I am a neural matrix of roughly 80 billion cells each charged with the potential for action, firing out in multiple patters of synchronicity towards a seemingly inexhaustible order of calculations -- I am the system that emerges, I am its apex, I am sentience -- therefore I am.
This, I imagine, is what Descartes would have to say today of what remains of the self under the scope of examination, though I will admit this sounds less poetic then his original statement.
Galileo’s telescope, the atom, the space age, the tech age, the Human Genome Project, and now the BAM project, all can be seen as a succession of strivings towards a new perspective through which we could gleam a greater understanding and synthesis of Man. The BAM project is the newest manifestation of this urge. It is an exciting endeavor, and yet as with any new attempt of science to probe ourselves, it is a frightening one too.
Recently I learned about the “Brain Activity Map” (BAM) initiative sponsored by the Obama administration. I have a baseline knowledge of neuroscience and have been long fascinated by its hoped for implications and speculative repercussions. I wanted more detail. I found what I understand to be the source paper for this project, The Brain Activity Functional Connectomics, by Paul Alivisatos, et al. This is hot stuff, and I am not being glib. Obama thinks so too, that’s why 3 billion governmental dollars are slated to go into the project. Microsoft and Google are throwing in real money too. So what is really going on?
BAM follows the model of the Human Genome Project. In the proposal paper, as well as Obama’s state of the union address, reference is made to the fact that each $1 put into the Human Genome Project brought back $140 to the economy. I will leave alone the implications of this being economy driven. Should science be economically driven? This question, in our society, is mostly moot. Everything must now at least appear to be economy driven. Knowledge, transcendence, self-discovery, can only resonate in conversation with the economy.
But what are the human as opposed to the economic implications of the Brain Activity Map? BAM is a 15-year plan to create a non-topographical map of the brain the repercussions of which reach into the medical, commercial, educational, and technological fields. Until now our neuro-understanding of the brain has been limited to compartmentalized thinking, or to the study of individual ingredients. The brain simply cannot be understood this way and thus Alivisatos’ paper argues that “no general theory of brain function is universally accepted.” BAM seeks to create an “emergent systems” model, something akin to the rules of complex systems. This stems from the knowledge that brain function arises from the interplay of the electrical impulse grid (the action potential of all the neurons). The best way I can state this is that brain activity is a symphony rather then a carpenter’s graph. It is the interplay of notes, tones, and pacing, and sound rather than a combination of these individual elements. The point is not to isolate and combine but to mimic the complex yet structured electrical impulses of the brain in a way that allows higher order brain function to emerge in an artificially intelligent being. To quote Alivisatos: “An emergent level of analysis appears to be critical for understanding the most compelling questions of how brain functions create sentience.” The most exciting effort, in other words, is to create a sentient, thinking, and autonomous entity.
The project calls for an investment into new technologies that could make recording the action potentials and coordination of their impulses more feasible. This can be accomplished by investing in nano-technology: nanotubes and wires, quantum dots, nano-particles, neural probes, shanks containing optical waveguides, and tiny microchips that can pass into the brain.
The brain mapping project could likely entail human testing, which “we do not exclude,” though it would not take place till the last phase of the project.
Microsoft and Google have signed on as partners and possibly fiscal contributors, because clearly the repercussions of such of project could be ground breaking for the tech industry: Computer chips that replicate the emergent systems model; search engines that could graph society by treating each user as if they are a neuron and their googling activity as action potential. The source paper acknowledges some possible paranoia at such an endeavor and thus states that it is essential that this project be a public one, thus allowing for transparency in all findings. It also encourages a public relations campaign to reassure any party that may be susceptible to conspiracy theory making. That’s me!
I hold both, a fear of repercussions and a sense of excitement for this project. I tend to think that conspiracy theories are healthy. All great science fiction is fed by the conspiracy model, but it also tends to foretell future technological and social revelations. And there exactly is my point, or fear, or observation -- the irrelevance of social relevance. We don’t really care, unless it scares us.
I found myself facing this in writing this post. I am excited to tell people about this project, but as a writer I have a constant mechanism at play in my head as I write, to present a story or topic in a light that will make people interested. As much as this mechanism comes from within me it is also a product of cultural observation, a consistent tracking of what stimulates popular dialogue. What stimulates popular dialogue is conspiracy, not excitement or optimism. This itself is worthy of examination.
Ultimately the fear is of what we are losing in the race to understand ourselves through science and technology, of what we leave behind. I do not mean to gesture towards a conservative approach on science. Rather, I am fascinated by the anxiety that accompanies the prospect, and propose that our fear is that of isolated parties traveling at quite different speeds. We can investigate the self intrusively or/and reflectively. Reflectively, we evaluate and discuss our culture, ethics, the relationship of groups and individuals to one another, we pause and contemplate the grace of being. Intrusively we probe into the elemental makeup of ourselves and the world we inhabit. As one practice outpaces the other, something feels askew, as if a key organ in the symphony of being human is muting in the distance.
Freeman Dyson, the eclectic physicist, took good aim at philosophy last week in a review of the silly book by Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?" An Existential Detective Story. Holt went around to "a portrait gallery of leading modern philosophers," and asked them the Leibnizian question: Why is there something rather than nothing?" The book offers their answers, along with biographical descriptions.
For Dyson, Holt's book "compels us to ask" these "ugly questions." First, "When and why did philosophy lose its bite?" Philosophers were, once important. In China, Confucius and his followers made a civilization. So too in Greece did Socrates and then the schools of Plato and Aristotle give birth to the western world. In the Christian era Jesus and Paul, then Aquinas and Augustine granted depth to dominant worldviews. Philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes, and Leibniz were central figures in the scientific revolution, and philosophical minds like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Arendt (even if one was a philologist and the other two refused the name philosopher) have become central figures in the experience of nihilism. Against these towering figures, the "leading philosophers" in Holt's book cut a paltry figure. Here is Dyson:
Holt's philosophers belong to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Compared with the giants of the past, they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant. At some time toward the end of the nineteenth century, philosophers faded from public life. Like the snark in Lewis Carroll's poem, they suddenly and silently vanished. So far as the general public was concerned, philosophers became invisible.
There are many reasons for the death of philosophy, some of which were behind Hannah Arendt's refusal to call herself a philosopher. Philosophy was born, at least in its Platonic variety, from out of the thinker's reaction to the death of Socrates. Confronted with the polis that put the thinker to death, Plato and Aristotle responded by retreating from the world into the world of ideas. Philosophical truth separated itself from worldly truths, and idealism was born. Realism was less a return to the world than a reactive fantasy to idealism. In both, the truths that were sought were otherworldly truths, disconnected to the world.
Christianity furthered the divorce of philosophy from the world by imagining two distinct realms, the higher realm existing beyond the world. Science, too, taught that truth could only be found in a world of abstract reason, divorced from real things. Christianity and science together gave substance to the philosophical rebellion against the world. The result, as Dyson rightly notes, is that philosophy today is as abstract, worldly, and relevant as it is profound.
What Dyson doesn't explore is why philosophers of the past had such importance, even as they also thought about worlds of ideas. The answer cannot be that ideas had more import in the past than now. On the contrary, we live in an age more saturated in ideas than any other. More people today are college educated, literate, and knowledgeable of philosophy than at any period in the history of the world. Books like Holt's are proof positive of the profitable industry of philosophical trinkets. That is the paradox—at a time when philosophy is read by more people than ever, it is less impactful than it ever was.
One explanation for this paradox is nihilism—The devaluing or re-valuing of the highest values. The truth about truth turned out to be neither so simple nor singular as the philosophers had hoped. An attentive inquiry into the true and the good led not to certainty, but to ideology critique. For Nietzsche, truth, like the Christian God, was a human creation, and the first truth of our age is that we recognized it as such. That is the precondition for the death of God and the death of truth. Nihilism has not expunged ideas from our world, but multiplied them. When speaking about the "true" or the "good" or the "just," Christians, Platonists, and moralists no longer have the stage to themselves. They must now shout to be heard amongst the public relations managers, advertisers, immoralists, epicureans, anarchists, and born again Christians.
Dyson ignores this strain of philosophy. He does point out that Nietzsche was the last great philosopher, but then dismisses Heidegger who "lost his credibility in 1933" and even Wittgentstein who would remain silent if a woman attended his lectures until she would leave. And yet it is Heidegger who has given us the great literary masterpieces of the 20th century philosophy.
His work on technology (The Question Concerning Technik) and art (The Origins of the Work of Art) has been widely read in artistic, literary, and lay circles. It is hard to imagine a philosopher more engaged with the science and literature than Heidegger was. He read physics widely and co-taught courses at the house of the Swiss psychiatrist Medard Boss and also taught seminars with the German novelist Ernst Jünger.
It seems worthwhile to end with a poem of Heidegger's from his little book, Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens/From Out of the Experience of Thinking:
Drei Gefahren drohen dem Denken
Die gute und darum heilsame Gefahr ist die Nachbarschaft des singenden Dichters.
Die böse und darum schärfste Gefahr ist das Denken selber. Es muß gegen sich selbst denken, was es nur selten vermag.
Die schlechte und darum wirre Gefahr ist das Philosophieren.
Three dangers threaten thinking.
The good and thus healthy danger is the nearness of singing poetry.
The evil and thus sharpest danger is thinking itself. It must think against itself, something it can do only rarely.
The bad and thus confusing danger is philosophizing.
“An albatross dips towards the sea, then lifts again, beating its wings as if repelled by the opposing magnetism of the water.” Beginning her book, On Extinction, with this scene of natural collision, Melanie Challenger’s image soon unfolds as her gaze turns down to the expansive water. "The sea is deathly calm, spread out like a cerecloth. Then a rocketing breath hurls a rainbow into the air." With this Challenger paints the experience of watching a rising blue whale.
Ms. Challenger sent us a copy of her book here at the Arendt Center, suggesting a connection with Arendtian themes. She is right. What albatross and whale mean, how we see them, and the ways in which we increasingly don't are the themes of Challenger's book. What is most visible in our world, she writes, is the loss of wonder at the natural world, the old Platonic thaumazein, “the wonder at what is” that is the birth of philosophy.
Modern life, however, seems to not simply repudiate the experience of thaumazein, but also the notion that anything occurring in nature is inherently meaningful, or, to put it in the economic terms which so pervade our thought processes, that anything has value “as it is.” Modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes, replaces the wonder at the world with doubt regarding the world's existence or our ability to know it. But doubt does not have to lead to disregard. And even disregard for nature is not an adequate description for what Challenger has in mind. Human beings have and will continue to recognize the economic possibilities of nature, which is less disregard than use; it is precisely this use and exploitation of nature for economic purposes that bestows meaning on nature for modern man. Wonder and doubt have both been replaced by an attitude of unremitting mastery.
Of course, everyone does not seek to exploit nature, or accept the ultimately wishful assertion that man is superior to nature and that any natural activity is either superfluous to human life, profitable to man, or a problem man must figure out how to overcome. Pressed on whether one supports or rejects the vast damage man has committed to the earth, be it in the form of global warming, obliteration of environments, or human-induced extinctions many times the rate of estimated natural extinction (see the Guardian’s Human Activity is Driving Earth’s ‘sixth great extinction event), most would say they do not support it, that we must live in a more sustainable way.
Watching “Planet Earth,” however, and then donating some money to Greenpeace is not going to radically change things. It is necessary to recognize that this language of sustainability, of “green” products and efforts, including efforts made by some businesses, to condone the most destructive practices of global industry are largely technical or superficial solutions which mask the need for a more fundamental discussion that addresses not simply the symptoms of modern exploitation of nature, but seeks to understand what we are doing and why. We must think about and discuss both the relationship between nature and man and the basic activities that gives form to and conditions our lives. In other words, to address the destruction of our environment, and why we are acting in this manner, we must adopt Arendt’s proposal “to think what we are doing.”
Indeed, “to think what we are doing” is the underlying impetus of Melanie Challenger’s On Extinction. Confronted with her own “fragmented connection with nature,” Ms. Challenger writes “I became aware that I was living through another mass extinction of animals and plants without even knowing it, this one due to human behavior. I wanted to explore the idea of extinction in the light of this new, sobering reality.” Her “chief interest…in gathering a history of how we had become so destructive to the natural world and its diversity” springs from a determination “to understand why…marvels of nature were imperiled and why that should matter.”
Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition provides a wonderful banister upon which we may begin to think, with Ms. Challenger, about our proclivity toward exploitation and destruction of nature. Broadly speaking, the rise of human induced extinctions (which began to increase dramatically in the 18th century) and the massive exploitation of natural resources accompanying industrialization may be traced to the rise in prominence of homo faber within the vita activa, followed shortly by the succession of the animal laborans. “The modern age,” Arendt writes, “has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society.” This reduction of the active life, comprised of labor, work, and action, into a life of mere laboring follows the modern commitment to infinite economic growth, and therefore limitless consumption, alongside an obsession with the life process itself.
The modern obsession with the life process is characterized by a continuous process of consumption. The laboring process is cyclical – we have needs, labor produces consumables to meet those needs, consumption occurs and the process begins anew. Arendt writes: “laboring always moves in the same circle which is prescribed by the biological process of the living organism and the end of its ‘toil and trouble’ comes only with the death of this organism.” It is not the biologically necessary process of labor and consumption, however, which has led to our massive exploitation of the earth’s resources, but rather the over-consumption symptomatic of the emergence of what Arendt calls a waste economy, “in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world, if the process itself is not to come to a sudden catastrophic end.”
Exploitation and abuse of nature, however, does not derive strictly from our capacity to labor and the emergence of a modern society captivated by necessities of life and addicted to the endless laboring process. We are not simply laboring animals, but also fabricators, and it is from this perspective of homo faber that nature divorced from man is almost meaningless. Nature, Arendt writes, “seen through the eyes of homo faber, the builder of the world, ‘furnishes only the almost worthless materials as in themselves,’ whose whole value lies in the work performed upon them.
Reading Challenger's On Extinction with Arendt in the background calls up a picture of a society dominated by the never-ending process of labor and consumption coupled with humanity's ability to deny intrinsic value to nature; with such a picture, one cannot help but consider, in Challenger's words, that “the lunacy of pursuing profit despite all warnings to the contrary” may be characterized not as a reckless and irresponsible gamble pursued by some but rather the unavoidable consequence of living within and being a member of modern society. While we may question how anyone “back then” could have supported the almost total depletion of the whale population for oil, for example, there seems to be a similar ambivalence in our own time, as many bemoan the warming of the planet and nations pledge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while the world’s leading economies and major oil companies are concurrently jockeying for drilling rights in the arctic to fuel the vehicles and supply power for those same people reflecting upon the destruction of nature and wishing it wasn’t so.
The consumerist society knows no boundary lines, and in the places most vulnerable to global warming, economic actors do not see tragic, avoidable destruction, but rather increased opportunities to profit from the exploitation of nature. While in Nunavut, Ms. Challenger spoke met an Inuit asking why she was there. Telling him that she was researching the changing relationship between the Inuit and their landscape, the man replied, “Nunavut’s future won’t be in the land…It’ll be funded by minerals.” Explaining that the Meta Incognita peninsula was recently surveyed and found to have significant deposits of iron, lead, gold, and diamonds, the man concluded by saying “The more the ice melts…the more they’ll get.”
Asking, and trying to answer a question such as why we have become so destructive to the natural world is by no means a worthless endeavor, even though it doesn’t always lead to directly positive results, or even anything tangible, unless one counts the confusion caused by the immensity of the subject. The simple fact that we do ask these questions though, people all over the world, every day, demonstrates that we are still ultimately world-seeking people conditioned by a world which includes the human artifice and earth’s nature. So despite the dominance of animal laborans and our fixation on limitless economic growth, despite the assertion of homo faber that man gives meaning to nature, man, seemingly in spite of himself, will still sometimes experience the state of thaumazein. If there is hope for better relations with the natural world in the future, hope in man recognizing the futility of limitless economic activity and exploitation of nature for objects of increasingly little permanence, then this hope rests in part with our capacity to still “wonder at everything that is as it is.” Ms. Challenger’s work provides a timely reminder to the importance of this wonder.
Ms. Challenger’s US edition of On Extinction may be pre-ordered and previewed here.