Morphic resonance relates to the phenomenon of “pattern completion” observed in complex dynamical systems such as attractor neural networks. And this apparently technical observation leads to a different way of thinking about the evidence for an “afterlife” – cases of apparent reincarnation, ghosts and poltergeists, near-death experiences, mediumistic séances, and so forth. (For good reviews of this evidence see Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, or Stephen Braude’s more academic book Immortal Remains.)
Recall from above that morphic resonance is a dynamic in which, as Charles Peirce put it, “the tendency to take habits” rules. Once a pattern is established, it tends to continue itself and get more and more intense – though it may be slowed down or halted when its expansion conflicts with other patterns, in a situation of limited scope. Morphic resonance can occur in various complex systems due to consequences of ordinary physics; Sheldrake proposes it as an additional dynamic in our universe, going beyond those identified in standard “physical laws.”
So why do I claim that morphic resonance is related to (and is one cause of) the phenomenon of pattern completion. Suppose a certain system of patterns tends to occur together according to a particular overall pattern. If part of that system goes away, then according to morphic resonance, the remaining parts will tend to cause new versions of the missing parts to grow back. This occurs to a significant extent in living systems such as cells and organisms; it is what Maturana and Varela call “autopoiesis.” It also occurs in neural networks designed to implement associative memory, such as Hopfield networks or the Economic Attention Networks component of my OpenCog Artificial General Intelligence platform. If you present such a neural network with part of a memory, it will automatically do pattern completion and retrieve the rest. Human episodic memory seems to largely work this way; once we remember one portion of an episode, the rest tends to come flooding back vividly into memory. Some parts of a memory item may be better pattern completion cues than others, as with the semantic cues in the tip-of-the-tongue phenomena discussed above.
How might this line of thinking synergize with “survival” type phenomena? The core idea that pops to mind is: Perhaps an individual human mind should be viewed as existing as a pattern in the broader eurycosm, not just in our physical spacetime continuum. The body associated with that mind is part of this pattern; specifically part of the projection of this pattern into the portion of our spacetime continuum existing in a certain interval of time. An individual human mind, as a pattern, may also exist elsewhere in the eurycosm, tangled up in all sorts of different dynamics, including many that may be incomprehensible to us with our limited experience-bases and our cognitive restrictions.
This gives a natural high-level framework for thinking about reincarnation-type dynamics. When an individual human mind becomes somehow correlated with a portion of our spacetime continuum, corresponding to an interval of time in which that mind is not associated with any body, then pattern completion kicks in. Landing in a different body provides a way for that mind to complete the pattern that it previously realized in our spacetime continuum, during a different interval of time.
How would this sort of pattern completion process be guided? What are the dynamics of the allocation of attention, in the “near eurycosm” – the region of the wider space that is nearby to our spacetime continuum and its patterns? Some aspects of this dynamics are evident, e.g. it seems that emotionally salient negative events with implications for the self-structure of an individual mind – such as being killed, as one example – are often able to trigger pattern completion events. This is interesting in the context of the cognitive theory of emotion, which associates positive emotion with surprising fulfillment of expectations, and negative emotion with surprising UNfulfillment of expectations. In this theory, a negative emotion tends to correspond with a pattern that expected to be completed in a certain way, not getting completed. Hypothetically, morphic resonance might then cause the completion of this pattern in some form or another to get a high amount of attention, which might cause other things associated with that pattern to get a high amount of attention. For instance, if a child is murdered, this is a surprising incompletion of a pattern, which may mean that especial attention in the near eurycosm gets paid to completing some of this child’s dangling mind-patterns, perhaps via reincarnation; and some of this attention may flow to the child’s death wound, resulting in it appearing on the body of the person receiving the reincarnation of the child.
When a medium makes contact with a mind associated with a deceased person, what kind of pattern completion is occurring? Is there some sort of complex dynamic, different from what happens in our spacetime continuum but still involving that deceased person’s mind, that the medium mind connects with – thus triggering an on-the-fly process of pattern completion, in which the medium’s mind and fragments of the deceased person’s mind come together to trigger formation of an entity resembling a persisting version of the deceased person’s mind? In what circumstances is this process more do-able? Are the more abstract parts of the deceased person’s mind (e.g. semantic memory) more amenable to being drawn into this pattern completion process than less abstract parts (e.g. phonological memory), thus contributing to tip-of-the-tongue phenomena in mediumship?
The difficulty of talking to the dead, or carrying out psi feats generally, may be viewed as tied to the powerful morphic resonance displayed by the laws of physics and the associated structures and dynamics of chemistry, biology and so forth. These are extremely intense patterns, which may have evolved in the early physical universe in competition with other physical-law systems. The morphic resonance pushing toward pattern completion of fragmentary human minds in the near eurycosm, has to compete with the awesomely strong morphic resonance keeping the laws of physics in place!
One thing that is clear from this line of thinking is that the notion of “survival” can be developed in many directions. If one posits a wider containing universe that goes beyond the one-dimensional time-axis of our 4D spacetime continuum, then “survival after death” is less the point than “existence of the individual mind in some broader space beyond the spacetime continuum,” which in a sense naturally implies existence of the individual mind beyond a particular time-interval within our spacetime continuum.
This sort of exploration is very far from compelling at this point – but it’s fair to note that there are also hundreds of complex mathematical theories aiming to unify quantum theory and relativistic gravitation, and so far none of them is meaningfully empirically substantiated. Sometimes science needs to explore a lot before conclusions emerge.
Amit, Daniel (1992). Modeling Brain Function: The World of Attractor Neural Networks. Cambridge Press
Deutsch, David (1986). On Wheeler's notion of “law without law” in physics. Foundations of Physics 16 (6):565-572
Fuchs, Christopher (2006). On Participatory Realism. Information and Interaction, The Frontiers Collection pp 113-134
Goertzel, Ben, Cassio Pennachin and Nil Geisweiller (2014). Engineering General Intelligence, vol. 1 and 2. Atlantis Press.
Maturana, H.R. and F.J. Varela(1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Reidel