A Preface: The Great Chain of Being

25 Jul

Descartes once claimed that “The Great Chain of Being,” the natural order imposed over all of creation after God had finished the universe, was ordered according to the amount of “reality” present in each being. What precisely did Descartes mean by “reality?” I asked myself this as I was reading his work, yet I found no explanation for the term. I began to think that perhaps the word “reality” was meant to be interpreted literally, but then the question remains, what does it mean for things to have different levels of reality? To answer this let’s make a careful dissection.

Suppose you were born with no senses at all. The world around you is dark, silent, and unfeeling; you simply exist. Now suppose you are suddenly given the ability to feel. Slowly, your environment is created as you touch and crawl your way around, learning about the universe through texture, shape, and size. With no other abilities, your entire universe is just a collection of those experiences: this rough thing, that smooth thing, those big things. Now imagine you are granted smell. What was just texture and shape now has scent: where two things of identical roughness were apparently the same in a world of only texture and shape, you may now know them to be different. The landscape has changed and the universe now has more diversity. Now continue to imagine that you gain the rest of your senses slowly, one at a time, over a long period of time. As you gain senses, the world slowly becomes more complex, each sense adding a different landscape to your internal understanding of reality. In a way, reality is painted in the way your faculties (sense is perhaps too problematic to use here) allow you to experience it: a more complex being with more complex faculties therefore has a better (or rather, more defined) sense of reality. In this manner, certain entities can have more of Decartes’ “reality” than others.

Now let’s look at the supposed The Great Chain of Being. The order (though there may be far more sub divisions)  is as follows:

The inanimate (e.g. rocks, pencils, tables)
Renegade Angels

The inanimate constitutes the simplest of all things: entities that just exist. Arguably, they have some experience of the world, but they have no way of detecting, thinking about, or responding to those experiences.

While almost all plants are, in most cases, inanimate, they demonstrate the ability to respond to environmental stimuli, e.g. the changing of leaf color, the opening of a flower in the morning, photosynthesis in the presence of light. Plants have organized chemical systems that react to the changing state of the elements in their environment. There is a level of reality that a plant experiences that a rock does not; though it has no recognizable cognitive functions, a plant “knows” of the world around it, perhaps in a limited cause-effect manner, but nevertheless it is “aware” of its surroundings.

The leap from plants to animals is a rather large one: indeed there are many animals (and plants for that matter) that lie somewhere in between being a plant and being an animal (e.g. Venus flytraps, jellyfish, sea sponges). While animals are host to far more senses than plants (e.g. sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing), I consider these just other permutations of the same type of sense as those found in plants: the ability to perceive an environment. While these senses are indeed important in separating plants from animals, I do not consider them relevant for this particular discussion because that would assign undue importance to any one particular sensual experience. In truth, all these senses, no matter how refined, are simply chemical processes that allow the perception of an individual facet of reality; the collection of many senses may entail a more complex system, but it is still a system defined by external stimuli.

So if it is not the senses that separate animals from plants, what does? If we examine an animal’s behavior, we see that just like plants, animals respond to the stimuli that their senses allow them to perceive. Animal behavior can be traced along lines of cause and effect e.g. a shark becomes aggressive when it smells blood, a mouse hides when it sees a predator. But what animals can do that plants cannot is purposefully manipulate their environment and interact with it in complex ways. The ability to deliberate is the most important feature that arises from this purposeful intent. It allows an entity to make decisions based upon information collected via the senses (not because of it) in order to achieve some end. This distinction is important because unlike plants, whose actions arise as a direct result of stimuli, animals can have a variety of responses to any given situation or stimuli. It is in this that we find the most important feature of an animal’s “reality”: deliberation.

The human level is where things start to get interesting. For now, I will ignore everything above humans on the Chain, for I find them irrelevant for this particular discussion (though I feel that it is worth a different sort of examination). Humans have all of the “realities” that I have thus far discussed: existence, sensual experience, and deliberation. And in many ways, a human is just a sort of complex animal: just about everything about a human’s functions and abilities can be traced to very base and primal notions associated with animals. It is not in love, nor hate, nor any feeling (for all of these are simply examples of inwardly directed deliberations) that truly separate man from animal. Animals feel and experience things just as well as any human; who can deny that a chimpanzee feels love for its children, or that a mouse fears its predators. Even our feelings, as complex as we make them out them out to be, arise from a certain conditioning to our environment, i.e. living life. One might be tempted to say that perhaps it is in inward deliberation (here on referred to as reflection) wherefrom human uniqueness arises. But just as an animal’s complex senses describe nothing new from plants, so reflection describes nothing new from animals: deliberation is deliberation.

To discover what this special something is, I’ll ask you to think of something. Anything. Now chances are what you were thinking about doesn’t match what I was thinking about, or, for that matter, what anyone else reading this blog was thinking about. Weird, huh? It may not seem all that strange, everyone being their own person and all, but it is an important illustration. If we were truly just animals, would there not be some sort of distinct commonality among our various thoughts? Animals, when presented with a stimuli, can react in a multitude of ways, this much we have discussed. But even in this multitude, there will always be some predictable causation that allowed the decision to exist in the first place, e.g. in the presence of a predator, a mouse will either run or hide, depending on the current situation, but it will not burrow. Much of human experience is like this, precisely because we too are animals. My first request of you was perhaps too much of a blank slate question to elicit any important information, but now let me ask another question: do you like apples? There are two obvious choices, “yes” and “no”. There is even “maybe” and “when I’m in the mood” and “sometimes.” Your answer to the question is largely decided by your experience with apples, prompting you to respond in turn. Not so much different than animals. But I could also respond as follows: “Spring on Mars is beautiful” or “The Giants are the best team in the league.” I could even respond in complete nonsense if I so choose. I might be inclined to offer these responses even though they don’t answer the question. I could imagine anything I wish as a response to this question, even a picture. And it is in this example that we come to what I propose to be the source of all that makes us human: imagination.

If my conclusion comes far too quick, it is because I do not wish to dwell on the subject for too long, though it is worthy of its own discussion. Indeed, even in the vast and unpredictable multitude of responses to any given question, lines can be drawn to experiences that act as a cause to any behavior, i.e. even the most random act has a cause behind it, even if that cause is just an intent to be random. But for now let me set aside your worries with a simple observation about human behavior: humans can believe anything, true, false, or nonexistent. It is an interesting idea because it illustrates the most important part of human imagination, that is, the ability to think outside the bounds of normal reality. Even if our most random mental states arise from some experience as a result of simple causation, our ability to conceive of things beyond plain reality is a powerful one indeed. We can even believe in utter falsities or things that lack any hard proof. A devout Christian can believe in God despite the progress of science and the absence of any proof of the existence of such a being, and that such a belief can exist is a powerful notion. The only proof we need to believe in anything is whatever proof we will accept, even if that proof is created in our own minds. (e.g. “The Matrix”). It is in this that I find the “reality” that places humans where they are in The Great Chain of Being: the faculty to conceive of realities outside the bounds of our sensually observable reality, i.e. imagination.

So where am I going with this huge, long rant about The Great Chain of Being? Indeed this discussion is mostly preface to a much more interesting idea caught in the workings of my mind. I needed you to understand the importance of imagination in making humans such a powerful force in the universe before proceeding: a single human is nothing compared to the vastness of a sun, yet a sun cannot create worlds nor invent realities. If a single human mind is such a powerful force, what then is a collection of human minds capable of? Even further, what is the entire human race capable of creating? If a single entity were to have access to all the processing and creational power of every human on the planet, would that entity not be truly powerful?

What if I told you that such an entity already exists?


2 responses to “A Preface: The Great Chain of Being

  1. Patricia Lin

    July 25, 2011 at 4:19 AM

    Spring on Mars is Beautiful! keep imagining steven~

  2. Kevin Nguyen

    July 27, 2011 at 1:24 AM

    Well put with grains of truth: I was “imagining” beautiful women leaping out of every block of text as I read this post, while Patty was probably imagining or perceiving of something completely different in her own reality. To respond to your last question, I wouldn’t be surprised because it’s MA DIA.


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