I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, June 06, 2009

I believe in matter

A few months after Laura died of cancer, I went the Bodyworks exhibit, where corpses were preserved with plastic. Peeled and posed, they show the inner workings of the body, the muscles, bones and nerves. I spent a long time studying a lung riddled with cancer. I could see the tiny knots of tissue that had ended Laura’s life. Looking at the tumors I felt peace, and optimism. Laura’s death hadn’t been the act of a capricious god, nor some failure of spirit or karma. The tumors that killed her were physical, not some concept or idea. They were growths of tissue and nothing more. They were matter.

And matter is wonderful.

The beauty of matter is that it can be understood. It obeys rules. The secrets of matter unfold daily before the collective study of mankind.

I believe our most urgent problems have their solutions in the material world. Our understanding of steel and oil gave us the internal combustion engines that power our comfortable modern lives. Our study of plants and soil have led to bountiful harvests undreamed of by earlier generations. We live longer lives due to our understanding of diseases, and our ability to better engineer the delivery of clean water and dispose of our waste.

It’s true that every advance brings new challenges. Longer life spans lead to a growing population that strains our resources. Increasing crop production has come at the expense of natural habitats, and fertilizers and pesticides can poison our streams and fields. But we know of these problems because of our continued study of the physical world. We’ll solve these problems by deepening our understanding. We’re building new materials from the atom up to capture the energy of the sun. The age when power comes to our homes via copper wires, or to our cars as flammable liquids, is near an end. In our lifetimes, our roofs will become power plants and a new generation of batteries will propel us along the highway. Our growing knowledge of genetics will give us crops that feed more people with less harm to the environment.

And, yes, I believe that one day the tumors that killed Laura will no longer threaten anyone. Cancer is caused by a few stray genetic switches that get flipped and turn ordinary cells into voracious growth machines. One day, we’ll design the key to turn these switches off.

All of these problems are complex, but none are infinitely complex. Our understanding of matter has given us the power to process unimaginable amounts of information in the etchings on a silicon wafer or the magnetic alignment of atoms on a steel disk. As we learn about matter, we can build increasingly powerful tools to study and manipulate it. We are nowhere near the final boundaries of our understanding.

I'm James Maxey, and I believe in matter.


Note: I've written this post with the goal of submitting it as a "This I Believe" essay on NPR. These are limited to 500 words, though the real limit is actually a time one, I think. I'm pretty sure the essay can't be more than three minutes long when read aloud. I feel like there's a lot of stuff I'm not saying in this essay, many points I'd like to expand on. But, I'm putting it up here to see if anyone has any comments on its relative effectiveness or clarity. If there's anything that confuses you, or any obvious typos you note, I'd love to hear about it. My goal is to submit this to NPR next week.



Estellye said...

Ah yes, the complex vs infinitely complex idea. That has stuck in my mind since the con.

I've thought of submitting a "This I Believe" too some time. I guess I will when the right thing of those many things I believe decides to arrange itself into 500 words, lol.

I read this aloud and I think it will work beautifully for radio. And also be moving...which many of the selected essays are. Best of luck to you!

James Maxey said...

Yeah, I've wanted to do one of these for a while, and took a serious stab at it a few years ago, but found it difficult to make a meaningful statement in so few words. But, at ConCarolinas I found myself discussing why I often feel optimistic about the future, and since then I've been thinking that this might be the right topic for me. I checked the archives and didn't see anything else about believing in "matter." I think I have a shot.

Curiously, until just this week, I was unaware that materialism is an actual philosophical viewpoint. When I hear the world materialism, it's usually used in a perjorative fashion, synonymous with consumerism. People who only care about their cars, clothes, and houses are dismissed as materialistic.

But, apparently many serious philosophers, dating back to the greeks, have been comfortable with the stance that all of reality is material reality--there is no such thing as spirit, and some even argue there is no such thing as mind.

It's a fascinating concept, one I want to learn more about. Obviously, there is such a thing as thought. But thoughts are, ultimately, generated by the brain. There is an actual physical mechanism of thought that requires the movement of tiny particles across synaptic gaps. A hard drive can store and retrieve information, but it isn't a mind.

The argument that everything we think of as "spirit" or "mind," such as our personalities, is ultimately physical. Pump the bloodstream full of alchohol, and people's personalities can change. Sever the two hemispheres of the brain, and again you can witness radical transformations of personality. The fact that drugs work at all to alter our moods and thoughts is evidence that we all boil down to chemicals, and chemistry is just the study of the interactions of matter on a molecular level.

I'm rambling now. You can see why the 500 word limit is tough for me!

Loren Eaton said...

This is very interesting, James, and nicely written. The only thing I would suggest is clarifying Laura's relationship to you for NPR; they won't necessarily know you or have read the blog.

One on the interesting things about the brain / mind dichotomy (which I studied a bit after my dad's brain tumor diagnosis) is how little the experts agree. A few of the options include epinphenomenalism (the mind exists but doesn't do anything); eliminative materialism (the mind doesn't exist); psychophysical indentity theory (the mind exists only on a subjective level); mentalism (the mind is created by brain matter, yet it has true import and existence); and dualistic interactionism (parts of the mind exist independent of the brain and interact with it on quantum level). Non-materialists such as the Dalai Lama go in heavily for neuroplasticity, which is really fascinating.

James Maxey said...

Hmm. What little I know about neuroplasticity isn't terribly mystical. I thought it was, at its most basic level, the ability of the brain to rewire itself in response to changing conditions. For instance, in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," Oliver Sachs gives case studies of people who lost certain brain functions due to disease or injury, but their minds were eventually able to build new pathways to restore the functions. It's been years since I read the book, so this specific detail is probably wrong, but lets say that a person has lost the ability to remember faces following a stroke, but is able to remember music. The patients would sometimes regain the ability to remember faces by somehow associating faces with music. Instead of storing a face by hair color, nose, and eyebrows, the musically gifted stroke patient might remember your face as a passage from the Fifth Symphony. It's very wierd, but it seems to work for some people.

Still, the main point for me is that there's nothing mystical or spiritual about the mind. If the mind were not a product of the brain, then it seems like strokes wouldn't be as devastating as they are. A disease like Alzheimer's doesn't seem like it could afflict humans if their personalities were external to their physical beings.

There are a few interesting data points of evidence against the brain generating the mind, such as the very rare yet documented cases of people with average IQs turning out to be missing most of their cerebral cortex. Still, the bulk of the evidence points to the notion that no brain=no mind.

James Maxey said...

Oh, and trying to explain my relationship with Laura is a 500 word essay in itself. Our vocabulary is curiously absent of a short, polite term for "dead girlfriend." I'd call her my "partner," but that term is increasingly becoming synonymous with same sex relationships. I really think the people over at websters should get on top of this ASAP.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, mystical wouldn't exactly be the word I would choose either. This quote from the WSJ article I linked to explains it a little better: "One brain surgeon hardly paused. Physical states give rise to mental states, he asserted; 'downward' causation from the mental to the physical is not possible." What neuroplasticity shows, though, is that immaterial changes material -- quite a concept. Jeffrey Schwartz has done some fascinating work in the field.

Also, I'll get the petition for revising the vocabulary into the editors of the OED posthaste. If they can included Homer Simpson's "D'oh!" (which I'm pretty sure they have) then we should certainly be able to come up with a more appropriate term.

Loren Eaton said...

That should be "include." Meh. Time to go home.

Mr. Cavin said...

I'd say simple is always best. "My best friend Laura" should work. The essay certainly needs a little something more than it currently has in the way of establishment.

Otherwise, this is damn great just the way it is. Looking forward to listening to it.