Waves & relationships

I had planned to take a little “vacation” from difficult books this summer and read a bit of fiction, go to the movies, work in the garden. And while Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid covered the challenging topic of reading and delved into some neurological explanations for the process of how we read and how literacy changes our brains, Wolf writes in layperson’s terms and divides her text into easily understandable chunks. It was a relatively easy read on a complex topic and reminded me that I need to re-read Proust’s famous essay “On Reading Ruskin.”

Then my dad said I should read Reflection in the Waves by Pablo Bandera. Here’s a physicist with a philosophical bent who tries “reconciling the realism of Aquinas with the empirical evidence of quantum mechanics.” I like Bandera’s interdisciplinary approach, a blend of physics–his main area of expertise, a “true” science–and philosophy, anthropology, evolution, even theology. Does Bandera entirely succeed in persuading me that the observer effect of quantum physics is a human-based, perspective conundrum that may not be a problem at all? Not completely, but it is an intriguing theory about which I remain open-minded. The recognition that being human alters the observing mechanism seems sensible to me.

I would never suggest that Reflection in the Waves is an easy read for the average informed person. It contains a few fascinating observations and summaries, however, that relate to human relationships (our need to connect), to communication, literature, and art. He writes:

What distinguishes us humans from other objects around us, including other measurement devices, is not that our reality is not somehow irrelevant for the physical world, but that our relationship to this world is such that it transcends the mere subject-object relationship currently envisioned by the physicist.

Reality=relationship to others and the world. That’s a contemporary way of interpreting Aquinas. I’ve never before thought of myself as a Thomist, and the very idea makes me giggle. But as a writer, especially as a poet, the relationships and connections in the physical world are the stuff of metaphors that engage the conscious mind of abstract thought and help to put the poem across to other readers’ minds (thank you, Maryanne Wolf). Perhaps not so far from philosophy, or physics, or neurology, after all.

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Burning

letter I t’s fascinating to me how memory and associations work; this weirdly human cognitive process (or set of connective processes) seems to wire us for poetry, for art, for metaphor, analogy, and symbolism–for dreams and the surreal, and for curiosity and wonderment.

I visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame when I was in Paris at age 16, an experience indelible in my mind. And yet, what arrived when I sat down to write my poem for this particular April day is a different, though related, image and experience. One I had not thought about for many years, not since this post, probably.

~

Cathedral, Burning

In a work of fiction, the church aflame would act as symbol; in a sermon,
as analogy, something metaphorical in both church and fire; but listen,
my childhood church, First Presbyterian of Yonkers, burned to the ground–
steeple towers, bricks, stained glass, oak pews–in 1968, faulty electric
wires, not an act of God, nothing symbolic about it, no medieval art, no
gargoyles, no rose window; and I can attest to fire’s brute facts, the physics
of heat, the combustion chemistry my father’s brother studied for years, how
even stone can change in fire, transmute, char, chip, and timbers light up
like a droughty forest, glass fused into new-made forms and smoke erupting
to chorus its own pronouncement louder than prayer; and there is no alleluia
yet there is no satan, only what the earth is made of changing its form
(molecular re-arrangements) but not its substance, which is earth, and ours.
~

Archival photo here.

Poetic naturalism

I have been reading poetry, as usual, and also non-fiction about various aspects that could be deemed scientific, such as Michael Pollan’s Changing Your Mind and physicist Sean Carroll‘s book The Big Picture. 

On my way to work, I posed (in my mind) an argument with Carroll about his use of the word “poetic” in his definition of poetic naturalism, which he defines thus:

Naturalism is a philosophy according to which there is only one world — the natural world, which exhibits unbroken patterns (the laws of nature), and which we can learn about through hypothesis testing and observation. In particular, there is no supernatural world — no gods, no spirits, no transcendent meanings.

I like to talk about a particular approach to naturalism, which can be thought of as Poetic. By that I mean to emphasize that, while there is only one world, there are many ways of talking about the world…

The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms” … There is more to the world than what happens; there are the ways we make sense of it by telling its story… The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. But these moral and ethical and aesthetic vocabularies can be perfectly useful ways of talking about the world … We just have to admit that judgments come from within ourselves.

Despite my doubts about his use of “poetic,”  it may be that Carroll’s term describes me; at any rate, his definition comes close to my own thinking about the world.

And hence, another draft for my poem-a-day challenge.

~

Brown leaves bouncing across Preston Lane
late afternoon, air currents swirling.

Road shoulder cradles raccoon carcass,
fur shudders, though body’s still, and sun

highlights the gray-white hairs as travelers
speed past. Chlorophyll greens local lawns

and ditches beside the creek, molecules moving,
nitrogen atoms taken up through root and rhizome.

Sudden, yellow, early–narcissus blooms near
the neighboring farmhouse–all of which

recommends itself as The World As It Is.
A reality for at least one universe,

even though there exist other possibilities
in the realm of Undiscovered.

daffodil photo Ann E. Michael

Evolution of the neuron

I have just read, albeit slowly, Werner R. Loewenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain. Having finished the book, I can attest I understand his argument even though my grasp of the physics involved is decidedly at the novice level. The last three chapters of the book were what drew me to reading it in the first place–those chapters cap the text with his model of how Evolution (he anthropomorphizes the theory) “chose to design”–in its exemplary, concise way–complex systems that led not just to life but to sentience.

Loewenstein compares neuro/biological processes with computers in terms of their being processors of information from the environments. He seems enthusiastic about computers in general, but he argues that artificial intelligence remains far away from evolving into sentience because consciousness requires many kinds of parallel processing that intersect and interact and filter out information. That complexity, he claims, will be difficult to engineer; yet over eons, the process of evolution accomplished it through a combination of physics, chemistry, and biology.braintrust-small

Loewenstein prioritizes the physics aspect: how electrical pulses in neurons parallel electrical pulses (attraction and repulsion) in atoms, how these behaviors can combine to create compounds or release energy; he uses analogies and spends several chapters on the eye, its neurons and dendrites and cones and rods, to demonstrate how a system of information reception and filtering can occur that relays information to the brain and then back to other information receptors and actors in the body of a worm, bird, or human being. Get enough relay systems going, and sight + touch + smell + hearing + taste evolve into the living animal. At some point, the multiple parallel information systems develop into consciousness (Loewenstein does not speculate where that point occurs–it is still “a mystery,” he admits).

~

Douglas Fox, writing in Aeon, quotes neuroscientist Leonid Moroz as saying, “There is more than one way to make a neuron, more than one way to make a brain.” In this fascinating article, Fox follows Moroz’s lengthy study of ctenophores, jellyfish-like creatures about which little is understood–though Moroz and his team of researchers are changing that. At the same time, their work suggests that our previous understanding of brain development is not necessarily the only model out there for how neurons and synapses can get information processed and acted upon to sustain a life. If that life is lived under very different environmental circumstances, maybe evolution might “choose” different paths of systematic information processing (ie, “thinking”).

…when he failed to find common neurotransmitters in ctenophore nerves back in 1995, it wasn’t simply that his tests weren’t working; rather, it was because the animal wasn’t using them in any way. This, says Moroz, was ‘a big surprise’.

‘We all use neurotransmitters,’ he says. ‘From jellyfish to worms, to molluscs, to humans, to sea urchins, you will see a very consistent set of signalling molecules.’ But, somehow, the ctenophore had evolved a nervous system in which these roles were filled by a different, as-yet unknown set of molecules.

Fox poses the researchers’ questions this way: “how divergent can nervous systems be? Do we truly understand how life senses its surroundings and behaves?” Science has generally, post-Darwin, followed a straight-line approach to evolution; but good scientists recognize that sometimes the road less traveled by has made all the difference.

 

Although the very idea of “sentient jellyfish” might appall many people, I wonder what sort of consciousness ctenophores would develop.  🙂

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.

brad-hammonds-flikr-books

~

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.

 

Spiritual quantum fields?

 

Herewith, an intriguing paragraph about physics, biology (the brain), and consciousness:

Wave-particle duality, a fundamental concept of quantum mechanics, proposes that elementary particles, such as photons and electrons, possess the properties of both particles and waves. These physicists claim that they can possibly extend this theory to the soul-body dichotomy. If there is a quantum code for all things, living and dead, then there is an existence after death (speaking in purely physical terms). Dr. Hans-Peter Dürr, former head of the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, posits that, just as a particle “writes” all of its information on its wave function, the brain is the tangible “floppy disk” on which we save our data, and this data is then “uploaded” into the spiritual quantum field. Continuing with this analogy, when we die the body, or the physical disk, is gone, but our consciousness, or the data on the computer, lives on.

This comes from a brief article by Janey Tracey on Outerblogs. I spent a few minutes trying to find more on the physicists she quotes, among them Christian Hellwig, also of Max Planck Institute, and Robert Jahn of Princeton. But I have been too busy to follow up by reading papers and books–between semester mid-term and concerns about our Resident Nonagenarian, who is at present “declining” toward death, things have been…challenging. We are experiencing with our best-beloved the waiting period as the corporeal body shuts down organ by organ, bit by bit, consciousness becoming semi-conscious, then intermittent, and unresponsive, as the mind enters that realm none of us can understand.

Life closes in many ways–swiftly, at times, but more commonly in increments. This death is not the one our best-beloved would have chosen (in one of her recent moments of clarity: “This isn’t what I wanted,” she said). Alas. The slow, to all appearances agonizing, shutting-down toward death probably rates low on most people’s desires list.

The Rolling Stones warned us you can’t always get what you want [skip the ad, listen to the rock n roll]. I suppose that song has already been uploaded onto my spiritual quantum field. Not to mention the spiritual quantum fields of millions of humans. If Dr. Dürr’s speculations are correct, that may mean Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, et al are among the immortals already. And while I am mentioning this possibility with a sense of humor, I do ponder the interesting concept of a quantum code that encompasses human memory-processing, experience, and mind. It seems to be distinctly likely that consciousness is a tangled hierarchy.

Tangled hierarchy as in strange loop, or paradox, explained in Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorems. Douglas Hofstadter, trying to get his mind around the problem of consciousness, suggests that such a “flipping around of causality” appears to happen in minds possessing self-consciousness. The mind perceives itself as the cause of feelings, thoughts, etc. Our 20th-century scientific models posited that feelings and desires are caused solely by the interactions of neurons.

Though maybe quantum theory and biophysics and 21st-century neurological psychology studies will indicate we are still pretty far from the Whole Story.

Meanwhile, one story of one person draws nearer the close. No–that is not the case. The body will die. Her story–her many stories, told from many perspectives, her paradoxes, her own strange loopiness–91 years has only been the beginning.

300px-magrittepipe1928lacomuseumart

Rene Magritte “The Treachery of Images” 1928. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

 

 

 

The wildest moment

This morning we were visited by thousands of starlings, whirring in a murmuration of wings and twittering enough to raise quite a din. I was wrapped in a warm robe and standing on the back porch because my vegetable garden patch is finally free of snow, and I just wanted to remind myself that the earth lies waiting (and spring will indeed arrive). I heard the flocks arriving, not an uncommon occurrence this time of year, but had never observed such a huge group in my yard and treeline before. And they came so close! Spinning past me at eye level, five feet away.

I felt almost as if I were among them, and for the first time could see how individual birds suddenly reverse themselves–pivoting on a pinion-tip–followed by some in the group while others swooped away on a different arc. There seemed to be flocks within the general flock, each with its own pattern of loop or zig-zag, rushing level or stopping briefly on the muddy grass, some settling, some leaping, their flight paths intersecting…others taking a second or two to hover in the air as if deciding which invisible line to pursue.

The noise floored me. I felt my whole body respond, eyes wide, heart racing: awe, or elation, not fear. I noticed the neighbors’ cat, who often spends hours on my sunny back porch, had backed himself into a corner and was sitting alert but a bit cowed by the loud, wild activity of the birds.

Here’s a short article from Wired that includes a video and some links to research on the physics and dynamics of starling flocks, including the delightful theory of “critical transitions” which smacks of metaphorical possibilities I think I must explore in a poem someday soon.

I’ve looked for videos of starling murmurations, and there are many–but most of them show the flocks from a distance and leave off the noise of the birds, substituting new age music (see below). For me, part of the experience is aural. Too bad I did not have the means to capture today’s wildest moment; that must be left to the imagination.