Sunday, June 10, 2007

Patio reflections on the free decisions of a spider

Hi folks,

I know I know. It's been a week. But I so loved the birthday pics and video that I didn't want to bump them from the top of the order. (Wasn't the video my wife and friends put together precious?) At least this is the excuse that seems most plausible to me at the moment. But I was also very busy, blah blah blah.

So, I was up on my patio on top of my garage the other day, enjoying a cold beer and the nice weather after a hard 6 mile run (I've been trying to get a little back in shape after two years of almost total body-neglect). I notice out of the corner of my eye a tiny spider darting about irradically on the wall closest to me. I begin to wonder why it starts when it starts, and stops when it stops. And why does it move in one direction at one moment and another at a different moment. It seemed completely arbitrary.

As I'm pondering this deep question a big fly lands close to the spider. The fly moves a little closer to the spider and then the spider darts away.

Now, I can't be sure, but it seemed to me the spider became "aware" of the fly and then "decided" to move away to protect itself. And then I begin to wonder if each of the seemingly irradic starts and stops were something like "decisions" -- but made for "reasons" that weren't apparent to me. And if in fact the spider was making something like "decisions," is it possible they were something like FREE decisions? Could the spider have acted otherwise? If MY decisions aren't exhaustively determined, why should I assume the spider's are?

It seems to me the only way I can gain anything like an understanding of the spider is to draw analogies with my own experience of the world. How am I to think about this except to suppose that the spider has SOMETHING LIKE consciousness and makes SOMETHING LIKE free decisions?

And then I begin to think, if this principle applies to everything from humans down to a spider or fly, why could it not apply to even lower forms of life? Why could it not apply to something as primitive as a virus? Could there be SOMETHING LIKE "consciousness" and "free decisions" at this level? And if so, why stop at a virus? Maybe there's something analogous to "consciousness" and "free decisions" ALL THE WAY DOWN?

Quantum physicistis sometimes talk this way about the unpredictable "behavior" of quantum particles. Why not?

The philosophic view I'm toying with here is called panpsychism (pan = all; psychism = mind like). It holds that something like experience or consciousness is the common denominator of all things. I've been intrigued by it most of my adult life. What drives the philosophy, in my estimation, is the correct insight that all things must share SOMETHING in common. The traditional view is that what all things share is "substance." But panpsychism has rightly seen that the concept of a completely mindless "substance" is devoid of any distinct meaning. It's equivalent to "something-or-other". It really affirms nothing. But the concept of "mind" as a substratum of all things is NOT devoid of distinct meaning, for as my little patio reflection reveals, the concept is naturally applicable by way of analogy to a wide range of things -- and hence possibly to everything.

Think about that the next time you casually watch a spider darting about on a wall.