The Breakfast Table

Tweaking the Psychic Operating System

Responding to Glen Davidson’s “Fray” comment (“What happens in the brain has crucial roots in DNA, yet its complexity and operation are far more ordered by the brain’s environment, inside and outside of the body, than it is by DNA.”–scroll down for the rest.)

I couldn’t agree more.

“The mind is fickle and flighty, it flies after fancies wherever it likes: it is difficult indeed to restrain. But it is a great good to control the mind; a mind self-controlled is a source of great joy.”

–from Tricycle mag’s “Daily Dharma” today.

That’s what I mean by religion as psychic technology. I think of brain-type thoughts, problem solving and the like, as application software, like Word or Excel for Windows. But your operating system is your controlling consciousness, limited as it is by your emotional makeup, repressed knowledge, cultural blind spots, etc.

I think part of what religion attempts to do is modify your operating system. Knowledge of the genome affects the operation of the body, and given the increasing uses of physical chemistry and the like to affect one’s thoughts and emotions, of the mind too, to a degree. But I’ve been interested for a long time in what various spiritual traditions have to offer in terms of tried-and-somewhat-true technologies to affect the operating system of consciousness. I think that if Justin Volpe had been fully conscious of what he was committing, he wouldn’t have done it. You say he “didn’t need G-d” at that moment, Ken. I’d say he sure as hell did, but he didn’t know it.

Another Fray poster, John Rogers, mentions the ABC special on Jesus. For me it’s productive to think of the switch in philosophy that Jesus advocated–from eye-for-an-eye/tooth-for-a-tooth punishment system to the whole forgiveness/redemption thing–as another model of psychic technology of the sort I’m talking about. A whole different machine, with different operation and different results, than what the previous philosophy had to offer. What do you think about that, Ken?

Anyway, here I am, a stereotypical geek-type, using computer and tech metaphors to talk about deep issues. According to Michiko Kakutani’s article on the front page of the New York Times arts section–about the cultural implications of computer slang–“geek-speak conjures up a chilly, utilitarian world in which people are equated with machines.” It’s an interesting article, and I like to see that stuff covered prominently, but people who are bonded affectionately with their computers don’t think of that world as chilly. Book people so often have alienated feelings toward the digital world, but books themselves are a technology, too, they’re just an older one. Trees are a technology, just not a man-made one. We ourselves–back to the genome thing again–are “soft machines.” We just don’t know that much about who made us, or why, or what role our consciousness plays in the whole thing.

When we were working on Gig last summer, I interviewed a female materials science professor at MIT who works with natural, self-organizing cell processes to create new artificial products like solid batteries. She herself is (perhaps) dying of cancer. She spoke unbelievably movingly about how much we know now about cells and what they do and how her condition has prompted her to wonder more urgently than most, as she peers into her microscope, Where is the soul, in all of that cellular material?

Unfortunately, we had to cut that one from the book. With dead-tree media, see, you have all these space limitations.