Category Archives: Writing

The Making of a Thriller, Part II: Mind Games

So, as Part I of this “Making of a Thriller” blog series (see below) drew to a close, it alluded to a conundrum on which the plot of my technothriller Dualism was said to turn. Which is to say that Dualism the book spends at least some of its time grappling with Dualism the metaphysical stance, and hence with an issue central to the field called philosophy of mind — namely, whether consciousness (as manifested both in humans and in, at the very least, other mammals) is of a piece with the physical world in which it subsists, or whether it represents something altogether separate and apart from material reality.

Philosophy of Mind

This so-called “mind/body problem” can trace its origins back to the beginnings of philosophy itself, having first been raised by Plato: In his “allegory of the cave” (Republic, Book VII), Plato held that — far from encompassing all of reality — the material things we see all around us are mere shadows of a more truly real world of pure ideas, wherein the soul itself finds its natural home.

In more recent times, the notion that mind and body are separate substances is most closely associated with 17th-century mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, who set out to subject all of his beliefs to a radical skepticism, but found that the one thing he could in no way doubt was the fact that he was thinking about doubting. Descartes took this Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) as the cornerstone of his attempt to construct a doubt-proof philosophy.

(Brief aside: So, Descartes is just finishing his lunch at a sidewalk Parisian café when the server walks up and asks him if he’d care to see a dessert menu. Descartes says, “I think not” — and disappears! Bah-dum-dum!)

In any case, by formulating the Cogito, Descartes was implicitly espousing the view that mind owns an independent existence as something distinct from, and different from, matter. Where he ran into problems was when he tried working his way back from the mind’s reality to the reality of anything else.

Present-day physical science has the opposite problem: it can, potentially at least, reduce all the mechanics of the universe, from quarks to quasars, to Democritus’s “atoms moving in a void,” but seems to have a hard time accounting for the consciousness that, after all, is needed to contemplate this starkly reductionist worldview.

Even so, such root-and-branch materialism does have a trump card to play and, in Dualism, Nietzsche (the novel’s AI character, not the German philosopher of the same name) plays it.

It goes like this: If the mind truly were non-physical, it could have no interactions with the physical world it finds itself embedded in. Our thoughts could then in no way influence our actions, perhaps not even our ability to realize we’d ever thought them (assuming awareness and memory themselves rely on physical changes in the brain).

That argument seems to have swept the field nowadays. And had done so even before Daniel Dennett set the seal to it with his 1991 book modestly entitled Consciousness Explained. Dan, incidentally, doesn’t think he’s conscious — and he doesn’t think you are either. Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, begs to differ. His “You Can’t Argue with a Zombie”, while happily (and hilariously) granting Dan the benefit of the doubt on the former point, staunchly refutes the latter.

Be all that as it may, the upshot has been that even those few philosophers still willing to take up the cudgels on behalf of the mind have felt compelled to paint themselves into one of two metaphysical corners: arguing either for “emergence” or for “epiphenomenalism.”

Emergence is championed by, among others, John Searle, whose Chinese Room puzzle makes an appearance in Dualism. In his 1992 Rediscovery of the Mind, Searle posits that mind is an “emergent phenomenon” arising naturally from the activity of physical brains of a certain complexity, but then goes on to argue that, in consequence, consciousness itself is somehow qualitatively different from — and hence not straightforwardly reducible to — the physical substrate from which it arose. The signature metaphor for this species of emergence is water: the individual molecules of H2O don’t exhibit properties like coolness or liquidity or the ability to slake thirst — those all emerge at a macro-scale when masses of molecules are lumped together. Yet the metaphor also exposes its own limitations: “watery” characteristics may emerge from any arbitrary cluster of H2O molecules, but dumping a random batch of neurons in a pile hardly seems likely to yield consciousness. Evidently something else, something more structured, is called for.

Epiphenomenalists take an altogether different tack, as exemplified by David Chalmers in his 1996 landmark study The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. There, Chalmers argues for a (quasi-)immaterial mind — either altogether non-physical in nature, or operating on new, as yet undiscovered physical laws — but, in the process of so doing, simply accepts the above-cited physicalist objection regarding such a mind’s inability to interact with the material world in any way. In the resulting view, our thoughts really cannot influence our actions, rather the two are simply kept in synch somehow. In other words, it’s all just a lucky coincidence that, when I think about lifting my arm, lo and behold, my arm rises into the air.

(This view is somewhat reminiscent of the self-contained, non-interacting monads posited by the 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz as the ultimate irreducible constituents of reality. The difference is that Leibnitz had God to fall back on, to make sure that everything synched up in the end — an option unavailable to most contemporary philosophers.)

What drives philosophers like Searle and Chalmers to embrace — even at the cost of buying into such torturous reasoning — the notion of the mental as not being straightforwardly reducible to the physical, is one simple fact.

A simple fact, which, however, just happens to be the primary fact of human existence: our subjective conscious experience – a topic we’ll take up in our next blogisode.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Writing

The Making of a Thriller, Part I: Bits, Pieces, and MacGuffins

Two scenes and a thought experiment, that’s where my latest technothriller, Dualism, started.

For a while there after I finished writing Singularity, I thought I was done writing, period. I’d exorcised this incubus of an idea that’d had me hagridden for the better part of seven years (you can check out my “Accidental Author” blog on GoodReads for the whole spine-chilling story), by the simple expedient of getting it out of my head and onto paper. Only …

Only the problem was that Jon Knox and Marianna Bonaventure — who’d started out as little more than clotheshorses on which to hang the fabric of the plot — had, by the time I was done, grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I’d become voyeuristically entangled in their interpersonal dynamics, the evolution of their relationship, the whole question they raised and embodied of whether relationships are even possible in this post-modern era (in case you hadn’t guessed, the title of that first book and now this one too are allusions to stages in their growth toward couplehood). And so, just as I’d written Singularity “to see how things came out in the end,” so too was I motivated to write Dualism.

Only there was an additional problem: namely, I had no idea what Dualism was about. What I did have was these two scenes. Without telling you which ones they were (that would be too easy), I can say this about them: One was very old, perhaps the first piece of creative writing I’d done since Freshman English, and that prompted by a loss that metaphorically kicked my heart out of my ribcage, like the hind hoof of one of Larry Niven’s tripodal Puppeteers. The other, comprising the first lines I’d written specifically with Dualism in mind, was evoked by a favorite song: Andrea Boccelli’s Il Mare Calmo della Sera (The Calm Sea of Evening).

So, two scenes, not altogether unrelated, though damned if I could figure how to relate them.

And the thought experiment? That’s the oldest thread of all. I’ll unravel it in a bit more detail later. For now, suffice it to say that, in the end, it was the key to weaving those two scenes together, and much else besides.

Now, all I needed was a MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin Hunt

What is a MacGuffin anyway? Well, the man who popularized the term, the thriller-master himself, Alfred Hitchcock, used to explain it with a story about two men on a train. One of them notices that the other has stowed a strange-looking object up in the baggage rack and asks about it. “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin,” comes the response, which naturally only prompts the further question “What’s a MacGuffin?” “It’s an apparatus for hunting lions on the moors of Scotland,” the proud MacGuffin-owner explains. “But,” the first man objects, “there are no lions on the moors of Scotland.” “Well, then,” replies the second, “that’s no MacGuffin.”

All of which was a roundabout way of saying that a MacGuffin is nothing at all, a fiction, a figment of the imagination. It’s also the name Hitchcock gave to any plot device about which all the characters in a story care very much, but the audience cares not at all. The textbook example is Hitchcock’s own Notorious, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Though the film itself wouldn’t premiere until 1946, the script was already under development in 1944 and — here’s the kicker — it featured uranium ore as its MacGuffin nearly a year before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. When the studio raised understandable concerns about this particular plot-point, Hitchcock told them “the gimmick was unimportant,” and blithely offered to substitute industrial diamonds for the radioactives.

One MacGuffin, in other words, was pretty much as good as another.

That was then, this is now. Blame it on that selfsame atom bomb, perhaps, or on decades of Cold War, or the Global War on Terrorism, or maybe just an increasing sense of the precariousness of existence in general, but modern readers and moviegoers seem to have lost the ability to distance themselves so nonchalantly from the perils depicted on the screen or printed on the page. Nowadays, we have come to expect thrillers where we do care about the device that drives the plot — not least because said device represents a credible threat to our nation, our way of life, or, best of all, our whole world.

This was the context in which I went hunting for Dualism’s MacGuffin. Nor did it help that Singularity, the first book in the Archon Sequence, had steered a course between the Scylla of nuclear holocaust and the Charybdis of a primordial black hole poised to swallow the planet. Kind of set a high bar for coming up with an encore.

Well, as alluded to above, there’s no end of credible existential threats in our modern world. Did you know, for instance, that electromagnetic pulses generated by high-altitude nuclear detonations could fry the entire US power grid, leading to widespread starvation and potential societal collapse? Or that Iran has been laying the groundwork for just such an attack?

I actually wrote a few trial chapters around that EMP MacGuffin, but wound up setting them aside. Devastating as such a scenario could be, it all seemed too — how do I put this? — pedestrian. Deadly, yes, but not enough of a “Wow!” Factor.

In the end, it was rather the very subject matter that Dualism engaged, the philosophical conundrum on which the plot turns, that pointed a way forward.

But that’s a story for next time. Watch this space!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Writing