Guest Essays

Personhood, Mentality and Consciousness

R Chandrasoma

Unexhaustiveness is an essential character of our knowledge of nature. Nature is nothing else than the deliverance of sense-awareness. The terminus of this sense-awareness is something for mind, but nothing for thought.  Why talk about the Laws of Nature when what we mean is the characteristic behavior of phenomena within certain limits at a given stage of development at a given epoch – so far as that can be ascertained.       A N Whitehead

Abstract – Diverse aspects of the mental –including conscious states and emotions – are tied to the peculiarities and circumstances attending the evolution of life on our isolated planetary habitat. They are not phenomenal absolutes that necessarily arise due to the basic constitution of the world. It is argued that a ‘contest’ between dynamic complexities called ‘perceivers’ and the ‘womb of reality’ results in strange emergences of which life and consciousness are conspicuous but strictly parochial examples.

Certain introspective aspects of our mental life – commonly identified as consciousness or conscious states – are now widely recognized to be a challenge to the prevalent philosophy of physicalism that holds that all events and things in the world are ultimately physical in nature and are, in principle explainable in terms of the matter and energy transformations that are studied in the science of physics. The older concept of materialism is subsumed in this new vision of the nature of the ‘ontological ultimates’ that structure reality. The physical can be mysterious and overwhelmingly complex but it lacks a ‘property’ that eludes easy definition but is recognized without difficulty when encountered. This property is called mentality in popular discourse. For most philosophers, this distinction – between the physical and the mental – is too diffuse and simplistic to be the basis of a fundamental cleavage in the underlying order of nature. On this issue they can be wrong.

Let us approach this matter historically by noticing that nature is broadly hierarchical in the organization of its entities and states. At the base are the fundamental particles that are the major concern of the physicists. One would expect this ‘foundation’ to be well known apart from being well studied. Alas, this is not the case as the realm of microphysical is awash in mystery with current theories positing a many-dimensional vibration of an ultra-minuscule object called a ‘string’ as the foundation of the material world. That mathematical elegance is the pointer to the truly real is the Platonic Myth that sustains this kind of science. It is a continuation of a long tradition in Western science and philosophy that sees clarity of thought (mostly of the mathematical kind) as a sure guarantor of the truth regarding nature and morals. Clear thinking is necessary but not sufficient – the history of nature is nowhere near being a coherent and logical ‘discourse’. We must be open to the strange and the new –not only in forms of the rational but also in complexities of sense and feel that are strangely intrusive in the world we call our own. Heretofore, this openness – to the possibility of phenomenal aberrance in times and places remote from ours -has not been a great strength of our philosophizing.

Let us return to the ‘categories’ of nature. The bottomless mysteries of the inorganic world – ranging from storm clouds in Jupiter to subterranean volcanic vents of our own planet – need not detain us because our search is for the first expressions of mentality and it is unlikely that these ‘objects’ –vast and fearsome as they are – manifest even the first traces of the mental. A caveat must be entered here. Despite the boasts of the astronomers and the astrophysicists that the vast reaches of the cosmos are subject to eternal laws serendipitously known to Earth-bound humans, the plain truth is that we are locals bereft of grand intuitions on the nature of the universe – being no more than hominids stuck to a forlorn rocky satellite orbiting a mediocre yellow star. We speak glibly about the Andromeda Galaxy and its constituent stars and gas-clouds that ‘obey’ Newton’s (or Einstein’s) laws. What kind of perilously shaky knowledge is this that we are so boastful of? This giant galaxy may harbor worlds within worlds that mock the wildest imaginings of our frontiersmen in science. The ‘primitive’ rationalizing of Newton or Einstein may be gobbledygook in these strange and exotic places.

This seemingly ill-tempered aside serves no more than to point out that the ‘inorganic’ world may encompass hierarchies of structure and functional complexities that are quite beyond the reach of our imagination. Great mathematics will not help us to find the Grand Reptiles of the outer spiral of the aforementioned Galaxy. This being the case, let us refocus our attention on the evolution of things and systems in our own backyard. Viewed historically, the evolution of life from inorganic precursors is the grandest thing that has happened in our corner of the universe. It is feasible – indeed likely – that in the great galaxy of Andromeda (or its equivalent elsewhere) something evolved that surpasses life as we know it here – but on this matter we must remain mute. To leapfrog the local mystery – of life and mentality – and to seek the grounding truth in the overall ‘structure’ of the universe is a fad that has great currency among mathematicians and physicists. Is this not a gross misdirection? Knowledge of life and mind stands prior to mathematical intuitions on space, time and matter. Is it not strange that physicists and mathematicians who see themselves as a saintly prophethood vouchsafed with powers to uncover the grand truths of nature are scornful of the mystery in local globs of matter – the life-forms that clutter our poor planetary neighbouhood? Among much-touted ‘grand truths’ of current science is the disconcerting fact that the ‘universe’ is running down, decaying and ‘simplifying’. This fantastically belittling postulate is held by some leading ‘savants’ to be the greatest truth about the world. Needles to say, if this view is upheld, life – the assemblage of living species on our planet  – must be regarded as a mere obscure and freaky complexification of matter that is peripheral to the universal decay that rules the cosmos.

It is not our intention to examine the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the law of universal decay) in its physical setting. Our position is that with the emergence of the first living things, the flow of phenomenal events that constitutes our world suffered an irreversible phase-shift and in this sense fundamentally changed the world. Sadly, the purveyors of lofty scenarios in mathematics and physics regard the overall matter-energy budgets of the physical universe as the be-all and end-all of things. The appearance of living organisms is dismissed as a mere anti-entropic perturbation in the grand flow downward of the available energy in the universe – the move towards the terminal chaos. Undoubtedly, this is a way of looking at things that makes mathematical modeling easy and elegant – but, as we have said before, is this close to the intuitive truth about the world we inhabit? Is this not a way of looking at the world that is, in essence, a distortion of the primalities of existence? What is undeniably evident is that the emergence of life and of organisms marks a watershed, a great turning point in the pageant of events that constitute the world that has immediacy and truth to us as observers and participants. It is widely believed – by both scientists and philosophers – that the ‘fundamental theorems’ of biology have been solved with the proffering of molecular theories (the theory of the gene, for example) that account for key processes in the emergence of life. Indeed, it is argued that life as an emergent phenomenon is explainable in molecular terms and the day is not far off when mentality (or mind) will be likewise accounted for by advances in the material physics of the brain.

Is not this not optimism of a very foolish kind? Admittedly, there is a grand theory about a complex molecule (DNA) that encodes hereditary information that is crucial to the unfolding of the ontogenetic process – i.e. early embryogenesis. This ‘breakthrough’ was (and is) hailed as the dramatic uncovering of the ‘secret of life’ – the DNA code being presented to starry-eyed innocents as the ‘book of life’ which, when read by the high-priests of science tells us all about life and living things. This ‘story’ is blatantly untrue. A decade after the heroic reading of the ‘human genome’ the contradictions revealed must make even the pious weep. It appears that much of the code is ‘junk’ and a lowly frog or worm has a greater store of hereditary information in its zygotic cell than what is found in the leading primate species – ourselves. It is not our intention to learnedly and studiously rebut the theses of molecular geneticists. Our intent is to make plain the fact that vitalism is not dead and that the great mystery of life is far from resolved. This great mystery is the puzzle of ontogenesis revealed at two levels. How does a minute speck of organized matter imbued with life reach by successive developmental transforms so complex an object as a horse or a crab? This is not only a biological conundrum of the first order, it is major challenge to physicists as it is matter that is transformed in ways that neither microphysics nor macrophysics can account for. Sadly, this mystery is pushed into limbo by loud-talking ‘molecular’ biologists who proclaim to all that life is no more than the system dynamics of DNA-ruled assemblies of macromolecules. This is on a par with the assertions of astrophysicists that the Andromeda Galaxy is a mass of swirling gas and dust obeying the basic dynamical laws of physics. There is both hubris and innocence in such silly bombast – but is readily understandable in that it is intrinsic to man’s nature to be as boastfully ambitious in the cognitive realm as in more practical spheres.

Our strictures vis-à-vis the claims of the molecular biologists apply with equal force to the pronunciamentos of latter-day evolutionary biologists who see the awesome pageantry of life on Planet Earth as the mere consequence off the natural selection of the fittest of random variants thrown off by breeding stocks of the living. The error here (as in the previous instance of the hubris of molecular geneticists) is that of massive extrapolation from a model that is locally foolproof but becomes nonsensical when extended to the entire universe of discourse. That natural selection is a powerful culling-force in nature cannot be denied. Mutants (or genetic variants) of existing stocks differ in life-expectation and this forces long-term changes in the character of the stock. From these indubitable truisms it is a long shot indeed to say that a Giant Squid or a Mantis-Shrimp is the ‘product’ of a long process of evolutionary shaping based on mutation and selection. A giant Squid or Mantis-shrimp is not only an answer to problems of adaptive survival in an inhospitable envirnnment – they are surely more than a response to a collection of problems in survival engineering. They are sui generis by which we mean that a largely inscrutable life-force has transformed matter in ways that are uniquely its own – with selection and survival as an external constraint but not as the arbiter of basic form. The persistence of fundamental archetypes in living nature in defiance of the selective forces that are fundamentally disruptive is living evidence of this truth.

It is not our purpose to make a case for the inscrutability of the design-transforms of nature. It suffices to note that life – the grand collection of organic species on Planrt Earth  – has a strange and wondrous history  not because of the impress of externals but on account of an inner and mysterious vitalism.  To say that living organisms are merely answers to design-issues connected with survival is to radically cheapen the mystery of life. As noted above, such issues constrain but do not direct. Let us return to the emergence of life – which we argued is a fundamental (and unexplainable) transmutation of the material flux that underlies reality. It is our fundamental posit that a  driving elan vital has its ‘home’ in systems called organisms. While it is possible that the equivalent of organisms may be found in unknown corners of the universe, the physics and cosmology that is the ruling wisdom today has no place for the organismic in the complex panoply of stars, galaxies and black-holes that dominate their phenomenological constructs. Is this not strange? Why do we systematically belittle the thought that the emergence of that which we identify as an organism has fundamentally ‘frame-shifted’ the structuring of nature? It (i.e. organism) is the first appearance of a material system that transcends the material in picturing the world as an arena of action that serves the ‘selfish’ needs of this complex organizational novelty. Purpose and intentionality are its hall-marks. This may sound commonplace but the astonishing fact is that the dominant science of material things – physics – has no place for it. It is brushed aside as a curiosity of ‘matter-transforms’ that has no great relevance to flow of things in the mighty universe.

This is a colossal error in both epistemology and natural history. Life is an operational paradigm-shift in the workings of nature and an organism is its emblematic expression. Let us proceed to the next great emergence – that of mentality. (Notice that we use the somewhat old-fashioned word ‘mentality’ instead of ‘mind’). In accordance with the terminology we have adopted, Giant Squids, Whales and Elephants have high mentality but this is not a down-graded version of the mind discussed by philosophers ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes and Kant. Their mind is the human mind and its associated mentality. It is characteristic of the hubris of our species to dismiss all else as some kind of elevated functioning of a nervous mechanism. When we say that there are species of mentality that range widely over the animal kingdom, we are applying to mentality the same openness that we employ in dealing with life. A minute creature such as a Paramecium manifests a form of life. So does a Wombat or a Nautilus. They are all expressions of life but at vastly different levels and modalities. The same is true of that which we have called mentality. It is a generic term encompassing an evolution and diversification of the ways of picturing and acting in a challengingly complex world. To the Cartesian Rationalist, that which we call the mind is a ‘thinking substance’ that has valid standing in both Heaven and Earth. The Earth-bound Rationalist believes that all thinking is of one kind and that any sufficiently-advanced mind will appreciate Euler’s Formula relating two famous transcendental numbers with i – the square root of minus one. A sperm whale knows nothing of this despite its very advanced mentality. Nor does a ‘savage’ of our own kind. Are we to persist in the foolish views of the current generation of astronomers (brainwashed in the Cartesian Myth of a Universal Rational Substance) that ‘alien intelligences’ are ready and willing to ‘talk to us’ if only we have the ‘tools’? Is it not necessary to divorce ‘intelligence’ from ‘mentality’?  A rich mental life is possible without high doses of the rational or mathematical– an observation that flies in the face of that hoary wisdom famously announced by Plato – that those ignorant of mathematics must turn away from the Academy.

This topic is, perhaps, strangely disturbing and must be discussed further. In ancient India (the age of the Buddha) mathematics and numbers were studiously neglected. Yet intellectual truths of the highest kind were actively sought and found. The trance was seen as the chief instrument in the quest for true knowledge – not numbers and mathematics. Are we to say that this was all an ignis fatuus and that the mathematical model put into practice by Newton and Galileo represent mentality at its truest? What has been said about human mentality – its innate diversity – applies a fortiori when dealing with the great productions of living nature. We spoke of organisms as the first great advance towards a new order of nature in which material dynamics is ‘tamed’ for something higher than mere mechanism. Personhood marks the next great milepost in this in this odyssey of organismic upliftment. A marine worm (for example, the rag-worm Chaetopterus) is an organism in that it is a bound self-regulated system that executes meaningful programmatic overtures for its survival and the furtherance of its goals. Not only is an awesome dynamical identity defended against the destructive forces arraigned against it – it has progeny by a system of replicative modeling.  Nothing like this is seen in the bewildering chaos of the inorganic world and it is good to reflect on the creative wonder that such things as this humble marine worm represents. An earlier generation, inspired by the poetic and the truly religious did reflect on this humbling majesty of nature but this ‘instinct’ has been swamped by a ruling philosophy in modern science that sees mathematical elegance and simplicity as the  touchstone of the truly real.

While the marine worm mentioned above is wonderful to behold as an organism, is it a person? Are persons different from organisms? It must be conceded that while a marine worm or a fresh-water snail are emblematic as organisms, they fail to qualify as persons.  What is the distinction? In this instance we cannot use mathematico-physical intuitions to help us out. On the other hand, commonsense tells us that a seal, a walrus, an elephant or a giant octopus are organisms that have gone beyond the organismic and reached a breakthrough to that higher and more mysterious level whch we have identified as personhood. Perhaps we can include the higher Teleosts (the Blue-fin Tuna, for example) in this category. It is good to note that in terms of the defining attributes of both organism and person, Homo sapiens is not the greatest and the best. The Imperial Elephant of the Late Pleistocene was a far greater ‘person’ (arguably) than the primitive man who lived at about the same time. The brain of this Grand Proboscidean was larger than that of its human counterpart and so far as the body was concerned, there is no comparison – the savage and puny bipedal was in every way dwarfed by the great pachyderm.

Both the elephant and the hominid are persons in the following sense – firstly, they picture the world by complex neuro-sensory mechanisms and form ‘opinions’ that are quasi-rational and relate to the overall survival-strategy of the species. The notions of self-recognized personal identity and intentionality become applicable to organism at this level of neuro-somatic complexity. The model of a ‘self’ (an individualized perspective on surrounding affairs) with programmatic goals becomes descriptively valid. Thus, an elephant is as ‘great’ a person as a human –vagabond or otherwise. The difficult question that arises in the midst of such reflections is that relating to consciousness. Are all those categorized as persons conscious? Is it the case that consciousness and personhood are inextricably linked? Before such questions can be answered, we have to confront the hugely controversial issue of consciousness itself – more exactly the ontological status of so-called conscious states or raw feels – the latter expression covering such things as pain, anguish, elation, anger and fear. More controversially, the redness of a rose and alluring aroma of a particular savory food are elemental conscious states (qualia) that seemingly lie outside the universe of discourse of the material and the physical.  These are subjective ‘reflections’ that are not part of the defining attributes of persons as previously described. Personhood could be complete and richly fulfilled without the internal feels called qualia – indeed the term zombie is applied to such a functional replicate.

A reasonable proposition (if not in the mainstream of of thinking on these matters) is that ‘raw feels’ of the kind referred to above are fundamental ‘attachments’ of the life process at all levels. To Cartesians and some leading philosophers of the functional-analytic school of thinking, animals are bereft of reflective conscious states. While it is conceded that they do ‘picture the world’ and (at least in the more evolved forms) ‘think and reflect’ on what is seen and heard, this ‘thinking and reflection’ is a bare-boned affair that misses the ‘qualial envelope’ that is a sure feature of human mentality. While fear can be diagnosed in most higher animals, this fear (it is argued) is the sequel of rapid brain reflexes and hormonal surges in a complexly functioning brain. Much of the reflective aspects of human mentality is language-based and, since animals lack this pivotal facility, their thinking is little more than robotic. Is this ‘gloss’ on the real happenings in animate nature acceptable? Is it not arguable, that what we called ‘raw feels’ are part of the intrinsic machinery of life? That an elephant, for example, may not be in a position to understand the Poincare Conjecture but is buffeted by raw feels in much the same way as a half-naked savage? If such is the case for the Great Pachyderm, can we deny the same to a Polar Bear or a Great Serpent? The unassailable truth is that just as cognitive powers have evolved in the ‘ascent of life’ so have ‘feels, emotions and moods’ that mark a characteristic dimension of the mental. The one-celled Paramecium is neither brainy nor emotional but such an exemplar occupies the bottom rung of a ladder that reaches to full-blown instances of rational knowledge, feeling and reflection.

There are many difficulties that must be confronted if such a view of nature is to become part of the mainstream of thinking on these matters. Consciousness in the sense of reflective self-awareness is different from the raw feels discussed above. While the latter are a concomitant of life-processes at varying levels of differentiation, the emergence of a category of rational perceivers that are self-conscious, cognitively astute and driven to model the world with increasing sensorio-cognitive refinement is a late development in the evolution of life. Our species – Homo sapiens – represents a unique by-way in organic evolution wherein this advanced variant of a more primitive and widespread mentality became luxuriantly expressed. The widespread error is to confuse this high expression of mentality in Homo sapiens with what is supposed to be the eponymously mental. Fear, anger , pain and love are traditionally supposed to be ‘manifestations’ of cognitively advanced  and large-brained beings. It must be admitted that in their ‘refined’ form this is, indeed, the case. Such things as aesthetic sense and religious ardour are not found in the lesser beings that share our planetary abode. But are these not highly processed versions of a more primitive mentality dominated by the raw feels that appear to be widespread in most living creatures?

When nakedly stated, the thesis that all organisms are ‘structured for mentality’ seems to be a throwback to a period when vitalism of some kind was the ruling explanatory ‘ethos’ in the life sciences. This was a period when it was not considered ‘unscientific’ to suppose that even the most rudimentary of life-forms had an ‘extra’ unaccountable in terms of the known doctrines of material science. What we have advocated above is not a return to a kind of mystic addendum that must supplement the operational rules of physics and chemistry to account for the phenomenology associated with life as we know it. Our assertion is that an aspect of the mental in organismic life is ‘unseen’ or ‘overlooked’ when the current paradigm rooted in a physicalist interpretation of nature is regarded as unquestionably sacrosanct. It must be remarked here that all physical explanations are incomplete. Cam quantum physics explain the ‘raw feels’ associated with gushing water? Can material science explain biogenesis at its most elementary level? Can the General Theory of Relativity tell us why we are alone in the Universe? Are we to believe that all of nature can be reduced to the ‘vibration’ in eleven dimensions of a preposterously minute entity called a ‘string’? If such hair-raising stuff can pass as valid science, why is it ‘unscientific’ to declare that living organisms are endowed natively with at least the forebodings of the mental – that there has been an evolution of the mental from imperceptible forays in the lowest forms to full-blown instances in the diverse species of hominids? Let us re-emphasize the point that what we are speaking of are not such things as rational thought, reflective intelligence, fine-grained modeling, aesthetic delight or wondrous insight. These are high flights of a vastly developed mental sensorium and some of them can be replicated in man-made systems. The truly idiosyncratic markers of the mental are the emotional ‘coloring’ or ‘surround’ of the act and response of an organic being. In the lowest forms of life this ‘aura’ is exiguous. In the highest forms it transforms into ‘feels’ that seem totally unaccountable in physicalist terms.

The objection will surely be raised that such posits are an explanatory foisting of a kind that has no place in a biology or neurophysiology rooted in known science. That we are directly aware of the ‘raw feels’ that are a part of our mental life will be conceded by almost all. Is it not a common experience that the higher animals – a cat, a dog or a cow – seem to us to have empathic emotions and feels that are a counterpart of what is indubitable to us? This native intuition is rejected not because it is in some sense preposterous but because it wounds our pride as ‘children of God’. There is a long tradition in the West that treats animals as fundamentally different from humans – indeed to treat them as alien brutes that can be kicked around, maimed and killed with little remorse or compunction. Indeed, delight in the torture and killing of supposedly sentient creatures is a historically widespread weakness of our species. Is it surprising, then, that the ‘learned’ view down the ages is that we are fundamentally different from our animal congeners – that our ’mentality’ is qualitatively different from theirs? Indeed, things went much beyond this during the so-called ‘Age of Reason’ in Europe. ‘Savages’ – rude and untutored inhabitants from distant parts of the world – were regarded as little better than animals. It was famously said that in their concept of number, a ‘threesome’ was the most that they could conceive. The celebrated author of ‘The Origin of Species’ declared that the ‘mental gap’ between a savage and the great Newton was far larger than that which purportedly exists between a human savage and an Ape.

With such florid contempt for the mental powers of the less fortunate within its own species, is it surprising that the attribution of some kind of mental life to the vast assemblage of extra-human species was stoutly resisted? Once the obvious is granted – that in mentality there is continuity and variation in much the same way as the smooth transitions of structure and function in life as a whole – then the uniqueness and sanctity of the mental falls away. In reaction to the exigencies of the external world, ‘feels’ are prior to the ‘thoughts’. In the simplest organisms, adaptive reactions of a meaningful nature hardly reach the level we would recognize as thought-based. There is, however, a smooth gradient from the behaviouristic (or adaptive) reactions of an Aplysial Mollusk to the ‘intelligent’ reactions studied by animal psychologists. Surely the same is true for what may be styled the emotional life of animals. There is a spectrum of feels and emotions ranging from whiffs of it in the lower forms of life to full-blown expressions of it in the higher mammals.

The stand we have taken on the evolution of mentality has far-reaching implications in both physics and metaphysics. While some cognitive aspects of the mental have been successfully imitated in man-made systems of great complexity, the emotions, feels and moods that we argued were present (albeit in an exiguous form) from the very beginnings of life, lie quite outside the explanatory scope of current science. How can we have models when that which we seek to model is an unrecognized intruder? Indeed, life itself is in some sense a great intruder in that the grand theories of physics which are wonderfully productive in regard to the structure of the Universe, the evolution of stars and the strange history of Black Holes. At the opposite end of the scale, the science of the day has had tremendous success in dealing with quantum events and sub-atomic structure. But these imposing explanatory-theoretical schems of thought have little to say about life and even less to say about aspects of the mental. Is not this purblindness as regards what is perhaps the central issue of a science and philosophy that hopes to be both profound and encompassing shocking if not outright scandalous? Is life (we are speaking of its strictly biological aspects) in any convincing way congruous with the major tenets of macro and micro physics? It is treated as an aberration, a petty anti-entropic side-show in the vast concourse of physical events. More practically, it is treated as a play of some queer macromolecules (DNA and proteins) ensconced in membrane-bound wholes that ceaselessly replicate. A fantastic side-show in a mighty world that wheels inexorably to destruction.

It would be a fatal error to construe the views advanced in the earlier paragraphs as another version of  panexperientialism or panpsychism. In the latter the key assumption is that the basic constituents of the universe – including atoms and other material elements – are natively endowed with mind-like properties and that aggregates of organized matter can express the mental in superlative form. Thus the living cell and brains of higher animals are ‘amplifiers’ of of a mind-like quality that is an universal presence in the stuff of of the world. Leibniz, with his doctrine of monads, was a leading thinker on these lines. Let us look again at the theses advanced in this article – clearly very different from monadism of the kind favoured by advocates of panpsychism. Let us state first that life as we know it is parochial – not universal. Unquestionably, systems of baffling complexity exist elsewhere in the universe but such systems cannot be – even remotely – similar to the queer complexity that we call life on our green planet. The great and stumbling error made by exobiologists, astronomers and science-fiction writers is that life – or living organisms of some kind – exist elsewhere in the universe and that they mimic us in ‘universals’. It is fashionable to argue that life, cognition and even mathematical thought-processes must be generically similar wherever found. This is a natural extension of the historic discovery of the astrophysicists that atoms and molecules are the same in all corners of the universe. (Let us ignore the very shaky foundation of this supposition). To extrapolate from this to the ‘universality of life-like systems’ in the cosmos is disastrous blunder. That systems of great and baffling complexity exist on stellar bodies of (for example) the Andromeda Galaxy is a most likely supposition. But have we the imagination or the science to fathom their nature? Is it not ridiculous to suppose that such strange and exotic complexities will be a weak parody of what we call life? Is it not even more precarious to speak of the mind and the mental in connection with such unknowns? From the earliest periods of history our avant garde ‘thinkers’ have deemed it proper to universalize the feeble intuitions vouchsafed to them based on facts known locally. Pansychism is such a foolish leap into the unknowm.

If we accept that life – the extraordinarily idiosyncratic activity of complex material systems on planet Earth – is sui generis, so then is its mental life or mentality. When we argued that mentality evolved pari passu with structure and function, it would be dreadfully wrong to suppose that something called the mental that is categorically distinct from matter insinuated itself into evolving life-forms – or that a mysterious God-like quality present ab initio found the necessary ‘pabulum’ for expression in the evolving life-forms of planet Earth. To make this point clear, let us suppose that in some planetary body found in the Great Galaxy X we humans encounter a scenario of ‘matter-energy complexification’ comparable to the evolution of life on our planet, The naïve view is that it must be carbon/water based affair driven by information-rich macro-molecular replicators. This is an exceedingly narrow view of things. It is most unlikely that the material complexities in that remote site will ‘conform’ to what we believe is necessary for life as we know it. Suppose such strangely alien complexities display functional oddities or ‘epiphenomena’ of a non-material kind – is there the slightest chance that it would be a kind of ‘life’ that our earth-based scholars would recognize? This life that we talk so glibly about is not a universal – it is strange complexity that is universal. On our own planet there are complexities that are very strange indeed but rarely commented on by men of learning, both ancient and modern. Take the world of Plants      dismissed by the likes of Aristotle and Descartes as  mere ‘vegetable’ – this is a grade of complexification within DNA based systems that is utterly unlike anything found in the animal world. Indeed, within the animal world itself, the diversity of form and function is bewildering. A Great Octopus or a Spider Crab represent another kind altogether in comparison with a vertebrated beasts of the plains. Indeed, the marine invertebrates – by and large – represent a mode of complexification that has only feeble links with what is conventionally regarded as the mainstream of animal evolution.

If such conundrums face us in reviewing the complexities found in our ’home’ planet, is it not absurd to search for simulacra of the living found around us in other parts of the universe? The stumbling error is not the expectation of the wondrous in worlds beyond ours – it is the entrenched belief that what is diagnosed as life here is an expression of something more widespread and enduring. This metaphysical premise must be rejected. Earth-life and the processes that constitute life are inextricably bound to the process-history of our rocky planet. In an alien planet X, complexities matching what is found here – or even greatly exceeding them may be found – but it is foolish to expect ‘homologies’.

Confessing our basic ignorance on such large issues, is it not most likely that what ‘emerges’ from such complexification is certainly not life as we know it. Our philosophy traditionally encompasses only three categories – matter life and mind. In the far reaches oif the universe there are certainly other categories regarding which our native intuition fails totally.

What has been said above about the parochial  status of life as found in the planet we inhabit applies with even greater force to that which we have called mentality. The mental has long been considered as a fundamental posit – the base-constituent of the world. This is no more than unsupported metaphysics. The hard fact is that the evolution of life on our rocky planet made the emergence of what is called the mental possible – a spin off from a biological complexification that is uniquely earth-based. We noted earlier that the rudiments of the mental – the analogue of what some phuilosophers call ‘raw feels’ must have emerged as the concomitant of rising levels of living organization. In the advanced hominids this anlage of the mental blossomed into the kind of mental organization well known to us. No philosopher has dared to speculate ob the mentality of a whale or a a great raptor. The  latter surely have a rich ‘mental life’ but this is so unlike ours that our first impulse is dismiss its importance in the hierarchy of the mental.

Considering the difficulties we have in coming to terms with the mentality of fellow-beings on Planet Earth, is it a wonder that we are at sea when alien life is involved? As stated before, the word ‘life’ is arguably meaningless when the reference is to alien complexities of a totally unknown nature. Guided by a false metaphysics, life and the mental have been trated as genera when they are, at most, only species within an ontological framework that is totally beyond our comprehension.

To round off things, let us ask if this thesis of the unknowable qualitative diversity of that which is apprehended as making up the universe is compatible with the understanding reached by leading lights in the world of physics. A concord appears necessary because the physicists use the language of mathematics and a great tradition in the West holds that the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics. Alas, mathematics tells us nothing about that aspect of ‘nature’ which escapes abstraction, symbolization and rational modeling – all of which are ‘anthropogenic’. . Much that is raw, rich and directly given in nature cannot be ‘mathematized’ and it is an unpardonable error to suppose that that the ultimate explanans of the given in nature must be some mighty mathematical schema that exhibits the overwhelming truth and beauty of ‘things’ in their most elemental state. This dream has entranced (and grossly mislead) men of great gifts in the West and, indeed, it is this this species of mathematical dreaming that has spewed up such things ‘superstrings’, ‘black-holes’ and ‘pulsars’. What must replace this long-entrenched Platonism – the notion that the Great Mathematical Mind is privy to everything that truly exists – is the notion of perceivers of diverse kinds participating in games of world-making. Worlds are constructions. The ultimate is a pabulum, a reservoir, a transponder or a womb. It has no describable structure that respects God and Reason. Perceiving minds are naturally occurring ‘vortices’ that play a game of survival based on a picturing of that which seems to loom threateningly. This pictured ‘universe’ (which must not be confused with the womb) is a participatory construction that tells us nothing about the true foundation of things. Indeed, it is questionable whether ‘foundation’ has any true meaning in this deep context. An alien perceiver in a remote galaxy will have no counterpart for the mental. Nor will such a perceiving system necessarily have an organismic or life-like contour. Is it not ridiculous to suppose that we can communicate with such things using the ‘universal’ language of mathematics? What, then, is the commonality that we can suppose between them and us if both the mental and the mathematical are ruled out? In a large octopus, neither the mental (in the Platonic sense) nor the mathematical are present – but we (the mollusk and the mammal) perceive and hold worldviews that structure the impress of an unknown enveloping reality. Likewise, the Galactic Alien is a perceiver that defends an identity. The strange modalities that emerge from this struggle – the counterparts of the mental, the mathematical and the sensual – remain quite beyond our understanding.

Note on perceivers and perceptionIn the theses adumbrated above, perception remains unanalyzed. So is the system entity called a ‘perceiver’. This is done because these terms underlie the very foundation of how we represent or construct the world. The interaction between them is the greatest cosmic mystery. As suggested above, this generative pair is the source of all ontologies and universes. While scholars in the West have struggled valiantly to ‘conceptualize’ perception and to relate it to an ‘external’ world, they missed the basic point – that perception is always paired with an idiosyncratic perceiver – that such pairs are dynamic uprisings in the womb of reality.

******************************************************************************************R Chandrasoma

Sri Lanka 12th April 2010


One Response to Guest Essays

  1. Pingback: Guest essay – Personhood, Mentality and Consciousness « iZombi

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