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June 13th, 2019
Question: Is there any animal that plans for the future in the same way that humans do? Surely we can think of squirrels squirreling away acorns for the coming winter. Perhaps we can give them the benefit of the doubt and say that this is a conscious action and not just something hardwired into their behavior.
But what about a 5-year plan?
Do any animals plan for what their life will look like 10 years from any given moment?
Humans are not the longest living creatures with eyes and ears and brains, so surely we are not unfairly advantaged by the length of our lives.
So what does it? What allows us to build pyramids or cathedrals that take 700 years and generations of workers to put together?
Perhaps consciousness expands our inner world in two directions: Into the past, and into the future.
Extending our mind into the past doesn’t actually sound that special. Certainly animals have memories. A dog accidentally hops up onto a hot stove and boom, that dog will never jump up on the stove ever again. A human can make a similar mistake, by mindlessly testing how hot an element is by touching it and getting burnt. But what will the human do at this point?
Well, really any number of thoughts can percolate from this situation, but it’s not unreasonable for a person to look for a light on the stove that indicates that one of the elements is hot. A person might even check if such a light is broken, and then fix it.
Our ability to reflect on our experience has clearly expanded beyond the range of any other animal. We can ask why? Though it may only be correlational and not causal, we can wonder: what else is so different?
Certainly something is going on in the minds of animals. Certainly a bat is experiencing something. But why don’t the experiences of animals lead them to reflect on very different futures that can manifest from their own actions? One would imagine that it’s somewhat a waste of cognitive energy imagining a better future and never taking potential actions that might lead to that better future.
Granted, plenty of living people totally fail at this, and constantly imagine much better lives without taking any meaningful action to make it happen. But some do. Where as no animals seem capable of this.
But whose to say that consciousness is the same across all people?
Just as our ability to reflect on our experience has expanded beyond the range of animals, perhaps some people have a greater and more effective ability to reflect on their experience? People differ in all sorts of ways, so why wouldn’t this extend to the stuff of consciousness?
It doesn’t take much looking around to realize that some people are on some sort of zombie-autopilot, bumbling along towards whatever happens.
What’s that saying that’s repeated ad nauseum and tattooed on people’s arms and legs, and minds?
Take it one day at a time.
Perhaps that’s spectacularly bad advice. The sentiment, and perhaps intention is good. A sort of live-in-the-moment kind of message, but perhaps it speaks of a deeper problem: if thinking about the past and the future in productive and integrated ways is too hard… then don’t think about them.
Stubborn questions about Free Will aside, it’s clear that the more aware a person is, the more likely key factors will come into play regarding future decisions. The more someone is willing to sift through the cacophony of memory and future possibilities for key signs, the more likely they can haul dreams into reality. Perhaps that ability of awareness, memory and a creative understanding of the future is ultimately a function of our consciousness.
Or perhaps it’s the other way around.
Our consciousness is a function of our awareness, of both the memories we reflect upon and the creative possibilities about the future that we can test for as we launch productive actions into tomorrow.