What the Atom Felt 

Viruses are sentient beings, argues consciousness-studies scholar Peter Russell.

When we watch sleeping dogs' legs or muzzles twitch, we wonder what they might be chasing in their dreams. And while they're not capable of telling us in words, we accept that dogs are conscious creatures. Why else would we ask veterinarians to give them injections so that they won't suffer pain during surgery, asks consciousness-studies pioneer Peter Russell, who will give a talk at Northbrae Community Church (941 The Alameda, Berkeley) on Wednesday, December 2.

"If dogs possess consciousness, then so do cats, horses, deer, dolphins, whales, and other mammals. The same is true of birds; some parrots, for example, seem as aware as dogs," Russell reasons. "And if birds are sentient beings, then so, I assume, are other vertebrates — alligators, snakes, frogs, salmon, and sharks. However different their experiences may be, they all have awareness of some kind or other. The same argument applies to creatures further down the evolutionary tree," muses this Cambridge-educated author of ten books, including The Brain Book, The Global Brain, and, most recently, From Science to God. "The nervous systems of insects are not nearly as complex as ours, and insects probably do not have as rich an experience of the world as we do, but I see no reason to doubt that they have some kind of inner experience. Where do we draw the line?"

This question has shaped Russell's career. After studying mathematics and earning a degree in theoretical physics in 1969, he traveled from his native Great Britain to India, where he studied transcendential meditation with the Beatles' yogi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Maintaining his interest in meditation, he then earned a degree in computer science — long before computers were a household word, much less a household fixture.

Now a fellow of the Petaluma-based Institute of Noetic Sciences, Russell posits that the general public's notions of what constitutes consciousness — and where it resides — are narrow, archaic, and inaccurate. Rather than requiring a brain or even a nervous system in order to exist, "the faculty of consciousness must be present all the way down the evolutionary tree. Some single-celled organisms are sensitive to physical vibration, light, and heat," he points out. "Who is to say they do not have a corresponding glimmer of awareness? ... According to this view, there is nowhere we can draw a line between conscious and nonconscious entities; there is a trace of sentience, however slight, in viruses, molecules, atoms, and even elementary particles."

Although scientific progress is all well and good, "I think what we need today is to gain an integration of our scientific understanding of the world with the wisdom that's held in the world's spiritual traditions," Russell says. "The next great frontier is not outer space. It's inner space, the search into the nature of consciousness itself: the one thing we all know for sure and the one thing we've not yet explored." 7:30 (preceded by optional $7 pasta dinner at 6:30 p.m.), free. Northbrae.org

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