by Tom Bunzel
September 04, 2016
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 all sentient beings.
On a scientific level we usually attribute sentience to 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
of empathy - we put ourselves in
that being's position and know that for us it would horrible and
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.
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
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
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
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
...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
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
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.