Jan 15, 2023
“Awareness is always dynamic; it has no spatio-temporal location… Awareness is not a property of entities, or even of organisms; it is a property of networks.”
Do you ever wish that you’d still be alive when all of life’s biggest questions are finally resolved? Job said that dying without knowledge was the worst fate that could befall a human being. If so, it often seems as if that fate-worse-than-death is in store for all of us. But good news, you can relax!
Problem solved; quest completed; target acquired; Grail in hand. You did it. You lived to see perhaps the most pressing problem of philosophy solved, right here, right now, in your lifetime, before your very eyes. But to appreciate that, we need a little background.
Who am I and who is my neighbor? Two of the most profound, and contentious, questions in human history. According to Descartes, I am a being that thinks (cogito ergo sum). Such cognition must include awareness of an environment and awareness of an awareness of that environment. Cognition is recursive. It is its own object.
Logically, then, anyone (or anything) that displays similar ‘recursive awareness’ must be my neighbor. So far so good, but the converse is pernicious: if you are not my neighbor, you cannot have recursive awareness.
To our 21st century sensibility, the way forward seems obvious: draw up a list of beings who are capable of ‘recursive awareness’, like me, et violà – meet the neighbors! Instead, though, we begin by drawing up lists of our neighbors. Not on the list? Sorry, you must not possess recursive intelligence. How 20th century!
Being neighbors is like belonging to an exclusive country club. To join, you need sponsors, and you need the approval of the other members. “I’m so sorry that you didn’t get in. Better luck in your next reincarnation!”
For untold millennia, my neighbors were the members of my tribe. Beginning with my extended family, the concept of ‘tribe’ radiates outward: my village, my culture, my race, my class, my nationality, etc. A defining feature of tribalism is its insistence on dehumanizing, then marginalizing, everyone and everything that does not belong to my tribe. Membership does have its privileges (apologies to American Express).
If you’re not my neighbor, then what are you? At best, you are a ‘proto-human’, a neanderthal or perhaps a yeti; less fortunately, you may a ‘beast’ or a ‘zombie’ or an ‘alien’ or even an inanimate object. Pity the lonely, inert paperweight, sitting on my desk. It wanted to join my club but got turned down; now it is forced to interact with me every day knowing that it didn’t measure up. I feel sorry for it but what can I do? A lowly paperweight is just not a member of my tribe! Or is it?
On this website (www.aletheiatoday.com), we have spent some time visiting with the Piraha, a small, semi-isolated tribe in the Brazilian Amazon. Although the tribe graciously welcomes “European” traders, missionaries, anthropologists, linguists, etc., they do not regard these visitors as ‘fully human’.
Tribalism is a virtually universal phenomenon in human culture. And us today? Are we still tribal? You bet we are! Grade school possies, middle school cliques, college frats (sic), country clubs, the Mafiosi. For all its endearing features, tribalism is a nightmare from which humanity is struggling to awake (apologies to James Joyce).
Did Jesus kick-off this awakening some 2,000 years ago when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan? (I mean, if a Samaritan can be my neighbor, who can’t be?) Or was it Mister Rogers?
Either way, in our lifetimes, a radical but welcome consensus is finally emerging: all human beings are my neighbors! Even if you don’t share my race, my class, my religion, my political party, or my nationality, you’re still my neighbor, i.e., you are my ontological equal. You exhibit recursive awareness. Red state? Blue state? Still a state!
But before we get too self-congratulatory, we need to ask what the meaning of ‘all’ is (apologies to Bill Clinton). For example, does it include the ‘unborn’ and if so, when? At conception? At viability? At birth? How about babies likely to be born with serious birth defects?
Does it include the very old? The disabled? The mentally ill? The ‘cognitively challenged’? How about someone who has been declared ‘brain-dead’? Or convicted of a capital crime? Not so simple after all, is it?
Still, we have made progress. In fact, in recent decades, we have begun to consider whether the franchise tag (“neighbor”) should be extended beyond the boundaries of our species. What about certain primates (e.g., gorillas)? Sea mammals (e.g., whales)? Corvids (e.g., ravens, parrots)? And what about Spot, the family pet?
What of our siblings in the Vegetable Kingdom? For example, how about trees, networked in a forest, that apparently communicate with each other and engage in purposive, collective, and, unlike some humans, consistently eleemosynary behavior? Yup, we’ve come a long way…but we have miles to go before we sleep (apologies to Robert Frost).
Below this terrain, “Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man (sic).” (Coleridge) I’m talking metaphorically about the underground river of panpsychism. From Greek philosophy (Anaximander) to Monasticism (St. Francis), to Native American spirituality, to Hasidism (the Baal Shem Tov), to Process Philosophy (Alfred North Whitehead), to modern-day Druids and Greens (Gaia), there have always been people proposing to extend the ‘neighbor tag’ beyond the human species, beyond the Animal and Vegetable Kingdoms, perhaps even to so-called inanimate objects.
If these folks are right, literally everything changes! There is no more we and they; there is always just us. There are no more subjects and objects; now there are just entities. There are no more active or passive verbs; there are only events. Nothing is secular or profane; everything is sacred. Recursive awareness is everywhere. The universe is alive…and conscious!
But are these people right? (Smart money says otherwise.) Yet, an article recently appeared in Nature Communications (link below) and was summarized by “Astrobiology”. Let’s sample that summary:
From a distance, they looked like clouds of dust. Yet, the swarm of microrobots in author Michael Crichton’s bestseller Prey was self-organized. It acted with rudimentary intelligence, learning, evolving, and communicating with itself to grow more powerful.
“Basically, these little nanobots become self-organized and self-aware,” said Igor Aronson, Huck Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry, and Mathematics at Penn State, explaining the plot of Crichton’s book. A new model…inspired by Crichton’s novel, describes how biological or technical systems form complex structures equipped with signal-processing capabilities that allow the systems to respond to stimulus and perform functional tasks without external guidance…
Taken individually, the material has no intelligence or functionality, but collectively, the material is capable of responding to its environment with a kind of emergent intelligence, Aronson explained: “What I’m working on is distributed artificial intelligence. Each element doesn’t have any intelligence, but once they come together, they’re capable of collective response and decision-making… We identify the decision-making machinery of the individual active agents as the driving mechanism for the collectively controlled self-organization of the system.” (Multi-scale organization in communicating active matter, Nature Communications - open access.)
Continuing in my own voice, I have fingernails, I am aware that I have fingernails, and I am aware that I am aware that I have fingernails…and they are to be found at the ends of my fingers.
I enjoy recursive awareness (aka consciousness). I am aware that I enjoy recursive awareness, and I am even aware that I am aware that I enjoy recursive awareness. And where is that consciousness located? Not in my brain, not in my neurons, not even in my entire organism per se. Consciousness is an emergent property, an emergent property of a network, in my case, a neural network. It is a process; it is dependent on an underlying structure, but it is neither the structure itself nor the element of that structure.
Awareness is always dynamic; it has no spatio-temporal location. The entities that form the structures that support awareness are located in spacetime, but the awareness itself is not. Awareness per se is spaceless and timeless, even though the object of that awareness occupies a region in spacetime.
So, what’s changed? Only everything! It had been thought that only certain types of entities (e.g., neurons) could network to support awareness. Now it seems that that is not true. A network of entirely inanimate objects can support awareness.
Awareness is not a property of entities, or even of organisms; it is a property of networks. Even the unholy trinity, ‘me, myself and I’, is not aware per se. I am simply the locus of a network that supports awareness. This, in turn, solves a major mystery: how is it that patients under anesthesia are not aware and not aware that they are not aware? For them, an entire region of spacetime has been obliterated. Why? Because the network they house is temporarily shut down.
It’s a whole new world out there! And we will need new science and new philosophy to accommodate it. Turns out, this is a great time to be alive after all.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.