Tag Archives: consciousness

“Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson

K S Robinson writes a great survival/adventure story. I couldn’t stop reading. Aurora is a real page turner. But Aurora isn’t on my list of favorite science fiction/fantasy. Why?

The plot is weak. SO many good ideas from the first section of the book just evaporate. Gone – when their further development would have been so interesting. Who were the five ghosts, and how do we account for them on a space ship? How many travelers went “feral”? What could be done about the difficulty of deciding who could have a baby, and when?

On the other hand, “Aurora” contained some wonderfully mind blowing plot twists. One involved the “structured forgetting” of an event that had the potential to destroy a small group (2000 people) that could only survive through intense, consistent cooperation. I’m always interested in schism and schismatics, and the meaning of “the rule of law”. When a sophisticated computer develops self awareness and identity, and then announces its role as “sheriff”, I’m intrigued.

I was, early on, a little offended by the computer-develops-personality theme, regarding it as being stolen from 2001 A Space Odyssey. But did Arthur C Clarke really invent that? Who did? In Aurora, it works well, and I enjoyed it. Interestingly, the emerging computer/person was first called Pauline, but later merely addressed as “Ship”, not even consistently capitalized. “Ship” seems to have taken a step back from human relationships when it’s first “friend” died.

Like HAL (in 2001), “Ship” had to intervene to save the project (interplanetary travel), taking steps as radical an interfering with the 3D printers used to produce objects required for survival and lowering oxygen levels to suppress violence. “Ship” prevented disorder from growing into warfare, if the term can be used within a group of only 2000 people. “Ship” also took over entirely, easing its passengers into hibernation when food supplies failed, and carefully reawakening them later.

The characters are not as well developed as in the author’s highly amusing New York 2140. Freya, the closest to a protagonist aside from Ship, baffles me. She becomes a leader unintentionally, and a symbol of the prolonged mental and physical suffering of all the space travelers. Finally making it back to earth, she speaks out on behalf of “involuntary space travelers” like herself, people born into their difficult if not fatal roles due to decisions made by their ancestors. How is this different from being the child of an immigrant? Perhaps it is an issue of scale. An immigrant (theoretically) gains a “whole new world”. A person born on a multigenerational space flight faces a very, very restricted existence.

Robinson is a prolific author, with 19 books and many short stories published. I will sample further before I decide how I think his works will stand the test of time, whether any of them can be classified as “literature”.

“The Hard Problem” by Tom Stoppard, at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia

Tom Stoppard never caught my attention before. Everyone but me has read or seen “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”.

I went to see “The Hard Problem” because a friend was performing. Not acting, but providing musical accompaniment on the saxophone, mostly improvised. Good enough reason for a Sunday afternoon venture to Philadelphia.

I watched the play with no expectations whatsoever. That’s how I like theater. I’m ready to buy into whatever the playwright and producer offer. I love to see the curtain rise on the unknown and unexpected.

Part of the plot framework for this play is an Institute for Brain Science, a think tank that employs the heroine, a young woman named Hilary. At the beginning, I was afraid the whole play would be about evolutionary neurobiology, which could have been pedantic. But Hilary has a habit that surprises some of her acquaintances. She PRAYS. This makes no sense to those who believe that “consciousness” is physically determined.

That’s the “hard problem” of the title. What is consciousness? If it is as predetermined as quantum physics, how does one explain love, or sorrow?

The music that accompanies parts of the play is intended to reflect Hilary’s inner life, which includes emotions that can’t be explained by any theory of consciousness and which are revealed to the audience only slowly. Apparently, the musical accompaniment was an addition by the Artistic Director of this particular production of “The Hard Problem”, a relatively new work. I’m curious how the playwright feels about it, and whether it will be included in future productions. I vote “yes”.

I liked the music, but don’t feel I got the maximum from it. The dialogue was dense and required all my attention, so I think I tuned out the music some of the time. If I were to see the play again, I might react differently, and I do assume I might see it again. After all, I watch Shakespeare over and over.

At the end of the play, Hilary is giving up neurobiology for the study of philosophy. Does this tell us what Stoppard thinks about consciousness?

“On the Move: A Life” by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is 82 years old, and near death. He announced in February of this year that the ocular cancer for which he was treated nine years ago has metastasized to his liver. This hasn’t slowed him down! His Facebook page is active, with five posts in the past week, including a supportive message to Jimmie Carter, ten years older than Sacks and similarly stricken with metastatic cancer.

When you read Sacks, you encounter dozen of long names for complex neurological disorders, like achromatopsia and postencephalitic syndrome, but most of us would probably “diagnose” him as suffering from “attention deficit disorder”. He was beyond scatterbrained, and unfortunately lost or destroyed as much written work as he eventually published. He was unable to work in neurological research because he was absent minded and “too dangerous” in the laboratory. With the help of extremely dedicated assistants and editors, he published a dozen books and innumerable articles. I can’t figure out what “genre” he should be assigned to, aside from “non-fiction”. (One critic actually accused him of making up the case histories he recounts.)

Sacks approached each of his patients as the bearer of a unique story, and tried to read the whole life, not just to identify the disease that caused the person to seek medical care. His writings consist mostly of case histories. This has left him somewhat at odds with the academic medical establishment.

Sacks was a non-linear thinker. His mind ran off in so many directions that he would continually add footnotes to his drafts, until the footnotes exceeded the volume of the book.

Sacks was related to or acquainted with an astonishing number of public figures, especially scientists, like Francis Crick (of double helix fame) and Stephen Jay Gould, and poet W H Auden. In many cases, they exchanged manuscripts and ideas extensively.

The best part of this book is the next-to-last chapter, entitled “A New Vision of the Mind”. Sacks is wildly excited about the prospect that modern neurophysiology will, in the next few decades, generate a comprehensive scientific understanding of conscious. CONSCIOUSNESS! It’s like saying that science is ready to explain God. When Sacks began his studies in neurology, the brain was deeply mysterious and “mind” could not be “studied” at all. Suitable tools were not available. Now, fifty+ plus years later, the brain can be imaged in incredible detail. Sacks believes that the theory known as “neural Darwinism” will yield a revolutionary change in our understanding of what it means to be “aware”. Relevant authors and books are cited. This chapter is a great springboard for anyone who wants to understand contemporary neuroscience.

Oliver Sacks is an unusual intellectual and I wholeheartedly recommend his books, especially if you occasionally wonder if your mind is playing tricks on you.

Kundalini Yoga – Further Reflections

I’ve decided to write a bit more about the two barriers to my further progress along the path of Kundalini yoga. If you read my recent post (March 17), you know what they are – reincarnation and the role of the guru.

I don’t believe in reincarnation. Why? First, no evidence. Nothing has ever happened in my life that requires reincarnation in order to be explained. Second, it’s not the “simplest explanation”, and I operate on the general notion that the “simplest explanation” is often correct. To me, the “simplest explanation” is that consciousness resides in our bodies and disappears with the dissolution of the body. Not comforting, but simple.

That said, is there a problem with believing in reincarnation? Yes, and it shows up in the book Kundalini. The author repeatedly asserts that our current lives reflect the problems and errors of our past lives. So if, in your current life, you are subject to poverty, injustice, disease and misfortune, it’s because of prior sins. If you are good (charitable, devout, austere) you will be born into an advantaged, Brahmin family where you will get the spiritual training that may make it possible to step off the wheel of reincarnation and achieve enlightenment. So charity is a virtue, but the problems of the poor are really their own fault. Great argument for the status quo!

I had read of low caste Hindus converting to Buddhism because the (officially illegal) caste system caused them so much misery. It is no longer legal to discriminate against the Dalit caste labeled as “untouchable”, but old patterns of behavior die hard. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions – conversions on this basis continue. From a blog post (2010): “Buddhism means I can simply say I am not a Hindu. I do not have a caste.”

So to me, a fundamental belief in reincarnation is a problem. I’m well aware that “my” contemporary American culture has its heavy burden of prejudice and discrimination, and scores of serious social problems, but I don’t feel that I should go seeking enlightenment “elsewhere”.

And why is the need for a “guru” a problem? For me, it just isn’t going to happen! People my age just don’t become devotees. I’ve seen good teachers and leaders go bad. I’m not trusting. I don’t have a priest or minister or even an elder. I rely on relatives and friends, and the occasional carefully chosen professional.

One aspect of the guru/student relationship that might be a problem would be secrecy. If a teacher is imparting “higher knowledge”, are they asking you not to share it? I would find that unacceptable.

This does NOT mean that I don’t appreciate a good teacher! At this point, I have THREE yoga teachers. All women. Each is different – very different! I value those three relationships very much.