Panpsychism, Part 2

Philosophy1This is my second post on panpsychism, essentially my attempt to understand my own experiences. By understanding I mean my willingness to comprehend as best I can the mystery and awe of the universe; I do not mean its usual connotation of analysis — that is what I call overstanding, usually a place of hubris.

I also do not mean “what do I believe.” Beliefs for me are useful fictions or likely stories; beliefs link two or more pieces of information by some kind of story, usually what we call meaning, meaning being knowledge that fits.

What I am seeking is a consistent worldview, especially one in which I am able to frame my experience so that I (and in sharing with others) can assess its usefulness to me, and modify it as future experience updates. I always walk around with a large “imaginary” box of not-knowing, willing to experience what life offers, updating my worldview accordingly.

When I was a practicing therapist, one of the questions I would ask people (when the time was appropriate) was: Is the universe friendly? For me, there are only three possible answers: unfriendly, neutral (possibly meaningless), and friendly. (Incidentally, scientific materialism (SM) would suggest that the universe is meaningless — in SM, only matter-energy exists, and is objective and insentient.)

  • If the universe is unfriendly (perhaps we are simply fodder for some greater being or beings who thrive on the ingestion of consciousness), it really does not matter what we do. However, we do have choice! We can live as if the universe is meaningful, and that our contributions make a difference — definitely something I would opt for if I believed this possibility.
  • If the universe is neutral, especially if it is meaningless (see scientific materialism), the same argument applies. I have choice, and especially I would choose to live in harmony with “all my relatives.”
  • Finally, if the universe is friendly, then it is likely that my existence is somehow important, and I make a difference. Perhaps not, but still I would choose to act as if this is the case.

In my various readings of mystics and spirituality (of which I have read a lot) and in my own mystical experiences, the answer (bar one) has always presented this third possibility as the only one experienced. (The one exception was that of 1970’s stories by Carlos Castanada, the stories of Don Juan, a Yaqui sorcerer, advocating the Eagle as the greater being who somehow feasted on consciousness. Even there, choice was advocated.)

Thus, for me, my choice is obvious. I strive to be the best human being I can be — by no means perfect! To do this, I also strive to clarify my own worldview so that it is consistent with my life experiences (as listed in the previous post). And as part of this (as mentioned), I walk around with a large box of not knowing, awaiting further assessment.

Back to panpsychism.

As noted in the previous post, panpsychism is one of the four major ontologies, yet the least academically respectable one since it contrasts so sharply with scientific materialism (SM). I said previously that human beings are not rational — there is a pricetag to being academically disrespected.

Yet for me, panpsychism is much more consistent with what I understand of the nature of the universe. In panpsychism, all unitary substances (photons to atoms to cells to organisms, and everything in-between) are sentient (able to know, feel, and make purposeful choices) — although the consciousness of electrons is surely different than that of human beings (more on this in the next post).

Panpsychism made a major advance in the 20th century through the work of Alfred North Whitehead, whose goal was to develop an ontology consistent with modern science. In contrast to SM which is strongly orientated to spacial description, Whitehead proposed that all reality consists of temporal events, known as actual entities. These events draw upon possibility (called eternal objects) to allow creative development of on-going reality. All events are mutually co-creating, such that all reality is a whole (thus to speak in isolation of any one event is a useful, but fallacious, abstraction). The total of all events of the universe come together, through the interaction of all matter-energy (the totality of the universe) with all consciousness (the totality of sentience), to create a seamless whole. (Considered in this sense, it makes the human domain seem rather small!)

Any one event has three phases (here I quote from my book Acedia the Darkness Within, p. 72):

  1. The subject ([as] consciousness), in the present, feels the pressure of the inflowing past (which is the origin of both our knowledge of “energy” and “causality”)—the memory of what has happened. (Whitehead called this “causal efficacy.”)
  2. The subject also intersubjectively apprehends other present-moment actual occasions—the experience of what is happening. (Whitehead called this “presentational immediacy.”)
  3. The subject is aware of possibilities for future states and action, and, guided by its aims and values, chooses specific possibilities to (literally) incorporate into its next moment of being—the anticipation of what is to come [the immediate future].

Whitehead called this entire process concrescence, the process of prehending the past through causal efficacy; attending to the present through presentational immediacy; and satisfying aims/values through “ingression” of possibilities (which he called eternal objects).

The residue of this concrescence then falls back into matter-energy as the experience of the immediate past, the inflowing past of step #1 above.

Fundamentally (if accurate of reality), this means that free will and choice are fundamental characteristics of the universe. But it does not mean unrestricted liberty to simply choose reality — the process is universal. Each sentient unitary gets to vote on how the next moment occurs, but the result is the response of the collective Consciousness.

Further with Whitehead, since everything had to exist as actual entities, he considered the totality of all possibilities to be the functional God of his understanding. He also considered that God had a preference for which possibilities were chosen, but allowed sentient matter to have freedom of choice. Thus the universe for Whitehead was immensely creative, and far from deterministic. But impersonal (at least by my interpretation of his work).

The advantages of panpsychism, for me, are that it treats the universe as sacred, and as I will discuss in the next post, is very consistent with my life experiences. In addition, it clarifies all of the major problems with the philosophy of mind as we now understand them:

  • the mind-body problem,
  • the problem of other minds (all part of the totality of consciousness),
  • the nature of causality (creative choice),
  • the problem of free will (creative choice), and
  • the problem of perspective, especially the nature of intersubjectivity (the flow of unitive consciousness).

A brief description of intersubjectivity, and then I will close this post (to be continued with my own life experiences as the basis of choice amongst the ontologies).

Intersubjectivity refers to the ways in which we are able to share our subjective experiences with other minds. DeQuincey, in Radical Knowing (pp. 280-281), indicates three levels of intersubjectivity:

  • linguistic (consensual agreement), through the exchange of words and other physical tokens (and hence deeply embedded in SM);
  • [weak intersubjectivity] mutual conditioning (participation), wherein individual subjects influence each other by their shared presence; and
  • [strong intersubjectivity] mutual co-creation, where the relationship is ontologically primary, where in some as yet mysterious fashion, “consciousness-es” merge in the co-evolution of experience. [Strong intersubjectivity, when I have experienced it, is the richest form of communication I know.]

One of the major limitations of the understanding of meaning and intersubjectivity was identified by the German philosopher Kant (in the 18th century) to be that nothing can be known for certain since all knowledge is already preconditioned by neurologic processes that filter incoming sensory information. This was a logical (and very sound) outcome within the ontotogy of materialism; however, it is not a restriction within the ontology of panpsychism (more in the next post).

To be continued.

2 thoughts on “Panpsychism, Part 2”

  1. Hmm. These are very interesting posts brother. U r getting close to making this understandable to an average Bear like me 🙂 I will wait to read the next one tomorrow. And just try to absorb this. As we have discussed before this worldview so far continues to remind me of the Indigenous one as I slowly try to absorb what I am learning. Tho there even the ‘heaps’ like rocks and mountains are sentient. But maybe not tables 🙂


    1. Yes, there are many similarities to indigenous teachings. I suspect though that the teachings are a form of panentheism — Creator is both within (immanent) and greater than (transcendent). In panpsychism, rocks and mountains have a form of consciousness in that the atoms (and molecules) have their own consciousness, and who knows, maybe the collective is able to speak.


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