Posted by | Chris | 1.7.10 | 2 Comments

The fundamental questions facing a project in panpsychism are of the properties of the substance of being. We are familiar with material descriptions of physical phenomena as we are with the description of mental or experiential phenomena. The problems of any ontology regarding substance is the nature of these phenomena (and perhaps our familiarity is an impediment to this because we must redefine them). Panpsychism as I understand it (and would want to phrase it cautiously) would say that all being has potential to exhibit properties that we recognise as material and mental.

In “Panpsychism” Nagel gives four reasons to take panpsychism seriously:

1. Material composition (some form of monism)
2. Non-reductionism (mental properties are not reducible to physical ones)
3. Realism (mental properties are real)
4. Non-emergence (mentality can't come from something that is non-mental)

Each of these could be argued over but if you reject dualism, reductionism and emergence and you're a realist about mental phenomena then you have good reason to consider panpsychism. The problems of dualism seem clear enough to reject it. Emergence is a more interesting case and I think that there is the potential for much argument around this. Any anti-realist denial of mental phenomena seems an extreme and unlikely position but reductionism appears to be a position with considerable support. A common position amongst philosopher and neuroscientists is that we cannot currently explain mental phenomena but we will do one day. The biggest problem with this as I see it is that contemporary scientific practice is rooted in objective third person descriptions and this is incommensurable with a non-reductive account of first person experiential phenomena

The most promising avenue for investigation regarding panpsychism is the connection of both material third person descriptions AND experiential first person descriptions. It is this possibility which Nagel digresses into and then rejects, however in his later work “Conceiving the Impossible” it is precisely this third substance, neither wholly material or wholly mental, which he does argue for, not regarding panpsychism but instead in hope of overcoming the hard problem of consciousness. I think perhaps in his earlier work Nagel was a bit freaked out by panpsychism since he fails to keep up with the imaginative possibilities of the metaphysical project which is required if we are to make progress.

The necessary connection of material and mental properties might mean that every being is an objectively describable third person phenomena and an experiential first person phenomena. However, first person in this context needs to be qualified since it absolutely does not mean conscious. It seems likely that a considered panpsychism will at most attribute mental properties or mentality to being, not full blown conscious experience.

The necessary connection of the mental and material in every being could perhaps be along the lines of the intensive and extensive properties of being. This would be in line with some kind of Whiteheadean/Deleuzean process ontology. After reading Zach’s dissertation I have serious questions about the freedom of Whitehead’s metaphysics. Whitehead says that “life is nature’s bid for freedom” and makes the free consideration of possibilities the mental pole of an occasion. If an occasion is not in fact free, then what mentality does it have?

That process ontology can also be panpsychist brings out an important point: any project of panpsychism will likely be pursued in the context of a wide ranging and radical new ontological project. This would connect with what Alex has called “dynamic materialism”. This of course doesn’t have to be the case, a dynamic materialism could be pursed that was not panpsychist, but dynamic materialism is at least be amenable to panpsychism If a project of dynamic materialist panpsychism is rejected, a dynamic ontology may also provide the means for thinking about real emergence and this presents an interesting contrast. By what criteria do we reject or embrace panpsychism or emergence?

Whatever the outcome of any panpsychist ontological project it seems very likely that our conception of matter and mentality will be radically revised. If we are to imagine new descriptions of matter and mentality I wonder what we should consider as paradigmatic of each?

Is matter exemplified by rock, dust and gas? The constituents of the cosmos are found in patterns of complex organisation and, as exemplified by stars, matter and energy are exchangeable. Is biological matter exemplary of material properties? It is rare in the cosmos and displays greater intensity of complex organisation, but in its constituents it is as mineral as any of the above mentioned materials. Life is minerality at higher speeds and greater complexity.

Is organisation a sign of mentality? There is no doubt that the necessary connection of mentality and materiality is in some way dependent on organisation since the higher grades of mentality appear only in complex biological organisms. I wonder however if to equate organisation and mentality is to trivialise the mental? Perhaps what is needed is a deeper concept of organisation that simply the extensive relational distribution of any matter.

What should we consider as paradigmatic of mentality? Human consciousness? Animal mentality? Plant behaviour? Mineral processes? The fluid boundary between life and non-life is I think easy enough to accept. Any graded scale of mentality seems much more difficult to imagine. This is perhaps because there appears to be such a great divide between the minded and the non-minded. I think, I write I claim self identity and act with foresight and consideration; rocks do not.

Is behaviour a sign of mentality? What is active in forming behaviour? Do only animals behave or do minerals behave also? If matter (living or non-living) behaves by responding to environmental stimulus then what is active is some set of intensive organisational relations.

I’m rambling a bit now since I’ve come past the point where I had thought clearly about these things. I’ll make one last point.

If human consciousness is exemplary of mentality we must also say that it is distinguished by its complexity and intensity. We do not encounter mentality comparable with our own consciousness anywhere else than humans and their brains. The brain is modular and has evolved in stages from lower level systems. The most basic would be regulatory of cardiovascular and other life sustaining systems. Below that is the nervous system which we might consider as an information network in the living body. In animals organisms of lower complexity that sponges (no nervous system) or jellyfish (simple nerve net) and plants I wonder what comparable systems function as organisational networks to maintain the integrity of the organism? Along this evolutionary line and the gradient from mineral to living organism some process of organisation has developed in complexity finally sprouting brain systems which we now associate with our own conscious reflection on this process.

If panpsychism is true then the gradation from mineral process to animal consciousness cannot be one of “enough Lego bricks makes a man (or plastic golem)”. If the parts are not mental then the system will not be either. But I also think that we must be careful of slipping too easily into building block analogies. Consciousness is a process seemingly so far removed from materiality that just sticking bits together (either by chance encounters over billions of years or by some vibrant force) will not sufficiently explain the connection. Whatever mentality is active in being and whatever process is active in materiality I would argue that it will have to be one capable of transforming relations and not simply the result or final product of a string of interactions.


2 Responses to “Panpsychism”

  1. peter
    15/7/10 04:38

    "The most promising avenue for investigation regarding panpsychism is the connection of both material third person descriptions AND experiential first person descriptions."
    - a possible "connection" here would be the self-subjectifying object that i refered to in comments on zach's post.

    the dynamic materialism to which we all seem to subscribe over an inert imagining of matter, i think, must be a field theory of forces. bodies can still make up part of our description of the material - but they are composed of condensed fields of forces. if we start with bodies first then we end up in problems of dualism.
    it would be interesting to see if we can weave from a process ontology a theory of matter composed of fields that does not denigrate objects (in the way that Graham Harman laments about other peoples theories)

    i like what u say about a "fluid boundary" between life and non-life. a panpsychism would definitely blur the boundaries of this divide and turn it into vast shades of grey. it would be more like a phase transition - in that, the division between life and non-life is not a boundary line, but an area like the surface of the sea (i cannot take credit for this analogy, some systems theorist said it but his name escapes me).

  2. Chris
    15/7/10 13:39

    I'm not going to ask us all to subscribe to this argument, but my response to the criticism of flux - a la Harman - would be "so what?"

    If in a relational process ontology entities are in a serially repeated becoming critics say that objects are undermined, that there is nothing but flux and all the individuated things we see in the world are an ephemeral illusion on a constantly changing metaphysical sea. This is in a certain sense true, the process of becoming means that any apparently stable object is a serial becoming of continuity. But I do not agree that this denigrates objects. Nor do I agree that the reality of objects sufferers for this. Objects are real, there are a pattern repeated for the period of the objects existence. This pattern/object might move, interact or otherwise act in its environment and every time it does these acts are described by a process of becoming, but if the identity of the object is maintain, then so is the integrity of the pattern.

    It is perhaps a bad example, and certainly one that needs more thought, but does the fact that my computer monitor refreshes a number of times per second, or the cinematic image I watch at the weekend repeated 24 times a second, undermine the experience of continuity that I have of these images?

    Clearly for me to say "I don't accept your argument as problematic for my ontology" requires some further argument, but these are my feelings anyway.

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