I don’t want to undercut materialism. I don’t want to throw out materialism. I want to build on materialism — explain some of the things it can’t explain and continue to move forward. I want to make more progress in the same general direction that materialism set out in, when it became the dominant paradigm. Namely: monism, physicalism, and naturalism. I’m not anti-materialism any more than neo-Darwinists were anti-Darwinism.
I’ve handled the subject of panpsychism mainly as a dispute among fellow materialists and physicalists. Throughout, I’ve assumed that most of you are materialists, very few of you are dualists, and essentially none of you are idealists. I haven’t spoken at any length about subjective idealism, the view that mind is fundamental, or all there is, while matter is a sort of illusion. There’s a respectable idealist tradition, but it’s very hard to imagine being an idealist any time after the early 20th century. The view suffers from unique problems. For one, it implies anti-realism about the external world. The external world doesn’t exist if no one’s having an experience of it. But this makes it very difficult to explain why matter and our experiences are so lawful and seem to obey strict regularities. If our experiences are not caused by an external world, they should be random or up to us, but this does not seem to be the case. Many idealists think that matter simply doesn’t exist, and many believe matter to be a sort of illusion dependent on mind — perhaps the mirror image of Keith Frankish and Dan Dennett’s illusionism. We can clarify the distinctions between idealism, materialism, and panpsychism by asking what would happen to consciousness if we eliminated all matter from existence, and vice versa. Idealists believe that if you eliminated all matter, mind would still exist; matter is dependent on mind. Materialists believe if you eliminated all matter, mind would no longer exist; but you could eliminate all mind, and matter would still exist. Panpsychists, however, think that there is only matter and there are two sides to it: the internal and external. There are two ways of talking about it. Matter looks like one thing from the outside and looks like another from the inside. Mind isn’t caused by matter or vice versa. Rather, they’re synonymous with each other. They’re the same thing, but one characterizes the internal and the other, the external; one is the view from the inside, so to speak, and the other is the view from the outside. Physicist Sean Carroll claimed that one prediction on a model like this would be that matter would diverge from the laws of physics on occasion. I think this is a product of anthropomorphizing conscious experience: conflating human consciousness with all of consciousness. What-it-is-likeness doesn’t preclude lawlike regularities. In fact, many panpsychists imagine that it may the source of the lawlike regularities we observe. Joseph Priestley pointed out that it has never been established that sensation and thought are incompatible with attraction, repulsion, or the behavior of matter in general. Again, there’s only one stuff with a division between internal and external: there’s the behavior of matter, how it looks and what it’s doing from the outside — mass, spin, charge, etc. And then there’s the internal, intrinsic nature of matter. I agree with Hume that we don’t directly perceive the source of natural necessity. We only perceive conjunction — one event following another. But we do not directly perceive the actual inner workings of causation, the driving power, whatever is generating empirical data we take in through the senses. We don’t directly perceive the source of causation; we perceive regularities, conjunction, etc. Panpsychism could have a lot to contribute regarding the mysteries of causation, as well as the intrinsic nature of matter.
Matter: Structure and Qualia
In his recent conversation with Philip Goff, I heard Sean Carroll claim that matter doesn’t have intrinsic properties in addition to it’s behavioral, structural properties. Once you’ve described everything that matter is doing, you’re done: you’ve explained everything that matter is. All you have to do is describe the structure, behavior, and that’s all there is. There are no intrinsic properties in addition to behavioral, quantitative properties. But he also says that he doesn’t deny the reality of conscious experience. And I happen to know from reading his amazing book, The Big Picture, that he has no tolerance for strong emergence. If you’re inclined to agree with Carroll, that there is nothing in addition to structure, then you have to give up the reality of consciousness. Carroll has to know he’s wrong from his own case. I will never be able to observe his consciousness. I’ll only ever be able to perceive neurons firing — electrochemical activity. I have no access to his conscious experience.
To make this point vivid, consider the problem of other minds. Not just if my red is your red, but how you even know anyone else is conscious. I know that I’m conscious; it’s the thing I can be most certain of. And I’m reasonably sure that you’re conscious. But I can never be as certain that you’re conscious as I can be that I am. So hopefully you’ll agree with me that the degree to which I’m certain that I’m conscious and the degree to which I’m certain will never be equal. That’s because I have no access to your consciousness, and no matter what technology comes about, that will always be true. Think about what that means! If you agree that consciousness is real, that means there’s something that’s real that can’t be observed from the outside, objectively. It’s part of the natural world; I would say it’s part of the physical world, but it’s unobservable from a third-person perspective. That’s a very interesting fact about our universe. It’s a very interesting fact about matter. I don’t think materialists have adequately dealt with this fact or its implications.
So back to Carroll’s point about structure and behavior. He says that once you’ve described what matter is doing, you’ve explained what the matter is in full. But if you accept the reality of consciousness, you know that’s not true. All I can see of your brain and the matter that is you has to do with electrochemical activity. The what-it-is-like-ness is unobservable from the outside — you have to be that chunk of matter to observe it. And yet, it’s nonetheless real! If you’re a physicalist and a monist and a naturalist, I would say this has radical implications for the nature of matter.
We know there’s more to matter than structure and behavior from our own case. But why think experiences goes all the way down? For me, it has to do with a rejection of strong emergence. If you’re telling me you can arrange matter for which it’s not like anything to be, and then suddenly, it’s like something to be, that would seem like strong emergence. There’s something new that was not there before and can’t be reduced to its component parts. To quote William Seagar, “Nature does not produce giant leaps where something absolutely novel appears out of nothing. It’s a very big question whether or not strong emergence is a coherent notion . . . it is opposed to the picture of the world as a purely physical process.” So if you’re a materialist monist, and you’re a realist about consciousness, the fact that it’s like something to be, and you reject strong emergence — well, put those together. These views have radical implications regarding the nature of matter.
We know from our own case that there’s more to matter than structure and behavior. Once you’ve described what the matter is doing, you haven’t described everything there is to know about matter. So Carroll is just wrong about that. If he wants to say that behavior is all there is, he has to somehow reconcile that with the reality of qualia. The only thing you really need to give me to acknowledge this point is that the degree to which you’re certain that you are conscious and the degree to which you’re certain that I am conscious will never be equal. Why is that? It’s because there’s more to matter than behavior and structure. From the outside, all I can see are neurons firing and wet, gray tissue. But you know that there’s an internal, subjective side to that matter. From the inside, there is conscious experience. As Russell and Eddington pointed out, the best clue we have regarding the intrinsic nature of matter is from our own case. If you think that you’re solely composed of matter, we already know that at least some of the time, physical goings-on are synonymous with experience. So the hard part, as it were, is already over.
The Revival of Panpsychism
There have been many notable panpsychists in intellectual history. Schoepenhaur was a panpsychist. So was Alfred North Whitehead, and Ernst Häckel, an early proponent of Darwinism. To borrow a few examples from Christof Koch, “Philosopher Baruch Spinoza and mathematician and universal genius Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who laid down the intellectual foundations for the Age of Enlightenment, argued for panpsychism, as did . . . father of American psychology William James, and Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin.” Today, we have Galen Strawson, Philip Goff, Hedda Hassel Mørch, Annaka Harris, and many others, as well as the neuroscientists Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch.
The renewed interest in panpsychism has been brought on by the rediscovery of arguments made by Bertrand Russell and Sir Arthur Eddington in the 1920s. Contemporary philosophers have built on their insights. Russell and Eddington realized that physics tells us what matter does, how it behaves. It doesn’t tell us about the intrinsic nature of matter insofar as there is more to matter than its structure. Physics doesn’t give us any reason to suppose fundamental reality is wholly nonexperiential. This is what Galen Strawson calls “the silence of physics.”
Physics may be silent on what or if it’s like something for a bit of matter like myself. But what reason do we have to suppose that there is more than structure and behavior when it comes to matter? Why would I think that matter would have additional, non-structural properties? Well, let’s start with what we know. We know we’re conscious. Consciousness is not a structural property or a behavior that can be observed from the third-person point of view. If consciousness is the one thing that can’t be an illusion, and we believe we’re composed of matter, nothing more and nothing less, it follows that we know that at least some of the time, matter has properties in addition to behavioral properties. Perhaps all of the time. Come to think of it, what is the evidence that there is any matter for which it’s not like anything to be? We know that physical goings-on are synonymous with conscious goings-on at least some of the time. In fact, we have zero insight regarding the intrinsic nature of physical goings-on except in our own case. That is our starting point. This realization leads to a dramatic shifting of the burden: the burden is entirely on the one who wants to say there is such a thing as non-conscious matter. To quote Hedda Hassel Mørch, “What is the evidence that particles are not conscious? That we have not observed them to be so is arguably irrelevant, because consciousness cannot be observed except in our own individual case.”
I argued in the first Objections episode that the primary reason we find panpsychism counter-intuitive (besides anthropomorphizing conscious experience) is because of our theory of mind, our evolved psychological module that detects and interprets the conscious states of others. That module is the reason we think there is such a thing as non-conscious matter, not because of some well-supported argument. So we don’t even know there is such a thing as matter that is not experience involving. In fact, the evidence for its existence is zero. And we know consciousness is real, so if we have a bias against strong emergence, why wouldn’t we suppose it goes all the way down? The strange conclusion we’re led to is: the idea that consciousness is fundamental and ubiquitous is the more responsible view that takes on fewer unjustified assumptions. As I mentioned in Four Premises, you’re either going to end up a dualist, denying the reality of consciousness, or positing some kind of strong emergence to make it work as a non-panpsychist.
Unless you’re a part of an even stranger group than panpsychists, you’ll agree when I say that you know you are conscious. Everyone has to answer the following question: how far down does consciousness go? Most people, except for a few philosophers, are in agreement that humans are conscious. Most people will also say chimpanzees are conscious. Dogs, sure. If I say fish, I’ll lose some people. I’m not sure what fish are doing with their brain and nervous systems, then; or what they’re doing with their eyes, if not seeing things with them (that’s kind of what eyes are for). But even if you agree that fish are conscious, what about flies? Are worms or fleas conscious? What about trilobites, or single-celled organisms? Where did consciousness first emerge? Remember, it’s a binary thing: it’s either like something or it’s not. It can’t kind of be like something, or seem to be like something. This is not a ‘how many hairs until it’s a beard’ situation, or ‘how many grains of sand until it’s a pile’. Consciousness doesn’t exist on a spectrum, at least not consciousness in the Nagelian sense. So at some point in evolutionary history, this binary switch was flipped for some reason. Suddenly, it’s like something for that collection of molecules, but not for the one it came from. The preceding system was nearly identical to the new conscious system, but it nevertheless made this enormous leap from being entirely non-conscious to being conscious. Like I said, everyone has to answer this question of when the lights came on in the chain of emergence and evolutionary history. Panpsychists have what I think is the most persuasive answer to this question.
Due to the well-established correlation between the brain and consciousness, most reasonably suppose that the brain and nervous system are the relevant parts — you need a brain for consciousness. That’s obviously how we have our particular brand of conscious experience, but it doesn’t follow that it’s the only way consciousness can emerge. That would mean that arranging subatomic particles into nerve cells would suddenly generate consciousness. The lights are completely off when those same particles are arranged in a slightly different way, but arrange them as a nerve cell, and it’s now like something for that matter to be. Will one nerve cell do it? What about two nerve cells? Will that do it? What’s so special about nerve cells, anyway? They’re not made of unique material. It’s the same protons, neutrons, and electrons as always. So it must be in the arrangement, right? I obviously agree that altering the configuration of matter will alter conscious experience. But I don’t agree that altering the configuration of matter will transition non-experiential stuff to experiential stuff. That would seem to be a case of strong emergence — that is, if you accept that you’re made of matter and nothing else, and that consciousness is real (hopefully you do).
The Internal and External
Despite the pan- in panpsychism, most subscribers don’t believe everything is conscious. Abstract entities, like numbers, wouldn’t be considered conscious on most versions of panpsychism. Chairs and curtains aren’t conscious subjects on panpsychism. The particles that make them up would be, but the object itself is not a subject of experience. As far as I can tell, the main point modern panpsychists are trying to convey is that experience goes down much farther than we typically imagine.
Sometimes panpsychists can sound like dualists. This is a result of fully embracing what we know about mind and what we know about matter. The reason for the dualistic-sounding language is that within panpsychism there is a sort of dualism between the internal and the external. Panpsychism is monistic. There is only matter, and material processes are synonymous with consciousness. You can observe matter from the outside, externally, or you can be matter. It’s like something to be matter; there’s an interior, subjective aspect to matter. That’s the internal. The external is all the matter that’s not you. The external realm is composed of matter, but viewed from the outside. The internal realm is matter viewed from the inside, from the perspective of matter. From your perspective, I’m a part of the external. From my perspective, you’re a part of the external. This internal/external distinction is sometimes mistaken as substance dualism by the critics of panpsychism and Russellian monism. Panpsychists are full realists about consciousness and full realists about matter, which is what produces dualistic-sounding language on occasion. But panpsychists don’t subscribe to the conventional assumptions about what matter is, or about the division between mind and body shared by pretty much everyone else.
“The virtues of both and the vices of neither”
The view that mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world has recently undergone a bit of a revival in Western philosophy. Panpsychism existed in the East and West for centuries, arguably millennia, but it’s finding proponents today because it offers an attractive synthesis between physicalism and dualism, and as David Chalmers said, “captures the virtues of both views and the vices of neither.”
Dualism suffers from the interaction problem, or the problem of causal closure, and leaves us with a radically disunified picture of nature. Panpsychism is compatible with physical causal closure. Consciousness fills in the structure that’s already there; it doesn’t add any additional structure, like dualism, so there is no interaction problem for panpsychism. Dualism also violates Occam’s Razor by multiplying entities unnecessarily. As Joseph Priestley rightly observed, there is no incompatibility with qualia and physical structure. So there is no reason to suppose that there are two distinct substances in human beings.
Materialism offers a unified vision of the world, unlike dualism; but it does so at the cost of eliminating some inconvenient aspects of reality that are difficult to explain. Many materialist philosophers have given up the reality of phenomenal experience because they mistakenly think it’s required of them — required by naturalism, physicalism, or modern science. Panpsychists recognize that this is a mistake. Materialism leaves us with the explanatory gap, or the Hard Problem of consciousness. Panpsychism solves the Hard Problem; it cuts it off at the root. So there is no explanatory gap or strong emergence.
Panpsychism has the merits of dualism and materialism and the problems of neither. It embraces the reality of conscious experience while carefully respecting the basic pillars of naturalism and physicalism. Moreover, it fills in a huge gap in our current picture of the world. Namely, the intrinsic nature of the physical, a matter on which physics is entirely silent.
The Combination Problem
Panpsychism does suffer from the Combination Problem, the issue of how billions of consciousnesses fuse together to form one unified conscious subject. What is the relationship between particle level consciousness and systems level consciousness?
There are a few questions that, if not dealt with at the outset, will cause everyone to talk past one another in a discussion on the Combination Problem. First, what is your view of the self, i.e. what are the parts combining into? The problem seems more or less tractable depending on your view of the self. If experiences simply arise in conscious awareness, including the experience of being a self, then perhaps there isn’t as much to explain compared to a version of the self that includes some kind of unchanging core, or some entity that is the experiencer of experiences. Moreover, if the self, the entity being combined into, is more of a process and less of an object, as it would seem to me, then the activities of combining, blending, fusing, etc. seem less mysterious. Something in flux, rather than quiescent, would at least seem easier to combine. Processes combining with others to create bigger processes seems like less of a feat of radical emergence than two discrete, quiescent objects combining into another object.
Second, what is your view of fundamental physics, i.e. what are the parts that are doing the combining? The Combination Problem seems to be frequently presented in language that paints a picture of billions of little objects, like atoms, coming together and somehow fusing. However the world is not, fundamentally, little grainy bits. Rather, it’s unfamiliar entities like wavefunctions and fields. My comments on the first question compliment this view (flux vs quiescence), since the wavefunction seems to be more of a process than an object. Excitations or fluctuations in quantum fields, as well, are different enough from atoms — tiny, unsplittable objects — that it seems relevant in any discussion of the Combination Problem.
So before we have any discussion of this alleged problem, we have to discuss our view of the self — the thing being combined into — and our view of fundamental physics — the stuff doing the combining. I think hidden assumptions in these two areas make the Combination Problem seem harder than it is.
The De-Combination Problem
Panpsychists are being asked to explain the relationship between particle-level consciousness and systems-level consciousness — how little conscious things make a unified conscious thing. The philosopher Luke Roelofs has been studying mental combination from the other direction in split brain patients. The severing of the corpus callosum means that information can’t be directly shared between the two hemispheres of the brain. As you may be aware, many strange and interesting results have observed as a result of this disunity. One side of the brain or body can have information that the other side does not. One side can “know something” that the other side doesn’t. So while panpsychists are faced with the Combination Problem, split-brain patients present a sort of de-combination problem. They also provide us with an opportunity to explore the empirical, objective side of the Combination Problem. To quote Philip Goff, “The severing of the corpus callosum seems to lead to mental de-combination: what was once a single, unified mind, now becomes two separate conscious subjects. If that’s right, then we may be able, by imagining the reverse of what led to de-combination, to infer what is required for mental combination. In this way, split-brain cases can potentially give us an empirical handle on mental combination.”
New Age Woo
I agree with Annaka Harris that the name is a bit of a liability. We could with equal accuracy call panpsychism “modified materialism,” or “neo-materialism,” though I don’t think this will ultimately be necessary. I think the connotations of the name could be changed with enough time and exposure. Panpsychism, despite is new-age-sounding name, is a product of physicalists and materialists attempting to refine physicalism such that it doesn’t require us to deny anything we know from the sciences, but also doesn’t require that we deny anything we know about consciousness from our own case. To quote Philip Goff, “My starting point is that we know that consciousness is real. Nothing is more evident than the realities of our experiences, so we have to account for it somehow; it has to fit into our scientific picture of reality somehow. Panpsychism . . . offers us a way of integrating consciousness into our scientific picture of the world that avoids the deep difficulties that face more conventional options like materialism on the one hand, dualism on the other. Panpsychism avoids many of these difficulties. It does have these unfortunate new age connotations that some people just can’t see past. But I think you should judge a view on its explanatory power rather than its cultural associations. No one has the complete theory of consciousness, but I think panpsychism looks like a promising way forward. . . . I wouldn’t say it’s a good explanation, but it’s the least bad explanation.”
Denying the Undeniable
When one hears that materialist philosophers like Dan Dennett and Keith Frankish deny the thing we know with the most certainty, one must ask: why are they doing this? The answer is because they define themselves as materialists or physicalists. They think that if everything is physical, you cannot believe there is phenomenal consciousness. I agree that everything is physical, but I don’t think that rules out the reality of consciousness, because I don’t see any reason to suppose that consciousness is non-physical. Although I think consciousness is the one thing that can’t be an illusion, I can appreciate where those materialists are coming from. There appears to be a challenge here reconciling materialism or physicalism with consciousness. We’re materialists. We think the whole world is made of physical stuff. Consciousness, intuitively, does not seem like physical stuff at all; it seems non-physical. An intuitive conception of consciousness would place it outside the realm of the material, like Descartes. Well if we’re going to be rigorous physicalists, we can’t allow non-physical things to really exist! A big mistake materialists make is that they think they know what the physical is. And they think they know it with such certainty that physicalism rules out the existence of consciousness, and people like me are really anti-physicalists and anti-materialists, even though I think there is nothing but the physical and humans are composed solely of material. The funny thing is, materialists agree with Descartes in a way that I don’t. They think physical stuff is so well-understood that we know it couldn’t involve consciousness. And to admit the reality of consciousness would be to admit the reality of something non-physical. Descartes and Dennett share that assumption. Panpsychists do not.
Science will not save you
What about physics? Physics obviously tells us lots of true things about physical stuff. It teaches us about its structure, how it will behave under certain conditions, what it will do. But physics does not and cannot tell us the intrinsic nature of matter, insofar as it has an intrinsic nature in addition to its structure. Many rational and scientifically-oriented people believe that if we just do more neuroscience, everything will be answered in time. What I’m saying is that physical science is categorically unable to answer all of our questions about consciousness.
Even if you disagree with me that science is unable in principle to explain consciousness, you have to at least admit that this is not a normal scientific question. You can’t observe consciousness except in your own case. No one else can directly perceive your experience; you can’t directly perceive anyone else’s. Sure, there’s no way to test whether or not an atom is conscious. It has to be one or the other; it’s either like something to be or it’s not. But there’s no way of looking inside it to see if it has experience. However, there’s no way of looking inside someone’s brain to see if they have experience. Consciousness has this strange property of only being observable by the chunk of matter itself — by the subject of experience. Even when we know it’s there, it is impossible to view it objectively, from a third-person point of view. And yet, we know for certain that it exists.
It also bears repeating that there is not as much evidence as one would think that non-conscious matter exists. We actually don’t know there is any nonexperiential reality, and the reasons for supposing there is such a thing as non-conscious matter are shockingly inadequate. The biggest clue we have of the intrinsic nature of matter is the fact that we too are part of the physical universe; we’re made of matter. The one thing we know for certain of matter is that it’s at least sometimes conscious. Positing nonexperiential matter at the fundamental levels is theoretically more expensive and totally unjustified. We know there is experiential matter and we do not know if there is any nonexperiential matter. If we suppose there is, we’re stuck with radical emergence to try to magic the experiential out of the wholly nonexperiential; and we may have to deny the reality of consciousness to be consistent physicalists.
Panpsychism is a better explanation of consciousness than materialism, idealism, or dualism. It answers the so-called mind-body problem in full. Panpsychism is a version of physicalism — one that takes seriously the fact that you are a part of the physical universe, and our knowledge of the intrinsic nature of matter. It’s a naturalistic, monistic, parsimonious, theoretically elegant way of understanding consciousness and matter that explains the most while giving up the least.
. . . . .
Walden Pod episode 13 – Why I Am A Panpsychist
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/counterapologeticspodcast
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The Wright Show [YouTube]
Philosophy Bites [YouTube]
The Panpsycast Interview [Panpsycast]
Things That Bother Me [Amazon]
Mind and Cosmos [Amazon]
Hedda Hassel Mørch
The Panpsycast Interview [Panpsycast]
The Fusion View and IIT [YouTube]
Is IIT Compatible with Russellian panpsychism? [MindsOnline]
On Panpsychism [Youtube]
Sean Carroll and Philip Goff [YouTube]
Philip Goff on Galileo’s Error [Panpsycast]
Conscious – Making Sense Podcast [YouTube]
Panpsychism vs. Strong Emergence [YouTube]
The Analysis of Matter [PhilPapers]
Russellian Monism [SEP]
CA66 Atheism, Materialism, and Consciousness
If you’ve never contemplated the philosophy of mind, here are several entry-level episodes that can help put all this into context: https://thepanpsycast.com/episodes-by-category (scroll to ‘Philosophy of Mind’ category)