Who’s that out there?

Ian Stewart

  • The Mind’s Sky by Timothy Ferris
    Bantam, 281 pp, £16.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 593 02644 6

‘Science does not customarily pose big questions. It poses small questions.’ It may seem odd to find such a statement in a book whose main questions have to do with Mind and the Cosmos, the twin mysteries of human existence, and whose answers are based upon current scientific understanding. The statement, however, embodies an important truth, upon which the entire book rests. Science does not answer the big questions directly: it provides a frame in which the human mind can tackle them. ‘The world is a fantasy,’ said the astrophysicist Dennis Sciama, ‘so let’s find out about it.’

Frames loom large in The Mind’s Sky. It opens with René Magritte’s bizarre painting of a pipe, labelled Ceci n’est pas une pipe. What did the artist mean? Was he saying – as generations of undergraduates have been taught – that a painting is not reality? No, says Timothy Ferris, because Magritte wouldn’t have taken that much trouble to tell us something so crass. ‘The danger that people will try to smoke paintings of pipes or eat paintings of pears does not rank high among the hazards confronting the working artist.’ So what was he up to? Not emphasising the unreality of what is inside the frame; but challenging the assumption that everything outside it is real. ‘Naive realism – the dogged assumption that the human sensory apparatus accurately records the one and only real world.’ Everything we perceive about the world is filtered and processed by our nervous systems. What we think of as reality is an electrochemical model inside our own heads. Any understanding of the relation between the mind and the universe must come to terms with this fact: what we call the universe is a construct in our own minds.

Ferris concentrates almost entirely on this aspect of ‘reality’. There is, however, a converse aspect, which he seriously neglects. Our mind is not a free agent on some ethereal plane of being, but is itself a construct in the universe, made from the same molecules, atoms, electrons and quarks as the rest of matter. Ferris mounts an effective attack on naive realism, but on occasion replaces it by the dogged assumption that the only things that exist are those that can be recorded by the human sensory apparatus. Instead of ‘what we see is reality’ he argues that ‘reality is what we see.’

Science consists of nested, overlapping, mostly consistent but occasionally contradictory frames. Imagine a small frame, the observation of a single molecule of oxygen in the atmosphere, embodying all of the precision and determinism that we associate with science. Now a slightly larger frame, a few thousand such molecules, bouncing chaotically off each other. Larger still, and we see the chaos resolved into a fluid vortex, once more determinate. Enlarge the frame again: a tiger is breathing out. Again: it is panting, running after a frightened deer ... Each frame offers an entirely different perspective of the same events.

The Mind’s Sky hops from one topic to another, almost randomly, a book to enter and leave at will, and intentionally so. A cosmic frame, now ... Are there other intelligences in the universe? Do alien eyes frame alien skies in alien minds? Ferns is an advocate of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It’s easy to dismiss such activities as lunatic, on a par with ufology or the speculations of the Von Dänikens of this world – but imagine the media reaction if anyone ever found a signal. The case for SETI is that the chemicals needed to make life exist throughout the universe. The appearance of primitive proto-life seems to require little more than a fortuitous conjunction of molecules, the first replicator. Replicators replicate, so soon you’ve got billions of them. From then on, natural selection takes over; and somewhere along the evolutionary track, intelligence looks a fair bet. The simplest case against is the question asked by Enrico Fermi: ‘Where are they?’ Ufologists answer ‘here’, but we’ve not yet seen an alien on the evening news. Perhaps any intelligent species will realise that not only might there be alien intelligences out there, but they might be hostile. To broadcast messages would be to emulate a baby crying in a forest full of bears. Maybe everybody’s listening, nobody’s sending.

There are ways round this problem. Alien civilisations may come and go, but a mutual communication network would bring tremendous benefits – provided it didn’t also bring down the space-bears to eat the baby. Such a network, says Ferris, could be set up in perfect security, out between the stars, with no clues to its origins, beaming its messages omnidirectionally. It could act as a galactic library, a truly universal resource. It would evolve into the most knowledgeable entity in the galaxy. A thinking, learning galactic network might become an intelligence in its own right. Eventually its own interests might come to transcend those of the individual worlds that originally created it. On the other hand, its creators might have at least as much imagination as Timothy Ferris, and make sure that it didn’t.

What sort of data might such a communications channel carry? Shakespeare? Hardly. ‘Our movies and plays are not likely to find a wide popular following in the Milky Way galaxy – any more than many humans settling down on the sofa after dinner are likely to want to watch an infrasonic opera that lasts ten years, the cast of which are alien invertebrates who dine on live spiders.’ However, there’s going to be a huge market for travelogues. An alien Attenborough, up to its third thoracic joint in red slime on a Betelgeusian moon, waiting for the mating-dance of the giant carnivorous fungi ... Better still, go there yourself: not in a spaceship – after all, who heads off to New Guinea after a programme by our own Attenborough? – but in virtual reality. Put on your headset, and you can be there, and walk through a high-definition image of the landscape, following your own inclinations.

The biggest danger is that you turn into The Planet of the Couch-Potatoes.

The future of the cosmos is fun, but the nature of mind is a much deeper source of speculation. Ferris has two images of the mind/ universe duality. One is an hourglass, with sand trickling between two symmetric but opposite reservoirs. The other is a tree, whose branches symbolise the universe and whose roots, hidden below ground, represent the mind. Symmetry is preserved provided the branches correspond not to the unknowable ‘real’ universe, but to the perceived universe.

We think of our own minds as single entities: but the scientific evidence contradicts that of our own senses. Our minds do not speak with a single voice. As Sigmund Freud emphasised, most of what goes on in our minds is not accessible to our conscious experience. Let’s do an experiment. Look at your finger. Now, at some instant – which you should choose for yourself – decide to flex it, and do so. What do you think happens? Put this review down and try it. You almost certainly got the impression that you did what I’ve just described. You waited, chose your moment, decided to flex the finger, and then flexed it. Your conscious mind called all the shots. Unfortunately, experiments with electrodes that measure brain activity reveal that nothing of the kind happens. Benjamin Libet, a Californian neurophysiologist, discovered that a flurry of brain activity occurs a fraction of a second before the conscious mind takes its decision. By then, the message to move the finger has already been transmitted: but another mechanism in the brain delays the perception that it has started to move, so that it seems to do so after the conscious decision to move it. To some extent we are creatures of our subconscious, which sends messages that deceive our conscious minds into imagining that they are in control. The conscious mind does have one final recourse, however: it can veto the incipient movement at the last moment. ‘This what happens when you reach for a plate in the kitchen, then stop yourself upon remembering that the plate is hot.’

So why do we think we have one mind? Ferris’s answer is that the conscious mind has the task of making coherent sense out of what all the other units of the brain have chosen to do. His evidence includes split-brain experiments, suggesting that our brains contain an ‘interpreter’ program that rationalises our actions for us. The unity of our minds, then, is a conscious illusion – so to speak. What about the unity of the cosmos? That’s all in the mind too. If introspection by the conscious mind breaks through to the interpreter’s own level, then we get a conscious – and overpowering – feeling of the unity of everything. This is the ‘mystic experience’ renowned throughout history. The same idea may also explain the rather desperate human wish to find order in a chaotic world. An alternative, or perhaps complementary, explanation is not explored. This is the human tendency to equate unknowns. Our minds dislike loose ends and tend to seal them off with labels. Those of a religious proclivity label all unknowns ‘God’; some philosophers are happier if they are labelled ‘meaningless questions’; ufologists explain every unknown in terms of ‘alien visitors’. Sealing off unproductive lines of reasoning with labels or slogans may be a sensible trick to prevent the mind wasting precious computational time.

Mind is a unity, and cosmos is a unity. Two unities is one too many. It remains to unify the unities into one super-unity. Now, it is the duty of an author to take his readers’ minds to places they have never been before; and anyone who writes on topics of such depth and difficulty as mind and matter will occasionally take some readers’ minds to places they have no wish to visit al all. In his final chapter – and only there – Ferris goes beyond what I think is either necessary or sensible. In place of an objective, external reality, he offers what he calls ‘information theory’. Not the usual meaning of the term, in which the ‘information content’ of messages is measured by the number of binary digits they contain, but the two-way data-flow between mind and cosmos. The trunk of the tree, the neck of the hourglass. The brain does not just observe: it interprets. It places frames. And, through the medium of those frames, it also acts upon the outside world.

I agree entirely that it is through the twoway data flow in the neck of the hourglass, and that flow alone, that we interact with the rest of what we call reality. In such a picture our knowledge of nature always comes from a partnership between observer and observed. ‘The concept of “things”,’ says Ferris, ‘is itself derived from observational data; therefore data are more fundamental than things.’ Yes, but ... Suppose for the sake of argument that there are such things as ‘things’, that an objective reality does exist; and place intelligent observers within it. By the same reasoning, they will be led to believe that the only fundamental is their experience of that external reality. Moreover, if there isn’t an external reality, then there seems to be no compelling reason for the experienced data-flow to have any kind of self-consistency. Why should those particular data flow at that particular place and time? Ferris himself states, only a few lines away from the previous quote: ‘I assume that there are things out there.’ That is the statement of a (non-naive) realist. How can the data generated by things be somehow more fundamental than the things themselves?

The trap is to start from an irreducible limitation on the powers of an intelligent observer, and build it into the fabric of the universe. To me, the most interesting thing about the universe is that it is not symmetric with my mind. I say this even though I agree with Ferris that everything I can ever know about the universe must come into my mind along that two-way data channel. But the data that the universe sends to my mind are unpredictable, surprising, fascinating, yet strikingly self-consistent. I find it much more helpful to work on the assumption that there actually is something real out there, and that I’m the one with limitations. I don’t know what goes on in other people’s minds, but I have no compelling reason to believe I’m unique, and I don’t see why anyone should lie to me about their perception of, say, a tree. So I’m fairly confident that their perception of the tree is congruent to mine in all essential respects. Everything then makes perfectly good sense if we’re different intelligent observers looking at the same reality from our own individual points of view. Until I’m given compelling reasons to imagine otherwise, that model of the interaction between mind and universe appeals far more to me than one in which data-streams are all that count.

I have other problems with this chapter. Ferris advocates a version of the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics – he’s not alone in holding it – in which a determinate outcome to an experiment requires an act of observation by a human mind. I’ve never understood why otherwise rational physicists suddenly shoot off at a tangent into Cartesian duality. It is the act of amplifying a quantum effect into a macroscopic signal that produces a determinate measurement. It doesn’t require a mind. We get needlessly hung up on the fable of Schrödinger’s cat. It sits in a box, you’ll recall, and if a particular radioactive atom decays, then it gets killed. If we don’t open the box, what state is the cat in? The answer, verified by recent (non-feline) experiments, is that the machine that detects the decay, and decides whether or not to kill the cat, has already ‘collapsed the wave function’. Schrödinger’s cat is not in a quantum superposition of life and death. It’s either alive or dead; it’s just we who don’t know which.

Another weakness of the final chapter is the discussion of the information content of DNA, which is far too naive. More complex animals do not necessarily have more DNA. Mammals have less DNA than amphibians, having replaced a mass of contingency-planning for temperature variation by a nice, consistently warm mother. Some amoebae have a hundred times as much DNA as human beings.

None of these quibbles seriously detracts from a splendidly stimulating and imaginative book. Despite my qualms about the final chapter, it really does drive home that what you fondly think of as being outside yourself resides entirely inside your own head. This is a paradox of the human condition, from which we can never free ourselves. But despite the persuasive arguments so cleverly and attractively marshalled in The Mind’s Sky, I still can’t bring myself to think that anything hung so tightly around us privileged apes can really be a fundamental law of nature.