There is a horror in neuroscience. It isn’t in the paper or the data: it depends on subverting your sentimental sense of self, meaning, will, introspection, spirituality; if you don’t have these, it won’t register. It takes unthreatening academic names like “agnosia”, “readiness potential”, “interhemispheric intrusion”, “neurotheology”, “reconstructive memory”, “semantic externalism”. Also threatening names like “executive psychopath”.

The Blindsight ethos - big damn Gothic fatalist Darwinism - is what you get when you take a traditional worldview (dualism, free will, work as what dignifies life, human exceptionalism, further-fact identity) and slam the disenchanting results of a hundred years of science into it. And then add the century to come’s automation and self-modification.

The book put me in a funk for a week - even though I don’t hold any of the positions it sinks. I suppose this is evidence of Watt’s talent. (“Art is a nonrational tool for persuasion: beware.”) Not the least of its achievements is maintaining its murky nihilism in a world where friendly superintelligences exist.

Because of its actual knowledge, this is weird realism, well beyond Lovecraft’s. They’re coming out of the walls: they’re coming out of our best science. The vampires (and, to an extent, the Jovian von Neumann spikefest the plot is about) detract from this deeper horror a bit. Doom; unfixable aberration; people who have warped themselves. If you find Black Mirror too disturbing you might want to give this a miss. Watts even tackles “illusionism” - uniquely I think!

Is it strange that the giant lessons of the cognitive revolution are still rare in fiction? Explanations: simply “the Two Cultures” (i.e. novelists are ignorant); or that novelists are shilling for traditional philosophy, maybe because it sells. (Example of a giant lesson: we do not have introspective access to most of what our brains or minds do, on the level of information processing, action, motivation, or even emotion. You might say Freud found this out - but he didn’t use reliable methods, made huge obvious errors, and created a closed unfalsifiable loop and so did not really have knowledge.)

In contrast, Watts knows a great deal, uses it well, and takes seriously what he knows: for instance, readiness potentials are given all the emotional weight they deserve. (At least deserved at the time: They’ve since been taken down a peg.) This novel has 100 scientific papers listed in the back. The only people who cram quite as many ideas into their books as Watts are Stephenson and Egan.

His scorn for the fumbling entendres of psychoanalysis is also extremely endearing:

According to the experts of that time, multiple personalities arose spontaneously from unimaginable cauldrons of abuse — fragmentary personae offered up to suffer rapes and beatings while the child behind took to some unknowable sanctuary in the folds of the brain. It was both survival strategy and ritual self-sacrifice: powerless souls hacking themselves to pieces, offering up quivering chunks of self in the desperate hope that the vengeful gods called Mom or Dad might not be insatiable.

None of it had been real, as it turned out. Or at least, none of it had been confirmed. The experts of the day had been little more than witch doctors dancing through improvised rituals: meandering free-form interviews full of leading questions and nonverbal cues, scavenger hunts through regurgitated childhoods. Sometimes a shot of lithium or haloperidol when the beads and rattles didn't work. The technology to map minds was barely off the ground; the technology to edit them was years away. So the therapists and psychiatrists poked at their victims and invented names for things they didn't understand, and argued over the shrines of Freud and Klein and the old Astrologers. Doing their very best to sound like practitioners of Science.
"So we're fishing for what, exactly? Repressed memories?"
"No such thing." She grinned in toothy reassurance. "There are only memories we choose to ignore, or kinda think around, if you know what I mean."

People diss the prose but I think it fits the ethos incredibly well:

We fled like frightened children with brave faces. We left a base camp behind: Jack, still miraculously functional in its vestibule; a tunnel into the haunted mansion; forlorn magnetometers left to die in the faint hope they might not. Crude pyronometers and thermographs, antique radiation-proof devices that measured the world through the flex and stretch of metal tabs and etched their findings on rolls of plastic. Glow-globes and diving bells and guide ropes strung one to another...

Inside each of us, infinitesimal lacerations were turning our cells to mush. Plasma membranes sprang countless leaks. Overwhelmed repair enzymes clung desperately to shredded genes and barely delayed the inevitable. Anxious to avoid the rush, patches of my intestinal lining began flaking away before the rest of the body had a chance to die.

Siri, the sociopath pinhead, is a great character. But also often an infuriating Hollywood Rationalist, and several times he gets the last word, which forces me to suspect Watts. Though the bit where his girlfriend is dying and he refuses to say anything because it would be cliched is clearly intentionally infuriating for the reader. So might be this stupid bit of game theory:

"Well, according to game theory, you should never tell anyone when your birthday is."
"I don't follow."
"It's a lose-lose proposition. There's no winning strategy."
"What do you mean, strategy? It's a birthday."
Look, I'd said, say you tell everyone when it is and nothing happens. It's kind of a slap in the face.
Or suppose they throw you a party, Chelsea had replied.
Then you don't know whether they're doing it sincerely, or if your earlier interaction just guilted them into observing an occasion they'd rather have ignored. But if you don't tell anyone, and nobody commemorates the event, there's no reason to feel badly because after all, nobody knew. And if someone does buy you a drink then you know it's sincere because nobody would go to all the trouble of finding out when your birthday is — and then celebrating it — if they didn't honestly like you.

...I could just... plot out the payoff matrix, Tell/Don't Tell along the columns, Celebrated/Not Celebrated along the rows, the unassailable black-and-white logic of cost and benefit in the squares themselves. The math was irrefutable: the one winning strategy was concealment. Only fools revealed their birthdays.

- this only follows if you have ridiculously strong error aversion, where the value of being certain about others’ opinion of you overrules the pleasantness of ordinary interaction.

He mentions (but then averts) the single most annoying error when talking about evolution, which is that “maybe it’s better for the p-zombie aliens to take over, since they are clearly fitter than us”:

"It doesn't bug you?" Sascha was saying. "Thinking that your mind, the very thing that makes you you, is nothing but some kind of parasite?"
"Forget about minds," he told her. "Say you've got a device designed to monitor — oh, cosmic rays, say. What happens when you turn its sensor around so it's not pointing at the sky anymore,
but at its own guts?" He answered himself before she could: "It does what it's built to. It measures cosmic rays, even though it's not looking at them any more. It parses its own circuitry in terms of cosmic-ray metaphors, because those feel right, because they feel natural, because it can't look at things any other way. But it's the wrong metaphor. So the system misunderstands everything about itself. Maybe that's not a grand and glorious evolutionary leap after all. Maybe it's just a design flaw."

(But who cares about fitness? A world without qualia is ‘Disneyland without children’, valueless by definition.)

His Mathesonian attempt to naturalise vampires is kinda clever (they are a subspecies of cannibal savants), and the exemplar vamp Jukka is one of the best characters in the book - but overall their presence is distracting and off-piste; the right-angles epilepsy thing, the revived-by-corporate-greed schtick, more generally Watts holding forth that corporate culture puts massive selection pressure toward psychopathic nonsentience: all these things jolt me out of his otherwise well-built world.

Besides the vamps, there are other over-the-top ughs. His whole theme of technology as inherently dehumanising, in the style of Black Mirror, is just as cherry-picked and annoying as it always is. The idea that consciousness is unadaptive, and so a one-off aberration in a universe of blind replicators - an idea which steamrolls all objections in the novel - is not obviously true. (For instance, see the global neuronal workspace theory, one of the most striking and elegant ideas I’ve seen in the entire decade, where consciousness is a vital monitor and integrator of our many brain modules.) But it is true either way that our society is currently ‘unadaptive’, in the sense of not maximising reproduction. (And thank god for that.)

Wrenching but admirable. Great in spite of itself. For the nonangsty, post-dualist, post-further-fact version read Hanson and Simler instead.

[The novel is free! here]

Errata for a novel

Like so much of low-power science, some results in this have been overturned or minimised since 2006.

  • The corpus callosotomy studies which purported to show “two consciousnesses” inhabiting the same brain (like the character Susan) were badly overinterpreted.

  • Readiness potentials seem to be actually causal, not diagnostic. So Libet’s studies also do not show what they purport to. We still don’t have free will (since random circuit noise can tip us when the evidence is weak), but in a different way.

Cross-posted from Goodreads.
See also my review of Will Storr.
See also my list of false or weak psychology claims.


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Tags: philosophy, science, review, meaning


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