Panpsychism: What It Is, And Philosophical Theories That Defend It


Since the dawn of philosophy, human beings have asked themselves several questions: to what extent is consciousness something uniquely human? Do other animals have consciousness? even the simplest ones? Could rocks, water, grasses… all of this have consciousness?

panpsychism It is the set of philosophical doctrines in which it is defended that consciousness is not something exclusive to the human species, that other living beings and even inanimate elements can have it or have subjective perceptions of the world that surrounds them.

What is panpsychism?

The word panpsychism (from the Greek “pan”, “everything, anything” and “psyché” “soul, mind”) refers to the set of philosophical doctrines in which it is maintained that it is not only people beings who have a conscience. That is, panpsychists believe that other forms of life or even objects that, at first glance, we would call inanimate, can possess properly conscious qualities or have a subjective perception of the world around them.

It should be noted that panpsychist ideas are not all the same. There are those who defend the view that not only animals that, from a very anthropocentric perspective, could be classified as superior or that, thanks to their more or less large and developed brain, would be capable of harboring consciousness. This vision of being conscious has also been related to insects, plants, and even microorganisms. The most extensive and radical panpsychism defends the idea that subjective experience is ubiquitous: it is found in all things.

Historical background

Below we will briefly see each period in which panpsychist doctrines have been presented, in one form or another, their authors and what their exact vision of the concept of consciousness was in all, or almost all, things.

1. Classical Greece

Although they did not have a specific term to define the idea found in the concept of panpsychism, Since the time of Ancient Greece, there has been philosophizing about consciousness and subjective experience..

In times before the Socratic school, Thales of Miletus, who is considered the first philosopher, defended the idea that “everything was full of gods”, that is, he had a pantheistic vision of nature.

According to Thales, within every object, every animal, every grain of sand, there was something with properties similar to what we understand by consciousness.. This idea is considered one of the first panpsychist doctrines.

Years later, Plato, expounding his philosophy, defended the idea that all things, to the extent that they are something and therefore exist, must have some property that can also be found in the mind and soul, things which, for him, also existed. The world, from Plato’s vision, was something with a soul and intelligence, and each element that composed it was also a living entity.

2. Renaissance

With the arrival of the Middle Ages, Greek philosophy fell into obscurity, like many other Hellenic knowledge and contributions.

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However, centuries later, Thanks to the arrival of the light that marked the Renaissance, panpsychist ideas managed to resurface and figures such as Gerolamo Cardano, Giordano Bruno and Francesco Patrizi contributed their visions. In fact, it is to this last Italian philosopher that we owe the invention of the expression “panpsychism.”

For Cardano the soul, which could well be understood as consciousness, was a fundamental part of the world, something that could not be separated from reality.

Giordano Bruno considered that nothing in this world could come without a soul or without having a vital principle.. Everything had to have an essence that, to a greater or lesser extent, recalled what human beings identify as consciousness.

3. 17th century

Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz presented panpsychist doctrines.

Spinoza talks about reality being made up of a single substance., which is eternal and would be something synonymous with God or the concept of Nature. We would all be a whole, something conscious but in its entirety.

Instead, Leibniz speaks of the idea that reality is made up of small conscious, infinite and indivisible units (monads) which are the fundamental structures of the universe, something like the atoms of consciousness.

4. 20th century

Arriving in the 20th century, the most notable figure of panpsychism is Alfred North Whitehead. (1861–1947). In his ontology, he presented the idea that the basic nature of the world is made up of events and processes, which are created and which are destroyed. These processes are elementary events, which he calls “occasions” and are part of the idea of ​​the mental. For him, mental operations had an impact on the constitution of nature, they shaped reality.

Carl Jung argued that the psyche and matter were contained in the same world, and that they were in constant contact with each other. Psyche and matter are two different aspects of the same thing, as if they were part of the same coin.

Panpsychism today

With the arrival of the Second World War, panpsychist doctrines began to lose strength in the face of logical positivism. However, they achieved a certain comeback in 1979 with the publication of the article “Panpsychism” by Thomas Nagel. Later, other authors, such as Galen Strawson with his 2006 article Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism They dared to approach the concept of panpsychism in a much more scientific way than ever before.

Today there is the idea that consciousness is one of the fundamental truths of human existence. Each of us is aware of what we feel, what we perceive. Perhaps we do not have enough linguistic skill to be able to express it, but we have a subjective perception of reality. Our consciousness is what we know as directly as possible, there is no way to separate ourselves from it.

However, in the same way that it is much closer to us than the desk table where we work, the glasses or the clothes we wear, it is in turn the aspect of ourselves, as a species that continues to produce the most mystery to us. What is consciousness?

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David Chalmers, Australian analytical philosopher, has been talking about his panpsychist vision of reality, from a much more current perspective and with a language more typical of the century we are in if we compare him with Plato or Schopenhauer. In fact, he explains it very extensively in his book. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (1996), in which he explains the need to understand to what extent it is not necessary to accept that other living beings, no matter how basic they may be, can have consciousness.

In this book he talks about two problems that science faces when trying to understand human consciousness, which show that it is not possible to completely discard the idea of ​​consciousness outside the human species. He calls these two problems the easy problem and the difficult problem of consciousness:

The easy problem of consciousness

With easy problem of consciousness he talks about how science, especially neuroscience, has tried to investigate consciousness but establishing, a priori, the object of study they want to address. That is, each investigation specifies an aspect related to consciousness and describes it in an empirically observable way. So that, We speak of consciousness as the ability to discriminate, categorize and react to a certain stimulus, or to fix attention, control deliberate behavior..

To better understand this idea, let’s look at a fairly descriptive example. Let’s think about how human beings see colors. Scientists know that the fact that we see something red, green or blue is because objects with those colors emit light rays with different wavelengths.

Thus, these rays, upon entering the eye, affect the cones, the cells specialized in color distinction. Depending on the wavelength, one type or another of cone will be activated. When activated, these cones will send an electrical impulse that will travel through the optic nerve and reach the areas of the brain responsible for processing color.

All of this is a very brief explanation of what the neurobiological correlates of color perception in the human eye are, and They could be verified through an experiment of distinguishing objects with different colors, neuroimaging techniques that show which areas are activated when doing this activity, etc. It is empirically demonstrable.

The difficult problem of consciousness

Chalmers explains in his book that science is not prepared, and perhaps never will be, to demonstrate through empirical techniques how the experience of a specific stimulus occurs. We are not talking about how they are activated depending on which cells or brain areas; we talk about the subjective experience itself: how can it be recorded?

When we think or perceive a stimulus, it is clear that we process it, like the previous case of color, however there is a subjective aspect that cannot be explained in such a scientific way. How is it possible to see the color green as green? Why that specific color? Why in front of a certain wavelength do we perceive just that color and not another?

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Not only human beings have consciousness

As we were commenting before, the idea of ​​panpsychism, that is, that everything has consciousness or soul, implies that objects that at first do not seem at all like something with a certain consciousness could actually have it.

Today, and in the same line as with classical philosophers like Leibniz, there are those who defend that each particle has a consciousness and, as a whole, they can create more complex systems, as would be the case of human consciousness. Each particle has a minimum consciousness that, added to those of the others, generates a greater.

Until relatively recently, the idea that only human beings were capable of experiencing anything was quite widespread, both in the scientific field and in general culture. It was more or less accepted that other animal species, especially large primates or complex animals, could feel a subjective experience and be, to a greater or lesser extent, conscious.

However, the American neuroscientist Christof Koch believes that it does not make much sense to think that only phylogenetically close human beings and animals can have consciousness. It is not as logical as one might think.

Although it does not go to a view as radical as that of a stone being able to feel when it is kicked, it does defend that, until proven otherwise, the idea that multicellular organisms cannot experience pain or pleasure is not something not at all as crazy as one might think.

They may have an infinitely vaguer than human sensation of being alive, but this does not mean that they do not feel it. With smaller brains, or not even anything that can be called a brain, their sense of being conscious will be less sophisticated than ours, but it will still be there. It would be a living being that would have its own way of feeling subjectively.

Another interesting case is that of plants. Stefano Mancuso, in his interesting book Sensitivity and intelligence in the plant world He exposes his research on the intelligent behavior of plants, to which he grants consciousness.

While it is difficult to talk about the idea of ​​plants being self-aware, his research group, based on their research, came to the conclusion that plants were far from being considered passive organisms: they have to have some type of consciousness, from which their intelligence would be extracted, to be able to adapt in the way they do.

Criticisms of panpsychism

The greatest criticism made of panpsychism, and using terms inspired by the idea of ​​the difficult problem of consciousness, is the so-called “combination problem”. How do these small particles with supposedly tiny consciousnesses manage to form a more complex consciousness?

Starting from the idea that our atoms are conscious particles and from their combination emerges our human consciousness, more complex and, so to speak, “more self-aware”: what if humans were like conscious particles? Is humanity, as a whole, a conscious superorganism? Is nature, as Spinoza said, all a conscious substance? How do we manage to be doing something with higher consciousness, without us being aware of it?