During the last few weeks I have been confronted with several troubling images of caged and chained animals, some in circuses, which affected me deeply.
It made me wonder whether my feelings of sadness, anger, and empathy would have been similarly aroused if I had seen a computer tethered to a desk, or a rock chained to another rock.
Of course not.
It reminded me deeply of one of the Dalai Lama’s suggestions for meditation — that within stillness one try to sense the interconnectedness of allsentient beings.
On a scientific level we usually attribute sentienceto the presence of a brain and nervous system; it is interesting to consider that at the smallest molecular levels some viruses are alive sometimes, and inanimate substances at other times. (Sometimes this is a matter of whether they are in a host organism.)
In any case there is something in us that seems to know or believe we know when something is animate or inanimate — alive or not alive.
This sense seems related not to that we feel but indeed how we feel — to the aspect of sensation that biologists and psychologists sometimes refer to as “qualia” — the quality of a feeling that something within us knows.
For example, we can read many articles about wine but the actual taste of a sip of wine leaves us with an ineffable taste that we can sense but for which all additional verbal description is inadequate.
Similarly we simply know that an animal that is caged or chained is suffering because of empathy — we put ourselves in that being’s position and know that for us it would horrible and intolerable.
In his book I Am a Strange Loop, neuroscientist Douglas R. Hofstadter proposes that there is a depth of sensation and thought that is essentially bottomless (an endless loop of “knowing” or information) that results in our feeling and noticing an emotion–and thereby knowing or sensing that “something” is alive.
To be sure, we can be fooled. The Turing test for artificial intelligence is based on the premise that at some point an inanimate something can convince us it’s human through our verbal interaction with it.
So if we take this inquiry a bit further we know that such an “artificially” intelligent machine is powered by software that was presumably intentionally and intelligently programmed.
And as we’ve noted previously, our DNA operates as software — we can now edit and reprogram it to make biochemical changes in ourselves or even create other organisms.
But DNA is presumably the product of natural evolution. While we can now synthesize it (artificially) in the “natural” world it has preceded us by billions of years.
Biochemically DNA also interacts with the other substances and hormones in our bodies to apparently result in or produce our feelings like empathy, sadness, and anger — we know that in some instances these can be measured by biochemical monitoring.
But again we do not know the HOW. How do these biochemical combinations produce qualia — or the feeling or taste of anything? What is noticing or evaluating these sensations and then labeling them; or better yet what notices even before a label is applied?
Going deeper, it would seem that it is precisely the ability to sense and evaluate a sensation or feeling that makes something alive, animate, or conscious.
It is the presence of a quality (not a thing) that allows us from our “inside” to know that we’re here, that we feel, and of course that we exist.
And it is the sense that the caged or chained animal also feels its existence and knows its predicament, and in fact has been horribly deprived of necessary qualia-like affection, that gives rise to our empathy, however it may express biochemically.
This is clearly a pointer to Consciousness — the discernment between what is natural and what is inanimate or artificial — and the sensing of that unique energetic quality within ourselves.
But all software that we know of through computers is inanimate. It expresses human intelligence (encoded) but it is not a natural occurrence. Humans created it.
So to this point ALL software that we have encountered has been “artificial” — created through programming code and having it express through inanimate silicon.
DNA, however is an anomaly. We understand it as software but it is apparently a completely organic, natural entity.
We might go a step further and claim that software is also a natural substance, since it is the product of natural beings (humans), but that would be insincere if we return to the caged animal — because we do innately know the difference (or generally do) between what is alive and what is inanimate. And we are alive – software is not.
We also know that software is the product of (human) intelligence; without human intelligence it would not exist. We call it intellectual property and protect it with patents and copyrights.
And we now allow companies to patent genetic configurations similarly as intellectual property.
So the question needs to be profoundly addressed: is the natural world in and of itself capable of intelligent evolution to the level of DNA?
Is intelligence the default in nature, and then are we just another expression of that reality?
(Or is DNA the product of another nonhuman intelligence — which simply begs the question of how did any life actually arise?)
For our current science, and sadly for our civilization, this is currently the most “inconvenient truth”: Any scientific answer is elusive without addressing the issue of consciousness (which is precisely that aspect of reality in which recognition of one’s existence arises).
We simply cannot account for the existence of DNA as a software program without greatly broadening our entire notion of reality. As an intellectual product how could it have evolved in a dead or non-sentient universe? Only a living intelligence could have given rise to DNA.
But staying completely open to either not knowing the answer, or the answer being beyond our ever knowing, can lead to a deeper sense of allowing the natural flow of life to be as it is.
Once we are able to grasp that life itself must be ineffably intelligent to have evolved DNA, our entire relationship to LIFE must change; so that instead of believing we can control life and nature from a position of superiority, we must assume our rightful place within the vast infinite Intelligence of the natural order.