From my third story window I just watched a butterfly as it covered a distance of well over an acre a hundred feet off the ground. Its path through the air must have made the ultimate in curlicues as the winds shifted around it.
Setbacks in forward motion were constant. Wing beats probably came in a little better than two per second. The vastness of the open space all around it, and the random winds, had to be disorienting. The butterfly had the sun to go by, but how precise its steering could possibly have been in such strong air currents is the question. Most likely it was only slightly better off than a toy balloon.
It kept pounding away at the empty air, energized by solar warmth and nectar, of which we can only hope it had found enough. Both of those are fading this time of year. It seemed to have a destination, but given the opposition of the headwinds, it must not have been a geographic one, rather a goal of survival alone, or maybe the passing on of its progeny. So, maybe it had an agenda, of sorts.
What must its consciousness be like? I use the word loosely, as a stand-in for some other descriptor for mental activity. Many people would balk at the idea of something so primitive having anything like the rarified human trait we call consciousness. They would deny that anything is going on with an insect other than instinctive activities. The human brain has multiple complex structures to produce the human mind, which is contained within those structures. But what is the experience of the butterfly?
Its pinpoint speck of a brain must be at the lowest order of awareness. We have been reevaluating the limits of animal consciousness in recent years. Always upward. In the 19th century they thought of animals as true insensate meat machines. Why not beat a horse to death? It had a tiny brain, and no soul.
An insect can be agitated or calm, focused on a task or just coasting, stressed or sated. Is an insect complex enough to have a trace of something like self-assurance or self-doubt? Is it not able to register stress, and know that things were not going well? Surely it would be able to tell if it was under-fueled, or in trouble of some kind. Or would it even matter to such a creature, so fantastically different from us?
A fellow earthling, this butterfly was going somewhere – going to live. It was entirely determined, dedicated, and energetic about it.