3. A Sentient Universe

A nature found within all creatures but not restricted to them; outside all creatures, but not excluded from them.

The Cloud of Unknowing

What is consciousness? The word is not easy to define, partly because we use it to cover a variety of meanings. We might say an awake person has consciousness, whereas someone who is asleep does not. Or, someone could be awake, but so absorbed in their thoughts that they have little consciousness of the world around them. We speak of having a political, social, or ecological consciousness. And we may say that human beings have consciousness while other creatures do not, meaning that humans think and are self-aware.

The way in which I shall be using the word consciousness is not in reference to a particular state of consciousness, or a particular way of thinking, but to the faculty of consciousness–the capacity for inner experience, whatever the nature or degree of the experience.

For every psychological term in English there are four in Greek and forty in Sanskrit.

A. K. Coomaraswamy

The faculty of consciousness can be likened to the light from a video projector. The projector shines light on to a screen, modifying the light so as to produce any one of an infinity of images. These images are like the perceptions, sensations, dreams, memories, thoughts, and feelings that we experience–what I call the "contents of consciousness." The light itself, without which no images would be possible, corresponds to the faculty of consciousness

We know all the images on the screen are composed of this light, but we are not usually aware of the light itself; our attention is caught up in the images that appear and the stories they tell. In much the same way, we know we are conscious, but we are usually aware only of the many different perceptions, thoughts and feelings that appear in the mind. We are seldom aware of consciousness itself.

Consciousness in All

The faculty of 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 I am with a dog, I assume that it has its own mental picture of the world, full of sounds, colors, smells and sensations. It appears to recognize people and places, much as we might. A dog may at times show fear, and at other times excitement. Asleep, it can appear to dream, feet and toes twitching as if on the scent of some fantasy rabbit. And when a dog 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.

If dogs possess consciousness then so do cats, horses, deer, dolphins, whales, and other mammals. They may not be self-conscious as we are, but they are not devoid of inner experience. 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 share the faculty of consciousness.

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?


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.

If the faculty of consciousness is always present, then the relationship between consciousness and nervous systems needs to be rethought. Rather than creating consciousness, nervous systems may be amplifiers of consciousness, increasing the richness and quality of experience. In the analogy with a video projector, having a nervous system is like having a lens in the projector. Without the lens there is still light on the screen, but the images are much less sharp.

In philosophical circles the idea that consciousness is in everything is called panpsychism, from the Greek pan, meaning all, and psyche, meaning soul or mind. Unfortunately, the words soul and mind suggest that simple life forms may possess qualities of consciousness found in human beings. To avoid this misunderstanding some contemporary philosophers use the term panexperientialism–everything has experience. Personally, I prefer the term pansentience–everything is sentient.

Whatever name this position is given, 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.

We know that plants are sensitive to many aspects of their environment–length of daylight, temperature, humidity, atmospheric chemistry. Even 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.

The Evolution of Consciousness

If the faculty of consciousness is universal, then consciousness is not something that emerged with human beings, or with vertebrates, or at any particular stage of biological evolution. What emerged over the course of evolution was not the faculty of consciousness, but the various qualities and dimensions of conscious experience–the contents of consciousness.

The earliest living organisms, bacteria and algae, had no sensory organs and detected only the most general characteristics and changes in their environment. Their experience might be likened to an extremely dim, almost imperceptible hint of light on an otherwise dark screen–virtually nothing compared to the richness and detail of human experience.

With the evolution of multicellular organisms came the emergence of specific senses. Some cells specialized in sensing light, others in sensing vibration, pressure, or changes in chemistry. Working together, such cells formed sensory organs, increasing the detail and quality of the information available to the organism–and enhancing the quality of consciousness.

In order to process this additional information and distribute it to other parts of the organism, nervous systems evolved. And, as the flow of information became more complex, central processing systems developed, integrating the different sensory modalities into a single picture of the world.

As brains grew in complexity, new features were added to the image appearing in consciousness. With mammals the limbic system appeared, an area of the brain associated with basic feelings such as fear, arousal, and emotional bonding. With time, the mammalian brain grew yet more complex, developing a new structure around it, the cerebral cortex. With this came better memory, focused attention, greater intention, and imagination.

The picture appearing in consciousness had by now reached the richness of detail and diversity of qualities that we associate with our own experience. But this is not the end of the story. With human beings another new capacity emerged–speech. And with this, the evolution of consciousness took a huge leap forward.

For a start, we could use words to communicate experiences with each other. Our awareness of the world was no longer limited to what our senses told us; we could know of events occurring in other places and at other times. We could learn from each other’s experiences, and so begin to accumulate a collective body of knowledge about the world.

Most significantly, we began to use language internally. Hearing words in our minds without actually saying them, allowed us to talk to ourselves. An entirely new dimension had been added to our consciousness–verbal thought. We could form concepts, entertain ideas, appreciate patterns in events, apply reason, and begin to understand the universe in which we found ourselves.

Then came the most important leap of all. Not only could we reflect upon the nature of the world around us, we could also reflect upon thinking itself. We became self-aware–aware of our own awareness. This opened the door to a whole new arena of development. We could begin to explore the inner world of the mind and, ultimately, delve into the nature of consciousness itself.

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