Metaphysics 101 Part 2

(Part 2 of Ten)

(continued from Part 1 of Ten)

Instinct and Thought

Stones, bones, and microbial impressions tell us a narrative of life that began on earth eons ago. That story weaves millions of species into and out of existence. But whatever the similarities and differences among species may be, instinct is built into all living things, even if that ‘instinct’ is that of a virus at the border of life ‘replicating’ itself by entering a living cell.

Having no life of their own, viruses are quintessential parasites. I read somewhere that a mass of viruses behaves as one (!) as though it ‘knows’ when it may or may not advance against the resistance level of a host organism. Not being alive, a virus is absent of volition as we know it, yet the virus’s movement into a cell and the resulting ‘re-arrangement’ of the living cell’s molecules is probably a purely chemical phenomenon. But I think that the movement resembles an instinct. The same may be true of vegetative life when it works against gravity in the photosynthetic process. Perhaps microbiologists have a better explanation for what it is that makes viruses do what they do (including mutate), but at the more complex level of multi-celled life, instinct is a clear and universal property of life.

What is significant in the context of this article is that the phenomenon of thought sharply distinguishes itself from instinct. When a living organism recoils from heat or cold, its movement is instinctive. When it thinks, it transcends instinct. The interaction of instinct and thought varies from species to species, some of whom have no thought at all (insects) to sporadic thought (land and aquatic mammals). When thought is at a metaphysical level, it is exclusively human.

Oooooops! Now, I hear the shrill voices of relativists of all stripes admonishing me for my “anthropocentric” view of humankind. But the fact is that humans write books, study stars, and split atoms. Apes don’t.

We are told that we owe our dominance to the opposing thumb, which enables us to extensively engage in tool-making. That, they say, is the major reason for humankind’s dominance. Although I’m sure that tools and thumbs greatly helped us achieve dominance, they are not the primary factors in our rise from caves to skyscrapers: brains are.

Thought is the crown jewel of the universe. Thought can be silent, yet you can hear it. It makes you hear music without sound—sometimes even when you want to stop the music but cannot. You hear the word “elephant” and you cannot avoid ‘seeing’ an image of an elephant without the aid of light. And you cannot stop thinking while you are conscious. You know what thought is, but you cannot define it.

If thought is no more than an ongoing activity primordially initiated eons ago when particles came into being; if it is no more than the activity of a macabre dance of particles that began at the first attosecond of time—then, all cerebral activity is irrelevant. Yet, that is the underlying concept of determinism. Its counterpart is free will. No metaphysical issue has been more discussed and none is more profound than that of determinism vs. free will.

(to be continued in Part 3 of Ten)

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