Category Archives: Fantasy

But I Know What I Saw!

A while back I wrote a blog about the likelihood (or unlikelihood rather) that we could ever meet aliens from another planet (see here). Even though it is highly unlikely we’ll ever meet them, I also wrote another article about what aliens probably look like (see here). In response to the latter article, I received the following comment and question. I thought it might be useful to respond in some detail.

Hi my name is Mark. 2 days ago around 1pm I had a encounter. It almost brought tears to my eyes and my emotional state was altered with unknown feelings. I was sitting on my patio when I noticed something watching me. I looked up at it. And it was aware of me spoting it and its prescense. The alien was a pure white flame/orb??? It flew down wards looked towards me and dissapered. I wrote all I could down about it and what and how I thought it worked or functioned. Some ppl wait there whole life to see what I saw. It was real!!!!!!!! It was so different. The light was extremly bright yet it had no glow to it. It was alive. (It somehow uses the golden ration to dissaper. Such as folding our perpective dimension. Only my theory ) Help Me………. I wanna let the world know how beautiful diffrent strange and awe strucking it was. The scariest part was it was spying on me. It came close and vanished??? Into nothing. Thank you this is no joke please let me know of what u think.

Let’s consider the rational way to respond to such an incident. First, I cannot completely accept this report as is. It could be, Mark, that you are just profoundly delusional. Or it could be that you simply cooked this up to troll and get a response. Or it could be that this was not actually your experience, but something someone told you that you are representing as a first-hand account. Crazy stories like this get started all the time (see here).

But Mark, let’s assume that you are not insane and are not pulling a joke but that you truly believe this experience happened to you. There are still many, many ways of intellectually and emotionally responding to such an incident that do not require you to suspend all of your rationality and accept incredible explanations.

Indeed, such an incident happened to me. I write about it in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here). I highly recommend you read it as it goes into far greater depth about how one should interpret unexplainable experiences. Indeed, it is not particularly rational to acknowledge that you have five fingers. Only when our rationality is sorely tested can we truly discover whether we are really rational thinkers. It is only when  we refuse to accept easy explanations, when we reject the ridiculous beliefs of others, that we can claim to be rational. If we believe ridiculous propositions like alien visitations, psychic powers, ghosts, or even gods – no matter how many other people may believe these things – then we are not truly rational.

As to your particular experience Mark, there are many explanations that are far more likely than that you were visited by aliens. First, you may be remembering a dream. I have difficulty differentiating some dream memories from actual memories. You may have had a waking dream. And realize that none of us are either fully sane or insane. None of us are immune to an occasional delusion. It is only when these episodes become profoundly persistent that they become a mental illness. We are all somewhat susceptible to paranoid delusions (see here), and frankly your report has elements of paranoia.

I’m sure, Mark, that you’ll insist that none of those things apply to you, and they may not. But that doesn’t mean that therefore you are at liberty to believe that you were spied upon by aliens. When we don’t understand something, the truly rational response is to suspend any judgement, forestall any conclusions, until if and when we learn more. A rational person, as does any good scientist, accepts not knowing what happened rather than accept some implausibly easy fantasy as a substitute for knowing.

My ghost-encounter happened 30 years ago Mark, and I still am far happier not knowing what happened than to accept that I actually saw a ghost. By remaining in the dark with my eyes open, I leave open the possibility of one day seeing the real truth, even if that truth turns out to be that I simply had a momentary brain-fart.

 

 

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Glitch Death

glitch

Copyright © 2008 by Tyson Gill

Mariah paused to caress the pristine oval-cut gem that served in the lowly capacity of door knob mounted upon the deeply grained mahogany backdrop of her grand entryway. Unconsciously ignoring the incongruity of the rough, tarnished surface beneath her flawlessly manicured fingers, she glanced back around to take in her magnificent accommodations.

Imperiously she scanned the fine Persian carpet, the impeccable Victorian furnishings, and the classic period artworks featuring “A Reading from Homer” framed upon the far wall. Light took liberties with the laws of physics to flatter each perfect surface with reflections and shadows that accentuated each detail exquisitely. Her silken hair bedded a sparkling tiara upon her head like velvet in a showcase at Tiffany’s.

Glowing with satisfaction that all was exactly as she wished it to be, she rotated the gem of her portal and stepped outside. There was a momentary flicker as the hallway came into focus. While the common passage was clearly inferior to her own opulent quarters, it was clean and elegant. A woman of her taste and bearing would demand no less. There was no indication that anyone else lived in the building apart from the oak-stained doors leading into the less stately quarters of the commoners.

Mariah hurried past the inconsequential doorways, eager to arrive at the department store during the few hours during which they were open for visits. Though there was no real need to walk to the store to shop, her addiction could only be satisfied with a physical experience. Virtual shopping simply did not offer her the same rush of acquisition. Of course she would eventually return most of what she purchased, but that was half the fun of it.

Mariah turned ninety degrees and paused at the top of the stairs. The spacious steps unfolded before her like the opulent entrance to a palatial ballroom. She paused momentarily as courtiers and sycophants appeared at the base of the staircase, reveling in anticipation of her fleeting presence.

Satisfied with the reception, she continued her regal descent. Keeping her eyes fixed majestically on the reception line forming below, she lit her foot upon the first step, innocuously visible at the base of her peripheral vision. When her foot reached it, the edge dug oddly into her arch, barely in front of the heel. It took her a second to realize that she had overstepped the edge, but her sedentary reactions were not quick enough to compensate. Her momentum carried her forward and she toppled over, landing head-first six steps below. She continued to tumble, crashing into the stairs with fragile, porous bones shattering with each impact. When she finally came to rest at the base of the steps, she lay there until a neighbor found her twisted, lifeless body, tangled up in her threadbare cotton frock.


Though it could only be described as tacky and even unabashedly sleazy, Rick was quite proud of his apartment. The walls sported garish colors and tasteless artwork, mostly animated feeds from porn sites. One woman, her long blonde hair cascading down around the black leather collar of her skin-like tights, lounged against a pillow as she regarded him with never-fading lust. Another woman, lithe and catlike, curled naked next to him, purring in satisfaction like a faithful pet.

The cat-girl slipped gracefully aside as Rick suddenly got up from the couch with a grunt of bored irritation. He pulled on a washed out black long-coat that nevertheless made him feel like Neo and topped it off with a tired old knit cap.

“Where you going baby?” it was the blonde offering a seductive invitation to stay. The other turned away with cat-like aloofness to doze.

Rick ignored her tedious interest and left the apartment, walking quickly out of the nondescript building. As he hurried along the city streets, he passed through a Vegas-parody of neon signs and cruising convertibles. The men, all street-gang tough, showed open deference to his presence. The women he passed were all hookers right off a low budget movie set, eying him with the promise of waving any usual fees.

He turned into one particularly ostentatious club, nodding tersely to the indifferent bouncer at the door. As he stepped inside, he paused to let his vision become accustomed to the lighting. Suddenly, relentless jungle-dance beats blasted him like a brisk wind. The crowds within took shape, all clad in sequins and vinyl interpretations of skimpy native clothing. Dancing girls lined the walls like animated statuary and writhed within the confines of bamboo cages hanging from the ceiling.

As he drank, dozens of women approached Rick with offers that covered the full range from conventional to perverse. He didn’t bother to check which of these were real. It didn’t matter. It was all the same. Eventually, staggering slightly at the bar, he downed the remainder of his drink. He didn’t want to check his account, but he estimated it was probably close to tapped-out until he could scam up some more credits.

Back out on the street, lights and sounds drifted by along the fringes of Rick’s consciousness. He paused at the curb across from his building and glanced automatically to the left. A car approached, safely off in the distance. The right was clear, so he stepped into the crossing. Immediately the car smashed into him from the left and his body crumpled over the hood like a rag. As the driver slammed into the brakes, Rick’s body arced off into the night air.

The last things Rick observed in his miserable life were the mundane faces of fascinated onlookers gaping at him as he sailed numbly through the air. He never registered the impact against the inconveniently placed brick wall across the intersection.


 

For a while he’d been temped to abandon his run early, but a second wind blew in from places unknown, reinvigorating him. As he picked up his pace, Kam noted how unattractive Central Park looked in winter, stark and dead. It was tempting to drop in a nice spring theme to clothe the naked trees, to wake up the sleeping grass, and to brighten the hazy gloom, but he couldn’t allow himself such luxuries. His job was disorienting enough without introducing unnecessary layers of confusion.

But the temptation reminded him that he was on the clock, so he turned the brim of his baseball cap forward and a menu transitioned smoothly into his field of vision. With a tiny flick of a finger, he selected Next and a video frame superimposed upon the wintry park. Kam watched through Mariah McKenzie’s eyes as she walked down the seedy tenement hallway. The image suddenly went wild as she tumbled head over heels down rotting steps before the replay halted suddenly, freezing the accident in mid-tumble.

Over the last few years Kam had reviewed thousands of such death scenes, released by statute to the authorities for postmortem analysis. His assignment to “death watch” duty was the sewer-cleaner rung of the police caste system. It was his job to scan deaths flagged by the system, looking for any evidence of foul play to pass along to the “real” detectives. When he handed them a homicide collar, they got accolades while he got demeaned or at best overlooked for his effort. The job was not only thankless but it was psychologically taxing as they come.

Even as the cracks and ruts of the running path demanded Kam’s attention, something about that last replay nagged at him. He knew he shouldn’t spend more time on it. His queue was loaded and this was just another obvious glitch death. It was apparent that the woman’s theme had caused her to misjudge the depth of the step and she simply overstepped it. It happened all the time. When the size or position of a theme overlay didn’t match exactly, such small surface mapping errors were often fatal.

Case closed. The most he could do was to post another glitch death for the stats, but it would do no good. The courts had ruled long ago that the virtual reality vendors could not be prosecuted for glitch deaths.

But yet the incoherent nagging just wouldn’t relent. Kam stopped, letting his pulse fall back to normal as he flicked his finger to click the virtual replay button. Looking around the room, opening the door, walking into the hall… there… what was that? He leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees, and flicked Rewind and Slow in quick succession. As she opened the door, there was a barely discernible flash of static. It was probably nothing. Visual overlays actually produced lots of such artifacts. High bandwidth feeds, especially with complex themes, could cause severe anomalies in the visual or audio streams. But this particular one was familiar. It reminded him exactly of the one he’d just noticed in that car accident.


 

Bernard Hoob sat on the bench in Battery Park, looking out over the river. In the distance, British Spitfires buzzed down from the clouds like angry wasps, guns blazing. The bullets seemed have little effect on the giant kraken reaching out of the water to wrap its massive tentacles around the Statue of Liberty.

Without warning, a chat window popped up over the scene. Bernard flicked a finger and the battle froze as clouds wandered past, unaware of the mighty virtual battle below. An avatar, kind of a dark vampire knight, appeared in the chat window.

“Dude, Amy uploaded the next episode. Are you ready to get started?”

“Ya, I’m in the park where I left off last time,” ready when you are.

“Ok, one sec Bern.”

Bernard flicked a finger and the Quit button highlighted momentarily. The Kraken, the Spitfires, and the wreckage disappeared leaving a raw view of the island – it held no interest for him. Seconds later, a confirmation popped up, the Statue of Liberty visible behind the semi-transparent display.

“Amy invites you to share a custom theme, do you wish to join?”

Bernard clicked on “Yes” and there was a brief flicker. Suddenly it was dark. The torch of Lady Liberty glowed in the distance, reflecting in the lazily rippling water.

A billowing figure stepped from the shadows to block Bernard’s view, his face barely visible behind a hooded cloak. He held a gun in a latex-gloved hand, directed squarely at Bernard’s heart.

“Did you think you could escape me?” he demanded dispassionately.


 

Kam stood on the wall, looking down at the cold river. The impassive surface the physical barrier between life and death. He wasn’t authorized to conduct field investigations, but the Hoob replay obsessed him. Although he couldn’t point to anything that would justify the assignment of an investigator, he was sure that the static flash just prior to his misstep into the river linked it to the other nagging glitch deaths he had catalogued over the years.

He had tried to work through the system. He took his suspicions to the Captain who had reluctantly directed the tech boys to analyze the telltale static flashes. But their analysis revealed nothing beyond a signature similarity. There were many vague technical explanations, but they could not definitively explain them. In the end, Kam could not press any harder and was already being mocked as a conspiracy quack. The Captain insisted he get a psych evaluation and enjoy a long vacation.

Ever since that experience he followed up unofficially when he could, keeping his investigations off the record.

“I still can’t see how it could have happened,” Amy lamented, shaking her head. “The role-playing overlay I designed inserted virtual characters, but it didn’t include any visual themes. I wanted the location to be raw. How could he have glitched over the edge?”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” said Kam. “I want to show you something. Do you think you would be able to look at his last moments? I’d like you to tell me if you see anything unusual.”

Amy, her sheer scarf fluttering amongst her windblown hair, bit her lower lip. “OK, if you think it might help,” she breathed.

Kam pushed a pointer over Amy and flicked a finger to bring up a context menu, clicking the Share item. Amy’s avatar appeared in the group area of his visual field when she accepted the invitation.

“This isn’t technically legal, so you’ve never seen what I’m going to show you, right?

Amy nodded solemnly.

Kam clicked a Play button floating in space and they both watched through Bern’s eyes as he was backed up to the river by a hooded figure with a gun. His eyes shifted from the gun, to his feet, slowly drifting with unnerving finality to the unforgiving river behind him.

“Too bad you didn’t play ball,” the hooded man said with matter-of-fact calm. “You would have been more use to us alive.”

As Bern shifted his gaze back toward the cloaked man, the watchers could see a small vial drop from his sleeve into his cupped hand. When the hooded figure was once again in the center of his visual field, Bern’s hand shot forward, tossing the vial into his chest. The ampoule shattered, releasing gas into the hooded face.

As the assassin gagged, Bern produced a small device and pressed a quick combination of buttons. A teleportation gate opened to his side.

“Perhaps another day,” Bern quipped as he stepped into the shimmering blue gate.

Suddenly, the video jerked and water splashed. It went dim, then quiet, and then quickly black as the replay ended.

Amy gasped, slumping down to sit on the cold cement walkway.

“That was so horrible,” she whispered in shock and disbelief.

“This is where he struck his head as he fell,” Kam told her softly. “He was unconscious before he hit the water. I don’t think he suffered.”

“Still,” Amy said, looking up tearfully, “how could that happen?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Kam prompted her gently.

“I had given him the compressed gas vial in episode four,” she said. “I was hoping he’d use it here. He was a good player.”

“But I don’t understand how the teleportation field could have appeared over the edge of the dock,” she continued. “That gob is configured as a land-based object. There should be no way the simulation engine could place it over water.”

“Could it be a bug in the system?” Kam asked her.

“I suppose it had to be,” Amy answered, “but it’s hard to imagine how such an obvious bug could be undiscovered in the 3.0 merge engine. It’s in use everywhere by everyone all the time.”

“Let me show you something else,” Kam persisted, rewinding and resuming the replay for her on extreme slow.

“There,” he said, pausing the video. “Do you see that static flash?”

“Weird,” she said, her technical interest peaked. “I’d swear that artifact wasn’t caused by my simulation.”


 

Kam was on his way home. He’d just finished investigating SGD number 37. That’s what he called them. It was his code for Suspicious Glitch Deaths. He had to do some fast talking to imply that he was conducting an official investigation without ever actually saying he was, but it hadn’t netted him much. He still could find no relation among the possible victims except for the same signature static flash shortly prior to their glitch deaths.

Unlike the vast majority of people, he didn’t normally use themes. His intimate association with glitch deaths kept him free of the technological addiction. As a cop, he heard daily about the scams and cons associated with the technology. Despite the risks, most people couldn’t live without themes to give reality the visual and auditory style that made them feel comfortable or excited or whatever.

He wasn’t a purist or anything, but he preferred keeping it raw. He didn’t like the thought of his visual and auditory perceptions being preprocessed by some computer array. He didn’t subscribe to the rampant conspiracy theories that the government was looking in on or even manipulating everything the population saw and heard, but he did have a visceral discomfort with the fuzzy line between raw and computer-enhanced realities.

The industry argued that perceptual filters enhanced safety and productivity by providing real-time enhancements and alerts. But safety subroutines didn’t save that guy that stepped out in front of a speeding car. He’d seen too many glitch deaths.

But despite his reservations, he had just used an auditory translation filter to interview the Spanish-speaking witnesses to the last SGD. The reality was that few people, other than the lunatic purists, could simply not get by without real-time perceptual filtering technology.

With a sigh, he glanced around at the bleak raw streets. One of the purist arguments against themes was the resulting neglect of architecture and aesthetics. In fact, most modern buildings had essentially dispensed with any effort to look attractive at all. Why bother when perceptual themes were used by most people to give their environment any look they desired?

One positive benefit to going raw was avoiding advertisements. Advertisers didn’t bother with real billboards any more. Instead, almost all advertising was accomplished by embedded adds in perceptual themes. Most people could not afford network service without accepting some level of embedded advertising, and many of the most popular themes were produced by corporations to promote their products.

But tonight, Kam found the raw city too depressing. With the resignation of a reformed alcoholic reaching for a bottle, he flicked his finger to the theme selection menu. He scrolled through a long list, each one smoothly flowing on top of the environment around him. He rolled past Roman Holiday , The Jetsons, Life in Bedrock, XXX-perience, The Wild, Wild West, and Dark Shadows to stop at Star Trek. Although not a old-school Trekkie, he liked the Star Trek theme. It was the only overlay that reflected a positive role model for mankind. It was a unique vision of a future where humanity had matured into rational adulthood without loosing child-like passion and curiosity. It always made him feel a renewed sense of optimism that the Star Trek theme might someday become raw.

The futuristic architecture around him was clean and functional, but nevertheless open and inviting. The people passing on the opposite side of the street wore high-tech garments that were apparently impervious to dirt or wrinkles. A Bajoran and a blue-skinned Andorian were engaged in an animated discussion on the far corner, the Andorian’s antennae bent forward in interest.

Kam veered down a subway ramp, familiar despite its sleek 24th century theme, until he reached the platform. Two people, probably real, who now looked like Federation officers were the only others waiting in the station. Several minutes later, the loudspeaker politely announced the arrival of the next train. In the distance, there was a soft rumble heralding its approach. The train slid with frictionless grace to a halt and the doors opened with a signature Star Trek sound effect.

The two Federation officers made no move, so Kam stepped forward into the open door. As he advanced, a sudden panic caused him to recoil. He spun wildly to regain his balance as the front of a subway train rushed past just inches from his face. It was only then that it struck him. The flash. Some part of him had noticed an almost subliminal flash just before stepping forward. It had caused him to instinctively hesitate just in time.


 

The walkways eight stories below their balcony looked just like any other raw midtown street. People hurried with chaotic order in every direction, almost all of them wearing some kind of networked headwear.

Just then, perhaps a third of the people paused, looking up to point at a costumed superhero soaring through the air just above them.

“Protect yourself with Glitch Guard!” the flying figure urged them with a salute and a reassuring smile.

Amy turned to Kam and grinned.

“Looks like our new ad campaign is going to pay off big,” she assured him.

“I sure hope so,” Kam replied, trying to muster an optimistic smile.

“It just has too,” she assured him. “I know it’s been a rough three years getting Glitch Guard off the ground, and you’ve invested everything you have. But I still believe in it.”

“And in you,” she added.

He answered with an appreciative nod. The development was complete, and their ad campaign was officially underway. Now came the hard part.


 

Lord Graham Haggarty, one of the new breed of anointed American royalty, buttoned his designer housecoat and rose to answer the delicately tasteful ringer of his hotel room door, tipping his virtual receiver cap jauntily on his head.

After a quick glance at the overlay that seemed to give him x-ray vision, he swiped his hand across a virtual lock and the door retracted smoothly to reveal his visitors.

Kam reached out his hand across the threshold in greeting, “Lord Haggerty, so kind of you to see us.”

“Not at all, it’s my pleasure,” the dapper man replied to Kam but his eyes lingered upon Amy.

“Amy Hoob,” she said by way of acknowledgment, emphasizing the last name.

“Charmed,” he told her, taking her hand superfluously to usher them into his luxury suite.

After a few pleasantries the Lord offered his two guests a love seat.

“Can I get you a drink?” he asked. “I have a splendidly rare vintage of brandy that just demands attention.”

“Only if you will promise to join us,” Amy answered demurely. “I would not want to drink alone.”

“Perish the thought, my dear,” Haggarty reassured her as he poured three deep amber aliquots.

The host set the fine glasses on the table and took his place opposite, smoothing his slacks across his knee.

Kam set the small bag he carried with him onto the arm of the seat and hurried to raise his glass to his lips with the others.

“To a long life,” Kam said by way of toast.

“Health and wealth to you both,” the Lord answered as he enjoyed a sip. “Speaking of which, I am curious as to what kind of business proposition you have for me.”

Kam answered evenly, with business-like formality. “ Well, as you know, we manufacture and market Glitch Guard. It has been the number one anti-glitch software for the last 6 years.”

“Of course, of course,” Lord Haggerty assured them, a trace of impatience creeping into his cordial demeanor. “But I am just a simple bureaucrat. I am afraid I’m not looking for any investment opportunities.”

“We are doing quite well thanks,” said Kam. “We aren’t looking for any new capital. As a matter of fact, we’d like you to put us out of business.”

Lord Haggerty was suddenly more intrigued, “How do you imagine I could do that, even if I had any such desire?”

“Perhaps your desire will grow when we tell you that we know that you are responsible for at least 278 glitch deaths,” Amy answered evenly.

“That we are aware of, at least,” Kam added casually.

The Lord smiled as if tutoring a pair of slow students and took another sip of his brandy.

“And what evidence, may I ask, do you have to make such an outrageous accusation?”

“None that would stand up against your legal team,” Kam answered frankly. “But nevertheless we know that a secret government organization, conceived and directed by you, has been testing techniques to kill people through manufactured glitches for over a decade.”

Lord Haggarty took a final sip of his brandy and set down the empty glass with assured ease.

“Actually,” Lord Haggerty corrected the record with pride, “the success count is over a thousand. But that is for terminations only. That doesn’t begin to reflect the other forms of covert surveillance,  manipulation, and subterfuge that our technology enables. I am quite proud of our superb rate of success.”

“How could such a thing possibly make you proud?” Amy asked, horrified even having known in advance of his hideously untouchable crimes.

“I know it is hard for citizens to accept,” he told them comfortingly. “But you have to realize that we are only keeping this country, keeping you, your families, safe. This research gives us tools we can use to defeat our enemies, your enemies, and to anticipate how they might attack us.”

“Research,” Kam interrupted. “Is that what you call it? Was it just research when you tried to kill me?”

“And why do you think you are still alive? It is because your investigations, your software, helps our mission. Your anti-glitch innovations challenge us to find more subtle methods, to correct tells like that pesky flash you first identified.”

“You’re helping us in your own way,” he added with a smirk. “We value your contributions.”

“You’re a monster,” Amy hissed.

“Perhaps,” he agreed amiably. “But a necessary evil. I hope that it gives you some satisfaction to have this knowledge, but no one will pay attention to any conspiracy theories you spread around. Far too few will ever believe their government capable of such unthinkable activities. And spreading such rumors would only harm your own business – if any slanderous accusations should ever slip through our real-time stream scrubbers of course.”

Lord Haggerty grimaced and flexed his stiff fingers.

“Feeling a bit stiff?” Kam asked solicitously as he rose, retrieving his bag with one hand as he offered Amy the other.

The older man began to rise, but didn’t seem able to stand. He settled back into his chair and looked up curiously. He tried to speak, but his mouth didn’t seem to willing to respond.

“Don’t bother,” Kam told him. “Have you heard of the popular “Last Round” that hit the streets? The last drink for those who have nothing left to live for? You were seen asking about it on the streets tonight. Didn’t you notice the flash just after we came in? I’m afraid our technology is not as sophisticated as yours has become. That was when Amy poured a Last Round into your brandy.”

The soon-to-be-late Lord’s eyes shifted to his empty brandy glass with horror.

Amy answered his unspoken questions as Kam took handfuls from the bag he carried, sprinkling dust about the room.

“Fortunately, by the time the muscular paralysis has advanced to your autonomic systems, enough time will have passed so that our visit will be purged from your terminal buffer.” Amy told him. “There won’t be anything for Kam’s replacement to see except you sitting here breathing your last.”

Amy leaned in close to the face of the dying man, staring him dead in the eyes as Kam wiped the glasses with the empty bag.

“Dust from Grand Central,” she explained. “There must be a hundred thousand samples of DNA in it.”

She leaned closer, her lips brushing his ear as she whispered.

“Say hello to Bern for me.”

 

The Anatomy of Thought

Mind-uploading is the fictional process by which a person’s consciousness is transferred into some inanimate object. In fantasy stories this is typically accomplished using magic. By casting some arcane spell, the person’s consciousness is transferred into a physical talisman – or it might just float around in the ether in disembodied spirit form.

Mind_switcherIn science fiction, this kind of magic is routinely accomplished by means of technology. Upgraded hair-dryers transfer the person’s consciousness into a computer or some external storage unit. There it is retained until  it can be transferred back to the original host or into some new person or device. This science fiction mainstay goes back at least to the 1951 novel “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller Jr.

In some of these stories, the disembodied consciousness retains awareness within the computer or within whatever golem it has been placed. Sometimes the consciousness is downloaded into a new host body. It might inhabit a recently dead body but other times it might take over a living host or even swap bodies with another consciousness. Fictional stories involving technology being used for a variety mind-downloading and body-swapping scenarios or possessions go back at least to the book to “Vice Versa” written by Thomas Anstey Guthrie in 1982.

The 2009 movie “Avatar” depicts of all sorts of sophisticated technological mind-uploading, remote consciousness-control, and even the mystical downloading of consciousness into a new body. In this and innumerable other science fiction, fantasy, and horror plots, minds are portrayed as things that can be removed and swapped out given sufficiently advanced magic or technology – like a heart or liver. This is depicted so often in fact that it seems like some routine medical procedure that must be right around the technological corner at a Body-Swap™ franchise near you.

One reason this idea seems so believable to us because it is so similar to installing new software into your computer. But the computer analogy fails here. Brains are not analogous to computers in this regard and consciousness is not analogous to a computer program. Our hardware and software are not independent. Our hardware is our software. Our thoughts are literally our anatomy.

It might be a better analogy to rather think of our brains as non-programmable analog computers in which the thinking is performed by specific electronic circuits designed to perform that logic. The logic is not programmed into the circuits, the logic is the circuitry itself. Our thoughts are not programmed into our brains, our thoughts are produced by our neural circuitry. Obviously  our thinking does change over time, but this is a physical re-linking and re-weighting of our neural connections, not the inhabitation of some separable, independent consciousness within our brains.

I allow that we might conceivably copy our consciousness into a computer, but it would only be a mapped translation programmed to emulate our thought patterns. And as far-fetched as that is, downloading our consciousness into another brain is infinitely more far-fetched. That would require rewiring the target brain, that is, changing its physical microstructure. Maybe there is some scientific plausibility to that, like a magnet aligning all the particles of iron along magnetic ley lines. But it’s incredibly unlikely. We’d essentially have to scan all the connections in the subject’s brain and then physically realign all the neurons in the target brain in exactly the same way and tune the strength of all the connections identically.

And even if we did that, there are lots of nuanced effects that would still introduce differences. Our body chemistry and external drugs influence how these neurons fire. In fact, it’s likely that even if our brain were physically transplanted into a new host body, subtle differences in the environment of the new body would affect us in unanticipatable ways, influencing the very thoughts and emotions that make us – us.

Yet our fantasy imagining of consciousness as an independent abstraction not only persists but largely dominates our thinking. Even the most modern intellectuals tend to be locked into at least an implicit assumption of a mind-body dualism. René Descartes was a key figure in bringing scientific and philosophical credibility to what is fundamentally a religious fantasy concocted to make religion seem plausible (see here).

For religious thinkers, a mind-body duality MUST exist in order for there to be an after-life. In order for religious fantasies to seem reasonable, the soul (essentially just our disembodied mind) must be independent and independently viable outside the body. For many, the mind or soul is bestowed by god and is the uniquely holy and human thing that we have that lesser species do not. For them, the mind has to be separable to support their fantasy of God-given uniqueness from the rest of the animal kingdom. A unified mind-body greatly undermines their case for creationism, human divinity, and an afterlife.

So this illusory assumption of dualism is propagated by familiar computer analogies, by ubiquitous fantasy and science fiction, by horror ghost stories, and by our dominant religious and new age thinking. But this dualistic pseudoscience leads to many false and misleading ideas about how our brains work. That in turn results leads us to a great deal of mistaken thinking about a broad and diverse range of questions and precludes our ability to even imagine more realistic answers to those questions.

One harm this idea does is to provide a circular, self-fulfilling basis for belief in the supernatural. If we accept the assumption that our mind is independent, that then demands some kind of mystical explanation. But this dualistic thinking hinders our understanding of many non-religious questions as well. How do newborns fresh out of the womb or the egg know what to do? How can thoughts be inherited? How can a child be born gay? The answer to all these questions become quite simple if you shed your mistaken assumption of dualism. We all start with an inherited brain structure which is the same as to say that we are all born with thoughts and emotions and personalities.

When you truly internalize that the mind and body are one and the same, that our thoughts arise purely from our brain micro-structure and our unique body chemistry, new and far simpler solutions and perspectives open up for a wide range of otherwise perplexing and vexing social, scientific, and metaphysical questions.

Someone smarter than me could write a fascinating book about all the ways that this fantasy of an independent consciousness leads us to false conclusions and inhibits our ability to consider real answers to important questions. But if you simply become aware of this false assumption of duality, you will find that you’ll naturally start to look at a wide range of questions in far more satisfying and logically self-consistent ways.

 

 

If Only I Had a Photographic Memory!

Few of us probably remember the 1968 B-film cult classic Barbarella. In that fantasy story the naively buxom Barbarella battled the sadistic Durand-Durand and the evilly beautiful Dark Tyrant. One notable character in this sex romp was the blind angel Pygar. The white-winged angel befriends Barbarella but is then kidnapped and cruelly tortured by the Dark Tyrant.

pygarIn the climax of the film, with the city exploding around them, Pygar swoops down and rescues both Barbarella and the Dark Tyrant, flying off with one woman in each arm. Barbarella looks up at his angelic face, confused, and says “Pygar, why did you save her, after all the terrible things she did to you?” Pygar answers serenely, “Angels have no memory.”

It’s an interesting thought. Angels have no memory. Perhaps only without memory can one really be an angel. Perhaps memory makes us just too bitter, too angry, to resentful, too hurt to be truly forgiving. Perhaps it just isn’t possible to remember every hurt one caused you and still fully forgive them. Perhaps those memories must be sacrificed to gain your wings.

There is data to support this premise.  Researches have looked at individuals on both extremes of memory. They have studied those rare individuals who have no long-term memory – who cannot recall anything beyond very recent events. They have compared those individuals to those equally rare individuals with nearly perfect recall, people who can exactly remember almost every incident, no matter how unremarkable, that they ever experienced.

When you compare these two groups, you see clear differences. Those with impaired long-term memory tend to be quite happy and contented while those with exceptional long-term memory tend to be quite unhappy, depressed, angry, and even suicidal. Apparently, having perfect memory takes its toll. One cannot forget every slight, every insult, every disappointment, and every disillusionment. Such unselective memories make one quite unhappy. Not having memories can be a blessing.

On the other hand, those with perfect memories tend to be excellent networkers. They recall every birthday, every anniversary, and every name. So they tend to have lots of social support that can offset their hurtful memories. Those with poor memories on the other hand tend to have few social contact and fewer friends. The cost of happiness may be loneliness and the loss of social connectivity. Are they then still happy? Kind of a sad internal contradiction.

Don’t hire an angel to become your salesperson and don’t expect them to win celebrity Jeopardy.

Thankfully most of us aren’t angels with no memory and we aren’t elephants who never forget a slight and stomp their trainer into a bloody pulp years later. We lie in the broad middle of the spectrum. I am certainly no angel but I think I lie off toward the bad memory end of the continuum. I have a terrible memory but am pretty free from regrets and grudges. But I’m also quite bad at social networking as I am hopeless at remembering things, let alone birthdays and anniversaries. I’ve wisely perhaps stayed away from professions that rely upon memory and entered instead into a career where things change quickly, where continually looking up current information is an advantage.

Many of us imagine that perfect memory would be kind of a cool superpower but that such recall is just not really possible. But it is clearly possible and evolution is wise enough not to give us what we think we want. Sometimes less is better. We could have much better smell or hearing or taste, for example, and some people do and it makes them painfully miserable. Longer lifespans are apparently possible as well, but evolution knows that longer lifespans are not actually a good thing for the individual or for the species.

Evolution has given us the balance of memory we need to make us both functional and happy. If technology eventually lets us override evolution on this, we may regret being burdened with all those painful best-forgotten memories.

How These Things Get Started

There are no end to the crazy stories that go around. My uncle was saved from a bear by Bigfoot and has the scars to prove it. This guy on TV was molested by aliens – his story was checked out by a team of scientists. My grandmother was kissed by her dead husband and she wouldn’t make that kind of thing up. The Virgin Mary appeared to a homeless guy in the Bronx who had no reason to lie. Forty-Seven cows mysteriously died in Iowa after a Haitian witch doctor got snubbed at a truck stop and cursed the town – couldn’t be coincidence. Everyone knows that old house is haunted by a woman who was murdered by her lover in the 40’s. That was the day my dead pet returned to save my life.

Given that there is absolutely no possibility that any of these stories are actually true, one has to wonder how they ever get started in the first place. We even have to wonder whether they might have some element of truth if only because there seems to be no conceivable way that such tales could ever get started if there wasn’t some truth to them.

But get started they do. While I cannot give you every particular origin story, I can relate to you one real example to illustrate how these things get started.

One summer during college I was rooming with my longtime buddy Steve. As I walked back to our place late one sweltering night in Wisconsin, I was feeling particularly bored and fanciful. The nighttime shadows helped work my imagination into a receptive frame of mind and when I walked past the window of a local craft shop I was struck by these hand-crafted dolls on display in the window. Now like many people I do admit to being generally spooked by dolls and as I looked at this one particularly creepy looking doll bathed in old-time street lamps, I got inspired to mischief.

I took off running (I had been a track and cross-country runner) but got myself plenty winded by the time I reached our building. I stumbled, intentionally falling and crashing up the stairway and pounded on our door with desperate urgency. Steve opened the door to the sight of me in very convincing panic-stricken terror. I rushed into the room and I made him drag my terrifying story from me. I told him that I had been walking past this store and noticed this doll and suddenly I felt an eerie presence, like some evil spirit, and without warning this doll leapt at the window and clawed at me. I panicked and ran all the way back to the room, the entire time feeling like some malevolent demon was chasing me.

Steve’s reaction was all I could have hoped for. Though frightened he valiantly insisted that we go back that very night to face this demon. I reluctantly agreed to show him where the store was but refused to get closer than the end of the block. I watched down the street as Steve heroically inched forward, craning his neck tentatively to glimpse this demon-doll. Suddenly he jerked, bolted, almost got hit by a passing car as he stumbled into the street, ran all the way back to and past me, shouting breathlessly “I saw it dude! It was the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen!!”

RamonaAudleyYup, in retrospect I should have owned up to my prank right then and there. But Steve was so pumped up I decided to tell him in the morning. By the next morning I had forgotten all about it, and anyway Steve had already left to go somewhere before I woke up. I was reminded of my folly when Steve returned and proudly related how he had gone to the craft shop, paranormal investigator like, to sleuth out the origins of this demon doll. The owner told him that by the greatest of coincidences, the doll-maker, a lady by the name of Ramona Audley (pictured right) happened to be paying a visit at that very same moment. Steve politely confronted Ramona and asked her whether she knew that she was crafting possessed dolls. Ramona apparently nearly went into a terrified state of shock and I was later to learn that the dolls were removed from the store window that very day (Ramona, I did you wrong and I’m so sorry).

It gets worse. When Steve told me what he had done I was mortified. That poor Ramona Audley! I never intended to frighten her or the shop owner! But how could I tell Steve the truth of my prank now that he had done this? I settled for hoping that this whole debacle would just blow over.

Needless to say it did not just blow over. It took on a life of its own like Godzilla emerging from the ocean to wrack havoc. For the next several decades, whenever Steve introduced me at any kind of gathering, he insisted that I tell the doll story. Of course I would refuse, feigning intentionally ambiguous reluctance. But Steve would invariably take over and tell the story on my behalf, prefacing it with a lengthy introduction about how he would never believe this story from anyone else in the entire world except from me. My credibility and sanity and integrity are (were) apparently just that irreproachable.

If you dear reader could have admitted to making up this story prior to this you are a better person than me.  And to make matters even worse, Steve is a naturally gregarious guy who became a minor celebrity with a sizable fan following. Who knows how many people he has told this story to who have in turn related it to many other people, who all swear that they were assured that this story came from an impeachable source. Every year that went by while I hoped that the story would be finally forgotten, every time I failed to disavow it, the myth became that much more indestructible.

My dolls truly had become demons. A few years ago I agreed to be interviewed for a video documentary about my friend Steve. To my horror and chagrin Steve had prompted the documentarian to ask me about the “Doll Story,” which he did, on camera. The story had finally advanced to a line I could not cross and I admitted to my prank on camera rather than perpetuate it any further.

Even after that public admission, I still live in perpetual dread of seeing this bogus story reenacted on the History or Science channel. Lots of people are probably more willing to believe that I lied about it not happening rather than believe that I simply made it up as a silly impulsive prank. After all, what kind of inconceivably horrible person would make up such a story? Umm, yes, that would be me.

And that, my friends, is how these things get started.

There is Always a Trick

We are all tempted at times to be open-minded about  supernatural claims. Indeed, it can seem narrow-minded to dismiss the seemingly inexplicable stories related by sensible, credible people we trust. Sometimes we ourselves experience things that seem to defy any rational scientific explanation. These experiences seem to prove that there must indeed be more to the universe than reason can explain. It can be hard to push back on the logic that if one cannot offer proof of a scientific explanation then one must accept a supernatural one.

Whenever you are tempted to entertain belief in something supernatural or paranormal, just remember one invariably true thing as a given: there is always a trick.

DougHenningI’m reminded of a formative event back in the 1970’s when I went to a performance by the late magician Doug Henning. Between making live tigers disappear, he would walk out to the edge of the stage and do slight-of-hand magic. In one such interlude, he held up a newspaper and showed it to us, turning each page so we would remember the layout. He then proceeded to methodically tear it into smaller and smaller pieces. As he did so he kept a great dialog going:

You think you see it tearing, you think you hear the sound of paper ripping apart, you think you see me holding two separate pieces. All your senses are convinced that I’m tearing up this paper, but I am not.

He continued to rip the paper into shreds and stack up the pieces, in full view, into a little folded-up pile. Then he began to unfold it and show us the full newspaper perfectly in-tact once more. As he paged through the “reassembled” newspaper, he continued his narration:

There is no magic, this is a simple trick. Obviously I could not actually have torn up the paper. But the trick is the magic and the magic is the trick.

Doug Henning was brilliantly messing with the audiences minds there, but what I learned from him is that there is always a trick. No matter how inexplicable something might seem, you only need to know the trick. But moreover, you can be still amazed by the trick and, even knowing it is only a trick, it can still amaze and astound you every bit as much as true magic. In fact, knowing there is no magic, nothing supernatural, no god, does not need to make the world one bit less exciting and inspiring. Quite the opposite. You can feel even more amazed knowing that the real explanation must actually be so clever, so masterfully executed, that one imagines that only some supernatural story could possibly explain it. The trick is SO amazing that it is easier for us to consider some magical explanation rather then the real mundane one.

Years later I watched one of those shows on television that exposes magical tricks. In this episode, they showed the magician and his gorgeous assistants make a mini-sub disappear right on stage. It was astoundingly, compellingly real. Surely there could be no conceivable way that such a feat could be accomplished without true supernatural intervention.

But after the commercial break they simply showed the exact same performance shot from a rear angle. It suddenly seemed stupidly crude and simple, so pathetically obvious that one could not imagine anyone actually trying to fool anyone with it, let alone anyone actually being fooled by it.

It was incredibly disappointing to see that trick exposed. It was ruined forever. I vowed never again to watch any explanation of magic. I want to be amazed. I want to experience that awe and wonder over and over. But I know there is always a trick. All it takes is to move the camera ever so slightly and it becomes ridiculously obvious.

But  the “good” magic that magicians or fantasy novelists or artists offer us does not extend similar benign merit and value to the “bad” magic of hucksters, con-artists, priests, rabbis, imams, televangelists, psychics, and other charlatans. These promoters of the supernatural do not simply entertain and inspire. They tangibly damage our capacity to reason and lead us to unreasonably dangerous or exploitive attitudes and behaviors. And, before you ask, the answer is no. There is no equivalence between our choice to suspend our disbelief in an entertaining magic trick or ghost movie and our choice to suspend disbelief about the idea that a psychic can predict the future or that some god influences the present. We simply choose not to ruin the illusion by pulling back the curtain to expose the trick. We do not believe or tell others that stage magic is true and we certainly do not base life decisions upon a conviction that you really can saw a woman in half.

And it is often the smartest of us who are most susceptible and gullible with regard to magical thinking, and most likely to influence others. I recall when at the height of the “crop circle” craze, one network interviewed a “scientist” who had investigated the circles. He proclaimed that he had studied the markings extensively and could see no earthly method by which they could have been produced. Therefore, he concluded in stentorian tones, they could only have been created by an extraterrestrial (supernatural) force.

Of course the actual method that those guys who later came forward used was as silly as making the mini-sub disappear. But the arrogance and ego of that scientist led him to conclude that if HE could not see the trick, the only explanation must be a supernatural one. Even Sir Isaac Newton, one of humanity’s most brilliant thinkers, was compromised by similar hubris when he assumed that if HE, Sir Isaac Newton, could not explain the stability of planetary orbits, it can only mean that God must intervene.

So remember, there is always a trick, and let that certain knowledge make you more confidently skeptical regarding religious and supernatural claims, confident enough even to simply reject them out-of-hand. But yet be no less awed and inspired by the perfectly explainable but nevertheless amazing magic in the world.

For elaboration of this and further discussions about facts and belief, I refer you to my book “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief” (found here).

 

Our MacLean Revival

MacLean“A small dusty man in a small dusty room. That’s how I’d always remember him, just a small dusty man in a small dusty room.”

Grabs your interest doesn’t it? That was the opening line of The Dark Crusader by Alistair MacLean. I first devoured this and other adventure novels by MacLean while in High School back in the 70’s. Recently, my wife and I have taken to reading his books out loud to each other and – even in this high-tech era of blockbuster 3D adventure movies – MacLean’s novels continue to be singularly engaging adventures. We can’t wait to take up where we left off reading and we spend much of our time between sessions discussing the implications of whatever bits and pieces MacLean has revealed thus far.

Beyond the marvelous storytelling, MacLean was technically and aesthetically the most gifted author I have ever read. One part of what he achieved with seemingly effortless nonchalance was to deliver the catchiest openings ever. From them his stories flowed, briskly gushing and careening, like rivers of words through the coldly entrancing arctic landscape that was his favored setting. So daunting are his prose, that just taking on the challenge of reading them out-loud has made us both infinitely more fluid and polished readers.

His writing characteristically flows on in methodical rambling, like a symphony put to words, each sentence sometimes strung together over the course of a page or more, leaving the reader as breathless and exhilarated as after a hard swim, only to snatch a quick breath before diving into the next incoming wave.

“My red rose has turned to white.”

His plot lines are so tight, so carefully constructed with milimetric attention to detail, that when his protagonist laments in the prologue of Fear is the Key that his red rose has turned to white, you presage that MacLean will inevitably return to that same powerful imagery in his epilogue.

While his general storytelling elements recur in every book, MacLean’s writing does not feel overly formulaic. Within his general adventure fiction structure, MacLean paints distinctive characters and settings for each book. Unlike other authors, he doesn’t have one main character, no James Bond or Jason Bourne, but he does invariably feature smart but fallible male protagonists who face opponents who are far smarter and much less fallible in their utter ruthlessness.

MacLean also knew how to create a strong supporting cast with whom you engage every bit as much as his protagonist. In fact, I think that one of the reasons I went into chemistry was the inspiring moment in Night Without End when that frail little chemist Theodore Mahler used his knowledge to save the desperate survivors of the plane crash from the grasp of icy death in the deadly and merciless arctic. In that same book, the climax was not when the main hero saved the day, but when boxer Johnny Zagaro, hands rendered useless by crippling frostbite, finally had his inevitable bloody, brutal battle on the ice with the cold-blooded Nick Corazzini.

In MacLean’s novels, nature is invariably the most implacable enemy of all – whether it be the frigid clutch of the arctic, the unforgiving cliffs of Navarone, or torrential storms of the Adriatic. His books are typically light on romance, and in fact MacLean isn’t averse to nipping a budding romance with tragedy. Another distinctive quirk of MacLean is that he does tend to use certain words over and over again. My wife and I play a game to see who will be the first to encounter “milimetric” or “threnody” or “St. Vitus’s Dance” when we take turns reading a book. And be assured that in most every book, teeth will be lost, frostbite will claim fingers, and cigarettes will be burned in liberal quantities.

I find MacLean’s writing particularly noteworthy in how unlike conventional writing it is. He routinely devotes little more than a few short sentences to masterfully describe people and settings, for he needs no more than that, so powerfully potent are his descriptions. But then he is just as likely to go on in excruciating detail about how to wire the detonator for an explosive bobby trap. You have the feeling that he really did have the whole thing wired up and even tested in his office next to his typewriter. In fact all of his writing conveys a particularly strong sense that the author has actually been there and done that. MacLean’s actual background as a seaman and torpedo operator in the Royal Navy is keenly evident in all his writing.

Beyond his astounding gift for writing, I also admire the tone, the characteristic humanity of his works. Throughout his yarns, he weaves in his passion for humanity, for peace amidst cold-war intrigue and violence. Indeed, it was his clearly heretical defense of people, particularly Communists, and his cosmopolitan skepticism toward politics and religion, that caused such negative backlash to his book “The Last Frontier.” It was bold and provocative writing back in 1959, too much for the times he lived in.

“Jansci spoke of himself not at all, and of his organization and its methods of operation only where necessary … He talked instead of people … of their hopes and fears and terrors of this world. He talked of peace, of his hope for the world, of his conviction that that peace would ultimately come for the world if only one good man in a thousand worked for it … He spoke of Communists and non-Communists, and of the distinctions between them that existed only in the tiny minds of men, of the intolerance and the infinite littleness of minds that knew beyond question that all men were inescapably different by virtue of their births and beliefs, their creeds and religions, and that the God that said that every man was the brother of the next man was really a poor judge of these things. He spoke of the tragedies of the creed that knew beyond doubt that theirs was the only way that was the right way, of the religious sects that usurped the gates of heaven against all comers … for there were no gates anyway.”

Though now somewhat anachronistic and dated by patronizing 50’s attitudes toward women (even though his women definitely show great strength) MacLean’s work is still nevertheless as fresh and timelessly potent as the day it was written. My wife and I rather dread the day that we finish up our Alistair MacLean revival. There is very little in the marketplace of literary ideas that match up for us. As just one example, we tried reading Jack Reacher and having been so spoiled by the mastery of MacLean we find the writing and the characters as flat and empty and devoid of life as a cardboard cutout. Are there other authors as gifted as MacLean? Certainly, but it is a very short list indeed.

“A small dusty man in a small dusty room. That’s how I’d always remember him, just a small dusty man in a small dusty room.”