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Are rocks conscious? Do animals or plants have souls?

Have
you ever wondered whether worms or insects might feel pain
or pleasure? Can trees feel anything at all? Ever wondered
where in the great unfolding of evolution consciousness first
appeared?

If questions like these intrigue you, you are in good company,


because they touch on the deepest mystery in modern
philosophy, science, and spirituality: How are minds and
bodies related?

How does consciousness fit into the physical world? These are not just idle
musings of philosophers. How we answer such questions can dramatically affect
the way we live our lives, how we treat the world of nature and other people, and
even how we relate to our own bodies.

If we are to feel at home in the cosmos, to be open to the full inflowing and
outpouring of its profound creativity, if we are not to feel isolated and alienated
from the full symphony of cosmic matter—both as distant as the far horizon of
time, and as near as the flesh of our own bodies—we need a new cosmology story.
We need a new way to envision our relationship to the full panorama of the
crawling, burrowing, swimming, gliding, flying, circulating, flowing, rooted, and
embedded Earth. We need to be and to feel differently, as well as to think and
believe differently.

Why? Well, listen to this from Bertrand Russell, one of the most respected and
influential philosophers of our time:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were
achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs,
are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism,
no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the
grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the
noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death
of the solar system, and the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably
be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite
beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them
can hope to stand (Russell, 1961).

This may be the most terrifying story ever told—nevertheless, it is the one we are
born into. It expresses the terrible poetry of a meaningless universe, rolling along
entropic channels of chance, blind and without purpose, sometimes accidentally
throwing up the magnificence and beauty of natural and human creations, but
inevitably destined to pull all our glories asunder and leave no trace, no indication
that we ever lived, that our lonely planet once bristled and buzzed with colorful life
and reached out to the stars. It is all for nothing.

Such is the plot and substance of modern science boiled down to its bare
essentials, a legacy from the founders of the modern worldview, such as Bacon,
Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Newton, and Darwin.

Even if we have faith in a deeper spiritual dimension, somewhere in our nested


system of beliefs that old story lurks, ready to rob our visions and our dreams, our
loves and our passions of any meaning, of any validity beyond the scripted
directions of a blind, unconscious, purposeless plot maker. If something in our
experience stirs and reacts to this with disbelief, even with a question, it is surely
worth paying attention to because the possibility that that story is wrong or
incomplete has far-reaching consequences.

What if that sweeping materialist vision leaves something out? What if there is
something other than an "accidental collocation of atoms" at work in the universe?
What if, for instance, the experience or consciousness that contemplated the world
and discovered the atoms was itself real? What if the ability of "collocated atoms"
to purposefully turn around and direct their gaze to reflect on themselves was
more than "accidental"? What if consciousness participates in the way the world
works? What if consciousness can dance with the atoms and give them form and
direction? What if the atoms themselves choreograph their own dance? What then?

In this article, and in my new book Radical Nature, I explore an alternative story—
one where the atoms do choreograph their own dance—a worldview that tells us
consciousness matters and that matter is conscious.

DESERTS OF MEANING
Each year it is becoming clearer that our society's profound reliance on the
authority of scientific knowledge and its applications in technology is inadequate for
resolving the growing crises we face as communities and as individuals. Besides
environmental problems of global proportions, our science and technology appear
helpless in the face of burgeoning populations, with attendant international crises
of poverty and hunger. Our societies are stressed with internal pressures of social,
racial, and economic unrest, and with external pressures fueled by excesses of
governmental, military, and corporate policies that impact across national
boundaries creating economic and biological havoc and, in extreme situations,
wastelands and deserts.
PARADOX These deserts are not only
CONSCIOUSNESS environmental, such as the
destruction of the planet's dwindling
rainforests and marshlands; there are
W hat is needed now, perhaps more also existential deserts—deserts of the
than ever, is to find a way to restore a spirit, of the soul, and of the mind.
sense of the sacred to science and to Deserts of meaning. It is precisely this
the world—to embody mind and to aspect of the global crisis that calls
"enmind" matter. Getting there will out for a rigorous and inspired
involve a radical approach to studying philosophy of mind and a true science
consciousness, where the researcher of consciousness.
(scientist or philosopher) may be
profoundly changed in the process of We begin the twenty-first century
exploring his or her own living on a planet dominated by a
consciousness. technological society based on
science, and we live with a science
For centuries, Western culture has based on a materialistic paradigm. We
assumed that the rational, cognitive, live, in other words, in a world lacking
categorizing human mind could any firm grounding in meaning, in
untangle the knotty problem of how values, in purposes or goals. With few
consciousness and matter are related. exceptions, the goals and "purposes"
In Radical Nature, I propose a that do exist within our social
different approach, where the mystery institutions have no metaphysical
and paradoxes of mind and body are foundation. They emerge, for the
engaged head-on—not as a knot to be most part, as expressions of an
untied, but as an experiential economic philosophy based on a
phenomenon to be embraced as it materialistic metaphysics that denies
presents itself, involving a shift in the any foundation to goals, purposes,
being of the explorer. and values—other than biologically
driven urges or the relativity of social
Yes, of course, we should use our power plays. Our religious and artistic
intellectual faculties as best we can— traditions have attempted to fill the
commit ourselves to peeling away gap, but increasingly succumb to a
logical tangles, squeezing the most social preference for scientific
out of our rational, cognitive, and knowledge as the final authority on
verbal faculties. Nevertheless, there how we should govern our lives.
comes a point where rational
understanding fails to take us any But it is precisely the wisdom of
further. Reason may untangle much of meaning, of value, of experience that
the accumulated confusion our societies need in order to balance
surrounding the paradoxes of mind, the knowledge of physical science and
but sooner or later, as explorers of the obsessive push for technological
consciousness, we are likely to touch progress. I'm proposing a profound
the dynamic heart of natural paradox reexamination of our basic narrative
itself. That's the time to let go of premise—our culture's "guiding story"
rationality and logic, and switch to a or cosmology—to see what alternative
different mode of being with the story (or stories) science and
phenomenon. At that point, the philosophy might tell.
philosophy of paradox turns as much
on feelings—on emotions, intuitions,
and felt sense—as on the pivots of THE PROBLEM IN A
language and rational analysis. In the
end, when we come to that point NUTSHELL
where intellect can take us no further,
we bow in silence before the mystery We humans are not so special. Yet
—and participate with it on its own often we think we are. Human
ineffable terms.

Back and forth, we switch between


intellect and intuition, between
rational, objective knowledge and
Christian de Quincey is managing editor of IONS Review, and a
professor of philosophy and consciousness studies at John F.
Kennedy University. This article is adapted from his new book
Radical Nature: Rediscovering the Soul of Matter (Invisible Cities
Press, 2002). Samples of his work in consciousness and cosmology
are available on his website www.deepspirit.com.