Mind & gray matter

After an interlude of fiction-reading and the start of the semester, during which there is little time for personal reading, I have returned to some of the topics of neurology, consciousness, and the evolution of the story-telling mind that have so often diverted me from–yet influenced my thinking on–poetry.

Just a brief overview of my “difficult books” of the past four or five years…I have a background in philosophy and, to a much lesser extent, theology. Both disciplines endeavored over thousands of years to explain why we think the way we do and why or how we reason, make decisions, and make clearly unreasonable decisions.

The Free Will paradox, the Mind-Body Problem, ethics, tribalism, the body politic, you name it.

My thinking tends to sway slightly Eastern in terms of intention, mindful behavior, and non-theistic compassion despite my being raised pretty much Western Protestant with Enlightenment ethics and values (also compassion, as based upon the teachings of Jesus).

Throw in a bit of psychology built upon philosophical foundations, Freud, William James, Darwin, Thoreau, and my constant searching for what makes a being conscious, and I end up with an eclectic but not unreasonable reading list.

Also poetry. But I digress.

Here’s the barest outline of my more recent forays into understanding the probably not-understandable: I read Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe to obtain a grasp of a chemistry-and-statistically-based (Boolean) thinking concerning how consciousness may have arisen in the universe and whether we Earthly human beings may not be entirely alone as conscious beings in a huge and expanding cosmos. Frances Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis offers a biologist’s view of how we ought to go about trying to study consciousness and its evolution based upon biological science. Douglas Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop, a deeply engaging look at an interdisciplinary concept of consciousness, examines evolution, biology, neurology, and a bit of physics and philosophy; Dennett & Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh grounds philosophy in neurological underpinnings. Just to be sure the physicists are not overlooked in my overview of consciousness, I’m now reading Werner Lowenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain.

Referenced in almost all of these books are Patricia Churchland, the D’Amasios, Thomas Nagel, Thomas Kuhn, Charles Darwin, Descartes, and Kant.

To name a few.



What good has this reading done me, in terms of understanding what constitutes consciousness, from what it is derived, and how it evolved? Do I know any more than I did about human beings? I certainly know more about the human body, especially the brain, than I did. I know more about the cellular level of information processing and more about theories people have posited during the past centuries–and what aspects of those theories seem to have had either intuitive, reasonable influence or scientific (empirical) value.

That last paragraph appears to be question-dodging, doesn’t it?


I love to read. I love human beings. I love the phenomena of the visible and experiential world. I love the urgent fuel of creativity. Can that be enough, for now?

In time, maybe I will come to accept the fraying of the consciousness, the decay of memory and the intimate Beloveds as they fade into senility or pass out of the tactile world.



Metaphor & mind

In a recent New Yorker article about the trial of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, Jelani Cobb reports that during the lead prosecutor’s presentation

Roof’s mother sank down on the bench as he delivered his opening statement, which contained details of the crime that had previously been withheld from the press. At a certain point, she slumped over. It seemed for a moment that she had fainted, but she was taken to a hospital, and it was later learned that she had suffered a heart attack. She survived, but did not return for the remainder of the trial.

In her situation, I might have had the same response. How metaphorical: the heart revolts from within–an embodied reaction. When I read about this incident, I thought of cognitive scientist/philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who have been pioneering the concept that the mind and body evolved together and cannot be separated through the literal, analytical, categorical approaches of classic Western thought.

Languages the world over use body-based metaphors and gestures that reinforce how our  minds are integrated with and connected to our human bodies–we intuit from the gut; a situation makes our skin crawl; we place hands over hearts to demonstrate love, loyalty, compassion. Medical science confirms what people have long understood, in a “folk physiology” way, for years: emotional and intellectual stress has physical expressions and repercussions.

Lakoff and Johnson have been investigating such universal human phenomena since the 1970s. Their work has implications for a wide range of endeavors from artificial intelligence to brain trauma. In 1999, when Philosophy in the Flesh was published, they said Western philosophy needs to retool its thinking from the ground up, the ground being the body itself.

Reason, they assert, is as embodied as emotion; and their argument that intellectual functioning arises metaphorically through the physiological experiences of the (human) body is persuasive and extensively documented through research, particularly neurological research. Exactly where what we term “consciousness” arises may never be determined, but phenomenology, Taoism, and empirical science converge with what we are learning about synapses, cells, hormones, and the neural network to suggest there may be an answer as to how consciousness emerges; and that answer is likely to be biological.



The brain, the heart, the entire bodily system under emotional, mental, psychological duress, the conflicting moods of love, grief, anger, fear, and a chasm of misunderstanding; the terrible awe of disbelief–an embodied self might well collapse, physically, literally, under the metaphorical strain.



Written by a human

Here’s a controversy for National Poetry Month–there are an amazing number of controversies surrounding poetry–which takes up the idea of whether a “machine” can write poetry. A good introduction is this CCR interview with Oscar Schwartz, who developed Botpoet as an experiment that is not so much about artificial intelligence as it is about what humans consider to be poetry. And perhaps about what language really is. If you follow the link to the site, you can participate in his research by playing “Bot or Not,” a game in which the player reads a series of poetic lines and then chooses between written by a human or not written by a human.

If you’ve read a great deal of classic and contemporary poetry, you may recognize some of the poems (I did); I suppose that is a way to cheat the system, since I have insider information. Nevertheless, I was wrong embarrassingly often. What, exactly, was I looking for in those words?

I think Schwartz is correct in his assessment of the more general population (though literary types may disagree with general assessments) when he says:

People generally seem to associate rhyming, “Romantic” poetry as being human. And they consider highly abstract, non-traditional poems to be of human provenance. Investigating as to why this might be the case is the project of my PhD.

He points out that written language is arbitrary and abstract, “an artificial medium” to begin with, and may have less to do with being human than we might like to think. Maybe the qualities that make a poem a poem are qualities that reside in the reader/interpreter rather than in the poet, another individual’s aesthetics or sense of what seems “creative.” That might be an unsettling thought for many writers, though it rather appeals to me.

Schwartz continues,

“So the results of Bot or Not, rather than telling us what human really is, is actually telling us that the category of the ‘human’ is an ideological, political space…The Bot or Not project works not because it tells us about computer software, but because it reveals things about what we assume to be human. It destabilizes the category of the human.”

As it turns out, the study of consciousness also tends that way–destabilizing our long-held category of what-a-human-is or what, if anything, differentiates us from other animals. Some interpreters of Zen philosophy suggest that Zen consists in finding balance within the inherent instability of the corporeal world. Or, perhaps, acceptance that humanness may be something we cannot categorize; the challenge then is to learn to flourish in a state of destabilization.

Let me sing the body electric…and the mind (possibly) electronic.

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Ontologies and inquiries

{ ? }


This week, amidst the whirl of returning students, I have accidentally paired my reading of Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop with Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?

How did all of this get started? In the most concrete and specific scenario, I had been slowly savoring Hofstadter–and, let’s face it, trying to “get” the math he occasionally employs–and happened across a copy of Holt’s book, which is a faster read, when I didn’t have Strange Loop to hand. Next thing I know, I’m deep into both texts which, naturally, overlap in several ways. Now, I find myself pondering the beginnings of abstract things like consciousness, which may not be abstract if you think along the lines of E. O. Wilson but which Hofstadter suggests exists as both a top-level abstract “thing” that pushes around its foundational, physical “things” such as synapses, neurons, molecules. And I think about Descartes and the mind-body problem and, oh, while I’m at it, the Big Bang theory and the “what was there before the big bang?” question.

Holt’s book turns to the metaphysical inquiry, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” It’s a question I asked myself when I was about 6 years old. Hofstadter deals mostly with the (perhaps metaphysical) concern: “What is consciousness?” That’s a question I asked a bit later in life, though certainly I asked it before I was in my twenties.

Both authors employ philosophy and math in the service of trying to make sense of these inquiries; and while Holt’s investigation is a bit more physical-cosmological in nature, it may not be necessarily so–lots of the theories floating around out there sound pretty metaphysical to me! Hofstadter employs many analogies, as is his wont (see, in particular, his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach). Hofstadter also gets a bit more into neurology, of course–we are talking about consciousness, after all, and it may reside in our brains–and slightly into the arena of psychology. Holt takes a more journalistic approach, using interviews and readings to cite past and current thinking on the topic of existence. The subtitle of his book is “An Existential Detective Story.”

So far, I enjoy both books, though they differ in significant respects.

Meanwhile, at work I am mainly dealing with adjusting-to-updated-software issues and helping-students-with-advising questions and explaining drop-add and pass-fail and comp-rhet and the difference between Elementary Spanish I and II. Keeps my brain flexible and gets those neurons firing. {Right??}

I haven’t finished reading either book yet. I may have more to say about the synthesis of these two books after I’ve let my brain settle down.