Sum, by David Eagleman. Pantheon, 2009.
On June 14, BBC Four interviewed Neil Gaiman, David Eagleman and Sarah Millican on the last episode of its current series for the radio show Museums of Curiosity. You can listen to the show between June 14 and June 20 here. After that, it goes offline. David Eagleman, best-selling author of Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives , and neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas described his perception of time and the anticipated merger of science and religion.
DE: “When I was a child I fell off of a house that was under construction. I later calculated that it took eight-tenths of a second to go from the roof to the floor. But during the fall, it seemed to me like it took a long time and I had very clear thoughts. And that got me interested in time perception as a child. That’s part of what I do as a neuroscientist.”
DE: “Sum is a book of fiction and it’s forty mutually exclusive stories that are all set in different possible afterlives. In some of the stories, God is a female, or God is a married couple, or we were actually created by a species of dim-witted creatures, or God is the size of a microbe and he doesn’t know that we exist because we’re at the wrong spatial scale. We’re just the nutritional sub-strait. Things like that. So it’s forty completely different ideas. And it’s not actually about the afterlife, I’m just using that as a playing field against which to explore the joys and complexities of being human.”
BBC: “Have you had any interests from people wanting to start something from it, to become a deacon of your church?”
DE: “Yes, it does seem that there’s a movement that’s growing out of it. I was asked on the radio in America, on NPR, whether I was an atheist, and I said ‘I really don’t think we have enough knowledge to commit to strict atheism.’ And I was asked if I was religious, and I said, ‘We certainly have too much knowledge to commit to any particular religious story.’ So the person said, ‘Well is that, are you an agnostic?’ And I said, ‘Well, really agnosticism is often a weak position, where you don’t know if God exists or doesn’t exist.’ So I said, ‘I’m a Possibilian.’ And the idea with Possibilianism is, that it’s an active exploration of new ideas. And the reason I mention the radio interview is because it was a live interview. When I got back to my desk in my laboratory, I already had hundreds of emails from people saying, ‘Hey, I think I’m a Possibilian also.’”
BBC: “I want to go back to the neuroscience. I read somebody [who] said, ‘Not only have we not created artificial intelligence yet, we haven’t even created artificial stupidity.’ Have you come across that?”
DE: “Well, I’ll tell you when I was growing up, I expected by this time we would have robots everywhere. And the best thing we have is the Roomba vacuum cleaner, which means something went really wrong, right? It turns out artificial intelligence was a much harder problem than anybody expected, and they haven’t cracked it yet.”
NG: “Has it occurred to you though, that maybe that’s what the Roomba vacuum cleaners want us to think?”
BBC: “I know that you think that neuroscience is going to throw up maybe some sort of amazing possibilities. What kind of weirdness do you think we can expect coming out of that discipline?”
DE: “Oh, well I think in probably the not too distant future we’ll start plugging information straight into the cortex and you’ll be able to experience new sorts of sensations, like plugging in stock market data or weather data. That’s probably, I don’t know, fifty years off? And then maybe a hundred years off, we will be able to make a Xerox copy of the brain and download it into a computer and then you can live forever. Now, this rests on some assumptions. ... The assumption is that the brain is made up of physical pieces and parts. The reason that’s probably a pretty good assumption is because we know when you damage the brain even in small ways that completely changes who you are. So presumably if we can make a copy and recreate all of the algorithms in the brain in zeroes and ones, in silica, that would be you.”
DE: “Well, it had always struck me as funny that when you walk into the bookstore what you find are lots and lots of books written with certainty. On the one hand you’ve got the neo-atheists like Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens and Harris. On the other side of the shelf, you have the religious books, many of them, there are two thousand religions on the planet. And I think when you get to the end of the pier of what we know in science what you come to appreciate is all the uncharted waters, all the things that we don’t know. And so it struck me as maybe the most important lesson of science is to celebrate the vastness of our ignorance. ... That’s right, in fact 90 per cent of the matter of the universe we can’t even see, so we sweep that under the label of dark matter and it’s the same thing with energy, we have dark energy. This makes up the majority of the cosmos. We assume it exists because our equations don’t work unless we propose its existence, but we don’t know what it is. Quantum mechanics has taught us that the fabric of reality is much stranger than we can conceive and when it comes to deep questions of neuroscience like consciousness, it’s this issue of how do you ever get physical pieces and parts to experience the taste of feta cheese, or the view of a sunset, or the redness of red? Right? If I give you a billion tinkertoys and ask you to put them together in a sophisticated manner, when do you ever add one and say OK, now it’s having private, subjective experience? So we’re no further on that problem. ... It’s exhilarating because we’re in the golden era of the field. Neuroscience we’re right at the foot of the mountain. This is when everything’s going to happen.
BBC: “Naturally we focus on the things that we know and the things that science has found out. And when you stop for just a minute, you actually realize the mass of things we don’t know.”
BBC: “I’ve got a list here: What is time? What is life? Why do we sleep? Why do we dream? How did life begin? How did cells form? How do placebos work? How did the universe begin? How will it end? Why are we here? What happens after we die? What’s the point of junk DNA? Why do Earth’s poles sometimes reverse? Does life exist anywhere else in the universe? Are there extra dimensions? Are there extra universes?”
DE: “I think that as science progresses, it will give new ideas to people. The philosophers Russell and Whitehead said a century ago, they said ‘Look, if you want to have some sort of spirituality, you might as well predicate it on the bedrock of what we already know to be true.’ If you know there are sextillion stars and the size of the cosmos and quantum mechanics and so on, why don’t you start there, and make up new stories. I think that’s a tremendous idea. And Carl Sagan said he was surprised religions hadn’t incorporated the wondrous discoveries of science yet, because you could very easily as a religion say, ‘you know what, it’s a lot more beautiful and wondrous than we ever suspected.’”
On the merger of scientific discoveries and religious spiritual beliefs, I’ve long thought that every society needs its entrail-reading gurus. Where ancient societies had shamans and oracles, we now have economists, and since their credibility has dwindled when it comes to explaining and predicting the forces that drive our political and social systems, in time we may place our faith in scientists. But is having a neurobiologist, physicist or geneticist telling us the mysteries of the universe such a great idea if at some turning point in the future, they gain mystical authority from those explanations and their ideas take on quasi-priestly connotations or functions? Dr. Eagleman’s credibility in this regard rests on his confidence in ‘what we don’t know.’ But he is remarkably certain about his uncertainty.
Eagleman’s areas of scientific specialty (from his Wiki entry) are exciting: time perception, involving “temporal encoding, time warping, manipulations of the perception of causality, and time perception in high-adrenaline situations”; synesthesia, in which “one sense triggers an involuntary sensation in other senses”; visual illusions; and Neurolaw, which “determines how modern brain science should affect the way we make laws, punish criminals, and invent new methods for rehabilitation.” Eagleman founded Baylor College of Medicine's Initiative on Neuroscience and Law.
The Institute’s site skirts the edge of the arcane. I even had a second where I thought of the Ludovico technique: “Emerging questions at the interface of law and neuroscience include: Is it a legitimate defense to claim that a tumor or a brain injury 'made you do it'? In what ways are the brains of minors similar or different from adult brains in their capacity for decision-making and impulse control -- and how do those similarities/differences help inform policy for punishment and rehabilitation? Can modern technologies such as structural and/or functional brain imaging be leveraged for rehabilitation? Who should have access to information about our brains? How should juries assess responsibility, given that most behaviors are driven by systems of the brain that we cannot control?”
Certainly, all the makings of a creed are here: our perception of time derives from our awareness of mortality and yearning for immortality; triggered senses are pathways to miracles, as are illusions; and laws describe the boundaries of behaviour in society, given the limits of how our brains in different social systems: cognitive limits become punishable limits. Mind, matter, values - the nexus of the inner and outer worlds - all distilled into Xerox copies of the brain, and rewritten into silica? I think I'll stick with the economist reading the entrails, at least for awhile longer.
See all my posts on the Fountain of Youth.