Nature Has a Mind of Its Own

This morning’s author is one of my favorite scientific philosophers. This article is re-posted from the Nov/Dec 2010 Issue of Tikkun.

Christian de Quincey

The great American psychologist William James had just finished a lecture on the nature of reality when a little old lady approached him. “Excuse me, Professor,” she said, “but I’m afraid you’ve got it all wrong. The world is really supported on the back of a great big turtle.”

The venerable professor, being a gentleman, decided to humor the woman: “Tell me, then, what is holding the turtle up?”

Quick as a flash, the old lady snapped back: “Another turtle, of course.”

“And what’s supporting that turtle?” James asked, trying gently to get her to see her mistake. The conversation went on like this for another round or two until the little old lady interrupted with a noticeable tremor of exasperation:

“Save your breath, sonny. It’s turtles all the way down.”

At least so the story goes (though some associate it with Bertrand Russell instead of William James). True or not, the “turtle” incident illustrates a fundamental intuition we all share about the nature of reality: Something can’t come from nothing. Something must “go all the way down” or all the way back. Even the Big Bang must have had some kind of “fuse.” (Religions, of course, say it was God.)

James was teaching around the turn of the last century, but the little old lady’s point still carries force. In the modern-day version, turtles are replaced by consciousness. The question now is not what is holding the world up, but where did mind or consciousness come from? In a purely physical universe, the existence of mind is a profound puzzle. And if we are to believe the standard scientific view on this, then mind emerged from wholly mindless matter. But just how this occurred remains a complete mystery. In fact, in Radical Nature, I make the case that it couldn’t happen without a miracle. And miracles have no place in science. Instead, our best option is to revive the old lady’s insight and proclaim that “consciousness goes all the way down.” Mind has always existed in the universe. Cosmos—the world of nature—has a mind of its own.

Searching for the “Soul Line”

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? According to science, the world is made up of mindless, soulless, purely physical atoms and energy. So far, no one has a satisfactory explanation for the existence of nonphysical minds in this otherwise physical universe.

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 and some of us draw it at living organisms; 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, this 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, and 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 ecosystems that sustain us all. To be more specific, here’s an outline of just some of those consequences.

Ecological crisis: Our environment is being rapidly destroyed. We are right now experiencing a widespread, global crisis of unprecedented proportions involving climate disruption, global warming, and the destruction of rain forests, along with their precious biodiversity. We are now in the midst of the sixth major species extinction since life began on our planet. According to some experts, 50 percent of species currently alive will have disappeared by the end of this century.

Technologies of mass destruction: Through science and engineering, our civilization has developed awesome technologies of destruction (some intentional, some not). Potent nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons threaten the survival of our species, and much of the rest of nature, and many “benign” technologies produce unexpected side effects that pollute and degrade our atmosphere and environment.

Deep alienation: People are alienated from nature. To grasp just how divorced we are from the natural world, imagine trying to find your way home from another town, or even just across town, using only natural landmarks (without following maps or street signs). How sensitive and attuned are you to the natural landscape in which you live? How much has been blocked out, even obliterated, by the constructed environment of tarmac, concrete and steel?

Such alienation leads to all kinds of personal and social problems—for example, people feeling split from their own bodies and from other people, often unable to integrate their emotions and feelings with their rational minds, often becoming (or at least believing themselves to be) some kind of social misfit. How many people feel at home in their own bodies or feel comfortable at work, with their families, and with strangers? Millions struggle to search for meaning in a meaningless universe.

Where Do We Turn for Answers—Science or Religion?

Unfortunately, modern science and philosophy are a major source of the problem: their basic story or worldview is “materialism” and they understand the world as made up of “dead atoms.” 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 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.

In times of crisis, such as the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe or the Gulf of Mexico fiasco, people are much more likely to wonder about God’s relevance and participation in natural events. The idea that nature has a mind of its own means that the natural intelligence of the world—unlike a remote God of the skies—is not preoccupied with exclusively human concerns. Larger forces are at work in the world, and it serves us to pay attention and recognize that we are integral parts of nature, that the divine is all around us, and that humans do not get any special treatment.

According to 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 clergy or churches. In my experience, the sacred is all around us in nature—I experience it while 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 my 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 as “dumb.” Both assert that human beings are somehow special and stand apart 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.

Mind: The Big Mystery in Evolution

I first became fascinated with consciousness as a seven- or eight-year-old kid in Ireland. The trigger event was discovering an entry on “evolution” in my father’s tattered encyclopedia. An old line drawing of a dinosaur caught my attention: not only was I descended from my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, but the entire human race evolved from some ape-like ancestors, who came from even more primitive mammals, who came from reptiles, who came from amphibians, who came from fishes, who came from jellyfishes, who came from clumps of cells, all the way down to bacteria-like single-celled “infusoria,” as they were called in the encyclopedia (which tells you how old it was). I was astounded to learn that my earliest relatives were bacteria!

I spoke the word aloud, enjoying the onomatopoeia—”e-v-o-l-u-t-i-o-n.” It sounded like a great unfolding, a rolling out of hidden forms, now mimicked in the way my tongue uncurled from the roof of my mouth.

Then something astounding grabbed me: not only was I mesmerized by images of descending species culminating in this young fella sitting there at that moment reading a big, dusty old book, but somehow that stupendous unfolding also managed to produce the ability to look back and contemplate the process of evolution itself. Somehow, somewhere along the line, evolution had become aware of itself.

At what stage did evolution produce consciousness? I had no answers. The encyclopedia gave no clues, and my parents and teachers, it seemed, could hardly understand my questions. They spoke to me of “souls” and “God’s mysterious ways,” and I was left wondering and unsatisfied because, as far as I could make out, they were telling me only humans had souls. But such religious “explanations” did not fit what I had learned from the encyclopedia, nor what I experienced for myself. No, whatever “consciousness” or “soul” was, it was not unique to humans—but how far back did it go?

I grew up puzzled. Not that such questions burned in my thoughts every day; but from time to time I would think back on those dinosaurs and infusoria and wonder about evolution, wonder about the feelings and thoughts pulsing through me and other creatures.

Radical Nature

In this article, and in my book Radical Nature, I call for a radically new understanding of nature. By “radical,” I mean a view of matter radically different from what we learn through science and philosophy. I mean intrinsically sentient matter. “Radical” comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root,” the foundation or source of something. Etymologically, “radical” is related to “radial,” which means branching out in all directions from a common center or root, and to “radiant,” which means, variously, filled with light, shining, sending out rays of light, emanating from a source, manifesting well-being, wholeness, pleasure, or love. “Radical Nature,” therefore, implies nature that is sentient to its roots, composed of matter that feels something of the nature of wholeness and love all the way down, and that radiates, or moves itself, from the depths of its own being.

French Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin suggested something similar in his concept of “radial energy,” which he proposed was the interior source of universal attraction and love between all elements of the cosmos, pulling them toward increased complexity (contrasted with “tangential energy,” the energy physicists work with, pulling in the direction of chaos and entropy).

The standard scientific view, by contrast, is that nature is composed of “dead matter”—so that even living systems consist, ultimately, of unfeeling, purposeless, meaningless atoms or quarks embedded in equally unfeeling, purposeless, and meaningless fields of force. I challenge this materialist view, and claim that not only is it incoherent but that it is also very dangerous.

The notion of human specialness lies at the core of our civilization’s dominant stories. In the grand narratives we tell ourselves—in our cosmologies, and scientific and religious worldviews that try to make sense of the fact that we are here at all—humans are typically the central characters.

But, as I argue in Radical Nature, humans (or even animals) are not the only creatures with minds. The entire world of nature tingles with consciousness. Nature literally has a mind of its own. It feels and responds to our presence.

Consciousness All the Way Down

Contrary to what is 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.

This is an uncommon view, called “panpsychism,” and it presents a radical and controversial account of the relationship between bodies and minds, between matter and soul. To be sure, the nature of mind 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.

In the view I’m proposing, all matter feels, is sentient, and has experience. Matter is adventurous—as 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.

A “New” and Ancient Philosophy

Panpsychism (or what I call “radical naturalism”) tells us that matter itself, from the very start (the Big Bang, perhaps) arrived on the scene already tingling with consciousness. Consciousness is not something separate from matter (as dualism tells us), nor is it produced by matter in the form of brains or nervous systems (as materialism insists). Instead, panpsychism tells us that matter—all matter—has its own interiority, an ability to feel, to have a point of view, and the ability to move itself from within. In everyday street-speak, we might say, “matter has a mind of its own.” In its most primitive form matter is (and always was) sentient, “alive.”

This, then, is the “new” story of the universe and the stuff it is made of. If we are to feel at home in the cosmos, if we are to be open to the full inflowing and outpouring of its profound creativity, and if we are not to feel isolated and alienated from the full symphony of cosmic matter—both as distant as the far horizon of time, and as near as the flesh of our own bodies—we need a new cosmology story. We need a new way to envision our relationship to the full panorama of the crawling, burrowing, swimming, gliding, flying, circulating, flowing, rooted, and embedded Earth. We need to be and to feel, as well as to think and believe, differently about nature.

Actually this is a very ancient idea—one of the oldest worldviews, predating Plato and the ancient Greeks. In my book, I trace the lineage of panpsychism back to before the birth of philosophy—to the ancient tradition of shamanism, in fact. And then I show how, throughout history to the present day, some great philosophers have also shared this view. The philosophy of materialism that dominates our world today is, by comparison, a late arrival—a kind of detour that has run its course.

Minds from Brains?

Modern science and philosophy are in the dark about consciousness. They cannot even begin to explain how consciousness could emerge from the brain. Materialists such as Berkeley philosopher John Searle simply claim it as a given, obvious “fact.” But it is not at all obvious. As it turns out, science is utterly at a loss to explain how this could happen. Indeed, getting spirit-like consciousness from the stuff of the physical brain would require a miracle. But miracles are exactly what scientific materialism denies are possible. In short, for materialism to be true, it would have to be false! Now that’s a real dilemma. As soon as science begins to pay attention to consciousness it runs into a dead end. It draws a blank.

When pressed, neuroscientists typically say: “We don’t have all the facts just yet. One day we will, and when that day arrives, then we can give you the full explanation.” In the meantime it’s “just obvious” that mind or consciousness arises from the immense complexity of the brain, or as Searle puts it, the brain squirts out consciousness like the liver secretes bile. But that’s not science, it’s “promissory materialism.” Materialists would like us to believe their promise that one day they will have “all the facts” to explain the mystery. But asking us to believe without any evidence is “faith,” not science.

And then they point out that science is always progressing, always gaining more knowledge. Isn’t it possible, then, that one day they will have “all the facts”? I don’t think so. And here’s why (I’ll try not to get too technical): According to scientific materialism all of reality is ultimately physical. Reality is objective—wholly and thoroughly. If so, the challenge facing science is to explain how it could be possible—even in principle—for one kind of reality (completely physical and objective) to suddenly (or even gradually) jump to an entirely different kind of reality (one that is subjective and nonphysical): consciousness. That’s where the miracle is required—an ontological jump from an utterly cold, lifeless, unfeeling, and unknown universe to one that now possesses creatures sparkling with life, with feeling, with consciousness. What could possibly account for that “reality jump”?

In philosophy, we call it the “ontological gap” between two radically different kinds of reality. No amount of complex feedback loops in the brain or nervous system can make that jump because all those loops in the brain are themselves still objective—they can be observed, they can be measured, they are physical. Consciousness is notoriously non-physical (you cannot observe or measure it). In short, you cannot get subjectivity (a state of reality with feeling and sentience) from a state of reality that didn’t have the slightest trace of consciousness to begin with. You can’t get something from nothing, as James’s little old lady was at pains to point out. If you begin with “dead” matter, it stays dead—no matter how complex and twisted it becomes.

Philosopher Colin McGinn put it this way: “Somehow, we feel, the water of the physical brain is turned into the wine of consciousness, but we draw a total blank on the nature of this conversion…. The mind-body problem is the problem of understanding how the miracle is wrought.”

The Most Terrifying Story Ever Told

So what? Why should anyone, other than philosophers, care about the mind-body problem? What difference does it make in real life? I think it makes a big difference. As novelist Daniel Quinn noted in Ishmael, 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, I make the point that all our worldviews, philosophies, cosmologies, mythologies, and so on are ultimately 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 of the fact that we are here at all. But we don’t just tell these stories. We live them, we enact them.

Today, we live in a world dominated by the story called scientific materialism, where nature is believed to be made up 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 inherent sacredness. We plunder and rape and exploit it, and the consequences are not at all pretty. We face looming crises in ecology, in social systems, and in our personal lives as we struggle to make sense and meaning out of a world made up of cold, 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.

Bertrand Russell, one of the most respected and influential philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

This may be the most terrifying story ever told—nevertheless, it is the one we are born into. It expresses the terrible poetry of a meaningless universe, rolling along chaotic channels of chance, blind and without purpose, sometimes accidentally throwing up the magnificence and beauty of natural and human creations, but inevitably destined to pull all our glories asunder and leave no trace, no indication that we ever lived, that our lonely planet once bristled and buzzed with colorful life and reached out to the stars. It is all for nothing.

Such is the plot and substance of modern science boiled down to its bare essentials, a legacy from the founders of the modern worldview, such as Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Newton, and Darwin.

Even if we have faith in a deeper spiritual dimension, somewhere in our nested system of beliefs that story lurks, ready to rob our visions, dreams, loves, and passions of any meaning, of any validity beyond the scripted directions of a blind, unconscious, purposeless plot maker. If something in our experience stirs and reacts to this with disbelief, even with a question, it is surely worth paying attention to because the possibility that that story is wrong or incomplete makes a real difference.

What if that sweeping materialist vision leaves something out? What if there is something other than an “accidental collocation of atoms” at work in the universe? What if, for instance, the experience or consciousness that contemplated the world and discovered the atoms was itself real? What if the ability of “collocated atoms” to purposefully turn around and direct their gaze to reflect on themselves was more than “accidental”? What if consciousness participates in the way the world works? What if consciousness can dance with the atoms and give them form and direction? What if the atoms themselves choreograph their own dance? What then?

In Radical Nature, I explore an alternative story—one where the atoms do choreograph their own dance—a worldview that tells us consciousness matters and that matter is conscious.

Nature Is Sacred

The ancient Greek philosopher Thales said, “Nature is full of gods.” Today, we might say it is full of spirit, full of consciousness. Nature literally carries the wisdom of the world, a symphony of relationships among all its forms. Nature constantly “speaks” to us, and feels and responds to our stories. Simply breathing in rhythm with the world around us can be a potent form of prayer. We can open our hearts and pray to the “god of small things,” for God lives in pebbles and stones, in plants and insects, in the cells of our bodies, in molecules and in atoms. And by connecting with the God of small things, we can discover this is the same as “the god of all things,” great or small. Yes, God is in the heavens, but God is also in the finest grain of sand.

I don’t believe we need priests or churches, rabbis or synagogues, mullahs or mosques, to connect us with some transcendent, supernatural God. In the religion of nature—of a natural God—clergy become shamans, the whole Earth, and the vast cosmos itself, becomes our temple of worship. In nature spirituality, “priests” do not act as intermediaries between Heaven and Earth. Rather, like shamans, our leaders and elders become guides teaching us to listen to the sacred language of nature—helping us open our minds and bodies to the messages rippling through the world of plants and animals, rocks and wind, oceans and forests, mountains and deserts, backyards and front porches.

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.

Christian de Quincey, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy and consciousness studies at John F. Kennedy University. He is the author of Consciousness from Zombies to Angels, Radical Nature, and many other books. He can be contacted via