wider than the sky

Let’s begin at the end. The epigraph for Unweaving the Rainbow‘s final chapter is a clever thought from Marian Diamond: The brain is a three pound mass you can hold in your hand that can conceive of a universe a hundred billion light-years across. Just like that Contact opening sequence. And as Carl says in “Glorious Dawn“:

I believe our future depends powerfully
On how well we understand this cosmos
In which we float like a mote of dust
In the morning sky

But the brain does much more than just recollect
It inter-compares, it synthesizes, it analyzes
it generates abstractions

The simplest thought like the concept of the number one
Has an elaborate logical underpinning
The brain has it’s own language
For testing the structure and consistency of the world

But Emily Dickinson’s brain poem, which (among other enduring words) you can find chiseled in stone next time you amble past Vanderbilt’s Buttrick Hall– would’ve worked even  better to convey the staggering range of evolved, embodied mind.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky— For—put them side by side— The one the other will contain With ease—and You—beside—

Dawkins: We can get outside our universe, via the models in our brains. And, quoting the Medawar brothers: Only humans find their way by a light that illuminates more than the patch of ground they stand on. This reminds me so much (as so much does, I admit!) of John Dewey’s continuous human community, but with a truly cosmic spin. I never tire of repeating it, as some of you know too well:

The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received, that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.

But what’s cosmic about brain modeling? The opportunity to survey and prepare possible futures for the links further on. When we adopt a truly cosmopolitan sensibility, and see ourselves as short-term residents but long-term investors in an unfolding epic of  human evolution and cosmic development (a distinction Dawkins drew back in ch.8), the sting of mortality desists. We begin to get the message: every improvement has to come about thru the individual’s dying. For this we get to live, for this we should even be grateful. Loyal Rue: “to the extent that I cherish my life, I have reason to be profoundly grateful for my death.” But maybe we don’t have to go that far, if we can begin simply not to resent the brevity of our time above ground.

We get to transmit our genes and our memes on down the line “more solid and secure,” and can take the most profound satisfaction– for some of us this will register as “spiritual”– in contemplating “links” we’ll never touch personally.

I’ve wrestled a lot with the meme question (see “A Pragmatic Perspective on Evolution and Culture“), and am still bothered by some of Dawkin’s formulations on this pregnant topic. I’ll give him the “selfish co-operators” tag and concede their full “futility” by analogy to those annoying, pointless replicators that lay us low and try to murder our joi de vivre.  And ok, a selfish geneplex does not a selfish person make, I get that.  But a selfish memeplex is something else, no?

Isn’t the point here to grab our memes by the short-hairs when we can and prune out as many selfish-inclining ones as we can? Agreed, “memes versus us” is misconceived. Not all memes are hostile (or annoying) viral invaders. Could some actually be our friends, allies, or (at least) tools for forging stronger links and transmitting a more solid legacy?

And: shouldn’t we resist thinking of them as more “fundamental to life” than organisms and persons? The subjective “I,” the person is no more an illusion than any other brain-modeled picture, and it’s one we have good reason– relating  to some treasured old memes about liberty and action– to retain.

But anyway, self-feeding co-evolution is promising. Bombs, books, critical mass, and off we go. The more you have, the more you get. Let’s get more of the good stuff, the compassion and intelligence and personal selflessness so lacking at this end of the chain of life.

So, the big question: What feeds our species-self’s evolution, and our cosmic development? Or, in terms of another analogy: what are the software innovations that might have launched a self-feeding spiral of hardware/software co-evolution to account for the inflation of the human brain? And what’s the best tool in our chest for hooking up those spiraling continuous links to the future of life?

Besides memes, Dawkins considers the very closely related advent of language, map reading, throwing (I love it, in the afterglow of Opening Day! He’s thinking of cricket but it works better with baseball: Could throwing have been the forerunner of foresight? Was the first word a mouth missile?),  sexual selection, and, naturally, poetry.

I wonder whether the ability to see analogies, the ability to express meanings in terms of symbolic resemblances to other things, may have been the crucial advance that propelled human brain evolution over the threshold into a co-evolutionary spiral?

For once, I don’t doubt. I pick all of the above, and some others we haven’t thought of yet. But we’d better keep on cranking out the metered lines. Emily agrees, though she paradoxically speaks of singing without words:

“Hope” is that thing with feathers — That perches in the soul — And sings the tunes without the words — And never stops — at all —

And that would be a great place to pause, not stop, but this was only the end of the end. Also worth noting in this chapter, the disquieting observation about co-evolution and children’s brains as natural seed-fields of memetic infection. We simply have got to teach our children well, and stop indoctrinating them.

And, I wonder: Is it reliably true that great ideas in philosophy survive in the meme pool for the best of reasons. Is it plausible that the Internet is the first meme-built vehicle of selfish-cooperative transmission? Is the iPad an example of hardware/software co-evolution? Are genes and memes?

In the penultimate chapter: Bongo Java’s notorious nun bun is back! It illustrates our indecent eagerness to see faces. He wrote that way before Facebook. Talk about foresight. And there’s more: I detect ’90s foreshadowings in these pages of Google Earth, game avatars, and the latest in Virtual Reality (with a shout-out to Jaron Lanier, whose new book we’ll read in “Future of Life” this Fall). Dawkins wrote nothing less than a stunning Book of Revelations. Poke yourself in the eyeball, Richard.

The inverted Einstein face is creepy but cool. We see what our brains have modeled and thus anticipate, we don’t see what they haven’t and won’t. Have you seen the basketball gorilla? They didn’t either. (Oops, neither do I. Looks like I mis-remembered the contents of this Shermer TED Talk, which is nonetheless very relevant to our theme today. Here, though, is a shorter ursine version of the phenomenon. I’m thinking the gorilla display was in a Dennett TED Talk, but I can’t find it.  Did find Dennett on memes, though.)

Here’s the clincher: we all have built-in VR software that more than accounts for our species’ tendency to swallow hallucinations, voices, visions, angels, divine visitations…  The models we build of our place in the cosmos, God-centered or not, are part of the environment in which our genes [and memes] are naturally selected.  “Be suspicious?” I’ll say.

And beware the lurking phantasmal homunculus [scroll down].

A few items from the middle of the book we’ve not talked about but should notice:

Ch.7: James on worms and risk assessment; miscalibrated coincidences that (for instance) turn some parents, even Protestants, into anxious pedophile-fearing basket cases; Oliver Cromwell’s bladder…

Ch.8: Tielhard de Chardin’s “tipsy, euphoristic” talk of mystical energy and strange vibrations, and others on quantum healing, the caring universe, etc. Deepak Chopra stands on the shoulders of giants.

Ch.9: Gaia, and rejecting “combat versus cooperation.”

And one more thing: the law of large numbers. Michael Shermer‘s very good at explaining this. [SciAm via Austin’s Atheism Blog] Here’s Shermer on ABC 20/20 a few days ago, valiantly trying to clean up a miracle mess the producers spend most of the segment making. “Miracles” happen all the time, it’s statistically inescapable and naturally explainable. But is anyone listening? Nowadays most of us build our brain models in collaboration with the mass viewing audience, not around the campfire but around our electronic hearths. Michael needs to revive his own tee-vee show.

If we continue to let our brains model intercessory prayers and supernatural miracles, that’s what we”ll see. We’ll flat miss the gorilla. (Wherever he is!)

Next up: Spirituality for the Skeptic redux, on passion and cosmic trust. (We’re trailing the syllabus by a class.) Good excuse to look at this again, and underscore my claim that we can’t abandon our commitment to persons. “We should never let ourselves off, never see ourselves as just the victims of various forces.” We, not our memes, decide who we are.

NOTE TO A&S STUDENTS: be prepared to talk a lot in class, I find myself with very little voice today.

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