Is matter conscious? If so, does it matter?

April 21, 2019

I’m messing with you a little bit to get your attention. This is because I believe the question posed in my title is at the heart of many conflicts we see around the world. This appears to be an astounding claim for so esoteric a question, one seemingly suited to some obscure corner of physics and philosophy.

We are, however, nevertheless joined in a giant struggle in practically every aspect of society over the value of subjective experience versus objective experience, a struggle that features the nascent realization on the part of some people that subjective and objective worlds—which most have long believed were separate—are, in fact, two aspects of the same reality. And, they are not obliquely connected. They are, in fact, part of a unified reality.

To understand the argument for the consciousness of matter, you can read this piece which does a fairly good job of answering the objections from opponents of this idea. I won’t recite those arguments here. You can read them yourself. I want to show how the emerging attempt to return to a state of being that values both the subjective and the objective is creating conflict.

For this, I return briefly to my previous discussion of modernism in which I outlined the tenets of this worldview which include the following: 1) Humans are in one category and nature is in another and 2) history can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.

One of those “delusions” is that our subjective experience tells us essential truths about how the universe works. Today, for essential truths, we feel we must turn to the sciences for so-called “hard data” where paradoxically the abstractions of mathematics supposedly tell us much better than our subjective experience how the world in front of our eyes functions.

In The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are  Alan Watts summarized the issue this way: “Make a spurious division of one process into two, forget that you have done it, and then puzzle for centuries as to how the two get together.”

That is a fair assessment of our predicament. The separation of humans and nature has led to our modern-day attempt at ecocide that goes by various names: climate change, soil depletion, toxic pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss and many others.

The reductionist view has allowed us to focus very narrowly on one objective to great effect: maximum exploitation of the Earth’s resources including its living components. But as Garrett Hardin, author of The Tragedy of the Commons, explains, the first law of ecology is that “we can never do merely one thing.”

Our zeal to do one big thing, maximize our extraction of the world’s resources, has ramified in all sorts of deleterious directions. So, what does this have to do with the consciousness of matter and the various conflicts in the world?

First, the unrest is occurring not just in the poor places of the world. It is occurring in relatively wealthy countries such as France, Italy, and the United States. There is a general unease that expresses itself as discontent with the governing class.

While much of the emphasis is placed on economic factors, I think there is another element that is missing. The subjective lived experience in which many people feel blocked in their ability to express their talents, seek their goals and get validation for their particular paths. I don’t think this is necessarily conscious in every case, but part of the background of the frustration that is evident.

A society in which most of its participants are put into narrow reductionist roles in work and even at home can only serve to frustrate people. But this has been true for a very long time in most modern societies. What seems to have changed is that people increasingly believe that they might be able to do something about it.

What has triggered this sudden change of attitude? I have no definitive answer. In part, I think it is becoming obvious that the old “modern” solutions for living on this planet in human society are not working. The question is, why aren’t they working?

I believe it is because we are moving toward a world in which we are being forced to reintegrate humans with nature. As Alan Watts rightly points out, they never were apart. The reintegration must come within us. This is a monumental task as practically all of our institutions are premised on the two “worlds” being separate.

And yet, climate change is a phenomenon occurring in the natural world caused by humans who still think of themselves as separate from that world. We are at a point where such a view is not only untenable, but also potentially suicidal.

So, here is where I posit that there is a kind of intelligence in what we call the natural world, and it is signaling to us in rather unambiguous terms. In order to respect that intelligence, I think it would help if we thought of it as a kind of consciousness with which we could be in dialog if we wished.

I am reminded of Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote in The Birth of Tragedy: “What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent.” We have lost our connection to the intelligence that is infused all around us in the world we call nature.

What if it turns out that the rapture of the nature poet or of the musician depicting the feeling-tone of the natural world is not merely sentimental or misguided, but truly in touch with the subjective experience of what we call the physical world? What if that realization of connection and union is primary, and all our calculations and abstractions are secondary to the reality of things?

How much different our society and the nature which surrounds it would be—French thinker Bruno Latour calls this combination “nature-culture” because the two are inseparably intertwined—how different these would be if the subjective and objective worlds could be valued equally or better yet joined into one integrated view.

This seems like the work of mystics. But it is now becoming our necessary work if our species is to survive the century.

Image: “Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion”: painting by John Martin (1812). Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sadak_in_Search_of_the_Waters_of_Oblivion.jpg   
Wikipedia: “It has been called  “The most famous of the British romantic works…” … “The painting shows a human figure climbing in a mountain landscape. The man struggles to surmount a rocky outcrop beside a pool and waterfall; more jagged cliffs and peaks loom in the background, vastly receding.”
Unfortunately, our web platform automatically crops images so you can’t see the whole painting. See the original image for the full painting.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: connection with nature, nature