Is ‘Consciousness’ an Autoimmune Disease?

Dave’s craziest idea yet. More radical non-duality non-sense.

Dilbert, by Scott Adams

Especially in more affluent nations, there is an epidemic of autoimmune diseases sweeping the globe. These diseases, of which there are over 100, now affect 10% of the population in some countries. They all have one thing in common: The body’s immune system, which evolved to fight infections, begins to fight and destroy healthy cells, tissues and organs. There is no known cause and no cure for any of these diseases. They are often triggered by chronic physical or psychological stress.

We understand almost nothing about our body’s immune system response, which is staggeringly complex and varied. We do know that autoimmune diseases are relatively rare or unknown in many poor countries.

One hypothesis for why this might be so is that in poor countries the immune system is regularly ‘exercised’ by being exposed to many more diseases, and hence ‘learns’ to deal appropriately with many different types of bacteria, viruses and infections. We do know that with some serious infections (like the avian ‘flu’ virus that caused the horrific 1918 pandemic) it is hyper-activity of the immune system, so-called ‘cytokine storms’, that killed most of the pandemic’s victims, not infection by the virus itself. So it’s possible that the epidemic of autoimmune diseases might be caused at least in part by an ‘ignorant’ immune system, that never learned to do its vitally important job because, ‘thanks’ to modern medicine’s protections (and massive overuse of antibiotics and other toxic chemicals and sterilizers in our medicines and foods, and keeping babies away from peanut butter, pet dander and other allergens), it never got to practice differentiating what is healthy for our bodies from what is dangerous to them.

That’s just a theory of course. But when we observe how the nation’s poorest nations have had inexplicable orders-of-magnitude lower levels of death from CoVid-19, even when carefully adjusting for reporting capability, it’s tantalizing to consider that we might have unintentionally dumbed down our own immune systems to the point that they are now actually sickening and killing us in large numbers.

The obvious metaphor is the musculoskeletal and circulatory systems of sedentary people, which atrophy and clog and result in endless ailments and injuries due to lack of proper exercise. Our body can’t learn to keep us healthy if it doesn’t have the chance to practice doing so.

If that idea isn’t radical enough, that got me thinking about the fact that those rare humans who have no sense of self and separation function perfectly well but seem to have much lower levels of anxiety, hostility to others, guilt and shame than the rest of us.

What if, at least metaphorically, the evolution (which seems unique to humans) of a ‘conscious’ (and arguably useless) sense of self-awareness and separation might actually underlie almost all human psychological suffering and mental illness? In other words, is our evolved ‘consciousness’, instead of being an evolutionary breakthrough, actually a kind of autoimmune disease? Has it made us uselessly, needlessly and endlessly hypervigilant, to the point we overreact to everything in a desperate attempt to control what is actually not within our control, and what needs no control?

It’s an imperfect metaphor, of course: We need our body’s immune system, without which we’d quickly succumb to infections and die. We don’t need our sense of consciousness and our sense of being separate and apart from everything else and in control of ‘our’ decisions. But we think we do. We cannot imagine what it is like to be without any sense of there being anyone separate. We cannot imagine not even attempting to control these bodies we seem to inhabit. We have no choice but to be hypervigilant, utterly preoccupied with protecting and ‘doing right’ by these bodies we feel it is our absolute and endless responsibility to look after.

That’s got to be crazy-making, especially when all our efforts seem so often in vain, when things don’t go the way they ‘should’, when the stresses and threats seem endless, and when we are sure that the final result of all that frenzied effort is… death.

(Have you ever had a disease with a really high fever, when despite everything else going on inside and outside your body there’s this strange sense of calm, a sense that it’s OK that you’re not quite yourself, ready to deal with every problem that might arise, that everything will be OK even though you can’t deal with it right now? Is this a glimpse, a hint, of what it’s like to be unburdened of this disease of relentless hypervigilance, free from needing to be in control, ready for anything?)

An autoimmune disease is when our bodies mistakenly damage and kill what is perfectly healthy, in the effort to ward off an invasive threat that actually isn’t real. What if our ‘minds’ do the same thing, in the form and name of ‘consciousness’? And what if the result is all human psychological suffering? And what if how that suffering manifests (in acts of war, feelings of hatred, anxiety, grief, shame, guilt etc) is all just completely unnecessary fighting against a non-existent enemy? What if we are, indeed, just one, just this?

This entry was posted in Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Is ‘Consciousness’ an Autoimmune Disease?

  1. Ray says:

    Interesting hypothesis.
    I Come from a family riddled with auto-immune afflictions (although growing up on a farm in Flanders, we were exposed to all the dirt one can imagine and yet it didn’t seem to do the job).
    If the super-intelligent immune system can be so fooled that is goes completely haywire I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if our consciousness system, when confronted with our crazy human condition behaves in a similar way. Going haywire seems like a perfectly rational response.

  2. Though not radically non-dualist, more radically agnostic about anything that can’t be proven or disproven, I’ve reached a similar conclusion long ago. And you touched on why I am that way… I’ve had that high fever among other things and a good deal of auto-immune disease and cancer runs in my body and my family. Learned long ago just to let it all be… and I’m far more unflappably serene than most folks. I have not figured out how to teach this though. It seems your body needs to be out of your control before you figure out that we never had control to begin with…

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks. Ray, yes, it sure is a long way down from the Crown of Creation to an unfortunate evolutionary misstep. But I guess nature is entitled to make a few errors what with all the experiments she’s running.

    Elizabeth, it probably can’t be taught, though it’s interesting how many ‘glimpses’ seem associated with moments of extreme overwhelm, as if when the body has no choice but to let go of the illusion, it is able to do so. Hopefully not quite as intensely as in the Dilbert cartoon though! The radical non-duality speakers I’ve asked have told me that it can just happen, though, and not even be noticed — there need not be any circumstances or event to prompt it.

  4. Peter Webb says:

    All biologic species have their own natural population control mechanisms. We know some of them, but because most of science seems to think that humans are different simply because we have what is called consciousness, which somehow we are led to believe makes us superior or immune to biologic traditions. If our consciousness or lack of consciousness separates us from the rest of Nature for any reason, then in some way we (as a specie) send a message that something is not going well. We know virtually nothing about how nature culls species that get out of rhythm with themselves or their environment, basically because we have followed just one part of Darwins’ ideas
    Humans tend to pull out the big guns straight away and fill up our bodies and inner micr-biome with toxic substances; we have a media system which sows doubt and fear for our minds and every intelligent cell in our bodies.
    At the moment we are part of an unbalanced specie which has thought itself more intelligent than we actually manifest; Seems like nobody special is to blame, but as a specie, we are all responsible.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Yes, Peter, it seems that way. The word “responsible” is a tricky one. On the one hand, to the extent our species’ unfortunate evolution of apparent consciousness has led to massive destruction and suffering to ourselves and our world, we can be said to be collectively “responsible”, in the sense of apparent causation. But on the other hand, that evolution of consciousness was not our choice; it was the result of nature playing with possibilities and prolonging the ones that seem interesting and “successful”, and apparent consciousness has not been around nearly long enough to know whether it is either. So in that sense we are not “responsible”, merely acting out our biological and cultural conditioning. Once it’s clear to nature that this evolution of hypervigilance was not a healthy one, the misstep will be corrected for.

    It could be argued that that process has already begun. But only apparently. If there is only this, then there is no reason, or meaning, or responsibility, for anything. We just assign them in the endless effort to make sense of things that need make no sense. And we have no choice in that either.

  6. Subsidiarity says:

    In support of this thesis, modern traffic design gives drivers less information when interacting with pedestrians in order to make the driver more conscious of their environment.

    I have no data to challenge it but I note that you are assuming the hyper-vigilant immune system is a failure. It is possible that we haven’t noticed the benefits of an immune-system in this state and to over ride it to stay in the normal state of readiness would cause further problems.

    For random radical thoughts on consciousness: my guess is that artificial consciousness will be achieved when there are some dunbar number of AI’s in a dynamic system of competition and cooperation such that the AI’s will build models of the other AI’s. Further these models will recursively contain models of other AI’s, such that we can ask AI1 what does AI2 think that AI1 will do.

    This mirrors both wild nature and human development. We see conscious behaviour in social animals and we become self-aware when we need to start playing social games.

  7. Mary Ballon says:

    I am 80 and have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. As far as I can tell the medical profession has no idea what that means. The common description of it as the body’s war against itself has no meaning either. The usual prescription methotrexate causes more problems. Still a work in progress!

Comments are closed.