The definition of consciousness complicates any discussion about it. Consciousness is a matter of degree, ranging from subtle to gross, lower to higher. At its minimum, consciousness is simple awareness, ie: perception that generates responsiveness to events and conditions in the immediate environment. If we apply that definition – simple awareness and responsiveness – all forms of life display consciousness, which is to say life is a creative process of relationship with the world around it. But where does consciousness begin and end?
The exact nature of the force that impels consciousness remains unknown. Philosopher Henri Bergson called it “elan vital,” the creative force that animates. The living impulse on earth is well over two-billion years old, and it’s not just animals that display simple awareness, but also plants and for that matter, viruses.
People customarily relate consciousness to thinking, reasoning, and directing our actions; we associate its locus with the brain. Our brains are a collection of organic cells, specifically neurons, which in ways not entirely understood presumably generate consciousness, both simple awareness and a sense of self. At present, ours is the highest degree of consciousness we have observed.
Notably, although our consciousness appears to emerge from organic cells, organic cells are themselves, like all matter, composed of basic elements. In fact, 99% of the human body is comprised of just six elements: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, calcium, and phosphorus. Sulfur, potassium, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium largely make up the remaining 1%. Individually, each of these elements is not alive, no more alive than, say, a chunk of iron, which means that consciousness is arising from a living system built with non-living elements.
This raises questions: does consciousness spontaneously emerge from living matter only, or is it in some way an inherent property of matter itself? The mechanical view advocates that consciousness is spontaneously emergent, dependent upon a particular arrangement of living molecules and supportive environmental conditions such as warmth, nutrients, hydration, etc. The degree of consciousness is a function of cellular complexity, the greater the complexity the higher the degree of consciousness.
The pan-psychic view advocates that the seed of consciousness is present in all matter, living and non-living, at the subatomic level. From this point of view, with increased complexity the seed of consciousness grows in degrees from lower to higher but is an inherent rather than emergent phenomenon.
It is, admittedly, challenging to imagine the seed of consciousness existing in non-living matter, as well as imagining existence at lower degrees of consciousness than we human beings display. We certainly find enjoyment in and affection for living creatures of lower degrees of consciousness, as our love of pet dogs, cats, and even tropical fish attests. Presumably, we might gain affection for a microscopic amoeba should we be able to observe it easily. Our affections run towards non-living matter too, like a favorite coffee cup, pillow, or automobile, but not because we observe their consciousness. It is, instead, the extension of our own consciousness towards non-living matter that builds affection and attachment. And yet, perhaps something deeper than mere affection is at play.
We living beings are comprised of the same sorts of elements as non-living matter; bound up and resonant at the molecular, atomic, and sub-atomic levels, in this way we enjoy perfect unity with an indivisible whole. And if indeed the seed of consciousness is present in all things, well, perhaps it precedes matter itself.
4 thoughts on “The seed of consciousness”
Thanks for this, Larry. I’ve spent years contemplating this issue and would love to read your musings on the very last line in this entry (i.e., that consciousness precedes matter, including the cellular and energetic structures within our brains). I have developed a profound knowing that this is in fact the case as opposed to consciousness being an inherent property of matter; and, as you know, this also corresponds with the Buddhist view of Rigpa, or primordial awareness. In this view, for your other readers, awareness is an inherent quality of reality itself. It is said to be unborn, beyond time and space, and therefore inseparable from all phenomena (matter). OK, anxious to hand this back to you…
A very good line of questioning, know the self, is as the phrase implies. Consciousness is fundamentally tied up with the self and its emergence from the substrate. And whatever the physical responses are to this emergence of self suggests that there may have evolved some kind of electrochemical process related to some quantum state of matter. The seeds of consciousness however must be examined for what was their source and where did they go after they sprouted, grew, fruited and then in turn passed their seeds on. What became of those offspring diaspora? Tricky business tracing the tree of consciousness. Is there such a thing as transcending consciousness into pristine awareness, a state of mind unsullied by the shadows of self? Or perhaps, is this simply a form of illumination that the causes the emergence of the self to cast a shadow upon that which mirrors the consciousness of perception?
I think many of my colleagues in the physical sciences find it ‘unscientific’ to propose that consciousness precedes matter. However, this is no less scientific than to insist that matter produces consciousness, by some unknown process that keeps eluding us after years of painstaking efforts in the neurosciences. Either way, the source of consciousness is simply not a testable hypothesis within the framework of physical experiment.
What’s interesting to me is how we might admit direct experience as evidence. If one hasn’t knowingly experienced pristine awareness as such, how is one to be convinced by others of its nature?
Suppose you’re at a slumber party. You get up at night, and you happen to see another person who is also awake. The next morning, you both know that you saw each other. But you can’t prove that knowledge to those who slept through the night.
Given that it takes consciousness to detect consciousness, you are entirely correct, Sascha. Thanks for the comment!