

What a concept. We think we’re reasonable. Shankar Vedantam thinks maybe we’re not. His book explores the ways in which we fool ourselves into thinking that we make rational decisions — when in fact much of the time, we follow our unconscious biases, rather than reason.

Vedantam uses the term “hidden brain” to describe mental processes which affect our behavior without our conscious awareness of their influence. These result from errors in attention and memory; mental shortcuts we form and follow; relationships and social dynamics.

In some cases, it’s possible to train ourselves to identify and become aware of these hidden influences. In other cases, the influences remain hidden. American society however operates as if human behavior is primarily based on reason.

Vedantam presents an example involving a rape conviction based on false identification.  The woman, who identified the wrong man as her rapist, became convinced of his guilt while she was praying in church. Initially uncertain, her doubts dissolved in the safety of her church.

Emotions can affect our memories and convictions — and that’s what happened in this case. After DNA evidence had proved his innocence, the woman met the man. Upon meeting him, the first thing she noticed convinced her that she’d been wrong.

Vedantam discusses how social scientists test for racial bias — and find it even among people who claim to be unprejudiced. We believe we live in a fair society, yet experimental evidence shows that people tend to recommend the harshest penalties to those whose skin is darkest.

Sexual bias is common as well. Transgender individuals report receiving greater respect and higher salaries when they change from women to men. The opposite is reported by those who change from men to women.

Recently controversy has arisen over the possibility that a mosque might be built close to “Ground Zero.” Implicit to the controversy is the association between the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center and Islam. Former President Bush declared a war on terrorism, not a war on Islam. To some people it means the same thing. But, you don’t have to be a Muslim to be a suicide bomber.

Vedantam reports that during the closing days of World War II, Japanese kamikazes flew suicide missions for their country. Those chosen to be kamikazes felt themselves to be among a privileged elite.  Psychologist, Masami Takahashi, son of a former kamikaze, reports that most of those who volunteered for suicide missions were not religious. It was the chance to be a hero that motivated them. Interviews with present day terrorist recruits have uncovered the same motivations.  Many of these recruits aren’t particularly religious. Vedantam quotes Marc Sageman, “People want to be suicide bombers because they are the rock stars of militant Islam.” So, what’s really needed is a war on rock star wannabes and not on moderate Muslims.

Vedantam compares the viewpoint of those who join cults or elite military units to being in a tunnel. Such people narrow their mental focus, attending to the views and aims of their particular group, and not on the world at large.

A few hours before more than 900 Americans died after they drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown, Guyana, five others died at Guyana’s Port Katuna Airstrip.  These were gunned down by Larry Layton, another People’s Temple member. Larry had volunteered for a suicide mission to bring down a plane returning to the United States. The mission went awry — Larry survived, but five of the plane’s passengers did not.

Why had Larry Layton volunteered? He was living in a tunnel: “As he sat in his prison cell in Guyana, it slowly became apparent to Layton that the world he had inhabited for so long was not the real world, that it was only a tunnel that had appeared to be the whole world.”

Today the phrase, “drink the Kool-Aid,” refers to an uncritical acceptance of what another person or group tells you. You don’t have to be a cult member to “drink the Kool-Aid” — merely an uncritical thinker, influenced by the “hidden brain” rather than its more rational side.   

The “hidden brain” is useful because it helps us make decisions quickly. However, those decisions are not always correct. By becoming more aware about how the hidden brain works, we can begin to make better decisions both as individuals and as a society. Reading this book will get you started on the road to expanded awareness.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Science, religion, physics and God

The Purpose-Guided Universe: Believing in Einstein, Darwin and God
Bernard Haisch
Nonfiction, 222 pages
New Page Books. 2010

In this follow-up to “The God Theory,” Bernard Haisch argues that the findings of modern physics tend to support, rather than refute, the existence of God. Haisch believes in a God that neatly fits in with the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, to the extent that Haisch makes the notion of God acceptable to scientists, he also envisions a God who is unacceptable to fundamentalists.

Let’s examine how Haisch attempts to convince scientists of God’s existence and then look at why his argument might repel fundamentalists.

Haisch reports that according to some surveys, atheists account for the majority of scientists. Their atheism, Haisch believes, is partially due to the way that some have defined God. Haisch, himself rejects a God that, “… littered a 6,000-year-old earth with phony fossils to fool the arrogant archaeologists …” Such an act would be dishonest on God’s part, and therefore, un-godlike.

Isaac Newton created physics “almost single-handedly” when he published his Principia in 1687. Although Newton was a deeply religious man, his physics had an unfortunate side effect. It worked too well. Newtonian physics made it theoretically possible to determine the cause of every event that ever happened and predict the occurrence of every event to come.

In a Newtonian universe everything is predetermined. Western theology tells us that God gives us freewill. Not in a clockwork universe, he doesn’t. In fact, God isn’t even required, except perhaps to set the clock in motion. And so, God fell out of favor in the scientific community.

But then, in the twentieth century, quantum physics came along. The quantum universe is not predetermined — there’s an element of chance involved. Once again, there’s room for freewill.

Haisch describes ten ways in which the universe is finely tuned to support life. It looks as if there may be a creator after all. Not so, claim some scientists. There are a multitude of universes. This one just happens to support life. Haisch replies that the probability of our universe having occurred by chance can be described by a one followed by at least 500 zeros. That’s an enormous number of universes. Furthermore, there is no evidence to support a theory of multiple universes and no possibility of acquiring evidence. The possibility that God exists is at least as likely as the possibility of multiple universes.

Writing in the first half of the twentieth century, Sir James Jeans popularized astronomy. In his book, The Mysterious Universe, he writes of a universal mind “… the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.”

A number of experiments have shown that particle behavior is influenced by what an observer intends to measure. The act of measuring determines the reality. Some have concluded that it is not reality that gives rise to consciousness, but consciousness that gives rise to reality.

Haisch believes that God, who exists outside of time, manifested a conscious universe, in which we are conscious actors, who will ultimately return to God.

If this doesn’t convince atheist scientists that there’s a God, it at least gives them something to think about. Now, how about those fundamentalists?

Well, they don’t like evolution or the possibility that the earth is millions of years old. But suppose we could overcome that obstacle, could we bring them around to Haisch’s view? Probably not.

Haisch’s religious views echo a mystical thread found in all the major religions. Aldous Huxley, in his book of the same name, calls this thread, The Perennial Philosophy. Although this thread is found in every religion, it is emphasized more in some than others.
Meister Eckhart is perhaps the best known Christian proponent of the perennial philosophy. The Christian tradition generally teaches that God is outside of His creation. Yet, Eckhart said, “The more God is in all things, the more He is outside them. The more He is within, the more without.”* Saying that sort of thing during the Middle Ages could get you charged with heresy, as indeed, Eckhart was.

People who have had mystical experiences tend to report, like Eckhart, that God is both within themselves and outside themselves. During such experiences, words are irrelevant. However, after the experience, verbal contradictions may come into play. While Hindus may not have difficulties with such contradictions, some Christians might.

Religious beliefs, like poetry and dreams, can be understood on several levels. Although that thread of meaning, called the perennial philosophy, can be found in Christianity, it does not occupy its mainstream. Some fundamentalist and mainstream Christians may have difficulty accepting Haisch’s elaboration of his God theory.

Regardless, Haisch’s attempt to reconcile science with religion is admirable. What Haisch does not address, yet I feel compelled to add, is that if religious believers were to be more tolerant of other faiths, than atheists would be less likely to condemn them for their beliefs.

*As quoted in Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Help, I'm a cop

Burmese Days
George Orwell
Fiction, 291 pages 

"It's a drag being a cop" ~ Frank Zappa, "Help, I'm a rock"

George Orwell was brainwashed. This happened in Myanmar (formerly Burma) during his five years as a policeman. He was brainwashed by the pukka sahibs’ code. The code of imperialist occupiers. The code of colonial hypocrisy. A code similar to the one currently protested by the BLM movement.

The protagonist of "Burmese Days" is not a policeman. However, John Flory has seen through the code and now belongs nowhere--not in Burma, nor back in England.

"It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code.

In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to right of you, Pink’un to left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus’, and you admit, dutifully, that they are greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honourable, hardly even any sincerity. For, au fond, what do you care if the Indian Empire is a despotism, if Indians are bullied and exploited? You only care because the right of free speech is denied you. You are a creature of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus."

John Flory's story isn't a pleasant one. It's a story of a conflicted man wanting, but unable, to do the right thing. I wonder how many good cops feel this way, wanting to improve society but hampered by their coworkers. The code of silence they follow prevents them from reporting bad fellow officers, just as the pukka sahibs’ code prevents John Flory from confronting the racism of Burma's imperialist occupiers. As always, George Orwell delivers.

It's like the egg laying the chicken - or mixing metaphors - Ouroboros

Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death

Robert Lanza and Bob Berman

Non-fiction, 224 pages

In their first book, Lanza and Berman presented Biocentrism, a view that accounts for some of the anomalies of physics. This book takes the argument further. The science is solid, but I question the validity of the authors’ conclusions.


The scientific argument begins with with a hard nut that physicists have tried to crack for nearly one hundred years. Things are not as they seem. The model of an atom one first encountered in elementary school is not realistic. In reality, electrons don’t cross atomic nucleuses in neat orbits. In reality, they’re everywhere at once. Electrons exist in a superposition of all possible locations until interfered with. As soon as a measurement is taken, the electron’s “wave function” collapses and it shows itself. Since observation is required to determine an electron’s position, the role of consciousness plays a key part in how the universe operates. Hence, life itself, steers the universe’s unfolding.


While the authors’ argument is novel, the science is not. I don’t question that the authors are on to something. I only question that something’s implications. Let’s skip over the science and go directly to conclusions:


“What is not in doubt even in these early research stages is that the observer is correlative with the cosmos. That time does not exist. And perhaps the most cheerful takeaway from biocentrism: Since there’s no self-existing space-time matrix in which energy can dissipate, it’s impossible for you to ‘go’ anywhere.


In a nutshell, death is illusory. ... Consciousness and awareness never began, and will never end.”


And yet, when one sleeps can one be said to be conscious? For that matter, how can there be a “when” if time is illusory?


Backing up a bit, the authors note that logic and science are not the only methods of gaining knowledge. Intuitions arise from neither and are generally correct. Upon seeing a corpse, intuition tells us that the body’s former occupant has departed. But where did it go? Here’s the explanation:


“The feeling of “me,” of consciousness itself, could be considered a 23-watt energy cloud, which is the brain’s energy consumption in producing our sense of ‘being’ and its myriad sensory manifestations. Energy, as we learned in high school physics, is never lost. It can change form but it never dissipates or disappears. So what happens when those brain cells die?”


The answer is that death is an illusion. One can’t die because, “neither space nor time are real in any sense except as appearances or tools of the mind.”


In the first appendix we learn the difference between mind and brain. “The brain is a physical object occupying a specific location. It exists as a spatio-temporal construction ... .” Other objects like tables must also be constructions, yet you can’t crowd those constructions into brains. Paradoxical. Space isn’t real, but you still have to watch where you place things. Luckily we don’t have to worry about where one places one’s mind. “But the mind has no location. It is everywhere you observe, smell, or hear anything.”


I can’t quite wrap my own mind around this. Maybe with more explanation. The authors are releasing another book in November. I can barely wait.