Panpsychism and Its Emergent Discontents

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).

Related posts

Wordsworth’s Poetic Vision in Light of Whitehead’s Theory of Perception


9 Comments Add yours

  1. Jason Hills says:


    I think i can see where our communications have been slightly confused, at least from my end. I have been treating “emergentism” as if it were the same thing as a “creative metaphysics,” but then emergentism does not quite have that denotation in analytic philosophy, and most are thinking of analytic when they hear that term. Given your descriptions, regardless of the terms, I think we differ on only one big point concerning the origins and telos of the possibility of mind. I’m neutral on the subject, but you seem to have more definite views.

  2. Kirk says:


    In characterizing the emerginist, you described her question as “how did matter become mind?” At first blush, this might indicate that the question for the panpsychist to be “how did mind become matter?” You didn’t go there, and with good reason. To get to that position– mind becoming matter–we have to go outside the Western canon to India, where it predominates (in its own terms, of course. For example, one has to understand what, precisely, is meant in the various forms of the Indian canon by “mind.”). However, stepping back to a planetary philosophical perspective can, I think, contribute to the question you pose in ways that might be of interest.


    1. Hey Kirk,

      You bring up a good point. Just last night Aaron and I were talking about Skribina’s book “Panpsychism and the West” and wondering about the significance of the qualifier “West.” Of course there are many, many resources for thinking the relation between “mind” and “matter” (generally construed) that come out of India.

      I’m not sure I’d want to suggest that panpsychism necessarily implies that matter emerges from mind. Perhaps some variants do (Plotinus?). Others see them as equally primordial.

      1. Kirk says:

        Hi Matt–

        I agree that one would have to be very careful about attributing matter coming from mind to panpsychists. However, I also think you are right on the money in suggesting Plotinus as a possibility. If I recall correctly (too lazy to check up on it right now), the One is ineffable, and Nous reflectively generates the Forms in an act of self-contemplation of itself as an emanation, and then then next step in the recursion is for the World Soul to do the same thing and that’s where matter comes from. But even here we have to be careful, I think, because emanation is not creation (that’s why emanation was condemned by the Church in the mid-13th century). I think the other great name in the tradition with whom panpsychism has been most associated (wrongly, I believe) is Spinoza. And of course in his case the trope of mind creating matter simply doesn’t apply. For as I am sure you will recall, for Spinoza “mind” and “matter”– in his terms, “thought” and “extension” were two attributes of the single substance (Deus sive Natura) and so one could simply not speak of one creating or causing the other. Suhrawardi, whom as you know is one of my dissertation philosophers, held that all things were emanations of the Light of Lights, but that they shared in its self-illuminative or sentient nature as a matter of degree, so that all things were more of less conscious (illuminated) but at the far end of the scale they were totally insentient. I don’t really think that qualifies as panpsychism either. Or does it? In your view, is it consistent with panpsychism to hold that all things have — well, what– soul, ,intellect, consciousness– but as a matter of degree? Leibnitz also held a similar sort of view, arguing that the monads had differing degrees of perfection in a continuum, and that this included rationality. That’s a useful think to ask- who in your view in the canon would best qualify as a panpychist?


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s