And Here We Are As On A Darkling Plain

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

With our ability to perceive light, vibrations traveling through the atmosphere, pressure, temperature and the presence of certain molecules we navigate our way through the terrain into which we have been thrown. With these senses we engage with and coexist among our peers.  With them we fulfill the requirements necessary to sustain our biological function and to propagate our species. Philosophers have long known our senses are fallible, but only recently have we learned just how limited they are.

Dogs are red-green color blind but can hear vibrations at volumes and frequencies well above our range. Most adult humans are lucky to hear sounds over 20kHz. A dog can hear sounds as high as 40,000-60,000kHz and up to four times farther away while their sense of smell is between 10,000 and 100,000 times more sensitive than our own.  Neither are our five senses the only ways in which one might experience being. Some animals can sense electric fields in the microvolt or even nanovolt range through specialised receptors.  In murky environments or in the stygian depths fish navigate their environment via electroreception: giant salamanders and duck-billed platypi use it to find prey. And while we must use the stars (or satellite navigation systems) to traverse the seas birds navigate by the sparkling song of Earth’s magnetic field. We are surrounded by creatures living in worlds we will never know.

The processes by which we sort out our perceptions are handled largely though not exclusively by our nervous systems. Animals, including us, possess nerves which transmit these signals to a brain which processes them and sends back replies that lead them to seek out pleasurable stimuli and to avoid painful ones.  These brains store memories of our environment and make decisions based on, though not wholly guided by, past events and experiences: they also allow us to share information with other humans and to learn from their experiences. In this we are not alone. Crows can distinguish between human faces and pass that knowledge down to their neighbors and offspring.  90% of land plants are connected via an “information superhighway” of fungi that allows them to share nutrients and sabotage unwelcome plants by spreading toxic chemicals.  We are surrounded by creatures telling stories in languages we do not understand.

While this may seem disturbing to you, it was common knowledge to our ancestors. They knew they were part of a living ecosystem and not even the most important part. They believed that awareness could be found in trees, in rocks, in rivers and mountains, in birds and beasts and in air, water, fire and earth. They lived in a world full of Gods and a world full of beings praising Them, a world where the spirits of streams danced with Deities and where the mountains sang hymns whose opening note might resonate through centuries. Our forbears took as a given what we are only now beginning to relearn.

Consider Panpsychism, the idea that mind is a fundamental feature which pervades the universe. This may seem “unscientific” as compared to the common view that mind emerges out of biochemical and electrical functions within complex organisms.  But Panpsychism has a long pedigree stretching from the pre-Socratics to the present day. American philosopher Josiah Royce believed that planets, stars, galaxies and even subatomic particles might have self-awareness. (He also noted that the time scale of a conscious mind could vary tremendously—the scale of the processes of consciousness in a galaxy might be billions of time slower than the scale of human conscious processes and the consciousness of subatomic particles billions of times faster). Baruch Spinoza believed that mind and matter were both part of a greater Substance he identified as God: Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz believed the universe was composed of monads, utterly simple psychic beings endowed with “perception and appetite” which interacted with each other in an eternal dance and produced what we perceive as time and space. Quantum physicists have determined that observations have a direct and perceptible effect on reality, leading Chinese physicist Gao Shan to postulate “consciousness is not reducible or emergent, but a new fundamental property of matter.”

As Christof Koch points out:

My subjective experience (and yours, too, presumably), the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am,” is an undeniable certainty, one strong enough to hold the weight of philosophy. But from whence does this experience come? Materialists invoke something they call emergentism to explain how consciousness can be absent in simple nervous systems and emerge as their complexity increases. Consider the wetness of water, its ability to maintain contact with surfaces. It is a consequence of intermolecular interactions, notably hydrogen bonding among nearby water molecules. One or two molecules of H2O are not wet, but put gazillions together at the right temperature and pressure, and wetness emerges. Or see how the laws of heredity emerge from the molecular properties of DNA, RNA and proteins. By the same process, mind is supposed to arise out of sufficiently complex brains.

Yet the mental is too radically different for it to arise gradually from the physical. This emergence of subjective feelings from physical stuff appears inconceivable and is at odds with a basic precept of physical thinking, the Ur-conservation law—ex nihilo nihil fit. So if there is nothing there in the first place, adding a little bit more won’t make something. If a small brain won’t be able to feel pain, why should a large brain be able to feel the god-awfulness of a throbbing toothache? Why should adding some neurons give rise to this ineffable feeling? The phenomenal hails from a kingdom other than the physical and is subject to different laws. I see no way for the divide between unconscious and conscious states to be bridged by bigger brains or more complex neurons.

Koch points out what he sees as problems within traditional Panpsychism. He notes, “if consciousness is everywhere, why should it not animate the iPhone, the Internet or the United States of America?”  A Polytheist might well answer that objection with “it does.” We are well aware of phenomena like mass hysteria, of individuals transformed by a skillful speaker into a howling mob. We have seen bees function as a hive and ants work as a colony: we have no problem envisioning trillions of neurons working together to form a single mind. Why then is it so difficult to imagine that groups might be possessed of a Consciousness?  And instead of dismissing mind as a property emerging out of matter, what if we envisioned the material universe as a property which emerges out of Mind — or Minds?  Instead of imagining Gods as the dreams of humanity we might more rationally assume that humanity, and everything which surrounds us, is the dreams of the Gods.

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