Brain Pickings

Page 8

Music and the Mystery of Aliveness

“We are a music-making species — always have been, always will be — and music’s capacity to explore, express and address what it is to be human remains one of our greatest communal gifts.”

Music and the Mystery of Aliveness

“Sound is sea: pattern lapping pattern… Matter delights in music, and became Bach,” the poet Ronald Johnson wrote as he contemplated matter, music, and the mind.

A generation after him, a young woman discovered that when the mind is suddenly unmattered, Bach remains.

One midwinter day shortly before the pandemic paralyzed the world, Clemency Burton-Hill — an underground London garage DJ turned BBC host turned creative director of America’s oldest public radio station for classical music, and a lifelong lover of Bach — suffered a catastrophic hemorrhage in her left frontal lobe. She was thirty-nine, her children one and five. She survived, but was left unable to see, move, or speak.

Clemency Burton Hill (Portrait: Matthew Septimus / WNYC)

Multiple surgeries and weeks of rehabilitation began restoring Clemency’s comprehension and sight, but the right side of her body remained paralyzed and her speech voided. Slowly, slowly, the words started forming again out of the primeval matter of the mind. Eventually, we spoke — Clemency still in her hospital bed, skull bandaged and face radiant with life, each word a triumph, as deliberate and precise as a Bach note. I found myself wondering what the world might look like if we spoke to each other that way, our words tender with our mortal fragility, resolute with reverence for the aliveness in us and in each other, this grand shared mystery.

Not long before her hemorrhage, Clemency had made a passionate case for a daily dose of music as “a form of sonic soul maintenance” in her book Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day (public library) — the music counterpart to Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and poet Ross Gay’s yearlong journal of delights. She wrote:

We are a music-making species — always have been, always will be — and music’s capacity to explore, express and address what it is to be human remains one of our greatest communal gifts… We evolved by coming together around the fire every night, singing songs and telling stories — invariably, telling stories through singing songs. That’s what our ancestors did; that’s how they made sense of the world and each other; that’s how they learned how to be.

It is an impulse that is still fundamental to who we are.

Fittingly, the musical calendar of wonder begins with a Bach liturgy for January 1. Bach punctuates Clemency’s sonic year as a maker of music that “contains all of everything” and maker of “the blueprint for everything that was to come,” his influence reverberating through the hallway of time to shape genres as diverse as techno and funk. As the year unfolds, there are his Goldberg Variations with their exquisite mathematical precision, rumored to have been composed as an insomnia cure, their original manuscript bearing an inscription in Bach’s hand: “Prepared for the soul’s delight of lovers of music.”

There is his violin solo in E major that always comes as “a shot of musical caffeine” for Clemency: “In just a hundred seconds or so,” she writes, “this piece has the effect of apparently rearranging the molecules around me, making me see and think more clearly.”

There is his Ave Maria in early June, and his Partita no. 2 in D Minor on my late-summer birthday, and on my father’s autumnal equinox birthday a chorale cantata translating to “As a father has mercy.” (This, too, is Bach’s singular enchantment — how we project ourselves onto him and focus our own existence through his lens.)

Bach’s diurnal presence took on a new form after Clemency’s hemorrhage and became an embodied testament to philosopher Josef Pieper’s soulful case for how Bach can save your soul. At first, with her life so brutally transformed, she found it difficult to even listen to his music, hearing in it the echoes of her former life and former self. But she eventually came to see Bach for what he always had been and always would be — the existential soundtrack to aliveness itself.

Along the protracted trajectory of her recovery, both physical and psychological, Clemency began not only listening to but playing Bach every single day. “To recover the Bach in me,” she says in her stunning BBC piece about the experience — her first word-work since that savage January day, and the most moving audio artwork I have heard in epochs.

With her hard-won words, she invites the voices of people from various walks of life, people who all play Bach daily to move through their own very different and differently challenging lives — from an elderly organist in Germany to a young cellist and community organizer in Kenya’s largest slum: Bach as meditation, Bach as motivation, Bach as calibration of being. (When we spoke that day from the hospital, I shared with Clemency something hardly anyone in my life knew: that I was a secret cellist, still learning the instrument, playing a single Bach cello suite day after day as I waded through a very different personal loss.)

Nina, my cello.

In exploring Bach as a daily ritual, Clemency draws on the legacy of the legendary Spanish Catalan cellist and conductor Pablo Casals (December 29, 1876–October 22, 1973) — Yo-Yo Ma’s hero and formative influence, widely considered the greatest cellist of all time, who at the age of ninety-three reflected so tenderly on how working with love prolongs your life. Casals began his autobiography by sharing the daily practice that had anchored him to his own life since the day he first fell under Bach’s enchantment:

For the past eighty years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house… It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being. The music is never the same for me, never. Each day it is something new, fantastic and unbelievable.

Pablo Casals

In Bach, Casals found an analogue for the miracle of nature. Echoing the poet and philosopher of science Loren Eiseley’s poignant observation that “we forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness… that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle,” Casals reflected on his profound personal connection to nature, of which his love of music was an expression — a way to feel more alive, more awake to the wonder of aliveness:

I do not think a day passes in my life in which I fail to look with fresh amazement at the miracle of nature. It is there on every side. It can be simply a shadow on a mountainside, or a spider’s web gleaming with dew, or sunlight on the leaves of a tree. I have always especially loved the sea. Whenever possible, I have lived by the sea.

The sea and Bach were always intimately connected for Casals, who fell under Bach’s spell at thirteen. One saltwater-scented afternoon, his father bought him his first full-sized cello — an instrument looked down upon in Bach’s day, too unworthy to compose solos for. Father and son then walked to a musty old music shop in the nearby harbor — Casals never forgot “its faint smell of the sea” — where he acquired his other great portal into the “magic and mystery” of music: a yellowed sheaf of scores, faded with age, bearing the title Six Suites for Violoncello Solo, imprinted with “J.S. Bach.” They became his most cherished music.

A lifetime later, looking back on how these cello suites had grown to be regarded as “academic works, mechanical, without warmth” in the century and a half since Bach’s death in 1750, and how no cellist or violinist had performed any of them in its entirety, Casals exclaimed:

How could anyone think of them as being cold, when a whole radiance of space and poetry pours forth from them! They are the very essence of Bach, and Bach is the essence of music.

Casals and his generation had awakened to the radiance of Bach thanks to his contemporary and hero Albert Schweitzer (January 14, 1875–September 4, 1965). Although Schweitzer received the Nobel Peace Prize for his ethical-ecological philosophy of “Reverence for Life” — the philosophy that inspired sea-serenader Rachel Carson to dedicate her epoch-making Silent Spring to Schweitzer — music always remained his greatest animating passion.

Albert Schweitzer, early 1900s.

Schweitzer — born almost exactly 200 years after Bach, to a minister and a pastor’s daughter — was five when his father began giving him music lessons on the piano inherited from his organist grandfather. Before his legs were long enough to reach the pedals, the boy began playing the organ himself. By nine, he was substituting for the church organist at service.

And then he discovered Bach.

During the Classical and early Romantic eras that followed Bach’s, his music fell out of favor and slipped into academic obscurity, relegated to a thing of theory, syphoned of transcendence. The young Schweitzer, serving as an organist to the Paris Bach Society that he had co-founded while completing his doctoral dissertation on the spirituality of Kant’s philosophy at the Sorbonne, grew increasingly restless at this erasure of wonder and took it upon himself to remedy it. In those first years of the twentieth century, the only Bach material available to French readers — even those who cherished and played music — were only dry biographies that presented him as a cold mathematician of sound. A musician himself, Schweitzer longed to talk to other musicians and lovers of music about “the real nature of Bach’s music and its interpretation” — to resurrect Bach the artist, the enchanter, the virtuoso of feeling, the prophet of transcendence.

In 1902, Schweitzer spent his autumn vacation writing an essay to get the students at the Paris Conservatory excited about Bach. He quickly found himself with much more to say — so much more that, after using his meager funds to purchase a copy of Bach’s hard to find and extravagantly priced complete works, he spent the next two years turning the essay into a 455-page book that introduced the world to Bach the artist; the book that magnetized a largehearted embrace when Casals met Schweitzer in the 1930s.

In it, Schweitzer rescued Bach from the theorists who had coopted him for their ideologies of “pure music” — composition devoid of poetry, created solely as a mathematical exercise in harmonic perfection — and instead helped people see him as “a poet and painter in sound” who uses the language of music to paint entire landscapes of thought and feeling. He wrote:

The impulse to express poetic and pictorial concepts is the essence of music. It addresses itself to the listener’s creative imagination and seeks to kindle in him the feelings and visions with which the music was composed. But this it can do only if the person who uses the language of sound possesses the mysterious faculty of rendering thoughts with a superior clarity and precision. In this respect Bach is the greatest of the great… A soul that longs for peace out of the world’s unrest and has itself already tasted peace allows others to share its experience in this music.

Schweitzer observed that there are two types of artists: the subjective, who use their personality as the wellspring of their art and live as “a law unto themselves,” and the objective, whose “artistic personality exists independently of the human” and whose art is “not impersonal, but superpersonal,” channeling the universal and the eternal through the vessel of their being. Bach was such an artist:

It is as if he felt only one impulse, to express again what he already finds in existence, but to express it definitively, in unique perfection. It is not he who lives, it is the spirit of the time that lives in him. All the artistic endeavours, desires, creations, aspirations and errors of his own and of previous generations are concentrated and worked out to their conclusion in him.


Bach is thus a terminal point. Nothing comes from him; everything merely leads up to him…. This genius was not an individual, but a collective soul. Centuries and generations have laboured at this work, before the grandeur of which we halt in veneration. To anyone who has gone through the history of this epoch and knows what the end of it was, it is the history of that culminating spirit, as it was before it objectivated itself in a single personality.

He adds a poetic corollary to this eternal and aggregate nature of art:

We feel it to be a matter of course that some day a Bach shall come in whom all those, other Bachs shall find a posthumous existence.

The book project interrupted the young Schweitzer’s theological writings and accompanied him on the path to medical school, with Bach as his bridge between spirituality and science. Struggling financially, he paid for his medical education with proceeds from the Bach book and income from his Bach concerts.

Albert Schweitzer at his organ. LP cover art by Ben Shahn.

His passionate appreciation of Bach never left him. A decade later, as he headed for Africa to do the work out of which his philosophy of “Reverence for Life” arose — the work that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize and Rachel Carson’s devotion — Schweitzer brought with him a pedal piano the Paris Bach Society had given him as the closest thing to an organ one could bring to the tropics so he could continue his daily Bach. In his autobiography, he reflected:

During the many peaceful hours I was able to spend with Bach during my four and a half years in the jungle I had penetrated deeper into the spirit of his works.

Hatcheting her way through the synaptic jungle, Clemency too found herself in more intimate contact with the spirit of Bach’s music, unfolding “the ultimate expression of anything and everything” — aliveness and mortality cleaved into the edge of being, the edge on which we are all perched every instant of every living day, each moment more precarious than we dare think, each more precious than we dare feel. How poignant to reread now this passage from Year of Wonder — a book Clemency wrote out of her belief, then only mental but not yet matter-tested, that “music holds the mystery of being alive”; that something singular happens “when we open up our lives to let such music in”:

Bach’s brain was clearly some kind of supercomputer: he wrote at least three thousand pieces whilst holding down a number of jobs, a couple of wives and twenty children.


The essence of what makes Bach the greatest eludes words, but it lies, I think, in the way he combines technical precision with socking great emotion. People often describe Bach as ‘mathematical’ because of the complex, intricate patterns in his music. But he is not clinical or scientific: as a human being he knew intense joy but also wild grief, and there’s never been a composer or songwriter more attuned to the vagaries of the human heart.


Recovering the Wonder of Flight: “Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Finding the Miraculous in the Mechanical

“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”

Recovering the Wonder of Flight: “Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Finding the Miraculous in the Mechanical

I am sitting on an airplane, uneasy and grateful amid the sea of masks.

I am sitting on an airplane — this silver triumph of physics and imagination centuries in the dreaming — watching the cotton-candy cloudscape below with wonder bordering on ecstasy that will never, for me, grow old.

I am thinking about my grandmother, who was already a grandmother by the time she flew for the first time, having seen an airplane only once before, in the forest by the remote Bulgarian mountain village of her wartime childhood — a fighter plane shot down to fall from sky into the life and imagination of a little girl wide-eyed with wonder and terror.

I am thinking, too, of Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (June 29, 1900–July 31, 1944), whose experience as a pilot during that same war sculpted his understanding of mortality and meaning, inspiring his timeless masterwork of philosophy disguised as a children’s book — my favorite of all time.

In a passage from Wind, Sand, and Stars (public library) — that slender, poetic collection of his life-drawn meditations on life — he reverences the elegant and daring miracle of flight, a miracle we have come to take for granted in a mere two generations as the technology behind it has exponentially improved to make it even more miraculous. (I am writing this on a book-sized machine that can access through the air nearly all the knowledge humanity has produced, and I am doing that while suspended in the middle of the sky — what would Kepler have made of this, or his mother, who paid for the kernel of this miracle with her life?)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Saint-Exupéry writes:

In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.


There is an ancient myth about the image asleep in the block of marble until it is carefully disengaged by the sculptor. The sculptor must himself feel that he is not so much inventing or shaping the curve of breast or shoulder as delivering the image from its prison.

In this spirit do engineers, physicists concerned with thermodynamics, and the swarm of preoccupied draughtsmen tackle their work. In appearance, but only in appearance, they seem to be polishing surfaces and refining away angles, easing this joint or stabilizing that wing, rendering these parts invisible, so that in the end there is no longer a wing hooked to a framework but a form flawless in its perfection, completely disengaged from its matrix, a sort of spontaneous whole, its parts mysteriously fused together and resembling in their unity a poem.

It was a countercultural notion then, and it is even more so today, this idea that the mechanical can become not the enemy of but a portal to the poetic, the miraculous — a lovely reminder that in how we orient ourselves to anything lies the whole of its valence.

Art by Peter Sís from The Pilot and the Little Prince — his tender illustrated biography of and tribute to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his masterpiece.

Saint-Exupéry extends the invitation to reorient to this particular skyborne machine — and, by a proximate leap of imagination, to technology in general — as something that, rather than alienating us from the rest of nature, could bring us into more intimate and conscientious contact with the world of clouds and creatures:

Startling as it is that all visible evidence of invention should have been refined out of this instrument and that there should be delivered to us an object as natural as a pebble polished by the waves, it is equally wonderful that he who uses this instrument should be able to forget that it is a machine… We forget that motors are whirring: the motor, finally, has come to fulfill its function, which is to whirr as a heart beats — and we give no thought to the beating of our heart. Thus, precisely because it is perfect the machine dissembles its own existence instead of forcing itself upon our notice.

And thus, also, the realities of nature resume their pride of place… The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.

One of Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

Complement with the uncommonly poetic scientist and philosopher Loren Eiseley on reclaiming our sense of the miraculous in a mechanical age, then revisit Saint-Exupéry on losing a friend and how a simple smile saved his life during the war.


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.)

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