Friday, October 11, 2013


Science has created for itself some exciting times.  Newly devised technology has allowed them to see inside the cells and beyond the stars, to the heart of the atom and the unconscious mind of the human.  But it’s all a big landslide of data and new forces, mostly unsorted, with meanings still hidden.  And, as in Kuhn’s understanding of how ideas morph from one paradigm to another when new information arrives, we struggle with our basic “religious” concepts, both morality and spirituality.  Much of society is guided by those concepts.  It is not a surprise that conventional, concrete, local people are having the hardest time and that their desperation makes them intransigent.  But little-kid tantrums will not change research into the boson particles, even if the minority manages to cut off all funding.  The genii will not go back into the bottle.  The particles will not go into black holes.  (Well, they do -- but that’s because it’s what they do.  It wouldn’t change anything.)

What excites the scientists is that every advance clears the way for another advance, under every newly discovered insight there turns out to be another one, subtler but more powerful.  It’s pretty common knowledge now that REM sleep is when people are detectably dreaming: we see eyeballs shifting around and the dog’s legs running as he sleeps.  But now that the brain can be monitored cell-by-cell, tiny structure by tiny structure, it turns out that many dreams happen when there is NOT REM sleep!  Something else goes on and it’s not even in the same part of the brain as REM sleep.  So what the heck is that?

Another new discovery is that the brain’s vulnerability to addiction is two-fold.  Simple experience tells us that a new user is hooked by the “high” of pleasure and the same brain hubs light up for illegal drugs that respond to chocolate and sex, only more intensely.  Now it turns out that in some people the brain seizes on the substance so hard that even long after the pleasures of new use have disappeared in misery, after the pain killing properties have worn off, there is another unrelated whole circuit of tiny hubs that perpetuate and drive -- drive HARD -- to make the body go find more.  The consequences of not having more become physically catastrophic.  

I’m thinking about whether this is different from insulin for diabetics or psycho-drugs for sanity or life-supporting systems for those who are incomplete or damaged. How we think about this sort of augmentation, particularly things that must be funded, manufactured, and distributed, will be the difference between life and death for a lot of people, more now than ever -- partly because there are more people and partly because there are more interventions and supports that have been invented.

These understandings, made possible by a rising and stratified sedimentation of ideas and techniques as much as by technical access to phenomena, are leaving the general public -- ordinary college grads as much as early flunkouts, successful urbanites as much as country hicks -- gasping for ways to integrate, searching around for new paradigms, especially religious and governmental ones.  Both of those (often intertwined) are systems of ordering and planning life.  They “emerge” from conditions, not from someone sitting down and designing them.

The broken paradigm most difficult to give up is the theist one: that the world is ruled by someone or something that is a “king,” a “pope,” a cabal that has some goal in mind.  It’s an idea created by having been a baby at the mercy of an adult.  That’s why we need to project god onto the clouds, and why we need to cozy up to him/her/it in hopes of hiding under the majestic hem of power.  I just watched a video made by a man who calls himself Maxwell Igan: half gorgeous nature imagery and half crack-brained paranoia -- it’s like looking inside the heads of half-educated people who admire Ayn Rand.  In the end it’s about his god-like vision of himself and what he values, like adding superpowers through technology.   His version of “transhumanism” is just human domination of everything else.  Superman as Cyberman.

As I work on my own less-than-godlike schema for a human being (it’s hard to be anthropocentric on the high prairie with 100 mph winds and thirty below temps), I see that our own real distinction is that we are self-conscious: we can think about ourselves.  That is the only thing that picks us out as little pinpoints in the surging complexity of the cosmos.  My idea of transhumanism is very different from “Igor’s.” (Oops, I mean Igan’s.)  You might not like mine: it is that humans really don’t matter very much.  We’re just an interesting theme in the music of existence.  A time art.

This is a link to a discussion of a different sort, addressing how to integrate the introspective systems of thought developed by shrinks -- trying to be scientific in their traditional way -- with the new technological discoveries about how brains work.  It turns out that their commonality is the knowledge of unknowing!  Freuds key idea was that of the Unconscious -- lots of stuff going on in the mind that is NOT conscious, that can’t be accessed except in dreams or by observing behavior or by a kind of poetry called “free association.”  And the neurologists agree that most of what happens in the brain (and in the whole body because the brain is only managing the information that pours in from the entire sensorium of the body) is not available consciously to the person whose brain it is.  Maybe prompted by this, scientists are challenging whether the 96% of the genome that seems “useless” to Igan, is vital but just not obviously expressed or expressed in a way we don’t understand yet. Timing, for instance.  We just now realized that "methylation" can turn a gene on or off or convert it to a different use.

Igan depends on TED talks and I love ‘em, too.  But I see them differently.  I was very struck by this talk linked below, partly because I’d been doing enough reading on the subject to keep up with this fast-talking guy:   (You may have to read the transcript to figure out what he’s saying.)  He has two points to make:  human beings create themselves by interacting with their environment, part of which is culture; and this function of interaction depends upon the quality of their sensorium because that’s how information gets into the brain. 

So at one time any baby with a cleft palate was automatically thought to be retarded because its ears couldn’t drain properly which meant that it had no access to the sounds needed to develop speech.   So it threw a lot of frustration tantrums, which made people lose patience.  An early surgery -- which if successful was the only intervention needed -- made that baby able to create itself.  It wasn’t controlling the baby -- it was enabling it.

Non-REM dreaming, addictive dependence beyond pleasure, and learned strategies are all self-creations whether conscious or not.  The impelling human mechanism that drives them is desire.  Not just hedonistic pleasure-seeking, but also empathic compassion for others, the desire to help.  Not just for other human beings who are like us, but for those who are unlike us, and beyond that for all the creatures of the planet, animal and vegetable.  Technology doesn’t just give us power, it gives us deeper participation in what is around us and that’s what makes us human: not science but art.  And sometimes that’s holy, even when we’re wide awake.  The best part of Igor’s vid are the bits that illustrate this.

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