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STOIC POETRY | Tracing consciousness

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

I wonder how far down the tree of life consciousness goes? Like us, dogs are clearly aware of themselves relative to the world, and can imagine current and potential circumstance which might cause them pleasure or pain, as when the male dog breaks from his yard in pursuit of the bitch, or sets to barking at the strange noise from the street which provokes his sense of threat to his home, his human family and himself. Some sense of personal identity appears necessary to distinguish friend or foe from oneself, and dogs, like us, clearly have this. Both species share such consciousness, as do nearly all animal types I can think of, from mammals, to reptiles and amphibians, to birds, fish and even spiders and insects - as when the fly attempts to escape the web while the spider descends upon a thread to subdue and consume it - all animals seem somehow aware of themselves and, to various degrees, others. Consciousness then, must be either a consequence of life itself or a necessary adaptation to survive, at least with animals. But what about the other kingdoms of multicellular life? Are plants conscious? Are fungi aware?

The question of consciousness should depend on just what consciousness is:



  • The state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings

  • The awareness or perception of something by a person

  • The fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world

Is a plant "awake and aware" of its surroundings? Does a tree not turn its leaves to follow the course of the sun across the sky? Does a fungus emerge only in favorable ground? Likewise, unicellular life such as bacteria will move away from harmful stimulus and towards favorable conditions in a petri dish. These behaviors indicate that these forms of life are, at least to some degree, aware of their environment. But are they "awake"?



  • Not asleep



  • A condition of body and mind such as that which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is relatively inactive...



  • The element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought

These definitions might then lead us to believe that to be "awake" is to have an awareness of the world which is not asleep, which description certainly fits the behavior of trees, fungi and bacteria, which would seem then to qualify these as conscious forms of life.

But what about a virus? Is a virus both awake and aware? What is a virus - such as COVID-19 - doing when it goes to work infecting a human cell after being inhaled? Is the virus consciously responding to its discovered circumstances in the same way the tree turns its leaves towards the sun, or a fish swims in pursuit of prey, or a bird builds a nest, or my dog barks at the passerby on the street, or I go to work to feed my family; or are we all simply following the impulse of chemical reactions in ways increasingly more complex the higher we reside in the web of life? And does such behavior only then seem like chemical reaction in a virus because the process is so simple and clear at so small a form of life, the fact of action and consequent reaction so obvious at this simple scale, the virus then being arguably neither awake nor aware - or is it?

And for that matter...are we? Is our base response to action only disguised for what it is because we cannot easily see what what it really is? Are we really something more than quite complex stimulus and response? And are we more conscious than a virus simply because we have cleverly convinced ourselves that the decisions we make are truly our own?


My name is Kurt Bell.

You can learn more about The Good Life in my book Going Alone.

Be safe... But not too safe.

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