Lights on. The day erupts, be it autumn, spring, or winter - it seeps energy, injecting entropy into minds.
As in Neil Gaiman’s universe of Neverwhere, events really do seem to be cowardly. Just like thoughts, they barely ever walk alone. They love ganging up on people – an avalanche engulfing the conscious. It’s up to us whether we bother filtering the “bad” from the “good”. It is a human game of sorts: seeing patterns, attaching meaning – an endless Finding Waldo for the mind.
How far we delve into this philosophical puzzle is highly personal and can change over time. Just now, on my walk, I notice a feather falling to the ground, gliding and zigzagging out of the sky. A Nostradamian sign, perhaps, of an apocalypse to come? One where feathers replace raindrops and scales the gusts of wind? I digress.
Upon seeing the lithe thing and following its elegant path, I’m transported instantaneously into an alternate reality – one where I, too, could be a bird. Yes, why not? Pigeons, sparrows, chickens, I muse, do they experience events similarly? If so, to what extent? When I snack on roasted pumpkin seeds, how do I decide when to stop? I’d like to think I’m in control and I choose when – being a self-aware human and all. But surely, more often than not it’s the biological intelligence built within me, which regulates. How do chickens decide when to stop snacking? Similarly I’d think. Or in a completely different way? Does it even matter what and whom we consider?
On being noticed - one of the mass. A loud and unwavering “Mind the gap!” snaps me back. “See it, say it, sorted.” echoing in the gnarled innards of the tube. The crowd engulfs me. How would I describe this feeling... We stuff ourselves down the tiny escalated throat. I want to say ‘safety’ but no, that can’t be it. Although we do stand shoulder to shoulder. Individuals united in our goal. Granted, getting from point A to B might not be as noble as rising against social injustice but we are one in a way, the busy clients of the Metropolitan. Change of lines.
Many of us opt to jump and switch from one tubular destiny to another. Navigating life, one stop at a time. Right as I am about to climb into my next grimy ride, minding the gap – of course, I’m gently but firmly pushed away. Several other lucky wanderers beat me to it and cram themselves enthusiastically into the glorious can. They were clearly in a bigger rush. Off they go on their well-deserved winding path. How well does subjective rushing correlate with the objective importance of our near-future actions, I wonder… “Stand up for yourself, fight for your place in the world!” - fatherly advice resurfaces. No, it can’t be ‘safety’, that’s not it.
What can be seen and what can be said when no one seems to care? When you have no voice. Even if you, an observer, see it and say it? Can it actually be sorted? This is where my rabbit hole takes a turn upwards. A community open to all, but ever so elusive. For the lucky of us who do stumble into the sweet, promising warmth that effective altruism represents, a light comes on! Methods and techniques to determine the most good one can do, heuristics that encompass possibilities and realities, enlightening the struggles and uniting the willing – a pure synthesis of near magic proportions. For those who can, for those who will, of course. Tick, tick, tick. That sound, I let it take me…
Tapping rhythmically, one claw at a time along the metal mesh floor. F-o-r t-h-o-s-e w-h-o w-i-l-l drums the ominous metronome. A young little thing, tiny - but a ruffle of damp feathers, really. My heart speeds up, I must act,I cannot let this be. A fleeting brush of a tail. Are there more?! A scarf, It was just a scarf... Trailing past me, reminding that it’s time to get off. Safe? Safer.
We burst out, happy to be on our way, thrilled to move on and put some space in between the recent events. There are so many of us, an uncountable number, all blurring into a consistent mass. We’re like pieces of grain, tumbling along the conveyor but thinking, feeling, riding the belt of fright to be sorted.
We break the surface, emerging from the subterranean into our wild concrete jungle. Was that it? We go our separate ways? No “Thanks, goodbye.”? We’ve just had a moment, at least some of us must have – I’m sure of it! A shared journey. Was it not enough, too insignificant a data point? We’ve looked each other in the eye, had to experience each others’ odeurs des gens. Created stories, imagined timelines. It was intimate in a sense, albeit impersonal. I felt the silver line that might connect us all - the shared understanding of the conscious passed between us. Must I be proven wrong before I start to care? How can I know enough to do the right thing? Not fathoming the big picture, I choose to seek more information and to follow the Bayesian quest with my head held high.
Muffled neighbor conversations and the occasional bark are what greet me. I can’t really tell what they’re saying but I feel I get the gist of it. A partial understanding that permeates walls and ceilings. Could I understand more if I worked at a different frequency, deciphering the intonations and urgency of every being? The insect buzzing or the long-distance calls by centenarian great whales. Data is what I need, evidence to back my understanding and inform my decisions!
Here I am, sitting in my living room, anthropomorphizing others, while sipping my tea. Do they suffer? If so, how much? Are they happy? Could they be? Comparing, evaluating, trying to pick and choose. 5 cents a tea bag, my brain suggests, that’s roughly the price of cost-effectively sparing one farmed animal. Unimaginable in scale, tractable right now, and yet highly neglected, the suffering of non-humans is calling us altruists – people who care and choose to act. Now! When else was there a time when sentient earthlings could be saved at a rate of a teabag per being?
Now! When we’re aware enough to expand our moral circle of consideration. As my mind is about to dive into a frenzy of multiplication and what-ifs, I hear a chirp outside, not too loud, not too quiet – just right. I am transported once more.
Be it an eek, squeal or hullo - sentience extends beyond the human condition, it’s an operating system that restarts each night to choose again. No matter the season, no matter the size. Lights off.
(Thanks Isaac_Esparza for reading my initial rambings, your great feedback and support.)