If there is a unity to life, then consciousness might not be the solitary affair we tend to think it is. After all, we already noted that the mind is hard at work before the self appears. Another way of putting this is that consciousness precedes self-consciousness. We are aware before we are self-aware.
So who is driving before we take the wheel? Are we simply born with pre-installed software — thankfully not made by a certain large corporation — that runs the show at a very basic level until we start writing some more advanced programs?
I don’t know about you, but I have trouble with that. It seems to me that the car either needs a driver or it doesn’t. Certainly it has one now, so it must have had one to begin with. This is the I, the mind’s I. Except you are probably thinking that this just leads in another circle, that this I still has to come from somewhere. And so it does.
Our working premise is that life is a single impulse, and clearly it is evolving. We tend to think in the relatively short term, but how can we say that a momentum present since time began has not been evolving all along? And if we look at the way simple organisms and plants respond and/or adapt to their environment, consciousness also is hard to pin down. Clearly it is intrinsically related to life. We could look at it as a property of life that has evolved to a critical point, a critical complexity — life reaching the threshold of awareness.
In this understanding, life forms do not gain consciousness; life gains consciousness through them. Humans, and it seems some other mammals with large brains, have gone beyond consciousness to self-consciousness. This would correspond to life becoming aware of itself, and the same analogy would hold: individuals do not become self-conscious; life becomes self-conscious through them.
Just as the biological development of the fetus traces the stages of our evolution as a species, with webbed appendages or flippers giving way to hands and feet, and our tail receding, so the development of the mind goes through the stages from primitive consciousness to self-awareness. Life is driving the car.
That might sound a little strange, but, again, it’s just another way of looking at what we share in common — life, or human life. Next comes the really strange part. Have you ever thought of how bizarre it must be for an infant — who in our common conception appears more or less out of nowhere — to suddenly have to process a world of sensations and experiences while learning to work a body and mind with no user’s manual? It’s downright incredible.
Now let’s add into the equation what we have already said about the development of the self. And remember, we are not talking about the evolution of life as some do-it-yourself kit where you have a picture of how it is supposed to look at each step along the way. No. We are looking at the unguided, unforeseen, unpredictable process of evolutionary biology, except we are positing a life force or momentum at work through it.
So life becomes conscious through this brain and body. I come into existence. And I am exceptionally busy doing all those incredible things we have talked about. And I observe that everything centers on this brain and body. And I haven’t thought about where I come from, because that kind of thinking is years away. And so I identify not with life as a whole but with the brain and body I am using and which more or less define my physical and mental existence.
What have I done? I have become me. Not through a conscious act of creation but through a process of identification. Having no other point of reference handy, I am overwhelmed by the perceptions and experiences, and above all the accumulating memories, that are stored in the brain I am using. I become me in the sense that I see no difference between the two.
Call it “original error,” but self-identity as something other than a temporary and accidental phenomenon is a mistake. It is natural, perhaps unavoidable, but it is a mistake. And it affects every aspect of the world as we know it.