It has gradually been dawning on people that the thing common to us all – our immediate consciousness — is a complete mystery. How do you get feelings of aesthetic appreciation, acts of spiritual love, or the thought processes that led to Einstein’s general theory of relativity — out of brain matter?
The big trend toward materialism started with the 17th century Scientific Revolution. It climaxes in the 20th
century with behaviorism and other attempts to eliminate or invalidate
the mental. The renaming of academic departments of psychology as
departments of neuroscience illustrates this expulsion of psyche from
But there are signs of reversal of this trend. The various attempts
to explain away the mental side of nature ultimately failed, not
squaring with logic or experience. One big thing remained a thorn in the
side of materialism: the blatant irreducibility of our own
consciousness. A pain in the philosophical neck, science can’t explain
it or its relationship to the brain. This is the famous “hard problem”.
Unfortunately for our materialist friends, nowadays there’s much talk
of animal consciousness. Despite Darwin’s groundbreaking study, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,
until about thirty years ago it was taboo to talk as if non-human
animals had feelings — joy, pain, hope, fear, love, and so forth.
Ideology would conjure them right out of existence.
You may feel good when your dog gazes into your eyes with gratitude
after giving her a treat. But be assured; there is nothing going on
behind that gaze. Behind the curtain of the seeming drama of terrestrial
animal life, all is blank, all is void. Thus the wisdom of scientific
But a cure of this almost inconceivable obtuseness is possible. The
cognitive ethologist, Marc Bekoff, explains why scientists deny animal
feelings in his extraordinary book, The Emotional Lives of Animals (2007). For one thing, critics dread being seen as “unscientific”. It could mean loss of prestige or you could lose your job.
There’s also this: if animals have feelings, humans would have to
reform their treatment of animals. We would question behavior that
tortures, exploits, and destroys animals for commercial or scientific
ends. Animal consciousness has subversive implications, and threatens to
rattle the moral imagination.
Research is full of amazing accounts of animal behavior and
sensitivities, for example, the story of the octopus, told in a book by
Sy Montgomery whose title says it all, The Soul of an Octopus (2005) and whose subtitle says even more: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness.
But now something else. I was struck by an online BBC story, “Do We
Underestimate the Power of Plants and Trees” (November, 2015).
Scientists from Italy, British Columbia, Japan, and Tel Aviv make
surprising claims about the behavior and awareness of plants.
An excellent documentary online, What Plants Talks About,
features James Cahill, an experimental plant ecologist who uses
time-lapse photography to show how plants move and behave in directed
ways. Cahill demonstrates how a plant moves toward a target and “knows”
the difference between a nutrition patch and a decoy.
Researchers from Alberta, Canada, describe the foraging behavior of
roots and the amazing, deep underground world below the visible forest.
They describe the hidden social life of the forest. Forests, we’re told,
are systems of cooperation.
All these researchers admit there is a mystery. Plants have neither
sense organs nor brains. Yet they seem to have perceptions and show
directed movements. How is that possible? It looks as if the whole world
of life, animal and plant, is rooted in a great living consciousness.
So then is the entire physical universe also somehow part of a
conscious reality? Panentheists think so, for example. For a brilliant
essay on this topic, see the concluding chapter by Michael Murphy in Beyond Physicalism
(2015, eds. Kelly, Crabtree, and Marshall) If the whole of nature is
conscious or at least, as quantum physicist Henry Stapp suggests,
proto-conscious, what about another question we might ask: what happens
to our inner life after our bodies die?
The idea of after-death consciousness makes scientists even more
squeamish than the idea that Rover has a sense of humor or that
brainless plants show awareness. Disembodied centers of consciousness
are impossible to a physicalist but not to one who construes
consciousness as an irreducible factor in the natural world.
As the consciousness of animals was officially banished from
existence by ideologues, so has science performed a similar magic act of
wiping out the very notion of afterdeath consciousness. But attitudes
on both are going through sea-changes.
Consider this analogy. Early thinkers began with a pretty tiny,
contracted conception of the physical world. Think of the pint-sized
Ptolemaic mundus and then fly forward to the present, to our
vast, expanding, accelerating universe. The conception of physical
reality has grown enormously into infinite outer space and way down into
the fey world of the quantum.
Why then, I’d like to ask, should the mental or spiritual dimension
of reality turn out to be any less vast, astonishing, and momentous? As
far as I can see, our mental horizons are now trending toward expansion.
The need for such expansion has perhaps never been so urgent.