To Understand God, Just Put Your Mind to It

By Clegg, Donald | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), October 27, 2012 | Go to article overview

To Understand God, Just Put Your Mind to It


Clegg, Donald, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


I'd like to take you on a little journey from small to large, both real and imaginary, with a simple goal.

"What?"

Why, thank you for asking. I'll tell, but not right now. First, I have to prepare you to have your brain and mind blown, and then do so.

I had the happy coincidence of seeing an idea of mine - more on it at the end - echoed by one of the world's leading neuroscientists, Antonio Damasio, in his most recent book, "Self Comes to Mind." Damasio has been studying brain function for more than 30 years, developing an evolutionary model of mind, consciousness and self, with an eye toward understanding the biological advantage (if any) of self-awareness.

He's an elegant writer and thinker, and vividly introduces the concept of higher-order emotional feelings - our own, for instance - as emergent from behaviors that have been present since single-cell organisms appeared a couple of billion years ago, gaining speed with more advanced critters. Say, worms.

"Consider the nematode," he writes of one called C. elegans, "a scientifically fetching kind of worm whose social behaviors are quite sophisticated." Equipped with "a mere 302 neurons organized in a chain of ganglia - nothing to be very proud of," C. elegans nonetheless displays surprisingly social behaviors, despite lacking anything remotely approaching a mind or consciousness.

Damasio asks the reader to imagine C. elegans from a sociologist's perspective, withholding from her the knowledge that you're just describing a worm, and concludes that she might easily detect behaviors as advanced as cooperation and altruism.

Keeping in mind that nematodes are multicellular organisms, with the honor of being the first such to have their genome completely sequenced, let me apply air pump to brain. I'll remind you that, on the spectrum from smallest to largest thing in the universe, humans are about halfway along.

Now, let's imagine our fetching C. elegans halfway up the ladder instead, with single-cell organisms such as amoebas and paramecium at the bottom. …

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