Centuries ago, we collectively experienced nature as a living and spiritual presence. Today, nature is in danger of becoming merely a utilitarian means to an end. Believing nature to be psychologically dead allows industry to freely consume and destroy it. We no longer feel its pain.
So, for you, is nature psychologically alive? Do you feel nature's pain?
Before you try to answer this difficult question, we should explore the meaning of ‘psychologically alive’. Psychology is the study of the mind and how it influences behaviour. So, I am essentially asking, does nature have a mind? At this stage, it is best not to confuse the mind with the brain. I am not asking if nature has a brain; I am asking if nature has a mind. The mind is our ‘experience’ of thinking and feeling; it is where we find consciousness.
Here I should also introduce soul and spirit. These are often interchanged. In some traditions, they are viewed as one, whereas they are seen as tangibly different in others. Consequently, definitions of soul and spirit are wide-ranging. Here I define the soul as the immaterial part of a being, a distinct entity, separate from the body. Thus, many religions consider the soul immortal and present in another plane of existence after death. Spirit, on the other hand, I define as ‘life force’ or the spark of life, present in every living thing and, therefore, connecting us. Chinese philosophy and religions would call this Chi. Our soul connects us to our spirit, which in turn connects us to everything else. So, if you think nature has consciousness, soul or a spirit, then, to you, nature is psychologically alive.
You might argue humans have consciousness, a soul and spirit, but a lump of granite does not. Humans are psychologically alive, but rocks are not. If so, where would you draw the line? Are animals or trees psychologically alive?
In November 2017, the UK Parliament, as part of the EU Withdrawal Bill, voted to reject the inclusion of animal sentience into the Bill. Sentience is a basic level of conscious awareness. Despite the UK Parliament’s decision, most scientists agree animal sentience is proven, pointing to over 2,500 research studies on the subject. In his book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben argues that we need to recognise trees are ‘wonderful beings’ with innate adaptability, intelligence, and the capacity to communicate with and heal other trees through connecting with their tiny roots, which grow assisted by a network of mycelium.
So, are rocks psychologically alive? It might be helpful to consider the psychological aliveness of a rock as different from a human. I doubt anyone would argue that rocks have the same complex psychological attributes as humans. Yet many philosophers and scientists have argued that everything material, however small, has an element of consciousness. This is called ‘panpsychism’, which ascribes a primitive form of consciousness to entities at the fundamental level of particle physics. Panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories, dating back to Thales and Plato, and has had a recent revival due to an increasing interest in consciousness. Panpsychism argues that consciousness permeates every aspect of reality rather than being a unique feature of the human experience.
If humans, animals, trees and rocks all have consciousness, do they have soul and spirit? From a panpsychism perspective, it could be argued that consciousness, being the foundation of the universe, is the life force, the spirit. Even so, most panpsychists are unlikely to argue this gives humans, animals, trees and rocks a soul. Attributing a soul to animals, plants, inanimate objects and natural phenomena is known as animism. For many indigenous peoples, animism is a key part of their belief systems. As with panpsychism, animism does not merely focus on isolated and independent entities; it deems that everything in the universe has a soul. In many philosophies and religions, especially eastern, there is an intrinsic connection between all things on the planet. The world is a single living entity, containing all other living entities, all related and interconnected. The Earth’s soul, anima mundi, is the living aspect of its material existence.
So, for you, is nature psychologically alive? If we collectively believe that nature is psychologically dead, then we can allow industry to exploit it, without feeling its pain. Ecologist Stephan Harding says, for the western mind, the Earth, including its non-human inhabitants, has become no more than a dead machine to be exploited for our own benefit. When dealing with nature, the costs and benefits are always taken from the human perspective, seeing nature simply as a resource to be utilised for human well-being and happiness. There has been such a significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems that our current geological era has been named the Anthropocene, the human-made.
If we are to mitigate the multiple environmental crises we are facing today, such as climate change, mass extinctions, and pollution, etc., we need to create a society that can live sustainably with nature. This will only be achieved when we collectively believe nature is psychologically alive. We need to feel nature's pain!
Written by Terence Sexton
Date 8th July 2021
Extracted and abridged from Consciousness Beyond Consumerism: A Psychological Path to Sustainability.