Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Opinion

5 Best Books On Consciousness

Recently I was approached by Ben Shepherd at and asked to choose five books for a list of my designing. I decided at once to choose the five best books explaining the mystery of consciousness, and my choices have just been published. Regular fans of my blog will recognise most or all of the titles, but on the page I’ve also added more personal description of how I came across each book and what they mean to me. Here’s the page!

my 5 choices

RIP James Lovelock

Very sad news yesterday.

Guardian obituary here.


Recent gasp-inducing acts perpetrated by Tory politicians have brought that “profession” to a new low, not least Johnson & Sunak, and the perpetually smirking Patel. But what is happening in British politics? How is it that deeds which only a few years ago would have meant instant resignation now have no consequences at all? When did politicians realise that they didn’t have even to pretend to be sorry, they just had to ignore some brief, inconvenient hassle on social media and the telly? Because that is the scariest thing about the way politics is going – you don’t even have to pretend any more. You just carry on as if nothing had happened.

In her ground-breaking, insightful, but frightening book The Cyber Effect, Dr Mary Aiken described a phenomenon she called cyber-migration, in which behaviour in the digital world – the internet essentially, in all its forms – migrates into the real world. One of the most concerning aspects of recently changing human behaviour is how, through the internet’s anonymity and a general lack of consequences, it acts to reduce the effect of shame. We are seeing this exact effect now in the British political system. MPs have the impression that not much matters any more when it comes to standards of behaviour. They can do what they like, invent any old excuse, mouth it on the telly, then carry on as if nothing had happened. We see this par excellence with Johnson, who anyway never bothered about bringing coherence to his excuses.

The overpowering Western emphasis on the individual is also being amplified by the internet. Shame is the emotion conveying knowledge of ethical wrong and ostracising, which is to say it works in human communities, small ones especially, but also on a larger scale. Shame however is notably absent on the internet. So when people gasp and say of Johnson & Sunak, “Do they have no shame?” the answer is no, their shame has been diminished by the social and cultural environment they live in. Alas, I suspect those two clowns are the thin end of the wedge.

These are profoundly dangerous times. If the social norms of the internet migrate into politics they will migrate into war. What then?

Blindsight, Hypnotism & Social Media

For some time I’ve been convinced that, for all social media’s benefits, which I have enjoyed and made use of, they are on balance outweighed by the disadvantages and even harmful effects on human beings. In this essay I’m going to compare two brain/mind conditions with what is known about the psychological effects of social media.

Blindsight is an obscure but fascinating mental phenomenon which offers us a unique and deeply significant view into consciousness itself. It was first dealt with in depth by the American neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita, whose most notable work was in the field of neuroplasticity – he was an early researcher into it – introducing in perhaps his most famous work the idea of sensory substitution as a tool for treating patients suffering from neurological disorders.

Blindsight is a very strange thing. Some patients suffering from brain damage or brain disorders believe they are blind when in fact there is no damage to their optical systems at all. When the gifted psychologist and philosopher Nicholas Humphrey approached this phenomenon, he realised there was a deeper level to understanding it. A human being with blindsight, he noticed, believed they were blind despite being able to navigate a room filled with objects, a task for which they felt profound ambivalence. A monkey with blindsight on the other hand simply navigated the room filled with objects. So human beings with blindsight have to invent explanations to give meaning to this unsettling experience, such as possessing ESP powers. Animals do not need to do such a thing – no ambivalence shown.

This experimental observation caused Humphrey to hypothesize that the sensory pathway and the perceptual pathway in conscious human beings are separate entities. In his ground-breaking book A History Of The Mind he explained that because we experience sensation and perception simultaneously (or, at least, almost simultaneously – there is an element of temporal juggling to consciousness) we don’t realise the two are separate. We believe we are navigating the real world when in fact we are relying on our mental model of it. It is only through blindsight that the two systems are revealed to be separate. In his subsequent book Seeing Red Humphrey developed his idea, showing how it might have evolved, and giving a full philosophical and psychological basis for the theory, including sensory modality, which complemented Bach-y-Rita’s work nicely.

When recently I was reading Robin Waterfield’s excellent book Hidden Depths about hypnotism I was struck by an extraordinary similarity. Some hypnotised subjects, when hypnotised into believing they cannot see, still navigate rooms with chairs placed randomly as though they can see. These were called chair/no chair (real/simulant) experiments, the results of which are identical to blindsight experiments.

Could this be coincidence? Possibly. But let’s think about what hypnotism is. Hypnotism has three distinctive properties: focused attention, impaired or reduced peripheral awareness, and vastly increased suggestibility. The first two conditions in particular relate to circumstances in which the subject is making significantly less use of sensory pathways, allowing the perceptual pathway to dominate. In such circumstances, when the real world is not being checked hundreds of times a second as with normal consciousness, the subject is susceptible to being made to believe suggestions imparted to them by the hypnotist. In other words, although the dynamic of the situation is different to blindsight – diminished use of sensory pathways instead of none – there is an emphasis in their subjective experience of perception; and perception, based in a mental model, is essentially a meaning framework, for most if not all people a belief or set of beliefs. But beliefs can be suggested, even “crazy” beliefs, which is why stage hypnotism is often so strange a thing. The subject’s sense of disbelief is suspended.

This phenomenon however is familiar to us from advertising and politics. When you see an advert for, let’s say, a beer, and you feel thirsty, what’s happening is that the advert’s sensory design, lifestyle assumptions and narrative are subtly tapping into what are termed emotional buying triggers, hypnotising you and all other viewers with the explicit desire of making you accept and act upon suggestions. In any other field – education, for instance – such techniques would be banned as deeply inhumane, yet because we live in a corporate, capitalist, individualistic and misogynist (80% of adverts are targeted at women) society it is permitted. Repetition and context complete the technique. And the same happens in politics. Those politicians with charisma are the ones who draw you into their world, taking you to a political worldview of their own or their party’s, but which actually exists inside your mental model. Their desire is to suggest to you that if you vote for them you will gain a suite of life advantages, and even though you return to normality afterwards, even knowing that the speech or party advert was disingenuous, that sensation of belief remains. Repetition completes the deal. Repetition and suggestion make you one of them.

What advertisers and politicians are doing is tapping into that part of the human subconscious which deals with emotional response. This is done deliberately, regardless of the fact that it is psychological manipulation.

So far, then, we’ve decided that consciousness is a user-generated experience based on the simultaneous operation of the sensory and perceptual pathways, which makes us believe we’re interacting with the real world when in fact we’re utilising our mental model. In various kinds of hypnotism the sensory pathway is diminished, so that consciousness’ normal mode of operation, in which it compares reality with its mental model hundreds of times a second, focusing on what has changed, is altered. This alteration allows the perceptual pathway – the subject’s belief system – to dominate, with the proviso that it is subject to suggestion because of the lack of feedback or change emanating from the real world. It’s a bit like taking a person from solid ground to the middle of the ocean – foundations lost, no way of orienting yourself.

The title of my essay adds social media to this scenario. There are two aspects of online life that I want to focus on: the sense that the digital world is an environment, and the structural organisation of social media in particular.

We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in a wide variety of environments, and it was change in those environments, as with all living things, which made evolution by natural selection change us from primates into homo sapiens. Intelligence is the evolutionary response to environmental change which is too swift for evolution in body design to cope with.

We start off in life assuming that everything we deal with in the world is an environment, since it is all physical, as solid as rock, as buoyant as water and as ethereal as air, with laws governed by physics; and so it has been for hundreds of thousands of years. The real world is consistent, since it operates by the laws of physics, chemistry, biology etc; and it is independent of our minds. However, research has shown that we approach the online world in exactly the same way. Despite the fact that the digital world is abstract and entirely manufactured, we work with it as though it is a real place. As a consequence, we bring to the digital world all our usual assumptions.

This is incredibly dangerous. It is one of the main reasons people have been so easy to exploit by the small number of American companies, dominated by male, white, middle class individuals, who currently control the vast majority of the internet. We are being exploited. Well, most people know that, and mostly they don’t care. Or they don’t know and they don’t care.

The dangers are obvious. The online world is the advertising world on steroids, made hyper-real by glittering visual illusions and a huge array of psychological tricks. But that’s only one part of the peril. Digital life is addictive like no other form of living because it taps so comprehensively into our subconsciouses.

But it was designed to be so. It is in fact a particularly vivid form of hypnotism, with the sensory pathways we rely on perverted from real world and realistic to digital and illusory. Online we stop checking the real world, relying on the illusory world presented to us. Should this experience of the digital world – as yet only conveyed by screens and earbuds – be conveyed by augmented reality through glasses and implants then the task of reaching out to human minds via hypnotism will be complete. At that point, any reality can be substituted into the perceptual pathway, and the subject will believe it. People won’t have to carry the inconvenient knowledge that separate screen and earbuds are part of their environment. They’ll feel inside the environment, no separation, and they’ll be powerless to disbelieve whatever is placed in front of them.

I used some of these ideas in my novel Muezzinland, where a culturally active cyberspace – unlike the passive (albeit structured) digital substrate we have at the moment – works to deceive individuals’ perceptions, so that they believe they are following folk tales, legends and so on, behaviour which then affects the real world, and so on back into the virtual, in a multitude of snowball effects. Yet if the digital world is controlled by a tiny number of corporations, what then? Everyone will be a slave, and they won’t even know that. They’ll believe they are free.

There have been many prophets of doom over historical times. Many, like Cassandra, were mocked, fobbed off or ignored. Myself, I think the arrival of the digital world, online life, and social media in particular are more dangerous than any tool human beings have so far invented, for the reasons given above. Most likely I’ll be mocked, fobbed off or ignored for saying such a thing though. After all, the human race hasn’t yet bombed itself out of existence, has it? It hasn’t even managed to damage the planet’s biosphere enough to wipe itself out of existence.

No. Not yet.

Robin Waterfield

Religion Week, 5: The Scientific Method

There is one abyss between science and religion. Often, people try to link the two, placing science within religion or the other way around, or taking modern science and finding a place in it for religion, e.g. the so-called god-of-the-gaps. This is just window dressing however.

The abyss is this. Religion’s stance to the real world is to impose the human imagination upon it. When the world acts in ways different to an imaginary doctrine, that novelty is presumed to be a test of faith. In other words, faith takes precedence over reality, regardless of what imaginary doctrine that faith represents. The real world is not allowed its independence. The real world is not allowed to show its truth. The scientific method (as opposed to science, which is a human endeavour) is different in this regard, which is why religion and science can never be reconciled. The scientific method grasps that the real world is independent of human imagination. This is why it uses the test and experiment procedure. Testing and experimentation alongside the use of hypothesis allows the real world to be investigated according to the laws of that real world. This is the precise opposite of faith, which imposes imaginary doctrine upon the world regardless of what the world displays.

It is futile and meaningless to mix religion with the scientific method. Religion is an imaginary construct forced by faith upon the real world. When the real world pushes back, that is assumed to be a test of faith, making the religious person even more faithful. When however the scientific method shows reality, science, unlike faith, has to adjust. Science reflects reality. Religion reflects imagination – specifically juvenile boys’ imaginations.

In other words, religion is a specifically and explicitly narcissistic construction. It bears little or no relation to reality. Science, via the scientific method, is a specifically and explicitly non-narcissistic construction. Though science itself is a human endeavour, and thus is susceptible to mistakes, especially at the cutting edge, its basis in the scientific method always brings it back to the bedrock of reality.

This, then, is why science and religion can never be merged.

In my opinion, there is a clear progression over tens of thousands of years from imaginary beliefs – that the ground is flat and the sun moves around it, that animals have spirits, that trees have spirits, that there is a deity up there in heaven, that Jesus lived after dying – to real beliefs. The religious cannot prove their deities exists, and science cannot prove they don’t. Human beings therefore have to take one step back and ask which narrative on the balance of probability is more likely: that a being of some sort was responsible for creating the universe, or that it created itself; or, in any event, followed some quantum mechanical/gravitational process explicable by testing reality. This latter is a belief of course, since, ultimately, it can never be proven. But if you look at the history of human thought and creativity over 40,000 years then compare it with the history of spirituality, religion and then science, it’s obvious what is going on. Human beings have over those vast time scales acquired an ever more realistic understanding of the world. In the beginning, they imagined a whole story, cosmic spirits, sun, moon and all. Then men took over and became vile misogynists, offering a new story – but the Earth was still the centre of the universe. Then people actually started taking account of reality, eschewing imagination, and began the process of scientific enquiry. This allowed them to grasp the real world – at last.

In my view, over similarly large time scales in the future, and on the assumption that we don’t destroy the human race, religion will fade away, followed, some time later, by spirituality. If human beings can stop ruining the planet they live on they will all evolve into scientists.

Religion Week, 4 : Men

All religions despise women. All religions fear women. All religions are disgusted by women. All religions make women second class. All religions exploit, dominate, bully and oppress women.

Religion – the urban, masculine form of spirituality – is intimately linked with nation and patriarchy. Religion tells the stories men want to tell, stories of spare ribs, of snakes and apples, of women either as mothers or whores. Two available identities: a very deliberate dehumanisation.

Even Buddhism separates men and women on the false assumption that the two are intrinsically more different than similar. But as with every other major religion, the fluffy, pleasant, written-down theory is different to the practice. Nuns are subject to far stricter rules than monks. According to the eight Garudhammas, women must respect monks, even those newly ordained. Nuns have to undergo extra training in discipline, and they can’t worship in a place where no monk is present.

But it is with the Judeo-Christian religions that misogyny reaches its nadir. Hate, disgust and fear are the bedrocks of these three religions. It’s encoded into every law, every pronouncement, every image. Every story tells men what they should know about women and women’s place in the world. Every story is a prison cell, every book a jail. In the beginning was the word, and that word was spoken by a man.

Women entering religion is turkeys voting for Christmas. God is never going to come off his cloud and turn into a woman. He’ll be a man for as long as Christianity continues.

Actions speak louder than words. Watch what men do, not what they quote from texts.

Religion Week, 3: Explanation

No human being can live without a meaning framework. Such frameworks are essential to our conscious lives. For the overwhelming majority of our species’ time on this planet, these frameworks have been spiritual or religious. Atheism however is also a meaning framework, as is humanism.

Our method of creating frameworks of meaning is explanation. Human beings cannot remain passive in the face of some unexplained fact or experience. Consciousness requires them to augment their model of reality with this fact or experience: it has to be explained. Explanation is an essential ability, since our minds have to survive by creating a model of reality, and this model has to be as complete as possible. Snippets of reality cannot simply be ignored.

This is why human beings became such good pattern recognisers. Pattern recognition is the construction of whole explanations by knitting together smaller facts. We build explanations up into stories, which we then believe.

It is the case however that cumulative processes of explanation begin in the main with imagined explanations – for instance, the notion of a deity creating the universe, or of celestial and infernal realms. The complete absence of evidence for such imaginary explanations was, for early and all subsequent societies up to around the middle of the second millennium, not a problem. All that mattered was that the explanation worked for them.

From the twin dynamics of explanation and framework comes meaning. Meaning is coherence: wholeness. It is the experience of a consistent mental model. Yet a self-consistent model is not necessarily one also consistent with reality. Meaning in the past was a narrative generally agreed by a community which explained to their satisfaction fundamental, universal questions: how the universe began, how it will end, how human life begins, what happens when human beings die, and what the purpose of life is. Most traditions also have a strong sense of how life should be lived – a moral component. In almost all known cases these answers and traditions are couched in terms of myths, which, before the takeover of men and organised religion, were stories of life and living, essential to all. Karen Armstrong wrote the best introduction to the structure, meaning and purpose of myths in her book A Short History Of Myth.

So, human narratives did not in the distant past have to correspond with reality. At the very beginning, this was because we knew so little about the real world. Five thousand years ago we still knew very little. A thousand years ago we knew little, but things were changing by a process of cumulative understanding. A hundred years ago we had a new method of understanding the world, one which, unlike spirituality and religion, assumed the independence of the real world, and which therefore asked questions of the world rather than imposing an imaginary narrative upon it.

This may be the great redemption of humanity. True understanding is a one way process.

Religion Week, 2: Soul

The idea of human beings having a spirit or a soul is humanity’s oldest lie. But it was an inevitable and essential lie. We could not have survived as a species after about 100,000 years ago without it.

The first people to bury their dead, the Neanderthals, were fully conscious, and must have had a concept of life – of self-awareness, aliveness, of the importance of other people – to have had a concept of death. They were aware of themselves as unique individuals with unique identities. This posed one of the deepest of humanity’s problems: how to understand what happened when life stopped.

Given two observations made by every human being, there was only one answer for early humanity, one that became entrenched in thought for tens of thousands of years. These two observations were that individuals were conscious and unique, and that they died. Understanding that human beings were self-aware, and that they died, decayed, and disappeared after a few decades of life, early humanity had no option but to assume that this uniqueness was not in fact annihilated; that some non-physical part, some symbol of the uniqueness of every human being, of their personalities, did survive death. It was an unavoidable conclusion for those early peoples with their restricted understanding of the world; and it was the only explanation, it being impossible for them to imagine non-existence. It was inevitable that they presume the existence of an ethereal spirit which seemed to reside within the body. This explanation did away with what at the time was the inconceivable dilemma of not existing. They believed physical death could be transcended by continued mental life.

Other feelings would have led them to this conclusion. Those early conscious peoples would have felt emotions and love, and their relationships would have been crucial for sane survival. It was thus inevitable that, upon the death of somebody, they wondered what had happened to that unique and irreplaceable character. In such an atmosphere, the notion of an immortal non-corporeal component was inevitable.

Burial rituals were the social answers to these problems. They expressed the fact that people mattered to one another, that everybody wondered what happened after death, and that some generally held, communal explanation was required. Ritual was also vital. From these basic ideas came many others: the idea of an after-life or a spirit realm, which was required for the dead spirits to live in; the idea that ethereal spirits resided inside earthly bodies as a separable entity; the idea that spirits had knowledge not attainable by people, and that they could influence earthly life. All these ideas grew, over time, into religious concepts.

It was not possible for early humanity to know the truth of consciousness and existence. So important were their selves the idea of never letting go came into being; they would not die. Given such incomplete understanding of their selves and of the external world, it was impossible for early humanity to conceive the idea of life ceasing after death. They could not let their selves go. Spirit, they decided, was immortal.

It did not occur to them that spirit was a lie. What mattered was that spirit narratives helped them survive sane.

Religion Week, 1: Spirituality

I am an atheist and a humanist, and I always have been.

What is spirituality? It is a belief system composed of stories designed to explain the nature of the world in which human beings find themselves. In my opinion, it arose around a hundred thousand years ago give or take a few tens of thousands of years. I think it only applies to homo sapiens. Although Neanderthals were far more sophisticated than archaeology has so far given them credit for (although read Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ fantastic book Kindred), I don’t think they had the mental architecture necessary for the symbolic manipulation needed to believe in spiritual ideas. Neanderthals, to my mind, were pretty literal, albeit that such literalism was of a fantastically high order.

Early human beings needed spirituality because, like us, they lived by metaphors strung into stories. It is this quality of metaphorical thinking that in my opinion (and the opinion of many others – see Steven Mithen’s trail-blazing work) is lacking in Neanderthals. Homo neanderthalensis understood what a bird was and what a man was, but were unable to imagine a combination of the two, unlike artists at Lascaux.

Our stories – personal and cultural – must have a beginning and an end. How was the world created? Where do children come from? What happens at the end of the world? What happens to me when I die? Sane life was impossible for human beings without having such fundamental questions answered. No meaning = incoherence. Insanity beckons from that position. The early human response was to imagine answers which brought meaning to their lives: coherence regardless of factual accuracy.

From these tiny, cumulative beginnings entire spiritual realms were imagined. They bore no relation to reality, but that did not matter. What mattered was that they were coherent in the minds of the people comprising the tribe or culture, that they explained what they experienced to their own satisfaction, that they answered certain fundamental questions common to all human societies, and that they brought meaning to life via narrative.

Our word spirit comes from the root spiro, meaning breath. This is how ancient people imagined the supposed incorporeal part of a human being. From such imaginings entire traditions were built. Any imagined spirit needed an incorporeal realm to go to, or preferably a few, as “explored” by shamans. The human imagination was fertile and prolific…

Spirituality was an essential answer which had fundamental importance to early people trying to make sense of the world, but it was the wrong answer. That didn’t matter so much in times when people didn’t have the power that we have today. Perhaps it didn’t matter at all. Today however, able to damage the planet in any of dozens of ways, having the wrong answer does matter.

We need the right answer now.

Politics Week, 5: Participation

Amongst many advocates of participatory democracy was Erich Fromm, who fifty years ago pointed out that the main reason people don’t bother voting is that they sense an abyss between their only political act – voting – and the result of that act. He was living in America at the time, but since they, like us, have an unjust, undemocratic First Past The Post voting system, his comment applied not just to his adopted home nation but to ours.

A participatory democracy is one where people vote in small, human-scale settings (somewhat like local voting) where there is a direct, causal link between their act and the consequences of it. British general elections are not at all like this. We have in Britain an approximation of democracy, in which a self-selecting elite based in public schools groom themselves, fascinated by their reflections, for what they see as their birthright, whilst being elected by a minority of the people of the nation – those living in marginal constituencies. That’s not democracy, that’s “democracy.”

In Britain, there is only a pretence of meritocracy. Same old same Eton old. It literally is a network composed of old boys.

I never vote in general elections when living in a safe seat constituency because that would make me part of the problem. Instead, I do my best to highlight the issues and possible solutions, like PR. Those who say that means I don’t have a right to complain don’t grasp that voting once every few years is designed to be an exclusive, single act. It is designed to say to me: voting is the one and only political thing you need to do, now shut up and let us get on with ruling. Indeed, it’s a damned inconvenience to politicians when people start thinking for themselves, finding like-minded friends, organising themselves, then acting. That’s exactly what they don’t want. That’s why they keep saying they are our servants. But they’re not. It’s a lie; and when you tell a lie often enough it becomes the truth. They are Orwell’s pigs.

Like all great humane ideas, democracy was long ago perverted by narcissism. When the idea was devised, we were as a species very far from being mature enough to use it as was intended; likewise for the concept of parliaments. We’re still not mature enough. We’re only just taking our first steps out of adolescence, after all, as the planet burns around our ears. The central core of democracy is great – representation, just and decent society, stability. The reality is different. For as long as human beings don’t notice how their own selfishness is the filter through which they experience the world, politicians will use democracy as a screen for their own self-interest. Most will rationalise that as doing what is right for the nation and so on. What is most frightening about recent trends though is how even that rationalisation isn’t being bothered with, as politicians, seeing the state of the nation after fifteen years of social media, dispense with the act of concealing their own bigotry, selfishness and incompetence. They’ve grasped that they don’t need to make that effort any more. People have stopped caring. People have stopped making an effort. People look at their phones, not at them. Politicians have begun to realise that, in fact, it’s sometimes better to embrace egotism, since lots of people seem to like it. The nation is clothed in white curly wool, just as politicians always wanted.

Baa, baa!