Yes, Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

neural brain

Our imperfect brains sometimes link events that have little or no causal connection. Superstitions work that way. Every time I wash the car, it rains. You might think that artificial brains don’t have that little flaw – but they do. Computer folks call it overfitting. That means that these non-human “brains” also sometimes use an irrelevant detail in constructing a model.

All those scary stories about artificial intelligence, smart machines, robots, androids and neural networks tell us that they are much smarter than humans.

The title of this essay comes from Philip K. Dick‘s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was the inspiration for the films Blade Runner and the sequel Blade Runner 2049.

Those neural network machines and creatures are definitely very good at learning relevant details and making connections but they also learn irrelevances.

How do humans deal with overfitting? How do we generalize from our many daily experiences to other similar situations? We dream.

That conclusion comes from research by Erik Hoel who says dreaming evolved specifically to deal with this problem. If he is correct, then it might solve a longtime problem in neuroscience of trying to figure out why we dream at all.

Sigmund Freud thought we dream to deal with taboos, but that isn’t accepted as correct these days.  Another theory is that dreams are the way the brain sifts through memories of the recent past selectively discarding unwanted or unneeded ones. But the dreams we recall aren’t very realistic and they don’t really seem to deal with the day’s memories.

Computer science is not my field but from what I’ve read one of the ways of dealing with overfitting in computer networks includes adding “noise” to the learning process so that it’s difficult for the network to focus on irrelevant detail. They call this dropout. It seems counterintuitive. Noise to improve focus?

But perhaps that’s what dreams do – insert “noise.” An example that is given is that we can trigger dreams by playing simple repetitive games such as Tetris for an extended time so that the brain becomes overfitted.

The theory also suggests that there can be dream substitutes. Books, plays, films, and the arts, in general, might perform a similar role to dreams since they are also an injection of false information.

I’ve read in numerous places that you can deprive people of sleep (in experiments and in torture) and they can survive longer than if you deprive them of dreaming. Experiments found that waking people up whenever they began REM sleep but allowing them to go back to sleep didn’t make them tired but it did make them a bit crazy. Studies have connected poor quality of sleep to a higher risk of heart disease, obesity, and even Alzheimer’s Disease, so there is that connection to dreaming. If you don’t sleep, you won’t dream. And though people often say “I never dream,” they do dream – but they don’t remember them when they wake up.

Ironically, most antidepressant medications significantly suppress REM/dreaming. (SSRIs suppress REM sleep by about a third, tricyclics reduce it by half, and older monoamine oxidase inhibitors cut out nearly all REM sleep.) Also, sleep deprivation can lead to more intense dreaming.

Returning to Philip K. Dick’s book, I was curious about the inspiration for his story. It actually began when he was doing research for another book, The Man in the High Castle. (That novel has also been adapted for a continuing TV series on Amazon Prime.) He was reading seized WWII Nazi diaries. It led him to believe that those beings were monsters who pretended to be human.

In one of the journals, a Nazi officer complains about not being able to sleep because he was “kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” Instead of empathizing with their suffering, the officer only saw them as a nuisance that disturbed his sleep. That one line had a deep impact on Dick who thought, “It is not human to complain in your diary that starving children are keeping you awake.”

And so it started him thinking about a new book with “androids” who lacked any empathy.  Empathy is the main theme of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  The protagonist in that book, Deckard, is human but realizes that some of the machine androids seem capable of empathy while some humans appear to be devoid of it.

It seems that he may be correct. Androids do dream. Whether they dream of electric sheep is questionable. I have never dreamed of any kind of sheep at all.


Living in This Simulation

“This is a cardboard universe,
and if you lean too long or too heavily against it,
you fall through.” – Philip K. Dick


We are living in a simulation. Maybe. At least some people (not crazy people) believe it is a possibility.

It sounds like a sci-story (The Matrix probably comes to mind) to say that we are software emanations in a vast, unimaginably complex computer simulation. But it is not a new idea created by someone like sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick (PKD). The ancients thought about it. Philosophers have considered how real things in front of us might be. In the 18th century,  British empiricist George Berkeley talked about immaterialism.

George Berkeley (AKA Bishop Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne) was an Irish philosopher. His theory of immaterialism was later referred to as “subjective idealism.” His theory denies the existence of material substance. He proposed that familiar objects like the chair I’m sitting on and the laptop I am typing on are only ideas in my mind. They cannot exist without being perceived.

That may sound foolish but it is not unlike the “Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics” which says that physical systems generally do not have definite properties prior to being measured.

I wrote a parallel post on another website about how the author Philip K. Dick (PKD) used the idea of our reality being a simulation. PDK theorized a kind of matrix environment when he wrote in 1977 about us living in a “Computer-Programmed Reality.”

If you follow Elon Musk, you might also believe that whoever is running our simulation is not some extra-dimensional being (or God) but some very sophisticated humans.

Then again, when Samuel Johnson heard Berkeley’s claim that matter doesn’t exist he supposedly kicked a nearby object and shouted, “I refute it thus!”  Is it real because your toe hurts?

Did PKD Meet God?

PKDPhilip K. Dick (PKD) is a writer that I find quite fascinating. I have written about him in different contexts and I became particularly interested in his writing beyond the novels and stories that have been popularized through film versions. One of those is his Exegesis which was published after his death and stands as his final work.

In 1974, PKD said that he met God – at least he thought it was God.

Visionary is a word often used in describing him and his stories, and visions certainly play a role in the lives of his characters and in the author’s own life.

Philip was a seeker. He wasn’t really seeking God for most of his life, but he was seeking answers, including answers about what to write.

I have read that PKD consulted the ancient Chinese divination text, I Ching (The Book of Changes) which had an American resurgence in the 1960s. My own explorations with that volume were unsatisfactory as the interpretations are very broad and I didn’t find any guidance from it. But others have found answers in it.

PKD used the I Ching to guide his life and to guide his writing at times. He said that he used it when writing The Man in the High Castle. That 1962 novel (and a Netflix series) portrays an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II. The I Ching shows up in the novel too as Japan rules the western part of the old United States.

I have had a long fascination with this time in PDK’s life story when he believed he had encounters with God.

Twice, in February and March 1974, Philip K. Dick met what he believed was God in a  hallucinatory experience.

He wrote about the experience rather obsessively in his rather bizarre diaries that later were published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. (I think that PKD might like that you can read it on a Kindle.)

Dick by Crumb
Robert Crumb illustrates Philip K. Dick’s “Meeting with God”

The experience began with a wisdom tooth extraction after which he met at his front door a delivery girl from the pharmacy who wore a golden Christian fish symbol around her neck, and that symbol triggered his visions.

H described his contact as coming via a “pink beam” which imparted knowledge to him. One example of that was when it told him that his infant son was ill – something that was confirmed when he took the child to the hospital and the diagnosis was confirmed. Dick called these experiences “2-3-74” for February–March 1974.

PDK said it was God but he referred to “it” as Zebra, or by the acronym VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) which was used for VALIS the novel, which has a PKD-like character. This book is Dick’s gnostic vision of one aspect of God.  It was to be volume one of an incomplete VALIS trilogy. Volume two was published as The Divine Invasion in 1981, and the planned third novel was to be  The Owl in Daylight.

Outsider cartoonist and a PKD fan, Robert Crumb, wrote and  illustrated Dick’s meeting with a divine intelligence in “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick.” I found it in the collection, The Weirdo Years by R. Crumb: 1981-’93 which uses quotes from PDK’s retelling of the event in the narration.

Crumb is known for his “underground” comics that went above ground, like Fritz the Cat, but he also has done some serious and realist illustrations, such as his version of The Book of Genesis.

Another visionary who connected with PDK is Terence Mckenna who wrote the afterword (“I Understand Philip K. Dick”) for the book  In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis .

McKenna is known for many theories that appear in his many books. My favorite concerns novelty.

McKenna formulated a concept about the nature of time that was based on fractal patterns he claimed to have discovered in the I Ching. He called it novelty theory and from it, he proposed a prediction about the end of time (not the end of the world) and a transition of consciousness in the year 2012. His novelty theory got attention as that year approached, especially because it was also the year that some calculated as the end of the world (but more accurately the beginning of a new consciousness) based on the Maya calendar.

Novelty theory is generally considered to be pseudoscience, and 2012 came and went without anything significant happening to the world. McKenna’s personal end of time came in 2000.

As PKD explored with LSD, novelty came from the mid-1970s experiences with psilocybin mushrooms in the Amazon that McKenna had which led him to the King Wen sequence of the I Ching. The drug connections have not helped the reputation of either theorist in the eyes of scientists.

In novelty theory, the ebb and flow of novelty in the universe are inherent in time. McKenna thought that time is not a constant but moves between either “habit” or “novelty.” For this, habit is entropic, repetitious, or conservative, while novelty is creative, disjunctive, or a progressive phenomenon. For McKenna, the universe is an engine that produces novelty, which then increases complexity, which acts as a platform for further complexity.

In that afterword that he wrote for the PDK book, McKenna says that “The mathematical nature of this pattern can be known. It can be written as an equation, just like the equations of Schrodinger or Einstein.” Like that famous seeker, Albert Einstein, McKenna and Philip K. Dick spent a good part of their lives seeking the equation which would be one answer to it all.

7 of wands
Seven of Wands from The Fool’s Journey of Philip K. Dick tarot cards

I have not read that PKD used the tarot, but it would not surprise if he did explore with it. This 15th-century European card “game” also has a long history for divining our destinies.

the fool
The Fool from the Rider deck

The most popular tarot deck (and the one I first encountered in college) is known as the Rider Tarot deck (AKA the Rider-Waite Tarot) from 1909.

There are many modern versions of tarot decks. There was even a tarot deck designed by Salvador Dalí

The reason I include tarot in this discussion of PDK is that I came across in my web research a kind of tarot/I Ching/Philip K. Dick mashup.

high castle
Man in the High Castle card

It is called “The Fool’s Journey of Philip K. Dick” which is a tarot deck done by PKD scholar Ted Hand and tarot artist Christopher Wilkey. It has 80 cards that use elements from Dick’s works. It also has four rule cards for two “I Ching inspired card games and an eight-sided folding booklet about tarot as Gnostic Allegory. I couldn’t find the deck online but it is on the publisher Wide Books’ website along with other PDK publications.



About Philip K. Dick
About Tarot
About I Ching
Terence McKenna
2012 and the new consciousness

Time Travel, Pascal and Novel Synchronicities

Time travel has been moving in and out of my life this summer. There were two books I read and one series I watched that had me thinking again about this topic. Time travel has long been an interest of mine.  I posted here two days ago about the right to be forgotten online and rereading it this morning I see a connection in that revisionist history to time traveling to change the past.

I kept a journal in college that I filled with quotations that caught my fancy. There were many from the literature courses I took as an English major, but there were also ones from history and philosophy classes. One that has stuck with me over these many years is “You can’t change anything without changing everything” which I credited to Blaise Pascal.


Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French scientist, author, and Christian philosopher who is best known for his work, “Pensées” or “Thoughts.”

The book is a classic but, probably like my own book that will be a classic one day, it was first published posthumously.

Pensées is an edited compilation of the notes that he had made for a book he planned to write. Scholars call that unfinished book “Apology for the Christian Religion.” The religion doesn’t much appeal to me and though I looked into the book in college, I’m sure I never actually read it.

I looked back into Pensées this summer because I wanted to find context for that quotation. I couldn’t find it. I found lots of other Pascal quotes I know and appreciate:
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

But I didn’t find the quote I was looking for. An online search for it showed those words being used by people but the only credit I could find was to William James.

Still, the quote is important to me. It is why I try not to have regrets for the choices I have made. I don’t mean clearly bad choices, foolish like buying a loser stock or eating two more slices of pizza. I mean not regretting things that in my timeline would change everything – that decision to go to a certain college; moving to a new home; taking a new job; choosing a spouse. Changing any of those things changes an almost infinite number of subsequent events in ways good or bad that we can never predict.

Changing the past is a major plot driver in time-travel fiction. Overwhelmingly, changing the past changes the future (or the time traveler’s present) in ways that were unintended and generally bad.

Maybe the line of Pascal’s that connected with me this time around is “You always admire what you really don’t understand.” I don’t understand much of the science of studying time (I’m not sure scientists really understand it either.) but I am fascinated by it.  I’m convinced we need and want to time travel and so it appears in many books, movies and on TV.

Albert Einstein said that “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

The big book I read this summer is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. which had been recommended by several friends who know I like time travel books.

I am a slower reader these days, or rather, I read in shorter blocks of time. I no longer spend an entire afternoon in a chair reading. I am more likely to read for twenty minutes before falling asleep or even more likely to listen to an audiobook while driving or walking.

I wish I had the audiobook for this 800+ page novel because it took me two renewals from the library to finish. But I’m glad that I read it.

You can tell from the title that this concerns the assassination on November 22, 1963 in Dallas of President Kennedy. King is certainly not the first or last person to think about what if he could have been saved. Other common revisions to our timeline are history-changing things like killing Hitler.

I like that the novel does not rely on any sci-fi technology for the protagonist to travel back in time. I also like the idea that each time he (or anyone) goes back and changes anything, it leaves a mark. Also that each trip back resets the timeline and whatever you might have changed the last time is back to what it was before.

In King’s version, the past is obdurate, stubbornly refusing to change. Time even makes attempts to stop the protagonist from making changes. It is said that history does not repeat but it rhymes. (A line often credited to Mark Twain but probably not of his invention.) King seems to follow that idea.

The plot center on Jake Epping, a 35-year-old high school English teacher in Maine, who is given the time travel secret by Al, who runs the local diner. That diner is a time portal to 1958 and only to one day in that year. When you return through the portal, only a few minutes in the present of June 2011 have passed. Al is dying and wants Jake to continue his mission to go back to 1958 and work his way to that day in 1963, and along the way determine if  Lee Harvey Oswald was really the lone shooter. And then stop him. Al is convinced this will change the world in many positive ways.

I won’t give spoilers about the success of that mission, which Jake does accept after a few shorter time excursions that do seem to work.

There is a mini-series on Hulu of the novel. I watched it. It makes a lot of changes to King’s story, but if you’re unwilling to read that big book, maybe you can watch the series.

As I said, these what-if scenarios occur in both our own lives and in the lives of characters in fiction. What if America and the Allies had not won World War II? That is one that played out in Philip K. Dick’s novel (and a Netflix adaptation still running) The Man in the High Castle.

And on a far less serious journey, I was charmed by Michael J. Fox’s movie time traveling back and forth to the future.

One thing I observe is that both in fiction and science traveling to the future seems less possible than traveling to the past.

Then more recently, a friend recommended that I read Recursion by Blake Crouch. This novel is also about revising timelines, this time with some heavy-duty technology.

In Crouch’s version of time, memory makes reality.  The time-traveling journeys here rely on the traveler’s memories of event. The changes cause what is known in that world as FMS – False Memory Syndrome. FMS is not the author’s invention. Though the term is not officially recognized as a psychiatric illness, the premise that memories can be altered by outside influences is accepted by scientists – though it is not caused by time travel. FMS haunts people with memories of a life they never lived.

At first, the successful tests of their technology seem innocent. Who wouldn’t want to re-experience sweet memories of first love or the birth of a child? Who wouldn’t want the chance to change something bad that happened, like an accident that killed someone you love?

What makes the FMS in the novel different is that friends and family of the afflicted also remember portions of the false lives.

These kinds of alternate-reality or revisionist histories can be very appealing because they play on our own desires to be able to somehow safely correct the past.

Despite my interest in time travel, I have not been invited to a time travelers’ party.   The few purported “real”  tales of a “time traveler” that I have read are not very satisfying. I don’t believe that Yoda was a time traveler.

Have I ever met a time traveler? Unfortunately, no, as Stephen Hawking asked, “Where are they?’  My answer is that if they have come back to out time from a future time, they cannot interact at all with us. They can make no changes. They are simply observers.

As Pascal said back in time, “Il n’est pas certain que tout soit incertain.” Luckily, my wife taught French, so I know that means “It is not certain that everything is uncertain.” Was he thinking about Time?

Has all this reading and watching changed my beliefs about Time? Perhaps yesterday (or tomorrow) never was.

I just started reading Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. The choice was not intentional. I had the book on reserve and it just became available. A coincidence. Unless there is no such thing as a coincidence.

It’s not a time travel novel but it is an alternate history. In the novel, Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to that aviator hero Charles A. Lindbergh. Historically, Lindbergh was a fanatical rabid isolationist who wanted to avoid war. In the novel, negotiates an “understanding” with Adolf Hitler. His administration also embarks on an agenda of making America great again which includes anti-Semitism.

Roth based his novel on the views of real-life Lindbergh who was a spokesman for the America First Committee.  That was a pro-German propaganda group, which opposed American aid to Britain in its war against Germany. Lindbergh was no fan of FDR and he resigned his commission in the United States Army Air Forces in 1941 after President Roosevelt publicly rebuked him for his views. FDR said privately that ” I am absolutely convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi.”

As in other novels, the setting is Roth’s hometown of Newark, New Jersey. I was also born in Newark and grew up nearby – a connection with Roth that started me reading his books.

This novel is also being adapted for a forthcoming mini-series on HBO that was filmed this year in New Jersey.  I’ll read the book first. No audiobook, so give me some time and I’ll report back.

Maybe the Universe Is a Hologram


How did it all begin? The Big Bang Theory is well known enough to be a TV sitcom, but we don’t even know if that is the answer.

String theory gets some attention (even on that TV show). If staring up at the near part of the universe on a clear night makes you think we are just a grain of sand on a gigantic beach, then string theory should make you feel even smaller. It posits that our universe is just a tiny part of a much larger multi-universe that nine-dimensional. We see three of those dimensions.

Our little universe would appear flat in string theory. Like a sheet of paper, our universe can have other universes below or above us. And those other universes might have different rules of time, space, and size. If we travel far enough into these universes, we could meet parallel versions of ourselves.

Far more controversial is the bubble theory of a universe in a vacuum of energy. Bubble theory came out of what we know about the rate by which the universe is expanding. Imagine a pot of water heating on a stove: the energy is the bubbles. Some bubbles pop, some bump into one another, some grow bigger, some get smaller. Each one is a universe.

No, I can’t imagine that.

I am feeling more comfortable these days with a holographic universe. You often hear this explained with a reference to the Matrix films. That makes it seem like a horrible universe.

Astrophysicists looking into anomalies in the cosmic background noise left after the Big Bang think there is evidence to support a holographic universe. You think you know that you exist in three dimensions. What about if we actually live in two dimensions?

How can we be in a 2D state in a 3D universe? That hologram on your credit card is a 3D image on a 2D surface. You can watch a 3D film on a 2D movie screen or on a 2D TV. You watch that 2D flat image but your brain sees 3D. Maybe everything you are looking at is 2D but our brain processes it as having three dimensions.

But our universe is not a movie. We can touch and smell objects.

“Reality as a simulation or hologram is no longer a fringe theory – with Nobel Prize winners and other thought leaders believing in it. All scientific discoveries start out as theories; some ultimately proven, some not. There is still the question of whether our universe actually exists? We may be simply living in something’s virtual reality simulation; very hard to prove one way or the other but we are getting closer.”       source

tv noiseUsing more recent advances in sensing equipment, scientists have detected a vast amount of data hidden in the white noise left over from the moment the universe was created. What is its “purpose”?  What is it “doing”?  (That white noise data even accounts for some of the random black and white dots you see on a TV that is not tuned into a station.)

And there are some people who take the physics of this theory of reality and use it to explain the paranormal abilities of the mind and other riddles of the brain and body.

  1. Scientific American editor Michael Moyer explains why some think our universe a hologram. Prepare. Black holes ahead.
  2. Brian Greene explains why space is not nothing. Space is a dynamic fabric.
  3. And then, from the world of fiction, Philip K. Dick explains why he now sees scientific evidence for the artificial worlds he created in his novels and stories – and when he had a glimpse of another holographic world. But who changed the programming code?


I’m Not a Star Seed

I’m not a star seed. I didn’t even know there was the possibility that I could be until this week. I’m still not so sure that anyone might be one.

I am sure that we are made of stardust, just as Joni Mitchell sang in “Woodstock.”

Science bears this idea out – “Everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today. It directly connects us to the universe, rebuilding our bodies over and again over our lifetimes.”

But Star Seeds are way beyond that. Star Seeds are defined as beings that have experienced life elsewhere in the Universe on other planets and in non-physical dimensions other than on Earth. They may also have had previous life times on earth.

Also known as Star People, this New Age belief seems to have been introduced by Brad Steiger, a very prolific writer of oddities, in his book Gods of Aquarius. He posited that people originated as extraterrestrials and arrived on Earth through birth or as a walk-in to an existing human body.

Alien-human hybrids sends my mind right to some X-Files episodes and more than a few science-fiction tales. Going back further, there are “star people” in some Native American spiritual mythologies.

Steiger said that one of my favorite sci-fi writers, Philip K. Dick, had written to him in the late 1970s to say he thought he might be one of the star people, and that his novel VALIS contained related themes.

There are several websites listing characteristics of a Star Seed – and I definitely have a few of them – but I don’t think I am one of them.

But humans are made of stardust, in that humans and their galaxy have about 97 percent of the same kind of atoms. The building blocks of life are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur and fairly recently astronomers have cataloged the abundance of these elements in a huge sample of stars.