Neuroscience & Panpsychism, some notes

The overwhelming misfortune of humanity is not that we are ignorant of the existence of truth, but that we misconstrue its nature. What errors and what sufferings would have been spared us if, far from seeking truth in the phenomena of material nature, we had resolved to descend into ourselves and had sought to explain material things by our own being, and not our being by material things – if, fortified by courage and patience, we had preserved in the calm of our imagination the discovery of this light which we desire all of us with so much ardor. ~ Louis-Claude de St-Martin

A friend of mine asked me to read this interview from Wired Magazine, concerning a neuroscientist’s interpretation of panpsychism and his views on how consciousness arises in the brain and other complex integrated information systems, and give him my thoughts on it. Instead of just shooting off a text message, I wanted to write my thoughts down in a slightly more fleshed-out form. While still basically just notes, here are those thoughts as they occurred to me. For the record, I am not a neuroscientist; further, I deeply respect what neuroscientists do, even if I do not always agree with their (admittedly tentative) conclusions. I am thus sharing these thoughts out of interest in the topic, and not any claim to expertise.

First thought: I love how things which Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Hermetists, Platonists, and other contemplatives have known for, literally, millennia are called “new” and “radical” and “revolutionary” when a physicist or neuroscientist says them with a lab coat on, but when a mystic says them wearing a dhoti, a robe, or a nice pair of jeans and fitted t-shirt, they’re dismissed as “delusion” or “irrational”. It’s all in having the right uniform.

Next thought: This is an interesting interview, and Koch’s hypothesis is an important one. From the perspective of a contemplative, however, it is incomplete. Koch still relies on the threadbare assumption of reductionism: that consciousness somehow arises from matter. This belief is based on the metaphysical assumption that there is no metaphysic, which is rather self-defeating. Rather than consciousness “arising” from integrated information systems, I would say that integrated information systems are the material structures which most efficiently permit of conscious experience within the matrix of matter.

According to Samkhya and Yoga, matter is just the grossest phase of Prakrti (roughly, “Nature” and “Substance”), while Purusha (“Consciousness”, “Spirit”, “the Essence of Personhood”) exists, in a sense, separately. They mix and mingle in the form of cosmoi, but Purusha is never truly native to Prakrti and, thus, to matter. Consciousness can thus be separated from matter, but this does not end consciousness; rather, the breaking-down of a complex integrated system represents the elimination of a single vertex of mingled consciousness and matter. While it is far from perfect, it is helpful here to remember the common metaphor of brain-as-radio receiver; if you take a hammer to your radio, you do not thus destroy the signal, but only the tool by which you experienced it. The difference is that, in the case of consciousness and the brain, the “experience” goes both ways. The “signal” is not a product merely transmitted, but is itself the substrate-independent essence of experience-as-such; cut off the receiver, and it may appear to the outsider as if the signal itself has disappeared, but all that has happened is that it no longer has a ready medium of communication.

Koch briefly mentions his interest in Buddhism, and uses the vaguely Platonic term “panpsychism”, but has fallen into a common trap in the modern West of believing that Buddhism, Platonism, and the like, can somehow be extricated or rescued from their spiritual contexts. Not only is this not possible  a reductionist Buddhism is not Buddhism at all it is not desirable, for it undercuts the very element which makes a methodology like Buddhism capable of teaching us anything significant. In short, it removes the method from the methodology. A deeper study and practice of Bauddhadharma would, I think, be every bit as valuable to Koch in the development of his hypothesis as his neuroscience research itself.

Book Review: “False Confessions, False Alarms”

False Confessions, False Alarms: Short Stories
by Jeremy Puma
Strange Animal Publications, 2013
175 pg paperback

It could be tempting, coming in blindly, to call Jeremy Puma’s fiction pretentious. His lush prose and extravagant narratives might strike the eye of some a bit askew. Pretense, however, depends upon pretending, and Jeremy Puma isn’t faking a thing. He doesn’t need to. He’s proven it. Like a demon lord from a medieval book of sorcery, Puma takes his readers on a short tour of a believable hell, a world in which everything happens “for a reason”, each life planned out by a mysterious entity, a god who makes no sense. Scraps of poetry weave in and out of prosody, leading the reader on a chase through multiple universes — not parallel, but flowing around and through one another.

Puma uses the form of short fiction to good effect. The weird and uncanny reveals itself in the midst of perfect banality — just the way it happens in real life — and, very often, we are left wondering exactly where we have ended up. The author isn’t kind enough to give us a neat wrap-up at the end of each story. Though, as with most short fiction, the stories are punchy and do not deviate much from their paths, in this case the rising action occurs just outside the reader’s view; we cannot know with precision where the action began, where it ends, or who is really shaping it.

Theoretically, Jeremy Puma places himself safely in company with Philip K. Dick The pieces present layered satire — sometimes bluntly displayed, and sometimes framed with care. I say that the satire is layered because it is not all addressed to the same place of human experience, and can often be read in reference to several such realms at once: political commentary carries a spiritual message, and religious imagery says something about the place and state of art in culture.

Setting is often as important in these stories as the characters in establishing mood and movement. Several of the pieces included in this volume explicitly share a world, while others would fit in that place, but do not tell us if they are there. Only one — the short play, “Gods and Famous People” — stands entirely aloof of place (and, in fact, of time). This general emphasis on setting is an attractive feature, for me. Speculative fiction which gives too much attention to an individual’s impact on his environment without delving far into the environment’s impact on the individual often comes off as merely trivial — fun, at best, but usually a bit insubstantial.

There are some problems, here. Mostly, these are formal and have to do with the fact of Strange Animal being a new, boutique publisher. For one, the book definitely could have used another round of editing. Though Puma’s style is naturally pretty solid, every writer sometimes leaves in repeated words (like the words “again” or “maybe” both before and after the effected clause, etc.), slightly clumsy phrases, and so forth. Still, all of these can be easily corrected in later printings.

As an artifact, my biggest problem with the book is a simple one, but it really does make a difference: the text is all aligned left rather than justified. In a printed book, this very quickly tires the eyes. Again, not a big deal, and easy to fix, but worth a mention for the sake of the well-being of a small publisher whose success I would love to see.

Quite literally the only bad thing I have to say about Puma’s stories themselves is that the first story of the book, “Delivery”, ends very abruptly; the message of the narrative still comes through with clarity, but it almost feels as if, in this instance, the author wasn’t quite sure what to do to wrap-up once the point had been made. But, really, for only one story in a collection of eight, being a first (fiction) outing for both publisher and author, this is a minor gripe, at most.

If you enjoy tales of the weird, combining realism with the ethereal, you’ll feel right at home in False Confessions, False Alarms. If you like your fiction to acknowledge that there are no easy answers, and that nothing is less obvious than the way out of your private prison cell, you’ll be pleasantly unsettled by a kindred spirit’s wry urban demonology. I, for one, look forward to much more of Puma’s fiction.