“Panpsychism is as old as philosophy itself,” write editors Godehard Brüntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla in their introduction to the anthology Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives. The editors present panpsychism as an alternative to analytic philosophy of the mind. Perhaps for this reason, all the essays in this anthology tend to be rather analytical.
The word “panpsychicism” is—like many words describing Western philosophical concepts—Greek in origin. “Pan” means “throughout” or “everywhere,” whereas “psyche” means soul, consciousness, or mind. Therefore, the term “panpsychism” refers to the idea that consciousness is everywhere, or that “mental being is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the universe.”
Panpsychism includes commentary by 17 authors within 16 essays placed within four subjects: the logical place of panpsychism, the varieties of panpsychic ontologies, panpsychicism and the combination problem (i.e., “How can microphenomenal properties combine to yield macrophenomenal properties?”), and panpsychism and its alternatives. All these essays elaborate on and argue for the thesis that mind, or consciousness, is part of the world; that is, that it exists throughout the universe.
The anthology can be read as a reflection on the current state of this discipline. It’s not an introduction for newcomers; rather, it is aimed at readers with a good knowledge of philosophy and its terminology—from graduate students to philosophy researchers. Or, more precisely, it is a collection of essays that often debate with one another, which can make it a dense reading experience. The tones of the essays swing between humility (most of them) and pretention. For example, David J. Chalmers, who has two excellent essays in this volume, writes, “…I will present an argument for panpsychicism. Like most philosophical arguments, this argument is not entirely conclusive, but I think it gives reason to take the view seriously. Speaking for myself, I am by no means confident that panpsychicism is true, but I am also not confident that it is not true.” Brüntrup simply states, “I am not claiming that a version of panpsychism is true. But I am claiming that it might be.” On the other hand, Strawson writes, “I’ll state the four propositions first in German because I like the way they sound in German … I’m not going to argue for them, but I’ll provide a few glosses.”
In addition to providing an overview of panpsychism, this book provides excellent examples of how to argue logically. It is an interesting field; just imagine this thesis being debated by serious philosophers half a century ago. For anyone remotely interested in consciousness, experience, and subjectivity, this book is required reading.
I will give the reader a few summarizing examples without introducing too much of the complex conceptual framework. Many essays touch upon the concept of “radical emergence,” which states that consciousness emerges out of nothing. Here, proponents of panpsychism make a strong case against this assumption, basically saying that it is scientifically weak to propose that something emerges from nothing. Nihil fit ex nihilo, nothing comes from nothing; this is a thesis that was apparently first presented by Parmenides. The French philosopher Michel Serres has also written about the Roman poet Lucretius, who in De Rerum Natura wrote, “Nothing can be made from nothing – once we see that’s so / Already we are on the way to what we want to know.”
However, the problem with radical emergence is that it does not integrate consciousness in nature. “Many say that experience (consciousness) is a mystery. But what is mysterious?,” asks Strawson. He then clarifies that for him, it is mysterious to suggest that consciousness appears by adding unconscious particles together. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that these particles must have consciousness to begin with. Still, there are disagreements surrounding the idea that everything—from rocks to the Eiffel tower to goats—is conscious.
Another example comes from examining the development of consciousness in a way similar to the examination of the evolutionary development of the human body. Just think of the classic image depicting the evolution from ape to man/woman. The point is that over many years, evolution has worked with the material of the body, gradually developing features such as specialized fingers, including the human thumb, which allows modern humans to text each other. Did something similar happen with consciousness? Was it always there, only to be further and further developed?
A third example is a classical problem that the panpsychists debate: the dualism between the mental and the physical, or to put it even more simply, the mind-body problem. What is the relationship between our bodies and our minds, experiences, and thoughts? If panpsychicism is the best alternative to Cartesian dualism, then this metaphysical approach—that mind is everywhere—eliminates all hierarchies, including the hierarchies between humans and animals and the hierarchies in between humans, whether we speak of gender or race. If even rocks have minds, then perhaps we should show greater care for nature. For far too long, hierarchies—often based on nothing more than ignorance—have justified oppression. Again, think of how women, African-Americans, and homosexuals have suffered.
Panpsychicism has gained a lot of momentum in the last decade, mainly because neuroscience, psychology, biology, philosophy, and physics have failed to solve the riddle of consciousness. I also assume that it has gained popularity due to growing interest in Eastern philosophy, including mindfulness and Buddhism, in which everything is thought to be connected, and consciousness is seen as a sixth sense that allows us to experience this interconnectivity. Thus, to simply restate the argument, panpsychists do not believe that consciousness is created in the brain; instead, as the definition says, they argue that consciousness is everywhere. By “everywhere,” many of the theorists mean that consciousness is present in everything, from the tinniest particle (i.e., micro-consciousness) to human beings and animals (macro-consciousness).
As the editors correctly say, this anthology “focuses on the philosophical—strictly speaking metaphysical—arguments that have evolved from panpsychicism.” It is the foundations of panpsychism that are debated within this anthology.
Let me end with a quote from The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, who writes, “Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling or certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.”
While reading this anthology, I came to think of Russell’s comment about enlarging our thoughts and keeping our senses alive. I think this anthology succeeds in doing exactly that.
Review published in Metapsychology, Jun 29th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 26).