Life Science

Are atoms, bacteria and plants conscious?

Some philosophers argue that consciousness pervades the universe. But not everyone is convinced.

August 5, 2020
What kinds of experiences do plants and atoms have, if at all?
A theory of consciousness called "panpsychism" argues that even atoms can experience consciousness. Although in an unimaginably different way than humans. CC-BY | PxHere

Consciousness is what you experience in everyday, waking life. It’s the smell of freshly made pastry, the taste of hot chocolate and the sounds of birds chirping away. All of these experiences are sensorial, fleeting, intangible. Yet neuroscientists tend to agree that consciousness is produced by the brain — a physical, tangible, organ. The question is: how is that possible? How can experiences that feel intangible arise from a physical structure like the brain?

Philosophers and scientists have grappled with this question for centuries, but there is still no consensus. Recently, a theory of consciousness called “panpsychism” has gained traction in philosophical discourse. Panpsychists argue that consciousness is the fundamental building block to everything in the universe – from quarks and molecules all the way to brains and bodies.

In this podcast, Scienceline speaks to philosophers David Chalmers, Philip Goff, and biologist Karl Niklas about panpsychism and whether atoms, plants and bacteria are conscious.

Music: Jonathan Moens

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About the Author

Jonathan Moens

Jonathan Moens is a New York based science journalist with a background in neuroscience and philosophy.

Discussion

2 Comments

Jahgdish says:

Are our Organs intelligent? Is it possible that our Liver is trying to tell that …hey don’t have more than 2 drinks or 3… that is all i can hadle!

Sree says:

The trouble is with the man’s definition of life and soul. Every thing in the universe from smallest to the largest( cosmos itself) is alive and conscious. It is like all our cells are alive and conscious and in turn keep us alive and conscious. If you extrapolate it to either end, you will realise that life is there in quarks to cosmos. There is nothing hidden in the universe. We don’t have the sensors to experience all

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