Against Panpsychism

March 3, 2019

There are several panpsychisms and they are all a little bit off. Arguing, in general, that consciousness or at least mentality is a property of all matter, they rely on some speculative physics for explanation. In effect, panpsychisms are wishes, projections of humanness or life onto hard stones or hydrogen atoms spinning in space.

One panpsychism posits that nothing cannot come from nothing and so mentality, the qualitative experience of living, must be a fundamental property of matter similar to mass. The view rejects emergent properties, advocating the view that This “micropsychism” thus posits that every atom and subatomic particle must have a mental aspect.

The most ancient panpsychism is animism, which regards living things and animated objects—moving things like rivers and the earth—as having souls or consciousness much in the way that people do.

Another panpsychism argues from holism that the universe is conscious and that our own consciousness is derivative of this larger consciousness and that somehow a table derives its tableness not from properties of its component atoms but rather from some delegation from a higher reality. This seems to be the Platonic theory of forms, repackaged.

Much of the above ideas fit with the idea of fine-tuning—that the physics requisite for life to form in the universe is based on very specific and improbable mathematical values, and that for those values to be present, something must have acted with agency around the time of the big bang to specify those values. More likely, those values are only valued because we are the “valuable” life that the values enable.

More recently, Richard Prum finds evidence that birds exercise choice in the realm of sexual aesthetics, choosing mates based on co-evolved preferences. In his 2017 book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us, Prum develops speculations into non-human choice and conscious decision making based on compelling evidence.

While Prum’s take complicates things a bit, I think we can argue wholeheartedly against most panpsychisms. If, in the first case, there are mental particles or waves as intrinsic components of the universe, how do they combine to form larger more complex consciousnesses as quarks combine to form atoms and those form molecules etc? Animism is merely the projection of human qualities onto non-human objects, as seen by the selective nature of soul assignment: does a lamp or a poop have a soul? If not, then it indicates that animism selects based on what can exert influence on humans. And the partaking of a larger consciousness seems to be a kind of religious compatibilism. Too spooky.

And yet the idea continually arises that there is some mental aspect to the universe. Thinkers, largely coming out of fields relating to biology, have consistently put forward ideas advocating for various types of holism. Haeckl, Bergson, Whitehead, Bateson. How can we base this holism in science and avoid relying on spooky extras?

We’ll find out next week!


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