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 “Scientific materialism” is a phrase I borrow from Whitehead to refer to an outdated sort of physicalism that has not yet fully internalized relativity, quantum, and complexity theories.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.
Physicalism is the idea that the universe is fundamentally composed of entirely blind, deaf, dumb–DEAD–particles in purposeless motion through empty space. For some reason, these dumb particles follow the orders of a system of eternal mathematical laws that, for some reason, the human mind, itself made of nothing more than dumb particles, is capable of comprehending.
If you accept this definition of physicalism and this rendering of the project of natural science, and if you avoid the question of the transcendental conditions of physics, then a coherent non-dualistic physicalist ontology requires that what we call “life” and “consciousness” both be explained away as mere appearances reducible to the mechanical collisions of particles. On this definition of physicalism, “life” and “consciousness” are just words we have for epiphenomenal illusions with no causal influence on what happens. “Life” is a genetic algorithm and “consciousness” is a meme machine, in Dawkins’ and Dennett’s terms. We are undead zombies, not living persons, on this reading of physicalism.
On the other hand, if you see consciousness and life as realities that are impossible to deny and that are in need of explanation *on their own terms*, either as emergent holistic processes with downward causative influence or as intrinsic capacities of phusis itself (my view), then clearly modern physicalism (or what Whitehead calls “scientific materialism”) must be mistaken.
If consciousness and life are not mere illusions with no hand in what happens but active participants shaping the evolutionary journey of the universe, then “physical stuff” like molecules and atoms, stars and galaxies, is not at all what the modern mind has been imagining for several centuries. Matter is not a heap of extensional lumps floating in homogeneous reversible time. That idea of dead matter has always been an idealistic abstraction. Concrete actually existing matter is infinite energy caught in a creative process of spatiotemporal evolution. This energetic expression is experiential through and through, and our special human form of conscious experience is just one of the universe’s many forms of spatiotemporal affection.
An organic realism would suggest that some processes within rocks do have varying degrees of agency. Crystallization is telic. Atoms are self-organizing ecopoietic agents. The periodic table of elements is a taxonomic hierarchy that sorts different species of living organism.
What turns aggregation into agency? I guess we call that “soul” or “psyche,” “life” or “consciousness.” But what is it and where does it come from? Is it really just an illusion (=Dennett)? Does it somehow “emerge” out of non-living matter (=Deacon)?
Or, is soul active cosmically from the get go? Is space-time/matter-energy intrinsically experiential? Is cosmic becoming concernful? Is the universe aesthetically invested in what comes next?
If not, if no soul holds the cosmos whole, then what are our alternatives for resisting exposure to randomness, that is, to vain meaninglessness? Can we make meaning of a story about the emergence of mind from matter? I mean, can we derive our sense of purpose from the idea that birth was the absolute beginning and death the absolute end of what I call me myself? Can we see the human being as a civilized creature, a rational animal, if we also believe that our mind is ultimately nothing more than an aggregation of cells? Plenty have tried. Here is an excerpt from Nabokov’s poem Pale Fire (recently featured in Blade Runner 2049; http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/palefirepoem.html):
The Crashaw Club had paid me to discuss
Why Poetry Is Meaningful To Us.
I gave my sermon, a full thing but short.
As I was leaving in some haste, to thwart
The so-called “question period” at the end,
One of those peevish people who attend
Such talks only to say they disagree
Stood up and pointed his pipe at me.
And then it happened–the attack, the trance,
Or one of my old fits. There sat by chance
A doctor in the front row. At his feet
Patly I fell. My heart had stopped to beat,
It seems, and several moments passed before
It heaved and went on trudging to a more
Conclusive destination. Give me now
Your full attention.
I can’t tell you how I knew–but I did know that I had crossed
The border. Everything I loved was lost
But no aorta could report regret.
A sun of rubber was convulsed and set;
And blood-black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
I realized, of course, that it was made
Not of our atoms; that the sense behind
The scene was not our sense. In life, the mind
Of any man is quick to recognize
Natural shams, and then before his eyes
The reed becomes a bird, the knobby twig
An inchworm, and the cobra head, a big
Wickedly folded moth. But in the case
Of my white fountain what it did replace
Perceptually was something that, I felt,
Could be grasped only by whoever dwelt
In the strange world where I was a mere stray.
And presently I saw it melt away:
Though still unconscious, I was back on earth.
The tale I told provoked my doctor’s mirth.
He doubted very much that in the state
He found me in “one could hallucinate
Or dream in any sense. Later, perhaps,
but not during the actual collapse.
No, Mr. Shade.”
“But, Doctor, I was dead!
He smiled. “Not quite: just half a shade,” he said.
Ecclesiastes tells another story. Yes, from dust we come and to dust we shall return. And yet, so the story goes, those who love God walk a path that leads beyond this world:
“For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.
Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth? I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?”
Panpsychism is an alternative to materialism, emergentism, and traditional theism. It sees life running up and down this world from top to bottom. It grants spiritual dignity to all beings, not just humans, not just God, not even just animals, plants, and cells, but to planets, stars, and galaxies, to protons and electrons. It roots meaning-making at a cosmic level, rather than limiting meaning to humanity, or to the sense-making of biological organisms. None of which is to say that panpsychism makes everything everything. It isn’t panpanism. There is a complex hierarchy, a differentiated holarchy (Koestler), a cosmic tree with roots, trunk, branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds. And all of it is sensitive in degrees.
Thanks to Adrian Nelson for hosting this conversation on his YouTube channel Waking Cosmos.
I posted Neil Theise’s video “Complexity Theory & Panpsychism” on FaceBook last week, and Corey Anton posted a response criticizing panpsychism and defending his own emergentist perspective. Their videos are below. Corey and I have gone back and forth on this issue a number of times over the years. I posted a set of responses to Corey, also below. Much of what I discuss is further unpacked in my monograph Physics of the World-Soul.