Levels of Being: Putting the Mystery Back Into Life

One hardly hears discussion of the kingdoms of the natural world anymore. It is introduced in the early grades of our public schools and hardly ever mentioned again unless one goes on to study one or more of the Kingdoms in college. Our secular culture is dominated by the ideas of science and yet so few of us spend any time engaged in the study or practice of science.

Our minds crave certainty and Science seems to fulfill this need. But while Science seems to function as a Culture (See Culture: Where Do We Go From Here?), in reality it falls short. To understand why this is so, let us look at the scientific categories of existence.

Since ancient times the natural world was grouped into four major categories or kingdoms: Mineral, Plant, Animal, Human. Each level has some element the lower level lacks. Each element is a necessary quality of that kingdom without which it would not exist.

The Elements: m, x, y, and z

The elements that separate the four kingdoms are: Matter (m), Life (x), Consciousness (y), and Self-Awareness (z). The letters in parenthesis in the previous sentences are a shorthand so that we can see more easily how each of the Kingdoms are composed This convention is proposed in a little book called A Guide for the Perplexed written by E. F. Schumacher.   

Writing each kingdom with its elements, we have a table that looks like this:

Let us consider each of these kingdoms and their elements separately.

Mineral Kingdom = m

Inanimate matter is the lowest level, which we call the Mineral Kingdom. The first thing to note about the difference between this kingdom and the others is that while every kingdom is made of matter, the Mineral Kingdom lacks that element we call life.

“No one has any difficulty recognizing the astonishing and mysterious difference between a living plant and one that has died and has thus fallen to the lowest Level of Being, inanimate matter. What is this power that has been lost? We call it “life.” Scientists tell us that we must not talk of a “life force” because no such force has ever been found to exist. Yet the difference between alive and dead exists.”

 A Guide for the Perplexed, Schumacher p16

Plant Kingdom = m + x

At this level, the quality we call life is introduced as x.

We can destroy life, but we do not know how to create it. Scientists explain that life evolved, but no one knows the exact mechanism that created life from inanimate matter nor do we know what life is. In other words, we recognize that some being has life, but quality we call “life” is invisible to us.

This factor x is obviously worthy of our closest attention, particularly since we are able to destroy it, although it is completely outside our ability to create it. Even if somebody could provide us with a recipe, a set of instructions for creating life out of lifeless matter, the mysterious character of x would remain, and we would never cease to marvel that something that could do nothing is now able to extract nourishment from its environment, grow, and reproduce itself.

 A Guide for the Perplexed, Schumacher p16

Animal Kingdom = m + x + y  

The element y, which we call consciousness, is first encountered at this level.

From plant to animal, there is a similar jump, a similar addition of power, which enable the typical, fully developed animal to do things that are totally outside the range of possibilities of the typical, fully developed plant. These powers, again, are mysterious and strictly speaking nameless…However, since we cannot talk without words, I shall attach to these mysterious powers the label consciousness. It is easy to recognize consciousness in a cat, or a horse, if only because they can be knocked unconscious: the processes of life continue as in a plant, although the animal has lost its peculiar powers.

 A Guide for the Perplexed, Schumacher p16

Human Kingdom = m + x + y + z

We often hear the word consciousness (y) used interchangeably with self-awareness (z). That is, I think, because science explains that both consciousness and self-awareness are functions of brain activity. And since animals and humans both have brains, we believe think that the difference is one of degree, not of kind.

If this was so, that the difference between y and z is simply an additional function of the brain that animals lack, we could classify animals and humans within the same kingdom. And, while I suppose it is possible, according to our current understanding of evolution, that animals could evolve into self-aware beings, it is important to fully understand how deep the divide between consciousness and self-awareness is before we decide this a physical difference in brain structure alone.

This power z has undoubtedly a great deal to do with the fact that man is not only able to think but is also able to be aware of his thinking. Consciousness and intelligence, as it were, recoil upon themselves. There is not merely a conscious being, but a being capable of being conscious of its consciousness; not merely a thinker, but a thinker capable of watching and studying his own thinking.

A Guide for the Perplexed, Schumacher p17

This power enables us to manipulate our environment, develop language, conduct scientific experiments, to communicate and cooperate with other beings – and so much more. It is, in a sense, the ability to step out of the flow of time – what is happening at this moment – and consider things past, present, and future. It is the ability to abstract. This is the ability to pull away and detach from reality which in turn aids us in developing our mental frameworks – mental maps – of reality. It is this same ability which creates the many human cultures found around the world.

My objection that self-awareness is not simply a function or product of the brain is because we lack of a complete understanding of space and time. Until we have a fuller understanding of how the four kingdoms interact with space and time, I think it is premature to think the question is settled.

God of the Gaps

Before continuing, I want to make a note about a common fallacy that is sometimes used by theists and atheists alike to bolster their arguments on the existence of God.

Mr. Schumacher calls these jumps in levels of powers between the kingdoms “ontological discontinuities.” By this, he means there is a gap in our knowledge of how each of these Kingdoms obtains its powers.

Sometimes this view of gaps is used as a “proof” that God must, by necessity, exist. Because we do not know how something about how the natural world works, so the reasoning goes, then some supernatural explanation must be fill the “gap.”. However, this reasoning is generally discouraged by theologians because this kind of thinking produces an image in our minds of an ever-shrinking God as science develops explanations to fill in those same gaps.

On the other hand, this does not mean that gaps do not exist or that solving all gaps would prove there is no God. And this is the fallacy that lies with many attacks on belief in God by some secular, atheistic thinkers, especially The New Atheists.

So, it’s best that when one encounters a “gap” to not fill it in with either God or science as it tends to close off real thought on the question. This is not an easy thing to do as our minds crave certainty on the “big questions”, but if we consider “gaps” as solved, when they are not, we leave ourselves open to even greater errors in our thinking. I do believe that we try to fill in these “rabbit holes” with “mental constructions.” In other words, we “paper” over the “hole” in our knowledge instead of confronting it. Our Mind Maps then equate the “paper” with the “hole.” (See Mind Maps and the Beach).

Gaps should be marked on our “mind maps” as an unexplored / unknown territory. They should help us stretch our awareness beyond the known Reality, not shut our minds down at its border.

Between the Universe and Reality – Where does God fit in?

Theists argue that that defining God out of the physical universe does not mean he does not exist. Atheists argue that saying God exists does not “prove” he does, any more than unicorns, fairies, or other imaginary being. The atheist sees God as a projection of man’s mind and the mind is the product of our physical brains.

This argument, at the level of science, gets us nowhere. Atheists will never disprove God using science and theists will never prove God by using science. The problem with both sides of this debate is that it excludes the possibility of parts of Reality that science cannot, by definition, explore but might be perceptible to a living being. I believe we have forgotten how to think properly about reality and the universe itself.

Just how we arrived at this level of faulty thinking about the universe is the next topic I will be working on. 😊