• Mayuri Vaish

Are cells conscious?

This is a very interesting question and in fact, leads us to first ask the question: what really is consciousness? Truth is, consciousness — although primarily likened to “awareness” — can mean many things. For example, am I conscious if I’m driving a car automatically and thus not actively aware of anything? The answer is, probably yes. So consciousness likely has its roots deeper than awareness itself. But, how do we know whether something is conscious (apart from the fact that I experience it myself?). For example, how can I ever know that you are conscious unless I really am you and actually “experience” consciousness? From simple extrapolation, you most likely are conscious. But the point is, there is no objective definition of deciding who or what is conscious.

Taking this one step further, we similarly look at what happens if we go down the animal “hierarchy”, so to say. Are deer conscious? Probably. What about a bee? That’s more tricky… maybe? An ant? A bacterium? And this is where we get to… a cell? (a bacterium is essentially not much more than a glorified cell— no offense, bacterium).

If you really break things down, the lines start to get blurry. Where do we draw the line? Is there even a line? Or consciousness just another word for “complexity”? And this adds a further layer of complication: what even is complex? Many biologists were astounded by the surprising complexity with which live arose as a single cell from mere molecules and amino acids lying around in very early Earth. Can we not argue, robustly, that cells are highly complex? Again: where is the line?

If we do decide to look at consciousness on a continuum, we need to decide the start point, i.e., zero — where there is no consciousness. This could very much be a cell; or it could be a molecule. However, molecules themselves are complex interactions between atoms—which are, themselves, comprised of nucleons and electrons, held together by strong nuclear forces; then we can get into sub-microscopic particles such as quarks, gluons, etc. Perhaps there is a limit around this range where we truly cannot fathom anything more complex, and this may well be our point of ‘zero’ consciousness. But we can never say that for sure.

The point is: there are probably about a gazillion theories on what consciousness is. Which is great because that’s exactly what tells us that consciousness is not yet clearly defined; it’s not “just” a dictionary term you can look up (albeit of course the dictionary has its own definition). If you look at some of these theories, it is evident that a large area of difference is regarding what items classify as conscious; not only in terms of complexity, but also in terms of whether it may be found in artificial, and not only biological, entities—an entirely new question altogether.

With this in mind: are cells conscious? Unless someone can metamorphose you into a cell, you will never know. But based on our current understanding of consciousness and complexity relative to humans, cells are likely not conscious. If they were, that would pose a very big problem for everything that ethics and/or the justice system ever stood for.


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