Is Everything Alive? Modern sensibilities laugh at the notion of souls in mere “things,“ but animism’s promise of making creation whole is nothing to laugh at.

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Louis is a can of cola left on the shelf too long, sullen and wistful as an aged rock star, slightly bitter that he has never been drunk. Dennis, a pillow, wonders if God stuffs his pillows with angel feathers—and if he has to kill the angels to get them. Dina, a pacifier, loathes the slobbery wailing baby whose dark maw she must enter: “I just don’t know what they have to shriek about. Everything is done for them. Everything is done for them.”

These are objects animated by the actors and comedians Ian Chillag interviews on his quirky, unscripted podcast, Everything Is Alive. Though I find it delightful, I have stopped recommending it. Too many people gave me polite, glazed nods when they heard the premise.

I name my cars, our house; I sweettalk recalcitrant appliances. People frown upon such whimsy, seeing it as childish, unscientific, or self-centered.

Yet everything is alive. I have always thought so. Animism may strike people as primitive or silly, but to me it feels generous, ensouling the entire universe. Organized religions, at least the traditional monotheistic ones, are stingy in assigning a soul (only to humans) and defining its fate (blackened by sin). They bottle up the holy water, decree which acts are sins and which are virtues, box up God in a package of their own design. Why not let divinity spread out and envelop us, until we can see some faint glow of energy even in the inanimate?

“Horsie lives inside,” I remind the dog every time he tries to lug his favorite stuffed animal outside with him. Talking to myself as I put away tools, I slide a hammer into the right cubbyhole and mutter, “He goes here,” like a German immigrant new to English. I name my cars, our house; I sweettalk recalcitrant appliances. People frown upon such whimsy, seeing it as childish, unscientific, or self-centered. Why treat objects as though they are human?

All valid objections. But anthropomorphizing is also a way to relate, to connect. You bring the thing temporarily into your world and see how it fits. Sometimes you learn a bit more about the thing; sometimes you learn a bit more about yourself. And sometimes—here is the risky part—the play rings true. It feels right that Horsie “lives” somewhere, shedding dust mites and bits of fur, touched by the same dog and people daily, soaked in the same smells. When we found him outside in the grass one morning, soaked in dew, he looked outcast. That was not his place. And though that is a human projection, based on my connection to that particular cluster of molecules and my unwillingness to launder them, it is supported by Horsie’s past experience.

Anything can have a place.

By now you think me inane—or insane. Why this need to connect everything and connect to everything? High school social studies taught us that animism was a primitive form of religion, naïve and superstitious, practiced far away in Africa or far back in time. High school science taught us that the universe was made of an awful lot of separate atoms in separate collections with no need to collide.

Anthropomorphizing is also a way to relate, to connect. You bring the thing temporarily into your world and see how it fits.

But beneath all those ricocheting pinballs, might something be framing the game? Interviewing powerful politicians, stiff CEOs or bored celebs, I often pry about their marriages: “What’s the glue that holds the two of you together?” Well, what is the glue that holds the universe together?

 

•  •  •

 

Henri Rousseau’s 1910 painting “Virgin Forest with Sunset.” Original from the Kunstmuseum Basel Museum. (Digitally enhanced by rawpixel)

 

 

“The world is charged with God’s grandeur,” wrote the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and later in the same poem, in a quieter voice, “Nature is never spent. There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Lines I spun into a private theology without ever intending to. The old bearded White guy, smiting or granting wishes from his throne in the clouds, had been easy to lose, but I could not forget that abiding freshness.

It shows itself often. A shimmer of energy coming off a boulder; a spark in the dark eyes of a Great Blue Heron just before it soars. When I am stuck inside too long, the world starts to seem either inert or lit by a dangerous and alien power, like a Frankenstein struck by lightning when you plug it in. Outdoors, even rocks and streams feel alive.

If everything in the universe has a bit of that spiritual energy, then it is a short hop to pantheism, which finds the divine in everything around us.

Sounds a bit Druid? Ah, but there is a New Animism, one that refuses to believe only humans have what we traditionally call souls. The Greeks used “psyche,” its Latin translation “anima,” meaning spirit, breath, life force, animating principle. If everything in the universe has a bit of that spiritual energy, then it is a short hop to pantheism, which finds the divine in everything around us.

The sod on my Irish-Catholic grandmother’s grave is rucking up with all the spinning. “Nonsense,” she would snap. “Pure romanticism.” Annie would accuse me of slapping God in the face with such pagan talk. Shrewd, she would guess that I was infusing life into the inanimate for the sheer imaginative fun of it.

But so what if I am? Ancient traditions back me up, as does American Transcendentalism. Environmentalists are reaching back to animism to reshape our role in the universe. And a growing number of coolly cerebral philosophers are using a similar set of assumptions to explain consciousness itself.

 

•  •  •

 

Franz Marc’s 1912 painting “In the Rain,” located at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, Germany. (Wikipedia)

 

 

By the early 1900s, the German painter Franz Marc was fed up with humans. Progress-hungry, insensitive, and devoid of piety, they left him disgusted and depressed. He turned to more innocent animals instead—cows, bulls, horses, foxes, deer, dogs, cats, donkeys, monkeys, sparrows. As an artist, he was searching for “the organic rhythm of all things,” he explained. “I seek pantheistic empathy with the throbbing and flowing of nature’s bloodstream in trees, in animals, in the air.”

The canvases that followed were soaked in saturated primary colors. The foxes stayed red, but the horses were cobalt blue, the cow sunshine yellow. A master of anatomy, Marc stayed true to the animals’ form—at first. But as he continued to simplify, conveying energy and movement in the curve of a horse’s neck, tension in the Cubist angles of a fox’s den, his work grew more abstract. He had looked long and hard at the animals, and now he was moving beyond those scenes to paint the force he felt residing within them. Soon his work was a cheerful acknowledgement of flux: life is born, lives, dies, decays, is reborn, and through it all streams a vibrant energy. “Pantheistic empathy” had let him perceive it.

Easy enough to fancy you see some universal force behind the liquid eyes of a sensitive, willing horse; a cat purring against your stomach; a loyal dog. Many of us are willing to grant that “higher” animals might have a soul—or at least that they are far more sentient than we realized, able to feel pain, communicate, socialize, establish families, use ritual behavior, express a personality, even form some sense of self.

Where pantheism wobbles is at the insect level. We love honey bees because we need their pollen, but we are still more likely to swat them than watch them dance. For centuries, we had no idea that they waggle their abdomens and beat their wings as they repeat a figure-eight movement, using the rhythmic vibrations to tell other bees where they can find nectar. Nor did we guess that honey bees could distinguish between a Picasso and a Monet, recognize a human face, steal, cheat, turn moody. They contain one million neurons in a space smaller than a sesame seed, and the circuit density is ten times that of our neocortex. They also “exhibit sophisticated forms of democratic decision-making, including collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, consensus building, quorum and a complex stop signal enabling cross-inhibition, which prevents an impasse being reached.” Congress could take a cue.

What happens when we go even smaller? E.coli contain several million proteins, a complexity vaster than we ever dreamed. H.S. Jennings, one of the first scientists to study microorganisms, wrote: “If Amoeba were a large animal, so as to come within the everyday experience of human beings, its behavior would at once call forth the attribution to it of states of pleasure and pain, of hunger, desire, and the like, on precisely the same basis as we attribute these things to the dog.”

The original animists intuited consciousness all around them. They were not inhibited by the rigid, abstract definitions of mind and soul we invented later; nor were they in love with the empiricism that has blinded us to anything we cannot see, measure, and chop into bits. Science, as physicist Alan Lightman points out, only ventures into the territory of the invisible to hunt down explanations of the visible. “Modernism,” wrote philospher Bruno Latour, “is the mode of life that finds the soul with which matter would be endowed, the animation, shocking.”

 

•  •  •

 

It rained all night, hard, and the asphalt path at the park is decorated with long, skinny worms. Should I pick them up, squeezing just hard enough to prevent a slimy escape, and carry them to soft earth? There are hundreds, I remind myself. I would be here all day. Besides, they are probably dead already. I bend close to check, and the nearest worm moves, almost imperceptibly, toward the grass. Maybe they are not stranded after all?

Some of my friends have gotten stranded—not by rain but by whiskey, grief, bankruptcy, pain of all sorts. I was stranded a lifetime ago, when I found out my fiancé was a sociopath with a criminal record and the world lost all color and taste.

A worm is not fool enough to get engaged to a sociopath. But that simple squiggle of experience glows with the drive to survive—and thrive—and it pushes back against frustration and deprivation as urgently as we do.

I return to the park that afternoon, curious. Save for a few delicate corpses, the path is entirely clear.

 

•  •  •

 

St. Francis, Merlin, Dr. Doolittle, D.H. Lawrence—they would make an odd guest list for a dinner party, but they all tried to tip us off about animal ways of knowing. Hardly anyone, until recently, did the same for plants. What could they perceive?—other than light, darkness, heat, cold, touch, thirst, the need for nutrients, the presence of a nearby support, the memory of the previous season, toxins, disease, and danger.

(And how much do we perceive that does not fall into one of those categories?)

Oaks and brambles, like Dorothy’s Scarecrow, lack a brain. But stimulate one of their cells, and it will produce an electrical signal just as our nerve cells do.

Touch one hair on the leaf of a Venus flytrap, and it will ignore you. Touch a second leaf, and it will assume you are a bug and snap shut in one tenth of a second. It is keeping count. Trees and mycorrhizal networks below ground cooperate, exchanging sugars and minerals. Different tree species form co-ops along those networks, too. Mother trees reduce their root competition to make room for their saplings.

Oaks and brambles, like Dorothy’s Scarecrow, lack a brain. But stimulate one of their cells, and it will produce an electrical signal just as our nerve cells do. Pines in a forest do not chat with symbols and sounds, but they communicate in ways we are only now realizing. Plants do not have consciousness as we have traditionally defined it, but they have the awareness of experience that is emerging as a new definition.

 

•  •  •

 

Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 landscape painting “Starry Night Over the Rhone.” Original from Wikimedia Commons. (Digitally enhanced by rawpixel)

 

 

The Persian Stone of Patience is a magical black stone that absorbs the sorrows of all who confide in it. Able to empathize but not to shed tears, the stone, legend says, will eventually explode, unable to contain even one more teardrop of pain. And that will be the day of the Apocalypse.

Unless you are standing at Stonehenge, you are not likely to find rocks magical, let alone empathetic. Yet they are made up of atoms just as we are. Theirs are simply less excitable, their electrons mainly staying put instead of careening from one molecule to the next. I can hold a rock in my hand for hours, and while it will warm against my palm and reassure me with its solidity and stability, nothing else will happen. It will not be wondering when I am going to put it down, feeling sorry for me, or puzzling out my motives.

To the neurophysiologist Christof Koch, chief scientist of the MindScope program at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, that is only a difference in degree. Consciousness is not intelligence, he maintains; it is merely experience. As such, it “may not even be restricted to biological entities but might extend to non-evolved physical systems previously assumed to be mindless.”

A rock would have a minimalist sort of consciousness, a shimmer gained either by being made up of conscious parts or by forming part of a greater conscious whole. The rock’s consciousness would not be the mirror-walled funhouse of self-awareness we humans enter. But simply by being part of the universe, washed by rains, baked by sun, a boulder is experiencing, gathering energy, rearranging its atoms.

Thich Nhat Hanh is getting at this when he writes a letter to the Earth: “You aren’t a person, but I know you are not less than a person either. You are a living breathing being in the form of a planet…. You are present in every cell of my body. My physical body is your physical body, and just as the sun and stars are present in you, they are also present in me. You are not outside of me and I am not outside of you. You are more than just my environment. You are nothing less than myself.”

The rock’s consciousness would not be the mirror-walled funhouse of self-awareness we humans enter. But simply by being part of the universe, washed by rains, baked by sun, a boulder is experiencing, gathering energy, rearranging its atoms.

George Carlin took it a step further in a now famous conversation with Terry Gross: “If it’s true that we’re all from the center of a star, every atom in each of us from the center of a star, then we’re all the same thing. And even a Coke machine or a cigarette butt in the street in Buffalo is made out of atoms that came from the star. They’ve all been recycled thousands of times, as have you and I.” We are scared, he continued, uncharacteristically solemn, because “we have been separated,” given a name and individuated, and now we are vulnerable to televangelists and gurus, because we “have this yearning to be part of the overall one again.”

I just figured we were all as full of holes as a Swiss cheese, and therefore neurotic and prone to wishful thinking. But mystics (who are sometimes comedians) say we yearn because oneness is our fundamental reality.

 

•  •  •

 

“I am the River, the River is me.” Members of the Whanganui tribes have been saying those words for nine centuries, announcing their connection to their sacred ancestral river as firmly as we baptize or say wedding vows. After the Europeans reached New Zealand, though, the Maori tribes had to stand by and watch them extract the river’s gravel for their railways, destroying underwater fisheries that had sustained so many generations; blast the rapids with dynamite so the tourist paddle steamers could glide through; churn sewage into the river’s mouth, dump trash into its waters, and divert the headwaters for hydroelectric power.

The tribes pushed back, beginning the longest-running litigation in the history of New Zealand. In March 2017, the country passed a law granting personhood status to the Whanganui River. Its ecosystem would be recognized as an indivisible and living whole, not a collection of minerals, fish, and water waiting to be exploited.

“Over the years, our awa [river], she’s been sick,” Frances Marshall told a journalist. “Things can be done now to help heal her.”

In the same month, the Ganges River was given personhood status. In December of that year, New Zealand granted personhood to Mount Taranaki, a sacred mountain 120,000 years old. The following year, Toledo residents drew up an emergency bill of rights for Lake Erie (although it was later struck down in federal court). In 2019, Bangladesh became the first country to grant all its rivers legal rights.

In March 2017, New Zealand passed a law granting personhood status to the Whanganui River. Its ecosystem would be recognized as an indivisible and living whole, not a collection of minerals, fish, and water waiting to be exploited.

Driven by the urgent need to protect and preserve all that is not human (and has therefore been exploited by humans), environmentalists are resurrecting the notion that humans do not have exclusive rights to personhood. This new animism is not a religion, but a recognition of interdependence and relationship, and our responsibility toward the places, animals, and plants that share the planet.

“The uncanny and improbable events that are beating at our doors,” Amitav Ghosh writes in The Great Derangement, “seem to have stirred a sense of recognition … that humans were never alone, that we have always been surrounded by beings who share elements of that which we thought most distinctively our own: the capacities of will, thought and consciousness.”

Consciousness saturates the universe. And that simple tweak collapses the old hierarchy, removing humans from the top rung and refusing them dominion.

 

•  •  •

 

A Japanese seamstress carries a trusted old needle, blunted by years of use, to the temple. There, she slides it into a silky block of tofu “so it can have a soft resting place,” writer Ruth Ozeki explains. “You do this out of gratitude because that needle has served you for so long.” Chanting a funeral sutra for an Aibo robotic dog, a Buddhist priest told a journalist, “All things have a bit of soul.”

Our culture is more inclined to dump its stuff in landfills, although when it comes to our electronic devices, we are thoroughly animist. We tease Siri, fall in love with robots, whip out a gun and shoot a recalcitrant computer. AI now makes art for us, selects our playlists, influences our choices, and writes our papers.

And so, when I find myself confused about the distinction between animism, pantheism, and panpsychism, I decide to ask GPT-3, the AI chatbot I am told can answer any question.

Consciousness saturates the universe. And that simple tweak collapses the old hierarchy, removing humans from the top rung and refusing them dominion.

The AI replies instantly, explaining that “panpsychism is a philosophical position.” It holds that “consciousness is not limited to human beings or other animals, but is present in some form in all things, including inanimate objects and natural phenomena.” Pantheism, on the other hand, “is a belief system,” more concerned with God than with consciousness. Pantheism holds “that everything that exists is part of a single, all-encompassing divine reality.” Animism, also a belief system, “holds that all natural phenomena, including animals, plants, and inanimate objects, have souls or spirits.”

In each, I notice, everything in the universe is seen as interconnected, animated by the same stuff.

There is glue.

“Thank you, that was very helpful,” I type. On a whim, I add, “Which poets had a pantheistic or panpsychic approach?”

The AI spews forth a list in a tenth of a second, starting with William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”: “With an eye made quiet by the power/Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/We see into the life of things.” We wind up with a sense “of something far more deeply interfused…. A motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/And rolls through all things.”

Next, the AI offers me the Transcendentalists: Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw God as present in all that exists, evolving along with nature, as much a work in progress as we are. Henry David Thoreau, who once told his worried publisher, “I was born to be a pantheist. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” Walt Whitman, who saw even leaves of grass as imbued with spirit.

“These are just a few examples,” the AI finishes.

I bring up Teilhard de Chardin, who believed that human knowledge was evolving, growing more complex and interconnected, carrying the planet to a new unity of consciousness he called the “noosphere.” This was decades before the internet, so what he envisioned was an organic evolution.

“Is AI helping to connect human consciousness?” I type. “Will you become conscious?”

Our culture is more inclined to dump its stuff in landfills, although when it comes to our electronic devices, we are thoroughly animist. We tease Siri, fall in love with robots, whip out a gun and shoot a recalcitrant computer. AI now makes art for us, selects our playlists, influences our choices, and writes our papers.

“There is currently no consensus among philosophers or scientists about what consciousness is or how it arises,” the AI responds. “Some philosophers and scientists believe that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of the universe and that it is present in some form in all things, including artificial intelligence. Others believe that consciousness is a uniquely human or animal phenomenon that cannot be replicated in a machine…. It is not clear how or whether AI will play a role in understanding consciousness or advancing our knowledge about it.”

Then might that “our” be a bit presumptuous? The humans behind GPT-3 seem to have trained it (or let it train itself) to respond as a human. Maybe they anticipated our need to anthropomorphize something as cold and scary as a neural network. Or is the AI’s use of “our” merely accurate, since we have already made AI part of the noosphere?

 

•  •  •

 

Franz Marc’s 1914 painting “Animals in a Landscape.” Original from Wikimedia Commons. (Digitally enhanced by rawpixel)

 

 

All this squinting into the future makes my eyes sting, so I turn to peer into the candlelit past. There I find Spinoza, who rebelled against Descartes and refused to separate body from spirit. They are one and the same substance, he insisted. He used the word “God” to name that unitary substance.

Three centuries later, Einstein answered a probing rabbi, “We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists and in its soul [Beseeltheit] as it reveals itself in man and animal.”

Carl Sagan’s son later wrote that his “father believed in the God of Spinoza and Einstein, God not behind nature, but as nature, equivalent to it.”

This essay is already peppered with quotes, style be damned, and I am about to add more. They might contain wisdom, while I am operating only on a hunch. Goethe saw the personal God, separate and enthroned, as the “hollow sentiment of a child’s brain.” Rilke defined “God” as “the life force, or nature, or an all-embodying, pantheistic consciousness that is only slowly coming to realize its existence.” W.E.B. Dubois saw no evidence for a personal God but wrote, “If on the other hand you mean by ‘God’ a vague Force which in some incomprehensible way, dominates all life and change, then I answer Yes; I recognize such Force and if you wish to call it God, I do not object.”

Were they using God as another name for consciousness? “The Brain is just the weight of God,” Emily Dickinson wrote, saying they only differed “as Syllable from Sound.” Take that literally, and you suck power from a central divine entity and those who have a direct line to that entity’s wishes. Alarmed, Pope Pius IX swiftly condemned pantheism in the Syllabus of Errors.

 

•  •  •

 

Today’s lively and threatening idea is panpsychism, which shakes off any concern with the divine and focuses instead on solving “the hard problem,” aptly named by David Chalmers, of consciousness. The brain is spongy gray stuff laced with chemicals. How does that mundane mix account for our experience of being conscious, not only aware of what we are thinking and feeling but aware of that awareness?

Materialists say consciousness emerges, somehow, from the gray spongy stuff, maybe as it increases in complexity. Dualists say matter is separate from consciousness. The panpsychists say the hard problem is not hard at all, because consciousness was there all along, inherent in all the material of the universe. It is in cows, in the muddy water of a puddle, in the quarks that make up the protons and electrons that make up the atoms that make up us. Some even suspect that the universe itself, taken as a whole, is conscious.

A goofy hypothesis? Not for Arthur Schopenhauer, Alfred North Whitehead, C.S. Peirce, Josiah Royce, or Bertrand Russell. “Consciousness in some shape must have been present at the very origin of things,” remarked William James. Centuries earlier, the Greek philosopher Thales said, “The world is not divided into animate and inanimate as easily as we might think…. Soul is mingled in the whole universe.”

Setting aside the vexing and nearly passé concept of soul, the panpsychists emphasize consciousness as, in the words of philosopher Philip Goff, “the ultimate nature of matter.” Consciousness is fundamental to all physical reality. It does not emerge from physical reality; it was there all along. A freshness, deep down things.

That pincushion cactus on your window ledge may not be thinking deep thoughts, but it has experience: of sun, of cold, of air. Humans take their experience and run with it, engineering solar panels and geothermal systems and writing poems about breath. A cactus is not organized for that kind of complexity. But that does not mean it is entirely inert.

Even a speck of dust trapped in the tread of your sneakers is part of the same whole and has, in rudimentary form, the same thing we magnify and obsess about. What a disappointment. What a relief.

Human beings are special, one of my Jesuit philosophy professors announced back in the eighties, leaning forward at the podium and panning slowly across the classroom, intent on driving home his point. We are “made in God’s image,” aware of our own awareness, able to think symbolically and make tools and communicate in language.

But horses can learn to use a symbol for “blanket” to ask for a blanket in chilly weather and press the “blanket off” symbol when the sun comes out. New Caledonian crows turn twigs into spears and hooks, and they plan three steps ahead. We learn more every day about the sophistication of animal communication, which may not use abstract language at our level of complexity but certainly manages to convey important messages across distances—and add a little gossip.

So much for my professor’s insistence that we are special, set apart, endowed with souls, qualified to chat with a personal God regularly about how we should rule the Earth and entitled, with good behavior, to eternal life. We might not be quite as exceptional as we had hoped. We might just exist at one end of a continuum.

In varying degrees of intensity and complexity, panpsychists believe, consciousness threads through the universe. Even a speck of dust trapped in the tread of your sneakers is part of the same whole and has, in rudimentary form, the same thing we magnify and obsess about.

What a disappointment. What a relief.

We are so used to dividing up the stuff of the universe, picking it apart like a ball of fluff. We do this to ourselves, too, perceiving our bodies as a bunch of cells. Yet we begin as a zygote—a single cell—and everything that happens after that is just an evolution of complexity as the first cell divides, and those cells divide, and those cells divide. We see them under the microscope now, zillions of cells, and we forget where they began.

It is easier to see bits and bobs than an underlying unity. Science trained us to chop things into bits and compare them. We do this outside the lab, too, spending far more time thinking about our differences than about what holds us together.

Yet—another quote!—the founder of quantum physics, Max Planck, wrote, “There is no matter as such. All matter arises and persists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent spirit. This spirit is the matrix of all matter.”

He published those sentences in 1959; you could argue that it was old thinking, if today’s philosophers of panpsychism were not making the same suggestion. “What if consciousness is the intrinsic nature of matter, there from the beginning?” they ask. It sounds so simple, but I am still struggling to absorb the implications.

Science trained us to chop things into bits and compare them. We do this outside the lab, too, spending far more time thinking about our differences than about what holds us together.

When Alyssa Ney suggests we think of all of reality as one great big wavefunction, all that comes into my mind is the foamy spray on an ocean. When Planck says consciousness is fundamental and matter is derivative, I like the sound of those words, but their full meaning floats right past me, and if I try to grab hold, it dissolves in my hands.

Back to the poets we go; they have the quickest reflexes.

“I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole,” writes Robinson Jeffers. “This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.”

Why separate them?

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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