Category Archives: Consciousness

Posts that address the issues raised when defining consciousness.

After Darkness

Some historians, I suspect, despair of the volumes already written on all periods, ancient and modern. History, however, can cover a variety of segments of time. A. Roger Ekirch, for example, thought to write a fascinating history of darkness. At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past is a thoughtful exploration of what night has historically meant. For those of us born in the era of constant light, the realities of what it was like after dark in the past are almost unimaginable. I’m sure Ekirch didn’t intend it to be so somber, but the reality of frequent crime in unlit regions made reading much of this book a sober experience. Confident of their ability to get away with it, many up until modern times took advantage of the night to commit all kinds of crimes. Makes you kind of want to check the door locks once again before turning in.

Much, but increasingly less, of our lives is spent in sleep. The advent of artificial light has led to changes in lifestyle that, according to biology, aren’t terribly healthy. The natural rhythms of sleep and wakefulness may be challenged by jobs or enticements to stay up late and surf the web or any number of other factors. Now that light has become so very portable in the form of smart phones and tablets, even less of darkness remains. Although it’s a bit repetitive and not laid out chronologically, At Day’s Close contains many provocative observations about the dark. There’s even a bit about monsters.

Night has always been symbolic. Death and fear were associated with night early on, and we still call the era of scientific progress the Enlightenment. Churchmen (for it was an age of such) tended to condemn night as evil, the Devil’s time. Not all agreed, for some considered the dark a creature of God and complained of the hubris of setting up lights at night. The religious symbolism of night is very rich and very ancient. Those of us used to artificial light have difficulty imagining what it took to navigate after dark in ages past. More than an annoyance, night could be a truly dangerous time. Dreams, once mainly the products of the night, also had religious significance before being rationally explained. The industry of banishing night also has, in some respects, the effect of banishing dreams. We should stop and think before we put night to flight. Half of our time is spent in darkness, and all of our time is highly symbolic.

On Time

Getting to the movie theater is not only costly, but increasingly difficult to schedule. This can be problematic for someone who likes to write about movies, but the realities of the commuting life aren’t very malleable. So it was that I finally had a chance to watch Arrival, on the small screen. It had been recommended, of course, and although it’s not horror it has aliens and a linguist as the hero—my kind of flick. Once it began, I wondered if religion would play any role in the story. Alien contact would certainly rate as one of the more formative religious events of all time. The only reference that was obvious, however, was the suicide cult shown on a news story in the background, immolating themselves as the aliens became known.

Louise Banks, a linguist who has security clearance, has a sad story. Spoiler alert here! If you’re even more tardy than me you might want to fire up Amazon Prime and read on afterward! The movie opens with her watching her daughter grow up, only to watch her succumb to a rare disease as a young woman. Then the aliens arrive and she’s whisked off to Montana to try to communicate with them. It’s only after repeated encounters, learning the written language of another race, that she asks who this little girl she keeps dreaming about is. The child is in her future. The aliens see time as cyclical, not linear, and by learning their language she begins to think like them—knowing the future holds a tragedy for her. The intensity of the experience makes her fall in love with Ian Donnelly, another academic, who will become the father of her child but who will leave when she reveals the future to him.

Just as the aliens prepare to leave, not religion but philosophy takes over. A question posed by none other than Nietzsche goes: if you could live your life over exactly the same as you lived it this time, would you? Nietzsche’s point was that those who say “no” deny life while those who answer in the affirmative, well, affirm it. Ian says what he would change. Louise, however, embraces life with the tragedy she knows will inevitably come. While religion is off in a corner doing something that shows just how nonsensical belief can be, philosophy stands tall and faces the difficult question head-on. Although the movie follows some expected conventions—aliens bring peace but militaries want war—it rests on a profound question to which, I’ll admit, I haven’t got an answer.

Science of Unbelief

An article a friend sent me from Science Alert back in December recently came to mind. Titled “Thinking About God Might Make You Sweat, Even if You’re Not Religious,” the article by Brittany Cardwell and Jamin Halberstadt discusses how religious ideas are deeply engrained in human psychology. Like people who say they’re not afraid of spiders or snakes, people who don’t believe in the supernatural have made an effort to become this way. For reasons poorly understood, human beings are natural believers. As the article takes pains to state, that doesn’t mean a non-believer isn’t sincere. Thinking, however, doesn’t come only from rationality. Many people hold to the Mr. Spock fallacy—the belief that reasoning can solve anything. We all know from experience that it can’t. The big decisions in life—whom should I marry? What house should I buy? For whom shall I vote?—are often made with the emotions rather than rationally.

Which one’s the captain?

Reason has taught us to be expert deniers. We can learn to overcome our natural aversion to snakes and spiders and we can learn not to believe in God. Sometimes that belief can even be knocked out of us by the silly, unthinking behavior of “true believers.” But deep down it’s still there. Funnily, those who claim that reason alone answers all things are in denial about their own evolution. The human brain is a direct adaptation of the “reptilian brain” with its fight or flight impulses. That viper doesn’t plan to bite your ankle—it’s reacting to fear. Emotions are an integral part of thinking. Crimes of passion are committed by otherwise rational people sometimes. That thing you keep on bumping into in the room is, in fact an elephant. As irrational as that may seem.

The Science Alert article discusses the empirical proof that people fear to dis the Almighty. Were the brain a computer I’d say it was hardwired into us. We’re not wire and circuits, however. We’re messy, organic, evolving stuff that at one time lived beneath the waves. It took a certain amount of lungfish faith to believe we could survive on dry land. As mates approved of such irrational behavior, the trait multiplied and became more common. Today our smart phones and our cubicle window posters tell us there’s no such thing as a deity beyond our own scientific rules. The truth is, however, at some level we don’t really believe it. You can learn not to believe, but you’ll still sweat the big stuff, even in laboratory conditions.

Of Our Being

It happens every year. What with my commute schedule and personal disposition, I read a lot. This blog and Goodreads are my accounting system for keeping track of the thoughts that arise during all of this. Every year I get stopped by my first really important book that I’ve read since December’s roundup of last year’s titles. Paul Bogard’s The Ground beneath Us is this year’s first such book. Subtitled From the Oldest Cities to the Last Wilderness, What Dirt Tells Us about Who We Are, this tour of several fascinating locations is a wake-up call. Divided into three sections—Paved and Hallowed, Farmed and Wild, Hell and Sacred—Bogard’s book offers a kind of travelogue with the additional reminder that how we’re treating the land is the most terrifying example of what lack of foresight imaginable (why, Prometheus?) looks like. In a world with a rapidly growing population, we’re paving and building at unprecedented rates. World harvests, experts say, will last only another sixty years. Then we starve.

A dilemma I’ve struggle with here before is the fact that nobody owns this world. Nobody but those driven by money. There’s little that can stop them. This is exemplified by his chapter on fracking in my native Appalachia. Companies protected by loopholes—nooses, actually—devised by Dick Cheney can take over a town and destroy its environment. And this was even before Trump. And this is only but one example. Those who look soberly at where we’re going—and the melting permafrost in the northern hemisphere is about to make the globe nearly uninhabitable for our species—are ignored because they stand in the way of profits. Everybody loses. As a species we have neither the will nor the power to prevent it. Epimetheus reigns.

Not just doom and gloom, The Ground beneath Us is a thoughtful reflection on the human spirit. The titles of the subsections reveal that sacred ground—one of my recurring themes on this blog—is very real. Bogard isn’t a religionist, so you can’t accuse him of special pleading. His moving accounts of visiting sites hallowed by any number of factors, whether violence or simple belonging, reveal what home really means. What a dangerous, maybe even sinful, concept ownership can be. With chapters covering areas as diverse as Mexico City sinking under its own weight, to Ames, Iowa where what we’re doing to the soil is studied, to parts of Alaska accessible only by air, Heaven and Hell are daily and plainly played out before us. This is a very important book. We can only hope enough people will read it before it’s too late.

Spectral Parable

1692. The Enlightenment is reaching toward full swing. In what will become blue Massachusetts, women are condemned for being witches. The proof to make such a conviction is difficult to obtain without resorting to “spectral evidence.” The Republicans of the era, who would otherwise reject such obvious speculation, greedily swallow the fake news by the mouthful. This is just the kind of smoking musket they’ve been seeking. Spectral evidence can’t be reproduced in court because it’s supernatural. Anything can be fake news if you bluster loudly enough. Even the judges, one can imagine, could put the accusations made against their own wives and selves into that category. The Devil, they say, is a shape-shifter.

Menelaus had Proteus pinned. The water god also known as “the Old Man of the Sea” could change shapes at will. Shifting from tree to snake to lion to water, Proteus couldn’t escape Menelaus’ grasp. At last the Old Man had to reveal the truth. Such is the nature of evidence. Speculative ideas are as easily built as walls to separate countries—easier, in fact. With a certain amount of braggadocio anything is believable. They say there are still mammoths roaming in the Russian steppe. Did Watergate really happen at all? Isn’t this evidence just spectral? Meanwhile we’ve got all these women here waiting to be hanged—shouldn’t we just get on with it?

The rule of law, I heard in a discussion in Jeff Bezos’ boathouse one summer, is inevitable. Once the concept takes hold it won’t be undone. At the far end of the table I disagreed. Nobody liked what I said, and I took my solace with Cassandra. Who reads Greek mythology any more anyway? The greatest minds of Massachusetts Bay Colony, even those with Harvard educations, admitted that what was seen in adolescent visions of the night was just as real as what happened in the cold light of day. What do you think we are—gullible or something? Meanwhile the Old Man of the Sea gave his name to an adjective most useful for white men in authority. The rule of law, indeed the concept of Truth itself, is a most protean entity. Like water it can be a man or it can be a god. It all depends on your perspective. A fox can be as dangerous as a lion. Proteus even changed into a pig when the need became great. What say you, judges of Oyer and Terminer? Do you accept the evidence or not?


While re-reading Frankenstein the uncomfortable thought kept recurring that our tendency to save lives leads to undiscovered fears. I’m not suggesting that we should just let people die, but even from my own experience of doctors, the sense of personal agency has become somewhat eroded. You go to the doctor and s/he tells you, “You should have this done.” I’m still too busy trying to figure out what this box that’s attached to my TV should be called, so how am I qualified to assess a professional opinion about my health? We mend bodies with plastic and metals and chemicals. Some modifications, like fillings and glasses, seem no brainers. But what about plastic tubes and computers to regulate body functions? They’re all good, but have we thought this through, I can hear Mary Shelley asking.

Religion, which is now also eroding, was a traditional way of coping with the fact of our own mortality. Everyone dies. From the beginning of the world, with the possible exception of Elijah—and even he had to come back—everyone has died. Religion traditionally said that it wasn’t the last word. The body wears out, and in a materialist world there’s nothing that can be left. Technology can prolong life, but some may not want it to be prolonged beyond a certain point. I’m not being morbid; I just don’t like arguing with what can’t be changed. Religion, it’s easy to forget, is about finding peace. Some people misunderstand that, for sure, but that doesn’t change the facts.

Did Prometheus overstep his bounds? Mary Shelley seemed to think so. In her recollections the story was intended to scare, not to predict. Victor Frankenstein creates the monster simply because he can. He does it alone, without thinking through the consequences even with a convenient Igor. Religion has often been cast as that annoying, moralizing sibling to science. (Philosophy could well join the ranks too, as some prefer it to religious thinking.) Without that sibling, however, how can we make informed decisions? Science, by its very definition, can’t tell us what should be done. The only values it knows are quantifiers. We live in a piecemeal world where some parts have been removed while others have been added. We don’t know if this is right or wrong since religion is one of the pieces excised without being replaced. Prometheus, ironically, translates to “forethought.” The problem with Frankenstein is precisely that Prometheus is missing.

Frankenstein and Co.

Authors, I expect, don’t anticipate that their work will be annotated. Since I deal with annotated Bibles on a daily basis, I often ponder that the anonymous writers—we know of few biblical writers with any degree of certainty—had no idea that they were writing the Bible. Nor did they realize that some day many people would make their livelihood from interpreting that book. Among the interpreters are annotators. When my wife gave me Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Christmas I was at first puzzled. I have a copy of Frankenstein already. In fact, I read it again just last year. Then I realized it was an annotated edition: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. Edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert, the book contains the original text and an introduction, as well as the said annotations. Like a typical study Bible, it also contains essays. The editors joke that it’s kind of like a Frankenstein monster itself.

The “value added” material isn’t all about science. In fact, quite a lot of it has to do with human relationships, and particularly women’s rights. Mary Shelley was an early feminist and her novel shows what goes wrong when men try to reproduce without women. Another recurring theme that, amazingly, had never dawned on me while reading Frankenstein was the Adam and Eve story. Victor Frankenstein, like God, creates a man. Then he creates a woman. Well, almost. Afraid what might happen should his creature find a companion too companionable, he destroys the second creature before she’s finished. The biblical parallels are nevertheless there.

Originally subtitled The Modern Prometheus, the novel was based on pre-Christian myth as much as on Holy Writ. Nevertheless, the Bible suffused British culture in the nineteenth century just as it has continued to overwhelm American culture to the present day. We ignore it at our peril. Morality in science is a major focus of the essays in this volume, but I wondered how many scientists might be enticed to read a piece of feminist fiction in order to learn some ethics. The largest ethical conundrum we face in the United States is that so few people read for personal growth. Spending time with a book is a sacred activity for those committed to the principles of literacy. Frankenstein isn’t a prefect novel; the pacing is pretty slow even for a gothic masterpiece. There are loose ends left hanging. The protagonist is often insufferable. Still, as the editors and annotators have demonstrated, there’s much to learn from this old story. All it takes is the willingness to read and deeply reflect. And perhaps read the annotations.