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David Darling's Newsletter #28


February 14, 2004


1. Meanderings
2. Mind and Matter
3. Bookends

1. Meanderings

It's been quite a while since the last newsletter. The reason? The Darlings have been on the move, first from Minnesota to a temporary base in Cumbria, England, then — just a couple of weeks ago — further north and across the border to our permanent new home in the heart of Dundee. For those of you not familiar with the place, Dundee is on the east coast of Scotland, north of Edinburgh, at the mouth of the beautiful river Tay where it meets the North Sea. The city's claims to fame include the mooring of Scott's polar ship Discovery here and old Dundonians Robert Watson Watt, inventor of radar, James Chalmers, who thought up the adhesive postage stamp, and Janet Keillor, who gave us something else sticky — marmalade for breakfast! British readers may also recognize Dundee as the home of the Beano and Dandy comics. Altogether a thoroughly interesting and pleasant university town.

Regular visitors to my website may have noticed an interruption to service for a few days about a month ago. This all stemmed from a hacker attack on the forum, which led to my web host suspending the site (the hacker having inserted some code deemed to violate the host's rules). I suppose it's a sign of the site's success that it's now attracting the attention of unfortunate individuals who have nothing better to do than while away the small hours engaged in cyber vandalism. Forums tend to be a weak spot — an easy point of access for hackers. So, reluctantly, I've closed down this feature, at least for the time being. I apologize to all those who have contributed to some excellent debates and discussion, especially the stalwarts who stopped in on a regular basis. And I promise to resurrect the forum as soon as I can be sure that it won't compromise the security of the rest of the site.

The subject of the last newsletter, if you remember, was Saturn's giant moon Titan and the outside possibility that it might harbor some form of life. Well, the Huygens probe mission to land on Titan was a brilliant success - absolutely sensational. Personally, I'd have given very long odds against Huygens making it safely to the surface, let alone sending back data, including color pictures, for several hours after it arrived. It staggers the imagination that, after seven years and more than a billion miles, this little spacecraft, flying on little more than a heatshield, a parachute, and a prayer, could do exactly what it was supposed to a couple of light-hours away, on a frigid alien world, shrouded in orange fog, about which we knew incredibly little before the arrival of Cassini — the mothership carrying Huygens — in orbit around Saturn. We didn't even know if Huygens would splash into some hydrocarbon sea or touch down on a frozen wasteland. In the end, it proved to be a touch down onto an ice-boulder strewn patch of ground beneath a tangerine sky — a sci-fi artist's dream. To remind yourself of some of the wonders Huygen glimpsed on the surface and on the way down, go here (BBC) and here (ESA).

We still don't know if there's any life on Titan, but the possibility hasn't been lessened by what Huygens has found. On the contrary, astronomers have never been more outspoken in speculating about what forms Titanian life might take. For a couple of interesting articles that have been published in the wake of Huygens' descent go here (NASA Ames Astrobiology Magazine) and here (Nature).

The success of Cassini/Huygens is bound to encourage other and yet bolder missions to the outer planets and their moons — perhaps a return to Titan by a larger craft equipped to search for life signs directly, an orbiter or lander to Europa (Jupiter's most enigmatic moon), and a trip to Neptune's big companion, Triton, with its pinkish "canteloupe" terrain and ice volcanoes. The opportunities for life, both as we know it and as we don't, within our own cosmic backyard, have never seemed more promising.

Life — and death — form the subject of two of my earlier books, Soul Search and Zen Physics, which I've just made available in full on my website. You can read them, for free, by following the links from the front page of my website. Both books deal with some of the most intriguing questions that face us as human beings: What's the nature of consciousness? How are the mind and body related? And what — if anything — happens after we die?

2. Mind and Matter

It's always been the big issues — the metaphysical and ontological blockbusters — that have fascinated me. That's one of the reasons I chose not to become a research scientist after finishing my Ph.D. in astronomy, back in the late seventies. In doing research, you tend to go into a lot of of detail in one or two small areas: doing mostly detective work rather than philosophy. But what gripped me were the great questions that lay behind the detail, at the nexus of science, philosophy, and theology. Where did the universe come from in the first place? How could time begin (since even the act of beginning takes time!) Does our existence have a purpose? Is there a cosmic intelligence behind everything or does it all simply happen, unguided and in the dark? Conventional science, with its rigidly objective and reductionist approach, only goes so far toward tackling these problems. Most of the questions that matter to us personally, it leaves frustratingly untouched. Worse, it tends to dismiss anything that has a bearing on our inner lives and experiences.

Like most children, I pestered my parents with unanswerable questions like Where does the universe end? I had this bizarre notion as an eight-year-old that it might just stop at a brick wall — literally, a very big, thick brick wall. But then, what was on the other side of the wall? And who'd done the brick-laying?

Cosmic origins and destinies formed the subject of my first "popular" science book — Deep Time — back in 1989. Deep Time proved to be one of those books that people either loved or loathed. Arthur C. Clarke said he thought it was brilliant — which was good enough for me, Clarke having been one of the writers who'd inspired me to go into science. A review in Nature was less than flattering, the reviewers being put off by the lyrical style and what they saw as a cavalier approach to some of the science. On the other hand, it impressed one reader sufficiently that he arranged a passage of the book to be read out at his own funeral. And that's perhaps the greatest compliment anyone has ever paid my work. Anyhow, you'll soon be able to judge for yourself. You can read the first couple of chapters on my website, right away: the rest of the book is going on-line in the near future. Comments, as always, will be most welcome!

After I finished Deep Time, I realized how little my quest to explain, in layman's terms, the origin and fate of the physical universe had touched upon the subjective side of things. Where did humanity fit into the big picture? How had we come about and just what role did consciousness play, if any, at the cosmic level? These thoughts led me to write Equations of Eternity, which was originally published by Hyperion in 1993 and re-issued, in 2002, by MJF Books. The subtitle, "Speculations on Consciousness, Meaning, and the Mathematical Rules That Orchestrate the Cosmos," put in a nutshell what I was trying to do — link mind, objective reality, and the logical infrastructure of nature into one big theory of everything. Something that struck me, while I was writing EoE, is that no one has ever really come up with a convincing reason for the origin of consciousness. I'm not talking about intelligence or memory or any of the other things that brain does. The big mystery for me was why there should have evolved the feeling of "what it is like to be." It's possible to imagine a whole world — indeed, a whole universe — of life-forms that have intelligence (of varying degrees) and that can do all of the other things a creature needs to do to survive, without having any inner subjective feelings at all. Evolution doesn't tend to produce things that aren't useful in some way. So why did it go to the trouble of producing consciousness? The conclusion I came to, and talked about in my next two books, Soul Search and Zen Physics, is that it didn't. Consciousness didn't evolve. It's always been here — a fundamental property of the universe, like matter and energy, space and time.

Well, I'm not the first person to take that controversial stance. It's an ancient idea, and more recently it's been echoed, in various ways, by the likes of Arthur Eddington, Aldous Huxley, Freeman Dyson, Rupert Sheldrake, and many others. And, of course, it's completely unorthodox. Conventional neuroscience has it that the brain generates consciousness as part of its workings, that consciousness — especially high-level consciousness — is a pretty recent and not very consequential biological trick. According to the official party line, consciousness is a local epiphenomenon, a bit like steam rising over the machinery of the brainworks. A lot has been written by neurologists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists over the past decade that seems to "explain" consciousness, using this or that theory of perception or mental integration or other neural shenigans. Personally, I think it's a huge mistake — huge, not only because it's failed (these books explain everything but consciousness!) but because it's persuaded many people, without justification, that we're effectively doomed. If the brain is indeed all that stands between us and non-consciousness then, when it shuts down, that's apparently the end of us. (I say "apparently," because there are survival scenarios even if we are nothing more than neural networks.) Huxley described the brain as being like a filter, or a valve. In other words, far from producing consciousness it actually restricts it. The conventional picture is all wrong. Consciousness isn't created inside our heads, it's "out there," all around us. What our brains do, according to this radically different paradigm, is limit our access to the complete field of consciousness, allowing through only that thin slice that is conducive to our survival as individual life forms. Take away the filter and the whole consciousness of the universe is suddenly available. Perhaps this explains one of the most puzzling and frequently recounted aspects of the "near-death experience," namely, that at the very point at which the brain has almost completely closed down, in the shadowland of death, a person may experience the most extraordinary sensation of oneness with the cosmos, of everything (except the self) suddenly being there.

I'm sure many of you will react to these thoughts with skepticism. And rightly so. Perhaps mainstream neuroscientists who regard consciousness as an artifact of our gray matter are spot on - we are effectively our brains in action. But I'm confident, personally, that this isn't so. I think, from the Western viewpoint, consciousness is the most poorly understand property of the universe. I think the universe has an inherent subjective aspect. To put it most lyrically, I strongly suspect there's a cosmic consciousness — an ocean of consciousness from which, for a brief while, because of the limiting action of the brain, we become separated like islands. You may be wondering where the notions of God and the soul fit into this picture of a universal mind. Alas, we've run out of space...

Please be my guest and read Soul Search and Zen Physics. I'd be delighted to have your opinions — positive or negative. Hopefully, I'll be able to share some of these in the next newsletter. Meanwhile, it's been nine years since the publication of ZP and I'm beginning to have thoughts about a sequel!

3. Bookends

Only a couple of months to go before my next book, Teleportation: The Impossible Leap, hits the shelves. On this subject, which I dealt with in Newsletter #26, Sante Poromaa, a Zen Buddhist, wrote to me with these interesting comments: "I'm not sure whether I would want to travel in such a device. . . I even feel uncomfortable with our accepted modes of transportation like airplanes and cars. But the reason for my possible doubt would not be the one that Jeremy Ellis (see Newsletter #27) is talking about, but more the fear that something could go wrong. As a Zen Buddhist I don't believe there is something special about my self right now. I am a "perfect copy" of the one that got up this morning. I am all the time exchanging atoms and elementary particles with the rest of the universe and have therefore effectively (from a strictly material point of view) become a new person countless times. And I still might have the illusion of being me. . . The "string of events" that Jeremy finds so important wouldn't be discontinued, I think. Who would be the "real me" in case of the "original" not being destroyed is not important. From a buddhist point of view there is no real me in the first place. I'll be talking about the book and the fascinating topic of teleportation on Coast-to-Coast AM radio with George Noory on May 17.

Very best wishes,
David Darling