6 November 2023
Have you ever wondered about how animals experience the world? Or perhaps plants or an even simpler form of life? Joanna Leidenhag, Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, reflects on the possibility of consciousness beyond human beings.
We are all conscious – but how do we understand consciousness? Are other animals and plants conscious? What impact do these questions have on Christian faith? My preferred theory is “panpsychism.” This is the view that consciousness is everywhere, a fundamental feature of the universe. I think panpsychism is both true and helpful for Christianity. Panpsychism helps Christians understand humanity’s place in creation and how Jesus redeems the whole cosmos.
Consciousness beyond human beings
Let’s get clear on the word “consciousness”. Consciousness is the qualitative, subjective experience of what it is like to be a subject, to have a point of view on the world, to experience – even as a minimal hum.
Have you ever wondered what the world is like from the perspective of an animal? If you’ve ever even thought about this, then you already assume that animals are conscious. Imagine I have a dog called Scout. Scout is conscious if it makes sense to say, “I wonder what it is like to be Scout?” Scout is conscious if she experiences the world and experiences my love for her. Scout does not have to be able to think rationally, remember the past, make autonomous decisions, or even have emotions to be conscious. She just needs to have experiences. Maybe my plants experience the sunlight or being pruned.
Panpsychism is the view that consciousness, this ability to experience, is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the universe. The earliest building-blocks, or fundamental atoms, forces, or quantum states of the universe, were conscious in a very minimal sense. These building-blocks then expand, combine, and evolve to eventually make more complex, conscious, living organisms – like us! So, the universe has always included experience and micro-subjectivity (micro, because most of the conscious subjects in the universe are very small and very basic). What a rich view of the universe!
However, not every combination of particles and forces creates a new complex mind. A panpsychist does not think that rocks are conscious, but that the fundamental atoms, forces, or quantum states in rocks (and everything else) contain a very minimal form of consciousness. Living systems or organisms, however, do generate new complex minds that are unified combinations of smaller minds. This would mean that plants, animals, and bacteria are conscious subjects, but rocks, computers, and cities only contain (sometimes very small) conscious parts.
People of European descent are not all used to thinking about minds and consciousness in this layered way, but there is no good reason not to. And there are good reasons to think panpsychism could be true. Loosely following an argument made by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, panpsychism is the only conclusion that follows from four very probable claims.
First, consciousness is real. No matter how hard it is to explain, consciousness is undeniably part of what it is to be human. Therefore, because humans are material bodies, at least some material bodies are also conscious.
Second, the explanation for consciousness must be congruent with explanations for the physical evolution of organisms. In The Principles of Psychology William James wrote, “If evolution is to work smoothly, consciousness in some shape must have been present at the very origins of things”. If you accept this, it means that minds and bodies are not two separate things, with the soul encased in a body like a bird in a cage. Instead, human bodies are unified conscious living organisms.
Third, we cannot reduce consciousness to purely physical (non-mental) processes. We cannot explain consciousness mathematically, nor as a purely mechanical process, nor in terms of physics. Panpsychists (with others) hold that quantified explanations of consciousness omit essential qualitative elements.
Fourth, consciousness cannot emerge from purely non-mental matter. There is nothing nonsensical with new physical properties (like, stretchiness) emerging from physical structures, but the emergence of consciousness from non-conscious matter is too big a jump.
If we accept these four very probable claims, what is the result? With Nagel, if consciousness is a real feature of material bodies, which can neither be reduced down to, nor emerge up from, their material parts, the only remaining option is that these properties are already there! Consciousness is a fundamental part of the physical world.
Consciousness and Christianity
Can Christians be panpsychists? I believe so.
A Christian panpsychist claims that when God created everything from nothing, consciousness was included. God doesn’t need to add new ingredients to the universe. Since God is perfect, God’s first act of creation was perfect and complete, even as creation went on to develop according to God’s purpose and under God’s guidance. Panpsychism offers a way for Christians to embrace evolutionary theory without giving up on consciousness, minds, or purpose.
Panpsychism means that creation did not have to wait for humanity before it had value or before it experienced God’s presence and worshipped the Creator. Creation has always had ethical value and has always been praising God. Panpsychism helps Christianity see the value that all creation has to God.
Panpsychism offers Christian theology a robust sense of kinship between humanity and the rest of the natural world. For panpsychists, humanity is not the only conscious species, nor the only creatures God loves or has come to save. We are not needed as mediators between creation and God; Jesus alone plays that role as the first born of all creation (Colossians 1:15). Panpsychism is the only view of consciousness that can take seriously the biblical claim that creation sings the praises of God, laments human sin to God, and cries out to God for redemption (Psalm 19; Psalm 148; Romans 8:19-23). Humanity’s vocation is to cultivate the praise and flourishing of other creatures in worship to the Creator.
Panpsychism also helps us understand more deeply the wonder of Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection. One false picture of the incarnation is that Jesus had a divine mind contained in a human body – a fourth-century heresy called Apollinarianism. But, according to panpsychism, minds are inseparable from bodies because every conscious cell is a part of our mind. So, when God became embodied in the incarnation, Jesus also took on a human mind and experienced the world in a fully human way.
Similarly, when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, I do not think his soul just put on a new body, like a new set of clothes. If we accept panpsychism, then something altogether more amazing, with more cosmic significance, happened – the conscious living organism, Jesus Christ, was brought back from the dead and given eternal life. We, and all creation, are saved as our bodies and minds are joined to his resurrected body by his Spirit.
Panpsychism does not prove Christianity to be true. Rejecting panpsychism does not mean rejecting Christianity. But I think that panpsychism provides the best framework for appreciating the wonderous things that God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Panpsychism is a difficult word and the idea that consciousness is everywhere might seem strange at first. But panpsychism is also a beautiful way to see the world, that fits with how the Bible describes the creation and the significance of Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection. Panpsychism might even help bring Christianity into deeper convergence with cosmological, evolutionary, and ecological sciences.
Joanna Leidenhag, PhD, is the author of Minding Creation: Theological Panpsychism and the Doctrine of Creation (2021).