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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.
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The Soul of Matter: All the Way Down
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. True or not, the “turtle” incident illustrates a fundamental intuition we all share about the nature of reality: Something can’t come fromnothing. 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, I believe it couldn’t have happened without a miracle. And miracles have no place in science. I propose that 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.
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 mindless, soulless physical 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 does not. Some of us draw the “soul line” at higher animals, some of us draw it at living organisms, but few 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.
Our environment is being rapidly destroyed. We are currently experiencing a widespread global crisis of unprecedented proportions: climate disruption, global warming, and vanishing rainforests, along with their precious biodiversity. We are in the midst of the sixth major species extinction since life began on our planet. According to some experts, fully 50 percent of species currently alive will have disappeared by the end of this century.
Through science and engineering, our civilization has developed awesome technologies of destruction (some intentional, some not). Potent nuclear and biological weapons threaten the survival of our species, and much of the rest of 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, feel comfortable at work, with their families, or with strangers? Millions struggle to search for meaning in an apparently meaningless universe.
Where Do We Turn for Answers?
Unfortunately, modern science and philosophy are the major source of the problem: Their basic story or worldview is “materialism”—the world is 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—no soul. For science, there is no spirit in nature. Humans are thus at odds with the rest of the world: we are intelligent, while 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, or when a tidal wave obliterated a huge stretch of the Indonesian coast, or when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, or when Haiti crumbled, or when the tsunami struck Japan and triggered a nuclear meltdown?
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 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 awesome, events of daily life. The way to meaning in our lives is by reconnecting directly with nature itself—whether through exuberant participation or the stillness of meditation, just being present andlistening. 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 essentially no 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. In my experience, and in my philosophy, I see it differently: I say, consciousness goes all the way down.
Mind: The Big Mystery in Evolution
I first became fascinated with consciousness as an 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 I heard in it—”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.
But something else even more 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 also that stupendous unfolding managed, somehow, 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 consciousness first appear? 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” didn’t fit what I had learned from the encyclopedia nor what I experienced for myself. 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(or were formulated in words I would use today), 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. That childhood mystery, Where in the great unfolding of evolution did consciousness first appear?, stayed with me. Later, it was the guiding template for my college studies and eventually turned into a career. The deep mystery of the relationships between consciousness and energy, mind and matter, humans and nature, became the focus of my work as a teacher and a writer.
My work is a cry from the heart, a long and passionate call for a radically new understanding of our place in nature. By “radical,” I mean a view of nature and matter very different from the standard view in physics and Western philosophy. I mean intrinsically sentient nature. I mean a world made of matter that feels to its deepest roots. “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 filled with light, shining, sending out rays, 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 with 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” that energy physicists work with, which pulls in the direction of chaos and entropy).
As I mentioned earlier, the standard scientific view of nature is that it is composed of “dead matter”—so that even living systems are ultimately composed of unfeeling, purposeless, meaningless atoms embedded in equally unfeeling, purposeless, and meaningless fields of force. I challenge this materialist view, which is not only incoherent but also very dangerous—dangerous because it leads to the self-serving notion that humans are special and that the world of nature is there to fulfill our goals and desires. Today we see the catastrophic consequences of that myth.
We humans are not so special, yet often we think we are. Human specialness lies at the core of our civilization’s dominant stories. In the grand narratives we tell ourselves as we try to make some sense of why we are here at all—in our cosmologies, in our scientific and religious worldviews—humans are typically the central characters. But humans, or even other animals, are not the only creatures with minds. The entire world of nature tingles with consciousness. Nature literally has a mind of its own. Nature feels and responds to our presence.
In this view, matter feels, matter is sentient, matter has experience, matter is adventurous—it probes and directs its way through the long, winding path of evolution. Evolution then is the grand adventure of matter exploring its own innate potentials: 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.
Conclusion: Nature Is Sacred
The one key message I would like to emphasize is that nature is sacred, inherently divine. As the ancient Greek philosopher Thales said, “Nature is full of gods.” Today we might say it is full of God, 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 to connect us with some transcendent, supernatural God. In the religion of nature—of a natural God—priests become shamans, the whole Earth becomes our church, and the vast cosmos our cathedral. In nature spirituality, the role of “priests” is not to be an intermediary between heaven and earth. Rather, they are guides who teach 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. Matterfeels. The very stuff of our bodies, the very stuff of planet Earth tingles with the spark of spirit. 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.