Psychiatrist and author of Psychotherapy of Character:
The Play of Consciousness in the Theater of the Brain

Do Lower Life Forms and Inanimate Matter have Consciousness?

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Regarding the question whether consciousness is a property of animal brains vs. pansychism I come down 100% that consciousness exists solely as a brain function that is created by the limbic cortex. Pansychism is the belief that all life forms, and even molecular, atomic, and sub atomic particles have consciousness. Neil Theise, MD, makes the case for pansychism in his brilliant video “Complexity Theory & Panpsychism”. His illumination of fractals, and the centrality of interactions with the environment throughout the quantum levels going through invertebrates, single celled organisms, DNA, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles is illuminating. I agree with all of his observations with one major exception.

I differ from his conclusion that they have sentience and consciousness. Sentient means capable of feeling. It comes from the Latin sentientemfeeling, and sentire – to feel. It came to mean conscious in 1815. Theise believes that an organism or particle has sentience because it has interactive relatedness with its environment. He claims that they ‘sense’ other particles which implies consciousness. I will present my understanding of sentience and consciousness. Then I will address how it is a fantasy to attribute consciousness to automatic functioning and environmental adaptation.

Human consciousness begins when an infant is approximately six weeks old. Its development begins with the fetal limbic system. The function of the fetal amygdala and limbic system is to map the survival interactions with the maternal environment. This brain circuitry links the body, hormones, subcortical brain, and the cortex—the amygdala for impulses of fear and pleasure; the hippocampus for gluing memories; the cingulate gyrus for attention and autonomic functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure; the hypothalamus for regulating the autonomic nervous system; and the thalamus, the relay station from the sub cortex.

The morphogenesis of the limbic system is progressive and continues in the newborn. At six weeks old, the newborn’s foundational appetites and rudimentary emotions morph a sufficiently high level of order to crystallize into a feeling of tenderness and sweetness. This constitutes the cohered feeling of the being of the baby. Yesterday there was no feeling of the baby. And suddenly it is here. Yesterday, he was simply an infant. Today, he is a human being. This ‘feeling of the being’ is a synthetic creation of extremely high levels of order in the limbic cortex which has been maturing through fetal life and the first six weeks after birth, during which the infant continues to map his survival environment with his mother.

And so it begins. Consciousness is born. The baby is now a sentient being. The ‘feeling’ of the baby is a synthetic persona created by the limbic cortex. This ‘self’ has no representational form. It is not knowable through the senses, thinking, or imagination. It cannot be seen. It is not an idea. It does not lend itself to being understood or comprehended. It only touches and is touched by feeling. The litmus test for the presence of this ‘feeling’ is that the mother (and others) are now touched by the presence of a tender feeling from the baby. Prior to this, the mother is predisposed to love her baby, and does, but there is no actual feeling relatedness. Then everything changes and she does feel him. It is analogous to the appearance of the embryonic heart. At one point there is no heart. And then it is there beating and pumping blood. At one point there is no feeling of the being and then it coalesces and there it is.

This is the beginning of consciousness, which is organized as a rudimentary play in the theater of the brain. This play is composed of a non-representational feeling persona of the baby in relationship with a non representational feeling persona of the mother, also a synthetic creation of the limbic cortex. Over the next three years higher and higher levels of symbolic form develop in the limbic cortex. When sufficiently mature, the personas then have form as representational images of self and others. This is the way we ordinarily know ourselves. However, even though the original ‘being’ of the baby is supplanted, its mapped circuits remain throughout life as the agency that generates the feeling of our being. It is the anchor of our loving. It is the quiet voice inside of us. It is our innocence. It is the source of our creativity. It is the source of our conscience. It is the fountain of our aliveness. None of this is mystical or magical. It is just the way consciousness is organized in the brain.

Consciousness is anchored in feeling – judgment, thinking, and relatedness are all anchored in feeling. Antonio Damasio illuminates this in his brilliant book, Descartes’ Error, Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. The rest of the body operates automatically, autonomically through the subcortical brain and has no consciousness – the uterus, the liver, intestines, etc. They function responsively, but they are not conscious and have no consciousness. Like Dr. Theise, I discuss the life functions of an ameba in chapter five of my book. There is certainly a distinction between an alive organism and inert matter. I agree that there is rudimentary ‘isness’ in the ameba and all life forms. The live ameba exercises its life functions and reproduces under the directions of its DNA. It is different from a dead thing. If it dies, then it no longer ‘is’. However, the ameba has a discrete repertoire of actions that it exercises automatically in relation to its environment. Even though it is alive. It is an automaton. It operates purely automatically, like our liver. It has no brain. It has no intention. It has no self awareness. Aliveness, ‘isness’ does not mean there is consciousness. There is no limbic-cortex to synthesize a feeling-being. Consciousness is the result of evolution. It emerged as an adaptational creation of the brain to interact effectively with the salient environments of the organism, and was selected for.

To attribute sentience to automatic functioning is the result of speculative imagination. And there is no actual evidence that this true. There is no evidence that an ameba has consciousness. Similarly, trees, clams, grass, worms, lobsters operate their life functions with a larger repertoire of automatic actions. But they too have no consciousness. You can physically touch a tree but it does not feel you. You can take a hatchet to a tree and it employs self preservative mechanisms to seal off the wound. But these are automatic processes. There is no consciousness.

I am by no means an expert on ant colonies and bee hives. And I certainly understand that they operate in many ways as if they are one organism. Nonetheless, their complex group behavior does not imply that they are anything but complicated automaton-drones surviving and replicating. It remains a leap to attribute consciousness to their organized behavior. Richard Dawkins in the “Selfish Gene” repeatedly says the attribution of selfishness to a gene is a device, and it in no way implies that they actually have consciousness. Nonetheless people leap to the false conclusion that genes are sentient. They are not. When sixty million human sperm are injected into a female and they race to mate with an egg cell floating in the fallopian tube, this is just automaton activity. The sperm certainly are in a competitive race. This is what they do. But they are not thinking, “Oh my god, Larry is catching up with me, I better step on it.”

Mammals and birds do have limbic cortical brains. Although, different from ours, they have consciousness. They are sentient beings. Furthermore, when considering non-alive entities like DNA and molecules and atoms, we cannot attribute sentience. Dr. Theise conclusion that they are ‘sensing’ other particles is a fantasy leap. Sub atomic particles don’t ‘sense’ things. They automatically react to their environment according to the laws of physics. Theise goes one step further which raises a caution flag to my mind. He utilizes string theory. String theory is very attractive to many people. But it has no actual proof. Just because one can conceive of things outside our experience or imagine other dimensions, does not make them true. Such believed imaginings are not any different from other beliefs which have no proof. To then operate as if string theory is true and to derive implications leads to the construction of a misleading house of cards. Higgs-Bosons are valid, quantum foam has no evidence whatsoever.

All of existence formed from the collision of randomness and order. Both inanimate particles as well as life forms evolve and take hold as a result of natural selection and the laws of physics. The idea that all matter has sentience has no foundation. Its like a modern form of Lamarckism. Everything in the universe interacts with an environment. It is no more credible that evolution comes from acquired characteristics than the idea that everything has consciousness. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that everything has Mind, and then that there is a universal Mind.

3 Responses to Do Lower Life Forms and Inanimate Matter have Consciousness?

  • Matt Faw says:

    Hi Robert. I am the filmmaker who interviewed Neil Theise and edited the piece. Thank you for your interest in the video.

    I agree with what you wrote, above. Neil and I have a friendly ongoing disagreement about panpsychism, especially in light of his collaborations with Deepak Chopra (which actually began after Chopra watched this video). I loved Neil’s ability to communicate his ideas, and I love what I understand of complexity theory, and so I was happy to turn the interview into a video (it’s all part of a bigger documentary on consciousness). I see panpsychism as another God of the gaps argument, in this case the gap being consciousness.

    My interpretation of complexity theory uses a snowflake as an analogy: the universe is a geometric structure of one symmetry built upon another, the deepest simplest symmetries beginning in the very early parts of the first second of the universe (like the structure of space, the strong force, weak force, quarks, hadrons, leptons, etc.). Particles are dynamic patterns of energy that are so balanced, they never break apart. But there is an equal and opposite tendency to pattern formation, and that is pattern collapse (entropy). Between the two of them, they allow more complex patterns, like protein chains, to form, mutate, and fall apart. The stable patterns that chance upon replication of course lead to more of the same, and thus predominate, giving rise eventually to what we know as life.

    So, although I sympathize with Neil’s use of “sentience”, I think too that it implies an unfortunate anthropomorphic notion of intelligence. I think complexity theory is beautiful in that it demystifies, but I think panpsychism re-mystifies, with zero additional explanatory power.

    Consciousness, as you say, is a byproduct of the brain. In fact, I don’t even see consciousness as an intelligence or a process, but rather a pared-down representation of the unconscious brain patterns that came before it. Subjective Experience, in my view, is a brand new episodic memory, created out of pared-down reports from modules around the brain, and bound together in the Medial Temporal Lobe, especially in the Hippocampus. I’d be happy to share the paper that we’ve written (as a off-shoot of the documentary), explaining this theory further.

    Thanks again for your interest, and for putting so much thought into your reply,

    Matt Faw
    Consciousness 3D

    • I would love to read your paper. From what you’ve said, It may resonate with consciousness as I present it in my book, “Psychotherapy of Character, the Play of Consciousness in the Theater of the Brain”. So I hope you will read it and we can talk. [This is one among many confluent themes in the book]. So please send me your paper.

  • S says:

    Semantics! But semantics do matter. In fact, metaphors are self-fulfilling prophecies (cf Lakoff/Johnson). Lakoff’s ideas are controversial in science, but made more real, when you look into the Frank Luntz case for climate change communication for right-wing political spin. Iain McGilchrist, who I imagine is sympathetic to pansychism, as a panentheist, writes about the split brain and its effect on our views. You can see his TED talk here https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=DiPrM0DNI8w

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Robert Berezin, MD, psychiatrist and author of Psychotherapy of Character: The Play of Consciousness in the Theater of the Brain

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© 2013 by Robert Berezin, MD