Is the world around us alive?

Is the world around us alive? Can the world around us be reduced to merely sums of parts? Does the world around us have its own consciousness, and hence senses of purpose?

According to the way in which Western science has been practiced since the 17th century, and the set of assumptions on which it largely rests, the answer to all of these questions is a firm “no”.

Unfortunately, life on Earth, us included is now paying (unequally) the price of this way of thinking. Author and integrator Jeremy Lent warns: “From genetic engineering to geoengineering, we treat nature as though it’s a machine.” He continues: “As each new global problem appears, attention gets focused on short-term, mechanistic solutions, rather than probing deeper systemic causation.” Treating nature as though it’s a machine allows us to look at the current ecological breakdown, and more broadly at our interlocking crises, as something that can be broken down into parts, as if each part can be sent off to a mechanic for a quick fix. It’s allowing us to turn away from the harder path of holistic approaches, which we desperately need if we want to find a way out.

But here we are not only asking about the consequences of this way of thinking: we are asking about where this came from. How did the dominant way of doing science come to adopt such a mechanistic worldview?

According to biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake, this “nature as mechanical” or machine-like worldview has been adopted since the 17th century. “They mean that nature is made up of parts which work together mindlessly by following mechanical principles.” Consequently, one could understand nature as an assemblage of these parts, that you could take apart and put back together. The man behind this worldview was the French philosopher René Descartes, who in 1619 became famous for splitting the world into two.

Descartes is known for splitting the mind and the body, or matter and spirit, bringing with it a deanimated worldview. As Sheldrake explains, Descartes’ mind-body split categorised the mind with the spirit, the rational human mind, the intellect: all of which were immaterial, in the realm of the spirit. The body was material, belonging to the realm of matter. In doing so he solidified humans as superior, because animals and the rest of nature were merely material, and did not have anything to do with the realm of the spirit. “He took the soul out of all nature,” Sheldrake says, “leaving the whole material world as nothing but inanimate matter working mechanically, like a machine.” Within mainstream thinking since Descartes, nature functions according to mathematical laws and reason.

The world of matter was to be unconscious, since it had no spirit, no mind. And so nature, everything within it, including space, was unconscious. Humans, of course, were the exception to the case, because we have minds (which mysteriously interact with our brains) and souls, from God, and thus are conscious. In one fell swoop Descartes “split consciousness off from the natural world,” as Sheldrake puts it. “It was a tremendous restriction of the realm of consciousness, experience, awareness, draining it out of the whole of nature, which had previously been assumed to have many forms of mind, spirit and consciousness imminent within it.”

No one actually proved this: it was simply assumed by Descartes and it is an assumption that has remained fairly unchanged today. Sheldrake sees this as one of the dogmas underlying the materialist worldview. It was an assumption that came with the “scientific revolution” of the 17th century, a revolution against the previous view of nature that had been developed in the Middle Ages, based on Greek philosophy, particularly finding its roots in mysticism, Aristotle, and the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, who was the leading theologian and philosopher in the Middle Ages.

These philosophers purported that nature is alive, that the Earth, stars, planets, animals, plants, and all living beings are truly alive and have souls. In fact these were ensouled, given meaning and purpose, organisation and form, intentions and desires and aversions. Human exceptionalism was present here too, however: there were three levels of soul and the idea was that we shared animal souls with all other animals, vegetative souls with animals and plants, but humans alone had the intellectual soul: mind, thought, reasoning, language. This was essentially a form of Christian animism. Which, as Sheldrake points out, was also found elsewhere in the world, in traditional cultures, and other cultures across borders.

And the scientific revolution didn’t come without its critics: in the late 18th century the Romantic movement, with its poets and artists, agreed with what came before the scientific revolution. They argued that nature was alive, that it was not just mechanical machines. All of this is to say that what has come to be the dominant view and the dominant set of assumptions in modern science (because indeed this mechanistic view does frame how modern science is done), was not always the way in the western world. In fact, an ecological worldview of animistic consciousness was tossed aside, belittled and pushed to the margins in order to validate a new way of thinking.

“Animism is the view that sees the world as full of people or persons, only some of whom are human. The human person is actually a subcategory of this wider category of personhood. [Animism] is something that is not only found in indigenous contexts, it’s something that is [also] found in European contexts, and not very far away.”

Andy Letcher, writer and lecturer, via advaya’s KINSHIP course

Today, as we can see, many around us are turning once again to an animistic worldview: people everywhere are engaging in a collective, rebellious inquiry against the mechanistic worldview that nature is not alive, that nature can be reduced to sums of parts, that nature does not have consciousness. This inquiry does not merely find its roots in indigenous contexts (though due credit of course must be given to indigenous communities for consistently repeating this, and it must be recognised that indigenous peoples have been gravely persecuted for this worldview), it has roots across other contexts from the rest of the world too especially in traditional and ancestral worldviews, including European contexts.

If an animistic worldview has roots that are spread so far and wide, it is certainly worth questioning the dominant paradigm that is rooted in assumptions that reject such a worldview. It is also worth pointing out here that the dominant paradigm is part of a certain (Western) way of doing science and accumulating knowledge that is supposed to be about proof and evidence, and yet that what we consider to be theory, fact, and knowledge, is not always founded in that, and can in fact be founded on assumptions, that have over time hardened into dogmas. That contrary to what people may believe about modern, Western science, what is normalised, mainstream knowledge is not necessarily right, because it may sometimes (perhaps even more often than not) simply be a product of which worldview became the dominant one.

Perhaps we should ask: how is knowledge produced? Who produces it, and how did they arrive to such conclusions? And more specifically, how is science “done”? How are scientific theories arrived at? As Sheldrake once shared in a now banned TED talk: “The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in.” Asking questions about whether or not we’re sure of what we know is actually not anti-science, as Sheldrake continued in the same talk, that “there’s a conflict in the heart of science between science as a method of inquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or a worldview. And unfortunately, the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and constrict the free inquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavour.” Skepticism about science is actually at the heart of science, and once upon a time science too was about proving and disproving theories, consistent and rigorous collective inquiry.

To be clear, this dogmatic, scientific view that the world around us is not alive is a view that belongs to modern Western science, which is but a singular strand of science, and a singular way of “knowing” and relating to the world (and unfortunately today an exceedingly powerful and influential one). It is the kind that marginalises other forms of knowing, and that delegitimises every other form by exclusively legitimising its own. (Consider the ways in which this conventional worldview controls academic institutions, gatekeeps scientific journals, inquiry and discussion, funding and support, and hence the ways in which it affects what trickles down to policy, discourse, and more general knowledge.)

As Tiokasin Ghosthorse, member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation of South Dakota, shared in advaya’s KINSHIP course: “Science has now discovered that trees have a heartbeat. But we’ve known that because of our intuition, way before the sciences and the Western way came along. The difference is you look for proof in science, because you can’t live it.”

Perhaps there are parallels between the intuition Ghosthorse speaks of and the skepticism that comes with non-dogmatic Western science. Both of these ultimately point us in the direction of a more animistic worldview, away from the mechanistic, deanimated worldview that assumes nature is not alive, and that humans are exceptionally conscious. If we truly lived, fully, deeply, immersively, multi-sensorially, how could we not believe that the world around us is alive? How could we accept the assumption that nature is just a collection of functioning machines, separate parts making up neat wholes, that don’t each have their own aliveness to them? How could we accept that the world as we experience it is not being constantly, every moment, co-made by parts of this ecosystem, us included, parts that come together to form more than a simple sum of parts?

“Our being alive is a constant exchange of bodies, a constant touch, a constant meeting of sensitive surfaces, and even a constant merging of sensitive surfaces. We meet through the air by breathing in and out—that’s the way bodies merge into one another, as we breathe in what the trees breathe out, and then we drink the water from these rivers and this water evaporates from our bodies, which then goes into the clouds and comes down as rain again. These erotic mergers show that we are actually one big body, which has a crazy diversity of flows and compartments.”

Andreas Weber, biologist, philosopher and nature writer, via advaya’s KINSHIP course

We return here to Rupert Sheldrake, who is asking these questions to mechanistic materialists, the scientists who are the ones who today believe in these dogmatic assumptions. Sheldrake asks: how do we set science free from its dogmas, in the spirit of healthy inquiry, which is very much aligned, as he says himself, “with the insights of traditional peoples all over the world, and our own ancestors, before the advent of mechanistic science in the 17th century”?

Sheldrake points out that there have been scientists who have begun to question this mechanistic worldview: that since 2006, panpsychist views (which he adds are of course rooted in animism) emerged, theorising that some matter involves consciousness, depending on how complex and organised they are. Sheldrake argues that panpsychism can be taken further not to end at human brains, and that it can be extended outwards to large self-organising systems such as the sun, to say that the sun is conscious, because it’s enormously complex, has cycles of activities, has rhythms, and could, in some ways, be said to be making decisions. And if the sun is conscious, what about other stars, whole solar systems, the whole galaxy, and even clusters of galaxies? “What if,” he asks, “they form one huge mind, a cosmic mind, that includes the entire universe? The whole universe may be conscious.”

“In the profound words of 20th century humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, “I am life that wills to live, in the midst of life that wills to live.” How, we may ask, might our future trajectory change if we were to reconstruct our civilization on this basis?”

Jeremy Lent, “Nature Is Not a Machine—We Treat It So at Our Peril”

_In The Rupert Sheldrake Course, we uncover how the scientific revolution brought with it a set of powerful beliefs, which are powerful not because most scientists think about them critically, but because they do not. Along with the assumption that nature is machine-like, and mechanical, there are multiple other assumptions too: that the laws of nature are fixed and changeless. That the total amount of matter and energy appeared out of nowhere and has remained the same ever since. That all matter is unconscious and that human consciousness is an illusion. That nature has no purpose, no teleology, that its processes are random. That there must be a material basis for everything: biological inheritence, memory storage, and that everything you're seeing is in your mind. That psychic phenomena are merely illusory and that mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works.

In this course, we question all of this, to reveal that so-called "alternative" perspectives actually allow us to arrive at a more holistic truth. This questioning also has implications on how we connect with our bodies, with each other, with the more-than-human world, and how we understand the universe and how it works. We will sit with growing chasms in these scientific fields, and unlock new ones and possibilities for research that could revolutionise science._


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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