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.