1 Jugis

Panpsychism Philosophical Essays On Infinity

1. Panpsychism in the History of Western Philosophy

Clear indications of panpsychist doctrines are evident in early Greek thought. One of the first Presocratic philosophers of ancient Greece, Thales (c. 624–545 BCE) deployed an analogical argument for the attribution of mind that tends towards panpsychism. The argument depends upon the idea that enminded beings are self-movers. Thales notes that magnets and, under certain circumstances, amber, can move themselves and concludes that they therefore possess minds. It is claimed that Thales went much beyond such particular attributions and endorsed a true panpsychism and pantheism. For example, as reported by Barnes (1982: 96–7), Diogenes claimed that Thales believed that “the universe is alive and full of spirits”, but this remark is derived from an earlier claim of Aristotle: “some say a soul is mingled in the whole universe—which is perhaps why Thales thought that everything is full of gods”. While Barnes disputes the pantheistic reading of Thales, he allows that Thales believed in the “ubiquity of animation”.[1]

The Presocratics were struck by a dilemma: either mind is an elemental feature of the world, or mind can somehow be reduced to more fundamental elements. If one opts for reductionism, it is incumbent upon one to explain how the reduction happens. On the other hand, if one opts for the panpsychist view that mind is an elemental feature of the world, then one must account for the apparent lack of mental features at the fundamental level. Anaxagoras (c. 500–425 BCE) flatly denied that novel elements can emerge from more basic features of reality and instead advanced the view that “everything is in everything” (there are interesting parallels between this and much more recent arguments for panpsychism by Thomas Nagel and Galen Strawson, discussed below). Anaxagoras explained the appearance to the contrary in terms of a “principle of dominance and latency” (see Mourelatos 1986), which asserted that some qualities were dominant in their contribution to the behavior and appearance of things. However, Anaxagoras’s views on mind are complex since he apparently regarded mind as uniquely not containing any measure of other things and thus not fully complying with his mixing principles. Perhaps this can be interpreted as the assertion that mind is ontologically fundamental in a special way; Anaxagoras did seem to believe that everything has some portion of mind in it while refraining from the assertion that everything has a mind (even this is controversial, see Barnes 1982: 405 ff.).

On the other hand, Empedocles, an almost exact contemporary of Anaxagoras, favored a reductionist account based upon the famous doctrine of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. All qualities were to be explicated in terms of ratios of these elements. The overall distribution of the elements, which were themselves eternal and unchangeable, was controlled by “love and strife” in a grand cyclically dynamic universe.[2] The purest form of reductionism was propounded by the famed atomist Democritus (c. 460–370 BCE). His principle of emergence was based upon the possibility of multi-shaped atoms “interlocking” to form an infinity of more complex shapes. But Democritus had to admit that the qualities of experience could not be accounted for in this way, and thus chose to relegate them to non-existence: “by convention sweet and by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color; but in reality atoms and void” (Taylor 1999).

What is striking about these early attempts to formulate an integrated theory of reality is that the mind and particularly consciousness keep arising as special problems. It is sometimes said that the mind-body problem is not an ancient philosophical worry (see Matson 1966), but it does seem that the problem of consciousness was vexing philosophers 2500 years ago, and in a form redolent of contemporary worries.

We find these worries re-emerging at the start of the scientific revolution, as the mechanistic picture of the world inaugurated by Galileo, Descartes and Newton put the problem of the mind at center stage while paradoxically sweeping it under the rug. Galileo’s mathematisation of nature seemed to leave no space for the qualities we find in experience: the redness of the tomato, the spiciness of the paprika, the sweet smell of flowers. Galileo’s solution, in a move reminiscent of Democritus, was to strip matter of such sensory qualities. This led to the distinction between “primary qualities”—such as shape, size and motion—which were thought to really exist in matter, and “secondary qualities”—such as colours, odours and tastes—which were thought to exist only in the mind of the observer (or to exist as powers to cause ideas in the minds of observers).[3] Galileo and Descartes did not take the radical Democritian step of denying the existence of the secondary qualities; instead they placed them in the soul.[4] However, this of course led to a radical form of dualism, with a sharp metaphysical division between souls with their secondary qualities and bodies with their primary qualities.

In opposition to this dualism, the panpsychist views of Spinoza (1632–77) and Leibniz (1646–1716) can be seen as attempts to provide a more unified picture of nature. Spinoza regarded both mind and matter as simply aspects (or attributes) of the eternal, infinite and unique substance he identified with God Himself. In the illustrative scholium to proposition seven of book two of the Ethics ([1677] 1985) Spinoza writes:

a circle existing in nature and the idea of the existing circle, which is also in God, are one and the same thing … therefore, whether we conceive nature under the attribute of Extension, or under the attribute of Thought … we shall find one and the same order, or one and the same connection of causes….

We might say that, for Spinoza, physical science is a way of studying the psychology of God. There is nothing in nature that does not have a mental aspect—the proper appreciation of matter itself reveals it to be the other side of a mentalistic coin.

Leibniz’s view is sometimes caricatured as: Spinoza with infinitely many substances rather than just one. These substances Leibniz called monads (Leibniz [1714] 1989). Since they are true substances (able to exist independently of any other thing), and since they are absolutely simple, they cannot interact with each other in any way. Yet each monad carries within it complete information about the entire universe. Space, for Leibniz, was reducible to (non-spatial) similarity or correspondence relationships between the intrinsic natures of the monads.

Leibniz’s monads are fundamentally to be conceived mentalistically—they are in a way mentalistic automatons moving from one perceptual state (some conscious and some not) to another, all according to a God imposed pre-defined rule. It is highly significant for the development of contemporary forms of panpsychism that Leibniz could find no intrinsic nature for his basic elements other than a mentalistic nature—the only model he found adequate to describe his monads was one of perception and spontaneous activity. This view has been highly influential on the emergence in recent times of Russellian monism, discussed below.

The nineteenth century was the heyday of panpsychism. Even a partial list of panpsychists of that period reveals how many of the best minds of the time gravitated towards this doctrine. Prominent exponents of distinctive forms of panpsychism include Gustav Fechner (1801–1887), Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), Rudolf Hermann Lotze (1817–1881), William James (1842–1910), Josiah Royce (1855–1916) and William Clifford (1845–1879). Royce and Lotze represent what may be called “idealist panpsychism”. That is, the primary motivation for the ascription of mental attributes to matter is that matter is, in essence, a “form” of mind, and thus panpsychism is a kind of theorem that follows from this more fundamental philosophical view.

An important figure in the development of panpsychist thought is Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). Schopenhauer was influenced by Kant’s view that we lack an understanding of reality as it is in and of itself, but he made a crucial exception for the immediate knowledge one has of oneself. Taking will to be the fundamental quality one is aware of in introspection, Schopenhauer thus theorised that will is the inner nature of all things. This line of reasoning bears a striking similarity to, and indeed is an important influence on, the contemporary Russellian monists, whom we will discuss below.

Other panpsychists of this time include Friedrich Paulsen (1846–1908), a student of Fechner’s who extended his teacher’s version of panpsychism, and Morton Prince (1854–1929), psychologist and physician who advocated a panpsychism that emphasized that it is matter that must be “psychologized” or imbued with mentalistic attributes (Prince regarded this as a form of materialism, and there are again affinities here with Russellian monism, discussed below). Also to be mentioned are Eduard von Hartmann (1842–1906) who extended his famous doctrine of the unconscious down to the level of atoms, Ferdinand C.S. Schiller (1864–1937) who provided a pragmatist defense of panpsychism as a doctrine which by various analogical arguments yields otherwise unattainable insights into nature, and Ernst Häckel (1834–1919), an early and avid proponent of Darwinism in Germany who interpreted our evolutionary connection with the rest of nature as evidence for panpsychism, and who was thus willing to ascribe mental properties to living cells.

Fechner and Royce developed panpsychist accounts of nature that did not attribute mental properties to the smallest bits of matter. This might seem to exclude their being correctly classed as “panpsychists”, as it is part of the definition of panpsychism that mentality is fundamental. Surely someone who believes that amoebas have experiences, but that the quarks and electrons that ultimately constitute amoebas do not, is no panpsychist. However, this simplifying view contains an implicit assumption about the nature of fundamental reality, namely that micro-level entities are its building blocks. Fechner and Royce did not accept this assumption, holding instead that the ontological foundation of reality is the “world-soul” or “world-mind” of which everything is a part (there are obvious echoes of Spinoza in such a view). This top-down view of the place of mind in the world does seem to be a legitimate sort of panpsychism, and it is one that does not require that everything in the world be itself enminded. Hartshorne (1950) labelled this kind of panpsychism “synecological”, in opposition to “atomistic” panpsychism. In contemporary philosophy, these views are known respectively as “(constitutive) cosmopsychism” and “(constitutive) micropsychism”, and both have their defenders as we shall see below.

William James’s panpsychism grew out of his “neutral monism”— the view that the fundamental nature of reality is neither mental nor physical, but of some third form that can be regarded as either mental or physical from different viewpoints. To the extent that a neutral monism can be regarded as a dual-aspect view (as in Spinoza’s philosophy), it might be regarded as a kind of panpsychism in its own right; but James’s view developed beyond this, to incorporate mind-like elements into the basic structure of reality. In a notebook of 1909 he wrote: “the constitution of reality which I am making for is of the psychic type” (see Cooper 1990). James’s commitment to panpsychism remains somewhat controversial, since he also advanced a cogent set of objections against a version of the view, which he labelled the “mind dust” theory, in chapter six of The Principles of Psychology ([1890] 1981). These objections are the inspiration for the so-called “combination problem”, around which much of the twenty first century literature on panpsychism focuses. But in the end James’s commitment is quite clear (see James 1909, 1911; Lamberth 1997; and for an excellent analysis of James’s views on mind see Cooper 1990 or chapters 2–4 of Cooper 2002).

The most significant development and defense of a panpsychist philosophy in the twentieth century was undoubtedly that of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947).[5] Exploration of the details of Whitehead’s philosophy would require an article of its own, and would be fraught with interpretive difficulties in any case since Whitehead’s own presentation is forbiddingly complex. But roughly speaking Whitehead proposed a radical reform of our conception of the fundamental nature of the world, placing events (or items that are more event-like than thing-like) and the ongoing processes of their creation and extinction as the core feature of the world, rather than the traditional triad of matter, space and time. His panpsychism arises from the idea that the elementary events that make up the world (which he called occasions) partake of mentality in some—often extremely attenuated—sense, metaphorically expressed in terms of the mentalistic notions of creativity, spontaneity and perception. The echoes of Leibniz are not accidental here, and Whitehead also has a form of Leibniz’s distinction between unities and mere aggregates, which he explains in these terms:

… in bodies that are obviously living, a coordination has been achieved that raises into prominence some functions inherent in the ultimate occasions. For lifeless matter these functionings thwart each other, and average out so as to produce a negligible total effect. In the case of living bodies the coordination intervenes, and the average effect of these intimate functionings has to be taken into account. (1933: 207)

(Lest it seem that Whitehead is only discussing life, he is clear that this depends upon a sort of mental functioning.)[6]

From the 1930s to the end of the twentieth century, there was relatively little interest in panpsychism in Western philosophy. This attitude was arguably caused by two things: the dominance of physicalism in the philosophy of mind, and the general hostility to metaphysics which reigned up until the 1970s. A rare exception to this trend was Timothy Sprigge who, in A Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1983), defends an idealism-based form of panpsychism. Sprigge summarized his views and provided some novel defences of them in Sprigge (2007), which is a response to critics, a number of which explicitly discuss panpsychism (see e.g., Maddell 2007). An important form of the anti-emergence argument for panpsychism (discussed below) was published by Thomas Nagel in 1979. Later David Griffin, in Unsnarling the World Knot (1998), espoused an atomistic panpsychism in the form of an explicit interpretation, extension and defense of Whitehead’s version of the doctrine. We also find sympathy for panpsychism in David Chalmers’ (1996) The Conscious Mind, and in articles responding to Chalmers by Piet Hut & Roger Shepard, Gregg Rosenberg, and William Seager, all in Shear 1997 (for more on the history of panpsychism see Clark 2004 and Skrbina 2005).

Recent developments have gone some way to reversing the aversion to panpsychism that has dominated Western philosophy in recent times. From the 1970s onwards hostility to metaphysics slowly withdrew, and most philosophers in the analytic tradition now accept the inevitability of metaphysics. And towards the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the continuing failure of physicalists to come up with a satisfying account of consciousness has led many to look for alternatives. As a result of both of these things, a significant and growing minority of analytic philosophers have begun seriously to explore the potential of panpsychism, both to provide a satisfying account of the emergence of human consciousness and to give a positive account of the intrinsic nature of matter (these motivations should become clearer in the discussion below of the arguments for panpsychism). The following volumes include some of this recent work: Freeman 2006; Skrbina 2009; Blaumauer 2011; Alter & Nagasawa 2015; Brüntrup & Jaskolla 2016; Seager forthcoming.

2. Varieties of Contemporary Panpsychism

2.1 The Definition of Panpsychism

The word “panpsychism” literally means that everything has a mind. However, in contemporary debates it is generally understood as the view that mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world. Thus, in conjunction with the widely held assumption (which will be reconsidered below) that fundamental things exist only at the micro-level, panpsychism entails that at least some kinds of micro-level entities have mentality, and that instances of those kinds are found in all things throughout the material universe. So whilst the panpsychist holds that mentality is distributed throughout the natural world—in the sense that all material objects have parts with mental properties—she needn’t hold that literally everything has a mind, e.g., she needn’t hold that a rock has mental properties (just that the rock’s fundamental parts do).

We can distinguish various forms of panpsychism in terms of which aspect of mentality is taken to be fundamental and ubiquitous. Two important characteristics of human minds are thought and consciousness. In terms of these characteristics we can distinguish the following two possible forms of panpsychism:

  • Panexperientialism—the view that conscious experience is fundamental and ubiquitous
  • Pancognitivism—the view that thought is fundamental and ubiquitous.

According to the definition of consciousness that is dominant in contemporary analytic philosophy, something is conscious just in case there is something that it’s like to be it; that is to say, if it has some kind of experience, no matter how basic.[7] Humans have incredibly rich and complex experience, horses less so, mice less so again. Standardly the panexperientialist holds that this diminishing of the complexity of experience continues down through plants, and through to the basic constituents of reality, perhaps electrons and quarks. If the notion of “having experience” is flexible enough, then the view that an electron has experience—of some extremely basic kind—would seem to be coherent (of course we must distinguish the question of whether it is coherent from the question of whether it is plausible; the latter will depend on the strength of the arguments discussed below).

Thought, in contrast, is a much more sophisticated phenomenon, and many doubt that it is correct to ascribe it to non-human animals, never-mind fundamental particles. The traditional view in analytic philosophy is that thoughts are mental states that can be modelled as psychological attitudes towards specific propositions: believing that Budapest is the capital of Hungary, hoping that war is over, fearing that there will be another Global Financial Crisis. Panpsychism is often caricatured as the view that electrons have hopes and dreams, or that quarks suffer from existential angst. However, whilst there have been some defenders of pancognitivism in history, it is panexperientialist forms of panpsychism that are taken seriously in contemporary analytic philosophy. From now on I will equate panpsychism with panexperientialism.

2.2 Constitutive Versus Emergentist Panpsychism

Panpsychists believe that there is much more consciousness in the universe than most Westerners tend to think there is; indeed at least some fundamental entities have consciousness according to panpsychism. But what is the relationship between this “extra” consciousness and the consciousness we ordinarily believe in, the consciousness we pre-theoretically associate with humans and other animals?

David Chalmers (2015) distinguishes between constitutive and non-constitutive forms of panpsychism, a distinction I present here in a slightly modified form:

  • Constitutive panpsychism—Forms of panpsychism according to which facts about human and animal consciousness are not fundamental, but are grounded in/realized by/constituted of facts about more fundamental kinds of consciousness, e.g., facts about micro-level consciousness.
  • Non-Constitutive panpsychism—Forms of panpsychism according to which facts about human and animal consciousness are among the fundamental facts.[8]

The most common form of constitutive panpsychism is:

  • Constitutive Micropsychism—The view that all facts are grounded in/realized by/constituted of consciousness-involving facts at the micro-level.

According to constitutive micropsychism, the smallest parts of my brain have very basic forms of consciousness, and the consciousness of my brain as a whole is in some sense made up from the consciousness of its parts. This is the form of panpsychism that suffers most acutely from the combination problem, which we will explore below. However, if it can be made sense of, constitutive micropsychism promises an elegant and parsimonious view of nature, with all the richness of nature accounted for in terms of facts at the micro-level.

Turning to non-constitutive forms of panpsychism, we should note that by saying that human and animal consciousness is not “fundamental”, we simply mean that it is not grounded in (realized by/constituted of) micro-level consciousness; and this does not entail that human/animal consciousness is not caused by micro-level consciousness. Indeed, non-constitutive panpsychism typically takes the form of some kind of emergentism, according to which the conscious minds of humans and animals arise as a causal product of interactions between micro-level conscious subjects.

Emergentist panpsychism in turn takes two forms. Gregg Rosenberg (2004) and Godehard Brüntrup (2016) have each defended a form of layered emergentism, according to which human minds co-exist with the micro-level conscious subjects that give rise to them and sustain them throughout their existence. The resulting picture is structurally similar to the “British emergentism” of the 19th and early 20th century: in both pictures new fundamental entities and forces appear when matter reaches a certain level of complexity.[9] However, panpsychist emergentists are arguably committed to a less radical form of emergence than non-panpsychist emergentists, as the emergent entities are of the same kind as the micro-level entities from which they emerge.

William Seager (2016) and Hedda Hassel Mørch (2014) have independently defended a non-layered form of panpsychist emergentism, which we can call “fusionism”. According to fusionism, when micro-level subjects come together to form a human mind they don’t compose it as bricks compose a house, rather they as it were fuse into it, ceasing to exist in the process. On Seager’s view the post-fusion conscious brain entirely lacks parts; it is a “big simple”. On Mørch’s view the post-fusion conscious brain still has parts, but whereas pre-fusion the brain was dependent for its existence on its parts, post-fusion the parts are dependent for their existence upon the brain.

By taking human and animal consciousness to be fundamental, rather than somehow made up of more basic forms of consciousness, emergentists avoid some forms of the combination problem (discussed below). However, this comes at the cost of having an empirically more risky view. It is natural to think that emergent fundamental features of reality would introduce radically new causal powers, and hence it ought to be possible in principle to observe the difference they make in the world when they come into existence. David Papineau (2001) has argued that (i) neuroscience and cellular biology show no sign of the existence of distinctive causal powers associated with biological consciousness, and that (ii) this counts strongly against emergentism of any kind.

2.3 Panpsychism Versus Panprotopsychism

It is worth mentioning a position very similar to panpsychism, namely panprotopsychism. Whereas panpsychists think that consciousness is fundamental and ubiquitous, panprotopsychists think that proto-consciousness is fundamental and ubiquitous. The properties that characterise conscious experience are commonly referred to as “phenomenal properties”; and hence the properties involved in proto-consciousness are referred to as “protophenomenal properties”.[10]

In the first instance, we can think of protophenomenal properties as properties that are not themselves forms of consciousness but which in combination give rise to forms of consciousness. However, as Daniel Stoljar (2010) has pointed out, this definition is too broad, as anybody who believes that consciousness is not fundamental holds that it is constituted of some other properties, and hence believes in properties which are “protophenomenal” in this sense. Standard forms of physicalism will turn out to be forms of “panprotopsychism” on such a definition.

To get around this problem, a fuller definition of “protophenomenal properties” would define them as properties that in certain combinations transparently account for the existence of consciousness, in the sense that one could in principle move a priori from knowing the relevant facts about protophenomenal properties to knowing the relevant facts about phenomenal properties (Chalmers 2015; Goff 2015, 2017). That is to say, if you could magically perceive the protophenomenal properties in my brain (assuming panprotopsychism is true), you would in principle be able to deduce what it’s like to be me. This would distinguish panprotopsychism from the standard contemporary form of physicalism—that advocated by proponents of the so-called “phenomenal concept strategy” (Loar 1990; Papineau 1998; Diaz-Leon 2010)—according to which there is no explanatory entailment from the physical to the mental. We can further stipulate that the explanatory entailment advocated by the panprotopsychist does not hold (solely) in virtue of the kind of properties physical science reveals to us, thus distinguishing panprotopsychism from more radically reductive views such as analytic functionalism.

Thus, protophenomenal properties have a kind of indirect definition, in terms of their propensity to ground consciousness. Different forms of panprotopsychism are distinguished by what if anything they have to say about the positive nature of protophenomenal properties. Many panprotopsychists think we currently have no positive conception of the nature of protophenomenal properties. Indeed, some have argued that we are constitutionally incapable of ever forming one. This view was dubbed “mysterianism” by Owen Flanagan, and is most associated with Colin McGinn (1989; McGinn does not use the label “panprotopsychism” to describe his view, but it fits the definition laid out in this section).

Perhaps the most promising conception of protophenomenal properties is given by the view Herbert Feigl (1960) called “panqualityism”, crediting it to a conversation with Stephen C. Pepper. Versions of the view itself were held by William James (1904), Ernst Mach (1886), Bertrand Russell (1921) and Peter Unger (1999). More recently the view has been prominently defended by Sam Coleman (2012, 2014, 2015, 2016). According to panqualityism the protophenomenal properties are unexperienced qualities. Our conscious experience is filled with experienced qualities, e.g., those phenomenal qualities involved in seeing colour or feeling pain. Panqualityists believe that such qualities are only contingently experienced, and that in basic matter they exist unexperienced.

Panqualityists typically give some kind of reductionist account of how such unexperienced qualities come to be experienced, such as a functionalist account according to which for a quality to be experienced is for it to play the right causal role in the cognitive capacities of the organism. Thus, panqualityism can be seen as a kind of middle way between panpsychism and physicalism.[11] Whereas the physicalist thinks that we can give an entirely reductive account of consciousness, and the panpsychist thinks that consciousness is fundamental, the panqualityist thinks that that the qualitative aspect of consciousness is fundamental, whilst holding a reductive view of subjectivity, i.e., the fact that those qualities are experienced.

Tom McClelland (2013) defends a form of panprotopsychism that combines elements of mysterianism with the kind of reductive account of subjectivity favoured by the panqualityists. McClelland is a mysterian about the basic features of matter that give rise to the qualitative properties we encounter in our experience, but like Coleman he hopes that we may be able to give a reductive account of how those qualities come to be experienced.

For some other defences of protopanpsychism or closely related views, see Stoljar (2001), Holman (2008), Montero (2010) and Pereboom (2011, 2015).

2.4 Micropsychism Versus Cosmopsychism

Contemporary philosophers tend to assume that fundamental things exist at the micro-level. Coleman (2006) calls this “smallism”: the view that facts about big things are grounded in facts about little things, e.g., the table exists and is the way it is because the particles making it up are related in certain extremely complicated ways. However, the work of Jonathan Schaffer (2010) has recently brought to prominence an alternative picture of reality. According to the view Schaffer calls “priority monism”, facts about little things are grounded in facts about big things. The table’s atoms exist and are the way they are because the table exists and is the way it is; and all things ultimately exist and are the way they are because of certain facts about the universe as a whole. For the priority monist there is one and only one fundamental thing: the universe.

If we combine priority monism with constitutive panpsychism we get:

  • Constitutive cosmopsychism—The view that all facts are grounded in/realized by/constituted of consciousness-involving facts at the cosmic-level.

We can also envisage non-constitutive forms of cosmopsychism. On a standard form of layered emergentism (discussed above), human and animal minds are causally dependent on consciousness-involving micro-level facts whilst being fundamental entities in their own right; on the cosmopsychist analogue, human and animal minds are causally dependent on the conscious cosmos whilst being fundamental entities in their own right.[12] The minimal commitment of cosmopsychism is that the universe is conscious; in principle this is compatible with holding that the universe is a derivative entity, grounded in facts about is parts.

Cosmopsychism is not to be confused with pantheism: the view that the universe is God.[13] Just as the micropsychist holds that electrons have experience but not thought, so the cosmopsychist holds that the universe has some kind of experience, but may refrain from attributing thought or agency to the universe. It could be that the consciousness of the universe is a gigantic mess that doesn’t add up to anything coherent enough to ground cognition.

Detailed forms of cosmopsychism have been proposed by Mathews (2011), Jaskolla & Buck (2012), Shani (2015), Nagasawa & Wager (2016), and Goff (2017, forthcoming). Most of these philosophers are attracted to cosmopsychism on the grounds that it is better fitted than micropsychism to deal with the combination problem (we will discuss some of their reasons for thinking this below in the section on the combination problem). Cosmopsychism is the contemporary analogue of the “synecological” forms of panpsychism, defended by Fechner and Royce amongst others, which were discussed above.

2.5 Russellian Monism

In his 1927 book The Analysis of Matter, Bertrand Russell proposed a novel approach to the mind-body problem. Arthur Eddington, in his Gifford lectures of the same year, independently expressed very similar thoughts (published in Eddington 1928).[14] Remarkably this approach was almost completely forgotten about for much of the twentieth century. However, there has recently been a revival of interest in this approach, resulting in a Russell-inspired view that has become known as “Russellian monism”.

Russellian monists are motivated by the need to characterise the intrinsic nature of matter (This issue is discussed in great detail below in the section on the “Intrinsic nature argument”; reading that section will help one get a grip on Russellian monism and its motivation). We can define the view itself in terms of two components, one negative and one positive:

  • The information we get from the physical sciences is in some significant sense limited. There are subtle variations on how exactly this is put, but the idea is that the physical sciences only tell us about the extrinsic, relational, mathematical, or dispositional nature of matter, and leave us in the dark about its intrinsic, concrete and categorical nature. Physics tells us how an electron behaves, but it doesn’t tell us how it is in and of itself.
  • The intrinsic/concrete/categorical features of matter which physical science remains silent on account for the existence of consciousness. The problem of consciousness, the difficulty seeing how consciousness fits into the physical word, is the result of our not taking into account these “hidden” features of the physical world.

Some Russellian monists think that the intrinsic nature of fundamental matter is itself consciousness-involving; others that it involves non-phenomenal properties that somehow transparently explain the reality of consciousness. Thus, we get panpsychist and panprotopsychist forms of the view, which we can call “Russellian panpsychism” and “Russellian panprotopsychism” respectively.

The attraction of Russellian monism is that it has the potential to avoid both the deep problems facing dualism and the deep problems facing physicalism. The problem with dualism is its difficulty reconciling the causal efficacy of human consciousness with (what many philosophers take to be) the empirical fact that the physical world is causally closed, in the sense that every event has a sufficient physical cause. The causal closure of the physical seems to leave no room for fundamental non-physical mental causes to do any work. If my behaviour is entirely caused by physical events in my brain, then my immaterial soul is left with no role to play in the production of behaviour. The physicalist avoids this problem as on her view consciousness states are physical states, and hence they are themselves parts of the causally closed physical system. Or rather physicalists can avoid this problem if they can give an adequate account of the grounding of consciousness. The problem for physicalists, as we will discuss in the next section, is that there are strong philosophical grounds for thinking that they are unable to do this.[15]

Russellian monism offers hope of a satisfying solution to both of these difficulties. Its elegant integration of consciousness in the material world looks to be a promising way of accounting for the causal role of human consciousness. If conscious states just are the intrinsic nature of brain states, then the causal action of brain states and the causal action of conscious states are arguably one and the same thing. And by postulating a phenomenal or protophenomenal nature to fundamental physical reality, Russellian monism hopes to provide an adequate account of the grounding of consciousness.[16]

For these reasons, Russellian monism is increasingly being seen as one of the most promising ways forward on the problem of consciousness. Even its opponents have expressed admiration for its virtues; physicalist Alyssa Ney (2015: 349) says of it

This proposal strikes me, suspending disbelief about the…theses that lead up to it, as at least as bold and exciting as Newton’s proposed identification of terrestrial and cosmic reality.

The growing prominence of Russellian monism, given that one paradigmatic form of Russellian monism is panpsychist, has resulted in panpsychism once again being considered as a serious option.

See Alter & Nagasawa (2015) for a recent collection of essays on Russellian monism. For further work on Russellian monism and related views see Feigl (1967), Maxwell (1979), Lockwood (1989), Strawson (1994, 2003, 2016), Chalmers (1996, 2015), Griffin (1998), Stoljar (2001), Pereboom (2011, 2015) and Goff (2015, 2017).

3. Arguments for Panpsychism

3.1 The Anti-Emergence Argument

Neuroscience has made great progress in uncovering the mechanisms in the brain that underlie our cognitive and behavioural functioning. But this form of scientific investigation has not produced anything approaching a satisfying explanation of why it is that a person has subjective experience, i.e., of why there is something that it’s like to be a human being. It seems that we can imagine a creature that was empirically indiscernible from a human being in terms of its physical brain processes and the behaviour they give rise to, but which had no experience whatsoever (it screams and runs away when you stick a knife in it, but it doesn’t actually feel pain). And it arguably follows that facts about physical brain processes and behaviour cannot explain, at least not in a transparent and satisfying manner, the reality of conscious experience.

This is the problem David Chalmers (1995, 1996) famously named “the hard problem of consciousness”.[17] Some think the alleged problem involves a confusion, although anyone who thinks this is obliged to diagnose the exact root of the confusion. Others think that there is a problem, but one that further scientific investigation will solve. Perhaps we just need to wait for the arrival of the “Darwin of consciousness” to make progress. However, there is no reason to suppose that “further scientific investigation” has to be pursued under the methodological assumption that consciousness is to be accounted for in terms of processes which don’t involve consciousness, e.g., in terms of facts about non-conscious neurons. The panpsychist proposes an alternative approach: explain human and animal consciousness in terms of more basic forms of consciousness. These more basic forms of consciousness are then postulated as properties of the fundamental constituents of the material world, perhaps of quarks and electrons. Thus, we try to explain the consciousness of the human brain in terms of the consciousness of its most fundamental parts.

Thomas Nagel (1979) influentially argued that adopting a view like panpsychism is the only way to avoid what he called “emergence”. Crucially, close examination of the text reveals that Nagel is using the word “emergence” slightly differently to how it has come to be used in contemporary discussions of panpsychism (discussed above). For Nagel, “emergent” properties of a complex system are ones that cannot be intelligibly derived from the properties of its parts. In contrast, for the “emergentist panpsychists” discussed above, “emergent” properties of a complex system are simply fundamental macro-level properties, which may or may not be intelligibly derived from the properties of its parts.[18] Following Galen Strawson (2006a) we can use the word “radical emergence” to express Nagel’s notion of emergence.[19]

Nagel’s argument involves four premises:

  1. Material Composition—Living organisms are complex material systems with no immaterial parts. The matter composing us is not special; the matter composing any material entity, if broken down far enough and rearranged, could in principle be incorporated into a living organism.
  2. Realism—Mental states are genuine properties of living organisms.
  3. No Radical Emergence—All the properties of a complex organism are intelligibly derived from the properties of its parts.
  4. Non-Reductionism—The mental states of an organism are not intelligibly derived from its physical properties alone.

Nagel takes these premises to imply that there must be non-physical properties of basic matter that, when combined in the right way, intelligible imply the existence of mental states. It is worth noting that, although Nagel calls the resulting view “panpsychism”, it seems compatible with panprotopsychism (discussed above).

More recently, Galen Strawson (2006a) has defended a similar argument from the untenability of radical emergence. Whereas Nagel’s aim is merely to establish the disjunction of panpsychism and panprotopsychism, the conclusion of Strawson’s argument is very definitely the truth of panpsychism. Strawson begins by arguing that radical emergence is upon reflection unintelligible:

Emergence can’t be brute. It is built into the heart of the notion of emergence that emergence cannot be brute in the sense of there being absolutely no reason in the nature of things why the emerging thing is as it is (so that it is unintelligible even to God). For any feature Y of anything that is correctly considered to be emergent from X, there must be something about X and X alone in virtue of which Y emerges, and which is sufficient for Y (Strawson 2006a: 18)

There are of course cases in which one property arises from another, e.g., liquid arises from individual molecules each of which is not itself liquid. However, in all such cases, Strawson argues, the emergence is perfectly intelligible:

We can easily make intuitive sense of the idea that certain sorts of molecules are so constituted that they don’t bind together in a tight lattice but slide past or off each other (in accordance with van de Waals molecular interaction laws) in a way that gives rise to—is—the phenomenon of liquidity. So too, with Bénard convection cells we can easily make sense of the idea that physical laws relating to surface tension, viscosity, and other forces governing the motion of molecules give rise to hexagonal patterns on the surface of a fluid like oil when it is heated. In both these cases we move in a small set of conceptually homogeneous shape-size-mass-charge-number-position-motion-involving physics notions with no sense of puzzlement…. Using the notion of reduction in a familiar loose way, we can say that the phenomena of liquidity reduce without remainder to shape-size-mass-charge-etc. (Strawson 2006a: 18)

Thus, the crucial feature of intelligible emergence, according to Strawson, is that the relationship between the product of emergence and its producer can be adequately characterized using a single set of conceptually homogeneous concepts. But it’s very hard to see how any set of conceptually homogeneous concepts could capture both the experiential (i.e., consciousness-involving) and the non-experiential (non-conscious-involving), and hence hard to see how the thesis that consciousness emerges from non-consciousness could be rendered intelligible. Strawson argues that it is only by supposing that human and animal consciousness emerges from more basic forms of consciousness, that we have hope of avoiding the emergence of animal consciousness being a brute and inexplicable miracle.

It is not clear that Strawson is able to conclusively rule out the panprotopsychist option discussed above. It is plausible that we currently have no positive conception of wholly non-experiential states that would intelligibly give rise to consciousness. But maybe that’s because the Darwin of consciousness hasn’t come along yet to theorise her way to their nature. Or maybe, as Colin McGinn (1989) famously argued, human beings are constitutively incapable of grasping the nature of the properties underlying consciousness; it could nonetheless be that the emergence of consciousness from non-consciousness is intelligible to God if not to us. We have seen that Strawson insists that an emergent feature and that from which it emerges must be capable of being captured under a set of conceptually homogeneous notions; but perhaps there is an unknown (at least thus far) neutral vocabulary in terms of which both experiential and non-experiential features of reality can be adequately described (Nagel is open to this possibility, which is another way of seeing how the conclusion of Strawson’s argument is stronger than that of Nagel’s). Furthermore, as Philip Goff (2006, 2017: ch. 7) has argued in response to Strawson, there is reason to doubt that the panpsychist herself is able to give a wholly intelligible story as to how macro-level consciousness emerges from the micro-level consciousness, which threatens to undermine Strawson’s claim that panpsychism avoids radical emergence. (This issue is discussed in detail below in the section on The Subject-Summing Problem).

Strawson’s argument is intended to show that a non-panpsychist reduction of consciousness is impossible. However, it is not obvious that this is essential for the anti-emergence argument for panpsychism to have force. Philosophers and scientists have spent a great deal of time trying to explain consciousness in terms of non-consciousness, and these efforts have not produced even the beginnings of an intelligible explanation. Given this failure it seems reasonable to explore other paradigms of scientific explanation.

It might seem obvious that emergentist panpsychists (discussed above) are unable to make use of the anti-emergence argument for panpsychism. However, many panpsychists argue that panpsychist forms of emergentism are less radical than non-panpsychism forms of emergentism. Hedda Hassel Mørch (2014), for example, defends a form of panpsychism involving partially intelligible emergence, which she argues is to be preferred over fully brute emergence.

Brian McLaughlin (2016) responds to Nagel’s argument by deploying a currently popular strategy for defending physicalism: the phenomenal concept strategy. See also Freeman 2006 for a volume of responses to Strawson’s anti-emergence argument, followed by Strawson’s counter-response.

3.2 The Intrinsic Nature Argument

There is a second prominent argument for panpsychism, which has nothing to do with the need to explain human consciousness; rather it begins from a certain gap in the picture of the world we get from the physical sciences. This argument has its roots in Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Russell (1927) and Whitehead (1933 [1967]), and is defended by many panpsychists, including Sprigge (1999), Strawson (2003) and Goff (2017). It is also strongly connected to the motivations for Russellian monism, and so it may be useful to read this section in close conjunction with the section above on Russellian monism.

In the public mind physics is on its way to giving us a complete account of the fundamental nature of the material world. It seems almost tautological that “physics” is the true theory of “the physical”, and hence that it is to physics we should turn for an understanding of the complete nature of space, time and matter. However, this commonplace opinion comes under pressure when we reflect on the austere vocabulary in terms of which physical theories are framed. A crucial moment in the scientific revolution was Galileo’s declaration that the book of the universe is written in the language of mathematics; from this point onwards mathematics has been the language of physics. The vocabulary of physics is arguably not entirely mathematical, as it involves causal or nomic notions, such as the notion of a law of nature. But the kind of qualitative concepts we find in the Aristotelian characterisation of the universe are wholly absent from modern physics. Physical theories are framed in a wholly mathematico-nomic vocabulary.

The problem is that it’s not clear that such an austere vocabulary can even in principle capture the complete nature of concrete reality. A mathematical description of a situation abstracts from concrete reality; a mathematical model in economics for example abstracts away from what is being bought or sold, or the nature of labour. And nomic predicates can only express information about how physical entities are disposed to behave. This is fine if we want to predict, say, how electrons will behave. But intuitively there must also be an intrinsic nature to an electron; there must be an answer to the question “How is the electron in and of itself?” And this question doesn’t seem to be answered by describing how electrons are disposed to behave.

Some philosophers, known as “dispositional essentialists”, hold that all fundamental properties are pure dispositions (Ellis 2001; Molnar 2003; Mumford 2004; Bird 2007). On this view, once we have fully described how the electron is disposed to behave, e.g., the disposition to repel other electrons and to attract positrons, or the disposition to exert gravitational attraction on other entities with mass, we have thereby said everything there is to be said about the nature of the electron. Entities on this view are not so much beings as doings.

However, there are powerful arguments against the intelligibility of dispositional essentialism. Most discussed is the charge that attempts to characterize the nature of properties under the assumption of dispositional essentialism lead to vicious regress (Robinson 1982; Blackburn 1990; Armstrong 1997; Heil 2003; Lowe 2006; Goff 2017: ch. 6). For any given disposition X, we understand the nature of X only when we know the nature of its manifestation, that is, the property it gives rise to when manifested. For example, the manifestation of flammability is burning; we only know what flammability is when we know that burning is its manifestation. However, assuming dispositional essentialism the manifestation of any disposition X will be another disposition, call it “Y”. To know the nature of X we need to know the nature of Y. But we can only know the nature of Y by knowing the nature of its manifestation, which will be another disposition, call it “Z”. To know the nature of Z we need to know the nature of its manifestation, and so on ad infinitum. The buck is continually passed, and hence an adequate understanding of the nature of any property is impossible, even for an omniscient being; in other words, a dispositional essentialist world is unintelligible. Russell records the moral of the story thus:

There are many possible ways of turning some things hitherto regarded as “real” into mere laws concerning the other things. Obviously there must be a limit to this process, or else all the things in the world will merely be each other’s washing (Russell 1927: 325)

If this argument is sound, then physical theory will never provide us with a complete and adequate account of the nature of the material world. The job of physics is to provide us with mathematical models that accurately predict the behaviour of matter. This is incredibly useful information; rich understanding of the causal structure of matter has enabled us to manipulate the natural world in all sorts of extraordinary ways, allowing us to build lasers and hairdryers, and to put men on the moon. Indeed we can explain the extraordinary success of physics in terms of the fact that from Galileo onwards it focused on this more limited project of capturing matter’s causal structure, rather than speculating about the underlying nature of the stuff that has that structure.

However, as philosophers we may be interested in finding out what the intrinsic nature of matter is, or at least having our best guess as to what it might be. And if the above line of reasoning is correct, we must look beyond physics for this. The panpsychist has a proposal: the intrinsic nature of matter is, at least in part, consciousness. Supposing for the sake of discussion that electrons are fundamental constituents of reality, the panpsychist proposal is as follows: physics tells us how an electron behaves, but in and of itself the electron is essentially a thing that instantiates consciousness (of presumably some extremely basic kind).

What is to be said in favour of this proposal? The first thing to say is that it is not obvious that we have an alternative proposal, at least at present. We learn about matter through its causal impact on our senses or on our measuring devices; as Eddington (1928: 58–60; quoted in Strawson 2006a) put it “Our knowledge of the nature of the objects treated in physics consists solely of readings of pointers [on instrument dials] and other indicators”. It’s hard to see how this indirect method of investigating matter could yield insight into its intrinsic nature. Derk Pereboom (2011) has suggested that future thinkers may through imagination theorise their way to a positive hypothesis concerning the intrinsic nature of matter, and such a proposal may turn out to have empirical support, or theoretical support of some other kind. However, at least as they are currently conceived of, the physical sciences have no use for speculation concerning matter’s intrinsic nature. It is arguable that our choice is between the panpsychist proposal and the view that the intrinsic nature of matter is “we know not what”.

Furthermore, assuming the falsity of dualism, we know that the intrinsic nature of at least some matter is consciousness-involving: namely the matter of brains (or whole organisms if we think that organisms are the bearers of consciousness). This is perhaps our only real clue as to the intrinsic nature of matter in general; as regards the intrinsic nature of stuff outside of brains (or of the parts of brains) we can only speculate. Goff (2016, 2017: ch. 7) has argued that from this epistemic starting point there is a clear “simplicity argument” in favour of panpsychism: in the absence of any reason to suppose otherwise, the most simple, elegant, parsimonious hypothesis is that the matter outside of brains is continuous with the matter of brains in also having a consciousness-involving nature. Eddington (1928: 259–60; quoted in Strawson 2003) remarked that it was rather “silly”, given that we know nothing from physics of the intrinsic nature of matter, to suppose that its nature is incongruent with mentality and then to wonder where mentality comes from. These panpsychists try to put the onus is on their opponents to come up with a non-panpsychist proposal as to the intrinsic nature of matter, and to give reasons to prefer it to the prima facie much simpler and more parsimonious panpsychist proposal.

3.3 Other Arguments for Panpsychism

Whereas the anti-emergence argument discussed above tries to show that panpsychism offers the best account of the synchronic dependence of biological consciousness on more fundamental features of reality, genetic arguments try to show that panpsychism offers the best account of the development of biological consciousness in evolutionary history.[20] Such arguments turn on the assumption that evolution is a continuous process that molds pre-existing properties into more complex forms, but that cannot produce “entirely novel” properties. William Clifford puts the argument thus:

… 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…. (Clifford [1874] 1886: 266)

A similar argument is due to James:

we ought … to try every possible mode of conceiving of consciousness so that it may not appear equivalent to the irruption into the universe of a new nature non-existent to then. ([1890] 1950: 148)

More recently, Goff (2013) has argued that consciousness is not vague, and that this leads to a sorites-style argument for panpsychism. Very roughly if consciousness does not admit of borderline cases, then we will have to suppose that some utterly precise micro-level change—down to an exact arrangement of particles—marked the first appearance of consciousness (or the change from non-conscious to conscious embryo/foetus), and it is going to seem arbitrary that it was that utterly precise change that was responsible for this significant change in nature.

A final important motivation for panpsychism comes from the need to account for mental causation in a way that is consistent with alleged causal closure of the physical: the thesis that every physical event has a sufficient physical cause (Chalmers 2015; Goff 2017: ch. 6). If, as the dualist believes, consciousness exists outside the physical world, it is hard to see how it could impact on a causally closed physical system. But if, as the panpsychist believes, consciousness infuses the intrinsic nature of the material world, then consciousness and its effects are part of the causally closed system. As discussed above, this is an important motivation for the contemporary position Russellian monism.[21]

4. Objections to Panpsychism

4.1 The Incredulous Stare

Many people, both philosophers and non-philosophers, find deeply counterintuitive the idea that fundamental constituents of the physical world, such as electrons, have conscious experience. And many take this to be a good reason not to take panpsychism seriously. However, panpsychists may respond by denying that a theory’s ill-fit with our intuitions is a reason for doubting its truth. Consider the thesis that we have a common ancestors with apes, or that time flows slower when travelling at high speeds, or that a particle can exist in a superposition between distinct locations; all of these theses are highly counter-intuitive, but this gives us little or no reason to think them false.

Presumably these scientific theories are taken so seriously in spite of their strangeness because they are supported by empirical evidence. However, most arguments for panpsychism start from a datum which is known with greater certainty than the data of observation and experiments: the existence of human consciousness. Of course the mere existence of human consciousness does not logically entail the truth of panpsychism. There are always an infinite number of theories consistent with the data, and we must choose between them on the basis of theoretical virtues, such as parsimony and simplicity. But if it could be shown that panpsychism provides the best explanation of the existence of human and animal consciousness, or that it is the most parsimonious theory of the intrinsic nature of matter (given that the only clue we have as to the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it involves consciousness), this would give us strong support for the truth of panpsychism in spite of its prima facie strangeness.

Consider the following analogy (Goff 2016, 2017: ch. 7). Einstein’s theory of special relativity is empirically equivalent to the Lorentzian theory that preceded it; and if our concern is fit with commonsense then Lorentz’s theory is superior as it preserves our commonsense notion of absolute time. However, the scientific community almost universally went for Einstein’s view on the grounds of its greater simplicity and elegance. Similarly, we should assess panpsychism on the grounds of its theoretical virtue and explanatory power, rather than the fact that most Western people find it strange.

4.2 The Combination Problem

It is generally agreed, both by its proponents and by its opponents, that the hardest problem facing panpsychism is what has become known as the “combination problem”. This term comes from William Seager (1995), although in the contemporary literature the problem itself is generally traced back to William James ([1890] 1981).[22] The combination problem is most obviously a challenge for constitutive micropsychism, although as we shall see there are forms of it that threaten other kinds of panpsychism. According to constitutive micropsychism, micro-level entities have their own very basic forms of conscious experience, and in brains these micro-level conscious entities somehow come together to constitute human and animal consciousness. The problem is that this is very difficult to make sense of: “little” conscious subjects of experience with their micro-experiences coming together to form a “big” conscious subject with its own experiences.

The inspiration for the problem is the following passage from James:

Take a hundred of them [feelings], shuffle them and pack them as close together as you can (whatever that may mean); still each remains the same feeling it always was, shut in its own skin, windowless, ignorant of what the other feelings are and mean. There would be a hundred-and first-feeling there, if, when a group or series of such feelings where set up, a consciousness belonging to the group as such should emerge. And this 101st feeling would be a totally new fact; the 100 feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together; but they would have no substantial identity with it, not it with them, and one could never deduce the one from the others, nor (in any intelligible sense) say that they evolved it. (James [1890] 1981: 160)b

In fact, if one reads on in the text one finds that James’ argument is that there is no mental combination because there is no combination whatsoever (Shani 2010). James believes that in reality there are only particles arranged in various ways, which give rise to the idea of composite objects by the effects they have on our senses. The denial that there are any composite objects whatsoever is fairly radical. However, contemporary philosophers have been inspired by the above passage to think that there is something specifically troubling about the notion of mental combination, a concern that doesn’t obviously arise in the physical case. At least on the face of it we have no problem with the idea of bricks forming a house, or mechanical parts forming a car engine. But the idea of many minds forming some other mind is much harder to get your head around (so to speak).

The general consensus among panpsychists is that there is currently no wholly adequate solution to the combination problem. However, this is not obviously a reason to think the panpsychist research project is not worth pursuing. Compare: it was only many decades after Darwin and Wallace formulated the principle of natural selection that modern genetics developed, and indeed there are many deep problems facing the Darwinian research project that remain unsolved. It takes time to move from a broad theoretical framework to a complete theory with all the details filled in. It is only recently that panpsychism is once again being taken seriously by contemporary philosophers and neuroscientists (e.g., Tononi & Koch 2015). If it does eventually produce a perfectly adequate account of human consciousness and of the nature of matter, this will no doubt only be after many decades or centuries of serious inter-disciplinary work.

4.3 The Subject-Summing Problem

The kind of mental combination which is generally taken to be most troubling is subject-summing: the combination of distinct conscious subjects into a single conscious mind. And hence the paradigmatic form of the combination problem is the subject-summing problem.

The subject-summing problem, and indeed all forms of the combination problem, can be construed in a stronger or a milder form. In its milder form it is taken to be a challenge that the panpsychist must address in the long run, either by eventually coming up with an adequate theoretical account of mental combination, or at least by explaining why such an account is beyond our ken. Almost all panpsychists accept this challenge, and one major activity of the contemporary panpsychism research project is attempting to solve (or circumnavigate) the subject-summing problem and the combination problem more generally.

In its stronger form the subject-summing problem takes the form of an argument to the conclusion that subject-summing is incoherent or impossible, and hence that panpsychism—or at least constitutive micropsychism—must be false. Sam Coleman (2014), for example, has argued that subject-summing is incoherent on the grounds that each subject has a viewpoint that excludes the viewpoints of all other subjects. The essence of my current point of view as a conscious subject is a matter not just of the conscious experiences I am positively having, but of the fact that I am having those experiences and no others. The same could be said of the essence of the point of view you are currently enjoying. If my point of view and your point of view were to be combined into an “uber-mind”, then that uber-mind would have to have both your experiences to the exclusion of all other experiences and my experiences to the exclusion of all other experiences. This seems flatly contradictory, assuming that you and I have different experiences. If this argument works, it ought to apply to the much simpler points of view of micro-level subjects, thus rendering constitutive micropsychism incoherent.[23]

Another attempt to demonstrate the impossibility of subject-summing is found in Goff’s (2009, 2017) conceivability argument against mental combination. Goff reads into the above James passage a claim about conceivability:

Conceivable Isolation of Subjects (CIS)—For any group of subjects, \(S_{1}\), \(S_{2}\), …, \(S_{n}\), and any conscious states, \(E_{1}\), \(E_{2}\), …, \(E_{n}\), the following scenario is conceivable: there are \(S_{1}\), \(S_{2}\), …, \(S_{n}\) instantiating \(E_{1}\), \(E_{2}\), …, \(E_{n}\), but it’s not the case that there is a subject \(S*\) such that \(S*\) is not identical with any of \(S_{1}\), \(S_{2}\) … \(S_{n}\).

Building on this he argues that we can conceive of a “micro-experiential zombie”, defined as a creature that is:

  • Physically indiscernible from an actual human being,
  • Such that each of its micro-level parts has conscious experience.
  • Such that no macro-level part of the organism has conscious experience.

If we can infer from the conceivability to the possibility of such creatures, then the falsity of constitutive micropsychism seems to follow. For the constitutive micropsychist holds that the facts about micro-subjects wholly account for the existence of macro-level conscious subjects. But if it is possible for the facts about micro-subjects to obtain in the absence of any macro-level consciousness—which on the face of it seems to be the case in a world of micro-experiential zombies—then it seems that the facts about micro-subjects cannot wholly account for the existence of macro-level consciousness (it’s generally assumed that for fact X to ground fact Y, it must be the case that X necessitates Y). In that sense, it’s impossible for subjects to sum.

This is a particularly worrying argument for the panpsychist, as she generally motivates her view in terms of a rejection of physicalism: if physicalist accounts of consciousness are implausible then this can motivate turning to panpsychism as an alternative. However, the most common way of rejecting physicalism is via a conceivability argument of the above form, roughly: we can conceive of the physical facts of the body and brain obtaining in the absence of the facts about consciousness, and hence the physical facts cannot wholly account for the facts about consciousness (see Chalmers 2009 and Goff 2017). If the same form of argument also applies to the panpsychist account of macro-level consciousness—the kind of consciousness we surely want explained at the end of the day—then it seems we’ve got nowhere. (Note that this worry does not threaten the intrinsic nature argument for panpsychism, discussed above).[24]

For further details, see the supplementary document Possible Solutions to the Subject-Summing Problem.

4.4 Other Forms of the Combination Problem

In David Chalmers’ (2016) taxonomy of the combination problem, there are three dimensions of difficulty:

  • Difficulties relating to subject combination: the core difficulty being the subject-summing problem
  • Difficulties relating to quality combination: the core difficulty being the palette problem
  • Difficulties relating to combination of structure: the core difficulties being the structural mismatch problem and the grain problem.

We have already covered the subject-summing problem in some detail. I turn now to a briefer treatment of problems pertaining to quality and structure.

4.4.1 The Palette Problem

Human consciousness is a rich and wonderful thing. In any given sense modality, we enjoy an incredible variety of qualities. Moreover, prima facie the delightful qualities we enjoy in one sense modality seem to be wildly different from the sensory qualities we enjoy in any other sensory modality; what it’s like to smell, for example, seems to have nothing in common with what it’s like to see a colour. For the panpsychist all this richness and variety results from fundamental kinds of mental qualities, which panpsychists tend to suppose are quite small in number (e.g., for Russellian monists basic conscious properties are the intrinsic nature of the basic properties picked out by physics, which are relatively few in number). The palette problem (Chalmers 2016), expressed as metaphor, goes as follows: How is it that the richly painted canvas of human experiences is produced from such a small palette of paints?

Numerous speculative solutions have been offered to the palette problem. Patrick Lewtas (forthcoming) avoids the palette problem altogether by postulating an enormous number of fundamental micro-experiential properties, one corresponding to every basic quality we find in human experience. Luke Roelofs (2014, 2015) develops a form of constitutive micropsychism according to which we cannot recognise or imagine the basic micro-conscious ingredients which make up human consciousness, because we never experience them in isolation from the extremely complex combinations we find in our experience; given that we are unable even to imagine the micro-conscious ingredients, we have no good reason to deny that those ingredients are extremely small in number. Keith Turausky (2012, Other Internet Resources) considers the view that perhaps there is just one fundamental mental quality that somehow contains all others, in something like the way white light contains all colours.

4.4.2 The Structural Mismatch Problem

Human conscious experience is not only rich in qualities, but also rich in structure. For example visual experience appears to have a structure that corresponds to the spatial environment being experienced, and experience as a whole comes carved up into distinct sensory modalities. The structure of our experience seems very different from the structure of the brain, at either the micro or the macro level. For the dualist this is of course not a worry, as the conscious mind is a completely distinct entity from the brain. However, many panpsychists believe that the conscious mind is identical with, or bears a very intimate relationship with, the brain. Most Russellian monists, for example, believe that the conscious mind is the intrinsic nature of the brain. And all constitutive micropsychists think that human experience is grounded in the properties of micro-level entities. Thus, these forms of panpsychism face the challenge of explaining how the rich structure of consciousness results from, or at least co-exists with, the seemingly very different structure of the brain. Perhaps the most discussed form of the structural mismatch problem is the grain problem (Maxwell 1979; Lockwood 1993): the worry that experiences seem to be smooth and continuous in a way that is at odds with the discrete, particularized structure of brain properties.

Again there are numerous proposals for addressing the worry. Michael Lockwood (1993) suggests that the worry only arises when we are implicitly thinking of the brain in terms of classical physics, and that it evaporates when we explicitly adopt more recent scientific paradigms. Stoljar (2001) argues that the alleged problem arises from philosophers confusing the structure of consciousness itself with the structure of what is represented by consciousness. Nagasawa & Wager (2016) suggest that the problem goes away when we adopt cosmopsychism rather than micropsychism, because we no longer suppose that the structure of the macro-level brain is derived from its structure at the micro-level. Roelofs (2015: 182–97) has argued, echoing certain views of Leibniz and Spinoza, that the structure of our conscious experience might outstrip our awareness of it. Goff (2017: ch. 8) argues that we do find structure in the brain isomorphic with the structure of consciousness, so long as we consider less basic kinds of brain structure; and hence the moral of the story is that there is much more consciousness present in the brain than we ordinarily suppose, corresponding both to more basic and to less basic brain structures (cf. Roelofs 2015: 213–28 and Chalmers 2016: 7.8).


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Panpsychism is the view that all things have a mind or a mind-like quality. The word itself was coined by the Italian philosopher Francesco Patrizi in the sixteenth century, and derives from the two Greek words pan (all) and psyche (soul or mind). This definition is quite general, and raises two immediate questions: (1) What does one mean by “all things”? (2) What does one mean by “mind”? On the first question, some philosophers have argued that literally every object in the universe, every part of every object, and every system of objects possesses some mind-like quality. Other philosophers have been more restrictive, arguing that only certain broad classes of things possess mind (in which case one is perhaps not a true panpsychist), or that, at least, the smallest parts of things—such as atoms—possess mind. The second question—what is mind?—is more difficult and contentious. Here panpsychism is on neither better nor worse footing than any other approach to mind; it argues only that one's notion of mind, however conceived, must apply in some degree to all things.

The panpsychist conception of mind must be sufficiently broad to plausibly encompass humans and non-human objects as well. Panpsychists typically see the human mind as a unique, highly-refined instance of some more universal concept. They argue that mind in, say, lower animals, plants, or rocks is neither as sophisticated nor as complex as that of human beings. But this in turn raises new questions: What common mental quality or qualities are shared by these things? And why should we even call such qualities "mental” in the first place?

Panpsychism, then, is not a formal theory of mind. Rather, it is a conjecture about how widespread the phenomenon of mind is in the universe. Panpsychism does not necessarily attempt to define “mind” (although many panpsychists do this), nor does it necessarily explain how mind relates to the objects that possess it. As a result, panpsychism is more of an overarching concept, a kind of meta-theory of mind. More details are required to incorporate it into a fully-developed theory of mind.

A view such as panpsychism seems perhaps unlikely at first glance. And in fact many contemporary philosophers have argued that panpsychism is simply too fantastic or improbable to be true. However, there is actually a very long and distinguished history of panpsychist thinking in Western philosophy, from its beginnings in ancient Greece through the present day. Some of the greatest names in philosophy have argued for some form of panpsychism, or expressed a strong sympathy toward the idea. Notably, as we progress into the 21st century, we find the beginnings of a philosophical renaissance for the subject. Once again panpsychism is finding a place in the larger philosophical discourse, and is being explored in a number of different ways.

Table of Contents

  1. The Concept of Panpsychism
  2. A Historical Overview
    1. Ancient Philosophy
    2. Renaissance Thinking
    3. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
    4. Twentieth Century to the Present
  3. Arguments: Pro and Con
  4. Panpsychism vs. Emergentism
  5. References and Further Reading

1. The Concept of Panpsychism

In a general sense, panpsychism may be defined as the view that all things possess mind, or some mind-like quality. The specific meanings of “all things” and “mind” vary widely among particular thinkers, but there is a broad consensus on three points. First, the mind in all things is something internal to, or inherent in, things themselves (as opposed to being injected or sustained by some outside entity). Second, such mind has a sort of focus or unity to it, in that it is typically assumed to be of a singular nature. Third, "things" usually (but not always) include systems or collections of lower-order entities; thus, a forest may be considered as a thing, though it is composed of a variety of individual trees, plants, animals, and so forth.

Panpsychist theories generally attempt to encompass both the material realm and the mental realm in a single comprehensive framework, in a way that fundamentally connects the two. These realms are central to many aspects of philosophy, but panpsychism lies at a unique intersection of the two, wherein mind is seen as fundamental to the nature of existence and being. It is at once an ontology and a theory of mind.

This latter point requires elaboration. Panpsychism, in itself, is not a theory of mind per se, because it does not in general give an account of the precise nature of mind, nor of how it relates to material things. Rather, it is a meta-theory; it is a theory about theories, a framework which says: However mind is to be conceived, it applies, in some sense, to all things.

Thus panpsychism can apply, in principle, to virtually any conventional theory of mind. There could exist, for example, a panpsychist substance dualism in which some Supreme Being grants a soul/mind to all things. There could be a panpsychist functionalism that interprets the functional role of every object as mind, even if such a role is only “to gravitate,” “to resist pressure,” and so forth. One could argue for a panpsychist identism in which mind is identical to matter; or a panpsychist reductive materialism in which the mind of each thing is reducible to its physical states. The only theories not amenable to panpsychism are those that (a) explicitly argue that only a certain restricted class of beings can possess mind (such as living things or Homo sapiens), or (b) deny the existence of mind altogether (that is, eliminativism). The fact that such restricted conceptions of mind are on shaky theoretical ground suggests that one should not rule out the panpsychist extension of other theories. Rather, the opposite view is perhaps the more reasonable: that one should hold panpsychism as a natural and logical extension of any given theory of mind, until demonstrated otherwise.

A few further points should be made clear at the outset of any discussion of panpsychism. First, philosophers typically do not take panpsychism in the literal sense, meaning all things have a soul; this interpretation of psyche is primarily a remnant of the theological philosophy of the Renaissance. Psyche is today most often interpreted as synonymous with mind or, in a secular sense, spirit.

Second, panpsychism needs to be distinguished from some closely related concepts: animism, hylozoism, pantheism, panentheism, and panexperientialism:

  • Animism, as commonly understood, is the view that all things possess a fully-developed, intelligent, and complex conscious-like spirit. It is a concept arising more from mythology than philosophy, and few panpsychists actually attribute human-like (or god-like) consciousness to all objects.
  • Hylozoism is the theory that everything is alive. This concept originated in ancient philosophy when the notion of life was less well-understood, and hence easily conflated with ideas of spirit and mind. Thus when past writers argue that “everything is alive” we are justified in interpreting this in a panpsychist light. The term has been used sporadically even through the early twentieth century, but based on our current understanding of living organisms, it is less useful or appropriate today.
  • Pantheism identifies everything, collectively, with God, as a single unified being. For the pantheist, the universe itself is God. In general this says nothing about individual things, nor about the nature of mind, and hence has no direct bearing on panpsychism (though some panpsychists do equate God with the cosmos, and hence are pantheists as well—Spinoza being the prime example).
  • Panentheism is the view that God penetrates, or is in, everything. Again, this typically assumes a single unified God, whose omnipresence is taken as the spirit in all things. Such a view is actually close to the standard Christian position, where the Holy Spirit dwells everywhere. But because it offers a notion of spirit as a part of a unified God, and not as spirit of the thing itself, it is not a true form of panpsychism.
  • Finally, panexperientialism is a term that was invented by process philosopher David Ray Griffin in the 1970’s. It holds that everything experiences, or is capable of experiencing.

Of the above terms, only panexperientialism deserves to be considered as true panpsychism; the others are either archaic or largely irrelevant. And due to the prominence of process philosophy over the past few decades, panexperientialism is perhaps the most widely discussed form of panpsychism today.

The process view of panpsychism raises a third issue. When process philosophers argue that all things have a mind or that all things experience, they refer to all “true” or “genuine” individuals. A human being is a genuine individual, as are all animals. One-celled microbes are included, as well as cells in the animal body. Plant cells count as individuals, but, interestingly, whole plants do not—based on a particular reading of some rather cryptic statements by Whitehead. On the process view, rocks and tables are not individuals, but the atoms and molecules that compose them are. Since atoms are seen as possessing mind, all material things are thereby enminded: either as individuals in themselves, or as a collection of sentient atoms. It should be emphasized, however, that the process view is a minority position; most panpsychists throughout history have held to the stronger view that all things possess mind.

Finally, it is clearly debatable what one means by “mind.” Panpsychists have employed a variety of descriptive terms to articulate the mental quality that all things share: sentience, experience, feeling, inner life, subjectivity, qualia, will, perception. In the vast majority of cases such terms are used in a very broad sense, and are not defined in a specifically human sense. In fact, panpsychists deliberately avoid terms that are too closely identified with uniquely human mental characteristics, such as consciousness (or self-consciousness), cognition, thought, belief, and the like. The usual intention is that only mind in the broadest sense is applicable to all things.

2. A Historical Overview

a. Ancient Philosophy

Panpsychism is an ancient concept in Western philosophy, predating even the earliest writings of the pre-Socratics. It was in fact an essential part of the cosmology into which philosophy was born. Thus we should not be too surprised to find its influence recurring throughout our history.

We see evidence of this at the very beginning of philosophy, in the few remaining fragments of Thales, the man widely regarded as the first philosopher of ancient Greece. Thales believed that the lodestone (magnet) possessed a psyche or soul: “According to Thales…the lodestone has a soul because it moves iron” (Aristotle, De Anima, 405a19). Furthermore, the power of the lodestone was seen as a particularly powerful manifestation of a divine animate quality shared by all things: “Certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of gods” (Ibid, 411a7).

Other pre-Socratics held similar views:

  • Anaximenes put forth the pneuma (air) as the underlying arche, or ruling principle, of the cosmos. Pneuma has a number of related meanings, many of which correspond closely with psyche; in addition to “air” it can also mean breath, soul, spirit, or mind. Since pneuma penetrates and underlies all things, this implies that all things are endowed with a spiritual or soul-like quality.
  • Heraclitus’ arche was fire. Fire, like the pneuma, was associated with life-energy; thus Heraclitus referred to this fire not merely as pyr, but as pyr aeizoon – an “ever-living fire.” Consequently, this life-energy was seen as residing in all things: “All things are full of souls and of divine spirits” (Smith, 1934: 13). In another fragment he proclaimed: “The thinking faculty is common to all” (Freeman, 1948: 32).
  • Anaxagoras envisioned the world as composed of a myriad of substances, but these were ordered and regulated by the single over-arching principle of nous (mind). Nous was a unifying, cosmic mental force that was interwoven with the movement and actions of disparate elements. The mind that is ubiquitous is not just some amorphous, abstract mind, but essentially like that of animals, that is, an animated soul or spirit: “[J]ust as in animals, so in nature, mind is present and responsible for the world…” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 984b15).

Of special note is the thinking of Empedocles. He invented the four-element view of the cosmos—fire, air, water, and earth—that held for nearly two millennia. All things, including psyche, were composed of these four substances. Furthermore, the elements themselves were seen as ensouled: “Empedocles [says that the soul] is composed of all the elements and that each of them actually is a soul” (Aristotle, De Anima, 404b11). These elements were presided over by two animate forces, Love (attraction) and Strife (repulsion). Hence panpsychism was central to Empedocles’ worldview. Guthrie (1962-81: 233) stated that “it was in fact fundamental to Empedocles’ whole system that there is no distinction between animate and inanimate, and everything has some degree of awareness and power of discrimination.” Perhaps the clearest indication comes in fragment 103: “all things have the power of thought” (Smith, 1934: 31).

Moving to the heart of Greek philosophy, Plato made a number of intriguing comments in support of panpsychism. Notably, passages suggesting such a view occur in four of his last works – Sophist,PhilebusTimaeus, and Laws. This implies that they represent his mature thinking on the matter, and thus have some strong degree of significance in his overall metaphysical system.

Sophist discusses Plato’s ideas about the Form of Being. Since being, on Plato’s view, has the power of self-generating motion (247e), he concludes that the Form of Being must itself have an inherent psychic aspect:

O heavens, can we ever be made to believe that motion [kinesi] and life [zoe] and soul [psyche] and mind [phronesi] are not present with perfect being? Can we imagine that, being is devoid of life and mind, and exists in awful unmeaningness an everlasting fixture? -- That would be a dreadful thing to admit (249a).

All real things participate in the Form of Being, as this is how they acquire their actual existence. Thus, everything may be said to participate in life, mind, and soul.

In the Philebus Plato introduced the concept of the anima mundi—the world-soul (30a). He argued that the universe, like the human body, is composed of the four Empedoclean elements (fire, air, water, earth). Both the human and the cosmos are well-ordered and exhibit clear signs of logos, of rationality. The body, though nothing more than a well-ordered combination of the elements, possesses a soul; therefore a reasonable implication is that the universe too, and everything in it, are ensouled. If this were not the case, then there must be something fundamentally unique about the structure of mankind and the cosmos that they alone are ensouled. Plato gave no indication that this is true and, in fact, argued later to the contrary.

Timaeus contains an account of how the creator of the universe—the Demiurge—brought the cosmos into existence, and endowed it with a world-soul. One learns that not only is the cosmos as a whole ensouled, but so too are the stars, individually; they are “divine living things” (40b), for which “[the Demiurge] assigned each soul to a star” (41e). As well the Earth, described as a “god” (40c), “foremost” in the cosmos. Later (77b) Plato explains that even plants possess the third kind of soul (appetitive), and thus are animate.

Finally, in Laws Plato offers perhaps his final statement on the matter:

Now consider all the stars and the moon and the years and the months and all the seasons: what can we do except repeat the same story? A soul or souls...have been shown to be the cause of all these phenomena, and whether it is by their living presence in matter...or by some other means, we shall insist that these souls are gods. Can anybody admit all this and still put up with people who deny that ‘everything is full of gods’? (899b).

In a nod to the famous line by Thales, Plato seems to resolve this issue for us: everything is full of gods.

Regarding Aristotle, we know that he viewed the psyche or soul as the form (or structure) of living things. Accordingly, non-living things have no soul—hence, technically, Aristotle was no panpsychist. But the question remains whether non-living things have something soul-like in them.

First, we note that there is a kind of evolutionary imperative in Aristotle’s thinking. He envisioned all of nature as continually striving toward “the better” or “the good” (see Physics 192a18; On Generation and Corruption 336b28; Eudemian Ethics 1218a30). By “better” Aristotle has in mind certain specific qualities; he comments that being is better than non-being, life better than non-life, and soul better than matter. Thus, as Rist (1989: 123) points out, there is a meaningful sense in which “the whole of the cosmos is permeated by some kind of upward desire and aspiration”—upward in the sense of toward form, life, and soul.

This outlook is essential to Aristotle because he sought to explain the puzzling phenomenon of spontaneous generation. Plant and animal life seem to materialize out of inanimate matter—such as the maggots and flies that quickly appear in decaying animal waste. How is this possible? The upward striving of matter is part of the explanation, but not the whole story.

Aristotle argued that all natural (as opposed to manmade) objects possess an inherent “principle of motion” (Physics 192b9). This fact permits one to see such motion as “an immortal never-failing property of things that are, a sort of life as it were to all naturally constituted things” (Physics, 250b12). The “sort of life” in matter was no idle concept, but directly connected to the process of spontaneous generation. This life-energy initiates the generative process, thus bringing into being true life and soul.

The life-energy in all things had to be grounded in some kind of substance, in order to be manifest in the real world. So Aristotle adopted, perhaps via Anaximenes, the notion of the pneuma. The pneuma is not, strictly speaking, mind or soul; rather, it is something soul-like. As he says in Generation of Animals, it is the “faculty of all kinds of soul,” the “vital heat” (thermoteta psychiken), the “principle of soul” (736b29).

The soul-like pneuma is ubiquitous in the natural world, penetrating and informing all things. It not only brings soul to the embryo and to the spontaneously-generated creatures, but it accounts for the general desire of matter for form, and for the good. Aristotle is explicit and unambiguous that all things are inspirited by the pneuma. With rather stunning clarity he informs us:

Animals and plants come into being in earth and in liquid because there is water in earth, and pneuma in water, and in all pneuma is vital heat, so that in a sense all things are full of soul (Generation of Animals 762a18-20).

Echoing panpsychist thinking from Thales to Plato, Aristotle apparently came to the conclusion that something soul-like, of varying degrees, inhered in all objects of the natural world.

Post-Aristotelian (Hellenistic) Greek philosophy continued to incorporate panpsychist themes. The two dominant schools of that era were those of Epicurus and the Stoics.

Epicurean physical theory relied heavily on the atomism of Democritus, and followed his central thesis of material objects as composed of atoms moving through the void. The early atomists held to a strict determinism, but this was problematic for Epicurus, as his ethical system required the existence of free will. He therefore discarded the determinism by introducing a new factor that he called “swerve” (parenklisis; in Latin, declinare, a deflection or turning-aside). The swerve was due to a tiny amount of free will exhibited by all atoms.

The willful swerving of the atoms is the basis for our own free will. As Lucretius describes it, “[Out of the swerve] rises, I say, that will torn free from fate, through which we follow wherever pleasure leads, and likewise swerve aside at times and places” (pp. 255-60). Human free will cannot arise ex nihilo (“since nothing, we see, could be produced from nothing”; p. 287), and hence must be present in the atoms themselves: “Thus to the atoms we must allow…one more cause of movement [namely, that of free will]—the one whence comes this power we own” (pp. 284-6). The necessary conclusion, then, is that since all things are composed of willful atoms, all things can be said to be animate.

The early Stoic philosophers— Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus—adopted many of their predecessors’ fundamental assumptions about the nature of being and mind, most importantly the Aristotelian/Anaximean conception of the pneuma. Composed of fire and air, the Stoic pneuma was put forth as the creative life energy of the universe. This was most evident in human bodies, in which both warmth (fire) and breath (air) were seen as the essential defining characteristics of life and soul. Pneuma was the active principle made tangible, and as such it accounted for all form that was seen in worldly objects. Pneuma was the “creative fire” of the cosmos, a pyr technikon. It had the status of divinity, and was equated with both god and cosmic reason.

A. A. Long (1974) notes that in the Stoic system “mind and matter are two constituents or attributes of one thing, body, and this analysis applies to human beings as it does to everything else” (p. 171). All material objects are “bodies,” and they are in fact “compounds of ‘matter’ and ‘mind’ (God or logos). Mind is not something other than body but a necessary constituent of it, the ‘reason’ in matter” (p. 174).

b. Renaissance Thinking

The end of Hellenism and the Stoic philosophy coincided with the beginnings of the monotheistic religious worldview. Monotheism and the Christian worldview were fundamentally opposed to panpsychism, and thus it is perhaps not surprising that we find relatively little articulation of panpsychist ideas for several centuries.

The next major advance did not occur until the Italian Renaissance. Five of the most important philosophers of that era—Cardano, Telesio, Patrizi, Bruno, and Campanella—were panpsychists.

Cardano was the first notable philosopher in over a millennium to put forth an unambiguous panpsychist philosophy. His ontological system consisted of a nested hierarchy in which each individual thing was seen as (1) a part (of the larger whole, or One), (2) a unity in itself, and (3) a composition of sub-parts. The fundamental principle maintaining the unity of each part was anima (soul); the particularly human form of this principle he recognized as mind. As the unifying principle, soul was present in all unities large and small.

Like Empedocles, Telesio saw two fundamental and opposing forces in the universe: an expanding and motive principle that he called heat, and a contracting principle, cold. These forces acted on and shaped the so-called third principle, passive matter, which was associated with the Earth. Every object was a composition of passive matter and the heat/cold principles. Heat and cold also had the notable property of perception. Heat sought to stay warm, and cold to stay cool, and this tendency Telesio interpreted as a kind of sensation or knowledge. As he says, “It is quite evident that nature is propelled by self-interest” (1586/1967: 304). And since heat and cold inhered in all things, all things shared in this ability to sense. Thus his position is sometimes referred to as pansensism, a particular form of panpsychism.

Patrizi’s chief work, New Philosophy of the Universe (1591), laid out a complete cosmological system, and introduced into the Western vocabulary the term “panpsychism.” Following the model of Ficino, Patrizi created a nine-level hierarchical system of being, with soul (anima) in the center. As such it permeated all levels, existing simultaneously at the level of the world-soul, the human soul, and the soul of inanimate things. “Patrizi does not treat the individual souls as [mere] parts of the world soul, but believes, rather, that their relation to their bodies is analogous to that of the world soul to the universe as a whole” (Kristeller, 1964: 122). Soul is “both [unity and plurality], with the many contained in the one” (Brickman, 1941: 41).

Bruno was very frank about his panpsychist view, and even acknowledged its unconventionality. In his 1584 dialogue, Cause, Principle and Unity, one character exclaims, “Common sense tells us that not everything is alive. ... [W]ho will agree with you?” Another replies, “But who could reasonably refute it?” (1998: 42). Bruno believed that the same principles must apply throughout the cosmos; the Earth held no privileged position in the universe (such as being at the center), and humans held no privilege with respect to possessing a soul. He took the world-soul and the human soul as given, and concluded that all things, all parts of the whole, must be animated: “122ot only the form of the universe, but also all the forms of natural things are souls.” He adds, “there is nothing that does not possess a soul and that has no vital principle” (p. 43). The skeptic retorts: “Then a dead body has a soul? So, my clogs, my slippers, my boots...are supposedly animated?” Bruno clarifies his position by explaining that such “dead” things are not to be considered animate in themselves, but rather as containing elements that either are themselves animate or have the innate power of animation:

I say, then, that the table is not animated as a table, nor are the clothes as clothes...but that, as natural things and composites, they have within them matter and form [that is, soul]. All things, no matter how small and miniscule, have in them part of that spiritual substance... [F]or in all things there is spirit, and there is not the least corpuscle that does not contain within itself some portion that may animate it (p. 44).

Campanella’s system centered on his doctrine of the “three primalities”: power, wisdom, and love. These are three qualities that Campanella saw as residing in all things, from the lowliest rock to the human being, to God himself. He argued that all things possess wisdom and sensation, and therefore can be said to possess the power of knowing. First and foremost, things know themselves: “All things have the sensation of their own being and of their conservation. They exist, are conserved, operate, and act because they know” (in Bonansea, 1969: 156). Cassirer (1963: 148) noted “Panpsychism emerges as a simple corollary to his theory of knowledge.” We see this, very explicitly, in the subtitle of Campanella’s workDe sensu rerum:

A remarkable tract of occult philosophy in which the world is shown to be a living and truly conscious image of God, and all its parts and particles thereof to be endowed with sense perception, some more clearly, some more obscurely, to the extent required for the preservation of themselves and of the whole in which they share sensation.

Campanella offered a number of arguments in support of his panpsychism. For example, following Epicurus and Telesio he argued that “like comes from like,” that is, that emergence is impossible:

Now, if the animals are sentient...and sense does not come from nothing, the elements whereby they and everything else are brought into being must be said to be sentient, because what the result has the cause must have. Therefore the heavens are sentient, and so [too] the earth... (cited in Dooley, 1995: 39).

Campanella was an important thinker, but the two great panpsychists of the seventeenth century were certainly Spinoza and Leibniz. Spinoza created a radical monism in which the single underlying substance of all reality was what he identified as “God, or Nature.” God/Nature possessed two knowable attributes: mind (thought) and matter (extension).

In Spinoza’s psycho-physical parallelism, every object has both its own unique mode of extension and its corresponding mode of thought (also called the “idea” of the object): “In God [/Nature] there is necessarily the idea…of all things…” (Ethics, II Prop 3). Moreover, the idea of an object has a very specific interpretation: it is the mind of that object. Since every object has a corresponding idea, every object can be said to have a mind. This is most apparent to us in our own case, wherein the human mind is simply the idea of the human body. But it is a general ontological principle, and thus applies to all things:

From these [propositions] we understand not only that the human mind is united to the body, but also what should be understood by the union of mind and body. [...] For the things we have shown so far are completely general and do not pertain more to man than to other individuals, all of which, though in different degrees, are nevertheless animate. ... [W]hatever we have asserted of the idea [that is, mind] of the human body must necessarily also be asserted of the idea of everything else (ibid: II Prop. 13, Scholium).

There is some considerable disagreement as to the proper interpretation of Spinoza’s psycho-physical parallelism, and the meaning of the crucial Proposition 13 (above). Yet there seems to be a consensus in recent years that any proper reading will entail some form of panpsychism.

Leibniz’s panpsychism was based on his Monadology, or science of monads. Monads are the point-like constituents of reality, and they possess a number of characteristics that are related to mental qualities. The structure of the monad is to be understood as consisting of two primary qualities, “perception” and “appetite.” Perceptions are the changing internal states of the monads, and these changes are brought about (in a rather vague way) by the monad’s appetite; the appetite was a kind of seeking or desiring, a compelling need to reflect the universe.

The strongly animistic tone of the terms perception and appetite is not coincidental; each monad is identified with a soul:

I found that [the monad’s] nature consists in force, and that from this there follows something analogous to sensation [that is, perception] and appetite, so that we must conceive of them on the model of the notion we have of souls (1989: 139).

Monads themselves are unities, but so too, in a different way, are collections of monads. Any material object is such a collection, and is integrated by the action of a “dominant monad” which represents the integrated unity of the object. Leibniz, following Bruno, made a critical distinction between objects with a truly organic sense of unity and objects that are mere sets, collections, or aggregations of distinct things. Aggregates such as “an army or a flock,” or “a heap of stones” do not possess a dominant monad and thus no unified mind. Interestingly, Leibniz never gave a formal definition as to what qualifies as a group and what defines a true individual. Nonetheless, all things—even mere aggregates—possess mind, if only in their parts. Of this Leibniz was clear: “[W]e see that there is a world of creatures, of living beings, of animals, of entelechies, of souls in the least part of matter” (Monadology, sec. 66).

c. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

French thinkers Julien LaMettrie and Denis Diderot discarded the concept of the supernatural soul, and concluded that mind, or a mind-like nature, must be present in all matter. This was the view that came to be known as vitalistic materialism. Diderot’s work D'Alembert's Dream (1769) put forth a very explicit panpsychist view: “this faculty of sensation…is a general and essential quality of matter” (1769/1937: 49). Throughout the dialogue one finds repeated references to the “general sensitivity of matter.” At one point he observes that “[f]rom the elephant to the flea, from the flea to the sensitive living atom, the origin of all, there is no point in nature but suffers and enjoys” (ibid: 80).

In the century following the French Enlightenment, panpsychist thought developed most rapidly in Germany. Among its more prominent advocates: Herder, Schopenhauer, Goethe, Fechner, Lotze, Hartmann, Mach, and Haeckel.

Herder was a dynamist philosopher who argued that Kraft (force or energy) was the single underlying substance of reality. As such it reflected both mental and physical properties. Herder sought to unify the diversity of forces (gravity, electricity, magnetism, and light) under the single framework of Kraft, of which the various Kraefte were different manifestations. The Kraft was at once material-energy, life-energy, spirit, and mind. “[Herder] represents the Kraefte of plants and stones as analogous to the soul. [...] [E]ach endowed with a different degree of consciousness...” (Nisbet, 1970: 11). In 1784 he wrote: “All active forces of Nature are, each in its own way, alive; in their interior there must be Something that corresponds to their effects without—as Leibniz himself assumed....”

Schopenhauer’s masterwork, The World as Will and Idea (1819), describes a two-fold system of reality. From one perspective, the world is to be taken according to classical idealism—it exists only as our minds grasp and perceive it, hence as pure idea. On the other hand, the things of the world must also possess an inner reality. When we humans look inside ourselves, we find, ultimately, only forms of wanting, desiring, urging—in short, will. Yet we are material objects, not essentially unlike other material objects; hence all things, not just humans, are, on the inside, will:

We shall accordingly make further use of [the knowledge of the world as will and idea] as a key to the nature of every phenomenon in nature, and shall judge of all objects which are not our own bodies…according to the analogy of our own bodies, and shall therefore assume that as in one aspect they are idea, …so in another aspect, what remains of objects when we set aside their existence as idea of the subject, must in its inner nature be the same as that in us which we call will (1819/1995: 37).

Not just objects, but all the forces of nature are to be seen as forms of will: “[G]enerally every original force manifesting itself in physical and chemical appearances, in fact gravity itself—all these in themselves...are absolutely identical with what we find in ourselves as will” (1836/1993: 20).

Schopenhauer’s theory thus brings an effective unity to the notions of mind and matter:

Now if you suppose the existence of a mind in the human head, [...] you are bound to concede a mind to every stone. [...] [A]ll ostensible mind can be attributed to matter, but all matter can likewise be attributed to mind; from which it follows that the antithesis [between mind and matter] is a false one (1851/1974: 212-213).

Goethe developed a poetic form of panpsychism that displayed itself chiefly in his writings that personified nature. His most explicit statement came from a short essay of 1828: “Since, however, matter can never exist and act without spirit [Seele], nor spirit without matter, matter is also capable of undergoing intensification, and spirit cannot be denied its attraction and repulsion” (1988: 6). Here we find a beautifully concise articulation of panpsychism: no matter without mind, no mind without matter. This is not to say that mind is identical with matter, nor that one can be reduced to the other. It simply claims (like Spinoza and Schopenhauer) that neither mind nor matter exist without the other.

Fechner’s panpsychism was focused primarily on plant life. The fact that plants have a Seele is of critical importance to him because it serves as the basis for a completely panpsychic universe, and a corresponding new worldview. Fechner’s concept of the plant-soul was based, like Aristotle’s, on a comparison and analogy with other living beings:

[I]s not the plant quite as well organized as the animal, though on a different plan, a plan entirely of its own, perfectly consonant with its idea? If one will not venture to deny that the plant has a life, why deny it a soul? For it is much simpler to think that a different plan of bodily organization built upon the common basis of life indicates only a different plan of psychic organization (1848/1946: 168-9).

The Earth itself is “animated,” and is furthermore “an angel, so rich and fresh and blooming, ... turning wholly towards heaven its animated face” (1861/1946: 150, 153). The animate Earth further implies “belief in the animate character of all other stars.”

Lotze’s central work, Microcosmos (1856-64/1885), described a comprehensive philosophical viewpoint based on a rejection of mechanistic thinking. He advocated the notion that all material objects have “a double life, appearing outwardly as matter, and as such manifesting...mechanical [properties, while] internally, on the other hand, moved mentally...” (p. 150). He concluded that “no part of being is any longer devoid of life and animation” (p. 360). Lotze acknowledged the prima facie improbability of his panpsychist view: “Who could endure the thought that in the dust trodden by our feet, in the...cloth that forms our clothing, in the materials shaped into all sorts of utensils..., there is everywhere present the fullness of animated life...?” (p. 361). Ultimately it is the “beauty of the living form [that] is made to us more intelligible by this hypothesis” (p. 366).

Eduard von Hartmann further developed Schopenhauer’s system of the world as will and idea, combining elements of Leibniz, Schelling, and Hegel into a doctrine of spiritual monism. He articulated a worldview in which the unconscious will is the cause of all things. The fact that matter is resolvable into will and idea led Hartmann to accept “the essential likeness of Mind and Matter” (1869/1950, vol. 2: 81): “The identity of mind and matter [becomes] elevated to a scientific cognition, and that, too, not by killing the spirit but by vivifying matter” (ibid: 180).

Mach’s philosophical writings emerged in the early 1880's. A strong empiricist, he developed a neutral monistic philosophy in which the primary substance of existence was something that he called “sensations.” This realization led him rather suddenly to a panpsychist conception of reality: “Properly speaking the world is not composed of ‘things’...but of colors, tones, pressures, spaces, times, in short what we ordinarily call individual sensations” (1883/1974: 579). Recalling Schopenhauer’s tone, Mach wrote:

We shall then discover that our hunger is not so essentially different from the tendency of sulphuric acid for zinc, and our will not so greatly different from the pressure of a stone, as now appears. We shall again feel ourselves nearer nature, without its being necessary that we should resolve ourselves into a nebulous and mystical mass of molecules, or make nature a haunt of hobgoblins (ibid: 560).

Haeckel developed a monistic philosophy in which both evolution and the unity of all natural phenomena played a major part. The unity and relation of all living things convinced him that all dualities were false, especially the Cartesian dualism of body and mind. Haeckel was explicitly panpsychist by 1892: “One highly important principle of my monism seems to me to be, that I regard all matter as ensouled, that is to say as endowed with feeling (pleasure and pain) and motion…” (p. 486). He offered one argument for panpsychism, namely that “all natural bodies possess determinate chemical properties,” the most important being that of “chemical affinity.” This affinity, Haeckel argued, can only be explained “on the supposition that the molecules… mutually feel each other” (p. 483). Three years later he observed, “Our conception of Monism…is clear and unambiguous; …an immaterial living spirit is just as unthinkable as a dead, spiritless material; the two are inseparably combined in every atom” (1895: 58).

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, panpsychist thought began to develop in England and America. The first major British panpsychist of that time was William Kingdon Clifford. He believed in a form of Spinozist parallelism—that some process of mind exists concurrently with all forms of matter. Clifford cited evolutionary continuity in arguing that there is no point in the chain of material organization at which mind can be conceived to suddenly appear. Fellow Briton Herbert Spencer wrote an article in 1884 explaining that modern physics has revealed the “incredible power” of matter. The scientist is forced to conclude that:

every point in space thrills with an infinity of vibrations passing through it in all directions; the conception to which [the enlightened scientist] tends is much less that of a Universe of dead matter than that of a Universe everywhere alive: alive if not in the restricted sense, still in a general sense (1884: 10).

Royce’s 1892 book, Spirit of Modern Philosophy, introduced a form of panpsychism based on absolute idealism: “The theory of the ‘double aspect’, applied to the facts of the inorganic world, suggests at once that they, too, in so far as they are real, must possess their own inner and appreciable aspect” (1892: 419-20). A few years later he added this observation:

[W]e have no sort of right to speak in any way as if the inner experience behind any fact of nature were of a grade lower than ours, or less conscious, or less rational, or more atomic. [...] [T]his reality is, like that of our own experience, conscious, organic, full of clear contrasts, rational, definite. We ought not to speak of dead nature (1898/1915: 230).

Charles Peirce’s article, “Man's Glassy Essence” (1892), begins by noting “[T]here is fair analogical inference that all protoplasm feels. It not only feels but exercises all the functions of mind” (1892/1992: 343). And yet protoplasm is simply complex chemistry, a particular arrangement of molecules. We are therefore compelled “[to] admit that physical events are but degraded or undeveloped forms of psychical events” (ibid: 348). Peirce then laid out his own dual-aspect theory of mind:

[A]ll mind is directly or indirectly connected with all matter, and acts in a more or less regular way; so that all mind more or less partakes of the nature of matter. [...] Viewing a thing from the outside, [...] it appears as matter. Viewing it from the inside, [...] it appears as consciousness (ibid: 349).

d. Twentieth Century to the Present

William James first addressed the subject of panpsychism in his Principles of Psychology. He devoted a full chapter to Clifford’s mind-stuff theory, and displayed notable sympathy to the view. James’ first personal endorsement of panpsychism came in his Harvard lecture notes of 1902-3, in which he noted, “pragmatism would be [my] method and ‘pluralistic panpsychism’ [my] doctrine” (Perry, 1935: 373). In his 1905-6 lecture notes he observed: “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...” (ibid: 446).

James arrived at a clear and unambiguous position in his 1909 book, A Pluralistic Universe. He explained that his theory of radical empiricism is a form of pluralist monism in which all things are both pure experience and “for themselves,” that is, are objects with their own independent psychical perspectives. In the end he endorsed “a general view of the world almost identical with Fechner’s” (ibid: 309-10). He saw in this new worldview “a great empirical movement towards a pluralistic panpsychic view of the universe” (ibid: 313).

In the early part of the twentieth century, panpsychist philosophy continued to develop rapidly in England and the USA. The dominant philosophical system, the one most connected with panpsychism, was Process Philosophy. Its earliest advocates were Bergson and Whitehead.

Bergson wrote Creative Evolution in 1907. His thesis—that matter is “the lowest degree of mind”—echoes Peirce. He added, following Schopenhauer, that “pure willing [is the] current that runs through matter, communicating life to it” (1907/1911: 206). But Bergson’s clearest elaboration came in Duration and Simultaneity (1922). Here he achieved a true process philosophy wherein all physical events contain a memory of the past. Given his earlier insistence that memory is essential to mind, one can see the conclusion that mind, or consciousness, is in all things:

What we wish to establish is that we cannot speak of a reality that endures without inserting consciousness into it. ... [I]t is impossible to imagine or conceive a connecting link between the before and after without an element of memory and, consequently, of consciousness. ... We may perhaps feel averse to the use of the word “consciousness” if an anthropomorphic sense is attached to it. [But] there is no need to take one’s own memory and transport it, even attenuated, into the interior of the thing. ... It is the opposite course we must follow. ... [D]uration is essentially a continuation of what no longer exists into what does exist. This is real time, perceived and lived. ... Duration therefore implies consciousness; and we place consciousness at the heart of things for the very reason that we credit them with a time that endures (1922/1965: 48-49).

Whitehead’s panpsychism is relatively well known. It is based in his view of an “occasion of experience” as the ultimate particle of reality, and as possessing both a physical pole and a mental pole. If things are nothing but occasions, and occasions are in part mental, then all things have a mental dimension. In Modes of Thought (1938), in the chapter titled “Nature Alive,” he observed, “this [traditional] sharp division between mentality and nature has no ground in our fundamental observation. [...] I conclude that we should conceive mental operations as among the factors which make up the constitution of nature” (p. 156).

Bertrand Russell ultimately came to a neutral monist view in which events were the primary reality, and mind and matter were both constructed from them. After some early, suggestive comments, he became increasingly supportive of panpsychism in the late 1920's. Russell’s book An Outline of Philosophy(1927) directly addressed this. He wrote: “My own feeling is that there is not a sharp line, but a difference of degree [between mind and matter]; an oyster is less mental than a man, but not wholly un-mental” (p. 209). Part of the reason why we cannot draw a line, he says, is that an essential aspect of mind is memory, and a memory of sorts is displayed even by inanimate objects: “we cannot, on this ground [of memory], erect an absolute barrier between mind and matter. ... [I]nanimate matter, to some slight extent, shows analogous behavior” (p. 306). In the summary he adds,

The events that happen in our minds are part of the course of nature, and we do not know that the events which happen elsewhere are of a totally different kind. The physical world…is perhaps less rigidly determined by causal laws than it was thought to be; one might, more or less fancifully, attribute even to the atom a kind of limited free will (p. 311).

Perhaps Russell’s clearest statement came in his Portraits from Memory (1956). Memory is “the most essential characteristic of mind, ... using this word [memory] in its broadest sense to include every influence of past experience on present reactions” (pp. 153-4). As before, memory applies to all physical objects and systems:

This [memory] also can be illustrated in a lesser degree by the behavior of inorganic matter. A watercourse which at most times is dry gradually wears a channel down a gully at the times when it flows, and subsequent rains follow [a similar] course... You may say, if you like, that the river bed 'remembers' previous occasions when it experienced cooling streams. ... You would say [this] was a flight of fancy because you are of the opinion that rivers and river beds do not 'think'. But if thinking consists of certain modifications of behavior owing to former occurrences, then we shall have to say that the river bed thinks, though its thinking is somewhat rudimentary (p. 155).

In contrast to Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne articulated a clear and explicit form of process panpsychism. Beginning with his Beyond Humanism (1937), he laid out the unambiguous position that all true individuals possess a kind of psyche: “Molecules, atoms, and electrons all show more analogy of behavior to animals than do sticks and stones. The constitutions of inorganic masses may then after all belong on the scale of organic being…” (pp. 111-112). Elaborating on this notion over four decades, through such articles as “Panpsychism” (1950), “Physics and Psychics” (1977), and “The Rights of the Subhuman World” (1979), his panpsychism (or, “psychicalism”) is a clear and consistent theme. He combined the insights of Leibniz with Whitehead’s process view into a system which, he claimed, resolved many long-standing philosophical problems: most notably that it serves as a third way between dualism and materialism. Ultimately, panpsychism/psychicalism is, he says, the most viable ontology available to us—certainly preferable to an utterly unintelligible materialism: “the concept of ‘mere dead insentient matter’ is an appeal to invincible ignorance. At no time will this expression ever constitute knowledge” (1977: 95).

Many other great thinkers of the twentieth century promoted panpsychist ideas, including:

  • F. S. C. Schiller: “A stone, no doubt, does not apprehend us as spiritual beings… But does this amount to saying that it does not apprehend us at all, and takes no note whatever of our existence? Not at all; it is aware of us and affected by us on the plane on which its own existence is passed… It faithfully exercises all the physical functions, and influences us by so doing. It gravitates and resists pressure, and obstructs…vibrations, and so forth, and makes itself respected as such a body. And it treats us as if of a like nature with itself, on the level of its understanding…” (1907: 442).
  • Samuel Alexander: “there is nothing dead, or senseless in the universe, [even] Space-Time itself being animated”(1920: 69).
  • John Dewey : “[T]here is nothing which marks off the plant from the physico-chemical activity of inanimate bodies. The latter also are subject to conditions of disturbed inner equilibrium, which lead to activity in relation to surrounding things, and which terminate after a cycle of changes…” (1925: 253).
  • Sir Arthur Eddington: “The stuff of the world is mind-stuff” (1928: 276).
  • J. B. S. Haldane: “We do not find obvious evidence of life or mind in so-called inert matter…; but if the scientific point of view is correct, we shall ultimately find them, at least in rudimentary form, all through the universe” (1932: 13).
  • J. Huxley: “[M]ind or something of the nature as mind must exist throughout the entire universe. This is, I believe, the truth” (1942: 141).
  • Teilhard de Chardin: “there is necessarily a double aspect to [matter’s] structure... [C]o-extensive with their Without, there is a Within to things.” “[W]e are logically forced to assume the existence in rudimentary form...of some sort of psyche in every corpuscle, even in those (the mega-molecules and below) whose complexity is of such a low or modest order as to render it (the psyche) imperceptible...” (1959: 56, 301).
  • C. H. Waddington: “[S]omething must go on in the simplest inanimate things which can be described in the same language as would be used to describe our self-awareness” (1961: 121).
  • Gregory Bateson: “The elementary cybernetic system with its messages in circuit is, in fact, the simplest unit of mind; ... More complicated systems are perhaps more worthy to be called mental systems, but essentially this is what we are talking about. ... We get a picture, then, of mind as synonymous with cybernetic system... [W]e know that within Mind in the widest sense there will be a hierarchy of subsystems, any one of which we can call an individual mind” (1972: 459-60).
  • Freeman Dyson: “The laws [of physics] leave a place for mind in the description of every molecule… In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree and not in kind…” (1979: 249).
  • David Bohm: “That which we experience as mind…will in a natural way ultimately reach the level of the wavefunction and of the ‘dance’ of the particles. There is no unbridgeable gap or barrier between any of these levels. ... It is implied that, in some sense, a rudimentary consciousness is present even at the level of particle physics” (1986: 131).

Panpsychism enters the 21st century with vigor and diversity of thought. A number of recent works have focused attention on it. If we look back to the year 1996 we find two books that contributed to a resurrection of sorts. First, Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind lays out a naturalistic dualism theory of mind in which he suggests (with an apparent diffidence) that mind can be associated with ubiquitous information states—following Bateson and Bohm, though without citing their panpsychist views. His relatively detailed discussion of panpsychism sparked a resurgence of discussion on the matter, and contributed to a wider interest. Also, Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous argued from a phenomenological basis for a return to an animistic worldview, though his work was more poetic essay than detailed philosophical inquiry. In 1998 process philosopher David Ray Griffin published Unsnarling the World-Knot, a major milestone in panpsychist philosophy. Griffin supplies a detailed and scholarly assessment of the subject, though with a strong focus on the process view, and with only a cursory historical study.

Into the present century, Christian DeQuincey’s Radical Nature (2002) offers another process perspective, and a more satisfying review of the historical aspect. In 2003 there were two more books dedicated to panpsychism: David Clarke’s Panpsychism and the Religious Attitude, and Freya Mathews’ For Love of Matter. Clarke again takes the process view, underscoring the dominance of this philosophical perspective on the discussion. Mathews moves into new territory; drawing inspiration from Schopenhauer, she crafts a truly metaphysical philosophy in which humans are sensitive participants in an animate cosmos. Gregg Rosenberg released a nominally panpsychist approach to mind in 2004, with his book A Place for Consciousness. In 2005, Skrbina published the first-ever comprehensive study of the subject, Panpsychism in the West. Most recently, Galen Strawson has presented a forceful argument for panpsychism based on the inexplicability of emergence of mind (see Section 4).

Thus, at present we can discern at least six active lines of inquiry into panpsychism:

  1. the Process Philosophy view, as conceived by Bergson and Whitehead, and developed by Hartshorne, Griffin, DeQuincey, and Clarke;
  2. the Quantum Physics approach, as developed by Bohm, Hameroff, and others;
  3. the Information Theory approach, arising from the work of Bateson, Wheeler (1994), Bohm, and Chalmers;
  4. the Part-Whole Hierarchy, as envisioned by Cardano and elaborated by Koestler (1967) and Wilber (1995);
  5. the Nonlinear Dynamics approach, as inspired by Peirce (1892) and further articulated by Skrbina (1994, 2001); and
  6. Strawson’s (2006) “real physicalism” (see Section 4).

These areas all offer significant opportunity for development and articulation. They hold out the hope of resolving otherwise intractable problems of emergentism and mechanism, especially when so many conventional approaches have reached a dead end. As Nagel, Searle, and others have noted, the problems of mind and consciousness are so difficult that “drastic actions” are warranted—perhaps even as drastic as panpsychism.

Panpsychism, with its long list of advocates and sympathizers, is a robust and respectable approach to mind. It offers a naturalistic escape from Cartesian dualism and Christian theology. And, by undermining the mechanistic worldview, it promises to resolve not only long-standing philosophical problems but persistent social and ecological problems as well. Many great thinkers, from Empedocles and Epicurus to Campanella and LaMettrie, Fechner and James to Gregory Bateson, have recognized the potential for the panpsychist view to fundamentally alter, for the better, our outlook on the world. An animated worldview is not only philosophically rigorous, but it can have far-reaching and unanticipated effects.

3. Arguments: Pro and Con

An analysis of historical views, and recent discussions by such individuals as Griffin (1998), Popper (1977), McGinn (1997), and Seager (1995), demonstrate a number of distinct arguments for, and against, panpsychism. Skrbina (2005) identifies a total of six objections and twelve supporting arguments, though with some overlap between them. Below is a summary of the more compelling arguments and objections.

The first major argument for panpsychism is also one of the oldest: the Argument from Continuity. This argument, which is expressed in a variety of forms, claims that there is some critical thread of continuity among all things—a thread intimately related to the processes of mind. The particular entity that is continuous varies, but is typically expressed as either a substance or as a common form, structure,orfunction. We humans possess mind-like qualities that are a direct consequence of some substance, form, or structure; hence all things, to the degree that they share this common nature, have a corresponding share in mentality.

This is best illustrated through examples. The earliest such argument was presented by Anaximenes, with his arche of pneuma. As a kind of airy spirit, the pneuma accounted for our own minds but also permeated and sustained the entire cosmos and all things in it. Anaxagoras’ nous, and Heraclitus’ pyr, or fire, served a similar purpose, and thus were also arguments by continuity. Empedocles and Plato argued for pluralist, rather than monist, continuity. They saw all things as composed of the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth), and these elements were either souls in themselves (Empedocles), or the basis for human, cosmic, and other soul (Plato).

Among the German philosophers, Herder’s Kraft (force or power) played a similar role. For Schopenhauer, the will was our essential inner nature; since we are simply an “object among objects,” all things must possess an inner will. Fechner (1848/1946) emphasized the functional similarity between humans and, for example, plants. Though obviously different in many ways, living plants share essential functional qualities with humans, both representing a kind of living dynamism that suggests an inner striving and desire, a joy in being alive. Later, the American philosopher Dewey made a related case, stressing the continuity between living and nonliving systems.

At the heart of these arguments is an attempt to draw a fundamental analogy between humans and nonhumans. Some philosophers prefer to call such arguments “analogical,” and for good reason. But this is not sufficiently precise. Nearly every conceivable argument for panpsychism must start from the fact of our own human mind, and draw some analogy from that. It is the nature of the analogy that distinguishes the arguments. The continuity arguments are one particular form of analogical thinking, and hence deserve special designation.

In order to oppose an argument by continuity, one must either refute the existence of the substance or structure, or deny that it relates to mind in any fundamental way—the latter being the more common approach. The critic may argue that the continuity analogy simply fails to hold; hence we have the Inconclusive Analogy objection. Such a critic typically would take the extreme cases of a human versus a rock or an atom, and argue that no relevant analogy can be made. But of course, what seems obvious in the extreme cases is less so when one examines the intermediate points; it is there that the critic has to make his case.

A second general argument for panpsychism, also dating back to ancient Greece, relates to the notion of emergence of mind. The Greeks developed the idea that ex nihilo, nihil fit: out of nothing comes nothing. We thus get the argument that mind cannot arise from no-mind, and hence that mind must have been present at the very origin of things. This is the Argument from Non-Emergence. An extended treatment follows in Section 4.

The Non-Emergence Argument is countered by claiming, naturally, that emergence of mind is in fact intelligible and explicable (this is the majority view, but no philosopher to date has succeeded in giving a widely-accepted explanation for it). Popper (1977) was perhaps the first to use emergence as an objection to panpsychism, but recently an entire volume was dedicated to this topic; see Strawson, et al (2006).

With the advent of Darwin’s theory of evolution in the mid-1800’s there came new support for both continuity and non-emergence arguments. If humans evolved from lower animals, they from single-celled creatures, and they in turn from nonliving matter, then the continuity of beings suggests a continuity of the fundamental qualities of experience, awareness, and mind. Evolutionary continuity over time makes difficult any attempt to define the supposed point in history at which mind suddenly appeared. Haeckel (1892) was the first to offer an evolutionary argument, but Paulsen, Royce, Waddington, and Rensch made essentially the same claim.

Others expressed it differently. There is, they said, no place within the hierarchy of organism complexity—the so-called phylogenetic chain—where one can “draw a line” to distinguish those with mind from those without. Clifford (1874) was perhaps the first to put it this way:

[I]t is impossible for anybody to point out the particular place...where [absence of consciousness] can be supposed to have taken place. [...] [E]ven in the very lowest organisms, even in the Amoeba...there is something or other, inconceivably simple to us, which is of the same nature with our own consciousness... [Furthermore] we cannot stop at organic matter, [but] we are obliged to assume...that along with every motion of matter, whether organic or inorganic, there is some fact which corresponds to the mental fact in ourselves (pp. 60-61).

Others, including Globus, Chalmers (1996), and Rensch, have argued in similar terms.

To counter this argument one must identify a plausible point at which to break the hierarchical chain. Where, and why, does the continuity suddenly fail to hold? All agree that it holds, to some degree, for higher mammals, such as chimpanzees and dolphins. If the critic believes it to fail with rocks and atoms, he must explain this discrepancy—otherwise the objection is invalid. To date few have attempted this. Tye (2000: 171) is one exception; he draws the line at fish and honey bees, which, he says, are the simplest beings that experience a kind of “phenomenal consciousness.” Whether his rationale for this line is acceptable is an open question.

Two final objections bear mentioning. First is the Not Testable, or No Signs, objection: there is no empirical evidence, nor any conceivable test, that could point to the presence of mind in lesser beings. McGinn (1997) and Seager (1995) have raised this point, among others. Yet it is hard to see what might actually count as valid evidence of mind. As Royce and Peirce have observed, simpler minds may appear to us as law-like phenomena. Analogy and rational thinking about metaphysical continuity are all we have to go on. Given the conceptual difficulty in determining, with certainty, the existence of minds in other human beings, one should not be surprised that definitive evidence of lesser minds is lacking. Certainly there is, we may say, an epistemological gap here, in that our knowledge is deficient; but this does not imply an ontological gap, that is, an absence of mind in other things.

Lastly we have the Combination Problem: If mind is supposed to exist in atoms or cells, then higher-order minds, such as humans have, must be some kind of combination or sum of these lesser minds. But it is inconceivable how such a summing would work and how it might account for the richness of experience that we all feel. Because panpsychism cannot account for higher mind, the objector says, it must be false.

We should first note that this is not an objection to panpsychism per se, but only to the particular theory that says that higher-order mind must be composed of lower-order mental elements. Granting this, there remains the general question of the relation between higher- and lower-order minds within the same being. As such, the Combination Problem may be better seen as a call for details.

The problem was first addressed by Leibniz in the late 1600’s. His panpsychist theory of monads allowed for a single dominant monad to unify the collective, and serve as the mind of the body. Kant, in an early work Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, criticized Leibniz’s theory and thus became the first to employ the Combination Problem against panpsychism. In 1890 William James raised the issue, in objection to Clifford’s “mind-stuff” form of panpsychism—though by 1909 he had changed his mind, and stopped viewing combination as an insurmountable hurdle. More recently Seager (1995) highlights the combination problem as one of particular importance, as do a number of contributors to Strawson, et al (2006).

4. Panpsychism vs. Emergentism

The issue of emergence of mind is important because it is the mutually exclusive counterpart to panpsychism: either you are a panpsychist, or you are an emergentist. Either mind was present in things from the very beginning or it appeared (emerged) at some point in the history of evolution. If, however, emergence is inexplicable, or is less viable, then one is left with the panpsychist alternative. This line of reasoning, as mentioned above, is the argument from Non-Emergence.

To briefly recap the historical forms of this argument: it was first formulated by Epicurus circa 300 B.C.E. As we have seen, he argued that the mental quality called will could not arise from non-will, and therefore that the atoms from which everything was made had to possess a kind of will themselves. Will cannot emerge ex nihilo, and thus is present in the very constituents of matter.

Others were likewise convinced by this approach. Telesio held that “nothing can give what it does not possess,” and thus it is inconceivable that mind arises from no-mind. Patrizi believed, similarly, that nothing can be in the effect that is not in the cause; hence, the elements themselves must have life and soul, which they in turn grant to all things. In 1620 Campanella wrote: “If the animals are sentient…and sentience does not come from nothing, the elements whereby they and everything else are brought into being must be said to be sentient, because what the result has the cause must have” (in Dooley, 1995: 39).

The German panpsychists also found this argument compelling. Fechner argued that “animate beings cannot arise from inanimate.” Paulsen examined the question, “Whence did psychical life arise?” His answer: it did not arise, but was present at the origin of things. The sudden appearance of a mental realm “would be an absolute world-riddle; it would mean a creation out of nothing” (1892: 100).

The Non-Emergence argument resurfaced in the late twentieth century with the work of zoologist Sewall Wright. In his 1977 article “Panpsychism and Science” he argued that brute emergence of mind would be a kind of inexplicable miracle in the natural order of things: “Emergence of mind from no mind at all is sheer magic” (p. 82). Thomas Nagel flirted with this argument in his “Panpsychism” essay (1979), but opted not to follow through on all the implications.

The basic problem is this: emergence seems, at first glance, to be a reasonable enough idea, but when pressed for details it comes up sorely lacking. In fact, emergence of mind is very difficult to sensibly explain. Mind is not like five-fingered-ness, or warm-bloodedness. These things, which clearly did emerge, are ontologically unlike mind. They are simply reconfigurations of existing physical matter, whereas mind is of a different ontological order. It is too fundamental an aspect of existence to be comparable to ordinary biological structural features.

Furthermore, emergence of mind is not just some fact of the distant evolutionary past; it must recur every day, in, for example, the development of a human embryo. That is, if a human egg is utterly without mind, and a newborn infant has one, when in the ontogenetic process does mind emerge? Why just there? So in addition to the phylogenetic (historical) emergence problem, we have the related ontogenetic problem as well.

Given that there are very few panpsychists in the world, most everyone is an emergentist. But, as Galen Strawson (2006) has recently emphasized, emergentism is not a forgone conclusion. In fact, it is highly dubious. His piece “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism” presses this point with notable urgency, and offers the most detailed and complete version of the Non-Emergence argument to date. If one is not a panpsychist, then one necessarily believes that only some subset of creatures is privileged to possess mind. The vast remainder of nature, then, is utterly non-mental. This, Strawson observes, is pure presumption: “there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever” (p. 20) for a non-mental component of reality. We simply assume it to be so.

Strawson’s argument, in a nutshell, is this:

  • There is one ultimate reality to the universe (“realistic physicalism,” as he calls it).
  • Mental (that is, experiential) phenomena are a part of this monistic reality. Therefore, experiential phenomena are physical phenomena, rightly understood.
  • Radical-kind, or brute, emergence is impossible; mental phenomena cannot arise from any purely non-mental stuff.
  • Therefore, the one reality and all things in it are necessarily experiential.

If we are to be physicalists, Strawson says, then let us be real physicalists and take the implications seriously. When we do so, we find that “something akin to panpsychism is not merely one possible form of realistic physicalism, but the only possible form, and hence, the only possible form of physicalism tout court” (p. 9).

Strawson tackles head-on those who implicitly endorse emergence. He asks, “Does this conception of emergence make sense? I think that it is very, very hard to understand what it is supposed to involve. I think that it is incoherent, in fact, and that this general way of talking of emergence has acquired an air of plausibility…for some simply because it has been appealed to many times in the face of a seeming mystery” (p. 12). He gives a number of examples of putative emergence, showing that each is really unintelligible. His slogan: “emergence can’t be brute,” that is, higher-order mind can emerge from lower-order, but mind cannot possibly emerge from no-mind. “Brute emergence is by definition a miracle every time it occurs,” which is rationally inconceivable.

Panpsychism thus offers a kind of resolution to the problem of emergence, and is supported by several other arguments as well. The viability of panpsychism is no longer really in question. At issue is the specific form it might take, and what its implications are. Panpsychism suggests a radically different worldview, one that is fundamentally at odds with the dominant mechanistic conception of the universe. Arguably, it is precisely this mechanistic view—which sees the universe and everything in it as a kind of giant machine—that lies at the root of many of our philosophical, sociological, and environmental problems. Panpsychism, by challenging this worldview at its root, potentially offers new solutions to some very old problems.

5. References and Further Reading

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  • Bateson, G. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine.
  • Bergson, H. 1907/1911. Creative Evolution. Trans. A. Mitchell. New York: H. Holt.
  • Bergson, H. 1922/1965. Duration and Simultaneity. Trans. L. Jacobson. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
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  • Cassirer, E. 1927/1963. The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy. Trans. M. Domandi. New York: Barnes and Nobel.
  • Chalmers, D. 1996. The Conscious Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Clarke, D. 2003. Panpsychism and the Religious Attitude. New York: SUNY Press.
  • Clifford, W. 1874/1903. “Body and Mind.” In Lectures and Essays, vol. 2; London: Macmillan.
  • Cobb, J. B. Jr., and D. R. Griffin (Eds.). 1977. Mind in Nature. Washington DC: University of Press America.
  • DeQuincey, C. 2002. Radical Nature. Montpelier, VT: Invisible Cities Press.
  • Dewey, J. 1925. Experience and Nature. London: Open Court.
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  • Strawson, G. et al. 2006. Consciousness and its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism entail Panpsychism? Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic.
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  • Telesio, B. 1586/1967. “On the Nature of Things.” In Renaissance Philosophy. Vol. 1. Trans. A. Fallico and H. Shapiro. New York: Random House.
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Author Information

David Skrbina
Email: skrbina@umd.umich.edu
University of Michigan at Dearborn
U. S. A.

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