Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Hydra And The All-Seeing Eye

A path only reveals itself in the journey. No one knows what it looks like until they’ve traveled it. If we are lucky, we will receive instruction ahead of time telling us what to look for, but usually we don’t recognize either the instruction or the luck and will pass by the obvious landmark many times before realizing that dirt path past the twisty tree is really the way to the castle.

Way back when life was first starting to collect cells, there was a point when organisms started being able to detect light. These organisms - probably a Hydra or “living jelly” - had no eyes, no lenses, no cerebral lobes devoted to interpreting the data of photons. Instead, they had molecules, specifically proteins, within themselves that would agitate when hit with light. In darkness these proteins would go about their business interacting with other molecules the way they were built to do. But when hit with the energy of a photon, these molecules would take in the energy in the light and get energized.

Now the organism had a way to tell the difference between light and dark. But at first, light and dark would have no meaning. The experience of light for the Hydra was not illumination and focus. Objects were not revealed. The original experience of light was simply an excitement in the presence of something unknown.

It might have taken generations for any advantage to come of this. The proteins originally reacted to photons not because they were seeking enlightenment or even a hunting advantage. These proteins were simply following physical laws; their bundled atoms - just energy themselves - absorbed the incoming energy of the photons because they chanced to be arranged in a way that made absorption inevitable. At first, this reaction just existed on its own. It wasn’t tied to any action in the organism. The Hydra didn’t do anything because its proteins got excited by photons.

But eventually, a Hydra did do something in response to the light. It may have taken thousands of generations for a Hydra to link the feeling of light to the feeling of movement by a water flea, but when it finally made that connection, it started catching a lot more fleas…


Scientists have discovered a link between the temporal lobe of the brain (the part behind your ears) and experiences of the divine. People who have temporal lobe seizures often describe feeling deeply connected with every living thing or report that they understand the grand plan of existence. The scientists are, of course, very careful not to make any claims regarding the existence of g*d (whatever that is) although many theorize based on the assumption that g*d doesn’t exist. This leads to some illogical reasoning.

The reasoning goes that because experiences of the divine are triggered by things like seizures and human manipulation, the brain isn’t really experiencing something “real” meaning “outside the brain”. Because some experiences of the divine through temporal lobe activity are caused by means we can easily comprehend, the divine itself - the thing experienced - must be something that exists within the realm of human comprehension.

It is true that we don’t experience the “out there” world directly but always as mediated through our brains. We are awash with radio signals but can only hear the music once we have a radio. And our experience of the signals is affected by how good the radio is. Our bodies are our radio picking up whatever signals they have evolved the capacity to receive.

But we can also experience similar signals that arise from the brain itself. We can remember and dream of visual images even in total darkness. In open brain surgery, patients can be made to feel things on their skin or hear sounds that aren’t there for the rest of the folk in the operating room. Our radio can make its own signals and sometimes it’s hard for us to tell where the signal is coming from just by listening to the song.

Just because we sometimes get signals from the universe within our brains, doesn’t mean that the world “out there” doesn’t exist. We don’t argue that chocolate doesn’t exist just because we can make someone on an operating table taste it by zapping their brain. And so, if we have a whole section of our brain that seems to perk up around experiences of the divine, we could in fact argue that there very well could be something out there for us to sense.

Imagine what those early Hydra would have said if they could think and reflect upon their new ability to sense light. Imagine they could talk to other life forms that didn’t have the ability yet. What could our light sensing forebears say about light when all they could do was feel a sense of excitement about something they could not yet imagine even existed?

“I feel something, I’m not sure what it is, but every now and then I get the strangest sensation. There will be stretches of time when certain parts of myself are excited, I can feel a movement within me.”

And how would the unseeing sponge respond?

“How can you feel a movement within you from something outside? You're delusional. You cannot prove light exists. Why should I consider light as even possible when I have no proof that it exists? Stop talking about light.”