Is the Sun a Living Organism? A Return to Animism
The purpose of this article is to draw readers’ attention to a paper by biologist Rupert Sheldrake entitled ‘Is the Sun Conscious?’¹. As it is available online, and is relatively short, I don’t intend to discuss it in detail, but will randomly mention a few points relevant to themes of special interest to me: the reunification of science and religion, the Ancient Wisdom, a new paradigm in science, the nature of consciousness and related philosophies of panpsychism and idealism. I highly recommend that you read it in full, if you’re interested in such ideas.
Sheldrake is one of my scientific heroes. (I wrote a Medium article last year discussing his books.) He is at the cutting edge of a spiritual approach to science. Especially important is his The Rebirth of Nature: New Science and the Revival of Animism. He is also an advocate of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. Both of these are obviously relevant to the paper I’m discussing here. He has also dared (together with excommunicated Catholic Matthew Fox) to publish a book entitled The Physics of Angels.
Here is the abstract of the paper: “The recent panpsychist turn in philosophy opens the possibility that self-organizing systems at all levels of complexity, including stars and galaxies, might have experience, awareness, or consciousness. The organismic or holistic philosophy of nature points in the same direction. Meanwhile, field theories of consciousness propose that some electromagnetic fields actually are conscious, and that these fields are by their very nature integrative. When applied to the sun, such field theories suggest a possible physical basis for the solar mind, both within the body of the sun itself and also throughout the solar system. If the sun is conscious, it may be concerned with the regulation of its own body and the entire solar system through its electromagnetic activity, including solar flares and coronal mass ejections. It may also communicate with other star systems within the galaxy”.
Sheldrake begins by pointing out that, until the recent scientific and philosophical ‘Enlightenment’, “in almost all other societies and civilizations, including medieval Europe, the sun and other heavenly bodies were thought to be alive and intelligent. Our ancestors lived in an animistic world. The earth, sun, planets, and stars were living beings… For Plato, and for many philosophers after him, the sun, planets, and stars were ‘visible gods’, endowed with souls and intelligences”.
Sheldrake goes on to remark that “the question of solar consciousness takes on a new significance in the light of the recent revival of interest in the philosophy of panpsychism. Like traditional animists, panpsychists argue that mind, or experience, or forms of consciousness, or awareness, are aspects of nature at many levels of organization, and are not confined to brains”. (Sheldrake quotes philosopher Philip Goff who in Galileo’s Error felt compelled to contemplate panpsychism because of the inability of scientists and philosophers to solve the hard problem of consciousness. I am not a panpsychist myself, although I think panpsychism is going in the right direction.)
Sheldrake then has a section on the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who “was the first philosopher to recognize the radical implications of quantum physics”. He “thought of the physical world as made up not of material objects but events… All physical objects are processes”. Whitehead was also one of the principal pioneers of the holistic or organismic philosophy of nature, according to which: “Everywhere we look in nature, at every level and scale, we find wholes that are made up of parts, which are themselves wholes at a lower level: for example crystals are made up of molecules; molecules of atoms; atoms of nuclei and electrons; atomic nuclei of protons and neutrons, and protons and neutrons of quarks. Organisms are made up of organs; organs of tissues; tissues of cells (and so on)… Galactic clusters are made up of galaxies; galaxies of solar systems; solar systems of stars and planets”.
Sheldrake calls these organized systems where the whole includes the parts nested hierarchies, and relates them to Arthur Koestler’s important concept of the holon, “for such wholes made up of parts that are themselves wholes”. He concludes that this holistic philosophy of nature “inevitably raises the possibility that the sun and other stars might be conscious”.
He then discusses electromagnetic field theories, which imply top-down causation, for example the magnetic field of an iron bar magnet, and gravitational fields. Top-down rather than bottom-up causation is an important concept in a spiritual understanding of the universe.
Sheldrake then discusses the dark matter problem familiar to cosmologists. He mentions the work of Fritz Zwicky, who in the 1930s studied the movements of galaxies within galactic clusters and realized that the clusters could not be held together by normal gravitation. Galaxies were attracting each other too strongly. The force holding them together seemed to be much greater than the gravitational pull of visible matter could explain”. He says that Zwicky’s results were “ignored for decades, but were taken seriously when it became apparent that the orbits of stars within galaxies could not be explained by the gravitational attraction of known kinds of matter”. Despite the assumed existence of dark matter, “all attempts to detect it experimentally have failed”.
This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the dark matter problem might have a non-physical explanation. For example, esotericist Douglas Baker says: “The dark matter and energy now being probed by modern science are the mental matter and energies known to ancient sages”². This fits in very well with the idea that the sun and the universe might be conscious and intelligent.
Along similar lines, Vedic scholar Robert Cox suggests that the existence of supposed dark ‘matter’ conforms with the Ancient Wisdom. He wonders: “Is it possible that this represents the discovery (or rediscovery) of the galactic field of tamas known to the ancients thousands of years ago?”. He further says: “This is consistent with the ancient theory, which suggests that dark matter particles can be inferred, but not actually observed from their empirical effects. Modern astrophysics tells us that the dark matter field is spherical in shape, extends beyond the visible form of the galaxy, and is called the dark-matter halo. We can see that it corresponds directly to the dark neck of Shiva, which extends above his galactic torso”³.
Secondly, and as an aside, at the same time that he was developing this dark matter theory, Fritz Zwicky (along with others) was also developing a theory critical of the idea that the red shift phenomenon discovered by Edwin Hubble suggested an expanding universe. This became known as ‘tired-light’ theory, which is currently out of favour with cosmologists. I wonder whether this is another theory that should be taken seriously again, having been ignored for decades. (By coincidence, in a recent Medium article, Glenn Borchardt has argued something similar. Here’s a quote: “(Two theories) incorrectly assume, along with Einstein, that light can travel billions of years without losing energy. Nothing, whether wave, particle, or the imagined wave-particle, can go from point A to point B without losing energy. That assumption requires perfectly empty space, for which there is no evidence”.)
Sheldrake is very keen on theories involving fields. He is well known for his controversial theory of morphogenetic fields. Here he concentrates on electromagnetic fields which have, whether in brains or stars, topdown causal influences. This is in line with spiritual thinking, and the idea of implicate and explicate orders, as advocated by David Bohm.
Sheldrake goes on to speculate how the sun’s mind might work. He says: “In so far as the sun’s mind is working habitually, it is probably unconscious, just as we are unconscious of most of our own habitual patterns of activity. (However), according to the general principle of a temporal relationship between minds and matter suggested by Whitehead… if the sun is conscious, its conscious mind is likely to be concerned with possible actions and choices among them”.
What might it therefore be concerned with? “In the first place, the sun is presumably concerned with the regulation and preservation of its own body, the sun itself, and its extended body, the solar system… (which is) a kind of organism with the sun at its centre”. This sounds very similar to the findings of James Lovelock when he first considered the possibility that the Earth might be a living organism. Sheldrake mentions this Gaia hypothesis, and refers to Stephan Harding’s book Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia.
He continues: “Secondly, the sun may be aware of its position and interactions with other stars and solar systems in its immediate neighbourhood, and ultimately throughout the entire galaxy. These systems may in turn be part of a galactic mind, like neurons within a galactic brain”. “The sun is influenced by the electromagnetic patterns of activity within the galaxy as a whole, which could in turn be closely connected with a galactic mind… The galactic mind could influence what happens here on earth through its effects on the sun and the solar mind”.
If such suggestions seem hard to contemplate for a modern mind, it’s worth considering that Sheldrake’s suggestions are taking place at higher levels of being beyond the material; we wouldn’t contemplate such possibilities by merely looking at the sun. A return to this view might therefore be a return to an Ancient Wisdom, that of Plato for example, as mentioned in the abstract above.
In conclusion, spiritual traditions believe that there is no such thing as inorganic matter, and that the physical universe is a living organism, perhaps the body of ‘God’. The ideas that Sheldrake is expressing here are heading in that direction. (See also this interesting article by Paul Mulliner.)
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). All but the most recent can be found there.
2. Quantum Worlds Beyond the Atom, talk at Theosophical Society London, November 5th 2006
3. Creating the Soul Body, Inner Traditions, 2008, p136–7