Monday, November 11, 2013

Author of Ender’s Game Explains Egyptian Book of the Dead

Ender’s Game is a powerful new movie we saw last week at an IMAX theater near us.  It’s based on a famous science fiction novel of the same name, by Orson Scott Card, a very important author. Before I get to the Book of the Dead, I should say something about Orson Scott  Card himself.

Orson Scott Card is not just entertaining to read (he is). He is thought-provoking in an important way.  All of us need our thoughts to be provoked a bit, to help us think out of the box, and see a bigger picture. There are lots of science fiction authors which provide only empty entertainment (which bores me to death usually),  but Card is much better than that. I have read dozens of his novels… just as I have read dozens of the novels of Modesitt, another equally interesting sci fi author who happens to be Mormon. Card often defends the Mormon establishment, while Modesitt is often very clear about characterizing its limitations and even satirizing it, but both are valuable to read.

But to be honest – my respect for Card goes deeper than this. In my view, Card is a genuinely inspired writer – a writer who gets inputs from the noosphere, which some would call “divine inspiration.” That’s a very real thing, in my view, however you explain or understand it. In fact, Card even has one cycle of books (The Song of Earth”) which talk about how “divine inspiration” MIGHT work, in physical terms, which has influenced my thinking on some technical points.

But of course, having “divine inspiration” does not make one infallible. No humans, and no other living creatures, can possibly be infallible. Thus reading Card, or Modesitt, or the Bible or Ayn Rand, is like watching a TV news show in a way – some scenes of incredible acuity and useful news, mixed in with a few obnoxious lying commercials and random pablum. One has to be mature enough to sort it out, or at least suspend judgment and consider some alternatives, to gain value from it. Believing everything in one of these books is a recipe for schizophrenia.  Even our own direct experiences need to be scrutinized very carefully…

As we planned to go see Ender’s Game, Luda  mentioned that some folks were boycotting the movie. I said: “Oh, that must be because of the silly, insensitive and inflammatory things he said about Obama in those newspaper columns. That annoyed me too, but that shouldn’t stop people from benefitting from this movie.” (I also wondered about how much sympathy he had towards the enemies of the US Constitution, in this book series Empire.) “No, it’s the gays and lesbians, who didn’t like some insensitive things he said about their causes…” Oh, well.  We didn’t see any picketing.

For years and years –there has been a kind of uncanny resonance between whatever I was thinking about at a deep emotional level and themes of Card’s current novels. For example, about 15 years ago, Card published a novel which my children undoubtedly thought of as “just another nice fairy tale” about someone establishing a magical relationship with a Russian princess. Turns out – that was exactly what I was doing right then in my life.  It’s OK for me to post, so long as I don’t give more details. By the way, Card was one of the four writers I mentioned in a previous post:
(There has also been some resonance at a different level with Dan Briown's novels, which tend to refer to specific people and groups I've been working with... but he wasn't one of those four writers.)

OK – now that the casual reader has been bored enough to give up, on to esoterica…

But still a little background first.

Back in 1972, when I accepted BOTH that “psychic’ or “spiritual” phenomena are real, and that they connect in an important way even to my own life… I became very interested in learning what I could learn from the experience of other people down through the millennia, in all cultures, filtered and laden with commercials as it may be. So long before I read Orson Scott Card, I read stuff like the Upanishads and… well, a lot of stuff. And tried to see through to rational explanations and the greater truths (and real experience) behind them all. That was  quite a challenge. For example,  how could you make real sense of “chakras” – after your first attempt at kundalini yoga generates results you cannot ignore? That was a first puzzle. And then… how can one make sense of notions like “etheric plane, astral plane, etc.”? That is a bit more natural; I have previously posted some sense of how I explain those kinds of experience in the “noosphere” context (being careful not to go too far in the level analysis). It is preposterous to imagine we each have “six bodies” or so, as theosophists sometimes say,  but there are levels of experience which can explain how they ended up with that idea.

And then, what of yin-yang and the Tibetan Book of the Dead?  Am tempted to say more, but it would take too many words to analyze them here and now. I have been to China (and Tibetan autonomous prefectures) enough to have a fairly complex understanding of what goes on there.

Many years ago, I recall that  a Rosicrucian source suggested obtaining the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, as some kind of prefatory reading. I did look at the Egyptian book briefly, but it left me cold, and I never returned to it. Like the theosophists, they postulated “more than one soul,’ a ba and a ka – and I simply could not relate to that at all.

But just about a month ago – I went to the library, and borrowed the first two books of a new trilogy by Orson Scott Card, the Gate Thief trilogy…

It was enjoyable, as usual with Card,  but I was disappointed at first. It seemed like just another coming-of-age world-of-mythology, much more human and entertaining than most of them, but just entertainment.  It has bits of old school Christian theology which raise my skepticism.

However… getting into the second novel.. he gets deeper and deeper into the concept of ka and ba. He anchors the idea in the flow of experience of the protagonist. And as I compared that with the flow of my own experience, I can begin to make sense of it… enough to be able to use it (like yin yang) as a kind of practical tool, a tool worth using, an additional window into the world which I can now make sense of.

He describes ka as “inself” and ba as “outself.” It is quite possible that he is confusing two distinctions here.. but in essence, he sees the ka as the real active and energetic self, and the ba as the extensions we create in the noosphere.

This fits nicely with the idea that the esoteric, psychic and spiritual reality we experience (which matters directly to us) is 99% a matter of “interaction within the noosphere,” where the noosphere is a kind of invisible large neural network intelligence of which we are parts. Our “souls” (ka) are like multichannel neurons within this larger brain. (Of course, I have also asked myself what the physical substratum might be of that large “invisible brain” – but the physics involved is pretty advanced, and we are still at the stage of learning to count “one little, two little, three little photons.” I have entire blog posts on the early elementary parts of the physics part of the story.) But --- tissues are made of cells and matrix. In fact, for neurons, the matrix and context are also partly a matter of other cells and other types of cell.

And in fact – the Gate Thief is also about gates or connections. Gates and connections are a fundamental aspects of any real intelligent system, beyond the very primitive level which I now call “vector intelligence.” (Probably someday I should post the slides for the plenary talk I gave last month to the international conference on extreme learning in Beijing, or the paper for Narendra’s workshop on learning and intelligent systems, defining the term in some detail.) Even at the level of fish, brains exploit concepts of symmetry, gating and attention essential to coping with the complexity of what we see in the world. It seems as if – the world itself may be structured as a 3+1-dimensional system (or  maybe a few more), but mind organizes its understanding into a different kind of structure, more like “graphs” (networks),
implemented by gating and connection.

All of this turns out to be especially relevant to unique aspects of my own life.

Aspects of my own life –

I remember some years ago when the current Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dr. Joe Bordogna (from the cognoscenti circle?), led a major awards ceremony in the big public room next to the main entry to NSF. I was there as part of the group receiving an award for cross-cutting collaboration, for interagency research in education.  Near the entry to the room, he was holding forth to some important person about the great challenge of getting people to break out of old paradigms, to think of new connections. “They are all so narrow and so rigid,
Even the most brilliant people we have. Getting them to think out of the box is like pulling teeth.” But then he looked at me and said: “Except for that one. That one acts as if there is no box there at all.”  Not a bad summary.  I have often wondered: why is it, when I see a new tricky problem, why is it that I can just look at the problem, and keep thinking about it, when almost everyone else I know seems to get instant paralysis?

In truth, it is not at all easy for me when the problem is hard enough. When I spent years trying to really understand quantum-classical equivalence, part of my motivation was to test my mind in a context where I knew I couldn’t accidentally “cheat” by using some form of unconscious telepathy; I focused on challenges for which no one on earth knows the answer.  I found it incredibly difficult to push ahead on these and many other topics, when it was just me and basically no one to talk to. It felt as if I was moving ahead at only 10% the rate I could achieve if there were someone to talk to and share it with.  And yet.. making any headway at all, it was clear I was at least moving, when other folks were not moving at all – and that gave me a unique responsibility to DO that kind of thinking, instead of spending time plotting career advancement and ego publicity which society tends to require of people.  Part of what was special was my will Not to be totally run over by social pressures (pressure by society to be less productive to society???). But also… there was a kind of “ba/ka” aspect, like the feelings in Card’s novel.

Many years ago, I remember giving a plenary talk on how to build a  brain, and talking about it with someone. “It was so inspiring for a day or two… a whole new way of thinking about things, which leads to new ways to make them work… but somehow… it was hard to remember… it slipped my mind…” and then he felt into the way of thinking of the majority of people in our society. Not enough matrix or ba? A kind of forgetfulness, or regression to the mean.. carried away by the matrix….

But on the psychic level… I do have some ability to force some matrix, a bit like the character in the book. Not those specific types of gates… and not just gates… but building up a kind of “ba” or infrastructure is very important, just like the more mundane cognitive mapping, in the  very highest level of creativity.

One final note. The issue of gates and connections and symmetry… spatial complexity… does occur at many levels of complexity. It is clear that the human brain does NOT make use of the most powerful symmetry principles available to intelligent systems embedded in n+1-dimensional hardware (with or without quantum entanglement). My claim is that the “noosphere” DOES, and that additional gating or connection is crucial to understanding how that level of intelligence works. The mathematics is advanced, but it is mathematical.

What of that other 1%?  I remember once saying to myself: “Their speculations are like fetuses debating the sex lives of their unknown parents. They should be careful not to take them too seriously.” The noosphere we can see every day, but it’s a big cosmos we live in. Earth (well, our solar system) is complex enough.

Best of luck…


And, oh yes -- what could Card have been confounding in his ba and ka discussion?
Card describes the Ka as "the real self/soul," and suggests that when we die, our whole self is there somewhere, as the ka.

But in fact... our "whole self" as we normally experience it is a kind of symbiosis of our brain and of our "personal soul" ("the multichannel neuron").  When the brain dies, we do lose a lot. That's the way it is. "Divorce of the alchemical marriage." How much gets lost? In a way, Gurdjieff's school of mysticism can be summarized as "try to store as much as you can on the hard drive, not on the volatile
storage, so it survives the next power outage." Some folks lose almost everything. (For example, those Moslems who shun Itzjihad and believe that following rules is enough.. and fundamentalists in Christendom or other realms of the same ilk... or even true nothingness-style Zen Buddhists..,
basically dissolve away like dry paper turning to dust, blown away on the wind. It is sad to see.) But exercise of the hard disk creates a longer-lasting human heritage.

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