Panpsychism

Panpsychism [pan-sahy-kiz-uhm] is the theory that everything in the universe is somehow sentient or conscious and connected parts of a whole. Panpsychists believe that all matter in the universe has some degree of consciousness.

In other words the substance of the universe is composed entirely of mind or consciousness. This is not to say that rocks have a mind but that the individual atoms and other particles in the rock have some sort of awareness and are aware of each other. Panpsychism is opposed to materialism or any doctrine that argues that the reality of the universe is composed solely of matter.

No form of panpsychism attributes full, human-style consciousness to the fundamental constituents of the universe, therefore all versions need a certain amount of emergence—that is, weak emergence, in which more sophisticated versions of basic properties emerge at a higher level. No version of panpsychism requires strong emergence, in which high-level properties do not have any low-level precursors or basis, and instead emerge ‘from nothing.’ Indeed, avoidance of strong emergentism is one of the motivations for panpsychism.

Panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories, and can be ascribed to philosophers like Thales, Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer and William James. Panpsychism can also be seen in eastern philosophies such as Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism. During the 19th century, Panpsychism was the default theory in philosophy of mind, but it saw a decline during the latter half of the 20th century with the rise of logical positivism (which promoted verificationism).

Early forms of Panpsychism can be found in pre-modern animistic beliefs in religions such as Shinto, Taoism, Paganism and Shamanism. Panpsychist views are also a staple theme in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy. According to Aristotle, Thales (c. 624-545 B.C.E.) the first Greek philosopher, posited a theory which held ‘that everything is full of gods.’ Thales beleived that this was demonstrated by magnets. This has been interpreted as a Panpsychist doctrine. Other Greek thinkers that have been associated with Panpsychism include Anaxagoras (who saw the underlying principle or arche as ‘nous’ or ‘mind’), Anaximenes (who saw the arche as ‘pneuma’ or ‘spirit’) and Heraclitus (who said ‘The thinking faculty is common to all’).

Plato argues for Panpsychism in his ‘Sophist,’ in which he writes that all things participate in the form of Being and that it must have a psychic aspect of mind and soul (psyche). In the ‘Philebus’ and ‘Timaeus,’ Plato argues for the idea of a world soul or ‘anima mundi’. According to Plato: ‘This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence … a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.’ Aristotle believed that the natural world was infused with and driven by a soul-like property called ‘Pneuma,’ which is ‘faculty of all kinds of soul,’ a ‘vital heat’ (‘thermoteta psychiken’), the ‘principle of soul.’ The Metaphysics of Stoicism was based on a divine fiery essence called ‘Pneuma.’ Hellenistic philosophies such as Neoplatonism and Gnosticism also made use of the Platonic idea of the Anima mundi.

After the closing of Plato’s Academy by the Emperor Justinian in 529 CE, Neoplatonism declined. Christianity was strictly opposed to Panpsychism and it was only until the Italian Renaissance that we see it being reintroduced by thinkers such as Gerolamo Cardano, Francesco Patrizi, and Giordano Bruno. Cardano was the first philosopher in over a millenium to argue for the view that soul or anima was a fundamental part of the world and Patrizi introduced the actual term ‘panpsychism’ into the philosophical vocabulary. According to Bruno: ‘There is nothing that does not possess a soul and that has no vital principle.’ Platonist ideas like the anima mundi also resurfaced in the work of esoteric thinkers like Paracelsus, Robert Fludd, and Cornelius Agrippa.

In the 17th century, two rationalists can be said to be panpsychists, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz. In Spinoza’s monism (view that there is only one kind of ultimate substance), the one single infinite and eternal substance was ‘God, or Nature’ (‘Deus sive Natura’) which has the aspects of mind (thought) and matter (extension). Leibniz’ view is that there are an infinite number of absolutely simple mental subtances called ‘monads’ which make up the fundamental structure of the universe. The Idealist philosophy (which asserts that reality is a mental construct) of George Berkeley is also a form of pure panpsychism and technically all idealists can be said to be panpsychists by default.

In the 19th century, Panpsychism was as its zenith. Philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer, Josiah Royce, William James, Eduard von Hartmann, and William Clifford as well as psychologists like Gustav Fechner all promoted Panpsychist ideas. Arthur Schopenhauer argued for a two-sided view of reality which was both Will and Representation (‘Vorstellung’). According to Schopenhauer: ‘All ostensible mind can be attributed to matter, but all matter can likewise be attributed to mind.’ Josiah Royce, the leading American absolute idealist held that reality was a ‘world self,’ a conscious being that comprised everything, though he didn’t necessarily attribute mental properties to the smallest constituents of mentalistic ‘systems.’ William James’ panpsychism came from his neutral monism, a view in which there exists only one kind of substance, which is said to be ‘neutral’ – that is neither mental nor physical. In his lecture notes, James wrote: ‘Our only intelligible notion of an object in itself is that it should be an object for itself, and this lands us in panpsychism and a belief that our physical perceptions are effects on us of ‘psychical’ realities.’

In the 20th century, the most significant proponent of the Panpsychist view is arguably Alfred North Whitehead, whose ontology saw the basic nature of the world as made up of events and the process of their creation and extinction. These elementary events (which he called ‘occasions’) are in part mental. According to Whitehead: ‘we should conceive mental operations as among the factors which make up the constitution of nature.’ Bertrand Russell’s neutral monist views also tended towards panpsychism. Psychologist Carl Jung, who is known for his idea of collective unconscious (a mental space shared by all lifeforms), wrote that ‘psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world, and moreover are in continuous contact with one another,’ and that it was probable that ‘psyche and matter are two different aspects of one and the same thing.’

The problems found with emergentism (the belief that complex processes like consciousness can emerge from simple interactions like nuerons firing) are often cited by panpsychists as grounds to reject physicalism (the view that only the physical exists). This argument can be traced back to the Ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, who argued that ‘ex nihilo nihil fit’ – ‘nothing comes from nothing’ and thus the mental cannot arise from the non-mental. In Thomas Nagel’s 1979 article ‘Panpsychism’ he tied panpsychism to the failure of emergentism to deal with metaphysical relation: ‘there are no truly emergent properties of complex systems. All properties of complex systems that are not relations between it and something else derive from the properties of its constituents and their effects on each other when so combined.’ Thus Nagel denies that mental properties can arise out of complex relationships between physical matter.

The most popular empirically based argument for panpsychism stems from Darwinism and is a form of the non-emergence argument. This argument begins with the assumption that evolution is a process that creates complex systems out of pre-existing properties but yet cannot make ‘entirely novel’ properties. William Clifford argued that: ‘… we cannot suppose that so enormous a jump from one creature to another should have occurred at any point in the process of evolution as the introduction of a fact entirely different and absolutely separate from the physical fact. It is impossible for anybody to point out the particular place in the line of descent where that event can be supposed to have taken place. The only thing that we can come to, if we accept the doctrine of evolution at all, is that even in the very lowest organism, even in the Amoeba which swims about in our own blood, there is something or other, inconceivably simple to us, which is of the same nature with our own consciousness …’

Nagel notes that new physical properties are discovered through explanatory inference from known physical properties; following a similar process, mental properties would seem to derive from properties of matter not included under the label of ‘physical properties,’ and so they must be additional properties of matter. Also, he argues that, ‘the demand for an account of how mental states necessarily appear in physical organisms cannot be satisfied by the discovery of uniform correlations between mental states and physical brain states.’ Furthermore, Nagel argues mental states are real by appealing to the inexplicability of subjective experience, or qualia, by physical means.

Philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead have drawn on the indeterminacy observed by Quantum physics to defend panpsychism. They see quantum indeterminacy and informational but non-causal relations between quantum elements as the key to explaining consciousness. These arguments are based on the idea that everything must have an intrinsic nature. While the objects studied by physics are described in a dispositional way, these dispositions must be based on some non-dispositional intrinsic attributes, which Whitehead called the ‘mysterious reality in the background, intrinsically unknowable.’ While we have no way of knowing what these intrinsic attributes are like, we can know the intrinsic nature of conscious experience which possesses irreducible and intrinsic characteristics. Arthur Schopenhauer argued that while the world appears to us as representation, there must be ‘an object that grounds’ representation, which he called ‘the inner essence’ (‘das innere Wesen’) and ‘natural force’ (‘naturkraft’), which lies outside of what our understanding perceives as natural law.

Philosophers such as Galen Strawson, Roger Penrose (1989), John Searle(1991), Thomas Nagel (1979, 1986, 1999) and Noam Chomsky (1999) have said that a revolutionary change in physics may be needed to solve the problem of consciousness. Galen Strawson has also called for a revised ‘realistic physicalism’ arguing that ‘the experiential considered specifically as such—the portion of reality we have to do with when we consider experiences specifically and solely in respect of the experiential character they have for those who have them as they have them—that ‘just is’ physical.’

One criticism of panpsychism is the simple lack of evidence that the physical entities have any mental attributes. The more we study the basic units of the physical world, it seems more and more difficult to imagine that they could have mental properties. Thus John Searle states that panpsychism is an ‘absurd view’ and that thermostats lack ‘enough structure even to be a remote candidate for consciousness.’

Another argument is that it can be demonstrated that the only properties shared by all qualia are that they are not precisely describable, and thus are of indeterminate meaning within any philosophy which relies upon precise definition. This has been something of a blow to panpsychism in general, since some of the same problems seem to be present in panpsychism in that it tends to presuppose a definition for mentality without describing it in any real detail. The need to define the terms used within the thesis of panpsychism is recognized by panpsychist David Skrbina, and he resorts to asserting some sort of hierarchy of mental terms to be used. This is motivation to argue for panexperientialism rather than panpsychism, since only the most fundamental meaning of mind is what is present in all matter, namely, subjective experience.

The panpsychist answers both these challenges in the same way: we already know what qualia are through direct, introspective apprehension; and we likewise know what conscious mentality is by virtue of being conscious. For someone like Alfred North Whitehead, third-person description takes second place to the intimate connection between every entity and every other which is, he says, the very fabric of reality. To take a mere description as having primary reality is to commit the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness.’ Another argument against panpsychism is the argument from causal closure. Because the physical world is causally closed – for every physical event there is only a physical cause – the mental attributes argued for by panpsychists would have to be epiphenomenal.

Panpsychism can be understood as related to a number of other metaphysical positions. It agrees with idealism that in a sense everything is mental, but whereas idealism (at least in of the Berkeleyan kind) treats most things as mental content, panpsychism simply states that everything partakes of mind in some sense. Also unlike idealism, panpsychism does not deny the existence, in some sense, of physical properties, although they may be relegated to a secondary status. Idealism could be said to be a radical and pure form of panpsychism.

Superficially, panpsychism seems to be a form of property dualism, since it regards everything as having both mental and physical properties. However, some panpsychists say mechanical behavior is derived from primitive mentality of atoms and molecules—as are sophisticated mentality and organic behavior, the difference being attributed to the presence or absence of complex structure in a compound object. So long as the reduction of non-mental properties to mental ones is in place, panpsychism is not a form of property dualism. Note that this kind reductionism is the opposite of reductive physicalism.

There are also varieties of monism that don’t presuppose (like materialism and idealism do) that mind and matter are fundamentally separable. An example is neutral monism first introduced by Spinoza and later propounded by William James. Panpsychism is compatible with this view.

Panpsychism is related to the more holistic view that the whole Universe is an organism that possesses a mind (cosmic consciousness). It is claimed to be distinct from animism or hylozoism, which hold that all things have a soul or are alive, respectively. Gustav Theodor Fechner claimed in ‘Nanna’ and ‘Zend-Avesta’ that the Earth is a living organism whose parts are the people, the animals and the plants. Panpsychism, as a view that the universe has ‘universal consciousness,’ is shared by some forms of religious thought such as theosophy, pantheism, cosmotheism, non-dualism, new age thought and panentheism. The hundredth monkey effect (a supposed phenomenon in which a thought spreads rapidly from one group to all related groups once a critical number of initiates is reached) exemplifies the threshold for this applied cosmic consciousness. The Tiantai Buddhist view is that ‘when one attains it, all attain it.’

Hylopathism argues for a similarly universal attribution of sentience to matter. Few writers would advocate a hylopathic materialism, although the idea is not new; it has been formulated as ‘whatever underlies consciousness in a material sense, i.e., whatever it is about the brain that gives rise to consciousness, must necessarily be present to some degree in any other material thing.’ A compound state of mind does not consist of compounded psychic atoms. The concept of awareness ‘being in itself’ allows for the idea of self-aware matter. Attempts have been made to conceptualize this primitive level of existence prior to associative learning and memory. In the way that the collection of self-aware matter constitutes a cognitive being, the collection of cognitive beings as a conglomerate entity, reflects panpsychism. Consciousness was not ‘nascent’ but emergent due to a lack of abandon during the evolution of material awareness.

Similar ideas have been attributed to philosopher David Chalmers, who assumes that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the Universe, the First Datum in the study of the mind. In the practice of nonreductionism this feature may not be attributable to any base monad but instead radically emergent on the level of physical complexity at which it demonstrates itself. Complex elegance is the further development of awareness that is self-aware. This we can call ‘post-intelligence’ where ‘intelligence’ is simple processing. The element of superiority might be that the post-intelligence is proto-experiential. These phenomenal properties are called ‘the internal aspects of information.’

Panexperientialism or panprotopsychism are related concepts. Alfred North Whitehead incorporated a scientific worldview into the development of his philosophical system similar to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. His ideas were a significant development of the idea of panpsychism, also known as panexperientialism, due to Whitehead’s emphasis on experience, though the term itself was first applied to Whitehead’s philosophy by David Ray Griffin many years later. Process philosophy suggests that fundamental elements of the universe are occasions of experience, which can be collected into groups creating something as complex as a human being. This experience is not consciousness; there is no mind-body duality under this system as mind is seen as a very developed kind of experience. Whitehead was not a subjective idealist and, while his philosophy resembles the concept of monads first proposed by Leibniz, Whitehead’s occasions of experience are interrelated with every other occasion of experience that has ever occurred. He embraced panentheism with God encompassing all occasions of experience, transcending them. Whitehead believed that the occasions of experience are the smallest element in the universe—even smaller than subatomic particles.

According to Graham Parkes: ‘Most of traditional Chinese, Japanese and Korean philosophy would qualify as panpsychist in nature. For the philosophical schools best known in the west – Chinese Daoism and Neo-confucianism and Japanese Buddhism – the world is a dynamic force field of energies known as qi or bussho (Buddha nature) and classifiable in western terms as psychophysical.’ According to D. S. Clarke, panpsychism can be found in the Tiantai Buddhist doctrine of ‘Buddha nature,’ which was often attributed to inanimate objects such as lotus flowers and mountains. Tiantai patriarch Zhanran argued that ‘even non-sentient beings have Buddha nature.’ ‘Who, then, is ‘animate’ and who ‘inanimate?’ Within the assembly of the Lotus, all are present without division. In the case of grass, trees and the soil…whether they merely lift their feet or energetically traverse the long path, they will all reach Nirvana.’

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