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A ‘New’ Old Theory of Consciousness

David Cowles

Jan 15, 2024

“The simplest unicellular species display behaviors that are clearly cognitive in nature.”

Imagine living long enough to see one of your craziest ideas enter the philosophical mainstream! When we published Panpsychism just last month, the idea of universal consciousness was still considered ‘far out’.

Far out, even though the idea itself goes back at least 2500 years, to Parmenides, the father of Western philosophy and science; far out, even though it’s a core tenet of Hasidic Judaism and Kabbalah; far out, even though it played a major role in the thinking of Alfred North Whitehead, the 20th century’s premier systematic philosopher. 

Once upon a time, it was widely assumed that consciousness was the exclusive province of homo sapiens. Signs of intelligence in non-human species were unnoticed or underappreciated, then explained away as ‘instinct’. However, beginning in the late ‘60s, that great crucible, folks began speculating that certain sea mammals (e.g., dolphins) and/or certain non-human primates (e.g., chimpanzees) might be conscious.

In this century, the franchise has been extended to parrots, corvids, et al. Meanwhile, Aletheia Today has been sitting on the sidelines, jumping up and down, waiving our hands in the air and shouting, “It’s not just birds…it’s every living thing!”

That said, I did not expect panpsychism to enter the intellectual mainstream before 2100…until I encountered a peer-reviewed article proclaiming the identity of life and consciousness! Below, I quote liberally from this paper (Arthur S Reber, William B Miller, Jr., Predrag Slijepcevic, and František Baluška) - italics are mine:

“Our Cellular Basis of Consciousness (CBC) theory…is based on the assumption that life and sentience are coterminous. All, but only, living organisms are conscious... Prokaryotes (single-celled organisms without a nucleus), the simplest form of life, display behaviors that are clearly cognitive in nature, including associative learning, stable memory formation, route navigation and decision-making.”

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There is an important distinction. Panpsychism of the sort ascribed to Parmenides, the Hasidim, and Whitehead (above) applies to all ‘actual entities’; unlike CBC, it is not strictly limited to living organisms. 

“They anticipate upcoming events and readily create functional social collectives, within which they display both cooperation and competition and, fascinatingly, a primitive form of altruism where some cells in a colony put themselves at risk to support the life functions of other cells in distress… It is important to recognize that assembling and surviving as functioning collectives requires directed, communal action as a form of cellular problem-solving.

“One of the entailments of the CBC is that plants, which are eukaryotes (cells with nuclei) and emerged relatively late in evolutionary terms, are conscious, sentient beings…there is considerable evidence for valanced sensation, decision-making, learning, and communication in flora…”

Trees in particular demonstrate familial connection, community consciousness, and self-sacrifice. ‘Prosperous’ trees readily share water and other essential nutrients with their less fortunate neighbors, especially, but not exclusively, when the recipient trees are genetically related to the donors. Trees will keep their parents’ stumps alive, sometimes for decades. 

Mature, healthy trees are the original ‘sandwich’ generation: they are charged with feeding and protecting both their offspring and their parents.

“…This cellular communal action provided the basis for various forms of social intelligence… It is simply inconceivable that this wide range of cognitive functions could be the result of a cluster of ‘dumb’ gene-driven mechanisms…”

“Entomologists have presented compelling evidence that many insects are conscious and self-aware; avian specialists are comfortable using “consciousness” when referring to the behaviors displayed by many bird species, especially corvids; those who study cephalopods have determined that octopuses and cuttlefish have palpable minds… 

“We have examined a variety of biomolecular functions and mechanisms in an effort to identify those that are responsible for creating sentience in cells. Briefly, they are almost certainly holistic in the sense that there are various tightly linked functions involving the cytoskeleton, the cell membrane, including specific sensors and receptors, and the mechanisms that permit molecular exchanges between the interior of the cell and the external environment. All of these and others combine to allow the cell to detect, evaluate and mentally represent events and objects and make appropriate decisions about how to respond to them…”

“One of the primary reasons for the reluctance of those who work within the SMC (standard) framework to include flora is their conviction that a nervous system is a requirement for a genuine consciousness. However, much of the research into plant cognition supports the conclusion that plant root systems function in ways that are analogous of neural systems.” 

“…It is virtually certain that cells change the manner of gene expression by the decisions and choices they make. These epigenetic modifications are the driving force behind collaborative cellular problem-solving involved in dealing with environmental stresses...All cells are sentient, exhibit self-referential awareness, and are fully capable of decision-making and problem-solving… 

“Accordingly, each cell is a conscious “self”, combining three essential elements necessary for cogently explaining multicellularity. In order to collaborate in their trillions, each self-referential cell must ‘know that it knows’, ‘know that others know…(and know) in self-similar patterns’.”

“Crucially, CBC imposes three essential requirements to specifically enable cell-wide integrated information as consciousness. Cellular consciousness requires boundaries (a plasma membrane), a cell-wide integrative apparatus for the reception and internal assessment of environmental information…and linked retrievable and deployable memory…

“Minds (brains?) do not create conscious self-awareness. Minds, such as our own, are an aggregation of individual cellular consciousnesses.” 

Wow! Talk about burying the lead! This last ‘throw away’ line opens an entire new field of inquiry. Just how is it that cellular consciousness ‘becomes’ or ‘supports’ the consciousness of integrated organisms? How do 30 trillion cells (or 85 billion neurons) ‘roll-up’ to… you? 

Reber’s glib aside doesn’t get it done! It doesn’t make sense (to me) to think that my integrated thought could be the simple product of the thoughts of 85 billion independent neurons. 

Fortuitously, though, the solution to this problem also solves another problem. (Things often work like that in science and philosophy.) Determinists and other materialists are fond of citing studies that show that the brain’s decision-making cells fire a ‘nanosecond’ before the subject thinks she’s made her decision (e.g., vanilla or chocolate). 

Sometimes, when evidence contradicts your thinking in a certain area, the honorable thing to do is to modify your ideas; other times, the right thing to do is to hold one’s ground, assuming that a future discovery will bridge the apparent gap between theory and observation. But oh, for the wisdom to know the difference!

To many ‘philosophers of organism’, these decision studies were unconvincing, albeit irrefutable: “We’re missing something even though we’re not sure what.” Now CBC comes along and potentially gives us the tool we need to bridge this divide: Decisions take place at the level of the organism. 

Reber et al. (above) are happy to describe the response of a single cell to its environment as holistic, even though the cell has nothing resembling a nervous system or any other Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Why then not apply the same standard to multicellular organisms? All ‘organisms’ (single or multicellular), regardless of their internal structures, respond holistically when interacting with their external worlds. 

Thanks to evolution, organism-level ‘decision’ triggers a coordinated wave of synaptic firings and biochemical events, enabling us to experience consciously that decision and its immediate consequences. So to recap, the decision itself is free, undetermined, and holistic; it triggers a neuronal response that in turn gives us the conscious experience of making and effecting a decision.

Fantastic! Or is it? Haven’t we just kicked the can down the road? We’ve pushed conscious experience back onto our cellular substructure, but then we’ve pushed the coordinated action of those cells back onto something ill-defined and potentially non-physical – the ‘holistic response’ of our entire organism to its situation.

Humbly acknowledged! But let’s search philosophical literature to see if we can find something that answers to the phrase, ‘holistic response’. Oh yeah, here it is! It’s something called a ‘soul’; remember that from 3rd grade CCD? Were you expecting Casper? Sorry, no white sheets, thank you. Soul is simply another name for ‘holistic response of the organism’. But, of course, that doesn’t explain how that holistic response occurs.

We need to remember that the ‘world’ is a loom, perpetually shuttling between the one and the many. Like Penelope’s weaving, what is many becomes one, and what is one becomes many… again. “Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you’re going to be Mister Finnagain!” (Joyce)

Start anywhere in the cycle. The universe is plural (Buckminster Fuller), but novelty, intensity, and action itself require us to reconstitute that multiplicity as a unity, a so-called ‘Actual World’ (Whitehead). According to this model, we designate and react to our world before, logically if not temporally, we trigger the physical processes that enable us to interact with that world.

We are not the accidental overflow of unconscious physical processes. We are the authors of those processes. Being consists of free, unconditioned, holistic responses to an Actual World and the Actual Entity (primary being) responsible for that response is what we call an organism, and as CBC demonstrates (above), organism = consciousness.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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