31 Days – Unconscious Life

Take a look at these moon jellies swimming around in the San Francisco Aquarium. Do you find them as fascinating as I do?

The video is not mine, but I did have a chance to see the display when I visited San Francisco earlier this year. Some of the jellies had decided to swim from here to there with well-coordinated pulses of their bells; others had decided to just hang out. What was fascinating for me to contemplate was that their decision-making was an illusion. Jellies have no brains, and thus cannot “decide” anything.

On Day 4 (OK, I’m a day late) of 31 Days of Wonder, I’d like to consider jellies and other unconscious life.

I’ve written before about how consciousness is a matter of degree. As Douglas Hofstadter delightfully points out in his book, I Am a Strange Loop, even a thermostat has some degree (sorry) of consciousness: It “observes” the temperature and “decides” to open or close a circuit when certain thresholds are crossed.

But that’s not what we mean by “conscious life,” is it? We mean something like self-awareness. We might grudgingly concede that the thermostat is “aware” of temperature, but there is no sense in which it is aware of itself.

Is a jelly aware of itself? It’s hard to imagine an animal that’s not, but let’s consider all that happens in our own bodies without our awareness. Here’s a drama that is playing out in your body right now. Although less than a minute long, it would make a worthy sequel to Star Wars, complete with a Death Star.  Pathogens attack a cell, and then antibodies arrive and foil the attack. Finally, a macrophage engulfs a pathogen. (Full explanation here.)

Although fighting off invading cells is high drama, you could not be aware of it even if you tried, because it is disconnected from your brain. What if every process in your body were like that? What if you didn’t even have a brain?

Here’s the wonder: It’s impossible to imagine what such life would be like because if you were such a life-form, you couldn’t imagine anything.

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