Fascinating lists!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Man’s Best Friend, Vitalism, The Ghost in the Machine, H. R. Giger, and a Concluding Unscientific Postscript


Whoever has observed a kitten or a puppy play with a mechanical toy has probably noticed how the animal is confused by the automaton’s movement. Locomotion is one of the characteristics of living things, scientists tell us, and animals seem to be instinctively aware of this fact. Movement implies the possibility of danger, because things that move could attack. Alternatively, movement suggests food, because things that move, if only to flee, may be nutritious, even delicious, especially if they happen to be smaller than oneself--”nature, red in tooth and claw,” and all that.

However, the adult cat or dog is not fooled by mechanical toys: such playthings fail the smell test. For full-grown animals, scent--or, less delicately, body odor--distinguishes the living from the mechanical (and, among so-called cadaver dogs, the quick from the dead). As the Bible insists, life is in the blood (and other body fluids, Fido might add). In other words, life is organic. Movement is not, in itself, a sufficient attribute for determining life, nor, robotic assembly lines show, is reproduction.

If life is in the blood (a synecdoche for the organism’s organs), how much blood (or how many organs) are needed for something to be considered alive? Are cyborgs only partially human, while robots are not human at all?

Western culture’s Judeo-Christian religious tradition, like the idealism proposed by Plato and pagan beliefs in animism, posit the existence of a soul, or a vitiating principle, a life-force that makes the human (and, some argued, the animal) viscera quick rather than dead. It was this breath of God, so to speak, that made humans (and maybe animals) live; without it, their bodies would be as dead as the rocks and stones and trees in William Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems, one of which (the hauntingly eerie “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”) laments,

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
Rene Descartes argues that the universe is like a gigantic machine, as are the bodies of human beings themselves, wherein the spirit, or soul, is, as it were, a “ghost in the machine.” Scientists would later argue that the machine of which Descartes speaks is tenantless, that there is no such “ghost” haunting the machine. The spirit or soul is not necessary, they insist, to explain life, human or otherwise, any more, they add, than is a belief in a Creator. Most recently, Steven Hawking has claimed that the laws of physics, not God, created the Big Bang that gave rise to the universe, concluding, in The Grand Design,

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.

Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.
Most, but not all, scientists believe that nature is explainable without the need to invoke the existence of a divine Creator. Deism, like theism, has been cast off my the majority of scientists. However, some scientists do maintain Christian or other religious faith, many of them finding the cosmological argument a persuasive justification for such belief. The argument between atheists and theists is not likely to end any time soon, even among scientists.

Nevertheless, the secular world view is decidedly atheistic or agnostic, and, some contend, even militantly opposed to the “superstitious” beliefs of the religious. It is high time, they argue, that such outmoded systems of belief be committed to the dust heap of history so that humanity can “progress.” (The very belief in human progress is itself a highly debatable position, of course; see the quotation, for example, by Edgar Allan Poe in the column to the right.)

In science (or the rejected science of the past), animism was known as vitalism, which is the belief, as William Bechtel and Robert C. Richardson point out, that “living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things” (“Vitalism,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  According to Bechtel and Richardson,

In its simplest form, vitalism holds that living entities contain some fluid, or a distinctive ‘spirit’. In more sophisticated forms, the vital spirit becomes a substance infusing bodies and giving life to them; or vitalism becomes the view that there is a distinctive organization among living things. . . . Mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena were extended to biological systems by Descartes and his successors. Descartes maintained that animals, and the human body, are ‘automata’, mechanical devices differing from artificial devices only in their degree of complexity. Vitalism developed as a contrast to this mechanistic view. Over the next three centuries, numerous figures opposed the extension of Cartesian mechanism to biology, arguing that matter could not explain movement, perception, development or life. Vitalism has fallen out of favour, though it had advocates even into the twentieth century. The most notable is Hans Driesch (1867–1941), an eminent embryologist, who explained the life of an organism in terms of the presence of an entelechy, a substantial entity controlling organic processes. Likewise, the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1874–1948) posited an élan vital to overcome the resistance of inert matter in the formation of living bodies.
The authors contend that there may vitalism as an explanatory theory of life and its processes is not as absurd as it is sometimes characterized--or caricaturized--as having been, although, in the end, they agree that the “mechanistic” view of life offers a superior empirical basis for experimentation:

Vitalism now has no credibility. This is sometimes credited to the view that vitalism posits an unknowable factor in explaining life; and further, vitalism is often viewed as unfalsifiable, and therefore a pernicious metaphysical doctrine. Ernst Mayr, for example, says that vitalism ‘virtually leaves the realm of science by falling back on an unknown and presumably unknowable factor’ (1982: 52). C.G. Hempel, by contrast, insists that the fault with vitalism is not that it posits entities which cannot be observed, but that such explanations ‘render all statements about entelechies inaccessible to empirical test and thus devoid of empirical meaning’ because no methods of test, however indirect, are provided (1965: 257). The central problem is that vitalism offers no definite predictions. Neither complaint has much historical credibility. Many vitalists were in fact accomplished experimentalists, including most notably Pasteur and Driesch. Moreover, vitalists took great pains to subject their views to experimental test. Magendie, for example, insisted on the importance of precise quantitative laws. Vitalism, as much as mechanistic alternatives, was often deeply embedded in an empirical and experimental programme. Typically, vitalists reacted to perceived inadequacies of mechanistic explanations; in many cases they rightly recognized that the forms of mechanism, materialism or reductionism advocated by their contemporaries were undercut on empirical grounds. In the end, though, their own proposals were supplemented by empirically more adequate mechanistic accounts.
Battles won in religion and in science are often still waged in the public imagination and, therefore, in the pages of fiction and on the stage of drama or the silver screen of cinematography. In each individual, the history of the one’s own culture must reoccur; the history of the species, including that of its ideas, must unfold. What is fought out in the cultural and social spheres must also be fought out in on the individual level. Each person must understand such notions as animism and vitalism for him- or herself. The collective and the historical remains both collective and social only insofar as it is also individual and personal.

Until all have agreed to disagree with Fido that life can be distinguished from non-life on the basis of scent, each thing, whether mineral, plant, or animal either passing or failing the smell test, ideas such as vitalism and even animism are likely to remain attractive alternatives to biology’s and chemistry’s no-nonsense, unromantic, and mundane explanations of existence in purely material and mechanistic terms. For science fiction devotees, the question of how much life (in terms of a soul) one should attribute to a cyborg (or, for that matter a machine, such as a computer, that possesses artificial intelligence) is a moot one. Indeed, the answer is already given. Neither a cyborg nor a computer has any more of a soul than a human being; the universe and all things in it are merely mindless atoms moving according to universal scientific principles without author or design.

In a sense, the artwork of Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger (pronounced like “eager”) is largely a representation of human existence in a post-vitalistic, atheistic age. In his paintings, men and women are hybrid beings, part human and part machine. The eyes in the human faces are either closed or vacant, the whites rather than the irises showing. Their humanity is lost in a hellish hybridization in which bodies--or, more frequently, body parts--seem to nourish mechanical apparatuses which feed upon them, as it were, as if the machinery were somehow parasitical.

Giger‘s art belongs to the horror genre as surely as anything ever written by Robert Louis Stevenson or Mary Shelley. It belongs, also, to the science fiction genre, as the artist’s work in creating the extraterrestrial monster in the Alien film series attests. In many ways, Giger’s work, which was, in part, inspired by the art of Ernst Fuchs and Salvador Dali, is original. However, it also rests upon, if not arises from, earlier works in which human figures are dehumanized and their sexuality is desexualized. This earlier form is that of the animal-human hybridization that is common to Egyptian and other mythologies. Sexually, it is represented by bestiality, which is usually considered taboo beyond ancient times, suggesting, as it does, an equality between the animal and the human that many would reject and which would offend, perhaps, even those, such as PETA members and sympathizers, who would accept the equality of animals and champion their rights alongside human rights.

In the past, animals were regarded as occupying a lower ontological position than human beings occupied in the great chain of being. To be human was not to be merely different, but, more importantly, to be qualitatively superior to animals. Humans who behaved in a brutal fashion were regarded as being inhuman, which is to say, animal. As werewolf movies, H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, the movie Cat People, and many another story, including King Kong, warned, there is a gulf between the lower animals and the highest animal, man, that cannot be crossed--at least, not with impunity, whether this boundary was crossed ontologically, socially, or sexually.

Before the advent of machinery, during the Industrial Revolution, there was no other way to suggest the degeneration of humanity, of a man’s descent to a lower spiritual and ontological level of being, than to posit his reduction to a purely animal state. For this reason, sex between animals and humans became taboo, although, in earlier years, when a brotherhood of equality was posited between animals and human beings, such sex was either permissible or its occurrence was ignored.

With the invention of the machine, society acquired an even lower place to which men and women could sink than the animal realm. A person could lose both his or her soul and his or her body, casting off flesh as well as thought, and become purely robotic, or mechanical, going through the motions of life without actually being alive, as the cyborg destroyer in Terminator does or the robots in countless science fiction and horror movies, including I, Robot, do. Humanity could be reduced to a new and lower place that wasn’t human, animal, or even so much as organic--that of the mere automaton that could be switched off and on, to act upon preprogrammed instructions or to wait, idle, until its services were needed or desired. Where once it would have been insulting to have been called an animal or a beast, it was now offensive to be labeled a machine or a robot. Consequently, when stories did dare to suggest sex between a human being and a humanoid robot or cyborg, these tales were careful to also condemn such unions as horrific and repulsive and, most likely, a form of mechanical or mechanized rape on the part of the mechanical participant.

Human beings have long defined themselves by what they are not as much as by what they are. In the past, they learned that they were not animals--or, at least, not lower animals; presently, they insist that they are also not mere machines, although, perhaps after Descartes, some may have nagging doubts as to whether they are ghosts (that is, spirits or souls) inside the machines, so to speak, that are their mechanical bodies.



Giger’s art violates the taboo against sex between men (or, more often, women) and machines (often represented as male). In the process, he also suggests the consequences of such an outrageous act. These consequences are severe, indeed, most often involving the total loss of the self, as the human body, having been incorporated, as it were, into the mechanical assembly, is reduced to organic parts: the eyes either close, blotting out consciousness, or show their whites, as if the human component (in this case, the usually feminine face) has been rendered comatose. Frequently, the human part of the machine retains only her face, anus, and genitals, but when other appendages, such as her arms and legs, are also present, they are festooned with hoses, cables, and wires that make them as much mechanical as human.

The sex itself is perverted as well: non-reproductive by its nature, it is, by necessity, sterile. Giger’s mechanical phalli are incapable of inseminating the mechanical females’ orifices, whether they are of human or mechanical design. Instead, the sex act seems to be a means for the masculine components of the machine to draw energy into itself. Even sex, in Giger‘s work, is parasitic, not fecund, and mechanical rather than animalistic. Human beings are reduced to machinery in this regard, just as they are in every other manner.

Horror springs from a culture’s Weltanschauung as much as it does from anything else, and the Weltanschauung of the Western world is material and mechanistic. There is no place for the soul, no place for God, and no place for anything but the relentless, fluid, and utterly meaningless goings through of the motions of life that Cartesian ontology has laid out for us--unless one happens to question, perhaps, why anyone should agree, disagree, or even care about the end-products of a purely mechanical automaton’s thought processes. If ideas are but the results of atoms in motion, obeying impersonal, mechanistic laws of nature, why should anyone care what conclusion such particulates of matter in motion reach?

The horror is, perhaps, not without exit, Samuel Beckett’s assertions to the contrary. As Descartes argues, the existence of thought implies a thinker, or a ghost in the machine. There is someone, an “I,” inside the body, even if this “I” is simply an effect of the entirety of the physiological processes, a consciousness, as it were, of the physical organism. In humans, this consciousness is self-evident: we know that we know; we feel that we feel; we think that we think; we value that we value. Our selves are known by themselves. As Soren Kierkegaard argues, in an age of scientism, the self, or “I,” is leftover as a “concluding unscientific postscript.” Giger’s art, like Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed (1973), David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), much of Ray Bradbury’s fiction, Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990), Rachel Talaway’s The Ghost in the Machine (1993), Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse (2009), and a host of other novels, short stories, and films, arises from the doubt and insecurity that human beings have as ghosts in the machines of their flesh, but such artwork also presupposes that there is a ghost, however comatose and moribund, among the cogs and wheels, the clamps and gaskets, the pipes and hoses, and the nuts ad bolts of their otherwise mechanical existence. Otherwise, why should one paint, write, read, or do anything else?

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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