Peter Watts on hacking the brain stem

Peter Watts’s 2006 science-fiction novel, Blindsight (previously) was a first-contact novel (with vampires) that had a lot of chewy things to say about neuroscience and consciousness. He says a lot more about the subject in this presentation at last October’s Toronto SpecFic Colloquium, “Gods, Jackboots, and Rule 34: How Pornography Could Save the World.” It’s well worth 44 minutes of your time; I’ve assembled the four parts uploaded to YouTube by ChiZine into a single playlist for convenience’s sake.

This is a brilliant talk, filled with lots of controversial but fun stuff (data clearly showing that the U.S. is not a developed country, for example). It’s about “hard character science fiction” — applying, he says, the latest in neuroscience and evolutionary theory to literature. He makes the rather unsettling argument that much of what we think and believe — religion, political ideology — have much more to do with brain-stem reactions than with rational thought — that the rational mind is sort of a Dilbertian pointy-haired boss that is rather detached from what’s really going on in the organization. Fear and paranoia, bred into the species by millions of years of natural selection, are actively hampering our ability to solve 21st-century problems, Watts says; the results can be seen in the rise of religiosity and authoritarianism when people are under stress. Successfully effecting political change may be more a matter of hacking the human brain — eroticizing the reduction of carbon emissions, for example — than persuading through logical argument.