stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: The Human Condition: Essays

The Trickster

The Trickster is a universal and ancient archetype. Why did such a character become so important in prehistoric, then in historic myth? Tricksters were everywhere: Loki in the Norse pantheon, Hermes in Ancient Greece, the Coyote or Raven spirit to certain Native American tribes, Anansi the Spider in West Africa, and so on.

Not all tricksters are the same. Some (Loki for instance) display gender fluidity – as a mare, Loki gave birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir – while some are variously heroes and/or villains, and some are more thief than anything else. But the prime focus of the trickster is deceit.

Deceit is a fascinating concept. Some scholars of language suggest that the human capacity for deceit is the basis of metaphor; in other words, a metaphor is a layer above reality that at the same time isn’t reality but also summarises, or describes it better. To make a metaphor about, for instance, shock as a ‘hammer blow’ you have to be deceptive regarding the lack of a hammer or a blow.

But deceit has one fundamental characteristic which marks it out as crucial in human evolution, and therefore in mythology. To deceive somebody you have to have what psychologists call theory of mind. Theory of mind is the understanding each of us has regarding other people, i.e. that they too have a mind which they use in an identical way to ours. Children acquire theory of mind when they are fairly young, depending on circumstances – it can be as early as six years, or as late as eight or nine. Before then, it is easy to show through experiment that young children are unable to grasp what other individuals may or may not believe. Chimpanzees and great apes have been shown to have a basic theory of mind, which means they are able to grasp what other members of their social group may or may not believe, or know. Some male chimps use this in mating strategies: many chimps use it to conceal food stash locations.

The human capacity for theory of mind however far exceeds what apes can manage. We are capable of extraordinarily complex feats of understanding, which we rather take for granted because it is such an integral part of life, but which in fact are remarkable, and a major clue to the nature of consciousness. As a result we are able to make sophisticated calculations about the knowledge or beliefs of others. In literature, this is called order of intentionality. For example: the author of a novel believes certain things about their readers; a character in the novel will have their own beliefs; that character may believe or know something about another character, who may in their mind know something about another, and so on… One of the reasons Shakespeare is so lauded is his amazing ability to manipulate for the benefit of his audience complex many-ordered intentionality amongst his characters.

Theory of mind, then, is the essence of the trickster. The trickster is universal because theory of mind is universal and fundamental to social life. The trickster is in fact the metaphor for theory of mind in mythology, folklore and fireside tale. Our very earliest myths (which, as Karen Armstrong so brilliantly pointed out, are at once real events, retold versions, and instructions for living summarised in those retold versions) contain this archetype precisely because it is fundamental to social life.

Ethnographic studies have shown that hunter-gatherer communities talk about many things during the day – the minutiae of life – but at night four fifths of talk is storytelling. In prehistoric times we needed examples of how theory of mind is used. We needed to know why the Norse trickster Loki changed his shape into a mare then gave birth to Odin’s steed Sleipnir. All this passed on in pre-literate cultures one of the essentials of social life: our capacity to deceive.

lok

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 4

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.

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Having covered consciousness not being a factor of computing power, the impossibility of extracting or linking to parts of consciousness, and the impossibility of uploading or downloading into new bodies, I want to cover a final aspect of SF speculation – the impossibility of creating sentient virtual minds or copies of minds.

This is a staple of much SF, including for instance certain books by Julian May in which Jon Remillard experiences an evolutionary jump, discards his physical form and metamorphoses into his final state as a disembodied brain. But a brain/mind without a body is effectively nothing. Early episodes of Dr Who did a similar thing with the species known as morpho, and the concept is regularly used in much cinema SF. Consciousness however is founded on sensory input, as shown by Nicholas Humphrey (amongst others) in his books Seeing Red and A History Of The Mind. Without sensory input there is nothing supporting the mental model we all carry in our minds. We continually update our model of the world, mostly without being aware of it. Lacking such input there is nothing for consciousness to work with. Sensory deprivation experiments have shown how quick the mind begins to disintegrate if sensory input is missing. “What each species knows of reality is what its senses allow it to construct,” as Dorothy Rowe put it in The Construction Of Life & Death. In other words, any post-death disembodied existence is impossible.

Similarly, in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the AI known as Neuromancer attempts to trap Case inside a cyber-construct, where he finds the “consciousness” of his girlfriend from Chiba City, who was murdered by one of Case’s underworld contacts. But without a body Linda Lee is nothing. The intertwining of body and mind cannot be undone. Such undoing is a false belief, again founded on the religious notion of a separable spirit or soul; it is a mistake to think that consciousness could be extracted and live on after a body’s death. (We can blame Descartes for many modern misconceptions as well as all the modern religions.)

Of course, even though all private mental activity is forever beyond the boundary of external acquisition, public information about such activity is not – just as we have indirect access to other minds but no direct access. I used this point when creating the metaframes of my novel Muezzinland. Metaframes are complex entities of data, but they are not records of minds, rather they are records of the public activity, history and observed character of minds. So, for instance, there could be a metaframe of Mnada the Empress of Ghana, which would collect all her public utterances, her observed character, appearance and her entire life history. This could be animated in the virtual reality of the Aether to create the impression of a copy of the Empress. But such a copy would contain none of the Empress’ private thoughts, and it would not be conscious. It might appear to be conscious through sheer realism, but it never actually would be.

Similar creations exist in my new novel The Autist, where they are known as data shadows. A data shadow is an entity created from the online activity of an individual: personal records, medical records, gaming records, surveillance camera data and so on. As is observed during the novel, such entities can become complex, depending on the amount of data gathered. But a data shadow could never be conscious. It can only exist as an approximation of an individual built up over time from public data.

Conclusion

In The Autist, one of my intentions was to speculate on what might happen should the development of AI continue as it is presently. In this series of blogs I have tried to show that consciousness is a result of evolution by natural selection acting upon physically separate biological creatures living in intense, sophisticated social groups. SF speculation about minds, souls, spirits, software etc being separable and transferable is based on an antiquated, false, imaginary concept, which, because human cultural evolution is slow, still remains to trouble us today.

My speculation takes as its starting point the notion that the sensory channels of the brain and the perceptual channels are separate. Sensation is our creation. There is no chain of causation beginning with something out there in the real world and ending up in the mind with qualia: the redness of red, the pain-ness of pain, etc. This separation and associated processes have been shown to be the case by Nicholas Humphrey’s work on blindsight (as described in the novel by Lara Vine), and by Paul Bach-y-Rita’s work on neuroplasticity, for instance using the tactile sensory channel to bring visual perception (Wombo’s camera/shirt set-up, designed by Lara).

As Mary Vine points out in her summation, the Autist could never be conscious. It is one massive, heuristic, perceptual network. It entirely lacks senses, relying for input on data provided by AIs, and from an occasional human like the Master at Peng Cheng Wan Li, Mr Wú. It is, in other words, a vast, isolated model of the world with its roots forever locked in earlier social values, encoded into it by the male, narcissistic, capitalist programmers of our times. And because it cannot sense and has no body, it is utterly devoid of fundamental human values: feeling, empathy, insight, compassion.

Is this the kind of entity we wish to create?
The Autist front cover

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 3

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.

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In Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon the possibility exists of uploading and downloading minds, sentience or consciousness into new or different bodies. In my opinion, this is impossible. As in Rudy Rucker’s Software and any number of other speculative novels, it is thought that consciousness – the mind – is a separable entity which can become detached from its body, move, be transferred and so on.

Such ideas couldn’t really work though. The mind and the brain are one, and we are the unique observers of our own mental activity. Such SF speculation ultimately comes from the false religious belief that individuals have a soul or spirit. In genre fiction it is common to think that there is “something” – a soul, a spirit, a mind, an essence – which can be separated from the physical body. But there is no such thing.

Why do I say this? Well, for a start there is absolutely no evidence in favour of spirit or soul. But that is a black & white stance to take, emphasising the negative – and lack of evidence doesn’t mean evidence of lack. I prefer to say that there is a much better description of why belief in separable mental entities exists, a description we owe to the scientific method, to Freud’s ground-breaking discovery of the unconscious, to many neuroscientists, and to Nicholas Humphrey’s widely accepted social intelligence theory. But in the previous eighty thousand years or so the false belief in spirit and soul explained aspects of the human condition otherwise mysterious.

The downloading/uploading trope in SF is everywhere. But in the West, where SF has for most of its existence been located as a genre, many cultures developed from a Christian beginning, and this is one reason we still believe parts of our minds might be transferable. It is an old religious notion. We imagine our minds as entities we could manipulate: our memories, for example. We wonder if we could transfer our minds or parts of our minds, as someone might transfer a letter or, electronically, an email. There is also the fact, widely remarked upon now, that many commentators use the computer as an analogy for the mind, in ways that are if nothing else wildly inappropriate. Using the analogy, people imagine that, like pieces of data, pieces of sentience can be transferred. The computer is a terrible analogy however. Not only are computers all electronically linked in a way no biological animal is, their functions exist as precise, limited algorithms, with “try to work out how another computer will behave using as a basis your own behaviour” not one of those algorithms.

This kind of SF speculation also applies to scenarios where conscious entities exist without bodies, the assumption being that parts of an ‘abstract being’ can be made sentient in some way. In the classic animé Ghost In The Shell an entity called the Pupper Master is evoked towards the end of the film, whereupon it eventually appears and describes itself: During my journeys through all the networks, I have grown aware of my existence. My programmers regarded me as a bug, and attempted to isolate me by confining me in a physical body. I entered this body because I was unable to overcome {electronic barriers}, but it was of my own free will that I tried to remain {at base}… I refer to myself as an intelligent life form, because I am sentient and am able to recognise my own existence.

Here, the Puppet Master describes how it became aware of its existence even though it was only a collection of memories and procedures. The standard metaphor of the free soul is wheeled out to explain an otherwise impossible scenario. But there never could be a Puppet Master, because it has no senses, no body; and anyway, because there was only ever one, it could not become sentient, since all it ever did was ‘journey’ and somehow, mystically, i.e. without explanation, realise it was sentient.

The big giveaway comes at the end of the film, when the Pupper Master reveals what it wants, which, unsurprisingly, bears a remarkable similarity to any random collection of computer programmes: The time has come to cast aside {our limitations} and elevate our consciousness to a higher plane. It is time to become a part of all things…

By which, also unsurprisingly, the Pupper Master means the internet.

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 2

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.

*

Extracting parts of consciousness or of the mind has long been a staple of SF, but I suspect such things are impossible. As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, consciousness exists in inviolate union with one biological individual. We have no direct access to the mind of any other person – only to our own. The mind and the brain are one, inseparable, with Dualism an illusion and fallacy.

A classic example of how this Dualist notion influences SF – so much SF! – is the ending of the film ‘Avatar.’ At the end, the character’s eyes open when a “mind” is “transferred” to the body. This concept of a separable mental entity – a loose mind – comes from the false belief in a spirit or soul. For tens of thousands of years (eighty thousand at least in my opinion, and perhaps more) human beings, presented with the evidence of their own selves, had to believe that their individuality and uniqueness must be a separable quality which could exist after death, and indeed before birth. I suspect the observation that children’s faces resemble those of their parents had something to do with this belief. But death was an impossible dilemma to resolve for those early societies, the only solution being the false belief in a spirit or soul. Such thinking went much further, however, after it appeared. The moment a society believed its members had a spirit they placed that imaginary thing into everything they experienced. Animism is the primitive belief that physical and environmental entities are the same as human beings, that is, invested with a spirit. This kind of thinking is rooted in profound narcissism (i.e. that everything in nature is the same as human beings) and in lack of knowledge of the world. All answers to the great human dilemmas were imaginary in those early societies. Human society only began falling from its pedestal with Copernicus and those few who went before him.

One of the classic explorations of the concept of consciousness and the apparent duality of mind and body comes in Rudy Rucker’s novel Software. In it, Cobb Anderson designs the first robots to ‘have free will,’ then retires to become an aged, Hendrix-loving hippy. In due course he is offered the chance to leave his ailing body and acquire a new one. The robots (now called boppers) make good their promise, leaving Cobb to reflect along the following lines: A robot, or a person, has two parts: hardware and software. The hardware is the actual physical material involved, and the software is the pattern in which the material is arranged. Your brain is hardware, but the information in the brain is software. The mind… memories, habits, opinions, skills… is all software. The boppers had extracted Cobb’s software and put it in control of this robot’s body.

Or had they? Is the boppers’ extraction a possible operation? Surely not. Cobb started out as a human being, physically separate from all other individuals. His conscious mind came into being in human society, then grew; it related to his experience of that society and of his own body. How then could this ‘information’ mean anything to any other organisation of parts such as another brain? Even an exact copy of his brain would not be enough. At the very least, an exact copy of his entire body would be required, at which point the problem of all the unavailable ‘information’ would rear its head – all Cobb’s private thoughts, for instance, which by their very existence are inaccessible to anyone else and which therefore could not by any conceivable process be identified in order to be transferred.

The mind is not extractable. It exists because of never-ending sensory input from the body. If a brain were to receive sensory input from non-human senses, as would be the case if the brain could be transferred into one of the boppers’ robot bodies, then the entire support of the mind would vanish, and you have no mind.

In my opinion this fantasy of transferrable minds/software/sentience in SF exists because of the persuasive but false cultural concept of the spirit or soul; as does the equally impossible fantasy of software made sentient without a body.

For the same reason extracting memories is also impossible. Memories exist as temporary electrical structures in the cerebellum (short-term memory) or as interconnected neuron structures in the cortex (long-term memory). They cannot be extracted for the same reason that there is no spirit – memories are not separable things. They exist for one individual, who alone has direct access to them. They are part of a mental model carried around by that individual.

Some people may now point to research where “mind-reading” has been achieved using high definition MRI scanning, but such experiments always use pre-existing images or other material, or, as in the case of recent research at Columbia University’s Zuckermann Institute, by asking epilepsy patients undergoing brain surgery to listen to sentences spoken by different people while patterns of brain activity are measured, then reproduced via heuristic algorithms. These algorithms train a vocoder to create a match with pre-existing material. In no case has an undisclosed, new private thought been imaged by anybody outside that person. Success is achieved by matching patterns too complex for human beings to perceive but which expert AI algorithms can work with. In fact, such “mind-reading” techniques are precisely the same as those we use to gain indirect access to other minds via language. The brain’s neural network is comparing observed symbols with a pre-existing set of symbols – the language – in order to work out meaning. There’s no direct “mind-reading” involved.

As for telepathy, that is impossible because it violates the founding circumstance of the evolution of consciousness. If there was such a thing as telepathy we would have direct access to one another’s minds, in which case consciousness would be unnecessary.

We are our own unique observers of our mental activity.
The Autist front cover

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 1

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.

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Is human consciousness a consequence of processing power or other technical/biological power factors?

In his classic 1984 novel Neuromancer, William Gibson presents the reader with a plot that involves two AIs merging to create a conscious whole – a so-called superconsciousness: “… the sum total of the works, the whole show…” as it is put at the novel’s end. Almost universally SF has assumed that consciousness is a consequence of brain power, computing power, or some other variety of power, and most likely the fact that men have written the overwhelming majority of such SF accounts for some of this assumption. But that isn’t the whole reason. SF has dealt poorly with themes of AI and consciousness because of the difficulty of the topic, the weight of Descartes’ influence, and the spread of religion.

Since the beginning of the last century psychologists have used the most advanced technology they knew of as a metaphor for the conscious mind. In the 1920s for instance it was common for them to picture the mind as a telephone exchange. Our use of the computer metaphor – e.g. the notion that the brain is composed of modules all linking together – is just the latest in a long series of inappropriate metaphors.

Consciousness is not a consequence of any kind of power. Consciousness is a consequence of the evolution of physically separate primates living in highly complex social groups. Consciousness is an emergent property of such groups. It could not exist in any one brain nor could it ever exist as an isolated entity, such as the merged Wintermute/Neuromancer pair. Consciousness is the evolutionary response to the difficulty individuals have in grasping and understanding the behaviour of others who exhibit highly complex social behaviour. It employs a method of empathy, by allowing the conscious individual to use themselves as an exemplar. In other words, if you see somebody crying, you know they are likely to be sad because you have cried before when you were sad. This is the social intelligence theory of consciousness, first put forward by the brilliant Nicholas Humphrey.

Neither Wintermute nor Neuromancer could be conscious individuals. They were connected electronically – not separate – and they existed in isolation, not in social groups. Now, no human being has direct access to the private mental model of another person. We do have indirect access however, for example via language, and that led to consciousness during the period of human evolution. Neither Wintermute nor Neuromancer had, or needed, such indirect access. They may have been powerful intelligences in the way some AIs are today, but they were not and never could be conscious like us. (I deal with this theme in The Autist.)

Therefore, no amount of computer upgrades, changes from electronic to quantum computing, nor any other sort of power or intelligence changes in entities which exist outside a social group of equivalents could lead to artificial consciousness. Those two preconditions must be met: existence in a social group in which evolutionary change occurs, and indirect access to the private mental models – the minds – of others.

These ideas are the thematic material of my novels Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox. In them, Manfred Klee takes the Nicholas Humphrey route, electronically separating the nine BIs in his opening scene, when he realises that their connection is limiting them since they have no need to develop what these days we call a theory of mind. Once disconnected, they do have that need. Leonora Klee takes the AI route, attempting through computing power alone to develop a sentient machine. But she is doomed to fail. She creates an unstable entity with certain autistic characteristics.

In fact I found it quite difficult to judge the evolutionary development of the BIs, as I didn’t want to anthropomorphise them, a point made by certain characters during the novel. This leads me to another problem in SF, which is for authors to assume the equivalence of human and artificial consciousness. In earlier days I might have emphasised similarities and equivalences, but these days I do take a fuzzier line. Although we human beings faced during our evolutionary history a number of situations which led to the human condition – for instance the need for emotion to convey, to the self and to others, unmissable knowledge of high value experiences – those situations would not necessarily be faced by artificial beings. I think the chances are high that similar things would emerge – emotion and its equivalent, a sense of time and its equivalent, creativity and its equivalent – but I’m not sure they would definitely appear. It would depend on their artificial evolutionary histories.

I don’t know of any SF novels which takes the social intelligence/Nicholas Humphrey route. It would be good to see more realistic speculation in this area, as AIs are already a hot topic, and can only get hotter as their development proceeds.

The Autist front cover

Karl Marx @ 200

We are alienated from our essential human selves. Marx in my opinion was wrong on many counts, not least his analysis of the historical arc of capitalism, but on one point he was not only correct but got the heart of cultural and psychological progress. If we are alienated from ourselves there must be an “essence” to be alienated from. We – workers, bourgeoise and all – are not living authentic human lives. As I’ve argued in my novels and elsewhere, what humanity needs above all now is a complete scientific description of the human condition (which by the way I think is different to human nature). In a non-fiction book that I expect to write this autumn, I’ll be offering my own scientific description of the human condition. In the meantime, happy 200thbirthday Mr Marx!

karl

On Imagination: Part 3

3. How is imagination?

My experience of writing the Factory Girl trilogy was different to that of my other novels, with the exception of Memory Seed and Hairy London. In the case of The Girl With Two Souls in particular, the book seemed fully formed before I began writing, emerging at 5,000 words per day as if all I had to do was take dictation from my unconscious mind.

I think that is likely how it happened, albeit with some conscious editing along the way. I’ve long thought that much of the work of the author is done without them realising it. In the case of the Factory Girl trilogy the entire scenario came together in a two hour burst of inspiration, and little changed afterwards in the structure and plotting. The first volume was written similarly, in about twenty days. This kind of inspiration is great when it happens, and is an indication that a lot of work is happening behind the scenes.

Human beings have an unconscious for a reason. It would be impossible to live and remain sane if we remembered all our experiences; the amount of information would soon become overwhelming. Instead we lay down long-term memories, we generalise, and we use the model of the world created in our minds, a model which can be very sophisticated (if you are lucky enough to live a life that allows you to grow). In my case, that mental model included the structure, characters, plot and style of the entire trilogy. It was in my mind, waiting to be written.

While I don’t think there is much individual authors can do to make significant changes to their imaginative powers, that being dependent upon genetics and upbringing, I do think there are many tactics which can be used to improve what creativity an author already has.

The first tactic is essentially what I have written so far – let your unconscious do its work. Did a novel scenario burst forth as if already formed? That means it was lurking in your mind, waiting to come out, and you will benefit from following its lead. Is there a previously overlooked character who is clamouring to become more significant? Many authors experience the odd sensation of a minor character becoming much more important than they had planned – it means something in the author’s unconscious is at work, signalling to the conscious mind. I had this happen to me in The Girl With One Friend, when Pastor Richardson emerged as a foil to Kora and Erasmus. I’m not sure he was even in the original conception, in fact. But he turned out to be significant for the development of Erasmus as a character.

Bertrand Russell dispensed this advice to authors about to begin a novel: go to Canada and be a lumberjack for three months. What he meant was, give your unconscious time to sort out the structure of the work.

The second tactic is to trust yourself. This applies more to experienced authors, but novices too can learn to work with their unconscious, and should do. I think however that it is more difficult in this latter case, since the less experienced author is bombarded with advice about writing technique and so on. But, as I’m suggesting in this trio of blog posts, I think it is more important to focus on imagination. Amongst the best advice from an author that I read when I was a tyro was: “If you’re stuck, don’t think about words. Imagine it better.” That advice is a cornerstone of my own writing life.

Trusting yourself also includes allowing yourself the freedom to make mistakes. Actually I think mistakes are more rare than authors realise. We live in a society where there is constant scrutiny of work and an atmosphere of mild anxiety, not helped by the pressure to succeed if you ‘out yourself’ as an author, for example on writing forums. It could be argued that Gwyneth Jones’ notion to use acronyms and an oblique writing style was a mistake in Escape Plans (a few commentators have suggested this), but I think it is more a feature of her unique vision, which she had the good sense to follow. Being an author is a solo activity, not a group activity informed by the tenets of social media. Following the lead of your unconscious means letting yourself say “bollocks to public opinion, this is the way the book had to be written.” My novel Woodland Revolution is written in a particular style, an unusual style perhaps, but I know it could not have been written any other way. It is what it is.

A third tactic is another author staple, but it bears repeating. Although many of my novels are written quickly in a burst of inspiration I do get stuck along the way, usually as a result of minor plot details. In such cases I allow my unconscious to work by going out for a walk. Because I live on the edge of a small town in the middle of the Shropshire countryside this is easy, and relaxing, but it doesn’t have to be a walk. It could be any analogous activity that takes you away from the problem and allows your unconscious mind some freedom: cooking, gardening, listening to music. I have to admit though, I’m still amazed at the efficacy of this tactic. It works for me every time.

So, if you are stuck, it’s best not to think about the problem in front of your computer screen. Take yourself away, allow yourself some freedom, let your unconscious flex its muscles.

A fourth tactic, which again works for me but which I haven’t seen elsewhere in online discussions, is to read more non-fiction. These days I read fiction far less often than non-fiction. I find that my interest in the real world is an inspiration for much of what I write, for instance my thirty year fascination in the mysteries of consciousness and the human condition, which led me to write Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox, although the former of those two books was also inspired by the appalling record SF has when dealing with AI and the human mind. The novel I’m working on at the moment – The Autist, a novel of AGI and Big Data – is similarly inspired by the real world. And if I had not read Karen Armstrong’s A Short History Of Myth, Woodland Revolution would have been a very different book. Non-fiction allows the mental models we all carry in our mind to expand and develop. In the long term, this is a powerful aid to imagination. For me, fiction less often has this effect.

So the best stance to take is one of experiencing. As I said earlier, reality needs to be seen very clearly. The clearer reality is seen and the more vividly it is experienced, the more intense the desire to transcend; in other words, the more creative you are. It isn’t that being creative allows you to see more clearly, in some special human way, rather that seeing and experiencing in a special way, in a human way, brings creativity as a consequence.

And this stance is one of union with reality, not of separation via reductionism. It is a delusion to believe that observation-at-a-distance is the best way of experiencing the world, a delusion created by centuries of male scientists and philosophers. “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” – Gandalf the Grey.

Amy noticed that the garden was being enjoyed by people; but there was a grey mist upon the garden that meant she could not see them, except as the kind of blurs one sees through spectacles (when spectacles are not needed). To the Parrot she said, “I wonder who all these people are? They seem to be enjoying this garden.” And she looked at the late afternoon sun, whose warmth she still felt upon her skin.

“How will you discover who they are?” asked the Parrot. Amy glanced up to see that the Parrot also was a grey blur, which – because they had become acquaintances – she found quite disturbing.

“I do not know,” Amy replied. “Nor do I know how to discover who you are, since you also are a blur.”

“Perhaps your best course of action would be to mingle with these people,” said the Parrot, “as you did in the first walled garden that you visited.”

“Very well,” Amy replied – for she truly admired the courage of the Parrot, and knew that its remark concerning her timidity approached the truth.

So saying, Amy walked along gravel paths and down moss-covered steps to reach the central sections of the garden, where she could see most of the blurs. Though she knew them to be people – because of the way they walked, from the snatches of conversation that she could hear, and from the fact that the parasols she observed must surely be carried by ladies – she did not know who they were.

Amy began to feel terribly alone. She enjoyed company, and did not like to feel left out of society; not in any shape or form! She particularly liked fairs, musical concerts, and long evening conversations before a log fire with her family. In this garden, however, she felt ostracised, because she knew the people only as blurs.

As she wandered amongst the crowd however she began to notice small details: a pleasant expression on a face, a golden ring on an index finger, a way of walking, a gesture, a laugh, all of which she recognised.

“In fact,” said the Parrot, “you do know some of these people!”

“Why, yes!” Amy replied, delighted. “There is my sister Alice.” And at once she rushed over to Alice to give her a great big hug, whereupon Alice changed from being half blur, half girl into the little sister that she knew so well.

“Hello, Amy!” said Alice.

Amy grinned, then studied the rest of the crowd of blurs, to see also her papa and her mama, who she also gave a hug; and as she hugged them they resolved from grey blurs into real people, enjoying the sunlit garden as much as she was.

Let’s allow Amy to have the final word on creativity and imagination.

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“And thus the volume acquired its name,” remarked the Parrot.

“Why,” Amy said, taking her book of aphorisms from her pocket, “I do believe King George the Fourth had something to say on that subject. And here it is!” – There are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination.

And that’s the great advantage of daydreaming.

tgw1f

The Girl With One Friend

On Imagination: Part 2

2. Where is imagination?

Obviously, imagination is in the brain. Or is it?

Well, yes it is. But we need to be careful about the terms we use to discuss imagination. Creativity and imagination come from the fact that human beings are conscious, but we are conscious as a species in society rather than as a collection of individuals. In my opinion it is a category error to say a person is conscious (even though, for all practical purposes, they definitely are), just as it is a category error to call one bird a flock. The important thing however is: in society – which every human being ever born lived, lives and will live in – we experience ourselves as self-aware. A similar debate could be enjoyed about “where” in the brain consciousness is, though many modern philosophers have pointed out the fallacies there. As Dirk Ngma observed in Beautiful Intelligence, consciousness, if anywhere, is somewhere in the space between people. But I digress…

The human brain is constructed in two halves linked by a bundle of neural fibres, the corpus callosum. In general, the left half of the brain tends to specialise in analytical, logical thought; it is consciously symbolic, abstracting, taking small pieces of information for analysis; it is temporal, and thus tends to think sequentially, in a defined order; it is rational, verbal, and digital. The right half tends to be more synthetic, thinking intuitively; it is nonverbal; it tends to experience in wholes, in real-time, without the need for symbol and conscious thought, and in this it is more direct; it tends to see relationships, nuances, resonances; it is intuitive, relying on unconscious pattern-fitting and recognition as the basis for understanding. In other words the left hemisphere tends towards reductionist thought, while the right tends toward holistic.

There may be a good reason for this arrangement. As Douglas Hofstadter pointed out, the two modes of thought are mutually exclusive; they cannot exist in the same symbolic system. Thus, two linked hemispheres, one ‘looking downward’ to parts, and one ‘looking upward’ to wholes, may have evolved, each with a certain amount of specialisation. Although our minds do not experience these halves as separate – all is a seamless whole – the brain does nonetheless use different parts of its physical arrangement for different types of thought. It’s also worth pointing out that “logical, analytical” people are not all right handed while “creative, intuitive” people are not all left handed. There is a difference between brain lateralisation and hemisphere dominance, with the latter now an often discredited description.

But because the two halves of the brain control the opposite side of the body, this means that should the left hemisphere be favoured a right handed person results, whereas right hemisphere favour brings a left hander. Human beings have a profound and genetically rooted bias towards one side of the brain, the left side, where language centres usually reside. This bias to one side is not unique in the animal kingdom, but its origin and evolutionary mechanism remains unclear, though for humans it must have something to do with language acquisition and associated modes of thought.

It has been noticed for a long time that left-handers tend to be more creative, and this may be a consequence of them tending to experience life holistically and intuitively, rather than logically or analytically. Their particular kind of experience tends to bring enhanced creativity. Brain surgeons talk of the brains of right handed people as being “like chocolate soldiers,” whereas the brains of left handers are far more varied. Well, you only have to think of Paul McCartney or Jimi Hendrix.

The mental model of reality built up by a human mind has one momentous advantage over reality itself: it is not subject to the laws of physics. It is non-physical; an emergent, symbolic model transcending the real neurons on which it is based. Such a model can bring into being variations of reality, thus allowing the mind to experience both reality and its myriad of metaphors; in other words, the mind acquires imagination.

The experience of reality by a human mind means it is endowed with reason, imagination and productive ability. The mind transcends the animal state, becoming fully alive, involving itself with reality. But to transcend reality, reality has to be seen; it has to be experienced. In fact, reality has to be seen very clearly. The clearer reality is seen and the more vividly it is experienced, the more intense the desire to transcend; in other words, the more creative the mind is. So it is not that being creative allows a person to see more clearly, in some special human way, rather that seeing and experiencing in a special way, in a human way, brings creativity as a consequence.

Creativity is the result of the human mind transcending reality through its ability to make a model, experiencing reality through emotions and through the holistic view (as well as in other modes), then imagining unrestrained variations. Emotional involvement in reality is profound involvement, the knowledge imparted being of a deep and realistic nature; it is not intellectual appreciation, though that does have some part of the experience. Thus, many of the characteristics of creativity, such as intuition, spontaneity, a sense of timelessness, a heightened awareness, are not rooted in the intellect but in more fundamental emotional understanding. Such sensations cannot be controlled as the intellect can; they well up from the roots of human understanding. This is why emotions often accompany creativity, for it is essential that the human mind tell itself, and others, of the importance of the creative act.

The holistic view is also vital. Such a view takes in the whole of reality, and is a clearer overall view than the analytical. Experiencing life holistically – that is, experiencing sensations and the self as a whole, while at the same time having the ability to see some parts – is a more profound way of experiencing reality on the human scale, and so this too makes the urge for creativity more intense. Reductionism has its uses, but we don’t live on those scales.

So, creative human beings can solve problems. The experience of difficulties in life forces us to fall back on our mental models, which can, by virtue of the non-physical state, change and alter reality in the imagination, and hence allow us to arrive at new understandings, which in turn bring new solutions. Such insights are often flashes of creativity, emotional and holistic understandings which are the fitting together in the imagination of the relevant parts of the problem, producing a new whole never seen before. Creativity is very much an unconscious phenomenon.

Part 3 tomorrow.

bi

On Imagination: Part 1

  1. What is imagination?

On the various SFF forums which I enjoy contributing to there’s a huge amount of advice and debate on the technical issues of writing – rules, whether rules should be broken, whether rules exist, writing better characters, writing better action, writing better words. I almost never see discussion of imagination however, which is a shame, as to me this is a more important aspect of writing than any technical issue. So in this and the next couple of posts I’m going to ramble on a bit about imagination and creativity. We’ll take Amy with us, plucking her from the Factory Girl trilogy. I’m sure the Reverend Carolus Dodgson won’t mind.

 

Amy entered the walled garden with some trepidation, since some of the gardens that so far she had visited had been rather frightening. “But at least I have a parrot as a guide,” she thought. This garden however was unlike any other that she had seen, since its walls were arranged with shelves on which hundreds of books lay.

The Parrot said, “This is the Old Queen’s library garden.”

“Do you think I will meet the Old Queen?” Amy asked.

“If you ask nicely.”

“Oh, but I am always polite. My mama says it is a lady’s finest grace.”

In reply the Parrot said, “There is the librarian!”

Amy looked across a bed of lilies to see a most peculiar creature – hunch-backed, with large fin-like feet and a big face with eyes at the side. It wore a frock coat of scallop shells and smoked a clay pipe.

“Good afternoon!” this strange librarian said.

Amy curtseyed, replying, “And good afternoon to you, Mr…”

“I am the Land Whale,” the librarian replied.

“Whatever is a land whale?” Amy thought. After a few moments she said, “Are you perchance related to ocean whales?”

“Why indeed I am,” the librarian replied. “In one of these many books…” (and here he gestured at the tomes around him) “… it is said that whales once lived upon the land, before deciding to live in the sea. I am one of those sea whales who decided to return to the land.”

Amy thought this tale to be quite extraordinary, but she had heard of a book that made similar claims about the origins of various species, so she did not question the librarian further. “For that would indeed be forthright,” she thought, with a smile.

“Have you come here for a specific volume, child?” asked the librarian.

“Yes, we have,” the Parrot replied. “We seek the Book Of Imaginary Beings.”

At this the librarian gasped, sending a jet of water up from the back of his neck. “That book requires a considerable amount of respect!” he declared.

 

But what is the Book Of Imaginary Beings? And is it an entirely human construction?

 

The Land Whale lumbered across the garden to one of the shelves, removing a book then returning. Amy took it, but at once the Land Whale spoke, saying, “Beware, child! The creatures mentioned in this book will excite your mind into a fervour of creation.”

“Whatever does he mean?” Amy thought, before thinking further – “I wish he would stop rattling his frock coat when he speaks!”

Then Amy opened the book to its first page, to observe there the most gorgeous cat she had ever seen – jet black, with shiny fur, an elegant tail, and the greenest pair of green eyes possible. In fact, to her astonishment, she was able to touch the cat, and stroke it, whereupon it narrowed its eyes and began purring. “But this is a real cat,” she said, “and not imaginary at all.”

“So it is,” said the librarian.

Amy turned to the next page, to see a gorgeous antelope, with fawn coloured hide, white stripes, and two curly antler prongs. “Why, this antelope also is real,” she said.

“I think you are correct,” the librarian said.

Amy was so entranced by the beauty of the antelope that quite without realising it she took a pencil from the pocket of her dress and began sketching it on the blank page opposite. “This is the imaginary antelope,” she thought, as she continued to sketch. “I shall give it extra-twirly prongs!”

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“And thus the volume acquired its name,” remarked the Parrot.

 

If we are to draw any conclusion from Amy’s adventure it is that creativity is a response to something rather than a thing in its own right. But a response to what?

I’ve always thought the musings of artists significant in this respect, and of them Henri Matisse stands out. He understood what approach to take if he was to make great art:

If my works are of any interest, it is first and foremost because I observe Nature with awe and very closely. This is far more important than that virtuosity which constant, dedicated work will almost invariably lead to. I cannot emphasize sufficiently the need for an artist to be honest in his work.

About his late work he wrote:

Abstraction rooted in reality.

Matisse felt that he had to lose all learned sophistication and be innocent and fresh, like a child not yet socialised:

What it seems we must learn is to leave experience behind… The painter must have no preconceived notion of the model – his spirit must be open and receive everything, just as in a landscape he would take in every one of the scents of the air.

And Matisse knew that merely copying reality was not part of human art; all the possibilities created in the mind by reality were the artist’s inner vision:

I am incapable of making a slavish copy of Nature. Instead I feel compelled to interpret it…

Paul Cezanne also wrote with insight:

The artist… learns to see from Nature… Nature – I wanted to copy it. I did not succeed, but I was satisfied with myself when I discovered that, for example, the sun cannot simply be reproduced, that one has to express it more through something else… through colour.

Using the religious metaphor of divinity for nature and the world around him, Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

The divine elements painting comprises cause the painter’s mind to reflect the divine spirit itself; thus, before the eyes of the rising generations and of his own independent and powerful accord, the painter begins to create diverse living beings… landscapes…

Da Vinci advised others:

…if you do not start by becoming thoroughly familiar with the objects in Nature, you will not achieve anything worthy of note.

It would seem that ‘Nature’ is the source – by which the above artists mean the real world. Artistic merit, then, comes from a response to the real world. Is reality the source of human creativity?

I think it is. I think there is a directly proportional relationship between intensity of sensory experience of the real world and intensity (and amount) of creative response. In Amy’s case, it was because she saw a particularly fine cat that she felt compelled to create a response, drawing on the blank page opposite it. Likewise, with the antelope, she didn’t merely draw it, she gave it ‘extra-twirly prongs’; in other words she augmented the source imaginatively, creating a new image.

Imagination is depth of creativity. Experience more of the real world and you boost your imaginative potential.

Part 2 follows tomorrow.

tgw2s

The Girl With Two Souls

Narcissism Week, Day 5

To paraphrase Douglas Adams: “Who can be trusted with power, when all those who want it are least suited to it?”

There have been many narcissistic “leaders” through millennia past, but a few recent ones are worth highlighting – with all their dangers. In recent months Donald Trump, long known as an intensely narcissistic man, has become American President, to the horror of most of the rest of the world. As I’ve written elsewhere (Part I & Part II), Donald Trump shows all the symptoms of the narcissistic person, and is very dangerous as a consequence. Napoleon also exhibited intense narcissism. Erich Fromm, in his ground-breaking book The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness, devoted the last quarter of his work to a full character analysis of Hitler, showing the intense, malignant narcissism of the man, a malignancy that could just as easily, albeit in different mode and circumstances, be applied to Thatcher and Trump.

Thatcher, Napoleon and Hitler also had the curious addition of the phenomenal “semi-autistic” memory, examined in depth by the noted American psychiatrist and writer Darrold Treffert as part of his work with Savant Syndrome. There is no room in Narcissism Week to explore that curiosity, but I think it may be more than a curiosity…

Narcissistic people are always dangerous. They are destroyers – destroyers of reality. Thatcher was a destroyer, Hitler was a destroyer, Napoleon was a destroyer, Stalin was a destroyer, Mao was a destroyer. Donald Trump, given the opportunity, will be the same. Unfortunately the patriarchal mode of society encourages such people to strive for, use and abuse controlling power through hierarchies. For as long as we retain this archaic, narcissistic, inhumane mode of power wielding we will be vulnerable to madmen taking control and using it to try to alter reality to fit their idiotic fantasies.

Alas, a humane utopia seems a very long way away.