panpsychismBy Godehard Brüntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla, originally published at the Oxford University Press blog.

The traditional view puts forward the idea that the vast majority of what there is in the universe is mindless. Panpsychism however claims that mental features are ubiquitous in the cosmos. In a recent opinion piece for Scientific American entitled “Is Consciousness Universal?” (2014), neuroscientist Christof Koch explains how his support of panpsychism is greeted by incredulous stares–in particular when asserting that panpsychism might be the perfect match for neurobiology (see also his piece for Wired in 2013):

“As a natural scientist, I find a version of panpsychism modified for the 21st century to be the single most elegant and parsimonious explanation for the universe I find myself in. … When I talk and write about panpsychism, I often encounter blank stares of incomprehension.” (Koch, 2014, n.p.)

Yet despite abundant skepticism, in the end of 20th century, panpsychism has seen nothing short of a renaissance in philosophy of mind–a trend which is also beginning to be mirrored in the sciences: Physicist Henry Stapp’s A Mindful Universe (2011) embraces a version of panpsychism heavily influenced by the works of Harvard mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Panpsychism has a long, albeit unfortunately sometimes forgotten tradition in the history of philosophy. Philosophers including Giordano Bruno, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Teilhard de Chardin, and Alfred North Whitehead have embraced different forms of panpsychism, and indeed the presocratic Thales of Miletus claimed that “soul is interfused throughout the universe” (Aristotle, De Anima, 411a7).

In in his seminal 1979 work Mortal Questions, NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel put forth the idea that both reductive materialism and mind-body dualism are unlikely to be successful solutions to the mind-body problem. Specifically, a reductive world-view leaves the mind lacking any purpose, while a dualist conception deprives the non-spatial Cartesian mind of any connection to spatial matter. Additionally, the idea of an emergent mind seems inexplicable, even miraculous; it merely puts a label on something that otherwise remains completely mysterious. Thus some version of panpsychism might be a viable alternative–and may even be the “last man standing.”

Yet it was not until David Chalmers’s groundbreaking The Conscious Mind (1996) that debates on panpsychism entered the philosophical mainstream. The field has grown rapidly ever since.

Panpsychism is the thesis that mental being is an ubiquitous and fundamental feature pervading the entire universe. It rests on two basic ideas:

(1) The genetic argument is based on the philosophical principle “ex nihilo, nihil fit”–nothing can bring about something which it does not already possess. If human consciousness came to be through a physical process of evolution, then physical matter must already contain some basic form of mental being. Versions of this argument can be found in both Thomas Nagel’s “Mortal Questions” (1979) as well as William James’s “The Principles of Psychology” (1890).

(2) The argument from intrinsic natures dates back to Leibniz. More recently it was Sir Bertrand Russell who noted in his “Human Knowledge: Its Scope and its Limits” (1948):

“The physical world is only known as regards certain abstract features of its space-time structure – features which, because of their abstractness, do not suffice to show whether the world is, or is not, different in intrinsic character from the world of mind.” (Russell 1948, 240)

Sir Arthur Eddington formulated a very intuitive version of the argument from intrinsic natures in his “Space, Time and Gravitation” (1920):

“Physics is the knowledge of structural form, and not knowledge of content. All through the physical world runs that unknown content, which must surely be the stuff of our consciousness.” (Eddington, 1920, 200).

Panpsychism is a surprisingly modern world-view. It might even be called a truly post-modern outlook on reality–mainly for two reasons:

On the one hand, panpsychism bridges the modern epistemological gap between the subject of experience and the experienced object, the latter of whose intrinsic nature is unknown to us. Panpsychists claim that we know the intrinsic nature of matter because we are familiar with it through our own consciousness. Freya Mathews argues in her “For the Love of Matter” (2003):

“… the materialist view of the world that is a corollary of dualism maroons the epistemic subject in the small if charmed circle of its own subjectivity, and that it is only the reanimation of matter itself that enables the subject to reconnect with reality. This ‘argument from realism’ constitutes my defense of panpsychism.” (Mathews, 2003, 44)

On the other hand, panpsychism paints a picture of reality that emphasizes a humane and caring relationship with nature due to its fundamental rejection of the Cartesian conception of nature as a mechanism to be exploited by mankind. For the panpsychist, we encounter in nature other entities of intrinsic value, rather than objects to be manipulated for our gain.

This article was originally published at the Oxford University Press blog, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the authors, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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10 Responses to Panpsychism

  1. swami bv tripurari

    This article is one of ten articles published in “Panpsychism Contemporary Perspectives.” It’s good to see that this perspective is gaining ground. Still these contemporary perspectives avoid the implications of the Eastern spirituality panpsychic perspective. But it is an example of science moving toward mysticism with regard to consciousness. Good to see. This article is one of the better ones in the publication.

  2. prahlada bhakta dasa

    Are panpsychism and panentheism related in some way?

    • Panentheism means “the world in God,”which is quite different from pantheism, which means “the world is God.” However, panpsychism refers to the idea that consciousness is not limited to human beings (as Descartes thought), but rather is all pervasive in nature. Gaudiya Vedanta is both panentheistic and panpsychic.

  3. prahlada bhakta dasa

    The authors say: “…a dualist conception deprives the non-spatial Cartesian mind of any connection to spatial matter.”
    Do they mean that if mind (consciousness) is considered as a totally different entity from matter then they have a problem in explaining how mind (consciousness) affects/moves matter?

    Does the “argument from intrinsic natures” mean that matter is conscious?
    If yes, then how do they explain the objective world? Do they consider any difference between the observable atoms/molecules and the unobservable mind (consciousness), which is the observer?

    • Yes, on the dualist conception. As I understand it, the argument from intrinsic natures posits that the intrinsic nature of the observed is only knowable as a perception of the observer. It maintains that consciousness is pervasive and integral to reality. What then is consciousness as opposed to the atomic structure of the world? That seems to be your question. I think modern day panpsychism posits both psychic and physical matter.

      • prahlada bhakta dasa

        Thanks Guru-Maharaja for your reply.
        The second answer was not quite clear to me. If acc. to modern day panpsychists, the intrinsic nature of the observed is a perception of the observer, then do they fall in the category of thinkers like Ravi Gomatam (pointed out in your book Sacred Preface) who consider observable matter to have some sort of semantic information embedded within it?

        And, although modern day panpsychists maintain that consciousness is pervasive and integral to reality, is it not that their conclusion is that consciousness is ultimately a material phenomena; a type of subtle matter for which the laws have not yet been discovered?

        • For the most part, no. They merely think that physical matter alone is not the full picture of reality. It also includes something mental that is all pervasive and usually thought to appear in less complex species as some kind less evolved proto-consciousness/mind. They would not necessarily say that the intrinsic nature of the observed is is merely a perception of the observer but that the role of perception is prominent and as such so too is consciousness.Yes, modern theories of panpsychism tend to be materialistic but a very different kind of materialism.

        • prahlada bhakta dasa

          Thanks so much Guru-Maharaja for your reply.
          Also, i understood that modern day panpsychism does not have the intention of controlling the objective world like other versions of materialism have. Have i understood correctly?

        • There are many forms of modern panpsychism popping up so its hard to keep up with them. Modern science in general seeks to control nature.

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