I spoke recently with Dr. Seán Ó Nualláin, whom I’ve interviewed on this blog before. Seán holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Trinity College, Dublin Ireland. He was a visiting scholar at Walter Freeman’s lab at UC Berkeley, and also faculty at Cal and Stanford. Seán is the author of several books, including “One Magisterium,” and he runs the Foundations of Mind project.
One of the ideas mentioned in One Magisterium is the notion of bionoetics, a term Ó Nualláin first coined in a paper published in 2007 in a review of Gunther Witzany’s The Logos of the Bios. Ó Nualláin’s idea of bionoetics was subsequently described by Witzany as a method, “at one with the universal laws of nature without embracing scientific reductionism, but instead looking at the whole. New generations of science, fine arts and spirituality, freed of former dogmatic traditions, will be able to do justice to this approach.”
While the idea of Bionoetics may seem so novel as to be at first hard to imagine or fully comprehend, Ó Nualláin has now written a manifesto on Bionoetics, which I am honored to reblog.
The bionoetics manifesto
Aside from massive student debt and risible employment prospects for Ph D’s, the early 21st Century University has other profound problems. The disciplinary structure is a mess of different geological strata, excluding the 21st century and its urgent need for focused departments dealing with hitherto “interdisciplinary” subjects like Cognitive Science.
In the age of the ubiquitous smartphone, students are asked to perform an acting job in pretending that their professors are more competent than those available through a single click on a browser. In the age of readily available neatly archived knowledge, a mafioso level scam is implemented with “anonymous” review , cartels of professors introducing their students to the fleshpots of the conference circuit, and interlocking boards of capi–sorry, journal editors. Of course, this feeds into the “tenure “ scam, where a historical deal between the state and scholar to secure academic freedom for the latter is now a dead letter.
The solutions are blindingly simple. All basic courses are now available for minimum charge of the web. Academic articles can transparently be posted for equally transparent peer review and appropriately edited by the original writer, who might alternatively agree to disagree or ignore. Cui bono the present system? The corporation-dominated university and immensely profitable journals to start with.
Yet there is a darker agenda at work. The demonic social forces unleashed by the attempted neoconservative coup of 2000-2008 have been transmuted into a paralysis of political will. It suits purveyors of neoliberalism that students of political science can be indoctrinated to look away from the Wiki leaks revelations of how diplomacy actually works. It suits them also that psychology students are not taught the elements of objective math models of reality and the real political order.
All this can easily be changed, and this is but a short foray into the area. Apart from the crisis in replicability of results and consequent retraction of papers that characterizes 21st century science, there are vast swathes of potential knowledge that remain unexplored as a result of the idiot savant microfocus of current science. “Dark energy” and “dark matter” are too well-known to be rehearsed here, are suggestive of a stage of crisis in science, but are mirrored in other areas. Examples are the fact that the “dark energy”/default network of the brain is currently suggested as absorbing metabolic process even when no cognition is taking place; linear models of the neuron are clearly too simple; the “dark nucleotides” result in non-coding rmas that actually code by any computing definition; and so on.
The recent accidental (sorry, “serendipitous”) discovery of CRISPR mechanisms now means that gene-editing is at the stage that Monsanto assured us a generation ago they had achieved. This opens a Pandora’s box of speculation about corporate influence on science, already accepted in medicine to the extreme that corporations have gotten so concerned about academics whoring themselves that they have started to do their own replication studies.
Contemptible as such influence is, the problem is deeper still. It is clear, after the bail-outs post-2008, that the number one value in our society is the right of quants to fiddle with numbers and, by financializing the economy, introduce what has become a neo-feudal system. The state pays for this economized status quo–using taxpayers’ money against them–and then requires that the universities produce graduates to work in this Procrustean Uber/taskrabbit dystopia in the name of “competitiveness” in a market that has been carefully jury-rigged.
The result is that talented artists are being removed from the gene line as it becomes too expensive for them even to afford the white picket fence, let alone the house. It should be the duty of universities to ensure that humanities and arts graduates assert the transcendence of the realities to which great art points, be that transcendence achieved through language (like Mallarme) or conceived of as contact with an objective reality (like Beethoven). Nothing of the sort happens; indeed. this writer has sat at seminars with classical music students forced to endure disquisitions about Beyonce videos. If it is all about feelings – as distinct, say, from exploring the stack depth in Beethoven’s recursive motif in the fifth – why bother with reality and value judgement?
Similarly, the social sciences feature instruction in Atheism 101 (using the Dover trial as a straw man) and – more subtly – an injunction to the students to regard political facts only insofar as they are relative to psychology. Famously, the Kerry 2004 campaign was ill-advised along these lines. Of course, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you, and such weak epistemological fences are easily breached later in life.
So what can be done? It is clear that we cannot proceed further without looking at the goals of the larger society, which should include human beings living healthily in safe communities and free to explore their relation with a reality conceived of as wonderful. Tertiary education is a critical part of this, and has become subverted. So we can insist on total transparency in all research and pedagogy as a first step. We do not have to resort to new age woo-woo whose only virtue is a radical assertion of the reality of subjectivity; the current structure of the academy leaves unexplored many fertile areas of research on things meaningful to people. We can in fact build a structure of research and teaching built on a set of ineluctable propositions about humanity’s relation to reality that cannot, even in principle, ever contradict best practice in science
One is to insist–the central Bionoetics propositions–that we humans are a process in which the universe has come to know itself, and that math exemplifies this. Before the acceleration of mathematical knowledge in the renaissance, we built sophisticated societies based on co-operation through language; since then there has been a vast acceleration Mathematics is neither more nor less than the most elliptical and precise expression of the cosmos knowing itself through us. This is irrefutable (as distinct from true, a slippier concept); the index of access to an objective reality through all the travails of constructivism, psychologism etc is the litmus test of math models working in areas like QM. Math contains access to entities historically conceived of as Platonic (cosine, pi, etc) as well as reflections of our cognitive and social systems. Indeed, math may be illogical as anyone who struggled with infinities knows; it may work in contexts it shouldn’t with “bad” methods like non-converging infinities and QFT; underlying its success is surely something deeper than “cognitive” operations.
In the social sciences, students should indeed be taught the techniques of graph traversal that constitute modern literacy. Yet it should be done in a context in which it is made clear to them that in the political sphere they are objects more than subjects, not to believe everything they think as our century has witnessed development of expertise in implanting narratives. In the arts it should be insisted that artists are often consumed by a vision of a reality transcendent to them, and the formal techniques they use (like Beethoven’s stack, and his innovation of the diminished chord) should be explicated in properly respectful fashion.
Medicine should indeed focus on health rather than illness and preventive rather than cure or (the other extreme) “prospective medicine, with Prozac being introduced to countries newly told they’re depressed. Biology is in such crisis that it is the poster child for new explanatory schemas in science. Psychology does not yet exist, 150 + years after its initial replicability crisis. For the moment, we might insist on “psychological’ concepts like simultaneity copying their correlates in physics.
Now, of course, we have to make money. Or do we? For it is clear that the current model involves burdening students with debt so they will later be dutiful consumers. If there is a revenue stream, it will be in interdisciplinary degrees with max $1k a year fees and astutely chosen research topics like those mentioned above. That may never make much money, but presenting it as an alternative is a radical and salutary acy.
However, there is another possibility; introducing the scheme to students of science and the arts as an entrée into a vast, numinous, transcendent reality unavailable to them in the other colleges they are contemplating. For social scientist aspirants, we might point out that the activism that most of them are drawn to requires intimate knowledge of the forces in our complex society, and being told it is all relative to their minds is useless. For performing artists, we can stress that sophisticated performance is likewise a profoundly revolutionary political act and one for which they should demand respect.