On Don Delillo’s ‘Zero K’ and the dream of eternal life.

On Don Delillo’s ‘Zero K’ and the dream of eternal life.

During graduate school, I participated in a psychology study on aging. The premise behind the experiment was simple enough: young people, when given the choice, tend to spend their time with new acquaintances, whereas older people would often rather spend time with family. But what happens when we inoculate young people with a sense of their own mortality? Will they make the same choices as their elders?

At the beginning of the study, I was interviewed and asked to play a memory game: photographs of smiling faces, nature scenes, & car wrecks were displayed on a computer screen before then interview, then afterward more photos were shown and I was asked which were repeats from the initial set. Then I was asked to spend twenty minutes a day for the next two weeks listening to a speech about the inevitability of death. No matter what we think awaits us next, I heard each day, one thing is certain. All of us will die. The time we share now is our only time in this life.

That sort of thing.

After two weeks of this, they gave me another interview and a repeat of the memory game. Was I changed by two weeks’ worth of meditation on death?

Honestly, I doubt it. The data they collected from me was probably worthless. I was about to finish my doctorate and leave California, so there was already a sense of finality to most of my actions there. Plus, I’m the sort of depressed weirdo who always thinks about death, psych study or no. I don’t usually get paid $300 to do it. But it seems unlikely that I’d be altered by an experimental treatment so little removed from my everyday experience.

My laboratory baymate also participated in the study. He seemed to be affected more than I was. After two weeks of meditation on death, he started talking about lobsters.

Blue-lobster

I’ve written about the connection between lobsters and immortality previously, so all I’ll say now is that there has been a big push to understand the cellular and molecular consequences of aging in order to reverse them. For instance, our chromosomal telomeres shorten as we age. Can we lengthen them again?  Young blood has a different composition from the blood of older individuals. Can we make someone youthful by pumping young blood through their veins? Caloric restriction extends lifespan. Is there a way to reap the benefits without suffering through deprivation?

The meat machines we call our bodies evolved to live fast and die young, but we might be able to tweak and tune them to persist an extra hundred years.

Two hundred years is still a far cry from immortality, though.

Not, of course, that true immortality is possible. Over time, the entropy of the universe increases. Someday there will be no more life, no planets, no stars – nothing but a homogeneous smear filling all space. But many orders of magnitude separate our lifespans from the expected heat death of the universe. Humans could live much, much longer than we do now and still never need to worry about that cold, lonely end.

Human_brain_01Which brings us to the idea that a human mind could be preserved independent of this biodegradable shell. Conceptually this is not so strange. The workings of a mind are due to electrical currents pulsing through a particular configuration of synaptic connections. If different currents pulse through, you’re having different thoughts. If the synapses are connected in a different pattern, you have a different mind, a different personality, different memories.

If our mind is nothing but the pattern of our synapses, it should be possible to map all their connections and use this information to reproduce ourselves. Even if our mind is also molded by components other than the synapses (such as the myelin sheaths formed by glial cells), it should be possible (using a very powerful computer) to simulate the entire mess.

This is why some people want their heads lopped off and brains frozen after death. Not me. When I read about these people, I generally feel sad. I hate the idea of dying. It terrifies me. But I still believe it adds something to the human experience. And, although my particular brain seems to work well, I’m not sure the people of the future would want to expend the resources necessary to keep it around. They might decide to use their (very powerful!) computers for something else.

zero-k-9781501135392_lgStill, there is the dream. Maybe the people of the future will be able to bring us back to life. And maybe, just maybe, they will want to. This is the premise of Don Delillo’s Zero K. A few very wealthy individuals have funded an institution that will preserve their brains and bodies to be revived at some future time.

Any future resurrection, especially one mediated by computers, would be akin to the creation of an artificial intelligence. It will always be impossible to use nondestructive methods to perfectly map the components of a human brain. Given the quantum-mechanical fuzziness of reality, it’s hard to imagine what the concept of mapping “perfectly” would even mean. A future resurrection would be no more than an approximation of the original person.

Maybe this would be enough. After all, our brains change day by day and yet our personalities remain the same. Even severe brain injuries can leave our identities largely intact. Maybe the information inevitably lost when scanning a dead brain would prove to be irrelevant.

But we don’t know. And so one of the first experiments that anybody would suggest is: Can the resurrected mind pass a Turing test? If someone attempts to engage the resurrected mind in conversation, would the interlocutor walk away convinced that the mind was human?

CaptureUnfortunately, the characters Delillo sculpted to populate Zero K allow him to skirt this idea. It’s worth mentioning that Delillo’s White Noise is one of my all-time favorite books. I think he’s a great writer, and in his other books have loved the way he does dialogue. He beautifully depicts the interpersonal disconnect that permeates modern life. Consider this passage from White Noise in which two professors visit a tourist trap together:

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides–pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.”

He seemed immensely pleased by this.

This is not a conversation. The speaker is unconcerned by the narrator’s lack of response. I think this is a beautiful, elegant commentary on modern life. You could read Martin Buber’s philosophical texts about the meaning of dialogue, or you could learn the same concepts while having a heckuva lot more fun by reading Delillo’s White Noise.

And yet. I think Delillo does a disservice to the ideas he’s exploring in Zero K to have the characters of his new novel also converse with each other in this disjointed way. Consider two fragments of dialogue, both from about a hundred pages into the novel (which just happens to be when I first realized that this style of dialogue, employed throughout, might be problematic here). In the first, a wealthy man is speaking to his son about his wife’s decision to be put down before she deteriorates farther:

“Yes, it will happen tomorrow,” he said casually.

“This is not some game that the doctors are playing with Artis.”

“Or that I’m playing with you.”

“Tomorrow.”

“You’ll be alerted early. Be here, this room, first thing, first light.”

He kept pacing and I sat watching.

“Is she really at the point where this has to be done now? I know she’s ready for it, eager to test the future. But she thinks, she speaks.”

“Tremors, spasms, migraines, lesions on the brain, nervous system in collapse.”

“Sense of humor intact.”

“There’s nothing left for her on this level. She believes that and so do I.”

In this next, a traveling monk is describing the facility to that same son – the wealthy man’s son is our window into this world.

“This is the safehold, the waiting place. They’re waiting to die. Everyone here dies here,” he said. “There is no arrangement to import the dead in shipping containers, one by one, from various parts of the world, and then place them in the chamber. The dead do not sign up beforehand and then die and then get sent here with all the means of preservation intact. They die here. They come here to die. This is their operational role.”

2000px-Turing_Test_Version_3.svg
A Turing test: Can we distinguish between an artificial intelligence and a human being?

If I were evaluating a Turing test and my conversational partner started speaking this way, I’d suspect my interlocutor was a robot. In my experience, most humans don’t talk this way.

By making the human characters more robotic, resurrection becomes an easier prospect. The more computer-like someone sounds – liable at any moment to spout off lists of facts instead of sentimental interpretations of the world – the easier it would be for a computer to encapsulate that person’s mind. The stakes seem artificially lowered.

I’m not trying to say that the resurrection of Elizabeth Bennett would dazzle me whereas bringing back Mr. Darcy would leave me yawning. But even Mr. Darcy, for all his aloof strangeness, feels far more viscerally engaged with human life than any of the characters in Zero K. Which, to me, undermines this particular exploration of the ideas.

Would you die happier knowing that a rigid automaton vaguely like you would someday be created, and maybe it would live forever? For me, the answer is “no.” I think my passions matter.

On watchful gods, trust, and how academic scientists undermined their own credibility.

On watchful gods, trust, and how academic scientists undermined their own credibility.

k10063Despite my disagreements with a lot of its details, I thoroughly enjoyed Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods.  The book posits an explanation for the current global dominance of the big three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Instead of the “quirks of history & dumb luck” explanation offered in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Norenzayan suggests that the Abrahamic religions have so many adherents today because beneficial economic behaviors were made possible by belief in those religions.

Here’s a rough summary of the argument: Economies function best in a culture of trust.  People are more trustworthy when they’re being watched.  If people think they’re being watched, that’s just as good.  Adherents to the Abrahamic faiths think they are always being watched by God.  And, because anybody could claim to believe in an omnipresent, ever-watchful god, it was worthwhile for believers to practice costly rituals (church attendance, dietary restrictions, sexual moderation, risk of murder by those who hate their faith) in order to signal that they were genuine, trustworthy, God-fearing individuals.

A clever argument.  To me, it calls to mind the trustworthiness passage of Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves:

When evolution gets around to creating agents that can learn, and reflect, and consider rationally what they ought to do next, it confronts these agents with a new version of the commitment problem: how to commit to something and convince others you have done so.  Wearing a cap that says “I’m a cooperator” is not going to take you far in a world of other rational agents on the lookout for ploys.  According to [Robert] Frank, over evolutionary time we “learned” how to harness our emotions to the task of keeping us from being too rational, and–just as important–earning us a reputation for not being too rational.  It is our unwanted excess of myopic or local rationality, Frank claims, that makes us so vulnerable to temptations and threats, vulnerable to “offers we can’t refuse,” as the Godfather says.  Part of becoming a truly responsible agent, a good citizen, is making oneself into a being that can be relied upon to be relatively impervious to such offers.

I think that’s a beautiful passage — the logic goes down so easily that I hardly notice the inaccuracies beneath the surface.  It makes a lot of sense unless you consider that many other species, including relatively non-cooperative species, have emotional lives very similar to our own, and will like us act in irrational ways to stay true to those emotions (I still love this clip of an aggrieved monkey rejecting its cucumber slice).

Maybe that doesn’t seem important to Dennett, who shrugs off decades of research indicating the cognitive similarities between humans and other animals when he asserts that only we humans have meaningful free will, but that kind of detail matters to me.

You know, accuracy or truth or whatever.

Similarly, I think Norenzayan’s argument is elegant, even though I don’t agree.  One problem is that he supports his claims with results from social psychology experiments, many of which are not credible.  But that’s not entirely his fault.  Arguments do sound more convincing when there’s experimental data to back them up, and surely there are a few tolerably accurate social psychology results tucked away in the scientific literature. The problem is that the basic methodology of modern academic science produces a lot of inaccurate garbage (References? Here & here & here & here... I could go on, but I already have a half-written post on the reasons why the scientific method is not a good persuasive tool, so I’ll elaborate on this idea later).

For instance, many of the experiments Norenzayan cites are based on “priming.”  Study subjects are unconsciously inoculated with an idea: will they behave differently?

Naturally, Norenzayan includes a flattering description of the first priming experiment, the Bargh et al. study (“Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action”) in which subjects walked more slowly down a hallway after being unconsciously exposed to words about old age.  But this study is terrible!  It’s a classic in the field, sure, and its “success” has resulted in many other laboratories copying the technique, but it almost certainly isn’t meaningful.

Look at the actual data from the Bargh paper: they’ve drawn a bar graph that suggests a big effect, but that’s just because they picked an arbitrary starting point for their axis.  There are no error bars.  The work couldn’t be replicated (unless a research assistant was “primed” to know what the data “should” look like in advance).

fig2

The author of the original priming study also published a few apoplectic screeds denouncing the researchers who attempted to replicate his work — here’s a quote from Ed Yong’s analysis:

Bargh also directs personal attacks at the authors of the paper (“incompetent or ill-informed”), at PLoS (“does not receive the usual high scientific journal standards of peer-review scrutiny”), and at me (“superficial online science journalism”).  The entire post is entitled “Nothing in their heads”.

Personally, I am extremely skeptical of any work based on the “priming” methodology.  You might expect the methodology to be sound because it’s been used in so many subsequent studies.  I don’t think so.  Scientific publishing is sufficiently broken that unsound methodologies could be used to prove all sorts of untrue things, including precognition.

If you’re interested in the failings of modern academic science and don’t want to wait for my full post on the topic, you should check out Simmons et al.’s “False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and AnalysNais Allows Presenting Anything as Significant.”  This paper demonstrates that listening to the Beatles will make you chronologically younger.

Wait.  No.  That can’t be right.

The_Beatles_in_America

The Simmons et al. paper actually demonstrates why so many contemporary scientific results are false, a nice experimental supplement to the theoretical Ioannidis model (“Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”).  The paper pre-emptively rebuts empty rationalizations such as those given in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s New York Times editorial (“Psychology Is not in Crisis,” in which she incorrectly argues that it’s no big deal that most findings cannot be replicated).

Academia rewards researchers who can successfully hunt for publishable results.  But the optimal strategy for obtaining something publishable (collect lots of data, analyze it repeatedly using different mathematical formula, discard all the data that look “wrong”) is very different from the optimal strategy for uncovering truth.

28-1

Here’s one way to understand why much of modern academic publishing isn’t really science: in general, results are publishable only if they are positive (i.e. a treatment causes a change, as opposed to a treatment having no effect) and significant (i.e. you would see the result only 1 out of 20 times if the claim were not actually true).  But that means that if twenty labs decide to test the same false idea, 19 of them will get negative results and be unable to publish their findings, whereas 1 of them will see a false positive and publish.  Newspapers will announce that the finding is real, and there will be a published record of only the incorrect lab’s result.

Because academic training is set up like a pyramid scheme, we have a huge glut of researchers.  For any scientific question, there are probably enough laboratories studying it to nearly guarantee that significance testing will provide one of them an untrue publishable result.

And that’s even if everyone involved were 100% ethical.  Even then, a huge quantity of published research would be incorrect.  In our world, where many researchers are not ethical, the situation is even worse.

Norenzayan even documents this sort of unscientific over-analysis of data in his book.  One example appears in his chapter on anti-atheist prejudice:

In addition to assessing demographic information and individual religious beliefs, we asked [American] participants to rate the degree to which they viewed both atheists and gays with either distrust or with disgust.

. . .

It is possible that, for whatever reason, people may have felt similarly toward both atheists and gays, but felt more comfortable openly voicing distrust of atheists than of gays.  In addition, our sample consisted of American adults, overall a quite religious group.  To address these concerns, we performed additional studies in a population with considerable variability in religious involvement, but overall far less religious on the whole than most Americans.  We studied the attitudes of university students in Vancouver, Canada.  To circumvent any possible artifacts that result from overtly asking people about their prejudices, we designed studies that included more covert ways of measuring distrust.

When I see an explanation like that, it suggests that the researchers first conducted their study using the same methodology for both populations, obtained data that did not agree with their hypothesis, then collected more data for only one group in order to build a consistent, publishable story (if you’re interested, you can see their final paper here).

Because researchers can (and do!) collect data until they see what they want — until they have results that agree with a pet hypothesis, perhaps one they’ve built their career around — it’s not hard to obtain publishable data that appear to support any claim.  Doesn’t matter whether the claim is true or not.  And that, in essence, is why the practices that masquerade as the scientific method in the hands of modern researchers are not convincing persuasive tools.

I think it’s unfair to denounce people for not believing scientific results about climate change, for instance.  Because modern scientific results simply are not believable.

scientists_montageWhich is a shame.  The scientific method, used correctly, is the best way to understand the world.  And many scientists are very bright, ethical people.  And we should act upon certain research findings.

For instance, even if the reality underlying most climate change studies is a little less dire than some papers would lead you to believe, our world will be better off — more ecological diversity, less asthma, less terrorism, and, yes, less climate destabilization — if we pretend the results are real.

So it’s tragic, in my opinion, that a toxic publishing culture has undermined the authority of academic scientists.

And that’s one downside to Norenzayan’s book.  He supports his argument with a lot of data that I’m disinclined to believe.

The other problem is that he barely addresses historical information that doesn’t agree with his hypothesis.  For instance, several cultures developed long-range trust-based commerce without believing in omnipresent, watchful, morality-enforcing gods, including ancient Kanesh, China, the pre-Christian Greco-Roman empires, some regions of Polynesia.

CaptureThere’s also historical data demonstrating that trust is separable from religion (and not just in contemporary secular societies, where Norenzayan would argue that a god-like role is played by the police… didn’t sound so scary the way he wrote it).  The most heart-wrenching example of this, in my opinion, is presented in Nunn & Wantchekon’s paper, “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa.” They suggest a casual relationship between kidnapping & treachery during the transatlantic slave trade and contemporary mistrust in the plundered regions.  Which would mean that slavery in the United States created a drag on many African nations’ economies that persists to this day.

That legacy of mistrust persists despite the once-plundered nations (untrusting, with high economic transaction costs to show for it) & their neighbors (trusting, with greater prosperity) having similar proportions of believers in the Abrahamic faiths.

Is it so wrong to wish Norenzayan had addressed some of these issues?  I’ll admit that complexity might’ve sullied his clever logic.  But, all apologies to Keats, sometimes it’s necessary to introduce some inelegance in the pursuit of truth.

Still, the book was pleasurable to read.  Definitely gave me a lot to think about, and the writing is far more lucid and accessible than I’d expected.  Check out this passage on the evolutionary flux — replete with dead ends — that the world’s religions have gone through:

CaptureThis cultural winnowing of religions over time is evident throughout history and is occurring every day.  It is easy to miss this dynamic process, because the enduring religious movements are all that we often see in the present.  However, this would be an error.  It is called survivor bias.  When groups, entities, or persons undergo a process of competition and selective retention, we see abundant cases of those that “survived” the competition process; the cases that did not survive and flourish are buried in the dark recesses of the past, and are overlooked.  To understand how religions propagate, we of course want to put the successful religions under the microscope, but we do not want to forget the unsuccessful ones that did not make it — the reasons for their failures can be equally instructive.

This idea, that the histories we know preserve only a lucky few voices & occurrences, is also beautifully alluded to in Jurgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World (trans. Patrick Camiller).  The first clause here just slays me:

The teeth of time gnaw selectively: the industrial architecture of the nineteenth century has worn away more quickly than many monuments from the Middle Ages.  Scarcely anywhere is it still possible to gain a sensory impression of what the Industrial “Revolution” meant–of the sudden appearance of a huge factory in a narrow valley, or of tall smokestacks in a world where nothing had risen higher than the church tower.

Indeed, Norenzayan is currently looking for a way to numerically analyze oft-overlooked facets of history.  So, who knows?  Perhaps, given more data, and a more thorough consideration of data that don’t slot nicely into his favored hypothesis, he could convince me yet.