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Andrea Diem-LaneProfessor Andrea Diem-Lane is a Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she also serves as the Chairperson of the Department. She received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, under the guidance of Ninian Smart who was her doctoral advisor. Dr. Diem-Lane earned her B.A. at the University of California, San Diego, where she did pioneering work on visual perception for the renowned neuroscientist, Dr. V.S. Ramachandran.

The Animistic Universe

Understanding the Complex Nature of Consciousness and Its Ethical Implications

Andrea Diem-Lane

Dr. Andrea Diem-Lane, Professor of Philosophy and Chairperson of the Department at Mt. San Antonio College, was invited to be a plenary speaker on an international panel at the Dayalbagh Science of Consciousness Conference in Agra, India, that was held (via virtual video hookup, i.e., Zoom) on January 1, 2022. For the proceedings she wrote a little, illustrated book on the subject. The following is based upon that text.
Koch's, Tononi's, and Kaku's ideas provide a new vista in which to appreciate the multi-faceted aspect of consciousness

Being brought up with a Roman Catholic education, I was told that only human beings possessed a soul and that all other animals (even my beloved pet dogs and cats) were devoid of one. After death, just humans could enjoy eternal life. In the 17th century Rene Descartes, the famed French philosopher who was also raised Catholic, argued that vivisection was permissible since animals were nothing more than biological machines, incapable of suffering despite their vocal pleas to the contrary.

I found such views completely inane since they betrayed common-sense—of course, other species feel pain--and could not withstand any rational and objective scrutiny. Such Catholic metaphysical assertions were without merit and woefully devoid of even a semblance of compassion.

“If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” —James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small

Thankfully, our ever-enriching scientific understanding of life via Darwinian evolution has demonstrated a vast array of other life forms that are remarkably similar to our own, even down to the smallest molecular details. When we look at the genotype of chimpanzees and compare them to our own, for instance, we discover that the DNA codes are so similar as to be almost identical, with only a one to two percent differential. It is the height of hubris for us to believe that we are the only species to enjoy consciousness or to have the capacity for suffering.

Surprisingly, a diverse group of neuroscientists and philosophers have begun to rediscover what early humans knew and felt intuitively. We live in an animistic universe, where a panoply of creatures, both great and small, are endowed with a sense of awareness, not only of their surroundings but of their internal machinations.

“Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equal.” —Charles Darwin

While early humanoids in our ancestral past experienced such an animistic world, where all that they observed was alive with embedded spirits, they didn't have the necessary tools to properly understand and explain what they experienced. Given these limitations, they developed mythological stories that attempted to make sense of their surroundings and their place within it, especially when disrupted by periodic ruptures of chaos that defied any sensible explanations.

Later when civilizations matured, early Indian and Greek philosophers began to catalog differing life forms based on their perceived abilities to move, sense, and reproduce. This rudimentary partitioning evolved into a hierarchical “great ladder of being,” known in Latin as scala naturae. One of the most articulate and later widely adopted schemas of such a hierarchical ordering of nature comes from Aristotle's biological apportionments (circa 4th century, BCE). Because his classification system was essentialist, it led to the erroneous belief that species were distinct and separate and unchanging.

Aristotle's influence (and mistakes) lasted for centuries and invariably led to the sharp division between the plant, animal, and human kingdoms, such that one turned a blind eye to their evolutionary similarities.

“Clearly, animals know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know.” - Irene M. Pepperberg

In addition, the classical elements of matter were divided into five core substances: earth, wind, fire, air, and the ever-elusive ether. These elements in various combinations provided a pre-scientific analysis of lower and higher forms of life, with ascending complexity leading to greater forms of cognition. Even today in North India among various Radhasoami and shabd yoga related movements much is made about the ascending stages of consciousness as correlated to compounding of elements. As the late spiritual head of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Charan Singh (1916-1990) explains:

“All that you see in the world can be divided into five divisions or categories, based on the five elements — earth, water, fire, air and ether. The human body is made up of all five elements, but the soul, the Essence of the Lord, gives it life. Because it is only the human body that contains all five elements, it is called the top of creation. The first division is that of the plant kingdom, the main or active element of which is water. The second is that of insects, reptiles and worms which live under the ground. They have most active in them the elements of earth and fire. Fowl, including all types of birds, belong to the third class, and the three elements most active in them are water, fire and air. Those belonging to the fourth category are the four-legged animals, such as cows, buffalos, horses, and the like. They lack only ether, the power of discretion. Human beings are in the fifth class, at the very top of creation, as all the five elements are active in them.”

He makes much of the fact that the active admixture of these base elements is indicative of each creature's capacity for inward sensation. In other words, the more complex the animal the greater is its potential for pain and suffering. Elaborates Charan Singh,

“One's feeling is in proportion to the number of elements that are active and the degree to which they are active. For example, if you pluck a flower from the garden of your neighbor, there will be no punishment. She will only abuse you or frown at you, or you will just incur her displeasure. If you kill her chicken, she may file a suit and you may be fined; if you kill a horse, you may be imprisoned; and if you kill a human being you may be hanged or receive some other form of capital punishment. Life has to live on life.

They belong to the first division, and even they have souls; but the karma involved by eating them is not as great as that which we would incur by living on or in any way destroying the life contained in those belonging to the other categories (pages 296-297, Master Answers, 1966).”

Ironically, although the five-levels of matter is outdated and inaccurate, its basic insight—that consciousness and the capacity for suffering is predicated upon elemental complexity—has some merit and has been resurrected in more precise terms by a variety of scientists studying the evolutionary basis of brain-oriented awareness. It has also led in some quarters to a reintroduction of panpsychicism, where all of matter is to some measure conscious.

Arguably, early humans may have been intuitively correct when they envisioned life in animistic terms, but given the insufficiency of their scientific and technological prowess, their descriptions and interpretations of such a spirit filled world was woefully inadequate.

Today, with the advent of every improving technological innovations (such as fMRI and better diagnostic hardware) we can better appraise sentience in less complex neural anatomies.

Today, with the advent of every improving technological innovations (such as fMRI and better diagnostic hardware) we can better appraise sentience in less complex neural anatomies. It is not accidental that most of the civilized world is against the killing of whales, dolphins, gorillas, chimpanzees, and other neutrally complex animals, precisely because we have a deeper and richer understanding of their capacity for interior states of awareness and their capacity to feel immense pain and suffering. Intriguingly, a number of neuroscientists, physicists, philosophers, evolutionary biologists, and historians, have postulated a resurrected form of panpsychicism that dovetails with much of Radhasoami's ideas concerning the hierarchical nature of consciousness. While such Indian versions of spirituality lack scientific precision, the fundamental insight that other animals, and even insects, have a rudimentary form of consciousness now appears evidentially obvious.

Indeed, a radical signed statement, entitled The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was issued in 2012, by a cohort of distinguished neuroscientific experts who argued that it was readily apparent that a large contingency of other non-human species (even including birds and octopuses) have the neurological capacity for consciousness. The joint and signed statement concluded with the following:

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

While this declaration may come as no surprise to those belonging to such religions as Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and other spiritual paths that have longed believed that other animals have sentience, it is nevertheless a decisive departure from those steeped in the Cartesian worldview that “lower” non-human creatures were merely biological machines void of a soul. Interestingly, both the religious and the scientific assessment of who has a greater or lesser degree of consciousness (or internal subjective feelings) is based on an empirical analysis of differing neuroanatomies.

While the religious sensibilities about other species lack today's technological know-how, their insights are remarkably prescient. This becomes more apparent when one outlines the work of Michio Kaku (a physicist), Christof Koch (a neuroscientist), and Michael Shermer (a historian of science).

“I was also disappointed that the declaration did not include fish, because the evidence supporting consciousness in this group of vertebrates is also compelling.” —Marc Bekoff

Each of them in their own way lend support to the ancient Hindu/Buddhist/Jain (and Radhasoami) idea that creatures less complex are nevertheless conscious. Michio Kaku's theory of consciousness mimics to a large degree earlier animistic conceptions, but with a more quantitative and scientific modeling system. As Kaku elaborates:

“Consciousness is the process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g., in temperature, space, time, and in relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal (e.g., find mates, food, shelter). I call this the “space-time theory of consciousness,” because it emphasizes the idea that animals create a model of the world mainly in relation to space, and to one another, while humans go beyond and create a model of the world in relation to time, both forward and backward. . . .In this way, we can rank consciousness numerically, on the basis of the number and complexity of the feedback loops used to create a model of the world. Consciousness is then no longer a vague collection of undefined, circular concepts, but a system of hierarchies that can be ranked numerically.

For example, a bacterium or a flower has many more feedback loops, so they would have a higher level of Level 0 consciousness. A flower with ten feedback loops (which measure temperature, moisture, sunlight, gravity, etc.), would have a Level 0:10 consciousness. Organisms that are mobile and have a central nervous system have Level I consciousness, which includes a new set of parameters to measure their changing location. One example of Level I consciousness would be reptiles. They have so many feedback loops that they developed a central nervous system to handle them. The reptilian brain would have perhaps one hundred or more feedback loops (governing their sense of smell, balance, touch, sound, sight, blood pressure, etc., and each of these contains more feedback loops).”

Kaku's space-time theory of consciousness assigns a numerical value (which is empirically testable) on the complexity and number of “feedback loops used to create a model of the world.” Thus, in this schema even a thermostat would have an elemental form of consciousness because it “automatically turns on an air conditioner or heater to adjust the temperature in a room, without any help. The key is a feedback loop that turns on a switch if the temperature gets too hot or cold. (For example, metals expand when heated, so a thermostat can turn on a switch if a metal strip expands beyond a certain point.)”

At first glance, imputing awareness on a thermostat may seem absurd, but Kaku is merely underlining the parameters of his definition of consciousness which casts the widest net possible given the ascending complexity of possible feedback loops. It is for this very reason that he argues that human beings have the greatest degree of self-awareness since we can do what other species cannot, which is virtually simulate a rolodex of possibilities that don't yet exist in the future and plan accordingly. As Kaku explains,

“Human consciousness is a specific form of consciousness that creates a model of the world and then simulates it in time, by evaluating the past to simulate the future. This requires mediating and evaluating many feedback loops in order to make a decision to achieve a goal.

By the time we reach Level III consciousness, there are so many feedback loops that we need a CEO to sift through them in order to simulate the future and make a final decision. Accordingly, our brains differ from those of other animals, especially in the expanded prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead, which allows us to 'see' into the future. Dr. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, has written, “The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future. As one philosopher noted, the human brain is an 'anticipation machine,' and 'making the future' is the most important thing it does.”

What is perhaps most remarkable about Kaku's ideas is how well they substantiate earlier animistic perceptions, not to mention the more sophisticated articulations on animal and fish consciousness by Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and today's Radhasoami tradition. Kaku's core insight touches directly upon Charles Darwin's own views when he wrote (as quoted in The Future of the Mind): “The difference between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.”

But the continuum of consciousness goes much further down than scientists of an earlier era ever imagined. As Christof Koch, the noted neuroscientist (formerly at Cal Tech, but now Chief Scientist of the MindScope Program at the Allen Institute) points out that we shouldn't have a mammalian bias when it comes to conferring consciousness on other creatures. As Koch elucidates,

“But why be a vertebrate chauvinist? The tree of life is populated by a throng of invertebrates that move about, sense their environment, learn from prior experience, display all the trappings of emotions, communicate with others — insects, crabs, worms, octopuses, and on and on. We might balk at the idea that tiny buzzing flies or diaphanous pulsating jellyfish, so foreign in form, have experiences. Yet honey bees can recognize faces, communicate the location and quality of food sources to their sisters via the waggle dance, and navigate complex mazes with the help of cues they store in short-term memory. A scent blown into a hive can trigger a return to the place where the bees previously encountered this odor, a type of associative memory. Bees have collective decision-making skills that, in their efficiency, put any academic faculty committee to shame. This “wisdom of the crowd” phenomenon has been studied during swarming, when a queen and thousands of her workers split off from the main colony and chooses a new hive that must satisfy multiple demands crucial to group survival (think of that when you go house hunting). Bumble bees can even learn to use a tool after watching other bees use them.”

In Koch's book, The Feeling of Life Itself, he makes the strong argument that the more alien an animal appears the less likely we are to realize that it too may have a form of awareness, though quite different than our own, so that,

“A case in point is that of single-cell organisms, such as Paramecium, the animalcules discovered by the early microscopists in the late 17th century. Protozoa propel themselves through water by whiplash movements of tiny hairs, avoid obstacles, detect food, and display adaptive responses. Because of their minuscule size and strange habitats, we don't think of them as sentient. But they challenge our presuppositions.”

Essentially, almost all of matter could have a semblance of consciousness, even a quark. But we simply don't know at this stage and that is why Koch has championed his colleague Giulio Tononi's Integrated Information Theory (IIT) which proposes PHI as indicating its degree of IIT and which therefore provides a quantitative pathway to measure varying levels of consciousness.

While at first glance Integrated Information Theory and panpsychicism seem identical, Koch explains that there is a stark difference between them as the former is a testable hypothesis whereas the latter is too generalist to be amenable to scientific scrutiny. As Koch details,

“Most importantly, though, IIT is a scientific theory, unlike panpsychism. IIT predicts the relationship between neural circuits and the quantity and quality of experience, how to build an instrument to detect experience, pure experience (consciousness without any content) and how to enlarge consciousness by brain-bridging, why certain parts of the brain have it and others not (the posterior cortex versus the cerebellum), why brains with human-level consciousness evolved, and why conventional computers have only a tiny bit of it.”

Koch's, Tononi's, and Kaku's ideas provide a new vista in which to appreciate the multi-faceted aspect of consciousness which has important implications for a new kind of neural ethics, one based not on a priori intuitions or ancient religious mythologies, but on verifiable methods for adjudicating the interior states of other life forms besides our own.

Michael Shermer, a widely read historian of science and founder of Skeptic magazine, in his book The Moral Arc, also supports the idea that consciousness is more widely spread than previously thought possible. He, like Michio Kaku, also provides a numerical ordering system which attempts to objectively assign a relative Number system to assuage relative degrees of sentience and subjectivity. As he details,

“Instead of thinking of animals in categorical terms of 'us' and 'them,' we can think in continuous terms from simple to complex, from less to more intelligent, from less to more aware and self-aware, and especially from less to more sentient. So, for example, if we place humans at 1.0 as a full-rights-bearing sentient species, we could classify gorillas and chimps at 0.9; whales, dolphins, and porpoises at 0.85; monkeys and marine mammals at 0.8; elephants, dogs, and pigs at 0.75; and so forth down the phylogenetic scale. Continuity, not categories. Take brains, for instance. Scaling average brain size across species we can compare the brains of gorillas (500 cubic centimeters, or cc), chimpanzees (400cc), bonobos (340cc), and orangutans (335cc) with those of humans at an average of 1,200—1,400cc. Dolphin brains are especially noteworthy, coming in at an average of 1,500—1,700cc, and the surface area of a dolphin's cortex—where the higher centers of learning, memory, and cognition are located—is an impressive 3,700cc 2 compared to our 2,300cc. 2 And although the thickness of the dolphin's cortex is roughly half that of humans, when absolute cortical material is compared, dolphins still average an impressive 560cc compared to that of humans at 660cc.”

“Yeah, I think animal rights is the next wave after the same-sex marriage.” —Michael Shermer

Ironically, this new found understanding of what can rightly be termed “scientific animism” owes much to the pioneering work of Charles Darwin, whose book, On the Origin of Species, clearly showed how all of life on this planet was interrelated and how humans were not created sui generis but were part and parcel of a long line of evolutionary descent going all the way back to simplest of bacteria and viruses. Indeed, the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA by Watson and Crick (with assistance by Maurice Wilkins and particularly Rosalind Franklin's exquisite work on the X-ray crystallography) demonstrated that every life form is composed of the same four types of smaller chemical molecules called nucleotide bases: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T). The order of these bases is called the DNA sequence. The code of all life is the same; the only difference is in the sequencing of that code and how it is environmentally triggered due to varying ecological contexts.

While there is certainly much to applaud about science's new appreciation for the wide diversity of conscious life forms and their varying capacities to feel pain and suffering (Descartes be damned), it is sad to think that our ethical concerns for other animals has been so backward for so long. Surprising is it not, that our religious forbearers in Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and newer movements such as Radhasoami, lacking our present-day scientific prowess, had the foresight and compassion to realize that their respective philosophies about the sacredness of life necessitated that they develop ethical practices which minimized the pain and suffering of non-human creatures. In other words, despite not knowing the ins and outs of the neuroanatomies of cows, birds, and fowl, the sages of India were insightful and empathetic to abstain from killing them, lest they cause undue anguish.

We have always lived in an animistic universe, even if our understanding of it has evolved over time.

Today, we no longer need to invoke outdated Greek conceptions of matter as earth, wind, fire, air, and ether to justify the non-eating of animals. Instead we can be more laser specific in our appraisal of the hierarchical nature of consciousness and thereby make better informed ethical choices on the basis of it. Sam Harris, the widely read neuroscientist, argues in his controversial book, The Moral Landscape, that contrary to popular belief, a scientific system of morality or values is possible and that it can be of even greater benefit for our planet's survival than our outdated mythological belief systems. As Michael Shermer rightly suggests our “moral system [should be] based on continuous rather than categorical thinking [which] gives us a biological and evolutionary foundation for the expansion of the moral sphere to include nonhuman animals, based on objective criteria of genetic relatedness, cognitive abilities, emotional capacities, moral development, and especially the capacity to feel pain and suffer.”

It is to the great credit of those Indian religions which embraced ahimsa that they decided to develop an ethical response which was correlative to the knowledge they had at the time—and all of this without knowing about Darwinian evolution, neuroscience, or the molecular structure of DNA.

Yet, it may well be that with our growing knowledge of genetics and neurobiology we will discover that even the tiniest of life forms may have a semblance of consciousness—perhaps even certain kinds of plants, though as unlikely as this may at first appear.

Our science of consciousness is still in its infancy, but great strides have been made and perhaps the most significant threshold that has been crossed is the general acceptance that a vast assortment of animals—from octopi to dolphins to cows to dogs to gorillas—possess subjective states of awareness and can and do feel pain.

But lest we forget, even distinguished scientists can be misled by their cultural upbringing to such a degree that when confronted with unassailable facts concerning animal suffering they cannot acknowledge them. This reminds me of the time I had an hours long conversation with the late Nobel prize winner, Francis Crick, at an academic party hosted by Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, who was my Professor at the University of California, San Diego. I am not sure how the topic first came up, but when I explained to Francis Crick that I was a vegetarian, it caught his attention and he tried to argue against it. Thankfully (or perhaps embarrassingly) I didn't know at that time I was speaking with such an exalted and honored thinker. Instead, only knowing his first name when we were introduced, I thought he was just a pleasant older man who was most likely retired. To my chagrin (and I am sure his), I even offered to have him help me at the lab at UCSD where I was conducting visual perception research for Dr. Ramachandran.

Crick, obviously enjoying that I was clueless about his real identity, proceeded to upbraid me about vegetarianism and I stuck to my guns and gave him a series of counter-arguments. I even thought I got the better of him when “Rama” (as Dr. Ramachandran is affectionately known among his friends) came to my defense. I found out later that Rama's mother was an admirer of Sri Ramana Maharshi of south India.

In his 1994 book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Crick even goes so far as to lampoon those who advocate for animal rights and for lessening vivisection. Writes Crick,

“Even if new methods are devised, so that much better neuroanatomy can be done on humans, there are still many key experiments that can only be performed on animals. Most of these experiments produce little if any pain, but when they are over (in some cases they may last for months), it is usually necessary to sacrifice the animal, again quite painlessly. The animal rights movement is surely correct in insisting that animals be treated humanely, and as a result of their efforts animals in laboratories are now looked after somewhat better than they were in the past. But it is sentimental to idealize animals. The life of an animal in the wild, whether carnivore or herbivore, is often brutal and short compared to its life in captivity. Nor is it reasonable to claim that since both animals and humans are 'part of Nature' that they should be entitled to exactly equal treatment. Does a gorilla really deserve a university education? It demeans our unique human capabilities to insist that animals should be treated precisely the same way as human beings. They should be certainly handled humanely, but it shows a distorted sense of values to put them on the same level as humans.”

Here Crick admits that animals should be treated “humanely” (watch the ironic wording here), but then justifies vivisection by arguing that it can be justified because the “life of animal in the wild . . . is often brutal and short…” And in any case, he stresses, such animals live longer in “captivity,” neglecting to mentioning the caged conditions that such creatures are forced to endure. But Crick then provides his reader with a transparently self-serving red herring by asking, “Does a gorilla really deserve a university education?”

The simple answer, of course, would be “yes” to Crick's query if that same gorilla was intelligent enough to secure a high school diploma and pass the necessary course work to secure such an entrance. Yet, a higher education for primates is not the issue here and Crick knows this, especially since if a gorilla could indeed attend college, it would prima facie upturn Crick's entire argument concerning experimentation on animals. We don't condone experimenting on humans without their expressed consent, but we continually allow it on highly evolved mammals because we are still stuck with an outdated Cartesian dualism which sees such animals as “lower” and not capable of immense suffering.

The good news here is that Crick's views are becoming woefully outdated and I suspect that in the next century we will look back at our treatment of other non-human life forms and shudder at how our ancestors so cavalierly and blindly oppressed and exploited other animals—not to mention justifying their massive slaughter to simply satisfy our palates when other less cruel options were available. There is a remarkable wisdom in the ethical systems of Indian religions which extended a benevolent perspective on non-human creatures. We can learn much from their enlightened treatment of animals and their advocacy of vegetarianism, even if their understanding of matter and its molecular structure needed a more scientific and updated approach.

“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity.” - Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis of Morality

“The question is not, 'can they reason?' nor, 'can they talk?' but 'can they suffer?'” - Jeremy Bentham.

“Humanity's true moral test, its fundamental test…consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.” - Milan Kundera.


Professor Andrea Diem-Lane is a Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she also serves as the Chairperson of the Department. She received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, under the guidance of Ninian Smart who was her doctoral advisor. Dr. Diem-Lane earned her B.A. at the University of California, San Diego, where she did pioneering work on visual perception for the renowned neuroscientist, Dr. V.S. Ramachandran.

Professor Diem-Lane is the author of many books, including How to Study the Sacred, The Rise of New Religions, Einstein's Wastebasket, The Guru in America, Quantum Weirdness, among others. She has won many teaching awards and in 2021 was awarded an Honorary Doctorate (Honoris Causa) from the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, India, for her research in consciousness studies.

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