Why Art Is Better than Telepathy

Thoughts about the Film "Transcendence" and Other Works

by Frederick Turner

Several recent lines of research in the sciences are converging on the possibility that human consciousness is not bound to a particular piece of matter, that is, the human brain and body. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) can photograph the brain while it thinks and feels with enough accuracy that an observer can give a pretty good account of what a subject is thinking just by the parts of the brain that light up with blood flow under the scan. EEGs can detect the electrical behavior of the brain and draw similar conclusions. Handicapped people can be given the capacity to operate prosthetic limbs by thought and intention alone, and deaf or blind people can be provided with direct brain stimulation so that the patient can learn to “hear” or “see.” If certain areas of the brain are electrically tickled, a person will feel things that are not there or do things they do not intend. Fighter pilots can increasingly fly their aircraft by mind alone. 

In the field of psychology, it is clear that the same brain tissue can support very different states of mind and even different personal consciousness and experience, as in multiple personality disorder. Split-brain patients experience what are in effect two brains as if they had only one. Here it is as if different consciousnesses were programs that could be booted into the same brain. Could the same consciousness be booted into a different brain—and would that brain need to be made of flesh at all? 

Meanwhile, computer scientists and robotics experts are finding ways to emulate the behavior of animals and human beings, and sophisticated programs can recognize speech, parse sentences and give rough translations between foreign languages. Though our experiences with Siri do not come up in quality to those depicted in the Spike Jonze movie Her, where the protagonist falls passionately in love with his personal digital assistant, our devices do begin to blur the distinctions between the animate and the inanimate, the sentient and the mechanical. 

These developments have inspired exciting and sometimes horrifying speculations about the possibility that human consciousness could be uploaded into a sufficiently large artificial computation system. The Johnny Depp character in Wally Pfister’s film Transcendence goes through just this upload experience, survives the death of his physical body, and sets out to heal and immortalize human beings and restore the natural world to health. Such thinkers as Ray Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge and Hans Moravec have hypothesized the arrival of a Singularity in which machine intelligence will outpace human intelligence and we would have to choose between uploading ourselves into it or being rendered obsolete by a new accelerated artificial evolution of intelligence and power. Bill Joy, the founder of Sun Microsystems, the physicist Stephen Hawking and many others have warned us of the dangers of such developments. 

All these speculations imply or depend upon the idea that conscious intelligence can be detached from a particular body (whether carbon-based, like ours, or silicon-based, like a computer) and transferred from one embodiment to another. The ultimate possibility would be that one could feel the actual sensations of another person, and think his or her thoughts—the old dream of telepathy or mind reading. The Depp character in the movie can see into the thoughts and feelings of his living wife. The notion that divine beings can read our thoughts, that God sees even the darkest parts of our heart and soul, is very ancient, and the experience that lovers claim, that they have exchanged hearts and cannot distinguish one from another, is just as old. Here is Shakespeare, in The Phoenix and the Turtle, on the subject: 

So they lov’d, as love in twain 
Had the essence but in one; 
Two distincts, division none: 
Number there in love was slain. 

Hearts remote, yet not asunder; 
Distance, and no space was seen 
‘Twixt the turtle and his queen; 
But in them it were a wonder. 

So between them love did shine, 
That the turtle saw his right 
Flaming in the phoenix’ sight: 
Either was the other’s mine. 

Property was thus appall’d, 
That the self was not the same: 
Single nature’s double name 
Neither two nor one was call’d. 

With breathtaking paradoxes, Shakespeare has evoked that sense that lovers sometimes have, of complete and perfect union. But he can only do it in a poem that is intricately crafted with rhyme, meter, assonance, diction, logic and syntax: the existence of the poem itself, the expression of a particular man in the medium of words, tragically denies the possibility of a wordless unity. Only one of the two birds, so to speak, can make this poem. 

Clearly, these issues are of the highest importance in the arts, where the artist, composer or poet strives to convey a feeling, idea or experience from one mind to another. If in the future a direct mind-to-mind link could be created, and the mind-reading viewer, reader or music appreciator could experience the artist’s own experience directly, would it not render the arts obsolete? Why go through the long process of learning how to draw, to read music, to compose in meter and so on—or the cultivation of taste and connoisseurship in the audience or viewer—if the artist’s vision could be transferred directly? 

Anyone who understands art at all knows that there is something wrong with this last question, but it is difficult to see just what it is. It is a much more general question, too; if our beloved, or our God, knows us directly, unmediated by flesh or our personal and private creative decisions about how we want to be seen and known, is that a better way of being known? Do we really want those decisions to be public to anyone? Has anyone a right to see them? And if we are the ones who are seeing into someone else’s soul, do we want to leave our beloved, our friend or our neighbor no place to hide? Do we want to go backstage, so to speak, and see the mess of makeup, the whiskey bottle in the drawer, the sweat-stained costume, the box office receipts? 

In the movie Transcendence, the Depp character can clearly see what is in the mind of his wife, and one of the reasons he wishes to be reincarnated into all the limitations of the flesh is so that he can grant her back the privacy that he, of necessity, has had for himself all along. He wishes also to forgo the control over others that he can have because of his powers. So there are moral reasons for us to question the value of an unmediated sharing of consciousness, involving the autonomy of the individual. Those reasons parallel the aesthetic reasons, including the artist’s choice to embody his or her vision in a way that is constructed by craft and art, and that depends for its effect on the means by which the thought and vision are incarnated in paint, sound, ink, stone or action. To skip the paint and go straight to Van Gogh’s vision of the sunflowers, or to skip the dance of the meter and go straight to the feeling in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, would be paradoxically to falsify them. 

Such thoughts as these might well have been in Wim Wenders’s mind when he made his classic film Wings of Desire (1988), where the guardian angel of Berlin decides to lay aside his angelhood and become a mortal, losing his telepathic powers in the process. Somehow, in this perspective, enfleshment is less a limitation of the mind, soul and spirit than an enormous extension of them into a dynamic and heavily consequential further dimension. The Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999–2003) deals with the same issues, where the character Cypher, who chooses to exist in the non-material Matrix, is a traitor to the fleshly reality of the last defiant remnants of humanity. 

To follow this line of thought is to be led into a very troubling series of questions. St. Paul tells us that the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. Some interpreters take this to mean that the physical embodiment (the sound of the word or the ink it is written in) is deadly, while its disembodied meaning (the spirit) gives life. Nietzsche took Paul to be saying just this, and famously reversed the aphorism to make the spirit the killer and the letter the life-giver. But in Christian theology, Jesus, Paul’s master, calls himself the Son of Man, takes flesh to save humankind and is identified by St. John as the Word of God, God’s expression, embodiment and means of action. Perhaps the words of Paul mean something very different: the letter that kills is the abstraction, the label, the non-material emblem that can be so easily idolized and worshipped in place of the reality; and the spirit—the pneuma, literally the breath—is the living, breathing, feeling, physical reality itself.  

In Buddhist thought, the parable/emblem series of the Ten Bulls expresses a similar paradox. The seeker after enlightenment in the first five stages goes through a familiar process of divorce from fleshly things and the world of the senses, the way of ascetic renunciation. But his journey does not end there: renunciation is itself a sort of idol, and by the time we reach the tenth bull, we have returned to the world of physicality and only then will we be ready to fully and completely inhabit it. The divine is not found in the renunciation of wood and water, but in the full attention to the miracle of wood and water. 

If incarnation in form and body is, in fact, the only way that the spirit emerges into effectuality, we may indeed have to concede that art is better than telepathy. Meaning emerges only when it must battle with the recalcitrant and stubborn limitations of paint, rhyme, bodily flexibility, gravity, the discord inherent in any musical scale. We see persons more honestly, strange to say, when we experience the formed and crafted picture they make of their thought, and share the objectified physical product of it with them. As John Donne says in “The Ecstasy”: 

On man heaven’s influence works not so, 
      But that it first imprints the air; 
So soul into the soul may flow, 
     Though it to body first repair. 
As our blood labors to beget 
     Spirits, as like souls as it can, 
Because such fingers need to knit 
     That subtle knot which makes us man, 
So must pure lovers’ souls descend 
     T’ affections, and to faculties, 
Which sense may reach and apprehend, 
     Else a great prince in prison lies. 
To’our bodies turn we then, that so 
     Weak men on love reveal’d may look; 
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, 
     But yet the body is his book. 

Perhaps, then, the most intimate and characteristic part of a person is not what his or her actions, expressions and creations conceal, but rather the craftsmanlike shaping of it, the courageous decisions the person makes as to how to present his or her vision of the world to others—how to give oneself to others. The poet, painter or composer puts himself or herself into the work, where it attains its true form, unmuddied by the routine incidentals of one’s psychology. Perhaps the inner world of one’s psychological makeup is pretty stereotypical, really not very interesting in itself, and varies little from one person to another. The psychoanalyst’s question “How do you feel about your mother?” is probably relevant to all humans in general, which means that it is not particularly relevant to any individual as such. It is how the person imaginatively embodies that universal human predicament into dreams, images, loved objects, paint, music or words that really characterizes his or her gift to the world and the uniqueness of his or her being. 

That uniqueness, then, is not detachable from the medium of its embodiment. One is, so to speak, not one’s psyche itself but one’s psyche’s struggle to articulate itself in a shared physical world. A message needs a medium—say, radio waves—to be communicated, and if it is not communicated, it is not a message. As Claude Shannon (the father of information theory) pointed out, that medium must have its own physical nature whose resistance against the distortions imposed by the message constitutes both the workload of the sender of the message and the key to its reception and interpretation. The even, regular radio wave must be warped in amplitude (AM) or frequency (FM) for it to carry the sound of the symphony or the newscaster and thus their meaning. 

There are some important implications for art in our time that follow from this analysis. It may be that the abstractionist movement as a whole, and the later development of it into conceptual art, were in part an attempt to find a “pure” means of expressing the mind of the artist, a kind of telepathy. Abstraction would be a means that would be undefiled by imagery, story and depiction. Similarly, serial music would be undefiled by the inherent narrative of tonal melody, the plotless novel would be undefiled by any fleshly suspense or identification with a hero, and the drama of alienation would be undefiled with the emotions of catharsis and closure. Conceptual art does away with even the physical means of presentation. Paint and stone and musical instruments, representation and figuration, rhyme and meter and grammar, plot and story and acting, all were impediments to the pure mind-meld that the artists sought. But as we have seen, the term “abstract expressionism” may even be a contradiction in terms. Can expression ever be divorced, or abstracted, from the material craft of its embodiment? 
            T.S. Eliot wisely makes this point in Four Quartets

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years— 
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres 
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt 
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure 
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words 
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which 
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture 
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate 
With shabby equipment always deteriorating 
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, 
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer 
By strength and submission, has already been discovered 
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope 
To emulate—but there is no competition— 
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost 
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions 
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss. 
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. 
                                                                —“East Coker,” V 

The “trying,” for Eliot, is itself the work of incarnation, of embodiment. Without words, those undisciplined squads of emotion, the spirit is not merely imprisoned, like Donne’s “great prince,” but not there at all. 

This analysis is not meant as a luddite rejection of the marvelous new technology that has so empowered and extended our human capacities. Perhaps human consciousness will be at least partly transferable into another medium—after all, the body in which I wake each morning is a slightly different electrochemical entity than it was when I went to bed, yet my consciousness rapidly catches up with it. But the work of embodying a human self in some other form will surely be more than a science, but rather an art of staggering, inconceivable genius. And that other form must, to be an expressive medium at all, be just as resistant, recalcitrant, heavy, opaque, messy, capable of tragedy and irretrievably changeable as the human body itself.