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



About the Author

Jonathan Moens

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



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

Paul Camacho says:

The brain is hardware . The physical interactions powered by apha waves… wave patterns are unique to experieces and the details of the physical world… the patterns are organized for recall by the labeling system of language… without language we would never raise above animal level… language is the interface between our brains and or consciousness… consciousness exist as the interaction of energy between the physical world and our sensory perception… we exist in that interaction… woken real time consciousness exist in the moment when the energy from the physical realit around us meets the biochemistry that is the the doorway of our neevous system into our mind… once we are able to use language to label those experiences we can them retrieve them with the cue or name that we give it using language… once we exprience something in the physical world… we can summon it mentally using language to complete sequences of thoughts and memeories… some of this mental thinking becomes accepted at further abstract understanding of the physical world. Mental thinking and imagery are created using language to organize and recall them to better understand reality… this form of recall is imagination… and thought it’s not a real time physical experiece… it is part of the energy from which our consciousness exist . Combined with woken real-time physical consciousness, it competes our total consciousness state… but it doesn’t exist physically in the brain.. it only exist as temporary creations of alpha wave patterns that are ongoing in waken state.. and also subconsciously present when we sleep in the form of dreams… consciousness is the energy of alpha wave patterns that uses the interface if language to create the operating program that allows our sensory nervous system to operate as our woke conscious state of self consciousness… most of the time when we sleep we lose track of time and the physical word.. we have no conscious recollection of it… not until we wake up do we recall ourselves using our language to access memories of ourselves as they exist from alpha wave patterns in our brian…. but without language to label the details of the experiences in thebphysical world for which they represent… we would have never become self conscious to the level of what human intelligence is today… language is what makes us different from the animals… language is the fundamental base for higher the animal level consciousness… it’s what makes us capable of advanced memory.. it’s what allows us to remember each day we wake up of exactly who we are….

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