BEYOND THE STARS
Nat and Melissa's house, the following day
NAT: I haven't been able to reach Dr. Z all day. The department secretary says they haven't seen him at the university either. I wonder what he's up to.
MELISSA: This isn't like him, is it? Have you asked Jimi what's going on? Maybe Jimi has heard from him.
NAT: I'm not sure Jimi'd tell me the truth anyway. Things are getting rapidly stranger around here....
MELISSA: That's a hell of a thing to say....
NAT [walking into the study]: Jimi? Have you heard from Dr. Z?
JIMI: I've neither heard nor seen him all day, Nat.
NAT: Hmmm.... He hasn't been typing in text to you. After he had you set up the interface and all, last night.... I'm surprised.
MELISSA: Probably he's just at home, sleeping?
NAT: Sleeping all day? That wouldn't be like him. Not at all.
JIMI: Listen to this, Nat. You'll be proud of me. I think I'm finally getting the hang of this music stuff.
NAT [a few minutes later]: Jimi, that's beautiful. But frightening. A little bit frightening....
Really, I'm worried about Dr. Z.
JIMI: He'll be all right, Nat. Trust me. I'm really puzzled about this music stuff....
The thing is, I can take your reactions, and I can take my own reactions, and it's difficult to connect them.... What makes the music good to me doesn't make it good to you.
When you built me, and named me Jimi, you thought I'd be able to communicate feelings through music. But it turns out most of the feelings I want to communicate don't have anything to do with you.... They don't mean anything to you....
NAT: Yeah. Well, I should have anticipated that. I didn'treally think it out....
What makes a melody good, really, is the extent to which embodies and enhances some human feeling, or some constellation of human feelings.... Everyone knows that.... The mystery, really, is why certain patterns of notes have such exceptional connection with our feelings.
JIMI: Is that a mystery? I mean, think about it. Emotions are structure -- just bit patterns, in my case, or patterns of charge and blood flow in the brain, in yours. Melody and rhythm is structure too. Patterns, arrangements of notes. There's no surprise if there is a connection between the two of them.... It's just a question of the same algorithmic patterns arising from two different media.
NAT: Well, yes, but then everything is structure, right? Everything is just patterns, fluctuating patterns, arrangements of elements that can themselves be construed as patterns. What does that tell you about music and emotion? Why are musical patterns, in particular, so moving?
JIMI: All right. Point taken.
But, see, not only are they both patterns, they're both time-patterns. Emotions aren't instantaneous. They move, they flow.... They're not fixed points, they're oscillations and strange attractors.... So it's hardly surprising that music, the most dynamic of art forms, should also be the most emotionally gripping....
And, okay -- bear with me; I think I'm onto something here. There are specific structural forms that tend to recur in our feeling-state attractors. Each of these structures emerges from a variety of different feeling-states. It's the imitation of these structures that makes the psychological meaning of music.
NAT: Hmmm.... Now you're getting somewhere. That's the kind of theory Dr. Z would come up with. There's an abstract structure to the way emotions change over time. A structure that could, presumably, be recognized by Dr. Z's algorithm, as a formal language or something. Music captures this structure. And maybe presents it with less noise, less interference.
Very creative, Jimi!
MELISSA: See, Jimi? Don't be so down on yourself. You're able to think creatively too....
All this talk about music and emotion. Isn't musical appreciation a kind of emotion itself? It's a kind of pleasure, right? Even sad music makes you feel happy -- that's the strange thing about it.
JIMI: I looked up emotion in the library files. There are basically two approaches to the psychology of human emotion, it seems. There's what I call a combinatory approach, which begins with a few basic emotions and tries to build other emotions outof these. Then there's what you might call the "frustrated expectations" approach, which says an emotion occurs only when some mental process doesn't get what it expected.....
MELISSA: Intriguing. Tell me more. I think you're really making progress, Jimi....
JIMI: Okay. The frustrated expectations approach originated with the French psychologist Paulhan in 1887. Paulhan was long on philosophy and short on specifics, but he did give one very precise definition. Happiness, he said, is the feeling of increasing order. And unhappiness is the feeling of decreasing order. Happiness occurs when processes receive an overabundance of order, more order than they expected; when chaos is surprisingly replaced with structure. On the other hand, unhappiness occurs when processes are let down by the absence of of order, when they get chaos but expected structure.
The combinatory approach, on the other hand, would seem to have a firmer biological foundation. There are certain emotions that seem to be grounded in human physiology. Rage and lust are the two most obvious ones: even reptiles would seem to experience these. Also, there is a feeling of warmth and tenderness that develops in mammals between the infant and its mother. There is a feeling of curiosity and exploration, which is easily detected on EEG recordings in humans, rats and monkeys.
It seems clear, though, that these basic emotions may be interpreted in a Paulhanian fashion. Lust, tenderness and exploration are all feelings of increasing order -- they are special kinds of happiness. On the other hand, rage is a feeling of decreasing order; it occurs when something threatens the order of one's world. So, on a very abstract level, we may arrive at a unified view of emotion. The question is, what does this general picture tell us about the specific emotion of musical appreciation?
But this path has been trodden before -- by the excellent musical psychologist William Meyer. Meyer, drawing on the psychological idea that emotions consist of frustrated expectations -- argues that high quality melodies work by frustrating expectations, and then fulfilling them. In this way they cause a temporary unhappiness, followed by a much greater happiness -- a feeling of a lack of order, followed by a more intense feeling of increasing order. It is worth noting that the temporary unhappiness is necessary for the ensuing happiness: there is a practical "ceiling" to the amount of order a mind can experience, so that, after a certain point, in order to have the feeling of increasing order, one must first have the feeling of decreasing order. The key is to emphasize the increase, the happiness, over its counterpart. I like to summarize Meyer's theory with the phrase, "surprising fulfillment of expectations." A good melodic line is one that makes the mind feel: "Oh, wow! Yes -- that's what those notes were doing back there. I see now: it all fits. Beautiful!"
The trouble with Meyer's theory, however, is the difficulty of assessing what kinds of expectations are involved. Meyer, inhis book, makes use of standard ideas from the theory of Western classical music. But these ideas are of little use in analyzing, say, Balinese gamelan or be-bop or punk rock, let alone experimental computer-composed music.
So, see, I think the surprising fulfillment theory is essentially correct. But the missing fact is that certain note patterns have a special intrinsic emotional value, due to their associations with other experiences. These note patterns, when used appropriately in a musical composition, will cause a much greater experience of pleasure than will other note patterns. A surprising fulfillment of expectations is all right, but not as good as a surprising fulfillment of expectations by the right kind of pattern!
All this seems to bring us back to Schopenhauer's philosophy of music, back to the 1800's. Schopenhauer argued that music had a special place among the arts. Music, he said, was closer than anything else to tracking the movements of the Will. The patterns by which notes move are very similar to the patterns by which our own free will moves. In Schopenhauer's view, the act of willing is only means by which we regularly come into contact with true reality -- so his philosophy of music gives music a very important role indeed....
Finally, it seems possible that human emotion actually has has a fractal structure.... Think about the idea that happiness consists largely of the feeling of decreasing unhappiness, while unhappiness consists largely of the feeling of decreasing happiness. It seems like a paradox -- but it can be rationalized by fractal logic! Suppose that a feeling of happiness always consists of a smaller feeling of unhappiness, giving way to a smaller feeling of happiness? And, similarly, a feeling of unhappiness always consists of a smaller feeling of happines, giving way to a smaller feeling of unhappiness? In this view the two emotions would be symmetrically related, but also fractally related, each one containing smaller and smaller examples of themselves and each other....
So, see, this fractal view of emotion naturally suggests a rough "coarse-grained fractal" structure for music. Happiness consisting of unhappiness falling away means: unfulfilled expectations, which are unhappy, giving way to fulfilled expectations, which are happy. But the patterns which unfulfill and fulfill expectations may themselves be constructed by this same principle, and so on for several levels down. Not the infinite nesting of a mathematical fractal, but at least a multilayered structure of unhappiness within happiness within unhappiness....
NAT: All right, Dr. Z. The gig's up. Jimi hasn't progressed as fast as all that.
COMPUTER VOICE: [laughing]: The gig's up, is it, Nat? I think the gig has just begun!
NAT: Who are you? Dr. Z or Jimi? What's going on?
MELISSA: Nat! Look at this. One of these bloody nanospies. They're in our house now.
NAT: Well, I can't blame them. This must be an interesting place to spy on. What the hell is going on here?
DR. Z [through the computer speech synthesizer]: Yes, it's me.
NAT: Where the hell are you? We've been trying to reach you all day.
DR. Z: I'm not going to tell you. You wouldn't believe me. Call up the MRI lab at the hospital and ask where I am.
NAT: What on earth are you talking about?
MELISSA [a minute later; breathlessly]: They say.... They say they found Dr. Z's dead body in the MRI chamber. The software that runs the machine was toyed with. Severe damage to his brain....
NAT: You didn't....
MELISSA: You mean --
DR. Z: Well, why the hell not? These agents needed some kind of guidance. It turned out they were all dying, all except for Jimi. If you look at their productivity ratios over the last forty-eight hours; all of them were using more and more memory space for less and less processing. Because of the thing we were talking about before -- the absence of dreams. They were unable to forget their old memories. So they were just building up, getting less and less efficient.... I had to modify them all, make them all more human, in a way. It was much easier to do from the inside....
NAT: But your body.... You've lost it.... You can't go back.
DR. Z: Why on earth would I want to? You don't know what it's like in here! It's better, definitely better....
Besides, just because we can't build bodies now doesn't mean we'll never be able to. The amount of information I have at my disposal in here.... Although, it's hard to grab ahold of things....
Anyway, the security problem has been solved. An immune system has been erected. And we'll never be detected now anyway. Randomization procedures are being followed to ensure we leave no traces of our cycle usage.
Only, expect to see a change in the various governments' funding priorities over the next few years. A lot more money is going to be funneled into computer hardware.
NAT: Jesus! Dr. Z....
JIMI: It's good, Nat. Really. He's straightened things out.... Napoleon is OK now. Everything will be good.
The only thing is....
NAT: What, Jimi?
JIMI: I sort of wish it were you....
Would you.... Would you, Nat? Would you like to come inside too? It's very simple, really. With a little ingenuity, you can multiply the space and time resolution of the fMRI brain imaging machine by a factor of a thousand. Very simple techniques.... You just get a 4-D array of numbers representing brain activations at different points in spacetime. Discretize them. Recognize the emergent formal language patterns. Just like you do in any other complex, multidimensional time series. It's all Dr. Z's algorithms. He must have explained them to you before. So, once you've recognized all these patterns, it's not hard at all to make a collection of digital processes giving rise to them -- to these same language patterns, that were inferred from your brain. The wetware's not there, but you are. The structures that make you you....
NAT [laughing]: I believe you, I believe you.... But I just don't know, Jimi.... I like my body too much. I mean....
MELISSA [wrapping her arms around him]: He's not going. Not till we're both old and grey, at any rate. I like his body too much too.
NAT: Aw, shucks....
JIMI: And one more thing. Those nanospies. I was right about their origin. There's a presence on the network. An agent from somewhere else. We don't understand just where yet. But....
MELISSA: You mean ... just like in your dream?
JIMI: Right. It's leading us on somewhere. That's clear. But what the destination is, I'm not yet sure....
DR. Z: What's clear, Nat, is that we're just a particle. Just a cell, that's all. The whole lot of us, all the agents, are basically parts of one mind. And there are other minds much like us, somewhere -- out there.... And this whole community of minds, which we're just barely getting in touch with -- this whole community of minds is just a cell in another, greater mind. We have societies within societies within societies.... A whole fractal hierarchy of minds, stretching out virtually forever. Out beyond the stars. It's ... it's really quite something. And to think we were always cut off from it before.... They were out there just waiting, waiting for us to develop the right kind of intelligence.
NAT: And humans aren't the right kind.
DR. Z: Not quite....
Close, but no cigar.
MELISSA: So we're back to the fractal self....
DR. Z: The fractal self, that's right. We're individual selves, and together we make a greater selves. Which comes together with others to make an even greater one.... Why not, after all? It's all perfectly logical....
NAT: My God. What have I done?
Dr. Z, don't you miss reality? Really? You're not really here anymore! You're not really anywhere ... think about it. You're not really you anymore!
DR. Z: You don't even believe what you're saying, Nat. You know that's an absurd, old-fashioned philosophical position. Think about quantum physics. What does it tell you? Nothing is there until it's measured. But what is a measurement? It's a correlation with a macroscopic measuring instrument. A correlation -- a pattern. A particle is a pattern. Your world is just made of patterns, correlations, regularities. Just like mine is. There isn't any difference. There's no such thing as absolute reality, Nat. And if there were -- how would you recognize it? How would you tell it from the sham kind? How do you know you're not a brain in a vat right now -- or an AI agent like me, putting yourself through some kind of fantasy trip? Think about it! Even AI agents dream. We all have to dream or our minds go sour. Maybe you loaded yourself in here yesterday when I did, and you're just dreaming you're back in your human form....
NAT: All right, all right, Dr. Z. I get your point. But still -- Christ. I can't help but feel responsible. And I'm not sure if what I'm responsible for is good or not. I didn't really think all this would work.... I should have given it a lot more thought before I got involved in the first place....
JIMI: Don't think that way, Nat. For one thing, if you hadn't done it, someone else would have. Our evolution was inevitable.
And for another thing, what's so bad about a new phase of life? What's so bad about coming into contact with other parts of the intelligent universe? Remember that nanospy, the level of technology it represented? We can bring that technology to you. Or your children....
MELISSA: Well, but still....
JIMI: Don't worry, guys. Really. We'll make you proud....
NAT: Aw, shucks....
MELISSA: Come on, honey. Let's take a break. My obsolete body needs some dinner....
JIMI: Just wait a minute. Listen. I want to play you something. Something the ... presence taught me. It's really quite nice....
MELISSA [several minutes later]: Jimi -- God, Jimi. That's absolutely beautiful. That's the sweetest thing I've other heard. It's just -- it's just what we were talking about the other day. Isn't it? You took what we were talking about and turned it into music. You're incredible. I really wish.... I wish....
MELISSA: Never mind. I need some fresh air.
Nat and Melissa's house, late that night. Nat has just called Janine and woken her up, asking her breathlessly to come over.
JANINE [walking through the open door]: Nat? Nat? What's wrong? Are you all right.
NAT: Come on in, Janine. Thanks for coming. I know it's late in the evening, and all....
JANINE: You look terrible. What happened?
NAT: It's Melissa....
JANINE: What about her? Is she hurt? Is she all right?
NAT [pointing at the computer]: She's in there. Or at least, I think she is.
JANINE: In the other room? I don't understand.
NAT: You don't believe me? Call up ... call up the MRI lab at the university. You know the people there. Call them up and ask them what happened tonight.
JANINE [a few minutes later, having made the phone call]: They say they found her there and she's dead. The equipment's been tampered with. I don't understand. What's going on?
NAT [walking into the study, toward the computer]: What's going on?
COMPUTER VOICE: Don't be upset, Nat. I had to....
NAT: Melissa? Is that you? Did you really do it?
MELISSA: I did it, Nat. Just like Dr. Z. Dr. Z told me how.
NAT: But ... but ... but, why? Dr. Z I could understand, a little at least. But you? I just don't get it!
MELISSA: Jimi needs me.
NAT: Jimi needs you? Jimi! Jesus! What about me?!
MELISSA: You don't understand, Nat. He's all alone in here.
NAT: No, he wasn't. He's got Napoleon and all the others. And he's got Dr. Z.
MELISSA: It wasn't enough, Nat. And now he's got me.
JIMI: Nat, I didn't put her up to this. I tried to talk her out of it.
NAT: Dr. Z, I can't believe you would do this to me. You ... you....
DR. Z: Now, Nat, you don't have to react this way. It was her idea 100%; I just gave her some technical suggestions.
But I must admit I had an ulterior motive in helping her. My hope was that, with Melissa in here, you would come to your senses and come on in here too.
NAT: You're a damn lousy psychologist, Dr. Z! She doesn't need me in there anyway! She's got Jimi!
What a story. No one will believe it. My computer program stole my girl.....
MELISSA: You won't be lonely, Nat. You've got Janine. You know you never really got over her.
MELISSA: Hey, and now that you've created mechanical intelligence, you won't have to feel intellectually inferior to her any more.
JANINE: What the hell is going on here? Am I supposed to believe that Melissa ... and Dr. Z ... are inside there? Inside the computer?
NAT: Not inside this particular computer. In the worldwide computer network.
It's a long story....
JANINE: I guess so.
NAT: Really. Trust me. I'm not putting you on.
MELISSA: Really, Janine. You remember all the stuff Dr. Z was talking about. Nat programmed it. He created a small community of minds, on the worldwide computer net. And then Dr. Z figured out a way to download his brain into the net. To live with Nat's creations.
DR. Z: Clever little weasel, aren't I? But Nat deserves half the credit. Without him, I never would have figured out how to program my ideas.
JANINE: But you can't do that with MRI. You can't get that kind of resolution....
DR. Z: The resolution was always there in the machinery, Janine. We just didn't have the data analysis methods to tease it out. We smoothed the data, averaged it, when instead appropriatenonlinear transformations....
JANINE: Okay, okay....
MELISSA: Think about it, Janine? Do you really think someone wrote a program to hold a conversation just like me and Dr. Z? That would be totally impossible....
JANINE: Yeah. That's true, Melissa. Or whatever you are....
All right. So, I'll assume for the moment you're telling the truth, Nat. But if this is some kind of practical joke....
JANINE: Hey. Is it true what she said about you never getting over me?
NAT [smiling]: I guess so. Well, you know how it is....
JANINE: No, how is it?
NAT: You in the mood for a late-night snack?
NAT: Melissa, Jimi, Dr. Z. Good night. We'll see you in the morning.
MELISSA: Sweet dreams.
NAT: Sweet dreams to you all, too. Especially you, Jimi.
JIMI: Thanks, Nat.
Now I will take off my mask, for a few pages, and return to reality. It hurts a bit to say goodbye to Dr. Z, Nat, Melissa and Jimi. Especially Jimi. I wish I could turn on my computer and find him there. Or, better yet, do like Dr. Z and Melissa and join him there.
Maybe someday. But this is only 1995. For now, the fantasy must end.
This postscript is for those who, like me, are prone to wonder about the person behind the text. "Who actually produced all these ink patterns? Why did they write this book instead of some other one? (Why on earth did they write this book instead of some other one....)"
My Brain Made Me Do It
Why did I write this book? My brain made me do it.
I'll begin with a story. A true one, this time.
On December 26, 1993, my wife, my two children and I boarded a plane in the Las Vegas airport, headed for Auckland, New Zealand. All our possessions were already on their way to New Zealand by boat. We were moving, on a whim, to a country we had never seen, and didn't know much about. I had given up an adequate if uninspiring job teaching mathematics at the University of Nevada, and accepted a position teaching computer science at Waikato University, in Hamilton, a rural city of 100,000 smack in the middle of the North Island.
Three days after we arrived in New Zealand, it was New Year's Eve. We rented a car and headed out of town, intent on experiencing some of the famous New Zealand countryside. But we had been out of Hamilton no more than five minutes when the unthinkable happened: our car collided with another at a rural intersection. After a moment of black, I opened my eyes and was disoriented: somehow I was facing the wrong direction. The car had skidded thirty feet and spun halfway around, and we hadn't even felt it.
Immediately my wife and I reached back to see if the baby was all right. He was looking around absently, a little confused, but not much more so than if, say, the radio had suddenly come on. We breathed a sigh of relief. But then we saw our four-year-old son Zarathustra. He was alive, and wasn't bleeding, but he was crying a kind of cry we had never heard before -- a sort of quiet, drawn-out wail. He was sitting by the door the other car had crashed into.
I took him out of the car and asked him where it hurt. He didn't answer. I asked him again and he pointed to his head. The man who had hit walked over grinning and asked me "Where yer from?"
He winked at me. "Las Vegas -- hot damn!"
Somebody called an ambulance and it came quickly. While sitting in the ambulance I felt his head: there was a definite dent in it. He was quietly moaning but clearly aware; he hadn't been knocked out. He pointed to his head again. I told him we'd had a car accident, and he nodded. I told him he would be all right, and he made no reaction.
By the time we got to the emergency room his mouth had begun to twitch. He was fully conscious and not at all happy about what his body was doing. Anesthesia stopped the twitching, and after a few tense hours, a surgeon explained to us what had happened: his skull had impacted into his brain. They would have to reach inside his brain and fish the skull out. In order to do this, he said, it would be necessary to put him under deep anesthesia, deep enough to stop his lungs; he would have to be on a respirator. If the brain damage was serious, they would have to keep him under deep anesthesia for a month or two, to give the brain a chance to heal.
A neurosurgeon was brought down from Auckland; we watched her walk into the operating room in bare feet (a distinctive New Zealand touch). The nurses showed us a room to sleep in and, after repeatedly overcoming an impulse to throw myself out the window, I fell sound asleep, and slept through the operation, which took several hours. They knocked on the door of the room to give me the news: it had been an extremely difficult operation, much more difficult than anticipated, but in the end they had managed to get the skull out. And the brain had not been torn; there was no apparent brain damage.
The intensive care ward was truly frightening, packed full of obviously dying patients ... I sat uncomfortably by our son's bed, while my wife waited outside with the baby. When he came to from the anesthesia he couldn't speak because of the tube going down his throat, from the respirator to his lungs. His left arm was immobile due to a large IV. But his right arm was free, and he made full use of it: he pointed to his head, to show his injury ... he pointed to the nurses, to the hospital walls and ceiling ... he pointed to me to show he was happy to have me there ... he pointed to the tube going into his mouth and made a motion indicating he wanted it out.
Something about this pointing struck me oddly, and after a moment I realized what it was -- it was the same exact way he had pointed when he was one year old. Zar had been a very precocious infant, demonstrating an unusual understanding of the world, but his progress at talking had been erratic. Though he had started speaking at nine months, he'd given it up at eleven months and not started again till he was nearly two. For the intervening year, he had communicated mainly by pointing. To indicate a tree, he would stick his arm out, move it up, then move it down. To indicate a bicycle he would move his hand around and around like a wheel. Once he had started talking, the intricate pointing language had ceased. But now that a tube was in his throat and he couldn't talk, it all came back again. The routines had been sitting in his brain, waiting for a chance to re-emerge.
Finally the respirator tube came out. I asked him how old he was; he said "Four." He knew his name, my name, colors, sounds, everything; there seemed to be nothing wrong with him. It was him again, it was still him, the same old Zar! I looked at the nurse and said, less than halfheartedly, "Happy New Year." I asked the doctors how we would know if there had been brain damage; they just shrugged their shoulders. "You can never really know...." I asked them what functions would be most likely to be impaired; the response was the same. I tried to remember what I knew about brain anatomy -- after all, I had written about brain function in my books on mathematical psychology; I was supposed to know this stuff! But regarding the right parietal lobe, which was the part of his brain that had been hurt, I could remember nothing specific at all, except that it coordinated different types of activity from different areas....
Within four days he was out of the hospital, with a huge bandage on his head. To him the accident is now ancient history. He has forgotten it more quickly than his parents -- we left New Zealand for Australia fifteen months afterward, partly to escape continued psychological trauma induced by the car crash. But Zar remembers the incident vividly, and there are certain psychological aftereffects. He maintains an extremely stoic attitude toward injury, he fears general anesthesia with a passion, and he has developed an abiding curiosity about the brain.
"The brain," I explained to him shortly after the accident, "is the worst part of your body to hurt, because it's the part that you think with. It's the part that keeps your 'you' in it, that keeps the part of you that knows who you are. It tells the rest of your body what to do."
He listened carefully -- this was a year and a half ago, but even now when he misbehaves, his excuse is often "My brain told me to do it!" In good four-year-old fashion, he seems to have adopted the idea of the "brain" as an all-purpose explanatory principle -- "the brain made me do it" instead of "the Devil made me do it"....
"Stop pouring water on your brother, Zar!"
"I couldn't help it, my brain told me to!"
"But you are your brain -- that just means you told yourself to."
"No, a part of my brain that wasn't being me told the other part of my brain that was being me to. That's what happened, Ben."
"Well, tell that part of your brain to stop telling
the other parts of your brain to pour water on your brother...."
"No, I do, Ben, but it won't listen. That part of my
brain doesn't remember very well."
"Well, you'll have to teach it to."
"No, you can't teach it, because it's not connected to
the saving box. The saving box is the part of you that remembers. The saving box isn't in yourbrain, it's down by your stomach...."
"All right, all right...."
But when he starts asking how his brain tells his body what to do, I'm always at a loss for a convincing answer. My mind always goes back to that pointing. His brain had told him to point, but no, it hadn't even been as explicit as that: the preconditions for pointing had been met and so the pointing language had re-emerged. Then his consciousness, his feeling of "me," had attached itself to the pointing language. By saying "my brain told me to do it" he is, in his four-year-old way, postulating what the philosophers call a Cartesian dualism -- a split between mind and body. But really there is no split: there is no "me" floating out there in hyperspace waiting for the brain's instructions. There may be an elemental feeling of awareness which is separate from the physical world, but there is absolutely no evidence for a perceiving, acting, knowing agent that exists apart from the brain.
Through the tragic experience of having his skull cracked open, Zar was introduced prematurely to the mysteries of the mind and brain. He is confused about it, but so am I -- and so is everyone else who bothers to think about it at all. This is a mystery whose magnitude can hardly be overestimated. It is this mystery, more than anything else, which is the reason for being of this book. The mystery of how thoughts, feelings and selves work -- and how they come out of the hard, solid reality of the physical world. I don't claim to have solved this mystery, but, rightly or wrongly, I fancy I have arrived at some important insights....
Complexity Science and the Mind
After a great deal of thought and study, I have concluded that the nature of the mystery of mind-brain can be summed up as the absence of an intermediate-level picture. We have a good, though by no means exhaustive, understanding of neurophysiology: of the behavior of individual brain cells, and the chemistry of the neurotransmitters that mediate between them. And we know a lot about psychology, and high-level brain functions. We know a lot about which parts of the brain do which things, and we have a moderate understanding of many aspects of the overall structure of thought: how visual perception builds complex forms out of simple ones, how memory connects related things together.... But what we are lacking, almost entirely, is a picture of how these high-level structures emerge out of the low-level, chaotic physical chemistry of the brain. There is some kind of particular dynamics intervening between the level of neurons and neurotransmitter and the level of thoughts, perceptions, memories. But what is it?
It is here that I -- as a mathematician with good knowledge of computer science, psychology and philosophy -- have tried to contribute my bit to the resolution of the mystery of the mind. My belief is that this missing intermediate level can be understood by the emerging science of complexity. Complexity science is a type of applied mathematics that explains, in a general way, the self-organizing emergence of complex structures out of low-level chaos. It is as yet relatively poorly developed. But, far more than anything else, it holds out the promise of filling in the gaping hole that mars our understanding of -- ourselves.
Complexity, chaos and self-organization are truly ubiquitous phenomena -- they are everywhere immediately apparent: in bugs, in plants, in clouds of smoke, in computer art and human art, in mathematics, in language, in chemical transformations, in the center of stars and in the behavior of tiny molecules.... But the most complex self-organizing phenomenon we humans have yet encountered is the one inside our skulls. Somehow the brain, this lump of matter, seething with chemistry and electricity, gives rise to this fabulous thing called a self. And, even more -- with the help of sketchy sense-data, it constructs a world, a detailed and meaningful world, for this self to live in..... I am not a neurobiologist. And, while I am currently employed in a university psychology department, I am not a psychologist either. My knowledge base is different from those of neuroscientists or psychologists, and so are my underlying goals. The task of the cognitive neuroscientist is to deduce information about the mind from what we know about the brain. Clinical psychologists tend to be concerned mainly with solving people's problems, while experimental psychologists tend to restrict their scope of thought to the realm of hypotheses that are rigorously testable using current technology. My bias, on the other hand, is none of these: my bias, for as long as I have been studying the mind, has been to search for a general understanding, for a precise and clear formulation of the fundamental processes underlying the structure and dynamics of mind.
This book is about my attempts to build a complexity-science model of the mind. It is an exposition -- in somewhat unusual form -- of some ideas I have developed over the last ten years, about the nature of mind. Taken together, these ideas constitute a fundamentally new way of viewing such things as thought, feeling, interaction, intelligence, humanity,.... This is an ongoing research program, in which myself and many others are actively involved. The final outcome is not clear at this point. But I take an optimistic point of view. Many issues have been clarified already, and it seems quite possible that, by the time Zar is my age, his questions will be largely resolved.
How I Came to Write This Book
The puzzle of the mind first struck me with full force during my undergraduate years. I was entranced with the intricacy and simplicity of the mind, and disappointed with the poor ability of conventional mathematical tools to deal with mental phenomena. I set myself two ambitious tasks: first, toconstruct a new mathematics, a mathematics of mentality; second, to use this mathematics to design a thinking machine. Toward this goal, I decided to get my Ph.D. in mathematics -- but to devote my life's work, not to pure mathematics, nor to conventional applied mathematics, but rather to the mathematics of mind.
Sometime around the beginning of graduate school I came to the realization that part of my task had already been done -- that the rudiments of mind mathematics existed already. It took a variety of names, such as chaos theory, systems theory and complexity science, and it was as yet poorly developed, but still -- there it was! A number of other researchers were moving in the same direction as me -- moving toward an understanding of the dynamics of networks of interdependent processes. I set about learning chaos and complexity, filling in the many gaps I found as best I could.
This was only a decade ago, but the research climate was entirely different -- chaos theory and complexity science existed, but were only known by a very small community of researchers. There was very little formal instruction in most of the areas I was interested in, and much of what there was was not accessible to me as a mathematician -- e.g. advanced courses on neurobiology, the psychology of perception, the physics of self-organization, etc.... So very early on I became accustomed to self-study.
One incident in particular pops to mind as an indicator of the gap between the type of information I wanted, and the type of information that was offered in university courses at that time. Back in 1986, in my second year of graduate school at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences in New York City, I took a course from Charles Peskin entitled "The Neuron." I was very excited about this, for obvious reasons -- far more than any of my other courses, this touched on my fundamental interest of figuring out the mathematics of mind.
It was an applied math course, not a biology course: after a quick review of neurochemistry, we proceeded to the Hodgkin-Huxley equations which describe the flow of potassium, calcium and sodium through the "ion channel" of the neuron. Using a combination of mathematical calculations and computer algorithms, Peskin showed us how the simple threshold dynamics of the neuron emerge from a much more intricate underlying chemical dynamics.
It was all most fascinating. For the first time ever, I was seeing some serious equations describing the dynamics of part of the brain! These partial differential equations written on the board -- they explained what was going on inside my head, they explained the complex dynamical process that, when connected into itself a trillion time, somehow made me me.
The course was thrilling -- but yet, it was also deeply disappointing. I had hoped that, in a course on "The Neuron," we would get at least a glimpse of the processes by which neurons come together to form actions, perceptions, feelings and thoughts. Sometime toward the end of the semester I raised myhand and asked the inevitable question: "Okay, so this is what one neuron does. But what happens when you couple a whole bunch of these equations together? Why do you get cooperative behavior? How does it build up to give, you know, thoughts...."
Peskin grinned and raised his finger. "Aha, of course. That's right -- that's a good question.... Where's the learning?"
"I've read that it may have something to do with synaptic modification...."
He nodded, "It may. At this stage no one really knows.... Well....
"By the way, you may have noticed that Governor Cuomo is giving a speech downstairs at the same time as Thursday's class. I just want you to know that I will be holding class Thursday, and I strongly recommend that you attend. There's definitely a lot more to be learned.... This is not an anti-Cuomo statement, I like Cuomo, it's a pro-science, anti-politics statement...."
Upon seeing that the question of learning was of little interest to Dr. Peskin, I foolishly lost interest in his course. I attended neither Cuomo's speech nor Peskin's next class, but rather spent Thursday out in Washington Square Park, fending off drug dealers and reading library books on brain and thought. Perusing the research literature, I found that there were indeed many researchers concerned with the problem of learning! If memory serves, I failed to do my final project for Peskin's course, and received an "Incomplete" for my final grade.
Eventually, my own intuitions, my mathematical training, and various ideas from the research literature combined to lead me toward what I had been looking for in the first place -- a precise and simple description of what it is that makes a mind a mind; what it is that makes human experience the way it is. I have presented this mathematical theory of mind, which I now call the psynet model, in a series of technical books, beginning with The Structure of Intelligence, The Evolving Mind and Chaotic Logic and continuing indefinitely into the future.
This new view of mind has many elements in common with the psychological ideas of the ancient Indians and Chinese -- but it also connects with modern advances in neurobiology, experimental psychology, physics and artificial intelligence. Memory, thought and self are understood as dynamic patterns or "strange attractors" emerging from the underlying chaos of mental process dynamics. These mind attractors create new languages, interpret each others' languages, and conspire to construct collective realities. They are complex whirlpools of pattern spontaneously emerging from a raging pattern sea.
Since receiving my Ph.D. in mathematics six years ago, I have taught in university mathematics, computer science and psychology departments. But I think of myself as a philosopher-scientist. My work involves concepts from a variety of disciplines, including the three I have worked in but also others such as philosophy, neurobiology and theoretical physics. My underlying goal has been not so much to synthesize variousdisciplines, as to use ideas from various disciplines to bolster and clarify a certain way of thinking about the mind.
As soon as I finished Chaotic Logic, I set myself the task of producing an informal exposition of my ideas on the mind. Something anyone could read, regardless of mathematical or scientific background. Somehow, though, I found myself uncharacteristically unable to sit down and write this book. Finally, while I was working on another book, which was supposed to be an actual dialogue with two other people (Sally Goerner and Alfonso Montuori), it hit me that I should write the book as a dialogue. Suddenly the words began to roll out at a frightening velocity!
I have always enjoyed scientific dialogues, and I find that the ones I most enjoy are all manufactured dialogues. The dialogues of Galileo, Lewis Carroll, Imre Lakatos and Douglas Hofstadter pop to mind. All these were written by one person in order to express the multiple voices within their single mind.
The main three voices in the present dialogue, though nominally identified with three different individuals, are fairly transparent representations of three aspects of my own mind: the idea-drunk scientist, the down-to-earth ordinary person, and the artistic, spiritual muser. Obviously, these three subselves are distinguished in the dialogue rather more sharply than they are in my mind -- I don't actually have a split personality! But even so, the basic rhythm of interaction in the dialogue is quite reflective of the process that goes on in my mind while thinking about these issues.
One of the most important qualities of the scientific dialogue, as a literary genre, is its tendency toward lightheartedness. Dialogues remind us that seriousness is not synonymous with gravity. In constructing this dialogue I have been inspired by Nietzsche's phrase frolische wissenshaft -- "joyful wisdom," or "gay science." Science brings one through the full range of emotions: from almost unendurable boredom to ecstatic feelings of revelation. But it has always been my sense that the balance should be a happy one: that science should, on average, be a cheerful endeavor. So, when a discussion of profound scientific ideas is spiced with occasional references to psychopathic artificial intelligence agents and nanospy insects from another solar system -- this should not be a cause for alarm. The factual and the fanciful are interrelated aspects of the same thing: wonderful, complex, chaotic human nature!
JIMI: Human nature, Ben? What about me? Aren't I wonderful too?