Brains wired for “seeing” the invisible

Can you really be an atheist? This question is not often asked, perhaps because one implicitly assumes that not believing in god, or soul, or the afterlife, are philosophical positions, or personal choices, or indeed the result of rational analysis. After all famous atheists, like biologist Richard Dawkins or philosopher Anthony Grayling, claim that believing in non-physical entities is not only absurd but also the outcome of social coercion. For them believing in a god or gods is caused though brainwashing by parents, schools and priests: take away the brainwashing and humans will revert to their natural state of healthy scepticism and rational materialism.

Unfortunately for militant atheists science tells us otherwise. From what we know about our evolutionary history, as well as from neuropsychology, we are born with a natural tendency towards religious belief. And that includes everyone, atheist or not.

In his 1994 book “The naturalness of religious ideas” Social anthropologist Pascal Boyer explains that a belief in non-physical beings, or spirits, is the most common feature in religions. And yet this belief appears paradoxical, since spirits violate intuitive biological and physical knowledge; they can live forever, pass through walls or exist in many places and times simultaneously. But let us look a little deeper into the constituent parts of religion, according to Boyer. There are three other recurrent features in religious ideologies. Firstly, that a non-physical part of a person can survive after death and stay as a being with beliefs and desires. Secondly, that certain people receive direct inspiration or messages from supernatural agencies. And thirdly, that performing certain rituals in an exact way can bring about change in the natural world. All three characteristics of religion result from the cognitive makeup of our modern minds. In other words, religion is the result of how our minds function. But why did this happen? Perhaps death has a lot to do with it.

Even self-declared atheists honour the dead. And although they might claim that they honour the “memory” of the deceased rather than the corpse itself, the fact is that our minds – atheistic or not – find it hard to come to terms with the notion that a person actually “dies”. To our minds, there is always something about a person that survives his or her death. One may choose to call it “memory” or “soul” depending on one’s convictions. However, as we approach the end of life, our inner inability to deal with death compels us to invent something that does not perish, even after the body dies.

The reason for this is that death wrecks havoc with our cognitive systems. Death severs social connections, and by consequence destroys the cognitive social map that makes us who we are. We are social primates whose survival depends on forging strong social bonds with family and friends. Death replaces people we love and care for with empty holes. It hacks at emotional bonds forged over long periods of time. The loss of a loved one is the virtual destruction of our mental universe. The intensity of the feeling of loss is usually proportional to the degree of connection with the deceased. The further distance of the person who died is from our inner social network the lesser our loss, our sadness, and our devastation. Although we may feel shocked and saddened when thousands are killed in a distant country because of a natural disaster or war, we never feel sad in the way we do when a person close to us dies.

So our minds invented the notion that life continues beyond death; and that the dead keep on living in the hereafter. This is a relatively new invention in our evolutionary history. The earliest human burial dates back 100,000 years. This suggests that about that time something happened and humans became “dualists”: our minds would henceforth understand the natural world as made of two realms, a visible and an invisible one.

We are born dualists, regardless of our beliefs (Image courtesy of radiologist Andrew Newberg.).

We are born dualists, regardless of our beliefs (Image courtesy of radiologist Andrew Newberg.).

Human skeleton remains discovered in the Skhul Cave at Qafzeh, Israel were stained with red ochre. Around them there were several goods designed to escort them to the life beyond; the mandible of a wild boar was found in the arms of one of the skeletons. No human burials have been discovered prior to that date. Once the concepts of an afterlife and the survival of the soul had been conceived, our rational part kicked in to produce numerous “logical” relating to these notions. To this invisible realm access was privileged to the very few, or under very special circumstances to the many. The few would be called shamans – and later priests, prophets, messiahs, or gurus. The special circumstances would occur during communal rituals where rhythmic dances or the use of hallucinogenic drugs induced ecstatic states of mind. Shamans and hallucinations further enforced beliefs in non-physical beings. The roots of religion were sown.

The Sorcerer

A cave painting of the Upper Palaeolithic from the cavern of Trois-Freres in Ariege, France probably shows one of those “special individuals”. The painting was made around 13,000 years ago and it depicts a being with an upright posture and hands that look human, the back and ears of a herbivore, the antlers of a reindeer, the tail of a horse and a phallus positioned like that of a feline. The “sorcerer” – as the painted figure is known – is interpreted by scientists as a great spirit, or master of animals. The French anthropologist Henri Breuil has suggested that the painting depicts a shaman performing a ritual.

Most archaeologists believe that painted prehistoric caves were sites for the practice of magical ceremonies. This may also explain one of the greatest puzzles about prehistoric cave paintings: why were they painted in the darkest of places, in the deepest of caves, in spaces where people did not live. By 35,000 years ago humans had mostly abandoned cave dwelling. We had ceased to be “cavemen”. Most lived in small, makeshift camps which were befitting to a species of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Nevertheless, the beautiful, naturalistic cave art of the Upper Palaeolithic is profound testament that caves remained a focal point of human life for thousands of years to come. For millennia humans continued to use these caves for purposes other than dwelling. But what were they doing in there? Before beginning to speculate let us look at some interesting facts.

From Gibraltar to the Ural Mountains archaeologists have discovered around 150 caves with wall paintings. Given the enormous time span from the beginnings of cave art to the end of the Upper Palaeolithic around 12,000 years ago, these caves must have been used only sporadically. On average, for the whole of Europe, there was one painted cave for every five generations of people. Even the most utilized caves seem to have been in use for only a restricted time by a limited number of people. Astonishingly, there is a thematic similarity across all of these disparate caves: big animals, few humans, many geometric designs recur in almost every cave. It is as if there was a common set of beliefs that span Peoples that lived across thousands of miles, and across tens of thousands of years.

There are other common features as well. Most paintings are placed in the deepest and darkest of places. At Niaux most images are located at the end of a deep galley. At Chauvet one must descend down a narrow shaft. At Lascaux one has to follow several passages with wall paintings continuing to the very end of the caves several meters deep. These passages and caverns produce few finds of human debris, suggesting that no one lived there. Engravings, tucked away in narrow or low niches suggest individual devotions. Footprints of adults, adolescents and children suggest that dances were performed. All evidence points to the conclusion that in these deep, dark, underground places, people gathered for special occasions only.

We cannot possibly know what went on in there but many archaeologists believe that our ancestors performed religious rituals. Caves echo with reverence down the ages to our day, which may indeed have its roots in prehistory. The ancient Greeks believed that caves connected to the underworld; the Eleusinian mysteries were performed in caves. Persians and Romans worshiped Mithras, the god of light, in caves; a tradition that was emulated by the first Christians who worshipped in catacombs. Later Christian iconography depicts Jesus born in a cave. The relationship between caves and religion is not a western phenomenon only; for the Incas caves were places of emergence and origin; for the Maya a conduit to the other world. One of the holiest shrines in Hinduism is the Amarnath cave in Jammu and Kashmir, dedicated to Shiva.

The combination of dances and paintings reveals evidence of something equally important to the birth of religion: the manifestation and communion of narratives. I can imagine people in those underground caves telling stories about hunts and hero-hunters who transformed into animals, of supernatural beings, of the creation of cosmos. Perhaps those rituals were somewhat like a Palaeolithic movie-theatre-cum-church: a shaman with torchlight at hand leading a procession of faithful into the cave’s mystical innards; stopping under a mural with lions and horses and re-enacting a magical story.

These stories must have passed from mouth to mouth, travelling across space and time, finally arriving at the dawn of the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago. The prehistoric stories, retold many times, were now transformed, but ever so slightly. The magical beasts remained; and so did the heroes, although some of them were elevated to gods. The Neolithic man, the farmer, the soldier, the priest, the king, edited the stories of his Palaeolithic past, using the same cognitive apparatus, the modern mind with its wired-in dualism. Complex, agricultural and proto-industrial civilizations reconfigured the rituals of communal dancing and ecstasy into the religious narratives of Ancient Egypt, of Mesopotamia, of Greece. These stories, with time, were absorbed in the narratives of the Abrahamic religions. Almost every other religion in the world today has had a similar development. The persistence of religious belief over thousands of millennia is a testament to the function of our dualistic minds. Regardless of the rational analysis that atheists encourage us to do it is ultimately impossible to escape our minds. We can reject god, or gods, but deep inside us we derive meaning for our lives from immaterial, and not material things. Take for instance love: explaining it scientifically as the transfer of chemicals in the brain, does not make us love deeper or more truthfully. Even atheists are inherently dualists, and therefore crypto-religious, because none of us can escape nature.

Welcome the mechasexual

Would you make love to a machine? Although this question may strike one as ludicrous, science’s answer is that it all depends how the machine looks like; as well as whether you are a man or a woman. As evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker tells us in his book “How the mind works” males of many species are aroused by all kinds of objects that resemble, ever so slightly, females including – and I quote – “parts of stuffed females such as a head suspended in mid-air, even parts of stuffed females with important features missing like the eyes and the mouth.” Human males are further aroused by charcoal drawings of breasts and vulvas that they enjoy carving on tree trunks (in foraging cultures), as well as the sight of anonymous females eager for casual sex that populate the world’s pornography industry (in industrialised societies like yours). The – mostly male- human mind seems hardwired to get horny with the faintest hint of a possible sexual partner. Indeed, a visit at your local sex shop will convince you that exploiting the vivid imagination of the male mind has come up with numerous, awkward and sometimes horrifying-looking, variations of deconstructed sexual femininity.


But what about artificial sexual partners who actually look and behave like humans? The question has been explored in literature and movies since centuries. Ancient Greek myth tells us of the sculptor Pygmalion who fashioned Galatea out of marble, then married her. And who can forget Maria, the luscious robot, in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis? If so many men cannot tell the difference between a plastic vulva and an actual woman, it is not hard to postulate how they might feel coming across a perfect simulation of a woman. For example, someone like Rachel in Blade Runner, or Ava in the recently released film Ex Machina. What makes Alex Garland’s film ever more pertinent in this discussion on the limits of human sexuality is that Ava is an imperfect female simulation. Apart from her face, hands and feet, the rest of her is most visibly, and transparently, mechanical. And yet she manages to easily seduce human programmer Caleb, as well as – I bet – most of the males who’ve watched the film. Unlike Keyko (who reveals her robotic identity much later) Ava presents herself, right from the beginning, as an object of sexual desire unashamedly made of mechanical parts; and succeeds to passing the Turing Test on screen and, I would argue, among the aisles too.


As Artificial Intelligence and robots evolve girls like Ava will increasingly begin to populate human homes. Undoubtedly, there will be mechanical boys too. In the beginning there will be many who would doubt that these mechanical sexual partners are anything but animated sex dolls. But as these Avas acquire more sophisticated ways to move, speak, and love, they will ultimately enter our consciousness and pass the Turing Test of our hearts. We will fall in love with them, like Caleb or Pygmalion. If Pinker is right, this is not going be difficult. The era of human mechasexuals will have arrived. A new human gender will demand equal rights with homosexuals and heterosexuals, to live with their mechanical partners, marry them or adopt children. And thus artificial humans will enter our society, not as hard-working, ugly-looking robots labouring at our factories but as beautiful and caring lovers, never-aging, forever faithful, holding our hands and telling us what we need to hear, till the end.

(This article was originally published in Huffington Post/Tech UK)

Gerald Edelman and AI

Gerald Edelman

Gerald Edelman (1929-2014)

Gerald Edelman passed away on May 17, 2014 in La Jolla, California. In 1972 he won the Nobel Prize (together with Rodney Porter) for solving the antibody structure, and explaining how the immune system functions.  His research into antibodies led him to realize the enormous explanatory potential of selective-recognition systems. I had read most of his books, before meeting him in person in Tucson Arizona, during the World Conference on Consciousness in 2004. In his smart suite, this tall, radiantly intelligent and witty man, explained to his audience how his work on the immune system could provide an explanation for consciousness.

Basically, Edelman discovered that we have a great number of structurally different antibody cells in our body. When a bacterium or a virus enters our body these antibody cells  (also called “immunoglobulins”) rush towards them and test how well their structures “match” those of the intruders. This structural variability lies at the heart of antibody-based recognition. Edelman noticed that the adaptive immune response had all the hallmarks of an evolutionary process. The antibody recognition system “evolved” very quickly in order to adapt to the bacterial or viral attack. This was similar to a species adapting to environmental pressure.

Edelman posited that this evolutionary biological mechanism could also explain consciousness. Two significant discoveries strengthened his hypothesis. Firstly, that a fundamental property of cortical neurons is that they are organized in discrete groups of cells. Secondly, that synapses strengthen through use. Edelman theorized that our brain manages to recognize and process information thanks to selection on neuron groups that differ in their connectivity patterns. Several group cells would respond to incoming sensory information; their response would be modified by repetitive recognition that would strengthen, abstract and associate their connectivity. Edelman was in fact describing a cybernetic system with multiple positive feedback loops (he called them “re-entry” loops). Recent research by Stanislas Dehaene on the neural correlates (or “signatures”) of consciousness has shown that this re-entry mechanism is fundamental to how groups of cells respond to sensory information, and how a local recognition event becomes global (i.e. whole brain).

A Darwin robot

A Darwin robot

To demonstrate his theory Edelman and his colleagues built a number of “noetic machines” he called “Darwins”, or “brain-based devices” (BBDs). Built around a model of the neural connectivity of a simple brain a Darwin would “discover” the world around it, like an animal would.

Edelman’s robotic research has received very little notice, or appreciation, from the mainstream AI and robot research community. The reason for this is that the mainstream has abandoned long time ago the original goal of AI, which was to build a conscious machine. Since the 1980s AI research (as well as autonomous robots research) has focused on practical applications where pattern recognition and matching is paramount: for instance driveless cars, image and speech recognition, medical diagnosis, etc. This is where the money is nowadays, as the recent acquisition of the company Deep Mind by Google has amply demonstrated.

Edelman’s idea of simulating the brain in the robots is a close kin to neuromorphic computer technologies, still at their infancy. And yet – as I will aim to demonstrate in my forthcoming book “In Our Own Image” (Rider Books, due April 2014) – conscious machines can only evolve with a computer architecture like the one implemented in Edelman’s Darwins. Current AI and robotics will never be able to produce a self-aware machine. The breakthrough for this will come from genetics and a deeper understanding of developmental biology. How a cell divides and evolves into a nervous system? How does a nervous system differentiate across species? How does it develop into a brain? How does this brain communicate with the whole body, processing internal as well as external sensory information? How does the brain cells adapt, and modulate? Answers to these questions will come from biology and neuroscience. When we have the answers, we will have cracked the mechanism that Edelman hypothesized. And then, his curious Darwins may be remembered as the “amoebas”, the protozoa of a new line of evolution on Earth, that of the intelligent machines.