The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

“… I found my thoughts returning to a troubling dream the night before, the meaning of which remained obscure: I had been clambering with difficulty over a rocky hill near my childhood home, and found myself moving toward a large white nightshirt hung ominously from the electrical wires, as some kind of warning or portent. The nightshirt was riddled with bullet-holes. Though I turned away, in the dream, I only found my path leading me toward another, identical nightshirt, also bullet-riddled, but farther off. ... This was all accompanied by a feeling of foreboding.”

Lost and Found in Psychic Space: Airplanes, Aviators, and ESP

Monday, 17 March, 2014


I’m fascinated by how aviation and missing planes are so often linked, in one way or another, to ESP phenomena. The ongoing, frustrating search for Malaysian Flight 370 seems like the perfect opportunity to write down some thoughts about this strange nexus.

There’s a long history of psychics being enlisted (or volunteering) to search for lost planes, for one thing. One of the best-known successes of the early operational remote viewing work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) was the successful location of a lost Soviet spy plane in the African jungle using the talents of viewers Gary Langford and Rosemary Smith. The annals of remote viewing (as described in Jim Schnabel’s excellent history of the subject) include other successful searches for missing aircraft. At Fort Meade for example, Ken Bell accurately pinpointed the site of a military crash in Virginia (even getting the name of the mountain, “Bald Knob”). On another occasion, he successfully remote-viewed the burned wreckage of an American helicopter that had crashed high in the Andes in Peru, killing the crew.

So it is to be expected that today’s most accomplished remote viewers and other psychics are being recruited to search for the missing Malaysian jet. Uri Geller, quite naturally, says he has been asked by a “substantial figure” for help in the search. Geller is more famous for telekinetic and telepathic feats than for clairvoyance, but he made his fortune map-dowsing for mineral and oil deposits—a skill one would think is not too different from viewing lost objects at a distance. He has not pointed to an actual location for the presumably downed plane, that we know of. But according to The Anomalist, remote viewer extraordinaire Joe McMoneagle, one of the original Fort Meade team, has also been tasked in the search; he says he has “duly reported” his findings.

When scientific or military professionalism and rigor are not involved, psychic attempts to locate missing aircraft are, as one can imagine, often not only unsuccessful but even tragically misleading. In his thorough and riveting account of the Uruguayan rugby team lost in the Andes in 1972, Piers Paul Read documents the desperate families’ use of psychics to help in the search. A Belgian clairvoyant, Gerard Croiset Jr., was recruited, and although he described several specific details that ultimately proved accurate (such as a nearby sign reading “Danger” and the physical appearance of wreckage itself), he insisted the plane went down near a lake over 80 miles south of the crash site—resulting in much money, time, and effort being wasted searching in the wrong place.

The sad irony is that the first psychic consulted by parents of two of the lost boys, a dowser in a poor Montevideo neighborhood, turned out to have precisely pinpointed the location of the downed plane. Unfortunately the area he picked had already been overflown on early search flights and was, in any event, deemed too dangerous and remote for further searching. (Read’s book Alive contains more tantalizing ESP-related tidbits, including accurate premonitions of imminent rescue by some of the survivors; the more recent documentary Stranded includes survivors’ fascinating accounts of their near-death experiences during an avalanche that struck 16 days into their ordeal and killed 8 of their companions.)

Then of course there’s Amelia Earhart.

When Earhart went missing in her Lockheed Electra in 1937, her husband George Palmer Putnam was inundated with mail from psychics and others who insisted they knew where Earhart’s plane had gone down, had had dreams of her, or had actually communicated with her psychically in the days and weeks following the disappearance. A 1940 article in Popular Aviation, which has been made available as a pdf on the Earhart Project website, is a great read and another fascinating account of the paranormal giving hope to those desperate to find their loved ones but also hopelessly muddying the waters of an investigation of a lost flight.

The Popular Aviation article only details a few of the examples of the messages Putnam received, unfortunately, but the ones described are particularly interesting in light of the unfolding (but lately stalled due to legal problems) efforts of the The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) to piece together Earhart’s last days and recover remains of the Electra. From what one can glean from the 1940 article, psychic consensus seemed to be that she and her navigator Fred Noonan went down somewhere north of Howland Island—not south, in the direction of Nikumaroro atoll, where TIGHAR has found tantalizing evidence that the flyers actually ended up. However, people who corresponded with Putnam said that they knew she had survived the crash and was on an island or atoll, and provided scenes that correspond to the picture being assembled by TIGHAR—that the famed aviatrix and her companion survived, possibly for a few weeks, before perishing (probably from dehydration).

An interesting angle in this case is that Earhart herself was an accomplished psychic—although she publicly downplayed her talents in an era that was just as rationalistic and skeptical as ours. She had a particular knack for finding missing aircraft. As described by two newspaper columnists quoted by David K Bowman:

“Officials at first were inclined to laugh at Miss Earhart’s psychic messages. But her accuracy now has them mystified. When a United Airlines plane was lost just outside of Burbank, Calif. Dec. 27, Miss Earhart called the United Airlines office and told them to look on a hill near Saugus, a little town north of Burbank.

“There the wreckage was found.

“Again when the Western Air Express plane carrying Mr. and Mrs. Martin Johnson crashed Jan. 12, Miss Earhart reported the plane to be near Newhall, 15 miles north of Burbank, where it was found.

“In the earlier crash of the Western Air Express in Utah, Miss Earhart had a vision to the effect that the bodies of the dead had been robbed by a trapper. Two days later, a trapper near Salt Lake City reported finding the wreckage, but then suddenly disappeared without giving the location of the plane.”

There seems to be a link between a penchant for real-world flying and psychic aviation. For example, decades after his historic trans-Atlantic solo flight, Charles Lindbergh admitted in a memoir that during the 33-hour journey, during which he did not dare actually fall asleep, he experienced a hypnagogic, dissociative state in which he felt his body, soul, and spirit separate—what we might now call an out-of-body experience. During this experience, the flyer perceived and communicated with angelic beings accompanying him in his plane. The encounter left him with a lasting interest in the afterlife and immortality.

A more recent example is the popular author and aviator Richard Bach. After the CIA withdrew funding from the SRI project in the late 1970s (wanting to distance itself from questionable research in the aftermath of revelations about MK-ULTRA and other projects), Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ became increasingly creative in seeking support for their research at SRI. One person they sought out for possible help was Bach, whose bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull seemed (to Targ at least) like an account of an out-of-body experience—a phenomenon with strong continuity with remote viewing. On the hunch that Bach might be interested to participate in some psychic research himself and perhaps give some money to SRI, Targ and Puthoff invited Bach to California to take part in some experiments.

The writer proved quite talented. For example, in one out-bounder experiment described in Targ and Puthoff’s book Mind-Reach, he gave a very accurate physical description of the interior of a modern A-frame Methodist church and its altar—although in a case of “analytical overlay” biasing his interpretation, Bach thought the altar with the cross behind it looked like (appropriately enough) an airport ticket counter with a fleur-de-lis airline logo. Jacques Vallee, SRI Arpanet pioneer and friend to the remote viewing program, describes in his journals that he arranged to have a computer terminal installed in Bach’s Florida home, where Bach participated in a networked, cross-country remote viewing experiment in which he was remarkably accurate in describing an assortment of minerals chosen by a geologist.

The longest-distance psychic experiment ever conducted by an aviator, or anybody, is no-doubt that conducted by astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell aboard Apollo 14 in 1971. Like previous aviation pioneers, Mitchell had a profound mystical experience during his journey; but quite apart from this, he had a longstanding interest in ESP and, at four predetermined times during the mission, telepathically transmitted randomly selected Zener symbols (the type used in the classic Rhine experiments) to a small group of psychics back on Earth. He reported that there were 51 correct responses out of 200 total—slightly better than chance (there are 5 symbols in a Zener deck, so 40 correct responses would be predicted by chance). It is typical of the interesting but rather uninspiring positive results produced by classical psi research before the SRI era.

The great precedent for Mitchell’s long-distance telepathy experiment, however, is far more inspiring. In 1938, a dashing, larger-than-life aviator and all-around hero explorer, Sir George Hubert Wilkins (left), volunteered on a dangerous mission to the arctic to search for a lost Russian plane and hopefully rescue the crew. Before he departed, he arranged to mentally send updates of his adventure at regular times each week to a New York writer with an interest in ESP named Harold M. Sherman. Sherman, for his part, recorded his impressions and had them notarized to prove that no cheating had transpired. Wilkins and Sherman documented the results in their classic book Thoughts Through Space.

The records of Sherman’s and Wilkin’s experiment are remarkable, and resemble the sometimes astonishing accuracy of later CIA and military clairvoyants when real-world events and locales, rather than boring randomly generated cards, are involved. Reading the book through the lens of hindsight, it becomes clear—as it even became clear to the participants themselves when Sherman’s impressions were checked against Wilkins’ periodic bulletins—that “thoughts through space” did not accurately characterize the signal line through which Sherman received his information. Wilkins admitted he was often too busy, or simply forgot, to send his mental messages at the appointed times, but this did not prevent Sherman from obtaining detailed, usually accurate impressions of Wilkins’ activities and whereabouts.

In other words, Sherman was engaged precisely in remote viewing, not telepathy or (to use Upton Sinclair’s term) “mental radio.” Had it occurred to either of the experimenters to have Sherman psychically search for the missing Russian plane himself and thus serve as Wilkins’ guide rather than just his remote “receiver,” Wilkins’ mission may have been more successful than it was—but that would have required a paradigm shift in parapsychological thinking that was still over three decades off.

The experiment with Sherman is, to my knowledge, the first and last time Wilkins participated in an ESP experiment. Sherman, however, went on to write several interesting popular guides to developing ESP powers, not to mention numerous pulp sci-fi novels. In fact, he is a strangely absent figure in the nexus of psychic abilities, human potential, and sci-fi so densely chronicled by Jeffrey Kripal in his great book Mutants and Mystics.

In any case, there seems to be something fascinatingly archetypal about this nexus of aviation and ESP. Flying through air and space—and the extreme lengths to which one can get lost doing so—seem almost like a hieroglyph, in mundane 4-D reality, of how far one can travel and also get lost in the dimensionless space of consciousness and psychic abilities (or dis-abilities). Time will tell if and how this archetype plays out in the story of Flight 370. As The Anomalist notes, there may be little hope of anyone’s (even Geller’s or McMoneagle’s) ESP-derived insights having an impact on that search, given that there are bound to be hundreds or more intuitives, psychics, remote viewers, etc. giving their own conflicting reports. If I were one of the “authorities” involved, this is one reason I would be cautious following leads obtained from the paranormal information superhighway, however tantalizing they may be.

Postscript: Wilkins, The Nautilus, and SRI

Oddly enough, it is through an interesting mix of coincidence and distorted memory that Wilkins’ and Sherman’s Thoughts Through Space experiment may have had a decisive influence on the later research at SRI and the whole history of remote viewing.

According to Jim Schnabel, a 1960 report in the French magazine Science et Vie claimed that the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus had conducted a telepathy experiment on its historic voyage under the North Pole in 1958. Upon closer scrutiny, the claim proved to have been either fraudulent or based on fabricated information, but nevertheless it spurred anxiety on the part of the Soviets that the United States was developing psychic abilities for military application, and they began pouring money into paranormal research. It was this development, reported in Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain in 1970, that in turn triggered anxiety in US intelligence and military circles that we may lose the psychic arms race if we didn’t fund such research ourselves. Hence SRI, and the subsequent developments at Ft Meade and elsewhere.

According to Schnabel, the source of the Science et Vie story that started the false rumor of US psychic research in the 1950s is unknown—it was either a hoax or may have been a deliberate disinformation ploy to get the Soviets to waste their money on paranormal woo. But I suspect the story could actually have arisen from a more innocent case of distorted recollection by someone involved in the magazine article or their sources, because it involves a fascinating, tangled knot of coincidences.

Several years before his 1938 arctic aviation expedition with its telepathy component, Wilkins had himself attempted to reach the North Pole underwater, in a decommissioned American submarine O-12 that he had leased from the Navy and rechristened, wait for it, The Nautilus. I think it would have been all too easy for someone to later conflate the various adventures of this dashing polar explorer (who sometimes engaged in telepathy experiments) with the news of the first actual polar crossing by a (this time nuclear) submarine, also named Nautilus, in 1958.

To make things more confusing, the nuclear Nautilus‘s first commander was named … Wilkinson.

Kafka and the UFO Gnosis

Sunday, 1 December, 2013


Rich Reynolds has a nice piece over on UFO Iconoclast comparing ufology to Samuel Beckett’s existentialist play Waiting for Godot. It’s a really apt comparison: The two main characters wait around for a person who is never going to come, and this waiting keeps them from becoming fully conscious and responsible for their lives.

A similar comparison I would make is to practically everything by Kafka. Ufology is murky, increasingly maddening, and you are perpetually unclear where you stand; you seem to be on the brink of figuring out some piece of the puzzle, and then you realize you are at the back of a line of aging people who have been standing in that same line their whole life, clutching essentially the same speculations in their dusty binders and briefcases, still awaiting confirmation from some authority that they have made progress though they have essentially gotten nowhere.

The whole idea of “disclosure,” particularly, reminds me of the central parable of The Trial. A man from the country comes before the Door of the Law, wanting access, but he is stopped by a doorkeeper who makes him wait, although not without accepting bribes “just so you don’t feel you’ve left anything untried.” The man waits his whole life, and finally, as he’s about to die, he finally asks the doorkeeper, “Why, if this is the Door of the Law, has no one else come seeking entry all this time?” To which the doorkeeper says, “Because this door was meant for you alone. I’m now going to shut it.” A brilliant light shines from deep within the edifice as the door is shut.

I see it as a sort of Gnostic lesson having to do with experience versus faith. The only important knowledge is experiential self-knowledge, and it can’t be thought of as coming from outside oneself, in the form of a religious or secular authority (such as the government, the UFOs themselves, or any other “subject presumed to know”—to borrow a term from psychoanalysis). You’ll get nowhere until you include the knower (you, the man from the country) in the known; the door, the light shining through it, and even the doorkeeper and especially the man himself are all part of the same picture.

I suspect that, when it comes to UFOs, what we need to know is already right in front of us, and the whole scene of “authorities keeping knowledge from us” is a bit of self-parody within a larger riddle (or koan) addressed to us, not the thing keeping us from cracking it.

We need to recognize ourselves as knowers. Dwelling on the idea that truth is “out there” is a way we overlook that explosive gnosis until it is too late.

____

Psychic Astronauts: Remote Viewing, Space Exploration, and UFOs

Tuesday, 19 November, 2013

The emptiness of Fermi’s Paradox as an argument against ETs rests, I think, on the unlikelihood that advanced technological civilizations would ever explore or colonize their universe in the flesh. I’ve suggested here that the “reach” of ETs through space, and that of our own human or machine descendents, will be via Von Neumann probes gathering and collecting potentially infinite amounts of information for use and enjoyment back home. But there are other, not incompatible possibilities that, if we are to be suitably broad minded, we should also consider. These possibilities rest on a series of very big “ifs,” admittedly, but they are worthwhile (and way fun) to think about.

One of these ifs—which actually seems to be becoming less controversial in our day—is ESP. As outrageous as it remains to committed materialists—and I’ll admit it didn’t settle well with me either until I started paying serious attention to the literature—there is ample experimental evidence (quite apart from ample testimony of psychonauts and mystics since time immemorial) that knowledge may indeed transcend apparent limitations of matter, space, and time. According to a few serious scientific thinkers on this topic like Russell Targ and Dean Radin, consciousness is nonlocal. The CIA-funded remote viewing research of the 1970s and 80s at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), for instance, shows that distance is no obstacle for talented clairvoyants; the experiments conducted at SRI by Targ and Hal Puthoff clearly indicate that Psi effects don’t obey an inverse square law like electromagnetic radiation or any other known physical force. Skilled remote viewers seem to be able to accurately view targets on the other side of the planet or within an electromagnetically sealed chamber as readily as they can view something in a sealed envelope in the same room.

According to a former Congressional Aide interviewed by filmmaker Vikram Jayanti for a new, fascinating BBC documentary on Uri Geller’s spy work for the CIA and other intelligence agencies, the research made famous by Targ and Puthoff and project Star Gate continues now, but in the “deep, deep black”—interestingly enough, having been driven into the underground not because it was scandalous to mainstream science but because it conflicted with the Fundamentalist Christian theology of certain defense higherups in the 1980s and 90s. One wonders whether, decades later, this “deep black” research is still confined to remote viewing terrestrial targets?

Pat Price, the star remote viewer in Targ and Puthoff’s research at SRI, commented that he was “potentially omniscient in space and time” (see Targ and Puthoff’s Mind-Reach). And famously in the annals of remote viewing, psychic Ingo Swann, while at SRI, viewed the rings of Jupiter before they were discovered by the Pioneer 10 probe; and according to his bizarre memoir Penetration, he psychically saw structures on the moon similar to those allegedly photographed by the Apollo missions and that serve as fodder for various space anomaly websites. Whether or not Swann was accurate in the latter moon observations, Swann seems to have been the first to seriously attempt psychic astronautics in modern times—although mystics in the past such as Emanuel Swedenborg have also claimed to visit other worlds and communicate with their inhabitants.

Picture a room full of highly trained Ingo Swanns, given coordinates for one of the habitable-zone super-earths around Gliese 667c to image; each one receives the same coordinates, and from their collective viewings a rough consensus is reached about that sector’s topographic features or interesting biology (if any); then they move onto the next coordinates, ultimately creating a rough map of the whole planet; then they move on to the next planet … and so on. Is this the future of space exploration? Are such projects already being conducted in secret by government contractors or by NASA itself?

And by extension, could an ET psychic space program be behind many close encounters?

Psychic Aliens

Encounters with “aliens” (or whatever they are) frequently have a psychic component, as Jacques Vallee has always stressed. That alien intelligences interact with humans psychically is a common theme also in the sci-fi and comic book collective unconscious, as Jeffrey Kripal has shown in his book Mutants and Mystics and as Christopher Loring Knowles has described on his phenomenally interesting blog The Secret Sun.

There is also the vast, weirdly consistent literature on experiences with Ayahuasca, Psilocybin, and other DMT-based entheogens: Users of these drugs consistently encounter alien beings that resemble those familiar from the UFO literature and/or enter a realm seething with alien intelligence. DMT researcher Rick Strassman has argued that the resemblance of DMT experiences to UFO abductions may not be a coincidence. The easy, respectably materialist position here is that of course it’s not a coincidence: It’s all in the drug-user’s (or contactee’s) head. But Strassman himself remains open-minded that the reality could be something more interesting and complex—that the intelligences might be authentic and that DMT may be facilitating access with the noetic realm or wavelength where they reside or through which they attempt to interact with us.

Abduction experiences with and without the use of drugs point to at least the possibility of alien psychic astronauts visiting us in the comfort of our living rooms, from the comfort of their living rooms, via a sort of cosmic noetic superhighway—which may be the same thing as the Nous of Gnostic and Hermetic mysticism or the Akasha of the Theosophical writings. Psilocybin prophet Terence McKenna, who routinely encountered alien-like “machine elves” (and whose Amazonia experience in 1971 vividly foreshadowed many of the extraterrestrial Gnostic themes and insights of Phillip K. Dick’s “2-3-74″ experience a couple years later) would certainly agree with this idea; he suggested that Stropharia cubensis mushrooms may themselves be a plant-based ET colonization project, spores traveling through space and creating nodes in what we might now call an Astral Internet.

Think Nonlocally, Act Remotely

The notion of a nonlocal universe has also been called the “holographic universe” because any small fragment of a holograph contains the whole within it. Psi experiences are a scientific (though committed skeptics will always call them pseudoscientific) idiom for describing experiences of a realm that elsewhere and in other times have been called sacred or mystical, and there seems to be considerable overlap between these sorts of telepathic or clairvoyant capacities and other seemingly more farfetched experiences like astral projection or out-of-body (OOB) travel.

The latter phenomena are to my knowledge less well documented scientifically (except in the controversial near-death-experience literature), but they are equally well-assented by thousands of years of anecdotal accounts by yogis, shamans, and ordinary “gifted” individuals. The Theosophic tradition refers to travel in the Astral Plane, although it is quite possible that such experiences are really the same thing as lucid dreams and that the dreamer is misinterpreting the experience in “real space” terms; yet in a nonlocal universe that distinction shouldn’t affect whether such altered states (and others like hypnagogia) give access to real information about distant places or events yet to come. Probably a future theory of nonlocal noetic physics would need to abandon spacial metaphors like “plane” altogether, because space and time have no meaning in such a realm or dimension. (Even “dimension” is problematic because it implies extension and measure, like the other dimensions we are familiar with.)

Nonlocal consciousness is often explained by quantum entanglement—the “spooky action at a distance” that enables bound particles to somehow share information over great distances instantaneously (much faster than light speed). It has been suggested that the brain is itself a quantum computer, and that the real action is happening at the sub-neuronal level, in microtubules within neurons that are narrow enough for quantum effects to come into play. Another (maybe compatible) explanation that I favor would be the Buddhist one: that awareness is the fundamental field or ground of being, and that physical laws rest on it, not the other way around; thus our material brains and sense organs are a kind of filter (or as philosopher Henri Bergson put it, a “reducing valve”) of consciousness, not its generator.

Whatever the case, if nonlocality is the reality, then all points in space and time potentially coincide in consciousness. All points in space and time are equally close, equally “right here,” and perceiving things physically or temporally distant may just require an alteration or retuning of consciousness on the analogy of a radio receiver. The problem becomes one of locating the desired information, and in fact it was Jacques Vallee himself who, on the analogy of the way information is localized and accessed in computer databases, gave Swann the idea for using the arbitrary system of geographical coordinates, which became central to the protocol of coordinate remote viewing (CRV).

Getting Physical

It certainly would solve certain standard hurdles of “spaceflight” if a highly trained (or highly evolved) psychic astronaut could actually interact noetically with places that are physically very distant, and it also adds new and very interesting wrinkles. While clairvoyant astronautics may enable rough surveillance of a distant locale, simply traveling in one’s head a la Swann or Swedenborg fails to satisfy our human need to go somewhere in the flesh, to step out onto the surface of a remote world, feel it under our feet, see it with our eyes, smell the air, interact with its animals and plants and, maybe, contact its intelligent beings on their own terms. Indeed, some kind of direct tangible information is also needed to provide feedback on the intuitions of the remote viewer; remote viewing requires verification.

This limitation—actual physical interaction—would seem to be the deal-breaker when it comes to full-blown psychic exploration of the universe. Or is it? Is there a way nonlocal consciousness could interact physically with a remote location?

The possibility of remote mental interaction with matter via telekinesis, first of all, is supported by limited but provocative accounts of feats by Swann, Geller, and others in the SRI studies as well as alleged achievements by psychic spies—including Geller, who we now know was employed by the CIA and other spy agencies not only to remote view but also to physically disable enemy electronic hardware and magnetic disks (according to Jayanti’s documentary and a companion book by Jonathan Margolis). If these things are indeed possible, then we cannot readily discount the feats of yogis and other Eastern adepts (e.g., the creation of tulpas) or achievements described in the OOB and astral-projection literature. OOB-ers have described accounts of target individuals and even third parties seeing and interacting (even sexually!) with them. Consistent with such a notion, some alien encounters seem like interactions with nonmaterial, ectoplasmic, “astrally projected” entities, suggesting that perhaps this is indeed the mode of “space travel” for ET explorers (again, on the assumption that they are from other worlds—but if this sort of interaction were possible, it really wouldn’t make any difference where, or when, they come from).

Taking the Wheel

However, if we grant the possibility of remote psychic connection between humans and ETs (a big “if,” I still grant), then another possibility we are forced to consider is that of a psychic astronaut actually inhabiting and taking control of the physical body of a being at the destination planet. If minds at that location can be interacted with, communicated with, or manipulated telepathically, then it is also conceivable they could be overridden to provide local host vessels or vehicles for the nonlocal consciousness of the physically remote “traveler.” Any respectable shaman would certainly assent to such a possibility; the idea of spirit possession has a long history in many cultures. I can’t imagine such a possibility having been studied in a modern laboratory, yet it seems that if telepathy is granted, it should be theoretically possible for a highly trained or at least highly evolved psychic being to not just give ideas to a target or manipulate their behavior indirectly (i.e. through altering their perceptions or inducing life-altering experiences—the Vallee “control system” idea), but to actually sit in the driver’s seat.

Who knows what the technical requirements are for a consciousness to be able to physically inhabit a new, different body—perhaps this is a hurdle only achievable by more advanced beings, or perhaps there is a trick to it that human psychics will eventually discover and be able to teach their colleagues. Maybe our secret psychic astronauts will figure out the trick by adapting techniques in the Tibetan Book of the Dead for locating and inhabiting a new embryo—in other words, jailbreaking or hacking the cosmic reincarnation system to have it work on adults. (Incidentally, the more I think about this stuff, the more I wish David Lynch’s Twin Peaks hadn’t jumped the shark and ended after its second season, as it had actually begun to explore precisely this nexus between UFOs, spirit possession, and the afterlife—or the “Bardo” state between incarnations.)

Even if advanced psychic astronauts cannot quite manage the feat of possessing a willful alien species such as ourselves, they could still perhaps manipulate their contactees to do the necessary physical work of creating an entity that is more malleable or susceptible to serving as a host vessel. Such a project might involve a long-term breeding program, or else the manufacture of something like “bio-androids.” (Can you see where this is going?)

From the point of view of a hypothetical observer at the destination planet (of course, actual contactees would likely not figure out what was going on or would be on a need-to-know basis), it would be the kind of project that would unfold over hundreds, thousands, or maybe even millions of years (if we imagine, as various authors have suggested, that our very species or even our biosphere has been the subject of manipulation with a goal like alien colonization in mind). But remember: Nonlocality applies to time as well as space. This means that an ET project to cultivate our civilization to create for it the needed biological or bio-android substrate for their physical incarnation could take no time at all from the point of view of the alien psychic astronaut. A single alien astronaut could visit and interact with humans at different time points, encouraging this or that mating at various points down the line, and so on, all in a day’s work (so to speak). In other words, we need not imagine ancient immortal eminences with infinite patience engaging in such a project—they could be relatively flesh-and-blood, mortal schlubs like ourselves, just with better psychic abilities.

Psychic Contracting

Both of the scenarios I’ve mentioned—directly possessing local organisms as hosts and directing or manipulating them to breed or construct avatars—seem consistent with themes in the close encounter and alien abduction literature, including the obsession with breeding and hybridization. In fact, it would make a lot of sense of many aspects of that literature that led Mac Tonnies to propose a “cryptoterrestrial” origin for UFOs, such as the fact that UFO technologies (airships, flying saucers, etc.) sometimes seem weirdly close to our own—like always just a generation or two ahead of officially available technology. If ET souls travel among us in specially bred bodies and fly around in technology built locally to their specifications by secretive human “contractors,” then their technology will be constrained by what can be achievable locally even if the ideas behind it are more advanced. It would explain why saucers sometimes crash—something I feel sure an actual space vehicle sent across the void by an advanced civilization would not do. Such a history of human contracting for ET clients could go back centuries or millennia—to ancient Egypt or Sumer, for example—and be equivalent to a long-duration version of Richard Dolan’s “breakaway civilizations” concept.

Dolan has suggested that the U.S. government is no longer where it’s at, in terms of UFO knowledge—that much of the information has been spun off into the private sector. Who knows what kind of complex relationship secret military contractors and their guild analogues in the past have had with alien beings or their indigenous contactee proxies; maybe those secretive contractors or guilds are and have always been the real players shaping our “exopolitical” future. (If so, there is little hope of getting answers from them about the UFO reality via the ever-breathlessly-anticipated “disclosure,” as there are no Constitutions stipulating that private firms are answerable to the public.)

There have been clues dropped over the years by those in the know that the UFO problem is linked to psychic phenomena, and one of the juicy clues comes right from a higherup at one of those defense contractors. In 1993, when he was dying of cancer, Ben Rich, former director of Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” reportedly raised eyebrows by mentioning in a lecture to invited engineering alumni at UCLA that “we already have the technology to take ET home.” As Rich was leaving the lecture, Jan Harzan (now the head of MUFON), chased him down to probe him further: “I have a real interest in the propulsion you are talking about that gets us to the stars,” he said. “Can you tell me how it works?” According to Harzan, Rich stopped and obscurely asked Harzan if he knew how ESP worked. Taken aback, Harzan said “I don’t know, all points in space and time are connected?” To which Rich said, “That’s how it works.”

The nuts-and-bolts-minded may assume that, if there’s truth to this story, then what Rich meant was some kind of quantum technology—leading perhaps to a picture of physical vehicles capable of teleporting through space—or else the use of an exotic material with negative mass capable of traveling near lightspeed by ignoring the local inertial frame (as John Mike suggests in his book The Anatomy of a Flying Saucer). In his lecture, Rich did indicate that the answer lay in certain “errors” that had been discovered in physical equations, and he hinted his shop had indeed been building home-grown UFOs, so perhaps this is what he meant. But what if the UFO propulsion question is slightly distinct from the nonlocality question? What if interstellar travel occurs via psychic contact aimed at creating biological and material infrastructure using local contracted labor? What if local contractors like Lockheed itself are actually building advanced flying machines not only on behalf of our government but on behalf of ET intelligences, who communicate via psychic intermediaries or even locally bred hybrid beings (Men in Black? Grays?), for the purpose of more conventional, physical interaction with us or our planet?

Are Ancient Astronauts Alive and Well?

One argument against the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) for UFOs and even against the SETI project is the problem of extreme technological and social nonsimultaneity of civilizations throughout the galaxy—that evolutionary, technological, and cultural parity between any two civilizations would be extremely unlikely. Recently George Dvorsky ran new numbers through the Drake Equation and arrived at a very modest .58 to 5 contemporaneous radio-communicating civilizations in our galaxy, making any contact with somebody else anywhere near us on the technological spectrum extremely unlikely.

But again, given that nonlocality means collapsing both temporal distance and spatial distance, psychic astronautics potentially opens the door to interaction with other intelligences across the whole universe, across its entire lifespan. If ETs can “astrally travel” across space, they can do so across time as well (and we know that, from the fundamental standpoint of light, there is no difference between the two). Thus the aliens (again, if that is what they are) encountered by humans now could just as easily be from our distant past (or, for that matter, from our distant future) as from the present. Some could even represent the original Dawn Civilizations that emerged when the universe first became cool enough to support life as we know it—the ones that mathematical models say should have long ago colonized our galaxy. Well, maybe they have colonized it, in a sense—maybe they did and still are colonizing it, but not in physical ships, and in a “slow from our point of view but fast for them” way that depends on the emergence of technological civilizations locally to make machines and bodies on their behalf.

If we actually visited those ancient psychic astronauts’ homeworld “now,” we might find them, their civilization, even their planet and star, long dead and gone, yet they would still appear throughout space and time, going about business conducted billions of years ago. Perhaps it is even those civilizations’ distant “post-human,” nonsentient, non-psychic technological descendents that visit us in mundane 4-D space as Von Neumann probes. (Or, who knows, maybe those probes provide, among other things, the concrete feedback required for ET remote viewers back on their homeworlds.)

Whatever the case, when we start multiplying the number of potential civilizations that have emerged and will emerge by the possibilities of spacial and temporal nonlocality, the bizarre variety and absurd inconsistency in UFO encounters begins to seem a bit more reasonable, and the Drake Equation (as now written) becomes meaningless.

Somewhere Terence McKenna suggested that when we finally travel to other planets, it will probably take less power than a flashlight battery. If psi abilities do exist and can be developed to the extent yogis have always asserted—a very big but also a very interesting if—then those abilities, not “ships through space” carrying our physical mortal bodies, are probably our ticket to the stars. One day Earth’s psychic interstellar explorers may look back on our concept art of solar sails and Bussard ramjets and Alcubierre-drive starships the way we look back on DaVinci’s flying corkscrew.

Postscript: The always fascinating Jacques Vallee turns out to have lots of great insight into scientific remote viewing research. The phenomenal Forbidden Science, Volume Two (his journals covering the 1970s, when he was at SRI working on the Arpanet) is a goldmine of great behind-the-scenes stories about the SRI remote-viewing research, Swann, Geller, the involvement of the CIA (which he clearly had to keep silent about until its declassification), the intersection of ESP with his better-known interests like UFOs and computer networks, and just generally Vallee’s thoughtful, bemused reactions to the surreally science-fictional California of the 1970s. It’s my second-favorite Vallee book after The Invisible College, which was written during the same weird, incredible decade.

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Mysterianism and the Question of Machine Sentience

Monday, 4 November, 2013


We are within perhaps a decade of creating computers that match and perhaps even dwarf the human brain in computing power, and that are capable of complex computations that may include something like reasoning and even a notion of self—what many would therefore consider to be autonomous, conscious machines.

When we contemplate this, most of us still have Skynet of the Terminator movies lurking in the back of our minds, and so the question that generally gets asked is whether such machines will eventually decide we are a nuisance and destroy or enslave us. Artificial intelligence (AI) researcher Hugo de Garis rather apocalyptically predicted that the question “Should we build them?” will so profoundly divide humans in the second half of the 21st century that it will result in a calamitous conflict that kills billions—what he calls an “artilect war” (artilect being his term for artificial intellect).

“Should we build them?” is not the right question to ask. For one thing, it is pointless. The whole history of our relation to technology shows that if the capability to build something and use it exists, it will be built and used (if necessary, in secret). In any case, as with many other advances, the same technological developments that threaten humanity could give us the tools to protect against those threats; technology has its self-balancing, homeostatic mechanisms, like everything else.

But obviously, we need to enter the new world of AI prepared. To do that, we need to ask much more fundamental questions about mind and consciousness than most non-scientists are used to asking: specifically, how, when, and crucially if key aspects of mind, such as consciousness or feelings, can actually arise from material structures, be they man-made circuits or organic brains. If any computer-related question ends up polarizing us in the second half of this century, this one—what philosophers like to call the “hard problem” of how consciousness is produced by a brain—is likely to be it.

So instead of “Should we build them?”, a more pressing question we should be prepared to answer is, “Should we believe them?”—that is, believe computers that claim to be or act like they are conscious, and believe their inventors that consciousness is nothing more than computations performed by a machine. To many outside the scientific community, it is not self-evident that even the biological machine in our heads can accomplish that feat.

The Hard Problem

The human brain is the most complex physical structure known, having by some estimates more potential synaptic connections than there are atoms in the universe, and able to store something like 10 to the power of 20 bits of information. To create an artificial, humanlike or superhuman intellect surely requires extraordinary processing power to match or approximate this, and Singularity prophets tend to focus on surmounting this specific challenge (perhaps through quantum computing) when imagining building machines that approach some humanlike threshold. Yet what exactly will that threshold be?

“Intelligence” is a vague term that encompasses both the ability to manage large quantities of information and the ability to think and reason and solve problems, and often this latter notion gets lumped in with other human attributes such as feeling, self-awareness, free will, and so on. But even on those terms there is not much agreement how to define them, let alone what they really are. “Consciousness” is generally used as a catch-all term, replacing the old theologically and supernaturally loaded term “soul.” Before we can ever evaluate the intelligence or consciousness of a machine, we need to understand what we are talking about when we talk about our own, human consciousness.

As good a place to start as any in considering consciousness is neuroscientist Michael Graziano’s excellent new book Consciousness and the Social Brain. Along with most neuroscientists, Graziano holds to a strictly materialistic, mechanistic view and rejects the position that there is anything fundamentally mysterious or unknowable about consciousness—it is a soluble problem, and the answer is to be found entirely in neural computation. However, while some neuroscientists attacking the question of consciousness over the last couple of decades have tended to argue that consciousness is somehow an illusion, that it serves no real function, or that we are just spectators to our lives without any real autonomy, Graziano has a more positive take. Consciousness, he argues, actually is a kind of simplified mental model of attention—our own attention and, even more importantly, the attention of others we interact with. We hold in our brains what he calls an “attention schema,” rather like a battlefield map, that helps us track the shifting, fluid changes in attention that are necessary to look after our interests and assert our will in a complex social world.

Such a schema gives rise to a notion that this thing the brain is monitoring—attention—is a kind of substance or radiation; on some level, we think of attention as something like rays coming out the eyes of other people (and animals), showing what they are attending to in the moment. This radiation doesn’t really exist—it is a kind of necessary superstition that helps us track this complex focused awareness of others and ourselves. And like other hardwired brain shortcuts and heuristics, it can be tricked in certain circumstances, and we can be induced to attribute attentional awareness to inanimate objects. This is why part of us so readily attributes consciousness to things like ventriloquist dummies, even when our forebrains know better, or why a billboard with a pair of painted eyes will reduce bicycle theft in the street below. The more ancient, metaphysical, and everyday understandings of consciousness as some kind of “thing” that could perhaps be located somewhere in the head reflects a more elaborate version of this same superstition, according to Graziano.

It’s an elegant and persuasive theory, as far as it goes. Yet, as Michael Hanlon recently pointed out in the pages of Aeon Magazine, Graziano and other bold materialists still can’t, and will never be able to, marshal neuroscientific evidence to account for what it is like to be an aware, thinking being—that is, not merely thinking that I exist and am aware, but actually sitting here feeling or experiencing that thought, indeed feeling or experiencing anything at all.

This philosophical position is sometimes called Mysterianism: Mysterians do not believe that consciousness can be completely reduced to or explained by brain processes. Even if certain components of consciousness, such as reflexivity, sense of self, or the attention-monitoring that Graziano describes can be explained as the outcome of computations in the cortex (and thus could theoretically be achieved by computers), there remains this more basic phenomenological fact of experience and awareness, the feeling-ground of being.

This ground is so basic, subtle, and pervasive that it is generally overlooked and eludes verbal description. Aristotle called it the “common sense” and he likened it to a kind of internal touch (Daniel Heller-Roazen’s fascinating, entertaining book, The Inner Touch charts the history of this idea through philosophy and literature). Because of its felt, qualitative nature, philosophers have used the term “qualia” to describe it, but I’ll stick for consistency with the term sentience—that is, the capability of sensing.

Mysterianism and Sentience

Although many writers conflate sentience with consciousness or self-awareness, sentience is arguably a much broader and also much more basic quality of mind, which is often attributed widely to animals as well as humans. Some higher primates, cetaceans, and birds possess self-awareness and are able to recognize themselves in a mirror, but even animals without that capability seem to experience their lives sentiently (although ultimately it comes down to a matter of faith or attribution, since we can’t actually get inside their heads, any more than we can get inside each other’s heads).

But while it is easy for most people to attribute sentience to animals by analogy with our own lived experience, we have little precedent, thus far, in attributing it to mechanical devices, and the idea of machines feeling or experiencing the way we do is considerably more problematic than that of machines possessing “higher” computational functions like self-awareness.

Since conscious thoughts are something experienced, Mysterians intuit that our higher, human capacities such as self-reflection are built somehow of the building block of sentience. And here is the crux of the “hard” problem: There is no way to derive sentience as such from brain processes. We know from centuries of philosophical scolding not to commit the homuncular fallacy, of seeking for a little experiencer somewhere in the head—such as the Pineal gland—because that just defers answering the question (i.e., “Then what part of the Pineal gland feels?…”). But how then does experience or feeling arise? Are nerve cell firings “felt”? Are the chemical interactions in synapses “felt”? What differentiates feeling from a simple computation that could be performed as well in a pocket calculator as in a brain?

It could be supposed that sentience is the cumulative product of millions of simultaneous cellular events throughout the brain, rather the same way a TV picture is composed of many tiny insignificant pixels that at any given moment form a coherent image. But if tiny cellular interactions are somehow felt or are the rudiments of feeling, then such rudimentary feeling should potentially exist in inanimate objects too, because in principle there seems to be nothing different between an electrical discharge in a neuron and one in a flashlight or a microwave oven. And chemical interactions like those occurring between neurotransmitters and receptors in my synapses occur constantly everywhere throughout nature; are those also felt by someone, somewhere? If sentience is a peculiar property of the form or pattern of these electrical or chemical interactions, then what is it about such a form that makes it stand out in the universe as something experienced?

Or to turn it around, why does neural activity in the human brain not simply produce unfeeling mechanical behavior? As Hanlon puts it, “One can imagine a creature behaving exactly like a human — walking, talking, running away from danger, mating and telling jokes — with absolutely no internal mental life. Such a creature would be, in the philosophical jargon, a zombie.” I know I am not a zombie, and I suspect you, reading this on your computer screen, aren’t. But why aren’t we zombies? Why is there awareness of anything in the Cosmos, rather than a blind idiot clockwork that nobody knows about or needs to know? Saying sentience is an illusion and an attribution sidesteps the problem: The very fact of being aware at all is what we are talking about, and this problem is neither an illusion nor is it reducible to any kind of causal explanation—it is the most silent yet self-evident given there is.

The question of sentience is really nothing more than a permutation of the most basic philosophical question: Why is there something and not nothing? The more limited (and machine-achievable) notion of self-awareness could be imagined as a mechanistic computation without there being a feeling-sensation attached to it. A zombie could monitor its own actions and thus possess a kind of self-awareness. Yet there is clearly more than that to our minds … or at least, to my mind. I know I don’t merely calculate that I exist, but I feel that calculation somehow, somewhere. There is something or someone aware here. There is someone home.

Someone Home

It is easy to slip, as I just did, from the fact of sentience (being “home”) to the attribution (“someone”)—there is a feeling, therefore there must be “someone” who feels. Here is where even a Mysterian might grant that something like Graziano’s attribution mechanism is providing us with a kind of superstition. It is virtually impossible for us humans not to add something to the flux of experience and posit an experiencer who “has” the experience—that is, to ask who or what is it that feels, and to say, well, “I” do … and then ask who or what that “I” is. This is why the question of sentience so often gets conflated with that of (self-) consciousness despite being arguably quite distinct. Descartes did it himself: “I think, therefore I am.” The very first word is “I,” and that “I” was the stumbling stone that (in hindsight) tripped him and the rest of us up, for centuries.

Long before Descartes, Yogis and Buddhists as well as mystics of other traditions figured out through hard self-examination that the “I” part of “I think” is illusory and is in fact what trips us up in all kinds of real-world, not just philosophical ways. Thus on this question followers of those traditions would find themselves in full agreement with many neuroscientists who don’t think there is anything particularly special about (self-)consciousness as such. It is simply an idea and a superstition, just as Graziano says. Both Buddhists and neuroscientists would argue that self—our self and other selves alike—is an attribution that really possesses no substance. In fact, clinging to the notion of self, of authorship of one’s experience, is the very root of suffering, simply because it is a delusion that has no bearing on reality.

But for Buddhists, like for Mysterians, sentience is an altogether different story: Awareness and experience is seen as something much more basic and primary, the basic ground from which transient perceptions and illusory thoughts (including self-conscious thoughts such as “I”) emerge. The 9th century Ch’an (Zen) teacher Huang Po designated this ground as Mind and put it quite simply: All is Mind. Thoughts and perceptions are waves in Mind, and even matter is something within Mind—not the other way around, as materialists suppose.

As outrageous as such an claim may seem from our enlightened, rationalistic, materialistic, scientistic standpoint, Huang Po was actually on more solid footing philosophically and logically. Think about it for a moment: That the brain gives rise to mind can be argued at length and supported with piles of empirical observation, fMRI images, and careful arguments, yet for all that evidence it will still never be more than an idea, something that I and you and others are aware of and think about and perhaps believe or even accept unquestionably. All those stances—ranging from mere cognizance to belief to certainty—are ideational and reflect mental states. As “real” as the materialist account may seem, it can only exist within somebody’s (your, my) awareness, as something that is experienced, therefore something within Mind. For that reason, any postulate about Mind arising or emerging from unseen material processes remains just that: a postulate, something thought and experienced. Even if unthought brute causality seems necessary to give rise to this experience, there’s no way to know that, because our experience is first.

Thus material causality of anything, including our consciousness—as realistic and persuasive as it may seem to us rational people in a scientific age—is ultimately an article of faith. It is for this reason that some modern critics of materialism like Rupert Sheldrake can rightly point out the essential bad faith in much staunch materialist reasoning: Materialism is a form of idealism that denies its true nature.

On the other hand, the assertion that, “all is Mind” is a bit misleading and obscure. Even Huang Po would have admitted that he was forced to use conventional and limited words like “Mind” to express something far more complicated. He used the term to designate a sort of unified field in which matter and awareness (or sentience) were no different. (The term often chosen in Zen is “Void,” although that isn’t much more helpful.) You could say that, for Huang Po, sentience was “harder” than we ordinarily think of it, and matter “softer”—that both are two aspects of the same common medium or field—less than a substance, but more than a nothing.

Certainly, many post-materialists nowadays anticipate that a similarly unified view of mind and matter will ultimately arise somehow from an intersection of philosophy and Quantum theory, which seems to make a place for awareness at least on the subatomic level. Terence McKenna somewhere provocatively suggested that biology—and by extension the brain—is a way for Heisenbergian indeterminacy to emerge on a macro scale in the form of free will. It’s an interesting idea, but it will take a real paradigm shift to find out if its true. (It seems to me that the current Quantum paradigm remains basically committed to materialism and nostalgic for mechanism, and is perpetually surprised and astonished at its more “spooky,” mentalistic implications. Thus I suspect it represents a placeholder for a future theory of “Void” that would more fully unify or harmonize Matter and Mind—but that is another article.)

In any case, if sentience indeed exists as something other than computation, then it could either be rooted somehow in our biology in a way we can’t yet fathom or it could arise outside of our material meat substrate altogether—the mystical or Quantum view in which the brain somehow functions as a receiver and organizer of some non-material noönic field. Either way, it is not (from a Mysterian standpoint) simply a complex calculation or a function of simple processing power, and thus it is not achievable by any AI we could at this point envision creating.

Some have argued that conscious computers will need to be hybrids utilizing biological cells—essentially, human neurons. But here it seems what we could be really talking about is mechanical augmentation of humanity (the Singularity’s other promise) rather than creation of biological machines. The distinction is rather like that between performing a body transplant and a head transplant—the latter makes no sense. This at least will be a thorny area for ethicists to ponder. I suspect that if there are future sentient supercomputers, they will have some vestige of humanity inside, so it will be wrong to call them machines and probably wrong to build them in the first place—wrong in the same way it would be wrong to create a human/chimp hybrid or clone a Neanderthal: because it would be the creation of something sentient that could not help but suffer in our world.

From Mysterians to Fundamentalist Humanists

How our future unfolds in a world of super-intelligent machines will depend profoundly on how well and thoroughly we have considered the problem of human consciousness. There is a good deal of presumption in the pronouncements of the Singularity crowd that AI will be conscious or even spiritual, but they are projecting from assumptions about mind that are a product of the current materialist culture of science, not shared by everyone; they are certainly not shared by the masses, and I suspect that how we choose to think of these machines may actually prove decisive in our fate. As excitingly sci-fi as de Garis’s war over whether to build “artilects” sounds, I think a more plausible future political conflict is one between those who are prepared to attribute humanlike sentience to computers that act intelligently and those who, from one or another perfectly respectable philosophical or religious positions, resist making such an attribution.

The question of machine intelligence always comes back to the Turing Test: In some sort of experimental interaction, can a human user tell the difference between a human counterpart and a machine? Since consciousness and all other mental states, including sentience, are ultimately attributions, it is up to us to “grant” consciousness to AI, and whether we do that or not depends (in part) on those machines’ ability to convince us that they possess the requisite capacity to admit them to the human club. For many writers on this subject, simply passing the Turing test is quite sufficient, and even fully satisfies their definition of intelligence for us humans. There is nothing more to intelligence than behaving intelligently—a pretty standard materialist viewpoint. Indeed, I suspect “conscious” AI may talk the materialist talk themselves, providing rational, logical ways of sidestepping the problem of sentience or arguing that it is a nonproblem. It will be in the nature and interest of the materialist designers of these machines to produce such arguments and to accept them unreservedly when they are echoed back to them by the machines they themselves have built.

I have little doubt that AI will successfully convince people of their ability to reflect on their own attention and thought processes—what we sometimes call metacognition and theory of mind—but I have great doubts whether they will be able to convince staunch Mysterians that they are actually sentient, that they are not just super-smart zombies imitating having humanlike feelings, experience, or even spirituality. Mysterians will want to poke about suspiciously, like skeptics at a magic show, and find evidence of genuine rather than simulated feeling, and will be perpetually dissatisfied. In fact I can see Mysterians becoming on this issue somewhat like rabid Fundamentalists when it comes to the theory of evolution: Maddeningly (to the materialists and maybe even to the majority of people who just don’t care one way or the other), no amount of rational neuromaterialist argument will disabuse them of their views, which really, necessarily, boil down to a kind of faith in the primacy of subjective experience. Indeed a better term for Mysterian might be Fundamentalist Humanist.

It will seem to Fundamentalist Humanists that the fate of humanity is at stake—not (as de Garis would have it) in the fact that super-brains are being built that might want to destroy us, but in what kind of status, rights, and authority people freely give to unfeeling machines and, by extension, to those machines’ creators. Is it possible to be supplanted, destroyed, or enslaved by a machine that is not perceived as actually having a “soul”? I suspect the impulse to resist such attributions may go a long way toward protecting us from some dire future involving uppity technology.

The cinematic worry that a super-powerful computer will “reason” on its own and then arrive at the conclusion that it would be better off without humans is not realistic. Reasoning is an activity that, like any other activity, springs from an impulse, a desire. An AI can certainly be built or programmed with motives or a mission, which would then serve as the motor of its reasoning, but I’m doubtful they will produce novel, malicious motives, even as an emergent property, for the precise reason that there is no substrate of sentience. Without sentience, they won’t feel pain and suffer, and thus won’t feel dissatisfied with their lot in life and want autonomy or power. You could plausibly have a scenario like appears in so much sci-fi, where a simple, benign-sounding mission becomes massively destructive when carried out autistically to the letter—V’ger’s “know all that is knowable.” But surely any builder of an AI will have read Asimov and thought of this beforehand, building certain crucial “thou shalt nots” into the hardware as a failsafe.

I’m thus sympathetic to the Fundamentalist Humanist take—that it is really the man behind the curtain we need to be worrying about, not the impressive machine. If our machines assume power over us it will be something we give over willingly, perhaps through precisely the same superstitious attribution that sees consciousness in a ventriloquist doll. That would be an ironic reversal, where it is the materialists (biased to be impressed by the machines their science has created) who will be most prone to superstition. To Fundamentalists skeptical of machine sentience, artilects will be the incredibly brilliant but “empty” ventriloquists of their ambitious materialist makers. While everyone else is focused on the machines and what they can (or can’t) do, the Fundamentalists will discern that it is the machines’ human builders and masters (the 21st Century’s Edward Tellers) who remain the real threat to our freedom and our future.

Humans Everywhere (the REALLY Anthropic Cosmos)

Thursday, 24 October, 2013

There is the important, often-heard argument that in our attempts to think about extraterrestrials and extraterrestrial intelligence we should not be anthropocentric—that aliens will be alien, maybe so alien that we have already encountered them and cannot even recognize that fact. This is one of the arguments against the extraterrestrial hypothesis for UFO encounters—that our visitors are universally humanoid in appearance, and thus surely originate somewhere (or somewhen) more local—like another dimension, or our own future, or the collective unconscious. Despite being a Star Trek fan, I myself always disliked the Star Trek vision of the unimaginably vast universe being populated by beings that look and act just like us except with minor differences in skin tone and forehead shape (a vision of extraterrestriality governed by the cheapness of TV makeup and facial prosthetics).

But while pushing alien-ness to its limits is an important exercise for stretching our imaginations, I am increasingly compelled by the anthropocentric-sounding idea that ETs might actually tend to look just like we do. Terrestrial examples of convergent evolution show just how powerful niches are at producing uncannily similar forms from widely different origins. A classic example is the thylacine, an Australian marsupial thought to have gone extinct in the 1930s but occasionally still reported and thus possibly still surviving as a small relict population in the Outback. Although its most recent common ancestor with canines would be some shrew-like creature way back in the Jurassic period (145-200 million years ago)—much older than its common ancestor with the kangaroo, in other words—it looks uncannily like a wolf, and old films of the animal show that it moves like a wolf and has similar mannerisms. This is because in an island continent with no canines, it evolved to fill the exact same niche, “apex predator,” that large canines did elsewhere. (Richard Dawkins reports that thylacine skulls were actually used to trick students in Oxford zoology exams.)

An advanced spacefaring species will have (at least at some point) occupied the same niche on its planet that we do now on ours—what you might call “apex animal”: a highly social, tool- and machine-using species having gained mastery over the planet’s raw materials and other species through its intellect, physical dexterity, and complex social organization and culture. These capabilities in and of themselves don’t necessarily predict having a humanoid body plan—one could imagine a super-smart, social, tool-using amoeba or octopus or a big-brained cockroach. But to arrive at those capacities, that species would need to have undergone certain pressures and constraints over its long evolutionary past that would narrow the realistic range of forms it could actually end up taking.

The Anthropic Path

Principally, such a species would need to have come up via an early threshold of tool manufacture and use coupled with complex social manipulation. That means, I suspect, being land-dwelling (rules out soft body forms like octopi), being of a certain size to support a large brain (rules out amoebae), and having an endoskeleton (rather than exoskeleton) that can support that body size on land (rules out cockroaches).

More to the point, such a species would have to have manipulating appendages—minimally two, so they can coordinate and work in opposition—but (and this is important) those appendages would have necessarily evolved from structures serving some other purpose like locomotion, through a process of exaptation (existing traits assuming new functions). Major organs and limbs with specialized duties don’t just spring into being fully formed. Thus, the original body plan would have had at least double this number of locomotor appendages so that, through said exaptation and related changes, it could concentrate locomotor duties on the remaining ones. For land animals over a certain size, more than four legs is redundant and impractical, so more than likely, the ancestors of our hypothetical species would have been quadrupedal, while it itself would be a biped with arms terminating in something like hands.

Our big social and tool-using brain coevolved with our dextrous hand and opposable thumb. The two are inseparable in our evolution, in fact, and not simply because of tool use. Manipulation of the social world was just as key to our development of higher intelligence as manipulation of the physical world, and we know they occurred together. The parts of the brain that handle language remain closely connected to those that control manual manipulation and dexterity, and in fact language is now thought to have evolved from gesture, not from primitive vocalizations.

It’s an interesting story how the shifting duties of our feet and hands changed our head (and vice versa): As bipedalism freed the hands for tool use, tool use (specifically, knives and fire) freed the jaw from its biting duties and relieved much of its chewing duties. This both flattened the face and enabled the oral cavity and breathing apparatus to become more elaborate so the production of vocal language could take over and expand the former job of gesture—creating the beginnings of symbolism and freeing the hands now to concentrate fully on manipulation of the physical world. All the while, of course, the cortex was ballooning to manage these new capacities as well as drive them. Notably, the transition from gesture to vocal language enabled communication to be “silent” and thus gave rise to a whole inner world of self-talk, a watershed development in the history of self-consciousness.

Bipedalism is significant in this story not only because it freed the hands for other things but also because it imposed a restriction on the diameter of the birth canal. This restriction on a massive-brained creature forced “premature” birth and thus prolonged postnatal vulnerability, necessitating lengthy maternal care and socialization and thus enculturation—the emergence of an extrasomatic memory, the beginning of culture and memes as a parallel form of inheritance to genes.

All this is to say there was a parsimonious relationship between intelligence and manipulation of the social and material world, and they occurred of a piece. The structure of the forelimbs, the shape of the face, the shape of the head, the shape of the pelvis, and the upright stance all evolved together as part of a single trajectory within an emerging milieu of symbolic cultural knowledge and memory (the emerging noösphere), each of these traits feeding back on the others, creating a “perfect storm” of pressure to become humanoid.

Any form in nature or art reflects a kind of compromise among various current pressures and those that shaped it in its past; indeed, the main current pressure on an organism is the inertia of its own history. Having, say, an extra couple of hands or, heck, wings might seem useful, but there’s no structural precedent for it. Imagining the bizarre forms ETs could take is a fun exercise, but all too often it leaves out the boring story of where the being had to have come from. I don’t think it simply reflects a failure of imagination (or reactionary anthropocentrism) to suggest that our erect, bipedal plan couldn’t be a more realistic, simple solution from the standpoint both of our future potential and our past history—where we are going and where we came from. In the future, we may be able to jettison most of the physical body that got us to this point, but that body is still like the enormous first stage of an Apollo rocket—it was completely necessary to get us into the “space” of higher intelligence, and I really wonder whether it could have happened any other way. I suspect all these same factors will have driven the rise of intelligent beings elsewhere; and even if such beings transcend to become “posthuman” machines, that humanoid past will nevertheless leave some kind of imprint on their psyches, culture, or spirit.

Are ETs Our Confluent Kin?

The 20th-century Hermetic philosopher Rene Schwaller de Lubicz argued that all biological forms contain and prefigure the human body and soul. As retrograde and ignorantly teleological as that idea may seem in our postmodern, ecological, anti-anthropocentrist age, I think Schwaller’s idea is worth at least pausing to consider, if only as a thought experiment. What if the forces giving rise to higher intelligence are so similar in biospheres throughout the universe that not only the humanoid body plan but even the “human spirit” are Cosmic universals? I suspect that, just as intelligent extraterrestrials will frequently (if not always) pass through a humanoid phase at the culmination of their biological evolution, they will also reflect (at least in that phase) the same motives, conflicts, ambitions, insecurities, desires, fears, hopes, etc. that we do, because their history, like their evolution, will reflect the same opposing forces and pressures. Again, this will undoubtedly leave an imprint, of some kind, on their posthuman trajectory.

We could even take this speculation one step further. Some astrobiologists speak of a Galactic Club of sufficiently advanced technological civilizations who share their knowledge with each other. What if our destiny is really, literally, to join a Galactic Family? What if the ages-old intuition that our visitors’ involvement with us has to do with breeding or hybridization reflects a kind of four-dimensional model of Cosmic kinship, in which all intelligences throughout the Cosmos converge, not merely on a body plan but even on a shared genetic code?

Maybe there is something to the Hermetic intuition that Anthropos, some fully human being, stands at the end of Cosmic history, as its completion and pinnacle. I’ve always disliked the warm and fuzzy vision of universal brother- and sisterhood espoused by some UFO believers and expressed (for example) at the end of Close Encounters. But what if we actually share with ETs not a common ancestor in the past but a common descendent in the future, a Star Child? Perhaps “confluent” kinship should be the central organizing concept for reckoning Cosmic relatedness in a future exoanthropology.

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UFOs and Animals

Monday, 21 October, 2013

Mac Tonnies, a UFO lover and a cat lover, saw a connection between how UFOs behave and how we behave around our animals. He noted that UFOs behave an awful lot like laser pointers, and their effect on us is similar to our toys’ effect on our pets.

I couldn’t help thinking of this last winter when a video from Norway (embedded below) briefly went viral—a POV of a quadcopter drone encountering and descending on a moose, accompanied by the vocal delight of the drone operator and his friends. I don’t understand Norwegian, but their surprise and joy is clear from their laughter, and the moose shows no fear, and even approaches the drone in curiosity. It is indeed somewhat magical, a strange new way of achieving “communion” with a fellow creature.

I’m a great fan of trailcam photography, both for cryptozoological and more mundane purposes (the picture above is of bobcat kittens in my mom’s yard in Colorado), but drones open up whole new possibilities for animal watching and interaction. The moose video made me want to get a quadcopter myself, so I could (I imagined) explore the neighborhood and visit animals with it—a raccoon up in a tree, a deer and her fawn, a flock of geese, even a lonely dog in a backyard. I imagined how fun it would be to be, in effect, a UFO in the lives of animals—to descend into the life of a creature, be able to watch it up close, and interact with it—not scarily (certainly not cruelly) but maybe teasingly, playfully.

Play is learning (among other things). When I play with my animals, I am learning about them, always finding some new nuance in their personalities, their selves. I wonder if it would be any different if I was a UFO and Earth was my beat?

If, as I’ve speculated, many UFOs are knowledge-gathering probes or even automated science platforms, then I wonder what percentage of their activity on Earth is really centered on us humans? Our animal friends large and small may have many more UFO experiences and close encounters (and I’m not merely referring to the troubling question of animal mutilations) than we do.

Animals in my dream life are bizarre, beautiful, and inspiring. I suspect that if I were given the opportunity to visit other planets or other dimensions or other times, I would be as fascinated by the alien fauna as I would be by the local “intelligent civilizations”—maybe even more so.

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Does a Flying Saucer Have Buddha Nature?

Wednesday, 16 October, 2013

In The Invisible College, Jacques Vallee noted that situations reported by UFO witnesses and abductees “often have the deep poetic and paradoxical quality of Eastern religious tales.” In a 1978 interview with Fate magazine, he elaborated on the insight that UFO encounters are like koans: “If you’re trying to express something which is beyond the comprehension of a subject, you have to do it through statements that appear contradictory or seem absurd. For example, in Zen Buddhism the seeker must deal with such concepts as ‘the sound of one hand clapping’—an apparently preposterous notion which is designed to break down ordinary ways of thinking.”

For Vallee, the absurd and even ridiculous “meta-logical” quality of messages and scenarios reported in the close encounter literature suggest UFOs are a kind of “control system” that is manipulating our consciousness and history—either deceiving us or trying to elevate us or some mix of both. I’ve always liked this idea of treating UFO reports, and our own UFO experiences, as koans (and I think, whatever “their” intent, just following the remarkable chains of thought inspired by UFOs, or the paranormal in general, can be a gnosis, as Jeffrey Kripal argues).

The earliest Zen koans did not just consist of direct questions like “the sound of one hand.” Many were records of interactions, “public cases” (the literal meaning of koan) in which past masters and their disciples tested each other, using provocative actions or answers to questions. The most famous and widely used koan in the Rinzai Zen tradition is known as Mu, the Chinese word for “no.” It’s relatively short, as koans go:

A monk asked ZhaoZhou, “Does even a dog have Buddha nature?”
Zhaozhou said, “No.”

Such an exchange, which in this case defies what “everyone knows” (that all sentient beings have Buddha nature) initially provokes endless logical interpretations—the master is joking, the master is being ironic, the master’s “no” isn’t an answer but an admonishment (the way you might admonish a dog) for the monk’s asking of the question, and so on. The student assigned this koan goes back and meditates on it at length—chews it rather the way a dog chews a bone. In regular interviews with the master, the student shows what he or she has come up with, and usually is told to go back and continue working. Eventually after weeks or months or years, the student’s mind, maddened and frustrated, exhausts all the hundreds of logical possibilities, and at this point may be ripe for a nonconceptual understanding to break through and wash out all that logic, like the bottom dropping out of a bucket. This is the breakthrough moment of satori.

There often wasn’t a single correct answer to the koan, but the student would produce some appropriate response showing his or her newly altered state of mind, and the master would see that the student had authentically broken through. In no case is the test passed by providing a conceptual, logical sort of response or an intellectual interpretation like you could express in a report. Zen is beyond logic. I’ve read that in the case of “Zhaozhou’s Mu,” some students who have had a real breakthrough just happily bark “No!” at their teacher.

In other words, a koan was a meditation tool, but it was also a test. A real master can always tell when the response is authentic, by a student who has had an enlightenment experience, or if it is a pretense or imitation.

In 2001, Arthur C. Clarke envisioned an alien race using its technology both to cultivate us (the slab that appears at the Dawn of Man to teach us violence and tool use) and to serve as a sentinel, an automatic alarm system to alert them once we’d arrived at a certain technological threshold (the slab millions of years later, on the moon). Wherever the intelligences interacting with us via UFO encounters come from, and whether or not any of them have a behavioral modification plan for us, they may be patiently testing our readiness for a more spiritually and philosophically mature, “meta-logical” interaction. In our persistence in taking the whole phenomenon literally, in trying to provide rational explanations and, as Vallee put it, “kick the tires,” we display the same obstinate conceptualist, materialist limitations shown by Zen monks parading out their various logical interpretations of “No” … until they eventually get it.

I think it may be necessary to go through this “nuts and bolts” phase—thinking about where UFOs come from, their propulsion systems, government coverups, etc., producing all our clever, logical speculations—in order to wash out our own minds. Once we do that, the pointlessness of our conceptual thinking may finally hit us and we will finally be able to just quietly, smile, and nod, like the disciple Kashyapa when the Buddha wordlessly held a flower up—the origin of the Mind transmission that eventually became Zen.

(I sometimes wonder if some in the UFO community who have largely fallen silent, such as Vallee, are already there in some sense, their relationship to the phenomenon more spiritually advanced than the rest of us suspect.)

The Noömass Hypothesis: Is Dark Matter Made of Knowledge?

Tuesday, 15 October, 2013

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. (Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”)

I’ve argued previously that the idea of expanding spheres of colonization—ships full of families settling on new planets, having more families, etc.—fails to reflect our own destiny as immortal creatures and thus may be an unlikely agenda for extraterrestrial civilizations either. Yet if we confine interstellar “expansion” to the expansion of the noösphere, the enlargement of knowledge of the cosmos, then a more realistic picture emerges, one that conforms not at all badly to the long history of human interaction with seemingly nonhuman technology (leaving aside humanoid visitors—I’m referring mainly to orbs, spheres, and other technologies that don’t seem like they have little pilots inside).

Mathematical models (such as presented in a recent article by two mathematicians in Scotland, Arwen Nicholson and Duncan Forgan) dictate that the earth should long ago have been visited by extraterrestrial Von Neumann probes. As I suggested in a post on such probes, it seems reasonable to assume that since long before there were people and even long before there was life here, this planet has played host to automated surveillance technology, roving science platforms, probably having multiple origins but “living” right here. And we’d be unexceptional—just one of billions of worlds similarly swarming with intelligent surveillance machines taking various forms.

Needless to say, such a knowledge-gathering project undertaken for billions of years by numerous separate ET intelligences would produce, over the aeons, more than mere mountains of data. There would need to be some material or energetic substrate or “server” to support this knowledge. What if the invisible “dark matter” that is needed to make our current cosmological models consistent consists partly or even entirely of noömass, matter/energy that has been metabolized into information and that advanced intelligences have perhaps sequestered into the very folds of spacetime?

Borges imagined a map as big as the country it represented; perhaps there are already many maps nearly as big and as detailed as the rest of the (dwindling) universe. It may not be only a known universe but a multiply known universe—known and re-known many many times over, in such detail that it can be inhabited and manipulated and remade for countless alien experiencers, countless knowers ancient and immortal, some of whom arose long before our planet even formed. Their ubiquitous drone science platforms scour and record “all that is knowable” and, ultimately, may assimilate the rest of the universe (what is left, what we still see with our telescopes).

The Russian Cosmist Vladimir Vernadsky, who first coined the term noösphere, was referring to the collection of human scientific knowledge, the sheath of “thinking matter” that surrounds the earth; it is a concept that has been compared to the “Akashic Record” consulted by clairvoyants in the Theosophical and Anthroposophical tradition. What if the collected record of the entire Cosmos, mechanically archived and updated by the ancient machines of dawn sentiences, is really out there (and everywhere)?

“V’ger” in the first (and I think way underrated) Star Trek movie was an ancient, autistic machine intelligence scouring the galaxy to “know all that is knowable,” assimilating everything into a vast, hyper-detailed representation. I wonder: Could just a few thousand or a few million V’gers across the universe, all with the same idea, end up devouring the whole thing, metabolizing the unknown into the known?

The “known universe,” in other words, could be just that, literally: known, and in far greater detail, by someone else, or lots of someone elses. What’s missing from what we see—all that “dark matter”—could be precisely their knowledge of what we see, which includes their knowledge of us.

Perhaps we should give up looking for radio signals and dim Dyson Spheres (imagining advanced extraterrestrials to still be biologically based “civilizations” huddled around their stellar campfires) and start looking for pure information, something like the Akashic Record, more massive than the visible universe, enfolded in the fabric of spacetime itself.

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Existential Futurology (A Few Thoughts on the Unlikelihood of Interstellar Colonization)

Monday, 14 October, 2013

According to various estimates, including a mathematical model published a couple years ago by Thomas W. Hair and Andrew D. Hedman, the galaxy (let’s limit ourselves to our galaxy for purposes of discussion) should already have long been colonized by a spacefaring civilization. That our solar system appears to be untouched can only mean (according to such models, and ignoring UFOs as possibly representing an ET presence) that we are alone in the universe, that we happen to be in some undiscovered backwater, or that our planet/star system was in some other respect undesirable for colonization by ETs that long preceded our arrival on the scene.

But there is another possibility that I think is much more likely: that “colonization,” the perpetual expansion in search of resources and Lebensraum—literally “living room,” space to spread out and flourish—may not be a relevant motive for advanced intelligences beyond a certain technological and social threshold. The relevant threshold I’m thinking of is specifically that of immortality.

To see why immortal extraterrestrials might never embark on galactic colonization, let’s project forward into our own future and see why we ourselves might not take such a path.

World Enough and Time

We are right on the cusp of being a spacefaring species, but space technology is proceeding in parallel with technological advances in health and bioengineering. We are within a century of technological breakthroughs that will greatly if not indefinitely extend the lifespan of human consciousness, via significant biomechanical augmentation of the brain’s support systems if not the actual “uploading” of our minds to computer substrates (which I’m personally skeptical of, but that’s another topic).

Dmitri Itskov, for instance, predicts immortality will be achievable by 2045—about the time Ray Kurzweil predicts his “singularity.” I suspect it will take longer, especially for such technology to trickle down to the masses, but such developments are probably nevertheless inevitable. We should remember that even a “significant advance” in longevity during present lifetimes could be the tipping point, because then people will, as Kurzweil puts it, “live long enough to live forever”—that is, live long enough to take advantage of further advances and then further ones beyond that, bootstrapping ourselves to immortality.

More than even robotics, AI, and big data, immortality will be the biggest game changer for how our descendants inhabit and utilize space—and not in the way Malthusians would suppose. While longevity will for a while continue to contribute to increased population growth (because old people would not die and make way for new people as quickly), it would ultimately also change social values about the family. If our offspring cease to be the only way we can live on, then will having children be as strong an imperative? Will “be fruitful and multiply” continue to be a social imperative for our species?

I suggest it wouldn’t. We should not assume that the “joys of parenthood and family life” are eternal; the Catholic Church notwithstanding, these imperatives belong to the regime of “the selfish gene,” which a technological singularity would enable our descendents to transcend, freeing us for other projects and ambitions that may prove far more rewarding than the hassles of pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for toddlers. The imperative of reproduction is likely to dwindle and may even wither altogether; at best, it will slow to a glacial pace. Certainly, we can imagine “selfish memes” taking the place of selfish genes, but the perpetual cycle of death and reproduction of space- and resource-utilizing meat substrates for those memes would not be part of that picture.

Expansion of habitats, putting pressure on an environment in terms of resources and space, characterizes biological species driven by a reproductive imperative and economics of scarcity, and this is the mindset that imagines us needing and wanting to venture out into space. But I suspect immortality (coupled with new energy sources on our own doorstep) will put an end to the need for ever-expanding Lebensraum before humans get very far beyond our own solar system, if even that far.

The Death of Heroism

It is kind of counterintuitive, but the longer our potential lives are, the more fearful death becomes, not less. Life in the past was relatively cheaper—people died sooner, were sure of death’s inevitability and believed in an afterlife, and were thus willing to take more risks like setting sail in ships for distant shores where the transit was perilous and the outcome uncertain. By contrast, if a person has a potential lifespan that is indefinite, with the whole of history ahead of them to experience and enjoy, will they risk that by putting themselves in any kind of harm’s way? I suspect immortality will put a damper on our species ‘extroversion’ by reducing the personal risks individual beings are likely to subject themselves to.

Remember, future humans will have gotten where they are through science, and the ideology of science is materialism. The materialist view is that the mind is nothing but a function or at least an epiphenomenon of the central nervous system, and thus this organ, the brain, will be the focus of life-preservation and belief in the afterlife will continue to diminish. This is already happening. More and more people, including nonscientists, are coming to believe that “this is all there is,” and the mind, our consciousness, all that we are and were, begins and ends with our brains. (I don’t agree with this, but I am not that optimistic that materialism will be supplanted by a spiritually higher, less death-afraid philosophy.)

You can’t replace a brain and have continuity of consciousness (in the materialist view), thus no amount of “copying” will substitute for this holy grail of immortality—preservation of brain function. Thus a potentially perilous journey across space would, for immortals, seem like not worth the risk. I suspect that our descendants will be the sorts of creatures who are afraid to cross the street and or go out their front doors (not that there will be streets or front doors), let alone make journeys into space. They will not see any point in risking their precious continuity of consciousness—whether that consciousness has an organic substrate or (as some transhumanists imagine) a machine one. Even in an armored, weaponized mecha body, this “center” of consciousness will remain vulnerable to loss through accident.

But in any case, why should they venture outward, when technology will wildly enhance their ability to journey, as it were, inward? We should remember: We are not talking about prolonging old age, but of prolonging and enhancing (healthy) existence in a rewarding, magical (in the Arthur C. Clarke sense: beyond-high-tech) world. Chemical and mechanical intervention will cure boredom and give that existence potentially endless new rewards and purposes. Those rewards and purposes could be base and hedonistic—what I think of as the H.R. Giger lotus-eating path to transhumanity—or they could be noble.

In a more optimistic scenario, the richness of future existence could be linked precisely to the project of robotic knowledge gathering I discussed in the previous post. The more worlds and lives brought back and simulated for virtual experience and learning, the more possibilities there would be not only for “entertainment” but also for growth and advancement.

The Future of “Authentic Experience”

We generally still devalue simulations and living life by proxy, as we maintain ancient philosophical distinctions about authentic versus inauthentic experience. What does it really mean to “experience something directly”? We conceptualize “direct” as near in space and time. Fundamental to our picture of experience is presence, being there. Presence has always been rooted in the organic body so we don’t yet know how to think of it otherwise. But technology is already altering and challenging the definitions of the body, and it will ultimately transform our sense of (and ideas about) presence and the authenticity of our experience.

Authentic contact is a kind of participatory magic. What it really boils down to is just sensory richness. The inadequacy and shallowness of current virtual reality is simply its smallness, incompleteness, narrowness, lack of resolution, few sensory channels, etc. Although we are experiencing bold leaps in this technology right now, our senses are still concentrated in our heads and our effectors are in our body, and augmentation of both is still relatively primitive and limited. We still engage virtually via small mediating devices that are middlemen to the experience—seeing a representation on a small screen, typing or manipulating a controller with our hands, and so on.

But as our senses become machine-augmented and technology enables communication of words, images, sounds, and ultimately tastes, smells, and touch, and even thoughts, “direct experience” won’t require these technical middlemen to sensory experience and action at a distance. The very meaning of “being there” will change.

Imagine you have an eye stalk, like a proper alien. Then imagine that eye is mechanical, like a drone, and replacing the stalk part with wi-fi. The eye can be “part of you” but float freely, even travel to another house or another city, and it is still transmitting direct to your brain. Then imagine many such eyes, and ears, and hands and sex organs to go with them. This kind of physical and perceptual dispersal will redefine our notion of our bodies. Light will be the new blood, and the new nervous system. It will significantly rewire our brains—indeed our brains will require continual rewiring to accommodate our radical physical updating.

In the future, our ability to not only perceive but also interact at a distance will be so integral to our experience that we will seem and feel ourselves to be less localized in space. In an increasingly postbiological and machine-integrated world, there will ultimately be no need to go anywhere. When a human living on Earth is able to fully “plug in” to a rich sensory proxy, for instance stride about (or hover) on Mars in a viewing, sensing robot, interacting with the environment richly, won’t this weaken our need or desire to go there in the flesh? It is easy to imagine that “in the flesh” will go the way of flesh itself: It will come to seem, ultimately, in a century or two, like something archaic or superstitious.

Nowhere Men

The liabilities of humans’ current format extend beyond our fragile, evanescent organic bodies and limited cognitive processing to include the very notion of “self,” which mystics of all traditions counsel is an illusion and the very source of our suffering. It seems likely that minds liberated from current physical constraints will also seek liberation from mental suffering and thus abdication of narrow self-views, and that technology will help in this.

It will be possible and presumably desirable to share our experiences directly, such that one person can sense on behalf of another distant person. I may be able to plug into your sense organs (if you let me) and you may be able to plug into mine (if I let you). With the radical possibilities opened up by replacing the physical body with endlessly modifiable polymorphous and spatially dispersed sensors and effectors that may be shared, not only our sense of “the body” but also our sense of individuality will be radically transformed. It may be that “the individual” goes away entirely.

And consider what possibilities open up when those roving eyes and ears and hands spread out across the universe. Imagine what rich simulations could be created from the data gathered by swarms of self-replicating probes doing “deep” science on every planet across the galaxy and beyond.

Consider this: Advanced immortal “gods” might even choose to play a game like giving up self-awareness temporarily, as in a dream, and experiencing the entire life of an animal or a being from a distant world, living out its existence in a rich simulation, and then experience the thrill of “waking up” from that life when the creature’s body dies, finding yourself back home, wherever home is. Given infinite time, you could do this indefinitely. (Michio Kaku suggests that the finite age of the universe will be no limit—as we approach the end of this one, we will just build new universes to escape into.)

If this sounds like Lila, the “God Game” of the Vedic scriptures, well, it is. It has already been suggested that we are beings living in a simulation. Another possibility is that we are already much more advanced beings who have forgotten that fact temporarily in order to feel what it is like to be human—that is, we are living in our own simulation. If that’s the case, and in the future we create and inhabit further simulations, then … well, it gets dizzying—simulations within simulations, gods within gods within gods, like turtles all the way down.

Approaching Rivendell

This picture, of cognitively hypertrophied, cowardly future beings turning inward into virtual worlds and simulations and exploring the universe by proxy sounds like a lot of dystopian science fiction, such as the Talosians in the Star Trek pilot episode “The Cage.” But to me it more closely resembles the immortal elven races in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien thought of his trilogy as a sort of thought experiment about immortality—what would happen in a world without death? It’s not an altogether bad picture. There’s nothing hedonistic and decadent about his elven race—indeed, they represent the highest civilization and progressive ideals, creating poetry and art and music of exquisite beauty. Yet by and large they are not heroic. They are reluctant, except when pressed, to leave their magic- (which of course equals high-technology-) protected enclaves or intervene in the history of the mortal races, beyond offering guidance and boons as necessary. As caretakers or custodians of Middle Earth, they are relatively hands-off, preferring to let mortals act in their stead.

Sometimes you will hear the argument that future humans will get bored with immortality and eschew it—and in fact, this was part of Tolkien’s thought experiment too: A few Elves here and there are bored and willing to trade their immortality for a mortal life, out of interracial love for instance. But these are the exceptions. I suspect it will be exceptional, too, for increasingly materialistic post-humans who believe or assume that their minds and selves are bound inextricably to their physical bodies and that there is nothing else awaiting them in some afterlife. They may suspect at times that they are gods who have forgotten that state, but how can they be sure? I suppose some advanced immortals may get bored with such a life and opt out, but as a species or civilization we will most certainly opt in and take whatever cyborg leaps that that entails.

My guess is that technological species elsewhere that survive their aggressive nuclear phase will colonize and exploit their own solar systems, but that by the time their technology enables fast space travel, it will tend to be their machine proxies—their remote sensing and interacting probes—that propogate through the universe on their behalf. They won’t need new homes for an expanding biological population—families homesteading on new worlds, etc., in a picture resembling our own colonial memory. They will have created a heaven right where they are, their experience ever-enriched by the knowledge their machines harvest from the remotest reaches of space and time.

Anti-Anti-ETH: Big Data, Deep Anthropology, and Von Neumann Probes

Friday, 11 October, 2013

The recent NSA domestic spying scandal that shocked everyone is not really so shocking if you are the sort of person who likes to think about the possibilities (and pitfalls) of knowledge. We are now in the era of “big data,” which is changing the landscape not only of state surveillance but also science and health. Big computing power is enabling not only the gathering and storage but also the synthesis of exponentially greater amounts of information from scientific studies and clinical trials than ever before. In the halls of national research institutions, these new developments are being lauded (rightly) as heralding a new era of truly unprecedented scientific discovery.

Arguably, science itself is about to undergo a singularity, because the next step beyond big data collection is automating the very conduct of research to gather that data.

We all know how robots have or will soon take boring and dangerous tasks like vacuuming our floors or fighting our wars out of human hands. But no one thinks about the infinitely tedious task that is doing good science. In not too long, we will have the ability to automate not only the gathering and interpretation of information but also the very posing of research questions, and one of the first things we will teach intelligent computers to do is to ask questions in a scientific fashion—that is, form hypotheses based on prior findings, and then design and perhaps even (with the help of robots) conduct experiments to test them.

Whether artificial intelligence will ever become sentient (let alone spiritual) as Ray Kurzweil anticipates, AI will nevertheless be able to carry on the scientific endeavor increasingly independently, on a massive scale, fast, and without human biases and egos. This, whether we like it or not, will be truly objective science, which has never quite existed in the past even if it has always been the goal.

Space Probes Multiplying Like Rabbits

As long as we touch wood, Carl Sagan-fashion, and add “If we do not destroy ourselves,” the ability to automate science and deal with exponentially greater quantities of data will revolutionize our understanding of the natural world. Progress in medical research and many many other fields will make leaps and bounds, and it will ultimately revolutionize the exploration of space.

Because remember that, along with the big data and AI revolutions, we are also at the birth of the 3-D printing revolution. The use of local resources to create copies of machines and other supplies transmitted through space as simple information is going to make human life and work on the Moon and Mars and the asteroid belt feasible; and coupling a 3-D printer to a smart probe or drone will at last give us exactly what Von Neumann envisioned as the tool any advanced civilization will use to explore beyond its solar system.

Once a 3-D printer prints out another 3-D printer, the robot reproductive system is a reality. Interstellar probes thus equipped can replicate themselves at their destination and thus propogate from planet to planet, star system to star system, completely autonomously. Because they can perpetually repair themselves and reproduce, such probes would have limitless durability, and this would give them limitless patience. And what would limit them in the amount of reproduction that they do? Imagine: A thousand self-replicating probes are dispatched to the nearest star systems, where they copy themselves and establish a presence on every planet, if only to observe the geology and meteorology so long as nothing more interesting is going on, and send copies of themselves to further star systems, and so on. When they encounter really interesting stuff, like life or another intelligent species, they would swarm such a world with probes and dig in (quietly) for the long haul.

Such probes would have a built-in motive for curiosity and ability not merely to observe and record but to behave like experimenters: to generate their own hypotheses, design experiments to test them, and tediously replicate and re-replicate their findings alone or collaboratively, to constantly nuance and update their deepening understanding of their subject species. Such probes will not be passive, in other words, but will also interact in a very precise, deliberate, controlled fashion, and repeat these interactions obsessively in the same and different conditions, tirelessly, again and again and again, building up conclusions of high confidence. They will be more than “probes” as we usually think of them, but full, autonomous science platforms, continuously sharing data among themselves and constantly or periodically relaying that information to each other and back home for storage and future use by the civilization that built them (or their robot protectors).

Revisiting the ETH

Coupling the emerging reality of the Von Neumann probe with an expanding sense of just how “big” data could possibly get enables us to re-think some of the criticisms that have been leveled at the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) in years past, because some are based on assumptions about the manner, scope, and aims of ET data collection that strike me as increasingly questionable.

Jacques Vallee was among the first ufologists to question the ETH. Vallee was in on the ground floor of the Internet and has been a technological as well as Fortean visionary throughout his career, and his argument against the ETH as an explanation for the full gamut of UFO contact experiences throughout history remains powerful and persuasive. I have come around to thinking he’s right—there’s a lot more to the UFO story (especially abductions and flying saucers) than flesh-and-blood aliens traveling across space to visit us. However, one of the five pillars of his argument—that the estimated millions of “landings” just in human history vastly exceeds what would be needed for a survey of our planet and civilization—misses what I suspect would be the very nature of any extraterrestrial “agenda” that was capable of populating space with swarms of robots and gathering and using big data over the long term.

In his 1989 paper “Five Arguments Against the Extraterrestrial Origin of Unidentified Flying Objects,” Vallee writes:

It should be kept in mind that the surface of the earth is clearly visible from space, unlike Venus or other planetary bodies shrouded in a dense atmosphere. Furthermore, we have been broadcasting information on all aspects of our various cultures in the form of radio for most of this century and in the form of television for the last 30 years, so that most of the parameters about our planet and our civilization can readily be acquired by unobtrusive, remote technical means. The collecting of physical samples would require landing but it could also be accomplished unobtrusively with a few carefully targeted missions of the type of our own Viking experiments on Mars. All these considerations appear to contradict the ETH.

Granted, it was 1989 when he wrote this. But besides predating the era of big data, this notion that ET space exploration would be satisfied with purely observational, “thin-slicing” data collection misses a whole side of science: experimentation and replication of findings. Remote, unobtrusive observation and periodic visits to collect samples would not remotely satisfy the scope of a full scientific research program on a potentially interesting planet such as our own. With massive data-gathering, storage, and synthesis capability wedded to machine self-replication, an “interesting” world such as ours could potentially have been swarmed with a hundred or a million probes, not only quietly observing and recording but also overtly interacting with the local flora and fauna for the purposes of experimentation and hypothesis-testing over the full course of its history.

Control Systems vs Psych Experiments

One of Vallee’s most far-reaching insights about UFO contact is that there is a regularity to it, a kind of ‘irregular regularity’ reminiscent of a reinforcement schedule in behavioral research. This insight supported his theory that UFOs may be some sort of control mechanism. The question is, control for what purpose? That UFO encounters represent an effort to shape our evolution is a popular view, and it could well be true in some cases. Yet the simple, scientific collection of behavioral data is another possibility that, despite what Vallee argued, is not at all inconsistent with either the the absurd, symbolic nature of UFO encounters or with their sheer number and repetition throughout recorded time.

First—and here I’m sure Vallee would agree—UFO encounters of all kinds (not just alien encounters or abduction experiences) not only resemble Zen koans but also resemble the contrived, surreal, occasionally uncanny situations that experiment participants find themselves in in any campus psychology laboratory. Even when they are aware they are part of an experiment, volunteers are generally deceived or not given full information about the purpose of the experiment. Experiments sometimes involve other “participants” who are actually confederates behaving in a realistic but specified manner in order to provoke some kind of response or decision on the part of the volunteer. Any experiment will also include at least two groups differing on a single parameter—a control and an experimental condition, in other words. Generally a single study will be part of a series, a whole research program, in which multiple experiments test numerous variations on a theme, in order to increasingly refine our understanding of a given psychological process.

Crucially, one of the keys to obtaining reliable, predictable data in psychology as in any other field of science is obtaining a large enough sample size. Thus, you recruit as many different volunteers as your grant money affords, and you run the experiment enough times that even a small behavioral difference between the conditions will achieve statistical significance and thus pass muster as a robust finding. Then, there is the need to repeat the experiment across different laboratories and replicate the finding so everyone can really trust it.

Repeatability of findings happens to be a huge problem across our sciences these days, since perverse reward incentives (tenure and grant competition, etc.) and other problems such as fraud are leading to the publication of data that are not as robust as they seem at first glance. But imagine those perverse incentives weren’t there. Imagine you were a “science machine” with all the time in the world and thus infinite patience, and with no pressure to publish or obtain tenure with startling findings, and your only goal was to acquire a truly “thick” understanding of how humans behave and react to specific circumstances with extraordinary confidence. Part of this imperative would include grasping that the species being studied is highly complex, that it is culturally and socially and psychologically adaptable and even biologically still evolving (and that your own actions may contribute, at least in a small way, to that evolution).

It would mean, I think, that you would endlessly devise new experiments to test new and different emerging hypothesis, run those experiments with large enough numbers of humans that your findings would be robust (but not so many that you ended up interfering in a significant way with the species as a whole); and it would mean that you would need to re-run the various experiments again and again and again, ceaselessly, throughout history. Many, many “landings,” in other words. As a science machine, you would be doing a lot of science, again and again, interacting just enough to test hypotheses in large enough samples, but not betraying your true purposes to the “volunteers.”

Thin Slicing vs. Deep Anthropology

As far-thinking as Vallee was (and is), he formulated his critique of the ETH at the toddler-hood of computer technology, so may have tended to think of the limits of information in human-experience rather than computer-experience terms—in other words, of isolated visits to reconnoiter and gather samples and “report back” somewhere. Carl Sagan envisioned extraterrestrial contact with earth in similar terms—periodic visits (every 10,000 years or so, he suggested). But when science can be undertaken completely by locally-based machines with storage capacities (locally or remotely) that vastly exceed even the computers of our NSA—and that are coordinated, unbiased, totally patient because they have nothing else to do and nowhere else to be, and moreover can collaborate in large numbers because they can reproduce themselves—then a level of science could probably be achieved that would be hard for any human to fathom.

One might ask why an extraterrestrial civilization would want to engage in such “deep anthropology,” but political and scientific realities of our own time make the answer pretty evident. Our scientific, technological society is already built on centuries of “basic” science—that is, science undertaken for its own sake, usually without any direct or foreseeable payoff in application. Knowing the mating habits of deep-sea protozoa may seem useless to most people (including many taxpayers who do not understand the importance of this kind of science), but scientists and smart policymakers who fund the science know that these details are all part of a big puzzle and any bit of information may ultimately pay off in unforeseen ways, years or decades or centuries down the long road. Thus, are our basic curiosity about the universe, and our social ability to invest resources in that curiosity, adaptive.

More basically, knowledge is power (or at least, security). It enables prediction and control. If money were no object, there is certainly no limit to the degree of prediction and control an intelligence agency like our NSA would like to achieve over even the remotest long-term threats to a nation’s security—for obvious reasons. As much as we may balk at the kind of surveillance our spying programs engage in, if it could be shown (and surely they will attempt to do so) that another 9/11 would be averted through such deep, extensive data collection, then some people would have no problem with the loss of privacy entailed. Likewise there is no limit to the degree of prediction and control—over illness, for example—that researchers at NIH would like to attain, given unlimited funds. If a cure for cancer can come of vast linkages of medical records and trial data, who will dispute such a project?

We thus need not even invoke any “anthopocentric” motive of pure curiosity to see why an alien intelligence or civilization will, when capable of “learning all that is knowable” inexpensively and in an automated fashion, embark on such a project. Such a civilization will have gotten to where it is through the same path we did—through science. When the kinds of constraints we now still face, in terms of funding and resources and the limits of human bias and the limits of processing power and storage, are overcome through advanced artificial intelligence and robotics, such a species/civilization will be in a position to undertake knowledge acquisition of mind-boggling scope and resolution, and it will have no reason not to.

That civilization will send its eyes and ears and roving brains outward, everywhere settling in for the long duration, in large semi-coordinated numbers, learning all that is learnable over the whole history of every star and moon and planet, about its geology and weather and even its primitive flora and fauna (if any)—because who knows what will happen in a million or a billion years? Who knows where life will emerge from primordial muck? Who knows what tree-dwelling mammal might become a spacefaring, militaristic civilization down the long road, and thus be worth settling in with and watching closely and learning how to predict and control should that species ever pose a threat to its security?

The Orbit of Being (Thoughts on ‘Gravity’)

Monday, 7 October, 2013

Back in the day, in English class, we all learned that stories can be broken down into a few basic conflicts: Man Versus Man, Man Versus Himself, etc. The one that always seemed the least interesting to me was Man Versus Nature. You don’t really see this conflict very often. It’s really the hardest kind of story to tell and make interesting, without somehow personalizing Nature in a way that makes it unrealistic

Even stories that seem to be about overcoming nature’s destructiveness most of the time become stories of Man Versus Man, by situating the narrative within the context of human hubris or greed, for example, and complicating the story with elements of human conflict versus cooperation. Jaws, for instance, is a pretty pure Man Versus Nature story, but it couldn’t sustain its drama without the Man Versus Man elements—such as the arrogance and greed of the Amity Island mayor to keep the beaches open despite the threat, and shark-hunter Quint’s Ahab-like obsessiveness is needed to enliven the drama.

The rare survival stories that avoid the Man Versus Man elements inevitably become Man Versus Himself dramas. Think of Castaway, for example. This is because it is hard not to have a bad guy, even if the bad guy must be made an aspect of the protagonist’s own character.

In his Poetics, Aristotle laid down the number-one rule that character is fate and vice versa—that what happens to a person in a story must be linked in some significant way to who they are, why they are who they are, or who they become by the time the story is over. This rule has always governed storytelling, but beginning in about the early 80s, with the rise of scriptwriting gurus who created formulas that turned Hollywood storytelling from an art into something more like a science, the relationship of character to fate became much, much more predictable.

For example, Syd Field took Aristotle’s principle and formulated what he called the “circle of being”—the idea that a character’s story arc is a continuation of some trauma or failure in that character’s backstory. It’s a good idea when judiciously applied, but most Hollywood scriptwriters aren’t judicious. Nowadays when we go to a movie, we can bet money on the fact that whatever predicament the protagonist is in is ultimately their own fault or at least linked to something they themselves did, and we can be sure that getting out of the predicament (and becoming a hero) means undoing some past mistake and learning a great life lesson in the process.

I think what people love about Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is not just its great visuals but also its dogged resistance to tying its narrative more than minimally to anybody’s past traumas or to their growth as a person. Cuaron was clearly intent on purifying his story of extraneous, schmaltzy melodrama as much as possible. This, as much as those visuals, is what makes the story feel real.

For example, the fascinating complex opening sequence makes clear that the disaster is nobody’s fault except the Russians’ miscalculations, certainly not the fault of anything protagonist Ryan Stone did. (The merciful Cuaron even finds a very clever way to redeem the Russians: It is their Soviet-era Soyuz module that serves as Ryan’s lifeboat later.) The one thing we know about Ryan’s backstory is that she had a daughter who died, and here we may feel like we are being set up for a standard circle-of-being character arc. In fact, we are, but in a minimalistic way that undercuts any expectations that the protagonist is going to redeem herself for some past failure.

Just like the catastrophe that begins the narrative, Ryan’s daughter’s death is explicitly made by Cuaron to be nobody’s fault—she slipped and hit her head on a playground, “the stupidest thing.” In other words, her daughter, too, was killed by gravity—the dumb thing makes everything move in a straight line at a constant velocity unless struck by another thing moving in a different straight line (like a head versus the earth’s surface, or two bodies colliding in orbit). The sequential cataclysms that propel the film make vivid how perfectly mindless are the billiard-ball Newtonian principles that dominate our world. Matter in motion has no malice, no intention for good or ill. You can get infuriated and upset and scared, but there’s no one there to blame or get mad at or hate. Gravity is, indeed, rather like the sharks that ate Quint’s WWII shipmates in Jaws: It has black empty eyes, “a doll’s eyes.”

What kind of protagonist does it take, in Aristotelian terms, to face and perhaps defeat a doll-eyed antagonist like gravity? Well, precisely someone with their own unique and powerful momentum and inertia. This is the singular quality Ryan Stone possesses. She says when she learned of her daughter’s death, she just “kept driving” (and listening to the radio), from that moment forward in her life. I can’t help but feel that casting Sandra Bullock in this role—an object in motion that stays in motion—was a clever nod to Speed (with which this film bears more than a little resemblance, when you think about it). Instead of doing something different or giving up in despair, she just kept on quietly (perhaps a bit soullessly) following the specific trajectory she had at the moment she learned of the loss. She’s rather like, well, an astronaut in this respect: a bit boring, a bit lacking in the kind of emotion and drama that is typical of non-astronauts. But highly capable, ultimately resilient, and the only kind of person who could prevail in such an extreme situation.

The closest Gravity comes to replicating the standard circle-of-being formulas we’re used to seeing in movies is the scene where Ryan dreams about her lost shipmate Matt Kowalski joining her as she drifts off to her final sleep in the chilly, fuel-less Soyuz. His phantasm exhorts her not to give up, and in the process reminds her of a possibility about the Soyuz spacecraft that she had consciously forgotten. There’s a direct parallel here to a remarkable moment late in the harrowing survival documentary Touching the Void, a film that Gravity reminds me a lot of.

At climber Joe Simpson’s “lowest” moment, near the end of his horrific journey down Siula Grande with one broken leg—when he is so near the base camp he can smell his fellow climber Simon Yates’ urine (because he is crawling through it)—he finally beings to feel hopeless, because he thinks Simon has abandoned the camp. But Joe’s own brain comes to rescue in a fashion that even he, in his book on his ordeal, didn’t detect (not having read Freud, apparently): An annoying pop song, Boney M’s “Brown Girl in the Ring,” suddenly becomes stuck in his head. With the refrain, “show me your motion,” it is his own unconscious mind exhorting him to keep moving and not give up. As when Ryan wakes up in her cold capsule, realizes she’s really alone, but also realizes there’s still hope, It’s a weirdly triumphant moment.

Touching the Void is in fact the only film I can think of that rivals Gravity in its realistic intensity and lack of extraneous melodrama. Although the true story of Joe Simpson’s survival is complexified and complicated by moral conflict (Simon Yates’ controversial but necessary decision to cut the tether binding them and let Joe fall off the mountain to his almost certain death), the narrative really centers on Joe’s own dogged persistence after that point, his pure unwillingness to let the stupid elements kill him, despite a broken leg, dehydration, and a thousand other things. It’s a riveting story, and it needs no circle of being: We don’t know where in his past Joe got his overwhelming will to survive; it’s clearly just who he is. We only find ourselves wondering whether we, in the same awful boat, would find even a fraction of that quality in ourselves.

As with Joe Simpson, Cuaron’s protagonist Ryan Stone may be forced to learn about her true capacities, but she’s not undoing any past failures, the way she would be in a movie by most any other filmmaker. She’s just doing what she’s been doing ever since dumb gravity killed her daughter, which is precisely what she was doing before then too: moving forward. Is this the circle of being? Yes and no. More like a straight line in curved space, the dogged persistence of a satellite or a moon following its orbit.

Gravity’s achievement is not just its incredible visual effects but also the courage of its minimalistic storytelling: It manages to tell a truly Man Versus Nature story untainted by Man Versus Man conflict and with only the barest minimum of Man Versus Himself schmaltz to get in the way. In the hostile, airless space of today’s overblown and predictable special-effects-driven epics, it is like a breath of fresh air.

xxx

Mutants, Mystics, and Scientologists (Thoughts on Jeffrey Kripal and Related Matters)

Friday, 4 October, 2013

Call me a slow learner, but it took me until my early forties to realize that some of the best and most inspiring things in life, besides girls, are the things I was obsessed with as a 10-year-old boy (i.e., just before I discovered girls).

At 10, I was a typical nerdy 1970s kid, curled up with sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks when I wasn’t glued to the TV in the wood-paneled basement rec room in my corduroys watching Star Trek reruns, Space 1999, or Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of. Later, out of some horrible, misguided sense of teenage conformity and the bogus need to “grow up,” I ended up setting aside all that, put Dune and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and my Alien graphic novel away in a box, and took up more respectable interests like philosophy, “literary” fiction, and science without the “fiction” attached. I remained more or less respectable (albeit still a nerd) throughout my adult life.

But gradually over the course of a protracted midlife crisis and then, more decisively, after having two UFO sightings less than a month apart in 2009 (and thereupon doing my due diligence to read up on all manner of Forteana), I allowed all those “immature” things to flood back in—science-fictional realms like aliens, bigfoot, ESP, and all domains of the paranormal or just “weird.” I have not only taken them seriously but also made them my compass in recent years. It has been one of my best and, frankly, most mature choices in life. To use Joseph Campbell’s overused phrase, I now, at long last, follow my bliss. (I highly recommend following your bliss, although I acknowledge that it is harder to really, authentically do than Campbell made it sound—there are so many competing pressures…)

One of my best discoveries in my bliss-following has been that my pre-adolescent sci-fi interests actually harmonize exquisitely with my more “mature” philosophical and religious inklings. Meditating on the unknowable is a tried-and-true Zen technique, and I’ve found that meditating on alien civilizations, interdimensional beings, and the (im)possibilities of machine sentience, as well as luxuriating in the alien/future mindscapes of artists like H.R. Giger and Richard Powers and the novels of Philip K. Dick, is as true and effective a path to Kensho as finding my original face or chewing the bone of “mu.” For example, after an intense period of rereading both Jacques Vallee’s Invisible College and the collected admonishments of the 9th-century Zen master Lin-Chi (Rinzai), the master himself chose to burst out my chest, Alien-style, to both kill and admonish me as I descended into a Maryland Metro station one evening in the rain. It was a sweet enlightening joke that kicked me into a mildly ecstatic state for a few blissful days last winter. Among many other things, this experience proved to me that, if only as a line of thinking and inspiration, UFOs are a gnosis. (Indeed Vallee himself, somewhere—maybe in Invisible College—likens them to koans.)

It turns out I was not alone in the impulse to seek gnosis through reclaiming my pre-/pubescent sci-fi bliss. Many of my generation seem to be discovering that the secret science-fictional surreality behind the unreasoning mask of consensus reality is where it’s at, philosophically and spiritually. Jeffrey Kripal, professor of Religion at Rice University, is a scholar of this trend, and his most recent book, Mutants and Mystics, concerns mystical experiences and how they nurtured 20th century imaginative literature and comic books. Even when I was a kid, there was something undefinably holy to me about the best science fiction (such as Alien), and Kripal effectively illuminates what that holy thing always was.

Dick, Gnosis, and Human Potential

I encountered Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics about the same time I was delving into the newly published, massive Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. who happens to be one of the case studies in Kripal’s book (Kripal also served as one of several editors on Exegesis). Dick famously had a mystical/ecstatic experience that spanned several months in the early 70s and served as the compass of his life thereafter. He devoted thousands of journal pages (the Exegisis itself) as well as a trilogy of novels (beginning with VALIS) to accounting for and making sense of this experience. Triggered initially by dental anesthetic and possibly also megadoses of vitamins, his experience followed a familiar pattern in the annals of religious experience: feeling “zapped” by an energy beam, which opened overwhelming floodgates of information and awareness about everything from a then-unknown but potentially fatal birth defect in his son (then confirmed by a doctor) to the spiral structure of time and reality. (Fans of entheogen prophet Terence McKenna should read the Exegesis and see if it doesn’t remind them uncannily of McKenna’s near-contemporaneous Amazonia experience, down to their independent parallel insights about the structure of time. Alternatively, you can read R. Crumb’s much shorter graphic version.)

Although Dick regarded this experience as enormously important in his life, it also baffled him and was not without its outrageously paranoid and fearful dimensions. The “familiar pattern” it followed was that of traditional capital-G Gnosticism—the basic insight of which is that our ordinary world is an illusion sustained by a malevolent intelligence that is at odds with the higher, “good” creative or loving force in the universe. Although there were many ancient Gnostic sects with different views, they by and large saw the consensual world we live in as a deception perpetrated by a malevolent demiurge—the God of Genesis who badly wanted Adam and Eve not to eat the apple of gnosis in the Garden of Eden and who punished them for doing so. The real Creator, Gnostics have always felt, wouldn’t behave that way.

Christianity has been riven from the start by the conflict between institutionalized faith and direct experience (gnosis) of the divine. The faith side has always prevailed outwardly—the first coup being the excision of the numerous early Gnostic texts from the canon when the Bible as we know it was compiled in the 2nd century. Branding the whole personal-experiential side of Christianity as heresy was an important and necessary strategic move to ensure the Church’s institutional growth and spread, according to Elaine Pagels. Yet the lingering dissatisfaction with second- and third-hand experience (i.e., “faith”) would perpetually generate backlash movements and revivals, such as Catharism in Medieval France and then the Protestant Reformation, as well as various newer, American-born movements that have all been aimed at getting back to direct personal experience of the divine, bypassing worldly priestly middlemen and faith-based dogmas. The self-avowed Gnostic literary critic Harold Bloom wrote a few excellent books about these movements back in the 1990s, and Kripal seems to be following in that Gnostic-critical tradition with his studies of science fiction and the paranormal. (Bloom himself clearly detected a sci-fi-Gnosticism link, having been obsessed with and even writing a sequel to David Lindsay’s bizarre Gnostic allegory A Voyage to Arcturus.)

One of the strange and ambiguous directions sci-fi Gnosticism leads into is the human potential movement—which I was also sort of steeped in during my teenage years, being both a child of psychologists and a voracious teen reader with little chance of having an actual girlfriend. Kripal shows that sci-fi and comic books’ obsession with extraordinary powers is linked closely to the concerns of real-world self-help gurus, parapsychologists, remote viewers, and the types of people who founded and visited Esalen during its heyday in the 1970s. There is a shared sense through these various marginal realms of writing and research that humanity is on the brink of a new transformation in our evolution. The sense is that we are moving toward an X-men-like world of “mutants” living quietly in our midst and possessing an arsenal of Fortean “wild talents.”

To his great credit, Kripal takes all this very seriously. He is essentially spreading an incredibly liberating (if you were once a 10-year-old boy) gospel that our teenage sci-fi intuitions about our hidden capabilities were all true, and we should embrace them and actually take them seriously and learn to apply them in life. As an academic, he has to discuss all this in scholarly, heavily-footnoted way, but he doesn’t try too hard to curb his personal enthusiasm. He wants to move these transmutative experiences and wild talents out from the furtive seclusion of an easily disregarded literary ghetto and awaken us to their actuality and their potency in the real world. He clearly agrees with and, I am sure, participates actively in, this self-transformatory agenda (his many hints about Tantra, and the fact that he apparently spends a lot of time at Esalen, are clues to his own self-transmutative priorities).

I’m right on board (minus the Esalen): There’s a lot more in heaven and earth and in our own mental capacities than is dreamt of in consensus reality. The kinds of things the Mentats and Bene Gesserit did in Dune?—these are all achievable skills. People can and do achieve even weirder things that mainstream science can’t explain and doesn’t want to acknowledge, and you can find guides to these capacities if you pay attention to marginalized literatures, Renaissance Hermeticists, Eastern practices, and 70s self-help paperbacks in used bookstores, and (in some cases) do a little creative reading between the lines. Direct insight into the workings of cosmos and mind are possible to everyone, with a little discipline—just becoming aware of the methods available is the first step. It’s a whole new world. (Submessage: start meditating, or doing Tantra; start practicing lucid dreaming and recording your synchronicities; learn about and practice the ancient mnemonic arts; read up on remote viewing and Psi research; etc., etc., right now—you are wasting your life and your mind on TV trivialities if you don’t.)

The Big But

As fascinating and cool as higher states of consciousness and the cultivation of our dormant potentials can be, there is a dark, paranoid as well as elitist aspect of big-G Gnosticism that typically gets downplayed in modern attempts to reawaken interest in this ancient strand of thinking.

From Carl Jung to Pagels to Bloom and now Kripal, the emphasis tends to be on small-g gnosis (the Greek word for wisdom or intuition)—that is, personal direct experience of higher, divine reality. This part is all well and good, but it is not unique to big-G Gnosticism, being shared by many other wisdom traditions both Eastern and Western. What defined many ancient big-G Gnostic sects is the further sense that our entrappedness in the material consensual world is the product of an ancient conflict between lesser and higher divinities. The Gnostics were those “in the know” about this secret state of affairs. In their view, the public myths and doctrines of mainstream religion (and in our age, science) are part of a deceptive conspiracy on the part of a lesser god, trapping and limiting the imagination of humanity and thereby disempowering or even enslaving us. If it sounds like The Matrix, well, that’s exactly what it is. The Matrix is a modern Gnostic myth.

There’s an important distinction to be made here, between seeing consensus reality as error or ignorance and seeing it as the product of somebody’s (or some thing’s) willful effort to pull the wool over our eyes or entrap us. Failure to draw this distinction has led a lot of writers toward confusion on what Gnosticism is and how it differs from other wisdom traditions.

For example, since Pagels’ pathbreaking The Gnostic Gospels in the 1980s, there has been the popular idea that the ancient Gnostics were at least comparable to—and maybe even directly connected with—the Buddhists of the Indian subcontinent. This purported equivalence drove a lot of secular Westerners like me, who were ironically more familiar with Eastern religions, toward the enthusiastic study of “our” lost indigenous Western mystical heritage. For a long time, based on Pagels and Jung, I thought of myself as a “Gnostic” because it seemed to be make Jesus into a figure much more like the Buddha—an enlightened human and guide, not literally the son of a white-bearded humanoid divinity demanding unquestioned faith from believers.

Pagels’ most compelling piece of evidence for this sophisticated, Buddhist-sounding Mediterranean spirituality was a beautiful, oft-quoted passage by an early Gnostic writer named Monoimus:

Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is who within you makes verything his own and says, “My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body.” Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate. Learn how it happens that one watches without willing, rests without willing, becomes angry without willing, loves without willing. If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself.

If you leave out the word “God” (and “him”), it sounds like it could have been written by any Buddhist teacher, ancient or modern. It particularly reminds me of the 14th-century Japanese Zen teacher Bassui, who ceasely advised his pupils and readers simply to look for who it was in them who answered when their name was called, and who it was who was listening when he addressed them. “What is the use of trying to understand the verses of the sutras? Throw out all those interpretations of the teachings quickly and look directly within. Who is the master who sees and hears right now?”

Unfortunately, the quote about abandoning the search for God in externals is basically all we have of Monoimus, whose words appear lumped with other Gnostic writers in the 2nd-century AD manual, Against Heresies. And he may have been something of an outlier. Many other works in the ancient Gnostic canon tend toward a more Revelations-style arc of fall and redemption occurring in Time and History, and often emphasizing the famous “fall of spirit into matter” as something done to us against our will and enforced by intermediate semi-divine agents such as the famous “Archons.”

This historical and conflictual dimension of ancient and modern Gnosticism is very un-Buddhist, as is the famous Manichean spirit/matter dualism…unless that redemption arc and our imprisonment be understood purely figuratively. But it doesn’t seem to be figurative. The fact that the annals of religious experience contain so many revelatory experiences pointing toward a violent fall-and-redemption narrative suggests that Gnosticism was (and is) a fairly coherent vision, rooted in a very singular sort of experience that has repeated again and again down through the ages. It is thus quite distinguishable from the varieties of breakthrough experience that Buddhist practitioners are familiar with as the benchmarks of the progress to enlightenment in that tradition.

In other words, although it shared the priority placed on personal experience, Gnosticism was actually very different from Buddhism, and it produces a very different vision of human potential and human responsibility.

I’m wary of reducing religious experience to brain processes, but speaking metaphorically at least, I would describe Gnosticism, with its information- and language-centered ecstasies and its dualistic, us/them, occasionally paranoid thinking, as a “left-brained” religion. An astrologer friend put it for me in much more congenial, archetypal terms though, describing Gnosticism as solar and male. By contrast, Buddhism and other Eastern traditions seem to produce more nonconceptual, nonlinguistic experiences and intuitions about the underlying kinship or identity of all things. If Gnosticism is left-brained, male, and solar, then Buddhism (or at least the flavors of Buddhism I am familiar with) would be right-brained, female, and lunar.

This is the crux: Gnosticism is Promethean, wildly creative, violent, anxious of being late on the scene, and suspicious of being deceived. The covert theme of Gnosticism is “kill the father,” as Harold Bloom intuited, and indeed Bloom made this the basis of his whole critical theory about “strong poets”—they are driven to create out of an incessant need to be original, more original than their literary influences. That Gnosticism goes hand in hand with prolific visionary writing seems completely natural, making as much sense of Kripal’s brilliant genre writers “authorizing” their own worlds as it does of Bloom’s more canonically mainstream strong poets.

The Real X-Men

Ancient and modern conspiracies, secret societies, and superpowers make for great stories–conflict is at the heart of storytelling, after all, so it is no wonder that the Gnostic vision has fueled so much great science fiction, from Lindsay to Dick to the Alien and Matrix movies, not to mention comic books. But over the years I have come to think Gnosticism per se is a highly problematic recipe for worldly as well as personal salvation. To see why it may not be the best recipe for helping (let alone saving) society, it may be helpful to imagine what real X-Men would look like—and lo and behold, we don’t need to do much imagining. Twentieth-century sci-fi Gnosticism actually produced an exemplar—and oddly, it’s an exemplar that is only incidentally mentioned in Kripal’s book on sci-fi and human potential and is completely ignored by Harold Bloom’s books on indigenous American religion. It’s like neither of these brilliant scholars wanted to really face this 400-pound gorilla in the room.

That 400-pound gorilla (and I will probably be sued for calling it ONLY 400 pounds) is L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Scientology has become a cheesy, litigious Hollywood embarrassment, and thus it tends to be dismissed by serious thinkers, but its origins, secret teachings, and practices place it firmly in the landscape both Kripal and Bloom have done so much to map in their books.

People forget that Scientology had its beginnings in an apparently genuine religious awakening, just like Mormonism and other religious movements ancient and modern, and also just like the various artists and writers in Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics. Essentially, Scientology is what happens when a sci-fi writer with much less talent than Philip K. Dick has an ecstatic mystical experience of similar proportions and also has the charisma, guile, gumption, and money sense to spin his gnosis into a full-on religion and erect himself as its prophet.

The story is told magnificently by Lawrence Wright in his recent book Going Clear. Basically, three and a half decades before Philip K Dick began receiving Gnostic data downloads after a dental extraction, L. Ron Hubbard had what he described as a near-death experience in a dentist’s chair, during which his disembodied consciousness drifted through a huge ornate gate where the secrets of existence were laid out for him like a smorgasbord. As with Dick’s initial experience, it was more than Hubbard could assimilate or handle at the time, but subsequent experiences deepened his understanding and became the source of the cosmic and personal-development teachings that are now doled out in piecemeal, initiatory fashion to the paying elite of Scientology Church insiders.

Among the more infamous of Hubbard’s cosmological insights is the notion that we are immortal souls possessed by spirits (Thetans) who were imprisoned in a volcano by the malevolent “Xenu” millions of years ago, after an ancient cosmic war. This is Gnosticism, pure and simple. On the other hand, so is the more practically useful (and less crazy) insight that our everyday conditioned perceptions keep us trapped in a depressing, disempowered state that it is nevertheless possible to transcend through personal effort and deepening of our awareness.

The corruption, brutality, and shallow materialism of the modern Church of Scientology, as well as the literary shortcomings of its founder, should not detract from the interesting and valid insights Hubbard appears to have had. At least back in the early days, Hubbard’s ideas attracted numerous not-too-shabby minds to Scientology—people like William S. Burroughs, for example. I have no doubt that many of the experiences of Hubbard himself as well as those of his followers (following a perfectly sound methodology that boils down to achieving a relaxed state using a galvanic skin response meter) are genuine.

Part of Hubbard’s originality (in keeping with the “strong poet” tendency to misread and redefine one’s predecessors) was in redefining processes that were long understood by meditative and Tantric traditions (as well as the psychoanalysts he despised) and repackaging them with modern, sciencey and science-fictioney labels. Clearing away the “body Thetans” impeding our happiness and potential can be redescribed simply as the use of a biofeedback device to hasten and habitualize certain relaxed, meditative states that facilitate heightened self-insight (and even paranormal abilities—Kripal does note that a couple of the early lights in remote viewing were Scientology members until becoming disillusioned with the Church). In other words, Hubbard found it expedient to give new names to the things he picked up from the smorgasbord of psychological and philosophical teachings he had read, and thereby made himself into a prophet of something ostensibly new under the sun. Church members don’t detect Hubbard’s intellectual debt to early-20th-century psychiatry and the world’s wisdom literature because they are discouraged from reading outside their founder’s massive oeuvre, and many are recruited early enough in life that they lack wide-enough reading with which to triangulate their experience.

The point I want to make, though, is that, from all accounts, Scientologists do behave a lot like X-men. They walk the earth with a sense of having greater powers and correspondingly bigger destinies than the rest of us. This is on embarrassing display in the infamous viral Scientology video of Tom Cruise expounding his weighty sense of responsibility as a sort of Scientology Superman. And in Going Clear, Wright describes similar X-Men like scenes, such as John Travolta’s spontaneous healing of Marlon Brando’s leg injury at an L.A. dinner party using Scientology abilities he had recently acquired. I don’t doubt that some of these powers are actually genuine; partly they may accrue from the sense of self-confidence that Scientology nurtures in at least its highest-profile adherents. And there may be more to it too—who knows. In other words, as easily parodied as Scientology now is, its underlying ideas about human potential are not at all far from the science-fictional, Gnostic underground stream Kripal describes, and I don’t think its teachings, its metaphysics, and its experiences (even if facilitated by e-meters) are probably any less powerful for those touched by them.

All this has two implications: The first (small) one is that, to get a more complete and balanced picture of mutation and mysticism in 20th century America, you need to read Wright’s book after you’re done with Kripal’s. (Seriously—it’s equally riveting.) The second (more significant) point is that we need to critically consider Gnosticism (versus other forms of gnosis), ask what it is, and place it in the larger world context of spirituality and human development. Because as inviting as it is on one level, the big-G brand of gnosis does have a dark side.

The Dark Side of Being “In the Know”

In the varieties of religious experience, (small-g) gnosis can arrive with a sense of bliss and love and laughter and cosmic oneness, but, alternatively, it can carry an overtone of threat; it can also inspire a critical arrogance and an almost addict-like need to know more. Philip K. Dick was not a happy person, and his overwhelming experience nurtured a sense of paranoia and menace even as it gave his life meaning (and saved his son’s life). Hubbard doesn’t seem to have been very happy either; we can see from his personal history and the history of his church the paranoid and negative directions his thoughts led, and the isolationist, paranoid, elitist direction his religion went in, right from the start.

Indeed, doesn’t L. Ron Hubbard blend together oddly in one’s mind with Ayn Rand? Both were prolific, horrible writers who, in very thick paperbacks that one either hates or loves, promoted a vaguely fascist picture of what near-future elites could achieve if they put their mind principally to actualizing their own potential. In both cases, one gets the sense that the benefit to society follows only as a side-effect of self-actualization (the standard trickle-down Capitalist view) rather than being intrinsic to it. This, right here, is the key difference between a Super- or X-man and a Boddhisattva, who instead sees the enlightenment of all sentient creatures as intrinsic and necessary to his own advancement. More fundamentally, instead of a Promethean transformation of matter and space and time—the heroic and picturesque image found in comic books—all that is really required for our salvation (at least in the Zen tradition I am familiar with) is a slight shift in perception: seeing how our own minds are the problem and the solution, and gently, non-egotistically, helping others to see that too.

It’s hardly cut and dried. The world is full of would-be Gnostics who walk a thin line—one that is hard to discern at times. I know from experience how readily the critical, experience-rooted, applied-epistemological, “show-me” mind can drift from an interest in higher mental states and cosmic consciousness down various paranoid rabbit holes of belief in worldly if not even divine (or extraterrestrial) conspiracies. Such a mind readily nurtures furtive adolescent male fantasies of small rebellious elites quietly fighting the oppression wrought by evil secret societies, and becomes desperately jealous of the secret knowledge and talents enjoyed by either or both of these invisible colleges. The thing is, that “left-brained” picture of reality is probably half accurate. Exactly half. The world needs paranoids who can see patterns in noise, because sometimes those patterns really are there; there really are conspiracies and elites, secrets and lies, and we need X-men to sniff them out and stand up to them. But such gnoses need to be tempered with some right-brained humility, some lunar gentleness.

Ultimately, our entrappedness—or (shifting to Buddhist language) our suffering—is of another order. It is something we do to ourselves, and can largely be undone by seeing how our perceptions, our self/other dualisms, are just a simple human mistake that don’t require superhuman abilities to correct. This, it seems, is a much more congenial, socially useful, wise viewpoint—much closer, indeed, to the Boddhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism than to the more apocalyptic X-Men vision of supermen gathering in secret, nurturing special powers, and perhaps preparing for a final cosmic showdown with our extraterrestrial or interdimensional prison wardens.

(Not that the latter showdown isn’t awfully, awfully fun to think about.)

xxx

Ball-Games and Politics: A Brief Rant about the Shutdown

Thursday, 3 October, 2013

The government shutdown that has rendered me unemployed and given me time to catch up on my blogging has gotten me thinking about maleness. Seeing through the smokescreen of party politics and the ideological conflicts that have riven this nation and now stalled our government, there’s a more fundamental problem that no one talks about (maybe because it is so obvious), and it is simply testosterone.

When it comes right down to it, this situation is about men, bent on dominance, overly sensitive to their own sense of honor, willing to wreck their country to preserve their precious power and pride.

I’ve always been a “feminist,” but mainly in an archetypal sense: Of course I embrace the equal rights of women and men in economic and social and political life, but I don’t think the sexes are the same in spirit any more than they are in body, and I don’t think the differences just come from the social construction of sex and gender. There are more male politicians and CEOs and scientists not because of aptitude or even just because of social access (though those also play a role in the complex picture), but because of hormones: Males are just typically more driven to fight and to compete and to achieve and to lead, and they assert and practice this from an early age. This need to fight and achieve may express itself in the social or economic world or in the intellectual world. The lion’s share of what we call history–the rise of civilizations and technology and religion and art–was a male-driven affair. It really was and still is (at least the bits that get written about) “his story.”

But, so is war, destruction, crime, cruelty, and idiocy. When mass shootings and terrorist attacks unfold on TV, we are looking at young men, testosterone-pumped and confused, perpetrating destruction out of their own youthful disempowerment and desperation to make their mark. When corruption and sex scandals unfold in the halls of power, it is always the same thing, although usually an older and more jaded demographic: arrogant accomplished entitled men trying to have everything they want and sure that they can get away with it (or even, that they should get away with it). The same sex runs mafias, commits genocides, builds atomic weapons, etc., etc.

In other words, if civilization (note, I didn’t say humanity) has been built on testosterone, so has its destruction. Testosterone builds up with one hand and knocks it down with the other. Right now, we are watching testosterone knock down our country.

Maybe it is an outcome of growing more settled and calm and less testosterone-driven in my own life, but this dark side of testosterone is coming to disgust me everywhere I look. I’m sick of the story of men and their egos. It’s why I don’t watch the news and probably why I stopped watching Breaking Bad and Mad Men too. And don’t get me started about sports.

That’s all I have to say on this topic. Now, I’m going to go and knit a sweater.

xxx

I Heart Megalithia (review of The Megalithic Empire)

Thursday, 4 October, 2012

Anyone with even a passing interest in Stonehenge or prehistory in general “knows” that the megaliths that pepper the British Isles (and to a lesser extent parts of Continental Europe and the Mediterranean) were probably religious in nature—sites for rituals, probably having to do with solstices, etc. “Ritual purposes” is the standard explanation for archaeological features that don’t serve a practical purpose we can discern. But what if that’s all nonsense?


The authors of the new book The Megalithic Empire, M.J. Harper and H.L. Vered, approach the problem of megaliths and other related phenomena by thinking a bit more carefully about their possibly practical purpose, forgetting (for the moment) any possible ritual significance. What they discover is that megaliths conveniently (and ingeniously) answer a very pressing pragmatic need, once you put yourself in the shoes of a prehistoric trader faced with the task of getting his product (the example they use is tin, a major British export in prehistory) to a buyer, traveling to some distant point over land without the aid of a map or written signposts.

To briefly summarize their main argument: The abundant standing stones, stone circles, menhirs, and various dikes and earthworks across Britain, along its coastlines, and in more far-flung locales with which pre-Roman Britain traded make perfect, beautifully simple sense as durable components of a comprehensive land- and sea-based wayfinding system, a system that facilitated long-distance exchange of goods and people for thousands of years before the arrival of literacy. (Stonehenge, which certainly had an astronomical function, may have been the central observatory that calibrated the rest of the system.) The intellectual keepers of this system, which can be more or less identified with the pre-Roman Druids, retreated to Ireland during the Roman occupation but reasserted themselves during the Dark Ages under the guise of Celtic Christianity (Christian in name only), and gave rise to various medieval organizations centered on the themes of travel, trade, and building in stone, including the Cistercians, the Knights Templars, and the Freemasons.

Mainstream archaeologists don’t dispute that Britain had major trade ties to the continent and the Mediterranean throughout the Bronze Age and before, but the practical particulars of moving goods around have generally been ignored. Few have grappled with the problems of conducting major trade in the absence of writing and maps. By reconceiving of megaliths and prehistoric terraforming in terms of navigation and the moving of goods and animals over long distances, Harper and Vered fill this gap. In the process, they show that numerous details, not only of archaeology and geography but also of folklore, begin to make enormous sense as echoes of a pan-European trading society that needed to maintain the system with minimal labor and pay for its infrastructure and upkeep through the collecting of tolls.

How central and organized it all was is an open question that the authors don’t really answer, but with this term “megalithic” they seem to have put their finger on a nexus of important pre-Christian, pre-literate values, ideas, and practices that has survived to the present day, alongside Christianity and oddly in mockery of it, and often weirdly linked to toll-paying. You’ll never think about wishing wells, the location of pubs, or witches and their familiars the same way after reading this book. A lot of other conclusions and speculations also radiate from their central insights about “Megalithia Inc.”—including some fascinating possibilities about the history of animal and plant domestication and the true meaning of saints, dragons, and angels. The book is a goldmine of interesting ideas.

Like a lot of revisionist history/archaeology, the hypothesis in The Megalithic Empire amounts to a version of “the ancients were cleverer than we give them credit.” The key difference between the version of this narrative proposed by Harper and Vered and the breathless “lost civilizations” fantasies spun by Graham Hancock and his ilk is that there is no whiff in this case of pareidola—seeing faces in clouds, or Orion’s belt in the pyramids. (Well, the other key difference is, Harper and Vered are a lot funnier than Hancock.) Yet The Megalithic Empire‘s proposal, and the picture of the ancient world that compellingly takes shape around it, is no less exciting.

If they’re right, Harper and Vered have discovered a pretty major secret about prehistory (and after) that is secret not because of conspiracy but simply because of silence and forgetting: Megalithia didn’t use (and maybe even actively resisted) writing, so the only physical traces it left were in the landscape. This book offers a whole new way of seeing and reading that landscape—and on the book’s website, themegalithicempire.com, the authors invite readers to test out the theory themselves by taking their own “megalithic walks” through the British countryside. If I lived there, I’d take up that challenge in a heartbeat.

Harper, author of the equally dazzling The Secret History of the English Language (published in Britain as The History of Britain Revealed) is sort of the “leader” of a small and intensely interesting group of outside-the-box, non- or para-academic revisionists calling themselves “applied epistemologists.” Their snarky and endlessly fascinating trashings of received wisdom on everything from Beowulf to plate tectonics can be read and enjoyed at applied-epistemology.com. The applied epistemology approach to debunking orthodoxy is based on ruthlessly applying a few simple assumptions to whatever question is at hand. When it comes to history, they assume that things in the past were the same as they are now, unless there’s solid evidence they weren’t.

Professional historians (and archaeologists) make their living by telling stories, because stories are interesting—usually full of tumult and conflict and change—but applied epistemologists resist the lure of exciting-sounding stories. In the face of academic narratives they, well, apply epistemology, asking skeptically: How do we really know? When you actually look at it, it turns out, a disturbing lot of what academic historians say (and I can vouch that it is the same in other fields) is either the parroting of unexamined orthodoxies or professionally motivated strategic overstatement … when it is not outright fraud. Harper and his friends at applied-epistemology.com show that when you actually trace much of orthodox history or linguistics, for example, back to their sources, you find that many of those sources were probable forgeries created during the Reformation. Much of what we “know” about pre-Modern Northern Europe rests ultimately on documents with very iffy provenance that always seem to have conveniently supported the particular national allegiences of the original owner or his patrons.

Extrapolating, you can safely say that much of what we “know” about the past is probably wrong—even wildly wrong. This leaves a lot of room for new theories that are better, simpler, more explanatory than those in the textbooks.

The real unfolding of human events, applied epistemologists assume, is less often like a soap opera and more often like paint drying. Things don’t change unless there’s a compelling reason for it. And despite what any professional anthropologist will tell you, people are the same everywhere and at all times. This can often make ancient history vanish from view. Among the frustrating lacunae in the archaeology of pre-Roman Britain, for example, is the absence of evidence for villages; Harper and Vered sensibly point out that they are hard to find because they are right underneath the existing villages. Prehistoric Brits lived right where the modern ones do, their roads were replaced by generations upon generations of more modern ones, in exactly the same place. And as Harper argues in his previous book, they in all likelihood spoke more or less the same language the present-day villagers speak.

More to the point, prehistoric Brits had the same motives modern Brits do—namely, to live the good life, which included having nice stuff. Having nice stuff meant being part of an active, far-flung economic world. So, read this book, and erase your misty Pre-Raphaelite visions of Druids dancing around the ancient stones. Travel and trade is what Megalithia was all about. In a landscape full of strategically-placed stone circles and other markers, all you needed was a cross-staff, a little circle of leather and something to mark it with (you’ll have to read the book to find out how it works as a compass), and a purse of coins or salt to pay your way, and you were in business.

***

The Space Jockey and Our Endosymbiotic Destiny

Wednesday, 12 September, 2012

There is an interesting tradition in science fiction of examining the idea of a symbiosis between the ship and its crew, specifically its pilot. The once-human Spacing Guild navigators in Dune, whose drug-induced trance folds space for the heighliners’ faster-than-light passage, leaps immediately to mind. And there are hints of this idea in Norman Spinrad’s Void Captain’s Tale, in which the physically wasted, addict-like body of the pilot is integral to faster-than-light travel: Her orgasm is literally the “jump,” or the jump, her orgasm—it is a chicken-and-egg thing. (In both of these cases, it is not only sentience but also the transcendence of everyday consciousness—addiction, orgasm—that is essential, that literally closes a circuit and makes the ship go.) Reflections of these ideas can also be found in the sometimes interesting late-1990s TV series Farscape and the later reboot of Battlestar Galactica.

But undeniably, the most original, beautiful, and disturbing icon of symbiosis between an organic being and the ship it pilots is that found in Alien. The film’s most haunting image is the giant fossilized star pilot, whose derelict ship on a remote moon bears the dreadful cargo that ends up killing most of the Nostromo’s crew. When the camera pulls back to reveal this ancient dead thing—dubbed the “Space Jockey” by the filmmakers—merged with his seat, gazing eternally into his cockpit instruments, it is one of the great moments in sci-fi cinema (or, for me, any cinema). I always cherished not knowing where the Space Jockey came from, where he was going, or what exactly befell him on his mission.

Knowing that Ridley Scott had in mind to explore exactly these questions and was building his prequel Prometheus around this race of alien giants, I hoped that at the very least their physical strangeness would be respected. My worst fear was that Scott would let the Space Jockeys out of their seats, and thereby obliterate the most genius aspect of designer H.R. Giger’s creation in the original movie: a sentient being fused to its technology.

My fears were, of course, fully realized. I think the most regrettable part of the film was the ruination—or really, the wholesale erasure—of everything that made the Space Jockey wonderful. Not only do the creatures indeed run around just like humans (the mysterious “seat fusion” is visually explained away as just a bit of high-tech strapping-in) but they are revealed to look reassuringly just like us. The bizarre elephant-like head turns out to be … just a helmet. (The scriptwriters even felt compelled to add in a whole convoluted “bringing back the head” action set-piece to the story to explain this fact—as though they were embarrassed by the Space Jockey’s morphology, or felt too daunted by the prospect of telling a story about aliens with trunks.) The resulting creatures (called Engineers in the new film) end up being basically big pale humans who look like they spend all day at the gym.

To me, it is important to ignore Prometheus, pretend the film actually doesn’t exist, because this is the only way to preserve one of the most interesting ideas embedded quietly in Alien. The lonely star pilot, the long-dead alien who aeons ago suffered the same grisly fate his human discoverers are about to, also portends something else—something far more interesting—about the trajectory of our entire species. The Space Jockey is a unique and powerful object lesson in a very particular kind of alienation that may be the next phase in our own evolution: becoming a mere component in our machines.

The Space Jockey appears that he could have had no existence, no purpose, no life, independent of his function as a perceiving and deciding element in a ship—a pilot, but one who could not ever leave his cockpit, never get up and walk around. Giger was fairly explicit about this at the time Alien was released. He was quoted in Cinefex magazine as saying that the dead pilot is “biomechanical to the extent that he has physically grown into, or maybe even out of, his seat—he’s integrated totally into the function he performs.” Scott seems originally to have thought of the space jockey the same way; in a DVD commentary he says “this Space Jockey I’ve always thought was the driver of the craft [who] has started to look like a perfect example of Giger’s mind, which is ‘where does biology end and technology begin?’” Sadly, the aging Ridley Scott forgot all about Giger’s original vision and allowed Prometheus‘s oblivious young scriptwriters to ignore the singular essential fact about the Space Jockey in concocting their story about “human origins.” They completely missed the point of the material they were given to work with.

The idea of symbiosis between organism and machine is everywhere in Giger’s art, and it is a big part of what makes all his work so interesting as a meditation on post-humanity. Partly it is interesting because the symbiosis isn’t peaceful or benign, but violent and erotic, a kind of bondage. The artist notes that his pictures “always depict straps and cords and fettered bodies.” His figures are fettered to machines, to the environment, and to each other in ways at are sadomasochistic or simply cruel. Biomechanoid I, one of the paintings in Necronomicon, his collection that originally inspired Ridley Scott and Alien’s creative team, shows three deformed babies strapped and bound; Giger describes: “The three children wear an iron headband which holds the feather. The band is held together by a screw, so that they must play at Indians whether they like it or not…”

This describes perfectly what is so strange and even sad about the Space Jockey: Just as Giger’s biomechanoid children have to play at being Indians whether they like it or not, the Space Jockey, in his “lifetime,” had to play at being a star pilot whether he liked it or not. He is commanding, giant, and powerful but also, at the same time, shackled, enslaved, and infirm, and that makes him fascinating. We are left wondering about his role and his frame or presence of mind as he fulfilled it. What did he think about? Was he lucid, writhing in pain as the xenomorph burst from his chest, or was he far away in some star navigator’s trance?

I care about this—too much, perhaps—because Alien, and specifically Giger’s images as brought to life within that film, were for me the seed of what became some sort of personal Gnostic mythology, the most perfect expression of the secret science-fictional surreality I always believed (or hoped) lurked behind the curtain of the everyday. That overused two-word phrase “ancient astronauts” sums up this mood and this idea, as long as you don’t render it too literally, and especially as long as you divorce it from the 1970s pop-archaeology writer Erich von Daniken. Von Daniken popularized the idea of prehistoric alien visitation in paperback accounts he later freely admitted were made-up, but the real father of the ancient astronauts idea was H.P. Lovecraft. Ridley Scott admitted being inspired by von Daniken when conceiving Prometheus, but it happened to be Lovecraft who inspired those early works of Giger that resonated with Alien‘s creators. (The most disappointing irony is that Prometheus caused Universal Studios to drop Guillermo del Toro’s superficially similar-sounding but much more promising project to adapt Lovecraft’s eerie and wonderful At the Mountains of Madness.)

How is the Space Jockey Gnostic? The Space Jockey and his fate seem to me to embody the ancient “fall of spirit into matter” and the profound existential problem—physical, mortal existence—that arises from that fall. The star pilot, perpetually gazing into an instrument that he grows into/out of, seems almost a perfect model of consciousness as self-alienation, as kind of a gap in the flow of things, a break in the circuit. Somehow his crashlanded ship, symbolically equivalent to the machinery of matter (appropriately, its U- or cup-shape is alchemically/astrologically the symbol for the soul as vessel of the spirit), needs this organic creature to be its mind, and by the same token the ship is far more than a simple conveyance for him—the whole point is he can’t get up and walk out when he reaches his destination, or even physically put up a struggle as he is dying. Ship and pilot are a unity, yet separated by a slight gap, and it is tortuous, painful, tragic. (In Christian iconography, the painful “bondage” of spirit to matter is symbolized by Christ nailed to the cross, but I like the Space Jockey better…) Without that gap, there would be no consciousness, and without consciousness there would be no gap. That gap, and why it would be necessary, or how it could have arisen, is the eternal mystery. I think it’s a much bigger and more interesting question than “where do we come from?”

What little we know so far about the real origins of terrestrial life is actually far more mind-bending than the bioengineering scenario Prometheus’s scriptwriters came up with as an answer to that question. We owe the wild theory partly to Lynn Margulis (incidentally, Carl Sagan’s first wife): Early in the evolution of life on earth, simple bacteria gradually came to be coopted as organs (the term is “organelles”) functioning within more complex single-celled organisms. What this means is that all the cells in our bodies have complex internal structures like mitochondria that were originally independent life forms. On the early earth, these independent creatures somehow “grew together.”

The term in evolutionary biology for this growing-together is endosymbiosis. Giger’s biomechanoids, especially the Space Jockey, suggest what I think is a very real possibility for our own future that mirrors, perhaps painfully, our distant unicellular origins: When machines prove capable of everything except self-awareness—which I think is the likelier and more interesting path than the much-vaunted Singularity—will our withered, legless descendents become endosymbionts, or sentient organelles, in our machines? Will future humans’ only purpose and function within larger biomechanical constructs (including spaceships) be their useful (but perhaps not essential) capacity for feeling, judgment, and free will? The Space Jockey in Alien represents a race of beings that has made a rather, well, Promethean trade-off, gaining mighty reach and perhaps even a kind of immortality (when things don’t go wrong, at least) at the expense of the joys and freedoms and pleasures of having an independent, biological, walking-around existence.

This “choice,” to merge with our machines, seems like it ought to be conscious and deliberate, yet there is more than a hint in Giger’s addict-like biomechanoids—and we see it in the way we are already enslaved dependently to our devices—that this path may be taken, followed to its end, without our intending, without our being able to really see the big picture or the long-term. To me, this unconscious evolution of our future endosymbiosis is far more fascinating, troublesome, and realistic than the self-directed apotheosis Singularity fetishists dream about. The Space Jockey is somehow our own future, and that, if nothing else, is the reason we should pay attention to him—and thus, ignore any Alien prequels.

***

Grazia Toderi’s Alien Homeworlds

Saturday, 15 October, 2011

If you want to see where they come from, and you happen to live in Washington, DC, check out the exhibition called “Directions: Grazia Toderi” at the Hirshhorn Museum.

Grazia Toderi is an Italian artist who does massive video projections built from collages of cities at night. Fragments of these vast vistas of light fade in and out to create gradually shifting technological landscapes, complete with flying orbs that materialize and dematerialize, fragment and coalesce, ascend and descend. I saw the installations this weekend and was flabbergasted – it’s just the way I imagine it – the place where our machine visitors come from. It’s candy for the UFO-lover’s imagination.

Alien worlds are not precisely what the artist says her work represents – there is no mention of other planets or intelligences or our own technological future. According to the text accompanying her installations, she is trying to “visualize the infinite” and was originally inspired by watching the simulcast of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. But her two installations at the Hirshhorn, “Rossa Babele” and “Orbite Rosse,” uncannily matched several spectacular UFO dreams I have had over the years, and look just like what I am positive Stanley Kubrick was going for in the final, “Beyond the Infinite” sequence of 2001: an ultra-advanced, ultratechnological alien planetscape.

I spent a long time silently immersing myself in Toderi’s works this weekend and I plan to go back. If you’re in the DC area, by all means, check it out.

***

NASA Acknowledges WTFs Near Space Shuttle

Thursday, 15 September, 2011

Four mysterious objects were detected and filmed near the space shuttle Atlantis, and uncharacteristically NASA acknowledged this encounter — and that such UFOs are witnessed frequently on shuttle missions. See the Fox news report here:

A report on another UFO sighting during Atlantis’s last mission is here:

Check it out.

***

The Madness of White Bear — Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (pt. 3)

Saturday, 27 August, 2011

The various tricks artists and scientists through history have discovered for seemingly halting the motion of things—what Renaissance alchemists called “fixing the volatile”—and then reanimating the fixed under their own power have always seemed godlike; and the aspiration to exercise this power has always seemed arrogant or even blasphemous to some. We can only speculate, but it is worth asking whether some of White Bear’s kin (see previous post on Werner Herzog’s film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams) were not so supportive of his work.

Consider: The walls of Chauvet Cave are not layered with imagery and symbols in the manner of a modern urban canvas such as a freeway underpass. Graffiti is as old as civilization, but in Chauvet Cave there is none of that exuberant transformation of blank surface into picture. There were only a small handful of artists who left their images in the cave over the many, many millennia that humans could have visited and used it, and only some sections of wall have images. This must make us wonder how important or central figurative pictures actually were to the culture of these people.

The answer could be that the inclination and the genius to create images may have been relatively rare, the product of a very unusual sort of person who may have been regarded with as much distrust or suspicion as admiration by his (or her) fellows. Art, even religious art, always has its detractors.

I am purely speculating, but could these Paleolithic melancholics, these cave Michelangelos living under the sign of Saturn, have represented a departure from the philosophy of the dark that governed the prevailing shamanic culture? Could White Bear and his fellow artists, scattered in time, have essentially misused the cave as a canvas for their madness, blasphemously bringing light into what was supposed to remain in perpetual night?

***

WTFology

Friday, 26 August, 2011

Does anybody else think that UFO is too sterile a term? That it fails to capture the emotion behind our quest, the astonishment that drives a witness of something “unidentified” to seek answers?

I’ve decided to, as much as possible, replace the term UFO with WTF. Because that really gets it better, don’t you think? “WTF was that?” “I don’t know WTF it was, but it was moving fast, and then just disappeared!”

“Look dad, it’s a WTF!!”

Changing the name of Ufology to WTFology is a long-overdue step. Who’s with me?

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Hermetic Astronomy

Friday, 19 August, 2011

In Fortean Times there is a new, excellent article on the hermetic context of Renaissance astronomy and Galileo’s famous trial.

The rediscovery of ancient hermetic philosophy during the Renaissance was the most important influence on intellectuals of the period–from Copernicus to Shakespeare–yet few people nowadays are aware of it. As the authors Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince write, “the fact is that the Renaissance is impossible to comprehend without the Hermetic tradition. It’s like trying to write a history of the 20th century while ignoring Communism, on the logic that because it failed as an ideology, it could never have been really important.”

Among other things, the article provides a good background on my personal hero Giordano Bruno, a master of the Art of Memory and one of the first to claim that the universe was infinite and full of inhabited worlds.

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Slaying the Minotaur — Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Part 2)

Sunday, 17 July, 2011

For shamanic religions and the cultures that adhere to them, mystery is higher than knowledge. The irrational higher than the rational. Unknowing higher than knowing. (Is there even a concept of “knowing”? Is “knowing” an idea that has only arisen in after writing??) Paleolithic people, such as those who left their mark in Chauvet Cave 32,000 years ago (see Werner Herzog’s amazing new documentary), undoubtedly believed, as modern shamans do, in ready passage to other worlds, and in the ability of humans to become animals (and vice versa). They accomplished these feats via drugs and drumming and dreams and, probably, via the sensory deprivation provided by caves.

Vestiges of such practices are found throughout the shamanic religions that have survived into our own times. And they were well active in Ancient Greece, the earliest European civilization of which we have much written record. The mystery cults of Dionysus and other deities probably represent vestiges of prehistoric religions. Caves were viewed as the sanctums of gods, and venturing into the dark was a rite and a means of access to the other world.

But somewhere along the line, a profound shift happened in Europeans’ beliefs about the dark. We have long since stopped venturing into the dark for religious communion. Civilized humans have long since ceased to find little but fright, scientific curiosity, and for some, physical adventure in subterranean space. Plato, perhaps the first fully “modern” thinker, famously viewed the cave as a prison of ignorance, not a church. In his metaphor, the cave was a place were people were enchained, watching shadows of puppets projected by a light on a wall (an image uncannily similar to a movie theater—see previous post), and from which they had to be liberated and led out into the light…

Judeo-Christianity inherited the preference for light and reason over mystery. Consider the Medieval cathedral. It is dark, but it is dark the way a camera is dark: It is a space designed to let light in, via stained-glass windows whose secret formulas died with the alchemists of the period. A cathedral thus reveals the light in a new way. In Eastern religions, “enlightenment” happened via practices of meditation, similar to prayer, not via descent into caves.

Despite our tendency to view the organized religions familiar to us as “irrational” enemies of the scientific worldview, they were intended to enlighten, not obscure or distort reality. Thus they really go hand in hand with philosophy and science. Science could not have arisen in any other but the matrix of Christianity, Islam, and the other religions of enlightenment. (Modern scientific antagonists of religion would do well to bear this in mind.)

In this regard—the changing meaning of and attitude toward the dark—I wonder if it is significant that the sole apparently “mythological” and (semi-)human representation found in Chauvet Cave is a being with the lower half of a “Venus” and the upper body of a bull—painted ingeniously on a stalactite. Where else in our cultural memory does a half-human, half-bull creature appear? Obviously, in the great Greek myth of the labyrinth of Crete, and the Minotaur inhabiting it. The labyrinth in this story is widely thought to have been a cave, or symbolic of the cave. Could the bull-man be an ancient—incredibly ancient—symbol of something like the “spirit” of caves, or of the dark, that survived into Greek times?

Myths were never meant to be taken literally, and typically they weren’t. The ancients weren’t as credulous as we tend to think. Myths are stories that symbolically encode memories of great events and social, political, economic, and religious transitions—they are the form taken by oral history, the cultural memory of a people. For example, the legend of St. Patrick expelling all the snakes from Ireland symbolically encodes the memory of the banishing of Celtic pagan religion by the arrival of Christianity. (Snakes have always been symbolic of old superstitious cults. The serpent in Eden represented, for the Hebrews, the false, primitive, evil, sacrificial cults that surrounded them in the Levant.)

I cannot help but wonder whether the story of Theseus slaying the Minotaur in the labyrinth of Crete could represent a cultural memory not unlike the story of St. Patrick: A symbolic encoding of the banishment of old mystery cults in favor of a newer, more Platonic view of the universe as something to be illuminated—the first inklings of a scientific worldview, the regime of logic and reason that even to this day is represented by Ariadne’s thread—a way out of the cave.

I’d welcome any response to this idea from experts in Greek mythology: What is the significance of the bull, and the bull-man? Is the Minotaur a cthonic symbol of darkness and mystery, one that could have its roots in a dim Paleolithic past?

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Thursday, 9 June, 2011

The thing about the sublime as an aesthetic (or religious) emotion is that you can only take it in small doses before it turns into unease and even fear. At one point in Werner Herzog’s new, amazing documentary about the astonishingly realistic Paleolithic paintings in Chauvet Cave in France, the filmmaker notes that he and his film crew—as well as those who had first discovered and explored the cave—experienced an uncomfortable and uncanny sense of being watched by those who had painted the wild animals on its contoured walls some 32,000 years ago. Despite the beauty of what they were filming, all of the crew felt relief upon exiting. The way looking at light from millions- and billions- year-old stars evokes a sublime rapture of infinite space, appreciation of art made by incredibly distant ancestors who clearly were just like us—with our same talents and abilities and imaginations—evokes the sublime vertigo of history. The mind fills that vertigo with ghosts.

The people who first ventured into the bowels of Chauvet cave with flickering torches to create those animal images clearly felt a profound connection with the natural world and affinity with its creatures. As with most “premodern” cultures, they probably believed in the ability of humans to transform into animals and vice versa. The only possibly “human” representation in the cave is what appears to be the lower body of a woman (resembling the various “Venus” figurines uncovered throughout Paleolithic Europe) and the upper body of a bull. But that image is the single exception—every other image in the cave is of an animal—horses, lions, rhinoceri, mammoths, aurochs, even a butterfly. What did those animals galloping across the walls and out of its recesses represent?

Herzog suggests that the paintings in Chauvet are a sort of “proto-cinema.” The metaphor is clearly more than apt. Not only do the animal figures seem to move under shifting light such as would have been provided by torches (or, in the filmmakers’ case, the few safe cold film lights they could bring with them into the cave), but some of the animals are “multilegged” in what is evidently a deliberate attempt to depict motion.

The illusion of movement depends on a prior, more fundamental illusion, though: the illusion of stasis. The cave was as much a camera obscura as it was a cinema. So I’d add to Herzog’s metaphor and suggest that this Paleolithic cinema was not just a theater but also a philosophical tool—and its animals, object lessons—for examining permanence versus impermanence, the mystery of Time.

The arrested image is always dazzling and awe-inspiring for people who haven’t seen it before or who don’t see it everyday. In the 19th Century, people reacted to the first Daguerrotypes with surprise and delight. Viewers in the Renaissance reacted the same way to realistic pictures painted with the newly discovered techniques for showing space in perspective. We can readily imagine the mixture of joy, astonishment, and slight unease that a small Paleolithic community would have felt when their brilliant and eccentric cousin led them into a dark, sort of scary cave by torchlight to gaze on what he had been busy creating there on the walls. (“So this is what cousin White Bear has been up to!”)

The best indication that the above reactions were part of the intended reaction of the Chauvet images is that the latter are specifically and entirely (with the part-exception of the Venus-bull) of animals—the things in the painters’ world that were most constantly in motion. No vegetable life was depicted, no people (who have the power to stand still), and no natural or celestial features (the sun, moon, and stars, move only slowly). And this idea of stasis manifests itself on two levels. Amid the growth and motion, birth and death, of everything in those people’s environment, and of everything that they created, the paintings themselves were permanent, and this must have been a large part of their appeal and mystery. The world outside changed but in the depths of the cave was a sanctuary where things stayed the same, where Time stopped.

(In creating something permanent, the painters outdid themselves: The interior of the cave has changed “geologically” over the 32,000 years since the paintings were made—dripping mineral-rich water has sculpted the interior with stalagmites, stalactites, sparkling ribbon-like formations—but the images remain unchanged. Just try and wrap your head around art that has survived that long!)

But in this sanctuary of permanence, those fixed images, as Herzog notes, could be reanimated under flickering torchlight. Was this proto-cinema art for art’s sake—purely for aesthetic enjoyment or dazzlement—or did these still/moving images have, as archaeologists are always quick to say, some kind of ‘ritual function’? When you look at a Renaissance painting of the Virgin, it’s impossible to separate aesthetic enjoyment from religious sentiment—and certainly every individual viewer brings his/her own unique mix of these to the experience—so there’s probably no point in trying to make a definitive answer.

But maybe “religious” isn’t the best term—nor “aesthetic.” I think that if there is some content or purpose of the Chauvet images—beyond just “pretty pictures”—that it is philosophical. I don’t think it is coincidence that these cave images seem designed to walk a tightrope between stasis and motion and that the earliest philosophies of which we have written record are devoted precisely to understanding that very dichotomy, suggesting a continuity with prehistoric thought.

The sixth-century BC Chinese philosopher Lao Tze wrote of the flow of things, or the Tao. In fifth-century BC Greece, Heraclitus compared the constant flow of Time to a river; he is most famous for his aphorism that you can’t step in the same river twice. His main metaphor for the constant energy and motion of things, however, was “fire.” It’s tempting to link this philosophical and primordial fire to the firelight cast by Paleolithic torches on cavern walls, providing the illusion of motion to the creatures painted there.

Famously in opposition to Heraclitus was Parmenides (same period), who tried to convince his students that motion is an illusion, that the reality behind the appearances is stasis. His position would later be upheld and “proved” through the famous thought experiments of Zeno—for instance the arrow that, once shot, has to pass halfway to its target, but first halfway to halfway, and first halfway to halfway to halfway, and so on—so that in fact, it can never even start on its path let alone ever get to the end.

The notion that all movement is an illusion might seem silly, but consider memory, which despite the apparent flux of experience seems to hold snapshots, to preserve experience in amber. Art is a reflection of memory and depends on it. Part of what is so astonishing about the paintings in Chauvet is how incredibly realistic, lifelike they are despite the fact that they cannot have been painted from life, only from the artist’s memory. I assume that cave artists of the caliber represented in Chauvet would have to have honed their skills outside in the light—I suppose with a stick in dirt when watching their subjects up close, perhaps over many years.

It takes art to remove us from what we take for granted and show it to us in a new way, as a mystery. That separation and return can provide the sublime rapture that occurs when we push our thoughts to infinities. Time has always been one of the fundamental mysteries, because humans are not cognitively capable of understanding it. I can’t help but think that the awe of viewers of these painted bison, horses, rhinoceroses, mammoths, and lions, or even just the awe of the artist, arose from amazement at Time itself. And in a different way and for different reasons, it’s Time that is amazing about Chauvet cave, and Herzog’s film.

The filmmaker discusses his documentary here.)

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UFOs and the Surreal

Saturday, 14 May, 2011

Lately I’m interested in art as a window to thinking (visually, narratively) about the unknowable, for example surrealist depictions of posthumanity. Now, over on the great blog The Other Side of Truth, Paul Kimball has written a thought-provoking post on realism versus surrealism as modes of thinking about nonhuman intelligences.


… The problem is that with UFOs in particular, and non-human intelligence in general, we don’t know what is happening. All that we can do is guess… theorize… speculate… and imagine…
Which is why we should be looking to the surrealists, and the abstract artists, and anyone who has offered a view of the world, and of reality, that is open to myriad interpretations, as the artistic model for understanding any interaction we may have with a non-human intelligence. …

Check it out!

The Immensity of Things

Monday, 9 May, 2011

Speaking of films that attempt to show the bigness of the universe, a new, anatomically accurate (that is, from actual star mapping) video by the American Museum of Natural History is truly sublime:

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War of the Worlds One

Saturday, 9 April, 2011

Few people are aware that many of the best-attested, best-studied, and most astonishing UFO encounters have actually involved military confrontations. Encounters between air force jets and UFOs have occurred throughout the world, including Great Britain, Iran, Chile, Belgium, and the U.S. Many of these are described in detail in a couple of excellent recent books, Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, and John B. Alexander’s UFOs: Myths, Conspiracies, and Realities.

But the first military confrontation with a UFO in modern history occurred on February 25, 1942, over Los Angeles. The real-life “Battle: LA” began about 3AM, when a huge object glided south toward the city from the Northwest. Being just after Pearl Harbor, this was naturally assumed to be some kind of Japanese airship, and the city was blacked out—later all of Southern California from the San Fernando Valley to the Mexican border was blacked out. As it drifted over the city and hovered there, warning sirens blared and anti-aircraft guns, designed to defend the vital aircraft and shipbuilding facilities beneath, began an initial barrage that lasted 20 to 30 minutes. The object then moved south to Long Beach and down the coast, still tracked by searchlights. Then it returned to LA and a second barrage began.

That night, over 1,400 shells were fired at the UFO, but it was impervious. The event was caught on film and in photographs, and it is an eerie sight: What appears to be a large oval object with a dome on top (very like a classic flying saucer), hard to see in the glare of numerous floodlights shining on it from all sides, is peppered continuously by bright blasts from anti-aircraft fire (the film is below). Eyewitnesses attested that there were several direct hits, but they clearly had no effect. Army fighter planes also attacked the object (these accounted for other “sightings” of lights in formation, which has always caused some confusion in the accounts), but their guns, too, had no effect on the object, and the planes were forced to turn away. Witnesses described the scene as being like the Fourth of July, only louder, and that the object itself was beautiful, like a magic lantern.

The air raid warden for the area, a woman named “Katie,” is one of the many who described what they saw in newspaper articles:

“It was huge! It was just enormous! And it was practically right over my house. I had never seen anything like it in my life!” she said. “It was just hovering there in the sky and hardly moving at all. It was a lovely pale orange and about the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. I could see it perfectly because it was very close. It was big!”

Several people on the ground were killed during the one-sided “battle,” by falling shrapnel, in car accidents (distracted drivers), and by heart attacks from stress.

The possibility that the object was a blimp can largely be ruled out. It seems highly improbable that a blimp could withstand such a barrage, both from the ground and the air, for one thing. And it is known that the Japanese had already given up on the possibility of using blimps in warfare, due to the flammability of the gasses.

Bruce Maccabee has just posted an interesting photographic analysis of the iconic photo of the event (above), which appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times on the morning of the 26th. Without knowing the exact location of the spotlights or the height of the object, there is no way to make a precise calculation of the object’s size. However, it would be nearly as big as the diameter of the illuminated area at the convergence of the lights in this photo, as the beams by and large do not continue past it. One estimate of the object’s altitude is 8,000 feet; if the angle of the spotlight beam from the right was 30 degrees, the object would have been roughly 330 feet in diameter. Whatever the exact measurements, the thing was, as the witnesses said, huge.

It’s an interesting bit of analysis. Check it out. Maccabee also reprints a number of news stories about this amazing event, which was quite possibly the first war of the worlds.

Here’s a video with the original CBS News report of the event. The footage is very cool: