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If Materialism Is False, Is Panpsychism a Viable Alternative?

A recently retired academic, with a background in psychology and philosophy.

I outlined elsewhere some factors that may account for the acceptance of materialism—the philosophical view which posits physical entities and their interactions as the sole constituents of reality—by a relative majority of scientists, philosophers and the more secularized segment of public opinion. I next discussed current claims that materialism is fundamentally incapable of providing a viable account of mind, consciousness and will in terms of purely physical processes, and that as a consequence it ought to be rejected as probably false.*

If materialism is indeed an inadequate ontology, the question arises of what viable alternatives, if any, might provide a better foundation to our understanding of reality.

*In the following, the terms 'mind' and 'consciousness' are used interchangeably.

Rene Descartes, Portrait ca.1649-1700

Rene Descartes, Portrait ca.1649-1700

Alternatives to Materialism

One historically influential alternative to materialism is dualism as articulated by Rene Descartes, which cleaves reality into two irreducible substances, one material (‘res extensa’) and one mental (‘res cogitans’). Substance Dualism is regarded by its critics as fatally flawed due to the difficulty of explaining how radically different substances could possibly interact. In an earlier article, I addressed this and other objections to dualism, arguing that none of them constitutes a decisive refutation of this position, which therefore remains a viable option, though shared at present by a minority of thinkers. Still, by positing two fundamental constituents of reality, dualism is conceptually less parsimonious—and as such less attractive—than ontologies seeking to provide a unified account of reality based upon a single core constituent, whether it be matter, as proposed by materialism, or mind, as proposed by metaphysical idealism.

Dual aspect monism (closely related to neutral monism) acknowledges the reality of both mind and matter, but regards neither as ultimate, as they are understood as attributes or aspects of the same substance.

According to metaphysical idealism, all that exists is a phenomenon of mind; nothing is ultimately real beyond mind and its contents (e.g., Kastrup, 2019). Varieties of idealism characterize much Indian thought, and were upheld by some of the most influential Western philosophers (including Plato, Berkeley, Hegel, Kant), but this ontology declined with the rise of ‘scientific’ materialism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In our time, interesting formulations of this view originate from the works of scientifically trained thinkers, including Federico Faggin, physicist and coinventor of the microprocessor, cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman (e.g., 2008), and philosopher and computer scientist AI Bernardo Kastrup (e.g., 2011, 2019).

Closely related to idealism is cosmopsychism, which can in turn be regarded as a non-religious variant of cosmotheism, the age old belief that the universe itself is divine. According to cosmopsychism, the world is inhabited by a Mind or Consciousness - of which humans are finite aspects or elements - which unlike the God of monotheistic religions may not possess attributes such as omnipotence, omniscience, or goodness. It is, in fact, conceivable that such a mind might contain elements of irrationality, or even psychopathology. Indeed, one might argue, if the human mind partakes of the nature of this Mind at Large, the latter is likely to possess unconscious and irrational elements along with rational constituents.

Francesco Patrizi, Portrait (1587)

Francesco Patrizi, Portrait (1587)

Panpsychism

The term ‘panpsychism’ was coined by Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597) by combining the Greek words ‘pan’ (all) and ‘psyche’ (translatable as soul, or more recently mind, or consciousness). It posits that everything in nature is in various degrees minded. As Jeffrey Kripal (2019) noted, this idea ‘is probably the oldest human philosophy on the planet in its better known label as animism, that everything is ensouled, a view held by most indigenous cultures throughout the world.’

In his thorough presentation of this subject, David Skrbina (2007) correctly points out that panpsychism is best regarded as a meta-theory rather than a theory, since at the most general level it only holds that mind is part of all things, without adjudicating the nature of mind itself or of its relationship to other constituents of reality, if any. As such, the term covers several diverse viewpoints, which in some cases intersect with both materialistic and idealistic perspectives. In effect, the only views incompatible with panpsychism are those denying the very existence of mind—as argued by a few radical materialists—or those conceiving it as a derivative, phenomenal, even illusory property of material processes occurring only within the brain of humans and a few other complex organisms—as most other materialists assert. One version of panpsychism theoretically close to materialism could hold that mind does indeed exist everywhere in nature, but is itself ultimately material. (‘It’s complicated’, as they say...).

In part because of its conceptual versatility, panpsychistic views are found—sometimes coexisting with other germane views within the same thinker - throughout the history of both Eastern and Western philosophies. As shown by Skrbina (2007), many of the presocratic Greek philosophers articulated views which included panpsychistic elements, and so did Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, some theologians of the early Christian era, the philosophers and protoscientists of the Renaissance, and many of the great thinkers of the modern age, including Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Fechner, Nietsche, James, Royce, von Hartmann, and more recently Bergson, Whitehead, Hartshorne, Theillard de Chardin. Aspects of panpsychism also appealed to some influential scientific thinkers, including Eddington, Jeans, Sherrington, Agar, Wright, and more recently still Bateson, Birch, Dyson, Sheldrake, Bohm, Hameroff, Kaufmann, and others.

It is of course impossible here to render justice to the variety of panpsychistic views.

I have chosen to focus on one particular theory, based on some key contributions by Bertrand Russell (1928) and most explicitly formulated by Arthur Eddington (1928), which is enjoying renewed interest at present. Philip Goff (2019) presents a good discussion and a spirited defense of this position, to which I turn next.

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882-1944)

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882-1944)

Mind Is the Intrinsic Nature of Matter

Along with Russell and Eddington, Goff argues that physics—and indeed all the natural sciences which upon it depend—does not tell us anything about the ultimate nature of matter. Physics does concern itself with fundamental properties of the constituents of the physical world such as, say, the mass, charge, spin, etc. of subatomic particles. Aside from naming these properties, though, physics limits itself to describing in the exact language of mathematical equations, not what matter is, but what matter does.

For instance, an electron’s properties include its mass, and its (negative) electrical charge. But mass is defined relationally, in terms of its disposition to attract other particle with mass, and in its resisting acceleration; charge in terms of its disposition to attract positively charged particles and to repulse negatively charged ones. These definitions capture the electron’s dispositional behaviour. They are silent about what the electron is in itself, about its intrinsic nature. What is true of physics also applies to chemistry, which for instance defines acids in terms of their disposition to donate protons or hydrogen ions and to acquire electrons. Chemical molecules are defined in terms of their physical constituents, which in turn are defined as exemplified above. The other natural sciences can be similarly characterized.

Granted, physical science is exceedingly successful at formulating equations to predict the behaviour of matter with often astounding precision, thereby also providing a foundation for the development of successful technologies. But that is all it does.

If this is the case, are we therefore in principle precluded from even catching a glimpse of the intrinsic makeup of reality?

Not quite. In Philip Goff’s rendition of this insight, ‘I have but one small window into the intrinsic nature of matter: I know that the intrinsic nature of the matter inside my brain involves consciousness. I know this because I am directly aware of the reality of my own consciousness. And, assuming dualism is false, this reality I am directly aware of is at least part of the intrinsic nature of my brain’ (2019, p. 131).

In sum: physical science tells us something of what matter does, but not of what matter is. But we all do have access to another source of knowledge: the unmediated introspective evidence of the reality of our conscious mind and of its experiences. Furthermore, we also know that they arise within parts of our brain. And that the physical processes taking place within it are unexceptional, being entirely compatible with our understanding of all matter’s behavior and properties. That being the case, why not assume, then, that conscious mind itself constitutes the intrinsic nature, not just of brain matter, but of matter at large? To be clear: it is not being claimed that, say, a positron has physical properties like mass, electric charge, spin etc. AND also some form of consciousness. No, these very properties are in in their intrinsic nature aspects or forms of consciousness (see Goff, 2019).

This panpsychistic view is specifically upheld by Eddington and Goff. Russell (1927) inclined instead toward a form of ‘neutral’monism', in terms of which mental and physical properties are both aspects of a common substratum.

Bertrand Russell, in 1954

Bertrand Russell, in 1954

Problematical Aspects of Panpsychism

Panpsychism—in the formulation presented above and in others—provides a fairly straightforward solution to the mind brain problem. It avoids dualism’s complexities by sharing the conceptual simplicity of materialism: there is only one kind of stuff - which manifests itself as matter as seen from the ‘outside’, yet is mind in its inner core. And it escapes the materialistic conundrum: it does not have to explain how mind emerges from matter, for it is there from the very beginning as its intrinsic nature.

Everything is peachy then, and we can go home?

Well, for one, there is an obviously counterintuitive, nay absurd aspect to the contention that everything in nature is mindeed: should I assume that my shirt, too, is conscious? Or my toothbrush?

The absurdist implications of panpsychism can hopefully be overcome by an adequate theoretical elaboration of this view.

To begin with, arguing that consciousness is diffuse throughout the physical world does not entail that everything is endowed with a consciousness equalling or approaching ours. Yet, unlike Cartesian dualism, which attributed consciousness only to humans as uniquely endowed with an immortal soul, a more inclusive view of nature, backed by scientific evidence, has been granting a measure of consciousness to an ever-broadening range of animal species. Further, studies of inter-plant communication are narrowing down the chasm which separates animal and plant life in this regard, and some researchers are increasingly willing to attribute forms of mentation to plants as well. Of course, as we move closer to the more elementary constituents of matter, consciousness is expected to become extremely simple.

But what about the consciousness of my underwear, no matter how simple...? Some progress is being made in addressing this issue as well.

Neuroscientist Giulio Tononi (e.g., 2008), in a context quite independent of the panpsychistic hypothesis, has proposed in a mathematically rigorous formulation of his integrated information theory (IIT) that the amount of consciousness in any physical system, such as the brain - or subsystems of it - emerges at that system’s level which possesses the highest amount of integrated information. For instance, the cerebellum contains vastly more neurons than the parts of the cerebral cortex associated with consciousness, yet cerebellar activity does not give rise to conscious experience. This is the case, according to IIT, because the level of integrated information exchange between cerebellar neurons is much lower than the one prevailing within parts of the cortex. Similarly, as noted by Goff (2019), individual molecules in the brain need not be associated with consciousness because embedded in a system which has a much higher level of integrated information. On the other hand, similar molecules could be endowed with a measure of consciousness when part of, say, a puddle of water, since the level of integrated information within each molecule is higher than that of the puddle as a whole.

In terms of this view, therefore, any physical system, whether living or not, that possesses certain levels of integrated information relative to other systems of which it is part can be conscious. Such a view does seem compatible with some versions of panpsychism.

Panpsychism and the Combination Problem

Along with its counterintuitive aspects, panpsychism’s theoretical viability is challenged by the so called combination problem.

This problem arises in the various reductionistic varieties of panpsychism. It can be illustrated in this way: the brain cortex is composed of many cells, and each such cell has however small a modicum of mentation. If the brain is nothing but the sum of its cells, billions of, say, tiny ‘feelings’ would continue separately to coexist, and it is difficult to see how they could ever combine to result in the complex, seemingly unitary emotional life humans experience.

However, panpsychism need not be necessarily wedded to a strictly reductionistic perspective. Indeed, approaches to the problem have been developed recently (see Goff, 2019) which seek to understand how complex form of consciousness emerge in terms of new, yet to be precisely formulated fundamental natural ‘laws’ or ‘principles’ along lines similar to those envisaged by IIT.

Yet, at present the combination problem remains unsolved. Still, one might concede that it may prove less forbidding that the problems faced by both dualism and materialism. For what is worth, I tend to believe this to be the case.

Panpsychism: The Broader View

Consciousness is not an illusion, panpsychism tells us. It is real, and it is fundamental. It is not an extravagantly odd, essentially meaningless perquisite of a few of Earth’s denizens, as materialists never tire of telling us. It pervades the whole biosphere, and well beyond it the whole of physical reality, from subatomic particles to, possibly, whole galaxies. While not denying our specialness, this view encourages us to discard the sense of estrangement and loneliness resulting from a universe perceived to only consist of 'dead', inanimate matter.

By being more inclined to attribute a measure of consciousness to animal species and plants, our respect for - and kinship with - the ecosystem in which we are embedded and upon which we entirely depend should correspondingly increase, thereby weakening our rapacious attitude towards it.

The truth or falsity of panspychism is not adjudicable by these considerations. But they will further enhance its appeal, if it will ever be proved to be at least in part true.

if-materialism-is-false-is-panpsychism-a-viable-alternative

References

  • Eddington, A. S. (1928). The Nature of the Physical World. London: Mc Millan.
  • Goff, P. (2019). Galileo’s Error. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Hoffman, D. (2008). Conscious Realism and the Mind Body Problem. Mind & Matter, 6(1), pp. 87-121.
  • Kastrup, B. (2011). Dreamed up Reality. Diving into the Mind to uncover the Astonishing Hidden Tale of Nature. Alresford: John Hunt Publishing.
  • Kastrup, B. (2019). The Idea of the World. A Multidisciplinary Argument for the Mental Nature of Reality. Alresford: John Hunt Publishing.
  • Kripal, J. (2019). The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge. New York: Bellevue Literary Press.
  • Quester, J. P. (1915). What on Earth Happened to the Soul? Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/What-on-Earth-Happened-to-the-Soul
  • Quester, J. P. (2019a). Materialism is the Dominant View. Why? Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/Is-Materialism-False
  • Quester, J. P. (2019b). Is materialism False? Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/Is-Materialism-Wrong
  • Russell, B. (1927). The Anaysis of Matter. London: Kegan Paul.
  • Skrbina, D. (2007). Panpsychism in the West. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  • Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as Integrated Information: A Provisional Manifesto. Biological Bulletin, Vol. 215 ( 3), 216–242.

© 2020 John Paul Quester