I allow myself cycles of madness, days in which I obsess about the meaning of consciousness. I feel like I am just on the verge of figuring it all out, like a great epiphany is hovering in space just above my head, tauntingly out of reach. I read articles by scientists and pick up snippets of dialog from fiction writers, and in my head I try to blend them into a grand unified theory of life, the universe, and, you know, everything. And then it dissolves, fades, leaving me back in the mundane world, and my madness goes away until the next cycle.
One snippet which has haunted me this week came from Babylon 5:
… the soul is a non-localized phenomenon … the universe itself is conscious in a way that we can never truly understand … We are the universe trying to understand itself.
That last sentence is also a quote by Carl Sagan. I didn’t bother to research which source said it first. The concept is sprinkled across many other sites that I read. Compare that to this bit from a neuroscience article:
… self-awareness corresponds to a brain process that cannot be localized to a single region of the brain … self-awareness emerges from much more distributed interactions among networks of brain regions.
Non-localized activity in the brain gives rise to the illusion that we exist in a single point of awareness. Our thoughts do not take up space, yet we feel like we exist inside a bubble looking outward from within the brain. Could we really come from a higher dimension, and are limited by the way we “poke through” this physical plane to emerge as individuals?
During the month of August, I wrote a story based in a universe in which humans could actually “see” the field of energy which supports consciousness. I struggled with terminology, but tried to make it clear that my characters did not believe in the existence of souls. The spirits they see are the presence of self-aware thought caused by human life itself. After death, there is nothing to generate that self-awareness. What remains is an echo in the ether, like ripples on pond.
For narrative purposes, I deliberately excluded animals from this spiritual energy field. One reason was that animals make for poor dialog, but mostly it was because I just needed my main character to question what it means to be human. Whether or not animals are intelligent, emotional, conscious, sentient, or self-aware is often debated in contrast with the notion of a human soul. It was easier for me to bypass that issue by inventing another quality which is unique to humans. Such is the privilege of writing fiction.
Scientists can test almost every aspect of consciousness, but we may never know whether or not animals have meta thoughts. Are animals aware that they are aware? Do they think about thinking? Is the soul more than just the entity having these kinds of thoughts, or the essence of something higher which is watching itself have these thoughts?
The madness returns.