Consciousness, Life and Separation

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The place of consciousness in the natural world is arguably the greatest mystery facing modern science. It is often claimed by anthropologists that, before organized religion, humans across time and space naturally tended towards animistic beliefs on this matter. Animist worldviews see consciousness as widespread in nature, and as being intimately related to the forces that animate the living world around us. This is a humbling perspective, where plants are our peers, and we appear in the minds of other animals. As creatures that evolved to fear death over everything else, however, our being consciously beheld by other creatures that may have intentions regarding us can be deeply unsettling, making us feel small and prey-like. When our collective thinking becomes dominated by fear, we may simply deny that this could possibly be the case and insist that we are the sole conscious species in existence. The idea of nature as an unconscious machine is less threatening than the idea of nature as an assembly of countless minds that might desire to devour you. This kind of thinking gives rise to a dualism between lowly, mechanical, unconscious nature and a dissociated conception of consciousness as being elevated above it. The fear of death associated with being a living organism can even push us into thinking of our individual consciousness as so fully decoupled from the material world that it might even survive the death of the body.

The true place of consciousness in our world presumably lies somewhere on this spectrum. On one extreme is the animistic perspective of consciousness as inherently tied up with the physical processes of the world around us, a worldview in which consciousness exists throughout the natural world. On the other extreme is the idea that consciousness is entirely separate from the physical world and belongs only to humans. Western thinking has traditionally positioned itself far over on the latter side. Nature has often been conceived of as brute and dumb, while we humans are believed to possess something elevated and divine that allows us to be more than our lowly material bodies–as a result, we are held to be categorically different from the rest of nature. In the past, this special something was held to be an immaterial soul, today it is held to be consciousness, or in the very least, a particularly refined version of consciousness. Before Galileo and Darwin, western thinkers used the mysteries of our place in the solar system and our relationship to other animals as refuges for this presumed human exceptionalism. Today, consciousness is its last holdout.

Consciousness is a perfect candidate for a natural phenomenon that can be irrationally claimed to belong only to us. Consciousness is inherently private and so our thinking about where it is found in nature can never be directly proven nor disproven. This leads to the problem of solipsism; you can never be certain that any being other than yourself is conscious. Most of us are willing to speculate that other humans are conscious, given the similarities between ourselves and other homo sapiens. Over the last few decades, convinced by the same logic, many philosophers and scientists are now willing to presume that the great apes are conscious. Often, the speculation doesn’t go much further than this–there is active debate in academic circles about whether cats and dogs have an inner life. All this is based on fallible intuitions, however. The only way to come to an agreement on how widespread consciousness is in the natural world is to have a convincing theoretical explanation as to how and why it arose in our universe. Without that, we are trapped in our intuitions, and they are often steeped in centuries old assumptions about human uniqueness.

In the Living Mirror Theory of consciousness, I argue that the thermodynamics of life holds the key to understanding the place of consciousness in that natural world. Our universe is characterised by a thermodynamic oneness, as everything tends towards increased entropy, roughly equivalent to disorder. As a result, all parts of our world ultimately blend together over time–what seem like separate objects can also be seen as temporary patterns in a greater whole. Living systems resist this tendency for the time that they are alive. They do so by asserting a boundary with the world around them that allows them to perpetuate their form over time. I argue that, in order to understand the place of consciousness in our universe, we must consider the organism not as a truly separate entity but as a pattern in a larger content, a process that makes an attempt at separation but is always coupled to the world around it.

The core idea of the living mirror theory is that, with the origins of life, the universe partially separated off from itself, thereby creating what we call organisms and their environments. The dance of this organism-environment complex around the organism’s boundary, be it the membrane of a cell or the skin of a human, perpetuates this temporary separation. The critical point is that the physics of this process entails inference, it requires the organism to attempt to know its environment in order to pull off the dance of survival. I argue that this link between the process of being as a living organism and the process of knowing the world around the system is the key to understanding the place of consciousness in our universe. According to the Living Mirror Theory, consciousness is held to be an intrinsic feature of the life process rather than of nervous systems and brains and is therefore found wherever there is life, from single cells, to plants, to us. This is a revival of the animistic perspective, in which we are one humble member of a vast ecological community of organisms that are as aware as we are, even if the contents of their minds may be unimaginably different.

Of course, the dance of separation that we call life must come to an end. However, while the individual consciousness of the organism can’t survive death, the fact of consciousness in the universe does. In this picture, it is not the case that there are truly separate organisms that eventually become conscious. Consciousness is found wherever there are lifeforms engaging in the dance of separation, it is a feature of our unfolding universe rather than of truly separate individuals. Consciousness can be seen to be like an array of spotlights, illuminating the world where they exist, but the light is coming from the play of the universe, not from the individual organism.

As consciousness is the bedrock of our minds and exists prior to our psychological sense of self, it is possible to glimpse that our true nature is this phenomenon that is found throughout space and time. Our true nature is something beyond the limited individual and is therefore something that will survive that individual’s death. Ironically, by recognizing consciousness as a phenomenon that is tied to life, a perspective that can trigger our primal fears of our individual experience coming to an end, we can be led to a perspective where death is no longer felt to be a problem. By identifying with the fact of consciousness itself, wherever it is found, we can come to feel that what is most essential to us really does survive our individual deaths.

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