Nature Has a Mind of Its Own
What’s the greatest mystery facing every person on the planet? Ultimately, it’s some version of the age-old “Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?” And these questions, which lie at the heart of all philosophy and religion, can be summed up as: “How do I fit in?” How do we humans (with our rich interior lives of emotions, feelings, imaginations, and ideas) fit into the world around us—a world that is supposed to be made up of physical mindless, soulless atoms and energy? That’s a scientific question. And, so far, no one has produced a satisfactory explanation.
We lack an explanation because our questions already assume something quite disturbing. We assume we are split from nature. We assume that humans are somehow special, that we have minds or souls while the rest of nature doesn’t. Some of us draw the “soul line” at higher animals, some of us draw it at living organisms, but few of us draw no line at all. Ask yourself: Are rocks conscious? Do animals or plants have souls? Have you ever wondered whether worms or insects might feel pain or pleasure? Can trees feel anything at all? Your answers will reveal where you are likely to draw the line.
In philosophy, it is called the “consciousness cut.” Where, in the great unfolding of evolution, did consciousness first appear? In contemporary philosophy and science the cut-off is usually made at brains—if not human brains then the brains of higher mammals. Only creatures with highly developed brains or nervous systems possess consciousness, so the scientific story goes.
Because of our assumed “specialness,” because of the deep fissure between humans and the rest of nature, because of the mind-body split, we need a new understanding of how we—ensouled, embodied humans—fit into the world of nature. Our current worldview, based on the materialist philosophy of modern science, presents us with a stark and alienating vision of a world that is intrinsically devoid of meaning, of purpose, of value—a world without a mind of its own, a world without soul. And this worldview has had dramatic and catastrophic consequences for our environment, for countless species of animals and plants, and for the eco-systems that sustain us all.
So what? Why should anyone other than philosophers care about the mind-body problem—how consciousness, or soul, fits into the physical world? What difference does it make in real life? I think it makes a big difference.
Award-winning novelist Daniel Quinn once said that we don’t just tell our stories we enact them. In other words, we live our stories, and we change the world accordingly. In my book Radical Nature, I make the point that all our worldviews, philosophies, cosmologies, mythologies, and so on, are nothing but stories (despite their fancy names). They are ways we have of telling ourselves who we are, how we came to be, and where we’re going. We tell ourselves these grand stories to make some sense that we are here at all.
Today, where the dominant story is scientific materialism, we live in a world where nature is believed to be composed of “dead” stuff, of lifeless atoms and molecules. Nature has no consciousness, no feelings, no intrinsic value, meaning, or purpose. And so we relate to nature without sufficient respect for its sacredness. We plunder and rape and exploit it, and the consequences are not at all pretty. We have looming crises in ecology, in social systems, and in our personal lives as we struggle to make sense and meaning out of a world that we are told is made up of cold, lifeless, mindless, meaningless stuff. In such a world, all life—including human life and consciousness—is just a fluke, an accident. This is an alarming story, and it has drastic consequences.
As many of us now know only too well, our natural environment is being rapidly destroyed—for example, rainforests, with their precious biodiversity, vanishing at the rate of two football fields every second. Our scientists and politicians have spent billions developing weapons of vast destructive power, capable of plunging the planet into a long dark night. And, at a very deep level, most “civilized” people are alienated from nature, and from their own bodies—unable to integrate their emotions and feelings with their rational minds. How many people feel at home in their own skins? Millions struggle to search for meaning in a meaningless universe.
Where Do We Turn for Answers?
Surely we can we find solace in either science or religion? Unfortunately, modern science and conventional religions are major contributors to the problem. According to science, human consciousness “emerged” from dead, insentient matter. Nature itself is without any intrinsic meaning, value, or purpose because it has no consciousness. For science, there is no spirit in nature. Humans are thus at odds with the rest of the world: We are intelligent, nature is dumb. By an accident of nature, we are special.
However, science may be seriously mistaken when it asserts that consciousness is a product of complex brains, and that the rest of vital nature is a product of mindless, purposeless, unfeeling evolution. We may not be so special.
And, as for religion, conventional doctrines promise a reward in some afterlife. They do not teach us to look for meaning in nature. God is supernatural, transcendent, above and beyond the world. Yet we are all conscious beings, aching for meaning. We want meaning in this life. How many people wondered about God or prayer in the face of the 9/11 catastrophe?
For many forms of religion we are special by divine fiat. God gave us souls, so that we may survive and transcend the inevitable corruption of the flesh. Human consciousness, spirit, or soul is separate from the physical body, and the path to meaning and salvation is through prayer to a remote, transcendent God. Attention is focused elsewhere, either toward the heavens or toward priests, rabbis, or mullahs.
But the path to the sacred may not be through priests or churches. In my experience, the sacred is all around us in nature—for example, in watching a sunset, playing with animals, walking through a forest or on a beach, swimming in the ocean, climbing a mountain, planting flowers or vegetables, filling our lungs with fresh air, smelling the mulch of rich nourishing soil, dancing through crackling autumn leaves, comforting an injured pet, embracing a loved one, or holding the hand of a dying parent. The most direct way to God, I believe, is through touching and feeling the Earth and its inhabitants—being open to the expression of spirit in the most ordinary, as well as in the most awesome, events of daily life. The way to meaning in our lives is by reconnecting with the world of nature—through exuberant participation or through the stillness of meditation, just being present and listening. And when we do so, we hear, we feel, and we learn: We are not alone—we are not uniquely special.
For the most part, neither mainstream science nor conventional religion recognizes that humans are not essentially different from the rest of nature. Both regard matter and the world of nature as “dumb.” Both assert that human beings are somehow special and stand apart from nature because, they say, only human beings—or at least creatures with brains and nervous systems—have consciousness or souls. On the contrary, I say, consciousness goes all the way down.
Consciousness All the Way Down
Contrary to what’s taught in science today, consciousness is not produced by brains. In fact you don't even need a brain to have a mind. All animals, all plants, even bacteria have something we would call "mind." I’m saying that all bodies of any kind—all matter—has consciousness "all the way down" to atoms and beyond to quarks, or quanta or whatever lies at the root of physical reality. In this view, all of nature, all bodies—from atoms to humans—tingle with the spark of spirit.
But this is an uncommon view, called “panpsychism,” presenting a radical and controversial account of the relationship between bodies and minds, between matter and soul. True, the nature of mind or consciousness remains a deep mystery for science and philosophy. But success at healing the mind-body split so characteristic of our age depends, I believe, more on a revised understanding of the nature of matter.
The new view I’m proposing is that matter feels, matter is sentient, matter has experience, matter is adventurous—it probes and directs its way through the long, winding path of evolution. From its first appearance after the Big Bang—from the first atom, molecule, and cell—to the magnificence and glory of the human brain, the great unfolding of evolution is literally the story the universe is telling to itself. The cosmos is enacting the greatest epic drama imaginable. Truly, it is the greatest story ever told. And we are just one of the storytellers. In the evolution of the cosmos, matter itself is the prime storyteller.
We need to develop a deep respect for nature because it is the source of everything we are. Like us, all of nature has a mind of its own. And this is because matter is not at all what we normally think it to be. Matter is not dead stuff. Matter feels. The very stuff of our bodies, the very stuff of the Earth tingles with its own sentience. It is time for us as a worldwide community to rediscover the soul of matter, to honor and respect the flesh of the Earth, to pay attention to the meaning, purpose, and value embedded in the world beneath our feet and above our heads. Maybe then we will save ourselves from the otherwise inevitable ecological and civilizational collapse that faces us within our lifetime. I think we can do it. But first we have to learn to listen—to our bodies and to nature’s inexhaustible wisdom . . .
Philosopher Christian de Quincey, Ph.D., is the author of Radical Nature: Rediscovering the Soul of Matter. He is a professor of Consciousness Studies at John F. Kennedy University, where he teaches a variety of courses on consciousness and the mind-body relation. He serves as Managing Editor on IONS Review, a 40,000-membership magazine from the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and is an international speaker on consciousness, spirituality, and cognitive science at conferences and workshops in the United States and Europe. For more information, see his website www.deepspirit.com