The definition of consciousness complicates any discussion about it. Consciousness is a matter of degree, ranging from subtle to gross, lower to higher. At its minimum, consciousness is simple awareness, ie: perception that generates responsiveness to events and conditions in the immediate environment. If we apply that definition – simple awareness and responsiveness – all forms of life display consciousness, which is to say life is a creative process of relationship with the world around it. But where does consciousness begin and end?
The exact nature of the force that impels consciousness remains unknown. Philosopher Henri Bergson called it “elan vital,” the creative force that animates. The living impulse on earth is well over two-billion years old, and it’s not just animals that display simple awareness, but also plants and for that matter, viruses.
People customarily relate consciousness to thinking, reasoning, and directing our actions; we associate its locus with the brain. Our brains are a collection of organic cells, specifically neurons, which in ways not entirely understood presumably generate consciousness, both simple awareness and a sense of self. At present, ours is the highest degree of consciousness we have observed.
Notably, although our consciousness appears to emerge from organic cells, organic cells are themselves, like all matter, composed of basic elements. In fact, 99% of the human body is comprised of just six elements: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, calcium, and phosphorus. Sulfur, potassium, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium largely make up the remaining 1%. Individually, each of these elements is not alive, no more alive than, say, a chunk of iron, which means that consciousness is arising from a living system built with non-living elements.
This raises questions: does consciousness spontaneously emerge from living matter only, or is it in some way an inherent property of matter itself? The mechanical view advocates that consciousness is spontaneously emergent, dependent upon a particular arrangement of living molecules and supportive environmental conditions such as warmth, nutrients, hydration, etc. The degree of consciousness is a function of cellular complexity, the greater the complexity the higher the degree of consciousness.
The pan-psychic view advocates that the seed of consciousness is present in all matter, living and non-living, at the subatomic level. From this point of view, with increased complexity the seed of consciousness grows in degrees from lower to higher but is an inherent rather than emergent phenomenon.
It is, admittedly, challenging to imagine the seed of consciousness existing in non-living matter, as well as imagining existence at lower degrees of consciousness than we human beings display. We certainly find enjoyment in and affection for living creatures of lower degrees of consciousness, as our love of pet dogs, cats, and even tropical fish attests. Presumably, we might gain affection for a microscopic amoeba should we be able to observe it easily. Our affections run towards non-living matter too, like a favorite coffee cup, pillow, or automobile, but not because we observe their consciousness. It is, instead, the extension of our own consciousness towards non-living matter that builds affection and attachment. And yet, perhaps something deeper than mere affection is at play.
We living beings are comprised of the same sorts of elements as non-living matter; bound up and resonant at the molecular, atomic, and sub-atomic levels, in this way we enjoy perfect unity with an indivisible whole. And if indeed the seed of consciousness is present in all things, well, perhaps it precedes matter itself.