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ON APPLES AND ORANGUTANS

I recently read in some periodical that experts are debating the purpose of consciousness. It exists, they say, but we don’t know why. The happenings of the world could take place just as easily without “someone” doing them, in fact more easily, as this would take out the element of human choice, and error, doubts, second thoughts, confusion, all the stuff that makes daily life so complicated. And maybe also interesting.

But imagine a world in which there wasn’t a thinker to dread getting out of bed in the morning. It would be a much easier world to live in. We’d all be up at the crack at dawn, maybe getting an easy 10 miles in before a breakfast of wheat grass and Metamucil. In short, living robots, always doing the right thing. Because when we don’t, who’s to blame but the doubter, and what’s the doubter if not the mind, and why is the mind so often mistaken for consciousness anyway?

Imagine a world without heartache, but for it there are such lovely songs as this.
 
 
I may be overthinking the matter. But I posit that these experts are going about it all wrong. Rather than attempt to identify the purpose of consciousness in the grand scheme of things, it is I think more accurate to view consciousness as the cause and source of all things, which then pervades everything, as an energy or a force, thereby giving it life. For without this energy, force, or current that is consciousness, there would be no events of life. No universe as we know it.

The problem then is in the definition of consciousness. Scientists and many philosophers view it in the narrow sense of personal identity. They equate it with the mind. But the mystics and metaphysicians take the broader view of consciousness as creative force, the canvass on which all takes place. It has been said by those far wiser than I that this force or current is present not only in life forms - humans, the lower animals and plants - but also in the constituents that make up life, not just cells but molecules, atoms, even subatomic particles.

Consider how it is that the electron knows to orbit the atom’s nucleus. Does it think? Has it a will of its own? Or does it merely act in accordance with scientific principles? If so, who put these principles in place? The physicist says no one, it is simply how the universe is made up. Who is responsible for the order of the universe if not some higher power? The argument from design would suggest an intelligent maker. But who is running the show? The religious person says that’s easy: God. The scientist stifles a guffaw. If God exists and is all-good, why did God make evil? he secretly mutters to himself. If God is all-powerful, can he circumvent the cosmic order? Let’s see your God make orangutans speak Spanish and apples rise from the tree instead of fall; let your intelligent maker try and beat blackjack with a pair of 10s. You can see why the religious person and the scientists don’t often meet for coffee. But this is not about that. It is about consciousness – itself a term many consider to be synonymous with God, but we’ll let that slide.

Consider the human cell. The microscopic meeting point of inanimate matter (the atom) and the living world of apples and orangutans. The average cell is a complex entity. It has various functions depending on its location in the body. The liver cells detoxify. The skin cells protect. The lung cells process oxygen. The kidney cells secrete waste. Etc. These are so many nationalities. And like the human body, the cell has various parts. Its organelles - mitochondria, ribosomes, lysosomes, Golgi apparatus, and so on - can be said to correspond to the human body’s organs.
 
 
The cell is filled with fluid and enclosed in a membrane, like us. Like us it is alive, though not in the way we breathing, bleeding humans are alive, because individually it does not breathe or bleed. It does so collectively, the way the residents of America make up our country, which then has a pastime and national anthem, erects monuments, wages war, falls into debt and cuts deals. But does the cell think? Again, it doesn’t have a brain, although the neurons of the CNS make up that important organ. But is the cell conscious, in the way you and I are? In other words, is it aware of its existence, of its individuality as an identity separate from those around it?

How does a cell know what functions to perform? The immune cells, for example, are programmed to respond to invaders. They react to a foreign presence via a coordinated series of signals mediated by messengers ranging from cytokines to neurotransmitters and hormones. But what governs their individual actions? The genes in the nuclear DNA? Maybe in part. The actions of other cells? Is it simply the way they are built? Yes, if you believe form dictates function. And if cells are conscious - and why would they not be, as individual life forms just like us? Let’s remind ourselves that we eukaryotes (multicellular organisms) did evolve from the single-celled prokaryote, the modern-day individual cell; only now you have as many trillion cells swimming around your insides as your body weight in kilograms – but, I say, if cells are thinking beings, and also programmed to act a certain way depending on their structure and location within the body, then what about free will? Do our cells as conscious entities get together and debate their own existence and freedom of choice? Even if they could, they are doubtlessly too busy with the upkeep and maintenance of the body. And so they leave it to those of us humans with time on our hands.

But suppose you could ask a hepatocyte, a cell in the liver tasked with purifying the blood, whether it had a choice in the matter. Must it break down the alcohol in that martini you just drank? Or does it like a human fancy that it can move away from home and say, go live in bone marrow? There’s a name for cells that behave this way. It’s called cancer. Luckily your liver cells stay put. Alcohol is a heady thing. Free will, too.

And if cells are not conscious, if they simply perform their functions as a function of a response to their environment in accordance with their physical make-up and genetic constitution, then it makes one wonder whether consciousness even exists, since what we humans do is much like the activities of these microscopic units that fill us. Watch us in traffic on the freeway. Such a coordinated endeavor, each car responding to others in a way that is almost symphonic, making accidents extremely unlikely. Accidents do happen, of course; just like they do at the cellular level. It’s called cancer.

Are we really conscious? Are we really thinking? Is the mind illusion? Is doership a myth? And what about free will? Are we just predestined and programmed to respond to our environment in a certain way, given the situation? Is the whole individual just a macrocosm of the cells that make her up? There was once a time in our history that primitive humans endowed the elements with consciousness, even with volition. There was the god of thunder, and wind, and the sea deity. Mother Nature and Mother Earth are modern day throwbacks. As our understanding of science grew we identified the formerly mysterious processes underlying our environment and left the various cults behind. And so we freed ourselves from false notions. Maybe the cult of the mind is the final link in the chain.

I would argue that before symbols like these words you’re reading, before language, before civilization, our relationship with the environment was much different than it is today. It is the mind that processes symbols, and in a world where fewer symbols existed, the mind would not be so hyper-developed as it is today. Individuals would directly experience their environment; they would act less as individuals and more as parts of a whole. A symbiosis would exist. Identity would be less about a person’s body and safety, and more about the safety of the community.

Isn’t this what cells do? They don’t have books to read, TV to watch, these questions to consider (perhaps that’s a good thing); their every action is geared to the well-being of the organism, on maintaining and protecting themselves sure, but only so the being as a whole can thrive. A cell will even kill itself once it has become damaged or old. This is called apoptosis, or programmed cell death, and it’s done for the good of the organism, whose performance would suffer for the existence of another broken piece.

Cells sacrifice individuality for the sake of totality. Perhaps because at the cellular level there is no concept of individuality. Because there is no mind. Just consciousness. And without mind the body seems to work just fine. We humans should take a cue from our microscopic parts and kick the habit of thinking. It’s such a heady thing.

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