We need to breathe.
We absolutely need to breathe. Just as we absolutely need to drink and to eat, only not so often.

Yet we seldom think about breathing, we remember to think about drinking only when we’ve forgotten to take along a bottle of water for that two hour drive and we somewhat constantly keep warm in the back of our heads the nagging ‘what’s in for dinner?’.

What makes us so indifferent to breathing – as long as our lungs remain OK, anyway, and so choosy when it comes to our ‘daily bread’? After-all, both are equally important…
And how come we almost never think about the air we breathe but equally almost never forget to dream about our precious car? The future one, of course, not the present! Or about a beach holiday, a diamond ring, Jimmy Choo shoes …

So.
There are some things that we actually need, some we actively want and things which belong to both categories.

Then why don’t we actively keep tabs on all the things we actually need and why do we bother so much with those which are more or less superfluous?

Maybe because we are not machines? And because life is neither simple nor forthright?

Let me start from the beginning.

We belong to the realm of the living things.
The difference between living things and inanimate matter being that all individual organisms eventually die while inanimate matter might, theoretically at least, remain unchanged for ever.

Otherwise put, inanimate matter has only ‘inertia’ and living things have both inertia and an innate ‘will to survive’.
Another difference between the two being that all kinds of inanimate matter are ‘isotropic’ while ‘life’ is almost synonymous with ‘individual organisms.’
It’s just as impossible to differentiate between two water molecules as it is to find two identical organisms – even if they belong to the same species. N.B., not even clones are identical to each other.

As an aside, sometimes it is possible to differentiate between two water molecules. For instance, heavy water is slightly different from regular water. Also, there are some differences between the water molecules which have in their composition different Oxygen isotopes. But if you know what an isotope is… you get my drift.

Coming back to the difference between inanimate and living, the inanimate does not change in time.
A molecule of water remains the same until something happens to it and water, as a substance, has never changed since….
On the other hand, each individual living organism changes, however minutely, with ‘every breath it takes’ while species are undergoing a constant evolutionary process.

Furthermore, we can draw a parallel between inanimate substances and animate species. Both of them, substances and species,  are ‘organized’ along some common ‘information’.
‘Water’ has a certain ‘blue print’, ‘vinegar’ has it’s own – different from that of ‘water’, and ‘wolves’ have yet another one – which is different from that of ‘poplar’.
Only the parallel can be drawn only so far.
All molecules ‘belonging’ to the same substance share the same ‘constitutive information’.
All individuals belonging to the same species do have a lot of ‘constitutive information’ in common yet each of them is different from all of the rest.

Hey, wait a minute!
– You promised us something about needs and wants and now you’re lecturing us about the difference between life and death? What next?
– Bear with me. I’m getting there!

One last difference and we’re almost done.

I told you a little earlier that life is about change while inanimate is… boringly stable!
Actually life is also about exchange, not only about change.
No inanimate molecule ever exchanges anything material with anybody, lest it becomes something else.
No individual living organism can survive for any sizeable amount of time without exchanging substance and information, in an ‘organized’ manner, with it’s surrounding medium.

In my ‘original terms’, each individual living organism has needs while individual molecules have none – except for the ‘need’ to be ‘left alone’ in order to ‘survive’.

I’m not going to enter into details. For now, all I’m going to say is that the above mentioned ‘organized exchange’ is regulated by a ‘membrane’ according to information passed along from generation to generation.
Each individual living organism has it’s own set of information, coded in its DNA (RNA for the more ‘primitive’ ones). Which set of information has a lot in common with but is slightly different from that which has belonged to the previous generation.

For instance, each E.coli bacteria has a membrane – which separates the interior of the ‘organism’ from it’s surrounding medium, a nucleus which contains its ‘constitutive information’ and some other things which are of no importance for this discussion.
For as long as that individual bacteria is alive, the membrane plays two roles. It keeps the bacteria together and mediates the exchanges between the individual organism and its medium. It lets food and oxygen in. It makes it so that ‘excrement’ and CO2 are purged out.
And all these are happening according to the information contained in the genetic material passed over from the previous generation.

In a sense, exactly because each individual organism somehow manages to remain – for a while, at least – in one piece while constantly exchanging substance with the surrounding medium, one may say that each individual bacteria has a form of (proto?) conscience. Remember that it does ‘survive’ on its own, ‘guided’ exclusively by information contained in it’s own DNA. As long as its surrounding medium remains in certain parameters, of course, but this is another issue.

Let’s jump now directly to us, human beings.

OK, we are multi-cellular organisms hence we are provided with a second ‘membrane’ – which is usually referred to as  ‘skin’.
The rest is basically the same. The ‘skin’ keeps us together, breathes in, breathes out, excretes the by products of our metabolism…
Well, not exactly the same! We have yet another layer of ‘membrane’. Using a very modern word, I’ll describe this third layer as being “virtual”.

I’m speaking about our infinitely more complex conscience.

The proto-conscience of the E.coli is  similar to a ‘mechanical’ function.
‘Mechanical’ in the sense that the information contained in the nucleus is more or less directly expressed. The bacteria is not able to asses the results of its actions, to watch itself ‘doing things’ or to learn anything from what’s happening to it.

Time for another aside. Recent scientific research strongly suggests that even unicellular organisms are capable of learning. Something. This is very important, and very helpful towards increasing the ability of any given organism to survive, but doesn’t change much of what I have to say here.

Our conscience is anything but mechanical.
OK, it very much depends on our brains. Hence on our DNA.
It also depends on everything that has happened to us from the moment each of us has been conceived till the very present moment. A single minute spent without being able to breathe during birth can wreak havoc with out brains. Hence with our ability to develop a full fledged conscience.
Furthermore, being born into a relatively well off family during a peaceful era leads to being exposed to a completely different set of stimuli than if born into a poor family during a war.

Coming back to my initial example – very few of us really think about breathing, simply because most of us are accustomed to air being freely available, people exposed to those two different sets of ‘initial inputs’ will have a different attitude towards ‘normal daily needs’.
The first kid will grow with an innate sentiment that having enough to eat is comme il faut and nothing to worry about while the second…
Also, the first kid will grow accustomed to people around him ‘parading’ a host of satisfied ‘wants’ almost incomprehensible for the other kid.

Don’t tell me these two kids will develop the same kind of conscience.
Equivalent? Maybe.
Geared towards the same goal? Survival of the individual AND that of the social norms into which the individual has been socialized? Certainly! Only the social norms I’ve just mentioned will never be exactly the same in those two cases… regardless of those two children belonging to the same broad culture.

As a consequence of their different fortunes, each of them will maintain a different balance between needs and wants. Even if their fortunes will change in time.

The ‘conscious membrane’ can change, and it usually will, following the changes in the surrounding medium. But those changes cannot fundamentally alter the ‘initial orientation’ – that forged during the early childhood.

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