On the His Dark Materials series

Science, Technology and the Danger of Daemons

By Arthur B. Markman

I read Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy aloud to one of my sons when he was about nine. Needless to say, he loved it. When I told him that I was going to write an essay about the books, he asked me to say that the d¦mons in Lyra’s world are really the people’s consciences. I am a cognitive psychologist who studies the way people think, and so his suggestion was not totally off-base–though it also was not exactly what I wanted to write about.

What really interests me about the books is Pullman’s cautionary view of the pursuit of knowledge and the advance of technology. He does not display any particular love of academics with their elite institutions. He is particularly skeptical of technological advances arising from this knowledge, which can lead to disastrous outcomes both intended and unintended.

So, at first, it seemed that I would have to disappoint my son and focus on the evils wrought by scholars and the release of Specters by the subtle knife rather than examining how Pantalaimon is a physical manifestation of Lyra’s inner world.

And yet, perhaps I don’t, because there is an analogy of the relationship between conscience and mind on the one hand and between technology and the world on the other. The lessons that psychologists are learning about the structure of the mind are similar to Pullman’s cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls of knowledge and technology.

To draw this analogy, we have to start by spending some time thinking about theories  …

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