Does dopamine produce a feeling of bliss? On the chemical self, the social self, and reductionism.

Here’s the intro to my latest blog post at 3 Quarks Daily.

“The  osmosis of neuroscience into popular culture is neatly symbolized by a  phenomenon I recently chanced upon: neurochemical-inspired jewellery. It  appears there is a market for silvery pendants shaped like molecules of  dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, norepinephrine and other celebrity  neurotransmitters. Under pictures of dopamine necklaces, the  neuro-jewellers have placed words like “love”, “passion”, or “pleasure”.  Under serotonin they write “happiness” and “satisfaction”, and under  norepinephrine, “alertness” and “energy”. These associations presumably  stem from the view that the brain is a chemical soup in which each  ingredient generates a distinct emotion, mood, or feeling. Subjective  experience, according to this view, is the sum total of the  contributions of each “mood molecule”. If we strip away the modern  scientific veneer, the chemical soup idea evokes the four humors of  ancient Greek medicine: black bile to make you melancholic, yellow bile  to make you choleric, phlegm to make you phlegmatic, and blood to make  you sanguine.

“A dopamine pendant worn round the neck as a symbol for bliss is  emblematic of modern society’s attitude towards current scientific  research. A multifaceted and only partially understood set  of experiments is hastily distilled into an easily marketed molecule of  folk wisdom. Having filtered out the messy details, we are left with an  ornamental nugget of thought that appears both novel and reassuringly  commonsensical. But does neuroscience really support this reductionist  view of human subjectivity? Can our psychological states be understood  in terms of a handful of chemicals? Does neuroscience therefore pose a  problem for a more holistic view, in which humans are integrated in  social and environmental networks? In other words, are the “chemical  self” and the “social self” mutually exclusive concepts?”

– Read the rest at 3QD: The Chemical Self and the Social Self

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From Cell Membranes to Computational Aesthetics: On the Importance of Boundaries in Life and Art

My next 3QD column is out. I speculate about the role of boundaries in life, curiosity, and identity.

This image is a taster:

If you want to know what this diagram might mean, check out the article:
From Cell Membranes to Computational Aesthetics: On the Importance of Boundaries in Life and Art

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The Mysterious Power of Naming in Human Cognition

I’ve written a long-form essay for the blog/aggregator site 3 Quarks Daily

Boundaries and Subtleties: the Mysterious Power of Naming in Human Cognition

Here’s a taster:

I’ve divided up the essay into four parts. Here’s the plan:

  1. We’ll introduce two key motifs — the named and the nameless — with a little help from the Tao Te Ching.
  2. We’ll examine a research problem that crops up in cognitive  psychology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence, and link it with  more Taoist motifs.
  3. We’ll look at how naming might give us power over animals, other people, and even mathematical objects.
  4. We’ll explore the power of names in computer science, which will facilitate some wild cosmic speculation.
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The neural shadow-play: A metaphor for how we infer how the brain works from a variety of methods

Can we say that a particular brain area mediates some function? My answer to a good Quora question:

Understanding the brain is like understanding the shape of a very complex, dynamic and multifaceted object by looking at the shadows projected by it on a wall.  The color of the light source and its orientation with respect to the object (and the wall) will change the nature of the shadow. Different scientific techniques are like different light sources. Different experimental protocols are like different angles. We have to look at the sequence of shadows and imagine what the object’s actual form is — it is not possible to view this object simultaneously from all angles and with all illumination sources. So there is a degree of creativity and freedom in each person’s own conception of the true nature of the object. Nevertheless, the conception that scientists eventually agree on is likely to be one that tempers this freedom with rationality and responsibility.”

I elaborate on this here:

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Metaphor: the Alchemy of Thought

In the murky centuries before the dawn of the scientific age, alchemists used the phrase “As above, so below” to convey their belief that the neat order observed in the heavens could also be discerned amidst the chaos on earth. Thus the alchemists hoped to understand the one in terms of the other — the complex in terms of the simple. They viewed macrocosm and microcosm as reflections of each other. This remained an esoteric ideal rather than a formula for practical knowledge until Isaac Newton — himself a dabbler in alchemy — brought the stars and the earth closer together by showing that they could be understood using a unified language: mathematics.

“As above, so below.”

Metaphor is the alchemy of thought: not “as above, so below”, but “as known, so unknown”. According to linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” It might not be an exaggeration to say that metaphorical thinking is the basis of our ability to extend the boundaries of human knowledge.  For those of you who only remember the word from middle school English class, I imagine this dramatic inflation of the importance of metaphor comes as a surprise. Isn’t metaphor just a linguistic flourish? “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”? “Now is the winter of our discontent”? Surely this kind of frippery is only for poets and artists? For the cafe and the studio, rather than the workshop and the laboratory? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Is it possible to speak plainly and just name things and processes without recourse to metaphor? The answer is not as straightforward as many of us would like it to be. Concrete concepts often evaporate into metaphorical abstraction upon careful examination. Conversely, even the most abstract concepts usually begin their lives as metaphors constructed from day-to-day human experience.

The word “matter”, for instance, comes from the Latin materia, meaning source, which in turn may have come from the Proto-Indo-European word for “mother”. At the other end of the spectrum, the word “abstract” comes from decidedly non-abstract roots: it stems from the Latin abstractus which means to “draw (tractus) away (abs)”, and stems ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *tragh-, from which we also get the English word “drag”. So the act of abstraction travels down through the ages from a time when it meant something as mundane as dragging out. “Metaphor”, interestingly enough, comes from the Greek for “carry over” or “transfer”. Thus metaphor and abstraction both have their roots in the physical act of carrying or drawing something from one place to another — metaphor carries meaning from the known to the unknown, whereas abstraction drags meaning from the specific to the general.

Here one might justifiably point out that when the primeval metaphorical quality of a word fades from memory over the centuries, we are left with dead metaphors — mere labels that have long since lost their original signification. Perhaps metaphor is only of interest to the archaeologists of language? I think not. To speak only in terms of old names and dead metaphors is to asphyxiate thought: to deprive it of the opportunity to make unforeseen connections and unanticipated leaps. These connections, these leaps, are essential to creativity and exploration.

For the purpose of investigating metaphor further, I think we can use some of the terminology invented by Julian Jaynes in his magnificent and idiosyncratic work  The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes described a metaphor as comprising of two parts. The metaphrand is the thing to be described or understood, and the metaphier is the more familiar thing with which it is compared. The human body is a very common metaphier; we speak of the head of a table, the foot of a mountain, the face and hands of a clock, and the mouth of a river.

The human body is a rich source of metaphiers. (Click to enlarge and en-gif.)

Consider the metaphors we use to talk about a table. If we decide on the metaphor of the “head” of the table, we might ask: what are the other parts of the body mapped to? The “foot” of the table is on the opposite side from the head. But the legs of the table are underneath. The metaphor does not invite us to wonder what the arms of the table are.

Where is the foot of the table? What about the arms  and legs? (Click to enlarge.)

Extended metaphors offer much more scope for description and discovery. We can now introduce two more Jaynesian terms: paraphiers and paraphrands. Paraphiers are properties or aspects of the metaphier that cast more light on the metaphrand. It is as if the first association leads to many more. One of the most evocative examples of this kind of   expansion is when we see human society as a human body. The metaphrand is society, and the metaphier is the body. The paraphiers are the head, the arms, and so on, as well as other concepts we associate with the body, such as health. So we not only have a head of state and the long arm of the law, but also a sick society. Here the paraphiers are especially handy — their corresponding paraphrands in society don’t always have non-metaphorical names.

In a passage from the Incredible String Band’s song “Maya” this metaphor is extended to almost comical degree.

The great man, the great man, historians his memory
Artists his senses, thinkers his brain
Labourers his growth
Explorers his limbs
And soldiers his death each second
And mystics his rebirth each second
Businessmen his nervous system
No-hustle men his stomach
Astrologers his balance
Lovers his loins
His skin it is all patchy
But soon will reach one glowing hue
God is his soul
Infinity his goal
The mystery his source
And civilization he leaves behind
Opinions are his fingernails

What we see here is a kind of feedback and resonance. In the case of man and society the microcosm and the macrocosm often seem equally unknown, and in this extended metaphor it seems as though we might understand both better through comparison. Not only do we see the various sections of society as parts of a “great man”, we also come to see the individual man as a meeting of impulses that are analogous to the forces operating in a society or economy.

Another rich example comes from seeing ideas or opinions as food. Ideas are the metaphrand, and food is the metaphier. Thus we have food for thought. Some ideas smell fishy, some are half-baked, some are hard to swallow. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Additional paraphiers jump out at us, inviting us to uncover their paraphrands. Which ideas are nutritious? Which are like junk food? Which are acquired tastes? An extended metaphor lurches forward into the unknown, its paraphiers reaching for more paraphrands to domesticate.

Food as a metaphor for ideas. (Click to enlarge.)

These examples may still seem more ornamental than useful. Perhaps some time is saved when pointing to the foot or head of an inanimate object rather than having to use precise geometric language, but knowledge is hardly expanded. To fully appreciate the power of metaphor (and it’s more formal cousin, analogy), we must look to its oft-neglected role in science and technology. We speak of a genetic “code” or “blueprint”. We explain the structure of the atom  to schoolchildren by analogy with the solar system. We think of the brain as a machine, or a computer, or a social network. These metaphors and analogies can help impart new ideas to the student and the layperson. But metaphor is more than a classroom aid. It is a crucial element of discovery and invention. Scientists are not blessed with a magical ability to apprehend the world as a vortex of symbols and equations, as Neo appeared to do in the film The Matrix. Scientists, like everyone else, seek to cast what they see in terms of what they have already seen.

Der Mensch als Industriepalast (Man as Industrial Palace) (1926). From Fritz Kahn (1888–1968). Chromolithograph. National Library of Medicine, Stuttgart. (Click through for a paper on metaphors of mind and brain.)

One example suffices to illustrate this point. A prominent advocate of the use of metaphor in science was James Clerk Maxwell — the man who unified previously unrelated observations and equations in electricity, magnetism and optics into a consistent electromagnetic theory. Maxwell asserted that metaphors are not only “legitimate products of science, but capable of generating science in turn”. He and Lord Kelvin explicitly acknowledged the metaphors that helped them formulate their ideas: from the “lines of force” notion of magnetism to the view of heat as a “fluid”. An extended quote from Maxwell seems appropriate here:

The figure of speech or of thought by which we transfer the language and ideas of a familiar science to one with which we are less acquainted may be called Scientific Metaphor.

Thus the words Velocity, Momentum, Force, &c. have acquired certain precise meanings in Elementary Dynamics. They are also employed in the Dynamics of a Connected System in a sense which, though perfectly analogous to the elementary sense, is wider and more general. These generalized forms of elementary ideas may be called metaphorical terms in the sense in which every abstract term is metaphorical.

Sadly, modern academic writers frequently obscure this aspect of their thinking, preferring to hide the metaphorical leaps behind terse technical jargon. Many of my college science textbooks present the history of science as a rational progression of self-evident experiments and theories. A plodding, inexorable march of logic replaces the wild adventure that is scientific exploration: from the height of curiosity, through the forest of bafflement, around the wasteland of false starts, leading finally, for the fortunate and the steadfast, to the garden of earthly insights.

Despite using metaphor and analogy to take their work forward, scientists often leave the task of sharing these metaphors to a separate class of writers whose aim is a mass audience. I think we are missing an opportunity here. Perhaps human knowledge does not benefit from a partition between those seeking new knowledge and those seeking to understand and use what is already known. Perhaps we can do better than a Temple of Knowledge: where pop sci oracles transcribe the revelations of the scientists in the inner sanctum into self-help sermons for the confused congregation. Perhaps the veil of this temple must be torn in two?

As science becomes a more complex and resource-intensive activity, drawing more and more money, prestige, and power from society, it is imperative that we have as many outsider perspectives as possible to assess its merits and failings — the alternative is a scientific world that is hermetically sealed. Perhaps only a tiny minority of people will ever be capable of understanding opaque terminology and higher mathematics, but a much larger number may well be capable of testing out metaphors and analogies — seeing where they are successful, and where they break down. In the hypertextual world of rapid communication we inhabit, metaphors may be more important than ever, serving as the bridges by which knowledge and experience are carried over from one domain to another. Without these bridges, society may splinter ever further into mutually distrustful tribes of “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening” —  a cacophonous electronic tower of Babel.


If metaphor does prove to be as important as I suspect it is, we will have to move this discussion beyond academia. In any case, it seems to me that no one is really an expert on metaphor. No one can claim to know how metaphors works — how we form them, and how we decide whether they are successful or not. I’m keen to open up the discussion to the readers: what are your favourite metaphors and analogies? Which ones do you find most enlightening or useful? And which ones ring false in your ears? A broad nontechnical discussion of metaphor must start somewhere, so perhaps it can start here! Feel free to share your thoughts in the commentspace!

I’d like to end with another quote from Maxwell — he gives us a vivid metaphor of the workings of the human mind:

But the mind of man is not, like Fourier’s heated body, continually settling down into an ultimate state of quiet uniformity, the character of which we can already predict; it is rather like a tree, shooting out branches which adapt themselves to the new aspects of the sky towards which they climb, and roots which contort themselves among the strange strata of the earth into which they delve.


  • An exhaustive list of common metaphors can be found in George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live By. This wikpedia page also elaborates on their ideas: Conceptual Metaphor. Some of the examples here (society as a body, ideas as food) are from their book, but can be found in many discussions of metaphor.
  • My thoughts on metaphor and its centrality to the mind have been informed in large part by Julian Jaynes’s book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It’s a strange book with plenty of questionable details, but in the main I think it provides a unique take on consciousness that that many people will find rewarding to grapple with.
  • The quotes from James Clark Maxwell can be found here. I discovered them today via a book chapter by Robert R. Hoffman.
  • Here is a TED talk on the importance of metaphor.
  • Here’s the Incredible String Band’s song “Maya“.
  • Clipart used in the figures was found here, here, here and here. Black and white figures were generated using Inkscape.
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Science Fiction – The Shadows cast by Modernity

This piece was written at the behest of a friend who works for Down to Earth magazine. It appeared there a few months ago in slightly edited form


There was a time, not too long ago, when the human ability to conjure visions from beyond the domain of everyday experience expressed itself only in tales of the supernatural — in myth, legend and fairy story. Humans once lived in a shadowy world populated by spirits, gods, demons, angels, and phantasmagorical beasts. Magic and mystery were the key forces in nature. Our myths gazed into the past — often to a Golden Age that came to a tragic end, perhaps because of human wickedness or the capriciousness of the gods. It was as if we once lived in a village on the edges of a dark and forbidding forest, and told each other tales of how our ancestors, expelled from Paradise, braved forgotten perils to forge an existence on the edge of Chaos. Our fireside myths helped to fend off the ever-present darkness on the margins of settled life.


But one day a new light arrived in the village, and the forest, with all its irrational terrors, was cleared to make way for the factory. We were told that magic and mystery would soon be replaced by reason and certainty. Wild nature would be tamed. When we moved from the village to the city, the glories and dangers we imagined no longer belonged to the past, but to a future in which humankind might one day illuminate all the dark corners of the Earth. But even electric light casts shadows, and factory fumes shroud us in a new kind of darkness. In the interplay of new forms of light and dark, good and evil, science fiction finds its wellspring.




In the yoking of science — with its methodical mastery of matter — to the freedom and flight of fiction, science fiction walks a tightrope between the possible and the fanciful — something not usually expected of myth. This creative tension finds expression in three broad and overlapping ways of seeing. Science fiction can manifest itself as a lens with which to examine the possibilities latent in an idea or technology, a funhouse mirror with which to reflect society or history, or a kaleidoscope with which to experience a sensory immersion in an alien realm.


Isaac Asimov’s body of work is exemplary of the first, and some might say purest, form of science fiction — a lens that brings into focus the fuzzy implications of science and technology. Here, the science really is central, and individual human characters often seem no more than vehicles for the unfolding conceptual drama. In the robot series, Asimov explores the moral and ethical consequences of the Three Laws of Robotics — (1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. (2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. Asimov’s Robots — portrayed as the epitome of rationality — contend with the inevitable conflicts and paradoxes that arise from a seemingly simple set of laws. What constitutes harm? What constitutes inaction? What should robots do if humans attempt to harm each other? And how can the robots be certain that the laws are in conflict? These conflicts culminate in the novel Robots and Empire, in which a robot with unique telepathic powers, R. Giskard Reventlov, divines a new law — the Zeroth Law — which places the concerns of humanity above those of individual humans: (0) A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. The Zeroth Law is not programmed into Giskard — it simply emerges in him — but in trying to rationally decide whether it will be good for humanity or not he ends up destroying his positronic brain. In this fatally consuming struggle we can see echoes of the tortured life of the mathematical genius Kurt Godel. Godel may have been driven mad by his logical proof that logic itself must either be inconsistent or incomplete. The robot Giskard, before he dies, passes on the Zeroth law — and his telepathic powers of persuasion — to another robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, who is entrusted with the task of being caretaker of humanity as it pushes beyond Earth to colonize the galaxy. In Asimov’s Foundation series, human society has long since spanned the galaxy, and we follow the legacy of a mathematician, Hari Seldon, who has developed the laws of psychohistory — a combination of history, sociology and statistics used to make predictions about large groups of people. (A physicist might call it statistical humanics!) Seldon’s laws predicted that the Galactic Empire would collapse, leading to a period of barbarism lasting thirty thousand years. Horrified, Seldon sets up two Foundations that are to strategically intervene in the events of the galaxy, reducing the period of barbarism to “just” one thousand years. The last book in the Foundation Series, Foundation and Earth, even links the story with the robot series, making explicit the connections between the aims of psychohistory and the Zeroth Law of Robotics. In taking a view of future history that stretches into the tens of thousands of years, Asimov’s lens focuses not on any particular technology, but on scientific rationality itself. Can humans and their technologies (robots) be used to take care of an abstraction — humanity? And who or what gets sacrificed for the “greater common good”? When science fiction takes on the form of a lens, it celebrates and critiques our scientific and technological lenses — the “extensions of man”, to use Marshall McLuhan’s nimble phrase.


Looking outward through a lens typically does not lend itself to much in the way of introspection. For this purpose we have mirrors. The 20th Century’s great genre-crossing works of dystopianism — Brave New World and 1984 — stand as canonical examples of the mirror style of science fiction. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, The state religion is Fordism, inspired by Henry Ford’s assembly line — a system based on mass production, a rigid chemically-controlled caste system, and consumption of disposable consumer goods. Any desires that cannot be met in these ways can be assuaged with the wonder-drug soma. But those who dare to be dissatisfied with their lot in life are cast into exile. In George Orwell’s 1984, a police state perpetually at war is controlled by an omnipotent Party watched over by the deified and omnipresent leader, Big Brother. It is a nightmarish world of constant surveillance, torture, paranoia, servility, and betrayal. Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death offers us an evocative juxtaposition of these two masterpieces: “As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.” During the Cold War, the world seemed to be presented with two opposed visions — the cruel totalitarianism represented by the Soviet Union, or the vampiric seduction represented by Western consumerist capitalism. The logical conclusion of one would give us Big Brother, and that of the other would be Fordism. Like old testament prophets of doom, Huxley and Orwell are inviting us look within ourselves to root out the seeds of such awful destinies. In the United States we seem to be witnessing the merging of these two means of control. The increasingly militarized police force beats back the protesters and dissidents — those for whom freedom means more than mass-produced hamburgers and shiny electronic toys. As sobering allegory, science fiction can not only “hold a mirror up to nature”, it can reveal the very tendencies in humankind that alienate us from nature.


But light need not only be used for practical purposes — for looking outwards or inwards. It is also a thing of beauty in itself, requiring no justification or purpose. Most science fiction, it must be said, does not take itself so seriously as to focus too sharply on any single moral, political or technological idea. Rather than haranguing us with portentous warnings about our present or our future, the kaleidoscopic aesthetic presents a dazzling hodge-podge. Many people enjoy science fiction for no better reason than its grand canvas of spaceships, androids, aliens, ray guns, and intrepid humans dashing about the planet or the universe on an adventure of limited pedagogical value. The forms painted on this canvas become less important than the brushtrokes, the technique, the texture. A lesson might conceivably be derived from a movie like Predator or Alien but it seems as if the whole point of such movies is the sheer visceral thrill engendered in the watching. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its dark implications for malevolent artificial intelligence, is more an audiovisual adventure than a conceptual exploration — how else can we explain the power of the psychedelic dreamscape with which the film ends? This kind of interpretation seems especially true of a movie like The Fifth Element. It’s a giddy ride through a future that seems contrived purely for sensory stimulation. Even the quasi-mystical overtones in the plot appear kitschy and ironic. If we from refrain from intellectualizing our experience of science fiction, we can come to appreciate the effervescence and inventiveness of an artform that isn’t necessarily about anything. A kaleidoscope is one of the simplest celebrations of perception itself — rather than perception of something.


Some works of science fiction, however, cannot be said to fit neatly into any of the above categories. They are transcendental, in that they encompass all of the categories, creating an emergent whole that confounds easy pigeonholing. The film The Matrix is emblematic of this form. It uses the hacker aesthetic of the Internet Age as a springboard from which to launch into a stylized war between humans and rogue machines — machines that were once designed to serve humans, but later enslaved them in an illusory virtual world: the matrix. But The Matrix isn’t necessarily about the dangers of AI. It is also a mystical story of self-discovery and personal liberation, taking on an emancipatory logic found in many religions. Neo’s liberation from his womb-like prison is the first step on the road to discovering that he is the One — a man prophesied to end the war and transform the matrix itself. In this he is like the Buddha, attaining Nirvana and spreading his revolutionary message throughout the world. He is also a Messianic figure, dying and then being reborn for the salvation of the enslaved. But even this does not fully capture the multiplicity of messages latent in The Matrix. If emancipation means unplugging from a comfortable world and awakening to a real world of war and desolation, then The Matrix can also be read as a cry for left-wing revolution in the modern post-industrial world: Unplug from the matrix of consumption, and rise up against those who see us merely as a source of fuel! Whether the film-makers intended any or all of these interpretations is irrelevant. For a generation of young people, The Matrix was a rite of passage — for those who chose that path, it was an initiation into a world that could be read as a matrix of symbols.


Symbolism also plays a role in the epic television series Battlestar Galactica, but that role is far more murky. The overarching plot bears a vague resemblance to the biblical exodus, in which the Israelites wandered through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. There are also explicit references to Greek mythology — there are important characters with names like Hera and Athena. Humanity has been all but exterminated by the Cylons — a race of renegade robots created long before by humans. The remnant of the destroyed Twelve Colonies of humanity — named after the 12 signs of the zodiac — band together as a flotilla searching for a new homeland. In their quest for a home planet they turn to ancient prophesies about a 13th colony, Earth. But the series is impossible to read as a coherent set of symbols. Unlike in The Matrix, some characters dismiss the prophesies as ancient religious babbling. And, to add to the strangeness, the Cylons appear to have a religion too — a form of monotheism that opposes the humans’ jumbled polytheism. While the symbolic mysteries unfold and baffle, the series also presents us with less ethereal — but no less engaging — debates on the nature of democracy and justice, on the role of the armed forces during crisis, and on racial profiling and discrimination. The central plot element that injects an unprecedented vitality to these debates is the discovery that the human population has been infiltrated by a group of Cylons that are indistinguishable from humans. Unlike the kind of science fiction in which the enemy is readily identifiable, the humans in Battlestar Galactica are also at least partly at war with themselves. The resonance with the era of “with us or against us”, Homeland Security and terrorist sleeper cells is undeniable, and yet Battlestar Galactica does not lend itself to any easy moral, political, philosophical or religious lessons. What you glean from the series depends to a great extent on which characters you choose to focus on, or which symbols you attempt to decipher, and in this complexity its closest equivalent is perhaps the Mahabharata.


But the quintessential example of transcendental, mystical science fiction is the original Star Wars trilogy — the series that ushered in a golden era of popular science fiction filmmaking in the 1980s. From the very outset it appears to go against standard science fiction protocol. It not set in a future Planet Earth, but “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. It features grand battles between good and evil, but it resists any identification of these conflicts with contemporary political questions. And though it has all the riotous jazziness of pastiche — part Western, part Japanese samurai story, part WWII campaign against Nazi SS officers — it has an emotional core that goes beyond cinematic thrill-seeking while simultaneously satisfying that urge. In transforming the genre, Star Wars occupies a special place in the history of popular science fiction: it’s a blockbuster that paints a mythic story on a galactic canvas. It should therefore be no surprise that Joseph Campbell — the preeminent scholar of world mythology — was a major influence on its creator, George Lucas. Star Wars is in many ways an old story wearing new interstellar clothing. The plot can be recreated from the chapter subheadings of Joseph Campell’s 1949 magnum opus The Hero With A Thousand Faces, in which the monomyth — a basic pattern reflected in many of the world’s myths — is described. The saga begins in Episode IV: A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker encounters the droids who show him Princess Leia’s secret message asking for help. He then seeks out Obi-Wan Kenobi, who introduces him to the Force, which “surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” This stage is what Campbell calls The Call to Adventure. But at first Luke refuses to join Obi-Wan on his mission, instead choosing to stay and work on his uncle’s farm. This is the Refusal of the Call. After his home has been destroyed by the forces he tried to ignore, Luke’s doubts about joining the mission fade away. Soon Luke, under Obi-Wan’s tutelage, begins to feel the Force, after which Obi-Wan tells him “You have taken your first step into a larger world.” This is the Crossing of the First Threshold. Later, Luke, Han Solo and Leia are trapped in the trash compactor of the Death Star. They are in the Belly of the Whale. Luke goes into it a boy, and emerges from it a man. The characters progress though the Road of Trials, culminating in Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi with Luke’s Atonement with the Father.


It may seem that in mythologically-tinged science fiction, we have all but forgotten the word “science”. Recalling a key scene from the first film (Episode IV), will help us restore the link and bring our discussion full circle. Luke Skywalker, trying to target a vulnerability in the Death Star, hears the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobe, telling him to use the Force, rather than the computer targeting system. In doing so, Luke succeeds where others who used their computers failed — using the Force allows him to destroy the Death Star. One can’t help but interpret this climax as a momentary turning away from all that is technological and robotic. The forces of evil with their martial technologies are captained by Darth Vader — “more machine now than man” — while the forces of good are lead by a scruffy band of rebels and an old man espousing a “sad devotion to that ancient religion”. Even someone fully embedded in the world of technology — sitting in its very cockpit — has a choice regarding whether or not to fully submit to the machine. And in Star Wars, it seems as if organic mind must establish its dominion over mechanical matter, never allowing it to fully determine the way the rebels achieve their goals.


In this opposition — between mind and matter, organic and mechanical, spiritual and material — Star Wars bridges the gap between ancient myth and modern fiction, rendering problematic any simple dichotomy between the old and the new. At crucial points in human history we are confronted with the New — new circumstances, new ideas, new tools, and new ways of living — and the lack of precedent means that the wisdom of the past can never fully encompass the New. The New is therefore related to what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called the Real: “that which is outside language and that resists symbolization absolutely”. The New confronts us with the power of the Universe to surprise us, to challenge us, and to threaten our cosy certainties. But those who do contend with the New — by learning, adapting and transforming — are those who have been able to put old tools to new use. They realize that humans are a part of this universe, not separate from it, and can participate in bringing forth what is New from their own wells of creativity. Rather than retreating from the shadows cast by modernity in order to be warmed by the age-old fires, the creators of science fiction, Prometheus-like, venture into the shadows to bring back visions of what might lie beyond the margins of Possibility. In showing us what our lenses, mirrors and kaleidoscopes are capable of, science fiction invites us to wonder what we humans are capable of, if only we are brave enough “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.

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The Great Red Spot (or, When Can a Thing be Said to Exist?)

Consider the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. It is a storm that has been around for two centuries. It’s a vortex big enough to contain two or three planets the size of the Earth. But is it a thing?

What does it mean to say that a thing exists? In what sense are plastic cups or rocks things? And are living things also ‘things’ in the same sense? To work towards a better understanding of ‘existence’, let us examine our intuition about the properties of things. A thing has a location in space and time, and a boundary that separates it from all that it is not. A thing can move around and morph its shape and size, but it retains some degree of integrity, so that as it undergoes transformations, it can still be recognized as the same thing. An apple remains the same apple as it decays, changes shape, and rolls around, until it crumbles and decays.  These changes can be quite dramatic. When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, we say that it has changed, and not that some new flappy thing mysteriously replaced the creepy-crawly that was there a few days before.

Another property of a thing that we might propose is that it is always composed of the same stuff. The atoms and molecules in a rock do not change much. You could make a little etching on the rock, and then find it later on, confident that you had found the same thing.

But I think this kind of material consistency is the exception rather than the rule for many of the things we are interested in. Let’s go back to the Great Red Spot. Surely it is a thing? It has been around since long before you or I were born. Astronomers are readily able to identify it and talk about its shape and location. But a storm like the Great Red Spot does not generally retain all the material contained in it. Stuff comes in, stuff goes out. Back on Earth, we know that a storm can pick up gas molecules, water, houses, people and cows, and dump them elsewhere. Perhaps some molecules stick around with it for the duration of its destructive dance, but plenty of others just hitch a ride for a little while.

A storm is a process. And it is also a thing. It has position, velocity, shape and size, but it does not have a constant configuration of atoms and molecules. In this it is like a wave. There’s a lot you can learn about wave motion from a rope or a string. If you tie one end of a rope to a stationary object, you can send a wave along it by making the right sort of up-and-down shake on the other end.

I recommend playing around with this handy web applet that let’s you send waves along a virtual rope. And here’s a picture of some scientists doing the real thing in a classroom:

What I’d like to draw your attention to is the fact that when a wave moves horizontally along a rope, the particles in the rope do not move horizontally. If they did move horizontally, the rope would eventually break! In fact, they move up and down. What moves along the horizontal direction is the movement itself. If we want to consider the wave a thing, we have to concede that it is not made up of a specific set of particles. It is a process, and the particles are just the medium by which the process flows.

What applies to waves also applies to human beings. The oldest particles in your body have been with you for perhaps seven years. The body is not a constant set of particles, it is a wave, a travelling pattern, a Great Spot whirling around the surface of the Earth. And in a sense, you already knew this. You take in food, air and water every day, and yet you maintain the same weight. (Well, more or less the same weight.) Cells die and are replaced by new ones that are made up of the matter you ingest. You are what you eat.

I like the way Richard Feynman gets this point across. “So what is this mind of ours: what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week’s potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago—a mind which has long ago been replaced. To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out—there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.”

So we are not what we are made of. We are what we do.

When we realize that all things are also processes, the concept of existence can take on a new meaning. Perhaps we should shift our focus from the idea that existence is about things. What exists is what is happening. No process goes on forever, and thus we can’t really speak of the things that exist for all time and in all places. Things, people, societies, ideas… these are all dancing patterns, and when the dancing stops, only stillness remains.


  • I began thinking about the ‘wave’ nature of human beings when I read an article from the Edge Foundation by Tor Nørretranders.  “I have changed my mind about my body. I used to think of it as a kind of hardware on which my mental and behavioral software was running. Now, I primarily think of my body as software. […] 98 percent of the atoms in the body are replaced every year. 98 percent! Water molecules stays in your body for two weeks (and for an even shorter time in a hot climate), the atoms in your bones stays there for a few months. Some atoms stay for years. But almost not one single atom stay with you in your body from cradle to grave.”
  • All the matter in us and around us was produced inside the furnaces of stars. If you believe in modern science, the phrase “we are stardust” is not a metaphor! But of course, we are more that just stardust. We are waves that use stardust as a medium for propagation.
  • If you use a spring instead of a rope, you can see two types of wave motion: transverse and longitudinal. Transverse waves are like the ones on a rope, with the particles moving in a up-and-down direction. In longitudinal waves, the particles do move back-and-forth in the horizontal direction, but still do not travel with the wave.
  • Wave-particle duality suggests that at a very fundamental level, the distinction between particle and wave can be blurry. Also, condensed matter physicists often find it useful to characterize the systems they study in terms of “quasiparticles“. You could go as far as saying that the a particle can be redefined as a type of phenomenon or interaction, rather than a thing. From here we can question the meaning of the word “fundamental”, perhaps be opposing it with the word “useful”. More on this later.
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