Prior to the appearance of human beings, there was no cognizance in any creature of being alive. Life did not know it was alive. Sure enough, plants would bend toward the light, but not know they were bending. Dogs would get hungry, but not know they were hungry. They were hunger. And so on.
When human beings appeared they marked the beginning of a cruel and potentially explosive experiment. Human beings have what we might call a reflective consciousness. In practice, this means a part of us stands aside and watches phenomena such as thought, emotion, desire, and bodily sensation. The data we collect is then used to reach various conclusions, one of which is the fact that we will die. Animals seem to be blissfully unaware of their mortality unless they are in imminent danger, at which point the survival instinct kicks in. They may be fearful, but they don’t know they are fearful, whereas man knows fear.
As self-conscious creatures, we add spice to existence that didn’t exist before we came on the scene. Not only do we experience similar emotions to the animals, but we can know we are experiencing them. The same is true of desires. Abstract thought however seems to be a new feature specific to human beings, allowing us to reach any number of conclusions, the most pressing one being that if all other creatures die then so will we.
Various authors have commented that we have a surfeit of consciousness (Zappfe, Ligotti, Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky) and that there really was no need for us to be so aware of things – but I think they miss a point. This cruel consciousness, that can anticipate death, suffering, and pain, provides the perfect food for the ego – namely anxiety. It is anxiety and fear, brought about by our ability to anticipate, that has proved such a powerful addition to basic survival instincts. Unlike the animals, we can worry about whether there will be food on the table in six months from now, whether that pain in our stomach is something that should be investigated, or whether that person hanging around on the street corner is a threat. Planning, scheduling, and scheming are the domain of the ego, and ego is nature’s crowning achievement – it amplifies and equips the survival drive by an order of magnitude. Hence as a species, we are very good at survival. Anxiety and fear are the fuel for the ego, and they never let it rest.
This masterstroke of nature is flawed, however. So strong is the ego that it would happily destroy the world to save its own skin, and we have seven billion such egos on this planet. As a result, we are destroying the world, and with it ourselves. I don’t think there is much we can do at a collective level to reign in the ego – the madmen are in control and always have been. Equipped with the fruits of science they will destroy the air they need to breathe, the water they need to drink, and the food they need to eat. On a personal level, however, it’s a different matter.
The vast majority of people are in deep denial about their own nature (monkeys with iPhones) and their own insignificance (they will die). They ride the anxiety and fear roller-coaster as they deny death, and speak sweet nothings to make themselves feel good (love, compassion, kindness, gratitude even though 127 million people were slaughtered in the 20th Century in wars, etc). Some people however may choose to do something about the basic dynamics of anxiety and fear that drive the human ego. This has the disadvantage that it requires the courage to look at the reality of our situation, but we have it within our power to understand ourselves and the world. As such we have the power to moderate the effects of our surfeit of consciousness and actually use it to make life more pleasant. This could be yet another development in this carnival of carnage called life, but instead of being an automatic function of our constitution, it requires intelligence and conscious effort. I don’t think the masses will go for it – but for those who dare to peek into Pandora’s box of life’s horrors, then it could well be attractive.