Saturday, 22 August 2015

So Who Is The Author of Position Reserved?

[It occurred to the Author that regular readers had no frame of reference for the personality behind the postings. This is a slightly edited version of the Facebook Profile I use and may act as a sort of reference point.]

Existentialist, Anti-Trancendentalist Mysterian Supermaterialist and Politically Non-Euclidean with Chaotic, Possibilian, (cautiously) Trans-Humanist, Gothick, Nietzschean, Antinomian, Discordian/Erisian, Zen & Tantric Tendencies. Believer in Wu Wei and Wyrd and not much else. Looks on the species as work-in-progress likely to take another 30,000 years to become basically secure and so decent.

Politically into personal liberty (all things being equal, especially in cognitive and sexual matters), anti-bureaucratism (above all, that of the European Union which is the 'monstre sacre de nos jours'), good order mixed with compassion and common sense (the 'way of the decent copper'), sustainability for future generations and maintenance of the natural environment (which is not to be confused with any support for the Greens who are as mad as hatters or professional environmentalism which is little more than a job-creating racket), the primacy of the young over the old who usually are responsible for screwing things up in the first place, national self-determination (though never ethnicist which means that Israel worries me), against German-led Europeanism (as opposed to liking Europeans) and American-led Atlanticism (as opposed to liking Americans even though I go into hiding when they 'get God'), secularism (big time! anyone who believes in fairies and is in politics is a threat to me and mine), evidence-based policymaking, respect for difference (it is the outliers who ensure the progress and survival of the species), kindness to people who believe in fairies except in politics, anti-feminist, anti-identity politics (you are a person not an hysterical attribute) and anti-Frankfort School ideology which precisely means that I support the rights of women to make their own choices and that I support socio-economic and political equality, above all against the matriarchal top-down busybodies of the Academy.

All in all, a classic pre-1970s rational, pragmatic liberal socialist who still believes in the democratic nation state (not that the UK is really one any more) - very much an endangered species amidst the hysterics, posturers, hypocritical moralists, opportunists and downright liars of modern media-driven democracy. Not currently party-affiliated: the Labour Party is so appallingly decadent that the Tories now look relatively competent. How did that happen? Oh, and past contributor to Tribune, The Chartist and Lobster and founder of over which I have no editorial control or influence whatsoever.

Instinctively polyamorous like most men if they were honest but married to a remarkably interesting woman with two very bright and likable kids ... I really like women a lot and my sympathies are wholly with Emma Goldman on 'feminism'. I do not like sport or engines. I rather like fashion and art.

However, my aversion to ideology, identity politics (which has destroyed and fragmented the intelligent distributionist Left) and post-Frankfort School idiocy suggests that if you are a dim-witted femi-nazi who denies men their fulfilment as anything other than pale imitations of themselves, an ethnicist or traditionalist or a happy-clappy rights liberal or activist, you might be a helluva lot happier not entering into my circle..


My philosophy in life is existentialist (as if regular readers had not guessed). Life is a path that leads to death and no other end. There is no point in believing that you will be pulled from the pit by some great God. You climb out yourself.

The only meanings are those you make for yourself. But, actually, life is good, very good, if you feel the fear and make it work for you. I am passionately anti-anti-natalist and all philosophies of death and the death instinct. I prefer Catholicism for all its evils and mistakes to a Buddhism which negates.

Sometimes, things will go very wrong but these can be good times in retrospect, though you may regret that you had to learn the hard way.

But no regrets is part of the rule-book. Just live with it and move on ...

Philosophers who are admired include Heraclitus, Socrates, Kierkegaard (without the God bit), Nietzsche, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein and Foucault. I respect Wilhelm Reich and Jack Parsons not for their thought but for their good will. I find the philosophers of the Far Right challenging, fascinating and instructive - their critiques of contemporary liberalism resonate even though I oppose them. There are dangers in these thinkers and they require contesting with respect.

Philosophers who are despised include Plato, anyone deluded enough to think that meaning subsists outside ourselves, Hegel and all Hegelians (though with a sneaking respect for Marx's use of Hegel to create a dynamic political movement which, though it went wrong, still gave hope to the hopeless and still has things to say today) and guilt-ridden post-Nazi 'liberals' like followers of Kojeve and Habermas. Zizek drives me up the wall - did he and others not see that Tsipras was engaged in a doomed enterprise. I have no time for German Idealism more generally, analytics who dance on the head of a pin or who invent elaborate ethics in order to avoid personal despair or ensure tenure. My current bug bear is the fashion for extreme scientific speculation which is taken too seriously - it is an enjoyable stopping off place between real philosophy and science fiction.

Matters of the Spirit

I was never interested in the idea of some ghostly spirit, internal or external, animating us and then merging with some abstract Great Beyond. The mind is materially embedded in the body and the mind-body in society and all is fundamentally matter. We are emergent from matter but we cannot say we understand precisely what we mean by matter in this context. Functionalist materialism is simply an interpretation of materialism and there may be more here yet to be uncovered - or never recoverable.

There remain great mysteries in the functioning of society, about the nature of ourselves and about the workings of minds which may as well be regarded magically as undiscovered, and possibly undiscoverable, science.  If there have to be gods, then I choose Dionysos and Aphrodite, Odin and Freyja ...

But you cannot escape the drag of matter, of others or of your own carcase. A Luciferian rebellion, in the end, makes it all worthwhile because it asserts the working of your own deeper matter against the matter worked on you by the laws of physics and by the burden of social organisation. The imagination, a creative irrationality, is what makes us able to move beyond being mere walking stones, shuttled around by blind necessity and previous chance.

If I could rebel against matter I would but I cannot, so, instead, I reserve the right to rebel against social convention and the dead weight of history to free the mind-body for new experiences and pleasures, for individual psychological transcendence (not to be confused with claims about the universal) and for the benefit of those I love.

God certainly need not be involved. Past texts, especially those 'revealed' in the Iron Age, are useless. As are all socially constructed abstracts ... I very much prefer the realist Foucault to the delusional Habermas.


I used to be involved in politics a great deal. I wasted much of my life and time on the 'official' Left. It achieved little and all I learnt was that the few will always command the agenda of the many, not because they are strong but because we, the many, are weak. Recent events surrounding Jeremy Corbyn's candidature for leadership has exposed to the gaze of all what I learned in the struggles of the 1990s - the main Party of the British Left is deeply dysfunctional, staffed by second and third rate minds with no strategy beyond the 'next election'. The British Labour Party is little more than the defensive manouevre of conservative special interest groups terrified by the onward march of history. I may join it again if Corbyn wins even though his politics are not mine (though I know and respect the person)

On the other hand, anarchism tends to the naive, riddled with the naturalistic fallacy, deviant forms of religion and hidden communitarian terrors. One sinks back into a soft sort of left-libertarianism, a social liberalism or libertarian socialism created out of justifiable pessimism tempered by good will. I would prefer even Baathist order to the killing fields created by enthusiastic and naive armchair liberal outrage, at least when push comes to shove on taking the AK47 out of the broom cupboard.

I have certainly come to dislike the self-regarding political class and the lies of the 'international community' (aka professional fixers) but equally those who afford them loyalty out of an ignorant tribalism, corporatist cowardice or a refusal to think about the nature of power and how the power of the few depends on the willing servitude of the many at home and their disregard abroad ... evil lies so often in obeying orders provided by those same second rate people who naturally rise to the top of political institutions.

The foot soldiers of domestic left-wing politics have been continually digging while in a hole. Solidarity, once it has served its initial purpose, tends to become slavery. The networks of people determined to collaborate to get the cattle trucks from place to place without asking about the destination, combined with the awful truths of social psychological experimentation by our elites, suggested to me that evil was well embedded in the human species by its very socialisation strategies long before we were born.

And so I am a peculiar form of pessimist of the anarcho-Left, owing more to Rabelais, De Sade (the philosopher), Nietzsche (again), Paine, Shelley, William Morris and the incomparable Oscar Wilde than the current degenerate crew of rascals serving special interests, overseas and domestic, who have passed by the moniker of 'New Labour' and who owe more to Lloyd George than Keir Hardie.

These became mere statist war-mongers who have run the economy into the ground for the sake of power, and whose supporters are a rump of dangerous post-Marxist ideologues. In the end, they rise like scum to the surface to get their well-paid jobs in an international system that they created. In that context, it is billionaire wealth creators who deploy capital well to create jobs and build economies that impress me more than the Atlanticist and European clowns who do the opposite. The real talent is at the front end of capitalism nowadays and the leaders of the people should be ashamed of themselves for letting this happen.

The problem may be with Parliamentary Democracy itself, with the prerogatives of the Crown, with the dominance of Party and with institutional special interests that stand in the way of the people's own ability to develop their capabilities in collaboration with others. The way that the priestly class of public intellectuals and third-rate journalists dictates the terms of politics in the Atlantic system and the way modern graduates lap up the nonsense is a lot of the problem ... closed cosmopolitan (a classic contradiction) elites believing their own lies about the nature of the world and existence.

I stand against the bureaucratic State, the Crown as State (though I quite like the Windsors out of sentiment), foreign wars, federalism of all types, the corporate mentality (while appreciating the innovations supplied by genuinely free Jeffersonian markets and even intelligent State infrastructural investment), managerialism as cult, neuroscientific manipulation and tenured technocracy.

Science, technology and innovation are mostly very very good indeed but have to be kept out of the hands of the fruits and the nuts. The market and the State do inspire great works of progress as well as great evils.

Malatesta,Tucker, Rocker, Kollontai, the Kronstadt Mutineers, Zapata, Makhno and, of course, Goldman all had a point and the naive Jack Parsons makes that point likeable: freedom and personal autonomy within a society of free individuals is our highest aspiration ... but I would still trust a weak democratic State over any number of self-righteous activist enthusiasts who weedle their way into the bureaucratic corporatism of social democracy under self-righteous liberal cover.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Frontiers 5 - Downloading Minds

In early July, the Guardian reported that "Scientists have linked together the brains of three monkeys, allowing the animals to join forces and control an avatar arm, in research that raises the prospect of direct brain-to-brain interfaces in humans." As with all such technology, it is 'early days' - a Borg-like collaborative ability to do something mechanical is interesting but not yet useful. However, if minds can be connected to other minds, we are moving into an area once deemed pseudo-science or magic - telepathy - and it suggests that something deemed intrinsically absurd - uploading minds to another platform than the biological human body (or into another biological form) may not be so absurd in the far future. If brain-to-brain, why not brain-to-alternative-substrate.

The possibility raises all the questions about 'what it like to be a bat' in a new form. What will it be like to be a human being whose sensory inputs are radically changed either in a soft form, by inheriting the subtly different senses of another human being, or in a hard form by being given new senses in a new form of material embodiment that might need very different processing tools to cope with the data. Will the first people to explore new worlds in inner space go mad or not? And will we have issues of neural privacy and hacking that make our issues with internet privacy seem relatively easy to resolve by comparison?

The practical short term benefit of current brain research is relatively simple and holds very few existential terrors and only tactical opportunities. If scientists can get the human mind to be able to 'move' prosthetic limbs and mechanical additions to the human body, then this would be a stunning move forward for the quality of life of the severely disabled, a liberating use of technology for a significant minority that could materially reduce human misery and frustration. On the other hand, "The scientists said that in the future, the concept might be extended to produce neurally connected “swarms” of rats with collective intelligence" [Guardian] which I suggest we need like we need a hole in the head.

There is another aspect of the case. Scientists have been dismissive of telepathy and perhaps a lot of telepathic discourse is wish fulfilment but the folk beliefs of many people attest to practical experience of small-scale examples of mental connection over long distances, especially between family members and sexually bonded people. This is before we even get into the even more contested territory of psi, clairvoyance and so forth. I have witnessed directly at least two examples of 'death telepathy' - my mother waking in the night to report her father coming towards her and calling out her name and the phone call coming to say that he had died without warning that night (though not entirely unexpectedly) and my own experience of waking with a sharp intolerable knife like feeling of something slicing through my brain and getting a phone call from my father an hour or so later that my brother had been shot on military exercises - in the head - though the timing of the shot and my waking was out of synch (though not perhaps his actual death). These could be coincidence or chance but reports of this phenomenon are widespread, unprovable (though both 'wakings' were witnessed by third parties) and tend to run in families as if there is some genetic aspect, some lost sense, which is to be found in some gene lines and not others.

The science of the 'super brain' (the ridiculous hyperbole of the media-friendly scientist) tells us nothing yet about this folk phenomena which remains scientifically very elusive. Other similar phenomena I have experienced, and which I accept as 'normal' no matter how talked away by positivists, all have one thing in common ... they are triggered by extreme external events or frustrations, usually 'in the zone' (that is distracted from reasoning). There is no means of willing or controlling or redoing what has happened. It is a form of altered state (which we discussed in the last Posting in this series).  At the end of the day, the monkeys and the rats involved in the scientific experiments were connected by material arrays making a physical connection between the brain matter and the man-made external tools. There is no evidence here of thought leaping across space and perhaps time through the ether (though if radio can, why not mental transmissions?) but only of the ability to connect matter in its formal atomic sense.

For this reason, we have to separate the random, probably real but uninvestigable business of mental transmission without any obvious material connection from this business of wires and cables - so the question becomes not whether we can enter into someone else's mind through telepathy but whether our minds can manipulate other minds, merge with other minds or be uploaded into other bodies. This is the frontier that we are looking at here. As for the monkeys, "Although their brains were not directly wired together, [they] intuitively started to synchronise their brain activity, allowing them to move the arm collaboratively to a reach for a virtual ball on the screen" which is suggestive at least.

As for Whole Brain Emulation [WBE] which is the business of taking a brain and so a mind and enabling it to run on a non-biological platform or substrate, the consensus among speculative scientists is that the technology is theoretically perfectly possible at a mechanical level even if it does not exist yet and may not do so for some considerable time. It is another question whether it is a practical proposition. Another again whether the uploaded mind will actually be conscious. So, although not immediate, the philosophical, ethical and social issues raised by WBE are going to have to be faced at some stage if our society continues to develop technologically as it is doing.

The obviously troubling questions to those who are candidates for uploading are those of identity ... is the uploaded person the same person? If there is an upload and the original remains in place, do we have two separate persons or not? If the upload is a mass upload - ten thousand uploads of the same individual - what are the implications? ... and ... another set of questions along different lines ... what changes will happen to identity and personality with massively different sensory inputs or increased or different processing power or less or more mobility or a virtual environment into which the mind is lodged? And what of death if the uploaded person is apparently immortal (or near to it) yet reliant, just as we are, on energy sources being maintained and on mechanics and systems outside the uploaded self? What becomes of the person when the biochemical basis for feeling is eliminated? Are neuroses transferred with the mind?  What happens to a mind that no longer feels hunger or suddenly has to cope with the different desires and hungers of another human body? And what of chimera or hybrid bodies that have mechanical and biological elements or merge the biologies of different species? And so on and so on ad infinitum.

But this is all high-end speculation which we frequently warn about. Speculative science is a form of mental activity somewhere between science and philosophy but it is not necessarily either good science or good philosophy. It can, too quickly, become a genre within science fiction. The 'frontier' is not (any more than in our space-related postings) way out there with the mental equivalents of star travel but in the more near-at-hand whose applications are likely to be prosthetic and related to the techno-enhancement of our own species - a subject we will deal with in a later Frontiers. Given that predicted dates for full human brain simulation through super-computation have passed already, it is probably true that Kurzweil's 2029 predicted date will pass in the same way. It is true that "a massively parallel electronic counterpart of a human biological brain in theory might be able to think thousands to millions of times faster than our naturally evolved systems" [1] but thinking is not all there is to being - a common mistake of the enthusiastic nerd.

Something that thinks at those speeds is not a human brain but something different, far faster than a human brain. It would be a brain-like thing, that is all. In any case, the speed of the connections (where electronics are far faster than biology) is not at issue but the number of possible connections under conditions where the number of connections in an average human brain would require an enormously large supercomputer. Something that large is self-evidently not relating to the environment in the same way as a brain-sized brain in an ambulatory android. Reproducing human brains (before we even get to the framework for uploading) may not require a revolution in processing speed but it would require a nanotechnological revolution in the hardware that does the processing and then a choice of embodiment that at least approximates not only the sensory capacities of the human but their mobility in the sensory world that humans inhabit (rather than a simulated silicon sensory world). It would be wrong to be dismissive of progress to date - not only is nanotechnology in itself a leading edge technology of fearsome potential but there are time-sharing options that supercomputers can use and which are already getting close to approximating mammal brains albeit at slower speeds. Something brain-like with an intellectual capacity exceeding that of our species will undoubtedly appear within the next three decades or so. But any uploaded human minds entering this system will not be human but post-human. We are speaking here of species-replacement and not enhancement.

A key question is one of data capture when it comes to the matter of moving from creating a brain-like thing that emulates the human brain, but is not like any actually existing human brain, to emulating an actually existing human brain (the upload of a personality). If you look deeply, the extrapolations from (say) Moore's Law rather evade the issue of computational complexity - the enthusiasts for mind uploading simply have no idea what the actual computational requirements, likely to be very huge indeed, would be for successful uploading and, of course, there is the other side of the equation, how one abstracts data from the really existing brain so that it might be uploaded then or later without killing it (creating a copy). Since 2005, there has been a Blue Brain Project at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne which aims to reverse engineer a mammalian brain to create an artificial electronic brain but the researchers have no illusions about what they are doing. One of the key researchers said in 2004 that "in the brain, every molecule is a powerful computer and we would need to simulate the structure and function of trillions upon trillions of molecules as well as all the rules that govern how they interact. You would literally need computers that are trillions of times bigger and faster than anything existing today."  It is not likely that we have seen a supercomputer, even hidden away in the defence establishments of the great powers, that is "trillions of times bigger and faster than anything existing" in 2004 appear since then. In a moment of enthusiasm later, this researcher predicted a detailed functional artificial brain by 2019 so maybe ... since the funding arrived, that same researcher has been noticeably rather silent.

There is a simulation model that this writer imperfectly understands but based on reverse-engineering the blueprint of the brain's data system but this has the huge assumption embedded that there are no quantum mechanical processes involved. The jury is out on that one. A full brain map is technically feasible (we understand) in terms of data storage of the brain's system fixed in time but the sheer complexity of the functioning biology of the brain may make the final tally of data far too big to handle. The logic of the situation is, once again, not an uploaded brain of an actual person with memories and all but rather a brain-like thing that mimics a person. Will it be conscious? Hard to say when we only surmise that any other human being is conscious. No current technology appears to be sufficiently robust to reliably capture the actual molecular structure of the brain, bringing us back to the Blue Brain Project's 2004 concerns. Naturally, that does not mean that a future technology or the improvement of current technology might not result in the level of data capture required but the obstacles seem formidable.  And it should be remembered that nearly all (though not all) the research work being undertaken is funded not to upload minds but to understand the brain better for medical purposes - specifically, "various psychiatric disorders caused by malfunctioning neurons, such as autism, and ...  how pharmacological agents affect network behavior."  Some richer than average enthusiasts anxious about death are keen to fund research designed to upload a mind and reboot it in virtual space but offering, for example, $106,000 as a prize (as in one case) is unlikely to speed matters up a great deal.

The science may also be irrelevant, as we reviewed in the last Frontiers posting, if consciousness (such as it is) is not quite as quantifiably physicalist or functionalist or is based on quantum events as many philosophers suspect and argue. The critics are persuasive but there is no need to move into a dualist position to follow them. There is a revised materialist model - somewhat along the lines of Arthur C. Clarke's famous 'magic is just undiscovered science' - in which the hard materialists are right that mind is an emergent property of matter but that they are wrong that it is to be understood in terms of the quantifiable matter of classical physics or in terms of the possibility that it can be understood in real time by a sufficiently intelligent system which can then reproduce it as an 'upload'. We have seen that the simulation model cannot work if there are quantum effects but no model can work if the amount of computation of all states of being within the conscious brain is far greater than anything that is material that is not that brain itself.

One can thus perceive easily enough of a brain being created but not of a brain that can mimic perfectly another brain if only because the mimicking brain will always be sufficiently marginally different to be different from the uploaded person. At best, the person who dies does not simply transfer from one state to another but ceases to exist and a simulacrum emerges that believes itself to be the person that has just died. To all intents and purposes, the second brain, in believing themselves to be the first person, is the first person in a form of self-delusion but the differences between the state of the brain in the recently deceased body and in the new embodiment or virtual state will spin the second person rapidly into a new status altogether unless every possible memory, unconscious behaviour pattern, biological trigger and so forth are also transferred - that is, not only the brain must be transferred but the body including its gut bacteria and neuroses, indeed its somatic memory as well as its actual memory. Yes, we may able to create computational duplicates but not more than this. The fact that the uploaded entity believes itself to be subjectively the person from whom it was uploaded may be useful but it is not true. This is the fallacy of the non-self, fashionable in the dislocated modern world, but self-evidently not the case where a mind inhabits a brain which inhabits a body which inhabits a world with a continuous history of direct material experience. Transfers of minds merely transfer parts of the whole. This is the crux of the debate over whether an uploaded mind has been moved or copied.

Whatever the feasibility (and until brain emulation is judged more feasible most of the theoretical ethical, socio-economic, political, legal and philosophical thinking is pleasurable but rather idle), the actual frontier at this time is that of practical neuroscience. This also means a frontier of psychological manipulation, surveillance and intrusiveness, cognitive enhancement and medical improvement. The neuroscience directed at these ends cannot be isolated from research into artificial intelligence because it might be regarded as a race against time whether the next advanced 'consciousness' will be an enhanced virtualised or embodied human or an embodied or non-embodied artificial intelligence. The bookies would probably put money on an AI becoming at least far more intellectually enhanced than a human (and with its own views on the virtualisation or mental enhancement of its creator) well before a mind is ever uploaded.

The dialectic between the human fear of death that drives the more radical models of mind uploading and the existential risk of emergent AGI is scarcely discussed and yet this is the dialectic that matters - the human species wants to survive as individuals while something is emerging that may want to survive itself and may see the species or individuals as threat. Both sets of entity are, bluntly, being explored by capitalism as forms of slave labour and enhancements of the lifestyle of biological humans - both sets of entity may have their own views on this. If uploaded enhanced humans and emergent AGI find themselves competing for computing space within the virtual world and biological humans and embodied AGI are competing for material resources in the world as we know it, then we have science fiction scenarios that make the Terminator series look thoroughly simplistic. It means three new sets of highly intelligent enhanced 'types' emerging out of technology in a situation where none of the three should underestimate the biological cunning of the root species in a material world of four-dimensional space that it understands well from hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. In the end, for all their advanced intellectual capacity, the three new proto-species may not stand a chance against the native humans ... plugs can get pulled.

We could go further down the line of our magical mystery tour and look at something which the proponents of brain emulation seem reluctant to discuss - the socio-politics of undertaking brain emulation in a society in which the first truly successful candidates (taking into account the possible horrors of existence for the experimental candidates) are likely to be represented by very rich people who can afford what they think is immortality but which is actually a post-human status that may give them enormous further personal advantages in the competition with the poor saps who remain homo sapiens sapiens. Science fiction has, with Battlestar Galactica and the Terminator series, now developed a corpus of work on the alleged dangers of one rival species, artificial general intelligence, but is only now trying to come to terms in its usual primitive and clumsy way with the theoretical threat of post-human brain transfer.

From this perspective, Luc Besson's Lucy was a far more interesting film than the predictable Transcendence simply because it tried to imagine the post-human without recourse to the standard trope of the genius-billionaire within a standard Hollywood adventure-love story that could as easily have been crafted at any time in Hollywood's history. The film failed, of course, but at least it tried. The interesting socio-politics lies not in the death-averse behaviour of billionaires - after all, the trope is as easily done with vampires as with technology as we have seen in The Strain - but the response of the masses and then of a minority of the masses to an existential threat to their identity as the dominant or most conscious of species. Extant covered this somewhat with a Kaczynski response to androids. Downloaded emulants would be highly vulnerable to deliberate warfare on their kind through destroying their new substrate as something dependent on energy and vulnerable to viruses and hacking. The terror of being stuck in a substrate and being sent to virtual hell and torment by vengeful hackers may make death the soft option. It is only (paradoxically) the lack of imagination of transhumanist billionaires and their Igors that allows them to continue with their mad struggle for immortality.

But we are falling back into the worst sort of speculative 'science'. Maybe Kurzweil is right that we will be 'digitally immortal' by 2045. I doubt it. What is more likely is that a form of digital consciousness that may or may not be zombie-like in practice and subject to its own programming will exist in some form at some stage, that it will be existentially different from us and may either be convergent with artificial intelligence or competitive with it. But the argument that 'we' can be downloaded as minds may be superficially attractive to the more autistic end of the spectrum that positions intellect ahead of emotion (yet why bother if AI can always trump us in intellect) but which strike me as speculative wish-fulfilment in the face of a classic existential anxiety over death - a sentimental and emotional response. The ultimate techno-maturbatory fantasy is to try to deal with two radical problems - that we are probably biologically incapable of reaching beyond the solar system in our current form (see our first Frontier posting) and that we are all going to die - by uploading ourselves into mechanistic starships that roam the universe near the speed of light, changing our perception of time without (apparently) going mad and yet remaining 'human'.

The argument that even if we could upload our minds, they would cease to be human minds (the new life form argument) is argued better from somewhere closer to the dear old 'bat' question of Nagel by Efstratios Filippidis in his analytical piece on mind uploading than here. He usefully summarises his position here. He argues quite simply from the differences in the perception of qualia that emerge from the formal substrate of the brain so that, although we have invented or discovered (according to Platonic taste) a scientific world of workable technologies based on the workings of matter, the mind, based on brain matter, works itself out with such massive variation between individuals that, even though we might reproduce the material basis for that mind, we may not so easily be able to reproduce the perception of qualia (sound, taste, smell, pleasure and so forth) that are based on the brain being embedded somatically in a total biological system. In short, reproducing minds or even brains in isolation from bodies is literally de-humanising a species that is not just intellectual but sentimental and emotional and has merged from within a processing system that is excellent not only at analysing situational data from several sources in motion but also, and this is key, selecting and forgetting. A mind detached from that system of mobility, sensory perception and somatic embodiment is a different from us as we are from the bat. A mind that cannot forget is never a human mind.

Of course, a mind might be uploaded with the memory of all sensations but, unable to live in the new present with mobility, the same sensory machinery and bodily structure of the past, the memory will be detached from any new experience under the new conditions of existence with very different mobilities or lack of mobilities and senses. In the end, the only true human upload is one into another (presumably improved and longer lasting) bio-mechanical body with the broadly similar sensory and mobility functions as the old. The true frontier technology of uploading is not really a matter of uploading minds but of transforming bodies in all their complexity. One may as well accept improvement to existing bodies and minds (the medical model) as a much more useful investment of human energy than sending isolated minds to go mad in energy-vulnerable autistic micro-worlds. Although much of Filippidis' essay is (frankly) absurdist science fiction and even unphilosophical moral valuation, this problem of perception of qualia does lend credence to the position that Nagel's 'bat' problem is also in play. As Filippidis puts it at one point:
"One of the powers that our virtual ones would have inside the virtual world of a computer [the model he is discussing] is to quickly transform themselves into whatever they want. By doing so, they could, soon after the uploading process finishes, rapidly or even immediately become something quite different from their original one. Consequently, their common identity with their original counterpart would be lost very quickly. We would not longer identify ourselves with our virtual counterpart and the entire idea of eternal permanence of ourselves would result in immediate failure."
This, of course, falls into the science fiction category of thought but the point underlying this is valid - that the relationship of a new uploaded identity and the old identity is not one (in fact) of identity but one of an intensification of the difference that exists even in ordinary humans between one moment and the next of being a 'self'. With humans, the transformation of self - whether circular re-invention or human progression and personal development or the leaps and bounds of punctuated equilibrium - operates at a steady pace in accordance with the underlying somatic and sensory apparatus. The transfer of a mind from one substrate to another is a far more radical shift of perception and embodiment and although, within the new body, the self will construct itself again within its steady time frame based on its sense data and type of embodiment, the distinction between the two selves will be a radical one in which only memory unconnected to the means of creating new memories of that type will exist. One may postulate that, just as the unconscious exists and is connected to neurosis and dysfunction, so the 'human' will exist as the unconscious of the newly uploaded mind and be its source of neurosis and dysfunction. Perhaps AI psychotherapists will be helping uploaded minds probe their 'humanity' for answers to dysfunctionality within the artificial world of a starship flight that takes 70,000 years ...

It is thus probably true that, at some stage in the future, minds will be uploaded in some form but it is unlikely that we will be able to call these minds human. We have already said that they will be post-human, evolved out of the human much as we are evolved from common ancestors to the chimpanzee. The mistake should not be made that evolution represents superiority or inferiority. It will simply be a better product for a new environment - whether a world created out of silicon within our world or a world of anti-biological space travel. For those who like their speculative science, Martine Rothblatt is a leading proponent of mindware but I do not think even she has quite thought through this post-human aspect of the case. She presumes (it would seem) that mind clones would be, well, clones, basically still 'us' in a different form rather than replacements for us in an environments where we cannot survive otherwise. This just does not seem plausible.

The post-human aspects of the case are made more explicit by the closing remarks of brain emulation guru Randal Koene in an excellent May 2014 Popular Science run-down of the more cultic, some might say parasitical, beliefs in brain emulation as a goal that (on the other hand) seems to be creative in pulling different scientific disciplines together in a way that reminds us of the early days of cognitive science:
"Brain uploading, Koene agreed, was about evolving humanity, leaving behind the confines of a polluted planet and liberating humans to experience things that would be impossible in an organic body. “What would it be like, for instance, to travel really close to the sun?” he wondered. “I got into this because I was interested in exploring not just the world, but eventually the universe. Our current substrates, our biological bodies, have been selected to live in a particular slot in space and time. But if we could get beyond that, we could tackle things we can’t currently even contemplate.”"
A lot of this falls down on one simple fact - unless we are dealing with a case of gradual uploading where one moves slowly and consciously from one substrate to another leaving nothing behind (that is we live consciously and aware through the transition, connected to both substrates and then jettisoning the first at the right time as a shell or first stage rocket), the transfer of a mind from one place to another is a copy. The reasoning is simple - if a transfer takes place and one mind remains in situ and another in the new substrate, then two versions (that will then diverge according to the dictates of the substrate) of the original exist. For the first to cease to be while the second version continues is to have one die and one live. Would the first observe their identical but diverging copy there and then freely extinguish themselves here in the belief that the copy was their very self. I think not - there would be a realisation that the first consciousness had not uploaded and was doomed to continue in the state into which it had been born whereas the brother or sister copy would go on to an entirely different existence albeit with a mental substrate of the first's history and memory and a belief that it was as continuous as the first. If belief makes the second into the first, then the second is the first but the first cannot become the second and remains behind ... or dead. Each upload will be, in fact, an existentially risky suicide and an upload to preserved a loved one in a virtual environment will be a simulacrum if only because existence in a virtual existence will transform the second into something different unless programmed otherwise and a loved one programmed by the lover is not a person but a toy.

The same applies to the fantastic notions of Koene and other transhumanists which are centred on species survival as if a) we are as individuals going to be satisfied with the abstract business of becoming representatives of the species (this, if anything, merely testifies to the obsessive and autistic aspects of the transhumanist mentality) and b), following on from the last paragraph, the starship persons in their silicon bodies may have descended from us but are not us, do not have our culture which is based on biology and a particular environment and at most may embody a certain sentimental relic of our human reality. If the best the transhumanists can offer us is an eternity of scientific curiosity in the wastes of space or on burning or frozen planets embodied in metal and code, then, again, it says something about the life-denying obsessions of men and women so frightened of death that they have forgotten how to live as humans.

Some of the speculative science involved here may be highly rational but it derives from assumptions about what it is to be human that are mere manifestations of the death instinct. The radical transhumanist of this type is little more than a figment of his own imaginative demise. No wonder there is a turn to religion - to Omega Points, the potty Christianity of Tipler and Teilhard de Chardin (with the occasional nod to the death instinct that is Buddhism) - in latter day transhumanism. This urge to the 'cod-spiritual' is the negation of the true transhumanism of Nietzsche (the overcoming of our socially determined nature and a return to an understanding of our biological drives and instincts as Life) and at one with the deeply sad loss of real science to the useless 'dialogue' with theology that infects the weaker minds of our culture. We can move on at this point and respect those practical transhumanists who hold to the Nietzschean vision of the enhancement of the human living in the world - lengthening lives to live well and not just longer, eliminating mental as well as physical disability, enhancing intellect, skill and the ability to love, pleasuring the senses and, yes, being curious about the world not as escapist speculation but as a process of command and control through the mastery of matter by mind.

Filippidis' own preferences are closer to mine but one still suspects that we would do better to spend our lives enjoying the time between birth and death and seeking to improve the environmental, somatic and mental conditions for this and future generations than expending energy and resources on a sub-Taoist search for immortality:
" ... my preferred methods for radical life extension and bio-techno immortality in the ( hopefully ) near future, are genetic ( and epigenetic ) engineering; continuous repair and elimination of all types of molecular garbage and structural defects accumulated by our metabolic processes, and, possibly, a progressive replacement of evolutionarily faulty cellular micro-structures and organs by artificial nano-structures or programmed nano-robots and synthetic improved organs."
So, returning to our frontier analogy, much of speculative science - starships and immortality - is really a distraction from the job in hand. The real frontier lies broadly in Filippidis' basic summary in the paragraph above. It is in the much more limited area of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that we see a real frontier rather than the hysterical almost cultic desires and claims of aspirant billionaire transhumanists. Sweep away the fruits and the nuts and we have some practical possibilities where technology can enhance human capability (which we are likely to return to in a later note). The first true BMI was probably the cochlear implant to improve hearing. Others could help victims of stroke or spinal chord injury walk again. Small electrode arrays might soon pick up neural signals from the motor areas of the brain, have them decoded by a computer and then re-transmit them to a prosthetic limb which then becomes integrated into the body-mind. The story we started the posting with is probably less interesting in that thre monkeys can communicate telepathically and more interesting in that the prosthetic limb is being manouvred by the mind of the monkeys whether one or three. There are still many technical challenges to be overcome, of course.

The bottom line here is that, with brain emulation and uploading 'minds', we are into a territory we have seen in previous postings and why the frontier analogy is so useful. There is a frontier but it is a frontier for human needs within sight of human resources. Just as entering into the inner solar system is part of the existential business of protecting all humans from asteroid impact and raising the possibility of strategic profit for some humans from resource mining, so investment in neuroscience is primarily about helping many humans and future generations overcome serious mental and physical diabilities. Just as hurtling outside our solar system to fly to the stars is scientific fantasy to all intents and purposes, at least as biological entities, so is cheating death by becoming post-human. The aspiration to the latter might motivate research to the former and feed young imaginative minds and perhaps public support for funding into the programmes but it could equally be a distraction that, if taken too seriously, could cut vital enthusiasm and funding with the first proof that the super-dream of the nerds was either certainly not feasible or too expensive for the alleged benefits or both. This would be tragic - as we saw with the first space programme which died too early because it was no longer useful in great power politics and lost us decades in defeating the asteroid threat. The speculative scientists always need managing and correcting if we are to bring people (especially intellectually lazy legislators) down to earth and return our efforts to what can be achieved if only we stick at it and do it for the right reasons. Becoming a post-human is up the with flying to Gliese 667 - second order to diverting asteroids and curing disability and we should perhaps start telling it like it is instead of treating ourselves like children (charming though that may be) with an excess of imaginative fantasy.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Further Ruminations on East and West, Science and Religion ...

There is a difficulty for anyone seeking to engage with the 'Wisdom of the East'. If you think you are just a creature, ultimately, of matter subject to physical and biological laws, out of which your awareness of your self and the world has emerged, then you are going to be dismissed as wrong-headed by most (though not all) of those who look to the East as fount of 'wisdom'. Yet there is no necessary non-materialistic cause that would make the various transformative experiences that Eastern (and, for that matter, shamanic) techniques can offer anything other than experiences based on some (if not fully understood) physical or biological process.

The problem on the other side is that, whenever a scientist uncovers a bit of the alleged 'God gene' or works out what self-generated DMT actually does to the brain, he tends to crow that this means that all 'spiritual' thought can be reduced to his terms as a number-crunching rule maker. This sets up an interesting problem for modern man. One tradition is dismissive of the ability to 'become' through guided and learned technique: indeed, is a little frightened by its apparent irrationality. The other tradition insists on putting spirit or magic where none may be. Although we may smile at Dion Fortune today, there may have been merit in her insistence that occult matters were thoroughly scientific even if we demur when she suggests that it is a a science lost when an imagined continent disappeared.

Liberal intellectuals often spend inordinate amounts of time castigating irrational belief without investigating its social and personal functionality - to the extent that one suspects that they are behaving no less like gay-bashing closet homosexuals in the Southern Baptist pastorhood in their prejudice. Do they really so fear their own unconscious? They certainly do not have a fully formed and adequate answer to the claims of the 'spiritual'. What are they so obviously scared of?

You usually get some reference to the rise of the Nazi Party at some stage in the discussion of irrationalism which only goes to show that the average liberal intellectual has a highly superficial command of history, neuroscience and religion all at the same time - no mean achievement! Yet, and we return to Dion Fortune again, in her 'The Winged Bull' she provides a dynamic view of the berserker nature of the 'racial consciousness' in a hero who is by no means a bad man, rather a sturdy, decent and protective, an older type who worked for a society at a certain point of time (and helped defeat Kaiser and Fuhrer alike). Simply to throw this type out of the door of history means that we turn the undoubted evil that stalked Europe in the 1930s and 1940s into an over-simplified travesty of what it felt to be a man or a woman in a particular time or place.

Meanwhile, the 'spiritual' types rarely help their case (with some noble liberal exceptions) when they pontificate as gurus, looking with disdain on the poor saps who have not seen what they think they have seen themselves.  A third way might be to accept the reality of monism and materialism without throwing the baby out with the bath water. The laws of the universe exist alright. They are just science that is not yet understood when they appear to be spiritual or magical and actually 'do something' in the world. The problem for positivists is that some things not understood are actually there and may be the basis of techniques (a technology were we to be so clever) with positive benefits for many people.

We can throw away both the simplistic materialism that refuses to see future possibility and the determination of adepts to make their experiences a little bit more meaningful than they really are. The scientific approach to the spiritual (which is really the way we perceive the world in order to create meaning) and a 'spiritualisation' of science (which means humanising existence into forms that can mean something to people) seem to be the way ahead for a healthy humanity. A personal existentialism and a scientific humanism can leave space for the 'mysterium' without recourse to God, spirit or universalities that are not possible.

The third side of the triangle underpinning the modern mentality, set between scientific observation and the subjective experience required to create meaning, is probably the the existential capability to create fresh meanings out of what is 'given out' as the world over time. Both science and 'spirit' appear to like to fix things as immutable (this is not strictly true of good scientists and good mystics but is certainly true of those who claim to follow them). Both have laws or commandments called 'models' or dogma, urgent statements of how things are. The scientific models seem to do better under scrutiny than the religious ones. But the world in general and society in particular, let alone each and every individual, are in a constant process of Heraclitean transformation which either we command or we are commanded by. There are points where even science can tell us only what is impossible and not what might be possible within the constraints of the impossible.

So what might block a creative process of adaptive responsiveness to change? What might limit us as a species at the very moment in our history when we are sensing that we might be displaced by our own creation in artificial intelligence and have once again a hunger for the stars that will not easily be sated if we rely on biological entities, fish out of watery planets. Probably the block will lie in the extremities that stand just outside each side of the triangle: excessive positivism ('rigidity'), excessive essentialism ('gloom') and a propensity to change and shift for the sake of the matter rather than in accordance with one's own true will or unconscious ('the mind of the butterfly') .

Respect the nature of the given world, accept that it is partially but not entirely malleable to will and know your own will - those seem to be three reasonable responses to existence. All three are difficult but not impossible to handle. All three are subject to our having a critical stance to the sum of available knowledge. Dawkins, Biblical Fundamentalists and Robert Anton Wilson may all be necessary exemplars of unnecessary extremism in thought in this context - useful cases that show us where not to go.

The life well lived probably has more to do with a moderate respect for science and received 'normality' (which always emerged for a reason with its own history), with a selfhood that is fully aware that things change constantly and with the idea that we must control our own adaptation than it does with taking stands that merely show that we have no idea who we really are.

Do we really need to have our identities dictated from outside? In this context, the techniques of the East and the knowledge of the West are just tools for self-calibration and for social calibration under conditions of permanent flux. Eastern technique as an end in itself results in a sterile withdrawal from social existence. Western technique as an end in itself results in personal sterility. The flow of one to the other and back again, finely calibrated within oneself and between oneself and others, is both an art and a science.

There is no necessity for the concept of the divine nor of reincarnation nor of the 'eternal return' - these metaphors may be useful to kick-start thought but they become dessicating when they are believed to be true. Liberation starts with the elimination of the divine and placing science in our hands as a tool for our own purposes. Experts and priests are good on means (assuming they are tried and tested). They are very bad on ends. Only we can know our own ends.

Frontiers 4 - Counting Stars: Altered States, Psychodynamics & Revolution

"Everything That Kills Me Make Me Feel Alive"

It may seem odd to include the altered mental state as a frontier alongside space exploration and the effects on culture of theoretical physics and cosmology but a disciplined appreciation of the altered mental state has the same relationship to the scepticism about the world discussed in the previous posting in the series as the search for exoplanets has to the near-term exploration of the inner solar system. The investigation of further reaches requires a sound grounding in near-term achievement - scepticism, in the philosophical sense, is the first requirement in investigating consciousness.

Scepticism About Meaning Not Potential Value

Our sceptical view of what we can know, yet without diminishing our desire to know, has a 'further reach' within our own personal psychologies. Individuation is as great a frontier for persons as the edge of the solar system is for the species. We increasingly understand that abnormal mental states are not always sickness or deviance but also nor are they insights into anything but themselves as they stand. There is no need to replace a closed-in fear and condemnation of altered states with an absurd belief that they actually tell us anything more about the external world than our 'normal' senses and scientific method can do. They do provide, however, other analogical ways of describing our own experience. By experiencing ourselves in relation to the world with new mental tools may not give us an insight into the world as it is but it may give us an insight intio our own relationship to the world as it is - in other words, what we are. We are not simply a component of the world (which we are in a material sense) but are makers of worlds through our perception and imagination, the emergent property of matter which is consciousness.

The relationship between scientific method and technology, and so functional normality, is always going to be a preferable for mode of existence for humanity as a whole and for most individuals in most situations for most of the time than the faux-transcendence of non-normal mental states. But this is not to say that offside states are valueless - far from it. The central point here is that 'altered states' are and must be temporary to be useful and to be distinguished from permanent or unwilled states of psychosis or total 'shifts of consciousness' that can happen with or without the intervention of an intervening 'altered state'. Culturally, we must be interested not in the altered state as a state in itself (other than aesthetically as a 'pleasure' or medically as an immediate cause of distress) but as a temporary cause of further possibly long term effects, functional and dysfunctional.

The altered state in itself, if unconsidered, is often quite the opposite of a frontier. It is a settling into something very conservative, a settlement behind the frontier, a means of avoiding or evading the real issue which is not to change or shift consciousness for a short period in order to 'cope' with life but to transform consciousness in a healthy and productive way from one 'normal' state to another. The second state is one more functional for the person (society can perhaps go hang at this point). It can also be dysfunctional and dangerous - states in which the mind might be manipulated from outside (as in hypnosis or the exploitation of ecstatic states by religious institutions) - and there may be direct harms to the brain and body from drugs which can seem to affect different people in radically different ways, allowing little opportunity for reliable rules of use. 'Taming' altered states while permitting the dionysiac is the challenge.

There is also a failure to understand that experience is not creativity - creativity is a rational dialectic with the unconscious. The loss of self in psychedelics seems to provide us with relatively little of value in terms of meaningful art. Experiencers struggle to express their awe (which is somewhat same-y in fact) in variants of the brightly coloured fractal and in sentimental approaches to the universal. The stuff can be unutterably dull and even laughable to non-believers. Such creativity is like that of the East Asian religions, interesting variations on what is a very closed experiential system in which the converted are speaking to each other. Very little is actually said within most of this closed system artistic expression about what it is to be human or about the human condition, except in extremely indirect terms, other than that it experiences certain things or believes certain things.  Once those things are understood to be experienced or believed in, there is nowhere else to go.

The romantic idea that creativity and madness are alike is also absurd ... it expresses only the experience of the intensity of neurotic emotion that some great craftsman and creative minds feel experientially when driving forward their art. Great creativity does not require the altered state. The very way that the psychedelic lobby clings on to a few very specific examples of links between altered states and creativity (ah, the discovery of benzene - again!) suggests that these events are the exception rather than the rule. This is not dismiss another aspect of the case - the ability of altered states to break logjams in thought and being that can release creativity that is inherent, closed down only because of social conditioning or neurosis.

The 'virtue' of (for example) psychedelics may lie precisely in the 'desemantic process' (going beyond language to see what lies below rational linguistic rule-based mental models). We will return to the problem of language later but what we can hypothesise reasonably enough is that our survival in evolutionary terms has relied on a working consensual reality based on language ('normality') but that personal models of consensual reality disconnect from 'real' reality (what actually happens in the world) and that language binds one into models that may work for others but do not work for oneself. At this level, language and ratiocination take one around in circles without some other means of breaking the logjam.

Similarly, the working model for personal reality can fail to provide enough information or provide far too much information to permit functionality. Gaining more information may be a matter of further analysis and ratiocination but perhaps the information you need is non-semantic and instinctive while overload of data might require either concentration on what matters or the sweeping away of overload to find some core of value - as in meditative practices. It is axiomatic that the vast biochemical differences between persons mean that there are vastly different responses to practices linked to altered states and that just as the State cannot create a uniform progressive experience for all persons so no person can claim the superiority of their particular mode of personal salvation. The point here is not for this posting to be that of the investigator and go deep into possibilities and risks but to point out that altered states are at the point of investigation into problem-solving, creativity and the understanding of personal psycho-dynamics. This is the 'frontier'. The crossing of this frontier will have profound social effects which the Leary era of disorganised border raids somewhat hid. The frontier needs to be crossed not by enthusiastic amateurs and wild-eyed ecstatics but by scientists and professionals who can build the infrastructure for safe settlement, mimimise risks and stop people settling in unsustainable or dangerous environments.

Altered Consciousness & Change

A shift of consciousnes might disconnect the person from prevailing cultural normality or re-connect with it. There is a kind of dynamic tension between the individual and society that is progressive and potentially revolutionary, allowing new calibrations between individual and competing social visions mediated through both rational thought and experiential change (in which altered states may have a role). It is this last frontier, that within the person in his or her relationship to the social, that interests us here - it is at the other end of the scale from space exploration and equal to the simple minded curiosity about matter as a simple-minded curiosity about mind of and in itself. Not mind as matter but the use of mind-matter (techne), not the experiential mind being described but the transformative mind transforming, not a state but a process. The action-ness of the praxis that derives from the knowledge is not the point - like a taxi driver, the knowledge is an aid to the real purposes of the exercise, geting from A to B and providing a living to the driver and if sat nav does it better, fine.

The outcome in the case of consciousness might, in fact, be a reaffirmation of existing personal and social paradigms (the conservative model) or the transformation of a personal paradigm so that it is different from the social (with the opportunity then to demand changes in the social). It could equally be a detachment of a new personal paradigm from a normality that is just seen as 'other' (a model of withdrawal from the world which is the model most fitted to overwhelmingly restrictive and totalitarian cultural models). The greater frontier here is often cast as the study of consciousness but consciousness is as slippery and as possibly non-existent as God - consciousnes studies may have to go the way of theology in the end. The study should not be the futile one of consciousness in the abstract (as opposed to brain function or neuroscience) but of what humanity may become as it evolves and what machines and alien creatures with a sense of self might be.

It is the working out of self-ness that is at issue. It is a speculative endeavour, like much of cosmology yet a rational approach to the absurd and unknowable may still create more knowledge about what can be known without ever being able to tell us that we can actually know what we set us to know. What has to be avoided is a confusion of categories - the great, absurd and dysfunctional speculations that thinking about the cosmos is thinking about God, that thinking about the mind is thinking about consciousness and that thinking about the cosmos is thinking about minds. What may be truly interesting is when we find that the altered human state may prove to be the normal state of another conscious or highly evolved creature in our cosmos while altered states' effects on normal consciousness and society may not only be 'bad' and problematic but also 'good' and transformational in a creative and positive way. An AI that develops a sense of selfhood may construct its world in ways wholly based on different senses and a different sense of embodiement ... if it does so, this alone wil challenge our understanding of it.

There is also accident or intent to take into account. If an altered state is accidental or pathological (trauma, epilepsy, oxygen deficiency, infection, unintentional or pathological sleep deprivation or fasting and psychosis) the matter is one of coping or medical intervention. The 'frontier' is an ameliorative or preventative one of scientifically or practice-based improvements in techniques for understanding, transformation or alleviation of distress. Psychosis is particularly problematic because some intentional states mimic it (delusions, paranoia, de-realization, depersonalization, and hallucinations), raising the key point that a transformative altered state has not only to be something you can enter into at will but also come out of, if not at will, then within a reasonably known time-frame - its temporary nature is important as is the fact that the activity is under the control of the subject. Psychosis is particularly problematic because serious distress and dysfunction are more likely to be averted if the psychotic aspects of a personality are identified early on in the process (much like cancer) and yet psychotic episodes might be interpreted by some as a positive 'spiritual' state in which society is unwilling to intervene without more cause - the problem of totalitarian intrusion into private life competes with the honourable desire to alleviate future suffering and the contradiction poses a challenge to cognitive libertarians.

This is not dissimilar to the problem of consent in sexual matters except that non-normal sexuality does not generally cause distress except where a society treats the sexually different person as a problem a priori. Change the society and you change the problem for many people: this too has to be hypothesis in relation to altered states. There are arguments that say that adaptive psychosis is a positive force for individual survival in a dysfunctional society but few clinicians are happy with this, faced with the facts of severe distress and the truth that you cannot change society quickly or feasibly even in the long term to fit the needs of the vulnerable even if it was proven to be true that the psychotic would be happy and adaptive if you did so. The point about sexual orientation and 'deviation' that harms no other is that it can be permitted without changing the balance of power betwen the strong and the weak. The strong come to realise that there is no benefit to them in repressing the weak and that they may have merely allowed one category of the weak to oppress another. So it may be with altered states in due course: as priests oppressed single mothers so may it be that police officers oppress shamans. But the rest of society would not take kindly to being restricted or forced into behaviourial limits (and putting up with 'bad behaviour') by totalitarian radicals seeking to prove that madness was entirely social, any more than they would take kindly to gay culture being imposed rather than simply present. We have two binary extremes of all being permitted and all that is not 'normal' being forbidden when the cultural position that we are advocating and which is emerging as the civilisation of the more advanced portions of humanity is that all is permitted if and only if it is an act of personal will on reasonably full information and causes no harm to others.

Prior to the intentional altered state thus lie four critical questions - is it temporary in itself, do I have reasonably full knowlege of risks and rewards, do I freely choose it without third party or social pressure and will it cause any harm to others. The social context is the corollary of all this - is it permanent (in which case, as accidental or pathological, social services are there to help), is there an honest and evidenced educational structure to advise on risks and rewards, does society allow free choice to responsible adults and (the final check and balance from authority) can harm be reasonably defined (including harm to the individual beyond reasonable risk) and can corrective measures be put in place, if necessary denying the right to the altered state under certain circumstances. This takes us far into matters of social ethics and law which are not the 'frontier' but only the policing and settlement of the frontier as it is being crossed and the land is settled. The customary business of getting drunk on a Friday night has scarcely been considered in this light making some English towns like Wild West settlements for a few hours each week.

The States & The Frontier

Let us turn to a taxonomy of states so that we are clear what we want to investigate which are inadequately investigated. We may take it as read that pragmatic day-to-day consciousness and sleep are the subject of psychology as we see it today - the improvements in understanding and functionality are not the frontier except to the scientists involved. There are seriously bad altered states - coma, most (though not all) forms of hysterical consciousness and most (though not all) forms of fragmented consciousness which are associated with disease. These are frontiers of medical science. What need to be investigated at the frontier of what it is to be more-than-human are things like our ability to connect with our bodies (psychosomatics), stored and hidden memory, 'stupor' and dreaming, lethargic and hyperactive consciousness. These are the psychotherapeutic investigations, if you like. There is a second level where the matter is not only one of psychotherapy but of transformation - rapturous consciousness, relaxed consciousness, daydreaming, trance consciousness and the famous expanded consciousness. The last is really only the tail end of the game and should not be privileged. Disruption of temporal-spatial and sensory impressions, reassessments of memories, vivid symbolisation and the integrative experience, the 'false friend' of individuation if it takes over the ego in that silly busines of ego-dissolution as reality, are all of vital interest in creativity and change.

The accidental, pathological and ethical aspects of the case are not the frontier in the sense that our series means the term - not a great limit to be overcome. These are little more than correcting the habits and material problems left by evolution on minds that are evolving separably from their condition. It is just progressive improvement of already settled territory. The 'frontier' lies in the intentional - that is, how the individual in society and society deal with altered states not as problem (the historic approach to altered states) but as creative opportunity or as an anti-pathology in more general terms. Is it possible to manufacture positive temporary altered states for psychotherapeutic and creative purposes in ways that will transform society or are altered states not a frontier at all but just a pleasure and entertainment that simply require more effective administration, policing, education and investment in healthcare and social services? Are intentional altered states simply illusory states that imply temporary dysfunctionality coated with spiritual guff and in which there is no material change between the prior and the succeeding states of normality or are there altered states that are not only personally but socially transformative? This is the frontier question and the answer could go either way. Bear in mind that I am not advocating altered states but simply representing altered states as a significant cultural issue based on constant advances and changes in pharmacology and the cultural restlessness and inquisitiveness encouraged by new information and communications technologies.

It may be that the independent consensus is that altered states are, in fact, always pathological and are to be avoided because they are not liberatory and they are not more transformative than other more rational and normal (and social) forms of transformation. But the very fact that the question has to be asked makes this a frontier to be crossed and investigated if only to establish that what is on the other side is indeed repetitive desertland, beautiful but infertile, rather than a bounteous forest that can be cleared for settlement. So, if I move (unlike other essays) into a somewhat enthusiastic mode in what follows, it is an enthusiasm for the possibilities but with a preparedness to find that, well, actually there is nothing there but illusion and pleasure (and distress). If so, then our future society has still made a discovery of importance - putting mystical and spiritual nonsense into a box marked entertainment and distraction and allowing us not to infect the future with false meaning. But we do not yet know that this is a true assessment of the situation.

The Mysterium

Consciousness itself remains a mystery and we think it is a mystery for the same reason that God is a mystery - there is nothing there there. It is a word used to try to reify a state of being inside us much as God reifies the state of being around us. We think we know what it is because we are conscious simply by thinking of it as an idea but there is no intellectually satisfactory explanation or full description of it. Worse, we have to assume that we are not solipsistically the only consciousness in the universe despite having no possibility of experiencing otherwise. We can never prove an instinct that there is no universal consciousness and no consciousness that is shared (or the opposite) just as we cannot prove that there is or is not a God. Absurd thinking cannot be challenged through rational means at this level of absurdity. Consciousness remains a peculiar set of felt assumptions about our own relation to being and others. All human thought and reasoning is based on those assumptions which creates a very wobbly base for our much-vaunted Reason. But if we can dispose of God through reasoning and a shift of mentalities (as Nietzsche famously accepted) so we can do so with consciousness as a 'thing-in-itself' with the same initial traums succeeeded by the same necessary liberation and problem of the cultural detritus to be washed away afterwards. Western culture is stuck with God today as a habit and no doubt it wil be stuck with consciousness in the same way for several hundred years after the intelligent members of it have long since abandoned the notion.

If the assumptions are ever firmly disproved in one direction or the other, our entire culture transforms whether it be proof positive that two humans can actually merge consciousness, that a machine or alien emerges with a consciousness that is Borg-like or that God (or some exceptional philosopher or scientist) really does appear on earth and explain that we are all part of some transcendent whole in a way that is wholly irrefutable. We can imagine these possibilities but imagining something is not making them true. For example, to date, there is no convincing proof or evidence for the more creative ideas around the 'quantum mind' and those who try to present it as fact or probability rather than possibility are neurotically clutching at straws for reasons that probably have more to do with their desperate need for meaning than any scientific validity. The search for external meaning is, in itself, the root of most human errors. Instead of searching for meaning, we should be searching for value in the delivery of internal meaning. And this is why 'consciousness' or rather mind studies are a frontier just as much as space exploration.What started in the latter as a search for the ways of God became something very different before too long ...

We can certainly make philosophy out to be coherent through reasoning processes but that does not make it coherent except within the framework of the reasoning. The assumptions may be incoherent yet the system derived from them be coherent - we might call this the scholastic mentality where everything falls down on the simple business of there being no God revealed by an Iron Age text. We can make things seem coherent. No mechanistic explanation of consciousness is, as yet, more than theoretical or a belief. We can no more know non-human consciousness than we can know whether one's lover or priest is conscious (though it is functionally and pragmatically effective to believe so because we have to do things with lovers and priests that require the assumption of consciousness which we do not have to do with rocks and cattle). We have no tools for its recognition other than belief in the context of experience which gets too easily extrapolated to rocks and cattle. There are issues that are more resolvable perhaps surrounding the link between the perceived phenomenon of consciousness and language but it is an enormous leap of faith to start assuming that consciousness is created by and requires language. It is not a foolish belief but it is not a certain one either.

Similarly, there is fruitful philosophical and scientific work on the relationship between thoughts and mental processes and materiality and the physical but we are no further forward on fundamentals than Descartes - all we know is that he was certainly wrong about the Pineal Gland. Dualism in its permanent war with Monism is never final victor or loser and it may even be that both models are false and that the evolution of consciousness involves something that is both - a dualistic emergence embedded in matter and unable to be separated from matter. On this issue, I tend to stand with Ryle that we should speak not of minds, bodies and the world, but of individuals or persons acting in the world. Above all, we are now challenged by a question that has displaced the search for insights into the mind of 'God', moderated by the famous question of what it to think like a bat - what is it going to be like to think like a machine when the machine has become aware of itself and 'conscious'.

So, as with questions of time and reality, questions of consciousness have this paradoxical aspect that we now know that we cannot know anything ultimately true about fundamentals but we can know a great deal more than we do now about the business of being aware - as much as there is a great deal more to consider about matter and time. The search becomes a much more measured and patient one, an incremental process, like that of moving from the Moon to the asteroid belt. The first steps are necessary in order to find our ultimate limit which may, indeed, be an inability to go beyond our own solar system. But we do not know this yet and we do not yet know that we cannot understand 'being' so we have to keep moving until we do know what it is that we cannot know.

The Pragmatics & Methodologies

This non-existent God, consciousness, pardoxically remains worth studying regardless of philosophical qualms because of the relationship of the belief in consciousness, mind and health and happiness. This has become the territory of medicine, psychology, neuropsychology and neuroscience. The altered state becomes interesting, beyond the self medication of altered states for troubled or confused souls, as a means for pychotherapeutic change on the one hand and individuation and transformation on the other. We are shifting back to the mature position on (say) drugs of Huxley and Junger that they are gateways to new ways of perceiving and constructing existence as part of a considered and reflective process of inner exploration and away from altered states as escapist palliatives or cultural narcissism.

One of the very many great cultural failures of the 'Sixties Generation' was the damage it did through its excesses to the possibility of altered states being normalised as a methodology for secure and stable persons to expand their inner horizons. The primitive conservative reaction to excessive and then criminalised activities that required a degree of care and regulation threw human progress in this area backwards by three generations. Leary may have spoken with care of 'set' and 'setting' but his own behaviour made these important claims to seem like just one amongst many increasingly fantastic claims about the world when rational discourse required that they be explored as prior to the dialogue with machine elves. Only today are respectable career scientists being allowed to dabble in these areas and under severe constraints. Careers have been harmed when scientists have tried to move faster than their ignorant political masters. This is changing but not enormously fast so the frontier in this case is still not one being crossed by many settlers. We are still at the stage where explorers forbidden to cross the border for decades can only go across under armed escort into bandit territory despite there being more danger from the cavalry than the Apache.

Regardless of this, 'consciousness studies' within psychology has moved into altered states territory for quite some time, attempting to define as scientifically as possible what alterations take place in awareness in conditions of trauma, illness and drugs, making a close link between somatic and psychological change. The work is limited by, first, the necessity to rely on human report of its own experience under conditions where the experience, in being mediated by language, is transformed by language into only a simulacrum of the experience, a shift of the experience from an absolute one to one defined by its relationship to 'normality' which is one of language. Secondly, the science, to claim objectivity, requires a shared initial conceptualisation of consciousness that is functionally and pragmatically useful but still tells us nothing of 'what it feels like to be a mad or drug-happy bat'. The scientist is here in the same position as the scholastic with Reason merely replacing the role of God in the system. It ensures a degree of scepticism about claims unless the claims 'work' in the field.

Everything, in the end, depends on verbal report. There is an automatic 'scholastic' assumption that being self-aware somehow depends on language (one of the ways in which a higher primate is to be judged to be less conscious than a human). This may be true if we beg the question by defining our awareness as conceptually the normal state of the normal human being but it does not help us with altered states that may have no or limited verbal elements and yet where the subject is perfectly aware of their state. Post-modern philosophers have perhaps gone too far in denying the organising and aware and continuous Self but the Self is not necessarily Reality. Altered states may offer a profound challenge to the standard concept of consciousness which is used to define the research into them: the methodological problems are significant. This is not an argument for not doing the research but an argument for caution in treating it as anything other than probabilistic and useful in its effects in the normal world. What thr findings achieving in relations to persons in the world is what matters rather than the description. It is not that subjects can be wrong about their own experiences when expressing them verbally but that language may not be a sufficiently capable tool for describing the experiences.

This is a problem that might apply to deeper levels of conscious experience (the sort that ends up as poetry rather than a scientific paper), raising those doubts (fully shared by scientists and philosophers) that anything has been said or may ever be said that is meaningful about conscious experience.  Daniel Dennet has suggested the term heterophenomenology to describe an approach to this problem - means treating verbal reports as stories that may or may not be true. This is probably correct but not very functionally useful so that the 'scientist' is reduced, unscientifically, into making best judgments on meaning in the context of peer questioning (good) but also accepting social norms in interpreting meanings (not so good). This may help to explain why so many scientists, in this liminal zone, find themselves constructing their own stories, ones that sound so intuitively exaggerated when they go to the next level of trying to explain what they think they have found to the public.

Language is not the only indicator of consciousness in its brute form, but levels of arousal, brain activity and purposeful movement merely gives us gradations of consciousness as a thing-in-itself. These do not tell us much about what is going on inside the thing-in-itself, its meaning and purpose. The movement can be observed but not the purposefulness. Even the extensive and sometimes counter-intuitive findings of neuroscience in relation to free will only tell us (as I understand it) that certain material events argue against free will but they cannot yet make the absolute connection between the material events and the exercise of all faculties. A lot of the argument collapses into a somewhat magical argument by analogy, an assumption that because the sun rises every morning, it must necessarily rise the next morning which as all philosophers know is not quite how things can be argued safely. On the other hand, excessive scepticism is equally absurd - Gallups Mirror Test, as one example, seems to be a very reasonable basis for differentiating some higher mammals and birds as 'conscious' of their own presence at a level greater than humans who have been out of the womb for under eighteen months. Whether this is 'consciousness' is an entirely different matter.

Working Hypotheses

But let us step back back and take up a working hypothesis (disputed, of course) which is not true but is useful, that of Ned Block. As Wikipedia on consciousness neatly summarises it: there are "two types of consciousness that [Block] called phenomenal (P-consciousness) and access (A-consciousness). P-consciousness ... is simply raw experience: it is moving, colored forms, sounds, sensations, emotions and feelings with our bodies and responses at the center. These experiences, considered independently of any impact on behavior, are called qualia. A-consciousness, on the other hand, is the phenomenon whereby information in our minds is accessible for verbal report, reasoning, and the control of behavior. So, when we perceive, information about what we perceive is access conscious; when we introspect, information about our thoughts is access conscious; when we remember, information about the past is access conscious, and so on." This is plausible enough to get things going.

Thinking about altered states is very much a problem of A-consciousness even if the description of what happens in those states is P-consciousness. What I mean is that the altered nature of the raw experience elicits an enormous 'so what' insofar as it is just 'different' from normality. It is the meaning and difference in terms of 'access' that is more interesting - specifically, that this material is available not just in terms of "verbal report, reasoning, and the control of behavior" (which it may be during and after the state) but in terms of internal psychic transformation, brain rewiring and creative insights which may or may not be communicable. The perception, introspection and even information (which may have only a contingent relationship to external reality) is radically different from the 'normal' or standard model consciousness of the world. The access is ambiguous - it is not a matter of cogitation and reasoning but of the emergence from within of different rationalities much as, in physics, it may be postulated that there are universes which do not have our physical laws. By analogy, just as there is a multiverse behind the universe so there may be a multi-mind behind the minds that we see before us. It may be that we can only exist psychologically in one such mind and that the other minds are mere possibilities ... but we do not know that.

Understanding the access under conditions of altered states to the multi-mind is the 'hard problem of altered states' which is both a sub-set of the 'hard problem of consciousness' and a different problem entirely, one of the status of experiences that are neither this nor that, neither demonstrably insights into other material realities nor demonstrably to be understood in terms of reliable verbal report, reasoning and control of behaviour. Block's A-consciousness is centred on communications and the social but altered states are centred on abstraction from communication and society, internal dialogue and the outright subconscious or chemical invention of entities with which the 'self' appears to communicate. All the parsing and categorisations of philosophers like William Lycan may have to be re-done for altered states once philosophers are allowed to investigate these states with more ease. The point is that altered states are (of course) part of the problem of consciousness but their modalities and experience are also part of the problem that consciousness represents a problem.

It would be too easy to say at this point that altered states is simply a human problem and a matter of dysfunctionality (and many would like to say this). It is quite possible that a machine's normal consciousness (once avowed or avowing itself to be conscious) might have its own problems of 'altered states' derived not only from faulty energy supply, software or hardware but active choices designed to alter perception and analysis. Perhaps this thought is being evaded by humanity - that artificial intelligence far from being simply a vastly superior rational being might existentially choose to experience the world differently as an experiment, as a challenge and as an exercise in boundary breaking. One might postulate a highly advanced AGI seeking to manufacture the altered states (for it) of human emotions, creating highly intelligent creatures engaged in rage, fear, passion and so on as well as distortions of reality for the sake of experience. There is no prima facie reason why an AGI might not be as interested in experience as its maker. This is something that may emerge (or not) out of the deliberate strategy being employed to investigate artificial awareness.

We should also remind ourselves what altered states are - they are conscious states even if forgettable. They are not non-dream sleep, coma or death. Or at least this is what we believe them to be because no one has reported back from death, comatose means what it says on the tin and dream states may be experienced but are generally not remembered - hypnogogic and lucid dream states, however, can be classed as altered states. Being aware is claimed to be central to the experience although what is really meant is that the experience is 'reportable' (see above). But if we think about what is claimed for altered states - changes in thinking, disturbances in the sense of time, feelings of loss of control, changes in emotional expression, alternations in body image and changes in meaning or significance - then there is not only altered experience that can be recalled under conditions of 'normality' (and described by verbal report as a normalising process) and not only experience that can be expressed verbally and non-verbally during the state (perhaps in terms of madness, ecstasy or what have you) but a shift to a new normality in which aspects of the altered state remain to create a new normality.

The Experience & The Social

Religious conversion is the obvious example but it could as easily be new ways of perceiving the world, new mental constructs about the world, greater rationality as much as problems with reasoning, changes in personality or self-perception and relationships. Perhaps this is the frontier of most interest - the psychotherapeutic use of altered states (chemically-induced, situationally-induced and transgressional or dionysiac) that transform a person into or out of normality or contribute, in the mass, in the creation of a new social normality by example. In other words, the relationship between normalities is the frontier, with the frontier concept not just being the altered state within individual self awareness but the altered within the social. Perhaps what we are working towards is a new dialectical frontier between accepted normalities and change where, thanks to technological developments which encourage the possibility of transformation and altered states, the process of transformation is not accidental but is self-engineered or engineered within society by groups of persons from above and below.

Let us remind ourselves (from 'Psychology for Dummies') what an altered state can do that is interesting so long as it is temporary and can be analysed and reflected upon in a  'normal and presumably rational state after the event:-
  • Sensory: An altered experience of space, time, and other sensory phenomena.
  • Recollective-analytic: An experience in which individuals develop novel ideas and revelations about themselves, the world, and their role within the world.
  • Symbolic: Identification with a historical figure or famous person accompanied by mystical symbols such as having a vision of a crucifix or an angel.
  • Integral: A religious and/or mystical experience usually involving God or some other supernatural being or force. The person usually feels merged with or at one with the universe. This state has sometimes been called cosmic consciousness. Krippner and other experts believe that very few people are actually capable of attaining this level of consciousness.
The problems are self evident. Apart from having to come back to reality and make use of the experience, a person has to be mature enough to be able to critique the meaning of a 'revelation' (otherwise we end up with another standard issue blood-soaked religion), see visions and identifications as means and not an ends in themselves, understand that the God-thing and universal consciousness are experiences but not (necessarily) a reality and that 'cosmic consciousness' is an evasion and solipsism if used to represent the world in which one has to live. It may, however, be a lovely way to ensure that millions of people do not question their material lot or social position or for materially comfortable people to evade their own termination and loneliness.

Personally, I find this prospect rather grim but a libertarian must be consistent - if people want to retreat into magical thinking because of their life situation then they must be allowed to do so as long as it does not have deleterious effects on others. A world of billions in a state of cosmic illusion is unlikely to be able to function well as a democracy or progressive provider of needs so perhaps such a world is for the time when all material needs have been fulfilled, no one is scrabbling for resource advantage but death has not been conquered. Aum! It won't make it true but it might make it beautiful in a sterile sort of way.

The big ticket consciousness illusions are not the point. Most people most of the time are not weak-minded hippies or New Agers. They have families to provide for, other experiences like travel and work to cater for and they like good steak and wine if they can get it. The losers might lose themselves in illusion, claiming that the world of steak-eaters and workers is the illusion but the workers and steak-eaters are not the binary alternative to the dreamers. The techniques of altered states, in their capacities of being psychotherapeutic and creative, beyond alcohol and music, have been abandoned in part out of fear of loss of control and mental damage but also in part because of their association with millennia of arrant nonsense, psychopathic manipulation and priestly parasitism. Like sexuality and risk, altered states need to be brought out of the closet precisely because this is the best means of critiquing the pretensions of Aum Brigade.

The process is already starting. Meditation is moving steadily from being a side attribute of Buddhism to being seen as a technique with positive health benefits, especially in dealing with negative stress effects and increasingly in psychotherapeutic contexts. Buddhism can be jettisoned. But it is not necessary that a technique should obviously have some 'socially good' effect in psychological or social terms. Dour cultural puritanism also needs to be jettisoned. We should also permit ourselves the option of harmless pleasure which, in turn, leads us on to a different attitude to temporary mind-altering drugs where pleasure has to be seen as a worthwhile outcome alongside physical and mental health. Just as Buddhism is the dead weight on meditation so Christianity is the dead weight on an appreciation of pleasure for its own sake as part of a balanced life.

Drugs in Society - Dialectics & Trialectics

Handling drugs in particular requires dividing the approach to them into two: the direct evidence-based assessment of addiction, brain damage, mental illness and psychological distress with a view not to assuming that drugs must be removed from the social under legal penalty but with the effort to improve and make safe what they do that is so attractive to people; and then, on top of this, social and legal changes should be more specific and focused in legislating on harms in order to permit the pleasures and benefits. At the moment, let us be clear, 'normal' people who want to succeed in the world are foolish to dabble in the semi-criminalised world of radical pleasure partly because censorious morality has made these worlds dangerous and partly because deferred gratification is the path way to survival in a world of limited resources. That does not make lack of gratification good but merely useful and gratification is perfectly fine if the resources are to hand and no harms are to result. For example, I could afford steak three times a week but I choose to have it only once because I enjoy it. I find that I need the iron and get health benefits because the rest of my diet is well balanced but would probably see cholesterol rise with excess red meat if i eat it more than once a week.  Not eating steak because it is 'wrong' is not on my radar screen. It works for me - I make that choice and no one else on full information. The art here is to separate pleasure from criminality under conditions of free choice (consent), 'temporariness' (that effects be defined in time), full information or evidence-based education and personal and physical safety.

The overall dialectic socially is really a trialectic - the transforming person, those who would transform society together and those who would transform society from above. An altered state is a state of alteration which is well described in the case of the individual (say, in a psychic crisis) but not well described in the case of the social except in overly intellectualised models of anarchism and 'nudge'. The trialectic of persons resisting manipulation by 'zombies' and by government, the activists trying to mobilise persons to change governance and governance seeking to keep persons well behaved or to out-smart the activists rather well describes the political economy of the twenty-first century. The concept of altered state can thus be radically extended to describe equally well the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary process. The politics of drugs, sex, freedom and control of information and power are intimately related because the individual's altered state can be so personal as to result in their quiescence and withdrawal from participation in taxation and allegiance.

Consciousness (in the formulation of the Marxists) becomes a political, social and cultural frontier. The loss of one state of 'normal' being in society in search of another is a potentially political act insofar as the person decides to visit the new state temporarily and continue as before (the conservative option) or find a new reality (which might mean a libertarian withdrawal from public life or activism). The State has and will have a serious interest in this because its old instinct (as in dealing with the inchoate mass narcissism of the 1960s and 1970s) has historically been to appropriate and repress. But the 21st century is radically different in terms of flows of data, ability to defy the structures of society and preparedness to combine, detach and re-combine at will. We have an internal frontier (very different from our space frontier) where the barriers to change are not only falling within the individual but also in society. Indeed, to take our Wild West analogy, the frontier may be opened up not because the system wills it but because vast numbers of settlers looking for a better life cross into Indian Territory and the State has to find ways of managing what it cannot control. It is not so much that anything is possible but that nothing is individually or socially predictable and superego or elite attempts to control the transformations are doomed to failure.

Everything changes in this 'brave new world' - power relations begin either to equalise or conservative models of leadership are accepted so long as the person or the society are left alone (which may partly explain the surprising Conservative victory in the British election). And just as the individual may choose to stay 'normal' within a normality that is no longer normal because society is changing so fast so another individual may actively wish, with less fear, to regard as normal something society has yet to be. All this seems to have nothing to do with 'altered states' in individuals but the new world has two great virtues for those who are in a transformative mood - it is increasingly not a case of either/or (that is, it is not a case that altering how one's mind works is a dialectical struggle between social acceptance and heroic but relatively isolated freedom and secrecy) while the interest of authority is no longer in repression because it can no longer afford anything more than the equivalent of occasional show trials. Authority has to find a way to manage the transformative impulses within society by accommodating them (which is all that many people want).

The trajectory is thus three-fold - i) towards increasing state acceptance of a moderated libertarian position for individuals (we see this in the new debate on drugs laws) in return for a new boundary or frontier where organised crime and violence really do threaten well-being and into which troops can be sent, ii) towards more fluidity amongst individuals within social organisations that paradoxically create more stability as new organisational structures permit this flow to happen safely and fairly and iii) active encouragement of the sort of research into what altered states in individuals really mean as part of a concern both to improve mental health and manage crime and activism in society. The new frontier sounds radical but it is really the death of the narcissism that emerged in the generation of the 1970s. The entire culture of pragmatic flexibility no longer gives narcissists in their character of activists the ability to dictate terms by seizing the commanding heights of normality and turn it into a new normality by force. What we have instead are sets of normalities co-existing and resisting the imposition of ideology and simple 'truths'. Such a society is more likely to get to Mars (to take up our earlier theme) because social commitment is no longer an either/or but a path which many will want, many will be indifferent to and the few wanting to argue a threat or danger irrelevant. Progress will come from the indifference of the mass to the dynamism of the few. Things will happen.

The Future

What personal adaptations of altered states might we find applied science offering humanity in the coming decades, states that question the 'given' and suggest creative alternatives without making the past mistake of believing that these states will magically transform the material world without rational or social action. What transformative methods will shift persons into people creatively engaged with their own worlds and so contributing to the creative development of society? I suggest the following speculatively:
  • the extension of lucid-dreaming and virtual reality into techniques where the experience can be guided into private psychotherapeutic solutions, pleasure and better remembered afterwards; 
  • the scientific refinement of safe psycho-active drugs (safer than alcohol) which are socially acceptable and will be used for psychotherapeutic, end of life and transformative and creative purposes under professional guidance; 
  • the further scientific investigation of the health benefits of meditation and, if proven, introduction into the educational curriculum and healthcare practices as technique;
  • a fuller scientific understanding of how minds (which may just be some minds) can shift their exteroception (sensing the external world), their interoception (sensing the body), their input-processing (seeing and creating meaning), emotions, memory, time sense, sense of identity, evaluation and cognitive processing skills, motor output and interaction with the environment as positive choices rather than as things imposed on them by others and life. 
  • investigation of intelligence increase
  • investigation of the psychotherapeutic and creative benefits and risks of other altering modes such as sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, boredom, sexual behaviour, dance, music, binaural beats, ritual performance, trance states, daydreaming, biofeedback, hypnosis, 'brainwashing'and new technologies such as the 'God helmet' (raising the interesting question of how rational belief in God can possibly survive the mechanical induction of temporary religious psychosis without becoming a permanent if manageable form of psychosis) (1)
  • public education about risks and rewards that are evidence-based (rather than based on populist fear or special interest advocacy) with a view to a rational programme for isolating high risk threats and managing medium and low risk threats - it remains curious that alcohol is scarcely regulated in terms of use despite its effects compared to marijuana: marijuana use is widely criminalised yet both it and alcohol contain similar risks and both can be regulated to avoid the worst forms of harm (as in driving vehicles or working machinery)
  • exposure of fraudulent uses of altered states (as in past life regression or belief in the supernatural as really existing) in order to create a rational framework for experience
  • active endorsement and even promotion of positive temporary mind-altering activities in safe contexts and new regulations to limit or (in evident cases) carefully regulate unsafe and non-consensual methodologies that will negatively affect particular types of individual or ban extreme and non-consensual alterations tor all individuals [2]
The ideal state would be controversial but would be a balanced state in which logical and rational education (which is sorely lacking in the West) was matched by the ability to experience critically the illusory experience of unity, the illusion of spiritual experience, blissful states, insightfulness, disembodiment, complex elementary mental imagery, audio-visual synesthesia and changed meanings of sense data. This is what I mean by a frontier - the ability of society to act rationally whilst allowing a much broader sense of human perceptual capability. Rational discourse and scientific method (whether neuroscientific, psychological or pharmacological) would expose the irrational meanings attributed to the experiences but the experiences, under controlled conditions, would not be the object of fear but of wonder.

I have emphasised the socio-cultural aspects of this new frontier only because the parallel and equally important medical frontier is well understood. The doctors are practical men and women. Their view of consciousness is not theoretical but driven by the alleviation of pain and distress - the effect of disease, accidents, poisoning and 'bad' altered states (those which cause distress or physical harm). The medical profession also has its frontiers of consciousness in dealing with particularly tragic situations - not only death itself but locked-in syndrome, vegetative states and coma. There can be no romantic view of altered states - the scientific approach is not to pretend that they are not present or sought out but to engage with them and make them safe and not distressing to all intents and purposes. Some cognitive libertarians may seek out distressing and risky experiences and that is their privilege, I would say 'right' if I believed in rights but even they are not free to cause harm to others. The frontier is a joint frontier not merely to make the distressed normal more normal if they wish to be so (the role of medicine) but to give this choice to create new personal and collective normalities that harm none. Each expresses different sides of what it is to be free - free from and free to.

We leave with the words of Dr. John Baker in 1994: "Psychedelics, then, are a double-edged sword. Used incorrectly, they can undermine the sources of individual stability. Used correctly, they can enable a person to stand back and reevaluate his position in and relationship with the world. Any attempts to use these compounds in a constructive manner must bear in mind that the psychedelic pathway is a means to an end, not an end in itself." We would extend this thought to all forms of deliberate alteration of consciousness, not excluding alcohol and music. All such tools should be regarded as means to an end and not ends in themselves. The question remains much as it did at the beginning - what are those ends?


(1) This is perhaps the most interesting frontier of all. Nietzsche announced the 'death of God' but the idea persists as does the idea of a universal consciousness. The mechanical induction of mystical experience does not, in itself, eliminate the need for a religious framework or the undisprovable existence of God but it does cast serious doubt on the validity of mystical or spiritual experiences as 'true' beyond brain function. The human being has an amazing capacity for self-delusion and fitting new facts into old paradigms. The social challenge is one where the mechanical induction of mystical experiences might create a social phenomenon - a stubborn mass belief in absurdity because of intense experience. This might have terrifying effects on evidence-based public policy. It might be argued that mystically-orientated altered state technologies (not just psycho-active drugs) could be devastatingly politically more disruptive than opiates in the long run of history. Imagine a world in which loopy empaths repressed anyone with an ounce of energy and organisation as 'psychopaths'.This argues for the psycholytic rather than the psychedelic approach to (say) psycho-actives as a social imperatives although the former seems to have less positive effects than the illusory states constructed by the latter. The truth will almost certainly remain that psychedelics require as much energy put into the set and setting issues of the matter as into understanding the substance itself. A rational set and setting that removes the 'white coats' and restores power to the subject strikes me as an 'absolute' to avoid both premature psycholytic therapies and the false interpretation of psychedelic episodes. This means that the restoration of power to the subject does not arise from the act of taking psycho-actives but is prior to the act - it is an act of aware and mature decision guided by professional understanding. The sweeping away of New Age pre-set visions would be a helpful precursor to a new society in which all forms of altered state were regarded as temporary readjustments to restore power to rational individual models of personal reality over and against a flawed consensual reality.

(2) The logic of this may be that particular individuals under particular conditions might be regarded as safely positioned even to take opiates. Regulatory action might be far more interested in banning some forms of political, charitable and commercial manipulation as non-consensual. There are clear dangers to freedom in this, especially when special activists presume manipulation (in order to enforce a regulatory manipulation in their own ideological interest) and do not allow some degree of perceptual 'caveat emptor', but the least that might be done is honest education in schools about perceptual risk and techniques of manipulation. A line might be drawn between 'caveat perceptor' and bullying so that use of images of beautiful women in society (usually a pleasure in any case) cannot be unilaterally be banned by latter day nut-job iconoclasts but we can finally get 'chuggers' (charity muggers) off our streets.