Panpsychism in the West

ConsciousnessPanpsychism in the West

David Skrbina

Skrbina defines panpsychsim as the belief that all things have a mind-like quality. This appears to have been the dominant view in pre-historical times, in the form of animism. He tries to make a distinction between animism, in which he claims the spirits of objects, trees etc. appear as human-like rational agents, in contrast to the later and more sophisticated philosophical panpsychism. This is in turn contrasted with the modern western idea of a mechanical and mindless universe. His definition of panpsychism specifies that objects have experiences for themselves, with mind-like qualities that are inherent to the object. There seems to be a necessity to define what comprises an object that can have such an internal experience. This is left rather vague as ‘a particular configuration of mass energy’.

The Greeks:  Skrbina looks at the earliest Greek ideas relative to panpsychism. No distinction seems to have been made between consciousness/soul and mind. With thinkers such as Thales, there is a close connection between the idea of being capable of movement and the idea of mind. Everything was thought to possess the movement/life/consciousness to some degree. Pythagoras appears to have held that mind was present and active throughout the whole universe, and that human minds were part of this. Parmenides seems to have had a rather dissenting view. For him only Being exists, and thought is an aspect of Being. Being has thought and is thought. In contrast to much of Greek thinking, Parmenides did not view motion as a central characteristic. The appearance of change was for him an illusion. In contrast to Parmenides, Heraclitus viewed change and motion as the essential reality.

For Democritus, most atoms were without feeling, except for a special type of spherical atom. However, these spherical soul atoms are not confined to people or even animals, but could crop up anywhere. Later Epicurus argued that will could not emerge from non-will, and as humans clearly had non-will, will must exist in ordinary matter. He also added a refinement to to the atomist idea. Much of an atom’s behaviour was thought to be deterministic as either their downward weight or collisions with other matter, but a small amount of freewill was introduced into the behaviour of the atoms. Small freewill actions on the part of the atoms could lead to a chaos theory-type cascade, and thence the formation of complex objects.

With Plato, the idea of individual objects having soul tended to be dropped in favour of a world-soul, although humans were allowed to retain an individual soul. Something in the nature of both cosmos and humans allowed them a soul, as distinct from rocks etc., which had no soul. The concept of soul was closely related to the concept of mind. The idea that the capacity for motion is significant in relation to consciousness also persists. The soul of the cosmos is related to its ordering or the movement of the elements. Here, soul is seen as the source of motion. Plato describes three types of soul, reason, spirit and appetite, which raises the question of the soul’s causal powers.

At later stages and with the rise of Christianity, it became common to think that the world was comprised of more than one substance. In Christianity, the soul was distinct from both the body and the material world. Christ told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, and promised his followers a near-term escape into the Kingdom of God. The material world was not of long-term interest, and this looks to have paved the way for the modern concept of a dead universe and ultimately a dead brain. Descartes reinforced this view with his distinction between matter and mind. In the generations after Descartes, the now dominant modern view of the universe came to the fore, as a mechanism comprised of inert matter organising itself into complex systems.

Early modern:  The Middle Ages was a fallow period for panpsychism, which, reactivated somewhat with the Renaissance. Bruno was an atomist with the idea of ultimately small elements, referred to as atoms or monads. It is not clear, however, whether or not large scale objects can be monads. Bruno saw matter as having two modes, power and subjectivity. With Kepler an important distinction emerges. Because it was discovered that gravity decreases regularly in proportion to distance, he assumed this force must be physical rather than supernatural in origin.

Moving onto the seventeenth century, there was a tension between a mechanistic world view and attempts to retain the soul. The philosopher, Henry More, suggested an intermediary ‘Spirit of Nature’, which animates all matter on God’s behalf. Spinoza could also be argued to have adopted a compromise position. All of reality has a single substance which is God, who can be referred to as Nature, and this would include human mental states. Physical and mental events seem to proceed in parallel, both being attributes of God. There is no causal connection between the two streams. Spinoza also advanced the idea that a stone thrown through the air is like a human motion. It is suggested that the stone is thinking that it is striving to move, and believes it has freely chosen to do this because it wants to. This delusion is compared to the human notion of freewill, and sets us on the road to the modern non-will consensus.

Skrbina views Leibniz as attributing souls to all things with individual unity. Such objects are widespread, but seemingly not clearly defined. The soul is a point in space, something to do with the true unities of underlying reality. It seems that atoms or monads have something like sensation/perception and appetite. In fact, these last two are their primary features. Each monad is seen as having its own perspective on the universe. Perceptions are the states that monads pass through. The appetites or desires of the monads bring about the change or motion from one perception to another. This seems to imply a causal role for the conscious monads.

Leibniz faced the ‘combination problem’ of how point-like entities can produce the soul. His discussion revolves round two concepts, the aggregate and the dominant monad. Leibniz emphasised the distinction between aggregates of monads and collections of such monads that embodied wholeness or unity. Aggregates were loosely organised like collections of stones or herds of animals. Some aggregates looked unified like stones or rocks. Integrated objects with real unity seem to be mainly life forms. Unity is realised by the dominant monad. Amongst the many monads in the body of a human, one of them somehow emerges as the dominant monad or soul.

Diderot talks of desire and aversion in both particles and large animals. A distinction is made between a passive sensitivity in inanimate matter and an active one in organic matter. He solves the combination problem with a more modern-sounding interactive relation between the particles.

Gustav Fechner envisages a heirarchy of souls, with plant souls below humans, and other souls such as the Earth and the stars above us, with an additional soul for the universe as a whole. His view of the Earth as a conscious entity foreshadowed the modern Gaia idea. Fechner’s argument for these various levels of soul in matter was again that souls could not arise from inert matter.

Paulsen was another advocate of panpsychism. He argued that there was no difference between organic and inorganic matter. Biology and chemistry had demonstrated that by this stage in the nineteenth century. His solution was parallelism where the causal chain of physical events and the causal chain of mental events proceeded separately.

Samuel Butler, also argued for panpsychism. He noted that organic and inorganic matter were the same, and governed by the same forces. He therefore argued that core characteristics of living matter must also be present in organic matter, and governed by the same forces. He thought it better to start with molecules as living things than to start with inanimate molecules and try to smuggle in consciousness later on.

William James suggested that ‘higher order’ consciousness was composed of atomic mental entities. This was related to the new theory of evolution where complex organisms could evolve from simpler ones, and therefore it seemed plausible that complex psychical entities could also evolve from simpler ones. The problem of how the atomic mental entities would combine into a single mind proved insurmountable for William James. Later he moved to the idea of every cell in the brain having its own consciousness.

Whitehead conceived the idea of a distinct physical and mental pole. The physical pole is in time and the mental pole out of time. All realities are events and all events have both physical and mental aspects. Mental operations were seen as constituting part of nature. Entities are understood in terms of the way they are interwoven with the universe. Russel similarly thought that events were the primary reality and that mind and matter were both constructed from events. Bernard Rensch, the biologist, argued that evolution was gapless, and therefore  there was no reason for consciousness to emerge at a particular point. Therefore mind had to have been there at the beginning in mind-like complexes of energy that make up matter. Modern consciousness theory generally favours the idea that consciousness emerges at some level of complexity. However, the difficulty with specifying the mechanism of this emergence is seen as a kind of negative argument for panpsychism.

Comment:  Several problems haunt panpsychism. First is the distinction between ‘strong panpsychism’ where rocks etc. are conscious, as against ‘weak panpsychism’ where consciousness seems to be confined to organisms. Second the question of the level at which the panpsychic entity is located. For some it is atoms, molecules or undefined ultimates, but it may also be located in macroscopic objects, biological cells or whole humans. The ‘combination problem’ is another stumbling block with the question of how we get from from conscious atoms or whatever to humans. There is a further question of whether larger entities such as planets are conscious, whether the universe as a whole is conscious and whether this is something different from the concept of God. Finally, there is the issue of causality. Can the small conscious entities have any causal influence. Mention of appetite and desire appears in quite a few panpsychist theories suggesting that this is seen as a possible concept.






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