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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 1

Is Consciousness Universal?

Panpsychism, the ancient doctrine that consciousness is universal, offers some lessons in how to think about subjective experience today
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GALLERY STOCK (dog)

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For every inside there is an outside, and for every outside there is an inside; though they are different, they go together.
—Alan Watts, Man, Nature, and the Nature of Man, 1991

I grew up in a devout and practicing Roman Catholic family with Purzel, a fearless and high-energy dachshund. He, as with all the other, much larger dogs that subsequently accompanied me through life, showed plenty of affection, curiosity, playfulness, aggression, anger, shame and fear. Yet my church teaches that whereas animals, as God's creatures, ought to be treated well, they do not possess an immortal soul. Only humans do. Even as a child, to me this belief felt intuitively wrong. These gorgeous creatures had feelings, just like I did. Why deny them? Why would God resurrect people but not dogs? This core Christian belief in human exceptionalism did not make any sense to me. Whatever consciousness and mind are and no matter how they relate to the brain and the rest of the body, I felt that the same principle must hold for people and dogs and, by extension, for other animals as well.

It was only later, at university, that I became acquainted with Buddhism and its emphasis on the universal nature of mind. Indeed, when I spent a week with His Holiness the Dalai Lama earlier in 2013 [see “The Brain of Buddha,” Consciousness Redux; Scientific American Mind, July/August 2013], I noted how often he talked about the need to reduce the suffering of “all living beings” and not just “all people.” My readings in philosophy brought me to panpsychism, the view that mind (psyche) is found everywhere (pan). Panpsychism is one of the oldest of all philosophical doctrines extant and was put forth by the ancient Greeks, in particular Thales of Miletus and Plato. Philosopher Baruch Spinoza and mathematician and universal genius Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who laid down the intellectual foundations for the Age of Enlightenment, argued for panpsychism, as did philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, father of American psychology William James, and Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. It declined in popularity with the rise of positivism in the 20th century.

As a natural scientist, I find a version of panpsychism modified for the 21st century to be the single most elegant and parsimonious explanation for the universe I find myself in. There are three broad reasons why panpsychism is appealing to the modern mind.

We Are All Nature's Children

The past two centuries of scientific progress have made it difficult to sustain a belief in human exceptionalism.

Consider my Bernese mountain dog, Ruby, when she yelps, whines, gnaws at her paw, limps and then comes to me, seeking aid: I infer that she is in pain because under similar conditions I behave in similar ways (sans gnawing). Physiological measures of pain confirm this inference—injured dogs, just like people, experience an elevated heart rate and blood pressure and release stress hormones into their bloodstream. I'm not saying that a dog's pain is exactly like human pain, but dogs—as well as other animals—not only react to noxious stimuli but also consciously experience pain.

All species—bees, octopuses, ravens, crows, magpies, parrots, tuna, mice, whales, dogs, cats and monkeys—are capable of sophisticated, learned, nonstereotyped behaviors that would be associated with consciousness if a human were to carry out such actions. Precursors of behaviors thought to be unique to people are found in many species. For instance, bees are capable of recognizing specific faces from photographs, can communicate the location and quality of food sources to their sisters via the waggle dance, and can navigate complex mazes with the help of cues they store in short-term memory (for instance, “after arriving at a fork, take the exit marked by the color at the entrance”). Bees can fly several kilometers and return to their hive, a remarkable navigational performance. And a scent blown into the hive can trigger a return to the site where the bees previously encountered this odor. This type of associative memory was famously described by Marcel Proust in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Other animals can recognize themselves, know when their conspecifics observe them, and can lie and cheat.

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