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From Matter to Mind
Theories about the Emergence of Mind out of Matter
an integration of texts by Beatrix Murrell and Kris Roose
with an overview of some major Western theorists on that subject

Matter about Mind by Mark Van Boom


The enriched naturalist hypothesis about the "Stuff if the Universe" states that all existing systems and beings in the universe are built up of "ordinary matter", and that the "mind", i.e. conscious and other "animated" phenomena could be considered as a kind of biological software. In the past centuries, however, those undeniable "mental" phenomena seemed too complex to be explanable by "simple" materialistic processes, and a second nature, "mind", with all kinds of variants from souls to paranormal beings, was hypothesized, already in ancient Egyptian times and probably long before (animism). Since psychoanalysis and computer times, the need for such a supranatural hypothesis seems obselete.

Still, an important question remains unsolved. From an evolutionary standpoint, one could presume that the transition from "dead" photons and atoms to intelligent and conscious beings probably is progressive. But nothing of this presumed intelligence seems observable in systems and beings before the animal state. So, some authors including Teilhard, Bohm and Chaisson, suggest less observable but probably still unidentified realities as the Within, Energies and/or the mystical concept Information, so new "evidence" seemed to become available to support a new kind of supranatural substance.

Could we think of some integrative approach, respecting the elements brought in by these outstanding authors, but without leaving the enriched naturalist hypothesis? Let's first have a look to some modern theories, suggesting  some kind of supranatural substance.

Major 20th Century Theories


In 1900, the German physicist Max Planck had originated the theory of quantum mechanics, a "theory of energy as emanated in discrete packets called quanta." And "Einstein took up Planck's ideas... [and] going a step further assumed that light was itself quantized." [1] and [2] Later David Bohm, also one of the world's premier theoretical physicists, described this "immense background of energy" as the plenum of the universe. For him, the energy of this ground was likened to be one whole and unbroken movement, which --within his theory of the Implicate Order-- he called the "holomovement."


It was Albert Einstein, the physicist best known for his work on Relativity, who altered our notions about energy. His effort changed our perceptions of space, time, motion, matter and energy. His formula that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared impacted upon old concepts and made us come to realize that we were dealing with a far more mysterious, far more multifaceted universe than we had previously supposed.

Teilhard de Chardin

And it was the paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who described this cosmic energy almost in the mode of poetry:

"In the discovery of the sideral world, so vast that it seems to do away with all proportion between our own being and the dimensions of the cosmos around us, only one reality seems to survive and be capable of succeeding and spanning the infinitesimal and the immense: energy...that floating universal entity from which all emerges and into which all falls back as into an ocean; energy... the new spirit; energy...the new god." [3]
Teilhard was one of the first to consider that this underlying cosmic plenum, this energy world, though never apart from our universal reality, is a special realm. For Teilhard this energetic plenum that not only undergirds but penetrates matter is somehow that which also *informs* the explicate level of creation.

Teilhard refers to this energy world as the "Within in the heart of things." The exterior world is underlined with an interior one! He links this Within with enfoldment. He stresses that the very individualization of the earth suggests that "a certain mass of elementary consciousness was originally imprisoned in the matter of the earth." Teilhard is alluding to a kind of embedded cosmic intelligence or encoded information.


Teilhard's supposition evidently did not seem too "far out" for physicist David Bohm, who died recently. Following a venerable career at the University of California (Berkeley), at Princton's Institute of Advanced Study, at Israel's Technion, Bohm moved on to become the Chair of Theoretical Physics at Birkbeck College of the University of London. During his later years he linked a formidable knowledge of the history and philosophy of science to his keen experience as a physicist.

But let us return to Bohm's theoretical support to Teilhard's idea of an elemental consciousness, of a kind of cosmic intelligence or information embedded within the energy that underlies and moves through matter.

Referring to quantum theory, Bohm's basic assumption is that "elementary particles are actually systems of extremely complicated internal structure, acting essentially as amplifiers of information contained in a quantum wave." As a conseqence, he evolved a new and controversial theory of the universe--a new model of reality that Bohm calls the "Implicate Order," which is his term for this mysterious "Within," this plenum, this special realm that underlies all of the universe. And for Bohm, it is this special realm --this Implicate Order-- that acts upon us, informs us who live in the explicate world.

For Bohm everything that is and will be in this cosmos is enfolded within the Implicate Order. There is a special cosmic movement that carries forth the process of enfoldment and unfoldment (into the explicate order). This process of cosmic movement, in endless feedback cycles, creates an infinite variety of manifest forms and mentality. 


And Teilhard put it similarly: "In the world, nothing could ever burst forth as final across the different thresholds successively traversed by evolution which has not already existed in an obscure and primordial way." [4]

By its energetic self-creativity, the Universe created its many varieties of macrosystems. Eric Chaisson puts forth this story nicely. An astrophysicist currently on faculty at Tufts University, Chaisson previously served as senior scientist and division head at the Space Telescope Science Institute of Johns Hopkins University and was also affiliated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

Earlier the state of disorder, chaos, in the Universe allowed for a maximum entropy and equilibrium was destroyed because of the then de-coupling of energy and matter. But eventually the very expansion of the Universe resulted in a transfer from the Energy Era into the Matter Era, a time when it became manifest in galaxies, stars, planets. Chaisson believes this cosmic evolution into the Matter Era was a result of information that drives order from chaos.

Chaisson realizes that this information behind manifestation in the Universe has barely begun to be deciphered. But, he states that

"we can now identify the essence of the development of natural macroscopic systems --ordered physical structures able to assimilate and maintain information by means of local reductions in entropy-- in a Universe that was previously unstructured in the extreme." [5]
Moving from a thermodynamic equilibrium towards an increasing "negentropy" (information), the Universe began to give rise to complexity --albeit in a gross fashion during the Matter Era-- according to Chaisson. Now it is this negentropy (information) that led the way towards generating considerable amounts of order into the Life Era. For Chaisson this negentropy was necessary to "justify the emergence of structures as complex as a single cell, let alone the neural architecture of the human brain." [6] 

It is out of this new reign of the Life Era that Mind has emerged. Chaisson is not just considering Mind anthropocentrically, but rather that special ability that came forth through the evolutionary changes that produced "particles, galaxies, stars, planets, biochemicals, lives, and cultures." 

Another way of illustrating this great cosmic progression of energetic information into Matter and Life is to follow the rungs of our great universal ladder, beginning with...  Plasma unto Energy Particle, to Star, to Element, to Compound, to Crystal, to Informational Molecule, to Cellular Organism, to Multicellular Organism, to Ecosystem, to Learning, to Self, to Sentience, to Experience, to Mind, to Thought, to Person, to Society, to Culture, to World History.

In a nutshell, it would seem that our's is an informed, evolving universe! The magic component in this story, whether it's about us or whether about the whole universe, is energy.

But how does such information reach us? There's the idea of cognitive maps, which philosophers and psychologists consider. Such cognitive maps boil down to our viewpoints, our worldviews (paradigms), essentially to a blueprint of our understanding and relationship with this special realm, this Plenum of the Universe.

Down through our own line of history, we have had our prophets and avatars who have intuited these imaginal seeds of information. They have helped us to define and refine our cognitive maps. And Jesus, too, can be counted as a carrier of this great unfolding blueprint that serves to help us more effectively to live with one another, to understand our role and place, to grasp better our cosmic home, and to relate with this majestic Plenum, this Special Presence, this energy.

Trying to make an integration

Matter and/or Energy

I think that, since Einstein, there is no longer a need to separate matter from energy. Even the mathematical relation (E = m.c2 ) suggests their intimate relationship, and one could consider both as two observable aspects of one reality. Most probably, as with many "objective" images we have about reality, these two manifestations are only different in our imagination, but not so in reality. Perhaps energy could be defined as matter in action, and matter as energy at rest. One can, if one prefers, take each of both terms as "fundamental" and declare that everything is energy, matter being nothing more than something that emerged or condensed from energy. Impressed by the relentless activities and processes in the universe and in our daily life, to state that energy is more fundamental than matter seems obvious. Matter apparently only suggests eternal and unchanging, frozen and dead things. But I think that neither concept should prevail above the other: both are useful manifestations of the ultimate stuff, that we can't yet properly conceptualize.

Energy and information

Interaction always implies energetic processes. But one should differentiate between macro-energy and micro-energy. The transfer of macro-energy changes something in the structure of the receiving system, and most often also in the active system: a glass breaks, a house collides, a sacrificed animal dies. One can also speak about a macro-effector macro-impulse. On the other hand, a micro-effect doesn't change something significantly in the structure of the receiving system, and passes as the wind blowing against a strong tree or a voice yelling in the desert, unless the receiving system contains an intelligent subsystem which is sensible for (that kind of) micro-impulses, and which starts interpretation processes that can eventually start up some macro-energetic reaction.

When one speaks about energy as a kind of information, this will always be a kind of micro-energy, although, of course, an intelligent system also can interpret the meaning of macro-events, and even conscious intentions, if any, lying behind these events.

But a micro-effect is useless and ineffective if there is no intelligent subsystem that can interpret it. Moreover, the meaning of that micro-energetic signal entirely depends from this interpretative subsystem. There is no information as such: no information without interpreter, is one of the fundamental laws of communication. So it seems, at this point, senseless to speak about information isolated from intelligence.

Structure and information

But there is another, very important way by which experience, information and consciousness can be transfered: structuration. Let's take an example. When you look to the inventive structure of a boat, the shape of her hull, the form of rudder and helm, the position and dimensions of the sail, the function of strings and ropes, everything is cleverly organized to ineract with the forces of nature, sometimes using them, sometimes protecting the boat and her crew against some dangerous forces of nature. One could say that the boat, on herself, doesn't have any intelligence, information or programme. But its whole structure reflects generations and centuries of experience. Although we can't see any intelligence, let alone any consciousness, the whole structure reflects a long experience, reflects even a certain intelligence, at least traces of it.

The structure of a boat, a tool, an atom, a molecule, etc., enable, enhance or prevent some events. There is nothing central or organizing in such a "tool", but its very structure directs possibilities and impossibilities. The structure is comparable with a kind of code, regulating the functioning. It is a kind of memory of the past experiences, recalling what functions and what doesn't.

Of course, these "intelligent structures" develop from an interaction of trial and error. One should tend to think that coincidence, trial and error, i.e. the laws of nature in general fix what happens and what can't happen. But this is too simple as a conclusion: the laws of nature didn't change with the emergence of atoms or boats. But there was an often important change in reality with th eemergemce of those "intelligent" structures, that undeniably created enormous new possibilities.

So we may conclude that it is a kind of "intelligence", hidden in these structures. I'm not suggesting a kind of soul matter, but just the observable result and the effective accumulation of a long experience and many trials and errors --the way intelligence emerges...

One could thus conceive that the most primitive form of  "organization", the fore-runner of intelligent regulation, is to be found in the very structure of inanimate systems and organisms. Electrons, protons, atoms etc. can't just arrive at each possible location: their possibilities are in fact rather narrow and limited, and these restrictions and possibilities are entirely arranged by an interaction of gravity, electromagnetic charge, spatial limitations, all due to the very structure of this system. Although, at this level, there is no intelligence nor consciousness about the "activities" of the systems which are organized by these structural limitations and possibilities, one can't say that there is no organizating principle, or no fruit of experience.

My suggestion is that structure, rather than information, is the most primitive form of regulation in universe, the fore-runner of centralized organization (in living systems) and consciousness (in men and noosphere).

From coded structures to structured codes

The next step in the regulation of evolutionary processes by accumulation of experiences, is the elaboration of DNA and its counterpart RNA. In the beginning, those chemical products only have a facilitating, "catalysing" effect: they perform by structurally enabling and enhancing structural changes. In viruses we see this well illustrated. Finally, a virus is just a little bit of DNA/RNA, able to direct some favourable environments towards one simple thing: the reproduction of the virus, i.e. reproducing structures that eventually will reproduce structures. More elaborate forms of living, the eobionts and the nucleate cell, refine this process to enable the system to produce by itself, to a high degree, the substances necessary for continuing existence in less favourable environments, and to reproduce itself as a whole. DNA is now confined to the kernel of the nucleus, in what eventually will be genes and chromosomes, whose role is more that of a code, of a kind of information: this is the transition form structural organization to coded, informative organization.

Being and Doing: the emergence of activity

Up to the level of the virus, in natural systems there's no difference between being and doing. A system either is passive, at most passively moving, or does something with its whole structure. With the emergence of eobionts, bacteries, at evolutionary level 7, we can make a distinction between being and doing, between structure and activity. Activity can be defined as reversible structural changes, letting the active organism unchanged, but performing changes in the environment. Structure will continue to evolve, but progressively activity becomes the most important evolutionary factor. One can state that, at level 9 (the current Noospheric level), structual changes (in man) are no longer of any importance: evolution proceeds purely by changing activities, and by psychological changes underlying those activity changes.

History as accumulated experience

With the development of metazoa, at evolutionary level 8, nature introduces a new, important strategy to accumulate its structural experiences: history. When new organisms are developing, it is not the newest structure that is immediately built up, but the developmental history is restarted at an accelerated speed. Hence the old biological law that ontogenesis (the development of the inidividual) retakes phylogenesis (the development of the evolutionary line form scratch). New experiential codes apparently are added to the existing genetical code: the number of chromosomes constantly increases from primitive to human beings.

From instincts via intelligence to consciousness

At the beginning, activity, as structure itself, is regulated by structural codes: instincts are neurological patterns, installed by chromosomial programmes. The have the simple form S -> R: if observable situation S occurs, reaction R automatically is elicited. Some of these patterns include the exchange of signals between animals, also called communication, allowing them to start useful actions at a more appropriate moment.

The next step is the emergence of learnability: new S-R-connections can be added to the behavioural program during life, but not transfered to other animals or generations (but for a little amount of copying by social and rearing interaction). This learnability is enhanced by some phenomena, including associability and an experimental reflex. Associability enables the transfer of learned skills to situations not exactly the same. The experimental reflex (or undirected activity) is a reflex in animals to try undirectedly a number of reactions, especially in dangerous or highly motivating situations. This strongly enhances the probability that they will "discover" new effective tricks and skills.

There are also Rupert Sheldrake's Morphogenetic Fields, but I don't know of any neurological pattern sensitive to it.

The next step is the extension of learnability by the elaboration of an ever increasing number of generalized, and then abstract hypotheses about our environment, and eventually life and cosmos in general. An animal just disposes of a collection of data and suppositions about things to happen around it. Homo starts by developing an insight about the mechanisms that provoke those events (that's consciousness), and about unrealized possibilities yet to realize (that's creativity).

The last boost, so far, for the development of intelligence and consciousness, is language. Although by this tool, signals can be exchanged as with animals, data (about unobserved parts of reality) as well as (generalized and abstract) knowledge can be communicated. Moreover, language probably enables selftalk, maximizing our abstracting and intelligent capacities.

This step is highly enabled by the development of a frontal lobe in the brain of primates and, most spectacularly in man (the most apparent difference between our species, Homo Cro-Magnon, and our closest predecessor, Homo Neanderthal, is our forehead with the frontal lobe behind). Although the strict funcationality of secondary and tertiary brain cortex regions is not yet exactly determined, one of the most important functions of this typically human device, is the prediction of possibilities and the evaluation of the long term effects of behaviour, so that intelligent choices can be made, and insight ( consciousness) no longer depends on coincidental experience, but can be developed by purely mental activity.

The emergence of abstract thinking and human communication is the very driving factor and means for the emergence of the Noosphere.


The question "how does consciousness emerge" is, in my feeling, a bad question, because it is an anthropomorphism. We don't ask about the food and the sexual life of atoms! Consciousness is only the very last stage in the development of a much more fundamental phenomenon, regulation or organization, and we don't have to look to conscious equivalents in pre-human systems, animate nor inanimate. Moreover, the development of consciousness is probably still in its early stages.

[1] Brian Swimme & Thomas Berry, THE UNIVERSE STORY, Harper Collins, 1992, p. 235.
[2] Heinz R. Pagels, THE COSMIC CODE: QUANTUM PHYSICS AS THE LANGUAGE OF NATURE, Bantam Books, 1963, p. 50.
[3] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, THE PHENOMENON OF MAN, Harper & Row, 1965, p. 258.
[4] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, THE PHENOMENON OF MAN, Harper & Row, 1965, p. 71
[5] Eric Chaisson, THE LIFE ERA: COSMIC SELECTION AND CONSCIOUS EVOLUTION, W.W. Norton & Company, 1987, p. 167.
[6] Eric Chaisson, THE LIFE ERA: COSMIC SELECTION AND CONSCIOUS EVOLUTION, W.W. Norton & Company, 1987, p. 167.

Created 29/04/02 as "Energetic Plenum" by Beatrix Murreland posted at the Teilhard eGroup. Introduction and comments added by Kris Roose 05.05.02