The Second Door: Everything is Alive




Spiritual Reflections

Pagan Witchcraft


Who Is Starweaver?

Archive of Past Issues

Site Index

Blog: Starweaver's Corner


My parents' approach to sex education at home was to read me biology textbooks as bedtime stories. I learned all about meiosis and mitosis, dominant and recessive genes, and sperm and egg cells. I also picked up a very scientific, reductionist perspective on the nature of life. In our home, we didn't give much credence to the idea of a soul or spirit animating living beings, and looked back through time with a smirk at the quaintness of ideas such as vitalism, which holds that living beings contain some vital essence beyond the simple material components of their bodies.

When my first child was born, I had quite a revelation. All that biology hadn't really prepared for the reality that a new person had come into being. Even during the pregnancy, my mind had remained mostly rooted in those biology textbooks. But when I held my daughter in my arms and recognized her as a personality, as an independent being experiencing life for herself and already gifted with an individual identity and inner nature, all those biology lessons seemed to be missing the point, somehow.

It's not that the scientific explanations are incorrect, of course. Rather, they seem to be missing some crucial bit of perspective - in the same way that a highway map doesn't prepare you for the experience of driving in a lingering morning fog or catching the smells drifting from the diner at the intersection.

I've spent a lot of time studying the philosophy of consciousness. What does it mean to be aware, to have experiences, to be conscious of your world? Is this just some kind of complex behavior, a fascinating but ultimately predictable outcome of the physics and chemistry of biological systems? Or is there always some important bit of perspective that slips through your fingers when you try to give a scientific account of how and why we are conscious beings.

One "thought experiment" that has always interested me - even before I was old enough to read philosophy books - is referred to as the qualia problem. We all know what colors look like - blue, orange, green, brown. Now how do I know what a blue sky looks like to you? I don't; I only know what it looks like to me. To you, it might look the way orange does to me. But then, wouldn't we have trouble communicating? No, because we learn how to use color words by referring to objects that have those colors. Your parents pointed out the color of the sky and told you it was called "blue". So now we both agree that the sky is blue. But are we really having the same experience? We couldn't even find out by asking you to paint the sky. You would just reach for the color of paint that is the same as the color of the sky - the paint we both call blue.

The philosophers who are confident that conscious experience is just a consequence of the physics and chemistry going on in our brains usually address this kind of thought experiment by asserting that there just can't be any sense to the notion that someone else experiences blue with the same kind of experience that I have for orange. Since there's no way to test the difference, there just can't be any real difference at all. Personally, though, I just can't talk myself out of it that way. There is a vivid difference between my experiences of the two colors, and if I woke up tomorrow looking at an orange sky and blue marigolds, there would be no denying that something had changed.

The point of this little excursion is to highlight the difference between having a description or explanation of something, and actually experiencing it. Science does an amazing job describing and explaining some of the details about how human beings and other creatures function and behave. It does this, though, by looking from the outside, by observing cause and effect, by breaking things up into their component parts and describing how the parts interact. It bypasses the view from inside, the actual experience we have as we do this or that, or sense the world around us.

Thinking about these sorts of questions drew me into thinking about consciousness as something qualitatively different from the functioning of our brains and bodies, rather than as a consequence of that functioning. The experiences we have, however intimately connected with and supported by our biological machinery, can't be entirely appreciated or understood from a mechanical perspective. The understanding must also take as a given the self-evident reality of being a conscious, experiencing being.

I got to this perspective by way of some mental machinations, as you can see, but it was all there in the experience of recognizing the birth of my daughter as the arrival of a person.

Having learned to see consciousness as a basic ingredient of the way things are, rather than a particular phenomenon that happens in our brains, a door was opened on a truly transforming vista: Everything is alive.

Page Two: Stepping through the Door

Seven Doors is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2007 Tom Waters