Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Part 1

What has been buzzing about in my bonnet of late has been the enormous amount of magazine articles on the above-captioned subject. And, like almost everything in life, it breaks down into two camps. (Isn’t it always the way? And, you see, that’s one of the reasons I read this stuff. Like, you figure, fundamentally, there must be some explanation why things area the way they are. We weren’t all made to like killing each other or causing suffering for each other. Behaviorism, at its core, when you get beyond S=R+ shows that all human beings want the same things: love or regular sex, tenderness/warmth in an embrace not dissimilar to a caring mother’s, being liked and admired, seeing progeny grow--more or less--and prosper, having some form of creative outlet, etc. The difference has to do with how we go about getting those items in a free market society based upon capital acquisition…but enough Marx bothers...)

When it comes to the “Big Question” of What Is Consciousness? or What is the Mind? or What constitutes that which we call a “person”? or Is there a Soul? or I s there a purpose to Life? or What is God? even, you are venturing where only philosophers and religious zealots have dared go. And when you say, we seek it with Science... boy! you are asking for TROUBLE! The most telling schism, of approaches to these imponderables, of divisions into camps, is not, as you might suspect, between the religious and the secular (but it does come in, later), but those taking sides for defining it as the “easy problem” and the those defining it as the “hard problem”.

And to make it more interesting, conversely, it is Hard Science—the guys we used to see with the slide rulers in the plastic pocket protectors—that defines the “easy problem”. They are called Reductionists. This is due to their idea of where to find a resolution; to go after a series of small answers to the Big Question in calculable increments. By breaking it down into a lot of little (comparatively) results, through pure research on the technical end of things, they hope to take all these small answers to connect-the-dots, to find out just what makes up such things as emotions, pleasure, personality, memory, etc.

Charles Darwin is basis of all Reductionism, in methodology if not everything else as well (but more, there, then). It was not anything brand new, but what he got was the kind of breakthrough that shatters all that comes after it. And what was it he did? Having taken tons of tiny bits of data on the voyage of HMS Beagle and meticulously catalogued every scrap, he then mulled over their implications for ten years, finally committing himself to his “big book” only after it looked like he was going to be scooped by another naturalist. There are those who would dispute (viz, c.f.) the validity of everything above, and for them I would suggest you follow the same credo most of us have about parking tickets: You can’t fight City Hall. Less metaphorically, it means, Laws are Laws and the only reason it is still called the “Theory of Evolution” is that that was its name for so many years. (Like Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity—that's been proven over and over, yet no one has renamed it a “law”.)

Since much of what it—the Evolutionary process—involves is semi-dialectic (the Hegelian, famously, being: thesis/antithesis/synthesis) you can diagram it using the proven method of analyzing the relationship between a species and its environment. The living habitat changes (weather, climate shift, predation increase/decrease, geography alteration, etc.), forcing mutation. The mutations are in a variety of forms and the best survive and the rest die off – either through diminished reproduction or insufficient adaptation. And it is the adapted strain that becomes the new species. This is the classic Darwinian process, displaying -- as close to truth, to law, as one can be -- that all changes to the organism were and are at the furtherance of the service of Life; the capital "L" signifying the Big Concept, not the puny critter itself. Consciousness (and not just initial caps but another purposeful big "C"), then, as seen through the perspective of natural selection, could be defined as a survival-enhancing mechanism.

Ok. So This is getting pretty heavy already, right? Well, it’s just to establish the ground rules, and illustrative of my first point is this bit of graffiti I saw on the bus. (Odd place, you'd think, but I've actually seen better spontaneous wisdom than on the trains, although I do enjoy the brush-strokes underground more...) It quoted Alexander Pope's maxim: "The proper study of Man is Man," but with a twist: "The proper study of Man is zoos." I thought that was a real knee-slapper, but more, contained the same grain of truth aforementioned. If you start with the fact that we are carbon-based lifeforms, then mammals, then Homo see where I'm going with this, yes? We are the end product of a long evolutionary line, top of the food chain—if going out to restaurants is your idea of what a climax species should be doing with its crown.

What this sets up is the anthropological/biological basis for study. The standard-bearer of the Reductionists was, up until his death, Francis Crick (of Watson and Crick, DNA, remember?) and his partner, Christian Koch. And, being practical guys, they only called it "easy" because they were dealing with cause-&-effect, measurements, predictability and all its attendant tools of physicality and precision. So one of their earliest discoveries came about from one such technique: the MRI mapping of areas of the brain to discover their interconnectivity (indicating which ones become active in response to sense-oriented stimuli, which ones get used by high-order functions like feelings of compassion as opposed to which are active in REM-state, etc.), proving how neural nets/cell assemblies or “maps” work in concert. The maps are seen as having ongoing parallel signaling with massive parallel connections, and this ‘conversation’ (if you will) between the maps yields an integrated experience, a “scene” of primal consciousness called a Quale, which is something like a Memory. Another way of looking at it is parts of the brain generate maps of the organism interacting with its environment and it is the ‘conversation’ among the maps that continuously tell the ‘story’ of the organism, which is another way of saying, This is our Personality, more or less. If you like formulas (and who doesn’t?) it would look like: QUALE = MEMORY (+/-) and ALL QUALES (in conversation) = PERSONALITY (+/-).

As for the effects of certain neurotransmitters to induce repeatable states, we’ve known about seronin and serotonin for years, how dopamine lives up to its name as the ultimate pleasure pusher, and such. But there’s been a recent experiment by Swiss doctors who have been able to reproduce the same effects reported as “near-death experiences” -- that of hovering over one’s body in the operating room or the ambulance, etc. -- by toggling on/off the areas which govern vision and bodily sensations. This really ups the ante when you can create mystical transcendence via a couple of zaps.

And, when you get into both the affect and the effect of the powers of Language on just about ever aspect of existence, then you are bordering on the grayest area of grey matter gravy. (But more on this later, as well.)

Science (being, classically, nothing more than the study of things which can be proven by repetition of results and the submission of those results for peer review and criticism until a general consensus is reached) is, by and large, the best place to begin as it is something that most people (outside of certain school districts in Kansas, Oklahoma and the Bible Belt, at least in the USA) can readily agree with. So, like any good Cartesian dualist (“I think, therefore I am” being pretty much accepted as the first statement of the mind/body split-- res extensa being the material and res cogitans being thought —to have as much an effect on Western Civilization as Plato’s division of psyche from soul), they—our heroes of Hard Science—went ahead and looked for manifestations of the mechanisms, the gears and springs and cogs in the clock.

They want to know what makes us tick. Literally.

And now, for a slight digression.

In an unusually contemplative moment, the caliph of Baghdad pondered: ‘What is this life? Is it what the Hindus call Maya -- a veil that separates us from eternal truth? Or is it a test of our wills and hearts, put forth by the Divine One, to see if we are worthy to enter Paradise? Or perhaps some small part of the Greeks might hold the key as our geometry and astronomy would be naught if not for the teachings of Euclid? We may certainly rely on numbers, but what are they? And if we doubt numbers, then what of letters? To the masters of the Kabbalah, they are the same...’

These questions plagued the caliph’s dreams and vexed his waking hours, and so, as his city was also one of the world’s greatest centers of thought and learning, combining scholars from Greece and Cathay, Talmudic Hebrews and Indian followers of the Upanishads, he invited the wisest philosophers and teachers, along with diplomats, businessmen and religious leaders, to his palace for a month-long banquet. There, he fed them sumptuously and offered wines, sweets and coffee. Also, to relax the mind and create a harmonious atmosphere, he brought in musicians, singers and poets, dancing girls and concubines, and jugglers, fire-eaters, contortionists, sword-swallowers, and other entertainments. In this way, he hoped to foster an atmosphere of open and unprejudiced exchange, wherein all would feel free to speak of the subtlest and most radical thoughts without fear of reprisal. However, by the time the feasting and discussion had wound down, he had heard many answers yet none satisfied him.

After the best and the brightest had withdrawn, he walked the halls of his palace deep in rumination, his faithful seneschal ever at his elbow, observing the stragglers snoring at the tables uncleared by his serving staff. In one of the last chambers, somewhere between the kitchens and the stables, thick with the haze of clove cigarettes and hookah fumes, he found a nervous jewish tummler, sweating at a podium as he ran through a series of bad riddles, his sole audience: a Venetian publican famed for his dispensing of good advice (along with his spirits), still standing and yawning at his taps, another whose shaven head and saffron robes identified the wearer as a buddhist monk, and Hakim, a well-known rug merchant.

“So, there was this caravanseri who walked into an oasis and said-”

“Marone! This is the third time you have told that tale, Lev,” the publican groans. “Give it a rest!’

“Ok, ok, ok. I got a good one! A new one, a new one! Ok? Well, you know about the caliph, right, about why he threw this shindig, right? About all these questions everybody’s been yammering about for the past month, right?”

At this sudden shift of tone, the caliph draws back into the folds of the damask curtain in the archway. The publican rolls his eyes and his hand, a gesture approximating, ‘Yeah, move it along’. Hakim nods and shrugs. The monk sits perfectly still.

Lev continues. “Ok. So, I’m telling my cousin Hymie--you know? ‘Honest Hymie, Baghdad’s #1 source for previously-owned dromedaries’? Third stall from the left off the South Casbah?”

Here, Hakim interjects, “Yes, I know the son of a she-goat who mated with a serpent. The last nag he sold me as ‘just weaned off the Silk Road and her mother’s milk’ was a walking flea colony, blind in one eye and its second hump was from bone disease!”

“A used camel-dealer?” The publican gapes, “You’d discuss the caliph’s concerns with a cheap huckster of damaged goods?”

“Not cheap, not cheap!” Lev is quick to explain, “Inexpensive. Reasonably-priced. At any rate, Hymie, who is a very wise man--lots of rabbis have been known to haggle with him for hours--Hymie says, when I tell him what’s going on, he says: Lev, sounds to me like the caliph has a classic case of the old parable from the Burmese called ‘Nine Ways Of Describing An Elephant’.”

At this, the publican stops wiping out the goblets, Hakim stops puffing his water pipe and even the monk seems to sit straighter, more attentive without moving a muscle. “This I have not heard of,” says the publican. “And I’ve been around. How does that go?”

“I said the same thing to Hymie, and he said: ‘Among the people of the plains, there was a fakir who blinded himself in order not to be tempted by the ways of the flesh and desires of life. Such was his fame that eventually he picked up a few disciples along the way, who also renounced sight in order to have a clearer vision, and they numbered eight in all. Such as it was, they would wander from town to village, offering blessings in turn for food and shelter, traveling along with the fakir in the lead and each behind him with his hand on the shoulder of the other in a train. It was when they had left the plains for the hills, where, in the deepest of forests, they were suddenly scattered about by a tremendous force. When they tried to gather an impression of where they were, they were sore confused. The fakir then asked each to describe what it was that had so disturbed their contemplations. And as each reached out, they spoke of what they could feel: the bark of a tree, a snake, a rope, a velvet leaf, a wall of wrinkled vines, a slimy snail in its shell, a sharp spear, and a row of stones. The fakir himself then reached out and his fingers closed around a flattish knob of moss which then howled and spurted goo all over his arm. At this, the fakir jumped up and screamed, “WE ARE BESET BY DEMONS! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!” All the disciples fled in different directions becoming forever lost in the forests, never to be heard of again. But a woodsman, who was gathering fuel nearby, watched this all happen and told a different tale to his wife. ‘Talk about crazy? All these blind guys get scattered by an elephant, get up, and one touches a leg, another the trunk, another the tail, another the ear, another the side, another puts his hand in its mouth, another the tusk, and another the toenails. When the last guy grabs its nose, the poor animal has to sneeze, snot goes flying, the old man yells something and everybody takes off like a chinese fire drill!'” Lev claps for himself, laughs and tries to egg on his few spectators to do the same…who only sit in a stony silence.

The publican breaks the tension. “So that’s ‘Nine Ways of Describing an Elephant,’ is it? Is there some kind of moral that goes along with it?”

Lev, supremely disappointed by the lack of a standing ovation, merely adds, “Well, I actually asked Hymie the same thing, but he had to go off as this new sheik came in looking to outfit a van for the Negev, so he never got around to answering me. I dunno. Maybe it’s like, you know, what they say: The Devil is in the Details, hah?”

Hakim, peeling a final grape, makes a moue and pouts. “We say the same thing about god.”

The publican weighs them both and adds his two dinars. “I’d say it’s all in the process, isn’t it?”

Then the monk rises from his cushion. “This has been most illuminating,” and bows to the stage and the other two. “Thank you all for your valuable contributions. I must be going back to my lamasery, but, before I take my leave of you I would like to offer my humble opinion. If my master were here, I am certain he would approve my observation of moral: It all depends on where you stand.”

At this, the caliph slumps into the curtains, his seneschal jumping to his aid, only to find his master bent double suppressing a terrible attack of mirth. When he catches his breath, it is only long enough to say to his servant. “Go back to the chief eunuch of my harem and tell him I want some Lebanese blonde. And then get my hashish dealer and tell him the same.”

Which (if you have been scratching your head until you’ve got blood in your dandruff you may now cease) leads back to my original point on the “easy problem”. You’ve got one referring to it as a “thing”, another, as the system that generates the Qualia, and another as the central mechanism that directs how it is employed. THEY ARE ALL DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE SUBJECT WHOLE, see?

(much more on this later)

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