I recently received a kind email from someone who ended with this:
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? First let me say, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. With that disclaimer in place, I’ll proceed…
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! Did they teach me that in high school? Even if they had, I’m certain I would not have seen the significance. However, seen through my old mind’s eye now, it is clear we are brothers and sisters to our plant and animal kin. This is an obvious example of chapter 56’s profound sameness. Of course, this is antithetical to anybody who needs to see our species superior. Nevertheless, truth will out.
What does “seat of consciousness” really mean? We need to consider what consciousness is in the first place. I did that thoroughly in a previous post (see Is Rock Conscious, p.212) so I needn’t revisit that here. 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 the previous post, Is Rock Conscious. Their series, Demystifying the Mind, reviews the latest research into consciousness. These excerpts are from the last article in the series, Enriched with Information, which aligns with what I have to say on this. (Google [Consciousness: here, there and everywhere?].)
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 consider true consciousness is a direct 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 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 wouldn’t 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 ludicrous beginning with referring to 1200 BC as ancient. See: Just How Big Is The Gap?, p.56; Hunger: A Natural Stimulant, p.96; It’s Time We Changed Our Name, p.187; Don’t trust anyone under 60, p.193; Why Man is King, p.221).
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. In our ignorance, we draw lines of distinction where we want, which allows us to get away with murder… sometimes literally. Our deeply felt need to have it both ways comfortably slides us 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 is the price life pays for living. Creation and destruction go hand in hand, or as chapter 2 puts it… Hence, existence and nothing give birth to each other. In the web of life, all living things “murder” (destroy, kill, use, exploit) to survive. Any resistance to that natural process arises from our personal self-interest. This bias is sheer 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. To be sure, I have no problem with favoring this or that. After all, life would be impossible without preferences. However, justifying such biases through self-serving narratives only adds to our hypocrisy and disconnection. Self-honesty reconnects us. As chapter 22 hints, He does not see his self for he is honest; he does not exist for he is clear.
Giving in to self-serving favoritism always leaves me feeling personally sullied. Conversely, striving for impartiality and balance leaves me with a deepening sense of integrity. For example, if I want to eat living things, I need to experience the killing of living things, particularly that which I eat. Granted, modern life doesn’t offer an opportunity to pull this off, unless your hobby is hunting. Even so, at least one can own up to this responsibility in principle… and thus take another step toward self-honesty.
“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 a concern for what is healthful. We are omnivores biologically so any issues with eating meat would be about quantity and quality. Gorging on meat every day would not be balanced, natural, or healthful… unless you’re Maasai whose cattle meet their nutritional needs, i.e., they eat the meat, drink the milk… and the blood.
Naturally enough, I say every living thing has a “seat of consciousness”… it is just a matter of degree, vis-à-vis neurological complexity, as to where you draw the line. Similarity, not difference, defines the core Taoist outlook. As chapter 56 puts it…
Knowing doesn’t speak; speaking doesn’t know.
Subdue its sharpness, untie its tangles,
Soften its brightness, be the same as dust,
This is called profound sameness.
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.
Discerning difference is an essential survival feature of perception for all living things. However, the dipolar nature of human cognition allows us to venture where no other animal has gone before, as far as we know. No animal imaginatively toys with reality as we do. Indeed, we go overboard by resorting to clever rationalizations that bolster our emotional agenda. Alas, we only end up fooling ourselves by believing we can have it both ways. Chapter 18 hints at this particularly human problem, When intelligence increases, there exists great falseness. When we equate intelligence with consciousness, we just end up being conscious of the intelligent projections of our own self-interest. Ironically, in the final analysis this makes us stupid and silly instead.
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.”
Yes!!! Viewed this way, all is consciousness! Only our needs and fears cause and give direction to our partiality. Only our ability to think allows us to rationalize those biases and often end up being guilt-ridden hypocrites. Then again, isn’t this just nature’s way of stirring the pot? I’ve been busy here discerning distinctions, and no doubt, I have gone overboard. In the big picture, this is no big deal. I just find that it helps greatly to realize as deeply as possible what is actually happening! Or is that just my rationalization? Maybe it is both.
For a easy to understand overview of this conscious universe, Google [The Nonlocal, Entangled, Conscious Universe – Menas Kafatos].
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