stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

A Memory Seed Gallery

I Am Taurus teaser video

Here’s a teaser video for I Am Taurus, coming out later in the year.

I Am Taurus update

I’ve accepted the copy-edited MS of I Am Taurus, which means the book should be published in November or December. I’ve also seen a mock up of the front cover, which features a very striking image of a horned bull. This image was created by a friend of mine experienced in the use of Midjourney. I should point out here that he didn’t use a copyright photograph to generate the image. If the publication date is confirmed, I’m hoping to begin promotion in the autumn.

I’m really excited that this book is in progress because it’s a new venture for me, with potential for other I Am… books.

Alaca Hoyuk figurine at the British Museum.

The Hidden Spring by Mark Solms

I’ve written a few blogs recently to the effect that “this is a remarkable, groundbreaking book,” but once again I find myself saying exactly that. Mark Solms analysis of consciousness in his book The Hidden Spring deserves all the praise it gets on its cover: original, captivating, remarkable, extraordinary, daring, bold and paradigm-shifting. I agree. This really is trailblazing.

In essence, Solms – a neuroscientist and psychoanalyst – assesses all the available modern evidence from neurology (wryly remarking that it’s been in the public domain for a while), combining it with psychoanalysis, physics and information theory to convince the reader of what he is saying. And what he is saying is pretty amazing.

He begins with a number of observations. Thought and cognition have long been presumed to be the heart of consciousness, but in fact it’s all about feeling – what is technically called affect. Moreover, it’s been assumed that our huge forebrains must be the place consciousness is generated. That’s incorrect, as he shows. The assumption was made by psychologists overly impressed with the human cortex. He then goes on to describe the true neurology of consciousness, which involves the upper brainstem, and actually quite a small portion of it. All of this is now scientifically demonstrated.

At this point, a number of pennies drop. Given that, as has been clear for a while, human beings don’t experience reality but their own mental model of it, the cortex is in fact the source of a predictive model, not consciousness. As Solms explains in a highly significant fact, ten times the number of neurons go to the upper brainstem than come from it. Those who believe consciousness is all about things coming into the brain can’t explain this fact. For Solms, it’s a crucial bit of evidence showing that we are conscious to make more accurate mental models, which are mostly in our cortex.

This isn’t a book about lived experience, which is ironic given that’s its subject. It’s a scientifically grounded, realistic and convincing description of how information theory, self-evidencing systems, self-organisation, evolution and the regulation of animal needs all combine in circumstances of uncertainty to create consciousness from affect.

One of the delights of this book is how it prioritises feeling above cognition. We cannot have an unfelt feeling – that’s impossible. Unfelt thoughts and even learning however are commonplace. Consciousness is all about what we feel.

The logical and scientific background to all this is persuasive. I am persuaded. What’s astonishing however is that Solms then goes on to demolish what has long been thought of as the central mystery of consciousness, which is how neuron activity can generate qualia – the redness of red, the sweetness of honey, and so on. I’ve long thought there must be a logical fallacy to David Chalmers’ celebrated question regarding this enigma, not least because, as has been obvious to me, an atheist, all my life, consciousness clearly emerged long after the Big Bang. It evolved. It must therefore be explicable, and Chalmers must have stated his mystery incorrectly. Solms points out that Chalmers in fact conflates two separate explanation gaps, both of which can be reduced to scientific, materialist explanations. The uneasy pseudo-dualism of Chalmers and Thomas Nagel are, as expected, incorrect.

Consciousness, then, on this reading, is an evolved function for surviving in circumstances of uncertainty – that is, the real world. What’s lovely about this book is that it matches the social intelligence theory so well. Human consciousness, adorned with language, is superbly capable of solving the problems of uncertainty in social groups. The uncertainty so frequently mentioned by Solms in this book is precisely that experience had by millions of our forebears, evolving millennium by millennium in complex, unpredictable, mutable social groups. Solms and Humphrey match rather nicely.

As I said above, I’m persuaded by all of this. It upends the traditional, male, logos-heavy, Greek-rooted psychology of over a century and replaces it with what you and I actually experience: feelings, affect, needs, drives, and so on.

Some of the more fascinating questions posed by Solms can’t be answered in his book, for instance the matter of language and thought. The last chapter however is perhaps the most daring of all. In it, Solms describes a way of proving his case, which involves making an artificial consciousness. For all my fans who have read The Autist, Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox, this chapter will be of considerable interest. I’m not convinced that Solms will have his proof in our lifetimes, but he is right this minute undertaking the research.

Not only is this a trailblazing book, it’s fantastically well written. Though complex and nuanced, I followed everything, due to Solms’ clarity of thought and deftness of argument. Superbly readable.

In a nutshell… gosh! What an experience. I really think we could be at a proper explanation at last of the evolution of consciousness at this nuts-and-bolts, neuronal, informational level. There are plenty more paths to travel however, for instance melding Solms’ information/entropy level description with something at a higher level – love, emotions, humour.

A remarkable book. I’m so glad I picked it up!

Midjourney images

Recently I used the Midjourney AI to interpret my books, using about six appropriate words for each novel. The results were often surreal, sometimes literal, occasionally amazing. Here they are in gallery form.

Mothers And Others by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

I came across Mothers And Others online as I was searching for books about human evolution. Never having heard of the author before, but impressed with the positive reviews, I decided to take a punt on it. Thank goodness I did! This is another exceptional book in a year of exceptional ones. Moreover, rather like The Human Cosmos and Mythos & Cosmos, which I read sequentially, this one has a distinct and rather exciting link to Sentience by Nicholas Humphrey, which I read and reviewed last month.

 

In essence, this ground-breaking book presents a new hypothesis for the evolution of human beings – the co-operative breeding hypothesis. In the latter quarter of the last century, anthropologists, particularly feminist ones, realised that earlier theories of human evolution were not only ridiculously biased towards men’s position in prehistoric society, not to mention all the things they want or are interested in – patriliny, control of women, social stratification – they were at best scantily resourced with evidence. Often, they were self-contradictory. What is so impressive about Mothers And Others is not only that it at last presents a hypothesis much better matched with reality, it is properly argued, scientifically sound and supported by excellent evidence.

Over nine fascinating chapters the author explains the evolutionary scenario, reviews the evidence, explains why only one branch of hominids felt the selection pressures of evolution which led to our line, and outlines anthropological similarities which reinforce her case. Comparatively little space is wasted complaining about male anthropologists’ hypotheses, most of the book being given over to intensive discussions of the evolution of parenting, predominantly by women (one chapter deals with fathers). It’s all compelling stuff, well written and with that indefinable essence of somebody sure of her case and with the confidence to present it. The book is also highly readable – lay readers welcome.

 

Towards the end, various strands are pulled together. The author explains the difference between emotionally modern individuals, a state of affairs which in her view goes back as far as 1.8 million years ago, and what in general has been focused on by others – cave art, language, symbol use. I was particularly struck by the synchrony between her subtle understanding of the attribution of mental states to others by children and by early hominids and the social intelligence theory of Nicholas Humphrey. This book can be read as the full evolutionary story first presented by him in The Inner Eye.

 

In summary: a very important book. I loved it.

Cover image

AI Art & All That

I’ve been very interested in the current debate about AI art, which has kicked off in recent months. I’ve read lots of thought-provoking blogs, Facebook posts and more, which have pushed the debate this way and that, making me wonder about my own opinion on the matter. Generally, as in my novel The Autist, I’ve been pretty pessimistic about how the worlds of writing, music and art are being smashed to pieces by the internet, social media, and digital life generally – not least AIs. With the arrival of Midjourney however, that pessimism has been uplifted a little by the stunning weirdness and quality of, to take the most numerous examples, Jim Burns’ images.

I call them images, but most people call them art. I’m not so sure however that distinguishing between the two is sophistry. That’s because my understanding of creativity is a particular one. (See also my blog series on Imagination.) Let’s have some definitions then.

Creativity is the response of conscious human minds – and only conscious ones – to the real world. Chimps, crows and dolphins might show limited creative responses to certain real world stimuli, but no observer comparing them and us could fail to see the qualitative difference. Above all, we delight in creativity for its own sake. Some higher order animals can be creative, but only to solve real world problems. Picasso on the other hand painted because something in his mind made him. He loved it. He couldn’t be anything other than an artist. There will never be a chimp Picasso.

Picasso was responding to the real world when he painted. His art was not sourced in his mind, it was sourced in reality, which he then interpreted using his mind.

Art, then, is the visual form of human creativity. Artists respond to the real world. Da Vinci, Monet and Matisse all wrote about how Nature was their inspiration – reality, in other words. Moreover, they realised that they were compelled to interpret reality, not just to copy it. Artistic creativity is a natural, inevitable consequence of a conscious human mind using its mental model.

In addition, there is a causal link between sensitivity and creativity. The more sensitive an artist is, the more creative they are likely to be. Creativity is proportional to sensitivity. We have a cliche of the tortured artist not fitting in as they suffer in their garret, but in fact that suffering and isolation has nothing to do with creativity and everything to do with sensitive people being ostracised because they simply don’t fit in with social norms.

From this position, it’s only one step to observing that no AI is conscious (a state of affairs portrayed in my novels Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox). AIs have no mental model in the sense that we do. They are art zombies, in fact. What they are creating is images.

Now, these images can and usually do have artistic merit. We as human beings are entitled to make that judgement because we live in a cultural milieu. I’ve been struck by the extraordinary verity, detail and even beauty of many Midjourney images. My Canadian friend Peter Hollinghurst is showing amazing three dimensional colour images of seated dragons reading books based on his own much earlier pencil drawings. Quite extraordinary to look at. He’s also just provided me with an image for my upcoming book I Am Taurus based on a photo of an object. Also extraordinary!

In my view then, the role of the artist in using AI software such as Midjourney is choice. Midjourney offers iterations – a number of image variations. A sufficiently experienced and talented artist can choose the “best” ones. That is an artistic act in my view. It could be argued that anyone can make such a choice, and that would be correct, but the artistic eye not only has to be rooted in true creativity, which not everyone has in useable amounts, but it also has to be trained. There is therefore a spectrum of curation available, depending on the artist’s gift.

The ethical dimensions are a different matter altogether – I won’t deal with them here. Suffice to say that creativity in all its forms is being stolen by impersonal corporations of one sort or another. I sit in the “AI is more bad than good, and has the potential to enslave us” camp. Not everyone is quite so melancholic however.

I expect interesting times. Personally, I think of Midjourney as in effect a particular type of brush, which doesn’t work like a real brush. When it begins working with moving images I may wish to get involved. I’ve long wanted to make films. I have the visual and editing skills, but not the money for a film crew. Perhaps Midjourney 2.0, the moving images version, will appeal to me.

Bittersweet by Susan Cain

Having had my life changed at 51 by Susan Cain’s ground-breaking book Quiet, I bought her new one Bittersweet the moment I saw it. It’s not in the same league as her bestseller however, and unfortunately I find myself rather disappointed with it. The book in essence follows a line of enquiry devolving from Quiet, in that amongst Western societies especially, and notably in America, there is an unspoken mode of living which emphasises happiness (particularly smiling) and which ignores or denies sadness.

The first part is perhaps the most disappointing of all. While I wholeheartedly agree with Cain’s thesis and the idea of valueing sadness and melancholy – and recognise myself in this – Cain sets her writing in a mess of spiritual miscellanea and semi-random religious woo-woo (to use her word) which offers neither insight nor comfort. At the heart of some religions there is good, humane stuff, but what Cain chooses is neither consistent nor in most cases applicable to her argument. It’s a lengthy, uninspired mess.

The second part is terrific – a concise, insightful analysis of that half-crazy positivity and insincere smiling Americans excel at, with a particular nod in the direction of that country’s narcissistic insistence in separating people out into winners and losers. Cain is without doubt an excellent analyst of her own culture.

The third part is also a bit of a mess, but not so much as the first. In essence it asks how we cope with death, tragedy and trauma, coming to the conclusion that, as musicians in particular have shown (there is a lot about music in this book), we must accept all aspects of our brief lives: the sad and the happy, the melancholic and creative.

Disappointing, then. Much of the book is autobiographical, which is fine, though in Bittersweet I think there is rather too much autobiography. There’s a much thinner book inside this tome waiting to get out. Not bad, then, but hardly recommended, which is a shame, as Cain’s central thesis is important and rarely covered.

Sentience by Nicholas Humphrey

Regular readers of this blog and fans of my work in general will know the very high esteem in which I hold Nicholas Humphrey: our Darwin of the mind. Originator of the social intelligence theory of consciousness, philosopher and psychologist, his books have enthralled and inspired me ever since I saw his The Inner Eye television series in the mid-1980s. Now, eleven years after his last book, comes a new work.

First of all, Sentience is fascinating, beautifully written, thought-provoking and important. But more than that, to my mind it is true. Everything Humphrey writes here, which in some ways sum up his huge contribution to the field of the understanding of consciousness, has that feel of being fundamentally correct. The tale he is telling matches reality.

The book falls into three thirds, the first giving the background to Humphrey’s journey through life and the questions he asked himself as he pondered various unknowns: consciousness… why, and when? This summary is vital for the following two parts, one of which deals with our phenomenal experiences (the redness of a poppy, the sweetness of sugar, etc), and one of which sums it all up in a new perspective, drawing at all times from evolutionary reasoning.

It’s this latter third which I think is groundbreaking. The issue for the vast majority of philosophers dealing with qualia in the brain (that is, how the redness of red can be generated and experienced by “mere” neuron activity) is how to make the leap from neurons to private mental experience. There’s a couple of sentences in this book which I suspect may be the most important Humphrey has ever written. They read: Remember how it emerged in the earlier discussion that when, for example, you project phenomenal redness onto a poppy, you are in effect making a bridge to other sentient beings. You’re seeing the poppy as being ‘rubropotent’ – as having the power to evoke red qualia in another like yourself.

Isn’t that extraordinary? Other philosophers look at one brain in isolation and try to pin down the mind/body relationship therein, but that’s their mistake. Conscious brains, human brains, never exist in isolation. They grow, develop and mature only in social groups. Personally, I think this cultural blind spot has a lot to do with men dominating such intellectual discussions, men who in comparison with women have little grasp of the true importance of relationships.

This, then, is the brilliance of Nicholas Humphrey. He grasps the fundamental role of social relations in the evolution of consciousness. He never loses sight of that evolutionary history, and indeed uses it to underpin the truth of his theory.

As he notes early on in the book, his intellectual and philosophical journey has been rather a lonely furrow. I hope this exceptional work changes all that. It certainly deserves to. It’s more than worthy of being added to his outstanding canon of work. Trailblazing, compelling and true.

Groundbreaking.

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Subtitled The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, this book swiftly became a classic as rumour of its excellence spread. I really enjoyed it, for insight, for originality and for its science.

Each of eight chapters deals with an aspect of the topics in question, beginning with the tree of life and Darwinian evolution. Octopuses are cephalopods, evolving alongside molluscs and splitting from the vertebrate group six hundred million years ago, i.e. before the Cambrian Explosion. This in itself is a fundamental part of the author’s argument, in that cephalopods seem to have evolved intelligence in a completely different way to vertebrates, an origin sourced in the enigmatic Ediacaran biota. Next up comes a chapter on the evolution of nervous systems and remembered experience, before what in my view is the most significant and interesting chapter, dealing with sensation and perception, and the rise of internal experience. I sense a debt to the work of Nicholas Humphrey here, not least from his book Seeing Red.

Subsequent chapters deal with colour changes on cephalopod skin, and the difference between too much “bandwidth” with not much to say (octopi) and not enough with too much to say (baboons) – an intriguing distinction I’ve not seen before. The remaining chapters deal with experience and language, inner monologue, the relationship between lifespan and metabolism, and finally a look at an octopi heartland, Octopolis off the Australian coast, which the author knows well.

All in all, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking read, which I much enjoyed, and which complements the more recent Metazoa rather well. Both these works are significant additions to our understanding of the evolution of animal minds.