“Don’t try to comprehend it with your mind. Your mind is very limited. Use your intuition.” — Madeline L’Engle
Where do humans draw the line between having a conscious life and not?
As author and former theoretical physicist Peter Russell has asked, if you were performing surgery on a dog, would you put it under anesthesia first? Would you kill a fish before slicing it open for dinner? Where do you stand on birds … jellyfish … worms? Is it having biological function that makes us conscious life forms? Single-celled organisms eat, move, and are sensitive to vibration, light and heat — does that make them conscious beings?
Looked at from a different perspective, Russell asks us to consider that animals might be more conscious than humans. Dogs, for example, hear higher frequencies of sound and have a sharper sense of smell. If a dog put its energy into self-reflection and compare-and-contrast exercises of the mind, it might consider humans inferior in the important ways of being aware.
Author and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer stated in a 2016 On Being radio show that we underestimate plant life. “I can’t think of a single scientific study in the last few decades that has demonstrated that plants or animals [or insects] are dumber than we think.”
She said plants have extraordinary capacities, like photosynthesis, that humans tend to dismiss because we don’t have the same ability. Yet plants are “sensing their environment, responding to their environment in incredibly sophisticated ways. The science showing that plants have capacity to learn, to have memory — we’re at the edge of a wonderful revolution in really understanding the sentience of other beings.”
Kimmerer said humans rush at a pace that cannot grasp a different speed of operation. Thinking of animals, plants, even rocks, as beings — not “Its” — might “force us to shed our idea that the only pace we live in is the human pace.”
We humans consider ourselves to be the brightest minds in the land because we have language that enables us to put thoughts into words, share collective experience as knowledge, articulate past and future, chatter inside our own heads, identify ourselves compared to others by gender, race, politics, clothing style, weight, education, cultural experience.
We also have the capacity to consider other life forms — including animals, nature and humans that don’t look like us — as “lesser beings.”
Perhaps the chatter in our heads, about what is and is not relevant “knowing,” limits our ability to be aware.
The Intuitive Mind
Intuition has been defined as learning how to see — quickly picking up cues or patterns that show you what to do. Firefighters, detectives, pilots, athletes can reach a peak of experience that enables them to intuit beyond average perception.
In science, we peer into the sky with powerful telescopes, and stare inside particles with intense microscopes — we see matter increasingly well. But the mysteries of entanglement, dark energy and invisible matter remind us there is more to the universe than visible matter.
To “see more,” we need to “listen better.” Kimmerer put it this way: “We know a thing when we know it not only with our physical senses, with our intellect, but also when we engage our intuitive ways of knowing. … What is the story that a being might share with us if we know how to listen as well as we know how to see?”
For those who delve into our three-pound compilations of brain matter, the nature of consciousness continues to be a mystery. How do we access experiences of the past as collective and personal memory, find inspiration, feel emotion, acknowledge beauty?
Cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett, though a materialist, believes there is a spectrum of consciousness: between awake and asleep, alive and dead. To his list I might add a spectrum of “being” that includes human and not.
In a recent New Yorker profile, Dennett was described as believing it is not argument that informs our intuitions. Rather, “it’s through stories that we revise our sense of what’s natural.”
Telling Stories in a New Way
Humans believe in language to make sense of the world — and laws to impose order on it. In some parts of the world, humans see nature as an equal partner rather than a subject of dominion. New Zealand and India recently granted personhood status to rivers. The decision was made to elevate the “it” of nature to a being, in order to better protect it — beyond even protecting access to clean water for humans.
As one spokesperson explained the New Zealand decision, “We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe. And therefore rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river, but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief.”
From insect to cosmos, we are finding different levels of conscious life. More than brain function and data collection and sensory interpretation, the story of how the universe evolves is beyond human control and comprehension — and it might be helpful when we dial down human arrogance to listen outside the lines.