Panpsychism, Part 1


In previous posts, I’ve alluded to panpsychism on a number of occasions, and I also indicated that I would do a post (or three) on the concept. So here goes.

Because it is so unfamiliar to most people, I need to go into detail, and apologies if it gets too conceptual; as usual, I am attempting to be very precise in my language in presenting very complex ideas. Yet I am not a philosopher by training, so my statements may still be somewhat inaccurate.

As much as anything, I am attempting to clarify these ideas for myself, as well as for you the reader. As I have indicated previously, I am enrolled in a two-year program of comtemplative practice; within this problem, the core of knowledge and wisdom is considered to be experience, not concept. Thus I want to be very clear and able to explain my own worldview so as to be open to discussion, and perhaps a shift of perspective, during the program.

What I seek is a felt experience, rather than an intellectual concept, a felt experience that for me represents a consistent worldview, a view that encompasses:

  • my knowledge of modern physics (quantum mechanics and relativity),
  • the profound mystical experiences I have had,
  • the synchronicities that have guided me,
  • my understanding of human dynamics and consciousness (my medical background, especially my 25 years of being a therapist),
  • the mechanisms and hubris underlying global warming, and
  • all the other experiences that make up a human life.

For me, this exploration is not an intellectual one; I seek to understand what I have experienced over my lifetime, only part of which is intellectual.

First of all, a couple of terms from philosophy.

  • philosophy is the attempt to gain insight into questions about knowledge, truth, reason, reality, mind, and value; the investigation of human reason itself, and the nature of truth and knowledge.
  • ontology is the philosophic study of the nature of being, the attempt to grasp the nature of reality.
    • an ontology is the paradigm I bring to life, the lens by which I make sense of life. It is essentially the beliefs I have about what I believe.
    • epistemology is the study of how we know what we know, the many approached by which we choose to understand reality.
  • sentience is the ability to know, feel, and purposefully respond to experience.
    • consciousness (or mind), in the way I am using it here, is a sophisticated form of sentience, with the ability to reason.
    • the term consciousness is used in two distinct meanings, which are often confused:
      • philosophic consciousness is either present or absent, whereas
      • psychologic consciousness has various states (e.g, awake, asleep, dreaming, et cetera).
    • In these posts, I am using the term in the philosophic sense, unless specified otherwise.

One of the major problems in philosophy is to account for the nature and existence of sentience or consciousness, the so-called mind/body question. Much of our experience of the world is derived from the sensory experiences of vision, touch, and hearing — experiences that related to spacial location. Yet consciousness (or sentience) is not spacial — it has no location, and it exists now, a temporal experience as opposed to a spacial one. The basic issue comes down to the distinct difference between matter-energy (spacial experience, measurable) and consciousness (non-spacial, and not measurable) — ontologically, they are entirely different.

There are currently four major world views (ontologies) on this mind-body problem

  • Dualism, wherein matter and mind (consciousness) are radically different, and completely separated. The basic difficulty is then to explain how they interact. How?
  • Idealism, wherein matter is either illusionary (the Hindu concept of maya), or is created by pure spirit (emanationism).
    • if matter is illusionary, then how does one account for what happens, for example, when a speeding car hits a brick wall?
    • or if matter-energy is created by pure spirit, how does this occur?
  • Materialism, or more accurately scientific materialsim (SM), which posits that only insentient objective matter-energy exists; here, mind is fictional (imaginary), or somehow wholly physical and objective. Materialism becomes scientific materialism (SM) with the additional assumption that the only way to gain knowledge is through science.
    • SM is the dominant ontology in the Western technological world, especially the sciences. It is an ontology of meaninglessness.
    • But SM is unable to account for the nature of mind, other than by assuming that with enough knowledge (i.e., enough neurobiological study of the complexity of brain matter), it will be explainable. The difficulty though is that, despite modern technology, no one has been able to identify or measure consciousness, or even to conceive of how to measure it.
      • In addition, given that choice is dependent on consciousness, SM is entirely unable to account for choice. SM is based on the identification of “laws of nature,” which by definition are invarient. And thus the universe of SM is deterministic, and meaningless.
    • SM thus rests on the assumption that something that is not measurable nor localizable (sentience) will somehow become so with further technological investigation, that something that is not physical will somehow become physical.
    • Correct me if I am wrong, but this is not logical, or even practical as an assumption — you can not get something from nothing.
  • panpsychism is based on the premise that consciousness and matter are two sides of the same coin, different but inseparablely intertwined. Fundamental to panpsychism is that sentience exists throughout nature, and at the very least, is characteristic of all unitary structures, from photon to atom to molecule to cell to organism, both living and non-living. (The major exception is that heaps — e.g., rocks, mountains, tables — are not regarded as sentient; they are not unitary structures.) Consciousness is thus the intrinsic ability of matter-energy to know, feel, and purposely direct itself.
    • To quote my preferred source of understanding of panpsychism, the writings of Christian deQuincey (see Media Within This Blog > Blindspots, Kindle location 5710):

In panpsychism, unlike in materialism and dualism, energy is intrinscially sentient. While sentient energy forms an inseparable unity (sentience and energy always go together), sentience and energy are conceptually distinct. Energy is the capacity to do work, the capacity for action; it is what makes things happen. Consciousness, or sentience, is the capacity for knowing, feeling, and choosing. . . . [In brief,] consciousness knows; energy flows.

  • panpsychism actually has a very long and distinguished history of development, going back to the pre-socratic era of Greek development. It underwent a major advance in the 20th century with the brilliant philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead was initially a mathmatician, the co-author (with Bertrand Russell) of the Principia Mathematica, the bible of mathematics in its time. He was knowledgable of quantum mechanics and relativity theory, and wanted to develop an ontology that was consistent with modern science, without the assumptions that underlay SM.
  • The major difficulty with panpsychism is that it initially is so different from SM, that it is the most contraversial and least academically respectable of the ontologies. Like quantum mechanics itself, it initially seems strange.

In the next post, I will go into more detail as to the nature of panpsychism. But, to conclude this particular post, I want to look at why scientific materialism is the dominant paradigm. I believe there are a number of reasons.

First, it works well, or at least, has worked well until the introduction of quantum mechanics and relativity. Since approximately the 13th century, there has been general agreement to keep science and religion separate — they were said to operate in different domains (such nonsense). Since then, science has provided brilliant explanations and technological advances in the natural world; in particular, technology up to the 20th century did not depend on quantum effects. Thus it became the dominant ontology well before science advanced in its understanding. Especially, SM also been the basis of the human domination of the world (with the current dilemma of global warming, amongst other issues).

But with quantum mechanics, the need to understand consciousness arose — quantum events require an observer (a sentient entity) to collapse the quantum wave to create actuality. Thus the domains of matter and spirit began to collapse, in ways that could not be ignored.

And there are deeper issues at play. Human beings, despite claims to the contrary, are not rational; they are emotional, and at times deeply locked into hubris and defence of territory — only now the territory has become intellectual property: what to believe. Although many are not aware of it (including many reputable scientists), the underpinings of science are currently a place of paradigm wars, as illustrated by:

Although we generally think of fundamentalism as being characteristic of some religious groups, it is also a very human characteristic, applicable to any field. I have encountered it in every field I have studied (medicine, therapy, philosophy, culinary arts, to name a few).

The paradigm of panpsychism is a place of such war!

To be continued.

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