The Worlds We Share – August 14, 2011

Last week I wrote about the different worlds we all live in:1 How our understanding and our internal references change depending on the things we grew up with, our level of education, our situation in the world, and so on. The point was that, if human thought and perception can differ so markedly, how much different must be the minds of non-human but near-sapient animals like dolphins and whales, or those of any extraterrestrials we might meet.

But while there will surely be differences, we can also find similarities and points of common interest merely in being alive. And these similarities speak directly to what I call the Human Condition.

The first prerequisite is sentience—or else why are we having this encounter? The dictionary definition of sentience includes “awareness,” “ability to feel,” and “consciousness.” Clearly, this is not simply the ability to react to stimulus, as in sensory awareness. Amoebas will react to changes in light level or ambient pH by moving toward or away. My dog is conscious—as opposed to unconscious—and will be aware of a caress or a blow and react accordingly. So awareness, as used generally in the context of mind, must include a sense of self as being apart from others.

A dolphin or chimpanzee will identify and study itself in a mirror. A dog will simply try to communicate with the “other dog” that it sees there. If you strap a funny hat on a dolphin or chimp, it will go to the mirror to see what you’ve done. The dog will merely feel uncomfortable.2 The dolphin or chimp appears to know itself to be a separate being, an “I.”

Such awareness may or may not be essential to what we think of as intelligent behavior. Colonies of bees, ants, or termites bring together individuals of limited capability and certainly no self-awareness. The individuals may not even be able to feed themselves or survive for long in the wild. But together, under a fixed social order coordinated by sensory cues, they are capable of impressive feats—building complex nests, surviving winter’s cold, finding and stripping a carcase—that appear purposeful. Science fiction writers have long imagined colony beings that demonstrate sentience only at the group, not the individual, level.3 Whether such “collective minds” might actually exist out among the stars—because certainly none has been found on Earth—is still open to conjecture.

Note that sentience is what I would call an “ungraded” characteristic. Like a pulse, you either have it or you don’t. This is different from other characteristics like intelligence or empathy. Albert Einstein is qualitatively, and perhaps quantitatively, more intelligent that, say, Paris Hilton. And Mother Theresa is qualitatively more empathetic than, say, Josef Stalin. But all of them have, or had, a pulse and exhibited self-awareness. They knew themselves as an “I.”

Once a being exhibits self-awareness, a key characteristic that will either link it to or divide it from us humans will be whether or not it is mortal. And mortality, of course, goes both ways.

If a being has always existed, from the start of the universe or perhaps even before, then it is classed among the gods. It will have no awareness or suspicion of a starting point. Neither do humans, of course. We don’t know about a world that has never included us, but we are made aware of it through the recollections of our parents and elder persons who factually and credibly describe events before we were born. We have no awareness of our own birth, because our minds were still forming at that point and were overwhelmed by the sudden sensory stimulation. Most people can recall events back to about three years of age, but before that is a blank. And recent research has shown that memories from childhood before about the age of 10 don’t always survive into adulthood.

The mind is a complex thing. That is, it evolves in complexity as links are made between neurons, but this characteristic of complexity applies also to any accumulation of data. Memories, personal likes and dislikes, insights, thoughts, and character traits—all those things which differentiate us as individuals—are formed over time. Not all memories stay with us forever, either: They may fade with time, become changed by suggestions and associations, and even be created whole out of imagination by our desires and fears. It is simply not true that you can delve back in time and recall any and every detail, like what you had for breakfast on the second Tuesday in August forty years ago. Or, if you can, you belong to the group of human outliers known as savants.

So a being that is not immortal from the beginning of time will be aware of growth and change. It will be able to see itself against the background of time, remember a period when it lacked certain bits of knowledge, skills, understanding. If it is not self-generating, then the being will also have awareness of others who are like it: family members, compatriots, fellow species members, others who are less different from it than they are from other animals, plants, and inanimate objects. From the varying levels of proximity—family, tribe, species, biological near-relatives, and biologically different life forms—such a being will have developed affinities and allegiances. In general, we care more about our families than about other people, more about mammals than we do about lizards and fish.

What can be said about time, can also be said about space or place. If a being is pervasive throughout the universe, then it is likewise among the gods. But a being that was created or fissioned off or born at a particular time will also have appeared in a particular place. We are born into this village or country, not some other, and on this planet, in these circumstances of gravity flux, atmosphere mix, ambient temperature, ambient pressure, and available light. We may travel to other places, but we will always know them to be different from the place we first knew—what we call “home”—and the still further places we might visit. In each place, we will be required to make accommodations in our mind if not with our body.

From the specifics of time and place, the being will have a sense of history—its own and the others’. This sense will include things known, sensed, shared, admired, loved, and hated. Perhaps any group of entities that share knowledge and memory will also create stories and tell them to their children as a way of explaining the world they live in.

In the other direction of mortality, any being who has seen parents or hive mates or close associates die will necessarily entertain the thought that its own existence will not last forever. Most humans manage to conceal this from themselves most of the time. Some may even imagine that, while others may die, they themselves will cheat death and live forever.4 But all beings bounded by time at the beginning will also be bounded by time at the end.

Again, working from animal models, science fiction writers have proposed sentient beings that reproduce by fission, like bacteria. Individual A splits into individuals B and C, each with the full complement of knowledge and skills possessed by A. Then B splits into D and E, and D into F and G. Soon you have a world of twins to the power of infinity! Each new generation may acquire new and different knowledge, perhaps even evolve over time, yet retain identity with and awareness of all that was known at the point that it budded off the main line. Such beings are possible, but not known in sentient form on Earth.

In such a world of budding species, any individual would know that it was different from most of its neighbors yet share in their inherent immortality. In the same way, any human can know that although this body will one day die, a group of biologically similar children and cousins will live on. They will bear similar traits and respond to similar ideas. Barring catastrophe, they—and if not them, then life on Earth—will live beyond us. And through that thought, we approach immortality.

But on an individual level, any sentient being bounded by time must anticipate the day when the last breath and heartbeat will pass into silence. Even a species with no natural limit, like the budding species, must consider death through accident and misadventure. And since life is a series of mishaps, and any complex system exhibits frailties and vulnerabilities, the period preceding a natural death will be marked by decline. As there was growth and development from the point of birth, so there will be loss of vigor and function as the body tips over into the long slide toward ultimate dissolution. This need not be a time of fear and terror. We may simply tire more easily, we strive less, we take more naps. But there will still be sadness for lost potential if not for lost vigor.

Any being we might recognize as alive and sentient, but not a god, will share these things with us. There will be sense of self and isolation, of limited time and place, of affinity for those who are alike and aversion to those who are different, of personal growth and decay, of approaching death. When we meet the beings from beyond the stars, we’ll have a lot to talk about.

1. See The World We Live In from August 7, 2011.

2. For more on what constitutes dolphin behavior, see The Dolphin institute’s research findings.

3. See, for example, Frank Herbert’s The Green Brain and any episode of Star Trek involving the Borg.

4. With recent advances in medical science, including regeneration of body parts through manipulation of stem cells, ours may be the first generation to experience a lifetime that is unnaturally extended well beyond the traditional “three score and ten”—perhaps even to immortality. … Or at least I like to think so.