My April 2017 column for The Echo
Thinking about the aliens among us
By Frank DeMarco
Did you ever stop to think about the fact that we live among alien lifeforms?
I don’t mean extra-terrestrials. (Not even some of the people who post on Facebook.) I mean non-human lifeforms, as native to this planet as we are, and as different from us as could be.
Your mind might go first to the animals around us, but they are more like relatives. As different as we appear to be, I gather that the differences in our genetics are actually very few. A few percent of the genome, if I understand correctly. Of course, some people find it too much of a stretch to think of animals as relatives. Supposedly there is a great dividing line between ourselves and what used to be called dumb animals. The problem is, the more closely people look for that dividing line, the harder it is to find one.
Language? Who hasn’t heard of the apes who have learned American Sign Language – and taught it to their children! Tool-using? A YouTube video shows a crow using not one stick but two different sticks in succession as it figures out a complicated problem investigators had set. And so forth. If there is a line that separates humans and other animals, it’s difficult to see what it is. Anyone with pets has seen behavior that seems inexplicable if it is not self-awareness.
But beyond our fellow animals, let’s look at plants. When I was a boy it was assumed that plants “obviously” had no consciousness, only a set of reaction-patterns, responding to the presence or absence of light or heat or moisture. But many decades ago, Cleve Backster demonstrated that plants seemed to have emotional responses to threats; that they could divine hostile intentions; that they apparently could learn the difference between a real threat and a sham. In fact, apparently they could detect and react to human thought. Today it is known that plants also exchange information via their root structures, even that they engage in a form of chemical warfare.
Plants, let’s face it, live lives as mysterious as any extraterrestrial. Having no eyes, no ears, they live without vision or hearing. They can feel the sun and move toward it, clearly. But they can’t see it; they can’t see anything. They undoubtedly feel vibrations, but I don’t see how they could hear sounds in the way we do. These two differences alone make their world radically different from the world we know.
Now stretch it a little more – well, a lot more. What if everything we know is conscious? Rocks, clouds, water, air, synthetic fibers, radioactive waste? What kind of consciousness could matter have that had not only no brain, but no nervous system, no organs of perception, no defined boundaries? At first glance, impossible.
There is a way of seeing things, though, that not makes consciousness among seemingly inert matter not only conceivable, but probable; not only probable but inevitable. And that way of seeing things is the assumption that the world is made up not of matter and energy but of consciousness.
Quantum physicists have become convinced that the world is made of thought rather than things. This is not the place to go into the reasons why, even if I were competent to do so. But as long ago as 1930, English theoretical physicist Sir James Jeans said that increasingly, the universe seemed to him not a great machine but a great thought. He wasn’t speaking in metaphor. It was as close as words could come to expressing the mathematical relationships he lived among.
Now assume for the moment that all the world is made of consciousness. In such case, the fact that consciousness exists is no longer a mystery. Instead, it would be a mystery if any of the building blocks of that thought / world lacked consciousness. But different forms of life would have different forms of consciousness shaped to their circumstances. Your cat, sleeping on the rug, has no ability to speak but it makes its needs known, and it recognizes many words and even ideas. The tree swaying in the breeze has no eyes to see the sun that shines on it, no ears to hear the rustling of its own leaves. They live in different worlds. Nonetheless, they live.
English poet William Blake once wrote:
“How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?”
How do we know but that the iron in the earth, and the earth itself, and the fire that smelts it and the water that quenches the fire all have specific modes of consciousness.
Animal, vegetable, mineral: Alien life-forms made of thought, sharing with us a world made, like them, like us, of thought.