The lines between living and dead and the lines between conscious (sentient) and unconscious (but still sentient) are getting tangled. Or maybe getting untangled, revealing their complexity.
“Merriam-Webster: Sentient ultimately comes from the Latin verb sentire, which means "to feel" and is related to the noun sensus, meaning "feeling" or "sense." A few related English words are sentiment and sentimental, which have to do with emotions, and sensual, which relates to more physical sensations.”
On the one hand is the robot/computer which feels nothing but acts as though it did, and on the other hand is the animal which has many feelings but a unusually unknown capacity to reflect on them, which we consider to be rational thought.
In between are the hundreds of kinds of hominins, now gone, whom we suspect of growing sentience until they suddenly burst into reflective consciousness somewhere around the time of Neanderthals.
That’s one way of looking at this line between categories we just sort of thought up in order to reflect, which we are uncommonly fond of doing to the point of narcissism.
But then there is the practical problem of when living sentience begins and ends in human individuals. Of course, some deny that it ends. What they call “soul” is something like identity-powering sentience detached from its generating body and continuing existence on another plane. The flesh, blood and bone that are left behind have no feeling, neither sensory nor emotional. Sometimes unconsciousness mimics death except that the body goes on, sometimes so subtly that only the fact that it’s not rotting shows that its alive.
At the other end is the beginning as conception:
Consciousness requires a sophisticated network of highly interconnected components, nerve cells. Its physical substrate, the thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content, begins to be in place between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. Roughly two months later synchrony of the electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm across both cortical hemispheres signals the onset of global neuronal integration. Thus, many of the circuit elements necessary for consciousness are in place by the third trimester.
At this end the body and brain that support consciousness is there, but it awaits experience. It is a phenomenon of interaction with the brain AND body as the identity-carrying interactor. They cannot be separated without death. That’s what death IS.
For the more recent centuries of thought we have privileged the brain’s ability to perceive patterns. It does this by constructing patterns of its own, by connecting the cells of the brain, extending tiny filaments in discernible patterns that we call the “connectome.” It’s something like what we call “frame of mind.” Onto it is mapped the individual’s body, but distorted to fit the number of nerve fibers being connected; that is, big lips and hands. Into these elements develops recorded memory.
But this is to neglect everything but the cortex which in its highest form is in the pre-frontal lobe of cortex. Some specialized functions of “higher thought” are there, lodged in specific cells with mysterious capacities like sensing other people through empathy. Some scientists feel this is where the brain is evolving, because sensing other people in a person-crowded world is a key to survival. Maybe. But in each living person, unconscious thinking is pumping blood, mixing in air, secreting specialized digestion molecules, killing foreign invaders with antibodies.
There is another line between what is living and what is dead, which is that between the mineral world and the bio world. Again, one can begin by looking at origin or ends. One process claims that the physics that give rise to electrochemical phenomena such as the one-celled microbes capable of eventually evolving into complex and self-conscious humans. This is the conviction under scientists creating organic “soup” and zapping it with “lightning” to see what happens.
The other way of beginning is at the conscious living end, which is described in Robert Lanza’s book called “Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe.” (It came in my mail yesterday.) More than proposing that we’re only imagining the world anyway, it suggests that quantum physics can explain life force.
In between are those who study the patterns, including the double helix of the genomes of things, submicroscopic molecular plans for living entities. They persist in the sediments of caves, where human mitochondria genes can be found, and in ocean water, as bits of former sea beings. Now, of course, those organically constructed molecular patterns are accompanied by human-manufactured plastic molecules, disintegrated from debris. (What if the two ever fuse into a new form? What could an organo-polymer being do?)
Those who — like the fish aquarium soup-zapping scientists — wish to play God (the prevailing pattern for old white dominant men) build labs trying to make a cell from scratch. They can already form genes and, working with living genes, can take genes out or add genes in to the various chromosomes. We’ve already done that by accident. (“Call the Midwife” recently dealt with the molecule called “thalidomide” that prevented arms and legs from growing properly in embryos.)
Now the premise is that technique is controllable enough to accurately change individual genes. There are two problems. One is the epigenome which enwraps the genome and is capable of “methylating” individual genes, preventing or accentuating their function. The other is the wovenness of the genome, which means that every added or subtracted gene affects all the other genes. We are discovering that some genes are only there because they turn other genes on and off, or even change their function. To our dismay, removing what we have thought was “junk” can have dire unintended consequences.
I have no descendants, except slantwise through the daughter of my dead brother and her two sons. Tristan, the older boy, seems to have a kind of imaginative vulnerability that will unfold as his environment allows. Griffin, the younger, is roundly blithe and confident that he can make his world. Their mother has both qualities. And I?
In terms of environment, I note that our present democracy is in the kind of crisis it was when I left undergrad college (the Cuban missile crisis) and what it was when I left marriage (Nixon impeachment). I thought when I moved back here that I would have escaped, but now there are (in my neighbors like mitochondria persisting in the silt of caves) drugs in the household on one side and a religion proselytizing church on the other, crises that take time and energy at my expense. This blog is often my attempt to come to terms without surrendering my identity. Writing is patterning.