≡ Menu

Mind in Nature

Did mind and intelligence miraculously appear in nature at some point, out of nowhere, or was it already present in natural and living systems from much earlier times? This short excerpt is taken from The Soul of the World, chapter 11, “The Pattern Which Connects: Life and Mind in Nature.”

Even at the level of the tiniest molecules and single-celled organisms, we encounter self-organizing and self-maintaining activities that reflect the rudiments of awareness or mentality. The deployment of form in time and space depends upon the power of selection; for example, the growth of a crystal involves the proper arrangement of more than ten billion molecules a minute. Matter itself is active and self-organizing, and the molecules of the crystal “know” how to bond in harmony with one another to create a highly coherent structure. In its own way, the growing crystal is an intelligent, self-regulating organism, but not one with a biological, self-reproducing metabolism.

In her book The Unfinished Universe, Louise Young points out that self-organization occurs at all levels of the cosmic pattern from galaxies, to solar systems, to the unfurling of reproductive life. “The phenomenon of organism,” she writes, “must not be limited by size or complexity. Each self-organized unit possesses the innate tendency to preserve and extend its own existence, thus increasing the total amount of Form as measured in space and time.” As she notes, all organisms, whether living or nonliving, spontaneously act in three ways to increase the generation of Form in space and time. These activities include (1) the synthesis of smaller units into larger units; (2) selection, which facilitates the creation of new organisms; and (3) self-preservation and regeneration, which actively maintains form and increases the average lifespan. The laws of our universe are rigged from the beginning to create form, and synthesis, selection, and self-preservation are cosmic powers that act at all levels of the world-fabric.

The example of the self-organizing crystal illustrates the active powers of synthesis and selection, and all organic entities display a power of self-preservation. A molecule, for example, “arranges its component parts to achieve a state of maximum stability in its environment, and when this arrangement has been disturbed by external forces it restores the original configuration as rapidly as possible.” Self-preservation and regeneration is a creative force that is characteristic of natural organisms, but not artificially constructed structures like buildings, computers, or machines. Long before the first living cell was formed and natural selection could operate, self-preservation and regeneration were at work shaping and molding the world-fabric: “The atom recaptures its lost electrons, the crystal restores its fractured shape, the molecule discards the disturbing energy forced upon it by random encounters.” Certainly at the conscious level of the self-reflective human mind, the powers of synthesis, selection, and self-preservation are indicative of self-purpose. This leads Young to note that “self-preservation would not be possible without a sense of self. Perhaps consciousness, like integration and the ability to act, is present (in a very rudimentary sense) even in the most fundamental organisms.” Even simple bacteria sense and respond to heat, light, and sources of nutriment. Some are able to sense and respond to the presence of magnetic fields. As biochemist Daniel Koshland writes,

“Choice,” “discrimination,” “memory,” “learning,” “instinct,” “judgement,” and “adaptation,” are words we normally identify with higher neural processes. Yet, in a sense, a bacterium can be said to have each of these properties.

The presence of mind and memory in bacteria, and the characteristics of self-preservation in even non-biological organisms, raises the question of how far “mind” can be traced back in the cosmic pattern before the emergence of self-reflective consciousness in human beings. Astronomer Harlow Shapley, the first modern scientist to fully grasp the fact that the universe is an evolving, hierarchical system of systems, touched upon the question in his 1930 book entitled Flights from Chaos: A Survey of Material Systems from Atoms to Galaxies. As the title implies, rather than winding down into an entropic heat death, the overall development of the universe represents a “progress toward order.” At the farthest edge of complexity we discover the human mind, but how could the human mind originate in a universe devoid of intelligence? This led Shapley to wonder, “if Mind appears at all, might it not possibly enter every class and subclass” in the vast hierarchy of systems that is the universe? The same year, astrophysicist James Jeans wrote his classic work The Mysterious Universe, in which he claims that “the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” Modern science, in its own way, supports the ancient Stoic idea that the universe and matter itself is intelligent and knows how to self-organize, and that our own human intelligence is rooted in the mind of the greater cosmos. Biological evolution is a natural outgrowth of cosmic evolution, and we are able to think only because our own minds and thoughts are woven out of the intelligent patterns of the greater universe.


Copyright © 2013 by David Fideler. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be duplicated or republished in any form without the permission of the author.