Friday, March 20, 2009

Sentience and Immortality

At the beginning of his apocalyptic novel Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon describes his protagonist as sitting on the hillside above his home, racked with doubts about himself and the stability of his marriage, when, suddenly, he has the transcendant out-of-body experience (a 'hawk flight of the imagination') that takes him to other planets, other galaxies, and eventually - as a representative of the Cosmic Mind - into the workshop of the Creator. The Creator, however, is busy, trying to perfect His design for the Universe. Discarded prototypes for Universes scatter the workshop floor, and He plainly has no time or patience to listen to or understand individual suffering. The best that we individuals can do is just the best we can - the protagonist flies home to his wife to await the fall of night.

John Horgan doesn't mention Stapledon in his book The End of Science, which is a pity, given what happens in its closing chapter. I'm probably the last person in the world to have gotten round to reading this book (first published in 1996). I have to say, that apart from his unflattering pen-portraits of most of the world's finest minds (all but one of whom, it seems, is male, the exception being Lynn Margulis), the book doesn't deserve its generally poor reviews. It was somewhat ho-hum, though, and by the time I got to the end, I was expecting a whimper more than a bang.

And then Horgan hit me, right between the eyes, with his own Stapledonian experience. Lying spreadeagled on a suburban lawn, Horgan was caught in his own hawk-flight.
Subjectively, I was hurtling through a dazzling, dark limbo toward what I was sure was the ultimate secret of life. Wave after wave of acute astonishment at the miraculousness of existence washed over me. At the same time, I was gripped by an overwhelming solipsism. I became convinced - or rather, I knew - that I was the only conscious being in the universe. There was no future, no past, no present other than what I imagined them to be. I was filled, initially, with a sense of limitless joy and power. Then, abruptly, I became convinced that if I abandoned myself further to this ecstacy, it might consume me. If I alone existed, who could bring me back from oblivion? Who could save me? With this realization my bliss turned into horror; I fled the same revelation I had so eagerly sought. I felt myself falling through a great darkness, and as I fell I dossolved into what seemed to be an infinity of selves.
This 'nightmare' transfixed Horgan with terror.
For months after I awoke from this nightmare, I was convinced that I had discovered the secret of existence: God's fear of his own Godhead, and of his own potential death, underlies everything ... Creation, with all its pain and beauty and multiplicity, stems from - or is - the desperate, terrified flight of the Omega Point from itself.
These passages jolted me awake. I was no longer reading a rather knowlingly postmodern caricature of science cast as a Swiftian Voyage to Laputa, but the honest, no-holds-barred confessional that must have been the book's reason for existence. It left me gasping. But then, Horgan went and missed a trick.

After his terrifying vision, Horgan goes in search of theologians who might tell him if his vision of the Terror of God has any precedent in theological study - and he comes up with nothing., except an answer to the problem of suffering - if God made the world in a state of existential terror, we can but suffer some of the backwash, in perhaps the same way (though Horgan doesn't make this comparison) that the cosmic microwave background is the faint hangover from the Big Bang.

I wish I could offer Horgan some consolation, for I think there is a fairly good argument for the non-existence of God - at least, in a form that can experience such vertiginous terror - and that Horgan might have made it from the materials he had to hand, for his own book.

To make this argument I have to backtrack a little to the most interesting part of The End of Science (apart from the cathartic finale), which concerns the nature of consciousness, and the general lack of progress in finding a solution to the mind-body problem. Is the mind an epiphenomenon of the brain that can be investiagated scientifically, or is it something other, beyond all human powers of investigation? To be fair to Horgan, he was investigating a specific question - understanding the physical substrate of the mind, rather than defining precisely what he meant by 'conscious'. However, the lack of a clear definition of consciousness was frustrating. One had the impression that Horgan thought such a thing was impossible, a position which was, of course, convenient for his thesis.

But Horgan's dismissal is not borne out by the evidence, for consciousness can be defined and investigated experimentally. To be sure, I am not quite sure what consciousness means, at least in Horgan's book, because I wasn't sure what he himself meant by it. However, one can at least define sentience, or self-awareness, in terms of what psychologists call a 'theory of mind'. That is, a creature is sentient if it can imagine itself as a participant in its own actions. Very small children have no theory of mind - crudely, they are depersonalized observers of dramas involving other people - and they cannot be said to have a theory of mind until they are about three years old and can learn to lie. Sentience, it seems, begins with deceit.

I know this from some personal experience. My elder daughter has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, which means that she's paddling in the shallow end of the autism spectrum. The lack of a theory of mind is a characteristic of such disorders, and indeed she (unlike her younger sister, Cromercrox Minima) is incapable of falsehood. Rather, the contrast - she is often seized by implacable urges to dispense justice for real or imagined wrongs on behalf of smaller and less articulate friends. On meeting her you'd never imagine that there was anything 'wrong' or 'different' about her (she is now 11), but that's because she has learned to compensate. She has learned about theory-of-mind by observation and experience, rather than picking up on it intuitively, as most people do. In other words, she has a theory of a theory of mind.

I am not sure whether theory-of-mind is the same thing as consciousness, but that hardly matters - it is a good rule-of-thumb definition for self-awareness, even if it says nothing about the mind's physical substrate. And because it is a good working definition, it is subject to experimentation, falsification and elaboration in a way that Horgan completely misses in his book, so programmed was he to see futility in such endeavours. Robin Dunbar has shown that sentience is hierarchical: what he calles 'intentionality' might be first order (Kristi knows), second order (Brian knows that Kristi knows), third order (Maxine heard that Brian knew that Kristi knows), fourth order (Clare wrote that Maxine heard that Brian knew that Kristi knows) and so on, and the depth of one's sentience can be ranked in terms of such degrees of intentionality. In other words, sentience is not an all-or-nothing thing.

Another assumption that Horgan appears to make (and I apologise if he made no such assumption - it is hard to tell) is that when we are conscious, we are conscious (that is, sentient) all the time. In their entertaining book Figments of Reality, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen suggest that consciousness (that is, sentience) flickers in and out, depending on what we are doing. Once we have mastered the arts of driving a car and playing the piano, activities of which we are acutely conscious while we are learning them, we pursue them, literally, without a second thought.

I'd go further, however - I contend that most people can and do go through their daily lives - going to school, shopping, working, having conversations - without any need for being conscious that they are doing things. After all, you don't go around watching yourself doing things, logging each moment of your day for future recall - you just do what you do, and move on. Actually, I'd go even further than that, and say that most people spend most or all of their lives without displaying any particular sentience whatsoever.

In case you think I am scornful of such things, reserving such acerebrate inaction for the unwashed proletariat, I invite you to consider yourself, Dear Reader, who, if you have got this far, have what psychometrists describe in formal terms as a superfluity of olives on your pizza. Consider: can you recall your day, in moment-by-moment detail? How many steps did you take today? How many times did you inhale, or exhale? How many times did you use the words 'the', 'what', 'he', 'eldritch' or 'Dolores'? When did you use them? And with whom?

See what I mean?

The fact that we are so rarely sentient is proven in the breach: we can all remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard of great world events, such as the death of Princess Diana or the attacks on the World Trade Center.

The fact, is 24/7-sentience - totall recall - wouldn't be an advantage. It would be a handicap. It would be madness. Given Horgan's penchant for Borges (one that I share, though I like mine with cream cheese and smoked salmon), I regard it as proof of Horgan's slackness about consciousness that he didn't mention Borges' story Funes the Memorious, about a man who is crippled by his ability of total recall. Indeed, too much sentience is definitely a bad thing, and it is as well to get away with as little as possible.

I have a feeling that this lack of appreciation of the gradations of sentience stems from a general failure by neuroscientists to apply comparative phylogenetic methods to the evolution of cognition. Neuroscientists, as a breed, tend to think of evolution in a very linear, pre-Darwinian way. They use mice, cats and monkeys in their experiments on the assumption that they are simplified proxies for humans rather than species in their own right. If they don't think that only human beings are capable of conscious thought, they limit their investigations to other primates. They are but dimly aware of the excellent work by such as Nicky Clayton on the sentience of birds in the crow family (which clearly have a theory of mind) and of work on a variety of creatures from dolphins to cephalopods to mantis-shrimps. As far as I know, such studies offer at least the potential of a comparative approach to the theory of mind, which might offer the hope of more progress than can be attained by assuming that human beings are the top of a tree with one trunk and no branches.

So where does this leave God? Horgan's nightmare concerns omnipotence and omniscience, but neither of these require sentience. After all, even if we might argue that a super-powerful database knows everything, we can't say for sure that it knows that it knows. But it is also a nightmare of sentience. If Horgan, in his nightmare, had not been sentient, he wouldn't have been able to have imagined himself, as the sole conscious being in the Universe, as in need of any other company.
If I alone existed, who could bring me back from oblivion? Who could save me?
... and thus would not have beeen prey to such terror:
With this realization my bliss turned into horror: I fled the same realization I had so eagerly sought.
Rather, he would have been like the fundamentally un-sentient King of Pointland in Edwin Abbot's Flatland who, as the only being in his Universe, can have no conception that any other being might exist. Our conception of God, though, is that He is not like that: quite the reverse, that he is at the same time always conscious (which would drive any normal person mad) and always acutely engaged with his creation (which would fill Him with terror, given that He knows infinitely more than his creation does, so by the same token his creation knows nothing, so that He is, to all intents and purposes, the only sentient being that exists). Sure, you might say, God is God, and so could cope with these things.

But I disagree, because there is one further thing to add to the mix - immortality.

I have a suspicion that in the realms of deities, urges, splurges and demiurges, there is a trade-off between immortality and sentience. Immortals tend not to be sentient, and sentient beings are mortal. It's part of the tragedy of the human condition, and Horgan expresses it very well:
God's fear of his own Godhood, and of his own potential death, underlie everything.
So far, so Miltonic. The thing is, nowhere in his account up to that point had Horgan mentioned death at all, so whence did it spring so abruptly? It certainly seems odd, given that our conception of God is of something immortal (which is why, I guess, the mortality of Christ in Christian theology is so special). Literature is full of the harsh lessons meted out on those mortals who seek immortality: from the degenerately simian aristocracy in Aldous Huxley's After Many A Summer to the vagabondish snake-devouring creatures in Borges' The Immortal (another fable Horgan unaccountably missed), mortals pay for their pride by sacrificing their sentience. This trade-off, between sentience and immortality, is the theme of Keats' Ode To A Nightingale. The bird to whom the wretched poet sings, is immortal
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown
and at the same time, insentient, quite unaware of the pains of mortal existence.
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves has never known,
The weariness, the fever and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies
and, crucially for my argument
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
Clearly, Keats - as ever, an exemplar for all literature, knows that one can either be sentient, or one can be mortal, but one cannot be both together. Now, you could argue that God could be both immortal and sentient (it's possible for theologians to argue anything about God) but if so, I am not sure that this would be a God that any human being would recognize, still less be a being with whom one might share any kind of affinity.

Had Horgan firmed up what he meant by consciousness, such considerations might have followed, and he'd have been spared the repercussions of his nightmare. But then, we might not have been able to share his experience, or to read his excellent and thought-provoking book, The End of Science.


  1. Perhaps because I'm currently teaching neuroscience, discussions of consciousness remind me of the distinctions made between conscious and unconscious proprioception. Proprioceptive (position sense) information that goes to the cerebral cortex, by way of the thalamus, is "conscious" proprioception, whereas the same type of information that goes to the cerebellum instead, is defined as "unconscious proprioception". As if proprioception is somehow less important when it goes to the cerebellum for processing, or that you're always consciously adjusting muscle length and tension and joint angles when the information goes to the cerebral cortex.

    The cerebellum often gets short shrift in neuroscience, perhaps because no one really understands exactly what it does or how it works. For years, it was thought that the cerebellum simply regulated posture and coordinated motor programs in response to the environment, but then the consequences of cerebellar lesions in humans didn't always fit with such simplistic notions. Why are there so many neurons packed into the cerebellum, and why does so much of its development occur postnatally? Why do the cerebral cortex and the cerebellum only talk to each other by way of the pontine nuclei, the inferior olivary nuclei, and the thalamus?

    It's likely that the cerebellum is involved in processing language and music, and in many other complex functions and behaviors that require sensory integration. Some researchers have implicated cerebellar dysfunctions in the development of autism spectrum disorders. I've never been very comfortable with standard definitions of consciousness or sentience, because I don't think that neuroanatomy and neural circuitry, particularly in the comparative sense, are considered. Perhaps that makes me a reductionist, but then I've never had one of those transcendent experiences in which I encounter the Mind of God or whatever.

    And if I were a better writer, the cerebellum would be my top choice for a book subject.

  2. Whoa, Henry, letting you loose out here has clearly been a good move. Excellent post. And why not write the book? You can do it.

  3. @Brian: a book is being brewed.

    @Barn Owl: I think structures such as the cerebellum are ignored, as you say, because of neuroscientists tend to think of evolution in linear terms, and human evolution is all about the cerebrum. Once at a lecture by a more comparative neuroscientist (he was Dutch and had a name something like Nieuwenhuys) he showed this brain from a fish that looked exactly like a human brain, except that the expansion was all cerebellum. I think it was an electroreceptive fish - a mormyrid or something. Given that we see sentience in organisms such has humans and crowd, whose brains are so different, we can't rule out sentience in other animals...

  4. Crowd -> Crows. Blast predictive txts.

  5. That's a beautiful God-story of Horgan's, Henry, but I think it's too much psychodrama to have existed in the world of myth. Too interior and single-mind. There's something personally grandiose in it, too, that I don't think you normally get in religious myth. That's not what it's for. Gods are not usually artists.

    That's the best description of what goes on in Asperger's that I've read, though, and that was helpful. Thank you. I'd never quite understood the idea that "theory of mind" had to do with understanding that other people's minds existed, because of course they do; other people couldn't go wandering around talking otherwise. But that's not what theory of mind's about -- it's about the person with Aspergers noticing her own mind operating in the context of other minds. Which makes lots of sense, because handling context is something people with Aspergers are generally bad at, or slow at, anyway.

    (Which is, I suppose, why all the training in the world won't quite do the job. Someone who lives and breathes social context (not to be confused with those silly people at Duke) will notice immediately if someone else is a lump in the fabric. And if noticing oneself in social context doesn't come naturally, one's bound to be -- heh -- a slub. As opposed to shlub, though the two are not mutually exclusive. I don't think you can fake fluency in social context. Which may be why those terribly socially apt people are usually so nice to me in a way that makes me feel like I'm in a playpen with kindly nurses around. The right kind of slub adds interest, though of course it isn't very versatile, and you have to take it for what it is.

    But yes. The existence of one's own mind, or self, in the social context. And the understanding of how one is connected, the ability to notice and respond to motion in those connections, and of what the connections and social motions might mean. That makes much more sense.