Recently, biologist Rupert Sheldrake asked at the Journal of Consciousness Studies, “Is the Sun conscious?” It’s the sort of question that people might have asked before the dawn of modern science (and the usual answer was yes).
Sheldrake is pretty controversial but he is likely right to note a “recent panpsychist turn in philosophy.” Prominent philosopher David Chalmers, who coined the term the “Hard Problem of consciousness,” has also said “We’re not going to reduce consciousness to something physical … it’s a primitive component of the universe.”
But Sheldrake might have added that there is a panpsychist turn in science as well. After all, a mainstream neuroscientist recently argued in a science publication last year that even viruses are intelligent And he’s hardly the only prominent panpsychist in science. Even New Scientist, long a bastion of materialism (naturalism), offers a sympathetic account of panpsychism.
But at what point do we distinguish between panpsychism and animism the ancient belief that everything has a spirit (which must, in many cases, be placated)?
About the Sun, for example, Sheldrake writes,
Abstract: The recent panpsychist turn in philosophy opens the possibility that self-organizing systems at all levels of complexity, including stars and galaxies, might have experience, awareness, or consciousness. The organismic or holistic philosophy of nature points in the same direction. Meanwhile, field theories of consciousness propose that some electromagnetic fields actually are conscious, and that these fields are by their very nature integrative. When applied to the sun, such field theories suggest a possible physical basis for the solar mind, both within the body of the sun itself and also throughout the solar system. If the sun is conscious, it may be concerned with the regulation of its own body and the entire solar system through its electromagnetic activity, including solar flares and coronal mass ejections. It may also communicate with other star systems within the galaxy
One difference between panpsychism and animism is that the panpsychist does not generally hold that the “consciousness” of, say, the Sun, is like a human consciousness: “Systems such as human brains have a high level of integrated information, quantified in a mathematical quantity called Φ (phi) and are correspondingly highly conscious, with complex and meaningful experiences. Systems of a low Φ have less consciousness with only simple and rudimentary experiences. Systems
with zero Φ are not conscious at all.” (Sheldrake, 2021)
On that view, the sun is not the sort of entity that can hold a grudge or be placated, as the animist believes. But then Sheldrake argues, “The sun would be able to sense what is going on throughout the solar system through the electromagnetic field that pervades the heliosphere, which could act as its primary sense-organ. Thus the sun’s mind could, in principle, know about all events within the solar system.”
If even that level of consciousness sounds preposterous, recall that advocates of artificial general intelligence genuinely believe that advanced computers are now or soon will be conscious. Is the Sun as complex and integrated as an advanced computer? It’s hard to know because studying the Sun presents challenges not presented by a computer. But if we have any reason to think the Sun is that complex, we cannot simply dismiss Sheldrake’s view that it is conscious without casting doubt on the hard AI claims as well.
Those of us who already doubt the hard AI claims will be fine with that. But those who believe them should be prepared to consider that natural inanimate objects of sufficient complexity, like the Sun, could be conscious as well.
Sheldrake goes on to ask, “If the sun is conscious, if it has experiences, feelings, desires, memories, imaginings, and intentions, then what might it be concerned with?” Before anyone starts shouting “That’s crazy!”: Recall that the proponents of sentient AI (machines that think like people) anticipate computers with feelings too. And if they’re the cutting edge of science and technology, on what basis can we know that Sheldrake is wrong or crazy or both in his views on a complex body like the Sun?
We can be sure of this: Belief that the Sun has thoughts, feelings and desires is animism, which was dismissed as a primitive idea during the Scientific Revolution. But then surely the belief that a computer has thoughts, feelings, and desires is animism too.
The logical conclusion is that if the hard AI people turn out to be right, animism was true all along, and was unfairly dismissed. One thing for sure: Atheists had better earnestly hope that the hard AI people are wrong.
You may also wish to read: Why panpsychism is starting to push out naturalism. A key goal of naturalism/materialism has been to explain human consciousness away as “nothing but a pack of neurons.” That can’t work. Panpsychism is not dualism. By including consciousness — including human consciousness — as a bedrock fact of nature, it avoids naturalism’s dead end.