The little man who lives in my head is as mortal as me. He stares out through my eyes which are the only eyes he can use to see. His ears listen only to what I can hear. His sense of smell and taste and touch are my own. So why then do I even describe this man as though he is someone other than myself? It’s because I don’t want to mistake my inner self for that things some people call a soul. That wishful immortal contrived to escape our death. Like an escape pod or a lifeboat by which we will survive the end of life. There is no good reason to think such a thing exists. Though the temptation to believe seems a near universal attraction. An attraction even to me. As I love life. Yet I do not wish to fool myself into thinking that I will live forever.
Sometimes, it seems we need an extra set of hands to use in covering not only our ears, but our eyes as well. Anything to not see death coming. Anything to quiet the sound of our footsteps on the way to the gallows. By some estimates, our species has had roughly one-hundred and fifty thousand years of sentience to prove the position of life after death; and so far, the best we've come up with is faith, which is no better than wishful thinking. I think the case against such claims has therefore been made by the absurdity of the proposition in favor of forever; along with the evidence of our bodily dissolution; and the curious clear “memory” of our not being, which we can each easily recall when asked to think about our potential existence before birth—that utter, timeless empty we recall of the long past before we were here, which reason suggests is the same future we'll know after we're gone. There is no good reason to think otherwise. Oh, but there's faith, and there is tradition, and there are songs of hope, and a big building on Sunday, and a wise-seeming man in robes who shakes my hand as we leave the church. And then there is the solemn service beside the grave, and the hopeful faces of those who believe. But then, why do they cry if they believe? Surely, all this isn't just contrived for our comfort? Why...who would write such a big and impressive book if the story within the book were not true? Answer me that, skeptic!?!
I will answer with what I know. That the universe is mute on the subject. That the stories and songs and speeches and tears are our own. That nothing in nature says otherwise. That the stars shine just as bright or dim over a newborn baby as a dead man. That none have truly ever returned. That our stories are our own, and are in conflict with one another, and vary by culture, and with the context of various group consensus. That what is common and true is our near universal love of life as well as our dread and fear of death. We wish to live on. We are desperate not to go. And so, we keep the stories. And we whisper prayers. And we cover our ears - wishing perhaps for an extra set of hands to cover our eyes as well. Won't you help me cover my eyes, too? Won't you whisper–or even SHOUT - forever into my ear???
The Homunculus meets The Pirate Ride
So, if we do not have free will, then what do we make of this parade of a seemingly free and willful life? Is it just an illusion of self-guided action, decision, and personal mandate? I expect it is...
There is this thing which I call the Homunculus which is a very old term (the alchemists loved it) referring to a little man, and in particular a small person residing within us; someone who runs the machinery of our bodies, steers the ship of who we are, and makes up our minds about what we will do and how we will live. I also ascribe responsibility for our sense of right and wrong to this non-existent entity. In contemporary terms, we might use the word consciousness to describe the same thing, though I prefer Homunculus for the imagery of a little man—or woman—stuck inside our heads and at the controls of our living. In my conception of Homunculus, this creature is utterly trapped and cannot escape our skulls and will die with us when we pass—suffocating at last within the stopped and broken machinery of our bodies. Homunculus is a secular alternative to soul, is likewise utterly conceptual, though notably different in being utterly unable to escape our death. The Homunculus is as mortal as the human being in which it does not truly reside.
I picture the Homunculus at the control of our mind and body, like a little person within our skull handling our dials and buttons, and turning our guiding wheel. Of course, I do not really think any such an entity exists...it is just a way to imagine free will in action within us. But now that I suspect free will is an illusion, I will need to rethink the Homunculus.
Of course, the Homunculus makes choices, we all experience this apparent will every day as the thing which makes us suspect we are free. So, I can leave myself with the impression of an inner man at the helm of my mind, steering the ship and guiding the course. But could that inner person ever make any choice other than those choices which it will? That is the key. And my current answer—and I will admit I have no good reason other than because I simply think so—is no, the Homunculus can never decide any choice other than the choices it will. It is locked into every decision by the grand machinations of the cosmos (part of me utterly rebels at the typing of these words—and I'm glad for the realization as there is a tone of nonsense in them which I need to address).
I wonder how far down the branching tree of life consciousness does go? 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 buzzing fly attempts to escape the web while the hungry spider descends upon a thread to subdue and consume it—all animals appear 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"?
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 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?
Notes from my muse
The Homunculus is like a captain chained to the wheel of his ship. There are no lifeboats. No preservers. And no signal flares. The fate of the ship is his own.