“In a few years, it will all be over, and the human race will have divided in twain. There is no way back, and no future for the world you know. All the hopes and dreams of your race are ended now.
You have given birth to your successors, and it is your tragedy that you will never understand them – will never even be able to communicate with their minds. Indeed they will not possess minds as you know them. They will be a single entity, as you yourselves are the sums of your myriad cells. You will not think them human, and you will be right.”
Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
Many readers of Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 classic were upset by the somewhat bleak ending of his novel. Since the arrival of the Overlords, humankind has been under the impression that it is being prepared for a utopian future of peace and happiness. But as it turns out, there is no future for humanity. Its only purpose in the century that has passed has been to give birth, in a peaceful environment, to a generation of children who will come together as a single collective consciousness, drawing all energy and life from the planet, to be absorbed into a cosmic “overmind”.
Some reviewers of the book also complained that Clarke – a scientist and astronomer who had helped develop radar systems in World War II – had strayed from science into mysticism and theology. I may be about to do the same thing.
The collective consciousness of the children in the novel, we’re told, is analogous to how we, as individuals, are the sum of the myriad cells of which we’re composed. Scientists have explored the idea that bee hives and ant colonies are a kind of collective consciousness, too, and that flocks of birds and schools of fish can behave as a single consciousness – as can crowds of humans at a ball game or a mass rally.
In my previous post, I wrote about how people who care deeply about our fellow animals and nature are unlike other interest groups:
The thing that sets them apart is that their concern reaches beyond our own species to embrace other living things. For them, it’s not all about us.
And I raised the question:
What might happen when a body of people who share a deep care and concern for all living beings are able to build an even closer connection at a time when the rest of human society is becoming increasingly separated and fragmented?
So now it’s time to ask: Could it be possible for a body of people of like mind and heart to give rise to a new kind of collective consciousness?
This is more than just a fun idea to contemplate. It’s a notion that, however fanciful, may be the only future available to us.
But let’s be clear: The science is solid that we are well into a Sixth Mass Extinction, and anything that does indeed survive will effectively be starting over from scratch. By now, we’ve gone over too many tipping points to be able to turn the clocks back.
So what we’re imagining here offers no escape from the reality of what’s happening. It’s not about our survival. Nor is it yet another belief system offering redemption, rebirth, a new age, or any other way of coping with the finality of death and extinction.
* * *
What is consciousness?
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet, Act One.)
“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” (Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Ep. 1.)
One of the great mysteries of science today is the nature of consciousness. No one really knows what it is. Some say it’s simply a product of the individual brain, limited to the individual who experiences it. But we have no evidence of that – no evidence one way or the other.
The world’s best neuroscientists are baffled by it. It may simply be the natural outcome of a bunch of neurons interacting with each other. On the other hand, there are scientists who have argued, as Robert Lanza does in his book Biocentrism, that it is the substrate of the universe, and that without consciousness “matter dwells in an undetermined state of probability” (referring to the understanding in quantum physics that at a subatomic level things only exist as waves of probability until they are “observed” by a consciousness, at which point the wave “collapses” into a particle.)
Lanza’s notion resonates with me, although it is no more than a notion and many well-known physicists have little time for it. (Not that they seem to have any better idea of what constitutes consciousness.)
Whatever it is, some people seem to have a consciousness that’s limited tightly to their own personal experience, while for others it extends outward beyond themselves. Albert Einstein described this extended consciousness as a level of empathy through which we “widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
People with a more empathic consciousness make up only a small percentage of humankind. We have no idea why they are like this and other people are not. It doesn’t seem to be genetic, and it’s not cultural (i.e. learned). All we can say is that when it comes to caring about other living creatures, some people “get it” at a very profound level; others less so (and in some cases barely at all). What accounts for this we just don’t know.
But it does raise an interesting question: Could it be that this empathy for species beyond our own is the seed of a new kind or level of consciousness?
Most people with this element of empathic consciousness experience it as something of a mixed blessing. If you’re one of them, you’re constantly in touch with the suffering of animals, and until very recently, as we discussed in an earlier post, it left you feeling quite on your own when it came to acting on it.
Through modern technologies, however, we’re more connected with each other than at any time in history, and this has brought about a closeness and a sharing that was never before possible. In the world of social media, people who share this deep empathy with other animals make up a special interest group quite unlike any other. Just for starters, it’s not about ourselves. It’s not about an occupation or a pastime, or about self-improvement, or about family and friends, or about being an American or a Shiite or an evangelical or a member of the Tea Party or the Occupy movement or a union or a lobby. It’s not about our opinions or what we are or can be as humans. Nor do we derive personal benefit from it – except in the fulfillment we get from having helped the animals.
(All of which is not to say that we “animal people” walk and think in lockstep – not remotely. Trying to get even a few of us on the same page can be harder than, as they say, trying to herd feral cats. But while we’re among the most individualistic of people, especially in terms of how to get the work done, our disagreements are superficial. At a deeper, core level, we’re family.)
* * *
What if . . .
Just as the myriad of your individual cells (any and all of which may well have their own form of consciousness) are part of the larger life form and consciousness that exists as you or me; and just as thousands of individual ants or bees may be part of a super-consciousness that is the colony or hive; could it be possible for the thousands or millions of us who share a deep connection through our devotion to the lives of our fellow animals and nature to be able to form something that would exist in its own right as a true collective consciousness?
Sure, it’s just an idea – and a fanciful one at that. But why not?
While we can’t deny the finality of what’s happening to life on this planet, we can certainly rebel with all our being against the thought of billions of years of evolution – of beauty, of suffering, of striving, of life – going down the cosmic drain, wiped out by the greed and stupidity of a single species.
Is annihilation all that we’re capable of? Or, in a variation of the notion that’s floated in Arthur C. Clarke’s classic story, could those of us with that special connection to the other animals and to all life be coming together as an emerging collective consciousness – a new life form that could survive us as individuals and survive even a mass extinction of life as we know it?
At a time when the rest of human society is becoming more fragmented and divisive at every level, the connection among those of us who share this empathic consciousness is growing stronger than ever. So, too, is our connection with the animals we work to protect: orphan baby elephants in Africa, orangutans in Asia, wolves in North America, tigers in circuses, orcas in marine circuses, what’s left of the fish in the oceans and the coral reefs where so many of them are birthed, the mice in laboratories, the homeless dogs and cats in shelters, the frogs in wetlands, the groves of trees and their forests, the insects everywhere?
We can’t reach out to all of them. Not remotely. Entire species that we don’t even know about are disappearing forever every day – and millions and billions more have already come and gone in eras long gone. But just as all of nature is constantly being recycled into new forms, could not the same be true for consciousness itself? Could it not be that the deeper the connections we make with other living beings today, the more we’re tapping into the underlying consciousness of all life?
Again, no suggestion here that we might somehow turn the clocks back, stop the extinction, or save ourselves. We humans are not going to go on. We are, at best, a tragic, transient species – gifted in so many ways, yet fatally flawed with an individual consciousness that enables us to see and know so much, especially about ourselves, but that burdens us with the one thing we cannot cope with: the knowledge of our own mortality. We spend our entire lives trying in vain to raise ourselves above our animal nature and deny who and what we are. And the inevitable consequence of that is that we simply create more suffering and destruction wherever we go.
The problem is no longer what we do; it’s not even what we are. It’s that we are.
But that doesn’t make us some kind of alien agent of destruction. We’re part of nature. We evolved here. And life on Earth, even without humans, never was and never could be a picnic. We’re not responsible for all the suffering of sentient life. Far from it. We’re part of it, too, along with everything else. As Ernest Becker describes it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death:
What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types – biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gases the residue? Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer bees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out …
… An earthquake buries 70 thousand bodies in Peru … a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures.
When you think about it in those terms, you could even argue that with our vast arsenal of destruction as we tear open the bowels of Earth to release millions of years of stored CO2 and methane into the atmosphere and the oceans, with all the weaponry we’ve built to unleash upon each other, along with hundreds of nuclear power plants that will melt down when the power grid goes down (which it will), perhaps a visitor from another planet would reasonably conclude that the extinction we’re bringing on is something of a mercy killing.
Whatever the case, all we can do – those of us whose consciousness reaches out to embrace our fellow creatures – is to help relieve some of the suffering that’s all around us, wherever we can, however we can.
And perhaps then, just possibly, in doing this we’ll be doing something more. As our own species continues to unleash mass extinction on the planet, perhaps those few of us who work together to ease the suffering are bringing into being a new kind of consciousness, one that can take form as part of the cosmos when life has been extinguished on the planet where it was born.
If such were indeed possible, it would certainly make up for everything that had gone before. And while it would be our destiny to die, as it were in childbirth, as we bring into being a consciousness beyond ourselves, that new consciousness would contain the essence of all of creation – all that is and ever was on this beautiful, wondrous, but pain-ridden world.
Just a fantasy? Yes. But we live in a universe of infinite possibility. Astronomers tell us that 95 percent of what’s in the space all around us is invisible to us and, for now, entirely mysterious. Why, then, should we not imagine a future where we reconcile ourselves with the rest of nature and, in our final hours, amid the chaos of mass extinction, open the door to another kind of world, one that’s brought into being simply by “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”?