It’s Sunday afternoon, the eve of the new year, 2018, and I’m at my computer mucking about. I glance down at the floor. A stinkbug is reposing on top of a book called The Man Who Could Fly, the strange life of a man with a genius for bending reality out of shape.
I bend over and peer at the hated creature, officially classified a pest. Here in America only since 1998, they come from China. But they’re amazingly clever at making a living, and the females are superb replicators. As a result, this insect is thriving all over the USA. No sign of them going back to China.
Aside from the B.O. problem, they go wild with fruits and vegetables, which they prey on voraciously, costing money and labor to us humans. If you startle or act suspicious toward them, they let you have it with something foul-smelling--hence the bug’s moniker.
During the summer I noticed they rarely fly but walk very slowly, given to long pauses where they melt into the floor like paint stains. Truth is, I felt they got a bum rap—singled out and tarred with the stink name.
Observing the design, the muted colors, I looked him over. I was moved to address the brave explorer, all alone in a vast room with towers of books and clouds of papers and a monstrous human hovering over him.
“Sir, I owe you an apology,” I began. “I only knew you by your name ‘stinkbug’ and therefore prejudged you. Sorry about that. You see, I have read Peter Singer, and I’m all in for animal liberation. I have no intention of disturbing you. It’ll be bone-cold tonight. I’m sure you’d like a warm place to bed down, so please make yourself at home.”
After finishing my speech, I went back to my computer. An hour later, and deep in what I was doing, something grabbed my attention. I felt a light cool flutter under the left side of my left hand. It was the stinkbug! He had levitated (like Joseph of Copertino) right on to my hand! From there, it landed on the edge of my desk.
It was facing me directly! The angle was perfect. We were poised face to face—man and bug.
And there he remained, motionless, looking straight at me. I nodded slowly, not wishing to overexcite him. I then gingerly placed my magnifying glass over the potential super-stinker, cautiously lowered my head and eye-balled him. He was unfazed. I admired his armor-plated body-style, the delicate forelegs, the two sensitive antennae gracefully probing space. After noting the details of his body, I taxied him to the floor, re-perched him on the floor. It was very odd, I thought. The one and only time I sincerely apologized to a stinkbug, an hour later, it flies onto my hand! Why not my shirt, pants, anywhere else in the spacious room? With all that empty space, was it a coincidence that it dove into my hand?
My first (admittedly self-centered) thought was: this stinkbug likes me! He might, for all I can imagine, be thanking me. Wings fluttering on my hand? Not quite shaking hands, but close.
The idea that a stinkbug warmly reacted to a mock speech I made by brushing its wings against my hand—needless to say, ridiculous. And yet, the alternative explanation that it was a coincidence, the consequence of random forces (which, please?) seems equally incredible.
The option is between two incredibles.
So could a bug be conscious? Could a bug feel? Could a bug make friends with a philosopher? Outrageous. After all, we live at a time when learned people argue that humans are not conscious. A bug with such a tiny brain, conscious? After all, what could a bug be conscious of? What could it be like to be a stinkbug? Well, there must be something.
In defense of my intuition that a mere insect and notorious pest and bane to corporate business might have feelings—I’ll say this. There is a trend among scientists and thinkers toward the view that consciousness is not explained by, or reducible to, brains alone, that is, to physical reality.[ii]
Scientists now admit that animals other than humans have mental lives. Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous scientist, has publicly proclaimed it is so. The truth is that we know little of the interior worlds of other living creatures. The question is how far down in the scale of nature may we expect to find mental life? As of now I’m prepared to say at least as far down as bugs.[iii]
Further perhaps? As far as the vegetable world? A book by Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, shows how the plant world is part of the cosmic web of consciousness, too.
Moreover, the philosophers are on the march toward the reanimation of nature. So we have double-aspect monism, robust dualism, hypo-phenomenalism, absolute idealism, animism, panpsychism, panentheism, and then some—all theories that identify consciousness as the all-important, very fundament of being.
And as if to underscore the consciousness of the stinkbug, I have to report two phenomena that just occurred. When I got up from my desk several hours ago I noticed the stinkbug to my left on the wall opposite me. Stayed there at eye level immobile until I left.
I returned about an hour ago to finish the present report, and was about to leave. Suddenly, the stinkbug flew past my left ear, fanning me again! He then alighted on my copy of Isaiah Berlin’s Vico & Herder. After a long thoughtful pause, it moved on.
I’m observing the casual, and sometimes hesitant manner of this creature exploring my books, wandering around and . . . oh yes, he has vanished.
This visitation via my left ear is no coincidence, but a sign of budding cross-species friendship. Nature is known for oddball friendships and alliances.
Just now as I wrote the word ‘friendship,’ the stinkbug returned. There he is, strolling across my desk!
The concluding point? Amid all the ferment and expansiveness about mind in nature, there might after all be room for a stinkbug with feelings.
In 1704,William Blake wrote to a fly in Songs of Experience:
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
[i] If you’re interested in high orders of human potential in action, the outermost limits of what the human mind can accomplish, two books of mine are available on Amazon, Wings of Ecstasy: The Biography of Joseph of Copertino and The Man Who Could Fly: Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation.
[ii] There is a book with the title Irreducible Mind, (eds. Kelly, Kelly, Crabtree), which tackles the empirical question of the irreducibility and creative power of mind from several crucial starting-points.
[iii] One of my favorite mini-encyclopedias, Incredible Bugs: The Ultimate Guide to the World of Insects, by Rick Imes.