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The Rainforest Is Teeming with Consciousness

Our fate turns on retiring our dualist view of nature.

Since 1980, the temperature of the planet has risen by 0.8 degrees Celsius, resulting in unprecedented melting of the Greenland ice…By Philip Goff

Since 1980, the temperature of the planet has risen by 0.8 degrees Celsius, resulting in unprecedented melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the acidification of oceans. In 2015, 175 million more people were exposed to heat waves compared with the average for 1986 to 2008, and the number of weather-related disasters from 2007 to 2016 was up by 46 percent compared with the average from 1990 to 1999. This is nothing in comparison to the horrors that await us as temperatures continue to rise. According to recent projections, global temperatures are set to increase by 3.2 degrees by the end of century. This will lock in sea level rises that will mean that the cities, towns, and villages currently occupied by 175 million people—including Hong Kong and Miami—will eventually be underwater.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that warming is largely caused by the actions of human beings. Surveys of the scientific literature have consistently found that over 90 percent of scientists believe that climate change is real and manmade, with most surveys asserting a consensus of 97 percent. And yet there is in the public mind a perception that the reality of man-made climate change is uncertain. This is in large part caused by a sustained lobbying effort from the fossil fuel industry aimed at spreading seeds of doubt. But it may also result from a failure to appreciate how uncertain most of human knowledge is. Many believe that science provides “proven facts,” and against this assumption any degree of uncertainty can seem to render a hypothesis “unscientific,” a matter of speculation rather than demonstrable knowledge.

PHILOSOPHY TO THE RESCUE: The philosopher who is comfortable with skeptical doubt knows that certainty is too much to ask. The consensus of 97 percent of scientists about human-caused climate change is more than enough.Tom Wang / Shutterstock

Philosophy can help with this. The 18th-century philosopher David Hume was one of the great sceptics of philosophy. He argued there was no way of demonstrating that our conscious experience corresponds to anything real; that a conscious experience of a table, for example, corresponds to a real physical table out there in the external world. But Hume didn’t think skepticism was something to be feared. You merely had to stop philosophizing and get on with life and skeptical worries about the external world evaporate like morning mist.

In that case, what’s the point of entertaining such possibilities? One benefit of skeptical reflection, according to Hume, is it can lead to a healthier relationship with evidence. Most people are apt to have dogmatic opinions, he wrote. To temper or balance their beliefs undermines their passions and makes them uneasy, and so they remain obstinate. “But could such dogmatical reasoners become sensible of the strange infirmities of human understanding, even in its most perfect state,” Hume wrote, “such a reflection would naturally inspire them with more modesty and reserve, and diminish their fond opinion of themselves, and their prejudice against antagonists.”

I am struck by how Hume’s eloquent description of dogmatic tendencies rings true today. We are living in an increasingly polarized age in which people run away from uncertainty by bolstering their convictions to the point where no alternative is given the slightest credibility. But, as Hume points out, this kind of obstinacy is simply incompatible with the realization that even our most basic beliefs, such as the belief that that there is an external world or that the universe has existed for more than five minutes, are not known with 100 percent certainty. One of the many values of a philosophical education is that it teaches the importance of doubt.


How does this help with climate change skepticism? Paradoxically, the cure for excessive doubt is doubt of a more radical kind. Conspiracy theories thrive in an environment in which certainty is expected, because this expectation sets up a demand that can never be met. When one realizes that little if anything is known with certainty, even whether one’s feet exist, one becomes more comfortable with probabilities that fall short of 100 percent. If you start from the idea that there is a core of scientific knowledge that is known with 100 percent certainty, then something accepted by “only” 97 percent of scientists can seem too uncertain to warrant real commitment. But the skeptical philosopher knows that if she were to wait for certainty she would never form a meaningful relationship for fear of befriending a philosophical zombie. To properly understand the human situation is to appreciate that less than certainty can be enough to trust. Indeed, a threshold of much less than certainty is often enough to demand belief and practical engagement.

Panpsychism is an intellectually credible view that can transform our relationship with the natural world.

We tend to think of skeptical philosophers as cynically withholding belief until they are shown the truth with certainty. In fact, the philosopher who is truly comfortable with skeptical doubt knows that certainty is too much to ask. The consensus of 97 percent of scientists is more than enough.

Setting aside the dubious doubts surrounding man-made climate change, our inability to take action against climate change is bizarre. In my home country of Britain, 64 percent of people believe that climate change is real and largely caused by humans, and yet there is little political pressure for action. The numerous international agreements have all been inadequate. The Paris Agreement of 2015 went further than previous agreements, with 196 countries signing up to specific pledges aimed at keeping global temperature rises well below 2 degrees Celsius and ideally to prevent rises above 1.5 degrees. The problem is that, according to Climate Action Tracker, the majority of countries in the world are way off meeting even the 2 degrees target. This was the case even before Donald Trump exacerbated this failure by pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement in 2017.

Imagine that we discovered tomorrow that a meteor was on course to hit our planet in 15 years’ time and was set to cause the kind of devastation we know to be associated with climate change. No doubt governments would get together to see if there was any way in which this tragedy could be averted. And if there was an option for doing so—perhaps by blasting the meteorite to smithereens—then you can bet there would be significant resources and political will put into fulfilling this project. And yet when we know that our planet is about to suffer devastating increases in temperature, and we know that there is something we could do about it, human beings seem incapable of rising to the moment.


Could our philosophical worldview be partly responsible for our inability to avert climate catastrophe? The writer and campaigner Naomi Klein places blame at the foot of mind-body dualism, or as she puts it the “corrosive separation between mind and body—and between body and earth—from which both the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution sprang.” The dualist conceives of the natural world as a mechanism lacking in the consciousness that sanctifies human existence. It is something to be exploited rather than revered. In particular, Klein blames the scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon for “convincing Britain’s elites to abandon, once and for all, pagan notions of the earth as a life-giving mother to whom we owe respect and reverence (and more than a little fear) and accept the role of her dungeon master.”

How can dualism be the problem given that our current scientific paradigm is materialist rather than dualist? Although materialism is by and large the official party line of the scientific community, it is not clear that it is the general view of the populous. Indeed, materialist David Papineau has argued that even among those who are persuaded by the arguments for materialism, it is almost psychologically impossible to believe that conscious experiences are physical processes in the brain. Closet dualism is revealed in the tendency for the problem of consciousness to be posed by asking how physical processes “give rise to” or “produce” conscious experiences, as though consciousness were some peculiar kind of gas the physical workings of the brain bring into being. My parents produced me, and as such I am a separate entity from my parents. Similarly, if consciousness were produced by the brain, then consciousness would be something separate and distinct from the physical workings of the brain, just as a child is separate and distinct from its parents.

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Papineau does not think this undermines the arguments in favor of materialism, which he believes to be overwhelming. He simply takes it to be a peculiar psychological fact about human beings that they can’t help thinking dualistically. When our official world view is that biological systems are mechanistic, most of us end up believing that consciousness is really something over and above those mechanistic biological systems. In other words, we end up being closet dualists.

Dualism can create an unhealthy relationship with nature. It creates a sense of separation. Dualism implies that, as an immaterial mind, I am a radically different kind of thing from the mechanistic world I inhabit. Ontologically speaking, I have nothing in common with a tree. There is no real kinship with nature if dualism is true. Dualism can imply that nature has no value in and of itself. If nature is wholly mechanistic, then it has value only in terms of what it can do for us, either by maintaining our survival or by creating pleasurable experiences for us when we take it in with our senses. There is a worry that dualist thought can encourage the idea that nature is to be used rather than respected as something of value in its own right.

Could our philosophical worldview be responsible for our inability to avert climate catastrophe?

It is no surprise that in this worldview the act of tree hugging is mocked as sentimental silliness. Why would anyone hug a mechanism? Superficially, nature may appear beautiful and teeming with living energy, and probably in many encounters with nature we can’t help but believe this. But our intellectual worldview tells us that nature is nothing more than a complex mechanism. It is hard to feel any genuine warmth for the natural world so conceived.

Descartes went so far as to believe that animals are mechanisms, although very few dualists these days would agree with him. Almost everybody will accept that many non-human animals are conscious. Given our inability to really accept materialism, we are inclined to think that the brain processes of animals “give rise” to consciousness too. In virtue of being conscious creatures, animals also have inherent value (or at least their conscious minds do). But in the dualistic worldview, we conscious creatures—humans and other animals—are profoundly isolated from each other, housed as we are in this unfeeling mechanism of the physical world. The sense of a unified, interdependent ecosystem that comes so naturally to us when we engage with nature does not fit with the dualism that, so long as we construe nature as purely physical, we cannot but believe.


There is an alternative view that has the potential to transform our relationship with the natural world, and that is panpsychism. While materialists and dualists believe that consciousness exists only within the brains of humans and other animals, panpsychists believe that consciousness pervades the universe, and is as basic as mass and charge. If panpsychism is true, the rainforest is teeming with consciousness. As conscious entities, trees have value in their own right: chopping one down becomes an action of immediate moral significance. On the panpsychist worldview, humans have a deep affinity with the natural world: We are conscious creatures embedded in a world of consciousness.

This view is much misunderstood. Drawing on the literal meaning of the term—“pan”=everything, “psyche”=mind—it is commonly supposed that panpsychists believe that all kinds of inanimate objects have rich conscious lives: that your socks, for example, may be currently going through a troubling period of existential angst.

For a child raised in a panpsychist worldview, hugging a tree could be as natural as stroking a cat.

This way of understanding panpsychism is wrong. Panpsychists tend not to think that literally everything is conscious. They believe that the fundamental constituents of the physical world are conscious, but they need not believe that every random arrangement of those particles results in a conscious subject. Most panpsychists will deny that your socks are conscious, while asserting that they are ultimately composed of things that are conscious.

Perhaps more importantly, panpsychists do not believe that consciousness like ours is everywhere. The complex thoughts and emotions enjoyed by human beings are the result of millions of years of evolution by natural selection, and it is clear that nothing of this kind is had by individual particles. If electrons have experience, then it is of some unimaginably simple form.

In human beings, consciousness is a sophisticated thing, involving subtle and complex emotions, thoughts, and sensory experiences. But there seems nothing incoherent with the idea that consciousness might exist in very simple forms. We have good reason to think that the conscious experience of a horse is much less complex than that of a human being, and the experiences of a chicken less complex than those of a horse. As organisms become simpler perhaps at some point the light of consciousness suddenly switches off, with simpler organisms having no experience at all. But it is also possible that the light of consciousness never switches off entirely, but rather fades as organic complexity reduces, through flies, insects, plants, amoeba, and bacteria. For the panpsychist, this fading-while-never-turning-off continuum further extends into inorganic matter, with fundamental physical entities—perhaps electrons and quarks—possessing extremely rudimentary forms of consciousness, to reflect their extremely simple nature.

The main attraction of panpsychism is not its ability to account for the data of observation, but its ability to account for the reality of consciousness. We know that consciousness is real and so we have to account for it somehow. If a general theory of reality has no place for consciousness, then that theory cannot be true. What panpsychism offers us is a way of integrating consciousness into our scientific picture of the world, a way that avoids the deep problems associated with dualism on the one hand and materialism on the other. I also think it offers a picture of reality more consonant with our mental and spiritual health.

Writer Naomi Klein places the blame at the “corrosive separation between mind and body.”

We treat other humans not as objects but as sentient centers of value and purpose. We feel their presence when in close proximity, and we instinctively interpret their actions as flowing from their individual agency. Imagine if children were raised to experience trees and plants in the same way, to see the movement of a plant toward the light as expressing its own desire and conscious drive for life, to accept the tree as an individual locus of sentience. For a child raised in a panpsychist worldview, hugging a conscious tree could be as natural and normal as stroking a cat. It’s hard to tell in advance the effects of such a cultural change, but it’s reasonable to suppose that children raised in a panpsychist culture would have a much closer relationship with nature and invest a great deal more value in its continued existence.

Based on plant research in recent years by scientists Suzanne Simard, Monica Gagliano, and Ariel Novoplansky, we now know that plants communicate, learn, and remember. Simard has shown that “mother” trees at the center of a forest network not only give greater amounts of carbon to their own kin, but also send them defense signals which can increase by a factor of four the young trees’ survival chances. This intergenerational transfer is particularly pronounced at the point when the mother trees die, as they pass on their wisdom to the next generation. I can see no reason other than anthropic prejudice not to ascribe to them a conscious life of their own.

Admittedly, this does have difficult implications for the ethics of vegetarianism and veganism. Many vegans and vegetarians feel that it is wrong to kill or to exploit sentient creatures. But if plants also have sentience, what is there left to eat? These are very hard ethical questions; it may turn out that some killing of sentient life is inevitable if we want to survive ourselves. But accepting the consciousness of plant life means at the very least accepting that plants have genuine interests, interests that deserve our respect and consideration.

Few people are aware of these transformations in our understanding of plant mental life, and many would still probably dismiss the ideas that trees talk as nonsense. But imagine how our children’s relationship with nature could be transformed if they were taught to walk through a forest in the knowledge that they are standing amid a vibrant community: a buzzing, busy network of mutual support and care.

The cultural revolutionaries of the 1960s aspired to a new relationship with nature, one of love, respect, and harmonious co-existence. These aspirations fell flat without an intellectual worldview in which they made sense. Such a worldview—panpsychism—is now intellectually credible. There is every reason to hope that the new science of consciousness will lead to a new covenant with nature. The only problem is we have such little time.


Philip Goff is the author of Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. He is a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, United Kingdom. His research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview. His articles can be found at www.philipgoffphilosophy.com, he tweets at philip_goff, and blogs at www.conscienceandconsciousness.com.

Adapted from Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness by Philip Goff. Copyright © 2019 by Philip Goff. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Lead image: Curioso / Shutterstock

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