Excerpted from Thinking, Hard and Soft
The 1982 film Blade Runner is set in 2019 and features an eclectic mix of hardware and software. The hardware is spectacular. There are flying cars and spaceships and almost-perfect robots. Roy Batty, a renegade “replicant”, is a Nexus-6 model artificial human. He is a beautiful specimen, perfectly built, resistant to pain. But he has a software (or hardware?) problem. He is “built not to last”. Replicants are designed to perish after four years: an in-built timer as a fail-safe.
So Roy is on a quest to meet his maker. He finds the man who designed his eyes, then a genetic designer who leads him to meet the man responsible for his existence. “What seems to be the problem”, the man inquires. “Death”, says Roy. He wants to be modified, he wants to be saved, but it can’t be done.
In his final moments as his clock winds down, Roy launches into a soliloquy, largely improvised by the actor Rutger Hauer. It’s an unbridled expression of his life’s intensity: memory and vitality against hard-wired limits.
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost, in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
(Tears in Rain Soliloquy, the following video is courtesy of the edX/HarvardX course: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours)
I wrote about hardware and software above, perhaps implying a separation between the two. But Roy’s final speech rubbishes the notion that he is a programmed machine. It is inaccurate to describe the “mind” as software and the “body” as hardware. The two are fused into identity. We know that now, though in western philosophy we are still influenced by Descartes, who did not.
“…I conclude that my essence consists solely in my being a thing that thinks, or a substance whose whole essence or nature is only to think. And although it may be the case that (or, rather, certainly is the case that, as I will soon indicate) I have a body to which I am extremely tightly conjoined, nonetheless . . . it is certain that this self, that is to say my mind, whereby I am what I am, is entirely and really distinct from my body, and may be, or exist, without it.”
(Descartes, Méditation Sixième, as translated by Mark Elvin in Billeter, 1998)
Free-divers know instinctively that Descartes is wrong. When you learn to delay the impulse to breathe, you realise that your mind is not at all distinct from your body. Among human impulses, the urge to breathe is the most fundamental. It is so fundamental that you don’t notice the urge unless you think about it or hold your breath.
Automatic breathing is controlled by the autonomous nervous system. The carotid body is a sensory receptor in the large artery that runs through your neck. The receptor is located where the artery bifurcates into an internal artery, which brings blood to your brain, and the external artery, which supplies blood to your face and neck.
The carotid body “tastes the blood” and sounds the alarm if detects hypoxia – a shortage of oxygen.
While adequate oxygen in the blood inhibits nerve signals, an oxygen shortage – caused by stresses such as exercise, lung disease, sleep apnea or thin air at high altitudes – sets off an alarm, promptly sending the signal to breathe to the central nervous system.
(Breathless: How blood-oxygen levels regulate air intake, The University of Chicago – Press Release)
Together with other receptors, the carotid body triggers a breathing impulse. The remarkable analogy between the carotid body chemoreceptors and taste-buds was suggested by Fernando de Castro, who pioneered the modern study of the sensors in the late 1920’s. The mechanism of “blood tasting” was unravelled only this year in a University of Chicago led study. We are still only beginning to understand the complex interaction between between sensors like the carotid body and neural activity.
It is becoming increasingly recognized that dysregulated gaseous signaling contributes to diverse diseases, including hypertension and Parkinson’s disease. Given that HO-2, NOS, and CSE are all present in the vasculature as well as in neurons, dysregulated crosstalk between CO, NO, and H2S may contribute to the pathophysiology of these disorders. Accordingly, this newfound understanding of gaseous messenger signaling likely has substantial implications in a diverse set of physiological and pathophysiological conditions.
(Prabhakar et al., Protein kinase G–regulated production of H2S governs oxygen sensing)
You can manipulate the onset of the alarm by splashing your face with cold water. In 1870, French physiologist Paul Bert discovered that a duck’s heart beat slows significantly when it is immersed in water. The same effect is observed in mammals, including humans. Infants instinctively hold their breath underwater and their heart beat slows by up to twenty percent. Studies show that the adult heart rate reduces from a normal resting rate between 60 and 100 bpm to a rate of 40 to 50 bpm when subjects immerse their face in cold water.
Divers cultivate this mammalian dive reflex. Most people can hold their breath for a minute or two, but the world record for static breath-holding is twenty-two minutes, set by Stig Severinsen. Just like Roy’s life is limited by the technical specs of Nexus-6 hardware, human aspiration is limited by human physiology. By tuning their software – those parts of themselves that they can control – freedivers maximise the efficient operation of the parts that are beyond their will, the body’s hardware.
To become a professional freediver, you must learn to recondition your nervous system and overrule the signals to your brain so that you can hold your breath much longer.
Severinsen disassociates himself from pain to resist the impulse to breathe, even when his diaphragm contracts uncontrollably as his body heaves for air. Most importantly, he disassociates himself from the experience of time passing. Severinsen’s quest to delay the “time to breathe” reminds me of Roy’s quest to delay his “time to die”.
I hold my breath for a long time by dissolving time, I believe that’s the only way you can hold your breath for that long. I’ve encoded those 22 minutes in my genes in the eight months that I’ve trained for a record, but once I’m there, I try to forget everything about that number.
(Stig Severinsen in “60 Minutes” – Australian Version, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gl8-Ta2ujnw)
A successful free-dive requires a delicate balance of awareness and relaxation. Stress is the enemy of oxygen conservation and the aim is to avoid tripping the body’s alarm system. Every diver seems to have his own technique. Natalia Molchanova, a Russian free-diver, used a system called “de-concentration of attention”, developed by Russian academic and political activist Oleg Bakhtiyarov.
Bakhtiyarov is the founder of a discipline called “psychonetics” and the general director of a newfangled institution in Kiev called the University of Effective Development. He has a reputation as an oddball and agitates politically for the (re-)establishment of a “greater Russia”. In 2014, Bakhtiyarov was arrested by Ukrainian Security Services for planning an assault on the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. The conspiracy was to involve 200 people, Molotov cocktails and extension ladders.
In 2012, Bakhtiyarov featured in an article by Joshua Foer in the New Yorker about a newly created language called Ithkuil.
Ithkuil has two seemingly incompatible ambitions: to be maximally precise but also maximally concise, capable of capturing nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible. Ideas that could be expressed only as a clunky circumlocution in English can be collapsed into a single word in Ithkuil. A sentence like “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point” becomes simply “Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx.”
(Utopian for Beginners, Joshua Foer, The New Yorker)
“From our viewpoint,” Bakhtiyarov is quoted as saying, “[the] creation of the Ithkuil language is one of the basic aspects for development of creative thinking.” The reason for this interest in Ithkuil, Foer explains, is that psychoneticists “may be the world’s strongest believers in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.”
Broadly speaking, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that language forms thought. Bakhtiyarov and his followers want to get beyond language. Trapped in language, too much of our activity stays unconscious, but according to Bakhtiyarov:
A psychoneticist must have nothing unconscious. Everything must be conscious, Human beings have a linguistic essence, but we are in a transitional stage to some other essence. We can defeat and conquer language.
In an article published on her website, Molchanova describes one of the methods to achieve the desired state: you imagine that all objects are pictured on a transparent screen in front of you and concentrate on the imaginary surface of the screen, on the field of view, rather than on the objects themselves. According to Molchanova, de-concentration induces a “peculiar feeling, resembling meditation, but without detachment from reality”, a state that is “the most desirable for diving: energy consumption is at the minimum level, and at the same time [the] diver retains control over situation and is free from emotional reactions, which is especially important since emotions intensify oxygen utilization.”
De-concentration of attention requires a de-serialisation of thought, a shift that can be compared to the evolution of programming paradigms from “procedural” to “object-oriented”.
A CPU instruction pointer acts like a concentrated attention. A CPU reads and executes a “program” or algorithm, which is basically a serial list of tasks structurally similar to a regular human language. This approach appears to be a reasonable first step to simulate thinking, as it is commonly perceived.
(Igor Kusakov, Deconcentration of Attention: Addressing the Complexity of Software Engineering, 2012)
Software Developer Igor Kusakov argues that early (procedural) programming paradigms mirrored a serial, top-down way of thinking. A procedural programme says: start here, focus on this task then move to the next step, etc. This is comparable to how we plan our days, working by a calendar, perhaps a check-list of priorities. It’s also how a novice diver would think. First, I relax, next I take a deep breath and then I dive.
In contrast, in Object Oriented Programming (OOP), computations are carried out by basic building blocks (objects). You still have procedures, but these are part of an object. A top-down programme can be drawn as straight line of nodes (tasks) connected in series. In contrast, if you want to visualize an object-oriented programme, you can think of a graph of nodes (representing the objects) with criss-crossing lines. Serial programming paradigms, Kusakov writes, have “one point of view”. In contrast, OOP is an example of a “dimensional” paradigm, inviting multiple points of view.
A beautiful interpretation of de-concentration is given by Kusakov when he compares it to finding a Lagrangian point between planets. Imagine two competing thoughts as planets with a gravitational force, circling around a “sun”. Lagrange points are positions in space where the gravitational forces on a smaller object (your attention, perhaps) are balanced and you can maintain a stable relative position.
In Kusakov’s analogy, a state of de-concentration is like a Lagrangian point in “mental space”.
This concept is best illustrated in a dynamic situation. When a new idea appears in mental “space” or an existing idea is proven wrong and disappears, a new “Lagrangian point” appears and can be discovered instantaneously. When it takes time for a mind to reach this new point, this time is not about thinking but about mind adapting or becoming more comfortable with the new position. It can be an “inertia of thinking”, showing the need for a more liberal approach. However, it can also be a conscious decision to approach the new position slowly and carefully in a conservative way. In any case, this concern is unrelated to the discovery of the new “Lagrangian point”, which seems to occur instantaneously. However, the verbalization of a new “Lagrangian point” is a completely different story. Verbalization could require a long description of the many ideas that are involved.
To find a Lagrangian point in “mental space”, the first step is to step back from serial activity and become “object oriented”. The next step is to cultivate techniques to discover a balanced position between these objects.
Kusakov makes an important claim, which is that “verbalization” is a sticking point. This is why Bakhtiyarov is interested in artificial languages and why he wants to “defeat and conquer language”. The problem of verbalization is deep and fundamental. It emerges whenever we try and squeeze the analogue fuzziness of our mind into a digital expression.
Ironically, the pseudo-scientific language of the psychoneticists distracts from the synthesis of body and mind (hardware and software) in a state of complete consciousness, which they are trying to achieve. There is an alternative approach in the poetic language of the Zhuangzi (4th century BC). Keeping in mind that words like “heaven” do not necessarily have the meaning we expect, here is the first part of the Qi Wulun, sometimes referred to as a “Discussion on Smoothing Things Out”.
Leaning on his elbow-rest, his gaze lost in space, Nanguo Ziqi let his breath pass gently out of him. One would have said that he had lost his body.
“How does one do that?” asked Yancheng Ziyou [later], standing before him in attendance. “Can one really make one’s body like dead wood and one’s soul like ashes? I have [often] seen you in the past leaning on your elbow-rest, but never like this.”
“The question is well put,” replied Ziqi. “Did you realize that I had just now lost my self? You have [already] listened to human panpipes, but [in all likelihood] never to the panpipes of the earth. And if you have heard the panpipes of the earth, you have [certainly] never heard those of heaven.
(Zhuangzi, as translated in Stopping, Seeing and Language: an interpretation of Zhuangzi’s Qi wulun, Jean François Billeter)
We are tempted to describe Ziqi’s activity as meditation, but Billeter points out that this is a misleading word “because it suggests an orientated activity.”
To us it seems self-evident that one meditates something or on something. It does not occur to us that meditation might be, in its essence, a non-orientated activity, without content, free of any purpose… We imagine that it is necessarily the mind that meditates and that the object of the meditation is thus necessarily a mental one. We think that if the body plays a part in this kind of activity it is that of a base that, because of its immobility, temporarily vanishes from the field of consciousness. In other words, our idea of meditation is tightly bound to our dualist conception of body and mind. This is all the more the case in that the practices of meditation that our civilization has developed in the past, in particular in the Christian religion, have themselves been dependent on this conception. All our views in this domain are linked to a particular anthropological paradigm. If we really desire to know what Ziqi is doing, we have to rid ourselves of this paradigm and adopt another.
(Stopping, Seeing and Language: an interpretation of Zhuangzi’s Qi wulun, Jean François Billeter)
There are parallels between Billeter’s interpretation of Zhuangzi and Bakhtiyarov’s psychonetics. Both reject the idea of a hardware/software, mind/body dualism. In both cases, the aim – if we can speak of an aim – is to engage in non-orientated activity and achieve a state of equilibrium. Where Bakhtiyarov seeks to make “everything conscious”, Billeter proposes a new paradigm based on the notion of pure activity.
According to Billeter, the general paradigm that is suitable to understand Ziqi’s state consists “in no longer seeing ourselves as being composed of a soul (or a mind or a conscience) and of a body, but only of activity.”
We consist of activity that may take on various modes and which may, in certain cases and under certain conditions, be aware of itself, that is to say become conscious. This new point of view is easy enough to adopt when we are alone with ourselves and attentive to what is happening within us, but it is difficult to transpose to the level of discourse because our vocabulary is largely based on our traditional dualism and is forever bringing us back to it. In this new paradigm, when we speak of the activity of which we consist, the ‘we’ no longer represents a separate subject. The new paradigm does not admit of any entity exterior to activity. That which we term the ‘subject’ is not outside activity but within it. This activity perceives itself intermittently and to varying degrees, which is why we can say ‘we’, and ‘me’, and conceive of the idea of a ‘subject’. Activity is primary; consciousness is internal to activity, being a sort of quality (an internal reverberation) that activity acquires in certain places and moments. When we interpret the experience which we have of ourselves in accordance with this paradigm, dualism disappears. There is no place at which to apply the dichotomy between ‘body’ and ‘mind’.
Whatever our view of Bakhtiyarov and his eccentric politics, it is difficult to ignore the striking connection between psychonetics and this interpretation of the Zhuangzi. There are differences in emphasis, of course. But I think we can explain these by keeping context in mind. Bakhtiyarov’s ideas stem from research projects in the USSR to improve the performance of military operators in extreme circumstances, while Zhuangzi’s ideas are two-thousand years old.
Who knows what the next two-thousand years will hold as we begin to understand the activity of human life! For a start, I don’t think we know the limits of our activity. Stig Severinsen can make his heart-beat drop from 94 bpm to 40 bpm almost instantaneously.
How much more of our activity can we, to use the words of Billeter, “become aware of” and control? I think Bakhtiyarov is right. We are in a stage of transition. We don’t understand how de-concentration of attention, meditation, hypnosis, or trance work. Once we do, our world may be much more like that of the Blade Runner than we would like to imagine.
I’ve watched a large number of free-diving videos over the last weeks. Most start or end with a warning: free-diving is dangerous, don’t do this without proper training. The free-divers themselves are impressive, but there is something primitive about the sport. Divers “black-out” on the surface, pushing themselves too far, even though they are highly trained. In diving competitions, safety divers and medical staff are on standby and divers stay connected to a rope-line using a lanyard. Perhaps future generations will look back at these attempts and recognise them as the first feeble steps towards the limits of our makeup.
Natalia Molchanova failed to resurface off the coast of Formentera on the 2nd of August. She held seven free-diving world records and could hold her breath for nine minutes. The day she disappeared, she was teaching a Russian billionaire to free-dive. It seems Molchanova underestimated the risks. She was the only experienced diver in the area and she did not connect herself to a safety rope. The world championship was a month away. Reports suggest she loaded herself with extra lead-weight for training-effect. The area is known for treacherous currents and tragically no one was there to rescue her in time.
However well we are able to master our activity using methods and exercises that we do not fully understand, we remain subject to basic laws. Be it free-diving or the artificial intelligence of replicant heroes like Roy – immortal or not: all activity has a time and a place. The principles of “nature” apply. To lose your self is to walk a tight-rope. Hubris beckons; detach the lanyard from the safety rope at your peril!
Title adapted from Kahneman & Tversky, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2012
References to Blade Runner are inspired by The Greek Hero in 24 Hours, a book by Gregory Nagy and also a HarvardX course, https://www.edx.org/course/ancient-greek-hero-24-hours-harvardx-hum2x
The other references mentioned in the main text, in order of citation:
Jean François Billeter, Stopping, Seeing and Language: an interpretation of Zhuangzi’s Qi wulun, East Asian History, (June/December 1998).
Breathless: How blood-oxygen levels regulate air intake, The University of Chicago – Press Release, April 2015, http://www.uchospitals.edu/news/2015/20150421-breathless.html
Joshua Foer, Utopian for Beginners, The New Yorker, December 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/12/24/utopian-for-beginners
Natalia Molchanova, Attention deconcentration in freediving, http://molchanova.ru/en/article/attention-deconcentration-freediving