Are All Creatures Conscious?

Excerpted from book From Science to God

Consciousness is not limited to human beings. A dog may not be aware of all the things of which we are aware. It does not think or reason as humans do, and it probably does not have the same degree of self-awareness, but this does not mean that a dog does not have its own inner world of experience.

When we see a dog asleep, its feet and toes twitching as if on the scent of some fantasy rabbit, we assume it is having a dream—a subjective experience. if it yelps or whines we assume it is feeling pain–indeed, if we didn’t believe that dogs felt pain, we wouldn’t bother giving them anesthetics before an operation—we wouldn't want to make them un-conscious.

If dogs possess consciousness then so do cats, horses, deer, dolphins, whales, and other mammals. The same is true of birds; some parrots, for example, seem as aware as dogs. And if birds are sentient beings, then so, I assume, are other vertebrates–alligators, snakes, frogs, salmon, and sharks. However different their experiences may be, they all have awareness of some kind or other.

The same argument applies to creatures further down the evolutionary tree. The nervous systems of insects are not nearly as complex as ours, and insects probably do not have as rich an experience of the world as we do, but I see no reason to doubt that they have some kind of inner experience.

Where do we draw the line? We usually assume that some kind of brain or nervous system is necessary before consciousness can come into being. From the perspective of the materialist metaparadigm, this is a reasonable assumption. If consciousness arises from processes in the material world, then those processes need to occur somewhere, and the obvious candidate is the nervous system.

But then we come up against the inherent problem of the materialist metaparadigm. Whether we are considering a human brain with its tens of billions of cells, or a nematode worm with a hundred or so neurons, the problem is the same: How can any purely material process ever give rise to consciousness? (See materialist metaparadigm)

Panpsychism

The underlying assumption of the current metaparadigm is that matter is insentient. The alternative is that the faculty of consciousness is a fundamental quality of nature. Consciousness does not arise from some particular arrangement of nerve cells or processes going on between them, or from any other physical features; it is always present.

In philosophical circles the idea that consciousness is in everything is called panpsychism, from the Greek pan, meaning all, and psyche, meaning mind. Its basic tenet is that the capacity for inner experience could not evolve or emerge out of entirely insentient, non-experiencing matter. Experience can only come from that which already has experience. Therefore the faculty of consciousness must be present all the way down the evolutionary tree.

Some single-celled organisms are sensitive to physical vibration, light, and heat. Who is to say they do not have a corresponding glimmer of awareness? I am not implying they perceive as we do, or that they have thoughts or feelings, only that they possess the faculty of consciousness; there is a faint trace of sentience. It may be a billionth of the richness and intensity of our own experience, but it is still there.

According to this view, there is nowhere we can draw a line between conscious and non-conscious entities; there is a trace of sentience, however slight, in viruses, molecules, atoms, and even elementary particles.

Some argue this implies that rocks perceive the world around them, perhaps have thoughts and feelings, and enjoy an inner mental life similar to human beings. This is clearly an absurd suggestion, and not one that was ever intended. If a bacterium’s experience is a billionth of the richness and intensity of human being’s, the degree of experience in the minerals of a rock might be a billion times dimmer still. They would possess none of the qualities of human consciousness–just the faintest possible glimmer of sentience.

Last Modified: 02-03-09