Scientists and philosophers have long debated what level of consciousness, if any, animals and plants have. Some philosophers have even questioned the existence of all but their own minds, being unable to say with absolute certainty that other human beings have consciousness. These questions all relate to beings we label as “living” or “organic.”
But what about inanimate objects? Could they be sentient? It may sound like a crazy idea at first, but some modern scientists (not to mention prominent thinkers throughout history, such as Plato), say it’s possible.
“The idea that the thermostat that regulates the temperature in your house is even vaguely aware of what it is doing certainly goes against ‘common sense,'” wrote Henry P. Stapp, a theoretical physicist at the University of California–Berkeley who worked with some of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics, in a paper about the interaction of mind and matter. Nonetheless, he said, the idea of panpsychism—that all matter has consciousness—is worth discussing in relation to quantum mechanics.
In quantum mechanics, the link between mind and matter is so central that it is “rather unnatural and seemingly retrograde even to consider the possible existence of events that are not psycho-physical in character,” he said. The act of observation, an act of human consciousness, has been shown to influence the physical reality of experiment results.
Stapp does, however, leave room in his theories for events that are purely physical, events that have nothing to do with consciousness. Cognitive scientist and philosopher David Chalmers takes it a step further.
He says it is possible that consciousness is a fundamental building block of physics, and thus it exists in all things—from human beings down to photons.
Chalmers is a philosophy professor and head of consciousness studies at the Australian National University and at New York University. In a TED Talk earlier this year, he said science is at a sort of impasse in its study of consciousness, and “radical ideas may be needed,” to move forward. “I think that we may need one or two ideas that may initially seem crazy.”
One such idea is panpsychism.
Admitting it may seem a “kooky” idea, he noted: “Although the idea seems counterintuitive to us, it’s much less counterintuitive to people from different cultures where the human mind is seen as much more continuous with nature.”
In the past, physics had to incorporate newly discovered fundamental building blocks, such as electromagnetism, that were unexplained by more basic principles. He wonders whether consciousness is another such building block.
“Physics is curiously abstract,” he said. “It describes the structure of reality using a bunch of equations, but it doesn’t tell us about the reality that underlies it.” He quoted a question posed by Stephen Hawking: “What puts the fire into the equations?”
Maybe consciousness puts the fire into the equations, Chalmers said. The equations stay as they are, but we see them as means for describing the flux of consciousness.
“Consciousness doesn’t dangle outside the physical world as some kind of extra, it’s there right at its heart,” he said.
Chalmers doesn’t claim photons have the same kind of consciousness as human beings, but they could have a sort of primal awareness.
Similar thoughts on the different levels of awareness were explored in Ancient Indian scriptures and by 17th-century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. They suggested inorganic beings are in a sleep-like state; animals are aware but perhaps in a dream-like state; humans are aware that they are aware—they are more awake than animals.
In some Native American traditions, rocks are viewed as having consciousness and a rock may even be referred to as “grandfather rock.” The rocks are aware, for example, of having been moved from their resting places. In Eastern spiritual thought, it is sometimes said a soul can reincarnate not only as a human being, but also as a plant, animal, or even as a rock.
Famed philosophers who have espoused some form of panpsychism include Plato, Baruch Spinoza, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Bertrand Russell.
Russell wrote in “An Outline of Philosophy” (1927): “My own feeling is that there is not a sharp line, but a difference of degree [between mind and matter]; an oyster is less mental than a man, but not wholly un-mental.” He said memory is a key aspect of consciousness and inanimate objects have a sort of memory: “We cannot, on this ground [of memory], erect an absolute barrier between mind and matter. … [I]nanimate matter, to some slight extent, shows analogous behavior.”
Stapp also expressed the opinion that “The boundary between life and non-life is probably not completely sharp.”
The late Cleve Backster, whose experiments in the 1960s supported the idea that plants may have consciousness, also showed that eggs and yogurt could react to threats. Backster was a specialist in polygraph testing. Some of his results are explained by Lynne McTaggart in her book, “The Intention Experiment”: “The live bacteria in yogurt displayed a reaction to the death of other types of bacteria, and yogurt even evidenced a desire to be ‘fed’ with more of its own beneficial bacteria. Eggs registered a cry of alarm and then resignation when one of their number was dropped in boiling water.”
She explained that, “Backster even demonstrated that bodily fluids … registered reactions mirroring the emotional state of their hosts.”
Chalmers calls for a study of human consciousness that goes beyond testing the correlation between parts of the brain and conscious experiences. “This is still a science of correlations, it’s not a science of explanations. … We know that these brain areas go along with certain kinds of conscious experience, but we don’t know why they do,” he said. Studies that look beyond the brain may find consciousness in surprising places.