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Defending and questioning animism

It's common for environmental philosophers to praise, and even advocate, an animistic view of nature. Broadly defined, animism is the view that all things in nature -- including animals, plants, rocks, and landforms -- are agents capable of conscious thought, emotion, communication, and free will. Animism is usually contrasted with a hegemonic "Western" view of nature as consisting of dead matter and purely mechanical action. There are basically two arguments: the compliment argument and the noble lie argument.

The compliment argument says that we should view nature as conscious because doing so is a compliment to nature. As environmentalists, we love nature, and so we should accept viewpoints that make nature sound better. But I'm not convinced that animism necessarily is a compliment to nature. Certainly I like being conscious -- but liking or disliking is a thing you can only do if you already are conscious! Dead, mechanical nature is by definition unable to care if we think it's conscious.

The noble lie argument claims that we should believe nature is conscious because doing so will lead us to treat it better.

I notice, though, that among the arguments for animism we rarely see anyone ask "well, is a river conscious? Does a deer actually choose to give itself up to a hunter? Can a stone really hear what we say about it?" Such questions arise from a basically positivist outlook. "Nature is conscious" is a factual claim about the universe, and we should investigate whether it's true in order to decide whether to accept it. This would require establishing a clear definition of consciousness and then devising a test to see if various things in nature met it. This is basically the approach taken in the more limited realm of animal rights, where we have amassed a pretty substantial body of evidence about the degree to which animals can think, feel, understand, plan, etc. (We're still far from any sort of proof or disproof of animal rights because of continued dispute and slipperiness -- and, frankly, goalpost-moving and circular definition -- with respect to deciding which empirically-detectable characteristics qualify a being for possessing rights.)


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