by Mike Trites
For people who are not spiritual dualists, we have to eye matter a bit warily. Matter used to be pretty mundane stuff. It sat around and did more or less nothing until some spirit came along to make it think and move. Then the feeble matter would eventually wear out, and the spirit would move on, to be reincarnated, or find another plane of existence, or do whatever it is that spirits do. We now find that we live in a world where matter itself seems to pull itself upright and think on its own. It really is kind of unnerving sometimes. If you look closely at the mud, sometimes you find it wiggling, because it’s full of other bits of matter which is more or less just mud itself, but has decided for some reason to crawl around and be all movey and squirmy. And the same sort of matter which makes the mud and the creepy crawlies is exactly the same stuff which our brains are made out of, and there are no spirits living in our brain, which means that, somehow, inherent in the very nature of mud and dust and grime, is the ability to feel emotions, have conscious thoughts, and think about stuff.
The world isn’t inhabited by spirits; the world is made out of some type of weird goo which might become a human soul for a short period of time before turning back into mud. If you dip your hand into a golden pond at sunset, the ripples you make upset the reflection, and when you draw your hand out and a bit of reality still clings wetly to your fingers before dripping down to rejoin the shimmering pool, all of that strangeness and beauty is just… there, in front of you, a part of the world that you live in, not some other. When we banished our spirits, it became obvious that our world was inherently more fantastic than we had previously ever imagined, and we started to wonder whether we should join a commune or something.
In short, we live in a world where matter can think and have feelings. As far as we know, it does most of its thinking inside of heads, and does something similar in computers. If we looked though, we could probably find it doing a number of thinking-like activities elsewhere. Just as there are varying degrees of ways in which matter could be said to be alive, there are probably varying degrees of thought available to matter, various properties of thought which can be found elsewhere in nature. You can see that soap bubbles, simply by following their inherent nature, form stable shapes which keep them from collapsing. Stones mostly tend to fall into a certain variety of shapes, because those shapes are the ones which are most likely to stay intact; seldom will you see a stone shaped like a U, though the world is full of kidney stones. Crystals form self replicating structures. Viruses do so with greater elegance, DNA molecules build organisms to inhabit, and pale fire consumes. Galaxies, solar systems, and atoms all fall into predictable structures because there is a general principle of natural selection which penalizes them when they don’t.
We see in these natural phenomena reflections of the basic properties of life, though it’s usually agreed that these things are either nonliving or are very basic forms of life. In the same way, we can see intimations of the properties of mortal thought in parts of reality which are not confined to animal skulls or silicon chips. A brain is a physical object which thinks, more or less because it’s throwing electrons down a path of neural circuitry. This is a very physical process. But the basic properties that allow this to happen are not limited to human brains. We think of tree branches as single objects because when we pick one end up, the other end comes with it. It doesn’t fall into little tiny pieces, as if we had tried to pick up a pile of sand, because the information from your hand that picks the branch up is sent through a series of electrical connections among the molecules within the tree branch. This is, of course, not deliberate, or by any means the same thing as thinking, but it’s this basic property of existence which allows human brains to operate. When we perceive something, our brains create a pattern of electrical impulses in its own neural language which is isomorphic to the pattern of what it is that we’re perceiving; if we see a vase, our brain makes a little model of a vase inside itself using abstract language. In a similar way, when you walk down a sandy beach, you leave footprints which match the shape of your feet.
Consider the Uropyia meticulodina moth (see photo). The moth is a leaf mimic, taking on the appearance of dead leaves. But the wings of the moth don’t curl: the curling effect, the veins of the leaf, the frayed edges, and even the highlights and shadows, are all just images created by the coloring of the moth’s body. There is an isomorphism here between the image of a leaf created by a moth, and the image of a leaf which is created in the brains of the organisms which the moth is fooling. Consider what sort of process was involved in making this image! It’s interesting in that, in some ways, the process takes place within the brains of whatever organisms the moth is tricking. The moth is creating an image that isn’t specifically designed to match a leaf, but to match the image of a leaf which exists in the minds of other organisms. If it were actually “trying” to mimic a leaf, it would have physically bent its wings and grown physical stems and veins. That’s what leaves are like. But because what it is actually replicating is the image of a leaf, it’s grown a flat surface colored by mothsome pigments to manipulate the visual systems of thinking or semi-thinking creatures. What we have is an isomorphism of an isomorphism; a reflection of a reflection. And just as the original reflection was drawn from reality to be encoded in the neural workings of a brain, the reflected reflection is drawn from the minds of others to create an image encoded in pigment and color. There is something resembling the properties of thought here, without needing to say that the moth or natural selection are “thinking,” and certainly without having to invoke spirits and specters.
These aren’t refutations of science or naturalism. On the contrary, these types of things are exactly what you would expect to find if consciousness were a natural phenomena occurring within the boundaries of naturalism. Once we realize that nature has the ability to be self aware, does that mean it’s open game for ghosts, ghouls, and gods? Is there a cosmic consciousness which imparts itself to all thinking creatures? Within dualism, there’s either no way to answer those questions, nor a way to escape from them if they provide negative answers. You can always say that God wasn’t there that morning, off in heaven, or that souls are “ineffable” and not subject to reason or material experimentation. But because consciousness is a natural phenomenon, we can ask cogent questions about what it is and where we can find it. And this is much more interesting. It’s more than interesting, it’s exhilarating!
Imagine, once we have understood the properties of consciousness, the existence or non-existence of cosmic entities becomes a matter of serious scientific inquiry. Are there consciousnesses in other parts of the Cosmos? Within the realm of naturalism, that’s a question we can actually expect rational answers to, and that makes it much more exciting than imagining that whatever consciousness is out there, it’s infinitely beyond our reach. We don’t have to pray to God. We can touch his face by clasping our hands and feeling our own flesh. Reality isn’t beyond us, reality is all around us, and we can feel it when we dip our hand in a pond or when we pick up a bag of groceries. Whatever “cosmic truths” there are, they reside in the dust of the world and in the bendy freak which we call space-time. Mysticism is not required. You can reach out your hand.
The way to react to this understanding of consciousness as an integral part of nature is not to break out the incense. Closing our eyes and dreaming of other dimensions and other planes is not a spiritual activity any more. There are certainly many good things to be said about meditation, but in a naturalistic world, there’s no reason to think that it will put you in contact with wandering spirits or other realms of reality. Our research has consistently shown that the benefits of spiritual activity happen within the mind, that is, within the material plane we all inhabit. Realizing that consciousness is a physical phenomenon and that matter is inherently potentially conscious awakens us to a world where the only way to interact with other beings, human or otherwise, is to open our eyes and look around us. Our third eye will only deceive us here.
However, realizing that matter itself can become aware goes a ways in keeping us from viewing science as a means to a cold, dead, and empty Universe. Televisions programs like Cosmos show us a side of the Universe as revealed by science, which is mysterious and beautiful; grand images of galaxies, panoramas of the clouds of Jupiter, and landscapes in the event horizons of black holes. But there’s a tendency among skeptics of skepticism and people of faith to think that those are just gimmicks pulled out of Carl Sagan’s hat to trick the faithful into accepting a dreary and prosaic world. That those poetic words and images are just a coat of paint slapped on an old bucket of bolts by a disingenuous salesman. But what naturalism does, rather than robbing humanity of its nobility by putting it in the same category as everything else in the Universe, is to ennoble the Universe by demonstrating the awesome versatility of physical substance, which may shine in stars for billions of years before becoming a planet, and then wake up and make eggs for breakfast.
I don’t know what souls are made of, but it can’t possibly be anything more miraculous than the matter we encounter in our everyday lives. Think of the various things that star stuff can do, unaided by soul stuff. If you place an object in midair, rather than floating mundanely in place, it will magically fly through the air until it collides with the planet Earth. To this day, nobody is sure exactly why this happens. If you give it too much energy, it will destroy itself in a fusion reaction and create a nuclear explosion. If you wire it into a Beethoven, it will write a symphony. If you transfuse it into a Shakespeare, it will write a play. Tickle it with antimatter and it will get mad at you. It is fire, it is death, it is life, it is a hurricane. Souls zero, matter ten million.
If souls did exist, in what way would that clear up the problem of consciousness anyway? If we say that there is some spiritual substance which is needed in order for consciousness to occur, in what way does that give us an explanation for why thinking is possible? All it does is hide the question, put it in a place where we can’t see it so it doesn’t bother us. Whatever souls are, they would have to be made out of some substance too, call it spiritual or what you will, but they would have their own laws and regulations which would guide their behavior. If you’re afraid that naturalism means that human beings are subject to some sort of demeaning physical law, then how does spiritualism escape such a law? It only ignores it. And how do natural laws really bind us anyway? We are ourselves forces of nature and expressions of her laws; anything we do, it was in our nature to do. Any intentions we imagine but can’t live up to have only proven to be misplaced intentions. The laws of nature are only binding because they mean that everything must do exactly what it would do by its own nature anyway.
Love, hate, fear, despair, and joy are all lying hidden, untapped, in the dust on the street and in the dust between the stars. You may see it as a person waiting to happen, or the raw substance of mind strewn and scattered like ash, but mundane it is not. Consciousness is, as the new agers profess, woven into the fabric of reality. But there are no magic crystals or rituals which will reveal it it to you. If you want to find it, you’ll have to go out and look.
Michael Trites was carved from an oak tree and aspires one day to become a real boy. His original intention was to take Hitler’s advice and wait until the age of thirty before making any public philosophical statements, but he came across Scientia Salon and thought, “what the heck.” You can read more of his ill-advised public statements at Fracolyte.
Acknowledgments: I first came across the idea of soap bubbles as a demonstration of life principles in non-living systems in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. A few references are made to Carl Sagan, including the use of his phrase, “star stuff.” It might be obvious to you that I’ve read, Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter. I discovered the uropyia meticulodina moth in The New England Journal of CRACKED.com. Several other works of literature were alluded to in passing.