Is matter unconscious?

Posted by Rupert Sheldrake
23 March, 2012

Conscious and unconscious minds

There are at least two senses of the word ‘unconscious’. One means totally devoid of mind, experience and feeling, and this is what materialists mean when they say matter is unconscious. Physicists and chemists treat the systems they study as unconscious in this absolute sense. But a very different meaning of ‘unconscious’ is implied by the phrase ‘unconscious mind’. Most of our own mental processes are unconscious, including most of our habits. When driving a car we can carry on a conversation while our perceptions of the road and other vehicles affect our responses, without our being consciously aware of all our movements and choices. When I come to a familiar road junction, I may turn right automatically, because this is my habitual route. I am choosing among possibilities, but choosing on the basis of habit. By contrast, if I am driving in an unfamiliar town and trying to find my way with the help of a map, my choice when I come to a junction depends on conscious deliberation. But only a small minority of our choices are conscious. Most of our behaviour is habitual, and habits by their very nature work unconsciously.

Like humans, animals are largely creatures of habit. Yet the fact that they are not conscious of most of their actions – as we are not conscious of most of our own – does not mean they are mindless machines. They have a mental aspect as well as a physical aspect, and their mental aspect is shaped by their habits, feelings and potentialities, among which they choose, unconsciously or consciously.

It may not make much sense to suggest that electrons, atoms and molecules make conscious choices, but they may make unconscious choices on the basis of habits, just as we do and animals do.

According to quantum theory, even elementary particles like electrons have many alternative future possibilities. The calculation of their behaviour by physicists involves taking all their possible futures into account. Electrons are physical in that they re-enact elements of their past; but they also have a mental pole in that they relate this re-enactment of the past to their future potentialities, which in some sense work backwards in time.

But can we meaningfully say that electrons have experiences, feelings and motivations? Can they be attracted towards one possible future, or repelled by another? The answer is ‘yes’. For a start, they are electrically charged; they ‘feel’ the electric field around them; they are attracted towards positively charged bodies, and repelled by those with negative charges. Physicists model their behaviour mathematically without supposing that their feelings, attractions and repulsions are anything other than physical forces, or that their individually unpredictable behaviour is governed by anything other than chance and probability. Materialists would say that only by fanciful metaphors can they be seen to have feelings or experience. But some physicists think differently, like David Bohm and Freeman Dyson. Bohm observed, ‘The question is whether matter is rather crude and mechanical or whether it gets more and more subtle and becomes indistinguishable from what people have called mind.’ Freeman Dyson wrote,

I think our consciousness is not just a passive epiphenomenon carried along by the chemical events in our brains, but is an active agent forcing the molecular complexes to make choices between one quantum state and another. In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when they are made by an electron.

These are difficult questions, and raise all sorts of further questions about the meaning of words like ‘feeling’, ‘experience’ and ‘attraction’. Are they metaphorical when applied to quantum systems? Perhaps. But we do not have a choice between metaphorical and non-metaphorical thinking. There are no metaphor-free zones in science. The whole of science is suffused with legal metaphors, as in ‘laws of nature’, materialist theories of mind by computer metaphors, and so on. But the issues are not merely literary or rhetorical, but scientific. As Bergson and Whitehead made clear, and as Libet showed by experiment, the mental and physical aspects of material bodies have different relationships to time and to causation.

What difference does it make?

The question ‘Is Matter Unconscious?’ is not just an abstract, intellectual question. It makes a huge difference. It affects the way we relate to other people and to the world and shapes our experience of ourselves. If materialism is true, all bodies, including yours and mine, are essentially unconscious. Your subjective experiences emerge from your brain as epiphenomena, or else they are merely an aspect of the physical activity of your brain, but they cannot have any effects. Your thoughts, desires and decisions cannot interfere with regular physical causality. Your choices are illusory. Materialism promises that, at some time in the future, all human behaviour and beliefs, including the belief in materialism, will be fully explained by the physical and chemical mechanisms of human brains, together with random events inside and outside human bodies.

But what if these materialist beliefs are delusions? Perhaps you are really free to choose your beliefs on the basis of arguments, evidence and experience. Perhaps you are really conscious. Perhaps other animals are conscious too, and capable of free choice to some degree. Maybe all organisms, physical and biological, have experiences and feelings, including atoms, molecules, crystals, cells, tissues, organs, plants, animals, societies of organisms, ecosystems, planets, solar systems and galaxies.

It makes a big difference if you think of yourself as a zombie-like mechanism in an unconscious mechanical world, or as a truly conscious being capable of making choices, living among other beings with sensations, experiences and desires.

Questions for materialists

  • Do you believe that your own consciousness is merely an aspect or epiphenomenon of the activity of your brain?
  • If consciousness does nothing, why has it evolved as an evolutionary adaptation?
  • Do you agree with the materialist philosopher Galen Strawson that materialism implies panpsychism?
  • Is your own belief in materialism determined by unconscious processes in your brain, rather than reason, evidence and choice?


In the mechanistic science of the seventeenth century, matter was defined as unconscious, and conscious minds were confined to human beings, along with spirits, angels and God. There was a duality of spirit and matter. No one could satisfactorily explain how non-physical minds could interact with material brains, and materialists rejected the existence of these mysterious immaterial entities, leaving only unconscious matter. But since we ourselves are conscious, this elimination of minds created a big problem for materialists, who have tried to explain human consciousness away or dismiss it as illusory. But instead of assuming that materialism and dualism are the only options, some philosophers have explored the idea that all self-organising material systems have a mental as well as a physical aspect. Their minds relate them to their future goals and are shaped by memories of their past, both individual and collective. The relationship of minds to bodies is more to do with time than space. Minds choose among possible futures, and mental causation runs in the opposite direction from energetic causation, from virtual futures towards the past, rather than from the past towards the future.

From The Science Delusion, ©2011 by Rupert Sheldrake, published by Coronet.

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