Space, Mind and Death: whither frontier?

The concept of frontier pervades all aspects of reality. Paradoxically, it appears to do so without being real or, at least, being at most an illusory phenomenon; an approximation for the benefit of effective perception and practical action. A tool. A very powerful tool indeed. Like our thought, a tool that takes control over the toolmaker or the craftsman. An artifact whose original purpose was forgotten and whose remembrance feels both familiar and strange now. A mixture of sweet home with alien bitterness. After days lost in the ocean, we must decide to take a sip of sea water to mitigate our thirst. Frontiers are appearances that appear everywhere. This is because the nature of the notion of frontier is to exist in space in order to survive. I would even say it is space itself. As such, it is not fond with time.

Put it plain, we like to say “this is not that”. We spend our hours segmenting, discriminating, evaluating. Actually it seems to me that “X not Y” is all we are able to claim. From the domain of cognitive all the way that of particle physics, frontiers are there to help us mistake the problem by creating it. They are not bad consequences, but just necessary causes. When we ask something, don’t we at least suppose (or impose) a contro-verse within a uni-verse? We, who like to think and study and debate and explore, are not all doomed by our passion to divide in order to unite? At the same time, it is only our sustained effort -with some miraculous push- that prevents a total ignorance from overruling our lives.

It is true. I will not dispute that it is of the essence of physical things to lend themselves to division as many times as one wishes to image. Paradoxically, being eager to accept only a material world leaves us with that geographical split, which is ready for immediate deployment. Our duty then, is to fight in order to conceal or conciliate. What a beautiful contradiction to wedge war in order to achieve peace. However, rather than recreating ourselves in that which cannot be done, we will try to do something instead. Let us borrow from different disciplines what is common and what is different when it comes to dealing with such a gap. Or, how are we supposed to tackle the frontier issue without crossing, sewing, copying and pasting from different clothing? Here I assume that when we treat the present issue, we are more inclined to reduce than to increase the number and extension of the frontier. In other words, we ask because due to our will to be… Understanding is a kind of special union. Of course, we shall not pretend to exclude multiplicity out of the equation. But that is a harder matter. So, let us now see more specifically where approaches converge. Perhaps afterwards we will have a better idea of what a frontier is, and what (or where?) it is not. If we fail to get to the idea, at least we will have stuff to entertain ourselves in such a Herculean effort.

We can begin with the so-called genesis. A book that tells us how evil Eve induced adorable Adam to taste a piece of Nature that was not allowed. But I do not reckon such a prohibition as the beginning of law but rather as the start of our journey through knowledge. Here we find our first specific frontier. That which inspired ancient religion by stating that there is one tree whose fruits keep us in paradise while there is another tree whose fruits makes us sin. Namely, the tree of Life and the tree of Knowledge, respectively. Which one are we constantly eating from? This business is not about doing bad things. We are sinners from the very moment we engage in the process of finding out some truth. A stairway to heaven and, of course, another one to hell. No reward without suffering. Working during the day and praying at night. Sacrifice in this life and the price of glory in the afterlife…

When we look at history, we recognize with shock the mysterious evolutionary experiment we are. History is the story of conflict within and between men. With a warm cup of coffee and a comfortable chair we can philosophize about life, and progress, and all that. But what has been our occupation throughout centuries? Killing each other! Fighting either to survive or to dominate. Fear and greed. We (the pieces of DNA that passed on from our ancestors) had to do it, no doubt. Being very cautious about the dogmatic mantra of the “survival of the fittest” (and all the theories to impose as a natural fact that which capitalism wanted to artificially implant in our culture), we did not know how to do it better. Making it to the next dawn was the job of the day. But now, what do we have to contribute to history with? The same old story?! How are we going to break the chain of repetition? Do we realize the source of that chain to begin with? In a word, it is the urge to become (but we can come back to this later). The battles for territories and the quests for new lands illustrate very neatly the correspondence between conflicts in geographical frontiers and those in our minds. As the materials and methods of our famous “conquistadores” taught us: the man with the cross comes first with his hands together in beatific attitude, the man with the sword lifted above our heads comes behind in rage. O por la buenas, o por la malas… But the frontier between the two options was never clear to me. In essence, the choice between two alternatives is never a free act.

When we move to politics (maybe not the true governance of the polis but actual politics), we cannot recognize in there the signature of something greater than the art of constraining a bunch for the benefit of a few. We see frontiers there too: left sided, right sided. Definitely different aspects of the same illusion that proclaims that outer order will permeate to inner peace. Bureaucracy is the mechanization of that failed wish. Communism failed too, like capitalism, and many other systems. Unfortunately, communism was only given one ticket to ride. Other decrees seem to have a flat rate. Globalization looks like a naive experiment to achieve that communal dream that communists had. The concept of frontier appears once more: trying to dilute separations, to increase interconnectedness, to put things in contact. However, who is ready to share? Business, trading, exchange, etc. But who shares? Who cares? Look at economy. The concept of inter-est evokes this idea of a frontier separating three beings: you, me and what lies in between one another. Education, being the source of salvation, is then the root of all evil. Incubating newborns in the same water can only produce the same soup. And that is perhaps what we want because we cannot conceive how to paint a different picture with the same old brush.

What about our daily lives at work? Are we efficient enough? Are we well-paid? Men created the machines and then wished to be like them: fast, accurate, focussed, systematic, effective, mendable, disciplined, well-fed with fuel. Territories are drawn everywhere: you first are an Analyst 1, then 2, then 3, later you can become Consultant A, B and C. Why do we need a label to know where we are and where to go? We invent a destination to make sense of our journey. Does that tell us who we are or who we want to be? Do we need to become something in the first place? Is time real at the psychological scale? What about in science? Quite often the second question after your name is whether you are a PhD student or a postdoc. What difference does it make to place somebody in a map before even looking at that person in the eyes? I guess organizing him or her in this or that frontier is helpful to quickly infer lots of biassed information. The principle of misplaced concreteness! It is like saying tomato; you do not have to eat it, you can just think of it. It saves time (and experience). Elaborating a bit more on this issue, note how reluctant we are to try things beyond our normal range of experience. It is all about habits, inertia and Newton’s laws. And realize how poorly we are induced to express it. For instance, apart from obvious comments about our lovely petty lives, all that Facebook demands from us is that we click “I like”. This is the shape it adopts: either you say nothing or you like it. Void versus triviality. Freedom of expression to its minimal digital expression. About our daily lives at home (if we still have some energy after our professional duties…), we can leave the discussion for the coffee break.

What is science, what is not science and what science is not, our friend asked. Well, two more countries with frontiers to explore! Maybe with provinces such as pseudo-science, meta-science, pop- science, etc. By the way, I really enjoy the transit through the border control. Note that what is proven by science now might have not been before. That does not mean it was not scientific or it did not exist. Simply, the empire had not conquered that piece of map. And when we stick to a hypothesis as a fact or as a dogma without acknowledging it, it feels like we stuck a flag on a hill claim that is ours and forever will be. A big mistake. Frontiers are dynamic. If they did not move, they would be understood, thus boring, even then ignored. We can shape the shape of the interface. Interesting idea when we bring in the difference between bounded space and infinite space. It is simple: what happens to the frontier if a country conquers the whole globe? Where did it go? Space ate itself. Time still flows. You can never cross the same frontier twice, like the river.

Another puzzle to talk about: the frontiers of the ego. If you are repelled by psychoanalytic jargon, let us just consider the frontiers of your body. They seem pretty clear, right? And ultimately they cause all the trouble cause when you say “this is mine”, then you are ready to dispute it to somebody else. Conflict kicks in! It can be a pencil or a nation. Then the eternal return smiles; the cycle of story repeats. I go to the supermarket, I buy a bottle of water. The water is mine. I drink it (the water). Is the water me now? Am I the water? What happened to its and my frontier? Like lovers, who are one through the flame of their souls. Like sex merging flesh. Altruism is also a paradoxical selflessness that requires the presence of others and yourself. So boundaries are ambiguous, flowing, useful, misleading. Looking for clear and distinct Cartesian stuff, it all ends up in a blurred vision.

Neurobiology is my favorite subject to talk about moving frontiers and dualities: the brain and the mind, the soul and the body, genes and the environment, external stimuli and inner moods. We still do not understand the relationship between perception and action. And how instinct in insects is a divergent path when compared to intelligence in mammals. If mechanistic stimulus-response chains explain everything, how do we generate spontaneous actions? What is creativity? Is there free will? Notice, these are all questions about the frontiers between choice and noise. The principles and processes underlying purposeful behavior appear to span across a large territory too, from bacteria approaching a food source to humans writing poetry. What is the difference, we may ask? Then we are once more pondering the question of frontier and its nature (of kind or of degree). Consciousness is not in the brain, it is in the world! Consciousness is one of the hardest questions that, upon resolution, would comprehensively embrace the rest.

In psychology, limits and frontiers come in the flavor of atoms: I might be happy now and angry later. But, can I be in a superposition of these two states? If not, how shall we conceive the nature of an abrupt transition from one to the other? Are these solid and static accounts real or simply a convenient representation of reality? Specifically, the dominant levels of explanation in human psychology and animal neuroscience stem, benefit and suffer from the philosophical framework of Democritus theory of atoms. We need to explicitly discuss the origins and implications of what appears as a pervasive but implicit trend in the behavioral sciences: to conceive behavior as a sequence of frozen, impenetrable and discrete units of action. Mini-frontiers and mini-bits, we think we are. We might also talk about physics and, in particular, about relativity (space curvature), thermodynamics (time’s arrow) and quantum mechanics (observer not only observing). I have no space-time here-now.

When it comes to language, it is clear that we necessarily express ourselves by means of words and, irremediably, think in terms of space. The interweaving of our sensorimotor capacities, our conception of time and space, and the unfolding of language is patent. Words and sounds are neither the cause nor the effect of meaning. They are part of it. They form it in terms of space and time by means of images and rhythm, respectively. In poetry -the highest expression of human language- actions, images and words are intensely and intimately intertwined. The poet, while trying to express and impress a whole complex personal experience on the reader, faces a unique and practically impossible task. He tries to avoid the frontier. That is is main job! The reader, failing to understand all that is behind the poet’s words, is provided with an image of it, one that is tangible and distinct enough that ideas seem to be extended like objects in space. To comprehend an idea, or to “grasp” it, recalls the same action as to firmly hold a thing, namely, to grasp that thing. We might say we “understand” something when are placed under its full influence and power, namely, when we stand under it. To “see” means both to perceive with your physical eyes as well as to discern or deduce after reflection, expressing comprehension. In that way, human language seems to stem from embodied language, in which the meaning of abstract ideas emerged from sensorimotor metaphors. Space is where action takes place (forgiving the space-where-place redundancy).

But, what is the fundamental limit constrained by the very notion of a frontier? In my opinion, the ultimate gap is that of death. I argue that a deeper understanding (and experience!) of the notion of mind is the key to both understand why there appears to be a limit and, accordingly, how to surpass it. Human beings stand upright, have the faculty of language and a superior mind when compared to other animals. Our frontier begins where our most precious endowment ends: intelligence. We excel at manipulating matter. We can build machines that build machines. The systematic application of our skills is overwhelming, as both the industrial and digital revolution testify. Science is their sovereign representative. Necessary as it was, I argue that reason crumples insufficient now. Frontiers do not call for refinements. To truly overcome our curb as a species, a transformation of our mind is required. I advocate for the need (and possibility) of a difference in kind, not degree, in the way we see reality. Why is this crucial? Nature manifests as an evolutionary process: matter gave way to life in it; then life entrusted its creative pursue to instinct and intelligence. And here we are, at the summit of the complexity gradient, with a nervous system that seems to hide more than we want to acknowledge and less than we are ready to accept. I believe that the decisive frontier is that which defines -and by the same token constrains- who we are. We must face this question: what will supersede mankind? We went to the moon, built particle accelerators, controlled neural activity. Yet little do we know about who we are. What empowered us, is now retarding our evolution. If most people is so happy to ridicule creationists, if Darwin was right, why do we not behave accordingly? We came from the monkey. Who will come from us?

How can we address such a monumental adventure? My proposal is threefold: it needs to be a courageous, collective and conscious endeavor. Courageous as we spearhead it, with the willingness to find what is there to be found, not what we allowed in the first place. Collective beyond a one-man war; with true debate, collaboration and even communion. Finally, and unprecedented in the history of the universe, the effort to evolve can recruit consciousness. In their strong sense, frontiers are provinces where the unknown rests. Perhaps, after all, pushed by our survival instinct, our desire for immortality might not be an impossible feat. Space stuck in the mind dictates death.

Despite shedding some light, these reflections and potential discussions raise more questions than those they may answer. This is because of the ill-defined nature of our endeavour, namely, to reduce what is irreducible: the manifestation of human consciousness into as a duality that is posed in space and awaits to be resolved in space. Noticing this, (namely, our biggest limitation), can nevertheless be a departure point from to succeed in opening the doorways of meaning. Nothing prevents us from enquiring about the notion of frontier as a geographical aspect, despite then being left with nothing but quantitative relationships devoid of any true qualitative element. Ironically, the very same thing that we had sought to eliminate (by division) in the first place, and strove to keep out of the picture during our scientific detour, is precisely what we expect to emerge at the end; and thus we fail to see. Perhaps by attempting such impossible feats we shall become more aware of the necessity to lessen the duality (and the obscure confusion) between quality and quantity. This has been the ground (and ceiling) of philosophical thought for centuries: the relationship between Logos and Phusis, Matter and Spirit, Brain and Mind, Chance and Necessity, Difference and Repetition, Process and Reality, Being and Time… Paraphrasing Bergson, it seems that the notion of frontier borrows rom the dual nature of reality the space on which it feeds and restores it in the form of a pleasant image which it has stamped with its own static curse and appearance of stability. Instead of seeking how to solve the question, we shall show the mistake of those who ask it as the only way to successfully address it.

On the whole, my train of thought and invitation to discuss is as simple as subtle: when we speak about frontiers the notion of space immediately comes to our minds nearly by default. At the same time, frontiers evoke all sort of conflicts, limitations, problems, dualities, dilemmas, separations etc. Therefore, rather than (or together with) debating about this or that frontier, can we observe what happens “when” we try to think without a “where”? My discourse is one of ignorance too. But let us invoke a kind of alchemic principle in which sincere communal ignorance becomes less ignorant. I hope we can make this exercise together during these days, at least hoping for some moments of pure light in the midst of so much darkness around and inside… In a word, all this can be very interesting or enlightening. Let us hope we are able to sacrifice the former in the name of the latter.