by Bill Meacham
Copyright © 2007, William Meacham. Permission to reproduce is granted provided the work is reproduced in its entirety, including this notice.
I wrote this in the March, 2007, in hopes of its being published in Philosophy Now, a popular journal of philosophy. The assignment was to write 400 words or fewer on the topic.
If we assume that human consciousness is not an anomaly in a world of unliving things, but the flowering of a capability that is present in all things at all levels of reality then we can say that even the smallest particle of matter, although not fully conscious, is in some dim way aware of its surroundings. Further, we can say that even the smallest particle of matter is in some minimal way able to respond to its surroundings, harbor intentions and strive to actualize those intentions, even if the the only content of its response is to move, absent any external obstruction, in the direction to which it is attracted, and its sole intention is to cohere and survive in its coherence.
No-one can be directly conscious of the subjectivity of another being, so it is possible to doubt that anyone except oneself is conscious; but a more useful hypothesis is to assume that other humans are much like oneself, with perceptions, thoughts, dreams, intentions and agency. We naturally extend this hypothesis to animals, ascribing to them something like our subjectivity in a less developed form. Many gardeners and naturalists ascribe subjectivity to plants as well, in an even less developed form. One can imagine that a plant feels pleasure when it has enough rain and sun and room to grow, and that it feels an impulse to turn toward the sun, an intention if you will, and actualizes that intention by so turning. We can further imagine that the subjectivity of rocks and other inanimate matter consists of feelings of attraction to other masses, and their intention is to cohere and persist.
It makes more sense to ascribe subjectivity to all things rather than only to some. This theory is called Panpsychism; and, like all metaphysics, it is not falsifiable, but it is not thereby meaningless. It is certainly more internally coherent than positing a strong disjunction between mind and body. It is more useful as well; its ethical implications are beneficial for humans. If one thinks of all beings as aware, one is more likely to have empathy for them and to act so as to reduce their suffering and increase their welfare. One approaches reality with respect, and one's experience is richer than it would be if one conceived of oneself as a stranger in a world of dead matter.
About the Author: Bill Meacham lives in Austin, Texas, USA and is an independent scholar in philosophy. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.