Today’s topic is panpsychism, which is a theory in the philosophy of mind that deals with the nature of consciousness. In short, a person who holds to the truth of panpsychism is proposing, as a potential path toward solving the hard problem of consciousness, the notion that every piece of matter in existence possesses some modicum of consciousness. A conscious experience is something that happens at different scales and to different extents for certain collections of matter. The panpsychist would hold that an atom possesses a quantity of consciousness, as does a rock, a person, and a building.
If you’ve not read much into the philosophy of mind (and even if you have, depending on your intuitions), this might seem at first like a lot of nonsense. And furthermore, if you’ve been following along with this series—and so have a fair grasp of my naturalistic, phenomenological, pragmatic, and compromise-suffused personal philosophy—then you are probably going to be surprised by what I say next: I think panpsychism is a good theory. And, much like 19th-century philosopher William Kingdon Clifford, I think that anyone holding to the truth of evolutionary biology (as I clearly am) ought to think panpsychism is a good theory.
Still, I am fairly certain that panpsychism is one of the most misleading and self-damaging philosophical theories of which I am aware. It commonly finds allies in forms of baseless mysticism that it would do better to distance itself from; its name sounds like something out of a new age self-help pamphlet; and its use of the term ‘consciousness’ is in some important ways misleading, as explored below. So why on earth would I think that this messy, mystical, confusing philosophy is a good theory that is consistent with biological science?
Simply put, I think panpsychism is a good theory of consciousness because of the conspicuous apparent alignment between complex consciousness and evolved intelligence, and because of its intuitive analogy to other physical concepts like electricity.
Humanity’s Current Knowledge of Consciousness:
To begin this discussion, I would like to present the following contextual lines from “What is it like to be a bat?” I think the words of Thomas Nagel from that seminal essay in the modern philosophy of mind will substantially temper any perceived boldness about the claims that follow it:
If we acknowledge that a physical theory of mind must account for the subjective character of experience, we must admit that no presently available conception gives us a clue how this could be done. The problem is unique. If mental processes are indeed physical processes, then there is something it is like, intrinsically, to undergo certain physical processes. What it is for such a thing to be the case remains a mystery. [. . .] At the present time the status of physicalism [(the hypothesis that mental states are reducible to physical states)] is similar to that which the hypothesis that matter is energy would have had if uttered by a pre-Socratic philosopher. (Nagel)
This is an absolutely fundamental notion to bear in mind. Consciousness simply remains an area of philosophical and scientific inquiry that is extremely far from the kind of robust, nuanced, naturalistic account that those fields have come to provide for subjects such as electromagnetism, gravity, and genetics. As much as my personal sympathies may incline toward reductive and physicalist theories of mind (i.e. that mind and brain are interchangeable words), it must be acknowledged by any earnestly objective modern observer that there are qualities of mind (in particular, those relating to the first-person experiential component) which are not fully captured by our current understanding of the workings of the brain.
Notice that Nagel is not saying that physicalism is necessarily false, nor that it is true. His essay is simply a critique of contemporary expressions of physicalism:
It would be a mistake to conclude that physicalism must be false. Nothing is proved by the inadequacy of physicalist hypotheses that assume a faulty objective analysis of mind. It would be truer to say that physicalism is a position we cannot understand because we do not at present have any conception of how it might be true. (Nagel)
He is instead discussing how very far humanity currently stands from being able to distinguish whether physicalism is true in any definitive way. He is asking the participants in the discussion to take a massive step back and take a clear look at the problem: “Very little work has been done on the basic question [. . .] whether any sense can be made of experiences having an objective character at all. Does it make sense, in other words, to ask what my experiences are really like, as opposed to how they appear to me?” (Nagel). The task at hand is not to account for the workings of the brain; nor to describe causal relationships between conscious mental states and physical actions or behaviors; nor even how different chemical processes in the brain correspond to different mental experiences.
The actual philosophical task is considerably harder, and has two parts: first, if even possible, to provide a precise analytical description and definition of the subjective, first-person experience of consciousness (ideally one which is as useful for considering other animals as it is for considering humans), and then, second, to provide a philosophy of mind which adequately and compellingly accounts for the existence and nature of that subjective, first-person experience.
One of the clearest voices and most careful articulators in the modern philosophy of mind is David Chalmers. As with Chalmers’ response to what John Searle says about a materialist conception of consciousness in this video, even a full understanding of the mechanical functioning of the brain would not necessarily result in a full understanding of how it relates to consciousness. This problem to be solved, of how the physical parts of the brain provide us with a subjective first-person experience, is what is known as the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ (a refreshingly straightforward name for a philosophical concept).
There is an obvious correlation between seeing a red object and experiencing the color red—and it is a correlation so consistent that the production of that aspect of consciousness by the brain upon encountering such an object is an unquestioned phenomenon for most people—but that causation is going to be a hell of a thing to prove step-by-step. Why the arrangement of matter that corresponds to intelligence in a brain also corresponds to subjectivity (rather than, say, seeing a red object and processing that information with no ‘experience of seeing red’ to go with it, like a p-zombie) is indeed a very difficult notion to explain.
To prime you for the sections that follow, I would like to close this section by pointing out that panpsychism does not, on its own, solve the hard problem of consciousness described above. It is, instead, a model of consciousness which I see as having significant overlap with physicalism (although not holding that consciousness is literally conceptually identical to the brain) and also providing a more useful framework for future efforts to solve the hard problem.
On my conception of panpsychism, it would be incorrect to say that consciousness is a part of a person, like an organ, nor that consciousness is possessed by a person, like an article of clothing; rather, the correct way of putting panpsychism, to me, would be that consciousness is a non-visible physical quality of a person, like a person’s mass or temperature. Whether consciousness will one day be as trivially measurable as those other qualities is something I simply do not know.
Panpsychism and Evolutionary Biology:
A very important note right at the outset of this section is that I am not saying that consciousness is separate from the brain. It is clear that we have myriad pieces of physical evidence to suggest that consciousness is something that a body has or does. Everything from people with impaired or damaged eyes lacking first-person visual perceptions to brain injuries impeding cognitive abilities to the correlation among thoughts, intentions, desires, and physical actions—are all clear and present pieces of evidence that one’s consciousness is not separate from a person’s physical body. Panpsychism is distinct from dualism. Now then:
In the history of the evolution of humanity, it is fair to say that there must have been many ancestors who lacked the sort of multifaceted, nuanced experience of reality possessed by modern humanity. Even if one is a particularly broad-minded panpsychist, one would still likely grant the notion that the “minds” of primordial prokaryotes are unlikely to have had the experiential and emotional depth of humans—if they even had recognizable experiential content at all.
But now imagine that one were to ask the question, “When did complex consciousness get into human ancestry?” In theory, folks who wish to give a concrete and specific answer to that question could bicker about it endlessly: perhaps one thinks that an early pre-primate mammal species such as plesiadapis or archicebus is a likely candidate; another thinks a catarrhine may be correct; another thinks it didn’t occur until after human ancestors split off from the ancestors of their closest living relatives after the age of nakalipithecus; another thinks the tool-using homo habilis is a promising answer; and still another refuses to accept any answer earlier than anatomically modern homo sapiens.
All that these hypothetical bickering biologists would be accomplishing is a live demonstration of a general point: that complex consciousness is not something that sprung up suddenly, maximally complex, in the minds of us or one of our ancestors between one generation and the next. Instead, its development seemingly parallels evolution. Complexity in the manifestations of consciousness developed alongside other forms of biological complexity which provided advantageous conditions for survival and procreation in given environments.
If that is the case, then it follows that our simpler ancestors (more mechanically simple, that is) had simpler consciousness. And the simpler ancestors of those ancestors, simpler still. But notice, now, that for any of those ancestors—the same exercise as above can be attempted and demonstrated as futile regarding finding the point at which their level of conscious complexity arose among their ancestors. And this trend could be continued right down the line of ancestry, all the way back to its extremity: single-celled organisms; and before that, imperfectly-self-replicating, technically-non-living things; and before that, basic physically interactive chemical matter.
In this partial history of the universe, where did the consciousness hop on? I would contend that it makes the most sense to conclude that it didn’t. It was always there, in some form. Thus, it was (and is) a quality of matter that only does interesting things when that matter is in certain arrangements. On this version of panpsychism, one is not arguing that a rock has a first-person perspective and emotions—only that a rock also has whatever quality of matter it is which, in the right arrangement (such as the arrangement in a higher mammal) produces a first-person perspective and emotions.
After all, if one were to look at a computer, and then at a lump of ore, and say that these both have a substance within them called ‘metal,’ it would be a ludicrous objection to say to that person, “But your lump of ore can not run an operating system; how can it also have metal?”
Being a physically interactive, fundamental attribute of matter, however, is quite different than being a palpably identifiable category of matter such as ‘metal.’ Rather, asking what consciousness looks like, or requesting that someone should indicate where it is in the body—is something akin, on this picture, to asking what gravity looks like. Just like with gravity, all we can say is, “We can clearly observe its effects as an aspect of physical reality, but the question of how it looks is a meaningless one.”
Similar to the spectrum of consciousness’ complexity across the historical evolutionary line of a modern species sketched above, it would be possible to map a rough, imprecise spectrum of mental complexity along which all currently living species could be vaguely categorized. At one end, various primate species including humans would share space with many other mammals and perhaps certain cephalopods. At the other end, perhaps you would find most modern species of prokaryotes and some invertebrates.
I include mention of this latter spectrum simply to share my (hopefully sympathetic) inclination that, at some low level—perhaps when moving down beyond where most fish and insects reside on this spectrum, or perhaps elsewhere—it is no longer useful to the conversation to be using the word ‘consciousness.’ Even if technically we are speaking of the rudiments of the same quality, its behavior is so simplified and so abstracted from the complex consciousness of a human being that it is an explanatory nightmare to carry on calling it consciousness, ultimately doing more to confuse the conversation than to advance it.
And the word ‘consciousness’ being used to describe this quality becomes even less helpful when you get out of animal life and into the realms of plant life and inanimate matter. This is why William Kingdon Clifford preferred to refer to it as “mind-stuff.” Thus, even though it’s true that panpsychists are arguing that everything has consciousness, it’s also important to notice they’re arguing that only certain arrangements of matter (seemingly the same arrangements that produce intelligence) are accompanied by the familiar complex expression of consciousness.
Panpsychism by Analogy to Electricity:
To solidify and potentially further clarify the depiction of panpsychism I have presented in this article, I would like to briefly discuss the most useful analogy I have found for explaining the concept to folks who have never had any previous exposure to it: the analogy of panpsychist consciousness to electricity.
Think for a moment about the nature of electricity. Electricity is the name we give to the existence and movement of charged particles in accordance with the electromagnetic force. It has been in the world as long as the world has been. Yet only extremely recently, in the 1800s, did the science of electromagnetism (born in that century from the distinct studies of electricity and magnetism) advance far enough to allow for the explosion of inventions whereby electricity has been harnessed to run a staggering proportion of the tools with which we live, work, and play daily.
Electricity was already out there in the world, existing and happening. But only within certain arrangements of matter can electricity do things which are interesting and useful to human beings. My take on panpsychism is that consciousness is similar. It is out there in the world everywhere and it always has been, but only in certain arrangements of matter does it seem to really do anything.
Note, also, that evolution itself did not suffer from the impediment of the slow accumulation of scientific knowledge in the case of electricity either. Beings have been internally making use of electrical signals for at least as long as nervous systems have been sending signals to (and receiving signals from) other areas of living bodies. It was always there as a possible physical phenomenon, and the millennia across which evolution has occurred were sufficiently massive in duration for it to become a biological mechanism.
Does this raise a hope that in some distant future, humanity will learn to harness consciousness and make it significantly utile (as has been done with other previously enigmatic concepts like gravity and electricity)? Not really, but only because I am wary of making strong predictions on subjects about which we know so very little.
It is, of course, not a perfect analogy. Electricity is a measureable movement of known physical particles, and it can even be frequently seen by the naked eye: in static shocks, electric welding operations, and lightning strikes. But this section will hopefully help some people to see my point before the analogy inevitably breaks.
By its very nature, even the mere title of this post is likely to annoy two very different groups of people. On the one hand, there are the folks that have an allegiance to science, and who abhor as some form of mysticism the notion of panpsychism (with its admittedly mystical-sounding name). On the other hand, there are the folks that have an allegiance to philosophy, and who abhor attempts to combine it or incorporate it with scientific knowledge and practices (the contingent of the population most likely to use the term ‘scientism’). If internet forums related to philosophy and science are any indication, putting these two groups in a room together would result in pedantic and unfruitful arguing until the last of one side or the other had died of exhaustion. Still, I don’t think those groups would have a problem banding together to criticize this article.
For that reason, I would like to close by drawing your attention once again to how early in its infancy the scientific study of consciousness currently is. The answers to some of the questions in the philosophy of mind which will be brought about by future philosophers and future scientists will doubtless bring consciousness slowly but steadily into the group of concepts which are considered to be well-understood constituent elements of the natural universe. But to insist that such answers are already obtained when they are manifestly not—would be an obvious mistake. As a philosophical naturalist, I have no trouble answering big questions with the phrase, ‘I don’t know.’ I think it’s a wonderful phrase, which (given a sufficiently strong definition of the word know) aptly describes the position of every current human when it comes to some topics.
Moreover, I would like to underscore that much of this article concerns a mapping of my knowledge of scientific concepts onto my intuitions about consciousness. Any of my regular readers will already know how I feel in general about an argument that relies primarily on intuition. I guess what I am trying to communicate here is that this is one subject in this series about which, moreso than any other, I am not strongly attached to my current position.
And speaking of those of you who are regular readers of my articles on this site, you may have noticed a significant slowdown in the production of these philosophy articles. Tellingly, that slowdown originally coincided with my earliest planning and research for an article on the philosophy of mind. This very article was originally conceived at that time as a criticism of panpsychism—but in the course of my research, my objections to the theory were slowly but surely overcome by its proponents, as well as by its own explanatory power.
 And that’s just the task for philosophers. The task in this area for scientists is arguably harder still, of finding ways to observe, test, study, and measure phenomena from the outside that are necessarily subjective and interior. Scientists can study matter, and they can study energy. But even if scientists find a way to map the precise chemical structure of a memory in a brain, how can they also study the first-person experience of that memory?
 While this didn’t seem to fit neatly into the article at any point, I should also say that I have a lot of sympathy for (and interest in) the project of integrated information theory begun by Giulio Tononi. But my research in that area is currently limited.
A Scientific Defense of Panpsychism: