One of the biggest challenges in philosophy and science has always been to define what it means to be conscious. For something so fundamental as our beliefs about what is fact and what is fiction, what is real or true and what is false, one might think that the basic foundations of our beliefs – that of a biological consciousness – would be a scientific fact. Not so. Scientists and philosophers are really no nearer to understanding the nature of consciousness than Descartes was in the 17th century when he argued that because our dreams are so vividly real, we had no way of proving that this very moment wasn’t part of a dream.
While some biological scientists are still trying to locate the root of consciousness somewhere in our grey matter, others have begun to explore exciting new ways to think about consciousness. Physicists, mathematicians, chemists, biologists, artists and philosophers are looking at social networks that exist between biological and non-biological entities and asking, for instance, if electrical currents that pass between elements or assemblages that form between people and things now constitute networks that can be said to have their own consciousness.
In a recent article in Wired, Brandon Keim sets out the case that “[c]onsciousness arises within any sufficiently complex, information-processing system. All animals, from humans on down to earthworms, are conscious; even the internet could be” (link). Others have gone further, arguing that Aristotle’s traditional distinction between humans (world producing), animals (poor in the world) and plants (without world), now needs a radical overhaul (Nealon 2016).
We could continue to hold to the view that consciousness is only something that is possessed by higher animals, perhaps only humans. But this is a very narrow view of what consciousness could mean, and one that assumes that there is something inherent in human biology that sets us apart from other entities. Yet, we do not know from whence consciousness arrises. Is it held by electrons, ganglia, organs, or discrete body systems? Is it sub-atomic, or animated by the motion of gravitational waves? Since we do not know these things, the idea of consciousness remains only theoretical. And since theories be used to shape new understandings, why not consider consciousness as something a rock demonstrates when it reflects the sun’s rays on the beach, and think about what this might mean for the expansion of physical therapy beyond our conventional (and strictly limited view) of conscious therapeutic actors and agents.
Nealon, J.T. (2016). Plant theory: Biopower and vegetable life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.