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

Panpsychist Physicalism (continued)

Continuing the discussion about “panpsychist physicalism,” I’m sharing another one of my replies over at The Skeptical Zone (click here to read what I am responding to). 

Thanks for the reply, keiths. Of course, everything depends on what we mean by physicalism. “Scientific materialism” is a phrase I borrow from Whitehead to refer to an outdated sort of physicalism that has not yet fully internalized relativity, quantum, and complexity theories. Despite these 20th century paradigmatic revolutions in physics, most popular accounts of physicalism still describe matter as “stuff” with simple location in space that is fully present at an instant in time and that can be exhaustively explained by reduction to its parts. Following a full reckoning with relativity, quantum, and complexity theories, this view of matter must be entirely rejected. Do we agree so far?

You say there is no evidence of purpose in physics. I would agree that there is nothing like deliberative decision-making of the sort most of us believe human beings are capable of. However, right at the base of physics in what Eddington called “the supreme law among the laws of nature”–namely, entropy–we see that energy displays a clear directionality and thus a form of teleology toward greater global disorder (Stan Salthe makes the case for this sort of interpretation). As complexity theorists studying far from equilibrium systems have argued (e.g., Ilya Prigogine, Eric Smith), this tendency toward global disorder can actually facilitate the local emergence of greater organization (e.g., the temperature gradient between the Sun, deep space, and Earth’s surface leads inevitably to the emergence of life, which dissipates this gradient way more efficiently than would non-living chemistry).

So I challenge the idea that physics shows no evidence of telos. There is plenty of empirical and theoretical evidence for it if it hasn’t been ruled out a priori by a metaphysical distaste for final causation.

The idea that special arrangements of fundamentally purposeless, inert, insentient particles could give rise to even non-conscious feeling, experience, or an inward perspective on the world (i.e., something it is like to be a thing) strikes me as nothing short of a miracle. The idea that such arrangements could give rise to living creatures with conscious intelligence capable of understanding the fundamental nature of the universe strikes me as absolutely absurd. It’s not just that I find these notions incredible, it’s that I have never seen a causal explanation for how this sort of emergence (even if “weak”) might work. I cannot even imagine what such a causal explanation might look like.




6 responses to “Panpsychist Physicalism (continued)”

  1. Sam Mickey Avatar

    Nice Stan Salthe reference! Re: your final point (“I cannot even imagine what such a causal explanation might look like.”), it would look like Lucretius. Not too absurd. De Rerum Natura is one of the greatest works of poetic philosophy, and still relevant to for contemporary thinking. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1g050w8.19?&seq

    1. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

      I’ve been derelict and still haven’t Lucretius. Thanks for the reminder. I’ve been meaning to since Levi Bryant and I got into over similar issues: https://footnotes2plato.com/2013/10/21/the-varieties-of-materialism-matter-as-the-play-of-form/

      1. Sam Mickey Avatar

        I always enjoy Bryant-Segall exchanges. Deleuze likes Lucretius a lot, so the bridge to Whitehead isn’t far off. The clinamen is basically Nietzsche’s eternal return. I like it because it sounds like cinnamon.

  2. Louis Brassard Avatar
    Louis Brassard

    Hard sciences, such as physics is a special type of human narrative about the world. It is not the world. When we speak about the physical world, concepts of energy, and different concept of matter, etc, we are into such narrative about the world, not the world. Shrodinger said:
    ”The material world has only been constructed at the price of taking the self, that is, mind, out of it.”
    And this material world narrative do not exist in the world but in our Minds are all our narrative. So trying to locate ”experience”, ”Mind” and all this into the narrative in our Mind that methodologically has to exclude Mind is really an hopeless business and not understanding what science and objectivity is. It methodologically banish subjectivity. TRying to explain within such methodologically constructed narrative what is the subjectivity actually constructing this narrative is illogical.

  3. davidm58 Avatar

    “The thermodynamic need to specify work implies semiotics, and energy quality is inherently semiotic. Work requires information…” – S.N. Salthe

    Matthew, like Sam Mickey, I also appreciate your Stan Salthe reference (and added my own in the quote above). But instead of recommending you read Lucretius, I have someone else in mind. Tim Winton’s paper on “The Meaning of Planetary Civilization: Integral Rational Spirituality and the Semiotic Universe.”

    Tim attempts to integrate materialist and spiritualist views with “an integral pragmatasist approach, which I refer to as integral Semiotic Realism…” After invoking the “cosmic logic” of C.S. Peirce’s pragmatasist, semiotic naturalism, he has a section (beginning page 31) on “From Panpsychism to Pansemiotism,” where he writes that “the advantage of this type of pansemiotics over Wilber’s Whiteheadian panpsychism is that thought (subjective interiority, psych or ‘mind’) does not need to be carreid down into the physical domain to do duty as a partner to material and efficient causes to explain the self-organizing capacity of an early evolving universe…At the physical level a sign (physical thing/occurence/holon) need not rely on a panpsychic appeal to ‘prehension’ – its significance can be driven by the inquiry of the actions and relations, in the main, of material and efficient causes. If in this last statement you sense a drift into outright materialism, then we need to incorporate a strategy for bringing in formal, and final causes to unite the full Aristotilian quadrat of types of causes so as to avoid the criticism that physiosemiotics is just materialism in disguise…by our rejection of panpsychism, then we will need to find a suitable replacement for its role as a cosmological final cause.”

    Winton then goes into a discussion of Salthe’s ideas around the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics as final cause, but ends up substituting H.T. Odum’s suggested 4th law of Thermodynamics, otherwise known as the Maximum Power Principle – “the evolutionary competition to increase the complexity (quality) of dissipative systems.”

    “Could it not be,” Winton writes, “that the fundamental tendency of the cosmos is to expand a huge amount of energy quantity that will transform into smaller but more complex scalar holarchies of evolving energy quality? …what if the 4th law specifies the habit the cosmos has developed for completing the grand semiotic arch through increasing orders of signification back to its own nondual ground.”

    My own view is a slight variation: I’m seeing the final cause as including both the 2nd law and the 4th law, as a polarity of continual expansion and contraction. At any rate, Winton has identified integral Semiotic Realism as “a thoroughgoing nondual view that associates the intransitive dimension (zone of subsistence) with the underlying oneness-non-local, non-temporal, not-twoness of mind/spirit/idealism v matter/energy/realism – of the singularity that originated our cosmos.”

    Matthew and Sam: I would be very curious to get your take on all of this. I’ll be taking to Tim soon to get his most current and updated cosmological position. Here’s the link to his paper:


    1. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

      Absolutely thrilling! Thank you, David. I’ll give this paper a read as soon as possible and get back to you.

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