There was a fly on my bathroom window this morning. As I prepared to swat him, I was reminded of my mother saying “He wouldn’t hurt a fly,” a complimentary phrase used to describe a person of gentle character. Although my mother was a gentle soul herself, that saying did not apply to her as she was an avowed hater and ferocious killer of flies. Her swatter was always within reach and during times of heavy infestation, she would hang a fly catcher from the ceiling light. The latter was in the form of a sticky tape which would attract flies and then hold them until they stopped fluttering, a sort of weapon of mass destruction. The flies did not appear to be very smart for they continued to land on the fly paper in the midst of hundreds of their dead buddies.
As I stood poised to murder that poor little guy with my bath towel, it also occurred to me that to see flies in the house is now rather uncommon, compared to my childhood when it seemed they were everywhere; undoubtedly a testament to indoor plumbing and pesticides. A frequently heard admonition delivered in semi-panic mode was: “Close the screen door, you are letting in all the flies,” and believe me there were often a lot of flies to let in. Once in the house, the only solution was death by whatever means available.
We are a culture which professes a reverence for life, but I doubt even the vegans among us would feel much compunction about swatting that fly. The rest of us find only the lives of our own species or perhaps those of our pets to be important. I am told there are some eastern religions which forbid the taking of any animal life no matter how small or insignificant, which leads me to believe they find life itself to be a holy condition.
As I grow older, I find that I no longer take life for granted. This shouldn’t be surprising since economists explain that as a commodity becomes less plentiful, it accrues more value. I suspect that is one of the factors which has inspired me to write this little ditty. Life is one thing that fly and I have in common; although, our experiences with it obviously differ considerably. Much has been written about the mystery of death, which is understandable since we have not experienced it personally, but I submit that life is much more complicated and mysterious. As a matter of fact, when I consult my favorite reference (Wikipedia), for a definition I become even more confused until I find it defined as the opposite of death. That was not very helpful as I think I already knew that. I believe my tenth grade biology teacher did a better job when she described life as the ability of an organism to respond to its environment, and to reproduce itself. Using these criteria one must conclude that Mr. Fly is indeed alive.
Life and Consciousness
In the midst of plotting my strategy as to how to take him out without breaking the window, I found myself wondering if the fly knew he was alive, or if he was even aware of his own existence. Recently I have been reading about some exciting research that attempts to understand how our brains work, but there still appears to be a lot of questions about consciousness. In addition to the imponderables of why am I here and how did I get here, man is also faced with the even more vexing question of how do I know I am here?
The earliest recorded writings on the subject of consciousness were contained in an essay by John Locke in 1690 (side note from editor: this connection won’t be lost on devotees of the television show Lost). He defined it as “The perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.” There has been much disagreement even in the description or definition of the word. The one I liked best was the translation from the original Latin namely: “knowing that one knows,” but then I have always been a sucker for simplistic answers to complex questions. Not so with the world’s greatest philosophers who have found the subject fertile ground for their speculations and opinions. I tried googling some of that stuff and found that I had no idea what they were talking about, but felt a great sigh of relief when I stumbled upon a quote from Stuart Sutherland in the 1989 Macmillan Dictionary of Psychology where he wrote “Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it has evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it.” That last line made me feel much better.
With the marvelous advancements in discoveries about the brain, and the ability to actually witness its functions via scanning techniques, neuroscientists have now thrown their ideas into the mix; however, they are limited by the problem of objectively measuring a subjective experience.
Recently I wrote a spoof abut a future in which robots populate an earth where the human race has become extinct. My wife thought it was crazy, but I now feel vindicated after discovering that Alan Turing (credited with inventing the computer) had written a paper on the subject of computer intelligence in 1950. Now there is much discussion about artificial intelligence, but one wonders, “What is the difference between artificial intelligence and the genuine article?” There is some debate as to whether computers can actually be programmed to be conscious. Many learned people dismiss this idea as preposterous, but then people shared that same attitude about going to the moon. After living on this planet long enough to witness many “preposterous” discoveries, I have learned that the adage “never say never” makes a lot of sense.
What about the fly?
Those of you who are still reading this may wonder what this has to do with the fly on my window, and I don’t have a very coherent answer, other than I have a tendency to wander off on tangents when I am thinking “great thoughts”. This is a phenomenon we psychiatrists call loose associations often found to be a harbinger of impending psychosis. I prefer to think that I am perfectly sane; however, if I am suffering from an altered state of consciousness I may be totally unaware of my mental problems, and as a matter of fact this is one of the factors which often makes it difficult to treat the more serious mental illnesses. After all, it would make no sense to undergo treatment for an illness that does not exist; consequently, should we be surprised that many seriously ill patients resist treatment as have I?
Consciousness and animals
Consensus among the experts regarding consciousness in animals seems to be lacking. Some are convinced that this is an exclusively human function while others feel that some mammals and birds are so endowed. Others believe that only subhuman primates, chimpanzees in particular, exhibit consciousness, and that other creatures including insects like my fly friend operate on instinct. Of course we don’t know much about instincts either. Although instincts are thought to be encoded on the organism’s DNA, we still face the mystery of how that process occurred. The limited research I performed to help me answer my housefly question has convinced me that the fly in the window, although satisfying the criteria to be called alive, almost certainly could not experience consciousness. I did learn a lot about flies for example: 1) they only live from two to four weeks, 2) they undergo a complex life cycle as maggots, pupae, etc, 3) they have large protruding eyes with multiple lenses which allow them to see in all directions at once which explains why you can’t sneak up on them, 4) they have been aggravating us humans throughout history, 5) they can carry a variety of diseases from the garbage and feces on which they feed, 6) enlarged photographs show them to be truly ugly.
Obviously, in order to be conscious we must have a functioning brain, an organ of such marvelous complexity that it defies our total understanding. Most experts agree that the ability to experience emotions is essential for consciousness, and this is what sets us apart from other life forms, yet we know that elephants for example go through an elaborate period of mourning at the loss of a family member, and many of us remain convinced that our pets demonstrate all kinds of feelings based on their behaviors. The idea that the brain is the seat of emotions is fairly recent, and for most of our history had been ascribed to the heart. The tradition lives on; however with phrases like; “my heart goes out to you” or “her heart is broken.”
Consciousness and theology
Discussions of consciousness are almost certain to lead to theological considerations. Indeed some philosophers would contend that the soul is simply the state of being conscious. Throughout history, man has left evidence of his belief in a spiritual component to his being, which is separate from and survives his death. Such a belief has crossed all boundaries and cultures throughout the world; although with different versions of the same theme. Of course without consciousness, man would have been incapable of conceptualizing a spiritual aspect to his being or for that matter even the realization that he was mortal. One might ask, is it not possible that our conscious mind is incapable of perceiving the “soul within us,” or as some insist, is this idea simply a fairy tale devised by man to deal with the awareness of his mortality?
There are those who operate under the assumption that if you can’t see it, hear it, smell it, taste it or touch it; it doesn’t exist. I submit there are many things which we cannot perceive which are known to exist. Gravity for example, does not pass that test for we cannot perceive it directly, although we are certain that it exists because we can witness its effects. We even have an equation to describe it. As a matter of fact our universe is so well ordered that theoretical physicists insist that everything can be explained by mathematics. By making use of these principles, they have been able to predict the discovery of many things in our universe both in the field of particle physics, and the other end of the spectrum namely, astrophysics. One of the more famous examples of this was the discovery of black holes in the universe 55 years after Einstein had predicted their existence based on his calculations. It is little wonder that a guy like me who struggled with ninth-grade algebra has difficulty understanding these guys.
If you thought Einstein and his relativity theories containing terms like a fourth dimension, space time continuum, and how straight lines are actually curved strange, take a look at quantum mechanics which is really weird. Among other weird things, devotees to this line of thought explain with a straight face that an object can be in more than one place at the same time. In an earlier time if someone presented me with a story like that, I would probably have suggested he come with me and spend a few days in the psych ward. Some also postulate the existence of parallel universes. While all this is going on subatomic studies are turning all we learned about the atom and the nature of matter on its head. We were taught that the atom had protons, neutrons and electrons, now we are told there are quarks and leptons and other kinds of things in there doing weird stuff.
You may be thinking “here he goes off the deep end again” but the point I am attempting to make is that there are many things going on which our brain can’t contemplate due to the limitations of our special senses. With that in mind it doesn’t seem like a big leap to think there may be spiritual stuff going on both within and around us of which we are totally unaware. I would not be shocked if some modern day Einstein would not come up with an equation some day that would confirm the existence of a spirit world, God included. In the meantime we are left with the admonition to believe. This has always been difficult for me as I have always been a skeptic by nature and like things to be proven. In spite of this, I try to believe as I am told that only believers will get their tickets punched to the pearly gates and the other option does not sound good at all.
Meanwhile the question remains unanswered as to what all is involved in consciousness. Is it simply a byproduct of life, the end result of the evolutionary development of the human brain? Is the condition unique to humans? Is there a mystical component involved? I know these are all questions I raised early in this writing, but did you really expect answers? As I have said in a previous blog, more wisdom is usually found in questions than in the answers.
By the way, in case you are wondering about the fly, I swatted him.