Consciousness is a scale, not a binary

When my son Max was born, my sense of who I am blossomed to include this tiny wet lump screaming flesh. He is me, more important than the part that goes to work in Manhattan.

But he didn’t do a whole lot. Even when he grabbed my finger, it was a reflex operating. There wasn’t much internal life or reflection. Like all of us he was on a journey to develop into a person. He’s on the acceleration part of that trip now, so every week he develops something new, connecting concepts and creating abstractions. Now I can hear him babbling stories to himself where he used to just experiment with the noises his mouth could make. The curve of his growth has a near vertical slope as he becomes aware of who he is and who his parents are. He knows he has a baby sister coming in May and is dimly aware she will be boring at first.

He will watch her grow into her own consciousness and expand his self to his family. If we’re lucky, they will both grow to include something bigger than themselves in their consciousness.

I’m still growing in wisdom and experience, but I’m no longer accelerating. My growth happens in smaller chunks and less often. I have to push myself to learn and escape comfort to grow. My epiphanies are shallower and less frequent. The slope of my growth curve is flattening before it peaks and descends. Then I will be more like my father.

The smartest man I’ve ever met is learning fewer things and his stories repeat and loop and meander. He tells me “You might not be aware of this, but…” and then he tells me something again. He might be forgetting things like what it is to be poor or disregarded faster than he learns his latest passions. Someday I’ll be telling stories to my kids that they already know and I hope they will love me enough to listen closely for what I’m saying underneath my words.

So I see intimately a scale of consciousness, introspection, reflection that flows through my past and future. I was a flat sheet, then the world made impressions on me until I’ve become crinkly enough make new interfering patterns in myself. Some day I will lose my flexibility and start to flatten again.

If consciousness is a scale in people, how conscious is a dog. Sorta? They seem to think and plan. They hide and deceive and love and grieve. How conscious is a kitten vs a cat? How much of a soul does a mouse or parrot or gorilla have? They have some consciousness, as does a mosquito. Consciousness becomes a lot easier to talk about when you can say “sort of” conscious instead of talking about a binary, as Daniel Dennett proposes.

So I’m a self reflecting system, my son is self organizing into a more crinkly experience of the world, my father is smoothing out and my soon to be daughter is barely there. Surely she sits in Sam’s belly as more of a possible mind than the concrete though simple plans and dreams of my neighbor’s dog.

If you’ve stuck through this far, sorry this is how I’m announcing that we’re having a baby daughter in May.  I couldn’t figure out a saner way. So let’s also talk about something crazy but probably true: Pan-psychism. Once you let go of consciousness as a binary, you can realize that everything sorta thinks to some degree.

Most of the pan-psychic folks come at it from a place of duality, thinking that if the meat that types these words has a soul, why couldn’t a calmer version of that soul inhabit a rock or a tree or a table? I come from a different perspective. Any system that reacts to stimulus and then modifies itself or reacts to changes within itself is practicing some sort of consciousness or soulness. That perspective is useful when you think about corporations or economies or earthquake resistant buildings or networks of trees and fungus communicating and sharing resources in forests.

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2 thoughts on “Consciousness is a scale, not a binary

  1. I think your father is someone you should love and respect. I hope you love your father enough as you say you hope your son will love you enough to listen.

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