“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

The Threat of Panpsychism?: A response to Bernardo Kastrup

Bernardo Kastrup, a computer engineer turned metaphysician, recently posted a short essay called “The Threat of Panpsychism: A Warning.” I found the essay somewhat encouraging if only because it is another signal that contemporary philosophy (both within and outside academia) is moving beyond the tired “materialism v. anything else” debate and toward more interesting and relevant debates, like that between pluralistic panpsychism and monistic idealism. Kastrup defends the latter, but only against a rather oversimplified, caricatured version of panpsychism. I wanted to respond to some of his “warnings” by offering a more nuanced rendering of panpsychism that has arisen from my study of Alfred North Whitehead and William James.

Karstrup begins by defining panpsychism. He picks out two basic interpretations: 1) one suggests consciousness is a fundamental property of matter just like mass and charge, etc., and 2) the other suggests that consciousness is intrinsic to matter–that it does not inhere in matter alongside other properties like mass and charge, but that these properties are just the external faces of what, from the inside, experiences itself as conscious. These interpretations, Kastrup admits, differ only in their subtleties. Through Kastrup names no names, the two positions sound similar to the panpsychisms articulated by Galen Strawson and David Chalmers.

What is unique about the Whiteheadian process-relational version of panpsychism is that it rejects the substance-property and identity-based ontology shared by Strawson and Chalmers. Kastrup’s main concern with panpsychism (so defined) is that it “fragments” consciousness into atomic bits; further, he worries that these mind bits remain determined by material bits. But these concerns are, I argue, resolved by the process-relational version. Although Whitehead’s panpsychism does involve the particulation of psyche, these psychic particles (W. calls them actual occasions) are each and all internally related and co-constituting; they are interpenetrating drops of experience, not isolated monads of private mentality. Fragmentation is thereby averted.

Whitehead’s version of panpsychism doesn’t rush to reduce matter to mind (or to reduce the multiplicity of materiality to the identity/unity of mentality). Whitehead’s whole philosophical method is designed to avoid the sort of reductionistic overstatements that lead to absolute idealisms and absolute materialisms alike. His is not a polemical but a diplomatic philosophy, always searching for the middle ground that incorporates the elucidatory aspects of all approaches in search of an adequate compromise. Whitehead’s approach allows us to understand mind and matter, as well as wholeness and particularity, as equally necessary, integral phases in the ongoing process of cosmogenesis.

I wonder what Kastrup would make of William James’ little book A Pluralistic Universe, wherein James articulates some rather strong arguments against monistic idealism and in favor of a kind of pluralistic panpsychism. To my mind, what Kastrup arguing for in this essay is only another form of reductionism–reduction to Unity and Mind instead of to Matter. This is reductionistic, I would argue, because it negates the variety of modes of existence that make up our cosmic community. Ontological pluralism seems more true to experience (both common every day experience AND mystical experience), since it doesn’t deny the possibility of unity, it only denies that things are necessarily unified. Necessary unity is politically frightening to me. It is too fascist, too totalitarian. I prefer democracy both politically and ontologically. Order, oneness, unity, etc must be freely affirmed, freely achieved. They cannot be metaphysically imposed.

There is much more to say about all of this, of course. I am hoping to provoke Kastrup into a longer discussion, since I agree with William James that the contrast between pluralism and monism is the most pregnant of all the contrasts in philosophy.






19 responses to “The Threat of Panpsychism?: A response to Bernardo Kastrup”

  1. efmooney Avatar

    Thoreau has an interesting ontology: Sites speak or call to us in ways that activate a sympathetic response in the hearer. Sites have a presence, and presence is not a property. Streams lilt, and the lilt (a presence) speaks, eliciting our response (we might respond by singing along) — insofar as we are receptive or listening. “Persons and things” are not objects with or without consciousness but sites of mutually attuned call and response. There is no “pure matter” [though there are things of the earth and sky] and there is no “pure consciousness” [though there are sites of grief and joy and hearing and speaking conventionally allied with persons, and less often (except for the poets) allied with birds, fish, or rocks]. Not exactly James, not exactly Whitehead, not exactly Emerson, definitely not Plato, not Aristotle, not Descartes, not Hobbes.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I dig it. Differences abound. That’s why I prefer to name personal names rather than wave abstract isms around.

  2. ggoldbergmd Avatar

    I do not think it is possible to address the “Panpsychism challenge” without explicit reference to the metaphysics of Charles Sanders Peirce upon which the pluralism of James and the process philosophy of Whitehead may be superimposed. The Peircean metaphysical system as articulated in a series of papers in the Monist in the early 1890’s makes the clearest statement regarding the relationship between mind and matter in the pragmatist understanding and the experiential ‘bottom line’ through which the efficacy of the conceptual becomes manifest. For a very cool approach and overview on Peirce’s ideas on metaphysics, religion, semiotics and meaning, see the highly recommended little book in the Wadsworth series by Cornelis de Waal:


    I don’t think it is possible to fully appreciate the significance of James and Whitehead without explicit reference to Peirce.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I believe you are right on this point. I must read more Peirce.

      1. ggoldbergmd Avatar

        Yes. Read anything you can find on Peircean triadic semiotics. Read articles and books by John Deely. Also, if you are interested in applications in biology and medicine, consider the emerging field of biosemiotics. What we need to form the foundation of a postmodern philosophical system is an operational and pragmatic relational ontology. That is what Peircean semiotics offers. Put Peirce together with Whitehead and you have something quite persuasive: a process-relational systematic philosophical ‘grand vision’ informed by triadic semiotics forming the basis of a relational ontology.

    2. donsalmon Avatar

      G Goldberg – excellent! Close readers of Pierce seem to be, unfortunately, quite few these days (I unfortunately, am one of those not-close-enough readers, but understand enough, I think, to deeply appreciate your response. Thanks!

  3. ashramdiary Avatar

    Your response is excellent in its clarity and in its enlarging the topic beyond responding to the specific argument against panpsychism. Thanks!

  4. donsalmon Avatar

    Great post. I’ve been pleading with Bernardo to take care to familiarize himself more with alternative views before pronouncing on major topics – for example, panpsychism.

    Several of us, on his forum, have been urging him also to look more closely at various forms of non dualism (NOT Advaita Vedanta, which tends more toward monism than non dualism) which actually not just allow but celebrate pluralism (NON dualism does NOT mean monism!!).

    Sri Aurobindo’s “integral nondualism” is particularly celebratory of pluralism and freedom, as can be seen from his view of “spiritual anarchism” in his social-political writings – a tremendous corrective to the pseudo-libertarianism going around these days.

    I agree about Pierce by the way – a wonderful non dualist form of “semi-idealism” – you might also take a peak at Ed kelly’s “Beyond Physicalism” (my review gives a fairly good overview over at Amazon). There’s a chapter on both Pierce and Whitehead, as well as a very interesting concluding essay on “evolutionary panentheism” by Michael Murphy, which you can read for free online (just google his name and the phrase “evolutionary panentheism” – should get you right to it)


  5. donsalmon Avatar

    By the way, if you want to engage Bernardo, please come over to the forum. You’d be a delightful addition to an already very interesting crew:>))

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Hi Don, which Forum is that? Is that the Remember to breathe site ?

      1. donsalmon Avatar

        Hi Matthew (Matt?) David?) Dave?) http://www.bernardokastrup.com – click on forum.

        There’s almost nobody commenting any more on my indian psychology blog, but there may be a few things over there that could interest you: http://www.ipi.org.in; blogs.

        Also, as long as I’m engaged in shameless self-promotion, I have a few articles on an agnostic approach to challenging materialism – particularly “Shaving Science With Ockham’s Razor” – over at http://www.integralworld.net

        Finally, I’m right now in the midst of editing the music for a video we will be putting up later this year at our site, http://www.remember-to-breathe.org

        Stop by at the forum – it would be great to ‘talk’ with you over there. Oh, and I posted your critique of Bernardo’s essay in the comments section to that essay. Will be interesting to see if he responds. He may not, but if you start a new thread on the forum, he’ll definitely see it and probably respond within a week.

  6. donsalmon Avatar

    By the way, I almost went to CIIS – ended up going to a mainstream psych program, but my friend Charles Flores went there – perhaps you ran into him while you were there?

    1. efmooney Avatar

      We’re told, Mind is the only carrier of reality we can ever know. To say that mind and matter are a duality is a mistake of categories. Matter is a conceptual invention of mind. But think of how easily we could reverse these assertions. We could say, Body is the only carrier of reality we can ever know. it’s the bodies of other persons in motion and action, and embodied conversations in books, and conversations between my kid and her dog, that carry the reality I know. Mind is a conceptual invention of a body of philosophy and of embodied speakers in congress with bodies here and there and all over. Mind and matter are both abstractions that very soon do little work at all. We are embodied thinking-imagining-speaking-eating-moving (etc) creatures. Matter is an abstraction useful in 17th Cen. philosophy and physics, as is “mind”. But we are creatures of feelings and thoughts, and actions among networks of others embedded in language and history. We are neither minds nor matter.

      1. donsalmon Avatar

        Excellent response, EF. This is the problem with any form of monism, idealism or materialism. I don’t see anywhere in Bernardo’s response where he addresses this; further, his misrepresentation (misunderstanding) of Whitehead underscores the need for someone untrained in philosophy to take time to listen (not to me, that’s for sure; I’m only a psychologist!) to people who have a much richer philosophic background.

  7. […] was re-reading the dialogue recently (Bernardo’s first post, Matt’s reply, Bernardo’s second post, Matt’s second and third reply) because I keep running into […]

  8. Non-Dual Idealism, or Physics of the World-Soul? – Footnotes2Plato Avatar

    […] when someone shared his blog post “The Threat of Panpsychism: A Warning.” I posted a response, and we were off and running (Bernardo’s response to me, my response to his response). I […]

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