Consciousness Times Eight

SoulOctopusPerhaps the characteristic that marks our species most distinctly is its arrogance. Conscious of who we are (we think) we stake the claim for minds for ourselves alone while all the evidence points away from that very conclusion. Naturalists are castigated for “anthropomorphizing” animals by stating that they have consciousness too, or—oh the heresy!—personality. Any of us who’ve spent time with two or more of the same non-human species, however, know that personality is a given. Animals think and feel and, yes, act on their own view of the world. I have to admit I fell in love with Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. I’ve read animal books from my youngest days, but finding an author so forthright about the feeling of getting to know another species is rare. And I learned tentacles full of information about octopuses. I had already known that octopuses are intelligent—I hadn’t realized just how smart—but since my interactions have only been with sleeping cephalopods on the opposite sides of aquaria glass, I had little to go by.

Throughout her charming book, even if the evidence is anecdotal, Montgomery reveals the personalities of the octopuses she got to know at the New England Aquarium. The reader can be left with no doubt that these are animals with personality, different from one another and strikingly conscious. We can’t define what consciousness is, but I tend to agree with Montgomery that it is what many people call “soul.” She admits that her religious tradition would likely frown upon her willingness to share such a valued commodity with an animal—an invertebrate, no less—but surely she is right. Many, if not all, animals have a form of consciousness. Heaven will be a much more interesting place for it.

Please don’t confuse my enthusiasm with sentimentalism. Those of you who regularly read this blog will know that books on animal intelligence by a variety of scientists make up a steady part of my literary diet. Biology, however, often has a difficult time in a world where physics and chemistry are treated with reductionistic glee. I was strangely satisfied when Montgomery mentioned that Stephen Hawking signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness which proclaims humans alone are not the guardians of this phenomenon we don’t even understand. The Soul of an Octopus was one of those books that I couldn’t wait to keep reading, even if it meant being on my long commute each day. And I can’t help but think of how much intelligence we squander by claiming that only our own kind possesses it.

Minding Souls

The mind, despite nay-sayers, is real. It isn’t an illusion. Emergent phenomena are often larger than the sum of their parts. One of the problems with the non-physical is that we can’t parse it precisely. “Mind” may be called “soul” may be called “personality” may be called “spirit.” You get the picture. Many scientists would answer “none of the above” to the question of which of these exist. Other scientists, not on the fringe, are beginning to see that the answers aren’t quite so simple. A recent piece in the mainstream Washington Post, dares to say what we all feel. Or at least many of us feel. There are realities that religions have recognized for millennia, that demonstrate the existence of the non-corporeal. “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession,” an article by Richard Gallagher, is worth reading. Gallagher, with a hat-trick of Ivy League-awarded degrees, believes in demons. They’re rare, of course, he says, but real.

The standard story—in large part correct—is that ancients misdiagnosed epilepsy and some forms of mental illness as demons. Undoubtedly their standard threshold was too low. Occasionally, however, they may have been right. Unlike what we’re sometimes told, the ancients recognized at least some mental illness when they saw it. There were non-functional people then, and while some may have blamed demons, others saw them as people who don’t think like the rest of society. Then there were the possessed. As Gallagher notes, humans with superhuman strength, speaking languages they never learned, and yes, even levitating, have been witnessed by credible viewers. Very rare, yes. But also very real.

Despite the need that many feel for freedom, we are, as a species, fond of laws. We want to know the rules and we’re quick to call out those we catch cheating. We’re so fond of laws that we apply them to nature and claim that natural laws can never be broken. Well, at least not above the quantum level. A friend shared that this concept of applying legal language to nature is a fairly recent development in human thought. The idea of a law, however, requires someone to oversee and enforce it. One of the subtleties here is that any enforcement that takes place requires a measure of value, and value, as much as we all treasure it, simply can’t be quantified. Is gold more valuable than silver? It depends. The value comes in assessing its usefulness. Laws separate good behavior from bad behavior. And, if many credible people are to be believed, the behavior of mind sometimes defies the laws of nature.


Grin and Bear It

The dentist’s chair is about the last place I’d like to spend my Saturdays, but given my work schedule there are few alternatives. So there I was yesterday, yellow light glaring in my eyes, drill whirring ebulliently away, and finally gagging embarrassingly into the tiny sink at my right. Those back teeth come in handy for grinding, but they are poorly designed for brushing. I find the dentist’s office a good place for philosophical thought. In that chair where I’d rather not be, feeling sensations I’d rather not feel, I wonder in what sense my body is my own. Lately I’ve been contemplating this quite a bit. Consciousness seems attracted to a single body at a time, but the biological organism I call me doesn’t always have a say in where it is slated to go, or what it is free to do. Each job I have taken has come as an “only offer”—I’m not one of those over whom bidding wars are likely to erupt. That crown that popped off my tooth wasn’t really my doing, nor was the memorable root canal that led to it being there in the first place. Still, here I am.

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Religions regularly teach that overcoming physical limitations is one of the perks of paying attention to your soul. I suspect parsing soul, consciousness, mind, and psyche is to slice this entity I call “me” a bit too thin. Whatever all or any of this is, having x-rays shot through it while the assistant hides behind the wall, it is hopefully made of sterner stuff than the teeth nature has given it. One hopes that this can’t be all to expect out of our existence. Life, if only our physical years, is too short to spend much of it in the dentist’s chair.

I’m not sure I like dentists knowing more about this body than me. Is it mine at all? I recall the exasperated call for a tongue blocker in a Wisconsin dentist office and the tooth-meister proclaimed, as if I weren’t in the room, “he has a curious tongue.” I don’t intend for my tongue to be curious, but it always seems to wonder about what finds its way into my mouth. Is it me? Is it mine? The consciousness always seems to come back to this body that does things I can’t control. These thoughts come on a sleepy Saturday morning when I should, by all rights, still be in bed. That is, if I’m indeed the one who wakes up in this body yet again today. And whichever body it may be, if it is mine, I know I brushed its teeth before going to sleep, as I have for as long as I can remember. And yet the drill whirs on.

And With Thy Spirit

BenvenutiI grew up with pets. In a house with three boys, an aging mother, and no husband, my mother seemed to know instinctively that animals were a way to engage children. She herself had grown up with animals, although not really from a farming family. Living with animals leads to conclusions scientists fear to make. That’s one reason I find Anne Benvenuti’s Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations so important. Not only do animals remind us of who we are, they are who we are. Benvenuti has the scientific credentials to make her case, although, I have to admit, her anecdotes of interactions with animals were my favorite part of the book. We may be told that animals don’t think or feel. Nature, however, proves that wrong for anyone who actually pays attention to animals. Unfortunately, humans are often the bullies of the planet just because our animal brains developed the way they did and our thumbs migrated to a position where we could easily manipulate objects. It’s time to bring animals up to the table with us.

For years I have suggested to my students that animal behavior has the rudiments of what we call religion. I’ve always felt like a voice calling in the wilderness here since both proponents of and opponents to religion think it is uniquely human. Again, the evidence suggests otherwise, but human knowledge often comes at the cost of evidence. It is refreshing to read a book—perhaps the first I ever have—that makes this idea plausible. The “spirit” of Benvenuti’s title is literal, in a sense. She argues forcefully that animals have souls and with this I would agree. The main problem is that we can’t quantify souls and therefore we don’t really know what they are. We know one, however, when we feel one. I’m not sure they’re much different than minds, or maybe they’re the feeling side of the thinking mind. Whatever they are, we are not the only animals to have them.

I’m convinced that one of the reasons we don’t like to admit animal souls (or animal religion) is that such belief ratchets up accountability. Stockyards start to become detainment camps for innocently condemned creatures. If we dare address the moral issue, we have to ask what gives us the right. To kill for food is natural (although I’m happily vegetarian) but to keep animals in miserable conditions their entire lives and then heartlessly kill them and process them as if they were mere objects is immoral. As Benvenuti notes, even farmers who spend time with their animals know they have personalities. Spirit Unleashed is a book full of wonder and awe. Not so much at human superiority, but rather at how much animals really are like us. How they communicate with us if we’ll listen. And how we all have, even if we can’t define the word, souls.

Private Religion

Some things are best left private. I don’t know what possessed me to request a car maintenance visit first thing in the morning on a Saturday. I mean, the dealership is a 45-minute drive, and there are few places less inspiring than an automotive waiting room. The coffee is weak and tepid. Usually the television’s blaring some nonsense, and even before eight on a Saturday morning there are plenty of other people around. But there’s free wifi. Well, not exactly free when I get a glimpse at the bill. So I think perhaps I can write a blog post while I’m waiting. How do you write about religion with people watching? It’s the bashful bladder of the soul. Back in my Nashotah House days, when I was required to preach, I couldn’t write a sermon with wife or daughter in the room. I couldn’t practice it in front of family. For some things, you just need to be alone.

So, as I’m trying to write this innocuous little homily, someone pulls up next to me on the single table in the waiting room. It’s like standing at a row of exposed urinals. Trying not to be obvious, I turn my screen a little more in my direction, and less in his. Still, there are people sitting behind me and who says that the sense of being stared at is a myth? Although communal worship is often a public event, at least in a crowd of like-minded believers, the experience of the divine, however defined, is deeply personal. It seems that there’s only one soul per customer. We don’t know what a soul is, but it shouldn’t feel lonely, because we don’t know what consciousness is either. Still, trying to perform here is trickier than I’d imagined. I might just have to finish this at home.

photo-19 copyIt used to be a truism that two topics are not for public discussion: religion and politics. Such fightin’ words only lead to tears and wars. The magazine rack next to me is insipid with Sports Illustrated, Bowhunting, and AutoSuccess for the guys, Real Weddings, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart Weddings for the ladies. The only book I brought has an overtly religious title. What was I thinking? Next time maybe I’ll bring Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I climb into the newly serviced car to drive home. Are those docile bubble lights on the car behind me? I’m still being watched. All the way I never even touch 55, because driving is one of those situations where non posse non peccare truly does apply. When the cruiser finally turns off, I read New Jersey State Park Police on the side of the car. Some thoughts, like religion, are best left private.

Robotics FIRST


I knew it! It was right there on the cover of Wired magazine. “The Robots Take Over.” And it is also the very day of the FIRST Robotics kickoff, the day when Dean Kamen and his team announce to thousands of high school kids, teachers, engineers, and interested parents, what the 2013 FIRST robotics competition will be, spurring us into six frenzied weeks of designing, planning, and building a robot to take to competitions. First Atlanta, then the world! It must’ve been their plan all along.

The article in Wired, by Kevin Kelly, does have hints of cheekiness throughout, but for the most part is on target. How many of us already use computers or some kind of robotic devices to complete our jobs? Kelly points to the inevitable: robots can do it better. The upside is that when robots take away jobs they create new ones, like Charlie Bucket’s dad getting a job repairing the robot arm that took his job away at the toothpaste factory. If you don’t want a tech job, too bad. That’s what the new definition of work is becoming, since labor is already being taken over by robots. Those who can look far enough ahead can see robots doing, as Kelly puts it, any job. What makes this sound apocalyptic to me is the fact that we, as a society, undervalue education. What will the undereducated do? Their jobs are the first to go. I feel the tremors of a revolution that hasn’t even started yet. People need something to do.

It is apparently without irony that Kelly suggests that any job people do, including in the service industry, can be done by robots. I am an editor. A robot may be able to find grammatical errors (Word and Pages already do this), but they can’t capture the soul of a writer. We write for the enjoyment of other people who experience being people in the same way that we do. There is an inherent arrogance in the Artificial Intelligence movement that believes (yes, it is a belief) that intelligence and mind are the same thing. There is no room for a soul in this machine. Many biologists would agree: we’ve looked, no soul. But even biologists know that they’ve got an identity, aspirations, contradictions, and emotions. It is the unique blend of these things that make, what we can for convenience call, the soul. There are entire industries built around the care for that soul.

Many scientists are still betting on the end of religion, the ultimate repository of those who believe they have souls. Religion, however, is not going away. When we see robot psychiatrists, robot social workers, robot clergy, robot writers and artists, and robot Popes, we’ll know the apocalypse has truly transpired.

Shaman on Us

My reading habits are unorthodox. I don’t follow a fixed plan, but hope for something that will keep me engaged for the fifteen or so hours I spend commuting each week. I began October with a book about werewolves and followed it up with a book on the Hmong. Apropos of neither and both, I turned next to Shamanism: An Introduction, by Margaret Stutley. While not the best organized book, it does provide a smorgasbord of shamanistic traditions, principally from Siberia, where Shamanism was first recognized. Before I’d finished, I’d read about both epilepsy and werewolves.

Shamanism is not a “religion” per se. There is little agreement among scholars about what a religion is at all. Shamanism is very much a local set of beliefs and practices that have only very basic elements in common (shamans being one of them). It is a good example, however, of how moral heathens can be. Shamans often accompany egalitarian societies who do not require governments and religious leaders telling them to be nice to each other. No, this is not the noble savage myth, but it is a clear indication that major religions are not required for morality. It evolves on its own. Often shamanism is not constrained by overly left-brain influence, and sees connections science can only deny. The plight of Lia Lee was explained here in a way physicians could access—epilepsy and other diseases are problems of the soul as much as the body—if only they read books about religion. Healing involves calling the soul back. Treatment of the body misses the point. And sometimes the dead become werewolves.

We live in a world where real suffering is caused by lack of understanding about religion. Assuming a cultural hegemony of Christianity, or Islam, and sometimes even other religions, we discount those who believe differently than we do. The New Atheists frequently overlook just how seriously people take the world of the emotions and belief. That realm is a large part of what makes us human and it plays by no logical rules. Nor does it care to. In a country, such as the United States, where money is believed to be the very warp and woof of the good life, shamans sometimes secretly cut the thread. Still, don’t ask universities to expand the study of something as insignificant as religion because all intelligent people know that nobody really believes that stuff any more.