Could rocks be conscious?

A shared consciousness?

The variety of responses received by The Guardian leads to this conclusion: consciousness is the thing most shared and least understood by humans. And yet the answers are not only profane; it includes Philip Goff, a panpsychic philosopher, and James Sonne, editor of MDPI’s NeuroSci journal. A geologist answered too! Does life in contact with stones make us believe that we are closer to their sensitivity?

Before reading my own answer, ask yourself: How do we know that humans share a similar consciousness, in fact? We exchange daily with beings who look like us, emit an understandable language, behave as if they felt emotions similar to ours. At the same time, their bodies are unique, the meaning they give to words deviates willingly from ours, and what moves them is very specific to each one. This assumes that they are all different inside and out. A “shared” consciousness, under these conditions, is limited to a type of phenomenon. And even limiting oneself in this way, it is difficult to say what this phenomenon is exactly: the state of wakefulness, the ability to communicate, to decide, to observe oneself?

Let’s start with “I”

Since defining consciousness is arbitrary, it is necessary to proceed differently. Consciousness is first and foremost an experience that I test, and I suppose other beings can test it. I actually look for signs of this experience in others: they move, speak, decide, think before acting. So I define consciousness from my consciousness, I look at what is close to it.

Depending on how I include myself or individualize myself in the world, my definition will be broad or narrow. Seeing myself prolonged in the behavior of animals and concerned about their fate, I extend my definition of consciousness to them. If, on the contrary, my peers irritate me to the highest degree, I tend to think I am the only conscious individual on this planet.

Be in solidarity with a rock?

The answers about consciousness thus reveal much about the psychology of responders, rather than about the phenomenon itself. The psychological trait highlighted is the most fundamental: would I want to blend into the world or emancipate myself from it? I call this feature the T<>D ratio, soliTary versus soliDary. It allows you to unwind a whole personality, with its conceptual choices, when you have measured it.

But a rock? Who will feel fused with the world to the point of including the inanimate in her own phenomenon consciousness? Certainly the rock seems far from my capacity for intention. But to blend into the world is to suppose that I am an indissoluble part of it, and then conscious experience cannot be reserved for me. The whole of reality must be conscious.

The false emancipation of the materialist

This panpsychism appears totally absurd to the materialist, who sees consciousness as an epiphenomenon of brain activity. Epiphenomenon, illusion, is this the emancipation of the world I was talking about just now, as opposed to the panpsychic that wants to blend into it? No, it is only another way to appropriate the world, to mix with it as well. Since the materialist sees no explanation for consciousness in the natural laws of the world, she simply eliminates her own. Thus she can belong entirely to that somewhat tyrannical physics which does not allow her such an independent experiment.

To emancipate oneself one must already be part of…

To emancipate oneself from the world is to say that my consciousness exists, since I have direct experience of it, without any instrument or scientific theory. This is to say by default that it is unique, since I have no way to go into the heads of others or inside a rock, that I would need in any case an intermediary and then it would be no more a direct experience.

To emancipate myself is not to say that I am isolated from the world but on the contrary that I emerge from it. Something in the world generated my consciousness. Yes, the panpsychic is right, there are in the world the preliminaries of my consciousness, but it is not mine. Yes the materialist is right, there is nothing in her physical theories that explains my consciousness, but it is there; her theories are necessarily incomplete or misinterpreted.

A shudder

And the rock in all this? It remains impassive, unconcerned about our essays. Couldn’t it make a tiny effort to help us? Isn’t it its fate to be conscious or not that is at stake? Here it is shuddering, because I pushed it a little. I tried to be discreet but it does not adorn it with a great will. Still, it shuddered as a block. All its atoms felt the pressure, even the ones I wasn’t pressing. Physical laws, by restricting their opportunities, make them a whole independent of the rest of reality. Is this enough to create consciousness? Is independence experience? Is this enough to say that the rock does not experience the world like any other?

I can answer for sure in the negative if I look in this rock for a consciousness that resembles, even very vaguely, mine. But at the same time there must be something in the world that generates my consciousness, and my neurons are made of quantons exactly similar to those of this rock. There is, therefore, in its shuddering, something intermediate between my consciousness and the absence of consciousness.

Let’s get out of Manichean consciousness

What has done the most harm to consciousness research is certainly its binarism. Human: consciousness 1. Rock: consciousness 0. Obviously we observe a multitude of intermediate numbers. Higher animals are ‘less’ conscious than we are, plants even less so. This ‘less’ is addressed to a consciousness that is in fact foreign, therefore difficult to compare, but less complex, certainly. It is in the complex dimension that it is possible to measure consciousness, while keeping in each ‘number’ a specific quality, which others cannot experience in its place.

The rock will receive a 0.0000… something conscious that is not much but that allows us to establish our own consciousness, which is not negligible! And it allows me to establish my unique consciousness! Yours too. And that of the rock, which shudders with ease, while I did not even touch it this time. OK it must be a real illusion. But my consciousness owns it! It is not my consciousness that is an illusion possessed by another too materialistic brain… Whew! I’m staying… emancipated.

And the solution to the riddle?

How is this conscious emancipation achieved from the micromechanisms of physics? I have just told where the enigma leads us. Is the solution available? Not officially. But you find one, very complete, in Surimposium and on this blog.



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