A few months ago, the morning before my eldest brother was to return home to Norway after a long visit, I dreamed that I had just awakened in the early light of dawn to find my dog Roland sitting at the end of my bed, a bar of softly glaucous shadow—cast by the central casement frame of my double window—draped over his shoulders like a prophet’s mantle. Roland is of middling size, with a shorthaired coat of mottled white, brown, and black, and a handsome face with a coal-black nose and deep brown eyes. I recognized at once the profound melancholy in both his posture and his expression. “What’s wrong?” I said, after a moment of uneasy silence.

He slowly shook his head, and then—in a voice plangent with sadness—replied, “I have to leave you. I have to go to Norway with your brother.”

I was astonished. For one thing, I could not recall ever hearing Roland speak before, at least not this clearly; I certainly did not know he had a voice so much like Laurence Harvey’s (though with a warmer, furrier tone). For another, he had given no indication before this of any intention of leaving us; and, given the depth of his attachment to my wife, the very notion would have been inconceivable to me. “Why?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

He sighed, bowed his head for a moment, then raised it again to look into my eyes with the frankest of gazes. “Your brother and I knew each other long ago,” he said. Then, seeing my bewilderment, he immediately added, “Oh, not in this life, of course. I’m only three years old, after all. In another life, very long ago, countless kalpas in the past, in a better age than this our present Kali-yuga. In those days, you see, I was a god in the Tushita heaven, and your brother was my little pet monkey, T’ing-T’ing. We were quite inseparable.”

An amused smile appeared on Roland’s face, and he gave his head a gentle, obviously affectionate wag. “What a scamp he was. How often he would don a small chaplet of silver bells, clamber up onto the back of my throne of jade and gold, and cavort in merry little capers above my head, and then suddenly tumble down into my lap. Even Maitreya and the goddess bodhisattva Guanyin couldn’t help laughing, and the tender warmth of their mirth flowed down even into the deepest narakas and momentarily eased the torments of the damned.”

“I had no idea,” I said after a moment.

Roland was still lost in his memories, however. “Some of his antics were terribly mischievous, and I was often urged to exercise more discipline over him. But I couldn’t—he delighted me so. On a few occasions, he raided the banqueting table of the gods before they’d seated themselves. Sometimes he stole flagons of wine and made himself drunk. Twice he slipped into the divine orchards and gorged himself on the peaches of celestial longevity. Once, when the demons of Pratapana mounted one of their pathetically futile escalades against the ramparts of the heavens, he sat high up on the walls pelting them with peach stones and screeching with unseemly laughter. But I loved him so.”

Here Roland paused to bite at an itch on his haunch and then to smooth his fur with his tongue.

“Anyway,” he resumed, “our long idyll reached its end when each of us had exhausted his stores of good karma, and we both plunged back down into the spawning-ditches of punabbhava, and into the tangled meshes of pratitya-samutpada . . . a humiliating, but inevitable, dégringolade. Anitya, you know. Thereafter our karmic paths diverged for aeons. But now we’ve found one another. How could we bear to be parted again?” And a lugubrious sigh escaped his lips. “Oh,” he said, his manner suddenly brisker, “that black bear came back last night and got into the trash again.”

“I thought I heard you barking at something . . .” I began.

“Yes, I saw him from the living room window. I caught a glimpse of gleaming ursine teeth in the moonlight, and I’m afraid that, when I recognized what I was looking at, an atavistic thrill of pure terror set me off. Irrepressible canine instinct, I’m afraid. I’d help you clean up the debris, but I have no thumbs.” He turned his head as if about to jump down from the bed, but then paused and turned back to me. “You know, that’s a very potent word, really—recognized, I mean . . . recognition . . .”

“How so?”

“Well, I’ve been pondering the problem of consciousness a great deal lately, and how impossible it is to fit it into a truly mechanistic account of life or of evolution—I mean at the most elementary level. Take simple recognition of something, for example: There you have an instance of seemingly irreducible intentional consciousness, right? But we know what a thorn in the side of materialism intentionality is: It’s a conspicuous example of final causality right there in the midst of supposedly aimless mechanical events . . . its content is eidetic . . . you know, dependent on mental images, and so on conscious thought . . . it supplies a specific, finite meaning to experience that the physical order can’t provide. . . .

“Well, simply said, it doesn’t fit into the mechanistic story, does it? And so, as I understand it, the really consistent materialist position is that consciousness and intentionality are all secondary, even illusory, the epiphenomenal residue of purely mechanical processes. Supposedly, if you delve down deeply enough—into the body’s neural machinery or into the dark backward and abysm of evolutionary time—you’ll find that all intentional activity dissolves into a series of unconscious, aimless physical functions, which natural selection has refined into such a complex order that it generates the illusion of unified conscious intention.”

He paused to scratch the back of his ear with a hind paw, then resumed: “Take my silly fright at that bear’s teeth. Allegedly that would be just a neural agitation that only seems to have a rational content and purpose—survival—but that’s really just the fortuitous result of an accidental juxtaposition of physical effects, mechanically coordinated by evolution. If you could trace my instinctive fear back in time, you’d arrive at some primitive organism without eidetic consciousness or intentional awareness, in which just by chance the shape of a bared tooth would—for no reason—provoke the neural response of flight. And then, since this would accidentally have the salutary effect of helping preserve that organism’s life, that neural tendency would be preserved and transformed over generations into an indurated genetic predisposition. Only later would the elaborate stage-trickery of consciousness arise out of all that biochemistry, like vapors from a swamp.

“Well, do you believe that? Could any mechanical coincidence that bizarrely pointless and rare ever be sufficiently specified by natural selection? Do you really think that that neural reaction could even have occurred without some kind of eidetic recognition—some formal idea—present?”

“Well . . . .”

“Of course not,” he continued. “These materialists say it’s mechanism all the way up—or at least up to some inexact point where some kind of phylogenic alchemy, which we hazily call ‘emergence,’ magically produces consciousness as a kind of tinsel party crown atop the machine. Nonsense, I say. Nonsense! It’s just the opposite: consciousness and intentionality go all the way down, in varying degrees but continuously. Really, consciousness is at the ground of everything—it is the ground. Oh, did you remember to pick up some of those rawhide treats I like? I want to put some in my luggage for the flight.”

“Look,” I said, “do you really have to go to Norway? They’ll probably put you in quarantine for a month when you arrive. You know how prissy Europeans get about foreign animals without visas.”

Now an almost pitying expression appeared on his face. “I’m sorry, but I must. T’ing-T’ing needs me . . . for spiritual guidance.”

Knowing my brother as I do, I could think of no further plausible demurral, so I said nothing, merely nodding my head in resignation.

“You know,” Roland added, “this whole business of consciousness reminds me of something that occurred to me the other day regarding superposition.”

“Sorry—regarding . . .?”

“Superposition. You know, the measurement problem, double-slit experiments, whether there’s a collapse of the wave function—I certainly think there is—and all that. You see, it occurred to me . . .”

Just then, however, a shrill, intolerably raucous claxon sounded. In a moment, the entire scene had melted away and I found myself emerging from sleep, savagely groping for my abominable alarm clock.

To awaken from an interesting dream before it reaches its end is always irksome; but I have to admit that my chief emotion, once the mists in my mind had begun to evaporate, was relief. It was very good to know that Roland would not be leaving on the evening flight with my brother. It was comforting, moreover, to have my sense of normality restored: I have no cause to believe, for instance, that Roland is a Mahayana Buddhist, much less a quondam Taoist deity enthroned in a syncretic Buddhist heaven. So I was at peace. My only real regret on rising from bed, and for several days thereafter, was that, in all likelihood, I should never now find out what it was my dog had wished to tell me about quantum mechanics.

Articles by David Bentley Hart