Sunday, December 11, 2011


     In my last post, I argued that a zest for living is the strongest instinct terrestrial organisms have.  Reinforced by billions of years of evolution, it helps them survive long enough to mate and perpetuate the genetic advantages natural selection's given them over the course of countless generations.  It also helps blind them to their own mortality.
     But in human beings and perhaps other large-brained mammals like whales and elephants, the chance emergence of high-level intelligence has created a personal awareness of dying that runs counter to their survival instincts.  Though all human beings recoil naturally from their own extinction, many for example choosing to believe that the sensual/cognitive mechanisms they call "soul" or "spirit" are immaterial and immortal, atheists reject such notions,  insisting that human death is total and irreversible.
     In today's post I'll conclude my Zest for Living series by arguing not only that human self-awareness is a product of insentient nature but also that it both enhances and undermines our will to live.  Obviously, all organic brains on planet earth have always consisted of nothing but a vast number of several atomic elements, chiefly hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon.  Jumbled into more and more complex molecules by evolutionary process, these atoms eventually became self-enclosed, self-regulating biological systems able to sense the outside world.  As these sensing mechanisms got increasingly acute, neuronal circuitry to harness the information they fed their owners' brains got increasingly elaborate.  Currently, the most complex terrestrial product of the process has been the human brain.
     In other words, humanity's ability to apprehend, reason, imagine, fantasize, dream, sense, and so on emerged from chance combinations of atoms, each without a hint of any such ability.  Human percipience and cognition arose from the oblivion of atomic mass and energy and consists now of nothing but trillions of electrochemical events constantly occuring in the human brain, each as void of consciousness as a grain of sand.  The components of human intelligence are literally dumb as dirt.
     But while we're alive and our brains are working, we have a vibrant sense of being alive and conscious that may be utterly unlike anything in this or any other cosmos.  While the odds of human-like intelligence elsewhere in this cosmos seem high, given the billions of known galaxies and the billions of stars in each galaxy, there's no question that, even if intelligence has evolved elsewhere, it's as unique to each brain that manufactures it there as ours is here.
     Throughout these Zest for Living posts I've stressed this uniqueness, which I've also called particularity or singularity, as essential to cosmic objects and by extrapolation to the All.  I find it deeply consoling.  If the All's basic stuff is infinitely singular, a conclusion implied by the empirical evidence of our cosmos, every thing it constitutes is infinitely unique and original.  Every human life is as fresh and radiant as the entire cosmos but, unlike the cosmos, aware of being so -- another reason I love being alive.
     The assumption that at bottom the All is as insentient as the natural order of our own cosmos, and that sentience is its rare and accidental offshoot, diminishes neither kind of being.  It makes both more wonderful.  Though consciousness is inorganic matter fortuitously jumbled awake, it can change itself and its surroundings in amazing ways.  Rather than bemoaning the All's indifference to humanity, I cherish our great good luck in being able to experience and savor our human existence at all.
     A billion years before it evolved, human intelligence was foreshadowed by primitive forms of mentation that were already miracles of happenstance.  But with human intelligence a huge range of new realities materialized.  Though the brain of an early sea-creature could neuronally re-create its surroundings, it couldn't make tools or fantasize.  The human brain could.
     When and in what sequence human beings began making tools, fantasizing, communicating, and doing the things that require human brainpower isn't known.  But without an ability to communicate through sounds (speech) or markings (writing), they couldn't have reported real events or told made-up stories, though then as now fact and fiction often blurred.  Nor could they have created and maintained social, religious, political, and military systems of order.
     All such creativity depended on the communication of consciousness from brain to brain by one brain's putting its thoughts into some kind of symbolic code like spoken or written language, then a second brain's translating the code back into its own electrochemical impulses.  All communication consists of a constant translation of brain impulses into and out of coding systems.  No human thought or feeling ever exists except as a material brain event or as codified matter.
     Many philosophers dismiss the theory that human consciousness is streaming electrons as crudely reductionist.  They argue that the theory doesn't account for the creativeness and originality of what they call purely mental states of being.  I disagree.  Human thought and feeling are obviously generated by brain electricity, and accounting for them in this way is anything but crudely reductionist.  In the first place, more than a century of brain research has shown that all animal intelligence is so generated.  To deny or ignore this research and cling to exploded theories of immaterial mentation is like insisting the sun orbits the earth daily.
     A related claim is that yes, human consciousness consists of electrons but no, the thoughts and feelings it produces aren't the same thing as electrons.  Electrons can't know or feel, yet human brains throb with knowing and feeling.  To equate electrons with thought and feeling is both to mix apples and oranges and to deny that the brain creats a brand-new emergent reality out of electrons.
     While I agree that a thought or feeling is in some ways unlike an electron, I disagree they're fundamentally different.  Like an internal combustion made of individually impotent but collectively potent parts, the brain is made of countless neruonal circuits that organize electrons into doing what brains do.  Just as an engine is nothing but the sum of its parts, so too is a brain.  Without gas for the engine and electrochemistry for the brain, neither works.  No material system ever mysteriously transcends the sum of its parts.  The most basic part or component of reality is an unknown stuff or substance with an infinite potential to realize itself in new combinations.  The only difference between an engine and a brain is that one's a product of intelligent design and the other isn't.
     The newness, freshness, and originality of brain products is what I think the anti-reductionists are getting at in not wanting to "reduce" intelligence to electrical energy.  They don't want to lessen the uniqueness of the different stages of cosmic evolution or suggest that they were planned or pre-determined in any way.  Nor do I.  I too see every event in cosmic history s having a uniqueness that nothing else in the All has.  One of the most astounding and unlikely of these events was the evolution here on earth of the human brain.
     Human intelligence has created countless new realities, among them many interesting fictions about, and one solid factual explanation of, cosmic origins.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims have traditionally held that a single deity created heaven and earth is six days, populating it with fish and birds on day five and animals and a man and woman made in the deity's own image on day six, and then on day seven rested.  Though scores of other creation stories exist, they tend to echo this one's fictional charm and factual emptiness.  Very different is the scientific explanation know as the Big Bang theory.  It rests on centuries of experimental proof that gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces separated thirteen billion years ago in the Big Bang and now dominate cosmic mass and energy.
     All such mental creations are unique.  They're as fresh, new, and beautiful as my sense of winter sunlight or your sense of summer moonlight.  They can be as fearsome and unsettling as a sudden insight into one's own mortality, an insight most organisms are incapable of having.  Human existence is a uniquely unplanned and spontaneous product of the All, as are each of the molecules human beings are made of and each of the electrons that generate their thoughts and feelings.  To equate human consciousness with the electrons that cause it is not to crudely reduce it but to link it to the infinite worth of absolute material Being.  So seen, human life assumes an All-like gloriousness.
     But it's also perishable in a way the All's inhuman and oblivious fecundity is not.  The human joy of living and knowing ends in death.  No matter how it's rationalized, dying is a hard, hurtful fact of human existence.  Having a capacity to reason sequentially and to create original marvels like space travel, digital technology, and artificial intelligence has helped enhance our zest for living, to the point of making some of us want to postpone death by somehow replacing or renewing our aging minds and bodies.  Though I don't share this wish, I acknowledge the tragic underside of human life and its utter transience.  I know I must get myself emotionally and intellectually ready to die.
     In my next post I'll begin explaining how, as an aging materialist and atheist, I'm trying to do just that.