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? Let me just say, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. With that disclaimer in place, I’ll proceed…
First, let’s consider plants. When learning biology 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 animal brothers and sisters. I imagine few will take kindly to leveling life’s playing field quite this much. Nevertheless, truth will out.
What does “seat of consciousness” really mean? We need to wonder what consciousness is in the first place. I did that a little in a previous post (see Is Rock Conscious), so I won’t prattle on about that, per se. Instead, I’ll tackle this issue from another angle beginning with excerpts from a Science News report that inspired this post.
Enriched with Information
Science News came to my rescue vis-à-vis previous post, Is Rock Conscious. Recently, they ran the series on, Demystifying the Mind, which reviews the latest research into consciousness. These excerpts are from the last article in the series, Enriched with Information, which speak somewhat to what I have to say on this.
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.
Where does one draw the line when it comes to “consciousness”?
Doctors once assumed that babies lacked consciousness and so required no anesthetic during circumcision. Similarly, people used to discount the extent of consciousness in animals. I’ve framed these two examples as old-fashioned notions, but I know many people still believe that true consciousness is a consequence of thought, which leaves babies and animals not particularly conscious.
In fact, a few years ago a friend and I were discussing quantum physics with a highly regarded UCSC physics professor. In particular, we were delving into the nature of quantum non-locality, which suggests to some people the universality of consciousness. He strongly disagreed with linking quantum non-locality to consciousness, yet when pressed, he would not reveal how he defined consciousness. After a few hours, he finally admitted that he believed the ability to think — cognition— was a prerequisite of consciousness!
This professor’s views correspond to psychologist’s Julian Jaynes definition of consciousness. Jaynes believed that ‘ancient’ humans before roughly 1200 BC were not reflectively meta-conscious and operated by means of automatic, non-conscious habit-schemas. This is all quite ludicrious beginning with referring to 1200 BC as ancient. See these post: Just How Big Is The Gap?; Hunger: A Natural Stimulant; It’s Time We Changed Our Name; Don’t trust anyone under 60; Why Man is King)
This movable line of consciousness we draw is simply a symptom of rationalized self-interest. Ironically, what we define as consciousness is more a projection of the narrowness of our own consciousness — our ignorance. We draw the line of distinction where we want, which allows us to get away with ‘murder’, so to speak. We feel justified wanting to have it both ways as we slide comfortably and unconsciously into hypocrisy. Chapter 18 is blunt. As D.C. Lau translated it, When cleverness emerges there is great hypocrisy. Put more literally, When intelligence increases, there is great falseness.
The natural fact is that dying pays for living. Creation and destruction go hand in hand. Chapter 2 puts it plainly; 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 that to which we are fond. This is favoritism. As D.C. Lau translates chapter 79, It is the way of heaven to show no favoritism. Alternatively, 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 no problem with people favoring ‘this’ or ‘that’; life would be impossible without preferences. However, justifying such biases through self-serving idealism only adds to our hypocrisy and sorrow. Self-honesty is the better policy.
Indulging in self-serving favoritism always leaves me with a bad taste. Conversely, striving for self-honesty and balance leaves me with a sense of integrity for every step I take in that direction. An example of this goes like this: “If you want to eat living things, you need to experience the killing of living things, particularly that which you eat”. Now, circumstance or personal feelings will seldom match this balance-ideal, but at least one can cognitively own up to this in principle.
“Seat of consciousness”
The ‘seat of consciousness’ issue raised in the email at the top of this post is not truly a Taoist concern in my view, but more Hindu and Buddhist. In other words, a Taoist would eat anything, albeit with some interest in what is healthful. 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 balanced, ‘natural’, or healthful.
Naturally enough, I say every living thing has a “seat of consciousness”… it is just a matter of degree according to where you draw the line vis-à-vis neurological complexity. Similarity not difference defines the core Taoist outlook. As chapter 56 puts it…
For this reason,
Unobtainable and intimate,
Unobtainable and distant
Unobtainable and favorable
Unobtainable and fearful
Unobtainable and noble
Unobtainable and humble
For this reason all under heaven value it.
The practice of drawing lines separating ‘this’ from ‘that’ is a clever rationalization. We excel at this and it accounts for our hypocrisy. No animal imaginatively toys with reality as we do. We only end up fooling ourselves in our quest to have it both ways. Chapter 18 hints at this particularly human problem, When intelligence increases, there exists great falseness. We equate intelligence with consciousness for the most part. Of what does this actually make us conscious? I suspect we end up being conscious of the ‘intelligent’ projections of our own self-interest! Drawing lines of distinction feels quite silly in the long run.
In the end, need and fear pull the strings
The last paragraph in the Science News report stands out…
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 property.”
I vote for this unorthodox view! Seen this way, all is consciousness. It is merely our needs and fears that cause and give direction to our behavior — favoritism. It is merely our ability to think that allows us to rationalize those biases in our favor — hypocrasy. It is just nature’s way of stirring the pot. No big deal, although it helps greatly to realize what is happening!