Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Could I Have Been a Cockroach?


I was recently asked if I thought the asker could have been born a cockroach.* He seemed rather worried about the possibility that he might be looking at the world from floor level, be in proud possession of six legs and a thick black carapace, have an intellect so limited as to be barely aware of his own existence, and have to eat rotten crumbs and expect to be trodden on at any time. A disagreeable idea. Even though the danger has clearly long past, it’s a nasty thought, and I imagine we have all thought about it at some time or other.

In order to answer the question- yes, I am going to try- we need to define a few terms, and clarify some concepts. Much depends on whether you assume that the consciousness has any meaning or identity outside the body. Many, probably most, people believe that it does have some independent existence and so can be, or could have been, implanted in some other person, or some other creature.

The major religions all take something like it for granted. They all assume that what gives us identity is temporarily fused to the body in life, and is decoupled on the death of the flesh. Some believe that it will be recycled in some other container, depending on how one’s behaviour is the previous receptacle is judged. Despite my love of Indian literature I have not embraced Hinduism or Buddhism, and intellectually I reject the idea of reincarnation, but as a Catholic born and bred I don’t instinctively find the idea of an ultimate separation of body and soul to be absurd.

On the other hand, once you start thinking from a cognitive and physiological point of view, it is easy to understand that consciousness is a creation of the specific biology of a given organic structure. The thing that looks out through my eyes could not possibly have existed in any other place because it is a product of the process that brought me into existence.

This brings up the further question of what animals (and insects) are in fact conscious. Is there, somewhere, a black beetle cursing his luck that he wasn’t born a butterfly? I think not. It could not have any concept of being something other than, better than, what it was.

Then, I wonder, where does that leave the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, the Erectus, the Australopithecus, those who were almost us but not quite? Did they wish they had been us, and curse the fate that made them something else? Did they understand what they were cursing?

*Yes, people do ask me questions like that. Is it because I have a face that appears to hide infinite wisdom, or because young people have inquiring minds, or because I just happen to be there when they say what has just occurred to them? Who knows, but people do ask me improbable things. When I’m struggling with an upside down map while shooting looks in random directions with an imbecilic look on my face in some forgotten corner of a foreign city I can guarantee that a car will stop and someone will ask me if I know where Milo Terencz’s baroque hat factory is. To which the obvious answer would be, “Do I look as though I possess that particular snippet of information?” But then the answer to that is, “Yes, why do you think I asked you?”

I conclude that at least on some occasions people ask me simply because they think I have the sort of face that will at least listen to them and give some kind of response. Which is a bit like the chap who dropped his keys under a bush but was looking for them on the road because the light was better there.

2 comments:

James Higham said...

This brings up the further question of what animals (and insects) are in fact conscious. Is there, somewhere, a black beetle cursing his luck that he wasn’t born a butterfly? I think not. It could not have any concept of being something other than, better than, what it was.

This is answered by the concept of the soul.

CIngram said...

The soul is a good answer the question, but then it was designed to be. The trouble is it may not be the right answer.

Consciousness is extremely difficult to show even in the higher primates. Chimps (and possibly elephants) sometimes seem to recognise their own reflections, which is a form of self-awareness, but it's all very tricky. I'm not even aware of a practical, meaningful definition of what consciousness is (I mean one that isn't self-referential). If we assume, and it may well be true, that no animals below our closest relatives and a few larger-brained mammals are in any way conscious of their own existence, the problem doesn't arise.