Brain Pickings

Page 5

Consciousness and the Nature of the Universe: How Panpsychism and Its Fault Lines Shade in the Ongoing Mystery of What We Are

“We’ve barely begun to understand our place in the cosmos. As we continue to look out from our planet and contemplate the nature of reality, we should remember that there is a mystery right here where we stand.”

Consciousness and the Nature of the Universe: How Panpsychism and Its Fault Lines Shade in the Ongoing Mystery of What We Are

“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe,” the aging Marcus Aurelius instructed.

“Any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides,” the young Virginia Woolf meditated in her diary two millennia later. “It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind.”

Two years earlier, in the first year of the twentieth century and the final year of his life, the uncommonly minded Canadian psychiatrist Maurice Bucke had formalized this notion in his visionary, controversial book Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, which influenced generations of thinkers ranging from Albert Einstein to Abraham Maslow to Steve Jobs.

Bucke himself had been greatly influenced by, then befriended and in turn influenced, Walt Whitman — a poet enraptured by how science illuminates the interconnectedness of life, who contemplated the strangest and most paradoxical byproduct of consciousness “lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal”: our sense of self.

Science was young then — it still is — and the world was old, and the mind was old, its dwelling-place practically unchanged since the cranium of early Homo sapiens began accommodating a brain comparable to our own some three hundred thousand years ago. With neuroscience yet to be born, it fell on the poets and the philosophers to meditate on the complexities of consciousness — the sole valve between reality and our experience, made of the same matter as the stars. Today, neuroscience remains a young and insecure science, as crude as Galilean astronomy — and as revolutionary in the revelations it has already contoured, yet to be shaded in with the nuances of understanding that might, just might, one day illuminate the fundaments of consciousness.

Plate from The Principles of Light and Color: Including Among Other Things the Harmonic Laws of the Universe, the Etherio-atomic Philosophy of Force, Chromo Chemistry, Chromo Therapeutics, and the General Philosophy of the Fine Forces, Together with Numerous Discoveries and Practical Applications by Edwin D. Babbitt, 1878. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Until that day comes, we have a panoply of theories about what it is that flickers on the cave walls of the cranium to irradiate our entire experience of life and reality. The most compelling — and the most controversial — of them are what Annaka Harris examines with equal parts openhearted curiosity and intelligent consideration in Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind (public library).

At the center of her inquiry is an idea ancient Eastern spiritual traditions, a century of Western neurocognitive science, and epochs of philosophy share: the illusory nature of the self — the self that is always in flux yet rooted in our experience of time, the self we build and rebuild upon a narrative foundation, the self separated from the other by a marvelously permeable boundary, the self of which nature can so easily and profoundly strip us during a solar eclipse, the self into which we fortress our whole sense of identity and from which we peer out to receive our whole view of the world, only to discover again and again that the fortress is an appearance in consciousness filled with what Borges called “the nothingness of personality.”

One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s little-known drawings of the brain.

Drawing on the intricate neurological processes and disorders that shape and misshape our conscious experience, on the behavior-altering effects various parasites have on their hosts, and on her own experience of staggering changes in preference, habit, and temperament on the hormonal cocktail of pregnancy, Harris writes:

The idea that “I” am the ultimate source of my desires and actions begins to crumble [and] it’s hard to see how our behavior, preferences, and even choices could be under the control of our conscious will in any real sense. It seems much more accurate to say that consciousness is along for the ride — watching the show, rather than creating or controlling it. In theory, we can go as far as to say that few (if any) of our behaviors need consciousness in order to be carried out. But at an intuitive level, we assume that because human beings act in certain ways and are conscious — and because experiences such as fear, love, and pain feel like such powerful motivators within consciousness — our behaviors are driven by our awareness of them and otherwise would not occur.

And yet, she observes, many of the actions we attribute to consciousness and hold up as proof of it could, in theory, take place without consciousness, in a machine programmed to operate by logical sequences resulting in those selfsame actions. (That, after all, is the most thrilling and terrifying question of artificial intelligence.) She posits a curious meta-exception:

Consciousness seems to play a role in behavior when we think and talk about the mystery of consciousness. When I contemplate “what it’s like” to be something, that experience of consciousness presumably affects the subsequent processing taking place in my brain. And almost nothing I think or say when contemplating consciousness would make any sense coming from a system without it.


When I talk about the mystery of consciousness — referring to something I can distinguish and wonder about and attribute (or not) to other entities — it seems highly unlikely that I would ever do this, let alone devote so much time to it, without feeling the experience I am referring to (for the qualitative experience is the entire subject, and without it, I can have no knowledge of it whatsoever). And when I turn these ideas over in my mind, the fact that my thoughts are about the experience of consciousness suggests that there is a feedback loop of sorts and that consciousness is affecting my brain processing.

What emerges is the intimation that we are not merely machines that think — after all, many of our machines now “think” in the sense of processing information and adapting it to govern behavior — but machines that think about thinking, lending our biochemical machinery an edge of the miraculous not (yet) explicable by our science, which remains our mightiest technology of thought. She observes:

Most of our intuitions about what qualifies as evidence of consciousness affecting a system don’t survive scrutiny. Therefore, we must reevaluate the assumptions we tend to make about the role consciousness plays in driving behavior, as these assumptions naturally lead to the conclusions we draw about what consciousness is and what causes it to arise in nature. Everything we hope to uncover through consciousness studies — from determining whether or not a given person is in a conscious state, to pinpointing where in the evolution of life consciousness first emerged, to understanding the exact physical process that gives birth to conscious experience — is informed by our intuitions about the function of consciousness.

Where our intuitions break down most dramatically and where the breakdown most disorients us is in what may be the most poorly branded and therefore poorly understood theory of consciousness: panpsychism.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

Coined in the sixteenth century by the Italian philosopher and proto-scientist Francesco Patrizi, whose work inspired Galileo, from the Greek pan (“all”) and psyche (“mind” or “spirit”), panpsychism is the idea that all matter is endowed with the capacity for subjective experience of immaterial quality — the sort of experience we call, in its expression familiar to us, consciousness.

In the epochs since, as the world slowly began shedding the cloth of the supernatural and began seeking in mystical notions a kernel of secular and scientifically verifiable truth, panpsychism came closer and closer to information theory and the modern scientific understanding of the physicality of the universe. (There are echoes of panpsychism in the great theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s famous “It-for-Bit” theory, asserting that “observer-participancy gives rise to information” because “all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.”)

Plate from Le monde physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

With an eye to the muddling, misconstrual, and ample misapplications of panpsychism as a framework that could broaden the conversation on consciousness but instead often shuts it down, Harris does the essential and courageous public service of lens-clearing:

Those of us who want to push this conversation forward have an important obligation to clearly distinguish panpsychic views from the false conclusions people tend to draw from them — namely, that panpsychism somehow justifies or explains a variety of psychic phenomena — following from the incorrect assumption that consciousness must entail a mind with a single point of view and complex thoughts. Ascribing some level of consciousness to plants or inanimate matter is not the same as ascribing to them human minds with wishes and intentions like our own. Anyone who believes the universe has a plan for us or that he can consult with his “higher self” for medical advice should not feel propped up by the modern view of panpsychism.


Unfortunately, it seems quite hard for us to drop the intuition that consciousness equals complex thought. But if consciousness is in fact a more basic aspect of the universe than previously believed, that doesn’t suddenly give credence to your neighbor’s belief that she can communicate telepathically with her ficus tree. In actuality, if a version of panpsychism is correct, everything will still appear to us and behave exactly as it already does.

Plate from The Principles of Light and Color by Edwin D. Babbitt, 1878. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Such appropriations of panpsychism are to the study of consciousness what the pseudoscience of phrenology is to neuroscience — contours of promising regions of exploration on our ever-evolving map of reality, shaded in with human bias. Rather than having the egalitarian view of consciousness-across-matter they seek to espouse, these misinterpretations impose on the concept of consciousness self-referential standards rife with human exceptionalism, making of nature an uncanny valley that betrays both nature and our humanity.

Paradoxically, this misunderstanding of panpsychism is often used as an argument against panpsychism itself, not against its misunderstanding. But to actually consider a lichen or a quark endowed with a measure of consciousness is to recognize that its experience cannot, by structural definition, be anything close to our subjective human experience of consciousness — our qualia and their byproduct: the sense of self.

Considering what might be the greatest intuitive challenge to psychism, known as the “combination problem” — how the small constituents of matter, each the carrier of primitive consciousness, can combine into larger entities that have new and different consciousnesses, including ours — Harris observes that much of the challenge stems from a reflexive confusion:

For many scientists and philosophers, the combination problem presents the biggest obstacle to accepting any description of reality that includes consciousness as a widespread feature. However, the obstacle we face here once again seems to be a case of confusing consciousness with the concept of a self, as philosophers and scientists tend to speak in terms of a “subject” of consciousness. The term “self” is usually used to describe a more complex set of psychological characteristics — including qualities such as self-confidence or a capacity for empathy — but a “subject” still describes an experience of self in its most basic form… Perhaps it’s wrong to talk about a subject of consciousness, and it’s more accurate to instead talk about the content available to conscious experience at any given location in space-time, determined by the matter present there — umwelts applied not just to organisms, but to all matter, in every configuration and at every point in space-time.

Iris Murdoch — one of the most brilliant and underappreciated philosophical minds our species has produced — provided a potent antidote to the combination problem in her lovely notion of unselfing, rooted in the recognition that “the self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion.” In this light, the combination problem becomes decidedly less problematic — without the notion of a subject, a concrete entity to be combined with another concrete entity, there is no combining to be done. Consciousness becomes both the vessel of experience and the content of experience, and transcends both — more field than form.

Plate from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, 1750. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

After citing research on split-brain patients, in whom mental function and the contents of consciousness can be divided in astonishing ways, Harris writes:

[Without a self], consciousness could persist as is, while the character and content change, depending on the arrangement of the specific matter in question. Maybe content is sometimes shared across large, intricately connected regions and sometimes confined to very small ones, perhaps even overlapping. If two human brains were connected, both people might feel as if the content of their consciousness had simply expanded, with each person feeling a continuous transformation from the content of one person to the whole of the two, until the connection was more or less complete. It’s only when you insert the concepts of “him,” “her,” “you,” and “me” as discrete entities that the expanding of content for any area of consciousness (or even multiple areas merging) becomes a combination problem.

Harris ends her rigorous reconnaissance mission of the terra semicognita of consciousness studies with the telescopic perspective that is the poetry of possibility:

Humanity is young, and we’ve barely begun to understand our place in the cosmos. As we continue to look out from our planet and contemplate the nature of reality, we should remember that there is a mystery right here where we stand.

A century ago — a century during which humanity split the atom, unraveled the mysteries of our genetic code, and heard the sound of spacetime for the first time — quantum theory originator Max Planck insisted that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature… because… we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” In the first year of that century, Lord Kelvin took the podium at the British Association of Science to declare that “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics,” while at the same moment, a young patent clerk in Zurich was incubating the ideas that would converge into his theory of relativity, forever transfiguring our elemental understanding of reality. It is our human nature to consider the inconceivable impossible, again and again mistaking the parameters of the conceivable for the perimeter of the possible. But it is also the nature of the human mind — that material miracle of electrical and poetic impulses — to transcend its own limits of imagination again and again, inventing new parameters of thought that broaden the perimeter of the possible until it becomes real.

Complement Conscious with Probable Impossibilities — physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic meditation on what makes life worth living — then revisit William James’s foundational work on consciousness and the four features of transcendent experiences.


Trees, Whales, and Our Digital Future: George Dyson on Nature, Human Nature, and the Relationship Between Our Minds and Our Machines

“Nature’s answer to those who seek to control nature through programmable machines is to allow us to build systems whose nature is beyond programmable control.”

Trees, Whales, and Our Digital Future: George Dyson on Nature, Human Nature, and the Relationship Between Our Minds and Our Machines

Long ago, in the ancient bosom of the human animal stirred a quickening of thought and tenderness at the sheer beauty of the world — a yearning to fathom the forces and phenomena behind the enchantments of birdsong and bloom, the rhythmic lapping of the waves, the cottony euphoria of clouds, the swirling patterns of the stars. When we made language to tell each other of the wonder of the world, we called that quickening science.

But our love of beauty grew edged with a lust for power that sent our science on what Bertrand Russell perceptively rued as its “passage from contemplation to manipulation.” The road forked between knowledge as a technology of control and knowledge as a technology of acceptance, of cherishing and understanding reality on its own terms and decoding those terms so that they can be met rather than manipulated.

We went on making equations and theories and bombs in an attempt to control life; we went on making poems and paintings and songs in an attempt to live with the fact that we cannot. Suspended between these poles of sensemaking, we built machines as sculptures of the possible and fed them our wishes encoded in commands, each algorithm ending in a narrowing of possibility between binary choices, having begun as a hopeful verse in the poetry of prospection.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Every writer, if they are lucky enough and passionate enough and dispassionate enough, reads in the course of their lifetime a handful of books they wish they had written. For me, Analogia (public library) by George Dyson is one such book — a book that traverses vast territories of fact and feeling to arrive at a promontory of meaning from which one can view with sudden and staggering clarity the past, the present, and the future all at once — not with fear, not with hope, but with something beyond binaries: with a quickening of wonderment and understanding.

Dyson is a peculiar person to tell the history and map the future of our relationship with technology. Peculiar and perfect: The son of mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson and the philosophically inclined physicist Freeman Dyson, and brother to technology investor and journalist Esther Dyson, George rebelled by branching from the family tree of science and technology at age sixteen to live, as he recounts, “in a tree house ninety-five feet up in a Douglas fir above Burrard Inlet in British Columbia, on land that had never been ceded by its rightful owners, the Tsleil-Waututh.”

Art from The Tree House by Dutch father-daughter duo Ronald Tolman and Marije Tolman, 2009

In this tree house he built with his own hands, Dyson shared the harsh winters — winters when a cup of tea poured from his perch would freeze before touching the ground — with a colony of cormorants roosting in the nextcrown fir. There, he watched a panoply of seabirds disappear underwater diving after silver swirls of fish he could see in the clear ocean all the way up from the tree. There, he learned to use, and to this day uses, his hands to build kayaks and canoes with the traditional materials and native techniques perfected over millennia. With those selfsame hands, he types these far-seeing thoughts:

There are four epochs, so far, in the entangled destinies of nature, human beings, and machines. In the first, preindustrial epoch, technology was limited to the tools and structures that humans could create with their own hands. Nature remained in control.

In the second, industrial epoch, machines were introduced, starting with simple machine tools, that could reproduce other machines. Nature began falling under mechanical control.

In the third epoch, digital codes, starting with punched cards and paper tape, began making copies of themselves. Powers of self-replication and self-reproduction that had so far been the preserve of biology were taken up by machines. Nature seemed to be relinquishing control. Late in this third epoch, the proliferation of networked devices, populated by metazoan codes, took a different turn.

In the fourth epoch, so gradually that almost no one noticed, machines began taking the side of nature, and nature began taking the side of machines. Humans were still in the loop but no longer in control. Faced with a growing sense of this loss of agency, people began to blame “the algorithm,” or those who controlled “the algorithm,” failing to realize there no longer was any identifiable algorithm at the helm. The day of the algorithm was over. The future belonged to something else.

A belief that artificial intelligence can be programmed to do our bidding may turn out to be as unfounded as a belief that certain people could speak to God, or that certain other people were born as slaves. The fourth epoch is returning us to the spirit-laden landscape of the first: a world where humans coexist with technologies they no longer control or fully understand. This is where the human mind took form. We grew up, as a species, surrounded by mind and intelligence everywhere we looked. Since the dawn of technology, we were on speaking terms with our tools. Intelligence in the cloud is nothing new. To adjust to life in the fourth epoch, it helps to look back to the first.

Born in the third epoch but identifying with the ways of the first, Dyson finds himself challenged “to reconcile the distinction, enforced by the American educational system, between those who make a living with their minds and those who make a living with their hands.” The challenge feels personal — we have each touched it in some aspect of our lives — but it is a universal challenge rooted in a long-ago bifurcation in our civilizational sensemaking: the split between digital computers, which process one thing at a time in succession, and analog computers, which process the dizzying everythingness of everything all at once. Our brains are analog computers, constantly orienting to reality by weaving a topology of connections into a three-dimensional map of patterns. Our machines hum to one-dimensional algorithms of sequential logical steps. Theirs is the time of bits, ours the time of atoms, the time of Kierkegaard, who knew that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity.”

Ever/After by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

To be sure, there is ample digital coding at work in nature, in the building blocks of life itself — the DNA code used for information storage and information editing across time and generations. Trees, too, are digital computers, integrating myriad continuously changing inputs — available sunlight, available water, soil composition, atmospheric chemistry, wind direction, proximity of other trees — into the single-channel output of growth rings spaced in precise one-year intervals. They embody what may be the fundamental difference between the analog universe, in which time is a continuum, and the digital universe, in which there is no time — only the illusion of time woven of discrete steps, sequential but timeless. In his tree house, the teenage Dyson lived amid growth-rings dating back to the year 1426, a time when none of his European ancestors had set foot or the mind’s eye on those shores.

Imagine coming of age in such palpable contact with the continuity of time against the selective fragmentation we call history. Imagine becoming, in that crucible of awareness, an uncommonly insightful historian of science and technology.

Dyson traces the birth of the digital universe to Leibniz, who developed binary arithmetic after pondering the hexagrams of the ancient Chinese I Ching, then built on his already revolutionary work on infinitesimals to enlist the functions of binary arithmetic — functions analogous to the logical operations “and,” “or,” and “not” — in building the first universal language of binary code: a system of black and white marbles rolling along mechanical tracks, not unlike the zeroes and ones churning the Internet, that would encode into an alphabet of primes the real alphabet and all the concepts with which language is tasked. Leibniz envisioned the result as “a new kind of instrument which will increase the power of the mind much more than optical lenses strengthen the eyes.” This rudimentary digital computer would “work out, by an infallible calculus, the doctrines most useful for life, that is, those of morality and metaphysics.”

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

So began the modern mythos of computation as a controlled instrument for meaning-making, which we call artificial intelligence — the cult at whose altar we daily lay our faith in the ever-swifter logical processing of information, only to find ourselves empty-palmed for meaning and increasingly out of control. Dyson writes:

Leibniz’s digital universe, despite its powers, remains incomplete, just as Isaac Newton, his rival over credit for the invention of the calculus, gave us a mathematical description of nature that predicts everything correctly, but only up to a certain point. The next revolution will be the coalescence of programmable machines into systems beyond programmable control.

Every technology is a technology of thought that carries with it the ideologies of its time. Dyson builds this cautionary model of the future upon the foundation of the past, stratified with the same human tendencies that are now shaping our machines. He paints neither a techno-utopia nor a techno-dystopia but something more nuanced and complex, a kind of ominous autonomous techno-colonialism rooted in the ruthless colonial past: The first high-speed wireless communication network in North America, which manifested the contours of Leibniz’s vision and furnished the rudiments of the Internet, transmitted Morse code over sunlight across 60,000 square miles in a campaign to track down and capture the last free-roaming Apache: nineteen men, thirteen women, and six children.

Not one person alive in the spring of 1886 when the network first began firing — not Thomas Edison, who had just shut down his Menlo Park laboratory and married his second wife, not Walt Whitman who was facing his mortality while contemplating “the similitudes of the past and those of the future” — could have envisioned what would become of these rudiments, just as none of the early digital programmers high on their technicolor dreams envisioned how the algorithms they were composing might one day come to colonize the species that made them. Dyson writes:

Some inventions result from theorizing how something should work and then building it. Others result from building something that works before understanding it.

Pulsing beneath the history of our technologies of thought is the intimation that our unexamined belief in the digital universe as more efficient, powerful, and altogether superior to the analogy might be the product a colossal and catastrophic civilizational blind spot. Dyson challenges some of our basic intuitions and assumptions about analog and digital computing by contrasting our communication systems with those of whales — our evolutionary elders, predating our minds and our machines by fifty million years, whose songs were the only nonhuman sound we encoded on The Golden Record that sailed aboard the Voyager spacecraft to carry the signal of who and what we are for a thousand million years, to some other civilization in the unfathomed reaches of spacetime.

Art from Year of the Whale by Victor B. Scheffer, 1969

Dyson writes:

Whales both perceive their surroundings and communicate using sound, which behaves differently in an incompressible medium like water than in a compressible medium like air. If humans could communicate directly, brain to brain, using light, would we have developed languages based on a limited vocabulary of sounds? Human language, either evolved from or coevolved with sequences of discrete gestures, is optimized to withstand poor transmission over a noisy, low-bandwidth channel and might emerge quite differently among minds not subject to these constraints. Whales are no doubt communicating, but not necessarily by mapping their intelligence to sequences of discrete symbols the way we use language to convey our thoughts. When we play music, the whales might be thinking, “Finally, they are showing signs of trying to communicate like us!”

The difference between analog and digital computing parallels the question of whether a linear, symbolically coded language is a necessary indicator of conscious intelligence or not. In a digital computer, higher-dimensional inputs are reduced to one-dimensional strings of code that are stored, processed, and then translated back into higher-dimensional outputs, with a hierarchy of languages mediating the intervening steps. Large numbers of logical operations are transformed into waste heat along the way. Among analog computers, information can be stored, processed, and communicated directly as higher-dimensional maps.

An epoch after Einstein and Tagore contemplated the notion of a universal mind in their historic conversation, after the physicist John Ambrose Fleming — inventor of the vacuum tube and popularizer of the term “electronic” — exhorted humanity to regard the universe “not as a collection of Things or Events existing apart from any awareness of them by observers, but as manifested Thoughts in a Universal Mind,” after modern neuroscientists predicted the inevitability of a planetary übermind as the next step in the evolution of consciousness, Dyson points to what may be the most astonishing, supernatural-seeming analog sensemaking mesh-network of minds in nature:

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are the largest of the dolphins, evolved from land mammals who returned to the sea more than fifty million years ago. They roam the entire planet as separate populations belonging to a single species, forming complex, persistent matrilineal social structures, with young males mentored by their post-reproductive grandmothers, whose life spans are known to reach a hundred years or more. Breathing, sleep, and other physiological functions are synchronized across the members of a pod. Their communication may be closer to telepathy than to language as we know it, and it could even be that orca mind and consciousness is a parallel, distributed property belonging to the pod collectively as much as to any individual whale.

These questions of consciousness and networked communication, central to our notions of artificial intelligence, grow even more rife with astonishment when we consider trees — organisms that, unlike us and unlike whales, lack minds as we understand them, minds as systems of operations conducted on nervous systems and brains, instead operating by what poet Jane Hirshfield admired as a “blind intelligence.”

Little Painting of Fir-Trees (1922) by Paul Klee, who believed that an artist is like a tree. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

Looking back on his time in the Douglas fir tree house, where he lived decades before Suzanne Simard published her epoch-making research on how trees communicate with one another, Dyson writes:

Living without telephone, computer, internet, or even electric light, I had time beyond measure to think. I found myself thinking about what, if anything, a tree might think. Not thinking the way we think, but the way a single neuron thinks, integrating information over time. It might take years to register the premonition of an idea, centuries for an entire forest, networked through synapses established by chemical signaling pathways among its roots, to form a thought. After three years I was no closer to an understanding, except to have gained a lingering suspicion that trees were, in some real and tangible way, as John Ambrose Fleming put it, “manifested Thoughts in a Universal Mind.”


Growth rings in trees are Nature’s way of digitizing time. Some of the split cedar boards paneling the walls of the tree house spanned seven hundred years. I counted the grain in one seven-inch board, and it went back to the year 1426. Halfway through that board, in 1679, Leibniz had imagined his digital computer, with marbles running along mechanical tracks. Two and a half inches ago, in 1778, James Cook had arrived on the Northwest Coast. Bering and Chirikov had arrived half an inch earlier, in 1741. My entire life, so far, spanned one-quarter of an inch.

Relief print from the cross-section of fallen tree by artist Bryan Nash Gill (1961–2013) from his project Woodcut.

With this telescopic view of time and with the hindsight of half a lifetime, having lived through the birth and euphoric adolescence of the modern digital age, Dyson suggests that the digital world will inevitably follow the trajectory of the living world as nature devised it, our algorithms commencing a kind self-referential evolutionary process that will soon altogether slip from our imperious creator-hands to take on a destiny of their own:

A digital universe is populated by two species of bits: differences that are varying in time but invariant in space, and differences that are varying in space but invariant in time. Bits can be stored over time as memory, or communicated across distance as code. Digital computers translate between these two forms of information — structure and sequence — according to definite rules. These powers of translation are more general than the arithmetical functions for which they were first invoked. Nature, too, discovered a method for translating sequences (of nucleotides) into structures (of proteins) — and back. Once this loop is established, evolution will do the rest.


Strings of bits gained the power of self-replication, just like strings of DNA. Thus began a chain reaction, with the order codes persisting largely unchanged, like the primordial alphabet of amino acids, over the seventy years since they were first released.

Nature evolved its analog computers — the nervous systems and brains that encode, store, and use information absorbed from the world, including the brain with which you are parsing this thought — so that organisms can learn to govern their own behavior and control their environment. Digital computers, being the product of our evolution-honed analog minds, cannot but follow the same course. Dyson writes:

Bits are the new electrons. Governing everything from the flow of goods to the flow of traffic to the flow of ideas, information is treated statistically, the way pulse-frequency-coded information is processed in a neuron or a brain. Analog is back, and its nature is to assume control.


Nature’s answer to those who seek to control nature through programmable machines is to allow us to build systems whose nature is beyond programmable control.

And yet something essential and essentially human is lost in our foundational assumption undergirding the digital world, in the strange certainty that binary arithmetic could ever fully represent the way we think. It is the thing all the poets and the rare poetic physicists have pondered all those epochs: the hunger for meaning beyond truth, for the beautiful beyond the binary. Dyson writes:

What if you wanted to capture what everything known to the human species means? Thanks to Moore’s law it takes little time and less and less money to capture all the information that exists. But how do you capture meaning? Even in the age of all things digital, this cannot be defined in logical terms, because meaning, among humans, isn’t logical. Leibniz’s logical utopia fails to close. The best you can do, once you have collected all possible answers, is to invite well-defined questions and compile a pulse-frequency-weighted map of how everything connects. This system, in conjunction with illogical humans, will not only be observing and mapping the meaning of things; it will start constructing meaning as well, the way a dictionary doesn’t just catalog a language, but defines the language, over time. The meaning of something is established, among humans, by the degree to which that something connects to other familiar things. A search engine, mapping those connections, isn’t just a collective model of how we think; increasingly, it is how we think. In time it will control meaning, in the same way as the traffic map controls the flow of traffic, even though no one is in control.

An exquisite mosaic of meaning, this book of subtle and unsythnesizable splendors chronicles and questions the choices we made as a civilization — not always consciously and not always conscientiously — that took us to where we are and shaped what we might become. But Analogia is also Dyson’s tender love letter to his parents, his love letter to the natural world, and his sensitive appeal, drawn both from a dispassionate scholarship of history and from the passions of his own life, for recognizing that the flow of information will neither drown out nor slake the longing for illumination in our primal search for meaning; an appeal for remembering that while the life of the mind filters our experience of the world, the mind is both function and functionary of the life of the body — not digital, not mechanical, but pulsating with analog aliveness, animated by the selfsame forces that rib the whales and ring the trees and constellate the atoms of long-dead stars into these cathedrals of consciousness that consecrate the subjective interpretation we call meaning.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Two generations ago, cybernetics pioneer Norbert Weiner made his cautionary case for “the human use of human beings,” prophesying that the world of the future — which is now our present — would be “an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”

Humanity was then too high on those early digital hopes and hubrises to heed his caution.

We now have another chance to listen, another chance to course-correct toward a future that cherishes whale songs above even the most efficient logical sequences of bits, another chance to branch off from the evolutionary tree of digital determinism that we ourselves have seeded.

Another Way by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Opaque to Ourselves: Milan Kundera on Writing and the Key to Great Storytelling

A torch for traversing “the territory where no one possesses the truth… but where everyone has the right to be understood.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Opaque to Ourselves: Milan Kundera on Writing and the Key to Great Storytelling

This might be the most transcendent capacity of consciousness, and the most terrifying: that in the world of the mind, we can construct models of the real world built upon theories of exquisite internal consistency; that those theories can have zero external validity when tested against reality; and that we rarely get to test them, or wish to test them. Just ask Ptolemy.

In its clinical manifestation, we call this tendency delusion. In its creative manifestation, we call it art — the novel, the story, the poem, the song are each a model, an imagistic impression of the world not as it is but as the maker pictures it to be, inviting us to step into this imaginary world in order to better understand the real, including ourselves.

Art from Thomas Wright’s 1750 treatise An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, depicting the Solar System as it was then understood. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Because we are always partly opaque to ourselves even at our most self-aware, fiction and real life have something wonderful in common, wonderful and disorienting: the ability to surprise even the author — of the story or the life.

Both are a form of walking through the half-mapped territory of being, real or imagined, making the path in the act of walking and so revising the map with each step.

In both, we can set out for one destination and arrive at another, or as another.

In both, we are propelled partly by our directional intentionality and partly by something else, something ineffable yet commanding that draws its momentum from the energy of uncertainty.

The great Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera articulates this something else with uncommon clarity in The Art of the Novel (public library), published two years after The Unbearable Lightness of Being — the 1984 classic that might be read as one long elegiac entreaty for embracing the uncertainties of love and life, challenging Nietzsche’s notion of “the eternal return.”

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. Available as a print and face mask.

With an eye to storytellers’ ability to surprise themselves in the telling as the story crosses the terrain of imagined existence under its self-generated momentum, Kundera writes:

When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.

Kundera locates that suprapersonal wisdom in “the wisdom of uncertainty” — something his poet-contemporary Wisława Szymborska named as the crucible of all creativity in her superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In a sentiment evocative of physicist Richard Feynman’s astute observation that uncertainty is the prerequisite for truth and morality, in science as in life, Kundera writes:

The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth, neither Anna nor Karenin, but where everyone has the right to be understood, both Anna and Karenin.

Art from Johannes Kepler’s 1619 treatise The Harmony of the World. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Great storytelling, then, deals in the illumination of complexity — sometimes surprising, sometimes disquieting, always enlarging our understanding and self-understanding as we come to see the opaque parts of ourselves from a new angle, in a new light. Kundera writes:

Every novel says to the reader, “Things are not as simple as they seem.” That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off.

So understood, storytelling becomes a way of walking with uncertainty and sitting with nuance, which is in turn a way of broadening the possibilities of existence in each of our lives. Echoing Adrienne Rich’s notion that all forms of literary imagination are “the arts of the possible,” Kundera writes:

A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man* can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility. But… to exist means “being-in-the-world.” Thus both the character and his world must be understood as possibilities… [Novels] thereby make us see what we are, and what we are capable of.

A quarter century earlier, James Baldwin had captured this in his lovely notion that the artist’s role, the writer’s role, the storyteller’s role is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”

Complement this portion of Kundera’s altogether illuminating The Art of the Novel with Iris Murdoch on storytelling as resistance, Toni Morrison on storytelling as sacrament to beauty, Susan Sontag storytelling as moral calibration, and Ursula K. Le Guin on storytelling as transformation, then revisit poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s advice on writing, Anton Chekhov’s six rules for a great story, and psychologist Jerome Bruner on the psychology of what makes a great story.


Water as a Portal to Transcendence

“The sea holds an abundance of comfort and inspiration and danger, all that a person needs in order to rise to the full largesse of beauty… If you allow this beauty to become a blank, if you turn your back to the blues and deny your dependence on them, you might lose your place in the world, your actions would become small, your soul disengaged.”

Water as a Portal to Transcendence

“Every story is a story of water,” the Native American poet Natalie Diaz wrote in her stunning poem “lake-loop.” Water is central to the creation myths of every indigenous culture, central to Bruce Lee’s metaphor for resilience, central to the pulse-beat of life on this Pale Blue Dot.

“Like all profound mysteries,” the Scottish poet and mountaineer Nan Shepherd wrote as she regarded the might and mystery of water, “it is so simple that it frightens me.” Across the Atlantic, contemplating the ocean as a lens on the meaning of life, the poetic marine biologist Rachel Carson reverenced Earth’s waters as a portal to comprehending “our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea… in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality.”

A generation after her, Ellen Meloy (June 21, 1946–November 4, 2004) — another uncommonly lyrical observer of the natural world, who channeled the native poetry of its processes and phenomena in her perceptive prose — celebrated water as a portal to transcendence in a passage from The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky (public library) — the slender masterpiece that came to life months before her untimely death.

Art by Indian tribal artist Subhash Vyam from his book Water.

Midway through her exquisite inquiry into the conscience of color, from chemistry to culture, Meloy writes:

As a desert dweller, I believe that water is a truer entry to Place. In the West, aridity defines us.

There is abundant water here in the Yucatán — ocean, marsh, lagoon, underground rivers, cenotes (natural wells where freshwater surfaces), a tropical forest swollen with transpiration. Storms bring a hurricane’s eyewall of torrents or nothing at all; even jungles have droughts. By invasion and sheer presence, the sea pushes itself into what is drinkable and what is heard, or what you miss hearing when you are distant from the surf.

In a sentiment evocative of Rachel Carson’s scientific-poetic serenade to the blues of the sea, Meloy adds:

The sea holds an abundance of comfort and inspiration and danger, all that a person needs in order to rise to the full largesse of beauty. It seems that if you allow this beauty to become a blank, if you turn your back to the blues and deny your dependence on them, you might lose your place in the world, your actions would become small, your soul disengaged.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Hokusai, 1831. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement this small fragment of Meloy’s wholly soul-slaking The Anthropology of Turquoise with We Are Water Protectors — an illustrated celebration of nature, Native heritage, and ecological responsibility — then revisit Olivia Laing on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers.


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