Sentience, Not Consciousness, Is Key to the Cosmos

“Is the universe conscious?” and “Does consciousness pervade the universe?” are nearly identical questions posed in recent books, articles, and scientific conferences. While provocative, the wrong question is being asked. Most people associate consciousness with the mindful awareness of what’s happening. This ability to perceive, to notice ourselves and our environment, leads to other abilities: to question, remember, anticipate, know. If we consider whether the smallest elements of matter—or the fields within which they exist—have the potential for consciousness, well, it’s a stretch. 

But let us recognize that sentience—the ability to feel—underlies consciousness, indeed that consciousness could not exist without the ability to feel. It’s entirely possible, furthermore, that one can feel something and not quite grasp it. We can be bothered by something precisely because we “can’t put our finger on it”; we can also derive insights from dreams that were evidently in our unconscious but not our conscious mind. So, the possibility that the universe is conducive to sentience or to feelings and images beneath the threshold of consciousness becomes a more elementary prospect to tackle. If the answer turns out to be yes, then a model exists for some fascinating phenomena that science has yet to take seriously despite their experience being longstanding and widespread. Equally, these phenomena might provide evidence that the cosmos is sentient. 

[Read “Our Sacred-Scientific, Psychedelic Future”]

Panpsychism: An Overview 

Let’s start with why some cognitive scientists and philosophers have revived the notion of panpsychism, the idea that the universe is alive, or at least contains the seeds of aliveness. They ask: how can “dead” constituents of matter—protons, neutrons, electrons—or, for that matter, the organs, veins, and neurons of which we are constituted—give rise to individuals who feel, hope, dream, reminisce . . . who subjectively experience the world? 

How is it that non-life gives rise to living, perceiving things? How can a person made of nothing but inert matter realize that “red” is red, and know that it’s different from blue? How is it that we know pain and pleasure? For that matter (so to speak), how do we become enraptured by music, feel outraged at an injustice, or view a natural scene and experience tranquility? 

These are all aspects of the so-called “hard problem” that cognitive scientists wrestle with. It’s akin to assessing the Mona Lisa—nothing but pigments on canvas—and trying to explain what transforms the individual elements of the painting, which are themselves meaningless, into something so treasured. 

Panpsychism responds that all matter has the capacity for the simplest possible experience. The highly-complex perceptions of the human animal, our manifold forms of awareness, derive from these primal capacities. In the words of philosopher Philip Goff, 

“Human beings have a very rich and complex experience; horses less so; mice less so again. As we move to simpler and simpler forms of life, we find simpler and simpler forms of experience. Perhaps . . . this continuum of consciousness . . . carries on into inorganic matter, with fundamental particles having almost unimaginably simple forms of experience to reflect their incredibly simple nature. That’s what panpsychists believe.” 

Physical science tells us objectively about matter and its properties. Panpsychism attempts to answer “the deep mystery [of] . . . what we know about ourselves from the inside.” Where materialism addresses the quantitative, testable aspects of existence, panpsychism addresses the qualitative, intrinsic side. 

It bears mentioning that panpsychism isn’t some novel concept but dates to the very beginnings of philosophy. The term derives from the Greek pan (“all,” “everything,”) and psyche (“spirit,” “mind”). Today’s panpsychism doesn’t mean to suggest, as the oldest forms of the idea possibly did, that all matter is sentient. Non-organic things—rocks, rivers, stars, chairs—presumably feel nothing. Yet some proponents of panpsychism say that we shouldn’t be too hasty: if matter is present, some form of proto-sentience might accompany it. 

[Read “Can Social Technologists Solve the Atomization Problem?”]

Beyond the Combination Problem 

At what point—at what degree of complexity—does a configuration of matter become sentient? This is panpsychism’s “combination problem”: the challenge of explaining how the aggregation of bits of matter, each of which may contain the tiniest seeds of awareness, somehow results in a fully sentient being. The tripwire is significant enough that many observers are inclined to dismiss panpsychism because of it. 

A fascinating reformulation of the theory, advanced by the author Annaka Harris, rides to the rescue. Her approach centers not on individual organisms or bits of matter but on the universal forces operating on them. Sentience (though Harris sticks with the term “consciousness”) is, for her, fundamental “but in the form of a continuous, pervasive field, analogous to spacetime.” Harris explains,

“Just as spacetime and gravity have an interactive relationship, consciousness can be thought of as a fundamental ‘field’ that interacts with, and is integral to, matter. We typically don’t think of spacetime as bits and pieces that build on each other (it’s simply everywhere), and I don’t think we should be tempted to think of consciousness . . . as divisible into building blocks either. Rather, it makes more sense to talk about a field that contains a range of content—the content depending on the other forces or fields it’s interacting with. In the same way that . . . matter warps spacetime and the shape of spacetime determines how matter moves . . . a consciousness field would imbue matter with another property, giving rise to the range of content experienced.” 

Subjective perceptions, then—a throb of pain, a crisp bite of apple, a feeling of happiness or regret—would arise based on the interaction of a pervasive field of consciousness with you as a configuration of matter at a particular spacetime coordinate. Harris argues that, in their totality, the material processes that comprise “you” are continuously taking place within a variety of fields, from gravitational and electromagnetic to spacetime and consciousness. 

Furthermore, she suggests, subjective experiences might not be isolated even if the matter that comprises you is discrete to your body. Just as gravity is affected by mass in a given spacetime location, the consciousness field might be influenced by someone’s experiential content. The universe could “be teeming with consciousness—with content flickering in and out, overlapping, combining, separating, flowing, in ways we can’t quite imagine.” 

In order to distinguish her version of panpsychism from the kind that’s susceptible to the combination problem, Harris proposes calling it “intrinsic nature theory” or “intrinsic field theory.” Others refer to it as “cosmopsychism.” By whatever name, we shall see that the approach marshals an intriguing range of evidence in its favor.

[Read “Alone in One of Nature’s Threshold Places”]  

Sentience Prior to Consciousness 

Before moving to that evidence, let’s return to the question of sentience vs. consciousness. I said earlier that consciousness connotes the mindful awareness of what’s happening. That means perceiving at the very least, and on through all the facets of thinking as an independent “I.” In contrast, sentience simply means that one feels, even if, at a given moment, one isn’t consciously aware of feeling anything. Viewed this way, sentience is more fundamental on the evolutionary scale. 

Let’s define sentience as “the ability to have the feel of a sensory experience . . . a simple kind of phenomenal consciousness that doesn’t require higher-order perceptions or thoughts about mental states.” It does require “a rudimentary first-person perspective”—some sort of internal life—”from which phenomena are experienced.” 

Upon this scaffolding is built, in humans, a robust, higher-order consciousness. We even possess meta-consciousness: the ability to know that we (and others) know. This is both a blessing and a curse. On the “blessing” side, we can plan a celebration for someone we love, empathize with the misfortune of another, construct an argument, and devise a plan. On the “curse” side, we can be oblivious to those around us, misinterpret someone’s meaning, harbor long-standing grudges, suffer from greed and jealousy, and spiral into anxiety and depression. No wonder many people have benefited from mindfulness meditation, which aims to minimize self-consciousness, directing attention to the flow of one’s breath and the minute changes in one’s bodily sensations.

[Read “The Brain Can Be Rewired Through Meditation and Mindfulness”]

Natural Spirituality 

The virtue of being still brings about a similar benefit. Quieting mental chatter allows us to simply be—to observe what’s going on with quietude rather than projecting our usual stream of observations onto the situation. Here’s a case in point offered by one writer: 

“Quaker meetings are based on silent worship, and I spent an hour, sitting in silence, looking at the vase of flowers resting on the central table . . . . Sitting [there], something happened that profoundly influenced me. The little voice in my head—the ‘me’ that chatted, commented upon, analyzed and evaluated everything that I saw during the course of my waking life—stopped. For the first time in at least forty years I simply experienced the world. The peace and beauty of the room, the people, and the garden I could see through the window all overwhelmed me.” 

Spiritual experiences are consistently associated with this cessation of inner chatter and the ability to “drink in” the outside world. A for-instance

“I decided to go for a walk. It was a beautiful evening—clear blue sky beginning to get dark, orange where the sun was going down, a few stars beginning to shine through. I walked around the field near my house . . . looking at the sky, amazed at how beautiful it was. My mind was quiet and I felt full of vitality. I began to feel as though I was being engulfed in the sky . . .  . [It] didn’t seem ‘up there,’ it seemed to be around me, a part of me. I felt that the . . . space around me was alive, that the universe was a living being. The feeling . . . only stopped when my mind started thinking again.” 

The subject of this anecdote, psychologist Steve Taylor, views such experiences as a kind of “natural spirituality.” Rather than seeing them either as some form of super-consciousness or as supernatural (literally beyond nature), he believes they’re entirely normal—and indicative of the sentience that dwells underneath our customary self-consciousness. 

In contrast, Taylor suggests that the world’s indigenous peoples, living much closer to nature than we in the West, and with far fewer industrial conveniences and technological distractions, experience this “phenomenal world” much more readily. The same, presumably, is true of babies and young children. In our youngest years, the ego is still forming and the world far less differentiated than it will become. As individuation takes place, however, a sense of separation from nature and others gradually becomes the norm. Our experience becomes expected and mundane. Thinking takes primacy over feeling, self-consciousness over immediate sensory experience. 

[Read “Ecstatic Experience: How the West Can Find Itself by Losing Control”]

The Unconscious Foundation 

While we’re in our automatic, thought-driven mode, much activity is taking place within our bodies beneath the threshold of consciousness. We are breathing, our blood is circulating, neurotransmitters are being sent from our brain to all regions of the body and back again, our proprioceptive system is assessing our balance and position in space, and our digestive system may be working on the remains of breakfast. Furthermore, our senses are continuously monitoring the environment, so that anything disquieting or out of the ordinary will make itself known. And not least, everything from fleeting impressions to consequential life issues is being weighed in our unconscious mind (literally the stuff of dreams). 

The unconscious has sometimes been envisioned as an iceberg, with the bulk of it below the surface. Without meaning to diminish the significance of our awake, conscious life, I submit that this is true. Just as the left side of our brain, which traffics in language, normally drowns out the right side, so we don’t fully appreciate the extent to which the activity that comprises “us” is taking place unconsciously. It is this larger part of us, I suggest, that participates in Harris’ field of sentience. Just as each of us is continuously “located” in spacetime and affected in unseen ways by gravity and electromagnetism, so we could be, in effect, bobbing in a sea of sentience. 

Moreover, the content that anyone ultimately experiences could be shaped by unconscious content accessible elsewhere in the field—from individuals physically removed from us. As Harris speculates, the universe could be “teeming . . . with content flickering in and out, overlapping, combining, separating, flowing, in ways we can’t quite imagine.” 

[Read “What Earthquakes Teach Us About Embracing Uncertainty”]

The Prevalence of Synchronicity 

But there are ways we can imagine, because they happen. One example is the phenomenon of synchronicity, aka meaningful coincidence. At its weirdest, synchronicity is hard to differentiate from telepathy (or, when something is intensely felt, from what’s been termed a “telesomatic” event). Examples of telesomatic events are the following:  

A man feels himself choking uncontrollably, only to learn later that his father had been choking—and dying—at the same time thousands of miles away.

A mother is writing a letter to her daughter when her right hand feels as though it’s burning. Soon after, she receives a phone call telling her that her daughter’s right hand was severely burned by acid in a laboratory accident.

A nurse tries to sleep after putting a very ill patient into an ambulance bound for the hospital. She’s suddenly awakened by a violent jerk that goes through her entire body. As she tries to figure out what has happened, the phone rings. It is the patient’s daughter, saying that her mother had been in cardiac arrest but the doctor was able to “shock her back” to life.

Now consider a synchronicity that has a less obvious somatic component. The following was reported by Michael Shermer, a prolific author and avowed skeptic whose worldview leaves scant room for anything remotely anomalous. Shortly after exchanging their wedding vows, Shermer and his new wife, Jennifer, walked to the back of their house to be alone for a few minutes. They heard a love song wafting through the air but had no idea where it could be coming from. The source turned out to be a defunct 1970s transistor radio owned by Jennifer’s deceased grandfather, her closest father figure growing up in Germany. On this, her wedding day, “being 9,000 kilometers from family, friends and home, Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away.” Unaccountably, this ancient radio that Shermer had been unable to fix sprang to life from the back of a desk drawer. 

Synchronicities such as this arise wholly unexpected. The key is their conjunction with deep feeling. Here we may have evidence that the universe is sentient—or, put another way, that the universe is conducive to feeling. 

It could well be that accounts of the apparently telepathic, apparitional, or psychokinetic reflect the exceedingly strange operation of a fundamental force interacting with pre-conscious activity. Rather than being ignored or disparaged, such reports (the ones that stand up to scrutiny) should be mined for what they can tell us about the way strong feelings arise from intense or traumatic experiences. While it is true that one hypothetical (in this case, a sentient universe) cannot be solved by recourse to another (viz., the paranormal), I strongly suspect that affect is the key to both. 

[Read “How Deconstructing Anxiety Makes Transcendence Possible”]

Nature, Animals, and Meaning 

Equally significant is the fact that many synchronicities indicate latent connections between people and nature. Two experiences Carl Jung has related are illustrative, denoting a meaningful coincidence between patients’ dreams and creatures such as a beetle and a fox. 

Dreams like this make sense when one considers how deeply animals and their symbolism are embedded in the human psyche. Paintings done by prehistoric people, on display in caves deep underground, bear this out. So does the fact that we teach our children their earliest life lessons through stories featuring the likes of Winnie the Pooh, Peter Rabbit, and Babar—and of course, our kids drift off to sleep with their favorite stuffed animals. Our mythic imagery is replete with animal symbolism: the evil snake, the wise owl, the powerful lion, the sly fox, the fretful mouse, the transformative butterfly. Our everyday language, too, relies to a great degree on nature metaphors. We “blossom like flowers.” We “stand like oaks.” We “run like the wind.” The concept of biophilia speaks to this thoroughgoing yet mostly unconscious affiliation between human beings and nature. 

If there is a fundamental force of sentience, our primal imagery associated with animals is likely a potent source. So, prospectively, is any feeling that can lead to an image, which is to say practically any feeling. As artists know, feeling lends itself to imagery; the particular images evoked can be highly personal, highly communal, or both at the same time. The stronger the feeling, the more affecting and widely understood the image is likely to be. I propose that the sentient force is potentially influencing—and influenced by—the most “meaningful” of inputs. 

Consider that it’s the brain’s job to sort through what our senses are gathering at any particular moment. Determinations are continuously being made about whether something needs to be acted upon, whether it should be duly noted and filed away, or if it can be ignored altogether. Our limbic circuitry is the lead player in this ongoing evaluation, assigning shades of feeling as appropriate. The type and degree of feeling equates to the current or remembered meaning for the individual. So not only are all of these feelings and subsequent images part and parcel of sentience, but their accumulation amounts to our self-image and sense of meaning. 

Recall now Harris’ entreaty that we not regard ourselves as fixed, individual selves but that we instead focus on the content and quality of our experience at any given place and moment. The etymology of the word emotion (e-motion) connotes this flow, this change. We are far more “activity” than “thing.” The sentient force, I conjecture, draws from and influences meaning just as it does the feelings that flow within us and between us.  

[Read “The Pragmatic Truth of Existentialism”]

Psi Phenomena Better Understood 

Viewed this way, “inexplicable” phenomena such as premonitions and telepathic impressions begin to make sense. They tend to occur without warning. Like dreams, they convey as images. They frequently breach our expectations of time and space. And they most often relate to emergencies, where feeling is running strong. They constitute (to borrow Harris’ words) a “drastic variation in the contents of consciousness.” 

This framework is also consistent with the “First Sight” model advanced by psychologist James Carpenter to explain paranormal experience, or psi. Carpenter asserts that “Psi is not an ability. Instead it is a universal characteristic of living organisms . . . [reflecting] the fact that we are all unconsciously and perpetually engaged in a universe of meaning that extends far beyond our physical boundaries in space and time . . . . It is an unconscious and ubiquitous but still largely unmapped aspect of our nature.”  

A Look Ahead 

Just as Jung conceived of an unus mundus—a cosmos that is simultaneously inner and outer—philosophers are beginning to consider that everything may have a dual nature, material/physical on the one hand and sentient/emotional on the other. They’re acknowledging that nature far exceeds our concepts of it; if the seemingly anomalous occurs, it may be entirely normal and natural, simply beyond our present explanatory power. Further, they are questioning the unnecessarily binary assumption that an entity either is or is not conscious. “Perhaps,” writes one commentator, “the ‘spark’ [of consciousness] is . . . an inappropriate metaphor, and . . . we should instead envision consciousness as a slowly burning flame—one that burns more brightly in some creatures than others.” If sentience is placed toward the primal end of that scale, we will doubtless make further progress. 

Ultimately, I want to commend sentience—and emotion—as pointers toward an overarching view of a more than human, more than temporal, and more than strictly physical world. Call it panpsychism if you like. Regardless, its exploration will yield more surprises, and more meaning, than we can possibly guess.

Michael Jawer

Michael is a Washington, DC-based writer, speaker, and researcher. His expertise is the nexus of personality development, body/mind, emotion, and spirituality. He is the author of three books including the soon-to-be-published Sensitive Soul (2020). Information on his work is available at www.michaeljawer.com. His papers have appeared in Frontiers in Psychology, the Journal of Interpersonal Neurobiology Studies, Science & Consciousness Review, Explore, Seminars in Integrative Medicine, and the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. His feature articles and interviews have run in Psychology Today, Spirituality & Health, Aeon, Nautilus, Minding Nature, Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, Edge Science, Noetic Now, PsychCentral, and Scientific American.

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