In his issue of Banter M:
The Running Man - Chez Pazienza writes about Fark.com owner and friend Drew Curtis's costly Donald Trump gaffe that sadly cost him the governorship of Kentucky.
I Will Watch The New Star Trek Series Under The Following Conditions - Trekkie nerd Tommy Christopher lists his demands for the new Star Trek series, and recounts the time Patrick Stewart stared him down at a media event.
Our Mind Bending Universe - Ben Cohen discusses new evidence from the world of quantum mechanics that proves we literally think objects into existence, and what it means for our understanding of consciousness and reality.
The Running Man
by Chez Pazienza
I didn’t know it at the time, but my first interaction with Drew Curtis would end up telling me everything I needed to know about him. I was a senior producer at CNN in New York City, working on the now-defunct Daybreak with Carol Costello, when on a whim and without sanction from Atlanta I made the decision to book Drew for the show. I’d been reading Drew’s website, Fark.com, for years and like most people involved in the editorial/production end of the news business I’d more than once stolen stories and general ideas from the online community he’d created. Fark was — and still is — the go-to repository for oddball news items combined with patented internet snark and as such, when I needed a kicker or something amusing and tease-worthy to pad out my show, it was my premier destination. I guess I figured that, since I’d taken so much from Fark for so long, it was only fair to give something back — so the plan was to put the man behind the website on the air personally and let him have some national airtime to both read some of the stories on Fark and plug his digital establishment. If it worked, I figured maybe I’d turn it into a regular feature.
Fark was already a major success story, particularly for a website that trafficked largely in one-liners. Because of this and thanks to my complete lack of knowledge at the time about how the web worked versus how establishment TV worked, I figured dropping Drew a line would get me a response from his secretary or something. As such, I sent him a very polite e-mail that read like it was intended for the CEO of a Wall Street brokerage house. It asked him if he might be interested in appearing on CNN’s morning show and related my contact information should that be the case. To my surprise, about 30 seconds after I hit “send” I got a reply. It read simply, “Sure. Sounds good.” There it was: succinct, easy-going and unpretentious — every I’d soon come to realize Drew Curtis is. We booked him and he made for a great spot, leading us to book him a couple more times (one of which wound up not happening because of breaking news, which meant that Drew sat in the control room with me and shot the shit for a couple of hours). He and I became good friends, hanging out together whenever he was in the city, going to dinner; talking shop; I even wound up providing a blurb for his book “It’s Not News, It’s Fark” and he put me up for a couple of days at his home when I flung myself out onto America’s highways for a time following the breakup of my marriage. Drew’s a good guy. Always has been.
When I learned Drew was running for governor of Kentucky, I have to admit it threw me for a loop. I’d never heard him talk seriously about politics, I thought, but then giving it a little more thought it hit me that Drew simply didn’t talk about politics the way the rest of the world does — the way I do and 99% of your friends on Facebook do. The reality was that Drew was, in so many ways, the perfect political candidate: he was and is no-nonsense and pragmatic to the point where ideological irrationality annoys him; he’s a problem-solver who doesn’t concern himself with which side of the aisle the solutions may lie on as long as the solutions are achieved; he has no loyalty to anything other than reality. He’s more a mathematician than a politician and that explained perfectly why he’s choose to run as an independent — because he genuinely is an independent thinker. Could he be an effective leader of an entire state? I honestly thought the answer was yes. Could he win? Well, that was a different story. Drew wasn’t a fan of the two-party system — mostly because he saw it as getting in the way of real progress — and he correctly believed that the digital and social media revolution had finally made it possible for a third-party or independent candidate to get his or her message out there without the help of the resources politics had depended on for years. He wasn’t at all an ideologue — the furthest thing from it, actually — but he wanted to make a difference.
More than once, I’ve made it clear that I think the two-party system, while broken, as a rule works in national elections. There’s a good reason for this opinion and it all comes down to the demographic and ideological makeup of the country. The fact is that we’re not really one country, certainly not anymore. We’re a series of independent provinces that far too often are home to people with completely different belief systems and life-experiences. I live in Los Angeles — and I can’t even begin to imagine concerning myself with the issues someone from, say, Guntown, Mississippi — a real place — worries about. As an almost impossible large, incredibly diverse country, it would be chaos if citizens were able to choose between five people for president and absolute insanity if someone were to win with only maybe 22% of the total national vote. A president with 50% of the vote has a hard enough time winning over and governing, with any sort of mandate, the entire country; imagine how little authority someone with that 22% would have. But Kentucky is a state election, not a national one decided on by all of us. An independent candidate for governor would still be able to lead effectively because the issues facing a single state tend to involve most people in them. The target you’re aiming for in governing is smaller and less disparate.
Knowing this, I pulled hard for Drew and circulated his information on social media, urging people in Kentucky to vote for him. His debate performance mid-September was one for the books: his genial manner, straightforward way of presenting the facts and “populist swagger” — to say nothing of his status as a nerd god — really became a hand grenade dropped into the middle of the race. Unfortunately, though, he went on to make a comment about how he’d be willing to vote for Donald Trump in the presidential election, not realizing that jokes don’t translate well when the political media is always looking for candidates to stumble. That crack cost him some center-left support, even though Drew apologized and explained what he’d meant. Given that his numbers post-“gaffe” weren’t breaking double digits, he was shut out of any future debates which means that the momentum he gained during the first one couldn’t be renewed. Instead what you had was Jack Conway always in danger of being trounced by colossal prick Matt Bevin, a tea party favorite who enjoyed photo ops with Kim Davis and his plan for gutting Obamacare and screwing 400,000 people out of their health insurance. In the end, Bevin won. And Kentucky will suffer for it.
It’s a shame Drew didn’t win, because while he may not have had political experience he had oodles of management experience and prowess. He’s an incredibly shrewd businessman and, maybe more importantly, a truly decent person. His ideas for fixing the problems facing Kentucky were worth paying attention to and he’s the kind of guy who would’ve known to change course if and when something wasn’t working. The thing about Drew, though, is that he’s not likely to just give up and roll over. He’s already talking about a potential run in 2019, no doubt once again with his wife, Heather, at his side as his lieutenant governor candidate.
Who knows what Kentucky will look like in four years, though. With a far-right lunatic like Bevin as governor, a lot of people will be hurt. But it’s impossible to deny that Bevin kicked the hell out of the competition, which means that the people of Kentucky put him in office by a wide margin. Maybe the problem is that Drew’s in the wrong state. While he told me years ago that his reason for not leaving Kentucky was the quality of life his Fark money could provide relative to other places, I can’t help but wonder what good he could do in a state that wasn’t tethered to a largely ultra-conservative worldview. I have to think he could do a lot of good if he was just surrounded by people who would give him a chance.
I Will Watch The New Star Trek Series Under The Following Conditions
by Tommy Christopher
There was a bit of news this week that was so nerdgasmic, it actually leapt mythologies and created a disturbance in the Force. I’m referring, of course, to the announcement that CBS will be rolling out a new Star Trek series in 2017, which will premier on CBS, then stream exclusively on the network’s new “CBS All Access” digital service. The show will be helmed by Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote and co-produced the two recent Trek reboot films. According to the announcement, “The brand-new Star Trek will introduce new characters seeking imaginative new worlds and new civilizations, while exploring the dramatic contemporary themes that have been a signature of the franchise since its inception in 1966.”
That’s pretty much all the detail they gave in the press release, most of which was dedicated to pimping the $5.99-a-month “All Access” service, although it did conclude with this rather disheartening omen: “The new television series is not related to the upcoming feature film Star Trek Beyond which is scheduled to be distributed by Paramount Pictures in summer 2016.”
As a lifelong Trekkie, this news is a decidedly mixed bag for me. One of my earliest memories was of watching Star Trek, when I was so young I could barely process live-action narrative. It was a scene that took place in the transporter room, and I thought that was the whole ship. Mr. Spock was in the scene, and I remember asking my dad why the other people were being so nice to the bad guy. When he explained that Spock wasn’t a bad guy, I didn’t exactly believe him, but I was hooked.
Countless reruns and several years later came the news that Trek would be returning to television. It was 1977, and the proposed series was to be the tentpole for a new Paramount television network (sound familiar?). That plan collapsed when the Paramount Television Service flamed out on the launchpad, which was probably for the best. Judging from the test footage they shot, that new series would have looked awful, and could have killed Trek for good. At the time, though, it was devastating, and fans would have to wait for 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Honestly, they could have had Kirk and Spock reading Klingon phone books to each other and I’d still have watched, but ST:TMP was a supreme disappointment. People criticized the slow pace of the film and debated the relative sexiness of the bald Deltan character Ilia, but for me, it was the inexplicable decision to erase Spock’s entire emotional arc that stung the most. It was like watching a Beatles reunion with Yoko in place of John.
The film did well enough, though, to spawn a series of movies (of varying quality) that kept the Trek universe alive and well. Then, along came Star Trek: The Next Generation, which pretty much ruined everything. Everything about it was ridiculous and horrible. I tried to hang in there, but right from the first episode, they introduced all the storytelling crutches, from the omnipotent Q character to the holodeck, that would render any sense of storytelling tension moot. Don’t even get me started on the crew. With the exceptions of Data and Geordi (who was billed as a “blind” helmsman, but was really just a guy with really fancy glasses), you could stuff them all into photon torpedo tubes and the galaxy would be a better place.
The show also spawned a breed of insufferable fans who called themselves “Trekkers,” because “Trekkies” just sounds ridiculous, right?
At least I still had the original cast’s movie, at least for a time. Yes, ST:TFF was garbage, but the series started to get its groove back with “The Undiscovered Country.” Then, they decided to pass the baton to the new cast with the film “Generations,” and in the cruelest twist, had Captain Kirk die in a scaffolding accident, far from his ship and crew. His last words were “Oh my.”
This was followed by progressively more awful movies that killed Star Trek as a film franchise, but there were also several admirable attempts at Trek series that didn’t suck. All were, however, hamstrung by their own fatal flaws, as well as those they inherited from The Next Generation.
Then, in 2009, J.J. Abrams helmed a reboot of Star Trek that literally erased all of that from the Trek timeline, and for better or worse, completely reset the realm of possibility in the Star Trek universe. It was a radical step, not perfectly executed, but a necessary one.
That’s why I won’t be watching this new series unless it meets some very reasonable conditions. The first is that it must be set during the same timeframe as the new movies. The previous caretakers of Trek lore made a muck of things in their touchy-feely future, but with the well-produced “Enterprise” series, also demonstrated the perils of the past by introducing reams of new history that never appeared again in the Trek canon. Keeping the new series in sync with the movies will hopefully constrain it from constantly stomping on butterflies in the Trek continuum.
It must also take place within subspace-chatter distance of the Enterprise, unlikeVoyager. Captain Janeway was the best of the post-Shatner Trek captains, but they immediately marooned her on an intergalactic Gilligan’s Island, ensuring that nothing she and her crew ever did would connect with the Trek universe in all but the gimmickiest of ways. Making the new series contemporaneous with the movies will be tricky, but worth it.
The new show must also take place on a ship, not a space station. Deep Space 9 had a lot to recommend it, but at its heart, it was not a Star Trek show. DS9 wanted to beAssault on Precinct 13 in space. but the candy coating of its Next Generation pedigree made it unconvincing. If they could transpose DS9‘s inner grit onto a starship, the new series could differentiate itself from the Apple Store gloss of the film reboots, while remaining true to Trek’s explorer spirit. I would suggest an old but scrappy ship, a cross between the Millennium Falcon and the Nostromo.
No new aliens! Enterprise introduced a cadre of consequential species who, in the meticulous Trek canon, were never heard from again. Let the movies handle rolling out new product. Also, no Borg. The Borg are stupid. If you’re going to have a Vulcan or an android, don’t rush to immediately subvert their innate character traits.
The old gang
Finally, the captain must not be a bald British guy with a french name. Captain Jean Luc Picard wasn’t the worst thing about ST:TNG, but he was the head from which the fish rotted. Gene Roddenberry was always enamored with his “Wagon Train to the stars” premise, but the true appeal of Star Trek was always Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. As the pivot man in that double-play combo, Kirk was a necessarily flawed character who had a lot to learn.
Picard, on the other hand, was born wise and compassionate, and keenly interested in the advice and counsel of his crew. Can you imagine Kirk having a ship’s counselor aboard his ship, let alone caring what she thought about anything? TNG erred in fixing a touchy-feely liberal filter to its lens, rather than allowing its characters to learn those lessons for themselves, or to subvert them. The Utopian setup of their chessboard made every conflict thereafter feel contrived.
The new captain should be more in the anti-hero mold of the original Kirk, whose asshole self was literally its own character on some episodes.
Those are my conditions, along with the optional request that they use Tenacious D’srendition of the theme song.
All of this Trek news puts me in mind of a Star Trek story that I’ve never told in its entirety, and which I must ask you dear readers to keep between us. In a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon sense, I’m connected to the Trek universe by virtue of the fact that I co-starred in the film Nerd Prom with none other than Patrick Stewart. Although I’ve hated Picard from day one and thought that Professor X is the most useless part of the X-Men movies, I had always had a neutral-to-favorable impression of Stewart, who was usually charming and moderately funny in television appearances.
And so it was that I was less than disappointed to find out that Stewart is, in fact, every bit the asshole that I wished he was so I wouldn’t feel so bad about hating his characters so much.
It was at the 2013 White House Corespondents’ Dinner pre-party that I had my run-in with Stewart. I was an invited member of the media, expressly present to cover the reception, which is, itself, specifically a publicity event. News and entertainment outlets hold them in immense ballrooms equipped with multiple photo backdrops on every wall, because that’s the main purpose of the parties, other than getting mildly shitfaced at the open bar so the four-hour event goes down a little easier.
The crowds at these parties are a mixture of political and media celebrities, their friends, other assorted luminaries, and a few lucky normal people who know someone. I’d been covering them for years, a job which consisted mainly of gathering as many grainy, in-the-moment celebrity snapshots as possible, and collecting you-are-there observations about the surreal surroundings.
Even though I was invited to these events specifically to publicize them, I always tried to think of ways to make it not so awkward and fishbowl-ish. People who aren’t pure celebrities, like politicians, often feel funny being photographed by themselves, and prefer to have their picture taken with someone, so I wound up in a lot of them until I settled on a better strategy: the wing-woman. Having a pretty girl with me to ask people for photos made for better pictures and fewer cock-ups by people taking the picture for me. I once had to get three different people to take my picture with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia because none of them could figure out how to work my phone.
For regular celebrities, it’s better to just take their picture, but you have to pick your spots, especially in the sardine-packed ballrooms of the Hinckley Hilton. It’s nice if you can get them to step into the light (I never use a flash), but you at least want a clear shot. So, as I made the rounds of the hot, dim ballroom with my third free beer in one hand and my cellphone in the other, I spotted Patrick Stewart chatting with two people in a crowd near the bar.
I already had a good fifty shots for my outlet, but I knew that certain of our readers (and my pal Ed Morrissey) would go nuts for a picture of an Enterprise captain, even if it was only the sixth-best one. I didn’t want to interrupt his conversation, though, so I stood there waiting for an opening, about four feet away. As I waited, I could hear two women behind me swooning over Stewart, phones in hand, hoping for a snapshot as well. They were a mother and daughter, visiting from Ohio, as I recall, and they’d scored invites through a friend of a friend. Adoring fans.
I caught Stewart’s eye once or twice, but after about a minute and a half, I began to cotton that he was studiously avoiding us. Then, the woman he was talking to turned to me and said “It’s not going to happen!”
“Excuse me?” I said, dumbfounded. Stewart was looking right at us now, completely silent.
“It’s not going to happen!” she repeated, with extra mustard.
“Oh, no, I’m with the media, I just want to get a shot for my outlet,” I explained. “But these two nice ladies came all the way from Ohio, they’re big fans…”
She looked at Stewart, who simply shook his head once. “It’s not going to happen!” she said again, like she was earning royalties on it.
Then I got mad. “You do realize that this is a publicity event, right?” I said to Stewart, still staring icily at us. “You don’t want to be in my shot, fine, but these ladies love you,” I said with disgust.
As I said “You don’t want to be in my shot,” Stewart’s self-appointed heat shield intoned “Yeah, we’d rather not!”
With that, I wheeled and walked away, snapping a picture anyway, just to be an asshole. Since I didn’t want to cause trouble for the people who invited me, I never used the picture, or told the whole story. Until now, that is. For the first time ever, exclusively for you, here is the blurry-assed picture I snapped to spite Captain Picard:
Patrick Stewart: Not such a nice guy
This might sound like the kind of thing celebrities do all the time, but I’ve been covering these things for years, I’ve met lot of people, and this is the only time one of them has been anything close to an asshole. Take Scalia, for example, who took the time to pose for me three times. I could see it if we’d been interrupting Stewart’s dinner, but he was at a freaking publicity event, did I mention?
I suppose it’s a lucky thing that I already hated Picard and TNG, but just to be sure, I will forever avoid encounters with Trek stars I like. It’s already too easy to ruin Star Trek, as history has shown.
Our Mind Bending Universe
by Ben Cohen
Earlier this year, Australian scientists recreated a famous experiment from 1978 in order to confirm quantum physics’s strange predictions about the nature of reality: that it on a subatomic level, it doesn’t actually exist until we measure it.
“Wheeler’s Delayed Choice Experiment” attempted to find out whether light is “aware” of the experimental apparatus in the double-slit experiment (which is a demonstration that light and matter can display characteristics of both classically defined waves and particles). Quantum theory postulates that objects manifest as waves or particles depending on how it is observed. The experiment was first proposed back in 1978 and scientists attempted to uncover the mystery using light beams bounced by mirrors. 38 years ago, the technology was not advanced enough to yield meaningful results, but the Australian scientists recreated the experiment by using helium atoms scattered by laser light.
The results confirmed quantum theory’s prediction that indeed, the atoms wave-like or particle-like behavior was only brought into existence when measured at the end of the journey.
What exactly does this mean for our understanding of the nature of reality? It’s obviously an incredibly complicated subject, and probably by definition impossible for the human mind to fully comprehend, but it does point to the notion that our current understanding of reality — that is largely based on the theory of General Relativity — is fundamentally flawed. If we can demonstrably “think” objects into existence, what does this say about reality as a whole? Is the universe and everything in it a projection of our own minds, or is it an actual “thing” that can be measured independently of the human brain?
This endlessly fascinating conundrum will probably keep us entertained for hundreds of years to come, and it will be interesting to see how philosophy and science evolves with these new, startling revelations about the nature of reality.
Last year, I got into a rather interesting debate with a hardcore materialist/rationalist friend of mine over an article about respected scientist Dr Robert Lanza’s belief that quantum theory ‘proves consciousness moves to another universe at death’. The thrust of the argument goes something like this: Traditional science believes consciousness is created by the brain, while more radical theorists believe the brain picks up consciousness, and therefore exists outside the human body in an immaterial world. Proponents of this theory believe this is supported by quantum physics (apparently microtubules in the brain have tiny quantum computers that pick up consciousness – a theory that has recently been supported by some interesting evidence).
The recent results from Australia also appear to support this notion — that essentially the universe is consciousness itself — at least as far as we can understand it, and inevitably exists after “death,” whatever that might be.
In light of this ongoing conflict between relativity and quantum mechanics — a topic recently covered in depth by several major media outlets, I thought I’d republish the debate on these pages. It’s quite long and it must be remembered that I am completely unqualified to speak authoritatively on the topic, but I feel both of us did a pretty good job putting forward the different sides of the argument.
[note: the transcript has been edited for typos]
Pablo: “The laws, forces, and constants of the universe appear to be fine-tuned for life, implying intelligence existed prior to matter. “
–> oh come on, this is just restating the strong anthropic principle.
This is the result of selection bias: i.e., only in a universe capable of eventually supporting life will there be living beings capable of observing any such fine tuning, while a universe less compatible with life will go unwitnessed.
“Lanza also believes that multiple universes can exist simultaneously. In one universe, the body can be dead. And in another it continues to exist, absorbing consciousness which migrated into this universe. “
Even if you accept multiple worlds theory, there’s nothing there which implies the ability to migrate from universe to universe. Sure, alternate universe Pablo might not be dead, but that doesn’t mean my ‘consciousness’ (ie. a complex biological feedback mechanism which has self-awareness) hasn’t been destroyed in this life.
“Consciousness resides, according to Stuart and British physicist Sir Roger Penrose, in the microtubules of the brain cells, which are the primary sites of quantum processing. Upon death, this information is released from your body, meaning that your consciousness goes with it. They have argued that our experience of consciousness is the result of quantum gravity effects in these microtubules, a theory which they dubbed orchestrated objective reduction (Orch-OR).”
How is this any different from any religious claim regarding the soul? Where’s the proof? There’s no *mystery* about near-death experiences (NDEs), they’ve been explained without having to resort to quasi-religious terminology. Just because you use some scientific buzzwords doesn’t mean the burden of proof isn’t still on you. I don’t see any proof there.
I’m all for quantum theory and I think multiple worlds is a likely scenario, but none of that implies such a thing as an immaterial form of consciousness. That’s just using good science to promote wishful thinking.
Look, everybody has a natural tendency towards a dualistic view of the universe, making ‘me’ somehow disconnected and more special to ‘the rest of the universe’. It’s why we like to believe in souls, free will, all that jazz. We feel a lot more comfortable with the idea that we’re more than purely physical creatures. But so far, besides the desirability of that idea, there hasn’t really been any reason for that to be the case. It’s a profoundly self-centred idea for a species to think that, simply because they happened to exist in a huge universe after billions of years and have the ability to perceive and think, that they must be the whole point of the thing. As mentioned earlier, that just a selection bias.
We’re not the point of things, but we are pretty amazing creatures. Even without telling ourselves lies to make us feel better Sorry for the rant, I don’t mean any offense. Everyone is entitled to believe what they want, I’m just skeptical.
Ben: Interesting. Quantum physics would indicate that the universe is far more complex than anything we’re able to fully understand. On a quantum level, things happen that are outside newtonian laws of the universe (or the ‘material world’), like two electrons appearing at the same time. This would imply there is another dimension of reality that that we are not entirely aware of. There are stunning similarities between people who have Near Death Experiences (NDEs), across all age ranges and cultures. They report pretty much the exact same thing (seeing themselves from above, seeing a white, all encompassing light, feeling intense love and calm etc) and their accounts must be taken seriously. I’m not saying I believe in life after death, or the continuation of consciousness outside the human body, but there is a growing amount of converging evidence that would indicate it is at the very least, a distinct possibility. Scientists still have absolutely no idea what consciousness is, or how the brain perceives/creates it. So anyone who says they ‘know’ it’s purely materialist (ie. the brain creates consciousness and doesn’t receive it) is talking nonsense. They are speculating with absolutely no evidence whatsoever.
Pablo: Oh really, because people have similar hallucinations that implies a soul, instead of a biological phenomenon which isn’t partially culturally defined?
Some reading material: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Near-death_experience
“NDE’s and especially OBE’s are cited as evidence of disembodied spirits, separate consciousness, and, therefore, life after death. Proponents claim the consistency of testimonials and the life-changing effects indicate that NDE’s are real.
Additionally subjects’ testimonials of clarity of thought is presented as evidence of the reality of NDE’s. However, consider Jansen’s finding that “…30% of normal subjects given ketamine were certain that they had not been dreaming or hallucinating, but that the events had really happened.” By its definition a hallucination seems real. In fact drunk drivers commonly admit perceiving clarity of thought. Jansen asserts, “A personal conviction of the ‘reality’ of an NDE does not invalidate scientific explanations.”
The explanation that NDE’s are in fact passage into the afterlife presents several contradictions. Jansen quotes Dr. Melvin Morse that “One of the many contradictions which ‘after-lifers’ can not resolve is that ‘the spirit rises out of the body leaving the brain behind, but somehow still incorporating neuronal functions such as sight, hearing, and proprioception.'” Such a separation of the “spirit” and the brain ignores scientific evidence that indicates consciousness is dependent on the brain.
Also consider that at times living persons are encountered in NDE’s. If NDE’s were real then expecting to see living persons there would be as reasonable as expecting the persons one sees in dreams to actually be there.
Religious figures encountered in NDE’s appear as they are commonly depicted, although trends vary by culture. In other words one sees exactly what one expects to see. Additionally historical accounts differ from the typical Western NDE. ”
The claim that scientists have ‘no idea’ what consciousness is or how the brain perceives or creates it is false.
To those who are aware of the development of the human species from the perspective of evolutionary theory, it is perfectly possible to understand the development of consciousness. Consciousness is an evolutionary emergent phenomenon, which came into existence either because it offers an evolutionary advantage or because it is the byproduct of something which does. A species which is able to predict the behavior of other creatures possesses an evolutionary advantage because this allows it to adjust its behavior to this. The way in which this behavior can be predicted is sometimes referred to as the “theory of mind”: one models the thinking and decision making process of other creatures within one’s own mind. People have mirror neurons in their brains which allow them to gain insights in the thinking patterns of others. As a matter of fact this is part of a perpetual feedback process, where beings which are better equipped to do so had a greater chance of survival. The ability to predict the actions of others in a sophisticated manner is clearly an evolutionary trump card.
This theory of mind is a strong candidate for a partial explanation of the development of consciousness. All of this simply illustrates that it is absolutely untrue that the development of our “consciousness” is some type of mystical process which is unexplainable based on our current knowledge. Although there are obviously things which we do not yet fully understand, we should not fall into the trap of filling these ‘gaps of knowledge’ with the magical solution of ‘free will’ or a ‘soul’. Humans have an emergent consciousness which follows from the principles of evolution.
I understand that it’s interesting to hypothesise about things like this, but one should always be aware where the burden of proof lies. If you’re going to claim there’s such a thing as an immaterial entity which defines us, you have to present a strong case. If not, you’re just doing wishful thinking.
Ben: Interesting points Pablo. However, there have been NDE experiences when the person is clinically dead with no brain activity whatsoever (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pam_Reynolds_case#Criticism). Dr Sam Parnia, a leading authority on cardiac arrest resuscitation in the UK has documented many more of these and is convinced that consciousness does indeed exist independently of the body. Dr Morse’s criticism regarding proprioception/vision/hearing is not really relevant in my humble opinion. Consciousness by definition perceives everything, so seeing/hearing things isn’t exactly a stretch.
You state that the claim that scientists have no idea what consciousness is or how the brain perceives or creates it “is false.” I’m sorry, but that’s simply wrong – it’s the greatest mystery in science and we are not even close to understanding it. We can locate areas in the brain that activate during consciousness, and we know that at the very least, the brain has something to do with it (whether it is picking it up or creating it). But that is purely mechanical – it still doesn’t explain what consciousness actually is, or specifically how the brain ‘creates’ it.
I agree that consciousness was almost certainly an evolutionary mistake (and consequential advantage), but so what? That doesn’t mean it is simply a projection of a complex brain. Why is it such a stretch to believe our brains evolved to ‘pick up’ consciousness, just as we evolved to pick up sound waves and light waves. You assert that consciousness arises out of complexity, but we don’t know this at all – it’s just a hypothesis. Right now, there is only circumstantial evidence, and absolutely zero evidence that it can be replicated elsewhere. AI is interesting, but there nothing vaguely concrete has been discovered regarding self awareness. The idea that the brain picks up consciousness is also a hypothesis, but given the gains in our understanding of quantum physics, new evidence of quantum vibrations within microtubules in the brain, and the data we have on NDEs, it isn’t quackery by any means. Personal accounts of NDEs isn’t solid scientific evidence, but it is still admissible as evidence (as are people who claim they are depressed – you have to at least take them seriously). I truly find it stunning that many scientists are unwilling to take a broader perspective when it comes to consciousness, particularly given the advances in physics that show we barely have a clue what is going on.
Pablo: Ben, about the NDE case that you’re citing, it’s apparently unlikely that the NDE happened while she was fully brain-dead, it says so on the page.
Could you explain to me why you’d need to refer or invoke a immaterial entity to allow for a person to be aware of his own existence? It just doesn’t make sense to me: what exactly prevents a complex feedback mechanism such as a brain from being self-aware even within a physically determined material context? I fail to see any reason for that being unlikely or impossible. Just claiming for it to be so, doesn’t make it so. Why can’t a purely physical creature be self-aware? How does the immateriality help in any way?
Look, either your baseline is: ‘I’ll accept what can be proven and extrapolate from our current knowledge and understanding’ or you start from ‘I”d like this idea to be true and select my starting position from that, other’s have to convince me otherwise’.
For me, the only honest starting position can be one where you aim to prevent yourself from being influenced by what you’d like to be true.
Practically everyone is a natural dualist, we all have a tendency towards there being ‘something more,’ believing in free will, things like that. But it seems like a bad idea to let the desirability of an idea be the indicator of it’s likelihood.
Ben: Hey Pablo, I have no feelings one way or the other in regards to whether consciousness exists within or outside the brain. Increasingly, I have a harder and harder time accepting the premise of the materialist view of consciousness, precisely because of the advances in science make it harder to do so.
The emergence of quantum physics, and our inability to find a coherent overarching theory between that and Newtonian physics leaves a great big void that makes the known universe far, far more mysterious a place than you seem to want to accept. You talk about an ‘immaterial entity’ as if it’s something ridiculous, but the very laws of physics themselves are ‘immaterial’ (ie. you can’t see them). I’m proposing that the laws of the universe do exist though, just as consciousness itself may exist. It is just much harder to comprehend because you can’t touch or see it.
As for your other point that we need to take what we know is provable, then extrapolate – I completely agree. The problem is that when it comes to consciousness, we simply don’t know that much. You may well be right that consciousness is a product of complexity, and that other entities will become conscious (as some believe computers will), but as I said before, there’s nothing other than circumstantial evidence for this. It’s very interesting, but can’t be accepted as fact unless consciousness arises outside of biological life, spontaneously, and due to complexity. It’s a reasonable theory in my view, but just that – a theory.
The theory that human brains pick up consciousness is entirely reasonable too, given we know for scientific fact that some things operate completely outside the material laws of the universe. Obviously we can’t prove that (yet), but there is evidence to suggest that it could certainly be the case.
Pablo: Though it’s a bit snarkily written, this pretty much sums up my point of view :
“Quantum consciousness (sometimes called quantum mind) is all too often a ham-fisted attempt to prove free will and/or god and/or magical pixies by jamming quantum physics into neuroscience.
Whether or not quantum effects influence thought is a valid topic for scientific investigation, but simply stating “quantum effects cause consciousness” explains nothing unless scientists can come up with some suggestion about how quantum effects could possibly cause consciousness. The argument goes:
I don’t understand consciousness.
I don’t understand quantum physics.
Therefore, consciousness must be a function of quantum physics.
It’s god of the gaps with “quantum” as the all-purpose gap filler. “
Look, if you want to find models for explaining the problem of finding a theory of everything, there’s a world of string theory physics out there which is cutting edge and fantastically interesting. But there’s really nothing in quantum physics which makes an immaterial conciousness a likely scenario.
“The overwhelming weight of evidence, from seven decades of experimentation, shows not a hint of a violation of reductionist, local, discrete, nonsuperluminal, non-holistic relativity and quantum mechanics – with no fundamental involvement of human consciousness other than in our own subjective perception of whatever reality is out there. Of course our thinking processes have a strong influence on what we perceive. But to say that what we perceive therefore determines, or even controls, what is out there is without rational foundation. The world would be a far different place for all of us if it was just all in our heads – if we really could make our own reality as the New Agers believe. The fact that the world rarely is what we want it to be is the best evidence that we have little to say about it. The myth of quantum consciousness should take its place along with gods, unicorns, and dragons as yet another product of the fantasies of people unwilling to accept what science, reason, and their own eyes tell them about the world.”
Ben: It’s a bit of a silly retort to be honest, (although I am a huge fan of snark). Quantum physics tells us there is another realm of reality outside the known universe. The experience of consciousness appears to be telling us the exact same thing, so it’s good science to explore the possibility that the brain has evolved a way of perceiving this. The discovery of quantum vibrations in microtubules appears to validate this idea too (and NDEs etc), so it’s far from ‘New Age’. There are very, very good scientists who take this stuff extremely seriously, not just annoying yogis and spiritual gurus who jump on board whatever validates their world view.
I’d also add that I don’t go along with the silly claims people like Deepak Chopra make about ‘Quantum healing’ etc, or think we can make meaningful predictions from a different interpretation of consciousness (nonsense like ‘The Secret’ and so on). I’d only go as far as saying I believe it when there is more concrete evidence one way or the other. For now, I just lean towards the more esoteric definition as it seems to make more sense.
Pablo: Ben, how is this different from the God of the Gaps argument used by religious people when there’s something science can’t wholly explain yet?
As to regards your earlier statement that we don’t have a coherent overarching theory regarding the combination of Newtonian physics and quantum physics, I’d like to reiterate that we do actually have quite a good candidate in the form of string physics, which is admittedly extremely complex but very interesting.
The things we’re told by quantum physics are based on very complex mathematics and on empirical observations. They very much go against our natural expectations and understanding about the universe. The things we say about conciousness and free will are fed by a natural tendency towards dualism which seems to be inherent in pretty much everyone. To me it seems like a pretty bad cut and paste job to just use the first theory as a means of allowing the second to be true.
I guess we’ve pretty much said what we can say about the subject. Out of curiosity, could you please refer to me the ‘very good scientists’ you refer to who believe that quantum mechanics allow for an immaterial source of consciousness?
Ben: Pablo, I’m not saying there is some mystical force filling in the gaps that science can’t yet explain. I’m saying that science itself (deductive reasoning) is paving the way for a far more complex understanding of reality and consciousness.
The only reason I take an interest in any of this is the data on Near Death Experiences. I’ve always discounted religious experience as any sort of evidence of God or a ‘supreme reality’ etc, and when I originally heard about NDEs I dismissed them completely as some sort of hallucinatory experience. But when you have doctors and scientists who specialize in consciousness and resuscitation saying it is completely impossible for the brain to be functioning when a person is clinically dead, yet people are coming back and vividly and accurately describing what happened to them, you can’t dismiss it.
Here’s an exchange between Wired Magazine, and the resuscitation expert Dr Sam Parnia who has recorded hundreds of these experiences:
Wired: Couldn’t the experiences just reflect some extremely subtle type of brain activity?
Parnia: When you die, there’s no blood flow going into your brain. If it goes below a certain level, you can’t have electrical activity. It takes a lot of imagination to think there’s somehow a hidden area of your brain that comes into action when everything else isn’t working.
These observations raise a question about our current concept of how brain and mind interact. The historical idea is that electrochemical processes in the brain lead to consciousness. That may no longer be correct, because we can demonstrate that those processes don’t go on after death.
There may be something in the brain we haven’t discovered that accounts for consciousness, or it may be that consciousness is a separate entity from the brain.
It’s all very well to dismiss it as a hallucination, or simply another part of the brain that is picking up on auditory and visual signals, but there’s absolutely no evidence of this. If you apply deductive thinking to this, the notion that our assumptions about consciousness could be wrong is in fact very scientific, and should be explored.
The very good scientists are the ones I mention above – Stuart Hameroff, Dr Sam Parnia, and Roger Penrose. You may not agree with them, but their credentials are impeccable.