I've spent the last few blog entries if not explaining it away then at least arguing that an afterlife is unlikely and that this is all we've got.
This isn't as cheerless a claim as it might first sound. Many materialists gloomily cry "This is all there is!", their faces contorted in melancholia (and, not to put too fine a point on it, no small measure of glee at spreading the bad news). I don't subscribe to this point of view; I'm trying to explore and expand my knowledge of our existence. I'm not starting from a traditional position of Heaven and Earth and then scribbling out great swathes of the firmament; I'm starting from a single cell and marveling at how far we've come and what it means to be conscious in the four dimensions of spacetime, and many worlds of the quantum multiverse.
However, my subconscious obviously isn't entirely happy with my recent activities as several times over the last few days I've dreamed about the afterlife. On the first occasion I was dead; on the second I was still alive but had an extended weekend pass, not unlike Dante's in the Divine Comedy. I've no idea why I would dream such things immediately after working out to my satisfaction that the afterlife doesn't exist.
Perhaps it's my subconsciousness's way of reminding me to keep an open mind; in life and indeed in science there are no absolutes. Newton's laws of motion fully explained the clockwork universe until Einstein came along; likewise materialist theories currently explain our clockwork sentient brains... until we discover something new. Of one thing I am certain, we haven't discovered all there is to know and I am sure there are whole areas of science yet to uncover, areas that will force us to re-evaluate and rebuild physics from the ground up once again.
The afterlife in my recent dreams has been crowded. On the second "weekend pass" occasion I met someone I knew who had recently died. Not unusual in itself, and of course something that can be easily explained as wish-fulfillment. However, it's not the first time something like this has happened to me, and whilst not advocating it as proof of survival of death, I think it's an interesting enough phenomenon - and not that uncommon either - to warrant further investigation or discussion.
The first time it happened to me was years ago, shortly after the death of my grandmother. In a dream I found myself in a garden; across the way a group of young people were engaged in an activity that looked like some kind of game. One of them, a small young woman with dark hair who was dressed as a Native American squaw, suddenly ran over to me.
"What are YOU doing here?" she said.
She seemed very surprised at my presence, but also impatient to get back to the game. She told me it was good to see me and then ran off. It then occurred to me that it was my grandmother; she didn't look anything like I remembered her, she was young! However, I later saw photographs of her in her youth and there was some resemblance. This does makes sense; if there was an afterlife it would only be natural for us to want to revert to the visual form in which we were the happiest, the one we felt was quintessentially us. For me that would be about twenty-one.
All dreams of course; until there's a workable theory of such Weird Shit I'll stick to the materialist viewpoint. It's very interesting though, isn't it?
I've spent the last few blog entries if not explaining it away then at least arguing that an afterlife is unlikely and that this is all we've got.
Previously in this blog...
I started out discussing borders and ended up defining the shape of our selves in spacetime, four-dimensional mirrorballs cascading through the white water of the time axis.
The reflective skin of the edge of self could be thought of as being like a two-way mirror. Information falls onto the boundary of the sensorium and is reflected back as we describe and interact with the universe at large. What others see of our selves is merely our personal reflection of the universe according to us, but on the other hand we probably think of our actual selves as homunculi sitting inside the spherical two-way mirror, observing but invisible to the outside world.
But isn't this just an illusion? As discussed before there are no homunculi; postulating their existence to explain consciousness invokes recursion as we then have to imagine the mechanism whereby the homunculus is sentient and so on... and any theory that invokes recursion or infinity probably has a flaw somewhere.
If anything our actual consciousness is simply the reflective surface itself of the boundary between us and the cosmos. We might say that consciousnesses are inverted baby universes, the reflection in the surface of the 4D mirrorball of everything else.
What's inside is unknowable and as unreachable as whatever it is that is outside the universe...
This rambling thought monologue is beginning to sound a little like something else. Black holes - objects once thought to be mere mathematical abstractions but now proved to actually exist - are infinitely dense objects surrounded by an event horizon, a skin surrounding a region forever cut off from the rest of the universe by the speed of light. Some think of them as the budding points for child universes. In this scenario all the space-time-energy-mass sucked in ultimately emerges Elsewhere as a new universe, another Big Bang.
Just as our universe may very well have started out as a black hole in another, older universe.
If all we are mentally is the reflection of all that's around us in the skin of our spacetime selves, this would imply that in a situation of total sensory deprivation we'd lose consciousness all together. This isn't actually what happens though; far from shutting down, the consciousness enters what could be described as a psychedelic experience.
This would imply that there is more to our consciousness than simply a heightened awareness of and reaction to the outside world. During these sensory deprivation experiments, one remains aware and conscious despite losing all sense of identity (something I once experienced myself not in a floatation tank but just in the middle of the night in bed). The sense of self and identity may therefore be seen as a function of the sensorium (and the memory, which is after all stored copies of earlier sensoria), but the nature of consciousness itself would seem to be something more than that.
This goes against all the recent materialist theory I've recently been reading (and on the whole agreeing with).
I am not comfortable with such anomalies and holes in my knowledge. There's nothing for it, I'm going to have to seek out and use a flotation tank and then report back on the experience.
I realise that in the last entry I made a fundamental error describing the death and birth as a "border" in the sense I was using it. Whilst they are points on a boundary between being and not-being, they're not points on a border that anyone can cross. So I reiterate that there isn't really such a thing as being dead.
One could say that not being alive is describable, if only as the absence of an actual state, but actually having a word for it, dead, seems odd when you think about it. After all, we don't have a separate word for not being in pain, despite the fact that (hopefully) it is the state in which we spend most of our lives.
You might think I'm playing games with words here. That might be the case, but words themselves are immensely powerful. In my continuing study into what makes us into conscious, I have discovered (mainly through reading and thought experiments as practical investigation in this field is tricky for the amateur) that in a very real sense you are what you speak and that language probably plays a big part in the generation of consciousness. But more of that on another occasion when I understand it better.
Last time I used the analogy of people living in different countries to think about the implications of people living at different times. In doing so I came to realise that in some ways they were actually the same thing. If birth and death are merely points on the single boundary between between being and not-being, where does the boundary link up? Where is the boundary, say, when we're in the middle of our life?
It could be our skin. That is after all where being and not-being start in everyday life. However, we often mentally extend our selves beyond our bodies, for instance when driving a car. So perhaps it would make more sense to describe the boundary as the edge of our sensorium. Logically this makes more sense as strictly speaking our skin still exists when we no longer do, whereas whatever lies behind that mountain is as unreachable in the present moment as whatever lies a year before our birth or a year after our death. In all three cases, our sensorium stops before it reaches that point in spacetime.
Thinking about ourselves in spacetime and this boundary between being and not-being, it would seem that our self consists of a four dimensional bubble in spacetime (perhaps more of a long sausage or piece of string, seeing as we cover much more of the time dimension that we do of the space dimensions). If this bubble is the boundary of our sensorium then it could be thought of as mirrored, reflecting the universe around it. In which case each of us is a miniature, inverted copy of the universe, a shiny conscious thread embedded in it along the time axis.
As Carl Sagan once said, "We are a way for the universe to know itself."
There is one border we don't usually get to linger on; we only ever cross it twice. That is the border between being alive and not being alive. The checkpoints are one way only, and are named Birth and Death.
When we think about it this way, we realise there's no such thing as "being dead". From a materialist point of view, the state before birth and the state after death are the same thing. And yet there's no way, for example, I'd describe myself as having been "dead" in 1960. Yet logically there's no difference whatsoever. Whatever makes you you is your mind, and even though hardcore materialists claim that's all smoke and mirrors, your consciousness has a definite existence however it's derived. So, unconventional theories of time and mind aside, any time period during which your consciousness doesn't exist is no different from another.
So we die, but we are never dead. For instance:
...and so on. Our life span can be seen to be the area of spacetime in which we exist. For instance if we never leave the UK, to a person who never leaves Australia we are the equivalent of dead.
- Where is Douglas Adams?
- He's usually to be found between 1952 and 2001, why?
- So he is dead?
- He isn't anything. The word "is" cannot be applied in his case.
- So where is he?
- The word "is" cannot be applied in his case.
Of course one could counter that example by citing the existence of Skype or telephones, but the principle is the same. Imagine, then, the same two stay-at-home people at opposite ends of a world before these technologies existed. You might then argue that they could still have written letters to each other, but then again so could someone in 1952 write a letter to someone in 2009. In this instance the traffic would be one way, but that's the time dimension of spacetime for you.
Some people send back reports from the final border (usually they're too preoccupied with taking their first breath to pay much attention the first time they cross), these are Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and they're surprisingly consistent. It's not clear whether this is cultural conditioning or not - do people see them selves floating down a tunnel towards a light because they've heard that's what happens or is the tunnel and the light an instrinsic part of the process?
Just what is the process anyway? Bear in mind that these reports are all made by people who didn't actually die (well, duh), so we can never know whether they are also experienced during actual death. Nevertheless, it's a fair assumption, and one can imagine that the whole "life flashing before ones eyes" procedure is the brain searching through the available data for the best response to imminent termination. But where does the tunnel and the meeting of lost loved ones come from?
Some have speculated that it's a scenario manufactured by the brain to make dying easier. I don't buy that at all. How does something like that evolve? Your experiences whilst dying have can have no effect of the surviving gene pool; a positive biological occurrence at this stage cannot possibly be selected for.
If there was a safe way to induce a NDE, I'd jump at it like a shot... there's nothing like first-hand experience to provide insight.
I'd have to be very, very careful though.
Boundaries can be the most fascinating places in the universe.
They come in many kinds. Some are physical borders such as the change from desert to jungle, a river, the boundary between the heliopause and interstellar space. Sometimes they’re territorial or imaginary in origin such as the border between England and Scotland or the Greenwich Meridian. Occasionally the latter try and make themselves the former, as happened with the Berlin Wall, the Maginot Line or the Gaza Strip Barrier. Generally though in the grand scheme of things these political borders are invisible; even the Great Wall of China, originally a territorial border and allegedly visible from space, no longer marks the boundary between the People’s Republic and its next-door neighbours and in the twenty-first century is merely the fossil of Qin Shi Huang’s ambition.
Some borders are a state of mind, sometimes literally. They bisect the fourth dimension of your lifestream, lines drawn between knowledge and ignorance. If you think about it in this way, you’re permanently living on the bleeding edge of your memories; your whole conscious life a sequence of uncovering knowledge. You skip over it though; eager to reach the other side, the place where the knowledge is known and the grass is greener. You’re unaware of your constant borderline existence; of the fact that once you’re there you’re already on our way somewhere else...
You’re constantly crossing the frontier of the future, but dismiss the fact as unimportant.
This is a shame as borders are where mysterious things can happen. Sometimes things flip unexpectedly from one state to another; Catastrophe Theory. Sometimes your papers are not in order and you get sent back. Sometimes the border itself is mysterious, ineffable and infinite; Chaos Theory.
There’s one border you cross twice every day, the border between wakefulness and slumber, between consciousness and unconsciousness. Thought-provoking events occur as you cross the perimeter fence, as your waking mind tries to make sense of the sleeping world (hypnogogia) and conversely as your sleeping mind tries to make sense of the real world (hypnopompia).
In hypnogogia the mind wanders as the body goes into standby and as The Question Machine is turned down to minimum, geometric hallucinations are let out of the closet as a rehearsal for the night’s dreams. The beating of the heart marks out an inaudible rhythm as fluorescent pineapple rings march across the field of view, weaving in and out of the paths of incandescent organic structures which float like amoebae in the viscous red fluid of the mind’s eye.
In due course the visual field shuts down, preparing for consciousness’s diurnal sabbatical. You begin to forget where you are; a sudden disturbance at this point (the phone ringing or a distant explosion) results in confusion - is it time to get up already? It’s only when you check your watch that you realise you’ve only been in bed for forty-five minutes. This can be a pleasant discovery – you’ve still got the whole night ahead of you!
Eventually you cross the border and are swept away by the currents of sleep. Your conscious awareness won’t return until you enter the shallows of the following day’s REM sleep in preparation for the recrossing of the border at Checkpoint Hypnopomp.
If you can force yourself to linger on either border; well, that’s when things get really interesting.
For some reason I seemed to spend the last couple of hours of the night awake, wondering what I was going to write here. At the last minute I fell asleep and started dreaming.
Once again I was in Pendaleon House, the place my paternal grandparents lived throughout the seventies and eighties. I suppose it's not surprising that it's stuck in my head so much; from the ages of five to at least twenty when I went there it was a treat. A holiday, a few days off from the nightmare of school. Plus I suppose it could be said that my grandparents spoiled all three of us (when you're a kid that's a good thing).
And more even than that. The house had a surprisingly large garden with an unexpected number of sheds. My sister and I discovered a way into the extensive shrubbery which became our own version of Narnia, "Tufty", a land ruled by a king with a keen interest in photography. On our second expedition into Tufty we discovered it was several hundred years later and the castle was overgrown and deserted. I still remember how spooky that was, the cracked courtyard, the weeds, the rusty portcullis, despite the fact that well over ninety-nine percent of the effect was in our heads. As indeed was the ghost that chased us back to the house once from the end of the lane.
I still feel like taking a few days off and going there to unwind from time to time; it's just a shame that I've become cut off from it. It only exists outside the area of space-time that I have still access to. It's just as well; I think the Limbs Grandsenior might have been somewhat perturbed if I'd have suddenly turned up at my current age; my grandmother used to have problems enough with me being a goth.
Instead I have to make do with the Proustian reminders that pop up every now and again, unexpected and pleasant. The sound of distant church bells. The smell of the countryside (this includes cowpats). The call of wood pigeons (Coo cooo-coo, coo-coo. Coo-coo), the sound of a single engined light aircraft. Grasshoppers. A certain type of sunshine.
Of course it wouldn't be the same if I did go back. The garden looks smaller in Google Maps. Has part of it been built on? I hope not. There have no doubt been many changes. In the dream last night my grandfather - who has been dead for ten years - showed me that a new road had been built between the dining room and the downstairs toilet. He then started taking me across the street (Selsey Road) to show me something else. Unfortunately then I woke up to a dark wet twenty-first century Brighton. The alarm clock had failed to wake me (again human error, and no fault of the alarm) and I had to get up write this, leave for work.
Direct stimulation of the brain can release old memories in surprising detail. It's a somewhat haphazard procedure, but if it could be made non-invasive and targetted, we could all perhaps spend some time chilling out in our childhood.
It would put travel agents out of a job.
For the first time in a while I've booked a day off work. In theory it's in a bid to catch up with any number of the millions of things I seem to have to complete just to keep my life ticking over, but in truth I've just been lazing around. I think I need to though. After working flat out for what seems like a decade it probably does me good to kick back and not do very much for a while.
It's a shame it makes me feel so guilty.
Where does this apparent "work ethic" come from? I've long been comfortable with the fact that I'm a lazy sod and probably have been all my life. I still remember what one teacher said to me.
"The problem with you, Limb, is that you're bone idle."
If I am - and who am I to contradict a teacher - I'm doing a very good job hiding it. To paraphrase The Cure: however much I think I do - it's never enough, never enough.
In these enlightened days of course no teacher would dream of speaking to a pupil like that. They wouldn't be allowed to. One side effect of paedophiles becoming the only acceptable target of human hatred is that people are starting to see them everywhere. I don't think that the percentage of paedophiles in the population is any greater or less now than it ever was, but what with all that excess hatred sloshing around in brains these days, people are being misidentified as perverts just to make sure there are enough to go around.
This does have some positive side effects. Children are being are treated with a bit more respect in schools now. I doubt very much that these days pupils are being told that they're a "waste of protoplasm" or that the school "will be a better place once you've gone", which can only mean that they're going to come out of secondary education with a higher sense of self esteem than I did. I doubt that any contemporary pupils ever hide in the toilet vomiting with fear because of the behaviour of one of the teachers. Other pupils maybe.
But why can't we treat our children with some respect as a matter of course because it's the right thing to do and not just because we're afraid someone's going to cry paedo! and let slip the dogs of moral panic? The negative side-effects of this state of affairs far outweigh the positive. School employees are so afraid of physical contact with the pupils these days that nit nurses are out of a job and, instead of being a rare affliction that might effect the scruffiest kid in class once a term, head-lice are an all pervasive fact of everyday school life everywhere.
In addition, the Paedo Until Proven Innocent policy is quite insulting really. When I was a kid I'd have loved it if one of my favourite authors had come in to talk to us about his or her books, but apparently now they all have to be vetted, with the result that they're staying away.
Discussing this, Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, said "...the implication [is] that no adult could possibly choose to spend time with children unless they wanted to abuse them. What will it say to children? It'll say that every adult is a potential rapist or murderer, and that they should never trust anyone."
It's going to be a strange world in twenty or thirty years' time. Children will grow up in isolation, raised by remote control or by robots, so there won't be any paedophilia.
Who are we going to hate then?
The psychology behind Hate Week is precisely that of working up both party members and proles into a frenzy of self-righteous hate for the enemy, pushing out of their minds all thought of the unsatisfactory lives that they themselves are living.If we return to our old friend Thugg the Caveman, whose antics are always handy when it comes to trying to explain modern behaviour, it's straightforward to see why we human beings find it so easy to hate. The Other Tribe at the far end of the dirt track that would one day be the M6 are in competition with Thugg's gang; there are only so many sabre-toothed tigers to go around. In order to maximise the chances of Thugg's people making it out of the Stone Age in one piece they have to be able to kill members of The Other Tribe without a moment's thought if necessary.George Orwell 1984
Chromosomes are ruthless bastards when it comes to ensuring that they're passed on.
The only problem of course is that in its journey towards civilization the mind has acquired a characteristic that might make this difficult. Empathy. Empathy is what's made it possible for Thugg and friends to, well, be friends. Living together and helping each other is more advantageous to The Thugg Tribe's gene puddle. That's all very well, but its counterproductive when it comes to making sure that the future's Thugg, not Other.
Brain Labs come up with a new app. It's called Hate and it allows early man to bludgeon anyone who's an Other with a clear conscience. Problem solved.
Fast forward to the present. In the twenty-first century, hate no longer has a place in our brains. We've realised that we are in fact all one tribe, and that biologically the only gene pool we have to ensure survives is the human one. There are no longer any Others.
The problem with these brain apps is that they're very difficult to uninstall. What's more, like many items in the selfish gene's armoury, they're also very powerful. Hate will find a way.
Some people just resurrect the old tribal rivalries - hatred through football. Most of the time though people just redefine Other, effectively narrowing the definition of their own tribe. Other can be anything. Someone with a different skin colour, different sexual preference, different set of religious beliefs. Someone who dresses differently, has a different hair style or is overweight.
We know it's wrong. We want to stop, but it can be difficult. We practice tolerance, but as a wise man once said "Just because you tolerate something doesn't mean it can't still piss you off!" Tolerance is not enough. We have to stop being pissed off.
Some people can't stop and just try to find an acceptable hate figure instead. Those espousing hate itself, the far-right are popular in this role, but with them there's always a nagging feeling that in hating them one is sinking down to their level. One needs someone to look down on, someone that no-one could possibly defend.
Paedophiles fit the bill nicely. Next time there's a news report about the trial of a child killer or paedophile, have a look at the faces of the baying crowd outside. Are their faces contorted in fury because they're thinking of the terrible ordeal the victim went through or the nightmare the victim's family will be going through for the rest of their lives?
No. They're thinking "I'm allowed to hate! I'm allowed to hate!"
"Clocks slay time... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life."I've spent a lot of the afternoon coding, communicating with a virtual space in the arcane languages of CSS and XHTML so as to produce the effect that a client wants. It should of course be far easier than it actually is. We invented this stuff, why is some of it so opaque? Sometimes I seriously think that these computer languages were deliberately made as unfathomable as possible by the geeks that invented them in order to give themselves a mystical, almost wizardly cachet. Have you seen Regular Expressions? They seem permanently beyond my reach; every time I think I'm getting a handle on them they throw up something to baffle me.
Other times I think it's just plain old human inefficiency.
I'm getting metablogular again, but the practical upshot of this day at the code face means that I'm writing this far later than I should be. In the week the blog is a first thing in the day event, 500 words before I've even got my brain in gear. During normal weekends I allow myself to relax a bit and write it during the day. For some reason I've left it very late today. However, I am determined not to be beaten! Missing a day at this stage would still be a failure.
It is getting difficult though; I'd love to report that I've been making great strides on the novel but am unable to do so. THERE IS NEVER ENOUGH TIME! Not to maintain my day job, the writing, the (very occasional, it's true) band activities, the freelance and the life. It's almost worth becoming evil and seeking immortality just to get everything I want done. It may be a curse, not a blessing, but at the moment it would be a very useful curse.
As I have said before, it's not just a case of things speeding up as I'm getting older. Certainly there are elements of that phenomenon present, but there's something else going on. Everyone is getting busier and busier and has less and less time available to them. Is it a side effect of information overload? What is it that is so important that everyone seems to be working their darnedest to just... just... keep going?
What has changed?
The main difference between the world now and in (say) 1979 is in the sheer amount of information available to us all and the channels via which this information is flowing. If you want to know something you can find out the answer almost instantaneously. If you want to speak to anyone you can do so (within reason) straight away.
The world of information and communication is becoming a far more complex system than has ever existed, and we are all part of it, our brains mere components in a vast planetary machine. Is the perceived acceleration of time the first momentary awareness we have that we're becoming part of something huge that is about to be born?
It is, after all, already 2009. The Star Child is late enough as it is.
'I am afraid I cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling. They are excessively unpleasant. There is a feeling exactly like that one has upon a switchback--of a helpless headlong motion! I felt the same horrible anticipation, too, of an imminent smash.'Let us assume that our Temporal Copernicus has indeed put us straight. The present is NOT at the centre of time, and it is arrogant and humanocentric to assume that it is, although just like his astronomical forebear, he is unable to go out there and prove it.H G Wells, The Time Machine
It was not until over four centuries after the publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium that human beings were finally able to look back at the Earth and know that Old Metal Pants was right.
It'll be a while then before the crew of the temporal equivalent of Apollo 8 take a trip around the back of a-week-last-Tuesday, returning with pictures that will change forever the way we see time.
But they will one day. Come to think of it, they should have showed up by now. If time travel is discovered in, say 2555, perhaps their first efforts might only have taken them to the previous week, the equivalent of Earth orbit. But as chrononautics develops, even if it takes them another five hundred years, they will eventually be able to reach back this far. So where are they?
I haven't seen them. One interpretation is that time travel isn't possible, but I refuse to believe that because (a) it's boring, (b) I'm wary of the mistake made by Simon Newcomb in 1903 when he stated that heavier than air flight was not possible "in the present state of our knowledge" (the Wright Brothers took to the air in Kitty Hawke a couple of months later) and (c) Clarke's First Law:
"When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."So where are the buggers?
It could be that once discovered, Time Travel is very carefully policed to avoid any possible instances of grandpatricide. In fact it would probably be self policing - people wouldn't want to risk ending up back home in a parallel universe where they'd never been born. Any time travellers will probably be ultra-cautious, taking care not to upset anything or step on any inappropriate ants.
So this means they could be all around us. That woman on the bus looking around with wonder and joy - she could be a citizen of the thirty-first century on holiday.
Maybe not, though. Some theories state that it's only possible to travel back in time as far as the beginning of the Time Machine's working life - meaning that a Time Machine is not so much like a bicycle but more like the London Tube. So in order to start receiving visitors from the future we've got to actually build the thing and get it working.
The Large Hadron Collider has been cited as one such possible Time Machine, so if we ever get it working properly that might open the floodgates from the future. It does seem to be having trouble getting going though, it's just one thing after another. Perhaps it's constantly being sabotaged by future objectors, the temporal equivalent of Greenpeace trying to prevent the past from becoming spoilt by invaders from days to come. Every time it starts working it seems to break again.
And now a bird's dropped a baguette in it. I think we need to coin a new word:
Baguetage (n) To deliberately destroy, damage or obstruct time travel
"Sorry, did I say something wrong?" said Marvin, dragging himself on regardless. "Pardon me for breathing, which I never do anyway so I don't know why I bother to say it, oh god, I'm so depressed."Now that we have our thought experiment of me-as-robot fully set up in the Thought Lab, it's time to start playing with it.Douglas Adams, The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy
There are any number of advantages to my new state. Instead of having to struggle with contact lenses and then having to hold small print documents at arms length, I can simply upgrade and get a new pair of peepers from eyeBay. And I'm sure once I get the mechanism calibrated I can do away with all that getting tired stuff and simply go onto standby at the end of the day; no more tedious insomnia.
It's only when I start talking about it in this manner that it becomes apparent how complex the human machine is. How many of these things I think I could do without, or could do better with a mechanical version, are in fact an essential part of me? I'm not talking about something obvious like bad eyes or missing teeth; what about, say, depression?
Some depression might survive the transition into a posthuman state. Any depression that comes about as a result of genetic predisposition or bad learning will be duplicated in the new metal brain during the process of neuron replacement. Of course once the brain is wholly artificial it might be easier to fix this faulty wiring, but then the question "Would I still be me?" raises its annoying head.
I'd like to think I would, that I'm not defined by a negative outlook on the universe. And I've changed character quite naturally over the organic years, why should any changes brought about after the conversion to droidhood be any less valid?
Not all depression is built in though, or at least if it is, it's a side effect of a faulty part. I already tinker with this faulty mechanism when I take SSRIs so any equivalent repair of the apparatus post ascension should be allowed. If anything a repair and rewiring is likely to be far less damaging to the body in the long run than a close long term acquaintance with members of the Family Prozac.
However, I'm not even sure the second variety, chemical depression, would necessary be duplicated. The root cause seems to be neurotransmitter failure, and we only need neurotransmitters because the nervous system is a printed circuit wrought from flesh. An electronic brain needs no such chemicals, you can join metal nerves together with a soldering iron if you have to.
I'm oversimplifying here. One of the most amazing things about the human brain is how adaptable it is, the way neurons can make, break and change their connections. My mecha-brain will have to do all that as well, so I'll have to do better than solder. Multidimensional nanotech jumpers perhaps.
An interesting side point is that the drug Ecstasy has its effect due to a similar mechanism to SSRIs, an optimisation of the serotonin transmitter mechanism... Does that mean that a perfectly functioning, chemically idealised human body and an artificial body both feel like they're permanently on E? Sorted.
But of course depressive disorders are to emotion as oranges are to fruit - not the only ones. How am I going to love, hate, fear or become aroused without my neurochemicals? Again, I hope I will be fine with electronic versions. If anything the new robo-emotions will be more efficient; we won't have to wait for the level of a particular hormone to rise beyond a certain threshold, switch it on and BAM, you're feeling it.
This could cause problems if we have direct control over the mechanism. Rats with electrodes linked up to the pleasure centres of the brain were given a lever that stimulated the pleasure centre, as well as a lever that would dispense food.
They starved to death.
Sometimes I can't stand being made of flesh and bone.
What with my current materialist reading material I've come to terms with the reality that I am in fact a machine. A highly sophisticated machine, it's true. A highly inefficient machine and yet at the same time an immensely, insanely complex one. But a machine nonetheless.
What I don't understand is why they had to make it of such rubbish parts. I mean come on. The transportation mechanism is made of meat fer chrissakes. And bones. OK, they have that nifty self-repair process built-in (provided they're properly set after a break), but wouldn't it be better to just make them out of stainless steel in the first place and avoid the whole issue of breakage?
If nothing else this is a compelling argument for evolution and against the ridiculous notion of Intelligent Design. Idiotic design more like.
Still, as something arrived at by trial and error over the course of millions of years it's not bad I suppose. However, I can't shake the feeling that we could probably do better now. This was all sparked off by a visit to the dentist last week. Rather than pumping my jaw full of novacaine before attacking my teeth with a drill like a road worker, wouldn't it have been quicker and easier to switch off feeling to my lower jaw and then unscrew the offending tooth with the appropriate sized tooth-spanner, before replacing it with a brand new one from a box of spares?
But why stop there? The whole eating business is horrendously uneconomical. It would make more sense if I could be run off electricity. Of course in order to do that I'd have to replace all the body parts with electric ones. Nothing wrong with that per se, it would just be an advanced form of prosthetic after all.
It's when we get to the brain that people start to worry. "You won't be you any more!" they cry, "You'll become an emotionless soulless machine!"
"Excellent," I declaim, clenching my metal fist.
But seriously, I don't see why. I'm already a machine made of neurons, meat, bones and giblets. You can replace every single one of those parts with its functional equivalent and I would still be me. This includes the brain.
Of course it would have to be an exact copy. The way I'd do it is a neuron at a time. Install an artificial neuron along side the real one and get them operating in step. Then, when the artificial one's ready, hot swap them and remove the old one before moving onto the next. That way I'd maintain continuity of consciousness throughout the process, there wouldn't be a point when the old organic me died and the new electronic one was born. Perhaps it would be true to say that at the end of the process I would be different, but that's true already.
A popular meme has it that very cell in our body is replaced over seven years and that not a single atom that is in your body now was there when you were a child. I've always had my doubts about this so called fact, which sounds a bit like an urban myth, but on the other hand if it's good enough for Richard Dawkins... (The God Delusion, UK paperback p.416).
Of course it would be a very lengthy process. There are a hundred billion neurons in the human brain, so even if I replaced one every second it would take over three thousand years. Still I'll cross that bridge when I come to it - I'm sure I can come to some kind of arrangement with a friendly swarm of nanobots.
With my new found immortality and invulnerability will come a whole new raft of problems, I am sure. Interference from taxi cab radios. Problems with EMPs. And I expect I'll start to experience a whole new form of prejudice from the sharp end. My new body will put me slap bang in the middle of the Uncanny Valley. I don't think I'm going to be that popular at first.
On alternate mornings when I'm writing my novel instead of this blog, I have noticed something odd. Interesting, pleasing even, but still odd.
It's that there are bits I don't remember writing. I don't know whether it's because when I wrote them it was first thing in the morning and I wasn't fully awake, or whether it's because my subconscious is using my brain to write a novel when I'm not paying attention. Whichever it is, I occasionally have the uncanny experience of enjoying reading passages in the same way that I'd enjoy someone else's work - without foreknowledge. Peculiarly, these blog entries are incapable of surprising me in the same way; when I read them back I remember every word and am particularly sensitive to flaws, to repeated words or phrases.
It's just the fiction that appears to come from somewhere else and is capable of being written without touching the sides as it comes out.
This isn't entirely a surprise; I often get the feeling when writing that I'm uncovering something that already exists and I'm merely doing the spadework getting it into the light of day. This doesn't happen with short stories - and perhaps that's why I don't feel I'm particularly good at the medium. With a short story you have to know the whole structure before you start; often the climax, the sting in the tale is the first thing that comes to you. I lose interest.
It's different with a novel; I am interested and excited to see how things are going to turn out. I have some rough idea of the shape of the terrain ahead, but often if I've made too many plans the story becomes a contrary snake and writhes away into new and unexpected quarters. Planned characters go AWOL and brand new ones turn up fully formed and ready for work.
Not everyone works like this. Many writers have everything planned down to the letter; charts on the wall, spider diagrams, timelines. They can't even start until they know how they're going to end and they stick to the plan. And of course this is just as valid a way of doing things; some might say it's more valid as at least these writers know what they're doing...
Personally I think the world has room for both varieties of storyteller, the Archaeologist and the Architect. The end result in each case is a magnificent edifice (or at least a functional premises), so the method by which they go about bringing these into the world is irrelevant.
Do the Architects enjoy themselves as much during the creative process? Not being one I don't know. I can only assume that there are different aspects of the process from which they draw just as much pleasure as I, an Archaeologist, draw from discovering what's going to happen next. I am delighted when characters start taking over and acting of what appears like their own free will.
I assume Architects aren't bothered about spoilers either.
In case you were wondering, I am still wading through psychology and philosophy textbooks in an effort to find out what makes us tick and what, in fact, we actually are.
Sometimes it's uphill work. This stuff starts out couched in friendly comprehensible language but often gets bogged down in technical terms very quickly. It seems not everyone has the skill of Stephen Hawking; I found A Brief History of Time entertaining and comprehensible.
One thing I'm picking up from my current reading material, and anyone who's read this blog before may recognise the topic, is the battle between materialism and dualism. I may have been sitting on the fence before but recently I fell off into the materialist garden. I suddenly realised that it was, if you'll pardon the pun, a no brainer. When trying to describe the mechanism of the mind, the consciousness, dualists postulate a mysterious non-physical spirit controlling the brain. This is fair enough in itself but in order to provide a complete scientific theory of mind they should then have to show how consciousness arises in this ethereal organ, describe its mechanism.
But this is merely moving the problem and if we've got to work out what the mechanism of awareness is, Occam's Razor suggests we keep it simple. Why add this extra step? The spirit needs to be as fully described as the brain and if we're not careful we're going to end up postulating a meta-spirit running the spirit (trialism), then a meta-meta-spirit (quadralism) and so on into infinity.
However, as I have observed before though, we should be wary of scientific arrogance which tends to imply that we've pretty much got it sorted by now. I am firmly of the opinion that there are great swathes of science yet to be revealed, some of which will change our understanding of the way the universe works more than the discovery of quantum mechanics did. Perhaps science itself is fractal; however much we discover there will always more to be discovered - more devil in the detail and infinite detail in the devil.
I suspect one sign that we're missing something big in science is when the extant theory of How Things Are starts tying itself in knots in order to fit with the known "facts". Take the Ptolemaic System. Starting with the obvious fact that the Earth wasn't moving and was at the centre of the universe it worked outwards from there. It was common sense, surely, the only problem being when it had to start taking the observed movements of the planets into account.
It's too longwinded to go into fully here, but in order to maintain the status quo of the geocentric universe, scientists had to postulate an extremely complicated system of epicycles and equants which, as observations grew more precise, grew ever more complex. In the end it was far simpler to throw out the old geocentric theory and start again (no matter what the church might have thought at the time).
So beware of theories which start getting too complex, growing Occam's Beard in an attempt to fit in with their favourite worldview, and introducing mechanisms which start displaying signs of recursion and infinity. This is probably a sign that there's something very basic wrong, and something very big missing.
We can't see the worldview for the theories.
It's November. I know that's stating the bleeding obvious, but for some writers it's a particularly important month. They're going to write a complete novel from scratch.
I am of course talking about National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo as it's more commonly known. This is an annual event whereby people sign up to the web site and pledge to complete a 50,000 word novel by the end of the month. No editing - there's no time for that - just a great big splurge.
Strictly speaking 50K isn't a novel it's a novella. To give it some kind of context, Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men, Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Orwell's Animal Farm all clock in at around this length. Quite apart from their undoubted quality, they're all books that require some effort and dedicated time to read but on the other hand they're nothing you're going to be able to whack anyone round the head with and knock them out. Even with a hardback special anniversary edition.
A novella in a month may sound like a daunting task, but working it out it only comes to 1,667 words a day. Every day. For just one month. Hell, even I could do that, at a push.
I'm not going to sign up for it this year, however. I have too much on my plate word-wise what with writing this blog and pushing my own half-written novel forward. However, it doesn't mean that I can't take some encouragement and something positive from the mere existence of NaNoWriMo.
I've always struggled with my word count. When on my creative writing course I found it incredibly difficult to even get within shouting distance of the bare acceptable minimum even if I went through the piece afterwards and made it artificially more verbose. Never mind merciless editing and "murder your darlings"; I had trouble fattening them up. They could have done with a few unhealthy packets of fried adverbs just to keep them going until the end of the paragraph.
On the other hand, if anyone else on the course even had a problem it was more that they struggled to contain their brain's most glorious outpourings to the meagre constraints set by the tutor. Two thousand words? Aw, can't it be ten thousand?
Basically, they wrote a lot.
Whilst still on the unproductive side, I think I'm beginning to improve; nowadays I tend not to have any trouble knocking off 500 words, something which I think writing this blog every day has helped with enormously. What's more, once I'm in the zone I can crack 2,000 in one session no trouble.
So even though I'm not taking part in November's writing experiment this year, I'm hoping I can tap into the inspiration field and manage around 1,667 words a day on my novel, taking it from 35,000 to 85,000 in one big push which means that I'll be within shouting distance of the end. That's something to look forward to.
Will I manage it though? Watch this space.