Matter, Feeling, Free Will, & the Spark of Life

Johnny R. O'Neill
10 min readNov 19, 2022

Sensory feelings, pain, hunger, bodily interactions, even thoughts, all involve a material transfer of energy. Let’s pull on that thread…

‘Creation, Awareness, Life: a scene at the Met’ (2014) by author

Imagine a world of no words. No words you speak or hear, no words in thought or memory — no words nor even the concept of them.

With no need to describe it other than to yourself — but using no words — what is your experience; what do you respond to? And how do you know to respond the way you do?

Take a moment. You might need it.

We’re so accustomed to words that thinking around them is a chore. It takes effort. So, while holding what’s labeled ‘an infant,’ what is it you respond to?

Not ‘an infant.’ That’s a label.

A weight we feel, a size we see, a palette of colors, a concert of movement, sound, taste and aroma: whether we know the word for ‘it’ or not, whether we know of words or not, feeling is what we respond to. The feeling of sound in our ear, light in our eye, and a cascade of others as well, responsibility, joy, awe, maybe panic.

We don’t need words to feel such things.¹

A world without words is a world of feeling, undescribed.

We use words to map feelings.

Like maps represent geography, words represent feelings. Words describe name, place, link, feelings.

The single word ‘infant,’ for example, represents all those sensory feelings of weight in arms, movement of limbs, and so on; like the single word on a map, ‘California,’ represents ideas of place, geography, people. Words are ideas we feel. (Ideas are feelings too, felt in the brain. We’ll get to that.)

Map ‘of the location of the terrestrial paradise, and of the country inhabited by the patriarchs’ (1700) Pierre Mortier, based on theories of Pierre Daniel Huet, Bishop of Avranches

But maps aren’t what they purport to describe, and neither are most words. They are ideas/descriptions of things, not the things themselves.²

As we ponder a world of no words, as we strip away names and labels, when feeling, undescribed, becomes all we know, the idea that life is feeling, that that’s all there really is, begins to resolve….

“You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters” — Barbossa, in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

But, what is it? What is ‘feeling’?

Weight in arms, sight in eyes, sound in ears, ideas in head, all can be described with the generic term ‘feeling,’ but they are vastly different things. What do they have in common that we can paint them with the same broad ‘feeling’ brush?

Short answer, energy.

To feel is to detect a transfer of energy (a change in the state of our world), often vanishingly small (light waves interact with our eyes at a subatomic level). We feel the detection.

We detect/feel interactions (energy transfers) from our five senses, but also internal interactions for hunger, pain, hormonal interactions, etc., as well as neuron interactions in the brain (thoughts, memories, dreams, expectations), all denote some change (an energy transfer) detected somewhere, that we feel.

We can think of energy transfers as carrying information that can be used to continually update our understanding of the state of our world.

In a broader sense, feeling can be considered the active, even activating, component of passive matter. Which is why I italicize it…we feel matter. To feel, in that sense, is to make matter real. (If we don’t feel anything there, is anything really there?)

How is feeling ‘active’? We could as well ask, how does matter ‘exist’? It does. It is the nature of the medium of Life.

‘The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise’ (1791)
Benjamin West, public domain via National Gallery of Art

We’re changing the way we look at ourselves and our world, here. Take a moment. Consider…

• We detect change in the form of transfers of energy (electromagnetic force interactions).

• We feel those detections (sensations).

• Feeling sums to build experience (life).

• Experience manifests as response (reflecting who/what we are).

• Response is a change necessarily involving (back to the beginning) a transfer of energy.

If ideas aren’t ‘ideas’ but detected energy transfers in our brain, if infants aren’t ‘infants’ but feelings of energy transfers interpreted as warmth, weight, and responsibility, if ‘all we know’ is energy transfers experienced as the feeling ‘knowing all we know,’ then…what are we? You and I, what are we?

And it may seem like, well, how else would we sense things other than via our purpose-built sensory organs? That’s what they’re for, so, of course we ‘detect’ stuff, ‘transfer of energy,’ whatever we want to call it. What’s the big deal?

Which is like a marble statue, in a museum built of marble, in a world made of marble, looking at all the marble everywhere and saying, “Of course all that other stuff is ‘marble’; that’s what it’s made of.” Without realizing that it, too, is just that. Exactly that. Marble. No difference. Same.

Our ‘sensory organs’? They too are energy transfers that we feel (as the idea and experience of ‘sensory organs’). Self-awareness? Again, patterns of energy transfers in our mind and elsewhere that we (read, interpret, decode) feel, as ‘I exist!’

Detected energy transfers, all.

But again, it might seem we need the structure and matter of a brain to analyze, process, and so on. And sure, we do! But that doesn’t mean mind, or brain, or body, or matter (for that matter!) ‘comes first.’ Matter and energy go together. They have, in fact, equivalence. Energy is matter (times the speed of light, squared). E=mc².

All that is required to feel is a transfer of energy. The transfer manifests as feeling

And everywhere you find feeling, which is everywhere you look — from subatomic particles (and what they are ‘made of’) to the plethora of galaxies (and what they form) — there you will find a continuum, at every scale, of Life with a capital ‘L.’

The only difference, possibly, between animate and inanimate is the ability to ‘sum’ feelings at a biological scale.

Image 4: Millerite crystals partially encased in calcite crystal and oxidized on their surfaces to zaratite. From the Devonian Milwaukee Formation of Wisconsin

Language pixelates our world.

The happy spark of curiosity in a puppy’s eye, the caw of a crow on a hot afternoon, fresh buds on a tree in spring, even the layered crystals of a geode, the ordered mating of atoms in metal, the intricate folds of a protein molecule: it’s Life being Life — the spark of Life, the ‘active’ component of ‘passive’ matter — feeling the way.

But alas, words corral ideas. Definitions box explanations.

Cascades II, (1993), Ann Northy, photo by author

Questions such as, ‘does the heart feel,’ ‘do rocks have inner lives,’ ‘do atoms have free will,’ per the logic of language, sure, such questions might be asked. But is a named ‘thing’ its own thing, bounded — by definition — from all other things? Energy transfers, certainly, do not ‘know’ of such boundaries.

Place a hand upon a table and it can seem we are touching a boundary (of the table), but no. We are feeling (responding to) interactions, not ‘things’ or their ‘boundaries.’

Boundaries ‘exist’ as differentiated feelings. That’s all. That ‘this’ feels different from ‘that’ does not mean ‘this’ is bounded from ‘that,’ any more than Mona Lisa’s smile is bounded from the painting. Are the waves on the beach separate from the sea? Is the child you once were separate from the adult? Different, sure, but bounded — separate?

This world, this life, the air we breathe, is it so, so separate as to not be part of us, not part, an intrinsic part, of who we are?

Image 6: ‘The tree of life’ (c. 1650) at the Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan

“Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever…” Genesis 3:22

Did you catch that, ‘and live forever’?

To say that we are ‘detected/felt transfers of energy’ is not so much a description as it is a baseline starting point. It is both the canvas upon which we paint our lives and the paint we use to do so. We are the ‘oil on canvas’ medium of our own artful existence.

Life is its own medium.

Existing as the medium we use to describe and be ourselves, we have utter and absolute freedom to ‘paint’ as we wish, ‘bounded’ only by the limitation that what we paint can only be what we are, because we are our paint! The art is the artist, a version of.

And the version of ourselves that we paint, is painted together by us, all of us, each our differentiated selves. Language, for example, is built by all humans together, equally, and reflects in its rules, usage, and existence who/what we collectively understand ourselves (our world) to be.

Keeping in mind that the structure of our world (the canvas) is not separate from, but inherent to, life and our living world, reality as well is a collective endeavor. It is ‘built’ from the ground up, from the atoms and subatomic particles and beyond (that we are), to the solar systems and galaxies and beyond (that we also are), all part of the canvas.

Differentiated feelings, not boundaries of being.

If we paint ourselves as, say, the loving creations of a supreme being, or if the picture we paint of ourselves features a singular, absolute, unchanging ‘reality’ separate from us — a fixed stage upon which we ‘play,’ so to speak — then that is the world we collectively are…for that time, for those moments, when that is what our painting of ourself shows.

But, moments change. ‘Detected/felt transfer of energy’ is a medium of change. Change is what we detect and feel. Change is how we build/renew who/what we are.

While we exist as the change we see and respond to, how we respond is based on the painting as it is, NOW. But our painting is not static. It can’t be static. Individually and collectively, as self-aware beings, we continually scrape off and paint over as we continually respond to and build anew ourselves and our world.

To use a computer analogy, in building ourselves, we, in effect, ‘program’ our responses. Any ‘program’ (using this analogy) can only respond, now, based on what it is, now. But as a further response (and consistent with underlying programming), it can be re-programmed to respond any way at all. And that’s what we do. We are continually re-programming/re-painting ourselves in response to the rest of the painting, which is also re-programming and re-painting ‘itself’!

(A little exhausting, looked at that way! But isn’t that life?)

‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (c. 1500) Hieronymus Bosch

We are not born ‘into’ a world. We are born of our world.

Nor does death — ashes to ashes, dust to dust — ‘return’ us to the world, for we are already ‘there’! We already are our world. There is no ‘boundary’ between life and death. Death is a differentiated feeling, not a boundary or barrier of being.

I feel, therefore, I am real.

Even with no inkling of what we ‘are,’ even if, like an infant, we have no words, we are materially, structurally, real, nevertheless. We are valid, with a role to play, a path to travel, a world that is, literally, who we are.

We BELONG. If we belong to a world not to our liking, well, then, dissatisfied is what we are. If we don’t feel like we belong, then, a stranger is who we are — it is the being we have built for ourselves.

We each feel our own way, living our way, experiencing Life, capital L, our way, formed, each of us, by trillions of living cells feeling Life their way, formed of proteins and DNA and mitochondria and who knows what else, feeling Life their way, formed of molecules and atoms and quarks, feeling again, Life, their way.

Self-aware or not — aware even of being, or not — from quark and smaller to universe and wider, we feel, form, build, and are, a pyramid of Life, capital L.

Thanks for reading!

Comments welcome.

Note 1: We do ‘feel’ labels — words — by the way; they are ideas felt in the brain. A little misdirection to get us to think around words, but the point stands, feeling is what we respond to.

Note 2: Keeping in mind that ideas are felt in the mind, a given word actually can be regarded as the ‘thing’ it describes, in the sense that a thing is its definition — i.e., an idea of what ‘it’ ‘is.’ (Is there a thing that now exists that isn’t defined? If there is, what is it? Please define/describe.)

Note 3: Energy is transferred via bosons. The boson for electromagnetic (human scale) energy, as emitted/absorbed by electrons, is the photon. As I see it, we in effect feel photons, a kind of feeling agent.

Image 4: By Kennethcgass — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Image 6: By Urek Meniashvili — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

All other images public domain via Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise noted.