I was really bored and kind of just skimming videos on Youtube when I came across a several day long ‘fight’ between a Black Widow and a Praying Mantis. I usually can’t even sit down for too long to watch Netflix, but I was utterly enthralled by the way these creatures appeared to regard each other. But it goes beyond that; I started questioning their thought processes, their behaviours, and started wondering whether such beings are actually conscious or sentient.
Technically, the answer is yes: the basic definition of either term (although usually regarded with some kind of philosophical weight in mundane conversation) is the simple ability to perceive one’s surroundings and act in accordance. We see this in many beings, be they spiders or dogs, who cower from the things that scare them and pursue that which may be considered food. But I think we can both agree that isn’t what is hinted at, because by that logic even self-driving cars could be considered as low-level sentient. I can’t for the life of me remember what I was reading, but the author made reference to spiders, stating that they are simply machines running a biological software of hunt, breed, survive. Spiders aren’t complex emotional creatures as one might consider a human or even a dog to be; however, I’m tempted to make the argument that such creatures are not designed to exhibit emotions, being completely solitary entities, and so lack the facial features and the capacity to show when they feel happiness or disgust. It was mentioned in one episode of QI that cockroaches are utterly disgusted by humans and would wash themselves immediately on contact, although I couldn’t speak to the validity of the claim.
I’ve been doing a lot of research into the metaphysical recently; during one TED talk by Anil Seth, he makes the point that the brain continually makes assumptions about reality, or what he calls the ‘best guess’. The basic idea is that we wander through this reality experiencing stimulation from many different sources that we might call communal existence (for example, we look at the grass and know it’s green, but what the fuck exactly is green, and are you seeing what I’m seeing?). Our experience with this ‘reality’ is almost bare-bones, and is coloured in by our psyche based on our perceptions, our knowledge, the context, and I would guess even our personality to a certain extent. This is shown effectively within the talk, but if you’re looking for further evidence, look up an ‘auditory hallucination midi’ of a song that you know, and one that you don’t. Despite the notes all being presented as piano keys, your experience with the song will inform the gibberish and enable you to hear spoken words where there are none. If you don’t know the song, it’ll sound like a mess.
So what we have here is a subjective experience informing, manifesting and creating reality to a certain extent. This idea is understandably easy to dismiss as some new-age hippy shit, but my first foray into this field involved quantum mechanics and the ‘double slit experiment’. This is, as far as I know, the best scientific example of something that logically shouldn’t be affected by reality having a measurable effect on reality. Something as simple as introducing an observer into the mix influences the particles to behave differently to how they would were no observer present. Basically, if a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound? Because now I’m not so sure.
Magic, as is seen by various faiths, belief structures and occultists, can be explained somewhat in the context of these findings. The most basic principle being linked to the law of attraction, and the assumption that you mould reality with conscious thought. Imagination is the catalyst to existence. The whole concept of this ‘Magick’ is somewhat controversial, and understandably perceived by many realists and skeptics as cash-grabs, exploitation and inability to cope with mundane existence. One passage I read, though, goes like this:
“Call it imposition of the will, call it the placebo effect, call it the descent into madness. Regardless, Magic works.”
Bringing up the placebo effect is an interesting argument, and the reasoning behind it is what wannabe Hogwarts students base their practise on: belief shapes reality. I believe I’ve mentioned this before, but it comes back to this Dark Souls interpretation of magic. You have faith, and you have intelligence. Both are used to fuel essentially the same things, but function on different wavelengths; according to one, research and understanding into a topic will aid your belief in the ability to manifest your desires, while the other shows that simply having faith that you know what you are doing can achieve similar results. I’m on a tangent here but just roll with it; I was talking to a friend and told him that in one of the books I’ve read recently, the author describes physical objects taking on a different vibrational wavelength when they are not being observed. If conscious belief and imagination moulds reality, then this makes perfect sense. A thousand people know that Tesco is down the road, so it goes without saying and no one expects to walk down to do their shopping and find Tesco has transcended this existence. Every person has this image in their mind, and so even when no one is looking at it, when no one is validating its existence, it persists. This friend made the point that, if no one is looking at you, do you stop existing, or do you count as an observer of yourself. I paused for a moment, and then it occured to me that, when people are placed in solitary confinement, they kind of start mentally falling apart. Think of that what you will.
Going back to consciousness then, can humans be considered to be the only creatures with this degree of self-awareness? If all we experience is ‘artificially’ generated by our expectations, would it be so hard to consider an AI, a spider, or even a dream character to also have similar experiences that we cannot perceive or even conceptualise within our minds? If you’re looking for more material on the topic, I would recommend researching ‘tulpas’, or complex thought forms that the ‘host’ perceives to have developed its own brand of consciousness. Fascinating as all this is, objective answers are nigh impossible to come by in this line of thought. I guess for now we should just focus on our subjective existence, and make sure we know that at least we are sentient.