The Magic of Madness
Don't look too hard at consciousness. You might get dizzy.
I find it difficult to stick with TV series. So in anticipation of Netflix’s upcoming show which I will probably not watch, I decided to pick up and read Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. (Don’t worry, no spoilers — I’m just getting started with the novel.)
In the first 100 pages or so, the following passage caught my eye:
Many of the best scientists can be fooled by pseudoscience and sometimes devote their lives to it. But pseudoscience is afraid of one particular type of people who are very hard to fool: stage magicians. In fact, many pseudoscientific hoaxes were exposed by stage magicians.
It’s a fun echo of a concept I recently encountered in a 2003 essay by the philosopher of cognition Daniel Dennett titled “Explaining the ‘Magic’ of Consciousness”. In the paper, Dennett is arguing that what we think is consciousness is in fact a kind of illusion that various lower-level brain processes acting in concert with each other bring about. Sentience is a trick.
Dennett cites a wonderful passage from a 1991 book by Lee Siegel, Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India.
“I’m writing a book on magic,” I explain, and I’m asked, “Real magic?” By real magic, people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. “No,” I answer: “Conjuring tricks, not real magic.” Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.
I’m not sure how far I’m ready to follow Dennett down his reasoning chain. At his worst, he seems to lapse into a kind of vulgar reductionism, arguing that science is perhaps within reach of deterministically modeling the human mind. The trick can be revealed through science!
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That’s not where my intuition leads. With the advent of ChatGPT and the breakthrough of being able to model natural language, I’m beginning to suspect that we can approach the deflationary ambitions of Dennett — the idea that consciousness is neither miraculous nor supernatural — without conceding that any of it is particularly deterministic.
Our “inner lives” could just be a set of language models communicating with each other. At the top-level “consciousness,” we have a system that works in English (or whatever human language we were brought up to “think” in). Below that, are a set of heuristics for “emotions,” that are first-order reactions to various sensory inputs, which in turn are both interpreted and translated at the higher level into words, and into physiological behavior below (our hearts beat faster when facing a tiger, or when in love).
As I said in the essay, I’m not even sure I fully believe all that. But it’s plausible enough to me, given what I’ve seen and read of human consciousness at the limit — in various states of psychological distress, and near death.
Back to the Three Body Problem. As its narrative gets going, one of the protagonists is confronted with increasingly disturbing phenomena that start undermining his hold on reality. At first, a mysterious countdown timer is imprinted on all the photographs he takes. Photos taken on the same camera by his wife and son do not have the timestamp. Soon enough, that timer is hovering in his field of vision semi-permanently. Something is beaming that into his skull.
That, in turn, reminded me of a truly bizarre Philip K. Dick novel, Valis, I half-remember reading many years ago. It’s the kind of book that could only be written by a child of the 1960s — a deeply hallucinatory and haunting trip.
As I recall, the book’s protagonist, Horselover Fat, has a transcendent/psychotic episode where he is convinced that a pink laser beam from outer space has imprinted in his brain a kind of total knowledge of the universe. And that knowledge has shattered him. Even more upsettingly, early on in the book, the supposedly sober, reliable narrator — Dick himself — admits that “I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain some much-needed objectivity.”
The book is kaleidoscopic. I remember just plowing through it, not trying to make much sense of anything as I went. It’s a first-person account of schizophrenia. Or it’s a divine revelation. That’s the question haunting the book: Is this the sad diary of Philip K. Dick losing his mind? Or something else altogether?
A taste of what goes on:
Once, in 1964, when Sandox LSD-25 could still be acquired — especially in Berkeley — Fat had dropped one huge hit of it and had abreacted back in time or had shot forward in time or up outside of time; anyhow he had spoken in Latin and believed that the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath, had come. He could hear God thumping tremendously, in fury. For eight hours Fat had prayed and whined in Latin. Later he claimed that during his trip he could only think in Latin and talk in Latin; he had found a book with a Latin quotation in it, and could read it as easily as he normally read English. Well, perhaps the etiology of his later God-madness lay there. His brain, in 1964, liked the acid trip and taped it, for future replay.
On the other hand, this line of reasoning merely relegates the question back to 1964. As far as I can determine, the ability to read, think and speak in Latin is not normal for an acid trip. Fat knows no Latin. He can’t speak it now. He couldn’t speak it before he dropped the huge hit of Sandoz LSD-25.
Later, when his religious experiences began, he found himself thinking in a foreign language which he did not understand (he had understood his own Latin in ’64). Phonetically, he had written down some of the words, remembered at random. To him they constituted no language at all, and he hesitated to show anyone what he had put on paper. His wife had taken a year of Greek in college and she recognized what Fat had written down, inaccurately, as koine Greek. Or at least Greek of some sort, Attic or koine.
The Greek word koine simply means common. By the time of the New Testament, the koine had become the lingua franca of the Middle East, replacing Aramaic which had previously supplanted Akkadian (I know these things because I am a professional writer and it is essential that I possess a scholarly knowledge about languages). The New Testament manuscripts survived in koine Greek, although probably Q, the source of the synoptics, had been written in Aramaic, which is in fact, a form of Hebrew. Jesus spoke Aramaic. Thus, when Horselover Fat began to think in koine Greek, he was thinking in the language which St. Luke and St. Paul — who were close friends — had used, at least to write with. The koine looks funny when written down because the scribes left no spaces between the words. This can lead to a lot of peculiar translations, since the translator gets to put the spaces wherever he feels is appropriate or in fact wherever he wants. Take this English instance:
GOD IS NO WHERE
GOD IS NOW HERE
I think what reading Valis imparted in me all those years ago is that the “sane” mind, rooted in the “normal” world, is a fragile, gossamer-like thing. Pull on a thread too hard and things start to unravel.
The holy mystics were clearly not sane people — John the Baptist had all the makings of a madman. Did their revealed poetry point to a higher truth? Insofar as they could regain their wits enough to be able to proselytize to us normies after the fact, they certainly were convinced that it did.
I’ve often wondered about the more mundane manifestation of a mind unraveling, that of dementia. It needn’t be full-on Alzheimer’s, it can be the gradual decline of cognitive faculties as we age. Forgetting. Getting lost in time, as well as in space. By the end, if we remember nothing, what are we? We’re clearly still the person we always were, but there’s a short-circuit somewhere. We don’t recognize faces, we mistake people today for those from the past. And sometimes, we flicker back into the present, if only for a brief moment. And then gone again.
Where’s that leave me with all this consciousness stuff? Nowhere concrete. Certainly less certain than Daniel Dennett about any of it.
But maybe it helps point to my seemingly contradictory appreciation of faith and religion — without having any myself.
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