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Friday, September 11, 2009

Neuoscientist as novelist, at MSNBC, via 3QD.

"In some sense, I use my literary fiction as a channel to explore ideas that I come up with during the day," he told me.

For example, consider how the data in your brain determines your identity. "For a long time, there's been this open question of what it would be like to be someone else - or to be something else," he said. "Once you're John Malkovich, you wouldn't remember what it's like not to be John Malkovich."

That spawned Eagleman's little story about cross-species reincarnation, titled "Descent of Species": Suppose you admired the strength and beauty of horses, and you got the chance to become a horse in your next life. Once you become a horse, would you have enough wits to appreciate that life, or even enough wits to choose the life after that? And if that's the case, what unwitting demigods might we humans have been in our past lives?

Other stories play off the fact that existential meaning doesn't scale well. "What would happen if we showed Shakespeare to a dog or a bacterium?" Eagleman asked. "It's pointless, because what's meaningful to you changes by spatial scale."

For example, a microbial God might reserve the afterlife strictly for microbes, with humans merely serving as part of the scenery. Or the universe might be ruled by a cosmic Giantess who is as indifferent to our fate as we are to the fate of an amoeba.