Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reading on the Mind

There has been an unintentional theme to some of my reading lately, revolving around ideas of mind, thought, will, consciousness, and language. Unsurprisingly, two of the three books I propose to write about today fall into the science fiction category. Unsurprisingly because SF is one of the few fiction genres still able to ask the big questions like “what is consciousness?”, “how does language work?”, “do humans have free will?”, and the like. Indeed, the great and tragic Philip K. Dick made a career out of repeatedly asking “what is human?” and “what is God?” Those who dismiss SF as mere genre fiction miss a rather crucial part of the continuing human attempt to make sense of who we are and what – if anything – that may mean. That being said, Readers Mine, let’s get down to cases.

Okay, before you strain a muscle rolling your eyes at the fact that the first book is the official novelization of a video game (which game was itself plotted by the darkly brilliant Richard K. Morgan); realize who you’re dealing with here. Peter Watts has been on the bleeding edge of SF since Starfish hit the shelves in 1999. Watts’ holds a Ph.D. in marine biology, and shows a recurring interest in the biological determinants of human intelligence and sentience. Indeed, his most recurrent theme is that free will is an illusion and that the vast majority, and quite probably all of our consciousness, cognitive-processes, and interactions with the world around us and with each other are hardwired deep into our neurophysiology. The corollary is that when we forget this and begin to believe our consciousness’ own press, we are generally on deadly ground. (It should be noted that one does well not to believe Peter’s own press about himself as “Peter ‘Fucking Hardcore’ Watts” the utter pessimist. He’s actually one of the most kind and thoughtful people you’ll ever meet. Fortunately, Peter himself doesn’t seem to really believe his own press either.)

Nor does Watts disappoint with Crysis: Legion. Within the tight constraints of the gameworld, and forced to guard against his more obvious tongue in cheek snarking (the editor of the book rejected this absolutely wonderful bit as breaking the 4th wall), Watts nonetheless delivers some fantastic jabs at gaming, rigid structures, the ridiculousness specific to Crysis 2, and some of the most memorable lines I’ve read in a while (“Behold motherfucker, I stand at the door and knock”). The plot also falls right into Watts’ playground as the protagonist is being slowly incorporated into an advanced battle suit, actually going through most of the book as a dead man who’s consciousness is being kept alive through a process of nanotechnology, bio-mechanical fusion, and materials harvested from his own corpse as a kind of handy trail-mix snack. Along the way, the suit serves up a complex mix of chemicals and stimulus that keep our hero going and motivated. What makes someone want to do something, anyway? Well, basically, neuro-chemicals and stimulation of certain centers of the brain. Keep that stuff going and choice doesn’t really enter into it. Peter Watts, ladies and gentlemen, Peter Watts!

Miéville takes a different path into mind with Embassytown, focusing on language through human interaction with an alien race known as the Ariekei. The Ariekei have two mouths and the ability to sense the sentience behind a speaker. Their dualism, however, results in single-mouthed human language coming across as so much meaningless noise even if speaking the words and grammar of their own language correctly, and their sentience-sense only works on speech they recognize as speech, so humans were first not recognized at all as sentient beings. Most interesting however is the fact that the Ariekei cannot lie. Indeed, the idea that one can speak something that is not the truth is wholly antithetical to their cognition. This has led to the Ariekei turning figures of speech into something like performance art, the highest level of which is the simile. So, for example, in order to say that something is like a rock that has been split in two and then put back together, the Ariekei must literally, physically split a rock in two and put it back together, because if a thing does not exist, it cannot be expressed in language. So when they need a new figure of speech they must create it, at least temporarily, in the physical world. But some of the Ariekei want to learn how to lie, and gatherings are held where audiences tremble with excitement at hearing the greatest almost-liars among their people.

There is quite a bit more in this novel than this focus on language, but it is at the center of the book nonetheless. The novel turns on the Ariekei being able to progress from the use of simile, saying something is like something else, to the use of metaphor, saying something is something else. Because, after all, a metaphor is a lie. If I tell my wife “you are my heart,” this is obviously not the literal truth. It is a metaphor for how much she means to me emotionally. The transition from simile to metaphor causes an evolution of Ariekei consciousness, and reveals that their language, though perfectly serviceable, may never have been real language at all. This is the first book I’ve read by Miéville, but it will not be the last.

This brings us to the final, and only non-fiction, book in today’s discussion. Owen Barfield was a friend and contemporary of C. S. Lewis, and each thought the other to be the most brilliant man he’d ever met. Unlike Lewis, however, Barfield was not an academic, spending his career as a barrister in his family’s London law firm. He was, however, a great thinker and reader, particularly when it came to the idea of an evolution of human consciousness. Saving the Appearances came to me about a year ago as a gift from the brilliant, polymathic, and prolific David Lavery who is one of the leading Barfield scholars in the US. I dipped into the introduction when I first received it, and then put it aside until I could have time to devote solely to a close reading of the book. Barfield gets right down to it, and the ideas and overarching concepts of consciousness, language, and the interaction of human sense and consciousness with the natural world begin on page one of the introduction.

The foundation of Barfield’s argument is that the world as we experience it is not the world as it is, as demonstrated by particle physics. The solid table upon which my laptop sits as I write this actually anything but solid, being composed at the atomic and sub-atomic level of mostly empty space. It is my senses which perceive the table as solid, and my consciousness that forms and names it “table.” We thus move through a world of representations created by our senses and consciousness but which bears little or no resemblance to the actual particles which make up the world. Our interpretation of these particles are “collected representations,” which basically means that the particles most of us see as the oak tree in my front yard or your Honda Civic are seen in the proper manner by most of human society who sees them as tree and car, and are not seen properly by my crazy Uncle Quixote who sees the tree as a tower and your Civic as a dragon in need of a good lancing. Barfield posits that these interpretations have evolved over time, moving from an “original participation” in which humans were well aware that we were creating representations of true forms which lay hidden behind the representations, through a time in which direct knowledge of this participation was lost and thus fueled the scientific revolution by allowing us to conceive of these representations as objects separate from us and therefore amenable to comparison one with another, and towards a future “final participation” in which we recover the working knowledge of the world as representations, but see the truth of these representations not behind them, but as springing from within ourselves.

Barfield is not an easy read, and I do recommend reading him at the beach, where your eyes can rest on a far horizon while your brain begins to digest the ideas you’ve just read, but he is well worth the effort, and his writing is richly veined with a wonderful sense of humor and a deep affection for and kindness towards humanity.

Okay, that about wraps it up for now, Readers Mine. I’m off to the midnight showing of Captain America: the First Avenger on Friday, so look for yet another comic to movie review here over the weekend. In the meantime: Excelsior! 

No comments:

Post a Comment