The term “panpsychism” is made up of two Greek words: pan, meaning all, and psyche, often translated mind or soul. Panpsychism is the view that (forms of) soul or mind or consciousness are found throughout the web of life. This view is in contrast to the traditional western philosophical and theological consensus that having a soul or a mind is what sets human beings apart from other forms of life. In contrast, mystics, children, and many indigenous people assume that human beings are not the only form of life with consciousness.
Traditional western thinkers believed that God created the world out of nothing according to principles in his mind. Those principles included the idea that minerals, plants, and animals are “lower” unconscious forms of life, while humans, angels, and the deity are not only “higher” forms of life, but are the only forms with consciousness or mind.
This view was still widely held when I was in graduate school in the late 60s and early 70s. My professors mocked anyone who dared to suggest that animals—including family pets—had any form of consciousness or feeling. However, the notion that human beings are essentially different from other forms of life creates an unanswerable question for evolutionary theory: how did human beings with consciousness or mind evolve from forms of life that had no consciousness or mind?
The biologist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin answered that the evolutionary gap between conscious and unconscious forms of life (and also between living and inert forms of life) can be filled in with the hypothesis that God intervenes in the evolutionary process to create new forms of life. This solution to the problem made room for God, but it was not satisfying to those without a prior commitment to the idea that God created the world.
In the past fifty or so years, the scientific community has increasingly accepted the idea that there are no firm boundaries between human and other forms of life. As soon as a boundary is drawn between humans and other forms of life, it is shattered. Animals including birds, elephants, and apes, have been shown to use tools. Elephants have been seen mourning their own dead.
In 2016, researchers devised an experiment to discover whether ravens had a “theory of mind.” In other words, did ravens not only act intelligently (proving that they had minds), but did they also act in recognition of the fact that other ravens had minds (proving that they understood the more abstract idea that the behavior of other individuals could be predicted if it was assumed that they had minds). The ravens passed the test! The caption under the photo of a raven included in a report on the study reads: “I know what you are thinking.”
Responding to this new information, scientific consensus has shifted in favor of the view that at least some of the higher animals have forms of consciousness comparable to human consciousness. First it was the chimps, then the other great apes, then monkeys, and now ravens!
But the question remains: how far down the evolutionary chain does consciousness go? Even if it can no longer be argued that consciousness is a uniquely human characteristic, it will be asked: what could it possibly mean to think of rocks or plants as having consciousness?
Consciousness is a slippery term. Traditionally in the west consciousness had been defined as mental capacity, often identified with the ability to think rationally. Rational consciousness has been defined as rising above the body to commune with eternal principles at least since the time of Plato. Is this the kind of consciousness we want to attribute to plants, to animals, or even to ourselves?
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (who affirmed panpsychism) took a different view. He stated that all thinking arises from the feelings of the body. Thinking is not a purely mental capacity. Thinking is always embodied. There are no disembodied individuals and there is no disembodied thought. Furthermore, for Whitehead, the feelings of the body are always in communication with feelings of other bodies. There are no individuals who are not connected to other individuals.
With these insights in mind, let us take another look at what might be meant by panpsychism. If we understand that all thinking arises from the feelings of bodies in relation to the feelings of other bodies, would we not be on firmer ground? We would not be talking about everything have a disembodied soul or mind nor would we be separating thinking from feeling, feeling from embodiment, embodiment from other bodies.
What if the basic building block of life is the ability to feel the influence of other bodies in one’s own body. What if the ability to feel and to feel the feelings of others is pervasive in the web of life? And what if this is what we mean by consciousness or soul?
Research is now showing that trees feel the feelings of other trees and can recognize and nurture their relatives.
Panpsychism is a theory that makes sense of my experience of the world and it is increasingly being recognized by scientists. It is also a view with moral implications. I can only hope that as we feel or learn again to feel the feelings of other beings in the web of life, we will be inspired to save as many of them as we can and ourselves.
*Thanks to Sara Wright for her blog “Tree Talk: Dr. Susan Simard” which inspired me to write this one.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.
16 thoughts on “The Ability to Feel and to Feel the Feelings of Others by Carol P. Christ”
Wonderful article. I love the sense of connection I feel to my neighborhood crows and to my orange tree rather than any sense of separation, certainly any sense of dominion. As I age I see with maturing clarity that we (humans) are not alone, but part. Our conciousness is not unique…anyone who loves a cat or a dog knows this. I want to age into unity with the Earth, as a partner, never a dominatrix.
LikeLiked by 5 people
As usual, brava! I’ve just finished rereading your book She Who Changes, and it makes more sense to me today than it did back in 2003 when you came to Long Beach to give a book talk and we met and spoke briefly about how much like Neopaganism process philosophy seems to be. When I like what an author is saying, I write a comment or draw an asterisk in the margin and dog-ear the page. Your book has more turned-down corners now than it did the last time I read it.
I’ve been convinced for many years that everything has a soul and some level of consciousness, especially the local crows (who are very smart) and squirrels, and of course all the cats that have lived with me over the years. I think panpsychism is a major truth of life on this planet. Maybe on other planets, too. Our mother planet has many, many children. We need to get along better together; “mankind” need to stop hunting animals for sport and stop chopping down trees and ruining national parks.
LikeLiked by 4 people
Agreed! “I think panpsychism is a major truth of life on this planet.”
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks to Carol who manages to cover an enormous amount of territory in a relatively brief and as usual, brilliant essay!
Thanks to Carol who is attempting to educate us into a different way of thinking about the world.
Thanks to FAR for its existence. This blog literally helps me to stay sane.
Here’s a question posed by Carol, that in my opinion, every human needs to begin asking:
“What if the basic building block of life is the ability to feel the influence of other bodies in one’s own body. What if the ability to feel and to feel the feelings of others is pervasive in the web of life? And what if this is what we mean by consciousness or soul?”
Wow – I think you nailed it.
The word consciousness is slippery indeed… some believe that humans created the idea of “consciousness” to help us split away from our shadowy selves… stuffing all dark stuff into unconsciousness and using projection to place those feelings which are unacceptable onto hapless animals, plants, trees etc. Another way of saying this is to state that originally what we call unconsciousness is actually that universal feeling connection that we experience with all living things. I first came across this idea in Chaos theory…
My relationship with nature was responsible for teaching me to ask these questions although I have been heavily influenced by Whitehead and Berry’s philosophy and Rupert Sheldrake’s work …my background in mythology also helped because it brought stories of trees to life, for example.
LikeLiked by 5 people
Thank you for elucidating panpsychism or as you put it in your title, the ability to feel and to feel the feelings of others. It’s an idea whose time has come–to be remembered. Not only have (some) human beings too long denied consciousness in other life forms, we often don’t even acknowledge it in others of our own kind. We have cut ourselves off from our own bodies and treated them as other and lesser, as unconscious. Thank you for reminding us of where wisdom, consciousness, connection and empathy reside.
LikeLiked by 4 people
Wonderful article, Carol. To the extent that I’ve read Whitehead, Hartshorne and other process theologists, I — like Barbara A. — have found their work similar to Neopaganism. Unitarian Universalists also talk about “the interdependent web of life, of which we are a PART.” Both of these religious perspectives speak to me, since I’m a UU pagan.
Your work influenced me in this area long ago, especially your critique (as well as Starhawk’s and other pagan authors’) of the dualism of mind/spirit and body/matter. I’m not sure that I’ve ever told this story here, but I think I totally shocked a bunch of philosophy graduate students about 5 years ago talking about this philosophical problem. My spouse and I were at the intermission for a symphony concert and saw a pair of friends among a group of about a dozen (it turns out) graduate students and one of their professors. So after preliminary introductions, I asked the professor what she taught. She responded “Plato.” I asked her why she taught him when his thought was the basis of many of our problems today. She asked in reply why I saw his work in such a light, and I responded, “Because he split body and mind, spirit and matter.” An audible gasp emerged from the group after I said this!
I have one quibble with your article. You state, “What if the basic building block of life is the ability to feel the influence of other bodies in one’s own body.” I don’t think we have to “get back to basics” or find the fundamental cause for life. I believe that this kind of thinking is part of the “divide and conquer” mentality that patriarchy imparts, because the patriarchal dualisms are almost always one thing and it’s opposite, for e.g. patriarchal monotheisms like much of Christianity today posit the existence of one god and everything else is not-god (i.e. demonic). Most indigenous pagan mythologies don’t “begin” with creation stories, i.e. stories of the beginnings or the building blocks of life (especially not “out of the void” type that we find in the religions of the book), but tell the story in media res, from the perspective of whichever event or character that seems significant for the story.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Gosh, I have to disagree with your critique of the words”… the ability to feel the influences of other bodies in one’s own body” – this kind of feeling is the basis for interspecies interconnection and communication. I think we absolutely must “get back to basics” in your words – and that without understanding believing feeling and acting on this kind of interconnection we remain hopelessly split. The problem as I see it is that humans have distanced themselves from all other non – human species so completely that we can no longer imagine what its like to feel the influence of another upon our own body. Once we breakthrough that wall whole worlds open up as many scientists and people are discovering. Indigenous peoples have this bodily connection naturally, and thus the whole earth is alive and each species, element etc is permeated with the soul / spirit.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I agree with everything you say, Sara. I’m disagreeing with the idea of “basic building block,” because to me it smacks of dualism as I stated above.
On dualism. I view panpsychism as not dualistic (in terms of mind body) insofar as it asserts that everything has a body and is influenced by other bodies and that some form of mind or feeling is found in every individual body.
The process view of the creation of the world is not entailed in the term panpsychism. But for the record Whitehead and Hartshorne differ to a degree on some details but both agree that the divinity has always been in relation to some world. There is no creation out of nothing and no discernible or imaginable moment when it all began.
I do not believe God created the world out of nothing. He did not create building blocks and then build.
When I spoke of building blocks I was referring to an inference from interacting with and studying life: the inference is that feeling the feelings of others (relationships that matter) permeate the whole web of life. This is the common thread–as best I can tell.
Marcia Falk said that monotheism is the insight that there is a unity of being, fundamentally we are all more like than unlike. “I call myself a monotheist,” Dr. Falk said, adding that she defined inclusive monotheism as “the embracing of diversity within the unity of the greater whole.” This is a far cry from exclusive monotheism as my way or the highway.
I like that much better than my assumption about “building blocks.”
I found Sara Wright’s posting about tree talk fascinating too. (I forwarded it to others.) I also loved reading your thoughts in your posting Carol, and watching the videos. Thank you.
Elephants, trees, & bird have been important to me most of my life. Of course, I’ve known for a long time that they have emotions, but it’s great to have more & more scientific evidence (especially when you consider that the evidence of science can be so highly valued). It also indicates that more scientists than ever are using a new paradigm for their investigations. (A hopeful sign.)
One of the most entertaining stories that I was told lately (I think that my husband heard this on an episode of Science Friday) was of a little bird (a sparrow, I think) learning how to open a door to a building that had a cafeteria, opening it, then letting her other birdie friends in so that they could feast on the food!
I love the word panpsychism!
Again, thanks for your connecting thoughts.
“we’re all connected from somewhere else”
– a Navajo artist in Indian Market magazine a while ago.
LikeLiked by 1 person
As a naturalist it is amazing to me that science is still struggling with the idea that animals are naturally ingenious solving problems! And by the way, as a child I had a parakeet who opened his cage door every single morning no matter what my parents did to secure it and then he would let all the other parakeets out of their cages!!! My brother and I, early risers, found this highly amusing but my parents who slept late most definitely did not!
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thank you! I couldn’t agree more and so appreciate your voice on embodied consciousness. It comes at the perfect time.