This month’s issue of Popular Mechanics has an article on the latest advances in mind reading technology: using magnetic resonance imaging machines to determine without ambiguity what a subject is thinking about. As a practical matter, the main experiment cited in the article is actually not that impressive since there was a base success rate of 50 percent simply by guessing what the test subject was thinking about. As a foretaste of what is to come however, it is intriguing. As the imaging resolution goes up and the database from which the raw images are interpreted grows, the accuracy of such devices will only increase. It is well within the realm of the possible that eventually such devices may be available in a portable form.
Since a friend of mine, Tan Kien Boon, recently made a post on his blog about an emotionally trying experience that could be related to ghosts, I thought I might write about my closest encounter with the supernatural. This happened several years ago when I was working for a logging company in Gabon in west central Africa. I was sleeping, alone, face up, late in the afternoon, the kind of sleep where you’re not awake but not completely unconscious either.
Contrary to traditional scientific opinion, feelings are just as cognitive as other percepts. They are the result of a most curious physiological arrangement that has turned the brain into the body’s captive audience. Feelings let us catch a glimpse of the organism in full biological swing, a reflection of the mechanism of life itself as they go about their business. Were it not for the possibility of sensing body states that are inherently ordained to be painful or pleasurable, there would be no suffering or bliss, no longing or mercy, no tragedy or glory in the human condition.
-Antonio R. Damasio in Descartes’ Error
Descartes’ error, as meant by neurologist Antonio R. Damasio in this book, and one that has insinuated itself deeply into mainstream thought, is as he puts it: “the abyssal separation between body and mind, between the sizable, dimensioned, mechanically operated, infinitely divisible body stuff, on the one hand, and the unsizable, undimensioned, un-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff; the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgment, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the body. Specifically: the separation of the most refined operations of mind from the structure and operation of a biological organism.”
In other words: thinking is inescapably a biological process. It is expressly not true, as many people take for granted, that “thinking, and awareness of thinking, are the real substrates of being.”
My success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been – the love of science – unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject – industry in observing and collecting facts – and a fair share of invention as well as common sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.
– Charles Darwin in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Volume 1
His is a name taught in every elementary textbook on biology and for good reason. Creationists have ever been eager to pounce on the fact that Darwin was never the first to come up with the theory of evolution, and indeed it is well-known that his first public presentation of his ideas was shared with Alfred Russel Wallace who developed the same theory of natural selection independently of Darwin. Yet it was Wallace who wrote:
“We claim for Darwin that he is the Newton of natural history, and that, just so surely as that the discovery and demonstration by Newton of the law of gravitation established order in place of chaos and laid a sure foundation for all future study of the starry heavens, so surely has Darwin, by his discovery of the law of natural selection and his demonstration of the great principle of the preservation of useful variations in the struggle for life, not only thrown a flood of light on the process of development of the whole organic world, but also established a firm foundation for all future study of nature.”