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.
Music: Jonathan Moens
Jonathan Moens: In many ways, consciousness is the most obvious thing there is. It’s what goes away when you fall into dreamless sleep. And it’s what returns when you wake up to experience the world. However, consciousness is also arguably the most baffling phenomenon in the universe. What is it made of? When did it emerge in our evolutionary past? How did it emerge? And do things like atoms, bacteria and plants have it?
With no answer in sight, a growing number of philosophers and scientists are flirting with radical-sounding ideas. Perhaps the most far-out of these ideas is called “panpsychism.”
David Chalmers: Panpsychism taken literally says, all mind: pan is all, psyche is mind. So everything has a mind.
Jonathan Moens: This is David Chalmers, a philosopher who has spent decades grappling with questions about the nature of consciousness.
David Chalmers: “Not all panpsychist believe that absolutely everything has a mind, maybe paper cups don’t have minds.17:52)
Jonathan Moens: But at the very least…panpsychists believe that elementary particles that make up the paper cup have consciousness…
Once you put it that way, then everything is made up of tiny bits of consciousness. From humans to chimpanzees, cats to dogs, plants to bacteria… panpsychists believe consciousness is the fundamental building block to everything in the universe. But what, exactly, do things like atoms experience?
David Chalmers: I don’t think anyone claims to know exactly what kind of experience an elementary particle might have. And it’s not as if the elementary particles are sitting there, you know, thinking thoughts or even feeling pain or doing anything that would be recognisable to us as a conscious experience, but the speculation — and it’s just speculation at this point — is that it might have some primitive analogue.
Jonathan Moens: David admits this theory sounds a little crazy..
David Chalmers: It’s a crazy idea, but as I like to say, when it comes to theories of consciousness, everyone needs to have some kind of crazy idea.”
Jonathan Moens: But how does one even come to believe in such a crazy-sounding view?
Philip Goff: My name is Philip Goff, I’m a philosopher at Durham University. My main area of focus in my research is consciousness.
Jonathan Moens: Philip is a panpsychist. As a philosopher wrestling with questions about the nature of consciousness, Philip turned to neuroscience for some answers. It seemed to explain everything about the mind: how we learn, forget, plan ahead, how we do pretty much anything in our daily lives. But there was one crucial thing neuroscience couldn’t explain.[Music: Bell-like piano]
Philip Goff: You won’t learn about what it’s like to see blue or what it’s like to taste chocolate. In fact it seems on the face of it that the whole story of the brain that we get from neuroscience could go on completely in the absence of experience. And yet we know that experience exists — nothing is more evident.
Jonathan Moens: To Philip, panpsychism offered a simple and elegant solution to this problem by placing consciousness at the centre of everything. From quarks and atoms to cells and plants, all the way to highly complex systems like brains and bodies — consciousness prevailed.[Music fades out]
Me: Not everyone, however, finds these ideas easy to digest.
Karl Niklas: I find that hard to swallow, myself.
Jonathan Moens: This is Professor Karl, a cell biologist at Cornell University. Karl has spent his career examining plants and microbes. To him panpsychism is a far-fetched view: plants, microbes, may behave in complex ways, but they certainly aren’t conscious. Still, he thinks people’s intuitions about cellular life are far too simplistic.
Karl Niklas: “Plants can register whether their neighbours are being physically attacked, eaten, damaged, they signal to other forms of life, using electrical signals and even chemical signals.
Jonathan Moens: Even the simplest of cells — single-celled organisms — can behave in complex ways. To illustrate this, Karl describes what it’s like to watch one of his favourite organisms under the microscope — stentor.
Karl Niklas: It looks like a little wine glass and it’s attached to the substrate. And in the bowl of the wine glass, there are cilia.
Jonathan Moens: Cilia are tiny little hairs that stick out of a cell. These help cells move about.
Karl Niklas: “If you poke it, it kind of contracts.[sound to reflect the *poke*]
And if you poke it again, it kind of moves to the side.[sound to reflect the second poke (more tense)]
And if you poke it a third or fourth time, it disassociates itself from the substrate and it swims away. So we would possibly say this thing has learned.”[music crescendo, then fade]
Jonathan Moens: Karl is careful not to equate learning found in cells with human learning. Unlike cells, humans can create complex mental representations of the world, store them, put them on hold, and retrieve them depending on the situation. So sure, plants, cells, bacteria all engage in intelligent behaviours to survive, but Karl wouldn’t go so far as to say they are conscious. And if they were, Karl jokes that vegetarians would face a pretty serious dilemma.
Karl Niklas: How can you be a vegetarian? If you are a vegetarian, you’re mass-killing broccoli! In every seed, there’s a little embryonic plant. One slice of bread has killed 1000 little baby plants.
Jonathan Moens: Perhaps the best way to think of consciousness, says Karl, is as being part of a continuum — as with a colour scale. Infinite shades of color exist as you move from, say, red to green to blue on a colour scale. But as you gradually move between each colour — from one wavelength to another — you also witness abrupt changes in colour over time. Similarly, the complexity of behaviours and experiences between bacteria, plants, fungi, and mammals is graded.
Karl Niklas: I think most people would look at a begonia and say, ‘it does not have intelligence.’ They would certainly look at a puppy or a cat and say, ‘Ah, that organism is intelligent.’ And then you might get to the point where you say “Well chimpanzees and apes, they actually seem to be self-aware.[Music fades in: piano chords]
And then of course, when we get to us — with the tremendous ego that evolution has given us — we are the most masterful object the biology has ever created.
Jonathan Moens: Whether bacteria, plants and other small, multi-cellular organisms have consciousness may be impossible to know. What we do know for sure, is that these organisms engage in wildly complex behaviours that are fundamental to the health of our planet. And if we don’t take care of them, it will almost certainly be our loss — not theirs.
Karl Niklas: The things that will survive will be bacteria and viruses. They were the first forms of life, and they very likely will be the last forms of life.
For Scienceline, I’m Johnny Moens