Panpsychism in Contemporary Philosophy

Last week, I shared a few of Galen Strawson‘s ideas about panpsychism (as quoted from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) on FaceBook. A very long thread began. The conversation continues at Dream the World Anew. I suggest you start there before reading further.

In this post, I want to begin situating my own particular breed of panpsychism in relation that of Strawson and a few other contemporary panpsychists. This will be more of an opening gesture to lay out what is at stake than a final word on my own position(s).

First lets listen to what Strawson has to say concerning the place of psyche in the universe:

Strawson squares off against his reductive physicalist opponents with the stance that “conscious states are themselves literally physical, just like electric charge.” I’m not sure how Strawson’s own version of panpsychism pans out, but he would appear to argue for some sort of identity theory. There are some versions of mind-brain identity theory that I would reject as either incoherent or so obvious as to be tautological. I disagree with him that consciousness just is the brain, since I understand conscious experience, like all modes of experience, to be primarily relational, which is to say it emerges between entities rather than “in” an entity. But regardless of the specific form his panpsychism takes, I think Strawson is right to argue that a genuinely realist understanding of physics entails a panpsychist ontology, broadly speaking.

Eliminative physicalists are almost always closet Cartesians in that they implicitly separate their own rational theorizing consciousness (or scientific ego) from the objective mechanical world they claim to have explained. They explain the physical universe in its entirety, except of course the part whereby it manages to get itself consciously explained. Typically, the eliminativist will claim the panpsychist has ignored scientific facts and replaced them with pre-modern superstition and animism. But the panpsychist is equally attentive to the given facts of the physical world, its just that unlike the reductive physicalist, they include the fact of attention itself in their physical explanations. Experience is understood to be a fundamental category of reality, just like the matter, energy, space, and time assumed to exist by modern science. The reductive physicalist who desires to explain away consciousness as a purposelessly evolved working out of neuroelectrochemistry not only undermines the phenomenological ground of their theoretic activity, they misunderstand what contemporary science has revealed to us about neurons, electrons, and chemicals. These entities are by no means inert or mechanistic–they are far more animated than reductionists typically let on. The known history of the physical universe is the history of the unpredictably emergent complex-adaptive intra-action of entities like electrons, chemicals, and neurons.

Let’s listen as Nicholas Humphrey responds skeptically to Strawson’s panpsychist arguments:

For Humphrey, as for Strawson (and I’d imagine most other philosophers of mind), the place of psyche is as much a matter of concern as it is a matter of fact. When it comes to consciousness, the neat separation between facts and values becomes difficult if not impossible to maintain. The study of consciousness is the study of what makes us human.

Humphrey differentiates ontologically between “physical instants” and “subjective moments”(~1:30). Now, I think Humphrey rightly singles out what is ontologically significant about experience: its temporality. But I think he is wrong to deny temporality to the entities/relations of the physical world. He is wrong not only philosophically, but physically. If we follow Planck, there can be no such thing (no quantum) of matter or energy at an instant. Even a single photon (if such a thing can be said to exist in abstraction from its environment) takes time to become what it is. At an instant, there is nothing. This is why I think its important to ally my own species of panpsychist realism with a process ontology. To understand the ubiquity of experience in the universe, we need to define experience generally enough that it no longer refers exclusively to conscious human experience. To experience, then, is to emerge from the stubborn facts of a settled past while reaching for the novel possibilities of an open-ended future. Human conscious experience grants us the capacity to scan our memories at will or to intend long-term goals, while the non-conscious experience of an atom in a protein molecule has a far less malleable relation to past facts and a far more attenuated capacity to determine its future acts.

The final reality of the physical universe, then, cannot be captured by an instantaneous configuration of externally related particles. The final reality is always in process and so as yet undetermined. The creative intra-activity of the infinite set of actual occasions composing our cosmic epoch has not yet achieved (and may never achieve) final unity.

David Chalmers is another major voice in contemporary academic philosophy of mind who takes panpsychism seriously. While he seems to prefer a dualist approach at the moment, he nonetheless construes panpsychism as a serious contender in the the search for consciousness’ proper place in the universe:

In the first video, Chalmers lists the main positions in the study of consciousness as materialism, dualism, and idealism. He seems to lump panpsychism into the third category of idealism, which is perhaps misleading since Strawson prefers to call himself a physicalist. But then in the second video, he construes panpsychism as a radical form of physicalism. There is no doubt that this sort of terminological confusion makes discussing panpsychism extremely frustrating at times. Perhaps most of the confusion is a reflection of the way panpsychism isn’t playing by the same rules as the other standard positions (materialism, dualism, or idealism).

My own species of panpsychism owes much to Alfred North Whitehead. In a subsequent post, I’ll try to unpack how his approach to the issue differs from the thinkers discussed above.


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