Several of us got into a discussion on my FaceBook page regarding panpsychism and emergentism. On some accounts, if a philosopher rejects dualism and so desires to ontologically integrate what common folks normally call mental with what natural scientists understand to be material, her only option is to develop either a panpsychist or an emergentist account, broadly construed.

The emergentist philosopher (again broadly speaking) denies that mental qualities are ontologically basic and so must explain how a material universe consisting of only mass bearing particles in changing spatial relations could have generated not only abstract ideas and concepts (like those employed by the scientists in their knowledge of said particles), but concrete bodily feelings (like those seemingly experienced by many if not all living organisms). In other words, emergentists are burdened with the rather hard question “How did matter become mind?”

The panpsychist philosopher, on the other hand (my final broad generalization, I promise!), affirms that mental qualities are just as ontologically basic as the material entities studied by physicists. Mind is not said to emerge from matter, since in a manner of speaking mind is just the “inside” of matter and matter the “outside” of mind. The mental aspect of a thing is understood to intensify as its material aspect increases in complexity. The panpsychist is tasked with the somewhat more tractable (but still undoubtedly difficult) problem of explaining how exactly the “inside” (measured in intensity) and the “outside” (measured in complexity) of a thing relate.

If the two positions are construed in this over-generalized way, I’m more sympathetic toward panpsychism, but with reservations. My reservations arise because I think a more coherent ontology is possible that recognizes the fundamentality of both emergence and experience. I’ve turned increasingly to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism during the course of my graduate studies because I think he created an open system of concepts capable of constructing such an ontology. Instead of arguing on the extremes–either that psyches or that particles are fundamental to reality–it is possible to think the most fundamental entities in a process-relational way as neither self-identical minds nor externally related physical particles. Entities–things themselves–can be thought of as emergent products of an underlying relational nexus of creative experience. Experience is not a attribute of a thing; it is never “had” by a self-identical entity; it is not a secondary property adhering to a primary substance. Experience is always relational, it is always between entities rather than “inside” them. It is hard to speak clearly about experience, since it tends to confuse things, to mix them up with one another.

In a discussion of the fundamentality of experience in Modes of Thought (110-111), Whitehead writes:

The sense of totality obscures the analysis into self and others. Also this division is primarily based on the sense of existence as a value experience. Namely, the total value experience is discriminated into this value experience and those value experiences. There is the vague sense of many which are one; and of one which includes the many. Also there are two senses of the one–namely, the sense of the one which is all, and the sense of the one among the many.

The fundamental basis of this description is that our experience is a value experience, expressing a vague sense of maintenance or discard; and that this value experience differentiates itself in the sense of many existences with value experience; and that this sense of the multiplicity of value experiences again differentiates it into the totality of value experience, and the many other value experiences, and the egoistic value experience. This is the feeling of the ego, the others, the totality. This is the vague, basic presentation of the differentiation of existence, in its enjoyment of discard and maintenance. We are, each of us, one among others; and all of us are embraced in the unity of the whole.

The basis of democracy is the common fact of value experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole. This characterizes the meaning of actuality. By reason of this character, constituting reality, the conception of morals arises. We have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe. Existence, in its own nature, is the upholding of value intensity. Also no unit can separate itself from the others, and from the whole. And yet each unit exists in its own right. It upholds value intensity for itself, and this involves sharing value intensity with the universe. Also either of these aspects is a factor in the other.

We have been considering the dim foundation of [conscious] experience. In animal experience there supervenes a process of keen discrimination of quality. The sense experiences, such as sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and so on, are distinguished. Also within each such species of quality, clear distinctions are discerned, for example, red and green, distinctions of note, distinctions of taste.

With the rise of clear sensations relating themselves to the universe of value-feeling, the world of human experience is defined.

Whitehead draws a distinction between two modes of experience that are crucial to the success of his conceptual scheme: experience in the mode of presentational immediacy and experience in the mode of causal efficacy. The former is generally conscious and allows us to distinguish each of the five channels of sensation, and within each of these channels to clearly identify the distinct qualities of our surrounding environment. The latter is generally unconscious and provides us with a felt-sense of bodily reference, or energetic inheritance emerging out of our own organism’s recent past. I say “generally” for each mode because we often make highly refined distinctions in and evaluations of our environment without consciousness, and because the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness in experience cannot be clearly drawn.

As I said above, it is the nature of experience to be confusing, and so to cause things to “grow together” (or concresce), though in the higher animals and especially humans, experience reaches tremendous clarity. This clarity is won at the cost of massive elimination, and in some cases repression, of the temporal horizons of consciousness (i.e., birth and death, sleeping and waking).
If we deliberately turn our attention to perceptual experience in search of its limit, doesn’t this limit seem to recede into an infinite fractal of “little perceptions”? To everyday consciousness, sensory perception of the external world appears to have a finite resolution (i.e., it resolves itself in certain definite qualitative patterns). But if we follow Whitehead by turning attention to our feelings of bodily reference, the clarity and distinctness of experience dissolves into a vague swarm of actual occasions (e.g., try closing your eye-lids and pressing on them).

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