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Why a Science Fiction Writer Thinks Life Is More Than Just Matter

Many animals and even bacteria show behavior that smacks of thinking, he says

Here are some snippets and notes from the second part of science writer and retired physician Geoffrey Simmons’s interview with Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks. Simmons, author of Are We Here to Re-Create Ourselves?: The Convergence of Designs (2019), writes both science fiction, including The Adam Experiment and and science non-fiction, including Common Sense and Disaster Preparedness (2011) and Billions of Missing Links: A Rational Look at the Mysteries Evolution Can’t Explain (2007).

In this episode, Simmons and Marks focus on the amazing intelligence that life forms show, even if they do not themselves show any awareness of it:

From the transcript: (The Show Notes, Resources, and a link to the complete transcript follow. An account of the first part of the discussion is here).

Robert J. Marks: We have been talking about your book, and I wanted to talk some more about it. You have one chapter, “The Thinking Piece” and another one, “The Memory Piece.” And in there, you trace from one-cell organisms to humans. Can you kind of unpack that and give us some examples that highlight these capabilities?

Geoffrey Simmons: I’d be glad to. As I mentioned a little earlier on the previous podcast, we do see animals and all kinds of organisms having some ability that smacks of thinking. And indeed you can expose bacteria to something scary and a light or anything like that and then show that to their offspring, which are not offspring in the sense that we think of it, and they will go away from it.

Note: In his recent book, Miracle of the Cell (2020), biochemist Michael Denton notes that cells can do a variety of things without anything like a brain. For example, gut pest E coli is “adept at counting molecules of specific sugars, amino acids, or dipeptides… comparing counts taken over the recent and not so recent past” (p. 17). Bacteria, deprived of food, can solve problems that have stumped computers —again, without a brain. We don’t know how they do it.

Geoffrey Simmons: Now, is that thinking or what is that? … We see that with a lot of problem-solving, monkeys using tools, monkeys using mechanisms to get places like a stick for a cane or through water, getting across a creek, in other words, problem-solving, coming up with something novel to solve a problem.

You see with crows, there’s a whole bunch of shows on National Geographic where they show animals doing these things and crows can use sticks to get different items to eat. They can drop rocks in like a beaker to make the water level come up so they can get whatever it is that’s floating on the top of the water.

All these… It’s something that they’ve never seen before. So it’s not as if this is just in their genes or something maybe they learned long ago. They actually seem to think through what they’re doing.

Note: Lemurs, with brains 1/200 the size of chimps’, pass the same IQ test (the Primate Cognition Test Battery). Whether brain structure, as opposed to size, matters is unclear: Smart birds have brain structures similar to those of primates but smart octopuses apparently do not.

Even plants have nervous systems and communicate extensively without a mind or brain.

Geoffrey Simmons: And dogs, we all know our dogs think, goodness. My dogs think all the time. Most people who are dog owners would tell you that dogs have emotions and they think, and they think through things. I think it’s too obvious… they study these animals with MRIs, functional MRIs. They train the dogs to stay still and then they show them certain things and they try to show that they’re actually thinking about what they’re showing them or asking them to do. It’s very, very interesting stuff.

Note: Dogs and cats are definitely conscious, according to current research but they think concretely rather than abstractly. Both are adept at reading emotional cues and solving problems and can bond with people and recognize their names.

Robert J. Marks: One of the things that I wonder about artificial intelligence is, well concerns creativity. I don’t believe artificial intelligence will ever be creative and I’m joined in that arena by notable people such as Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. He wrote a book called Hit Refresh.

“At the core, Hit Refresh is about us humans and the unique quality we call empathy, which will become ever more valuable in a world where the torrent of technology will disrupt the status quo like never before.”

– from the Hit Refresh site

Also, the great Sir Roger Penrose wrote a phenomenal book called Shadows of the Mind, which challenged the idea that artificial intelligence could ever be creative. He said that creativity comes from a flash of genius, typically in the human being or that’s a common vehicle for it.

It was as if the mind was external to the brain that was conversing with itself. You also quoted Plato, who said, “Thinking is the talking of the soul with itself.” So there’s something happening there with thinking and creativity that is beyond probably what artificial intelligence will ever do.

Geoffrey Simmons: I find extremely interesting area I have in my book and my talks and other actually blogs too. Who’s talking to whom? What people always say and I told myself, all kinds of things along that line, bawled myself out, and who’s talking to who? Is it the left brain talking to the right brain? Is it the soul talking to the body? Is it Freud’s id ego and the super ego? Who or what in there is talking to themselves?

In fact, people who have half a brain, if they’re young enough, they have brain removed because of epilepsy, have thinking almost similar to our own.

Note: Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, who has performed the brain-splitting operation to which Dr. Simmons refers, has studied this field intensively: The differences in function are usually discovered by specialized testing. They are not evident in ordinary life. See: “Does split-brain surgery show that we have no real identity?

Geoffrey Simmons: I go back to this Pinocchio movie where Jiminy Cricket is on one shoulder and Lampwick is on the other. Lampwick, was telling him them do bad things and Jiminy Cricket’s telling him to do good things.

Some of us think that’s what’s going on, split personalities… There is something going on that we really can’t explain and so is this just some physical phenomenon, something mechanical or is it the spark of life? Is it the soul? And I, I think it’s, in part, the soul or the spirit.


Here’s Part I: Should robots, instead of humans, go into space? They might be better at life in space than humans. But could they be counselors too? Geoffrey Simmons, a retired internist and science fiction author, discusses genuine health risks for humans from long term space travel with Robert J. Marks.

You may also enjoy:

What is the difference between “soul” and “spirit”? Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor explains the subtle distinction between the meaning of the two, often confused, terms.

and

Some people think and speak with only half a brain. A new study sheds light on how they do it.

Show Notes

  • 00:26 | Introducing Dr. Geoffrey Simmons
  • 01:07 | Thinking and problem-solving in animals
  • 04:27 | How can you talk to yourself?
  • 09:51 | Artificial intelligence in the future

Additional Resources


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Why a Science Fiction Writer Thinks Life Is More Than Just Matter