Panpsychism is in the news. Check out, for instance, this Oxford University Press blog entry by Godehard Brüntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla. Brüntrup is the Erich J. Lejeune Chair at the Munich School of Philosophy, has published a monograph on mental causation, and is the author of a bestselling introduction to the philosophy of mind. Jaskolla, in turn, is a lecturer in philosophy of mind at the same school, his research focusing on the metaphysics and phenomenology of persons, the philosophy of psychology, and the philosophy of action.
In other words, these are serious people. And so is the paladino-par-excellence of panpsychism, NYU’s David Chalmers. Why, then, are they lending their weight to such a bizarre notion? Let’s talk about it.
The essay begins with a quote by neuroscientist Christof Koch, to the effect that “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.” After which I am compelled to comment that, as a natural scientist myself, panpsychism seems to me both entirely unhelpful and a weird throwback to the (not so good) old times of vitalism in biology.
But according to Brüntrup and Jaskolla, panpsychism is enjoying a Renaissance these days, as attested, among other things, by physicist Henry Stapp’s A Mindful Universe, which embraces a version of the notion strongly reminescent of the thinking of Alfred North Whitehead (the same guy who came up with the quote that gives the name to this blog: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”).
As the OUP authors correctly note, panpsychism is far from being a new notion in philosophy. Before Whitehead, it was endorsed in one form or another by Giordano Bruno, Gottfried Leibniz, and Teilhard de Chardin, and in fact goes back to Thales of Miletus’ claim that “soul is interfused throughout the universe.”
(It was also a crucial notion in Stoic physics, and being myself a practicing Stoic, you would think I would be sympathetic to it. I’m not.)
In 1979, always controversial philosopher Thomas Nagel (also currently at NYU) wrote Mortal Questions, in which he argued that neither “reductive materialism” (as he calls a scientific approach to the study of mind) nor mind-body dualism (obviously) are going to solve the problem of consciousness, which, to him, almost seems like a miracle. Nagel, therefore, saw panpsychism as possibly “the last man standing” on the issue, winning by default, though it isn’t clear why what is essentially an argument from ignorance (science at the moment hasn’t the foggiest about how consciousness emerges when matters organizes in certain ways, therefore science will never know) should carry any weight whatsoever.
(Recall that Nagel was at it again, recently, with a new book criticizing the scientific approach to the understanding of the cosmos as permanently incomplete because it cannot explain either consciousness or morality. The book, Mind and Cosmos, was not favorably reviewed, either by scientists or by philosophers.)
But, as Brüntrup and Jaskolla correctly point out, it is with Chalmers’ 1996 The Conscious Mind that modern panpsychism gets serious, so to speak. And it is therefore time to actually get down to work and see what panpsychism is and why people might be tempted to take the notion seriously.
According to Brüntrup and Jaskolla, “panpsychism is the thesis that mental being is an ubiquitous and fundamental feature pervading the entire universe,” which is an idea that is actually harder to pin down than it sounds. Does that mean that the iPad on which I’m typing this is (partially) conscious? What about the coffee that I just drank as part of my morning intake of caffeine? What about every single atom of air in my office? Every electron? Every string (if they exist)?
The OUP piece goes on to provide a helpful summary of the two cardinal ideas underlying panpsychism. I will quote it verbatim, then we’ll get down to do some unpacking:
“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).”
“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).”
Okay, then, let us consider the “genetic argument” first. The “ex nihilo, nihil fit” bit is so bad that it is usually not taken seriously these days outside of theological circles (yes, it is a standard creationist argument!). If we did, then we would not only have no hope of any scientific explanation for consciousness, but also for life (which did come from non-life), for the universe (which did come from non-universe or pre-universe), and indeed for the very laws of nature (where did they come from anyway?).
Then there is a nonsensical bit: “If human consciousness came to be through a physical process of evolution, then physical matter must already contain some basic form of mental being.” To see why this is nonsense, just substitute any qualitatively novel physical or biological phenomenon for “consciousness” and any physical process whatsoever for “evolution” and you’ll see what I mean. The genetic argument, in other words, reduces to an argument from ignorance, or from personal incredulity. It is a non starter from which to build any serious philosophical or scientific position.
On to the second pillar, the “argument from intrinsic nature.”
First off, notice the name dropping and do not be too impressed by it. Just because Leibniz, or Russell (one of my favorite philosophers ever) said something, and even when that something is alost believed by, wait for it, a scientist!, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Second, notice that Russell doesn’t come anywhere near making an argument for panpsychism. At best, that quotation can be interpreted as a statement of agnosticism, and more probably as an example of a philosopher entertaining a notion without necessarily endorsing it (a lot of philosophy is like that).
What about Eddington’s “intuitive” form of the argument? “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.”
Surely. I’m not positive if my physicist friends would agree that physics is the study of structural form but not content — whatever those two terms actually mean in this context. But if so, then this is simply an argument for the incompleteness, as a science, of fundamental physics. Which, of course, is why we have a number of other sciences that study “content,” chiefly — in the case of consciousness — biology.
Consciousness, so far as we know, is an evolved property of certain kinds of animal life forms equipped with a sufficiently complex neural machinery. There is neither evidence nor any reason whatsoever to believe that plants or bacteria are conscious, let alone rocks, individual molecules of water, or atoms.
Moreover, since at the very bottom matter dops not seem to be made of discrete units (there are no “particles,” only wave functions, possibly just one wave function characterizing the entire universe), it simply isn’t clear what it means to say that consciousness is everywhere. Is it a property of the quantum wave function? How? Can we carry out an experiment to test this idea?
One more try. Brüntrup and Jaskolla conclude their piece by quoting Freya Mathews, the author of For the Love of Matter (2003), as presenting an argument that assumes that — somehow — we have privileged access to the ultimate nature of matter by virtue of being conscious. Here is how Mathews puts it: “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 … 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)
You call this an “argument”? It seems to me to be a massive exercise in begging the question, accompanied by poetic but highly imprecise phrasing (materialism maroons the epistemic subject…). And I simply don’t get why dualism is supposed to be a corollary of the materialist view of the world — I would have thought the two to be incompatible. This isn’t the stuff of either good philosophy or good science.
I am left with just one question: why would anyone take any of this seriously at all? And one possible answer comes right at the end of the OUP post:
“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.”
I get it, panpsychism allows us to feel at one with nature because consciousness is everywhere, and that will make us better shepherds of nature itself. I got news: Nature is mind bogglingly bigger than humanity, and it will be here for eons after humanity will be gone. It doesn’t need us to feel connected with her in order to exist. Yes, we do need to take care of our own puny piece of Nature that we call Earth, for our own sake, if nothing else. But we can do that quite independently of either Cartesian dualism or New Age panpsychism. We can do it as material creatures endowed by evolution of the ability to reflect on what they are doing and decide whether it’s a good idea to do it.
(Much more on panpsychism can be found in the corresponding entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, including a third category of arguments, not considered here, and a brief overview of standard counter-arguments.)