The Music of the Universe
by Julie J. Morley
There is one simple Divinity found in all things, one fecund Nature, preserving mother of the universe insofar as she diversely communicates herself, casts her light into diverse subjects, and assumes various names. Giordano Bruno
All things share the same breath—the beast, the tree, the man. The air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. Chief Seattle
Awakening to a symphony of birdsong is one of life’s great pleasures. On a spring morning, the variety of elaborate birdcalls often breaks through my still-sleepy awareness. Tuning into the blend of tonal signatures, I can hear nature’s ever-present orchestration. Birdsong lets me know that our biosphere continues to flourish and renew itself. In one of the most important books of our age, Silent Spring, biologist Rachel Carson warned that a spring without birdsong signals the devastation of our fragile ecosystem. The dawn chorus, when birds once again greet the sun, reminds me that relationships sustain life, so I hear their music as a sacred call to awaken to the beauty of our world and to remember that each unique song contributes to life’s sentient symphony.
Intricate relationships surround us, exchanging information in a chorus of intelligent humming, singing, chirping, shrieking, and signaling. Birds communicate about mating, territory, and food, much as we do through our language and technology. Busily feeding on seeds, worms, and insects, the avian world communicates through various sounds, vibrations, visual displays, and chemical signals. Ubiquitous bacteria and other microbes communicate chemically through various means, such as peptides, auto-inducers, signal molecules, and bioluminescence. At every scale, an invisible and complex fabric of signals and meanings arranges itself through communication, building sacred relationships—weaving the rhythmic, pulsing music of creation.
Navajo, or Diné (the word that in their language means “the people”), spirituality holds that everything is animated by niłch’i diyin, roughly translated to English as “holy wind,” the animating breath that imbues everything with spirit. According to Diné teachings, this holy wind communicates essential wisdom, and connects every aspect of the universe.
Over time, early intuitions about a shared animating source developed into philosophical panpsychism: the view that sentience occurs throughout all levels of the universe. Panpsychism comes from ancient Greek words pan, meaning “all,” and psychē, meaning “breath, spirit, or soul”—reminiscent of the Navajo holy wind. Life thrives in our oxygen-rich atmosphere, circulated through breathing, giving rise to the idea of one source, one creator spirit. All beings share in the universal breath and sentience of the Creator.
Contemporary Western philosophy and science reject this view. According to modern scientific materialism, sentience emerges from complex brains, which are rare in the universe. This creates a gap between humans and everything else, perpetuating vicious cycles of life-denying ecological and sociological practices. Human exceptionalism, the idea that humans are special, makes sacred relationship with the natural world impossible, leading to widespread desacralization, or disenchantment of the world.
In contemplating the Anthropocene, dystopian blight plunges us further into denial as we try to escape its frightening implications. Nevertheless, the idea of dystopia consumes us so much that most of our science fiction conveys the worst scenarios possible. Our visions of the future are pretty bleak; it seems difficult to speculate about a different possible scenario. Feminist scholar Donna J. Haraway, in her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene, says that she does not consider herself a posthumanist or transhumanist but rather a “compost humanist”: in this uncertain age, extreme co-creative interdisciplinary and interspecies projects might engage in “speculative fabulation for flourishing,” much like the diverse ingredients that enrich a compost heap.1 The idea that we can co-create other possible futures across cultures, disciplines, and species also forms a major part of sacred futurism. This book attempts to speculate about how changing and expanding our ideas changes and expands our possible futures. Enriching our co-creative soil enriches our possibility.
Spiritual teacher Thomas One Wolf once said to me: “Humans lost many powers that nonhuman animals still have. Eagles can see a mouse miles away. Elk can hear the snap of a tiny twig in the distance. Wolves can smell what you’re feeling. That’s why we seek their guidance with respect.” Our indigenous ancestors knew that human intelligence has limitations, and that attuning to the hum of intelligence everywhere is crucial for the flourishing of all sentient beings—including us humans. Their philosophy embraced asking other creatures for guidance and wisdom through connection. The Anthropocene’s complex and wicked problems require that we become compassionately and respectfully curious about the knowledge systems of other species.
Eastern philosophy and spirituality avoided Western Platonic dualism by adopting forms of idealism (the belief that ultimate reality consists of pure spirit or consciousness) or panpsychism (the view that reality consists of inseparable matter and spirit). For example, Shinto, the indigenous spirituality of Japan dating from the sixth century BCE, held a panpsychist view that all things in nature are imbued with kami, divine beings or spiritual essence. Shintoism respects the spirit in every being.
In Navajo spirituality, diyin din’e refers to “holy people,” recognizing natural elements and phenomena as divine beings. For instance, rain, thunder, lightning, and sun are all personified (or sentified), and so invite respect for nature’s omnipresent intelligence. Many Native American cultures consider stones not as clumps of dead matter, but as Stone People, trees not as convenient shade and lumber, but Tree People, and ants not as destructive insects, but Ant People. Thomas One Wolf suggested to me that through these names his people have always acknowledged the essential power intrinsic to all of nature’s forms. Rather than anthropomorphizing, this denotes deep respect for the personhood of other creatures. Biologist and science writer John A. Shivik suggests that we might “zoomorphize” to understand how nonhuman behaviors might teach us about our own.2 Calling other animals people also acknowledges the possibility that they possess abilities we lack. Can humans echolocate? Can we see in the ultraviolet range? Can we smell each other’s feelings? Can we navigate by magnetoreception? No, but other species can. Perhaps these amazing people have something to teach us. As we awaken from our Cartesian sleep, we may expand our senses and listen more deeply to the more-than-human world. Thomas One Wolf called this “listening with the heart’s ears.”
Earth scholar and theologian Thomas Berry noted that we humans have stopped listening, stopped conversing with the greater world: “We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers; we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation.”3 The great conversation continues all around us and within us; being oblivious to the rhythm of that conversation alienates us, makes us out of tune. Attuning to the deep language and music present everywhere heals our world from the inside.
Only recently have Western scholars begun to wake up from Cartesian sleep. As recently as July 2012, a group of the world’s leading scientists and philosophers (including famed cosmologist, the late Stephen Hawking) signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness:
The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.4
This declaration stands in sharp contrast to the Cartesian delusion that nonhuman animals are simply mechanisms without feelings or emotions. Descartes was so sure of this that he justified vivisection—experimentation on live animals—attributing their screams to nothing more than mechanical reaction, like parts of a machine creaking and screeching. Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, would later revile Descartes for this legacy of cruelty.
Descartes’s influence on Western philosophy created horrific research practices that have undoubtedly benefited humans. Awakening from Cartesian sleep reveals to us that many creatures possess cultures and language, the ability to create, love, and mourn. The implications of this will require transition away from animal-research models. Obviously, many of us depend upon discoveries made this way, but as we become more acutely aware of nonhuman sentience, these methods will have to change. Transformations of this magnitude always catalyze transitions.
Intelligence and Wisdom
Medicine people, or shamans, specialize in shapeshifting: taking the form of certain animals in order to better understand the world from their perspective. I call this wanting to know what it’s like for other species perspectival wisdom. Many ancient peoples felt that nonhuman intelligence often surpassed human intelligence. Raptors, for instance, can see much farther than humans, and the olfactory sense of canines reveals information about the world we cannot fathom. Indigenous peoples respect the superior senses of other beings, and spend time learning by studying their unique gifts.
Norse myths and Native American creation stories portray ravens and crows as exceedingly clever tricksters who symbolize ingenuity and connections between worlds. Scientists, for their part, have recently discovered that corvids, such as crows and ravens, have enlarged forebrains and intricate neural networks, making them capable of complex logic, emotions, and play.5 Crows and ravens hold a special place in my heart because of their creativity, curiosity, and playfulness.
In ancient Greece, dolphins were considered sacred, and by law dolphins had the same rights as humans. Killing a dolphin was a capital offense. According to legend, the god Apollo assumed the form of a dolphin when creating his most sacred temple at Delphi. Dolphins show up in many mythologies around the world as divine beings with superior intelligence and telepathy. Sacred sites dedicated to dolphins dot the Australian coastline. Aboriginal medicine men in northern Australia were thought to possess telepathic connection with bottlenose dolphins that maintained the flourishing of the tribe.6 The Tlingit of the Pacific Northwest and the Maori of New Zealand both revere the orca as a powerful ally. Ancient indigenous peoples related to cetaceans as beings of great intelligence—something modern science has just begun to acknowledge.
We now know that cetaceans use tools, have linguistic ability, and possess self-awareness. Some researchers now argue that they meet the social and cognitive requirements for having cultures.7 The Helsinki Group, founded in 2010, released the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins. India’s government recently announced that dolphins should be considered “nonhuman persons” and banned their use in theme parks.
Lori Marino, a neurobiologist and president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, argues for the personhood of cetaceans. Her research suggests that the cetacean cerebral cortex evolved along a different evolutionary trajectory than that of other mammals, and that the structural complexity of cetacean brains indicates social-emotional sophistication greater than that of other mammals, including humans.8
Octopuses have lately made news as possible aliens that made it to Earth through panspermia. (Panspermia is a theory that life on Earth, or at least some of it, was essentially transplanted here through microbe-bearing asteroids, comets, meteors, and other vectors.) We don’t know enough to confirm panspermia (though it is a fascinating theory), but whatever the case, genetic studies show that octopuses have “alien” DNA, meaning it is unlike any other on Earth. In 2015, a study published in Nature suggested that what makes cephalopods, especially octopuses, unique is the rapid evolution of large and complex nervous systems.9 Octopuses have developed many unique adaptations, including cromatophores, which are cells that allow them to camouflage themselves instantly and perfectly. They possess a unique neurology, a large brain, and ladderlike ganglia that distributes their “thinking” into their eight arms. Their arms literally have minds of their own.
Octopuses, aside from being “alien” earthlings, are also clever, creative, curious, and playful. Naturalist writer Sy Montgomery recently shared engaging stories about her emotional experiences with her fascinating cephalopod friends in The Soul of an Octopus. She unfolds her story of connection with a few octopuses (possessing very different personalities) over time, and the gift of deeper understanding they gave her of “what it means to think, to feel, and to know.” She points out that octopuses, and many other creatures, possess similar hormones to those of humans: “Whether a person or a monkey, a bird or a turtle, an octopus or a clam, the physiological changes that accompany our deepest-felt emotions appear to be the same.”10 Perhaps a great lesson that encounters with diverse nonhuman souls teach us is that we are deeply connected by our shared feelings.
Encounter, or experiencing the more-than-human world through shared feeling and meaning, means that we connect to other beings as fellow subjective centers through interspecies intersubjectivity (I will expand this idea in chapters 8 and 9), rather than through supposedly neutral objective empiricism.
Indigenous people have always associated intelligence with plant life as well. Many non-Western cultures believe that plants hold “spirit wisdom” that humans can access in altered states of consciousness for medicinal and spiritual knowledge. Renowned for their life-giving qualities, many plants serve as teachers and guides. By contrast, science rejects any notion of plant intelligence and views our photosynthesizing kin merely as a means to human ends—such as food or sources of pharmaceuticals. This view is changing with new research and revelations.
A group of visionary plant neurobiologists now recognize that plants communicate through intricate webs of electrochemical signals, similar to what happens in the nervous systems of animals. “This system includes long-distance electrical signals, vesicle-mediated transport of auxin in specialized vascular tissues, and production of chemicals known to be neuronal in animals.” In other words, something comparable to nervous systems and brains govern decisions and communication in plants, as well.11 (See chapter 8, “Creative Synergy.”)
The scientific community generally dislikes and discourages applying neurobiology to plants. One well-known plant physiologist stated that scientists who compare plant systems to brains are guilty of “over-interpretation of data, teleology, anthropomorphizing, philosophizing, and wild speculations.”12 These watchwords appear whenever scientists react to a paradigm shift that redefines our place in the universe. If we assume that nature teems with sentience and intelligence, the scientific community dismisses such ideas as a return to what they consider the dark ages of animism. However, it seems to me that before we can reenter the cosmic conversation, and remember how to sing the song of sacred relationship, we need to acknowledge the widespread presence of intelligence in the universe. Environmental critic Bruno Latour suggests that one of the great enigmas of Western history is not that there are people “naïve enough” to believe in animism, but rather that people still naively believe in a “deanimated ‘material world.’”13 Animism turns out to be saner than mechanism; not a naïve return to superstition, but rather, a mature re-integration into the intrinsic wisdom present throughout an entirely animate world.
Before we search for nonhuman intelligence, we need to ask, what is intelligence? Intelligence derives from a Latin compound of inter, meaning “between,” and legere, meaning “to select” or “choose.” The ancient roots of the word imply the ability to make choices. Intelligence at this time is generally defined as the ability to learn and apply that learning to different situations. With this understanding, we can see that intelligence operates at different scales in nature. For example, recent discoveries reveal that even microscopic single-celled organisms such as paramecia employ strategies to search for food. Quorum sensing among some species of bacteria and insects are other examples of intelligence at even the smallest scales of life. Given discoveries like this, some scientists are rethinking previously held positions on intelligence and communication in other species. This perspectival wisdom has been practiced by indigenous peoples for many thousands of years. Instead of assuming that other beings think as we do, it makes more sense to consider what it might be like to be them, and how we might be expanded by a more dimensional understanding of other intelligence as fascinating as—or perhaps more fascinating than—our own.
As humans begin to awaken to an animate and sentient universe, our attitude toward reality will change accordingly, and so will our systems. Humanity’s assumed priority and dominance will give way to the recognition that our particular form of sentience is just one evolutionary choice among many. It is up to us to make it a good choice by contributing to the overall flourishing of our shared world.
By positing sentience “all the way down,” panpsychism could inform and sustain our survival by encouraging a respect for the intrinsic sentience and interrelatedness of all species. Panpsychism, especially process-oriented panpsychism, which I will discuss below, gives primacy to the sacred relationships that regenerate the great conversation, the deep music that resonates through our animate world.
Donna Haraway calls this new world of interspecies relations Terrapolis and describes it as “ripe for multispecies storytelling.”14 Multispecies storytelling means that our story is one of many, a song of many songs. Humans are not special; rather, every species, and every individual in that species, has its unique personality and voice in the great conversation. Every being has its special instrument to play. If we listen deeply, we understand when and how to play our part, and how better to improvise together.