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What If the Earth Was Conscious?

Functional consciousness ( Intelligence) versus  phenomenal consciousness (Qualia)

Functional consciousness ( Intelligence) versus phenomenal consciousness (Qualia)

This article is (hopefully informed) speculation. One assumption here is that consciousness requires intelligence but intelligent behaviour does not require consciousness. A second assumption is that an entity that is conscious must be able to experience something other than itself. If a planet is conscious it will not have agency, being confined to orbit round a star and the laws of Physics. The lack of agency is mitigated if planets have a language, the long lifetime of a planet compensating for the long time (on a human scale) needed for communication.

Intelligence on a Planetary Scale

Recently Adam Frank, David Grinspoon and Sara Walker suggested that Earth is intelligent, and that intelligence on a planetary scale is a result of interconnections and feedback loops between collectives of various species.

Their underlying premises seem to be Substrate Independence, the notion that consciousness can manifest in any suitable physical host, a connectionist view of consciousness and taking these interconnections as analogous to the dendrites connecting neurons in the human brain, that is that the earth is like a skull with a brain on top of it – the underlying ball of rock being assumed to lack consciousness.

Thagard has argued that energy requirements can undermine the case for substrate independence in a number of situations but, since the earth is bathed in radiation from the sun and has energy from its core it seems hard to argue against terrestrial global consciousness on the grounds by denying that substrate independence holds here.

Frank et Al carefully avoid the notion that the earth may be conscious in possessing perceptions (qualia) the way humans do, when we for example look at a red triangle. Artificial intelligence gives examples of apparently intelligent behaviour by systems that cannot reasonably be said to be conscious.

They give examples of intelligent collective behaviour by various species. The important question is whether such collectives are themselves conscious, that is do they possess qualia. If they are not conscious then they are examples of what David Chalmers calls panpsychist zombies which undermines a materialist view of reality. If they are conscious then we can ask whether the entire planet, or at leat the totality of living beings on it, is conscious.

Frank et al use terms like “cognition” in a way that implicitly assumes consciousness. Give the example of collective systems that appear to act like conscious individuals and that it is not possible to determine whether an intelligent entity is also conscious, it will be assumed that the planet as a whole is conscious, even perhaps including the current anthropic technosphere. Even though this seems to be headed on a potentially suicidal path, or at least one that will reduce humans to a much more primitive level.

Implications of Planetary Consciousness

If we adopt an emergentist view that consciousness arises from interactions between Neurons we can postulate that planet is not only intelligent but conscious.

If the planet is NOT conscious then it seems to be a philosopher’s zombie and according to Chalmers conceivability argument, materialism or more generally physicalism, fails, leaving the field open to dualism, panpsychism and Kastrups’s theory of the brain as a receiver for universal consciousness,

If the planet is conscious what would that imply?

To me it seems consciousness entails knowledge of something other than oneself. It would. also seem strange for a conscious entity to lack agency. A planet would be like a rider on a fairground roundabout unable to do anything other than communicate with neighbouring riders or people on other rides. Collective creatures like siphonophores, which hunt, and slime moulds show that it given agency, the ability to decide ones actions, the ability to communicate is not so important – a hunter need not talk to its prey.

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Language is not needed if you are the only thing in the universe (solipsism), but would seem helpful, if not necessary to an intelligent planet.

Trees and whales talk to each other in ways we cannot understand, perhaps planets also talk to each other. Given the speed of light barrier and the long lifetimes of planets it is likely a conversation between planets and between planets and the sun ( if the sun were also conscious) would be very slow to humans but could be rapid fire to a planet, with a slight delay contacting say Alpha Centauri (some four light years away) but this would be almost instantaneous to a being with a lifespan of billions of years.

In Conclusion

The planet may be conscious. If it is, other planets, if they have life, may be conscious. At present we don’t know of life on any other planets but there is no a priori reason to think there are no other planets that harbour life. Thus there is no reason to think there are no unconscious planets. The peculiarity of consciousness without agency can be mitigated if planets have a language and converse in ways strange to us, for example by modulating gravitational waves or by changes in albedo. Whether the universe is conscious is an argument for another time.

Further reading

    1. Intelligence as a planetary scale process

Adam Frank, David Grinspoon and Sara Walker

Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 February 2022

      1. Energy Requirements Undermine Substrate Independence and Mind-Body Functionalism

Paul Thagard Philosophy Department, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada

      1. Panpsychism and Panprotopsychism

David J. Chalmers

Amherst lectures in Philosophy, Lecture 2013

      1. A Paradigm-Breaking Hypothesis for Solving the Mind-Body Problem, Bernardo Kastrup,

Paranthropology 3 (3) July 2012 page 4

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