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Dead or Alive?

by Bill Meacham on June 27th, 2011

Is the world fundamentally dead or alive? That is the key question of metaphysics, how we conceptualize reality as a whole in its broadest categories. Its answer determines how we approach ourselves and our world.

That the world is dead is the premise of a worldview prevalent ever since Democritus declared that it is made of atoms, which are physically indivisible, separated in space and always in motion. In the 18th century, with the rise of modern science, Sir Isaac Newton again asserted that reality consists of solid, impenetrable particles, and ever since then we have thought ourselves to live in a world that is, when all is said and done, physical and causally determined, a Newtonian mechanistic universe in which inert matter is all there is and every change is determined, much like the movement of billiard balls. On this view, life somehow mysteriously emerges from dead matter when that matter is arranged in certain complex configurations, and conscious experience somehow emerges from living complexes. At the root, however, it’s all just stuff moving around. The success of the technological accomplishments we have enjoyed since then lends credence to such a view. But such a cold universe leaves no room for human freedom and creativity.

That the world is alive is the premise of a worldview with equally ancient philosophical credentials. In this view, reality is best understood as processes rather than things. The essential character of all that exists is change, and enduring objects are persisting patterns amid change, much like the flame of a candle. This view too has been present in European thought from the time of the Greeks. Heraclitus used the metaphor of a river, which remains what it is by changing what it contains. Change is a necessary condition for constancy; without it we would have only lifeless uniformity and would not even know it, because knowing itself is a temporal process.

The most elaborate and thoroughly-developed version of this theory is that of Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher of the early 20th century, who postulated that reality is made up of atomic or momentary events, not inert particles, and that each event has two aspects, mental and physical. In a primordial way each event experiences its surroundings and is experienced by other events.(1) This doctrine is known as panpsychism, the view that everything, from the smallest quantum event to the most complex living being, has an aspect of mentality as well as physicality.

This theory does not assert that rocks have psyches in the same way that humans do. That would be ridiculous, as rocks exhibit none of the complex behavior of humans. But if we take a broader view of mentality, that mentality consists of sensory and emotional experience, then the theory becomes more plausible. Whitehead says that the fundamental building blocks of reality are events that have two aspects, interiority and exteriority. By interiority I mean that events take into account their surroundings in a manner analogous to human experience, albeit in a much more primitive fashion. By exteriority I mean that each event is present for the proto-experience of other events. Sequences of events form what we know as quantum objects, which behave both as waves and particles. From there we can in theory construct the variegated world of things and living beings that we know in our everyday experience. Perhaps a better, although clumsier, term would be pan-proto-experientialism.

The point is, rather than assuming that consciousness mysteriously emerges when brute matter becomes organized in sufficient complexity, we can assume that a primitive form of experience is present at every level of reality. Then we need make no unverifiable suppositions about which animals are conscious and which are not, nor do we have to puzzle over how mere complexity of matter gives rise to consciousness. Reality is a continuum, all aspects of which have some degree of mentality as well as physicality.

This metaphysical view solves the mind-body problem by asserting that everything has at least the rudiments of mind. Everything, even non-living things and even at the tiniest, most elementary level, has some sort of primordial experience. I like to say that everything has an inside and an outside, the inside being the world as experienced by the entity and the outside being the way that the entity is experienced by other entities.

This is a metaphysical theory, neither verifiable nor falsifiable by scientific experiment. But it is not thereby meaningless. It ties together quite coherently everything we know about the world from our own personal experience and from objective scientific knowledge.

And it makes a difference. It determines whether we feel we feel as if we are strangers in a dead universe or at home in a world of life. It determines where we look for wisdom and inspiration. And it determines how we treat ourselves and our environment.

If we think of ourselves as an anomaly, as a mere byproduct of mindless matter, then we have to find a way to cope. We might lose ourselves in religious faith, huddling fearfully against the fall of night, praying for something to save us. Or we might rebel, heroically but foolishly, against the absurdity of it all in order to stave off anomie and despair. Or we might just party harder. In any case, we treat the world as a thing, extracting its resources unsustainably and risking collapse, attempting to dominate it because we feel apart from it. But we’re not, so it will bite back.

If we think of ourselves as living in a world full of life, we feel connected and nurtured. We live in confidence, not fear, recognizing ourselves as an integral part of a larger whole. We pay attention to ecosystems and natural processes and adapt our technology to work as nature does, increasing abundance for all. We cooperate with our living environment and each other to increase the welfare of all.

I am exaggerating these two extremes, of course, to make the point starkly. No doubt many materialists are compassionate and wise, and many who believe that the world is alive fall prey to pettiness and fear. And I am not suggesting that we should adopt a biocentric view just because it feels better. I am suggesting that panpsychism makes the most sense as a metaphysical system, a conceptual scheme that encompasses everything, and that thinking in those terms will lead us to adopt better strategies for being in the world, strategies that will help us all survive and thrive and be joyful.


(1) This is not an intuitive idea, and Whitehead’s major work, Process and Reality, is dense and highly-technical, over 500 pages long. I’ll try to summarize it briefly.

These events, which Whitehead calls “actual occasions” are a bit like subatomic particles, with some important differences:

  • Each is momentary, coming into being, going through various phases and then passing away.
  • The final phase of an actual occasion is not fully determined by the beginning. There is room for novelty, for the possibility of something new coming into being.
  • Each actual occasion has awareness. In a primordial way it experiences its past and its present surroundings. Whitehead calls it an “occasion of experience.”
  • What we think of as a particle is actually a series of these actual occasions. A single electron is a series of momentary electron-occasions that form an enduring object much like the momentary frames of a movie form a continuous picture.
  • Nonliving things are composed of streams of actual occasions whose primordial experiences randomly cancel each other out.
  • The primordial experiences of the actual occasions comprising living things, such as plants, animals and human beings, bind together and reinforce each other, giving birth to a higher-level experience. The richest and most intricate example we know of is our own consciousness.


Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Harper and Row Harper Torchbook, 1960.

From → Philosophy

  1. Parmenides permalink

    I have long believed (albeit rather quietly) that an electron has just enough free will to make the decision when to emit a photon and come down from an elevated energy level. True, statistics describe the results of large numbers of such decisions, but the same is true of human decisions.

  2. Parmenides permalink

    Also, “dead or alive” isn’t the issue, but “conscious or not” is the issue, in my opinion. “Alive” means able to reproduce and evolve, so it’s a binary thing, But consciousness, according to my opinion and your post, is not binary, You can have more or less of it.

    By the way Gurdjieff carried this opinion to an extreme. He believed most people have no soul, you have to make yourself a soul by “work” (the Gurdjieffian method, he had in mind).

  3. steve permalink

    Brilliantly expressed, Bill. It is so very difficult to reduce a complex idea to a form understandable to lay people,and you have met the challenge here in an exemplary manner. Bravo! This very topic is being discussed in the current Saturday group. Perhaps you can make it this Saturday and explicate this idea fo the group.


  4. Carl Ehlert permalink


    While I find Whitehead to be interesting I think that in light of current neuroscience much of his metaphysics is outdated. The entire notion of an independent soul, mind or will separate from the brain that is its source is rapidly becomming as obsolete and irrelevant as Creationism. It seems to me that the mind/body problem which tries to separate out some invisible entity as being distinct from the brain, while still being argued in some quarters is a dead issue. It is a holdover from the ghost in the machine, blank slate, natural man thinking of the 18th and 19th centuries. Consciousness is now talked about in the plural not the singular where several processes are taking place simultaneously within the brain. I realize that this is all new research and not yet considered to be established fact but it seems to me that as time goes on and the evidence mounts the concept of mind will fade.

    Homeostasis seems to be the new buzz word. The brain stem balances the body functions within certain evolutionary boundaries and now the frontal cortex is attempting to do the same thing for the organism as it deals with the outside world. This idea, to me, has great relevance to the entire study of ethics. Universal ethical behavior makes rational sense as organisms attempt to balance their environment thereby enhancing their chances for survival and reproduction.

    I don’t wish to go on and on but I guess I cannot accept the notion of mind either individually or collectively. It is another attempt to place humans above and beyond the natural world of evolution. Individuals die, species die and eventually all life on this planet will be consumed by our expanding sun. I don’t necessarily like it but it seems that is the way it is. If the concepts of soul, mind etc. bring some comfort to people I don’t object. I do object when these notions are presented as factual truths.

    • Thanks for your comments, Carl. I think you misunderstand what Whitehead is saying. He is not saying there is a world of mind separate from the physical body. He is saying that mind and body are two aspects of the same thing. For human consciousness, the physical part is the body and especially the brain, and the mental part is our experience, thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc.

      I’m puzzled by your statement “I cannot accept the notion of mind ….” You have thoughts and feelings, right? Thoughts and feelings that only you are directly acquainted with. You might be thinking of a white elephant or a black rhinoceros, but I have no way of knowing unless you tell me. You might be feeling bored, anxious, pleased or frightened, but I have no way of knowing for sure. I can guess based on your outward appearance and actions, but only you are directly acquainted with how you feel. That’s mind.

      So what is it about the notion of mind that you cannot accept?

  5. Ann permalink

    You are correct that Whitehead is not intuitive or easily grasped. I am glad you clarified that you over stated/over simplified the extremes to make it easier to understand the differences. One can be a “dead world” person like me and just be sorry but accept the indifference of the universe.

  6. Carl Ehlert permalink


    We could be arguing semantics here or maybe not.

    I reject the notion normally associated with arguments concerning the mind/body split which essentially says that “mind” is outside the physical realm defined by the laws of physics. In this interpretation mind is non-physical and is usually associated with heretofore undescribed properties of matter. Many current arguments refer to quantum physics in an argument from analogy where the mysterious nature of the conscious mind and the equally mysterious behavior of particles imply some mystical connection. I usually associate this kind of thinking – rightly or wrongly – with concepts of soul and religious views concerning the continued existence of mind after death. In this view mind is somehow transcendent – outside and separate from physical reality. This view I do not accept.

    I do accept the idea that mental events are equivalent to certain kinds of brain events or to put it another way mental events – thoughts, feelings, qualia – correspond to certain states of brain circuits. Even though neuroscience is in its infancy I expect continued exploration will eventually result in a more complete understanding of the process. In short mind is simply another term for brain function and not a separate entity existing outside the biological organism. Consciousness is not a gift from God but the result of normal biological functioning whereby the organism through the process of evolution is attempting to deal with its “first and foremost problem” namely, the successful regulation of life. If the second understanding of mind is what you are talking about then we do not disagree.

    I cannot accept Whitehead’s view that all levels of existence have some level of mentality. Mentality as I understand the term requires a brain and consciousness requires a very complex brain. To say that all aspects of reality have some degree of both mentality and physicality therefore makes no sense. “Mind” is not an independent thing and therefore cannot be said to exist in various proportions like degrees of sweetness attained by adding sugar to coffee. You don’t add more of this mysterious ingredient called “mind” until you eventually get consciousness. Mind is the result of neuronal complexity and electro-chemical activity carried out by a physical object – the brain. Are there other ways of producing “mind”? I am thinking of artificial intelligence. I don’t know. Right now our level of knowledge does not allow us to answer this question. I do not rule out the possibility.

    I hope this explains my position better.


    • You say “Mentality as I understand the term requires a brain and consciousness requires a very complex brain.” And “Mind is the result of neuronal complexity and electro-chemical activity carried out by a physical object – the brain.”

      I just finished reading Intelligence in Nature, by Jeremy Narby (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin, 2006). In it he notes that animals, plants, and even such simple organisms as slime molds and amoebas seem to have intelligence, by which he means a capacity to know and respond to their environment. I’m not denying that there is a physical aspect to mind. I’m just saying that it seems arbitrary to pick some level of complexity (and we do not even know what that level would be) and say above that level there is mind and below it there is no mind. It makes more metaphysical sense to say that there is mind all the way down to quantum events and all the way up to human beings (and beyond, if we ever find such beings).

      But, metaphysics cannot be empirically verified or disproved, so you are as welcome to your opinion as I am to mine.

      • Carl Ehlert permalink


        It is an interesting question as to where “mind” begins but an important one. I feel that intelligence defined as response to the environment is not the same thing as mind. It reminds me of the distinction between a wink and a blink. One is an involuntary response to a dry eye while the other is voluntary and has social consequences. Responding to the environment as in responding to light – photo-tropism in plants – seems to fall under the blink category. I am not sure that mind has much to do with it.

        Antonio Damasio, neuroscientist and author, seems to feel that consciousness is dependent on some concept of self which he defines as an agent that not only responds to his environment but also knows that he is responding to that environment. Mind as he understands the term requires this sense of self as an acting agent. In other words for mind to be present we need “emotion, the feeling of that emotion”, and “knowing that we have a feeling of that emotion”. It seems to me that an amoeba avoiding a hostile environment may appear to be showing intelligence but is probably only responding much like two like poles of a magnet. It is an instinctual response and does not involve an active choice. To define this action as intelligence seems like anthropomorphizing to me.

        As you point out this is mostly speculation at this point. Perhaps someday these questions will have concrete answers but not yet. Just the same, It is interesting to ponder the nature and relationship of mind and brain. Thank you for the blog. It keeps me thinking. Keep the ideas coming!


        • Hi Carl. It is indeed a question of definitions. Damasio says for mind to be present we need “emotion, the feeling of that emotion, and “knowing that we have a feeling of that emotion.” I say that all we need is the feeling, not necessarily the knowing that we have it. Knowing that we have a feeling is a higher-order function reserved for humans (and possibly some other animals such as chimps, bonobos and whales). According to Whitehead, everything has mind in the more primordial sense of having feelings.

          Thanks for clarifying the issue.

  7. I agree with these ideas. I especially like how you’re making the point that seeing the world as in flux and becoming and “alive” or continually undergoing genesis allows us to feel much more at home and in sync with it. We are after all dynamic complex processes ourselves. We can related to a dynamic complex world rather easily through our intuition and “real” modes of interaction. What’s complicated is all the static analytical stuff we try to do to comprehend the world.

    Reads a bit like this page of mine:

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