Humans tend to mystify things for which they have no logical explanations. Before we knew about the various elements and atoms, philosophers would suggest theories for why life existed the way it does – take for example Empedocles’ theory that love and strife are in constant conflict which leads to change in the world.
When one takes a biological perspective on the matter, they can find that the answer lies not within the field of mystery and religion.
The biggest questions in life are never so complicated. No such thing as ‘mystery’ exists. What would that consist of? Currently, I would argue that everything that exists must have a source of origin — there is an explanation for everything.
What would God consist of?
My suggestion is that consciousness exists simply because cells exist. Cells communicate to each other and form a greater whole.
Groups of cells are ‘conscious’ of each other.
The world is very simple. It is built on basic ‘building blocks’, which form more complex systems as they combine. Atoms, which are the elements, form cells and organelles, which form groups of cells and organisms.
Maybe the answer to consciousness lies with the idea of ‘emergent properties’. Like bacteria in a biofilm, a greater property arises when various cells come together.
The bacteria communicate with each other through chemical messengers, and are thus colluding to act as one organism.
Would an organism without a brain have a consciousness? Maybe we have to redefine our definition of a consciousness.
Maybe one could argue that a plant doesn’t have a higher consciousness because it doesn’t have a way to process the incoming information in a single center.
Though a plant responds to different stimuli by making plant hormones like auxins, it doesn’t really have a central nervous system. Though it acts as one organism, the incoming information is scattered — unconnected. If you cut the leaf of a plant, it doesn’t scream in pain because the information is not transmitted to a central nervous system which would cause every part of it to react in some way, immediately after the cut.
Is consciousness the ability to think? Even though bacteria are ‘conscious’ of each other in a biofilm, maybe they don’t have consciousness as we think of it.
Philosophers through the ages have argued this.
I think, therefore I am.
Or, another argument: humans are different from all other organisms because we have the ability to reason — referred to as logos.
What is thinking?
My definition for thinking would be that it is the ability to process information, in a processing center, like in a brain. It is the ability to reason, and not only humans possess it. Cats, birds, ants, — they all have a brain! I would argue that an ant may not have a similar capacity for thinking as humans, as their brains are much much smaller than a human brain.
Now this discussion is driven to another important consideration: will artificial intelligence have a consciousness? I think yes — since it will have an awareness of all the different parts of itself.
If colluding cells are conscious of each other, then maybe those organisms with a brain just have a much different consciousness — they can operate on a different level as they have control over a much larger area of themselves. Human beings might be more conscious than plants in general because we can process information in a specialized centre meant for processing incoming information to all our cells, and we have senses, such as pain sensors!
Perhaps somewhere more developed beings are even more conscious than those on planet Earth and can control their bodies in more refined ways.
Isn’t it fascinating that we all have a genetic code? It’s really as simple as that. We have been coded into being.
One of my favorite biological discoveries has been the discovery of hormones called cyclins. Cyclins control the cell cycle. It’s fascinating that cells know exactly what to do because they are directed by hormones. Hormones are proteins, which are macromolecules made up of smaller units made up of atoms. The hormones then interact with other molecules, maybe activating a protein which will restrict or promote the transcription of certain genes on DNA. All of this happens because of the interaction between particles, not because of some ‘vital force’ as may have been claimed prior to Louis Pasteur’s experiments in the 19th century. There really seems to be a simple answer to everything, and so far it would seem to me that no mystic forces like ‘vitality’ exist.
Perhaps I will be proved wrong in the long-run, perhaps we will find that ‘vital forces’ are in fact the basis for all of science, who knows! Maybe the study of physics in the summer will change my worldview. I am completely, entirely open to any new ways of thinking — constant change in ideas is how science works after all, isn’t it?
But I really do love the simplistic beauty of life.
To end this article, I’ll leave you with a beautiful 3D image of DNA. It’s just beautiful — so elegant and so simple.