Category Archives: Consciousness

Posts that address the issues raised when defining consciousness.

Keeping Pace

I had no idea my life was in danger. I was out for a weekend walk with my wife, when suddenly, there they were. Snails. In case you think I’m over-reacting, take a look at Christopher Jobson’s piece on Colossal titled “Why Knights Fought Snails in the Margins of Medieval Books.” One of the main points is that the snails were symbols. We tend to forget the power of symbols today. Even modern vampires no longer react to crucifixes—what are we supposed to do? For those who are willing to linger a moment instead of rushing on immediately to the next thing, snails give us quite a bit to contemplate. In a world that hates slow-pokes, “consider,” as my friend Ecclesiastes might’ve said, “the snail.”

As highly evolved cousins of the snail, we suppose we were cut out for greater things. We build towers. We make new nations. We watch them both crumble. On the ruins of those walls we find snails. They have very little to do and expend no worries about getting there on time. Nobody emulates them, although some masticate them. They tend to disappear when the sun is hot. They don’t like the limelight. Yet snails contribute to our world in ways we simply don’t take the time to contemplate. Our time has been commodified. We’re told when to sleep and when to wake for our jobs. Then we’re told none of it matters anymore since 45 has decided to change the rules with his latest tweet. And still the snails crawl.

Before I learned to fear them, I remember happy childhood moments finding snails. This was generally not at home since we rented even then, and landlords have a weird compulsion about landscaping. When wandering far enough from home I’d find snails crawling on stalks of damp grasses early in the morning. They fascinated me. If I plucked them off, they’d pull in their eye-stalks and retreat into their shells. So secure. So symbolic. Eventually I learned that I was obligated to move fast. Keep pace. Be measured by my productivity. Pharaoh’s watching, after all, and that quantity of bricks required isn’t getting any smaller. Not many, I would learn, share my appreciation of snails. It takes a great deal of confidence to go slowly. Those who routinely ignore speed limits won’t understand my symbolism here, I know. Still, I can’t help but think we have a great deal to learn from our cousins who remind us that time isn’t everything after all.

Hex Marks the Spot

Public versus private has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Partially it’s because I’ve been reading about magical beliefs and their persistence. It always amazes me how publicly we declare ourselves rational and uninfluenced by the supernatural. Once we get behind the closed doors of our domiciles, however, a transformation takes place. Our insecurities and uncertainties surface. Given the right circumstances we might even confess that we believe in magic. I know I’m generalizing here, but private space does allow for private thoughts and getting out with others can bring a much-needed relief. I was reading about Hex Hollow in an article a friend sent me from Roadtrippers. Hex Hollow is a small town in my native Pennsylvania where a murder took place over witchcraft. I won’t go into the details here—the Roadtripper story is quite brief and tells the tale—but it turns out a man was killed for being a witch. His murderer was also a witch who’d been sent to him by yet a third witch. The crime took place in 1928.

Think about the timeframe for a second. It was between the World Wars. Technology was fairly advanced. Witch trials had ended centuries ago. Still, some people believed enough in witches to kill for their conviction. Historians of religion have pointed out that Americans have never really outgrown the belief in magic that we deny so assiduously. I’m not trying to single out one nation here—there is widespread evidence that magical thinking is endemic to the human thought process. We aren’t so quick to let something go that, according to reason, has served us well. Had magical thinking been purely detrimental it should’ve died out long ago. We need our magic.

As yesterday, so today.

I’m not suggesting witchcraft is real. At the same time I know that it’s natural enough for thoughts to move into familiar terrain when stressed out. In Hex Hollow the man who did the murdering was convinced he’d been hexed by his victim. Perhaps he’d climbed the ladder of inference (what we tend to call confirmation bias) to a rung where the only way down was a criminal act of desperation. That’s no excuse to kill someone, of course, but it fits with what we know of an all-too-human form of stress relief. Nor is it rustic rubes to blame. Psychics in New York City are abundant and even US presidents have been known to consult the stars a time or two. Of course, once I step outside that door I’ll say it’s all nonsense.

Ellis Island

A few years back we made a trip to Ellis Island. This is a common field trip here in New Jersey, although none of my immediate family passed through this portal. The most recent immigrants in my own heritage seem to have arrived by the early 1800s. In any case, Ellis Island is an impressive location. Now a museum, you can wander through the rooms and get an idea of what newcomers faced after a long and trying ocean voyage. What struck me the most was that large numbers of people were turned away for mental problems. I suspect mental illness of one sort or another is unnervingly common among human beings, and our current frenetic pace of life probably only exacerbates the situation. Still, I wonder if we really have a clear grasp on what is “normal.”

As humans become more adept at understanding their own brains, a need for more precise definitions asserts itself. A friend recently sent me an article suggesting “Neurologists Have Identified Brain Lesions That Could Be Linked to Religious Fundamentalism” on Science Alert. The article my Mike McRae ultimately doesn’t suggest that brain damage is the answer to Fundamentalism, but the story reminded me of an unscientific observation by one of my seminary professors decades ago. Harrell Beck once said something along the lines of Fundamentalism isn’t a theological position, it’s a psychological problem. Indeed, those who fall into the literalist camp have a preternatural urge to see things in black and white. Rules that can’t be violated, even if it means your deity’s an angry old God. With literally Hell to pay if you’re wrong, the right course of action is strikingly clear. Only life’s seldom so simple.

We study our brains but we don’t have a baseline for normal. I can’t believe that waking before dawn to catch a bus to work a job that pays less than a successful high school degree in other states is a good bet by anybody’s standard measure of normalcy. Those who read probing biographies find that even our brightest and best have quirks they didn’t wear in public. Surely the physicians on Ellis Island had some guidelines in mind when they were turning away those who didn’t measure up to the standard of what an ideal American mentality should be. Although Ellis Island shut its doors over half a century ago, it’s clear that even if we kept some unstable candidates out, we’ve done a stellar job of growing our own. And that can be taken as truth by faith alone.

Human Omniscience

This might take some thought, but please bear with me. I’ve been reading about how some scientists are eager to promote rationality only as the true understanding of the universe. The flaws in this logic are immense. The greatest gaff here is assuming that evolved biological creatures with only five senses have come to comprehend the vastness of a universe in which we matter very, very, very, (and some scientific notation may be helpful here) very little. And we assume that’s all there is to know. Consider that when you want to spot the Pleiades in the nighttime sky, the best way to do it is not to look directly at the constellation. Our rods, which are far more sensitive than our cones, are not concentrated in the center of our field of vision. That means, in some circumstances, you see something better by looking slightly away from it. Don’t take my word for it, test it yourself on a clear night.

We also know that some animals have senses that we don’t. When’s the last time you picked up the earth’s magnetic field? We know it’s there and we know that some animals sense it. We don’t. Or consider the ant. If ants make you itchy, any hive mind will do. There are creatures right here on earth that think collectively, not as individuals. As humans we’ve evolved to think that our limited experience tells us everything there possibly is to know about truth. We don’t know how living under water influences perceptions because we can’t do it. No, we’re a race of surface dwellers. (There’s a metaphor there for those of you who believe in such things.) We’ve learned some basic laws of physics and suddenly we preside over the courtroom of the universe since our evolved logic is the only and the best the cosmos has to offer.

Evolution, however, also made us religious. If logic is at all what it seems we have to admit that study after study has shown the benefits of religious belief to the beleaguered human psyche. If we try to measure it empirically it crumbles in our fingers. Only logic would tell us simply to ignore it then. I’m no enemy of reason. It’s the best way we have of getting along in this world. I love science and support its evidence-based health. It’s just that as I’m standing here in the dark wondering where the seven sisters are, I sometimes have to trust my rods instead of focusing on what I can see plainly with my everyday sight. Logic tells me there are other things outside my sensory range as well.

Photo credit: NASA

An Elephant’s 100 Percent

When I walked out of that dissertation defense, still a little unsure whether I’d passed or not, I thought my testing days were over. My early memories of struggling with exams—I wrote that a sphere was a kind of weapon on one vocabulary test I recall—made me anxious for an end of the process. Hadn’t I proved myself time and time and time again? People are funny that way. We’re suspicious of those who pass. Are they really as smart as that, or have they learned to game the system? (Admittedly, with what’s going on in Washington these days doubts about intelligence have definitely earned their keep.) Tests, however, have become less common these days, at least in the fearful exam room context. Now we’re giving them to animals.

It has long been clear to me that animals are quite intelligent. When that mouse, cat, squirrel, or robin pauses in front of you, looks you in the eye, then decides its course of action, it’s clearly thinking. Of course, some animals are more on the GOP scale of intelligence, such as deer that bolt out in front of cars, while others—ironically including elephants—show up 45 in tests we assign. An article in The Independent describes how elephants are far smarter than we’ve given them credit for being. Jealousy, perhaps, makes the elephant’s own party withdraw protections from endangered species. We’ve got to be sure nobody shows us up. At least not while we’re on camera.

Animals have greater thinking abilities than we’ve been willing to admit. For being so highly evolved, we’re an awfully petty species. We don’t want to share our great accomplishments with others. We’ll call the amazing architecture of the bowerbird “instinct” rather than admit they can build homes better than many in the Appalachians can. We’ll kick over anthills rather than face the fact that a hive mind is a terrible thing to waste. We’ve known for decades, if not more, that all life is interconnected. Because we’ve got opposable thumbs and reasonable cranial capacity, we’re the best thing this planet could hope to evolve, so we tell ourselves. What has made us so insecure? Why do we find the prospect of animal intelligence so frightening? It’s terribly hard to give up the role of being lord and master, I guess. Or if we were to switch it to a classroom analogy, we always want to be the teacher, never the student. But after walking out of that dissertation defense twenty-five years ago I learned that the testing had only begun.

Trusting Truth

How do we know what’s true? For many the answer is what your experience reveals. If that experience involves being raised as a Bible-believer, that complicates things. A friend recently sent me a New York Times piece entitled “The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society,” by Molly Worthen. For those of us raised in Fundamentalist conditions, this isn’t news. Then again, those raised Fundamentalist assume that everyone knows the truth but others have blatantly decided to reject it. It’s a strange idea, inerrancy. It’s clearly a form of idolatry and its roots can be traced if anyone wishes to take the time to do it. Inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is correct, tout court. It’s right about everything. If it contains one error, so the thinking goes, it topples like a house of cards. (Cards are sinful by the way, so get your hands off that deck!) If that’s your starting point, then the rest of the facts have to fall into place.

As much as I wish I could say that this simplistic outlook may be corrected by education, that’s not always the case. Many children of inerrantists are raised to question what they learn in school. Worse, many are home schooled so that they never have to be exposed to the sinful machinations of others until they try to enter the job market and are utterly perplexed by the fact that they don’t even speak a common language with the rest of society. Key code words don’t mean the same things outside that safe, withdrawn community where everyone knows the Bible and understands that to know it is to love it. Science doesn’t love the Bible, they’re taught. So science is wrong. It’s quite simple really. You already have all the information you need in one book. If science disagrees, then, well, you already have all the information you need.

There’s an internal logic to all of this, and dismissing the heartfelt beliefs of Fundamentalists only gets their backs up. It’s not about logic, but the emotion of belief. Some neuroscientists have been suggesting that we reason not only by logic but also with emotion. That complicates things, for sure, but it also explains a lot. For example, in a world where religion drives nearly all the major issues facing society, logic would dictate that universities would build up religion departments to try to understand this very real danger. Instead we find the exact opposite. Withdrawing into your own little world occurs on both ends of the spectrum. Dr. Worthen is to be applauded for bringing this out into the light. If society wants to benefit from this knowledge, it will need to stop and think about what it really means to be human. Fundamentalists, for all their foibles, illustrate that nicely.

Dog Daze

I read quite a bit about animals. One reason is that when you’re counting all the species on the planet we’re pretty clearly among the animal part. Having grown up with many pets, the dogs particularly stand out. We tended to have only one dog at a time and they were so full of personality that it obviously wasn’t a matter of projecting to understand that one was more or less optimistic or joyful than another. Some could be mean while others were loving. There was quite a bit of buzz about W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose back in January. For Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2017 Reading Challenge the book fit one of the categories for me, and so I found myself reading about animals again. The thing about buzz is that I listen with only half an ear. I didn’t know much about the book except that it was a novel narrated from a dog’s point of view.

A couple of things struck me as I got into the story. One was that the protagonist ended up still believing that humans were more important than dogs. I suppose there’s some kind of evidence for that, from a dog’s viewpoint, but it doesn’t seem very strong to me. After all, we’ve bred wolves into pugs and cockapoos with an intentionality that even Mr. Darwin would’ve recognized as unnatural selection. Left to their own wolves would’ve adapted, but they’re pack animals and while dogs may think us the alphas, they’re each an important part of the group. They are giving, but that’s the nature of being in a pack. It’s also something that elected officials in Washington could stand to learn. When there aren’t rifles and traps, pack animals prosper.

The second thing that stood out about A Dog’s Purpose was reincarnation. The idea scares me. Life’s been a long challenge this time around and, unlike Nietzsche I’m not sure I could face it this exact way again. In any case, reincarnation only works if there are souls to pull it off. Cameron posits that for Toby to become a fully developed Buddy four cycles of reincarnation are needed. Like a good Platonist, our protagonist recalls the important lessons from each previous life and is able to develop into a more fulfilled dog each time around. The karma here is good. Cameron does seem to “get it” from a human-projected dog’s point of view. It can be fun, and it can be sad. The important lesson, for me, is that animals are who we are and to be a successful pack we need to look out for the good of each other.