The Mind’s Sky

Samuel Johnson famously defined metaphysical wit as “a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” Timothy Ferris’ new book rests on just such a surprising combination. In THE MIND’S SKY, he explores “the relationship between mind and the universe . . . through the lenses of two innovative fields of scientific research— neuroscience, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.” The juxtaposition is certainly intriguing enough to arouse our curiosity. But what about the payoff?

When Ferris speculates about an “interstellar communications network” that would be analogous to a human mind, the reader is free to join in or not as fancy takes him, so disconnected is the notion from any observable reality. It gets trickier when—extrapolating from various neurological studies—Ferris concludes that “the sense of unity and control that the conscious mind presents to each mentally healthy individual is an illusion. (In this sense, the crazy person who hears a multitude of competing voices in his mind is saner than the rest of us, just as the poets have been telling us for centuries.)”

That passage, reread several times in its supporting context, doesn’t become any easier to swallow. “The mind may rule the self, but it is a constitutional monarch; presented with decisions already made elsewhere in the brain, it must try somehow to put on a good show of their adding up to some coordinated, sensible pattern.” If Ferris really believes what he has written here, he’s grossly irresponsible in his failure to work out the implications—beginning most obviously with the question of how he wrote the sentence just quoted, let alone the book in which it appears. It seems more likely, however, that he’s merely toying with provocative ideas, juggling images in the manner of an inferior metaphysical poet.