Virtually Religious

“Which god would that be? The one who created you? Or the one who created me?” So asks SID 6.7, the virtual villain of Virtuosity.  I missed this movie when it came out 24 years ago (as did many others, at least to judge by its online scores).  Although prescient for its time it was eclipsed four years later by The Matrix, still one of my favs after all these years.  I finally got around to seeing Virtuosity over the holidays—I tend to allow myself to stay up a little later (although I don’t sleep in any later) to watch some movies.  I found SID’s question intriguing.  In case you’re one of those who hasn’t seen the film, briefly it goes like this: in the future (where they still drive 1990’s model cars) virtual reality is advanced to the point of giving computer-generated avatars sentience.  A rogue hacker has figured out how to make virtual creatures physical and SID gets himself “outside the box.”  He’s a combination of serial killers programmed to train police in the virtual world.  Parker Barnes, one of said police, has to track him down.

The reason the opening quote is so interesting is that it’s an issue we wouldn’t expect a programmer to, well, program.  Computer-generated characters are aware that they’ve been created.  The one who creates is God.  Ancient peoples allowed for non-creator deities as well, but monotheism hangs considerable weight on that hook.  When evolution first came to be known, the threat religion felt was to God the creator.  Specifically to the recipe book called Genesis.  Theistic evolutionists allowed for divinely-driven evolution, but the creator still had to be behind it.  Can any conscious being avoid the question of its origins?  When we’re children we begin to ask our parents that awkward question of where we came from.  Who doesn’t want to know?

Virtuosity plays on a number of themes, including white supremacy and the dangers of AI.  We still have no clear idea of what consciousness is, but it’s pretty obvious that it doesn’t fit easily with a materialistic paradigm.  SID is aware that he’s been simulated.  Would AI therefore have to comprehend that it had been created?  Wouldn’t it wonder about its own origins?  If it’s anything like human intelligence it would soon design myths to explain its own evolution.  It would, if it’s anything like us, invent its own religions.  And that, no matter what programmers might intend, would be both somewhat embarrassing and utterly fascinating.

Making Memories

I’m a little suspicious of technology, as many of you no doubt know.  I don’t dislike it, and I certainly use it (case in point), but I am suspicious.  Upgrades provide more and more information to our unknown voyeurs and when the system shows off its new knowledge it can be scary.  For example, the other day a message flashed in my upper right corner that I had a new memory.  At first I was so startled by the presumption than I couldn’t click on it in time to learn what my new memory might be.  The notification had my Photos logo on it, so I went there to see.  Indeed, there was a new section—or at least one I hadn’t previously noticed—in my Photos app.  It contained a picture with today’s date from years past.

Now I don’t mind being reminded of pleasant things, but I don’t trust the algorithms of others to generate them for me.  This computer on my lap may be smart, but not that so very smart.  I know that social media, such as Facebook, have been “making memories” for years now.  I doubt, however, that the faux brains we tend to think computers are have any way of knowing what we actually feel or believe.  In conversations with colleagues over cognition and neurology it becomes clear that emotion is an essential element in our thinking.  Algorithms may indeed be logical, but can they ever be authentically emotional?  Can a machine be programmed to understand how it feels to see a sun rise, or to be embraced by a loved one, or to smell baking bread?  Those who would reduce human brains to mere logic are creating monsters, not minds.

So memories are now being made by machine.  In actuality they are simply generating reminders based on dates.  This may have happened four or five years ago, but do I want to remember it today?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  It depends on how I feel.  We really don’t have a firm grasp on what life is, although we recognize it when we see it.  We’re further even still from knowing what consciousness may be.  One thing we know for sure, however, is that it involves more than what we reason out.  We have hunches and intuition.  There’s that fudge factor we call “instinct,” which is, after all, another way of claiming that animals and newborns can’t think.  But think they can.  And if my computer wants to help with memories, maybe it can tell me where I left my car keys before I throw the pants containing them into the wash again, which is a memory I don’t particularly want to relive.

Memory from a decade ago, today.

The God Test

Humans don’t mean to be cruel, I’m pretty sure, when they test animals for intelligence.  We’re a curious lot, perhaps a bit too self-absorbed, but we want to know how other animals are like us.  Of course, we reserve actual thinking for ourselves, given how well we’ve managed to conserve our only environment, but we grant some special spark to our biological kin.  So we devise tests for them.  Since we can’t get beyond human experience, many of these tests are devised for creatures like us.  When animals fail our superiority is reconfirmed.  Then it’s back to the lab.  I’ve got to wonder how it feels to the subject of the experiment (or is it object?).  Some being that has mastered the art of capturing you, perhaps with the aid of alien technology, is trying to get you to understand something that’s only clear from its (the captor’s) viewpoint.  You need to suss out that viewpoint and solve the puzzle in the same way.

This makes me think of many forms of religion.  We’re born to a lower species (human) as the experimental subjects of gods, or a God, who watch(es) to see how we figure things out.  There’s a right answer, of course, but we’re only given hints as to what it is.  We’re given toys to play with—some of them dangerous—and we’re allowed to select clowns and buffoons to lead us.  We can kill off unthinkable numbers of our own kind and the only clue that we’ve succeeded is some tasty treat at the end.  Of course, we have to assume that the intelligence governing this whole farce is much greater than our own.  Doesn’t feel so good, does it?

Holism is the ability to see a continuity in all of nature.  And nature doesn’t just mean this warm globe on which we find ourselves.  It’s vast and mysterious and some parts of it are very cold and others very hot.  There are places we cannot go, and others that seem inevitable, given the choices.  Like the victims of bullies we don’t think about the larger system, but seek to impose our wills on those who see things differently than we do.  Some tote guns while others pack books.  All of us will shoo away insects that buzz too close.  Most of the animals “beneath” us will simply eat them.  Is this all a game?  Or is it some kind of experiment where we have to guess the answer, but with only a fraction of the information required?

Thoughts While Flying

Uh-oh!  I seem to be airborne.  All that’s in front of me is concrete.  If I don’t do something, my exposed hands will hit first.  Tuck, and try not to hit your head.  Still, on impact the first thing I do is look around to see if anyone saw that.  It’s embarrassing to trip and fall, especially when you’re old enough to be avoiding that sort of thing.  I jog before it’s fully light out, however, and the sidewalks can be uneven.  Just in case anyone’s watching my Superman impression, I immediately climb to my feet and resume my pace.  I’ll be sore tomorrow.  As a jogger since high school you’d think I’d have this worked out by now, but you’re never too old to learn, I guess.

The amazing thing to me is just how much you can think in those fleet seconds that you’re actually in the air, about to hit the ground like a sack of old man.  That’s exactly what happened, though, from the split second I felt my toe catch in an unseen crack and felt my balance give way.  Taking additional steps while trying to straighten back up sometimes works, but my top-heavy head was too far out of sync and my feet were sure to follow.  Your memory of such things goes out of body and you watch yourself comically flying, without the grace of a bird, toward an unforgiving substrate.  Such is the fate of the early morning runner.  I don’t have time to do it during the day.  What if someone emails and I don’t answer?  They’ll think I’m slacking off.  Remote workers!

Despite the occasional spills, I’ve always enjoyed this form of exercise.  In the post-Nashotah House days while still in Wisconsin I’d sometimes do nine miles at a time.  Whenever I’ve moved to a new place I’ve gotten to know the neighborhood by jogging around.  Even if it’s not fully light you can see plenty.  (Although the cracks in the sidewalk aren’t always obvious.)  I tend to think about these things as life lessons.  Parables, if you will.  One of the deep-seated human dreams is that of flying.  Birds make it look so easy, and fun.  A human body feels so heavy when it impacts the ground.  I suspect that’s why we find gymnasts so fascinating to watch.  As for me, I’m just a middle-aged guy in sweats and wearing glasses.  And even as I head home I’m already thinking how remarkable the number of thoughts are in the few seconds while in flight, somewhere over the concrete.

No Animals Harmed

Out for a walk after work the other day, I spied a black cat.  Not the superstitious sort, I didn’t let this deter me from continuing on.  Then I noticed that it was a mere three or four feet from a ground hog that was just as large as, if not larger than, the cat was.  They were staring at each other, weighing their options.  The ground hog didn’t appear too concerned.  Then a rabbit hopped up, on the other side of the cat.  A perfect syzygy of fauna that remained still for a moment in a tableau of nature.  About the same time as the cat noticed  the rabbit, the rabbit noticed it back and quickly hopped away.  The cat crouched and slunk after the bunny and the woodchuck ambled off at its own pace.

Not only was this conjunction an odd combination of three species of mammal—four if you count me—but it was such a conscious interaction that I had to think of it as almost human.  Three very different individuals, probably all with eating on their minds, had to assess how to interact, wordlessly.  As far as I could tell the drama ended amicably.  The cat looked well fed, in any case, and the rabbit far outdistanced it from the start.  Chuck was unconcerned.  Although the hard line still exists in science, drawn between ourselves and our fellow animals, I’m convinced that they have a share of consciousness.  We’re told that they’re mere “machines” following instinct.  These three “machines” along the trail were sure acting like they were thinking.

What are they thinking?

As the situation played out, no violence ensued.  Three individuals out enjoying the spring happened to find themselves in a scenario that called for negotiation.  The cat, like Republicans, felt compelled toward aggression, I should imagine.  It had a choice: take on a larger, more worthy foe, or turn its attention to the weaker, more vulnerable prey.  Naturally, it turned toward the weaker of the two.  There were differing agendas at play here, and with a dose of consciousness added in, these critters behaved so like human beings that I felt compelled to share it.   The ground hog and rabbit looked on the situation with some wariness.  They thought about it, and each took the prudent route to safety, for the time being.  Nature, it seems, will find its balance if we let it.  And we, if we would acknowledge it, still have something to learn from nature.

Time Saving

As we suffer through another pointless Daylight Saving Time, I’m thinking of rituals that have lost their meaning.  Life is full of them.  We do things because we’ve always done them this way and even when they become harmful because of the way lifestyles change (auto accidents, for example, increase after shorting people of an hour’s sleep) we can’t seem to let go.  DST alone should’ve been enough to convince those who claimed religion would simply go away when science kicked in that they are wrong.  This is one reason that I’ve always found the origins of ideas fascinating.  Why did people believe this?  Why did they do this?  What started this whole process?  (Just to be clear, I’m not asking this about DST; I’ve written about that before.)

We can’t know the ultimate origins of religion.  I’ve suggested in the past that what we would term religious behavior has clear origins in the behavior of animals.  A somewhat fully developed consciousness provides incentive to rationalize such behavior.  The earliest organized religion of which we know involved state functionaries (priests) supporting, probably for sincerely believed reasons, the “secular” government.  Kings and priests needed each other and people quickly conformed.  Even when those on the inside came to realize that they were merely pretending, they kept on doing so.  It was too late (or if DST, too early) to change anything, so the mascarade continued.  Tracing the history of religious ideas reveals perhaps more than we want to know.  And human beings are natural actors.

Once, while in a restaurant, I sat near the kitchen.  The smiling servers, as they neared that portal lost their smiles and harried looks came to their faces as they told frantic cooks what the couple at table eight wanted.  Yet they continued to pretend they were happy when at table-side.  Or think of work with its “public facing” information that is inevitably different from what is known by those on the inside of the company.  Actors.  We’re all actors.  Perhaps it’s the price to pay for living in a civilization.  If we stopped to think about why we’re doing something as inane as pretending five o’clock is now six o’clock, or even that all people are the same and should be at work between nine and five, society could not stand the scrutiny.  Anarchy would erupt in the streets.  We should be thankful that people don’t think about these things too deeply.  Or, then again, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night.

Truth Is Marching On

A funny thing happens to human minds when they’re in a crowd.  They begin thinking collectively.  We’ve all heard of “mob mentality” and dismiss it as so common that we don’t stop to think how remarkable it is.  Maybe we’re afraid to.  Yesterday I attended my third Women’s March, this time in New York City again.  Being an introvert, I find the prospect of putting myself into a large crowd daunting, and with a winter storm warning posted, worries  about getting home provided a convenient excuse.  My wife knows me well enough, however, to sense when my enochlophobia kicks in and tries to kick out that part of me that’s passionate about social justice.  You see, women are still not counted equal citizens in this “land of equality.”  The Equal Rights Amendment has never passed.  Pay is still based on gender rather than qualification.  And we have an unrepentant misogynist in the White House.

Once I’m in a likeminded crowd, supporting social justice, it’s clear that my thinking is influenced by the activity of all those brains around me.  Scientists know this happens in nature.  Ant colonies, for example, “know” more than a single individual does.  Recent studies have even suggested this “hive consciousness” can exist beyond a lifespan, creating an archive of learning that exceeds the lives of an entire generation.  If only we could teach Republicans to do that.  In any case, being in the crowd of bright, intelligent, hard-working women found me in a good head-space.  The men in DC are certainly doing nothing to make the male gender proud.

Although crowd estimation isn’t an exact science, the media has consistently underestimated the sheer numbers of these marches.  The National Park Service, on duty in Washington in 2017, estimated 1.3 million had shown up for the march.  It’s still not unusual to see the number cited as 500,000.  Regardless, with the sister marches it was the largest single-day protest event in U.S. history.  We have to keep marching as long as men continue to elect the most ignorant of their gender to high office.  There’s nothing controlled about the chaos in the White House.  Fake news, alternative facts, a revolving door of staff, and Fox News’ nose so brown you could grown corn on it is not the way to run a democracy.  I may have been part of a hive mind for a few hours yesterday, and it was a far better mind than those that abound in the federal government seeking only their own glory.  Let’s hope the collective mind outlives this generation.

Mastering Ravens

One of the most difficult things in modern life is to keep up with all the new jobs available.  That’s not to suggest that unemployment isn’t a real problem—it is—but that the game has changed since the days I went to the guidance counselors’ office and thumbed through the box of microfiche to learn about potential colleges.  (And what strange people the guidance counselors were!)  Since 1981, when I graduated from Oil City High School, the Internet has been invented and has changed employment forever.  I understand that making YouTube videos can now be a full-time job, with benefits.  Who knew?  So when I was kindly presented with a copy of Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London I wasn’t too surprised to learn that there is such a job.

Delightfully written, The Ravenmaster goes into the ins and outs of life in what is a ceremonial job.  That the Brits are fond of tradition is no secret, and this little book is so full of them that it becomes a delightful gallimaufry that includes, I kid you not, dog biscuits marinated in blood.  Although Skaife takes you on a few detours through his own life, the book is mainly about ravens.  We’re so used to materialists telling us that everything is simply cause and effect of neurons firing that I wonder how they might react to the obvious intelligence and personalities of ravens.  Reading about their antics as well as their wisdom it’s difficult not to surmise that consciousness isn’t a purely human preserve.  With the ravens and the wolves we are a piece.

Intelligence is more common in the animal world than in the White House these days, and this book may help to show why.  Ravens can plot, plan, and be cruel.  They can also be kind, compassionate, and friends.  I’ve long had a fascination with corvids, and I tried to befriend some before moving out of New Jersey.  It was a bit tricky with the strictures of my own Tower of London—the commute, the bus, the job—and so my friendship with the local crows in the back yard of our apartment remained strictly casual.  We lose so much by not paying attention to the natural world of which we are, increasingly, so unnatural a part.  When humanity disappoints and the ridiculousness of human behavior haunts, I recommend reaching for The Ravenmaster.  It’s comforting to know that real minds exist out there in the wild.

Real Dreaming

I keep odd hours. Although we don’t live far from New York City, as the pigeon flies, public transit sets the schedule for my day. (I’m merely writing as a representative here, since I know others keep my hours as well.) Since I’m usually waking up around 3 a.m., I have to go to bed pretty early. One night recently I turned in around 8:00 p.m. and fell into a fitful sleep. When I awoke three hours later, it was as if my gray matter were a thunderhead. Ideas, worries, and memories flashing like lightning. Concerned, I watched the clock since I knew it was a work day. When three rolled around with no more sleep I hoped it would be like one of those rare days of interrupted rest when my conscious mind does just fine. Would it function that way on just three hours of sleep?

This incident brought home to me once again the mystery of consciousness. I had a meeting in New York I couldn’t miss that day, but by mid-morning (in real-people time) I was seeing things that weren’t there—an almost Trumpian dissociation from reality. Then I’d snap back to awareness and realize my mind was drifting off to steal some of the sleep it refused during the hours of darkness. Using the usual tricks I stayed awake for the workday and even for the bus ride home, with only brief momentary lapses where what had been reality had stopped making sense. Consciousness, it seems, functions best with a well-rested brain. A good night’s sleep put me back to normal the next day.

Reflecting back over that previous 24 hours, I thought how surreal they’d felt. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they were like an altered state of consciousness. Religions, some claim, began because of such altered states. They are strange and powerful. And fairly universal—almost everyone experiences them from time to time, whether by sleep deprivation, controlled substance use, or prayer and meditation. Even knowing the cause (going to bed with a lot on your mind when you have to wake early, for example) doesn’t change just how real the experience feels. This is one of the reasons that rationality doesn’t explain all of experience. In the same brain there are Jekyll and Hyde aspects to consciousness, interchanging with each other every few hours. As the movie Inception underscored, you don’t remember how you entered the dream. You’re just there. And when that world intrudes on the conscious, rationally ordered territory of wakefulness, the questions can become quite religious. Unless, of course, I’m still dreaming.

Here Before

Déjà vu can be quite disorienting. Déjà vu can be quite disorienting. One of the categories for my 2018 reading challenge is a book you can read in a day. Maybe it’s just me, or creeping middle age, but books seem to be getting fatter these days. Despite the amount of time I spend reading, I’m slow at it and it’s a real struggle to find something I can actually finish on a three-hour bus ride. That’s why I thought of a play. Plays are meant to be performed in one sitting, so you should, in theory, be able to read one in a few hours. My first thought was Shakespeare, but the books of Shakespeare you can find these days all have added pages of commentary and interpretative material and the books seem to have put on weight since the Bard’s day.

So I settled on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. My wife had a used copy from college days and I’d been wanting to read it for some years. Here was my excuse. Then the bus ride began. Starting Act One I was sure I had read this before. It wasn’t just an inkling, like déjà vu often is, but an overpowering sensation. Of course I could tell what was going to happen—I’ve read Hamlet a time or two—but it was more than that. The sense that I had not long ago read this very sequence of words was nothing shy of overpowering. Uncanny even. As I moved into the latter part of the act, the feeling went away. This was new territory after all.

Consciousness is mysterious. Even with all our instruments and equations and theories, we still don’t know what it is. Materialists insist it must be simply a function of the brain, but that’s certainly not what it feels like. One of the hazards of reading a lot in middle age is that some things do start to blend together in your gray matter. Research, for example, means reading many books on the same subject with repeated ideas common among them. For fiction, however, we often hold a higher standard. Uniqueness and creativity are highly valued, even if the play you’re writing is a riff off the old Bard. In the end, I was able to finish the play in a day’s reading on the bus. Staring out the window after I’d finished, I was thinking how déjà vu can be quite disorienting.

Mediating Reality

The brain is one troubling organ. The gateway to both our thinking and our physical experience—as well as our survival—it tends to explain things in terms of narrative. Human consciousness likes a good story. Experiment after experiment has shown that if the brain doesn’t know why you do something it will make up an answer. Consciousness is far from foolproof. Those who rely too heavily on rationalism don’t like to think about such things. Logically, if your brain can fool you then you can’t believe everything evidence seems to verify. Think about that. If you dare.

Psychology has sometimes received a bad rap among the sciences for not having empirical evidence to back up some of its assertions. “Freudian” is now used as much as a slur as it is a sign of the sudden insight that strange things constantly go on inside our heads. BBC Future recently ran a story by Melissa Hogenboom titled, “The woman whose tumour made her religion deadly.” The account regards a woman who came to the hospital with serious self-inflicted wounds. Although hackneyed, the voices in her head told her to do this to herself. Brain scans indicated a tumor at the point in her brain where auditory information and religious belief come together. Paging Dr. Jaynes! Now, I know this is over-simplified. I’ve read enough neurology to know that brain functions can switch from one part of the brain to another and that mapping this kilo-and-a-half universe is one of the the most vexing of scientific enterprises. Still, in this case, the implications were clear: the woman’s self-destructive behavior was connected, in her brain, to religious commands.

Many educated people in this post-Christian world rely staunchly on reason. I don’t disagree that reason is essential. I do wonder, however, what happens when such thinking is forced to confront the fact of the irrational brain. Ever since setting our clocks forward I’ve been awaking in the midst of dreams. My usual sleep cycle hasn’t yet adjusted. I know some pretty strange stuff is going on in my brain when rationality’s taking a snooze. The other day I awoke convinced I was in my boyhood home. Rationality tells me it was razed years ago. Yet this brain with doctoral-level education was convinced it was in another state at another time. And this isn’t the result of a tumor, but normal sleeping brain functioning. It does make one wonder if putting too much faith into rationality isn’t a form of minor neurosis. To find out you have to ask a troubling organ and hope for a rational answer.

Addicted to Heaven

I once wrote a scene—please don’t look for it; it’s never been published—in which a character awakes after attending a concert the night before. In my own life this kind of thing is very, very rare. Even when I had a full-time job in the relatively inexpensive Midwest, shows in Milwaukee were a bit out of our range for regular consumption. Here on the East Coast you have to scrimp and save to pull it off once in an every great while. In the scene I wrote, the character awoke wondering why the world looked so different the morning after. I’ve been pondering that because of my own recent Broadway experience, and a realization came to me. Such events involve an altered state of consciousness.

For all of science’s dowdy physicalism, there are very few practitioners who’d deny that altered states of consciousness exist. Nearly everyone experiences them. Perhaps the most common form is the dream. We know it’s not real, but most of us have had one or two that we just can’t shake. Upon awaking, going to work, dealing with the drudgery of everyday, we come home still feeling as if the preceding daylight hours were somehow less than real. Shows, some movies, and meaningful music can all induce alternate states of consciousness. Perhaps rare these days, but so can religious services. Such states continue after the event ends, and cushion our harsh reentry to “reality” with pleasant reminders that there’s something better somewhere else. Historically these moments have been highly valued. More so than even money. They’re addictive.

Attempts to induce such alternate brain chemistry through drugs are now a national crisis. One draw of opioids is their ability to bring on such altered states of consciousness. Our experience informs us that such things must exist, and they are likely behind the very idea of Heaven itself. The cost for altered states of consciousness is, of course, daily life. As physical beings we could not and cannot survive in a perpetual state of bliss. What is truly sad is that physicalism has convinced many that such alternative states are “not real.” Materialism leads, so often, to misery. The tendrils of altered states, however, interweave themselves among the synapses of our gray matter, sparking just often enough to make us realize that yes, those transcendent moments were just as real—if not more real—than this illusory world we daily inhabit. My character, awaking the morning after, was learning something she already knew to be true. Even if it was only fiction.

Beam Me Where?

It’s kind of like the transporter dilemma on Star Trek. Where is the person/Vulcan/Klingon when their atoms are being disassociated in one location and reassembled in another? In the classic series, McCoy was never happy with the technology, and even today our doubts linger about what constitutes a person. The other day in a routine medical procedure, I underwent anesthesia. Lying there in the corridor, staring at the calmly themed over-head light colors (no, they actually were themed covers; the drip hadn’t started yet), I wondered where I was about to go. I’ve only had anesthesia once before that I can remember, and I recalled awaking suddenly from the most profound, dreamless sleep ever. It was very different from ordinary sleep. So where was my consciousness at the time?

We have no satisfactory answer to the question of what consciousness is, let alone where it is. Materialists would say, literally, it’s all in your head. Consciousness is a happy mixture of electro-chemical signals in a dull gray organ that’s busing churning out this illusion that Steve A. Wiggins is something more than, well, a mixture of electro-chemical signals. Those of us who’ve experienced enough to question such simple answers wonder a bit more deeply about it. What is consciousness? We’ve all had that feeling, I suppose, of awaking from a dream and being disoriented, even throughout the day at points, as to whether it was real or not. Or, alternatively, remembering something but not being sure if it “really happened” or might’ve been a dream. Ordinarily we recognize the difference between waking and dreaming consciousness, but sometimes the line is blurred.

My experience this time around was the same as last. One moment you’re talking to an anesthesiologist and the next you’re awaking from a completely blank state of mind, a little confused about where you are. You haven’t been in dreamland since there was nothing there. The exact mix of chemicals isn’t the same as when you fall asleep. For all intents and purposes, you are completely gone for that span of time. When I woke up I remembered the anesthesiologist and the watch he was wearing. His accent. His assuring me that the bubbles in the tube were okay. Between that moment and this, nothing. A complete blank. I went in hoping that I might explore alternate states of consciousness in those few disassociated moments, but that’s not how it happened. I think I’m ready to beam back aboard now, though. I trust my consciousness will follow my gray matter, even as I’m being beamed through the ether.

Trees, Please

One thing we know about nature is that we don’t know much about nature. We can be a pretty self-absorbed species. Peter Wohllenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees is a good corrective for that. When we’re young we’re taught the difference between plants and animals. What Wohllenben shows is that such differences are more a matter of degree than we realize. Trees move, but slowly. Their timescale can be vast, compared to our brief, get-rich-quick outlook on life. It has been demonstrated pretty clearly that trees communicate with one another. They help one another, and they can, in their dendritic way, think. They cooperate with fungi to maintain connections between their root systems. Trees might even have what we would call personalities, were they fortunate enough to have been born human.

In a little like a medieval fantasy world, Wohllenben is a German forest keeper. He knows trees and their ways intimately. The trick, of course, is that we have a difficult time seeing things in timeframes that exceed our own. There are living trees that are 9,000 years old. That’s before the Sumerians ever showed up to invent writing. In human eyes, a lot has happened since then. And although we don’t know how to define consciousness, we’re sure that it’s limited to our species alone. Grudgingly we may admit some “higher” animals to the club, but our predilection for conquest of our world would be sorely diminished had we not other creatures to dominate. Looking at the world through a sympathetic lens, however, the fact that we’ve evolved these traits from the common ancestor we have with the animals should tell us something. As Wohllenben points out, animals diverged from plants at some stage, but we do ultimately come from the same stock.

Even on a practical level, we can’t live without plants. No matter how gourmet our foodies may be, our nutrition cycle begins with plants photosynthesizing food from pure light. There is perhaps a danger in recognizing our kinship with trees too closely. We depend upon them for food, shelter, warmth, and the oxygen we breathe. We might be inclined, as Wohllenben notes, not to use them at all. The key word here, however, is exploitation. We evolved along with plants and other animals and we all rely on each other. We are all connected. We should care for those with whom we share the planet. Trees have a much longer view than we do. When the desires of one species set the terms for all the others, we soon feel the pain of the trees.

Self-Conscious

Cassini is no more. The Saturn-bound satellite was launched in 1997 when the earth was a very different place. As it’s four-year sell-by date passed, the little robot who could kept on snapping photos around the ringed giant and its moons. Remote controlled from three planets and an asteroid belt away, it was decided that the explorer had to be destroyed in Saturn’s thick atmosphere rather than contaminate one of the moons where life might someday be found. Yesterday the probe burned up on its way through Saturn’s perpetual cloud bank. This has led to many emotional tributes, even among scientists who believe Cassini was just a machine. It also shows us how little we really know about consciousness.

During the two decades that Cassini was in space, we’ve learned quite a bit about animal consciousness here on our own planet. Many are now finally becoming convinced that we share this strange quality we can’t even define with other biological entities. Well, at least the “higher” kind. And we can’t help but think that maybe our more intelligent machines possess it too. We treat them as if they’re alive and willful. That could be a case of our own consciousness projecting itself onto inanimate matter—that’s something consciousness is pretty good at too—but since we lack the ability to measure consciousness, we can’t know if it’s there or not. To hear the astronomers talk, we’re going to miss Cassini, a machine that outperformed expectations. Ironically, once we get machines off the earth they tend to do that, even without oil changes every 5000 miles.

Down here on earth we complicate consciousness with cash. Devising an elaborate economic system to demonstrate who can buy power in the White House and who can’t, we want to know who is more important than whom. It’s a simple metric. Bank accounts tell the truth, no matter what the level of consciousness—or even of sentience—that the account holder may have. And then we wonder why a nation that can send a satellite three planets away can’t even figure out that all races should be treated equally and fairly. Cassini was a collaborative effort. Different races, genders, and economic classes contributed to its remarkable voyage. Eyes around the country were moistened when its last image was projected to earth. We wisely decided to immolate our satellite before we could contaminate another world. Meanwhile on our own planet we’re barely conscious of what we continue to do.