Recently a commenter named Bill left some interesting remarks on the thread of my brief post announcing a book by Cyrus Kirkpatrick, who sometimes comments on this blog. Bill took issue with a particular detail in Cyrus's book involving a famous experiment performed by parapsychologist Charles Tart. Bill wrote:
I have had a small read of Cyrus Kirkpatrick's book regarding the preview on amazon. Here is a fundamental error.
He says regarding the famous "Miss Z" OBE study that:
"Tart concluded that there was a remote chance of Miss Z cheating if she were to somehow use an apparatus of hidden mirrors that she snuck into the laboratory, but Tart believed it was very unlikely given the protocols, and he concluded a parapsychological explanation was the best fit."
This is wrong. In the paper Tart admits in his own words "Therefore, Miss Z's reading of the target number cannot be considered as providing conclusive evidence for a parapsychological effect."
Here is the full quote:
"The second alternative is that she might have seen the number reflected in the surface of the case of the clock which was mounted on the wall above it. This was the only reflecting surface in the room placed in such a way that this might have been possible. Both Dr. Hastings and I spent some time in the dimly lit room to dark-adapt our eyes, and tried to read a number from the subject's position on the bed, as reflected on the surface of the clock. As the room was dimly lit and the surface of the clock was black plastic, we could not see anything of the number. However, when we shone a flashlight directly on the number (increasing its brightness by a factor somewhere between several hundred and several thousand) we could just make out what the number was in the much brighter reflection. Thus, although it seems unlikely, one could argue that the number constituted a 'subliminal' stimulus in its reflection off the clock surface. Therefore, Miss Z's reading of the target number cannot be considered as providing conclusive evidence for a parapsychological effect."
So basically there was an entirely naturalistic explanation. Light could have been reflected from the surface of a clock located on the wall above the shelf, and Miss Z could have seen the number this way.
Cyrus Kirkpatrick deliberately "filters" this out of his book (something funny enough he accuses skeptics of doing earlier in his book) ignoring evidence they don't want to acknowledge; instead he only mentions the first alternative of mirrors which Tart does disregard. He does not mention the other simplistic natural explanation.
The statement "a parapsychological explanation was the best fit" is therefore deliberately misleading because Tart admitted no conclusive evidence could be given for a parapsychological effect.
Cyrus Kirkpatrick also seems to indicate the protocols of the experiment were good. They were not very good. Tart admits he fell asleep during the experiment (!), there were no video cameras and the subject had not been searched prior to the experiment (that is just a few issues, we could go on).
I don't buy into the silly mirror idea anyway, what most likely happened was the number was reflected by the glass face of the wall clock above the shelf. This gets me thinking. Should we ignore an entirely simple explanation for an unlikely paranormal one?
Cyrus Kirkpatrick in the beginning of his book admits he doesn't have time to examine all the skeptic rebuttals. Thing is with this study, skeptics are not even involved (they came later). Tart himself first admitted no conclusive evidence for a parapsychological effect.
It is basically a poorly controlled experiment with a dozing observer that has not been replicated in nearly 50 years. Yet this is considered to be genuine evidence for a paranormal OBE or life after death?
In my reply, I noted that Tart actually does think that a paranormal explanation is “the best fit" (as Cyrus put it) for the experimental results. In his 2012 book The End of Materialism, Tart writes:
I was cautious in my original write-up of these results: "… Miss Z's reading of the target number cannot be considered as providing conclusive evidence for a parapsychological effect" (Tart 1968, 18). I thought I was just making a standard statement of caution, because no one experiment is ever absolutely conclusive about anything, but overzealous pseudoskeptics have pounced on this statement as saying that I didn't think there were any parapsychological effects in this study. I've always thought that it's highly likely that some form of ESP, perhaps because Miss Z was really "out" in some real sense, is the best explanation of the results.
So Tart did, in fact, conclude (and still maintains) that ESP was probably demonstrated by the experiment.
Bill complains that the sleep sessions were not videotaped. I don't think there is much force in this objection. Tart published his first paper on the subject in 1968, and he says that it was considerably delayed. The actual experiments must have taken place sometime earlier. In the 1960s, video recording and playback equipment was neither cheap nor easy to come by. Very few people were using it, and I don't think it's reasonable to expect a poorly funded parapsychological researcher to have access to it.
Beyond that, Bill doesn't mention that there was continuous monitoring of Miss Z throughout the experiment. Tart explains that she was connected via electrodes to an EEG monitor; a strain gauge taped over one eye measured REM sleep; and the electrical resistance of her skin was measured by electrodes taped to her palm and forearm. So while there was no videotape, there was a complete record of her brain activity, eyelid twitches, and skin resistance. Moreover, she could not have gotten out of bed or even sat up more than a few inches without pulling loose some of the electrodes, which would have left unmistakable signs in the record. Tart writes in a footnote on pp. 204-5:
Standard sleep-laboratory procedures leave enough slack in the wires running to the electrodes on the person's head so that he can turn over with ease, but if he tries to sit up more than a little, he'll pull electrodes off, making the electrode susceptible to picking up power-line interference, which will vibrate the recording pens so hard that they throw ink all over the recording room, as well as leave a distinctive trace on the polygraph record.
Bill says that "what most likely happened” was that the target number was reflected on the glass face of the clock. But what Tart and his colleague, Arthur Hastings, determined was that a very faint reflection was visible, not on the glass face of the clock but on the black plastic casing below the clock face. It was this lower portion of the clock that would have caught the reflection, if any. They are quite clear in saying that this reflection was completely invisible unless a flashlight was directed onto the target paper. Even then, it was almost impossible to make out the five-digit target.
Although they included this caveat for the sake of completeness, it is obvious that they did not consider it to be a realistic possibility, especially given the anomalous EEG readings that seemed to accompany the out-of-body experience. Tart writes:
Floating and full OBEs occurred in a relatively discrete EEG stage of what I would technically call poorly developed stage-1 dreaming EEG, mixed with transitory periods of brief wakefulness.… Stage-1 EEG normally accompanies the descent into sleep, the hypnagogic period, and later dreaming during the night, but these shown by Miss Z weren't like those ordinary stage-1 periods, because they were often dominated by alphoid activity, a distinctly slower version of the ordinary waking alpha rhythm, and there were no REM's accompanying the stage-1 periods, as almost always happens in normal dreaming. I had studied many sleep EEG records by then and can say with confidence that this was unusual.…
I eventually showed the recordings to one of the world’s leading authorities on sleep research, psychiatrist William Dement, and he agreed with me that it was a distinctive pattern, but we had no idea what it meant.
Bill summed up his view of the experiment this way:
There is a simple naturalistic explanation for the "Miss Z" parapsychological experiment. So we do not resort to a magical explanation that doesn't have a shred of evidence to support it.
I think, however, that if we look at the case in its entirety – the continuous monitoring of the subject via EEG, REM sleep monitor, and skin-resistance measurement; the anomalous EEG pattern that seemingly accompanied the OBEs; the correct identification of the target number, with odds against chance of 100,000 to 1; the subject's relative immobility as a result of the multiple electrodes attached to her body, which could not be removed surreptitiously; the impossibility of seeing any reflection on the clock without using a smuggled flashlight; and the extreme unlikelihood of being able to the read the faint reflection of the target number even in the glow of a flashlight – that it is not correct to say that Tart's parapsychological explanation is "magical" and "doesn't have a shred of evidence to support it," nor is it quite right to suggest that the reflection hypothesis is "a simple naturalistic explanation."
In short, while it's incontestable that the experiment is not conclusive proof of OBEs, it is hardly "discredited" (as Bill calls it), and the facile "reflection" explanation is not very persuasive.
Incidentally, Bill's further point that the results of the Miss Z experiment have never been replicated is debatable. Tart, pp. 205-6:
Stanley Krippner (1996) had a similar experience with a young man who reported occasional OBEs. He was tested for four nights in the laboratory with an art-print target in a box near the ceiling of the room. On the occasion when he reported having had an OBE, he gave a suggestively accurate description of the target, and had shown an unusual EEG pattern of slow waves (unlike Miss Z) about the time the reported OBE occurred.
Again, this is certainly not conclusive, but it does count as at least a partial replication of Tart's results. There have also been many tests (both formal and informal) of remote viewing, which measure the same kind of talent purportedly demonstrated by Miss Z — the ability to accurately describe a hidden or distant target. Some of the remote-viewing experiments have proved startlingly successful.
An interesting article appears in the latest issue of The Atlantic, arguing that the trend toward hypersensitivity on college campuses reflects an unhealthy and counterproductive set of coping mechanisms. Called "The Coddling of the American Mind," it points to a series of cognitive distortions that are associated with neurosis and shows how each of these is encouraged by the strange new campus culture of "trigger warnings" and "microaggressions." Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that instead of cultivating supersensitive students who will be ill-equipped to deal with the sharp elbows and rough edges of the real world, colleges ought to train incoming freshmen in simple methods of identifying and combating cognitive distortions.
All of this is interesting enough in itself, but it got me thinking about a related but slightly different issue – namely, the Internet, and how it affects social interactions and personal well-being. It seems to me that the same cognitive distortions that are at play in the arena of the college campus are also very much on display in social media, Internet news sites, and blogs.
Let's look at some of these cognitive distortions, which were first popularized by psychologist David Burns, and see how they might relate to our everyday online experience.
Mental filtering - focusing on the negative aspect(s) of a situation while ignoring everything else. We see this all the time on political sites which exclusively report news detrimental to the other side of the partisan divide. The result, for people who rely on these sites, is the growing sense that everything in the world is going wrong and that those who are opposed to them politically have nothing positive to offer.
Black-and-white thinking - when anyone who disagrees with us must be evil or crazy. I've seen conservative sites that insist "liberalism is a mental illness,” and liberal sites that say "conservatism is a mental illness.” We also see this kind of thinking on sites devoted to Skepticism, in which anyone who suggests that there could be some merit to parapsychology is immediately disparaged as a nut, a moron, a liar, or a huckster out to make a quick buck. And we see it on New Age sites that similarly disparage anyone who registers even moderate skepticism as "part of the problem," a person with "negative vibrations," a cynic, “unevolved,” and so forth.
Jumping to conclusions. This fallacy seems to be particularly prevalent in social media, where the trend lately has been for outraged lynch mobs to go after some particular person who's offended them. In many cases, the outrage is based on a superficial and incorrect understanding of the situation – often taking something out of context. A recent example involves a dentist who killed a lion while on safari in Africa. When he made the mistake of tweeting a photo of himself with the carcass, he came under sustained attack from people opposed to big-game hunting. He even had to close his practice for a while and go into hiding because of death threats. And yet the full context painted a different picture than the simplistic story spread via Twitter. The game park's survival depends on the large fees paid by hunters. The dentist's native guides specifically directed him to that particular lion. And in the absence of any natural predators, some form of culling must take place to control the animal population. While it is still possible to disapprove of hunting as a sport (I'm not too sympathetic toward it myself, as my short story "Rite of Passage" makes clear), the full story at least made the dentist out to be something other than a heartless monster.
Fortune-telling and catastrophizing - the tendency to anticipate the worst possible outcome (fortune-telling), or to assume that this outcome has already occurred (catastrophizing). The two fallacies are closely connected. Such reasoning is found all over the Internet. Political sites see any policy they disapprove of as the harbinger of an unspeakable catastrophe. Skeptical sites insist that any acceptance of paranormal phenomena must lead to a new Dark Age.
Note how quickly the prediction (fortune-telling) turns into fact (catastrophizing) in the believer's mind. From arguing that current trends will lead to (say) dictatorship, the political writer segues into the conclusion that we are already in a dictatorship. The Skeptic's prediction that belief in the paranormal will bring on a new Dark Age quickly becomes the conclusion that we’re already living in a Dark Age of ignorance and superstition.
Another example would be sites devoted to arguing either for or against anthropogenic global warming, with proponents claiming that a planetary disaster of unprecedented proportions is now inevitable, and opponents claiming that any restrictions on carbon dioxide output will bring our technological civilization to a screeching halt. And then there are financial sites that see every market correction as the first step toward total economic, social, and political collapse, and keep their readers in chronic state of anxiety and panic.
Personalization - making everything personal. We need look no further than the comment threads of many sites and blogs to find people who immediately take any contrary opinion as a personal attack. Comment threads tend to deteriorate into mudslinging contests for this very reason. The fact that commenters can hide behind screen names and usually have no personal connection with their interlocutors makes it all too easy to lash out in an angry, sarcastic, or belittling fashion without worrying about the consequences.
Emotional reasoning - “if I feel it, it must be true, and the more strongly I feel it, the more true it is." It's impossible to avoid this fallacy if you spend any time on the Internet. All too often, arguments are made on the basis of strong emotion, rather than any factual basis. If somebody feels strongly that Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya and faked his birth certificate, it is simply impossible to talk him out of this opinion. He feels it, dammit, so it must be true – and who are you to question his feelings? Or, to take an example from the opposite side of the political spectrum, if somebody feels that the minimum wage should be $20 an hour, it's almost always a waste of time to point out that an unrealistically high starting wage will eliminate entry-level jobs and increase unemployment. Arguing for a $20 minimum wage makes a person feel good about himself – makes him feel that he is caring, kindhearted, and idealistic – and this feeling is more important than any facts.
I've also seen this fallacy displayed on paranormal sites where evidence is presented without much concern for accuracy. When I point out that certain case histories have been misreported, I sometimes get the reply that the factual particulars don't matter – we shouldn't get "bogged down" in details. What this means is that we shouldn't pay attention to facts that get in the way of the feelings we want to have.
A few months ago I encountered a very clear example of this fallacy on Facebook. The above image of a monkey carrying a puppy had gone viral, with the caption that the monkey was rescuing the dog after a factory explosion in China; the uplifting message was that if animals can show such concern for each other, then surely we as humans can do no less. Well, I Googled it and quickly determined that the story was not true. The photo was not taken in China, and there was no factory explosion. In fact, the monkey was not rescuing the dog, but just playing with it, as the photographer herself has stated. But when I mentioned this, the reaction I got from other people on Facebook was sharply negative. They didn't want to know the truth about the picture. One of them told me explicitly that it made her feel good to think that the monkey had rescued a puppy, and she didn't want her feelings altered by facts.
Always being right. This one speaks for itself. Many online arguments continue in perpetuity, with neither side willing to give in or walk away. And the longer the argument goes on, the more likely it is that other fallacies will come into play – that the combatants will start to personalize, engage in emotional reasoning, catastrophize, resort to black-and-white thinking, and so forth.
In listing these distortions, I don’t mean to suggest that I'm immune from them myself. Sadly, the opposite is true. For instance, my insistence on getting the facts about the monkey picture was probably a case of “always being right.” I’m prone to catastrophizing when it comes to political developments. I often have a mental filter about current events, seeing only the negatives (which make headlines) and ignoring the positives (which are easily taken for granted).
There’s nothing new about these distorted ways of thinking. People have always reasoned fallaciously in just these ways. What is new, I think, is the extent to which we're exposed to cognitive distortions on a daily basis if we spend a lot of time online. Chronic exposure to social media, political sites, comment threads, and even blogs like this one can subtly teach us counterproductive and illogical ways of thinking; the more we encounter these fallacies in other people without recognizing them, the more inclined we are to duplicate their distortions. Then we ourselves encourage the same kind of distorted thinking in other people, and the fallacies spread and intensify.
The rise of the Internet has obviously contributed to the growing polarization of our society. The most often-cited reason is that the Internet allows people to hang out in isolated echo chambers and groupthink ghettos where their own biases are constantly reinforced. While this is true, another factor is that so much online commentary and discussion engenders black-and-white thinking, mental filtering, catastrophizing, and other fallacies that encourage us to demonize anyone with a different point of view.
This may also partly explain the sharp polarization between Skeptics and proponents of the paranormal, who seem to have so little common ground. Sometimes when arguing against certain dubious pieces of evidence for life after death, I’ve been told, “You’re only helping the Skeptics when you do that” - as if what matters is not getting at the truth, but winning the debate. This mindset can take hold most easily when the opposite side is viewed as evil, vicious, duplicitous, and lacking in any positive qualities - a view encouraged by most of the cognitive distortions listed above.
Is there any solution? Actually, yes. The best way not to fall prey to these errors is to identify them in our own thinking and then replace our distorted thought patterns with more realistic ones. Many articles and books offer advice on how to do this. There are also apps, such as this one for the iPhone, which allow you to write out your troubling thoughts and then identify which cognitive distortions are at work.
Besides all that, it would probably be helpful for all of us to spend less time online. Speaking of which, I think now I'll turn off my computer and head outside.
Cyrus Kirkpatrick, who comments here sometimes, has written an ebook on life after death. Amazon has it for only 99 cents. Check it out!
Once again, Matt Rouge offers some fascinating philosophical insights, this time focusing on Leibniz's theory of monads. Take it away, Matt ...
Thank you, Michael! Always an honor and a pleasure.
On this blog, Michael frequently talks about the theory that information is in some way fundamental to reality, and I subscribe to this view as well. But the word “information” has a connotation problem. In a recent comment on this blog, our friend Bruce Siegel said,
If it's a choice between over-using one or the other, I'll choose "consciousness" because it refers to a *living* thing rather than a dead one.
Bottom line: I think life/consciousness/love is central to both the universe and my own being, not some abstract, bloodless, nebulous, concept like "information." […]
For me, the undue focus on "information" is closely related to an obsession with matter. And that's because in its normal use "information" is always associated with some form of physical substrate.
Bruce has done me the favor of outlining rather completely the problems with using this word to mean what we want it to mean in this case. But what if someone had solved this issue way back in 1714? And what if he had, likely without understanding he had done so, elucidated the theory of information as fundamental to reality in a concise, intelligible, and illuminating way?
I think that that, with his La Monadologie (The Monadology), mathematical and philosophical genius Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz did exactly that. Here is the complete text. It’s not very long, so I’m going to go over much of it right here. For the sake of brevity, I won’t quote and comment on everything, but I invite you to read the entire text as I go through it.
Now, before we begin, I will ask you to mentally participate in this way: Imagine that when Leibniz says “Monad,” he is actually saying “unit of information.” Further, please accept for the moment my definition of “information.” It is not limited to data contained in a medium like paper, silicon, or neurons. Rather, it is any fact, thought, or qualia. Ultimately, it is any actual or potential object of awareness. Perhaps you will agree that, if you read the text with these concepts in mind, The Monadology leads to some stunning insights.
Without further ado…
1. The Monad […] is nothing but a simple substance, which enters into compounds. By ‘simple’ is meant ‘without parts’.
2. And there must be simple substances, since there are compounds; for a compound is nothing but a collection or aggregatum of simple things.
We can see the Monad as a unit of information and compounds as relationships with other information. Information ultimately does not have parts in the physical sense, though it may be divisible and compoundable in our minds.
3. Now where there are no parts, there can be neither extension nor form nor divisibility. These Monads are the real atoms of nature and, in a word, the elements of things.
Ah, right away we get some good stuff. Monads have no geometric characteristics or form whatsoever, which is true of information. In other words, information is non-local. Further, it is nevertheless fundamental to what we call “physical reality.”
4. No dissolution of these elements need be feared, and there is no conceivable way in which a simple substance can be destroyed by natural means.
Information is indestructible, in other words.
7. Further, there is no way of explaining how a Monad can be altered in quality or internally changed by any other created thing; since it is impossible to change the place of anything in it or to conceive in it any internal motion which could be produced, directed, increased or diminished therein, although all this is possible in the case of compounds, in which there are changes among the parts. The Monads have no windows, through which anything could come in or go out. […]
This matches pretty well how we think of information: we cannot alter information itself, but we can alter how we form “compounds”/relationships with it in our minds.
14. The passing condition [i.e., changes in the Monad], which involves and represents a multiplicity in the unit or in the simple substance, is nothing but what is called Perception, which is to be distinguished from Apperception or Consciousness, as will afterwards appear. […]
There is a lot that comes before this, but in essence Leibniz argues that monads must be different from one another; otherwise, they would not exist as units. Further, they must be subject to change. So what is the content of the monad? Perception! And this makes sense with respect to the definition of “information” I earlier described. The unit of information is essentially the object of awareness, however the mind at that moment chooses to relate to it (e.g., looking at the face instead of the entire person, looking at the nose instead of the face, and so on).
Now we are getting into pan-consciousness and, since monads are non-local, the holographic universe that friend and frequent commenter Art espouses. This theme will only be spread on thicker as we proceed.
Manuscript page of The Monadology
17. Moreover, it must be confessed that perception and that which depends upon it are inexplicable on mechanical grounds, that is to say, by means of figures and motions. And supposing there were a machine, so constructed as to think, feel, and have perception, it might be conceived as increased in size, while keeping the same proportions, so that one might go into it as into a mill. That being so, we should, on examining its interior, find only parts which work one upon another, and never anything by which to explain a perception. Thus it is in a simple substance, and not in a compound or in a machine, that perception must be sought for. Further, nothing but this (namely, perceptions and their changes) can be found in a simple substance. It is also in this alone that all the internal activities of simple substances can consist.
Here is a brilliant insight by Leibniz that also gets into the problem of qualia. If we were to increase the size of the brain, we would see neurons and so on, but we would not see perception itself. Materialists would say that perception lies in the relationships between neurons, but what if perceptions lie within information itself? That is, the perception is its own content. This is a kind of Copernican Revolution in reverse, in which information does not revolve around the mind, but the mind revolves around the information; or rather, the mind is a relationship among infinite non-local modes of experiencing awareness.
18. All simple substances or created Monads might be called Entelechies, for they have in them a certain perfection (ἔχουσι τὸἐντελές); they have a certain self-sufficiency (αὐτάρκεια) which makes them the sources of their internal activities and, so to speak, incorporeal automata.
Here is perhaps the word that can replace the bloodless word “information”: entelechies. Also, Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome. George Clinton knows his Leibniz!
19. If we are to give the name of Soul to everything which has perceptions and desires in the general sense which I have explained, then all simple substances or created Monads might be called souls; but as feeling is something more than a bare perception, I think it right that the general name of Monads or Entelechies should suffice for simple substances which have perception only, and that the name of Souls should be given only to those in which perception is more distinct, and is accompanied by memory.
This is directly relevant to our discussions of souls and what kinds of things might experience the Afterlife. A soul, in other words, is a sufficiently complex relationship among entelechies that also has access to memory (which itself is information, or more entelechies, I would myself add in explanation).
26. Memory provides the soul with a kind of consecutiveness, which resembles reason, but which is to be distinguished from it. Thus we see that when animals have a perception of something which strikes them and of which they have formerly had a similar perception, they are led, by means of representation in their memory, to expect what was combined with the thing in this previous perception, and they come to have feelings similar to those they had on the former occasion. For instance, when a stick is shown to dogs, they remember the pain it has caused them, and howl and run away.
An interesting observation by Leibniz. Our minds are constantly running on the fuel of association between various pieces of information.
27. And the strength of the mental image which impresses and moves them comes either from the magnitude or the number of the preceding perceptions. For often a strong impression produces all at once the same effect as a long-formed habit, or as many and oft-repeated ordinary perceptions.
28. In so far as the concatenation of their perceptions is due to the principle of memory alone, men act like the lower animals, resembling the empirical physicians, whose methods are those of mere practice without theory. Indeed, in three-fourths of our actions we are nothing but empirics. For instance, when we expect that there will be daylight to-morrow, we do so empirically, because it has always so happened until now. It is only the astronomer who thinks it on rational grounds.
Some more good observations. I think these passages reflect an important aspect of spiritual development: getting out of habit (lower-dimensional thought) and moving toward true reflection and understanding (higher-dimensional thought).
33. There are also two kinds of truths, those of reasoning and those of fact. Truths of reasoning are necessary and their opposite is impossible: truths of fact are contingent and their opposite is possible. When a truth is necessary, its reason can be found by analysis, resolving it into more simple ideas and truths, until we come to those which are primary.
46. We must not, however, imagine, as some do, that eternal truths, being dependent on God, are arbitrary and depend on His will, as Descartes, and afterwards M. Poiret, appear to have held. That is true only of contingent truths, of which the principle is fitness [convenance] or choice of the best, whereas necessary truths depend solely on His understanding and are its inner object.
Leibniz is here describing what I call “a priori reality” and “a posteriori reality,” which I think is a very important distinction. For example, the truths of mathematics are true in all possible universes, are uncreated, and unalterable. God/Source cannot influence them and is in fact bound by them. We have the ability to understand these truths (at least to some extent, currently, with our human minds), but they are not “information” in the same sense as, say, the perceptions I have of the room I am in.
47. Thus God alone is the primary unity or original simple substance, of which all created or derivative Monads are products and have their birth, so to speak, through continual fulgurations of the Divinity from moment to moment, limited by the receptivity of the created being, of whose essence it is to have limits.
There is a lot before this in which Leibniz talks about the nature of God. But the above sounds to me quite close to the New Age definition of Source. This “original simple substance” could also be called, per the Sanskrit term of Indian thought, “Cit,” or universal consciousness. Leibniz is of course operating in the traditional top-down European mode of thinking about spirituality. I personally add in the concept that all entelechies are striving to compose Source/Cit. There is therefore causality in both directions, in my view.
53. Now, as in the Ideas of God there is an infinite number of possible universes, and as only one of them can be actual, there must be a sufficient reason for the choice of God, which leads Him to decide upon one rather than another.
It’s interesting that Leibniz had the concept of multiple universes. He goes on to argue that this must be the best possible universe, since that is the only choice per se that a perfect God can make. I don’t agree with this argument, but it does lead to some interesting thinking on his part:
56. Now this connexion or adaptation of all created things to each and of each to all, means that each simple substance has relations which express all the others, and, consequently, that it is a perpetual living mirror of the universe.
Things are connected and adapted to achieve the perfection that God wills. I don’t agree with that, but here Leibniz has conceived of the holographic nature of reality—all the way back in 1714.
57. And as the same town, looked at from various sides, appears quite different and becomes as it were numerous in aspects; even so, as a result of the infinite number of simple substances, it is as if there were so many different universes, which, nevertheless are nothing but aspects of a single universe, according to the special point of view of each Monad.
OK, wow. In other words, all entelechies (in my conception actual or potential objects of awareness) are reflections of each other and of the entirety, Source.
58. And by this means there is obtained as great variety as possible, along with the greatest possible order; that is to say, it is the way to get as much perfection as possible.
This jibes with Michael’s recent speculation: “Of course, a brainstorming session makes no sense if the solution to the problem is already known. Brainstorming is something we do when we don't know the answer. Which leads us to the conclusion that the universe, or whatever lies behind it, doesn't know all the answers. The universe is a work in progress, and the various experiments – whether successful or failed – are its way of working out its own unanswered questions.”
60. […] For God in regulating the whole has had regard to each part, and in particular to each Monad, whose nature being to represent, nothing can confine it to the representing of only one part of things; though it is true that this representation is merely confused as regards the variety of particular things in the whole universe, and can be distinct only as regards a small part of things, namely, those which are either nearest or greatest in relation to each of the Monads; otherwise each Monad would be a deity. It is not as regards their object, but as regards the different ways in which they have knowledge of their object, that the Monads are limited. In a confused way they all strive after the infinite, the whole; but they are limited and differentiated through the degrees of their distinct perceptions.
This statement is directly analogous to the concept of the holographic universe, even though holography or even photography didn’t exist in Leibniz’s day. Each monad has a clear perception of what it is itself about and a less clear perception of that to which it is more distantly related. Similarly, as a holographic plate is broken into pieces, each of the pieces still contains the entire picture but is fuzzier the smaller it is.
69. Thus there is nothing fallow, nothing sterile, nothing dead in the universe, no chaos, no confusion save in appearance, somewhat as it might appear to be in a pond at a distance, in which one would see a confused movement and, as it were, a swarming of fish in the pond, without separately distinguishing the fish themselves.
The parts before this are quite interesting but long. In essence, everything in the universe in all dimensions is conscious and alive.
70. Hence it appears that each living body has a dominant entelechy, which in an animal is the soul; but the members of this living body are full of other living beings, plants, animals, each of which has also its dominant entelechy or soul.
Here is where we get into our recent discussions of the I-Thought. I would say the “dominant entelechy” in any mind is Cit itself, or Universal Consciousness. Through psycho-spiritual mechanics, this nature in turn leads to the I-Thought, and so on, relating more or less strongly to other entelechies as it reflects the entire Universe in its own manner.
77. Thus it may be said that not only the soul (mirror of an indestructible universe) is indestructible, but also the animal itself, though its mechanism may often perish in part and take off or put on an organic slough.
The parts before this need to be read through the lens of modern science, but Leibniz is here in essence stating what I believe is the reason why we experience an Afterlife: our minds are relationships between indestructible units of information, or entelechies. “Mirror of an indestructible universe” is in the original—not my addition!
78. These principles have given me a way of explaining naturally the union or rather the mutual agreement of the soul and the organic body. The soul follows its own laws, and the body likewise follows its own laws; and they agree with each other in virtue of the pre-established harmony between all substances, since they are all representations of one and the same universe.
The mind-body problem was the bugbear of the philosophers of the time: How can the soul interface with the body if they are of two different natures? Here Leibniz takes nothing less than a radical approach: the holographic universe and the interrelatedness of all things.
83. Among other differences which exist between ordinary souls and minds, some of which differences I have already noted, there is also this: that souls in general are living mirrors or images of the universe of created things, but that minds are also images of the Deity or Author of nature Himself, capable of knowing the system of the universe, and to some extent of imitating it through architectonic ensamples, each mind being like a small divinity in its own sphere.
I think this statement reflects the concept of dimensionality of thought: that is, the greater the dimension of our thought, the closer it is to God/Source. Thus, there is consciousness in all things, but minds can be of varying levels.
So that’s my gloss on the text itself, and now I’d like to do a bit of more freestyle commentary.
First, while I don’t agree with everything Leibniz says in The Monadology, I do think he anticipated many future developments in thought, some of which jibe very well with today’s advanced physics and recent trends in spirituality (New Age, if you will).
The thing that is quite stunning to me is that Leibniz was taking an approach to atomic theory that completely ignored the concept of extension, or the void of space, which Descartes had emphasized in his Meditations as fundamental to the understanding of physical reality. At the same time, Leibniz doesn’t just hint at a concept of a holographic universe—he states it outright.
But Leibniz goes beyond merely anticipating ideas that others, perhaps in ignorance of The Monadology and his other works, have fleshed out to a greater extent in the 20th and 21st centuries. That is, he does more than simply allow us to say, “Wow, it was cool he was thinking of this stuff in 1714!”
Rather, he sets forth ideas in The Monadology that can take us further toward the truth than we’ve already gone. To wit:
• He suggests, as I put it, the reverse Copernican Revolution of seeing the mind proceed toward mental content and inhering in it, as opposed to containing it. Entelechies are each their own “perception” or content, the relationships between which (“compounds”) form the whole.
• In his argument of the enlarged mill, he gives us a clue as to the nature of qualia. Instead of looking for qualia in the relationships between the parts (neurons, etc.), we may see that they are “simple substances” or entelechies with which our minds can form a relationship. That’s not a full explanation but is a big hint, I believe.
• Reality is not based upon geometry (i.e., the Universe does not equal the void of space and its contents) but on relationships (“compounds”) between units of mental content (“monads/entelechies”). This insight has direct relevance to psi, spiritual matters, and the Afterlife, in which we consistently see that physical distance is irrelevant.
• Further, the base units of matter are only superficially atoms broken further down into electrons, quarks, and so on. Although Leibniz in The Monadology is describing the workings of what we would call the “physical universe,” he does away with extension entirely in his explanation. Monads have no size or geometric qualities whatsoever. I took a 400 level course in college specifically about Leibniz, and this absence of geometry was something everyone had a hard time wrapping their heads around. I think the implications for understanding quantum mechanics and other aspects of reality are immense, since our minds have a natural and understandable tendency to form geometric models that lead us to extrapolate incorrectly.
• The transmission hypothesis becomes unnecessary. Since the base unit of reality, the monad/entelechy is mental, there is nothing to transmit from one “place” to another. Rather, minds/souls/spirits (these all being the same thing) inhere in reality by dint of relationships. As Leibniz observes, the relationships can be stronger or weaker in quality, even though everything is ultimately interrelated.
• Consequently, the Afterlife becomes easier to understand. When a person dies, some relationships become weaker while others become stronger. There is no need for a soul to “pop out of” the body, since the human soul inheres relationally in the entire universe (Source, Cit, etc.).
• Leibniz’s concept of “pre-ordained harmony” was also well ahead of its time. Today, we could analogize that this harmony is a computer program by which information is controlled. Since this could be another “bloodless” concept, we can further describe it as the mode of “perception” of Source and entelechies it comprises.
Those are some observations, but I have hardly squeezed the orange of The Monadology of all its juice. I encourage the reader to go through the rather brief text and draw further conclusions, for I think increased attention to this remarkable document can help us understand better both physical and spiritual reality and resolve the artificial dichotomy between the two.
I've now watched five of the six episodes of season 1 of Catastrophe, an Amazon TV series available via streaming (free to Prime members). It's an intelligent single-camera sitcom about two strangers who hook up for a six-day fling, which results in an unplanned pregnancy - the catastrophe of the title.
I like the show well enough, but even though it can be funny and smart, something about it is depressing, and I don't mean the part about an unplanned pregnancy. No, what's depressing is the world the characters inhabit, the very nature of their lives.
Most of their friends and relatives are just awful. Even the few nice ones aren't really all that nice. Parents are minimally supportive at best. Supposed friends turn out to harbor not-so-secret resentments and hostilities. Doctors are so tone-deaf to basic emotional interaction that they deliver distressing news without warning or context. Business colleagues pretend to be friendly but actually hate each other on the rawest, most visceral level. Even a grade school teacher refuses to smile in front of her students, explaining that if she shows any weakness, it will be like throwing chum into a shark tank.
Though the characters are educated and semi-affluent, they live in a world of remarkable intellectual aridity. All conversations, including seduction, pillow talk, and marriage proposals, are dominated by the f-word and its equivalents. Nobody talks about ideas, except for content-free sound bites about global warming or nuclear war. Nobody has the slightest interest in spirituality or in finding any meaning in life. One character does practice homeopathy, but she's depicted as a hopeless neurotic who deserves ridicule; when she says a friend cured himself of prostate cancer with a walnut diet, the main character delivers the laugh line, "What'd he do, shove the walnuts up his ass?"
(Not that I'm endorsing homeopathy or walnut diets, but couldn't these people be even slightly open to new ideas - or at least treat differences of opinion with a modicum of civility?)
Needless to say, no one practices religion, though we are treated to a diatribe on the idiocy of believing in the devil. No one is interested in art or music. No one reads books, except for a book on pregnancy. Even the main female character, supposedly a frustrated writer, shows no sign of ever having read a book for pleasure. We know she's a wannabe writer mainly because she detests a popular female writer of children's fantasies - not for aesthetic reasons but because of a personal grudge. In fact, much of what we know about these people is defined by their hatreds, which are always petty and vindictive.
What's largely missing from this world are things that used to be taken for granted as part of any well lived life. A set of principles. A commitment to something higher than the mundane. Loyalty, honesty, kindness. Meaningful family relationships. A sense of community, of shared values.
And you say: So what? The show's creators set out to realize a humorous but bleak vision, and they succeeded.
But that's the thing. I don't think they set out to do that at all. I think they did it this way because this really is life for them and for the people they know. In the circles in which they travel, conversations really are conducted on this level, and people really are constantly stabbing each other in the back (when they're not spitting invective directly into each other's face), and seriousness really is gauged by how freely they disparage religion or genuflect before climate change.
All the things missing from this world are things that the "elites" of today, the educated, cosmopolitan class, have consciously rejected. A sense of community requires shared values, but ... values ? Come on, nobody believes in that crap anymore. Nobody believes in anything anymore, except sexual freedom, the one absolute. Nobody reads, studies, ponders, communes with nature or God, or asks what it's all about. Even love and friendship are not to be taken seriously, since we know it's all fake and we secretly hate each other and root for our friends to fail.
I'm not saying the show is bad. Not at all. In fact, I think it's devastatingly accurate, in ways that it probably didn't quite intend to be. In its quest to depict two smart, sophisticated people dealing with a real-world problem in a modern way, Catastrophe shows us the hollowness of a society mostly stripped of the old-fashioned qualities that once made life tolerable. The two main characters are in it together - and they are in it alone. They do try to help each other (the man in the relationship seems particularly concerned about trying to do the right thing, one of the few grace notes in the series), but no one else is trying very hard.
What a difference it would make if just one of their friends had said, "Wow, that's a lot to deal with. Whatever you need me for, I'm there for you. I want to help you in any way I can, because, honestly, I love you." But no one in their world could utter those words. The sentiment itself has become literally unspeakable.
To me, that's the real catastrophe.
Quite often on this blog we've talked about the transmission hypothesis, which can be expressed in various forms, but which always boils down to the idea that the brain is a medium by which consciousness interacts with the physical world. When the brain dies, consciousness continues, though it is no longer physically embodied. This is one basic answer to the question of how personality can survive the death of the body.
One of the most common objections to this idea is that the mind can suffer severe impairment as a result of neurological damage or other physical problems, so that, even if the mind does survive death, it will survive only in a grossly impaired form. On the other hand, it is argued, if the postmortem mind is free of all physical impairments, then it bears little or no resemblance to the embodied mind and therefore amounts to a whole new mind. In this case, there is no continuity of consciousness between the premortem and postmortem mind, and so there is no individual survival.
There are two ways to counter this argument. The first is to forego philosophizing and simply look at the empirical evidence that convinced us (or some of us) of life after death in the first place. To me, the best evidence is found in the trance mediumship of women like Leonora Piper, Gladys Osborne Leonard, and Eileen Garrett, all of whom were studied intensively for decades by serious investigators, who left behind reams of stenographic records of hundreds of sittings. Some of the material that came through these mediums was incorrect, and a great deal of it was nonsense ("bosh," William James called it), but all serious researchers were eventually led to conclude that a significant minority of the communications contained information that the mediums could not have obtained by any normal means. These researchers were divided between the hypothesis of postmortem survival and the hypothesis of super-ESP.
Personally, I think the super-ESP idea has little merit; for a detailed discussion, see Chris Carter's Science and the Afterlife Experience. This leaves us with postmortem survival. And the hypothesis of personal survival is further supported by near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, apparitions, deathbed visions, terminal lucidity, past-life recall, and other cases.
What all of these instances have in common is an insistence on continuity of consciousness. The deceased, speaking through mediums, tell us quite plainly that they are still the same individuals that they were when physically alive. This point is repeated over and over, almost ad nauseam. We are told that the transition between life and the afterlife can be so seamless that the person is unaware of having died. In other cases, the transition is more difficult, but even then the discarnate communicator invariably tells us that he has the same sense of self that he had when living on earth.
People who have had near-death experiences also report no disruption in the continuity of their consciousness. However much their consciousness may have been expanded or otherwise affected, they retain the sense that the entire episode happened to the old familiar I of personal experience.
Since this is what all the evidence tells us, there is really no reason to doubt it merely on philosophical grounds. It would make more sense to rethink our philosophical arguments than to discard empirical evidence.
But there's another way of tackling the problem — namely, to sketch out a philosophical position consistent with the empirical evidence. For what follows, I'm indebted to the contributions of several commenters on this blog, particularly Matt Rouge, who first brought up the concept of the I-thought and its entanglement with an informational matrix.
To get into this, we first need to think a little about what consciousness is.
Consciousness implies both a subject and an object. This much is obvious, but most people have a mistaken idea of what the subject is. I think it is this mistake that makes it hard to appreciate the force of the transmission hypothesis.
To describe what the subject is, let's first detail what it is not. The objects of consciousness include sensory input, mental imagery, logical reasoning processes, memories, imagination, feelings, and thoughts. Yes, even thoughts are objects, not subjects, of consciousness. What, then, is the subject? It is pure awareness – nothing more and nothing less.
Pure awareness, when linked to a specific set of objects, is known in some traditions as the I-thought. It is described this way in The Advaita Worldview: God, World, and Humanity, by Anantanand Rambachan:
The I-thought is centered on an awareness that is permanently present, being timeless and self-revealing. Its content and nature are nothing but awareness, without which it has no existence or reality. ... When the I-thought, whose nature is limitless awareness [ ] is subject to ignorance, it identifies itself with the characteristics of the body, senses, and mind in notions such as, "I am short," "I am blind," or "I am unhappy." Liberation from ignorance occurs when the I-thought [ ] comes to understand its nature as limitless awareness. … A requisite of such knowledge is a calm and translucent mind in which the I-thought is able to understand itself as nonobjectifiable, illuminating awareness, distinguishable from the body, senses, and mind, relating to all of these as subject to object, and as identical with brahman, the non-dual ground of all reality. ...
All thoughts originate from and can be reduced or resolved back to the I-thought. The I-thought, on the other hand, can be traced back to its source in awareness, without which it ceases to be. Awareness, however, cannot be resolved or reduced it to anything else. It simply is.
The I-thought persists throughout life, as well as during and after the transition to the afterlife. It thus accounts for the continuity of consciousness and for the often-reported insistence that the deceased "I" is the same as the physically embodied "I."
When we talk about an embodied consciousness – that is, the consciousness of a person living on earth – we're talking about an evolving dynamic process that involves all the objects of consciousness I listed above, and the I-thought, and the neurological and biological structures of the living organism. When we talk about a disembodied consciousness – the consciousness of a discarnate person – we're talking about an evolving dynamic process that involves all the objects of consciousness and the I-thought, but not the physical structures of the living organism. The absence of those physical structures is the key difference.
No one disputes that neurological damage and other physical problems can impair consciousness while it is embodied. The impairment occurs not because of any change in the pure awareness at the root of the I-thought but because the range of objects of consciousness is reduced. It may not be possible to recall memories, focus on logical reasoning, or formulate coherent thoughts. Again, all of these are objects, not the subject, of consciousness. Pure awareness remains uncorrupted and unimpaired, but the set of objects it can illuminate is narrowed, and the I-thought mistakenly accepts this narrowing as permanent. Upon passing over to the next life, the physical impairments are removed, and the full variety of objects is again available.
Now, for this to make sense, two things must be true. First, the objects of consciousness, even if temporarily lost while consciousness is embodied, cannot be permanently lost. If memories, thoughts, logical reasoning, and so forth are irretrievably lost, then even the transition to a discarnate state would not allow the I-thought to recover them. So there must be some way in which the objects of consciousness are preserved – whether we call it the Akashic records or whether we simply maintain that information, once brought into existence, cannot be destroyed.
Second, we must assume that there is a close relationship between one's awareness and the particular set of objects on which it has focused. Otherwise awareness, once liberated from its physical trappings, might focus on any and all objects of any consciousness that has ever been. In this case there would be no survival of the individual personality, but only a kind of universal mind that is aware of everything at once. While this idea might be philosophically appealing and it is found in some spiritual traditions, it's contradicted by the apparently reliable testimony of deceased persons speaking through mediums, as well as the testimony of people who've had near-death experiences, etc. And in any case, the very concept of the I-thought expressly serves to cover this relationship. The I-thought is pure awareness connected to a particular set of thoughts and memories — individuated and egoic, not universal and identityless. It is an I-thought, not a We-thought.
Given an "entanglement" between the I-thought and the constellation of objects on which it has focused, the I-thought, once free of physical limits, will naturally focus on the one particular set of objects – memories, thoughts, feelings, etc. – that, added together, constitute a "personality." After all, what we call personality is only the intersection of the I-thought with a characteristic set of objects – distinctive memories, personal thoughts and feelings, recognizable habits of mind. This is how we can say that the personality survives death, even if the personality has been grossly attenuated or deformed by dementia, mental illness, and other impairments. It is also how we can say that in cases of terminal lucidity, the dying person abruptly recovers his or her personality ("she was herself again").
An analogy might make this whole thing a little clearer. Imagine a person who is able to see only through a narrow horizontal slit in a blindfold. His vision is restricted to a hazy line, and he thinks of himself as nearly sightless. At a certain point, the blindfold is removed, and after a short period of disorientation and adjustment, he is able to see a much wider range of objects. In this case the person's eyesight corresponds to pure awareness, his self-identification as "nearly sightless" corresponds to the I-thought, and the slitted blindfold corresponds to physical limitations and impairments. The person's capacity for vision actually remains unchanged throughout, but the objects of his vision are restricted at first and relatively unrestricted later, and the I-thought (in its ignorance) mistakes this temporary limitation for a permanent condition.
The bottom line is that the skeptical objection to the transmission hypothesis is flawed in two respects. First, it's inconsistent with the empirical evidence. (Naturally, skeptics will dispute or dismiss this very evidence, but that's a separate issue.) Second, it depends on an understanding of consciousness that confuses subject and object. It assumes that thoughts and memories and reasoning processes are the same thing as awareness, when in fact all of these are objects of awareness in the particular form of the I-thought.
If we look at consciousness as an I-thought entangled with an information matrix in an evolving system that is subject to temporary limitations and impairments, but in which no data are ever permanently lost, the skeptical objection simply becomes irrelevant.
Quick link to an experiment that purportedly suggests that time is an emergent property of quantum entanglement:
Vitor Moura has called my attention to an article by Donald R. Forsdyke of the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Biological Theory (available online behind a paywall). Its title is "Wittgenstein’s Certainty is Uncertain: Brain Scans of Cured Hydrocephalics Challenge Cherished Assumptions￼￼￼￼."
Forsdyke, revisiting the work of British pediatrician John Lorber in the 1970s, finds a few more recent cases supportive of Lorber's controversial (to put it mildly) contention that very little gray matter is necessary in order to support normal mental function. Taking brain scans of hydrocephalics, Lorber found that in the most extreme cases, cerebrospinal fluid occupied "at least 95% of cranial capacity," leaving little room for brain tissue. Forsdyke writes:
Shocking enough. But now for what really rocked the neuroscientists. Half of Lorber’s 60 cases were of above-normal intelligence (as determined by standard IQ tests). The central scans in the figure [reproduced below]—virtually indistinguishable from the severely impaired case on the right—are representative of this group. And doubtless a candid camera would have caught Lorber’s jaw dropping when, among them, he found a student who was ‘‘socially completely normal’’ and had a first class honors degree in mathematics.
The math student's brain was estimated to weigh between 50 and 150 grams, while a normal brain would weigh 1.5 kilograms (1,500 grams).
Photo reproduced from the Discover blog post. The brain on the left is normal; the brain in the middle is that of a hydrocephalic patient who showed no sign of mental dysfunction; the brain on the right is that of a hydrocephalic who was severely impaired.
For decades Lorber's conclusions were largely ignored. But in 2007, The Lancet reported that a married civil servant with two children displayed a "massive ventricular enlargement" in his scans — essentially the same condition Lorber had observed decades earlier. Shortly afterward, another case along the same lines was reported by Brazilian neurosurgeons.
These cases remain exceedingly rare. Most hydrocephalics do not lead normal lives; their mental function is often severely compromised. But the existence of even a few such cases would seem to pose a challenge to the conventional wisdom in neurology.
Before we go on, though, we need to take note of an opposing view — namely, that these cases are less dramatic than they appear. In Discover magazine's blog, a contributor with the screen name Neuroskeptic argues that what is mainly missing in these scans is not gray matter, but white matter:
There’s no question that some of these brains are very striking. But I don’t think we need to throw out the textbooks yet.
While the enormous “holes” in these brains seem dramatic, the bulk of the grey matter of the cerebral cortex, around the outside of the brain, appears to be intact and in the correct place – this is visible as the dark grey ‘shell’ beneath the skull. What appears to be missing is the white matter, the nerve tracts that connect the various parts of the cerebral cortex with each other, and with the other areas of the brain.
However, some white matter is still visible as the pale grey layer that borders the holes. The big question is whether this layer of white matter is sufficient to connect up the grey matter and allow it to function normally. There doesn’t seem to be much of it, but on the other hand, we really don’t know how much white matter is strictly necessary.
I wonder also if the white matter might be denser than normal i.e. if the fibers were packed together due to being gradually compressed by the expanding fluid spaces?
After pointing out the need for more research, Neuroskeptic concludes:
In my view, these cases probably won’t require us to rethink neuroscience, although they do raise the issue of how much white matter is necessary. It may be that much of our white matter is redundant, which would be interesting, but not on a metaphysical level.
Getting back to Forsdyke, he devotes the rest of his article to arguing that the Lorber-type cases call into question the information-storage models of the brain. He rejects the idea that the brain can demonstrate unlimited plasticity:
... there must be rules for redundancy and plasticity. There must be limits. It is a matter of elementary logic that, at some stage of brain shrinkage, these explanations must fail. The drastic reduction in brain mass in the hydrocephalic cases seems to demand unimaginable levels of redundancy and/or plasticity—superplasticity. How much brain must be absent before we abandon these explanations and admit that the standard model, however incarnated, will not work?
The plasticity explanation is essentially what Neuroskeptic relies on. The skeptical argument is that the brain has so much "redundancy and/or plasticity" as to achieve "superplasticity" (Forsdyke's words). Thus even a loss of 95% of brain tissue is not necessarily catastrophic, as long as a "shell" of gray and white matter (the latter possibly compacted) remains intact. For Forsdyke, this explanation pushes plasticity/redundancy past the breaking point.
Instead, he's partial to a different, though admittedly speculative, idea:
Information relating to long-term memory is held outside the brain. Since most nonneural tissues and organs appear unsuited for this task, this extrapolates to long-term memory being outside the body—extracorporeal! Amazingly, this startling alternative has been on the table for at least two decades. A Georgetown University professor of computing science has sketched out how it might work (Berkovich 1993, 2014). A 10th century Arabic philosopher-physician even had a version (Avicenna 1631) ...
With respect to long-term memory, a stand-alone computer can be regarded merely as a terminal for manipulating data, and one retrieves from, and store files at, some remote location by way of the Internet. There are imaginative attempts to relate this to the workings of individual brains (Al Shargi and Berkovich 2009). The brain is seen as a receptor/transmitter of some form of electromagnetic wave/particle for which no obvious external structure (e.g., an eye) would be needed. Considering the universe as a holographic information storage device, and invoking the ‘‘spooky’’ physical principle of ‘‘non-locality’’ (Rudolph 2008), a ‘‘possible ‘hardware’ implementation’’ has been described (Berkovich 1993).
While various versions are considered in more detail elsewhere (Clark 2008; Noe ̈ 2009; Forsdyke 2011), they all fall far short on evidence. However, the rare hydrocephalic cases described here suggest that we should be cautious when tempted to cast aside the astonishing idea of personal information—long-term memory—being stored elsewhere ...
And, of course, when speaking of extracorporeal memory we enter the domain of ‘‘mind’’ or ‘‘spirit,’’ with corresponding metaphysical implications. ... Perhaps we should return to 1867 and harken to an exchange between two of Charles Darwin’s contemporaries, Robert Chambers and Alfred Russel Wallace: ‘‘My idea is that the term ‘supernatural’ is a gross mistake. We have only to enlarge our conceptions of the natural, and all will be alright’’ (Wallace 1905, pp. 285–286). We chuckle on learning how spiritualists duped such characters. Yet the possibility now emerges of at least some grains of truth amidst the dross that we poor creatures, imprisoned within the second decade of the 21st century, can understand no better than those imprisoned in the latter decades of the 19th could fathom ‘‘the missing five ounces’’ (Romanes 1887; Forsdyke 2014, 2015).
Though I don't think spiritualists necessarily "duped" the early researchers (my opinion is that some spiritualists were genuine and others were fraudulent, and many of the early researchers were quite adept at discerning between them), I welcome Forsdyke's willingness to look beyond the existing paradigm. As he himself says, it is somewhat astonishing that these cases have excited so little interest or curiosity. And even Neuroskeptic writes, "I’m surprised that more research hasn’t been done into this issue."
Forsdyke quotes philosopher Marek Majorek as being startled by the cognitive dissonance of experts reporting on the hydrocephalic cases without registering much of a reaction. Majorek wrote,
Yet it seems that the report should have been supplied with a large red title stating something to the effect ‘‘A major medical miracle: normal life with half a brain!’’, published not only in an academic journal but on the first pages of every major newspaper in the world, and extensively discussed in professional journals.
More than thirty years after Lorber's work, these anomalous cases still have not been explained. Perhaps even more astonishing, there seems to be very little interest in explaining them. They are unwanted, inconvenient scraps of data, duly reported and quickly filed away.
Hmm. Maybe he didn't need a brain, after all!
I've been thinking more about what C.S. Lewis called The Problem of Pain – the fact that life on earth is so often painful and unpleasant. As Lewis himself pointed out, pain is a philosophical problem only if we approach the issue from a non-materialist standpoint. Materialism sees no intellectual conundrum in the existence – and even the prevalence – of pain and suffering. The world is an accident, life itself is an accident, and pain is just part of the package. There is no reason to expect things to be any other way.
Philosophically, pain becomes a problem only if we believe there is some higher purpose to existence, some grand design or ultimate end, and that the universe is meant to be a fundamentally good place. The materialist position is self-consistent and alluringly simple, but it's contradicted by a wealth of evidence indicating that consciousness is not ultimately dependent on the nervous system and that other planes of reality exist. The spiritualist position, however we define it in detail, seems better suited to encompass the kinds of paranormal and (for want of a better word) supernatural phenomena that we've often looked at in this blog.
How, then, can we explain the persistence, even the universality, of suffering? Here's an idea that occurred to me.
A great deal of the suffering in the world is related to the fact that organisms so often survive by exploiting other organisms. Carnivores kill and devour herbivores. Parasites infect their hosts. Microbes cause disease and spread plague. Insects and germs kill off crops, causing famine. Even the gentle herbivores survive by eating plants, which are, of course, living things in their own right. Nature is "red in tooth and claw," and Darwinists are right to stress the dog-eat-dog, brutal and ruthless competitiveness of the natural world. All generations of human beings, with the partial exception of our own, have been well aware that nature is out to get us. Only the affluence and comfort provided by modern technology in the developed countries can allow some people to believe nature is benign. Spend a month in the woods without any special equipment, and we'll quickly come to realize that our present-day isolation from the hazards of nature is a historical anomaly.
Nobody is singing "Hakuna Matata" in this movie
Now, why is it that organisms are engaged in all these destructive behaviors? The simplest explanation is that life seems to be programmed to find a niche anywhere it can. It will explore any avenue, exploit any opportunity, go anywhere and do anything – or die trying. Life will find ways to survive on the ocean floor or on the slopes of a volcano or even in the vacuum of space, clinging to the side of the International Space Station, which currently harbors an encrustation of algae. As Jurassic Park told us, life will find a way. The fact that many of these ways entail the destruction of other living things, or their extreme suffering, seems to be quite immaterial. Life is ruthless; it is always on the hunt for the main chance and always willing to take advantage of any loophole or weakness, consequences be damned.
What we have, then, seems to be a world that prizes the diversity of life above all else. The purpose – if there is a purpose – is the constant, unrestricted exploration of every possible form of life, every conceivable method of survival and reproduction, in every kind of environment – a wild, undisciplined, improvisational efflorescence of life ramifying into every nook and cranny of the physical world, from Arctic tundras to the intestinal tract.
To reframe this idea, we might say that the universe is set up to maximize the variety of activities and experiences that can be made real. It's sort of like a cosmic brainstorming session in which no idea, no matter how crazy, is off-limits. Everything is on the table; everything is worth a try.
Of course, a brainstorming session makes no sense if the solution to the problem is already known. Brainstorming is something we do when we don't know the answer. Which leads us to the conclusion that the universe, or whatever lies behind it, doesn't know all the answers. The universe is a work in progress, and the various experiments – whether successful or failed – are its way of working out its own unanswered questions.
Actually, it's probably wrong to say that any experiments have failed, since even the evolutionary dead ends have provided information in their own right. Thomas Edison famously disputed the idea that his dozens of experiments in making a lightbulb had served no purpose. He replied that he now knew dozens of ways not to make a lightbulb. In the same way, the universe is learning what works and what doesn't, and like Edison's creative process, which was "one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration," it's messy and inefficient and sometimes frustrating and painful.
Notice that this viewpoint leaves no room for an omniscient God. An omniscient God knows all the answers and doesn't need to experiment. On the other hand, it does leave room for a God or Universal Mind that is not omniscient but still vastly more aware than any human mind. And of course, human minds themselves are exploratory tendrils extending from this cosmic Source, and are part of the same experiment.
In short, we might address the problem of pain by saying that neither pleasure nor pain is the real point of the cosmic drama unfolding around us. The point is to actualize every potentiality, instantiate every abstract possibility, and widen the field of experience ever further. It may be that this complicated and ever-growing meshwork of experiences simply is the point of it all – experience and growth for its own sake – or it may be that the ultimate point is to grope our way to an ideal existence in the physical state that currently eludes us. In either case, pain is built into the cosmic plan, not because the Mind behind it is that of a sadist, but because if pain were foreclosed, too many avenues of exploration would be foreclosed with it.
I have no idea if this notion has any weight, but right now it seems more satisfactory to me than other explanations I've considered. So there it is.
Lately I've started reading the novels of Agatha Christie. Before this year, I'd read only a couple of them and wasn't really a fan. But after reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a masterpiece of its type, I was hooked. Since then, I've been working my way through her books, concentrating on her earlier efforts.
I know almost nothing about Agatha Christie's personal life, but from her writings I suspect she had a genuine interest in spiritualism. I say this because the subject often crops up in her books, and because she seems familiar with spiritualist language and concepts, and even with some famous cases in the field. I'm not saying she was a convinced spiritualist, only that she seems to have more than a passing interest in the subject. And unlike Arthur Conan Doyle, who – despite his passionate commitment to spiritualism – never allowed his most famous fictional creation to opine on séances and skeptics, Christie did allow her famed Hercule Poirot to sound off on the topic. Here's an excerpt from the 1937 novel Poirot Loses a Client, also published as Dumb Witness.
Poirot and his sidekick, Hastings, have just concluded an interview with the eccentric Tripp sisters, who hold regular séances. The discussion centered on the deceased Emily Arundell, who sometimes attended the sittings. Hastings, a stolid but unimaginative fellow along the lines of Holmes’ Watson, remarks to Poirot:
“And it certainly looks as though Emily Arundell was much too sensible to believe in any tomfoolery like spiritualism.”
“What makes you say that spiritualism is tomfoolery, Hastings?”
I stared at him in astonishment.
“My dear Poirot – those appalling women –”
“I quite agree with your estimate of the Misses Tripp. But the mere fact that the Misses Tripp have adopted with enthusiasm Christian Science, vegetarianism, theosophy and spiritualism does not really constitute a damning indictment of those subjects! Because a foolish woman will tell you a lot of nonsense about a fake scarab which she has bought from a rascally dealer, that does not necessarily bring discredit on the general subject of Egyptology!”
“Do you mean you believe in spiritualism, Poirot?”
“I have an open mind on the subject. I have never studied any of its manifestations myself, but it must be accepted that many men of science and learning have pronounced themselves satisfied that there are phenomena which cannot be accounted for by – shall we say the credulity of a Miss Tripp.”
“Then you believe in this rigmarole of an aureole of light surrounding Miss Arundell’s head?”
Poirot waved a hand.
“I was speaking generally – rebuking your attitude of quite unreasoning skepticism. I may say that, having formed a certain opinion of Miss Tripp and her sister, I should examine very carefully any fact they presented for my notice. Foolish women, mon ami, are foolish women, whether they are talking about spiritualism or politics or the relation of the sexes or the tenets of the Buddhist faith."
In his rejection of “quite unreasoning skepticism,” his “open mind,” and his acknowledgment of the opinions of “many men of science and learning" who’d investigated the phenomena at first hand, Poirot appears to be on our side! This only makes me like Dame Agatha that much more.