Friday, January 13, 2023

Materialism meets transcendence

I want to pass on the URL to a PBS series by Alan Lightman that I plan to start watching as soon as I can, based on the following description and review in Science Magazine:
In part 1, “The Stars & The Osprey,” Lightman undergoes functional magnetic resonance imaging and interviews neuroscientist Robert Desimone about how much neuroimaging can tell us about Lightman’s transcendental experience. He ultimately finds this approach unsatisfying and introduces viewers to the debate between mechanists, who believe that the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are sufficient to explain life, and vitalists, who believe that living creatures are imbued with an additional spiritual quality not explainable by science.
Here, he interviews biologist and Nobel laureate Jack Szostak and the Dalai Lama as proponents of these two camps, respectively. Although the Dalai Lama expresses enthusiasm for scientific investigation, most scientists will likely resonate with Szostak’s declaration that “It’s not just atoms and molecules, it’s the organization…it’s no less wonderful or beautiful because we understand that there is a natural origin for [life].”
Part 2, “The Big & The Small,” begins with the familiar “powers of 10” view of the Universe, moving from the subatomic to the galactic. Lightman then queries what such explorations have to do with consciousness, conversing with BINA48, an extraordinary humanoid robot programmed by artificial intelligence with >100 hours of a real woman’s memories. Here, he speculates that BINAs of the future may achieve consciousness. He then probes this issue over Zoom with the Dalai Lama, whom viewers observe watching a movie of BINA48 conversing with the woman from whom BINA48 was programmed; this multilayered interaction is simultaneously disconcerting, comical, and wondrous. After additional interviews with a bioethicist, a rabbi, and others, Lightman ultimately concludes that we may be just atoms and molecules, but, in the words of Emily Dickinson, “The brain is wider than the sky.”
In part 3, “Homo Techno,” Lightman contemplates our inner world of perception, consciousness, and self-awareness. He meets Erik Sorto, who lost all movement from the neck down after being shot in the back. With electrodes implanted into his posterior parietal cortex and 2 years of training, Sorto learned to control the movement of a robotic arm by thought. This is an extraordinary achievement, and Lightman posits that it is an example of the beginning of our transition from Homo sapiens into Homo techno, part-human, part-machine entities that reflect the modification of human evolution by technological means. From an actual evolutionary biology standpoint, this is nonsensical, and it is unclear that Lightman even means to propose such an idea, but this section’s loose language will rankle some viewers.
At another point in the series’ final episode, Lightman finds himself dizzy from talk of neurons and galaxies and takes refuge in closely examining a single square inch of earth. His biophilia is obviously meaningful to him, and it would have been stimulating had the episode included interviews with an evolutionary biologist or naturalist, who might have helped to better articulate this facet of the human experience. The series closes, appropriately, with philosophical musings about the need for each of us to find meaning for ourselves.
A small problem at the outset is the inherent impossibility of conveying transcendence through description—the degree to which viewers relate to Lightman’s moment of enlightenment will depend on their own experiences and inclinations. Additionally, Lightman’s screen persona leaves something to be desired. There are, however, few people better qualified to explore these issues, and as the series progresses, his humanity shines through, bringing a welcome lightness to some potentially ponderous material.
Despite its focus on phenomena currently unexplainable by science, Searching is full of the joy and passion that can be found in the doing of science and succeeds in conveying how deeply meaningful science is to its practitioners. It is well worth your time and is especially recommended to families with kids curious about life and our world.

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