caco ergo sum ch 1



What was this coming, being and going for?
In ámadano, budano, raftan be che bud?
Omar Khayyam, The Robáiyát

Just as Descartes’ reflections led him to “Je pense donc je suis;” just as the authors of the Bible received the Revelation that God created Adam and Eve; just as the Vedas evoke Kâla and Prajâpati as sources of the universe, Indra or Varuna as its creators and Purusha’s sacrifice as the beginning of man; just as the Pueblo tradition traces the beginning of mankind to the time when the Great Spirit brought humans out of Shipapu darkness; I wonder and ponder on what it is all about – in current lingo, about “the meaning of life.”  It seems to be in the nature of the human species to pose the question and to search and fear the unknown. 

According to statistics 98 percent of humanity believes in some kind of supernatural power.  Indeed, even those who attempted to distinguish the species as a thinking animal were not free from the ascendancy of the gods.  Plato's androgynes, those creatures that were so intelligent and agile that they threatened the gods, were created by the gods.  And the gods proceeded to cut each of them into two halves to make a woman and a man out of each, each half eternally seeking the other half, leaving the gods in peace.[1]  Descartes posited his “I think therefore I am” as a proof for the existence of God.  His attempt to envelope his rational method in God’s grace was in a large part genuine and was not motivated only to avoid the wrath of the church and a fate similar to those of Giordano Bruno or Galileo.[2]

The high percentage of believers and the acrobatics of thinkers to wrap their thoughts in the divine are intriguing.  Some suggest that the idea of God may actually be located in the brain.  According to recent research, increased neural activity in the temporal lobes would trigger the ecstasy of being in the presence of God – epilepsy causes a keener sense of that.[3]  Increased activity in the frontal lobe associated with decreased activity in the parietal lobule could lead to the ultimate goal of transcendental meditation’s freedom from time and space.[4]  These are presently results of clinical experimentations.  If they were definitively established we could reduce the idea of God to electro-chemical activities in human brain.  We would then classify man's need to believe in supernatural powers along other physiological and psychological drives, and wonder about the two percent of humanity who do not manifest that urge. 

Posing the question about the two percent, however, misses a major point:  that most of the 98% who do believe, do not believe in God because they experience mild epileptic strokes or meditative bliss.  They believe in God because the society, parents and peers channel their fear and awe of the unknown through institutionalized religions in order to appease their fear and make them socially functional.[5]  It is interesting to note that even those who do the neuroscientific experiments make a point of expressing their faith in God.  And religious institutions make sure to keep their flock within bounds – the conference on the neuroscientific experiment on transcendental meditation was sponsored by religiously oriented Templeton Foundation.  For most, God is not ecstasy or Nirvana but the rampart which gives them security at the edge of the abyss.

Being among the two percent,  I do have to search the unknown.  I do lack the fear and awe of the believer.  I either understand or I don’t.  I don’t believe. Where I don’t understand I seek to learn in order to understand.  St. Augustine’s believing before understanding is a cop-out.

I am among the two percent of non-believers probably because I was brought up that way – which proves my point about the influence of the environment and parents on one’s approach to the unknown.  I recall coming home from school one day and telling my father about the "Ascension."  He asked me to raise my feet. I lifted one.  He said: "No, lift both!"  I said I can’t, I’ll fall.  He said if you cannot lift both feet at once ten centimeters off the ground, how did Jesus lift off to go to heaven?  Later in life, I learned that my father’s question was not that original.  According to Moslem tales, it is the question Abu Jahl put to Mohammad after the latter recounted his night journey --  “The IsraelitesSurah – a tale which is said to have generated the myth of “Boraq”, the fair-faced winged horse which transported Mohammad.

It is not that I was told to reject religious dogma off-hand, but to question.  Indeed, I was reprimanded when I did not question and did not ask the how and why of things.  I enjoyed reading the different versions of the Bible, whether Judaic, Christian or Moslem and found them imaginative.  They were great stories. The Vedic tales were riveting.  But I was always reminded that believing in their or any other religion's supernatural pronouncements would become blinders in the search, and magnify the fear and awe, of the unknown.  Granted, a part of the fear and the awe is used to inculcate patterns of behavior for moral and ethical conduct, but the greater part is for the perpetuation of the religious dogma and the primacy and control by the religious institutions. No other cause has made human beings kill each other more than religion.   As for the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am,” its insistence on proving the existence of God, and yet its claim to man's capacity to reason and to think as the cornerstone of being, left me perplexed.  Needless to say, my inquisitive mind did not always ingratiate me with my peers and the society.  But it did permit me to have a broad perspective on life. 

It was with that perspective and the question of being on my mind that I was looking at the drawing in my biology book illustrating the role of nitrogen and carbonic acid cycles in nature.  It showed a deer standing on the grass among the trees; grazing, digesting and excreting – re-establishing the balance of the ecological chain by providing fertilizer and nutrients to grow the food it eats.


I replaced the deer with man.  And Eureka!  “Caco ergo sum”. 


I was a link in the ecological chain.  The first undeniable function of man within the context of his environment is to turn the foodstuff provided for him by nature into shit.  As I eat, digest and excrete, I fertilize the plants.  One organism among others meant to contribute to the balance of nature.  And what an organism!  A self-perpetuating machine with its own reproductive organs.  No factories needed!  Something man has not yet managed to achieve through the machines of his making.  As man breathes the air to produce carbon dioxide, drinks and eats to produce urine and feces, the process provides him energy to breathe more, drink more, eat more and to reproduce.  In other words in the ecological complex, the energy the animal produces by processing nutrients is used for the drive to further search for more raw material in order to produce the finished product.

And when the machine is used up, it disintegrates and is recycled back into the process – sooner than later if not hampered by a multi-layer casket.  The reason for my existence, then, was obvious.  In the cycle of nature I was a processor of food, a shit-making machine: Caco ergo sum – I shit therefore I am.

In their search for raw material, different organisms adapt to different processes depending on their instinctive and intellectual complexity. Organisms which man calls protozoa such as amoebae are examples of direct processes of intake, output, reproduction and decay.  In more complex organisms the process involves more indirect interaction with the environment.  The squirrel gathers and stores the nuts, ants grow mushrooms and, of course, man goes farther and processes the raw material to different degrees before taking it into his organism for final processing.  The chain of man's contact with nature is thus much farther stretched than simple cells and distances him from direct understanding of his role in the universe.  That may be the reason why man has the drive to search and fear the unknown.  Does the deer also ask the question:  “What is it all about?”  And what about the amoebae? 

Does the amoebae ask the question  am I ?” – Is it conscious of being?  I ask the question because I think I am conscious of being – as distinct from not being.   If I were not conscious of being, would I be?  My being may well be due to my consciousness of being.  Is it consciousness that is?  Is consciousness different from being?  Can the amoebae be without being conscious of being?  Or can it be conscious without being conscious of being?  Conscious of what?  Conscious of the universal without being conscious of being.  With these questions about the different states of amoebae's conscious in mind, I pose the problem at three levels:  

1. Is the amoebae conscious of its own being? In other words, is it “self-conscious”?

2. Is the amoebae conscious of its being within its environment?  Of being there.  Of  being-in-the-world – Dasein? 

3.   Is the amoebae's consciousness of its environment confounded in the universal?  To the extent that the amoebae does not question its own being and being-in-the world, is it conscious of being one with the universe? Does it need to?

These three levels of consciousness refer to the three propositions we have touched upon so far, namely: 1. the image of God (man's quest to commune with the universe),  2. I think therefore I am (consciousness) and  3. I shit therefore I am (partaking in the cycle of being within the environment). The universe, consciousness, and the self within the environment evidently need to be further explored.[6]

*         *        *


Some, exposed to my idea of human beings as "shit-making machines," have expressed concern about the consequences of letting the species loose from the wrath of God.  Before proceeding any farther, I would like to refer them to my “Moral Code” which would eventually be the conclusion of this essay:

Moral Code

The moral code of behavior inspired by religion but liberated from its hocus-pocus, superstition and fanaticism could be quite succinct.  It would boil down to:

* Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you.

It sums up and broadens the Ten Commandments.  It does not cover only those acts enumerated in the Ten Commandments, but also disagreeable behaviors such as aggressiveness, harsh words, disorderly conduct or sloppiness.  And it calls on you to apply it to every body, not only your neighbors.  You should not do to anybody what you don’t want him or her to do to you.

It does not need Moses to talk to the burning bush and come down with the tablets.  It is reciprocal common sense behavior that would create mutual trust and make harmonious social life possible.  It is simply in your own self-interest: for your comfort and peace of mind. 

And don’t go about “doing onto others what you want them to do to you.”  As George Bernard Shaw put it: “they may not like it.”  It is misplaced altruism, intrusive and counter-intuitive. 

* Have good thoughts, do good deeds and speak good words.

It is the introspective active side of the first premise of not doing unto others what you don’t want them to do to you.  Without being intrusive, be positively good in your intercourse with others. 

It reflects the Zoroastrian tenets of Pendare neek, Kerdare neek, Goftare neek without the need for fire temples.  In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignacio de Loyola, the founder of Jesuit branch of Christianity, enumerated them as precepts for the “General Examination of Conscience.”

* Step one step out of yourself, turn around and examine your self.

It permits you to look inside yourself and see whether you are not inadvertently doing to others what you don’t want them to do to you, and whether your thoughts, deeds and speeches are good. 

It is a Sufi precept, but you don’t have to be a whirling Dervish to exercise it.

*      *      *

©1999 Anoush Khoshkish
All rights reserved

[1] Plato, The Symposium.

[2] Descartes, Méditations II, III etc.

[3] Jeffrey L. Saver & John Rabin, “The neural substrates of religious experience” in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 1997, 9 pp. 498 -510; Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, San Diego.

[4] Andrew M. Newberg, A Neuropsychological Analysis of Religion: Discovering Why God Won’t Go Away, paper presented at the AAAS Conference on the Neurosciences and Religion, February 10, 1998, and Eugene d’Aquili & A. M. Newberg, “Researchers find clues to religious euphoria” in the University of Pennsylvania Health System Media Review, May 1998.

[5] For more on the subject see A. Khoshkish, The Socio-Political Complex, Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1979.  pp. 23-24, 76 et seq.

[6] I am, obviously, posing perennial philosophic questions. In the back of my mind are such concerns as: Hume’s causal skepticism and discourse on natural religion. See notably his The Treatise on Human Nature, The Natural History of Religion and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Kant’s questioning of man's capacity to move from the understanding of the phenomena to the conception of the noumena and the handicaps of reason which inevitably falls into contradictions when attempting to “think the whole”.  See notably his Critique of Pure Reason. Hegel’s treatment of consciousness and self-consciousness in the context of reason, spirit/mind (Geist) and religion, and conception (Begriff) as the essence of being.  See notably his Phänomenologie des Geistes. Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology arguing the limitations of Descartes’ “I think” to explain consciousness.  See his Ideas.  Heidegger’s ontological approach to the question of “being” and making it conditional to Dasein – “being-there”, “being-in-the-world”. And Sartre’s the transcending for-itself consciousness, being conscious of being other than itself, whether pre-reflective or reflective – thetic – consciousness.  See his La Transcendance de l’Ego and Being and Nothingness.  And others. Those familiar with these works will recognize the ideas of these and similar philosophers, either sustained or refuted, all along this essay.  The purpose here is not to review or regurgitate the ideas of these thinkers but to pick up their ideas where they left them and reflect further.

The reason for this revisit of age old inquiries is to see whether there is a remedy for the divorce between philosophy and science which since the nineteenth century has handicapped human understanding, ever more accentuated by segmentations, compartmentalizations and specializations of fields of inquiry and further aggravated by the prevailing utilitarian approach of “what is it good for?”