Weird & Güd - Do Non-Carbon Based Lifeforms Dream of Non-Carbon Based Sheep?

Why wouldn't they, jerk?

I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.

The Weird

Do you ever think about what other lifeforms might live in our universe, yet undiscovered? We’ve thought about meeting people-that-aren’t-people for a long, long time and the more we learn about outer space and its vastness, the more we believe there must be others.

When you think about those others, how similar to us do you imagine them to be — will they need oxygen or be carbon-based like us? If so, you might be the astrobiological equivalent of a misogynistic conservative. Hate to break it to you, but the assumption that extraterrestrial life would be carbon-based like all earthly life makes you a carbon chauvinist.

Sure, literally every living thing on Earth is carbon-based and we haven’t found any material that’s a truly viable option for building complex life, but can we possibly conclude that such material doesn’t exist just because we haven’t seen it? Pure carbon chauvinism.

Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, 1731

If the news of your bigotry has upset you, don’t worry, there are many more enlightened people working hard to poke holes in carbon chauvinism. A lot of scientists have pondered the possibility of life beyond our limited definition of life, but science fiction writers are lightyears ahead.

If you need some diversity training to neutralize your unconscious carbon bias, sci-fi can help. One organism in Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain reproduces by directly converting energy into matter. In the Firewalker episode of The X-Files, Mulder and Scully discover a silicon-based fungus, which is the only viable non-carbon option science has pinpointed yet.

Not all scientists ignore our institutional carbon-ism, though. Leave it to Carl Sagan to talk about chemistry and make it a poetic display of our relationship to the yet vastly unknown parts of our universe:

“I am, reluctantly, a self-confessed carbon chauvinist. Carbon is abundant in the Cosmos. It makes marvelously complex molecules, good for life. I am also a water chauvinist. Water makes an ideal solvent system for organic chemistry to work in and stays liquid over a wide range of temperatures.

But sometimes I wonder. Could my fondness for materials have something to do with the fact that I am made chiefly of them? Are we carbon- and water-based because those materials were abundant on the Earth at the time of the origin of life?”

The Güd

Dream analysis isn’t as big of a topic in psychology as it was during the time of Freud and Jung; researchers see dreams as being less like cryptic communication between different levels of your conscious and subconscious mind and more like a biological process your brain goes through when tidying up all the inputs of the day. The part of the brain dealing with emotion is 30% more active during sleep; while they might not be mystical, dreams aren’t the by-product of a meaningless mechanical process either.

First it was friends telling me about their weird dreams. Then it was strangers on social media talking about their weird dreams. Finally it was thinkpieces in major publications about all of our weird dreams. We’re all having weird dreams, which isn’t surprising considering we’re all living through a weird event. Carl Jung had a lot to say about dreams — a lot.

Museum of Modern Art/Public Domain
Le Rêve (The Dream), Henri Rousseau (1910)

If you’re having quarantine dreams, you might be tempted to look up the meaning of certain images, like insects or a river. Jung believed a dream was like a surrealist painting, a pastiche of symbols. Surrealism itself was born from the Freudian concept of the subconscious and the belief that creativity stems from this unknown realm, part of which exists in sleep. Jung took symbolism seriously, believing that “A symbol is the best possible formulation of a relatively unknown psychic content.”

These symbols can hold communally accepted meanings, like water representing the unknown/unconscious. For symbols like this, Jung uses the concept of archetypes — primal, collectively understood imagery like “the hero” or “the wise father.” With this framework, you examine your dreams for ancient storylines like “an unsavory thing chases me” or “the hero descends into chaos to restore order.” Basically just try to match the plot of your dreams to fairytales and old Disney movies — they’re mostly archetypal stories retold in different flavors, which is what Jung believed dreams were.

René Magritte. Therapist
Therapist, René Magritte (1937)

The fatal error in understanding dreams, though, is ignoring the personal significance of their symbols. Jung said again and again that he doesn’t know any more about a person’s dreams than they do because he can’t know what any symbol means to them personally. The symbol “dog” carries a totally different significance for someone who loves dogs and someone who was attacked by one.

According to Jung, a dream is “…a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious.”

If you’ve ever seen something by David Lynch, you’re familiar with Jung’s approach to dream analysis.

Seeing your dreams as lying somewhere between magic messages from spirit beings and quirky outcomes of an overactive cognitive process gives you the most ground to work from. Your dreams are unique to you because they’re creations blended from your experiences and your current state of being. You probably won’t find any secret messages that can solve the world’s mysteries, but like the surrealists, you can find new connections that might spur inspiration when thinking about those mysteries. If Jung was right about the personal power dreams carry, you can also find some homegrown psychoanalysis.

I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.

I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.