‘We are survival machines......’ writes Richard Dawkins in his most popular book, ‘The Selfish Gene.’ ‘We’..he goes on to say, ‘does not mean just people. It embraces all animals, plants, bacteria, and viruses.’ So profound is this insight, according to Dawkins, that 'intelligent life can only be considered to come of age' when it has made this earth shattering realization. Now Dawkins is so sure of the truth and profondity of this premise, expounds his theories based on this premise with such haughty confidence, so disparaging of any other possible way of viewing the world, that he has convinced millions of people, people who also want to 'come of age' and who do not want to risk the wrath of the formidably arrogant Dawkins, of the truth of his premise and the conclusions that follow from it.
I have two problems with this original premise. First of all to call anything a survival machine is for all practical purposes completely, utterly and absolutely devoid of meaning. Regarding man made machines, every single one is a survival machine by the mere fact that it is either still working, which would make it a successful survival machine, or it is no longer working, which would make it an unsuccessful survival machine. Regarding living beings, no matter what their shape, structure, any possible thing you could concoct in your imagination, it would be, if it was presently alive, a successful survival machine, and if it wasn’t, an unsuccessful survival machine. Every machine, man made, at least, has, obviously, some other function besides survival. Why else would it be built? Certainly, when building a machine, you want it to survive, at least to survive long enough so that it can be used at least once (for some purpose other than survival!). But to build a machine simply to survive is inane. Why would anyone waste the energy? To say that the reason humans are here is that we are survival machines, means precisely that we are here, but that we are here for no reason at all.
The second issue I have with this ‘survival machine’ business, is that although it may be the product of many years of Dawkins’ research, of observing bodies and brains and genomes and cellular structures of countless plants and animals and reading about studies of countless more observations of bodies and brains and genomes and cellular structures of countless more plants and animals, it does not include any time spent observing the observer. Just who is it who is making all these observations? This is a crucial point. If Dawkins is going to bandy about that word 'we' with such assurance and tell us that 'we' are survival machines and 'we' began as a replicating molecule, and 'we' are descended from whoever he thinks we are descended from, then we had better be very clear about just what he means by the word 'we'; because my understanding of we is not anything observable or measurable. We are not what we are observing, but the observer, itself. Everything that Dawkins has observed to come to his conclusions is not 'us', is not part of 'we' but is the equipment, the apparatus that we use to relate to the world. If Dawkins would stop for a moment, just one serious and relaxed moment, and look within, he would quickly discover that ‘we’ are not our bodies or our brains, but we are ‘that which’ experiences the world and desires things in the world through our bodies and brains (Of course, Dawkins will never do that. It is easier to get a Taliban to burn a copy of the Koran, or to get a Chasidic Jew to eat pig's feet, than to get a Darwinist to spend a quiet moment of meditation.) We are not our bodies, but that which experiences our bodies. And we are certainly not our brains, which are collections, although fantastically designed, fantastically complicated collections, of nerve cells, connections between nerve cells, and currents of electricity running through those connections. We are that which experiences the world by, somehow, translating those streams of electrons, into the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and touches and feelings that is the non-physical, experiential and actual content of our lives.
I don't want to dwell on this for too long, but I want to be very clear. This is not something 'far out' or 'weird' or 'mystical.' Isn't it obvious that you are not your face, but that which expresses itself through your face; that you are not your eyes, but that which sees the world through your eyes; not your ears, but that which hears through your ears, etc.? The seer of your sights, the thinker of your thoughts, the intender and the doer and the experiencer of all the things that you do with your body, but not the body itself; the context, the ground of your experience, that is the real you or, in plural, the real we, and this real we never even shows up in anything that the self acclaimed genius Dawkins or his mentor Darwin have to say.
This is not just a minor semantic point. To say that we are in possession of, we are connected to, we use a body which is a survival machine, is very, very different than saying that we are a survival machine. Viewed in this way, the real purpose of living bodies becomes clear. Living bodies are designed to survive, not just for the sake of survival, but to serve us, the consciousness, that which desires and experiences; to serve us in fulfilling our intentions. Think about it. The moment we desire to do something, or even intend to do something, the several hundred thousand or million or ten million precise neurons are fired that initiate a cascading process of electrical transmissions, blood circulation, muscular contractions and releases, that allow us to realize that desire. This is happening at every waking moment of our existence. Our bodies, and by ‘our’ I mean all living bodies, are the servants of our desires, and the purpose of living bodies is to provide the conscious being that dwells within the body an experience of the world through the particular agency of this particular body with it’s particular genome, it’s particular set of desires and its particular way of experiencing the world. All the survival mechanisms of the body are there not just to survive for the sake of survival itself, but for the purpose of allowing us to have this unique experience for as long as possible.
Since someone else's, or some other organism's experience cannot be seen or measured through a microscope,the unaided eye or any other instrument of observation, the real purpose of all these 'survival machines' eludes the cadres of scientists who can only measure and observe. Hence they conclude, falsely, that the purpose of living organisms is to survive, because they cannot see or measure what these physical bodies and brains are surviving for. Consider comatose patients in a vegetative state. Should we continue to keep them on life support? If it is determined that the body is surviving but they are no longer conscious (no longer experiencing anything) then we determine that all the money we are spending on their survival is pointless and pull the plug. However, if we determine somehow that they are still conscious, that they are still experiencing something, even if they cannot satisfy any of their needs without assistance (that 'they are still in there' is, interestingly, the way we say it) then it becomes our moral duty to not pull the plug, no matter what the expense. Clearly, experience and the fulfillment of desire, not survival, is the purpose of life.
And think about this. We do not try to survive. We know very little about our specific survival needs. Even Dawkins; do you think he foregoes his colonoscopies and blood tests because he is such an eminent biologist that he already knows exactly what is going on in his own body at any given moment without any testing or instrumentation? Of course not; he is just as ignorant as the rest of us in that regard. And that is most certainly true of all the myriad of non-human species. We survive because when we experience hunger we eat, and we eat what we want to eat. When we experience thirst we drink, and we drink what we want to drink. When we experience fatigue we rest; when we experience being hot we seek coolness; when we experience being cold we seek warmth, and when we experience being horny we seek out what we want, which just so happens to be, in most cases, a being of the same species of the opposite sex. In this manner, being totally ignorant of our survival needs, but just by fulfilling our desires, we manage to survive and our progeny manage to survive. Each of us, all living beings included, is the recipient of an exquisitely designed set of desires, desires which can never be seen or measured, but which are always individually experienced, and which deliver to us, without our direct knowledge of it, exactly what we need to survive and replicate. The issue may be clouded a bit because in our strange and unnatural society we are advertised at and culturally encouraged to have all sorts of extraneous desires on top of our natural ones which may or may not be advantageous to our survival. But certainly all non-human animals, and all humans in a natural state, are in possession of that perfectly aligned set of desires that will insure their survival and the replication of their species.
And this set of desires, perfectly aligned with our survival needs, could not possibly have evolved. It had to be there from the very inception of life. No organism could survive for more than a moment if it did not desire the things it needed for its survival. This exquisite design of non-physical desires, without which we could not survive, and the experience of the satisfaction or frustration of which is the real reason for living bodies, makes all of Dawkins’ and Darwin’s theories of random, accidental and mindless evolution not just wrong, but entirely irrelevant.
Living beings are opportunities for consciousness to experience life in a particular way. Cosmic consciousness, Infinity, God, if you will, is a non-local phenomena. It is beyond space and time. It is everywhere, having no boundaries as well as, in a sense, no where, since it is not a thing and does not occupy space or time. The laws governing matter, the creation of matter based on these laws and the creation of living beings are all the result of ideas; ideas that began in the Cosmic Consciousness. Consciousness causes matter. Matter, no matter how complex, does not cause consciousness. Living beings are a way of giving indivisible consciousness a unique, dramatic, but ultimately illusory experience of a separate existence.
Survival machines indeed!
I welcome your comments.