What Is Panpsychism?

This post will be the first in a three-part introductory series in which I elaborate upon the central topics of this blog, and the central tenets of my worldview. This post, as you may have guessed from the title, is about Panpsychism. Posts about Permaculture and Polyamory will be forthcoming.

So: what is Panpsychism anyway? Derived from the Ancient Greek words for “everywhere” and “soul,” the term “Panpsychism” applies to any worldview in which every fundamental thing has a conscious, mental aspect. It is most often associated with Neutral Monism, the description of the Mind-Body relationship in which the mental and the physical are each aspects of one underlying and united whole, as opposed to Dualism, the view that the mental and the physical are two fundamentally separate kinds of substance. Panpsychist views can be roughly divided into two overlapping subsets: Pantheism and Animism. Pantheism is the view that the entire universe, as a whole, is a single conscious entity. Animism is the view that all the myriad individual things that make up the universe are conscious entities. The two are not incompatible, but they are not inseparable, either; you can believe one without the other, but you could just as easily believe both (or neither).

Panpsychism is the logical conclusion of four premises:

1) Mental properties are real. This premise is rather hard to deny, as it is difficult to claim “No, I’m not really experiencing anything; it just seems to me as though I am!” without sounding like a first-class prat, even to other philosophers. To be fair, some hard-line physicalists did attempt to deny the reality of conscious experiences, also known as qualia, in the first half of the twentieth century. (They were mainly behaviorists like B. F. Skinner, who famously said “The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do,” and who believed the answer to the second question was “No,” thereby proving himself right in at least one instance.) However, anyone who is not currently comatose can observe the existence of conscious phenomena through pure introspection—indeed, the existence of our own conscious experiences is probably second only to “I think, therefore I am” in the competition for “most obviously and certainly true claim ever made.”

2) The physical world is real too. This premise is a little bit harder to prove with the same kind of rock-solid, malevolent-God-proof certainty you can have about the previous one, but as with the first, virtually everyone accepts it. Again, it has been denied by some, perhaps most famously by George Berkeley, who claimed that because we can only directly perceive our own subjective experiences, and we can only indirectly perceive things we already have independent knowledge of (that is, through earlier direct perception relayed to us by memory or reports of others’ memories), then even if an objective physical world exists, we could never have any proof of its existence. Today, however, you are unlikely to find anyone argue against this premise except in philosophy classroom discussions of Berkeley or internet chatroom discussions of Inception.

So far, we have established that the physical world is the real world and that consciousness is part of that real world. How can mental things be part of a physical world? There are three possible answers: Reduction, Emergence, and Panpsychism. Unsurprisingly, the Panpsychist conclusion results from refuting the two alternate explanations of the presence of conscious experience in a material universe.

3) Mental properties cannot merely be reduced to physical properties. Here’s where things get a little more controversial. Effectively, what this claim amounts to is saying that there is more to the mind than the brain. There is no reason in principle why the various functions the brain performs, like discrimination between different stimuli or integration of information, should be accompanied by a certain subjective, qualitative experience. This claim amounts to admitting the existence of the “hard problem of consciousness,” and denying that a super-duper-scientist could look at the fundamental physical properties of the atoms in your brain and thereby discover precisely what it is like, subjectively, to be you.

4) Mental properties do not emerge from physical properties. While the previous premise dealt with a “weak” kind of emergence, like the “emergence” of chemistry from physics, whereby the “emergent” phenomena can be predicted and observed just by looking at the “basic” ones, this premise refers to a stronger kind of emergence, whereby something wholly new and different shows up as the result of unpredictable interactions between the basic components. This premise is claiming that while the strong emergence of physical properties (like liquidity) from the interactions between basic physical things (like atoms) is comprehensible, the strong emergence of mental properties from the interactions between basic physical things is not comprehensible—unless, of course, those basic physical things are also basic mental things, in which case the broken analogy is restored, but now supports Panpsychism rather than Emergentism. Sure, you can still have strong emergence, but mental properties can only emerge from interactions between mental things, just as physical properties can only emerge from interactions between physical things. Neither the physical nor the mental is more fundamental than the other, so neither one emerges from the other.

In short: if conscious experience is real, and the real world is physical, then consciousness must be part of the physical world. If consciousness can’t be reduced to physical properties, and doesn’t emerge from physical properties, then consciousness must be a fundamental part of the physical world. That is Panpsychism.

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2 thoughts on “What Is Panpsychism?

  1. Pingback: What Is Permaculture? | Uncivilized Thinking

  2. Pingback: Blog Every Day in July: The Best of Uncivilized Thinking | Polyprotic Amory

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