February 23, 2011

“Imagine what we know.”

The subject line is Percy Shelley’s. This part of an  essay by Tim Morton, “Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!” included in  the exhibit/site RETHINK — Contemporary Art & Climate Change (2009). Among other provocative chunks and challenges:

Along with figuring out what implications science has for society and so on, humanists should be asking scientists to do things for us. We should create websites that list experiments we need. My top suggestion would be exploring the question, “Is consciousness intentional?” Negative results would provide a reason not to hurt life forms. If consciousness were not some high up bonus prize for being elaborately wired, but low down, a default mode that came bundled with the software, then worms are conscious in every meaningful sense. A worm could become a Buddha, as a worm. Or what if consciousness were profoundly intersubjective? (Another blow to individualism.)


The injunction to act now is based on preserving a Nature that never existed: this has real effects that may result in more powerful catastrophe as we tilt at non-existent windmills. I’m not saying let’s not look after animals because they’re not really natural. I’m trying to find a reason to look after all beings precisely because they’re not natural.


Ecological coexistence consists of what I call strange strangers. These beings are ineradicably, irreducibly strange, strange in their strangeness, strange all the way down, surprisingly surprising. I can’t in good faith use the word animal anymore, and “nonhumans” won’t work either—we are strange strangers too. “Life forms” sounds nice, but some of these strangers aren’t strictly alive. In order to have DNA, you have to have RNA. In order to have RNA, you need ribosomes. And in order to have ribosomes, you need DNA … So there must have been a paradoxical “pre-living life,” such as Sol Spiegelman’s RNA World, in which RNA type molecules coexist with a non-organic replicator such as a certain silicate crystal—yes, maybe your great times x grandmother really was a silicon chip. A virus is a macromolecular crystal that tells RNA to make copies of it. If a virus is alive, in any meaningful sense, then so is a computer virus. The more we know about strange strangers, the stranger they become. Are they alive? What is life? Are they intelligent? What is intelligence? Are they people? Are we people?

(Complete essay here.)