Lastly, from reading Lau Tzu and Chuang Tzu, do you agree that it would seem that they would likely favor vegetarianism? I am becoming vegetarian myself, but it seems that eating clams and mussels might be possible, because they have no brain, and thus no “seat of consciousness.” Thus they are like plants. Thoughts?
Do I have thoughts? Does a bear poop in the woods? Why else would I be so vocal on the problematic aspect of thinking? After all, Realizing I don’t know is superior, not knowing this realization is a defect. Or as D.C. Lau more elegantly put it, To know yet to think that one does not know is best; Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty. With that disclaimer in place, I’ll proceed…
Let’s consider plants first. When teaching (studying) biology to (with) my home schooled son I learned that all plants and animals have the same basic cell type—the eukaryote cell. Wow! Electron microscopy was not around when I first studied biology. Seen through the eye of profound sameness, we are brothers and sisters to our plant and other animal brothers and sisters. Now, I imagine few will take kindly to leveling life’s playing field quite this much. Nevertheless, truth will out.
So what does “seat of consciousness” really mean? No, wait, first we need to wonder what consciousness is in the first place. I did that a little in my post, Is Rock Conscious, so I won’t prattle on about that per se. Instead, I’ll tackle this issue from another angle.
Where does one draw the line when it comes to “consciousness”?
Consider these examples: In the past many white people thought that black people had inferior consciousness. Some doctors, even today, think that babies lacked consciousness and so required no anesthetic during circumcision. Well that’s obvious, right? Babies (and animals) lack consciousness because they don’t speak. Ah, but I’ve saved the best example for last. When pressed, a highly regarded UCSC physicist with whom I was discussing quantum physics finally admitted that he believed thought was a prerequisite of consciousness. This corresponds to Julian Jaynes definition of consciousness. For example, Jaynes wrote that ancient humans before roughly 1200 BC were not reflectively meta-conscious and operated by means of automatic, nonconscious habit-schemas. Obviously he had no experience of the Taoist mind, for which an oral tradition must extend easily back that far… if not back to the beginnings of thought itself! Neither does he seem to have any appreciation of the world view underlying the Bhagavad Gita and Buddhism.
This movable line of “consciousness” we draw is simply a symptom of rationalized self-interest. Ironically, what we define as consciousness is merely a projection of the limits of our own consciousness. We draw the line in this and other areas where we want so we can get away with ‘murder’. This paves the way for having it both ways as we slide comfortably into hypocrisy. Yep, as D.C. Lau put translated it, When cleverness emerges there is great hypocrisy, and we are nothing if not clever. Put more literally, When intelligence increase, there is great falseness.
The stark fact is that living is paid for by dying. Creation and destruction go hand in hand (i.e., Hence existence and nothing give birth to each other). Simply put, all living things ‘murder’ (destroy, kill, use, exploit) other living things. Any resistance to that natural process is a result of projecting our own personal self-interest onto to that to which we are partial. This is favoritism, and as D.C. Lau put it, It is the way of heaven to show no favoritism. Or, as in chapter 50, Of people, aroused by life, in death trapped, also three in ten. Why is this so? Because they favor life. Now, I have not problem with people favoring ‘this’ or ‘that’; life would be impossible without preferences. However, justifying our biases through self righteous idealism only make for more sorrow. It is really self-honesty that is the best policy.
Giving in to self righteous favoritism always leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. On the other hand, striving for self-honesty and balance leaves me with a deeper sense of integrity for every step I take in that direction. Balance in this situation speaks something like this to me, “If you want to eat living things, you need to experience the killing of living things, particularly that which you eat”. Now, opportunity (circumstance) or personal feelings will seldom match this balance-ideal, but at least one can cognitively own up to what is ‘going down’ in principle. Sure, as the bible says, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. I don’t know how the Christian spirit manages with this short-fall, but the Taoist spirit manages just fine—integrity is maintained, not through perfection but through self-honesty. At least that is my experience.
“Seat of consciousness”
“Seat of consciousness” issues are not really Taoist in my view, but rather more Hindu and Buddhist. In other words, a Taoist would eat anything, albeit with some interest in what is healthful… but not obsessively so. We are biologically omnivores so any issues with eating meat would be about quantity and quality. Stuffing one’s face with meat every day would not be natural, nor healthful. Anyone who eats meat should, to be natural about it, have experienced hunt and killing game, or at least killing something with a “seat of consciousness” and eating it. Oh, and I’d say every living thing has a “seat of consciousness”… it is just a matter of degree, where you draw the line regards to neurological complexity.
The ideal of “profound sameness” is at the core of Taoist perception. The practice of separating this from that is a clever bit of rationalization, which humans excel at and that create our profound hypocrisy. I know of no animal that skirts around reality in a human like cognitive fog of hypocrisy, wanting to have it both ways. This has got to be one of humanity’s darkest blind spots. Of what are we actually conscious? Not only do we see only a projection of our own self-interest, just like any other animal, how would it be possible to see anything more? Via our superior “seat of consciousness” you say? 😉
Enriched with Information
Science News helps come to my rescue vis-à-vis this and my previous post, Is Rock Conscious! Recently, they ran the series on, Demystifying the Mind, which reviews the latest research into consciousness. I’ll excerpt bits and pieces from the last article in the series, Enriched with Information, which speak somewhat to what I’ve been saying above.
As a scientist, Giulio Tononi’s goal is as lofty as it gets: He wants to understand how the brain generates consciousness. Tononi’s idea, though, extends beyond humans. By moving from nerve cells to the math that describes them, he has untethered the theory of consciousness from the physical brain. Like amorphous Silly Putty, the equations can be molded to fit any system. With the right calculations, scientists could test whether a tornado with its innumerable dust particles circling in unison, 2050’s iPhone or the trillions of megabytes of information zooming around the Internet could have some degree of consciousness.
If Tononi is right, and integrated information actually is consciousness, then consciousness itself is no longer restricted to the inside of a head. As long as it has the right informational specs, any system, whether it’s made of nerve cells, silicon chips or light beams, could possess consciousness.
Such a realization alters the consciousness conversation. In a world full of objects that can move information around quickly — an octopus’s brain, a tree’s root system, the Internet — the discussion of whether an entity is conscious may lose its meaning. Instead, the question becomes, “How conscious is it?” Small systems with just a few bits of information may have a tiny sliver of consciousness, while large systems such as human brains have a whopping helping.
Because of its clarity, this informational intuition has resonated with other researchers, inspiring a new way to see the consciousness problem. “This insight was very important to me,” says Anil Seth of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. “I thought, there’s something right about all this.”
Seth believes the mathematical language of consciousness offers interesting descriptions but stops short of saying that integrated information is actually the thing itself. “The only systems that we know of in the universe that generate consciousness are biological,” he says.
Others have more unorthodox ideas. Koch says he might be wrong, but he believes that consciousness, like an electron’s charge, is something inherent in the fabric of reality that gives shape, structure and meaning to the world. “Consciousness is not an emergent feature of the universe,” he says. “It’s a fundamental propery.”
I vote for the unorthodox view! Seen this way, all is consciousness. It is merely our needs and fears that cause and give direction to our favoritism’s and simply the ability to think that cause the hypocrisies. It is just nature’s way of stirring the pot. No big deal.