Stories Matter, Matter Stories

Originally printed in the September - October 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: de Quincey, Christian. "Stories Matter, Matter Stories." Quest  90.5 (SEPTEMBER - OCTOBER 2002):177-181.

By Christian de Quincey

Christian de QuinceyAre rocks conscious? Do animals or plants have souls? Have you ever wondered whether worms or insects might feel pain or pleasure? Can trees feel anything at all? Ever wondered where in the great unfolding of evolution consciousness first appeared?

If questions like these intrigue you, you are in good company, because they touch on the deepest mystery in modern philosophy, science, and spirituality: How are minds and bodies related?

How does consciousness fit into the physical world? These are not just idle musings of philosophers. How we answer such questions can dramatically affect the way we live our lives, how we treat the world of nature and other people, and even how we relate to our own bodies. If we are to feel at home in the cosmos, to be open to the full inflowing and outpouring of its profound creativity, if we are not to feel isolated and alienated from the full symphony of cosmic matter—both as distant as the far horizon of time and as near as the flesh of our own bodies—we need a new cosmology story. We need a new way to envision our relationship to the full panorama of the crawling, burrowing, swimming, gliding, flying, circulating, flowing, rooted, and embedded Earth. We need to be and to feel differently, as well as to think and believe differently.

Why? Well, listen to this from Bertrand Russell, one of the most respected and influential philosophers of our time:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

This may be the most terrifying story ever told—nevertheless, it is the one we are born into. It expresses the terrible poetry of a meaningless universe, rolling along entropic channels of chance, blind and without purpose, sometimes accidentally throwing up the magnificence and beauty of natural and human creations, but inevitably destined to pull all our glories asunder and leave no trace, no indication that we ever lived, that our lonely planet once bristled and buzzed with colorful life and reached out to the stars. It is all for nothing.

Such is the plot and substance of modern science boiled down to its bare essentials, a legacy from the founders of the modern worldview, such as Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Newton, and Darwin.

Even if we have faith in a deeper spiritual dimension, somewhere in our nested system of beliefs that old story lurks, ready to rob our visions and our dreams, our loves and our passions of any meaning, of any validity beyond the scripted directions of a blind, unconscious, purposeless plot maker. If something in our experience stirs and reacts to this with disbelief, even with a question, it is surely worth paying attention to because the possibility that that story is wrong or incomplete has far-reaching consequences.

What if that sweeping materialist vision leaves something out? What if there is something other than an “accidental collocation of atoms” at work in the universe? What if, for instance, the experience or consciousness that contemplated the world and discovered the atoms was itself real? What if the ability of “collocated atoms” to purposefully turn around and direct their gaze to reflect on themselves was more than “accidental”? What if consciousness participates in the way the world works? What if consciousness can dance with the atoms and give them form and direction? What if the atoms themselves choreograph their own dance? What then?

In this article and in my new book Radical Nature, I explore an alternative story—one where the atoms do choreograph their own dance—a worldview that tells us consciousness matters and that matter is conscious.

Deserts of Meaning

Each year it is becoming clearer that our society’s profound reliance on the authority of scientificknowledge and its applications in technology is inadequate for resolving the growing crises weface as communities and as individuals. Besides environmental problems of global proportions, our science and technology appear helpless in the face of burgeoning populations, with attendant international crises of poverty and hunger. Our societies are stressed with internal pressures of social, racial, and economic unrest, and with external pressures fueled by excesses of governmental, military, and corporate policies that impact across national boundaries creating economic and biological havoc and, in extreme situations, wastelands and deserts.

These deserts are not only environmental, such as the destruction of the planet’s dwindling rainforests and marsh lands; there are also existential deserts—deserts of the spirit, of the soul, and of the mind. Deserts of meaning. It is precisely this aspect of the global crisis that calls out for a rigorous and inspired philosophy of mind and a true science of consciousness.

We begin the twenty-first century living on a planet dominated by a technological society based onscience, and we live with a science based on a materialistic paradigm. We live, in other words, in a world lacking any firm grounding in meaning, in values, in purposes or goals. With few exceptions, the goals and “purposes” that do exist within our social institutions have no metaphysical foundation. They emerge, for the most part, as expressions of an economic philosophy based on a materialistic metaphysics that denies any foundation to goals, purposes, and values—other than biologically driven urges or the relativity of social power plays. Our religious and artistic traditions have attempted to fill the gap, but increasingly succumb to a social preference for scientific knowledge as the final authority on how we should govern our lives.

But it is precisely the wisdom of meaning, of value, of experience that our societies need in orderto balance the knowledge of physical science and the obsessive push for technological progress. I’m proposing a profound reexamination of our basic narrative premise—our culture’s “guiding story” or cosmology—to see what alternative story (or stories) science and philosophy might tell.

The Problem in a Nutshell

We humans are not so special. Yet often we think we are. Human specialness lies at the core of our civilization’s dominant stories. In the grand narratives we tell ourselves trying to make some sense that we are here at all—in our cosmologies, in our scientific and religious worldviews—humans,typically, are the central characters.

For the most part, neither mainstream science nor conventional religion recognizes that humans are not essentially different from the rest of nature. Both regard matter and the world of nature as “dumb.” Both assert that human beings are somehow special and stand apart from nature because, they say, only human beings—or at least creatures with brains and nervous systems—have consciousness or souls.

On the one hand, according to science, human consciousness “emerged” from dead, insentient matter. Nature itself is without any intrinsic meaning, value, or purpose because it has no consciousness. For science, there is no spirit in nature. Humans are thus at odds with the rest of the world: We are intelligent, nature is dumb. By an accident of nature, we are special.

On the other hand, for many forms of religion we are special by divine fiat. God gave us souls so that we may survive and transcend the inevitable corruption of the flesh. Human consciousness, spirit, or soul is separate from the physical body, and the path to meaning and salvation is through prayer to a remote, transcendent God. Attention is focused elsewhere, either toward the heavens or toward priests, rabbis, or mullahs.

However, science may be seriously mistaken when it asserts that consciousness is a product of complex brains and that the rest of vital nature is a product of mindless, purposeless, unfeeling evolution. We may not be so special.

And as for religion, the path to the sacred may not be through priests or churches. In my experience, the sacred is all around us in nature—for example, in watching a sunset, playing with animals, walking through a forest or on a beach, swimming in the ocean, climbing a mountain, planting flowers or vegetables, filling our lungs with fresh air, smelling the mulch of rich nourishing soil, dancing through crackling autumn leaves, embracing a loved one, or holding the hand of a dying parent. The most direct way to God, I believe, is through touching and feeling the Earth and its inhabitants—being open to the expression of spirit in the most ordinary, as well as in the most awesome, events of daily life. The way to meaning in our lives is by reconnecting with the world of nature—through exuberant participation or through the stillness of meditation, just being present and listening. And when we do so, we hear, we feel, and we learn: We are not alone—we are not uniquely special.

Nature is sacred, inherently divine. As the ancient philosopher Thales said, “Nature is full of gods.”Today, we might say it is full of God, full of spirit, full of consciousness. Nature literally carries the wisdom of the world, a symphony of relationships between all its forms. Nature constantly “speaks”to us, and feels and responds to our stories. Simply breathing in rhythm with the world around us can be a potent form of prayer. We can open our hearts and pray to the “god of small things,” for God lives in pebbles and stones, in plants and insects, in the cells of our bodies, in molecules and in atoms. And by connecting with the God of small things, we can discover this is the same as “the god of all things,” great or small. Yes, God is in the heavens, but God is also in the finest grain of sand.

In the religion of nature—of a natural God—priests become shamans, the whole Earth becomes our church, and the vast cosmos our cathedral. In nature spirituality, the role of “priests” is not to be an intermediary between Heaven and Earth. Rather, they are guides teaching us to listen to the sacred language of nature—helping us open our minds and bodies to the messages rippling through the world of plants and animals, rocks and wind, oceans and forests, mountains and deserts, back yards and front porches.

In this view, all of nature, all bodies—from atoms to humans—tingle with the spark of spirit. But this is an uncommon view, called “panpsychism,” presenting a radical and controversial account of the relationship between bodies and minds, between matter and soul. True, the nature of mind or consciousness remains a deep mystery for science and philosophy. But success at healing the mind-body split so characteristic of our age depends, I believe, more on a revised understanding of the nature of matter.

Bruno and the Story of Matter

For most of Western history, the notion of matter was derived either from Plato’s dualism, where matter was imperfect and corrupt (common to mystical and religious traditions such as Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Christianity), or from Aristotle, who described matter as intrinsically passive, wholly dependent on extrinsic form to give it shape and dynamic (the view that underlies so much of modern science). For nearly two millennia, the Western world, and for the most part this meant Christendom, had adhered to Aristotle’s model of the cosmos, with the Earth, and therefore humankind, positioned at the center of the universe. This picture well suited Church doctrine about the relationship between nature, humanity, and God—a relationship that required the services of priests and bishops to intervene in the hierarchy between the divine and the mundane.

Only with the sixteenth-century arrival of Giordano Bruno do we get a view of matter that offers an alternative to the dualisms of Plato and Aristotle. A generation or so before Bruno, Copernicus had shocked the Church establishment by overturning Aristotle’s model, replacing it with a sun-centered cosmology. But Bruno, an excommunicated Dominican monk, was even more radical, and declared that not even the sun was at the center of the universe. “There is no center,” he said; the universe is acentric.

Copernicus was severely reprimanded for daring to overturn Aristotle and the geocentric model. By withholding publication of his ideas, Copernicus saved his skin from the horrors of the Holy Inquisition. However, Bruno, for his outrageous defiance of Church authority, was unceremoniously marched half-naked to the stake and burned alive in Rome, on February 17, 1600. Although Bruno’s insistence on the truth of his acentric cosmology was most likely the main reason for the Church’s extreme ire, his conception of the nature of matter was equally revolutionary, and equally subversive of Church authority.

Whereas Aristotle’s matter was passive and inert—without quality or quantity—Bruno’s matter was intrinsically active and self-informing. Form, the dynamic capacity for action and formation, was itself an intrinsic quality of matter, Bruno taught. His metaphysic, therefore, presented a thoroughly monistic view of the cosmos as composed of “intelligent matter,” which he called mater-materia (“matter mattering,” matter as the creative “womb” or “matrix” of all forms). This notion of “intelligent matter” is radically at odds with the dominant modern view.

With Bruno, therefore, we have a view of matter in which it is “animated” by its own intrinsic and essential soul. But Bruno’s “soul of matter” is far from the dualist’s “ghost in the machine,” a “something added” to matter to make it alive. In Descartes’ account, biological matter in humans is animated by God injecting an alien soul. Bruno’s matter, by contrast, is naturally organic and ensouled, and is itself intrinsically intelligent. In modern jargon, we might say that Bruno’s matter is “autopoietic,” self-organizing.

A New View of Mind and Matter

In this new (and very ancient) view, mind is neither outside nor inside matter, but is part of the very essence of matter—interior to its being. Mind, consciousness, or soul is that which is responsible for matter’s ability to become what it is—what Aristotle called entelechy (pronounced “en-tel-e-ky”).

This idea is out of favor in modern scientific and philosophical circles, where it is believed to be a throwback to prescientific cosmologies. However, I want to draw attention to entelechy because the idea fits so well when we begin to focus on the implications of the mind-body relation for practical human affairs—such as illness and health, and personal destiny. A worldview that acknowledges that meaning and purpose are in-trinsic to the very fabric of nature inevitably confronts the question: “How do we fit in?” How do individual human purposes fit in with the consciousness and purpose of nature or the cosmos itself? If consciousness goes all the way down—if my consciousness is rooted ultimately in the deeper or higher consciousness of reality itself—what might be the relationship between my personal consciousness and the transpersonal “Cosmic I”? Can I reconcile my belief and experience of free will with the idea that some larger or deeper purpose is guiding or directing us? What meaning do we give to free will if human acts of volition are individualized expressions of some greater creative impulse?

The idea of entelechy was revived earlier this century by philosophers and scientists, such as Hans Dreisch, to indicate a nonmechanistic vital force that urges an organism to self-fulfillment. Henri Bergson proposed a similar notion with élan vital, which he saw as a creative force pulsing through evolution, and responsible for the purposeful drives in all evolving organisms. Teilhard de Chardin also spoke of the “within” of things, a sort of psychic, subjective complement to the external forms and energy of atoms, cells, plants, and animals.

These later thinkers recognized that the conventional Darwinian view of evolution as the result of blind matter in motion (the mechanism of chance mutations in DNA) and external natural selection was inadequate to the task of explaining how evolution produces new species or how an individual organism develops its particular unique form from its single fertilized seed cell. Faced with such mysteries, philosophers, biologists, and psychologists have sought for alternative explanations to the dogmatism of mechanism and matter. It seems as if something else may be at work in evolution and in the unfolding of our personal lives. It is the entelechy of an acorn, for example, to be an oak tree; it is the entelechy of a baby to be a grown-up human being; it is every individual’s entelechy to be uniquely who he or she is.

In his dream work with clients, Jungian analyst Edward Whitmont recognized the presence of entelechy shaping the forms that arise in a person’s psyche (images and symbols) and soma (bodily illnesses and injuries). For Whitmont, entelechy complements and augments the current preference in Western philosophy, science, and medicine for purely physical determinism. The conventional notion of “determinism” reduces all life processes—including the operations of our psyches—to mechanistic causes. Such a science reduces us to little more than complex thinking machines, automatons—“accidental collocations of atoms” with no free will, no power to exercise choice against the random winds of fate.

In contrast, entelechy combines the sense of a “given” purpose with the sense of a freedom to resist or accept the unfolding of our unique purpose. We are not blindly driven or determined. Yet it is as if we were each dealt a specific hand of cards, and our task in life—Whitmont calls it our life’s “drama”—is to exercise our consciousness in how we “play” our hand. It invites the image of sailing a ship: The movement of the ship is constrained by its particular bulk, by the turbulence of the waves, by the ocean currents, and by the caprice of the winds—yet as captain and crew of our own ships (our self-consciousness blending with our unique entelechy or essence), we do have choice and power in the unfolding of our destiny. We must blow with the winds of fate; nevertheless, we have the option for what Buckminster Fuller called “trimtabbing”: making slight adjustments to the rudder that can result in major shifts of direction.

Working with his clients, Whitmont acknowledged that the dynamics of illness and healing (both psychological and somatic) are expressions of our inherent entelechy, our individual pulse of purpose informing us that we may be off-course and calling our attention to the need for a course correction, some adjustment in the forms of our life’s “drama.”

Ontologically, soma and psyche are all one reality—body and mind invariably go together. They go together not as two separate modes of being that mysteriously interact; they go together in the sense that body is implicit in mind, and vice versa. Physicist David Bohm expressed a similar idea when he spoke of phenomenal, explicate reality enfolded or implicit in the universal “holomovement” of the implicate order. As embodied beings, we experience both explicate body and implicate mind. And when we attempt to express (make explicit) this experience, we invariably introduce a conceptual dualism: We speak of body and mind as if they were separate and distinct. The mind-body problem arises only when we conflate this conceptual and linguistic dualism with an ontological dualism of substance.

As human beings, we are grounded in our bodies; they are our vehicles for the practical business of getting on with living. We are embodied beings. But our bodies are not separate from our consciousness; they are the media through which we experience our being-in-the-world, through which we experience ourselves and the world. Of course, this in no way implies that our bodies or brains generate consciousness, as various forms of materialism claim. On the contrary, our bodies are particular expressions of the entelechy—the intrinsic organizing principle—that we happen to be.

Listening to Nature’s Story

Given this radical view of the relationship between mind and body, between consciousness and matter, the implications for philosophy and science are far reaching. In Radical Nature, I trace the lineage of the idea that the cosmos itself is, literally, the unfolding of a great story. The evolution of galaxies, stars, and planets, and everything that populates them is nothing less than the intrinsic narrative and great adventure of matter—of matter that feels, matter with a divine purpose. Matter really is adventurous, and evolution is its unfolding epic drama. And, as the bard said, we, too, must play our part.

I think we need a broader view of who we are, where we come from, and how we fit into the world. We need a new story beyond the usual dogmas of science and religion. We need a story where humanity is at home in nature—a story that reconnects us to the Earth, and to the wider cosmos. We need a story where human consciousness is not a stranger in the world but is simply a natural part of a world that itself tingles with spirit to its deepest roots—all the way down. We need a story where the flesh of the Earth—the entire world of matter—is recognized to be sentient and intelligent.

The simple fact is that we are conscious, intelligent beings embedded in an intelligent world. We are conscious beings because we arise from a world that is itself conscious all the way down. We live in a world brim-full of consciousness, brim-full with meaning and messages for us. But our ears no longer hear. We, most of us, no longer listen. For us, the stones have fallen silent.

We need to learn to listen again to the messages in nature, to let its deep meaning nourish us. We need to learn to feel our kinship with the vast, natural world—with the rooted folk, with the crawling,burrowing, flying, running, hopping, swimming, climbing folk. We need to be open to the deep intelligence of the world. We need to recognize the sacredness of nature. And we begin by acknowledging that matter itself—the very “stuff” of the world, whether here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos—tingles with consciousness, sparkles with spirit. Not just human brains, but all the cells in our bodies pulse with purpose and intelligence—and so it is in all the cells of all the other creatures, and in the molecules in those cells, in the atoms in those molecules, in the electrons and protons in the atoms, in the quarks or quanta or superstrings or whatever lies at the root of the world of matter. Wherever there is matter, there is some kind of mind.


  • Bohm, David. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.

  • Russell, Bertrand. “A Free Man’s Worship.” In The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell 1903–1959, ed. R. E. Egner and L. D. Dennon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.

  • Whitmont, Edward. The Alchemy of Healing: Psyche and Soma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1994.

Christian de Quincey, PhD, is managing editor of IONS Review, a professorof Consciousness Studies at John F. Kennedy University, and an international speaker on consciousness, spirituality, and philosophy of mind at conferences and workshops in the United States and Europe. This article is adapted from his new book Radical Nature: Rediscovering the Soul of Matter (Invisible Cities Press, 2002), which is available through IONS’ Website at . Samples of his work on consciousness and cosmology are available on his Website, . This article is reprinted with permission of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and originally appeared in IONS Review, no. 60 (June-August 2002). Further information is available at .

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