Panpsychism: a brief reply to Massimo Pigliucci

 The Side View recently published an essay by Massimo Pigliucci titled “The Stoic God is Untenable in Light of Modern Science.” Pigliucci is entering into a critical dialogue with a few other Side View authors, Brittany Polat and Kai Whiting, about how best to inherit from ancient Stoic philosophy.  I don’t have a horse in the contemporary interpretations of Stoicism race, but I have written a lot about the need for a new kind of dialogue between what modern people call science and religion, arguing for their potential compatibility (so long as the twin dogmatisms of scientism and creationism are avoided). Rather than getting into the proper way to understand Stoicism, this post is a brief response to what Pigliucci wrote about panpsychism and organic cosmology.

In his Side View essay, Pigliucci writes:

the notion of the cosmos as a living organism, which held pretty well until roughly the 17th century, is not tenable in the face of everything that modern science—both physics and biology—has discovered so far.

Physics of the World Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology is an extended argument that organic realism is not only tenable in the face of recent discoveries in physics and biology, but that these discoveries are themselves the best evidence we could ask for in support of such a view. There’s plenty that needs updating in ancient cosmology, of course. But there’s also plenty that has turned out to be wrong in the modern mechanistic view of nature.

The mechanistic approach has been far more fertile, scientifically speaking, than the organismal paradigm, and as modern thinkers we should recognize that fact and its implications.

I’d challenge the alleged “fertility” of the mechanistic worldview. Sure, it has generated powerful new technologies and granted human beings the power to literally transform the geology and climate of the planet. But what would it mean to recognize this fact and its implications? Given the ecological catastrophe that continues to unfold under this worldview’s watch, I am inclined to believe that the mechanistic cosmology is the opposite of fertile. It is literally deadly. It reflects a complete failure on the part of moderns to adequately think about or relate to natural processes. We have imposed this faulty model on the Earth for several centuries now. Mass extinction and climate change are the most pronounced results of all our efforts. Mechanistic materialism doesn’t just make us feel bad about ourselves. It is literally killing us and much of the rest of life on Earth.

Despite its instrumental power, Pigliucci goes on to admit that contemporary science no longer has any use for the old mechanistic model of the cosmos. This may be true, but since no new alternative has yet taken root in the scientific imagination, the tendency is always to slip back into using the mechanistic metaphor for natural processes.

Pigliucci then acknowledges the recent panpsychist turn in academic philosophy, only to dismiss it:

Panpsychism comes in a variety of ways, but it is essentially the idea that consciousness is an elemental property of the world, rather than one that evolved by natural selection in a specific group of organisms known as “Animalia” (which, of course, includes us). But panpsychism has been blasted on both philosophical and scientific grounds, so I don’t think it is a tenable view.

In this last excerpt, he links to a post on his own blog, a post on Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog (which I responded to several months ago), and to an article in The Atlantic by philosopher Keith Frankish as examples of the blasting. There were some reactions on Twitter:

I am not sure whether Dr. Sjöstedt-H plans to post a detailed response to Pigliucci’s dismissal of panpsychism. He’s already published a short essay criticizing physicalism for The Side View.

In Pigliucci’s blog post on panpsychism (coincidently, his blog shares its name with mine), he refers to the doctrine as a “bizarre notion,” a “weird throwback to the (not so good) old times of vitalism,” and “an argument from ignorance” (since surely science will soon be able to explain how consciousness emerges from matter in motion). He goes on to offer rebuttals of two common arguments in favor of panpsychism, which are 1) the genetic argument (i.e., if consciousness exists today in some animals, it must have been present in some form before animals emerged) and 2) the intrinsic nature argument (i.e., physical science only studies material processes in terms of their abstract formal structure, and tells us nothing about their intrinsic nature). 

Pigliucci attempts to do away with the genetic argument by way of an ab absurdo rebuttal: if it is true that “from nothing, nothing comes,” then, he says, not only will science never be able to explain the emergence of consciousness, it will never be able to explain the emergence of life, the universe or  the laws which govern it. Only crazy creationists could believe such nonsense, am I right?!

I am not so sure… If by “science” Pigliucci means materialism, then no, there is no way to explain consciousness, life, or an apparently law-abiding cosmos. If by “science” we mean not a metaphysical commitment to materialism but an open-ended rational and empirical inquiry into the processes and relationships shaping the world we experience and inhabit, then I have no doubt science (with help from philosophy) can make progress on these deep questions.

In trying to sort through the place of consciousness in the evolution of living organisms, materialism leaves us with two options: either 1) consciousness is epiphenomenal and plays no causal role in the behavior of organisms, or 2) consciousness is emergent and has some effect on the behavior of the organisms that possess it. It is clear enough to me that we can dismiss option 1, because if consciousness plays no causal role then there is nothing for natural selection to have selected for and thus it simply should not exist. I admit consciousness could be a mere spandrel, but this seems exceedingly unlikely. Since Pigliucci affirms determinism, he may still hold to some version of option 1. Even if consciousness is epiphenomenal, or some kind of “user illusion” as Daniel Dennett has argued, we are still left with the same problem as those who choose option 2, since the emergence of even an illusion of consciousness still needs to be explained.

The problem with option 2 is that, so far as I know, neurobiologists have yet to suggest a coherent mechanism or frame a testable hypothesis that might explain how inert matter in motion generates agential mind or emotion. There’s a lot of handwaving about “emergence.” Maybe scientists just need more time to study brain tissue, but I argue the materialist “I.O.U” approach results from an ontological confusion and that no amount of research funding will ever allow us to solve the “mind from matter” problem. This is not just a “hard problem,” as David Chalmers has argued; it is an impossible problem. The solution must be metaphysical, not scientific. Which is to say, we need to unask the question “How does mind emerge from matter?” and instead re-imagine what we thought we meant by “matter” and by “mind.” We need to become critical of what Whitehead called modern science’s bifurcation of nature and go back to the ontological drawing board to construct less abstract categories that better describe and elucidate our experience of ourselves in nature. This is precisely what Whitehead attempts to do in Process & Reality and other texts.

The version of panpsychism I have extracted from Whitehead does not suggest that “consciousness” has been present since the beginning of evolution, if by “consciousness” we mean conscious self-reflection or self-awareness. Perhaps “panexperientialism” is thus a better term than “panpsychism” (as the Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin has suggested). Rather than consciousness, some modicum of non-conscious experience, of “feeling” and “aim,” is what has been present in all physical organization from the beginning of cosmogenesis. As the physical organization sheltering these experients grew more complex, the quality of their experience, of their feelings and aims, grew more intense. But there is no ontological gap separating the experiential from the physical aspects of such organization. In Whitehead’s terms, what we call the “physical” aspect of nature is really just an already perished experience, “nature natured”/”Natura naturata,” if you will. And what we call the “experiential” aspect is “nature naturing”/Natura Naturans, that is, nature in the moment of its becoming. In Whitehead’s process-relational ontology, the physical and the mental are two poles of the same creative process. This is not vitalism, since vitalism assumes a dead material stuff but adds on some sort of spiritual vital force that pushes it around. There is no dead matter or spiritual force in Whitehead’s ontology. There is only the becoming and the perishing of actual occasions of experience.

Whitehead was as shocked as anyone when the relativistic and quantum revolutions destroyed the old materialist dogmas. His process-relational organic realism is his attempt to provide contemporary physics and biology with a new, more adequate ontology. This is its primary merit. In his blog post, Pigliucci expresses scorn for those who would choose panpsychism for another reason: because it makes us feel good and helps us take better care of nature:

Yes, we do need to take care of our own puny piece of Nature that we call Earth, for our own sake, if nothing else. But we can do that quite independently of either Cartesian dualism or New Age panpsychism. We can do it as material creatures endowed by evolution with the ability to reflect on what they are doing and decide whether it’s a good idea to do it.

While I think some sort connection exists between one’s ethics and one’s metaphysics, I accept that different ontologies may still inspire similar ethical stances. But pray tell: what does it mean to be “material” once science has rejected the mechanical model as inadequate? Is it anything more than “whatever the most advance science says it is?” Further, how exactly did the motion of unconscious, purposeless particles give rise to the power of conscious self-reflection, deliberate action, and moral reasoning? I’m a committed naturalist when it comes to understanding the place of consciousness in the cosmos. To me, this means our scientific conception of what nature is must leave room for the possibility of us having such knowledge of it. It seems to me that Pigliucci has some kind of unacknowledged God-trick up his sleeve when he deploys phrases like “…endowed by evolution…” in an effort to explain where we came from. Do not mistake my meaning. I do not doubt the fact of evolution. I doubt that evolution makes any sense in a materialist context. In Whitehead’s words:

“In truth, a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy is inconsistent with materialism. The aboriginal stuff, or material, from which a materialistic philosophy starts is incapable of evolution. This material is in itself the ultimate substance. Evolution, on the materialistic theory, is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of the external relations between portions of matter. There is nothing to evolve, because one set of external relations is as good as any other set of external relations. There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive. But the whole point of the modern doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms. The doctrine thus cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental for nature.”

Elsewhere in Science and the Modern World, Whitehead reminds us of modern science’s theological presuppositions. Three hundred and fifty years ago, modern science liberated itself from the Scholastic metaphysics of the Church by employing a new dualistic epistemology and a new mechanistic model of nature. But these early scientists recognized that the power of their new view of nature could not be secured without a God-trick: “Nature is efficient causes all the way down, an exchange of blind forces between particles,” they declared.  “And all of nature has been rationally designed down to the smallest detail by God, our omnipotent and omniscient Creator, and, lucky for us, God is also omnibenevolent and so shaped our souls so as to give us the capacity to know how to measure and calculate every bit of it.”

While most late modern scientists have jettisoned the theological language of their early modern fathers, it is not clear to me that they’ve avoided making the same old God-trick under another name. The point isn’t to get rid of God-talk, but to be as explicit as we can be about the role that “God” inevitably plays in our metaphysical speculations, whether materialist, idealist, dualist, or panpsychist. One way or another every school of thought must make reference to some absolute or ultimate being in terms of which all relative or finite beings are to be understood: “dead matter,” “great spirit,” “substance,” “process,” etc. If you’d prefer not to call it “God,” that’s fine with me. But if you’re going to do metaphysics at all (materialist or otherwise), you’re going to need to call this ultimate being something. If there is a “good” and we are capable of deciding to affirm it, what does this mean about the evolutionary process that created us?