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A Physicist and Philosopher Examines Panpsychism

Idealism says everything is an idea in the mind of God. Panpsychism says everything participates in consciousness (thus is not just an idea)

In last week’s podcast,” our guest host, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, interviewed philosopher of science Bruce Gordon on “Idealism and the Nature of Reality.” Idealism is the view that “something mental (the mind, spirit, reason, will) is the ultimate foundation of all reality, or even exhaustive of reality” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. As Gordon noted in the earlier portion of this podcast, idealism is actually a practical philosophy. It originated with Plato (c. 424–347 BC) but the modern form, which he himself holds, is that of George Berkeley (1685–1753). In Berkeley’s view everything that exists is an idea in the mind of God. Thus, Dr. Egnor asked him what he thinks of panpsychism, the view that everything in the universe in some way participates in consciousness, as opposed to simply being itself an idea:

This portion begins at 09:22 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow. A complete transcript can be found below the Additional Resources.

Michael Egnor: A number of philosophers in early modern times, and some today, have proposed panpsychism and cosmopsychism. What are they, and how do they relate to idealism?

Bruce Gordon (pictured): Cosmopsychism would be a type of panpsychism. Panpsychism is basically the view that consciousness is fundamental to nature and permeates nature. It’s present in everything, but to varying degrees. Usually you encounter it as one form or other of what might be called constituted panpsychism.

It’s the idea that the consciousness that we would intuitively associate with human beings and other animals isn’t fundamental. It’s grounded in something that is more fundamental, that permeates nature itself and is a property of nature itself.

There are two versions of this: There’s a bottom-up version, which is usually called something like micropsychism, and a top-down version, which is the cosmopsychism that you refer to in your question.

Micropsychists think that all facts about human consciousness are grounded at the level of microphysics, so that the macro phenomenal truths of our experience are grounded in micro phenomenal truths. Just as we would think of atoms as combining to give rise to physical objects, psychic atoms of one form or another combine to yield more complex forms of consciousness.

And of course, that gives rise to a seemingly intractable kind of combination problem. Right? How do the experiences of fundamental entities, say subatomic particles or whatever, combine to yield human conscious experience?

Note: Panpsychist philosopher Philip Goff offers this account of micropsychism: “All facts – including the facts about organic consciousness – are grounded in consciousness-involving facts at the micro-level.”

About panpsychism in general he cautions, “People still have a giggle when they hear about conscious electrons or the consciousness or the universe. But those who are genuinely interested in finding a place for consciousness in the natural world ought to appreciate that there is a case to be made for the view.”

The materialist alternatives are not as attractive as some suppose. According to one alternative, consciousness is an illusion. That ends serious discussion. Another alternative is that consciousness is a material thing. That raises new problems without providing much insight into old ones.

Bruce Gordon: Now coming at it from the other direction, from the top down, you’ve got something like cosmopsychism. And it would say that all facts about consciousness in general, and about human consciousness in particular, are grounded in facts about consciousness that concern the universe as a whole. So the universe itself is conscious, and somehow our individual consciousnesses within the universe are manifestations or particularizations of this universal consciousness that’s gotten separated off and seems to be unto itself, but is not. It’s really a manifestation of the universe’s consciousness as a whole.

Note: Michael Egnor interviewed cosmopsychist philosopher (and computer programmer) Bernardo Kastrup here at Mind Matters News. See: “Why consciousness couldn’t just evolve from the mud.” and “Bernardo Kastrup argues for a universal mind as a reasonable idea.

Panpsychism also underlies a well-known mainstream theory of consciousness, Integrated Information Theory (IIT). See: Why would a neuroscientist choose panpsychism over materialism?

Michael Egnor: To just sort of backtrack a little bit, when we make the assertion that the fundamental reality of the universe is mental rather than physical… what is mental? That is, we have a sense of what physical things are. They have extension in space. They’re heavy. They have inertia, things like that. But what is a mental “thing”? And can we define mental things except by what they’re not?

Bruce Gordon: Well, of course a panpsychist would deny this, but I would say the distinction between mental things and physical things is that for mental things, there is something that it’s like to be that thing. Whereas for physical things, there’s nothing that it’s like to be that thing.

Note: This distinction was originally made by philosopher Thomas Nagel in an essay, What is it like to be a bat? (1974), exploring the factors that distinguish consciousness from life as such. One might ask, “Is there something that it ‘is like’ to be a fern or a virus? Or an electron?”

Bruce Gordon: Of course, the panpsychist says that there’s something to be like everything. Right down to the most fundamental constituents of reality that we would, from a different philosophical perspective, regard as entirely impersonal.

Michael Egnor (pictured): Right. So in a sense, mental things have first person experience rather than third person. Franz Brentano (1838–1917), a philosopher in the 19th century, felt that the hallmark of mental things was that they’re intentional. That is, that they are directed towards things. Whereas things that are physical aren’t about anything. They don’t have any point to them. Do you think that’s a reasonable way of defining mental things? And is there an application of that idea to idealism?

Note: Michael Egnor: “What is the hallmark of human thought, and what distinguishes thoughts from material things? Franz Brentano (1838–1917), a German philosopher in the 19th century, answered this question decisively. All thoughts are about something, whereas no material object is inherently “about” anything. This property of aboutness is called intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind. Every thought that I have shares the property of aboutness—I think about my vacation, or about politics, or about my family. But no material object is, in itself, “about” anything. A mountain or a rock or a pen lacks aboutness—they are just objects. Only a mind has intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind.” – “Neurosurgeon outlines why machines can’t think like people,”Mind Matters News (2018)

Bruce Gordon: Well, certainly intentionality is a hallmark of the mental. It’s a hallmark of what it means to be conscious, that mental states are about something and directed toward that which they are about. In idealism, particularly an ontic theistic idealism, or theistic ontic idealism, all of reality is, of course, about something, and is given purpose and meaning in the mind of God. And when we are, as human beings, in sympathy with that and in accordance with that, we are understanding reality in that context that has been imbued with divine meaning. And we understand it from that perspective. So yes, I think intentionality is integrally bound up in idealism. There’s something that’s reality, that reality is about. There is a purpose that is given to reality by the divine mind, that makes reality itself directional and intentional in respect of God’s purposes.

Michael Egnor: And it has been proposed, and I have a lot of sympathy for this proposition, that the intentionality that’s characteristic of mental states is found by analogy in teleology, in nature, in the sense that teleology is nature’s intentionality. Which I think fits beautifully in the idealistic way of understanding the natural world, because a mind points to goals, it points to purposes and meanings. And we find that nature is just suffused with purposes and meanings. Do you think that’s a useful perspective?

Bruce Gordon: I absolutely think that’s a useful perspective. In fact, I think it’s pretty much the way things are. That the teleology that we observe in nature, the directedness that we observe in nature, the sort of things that, if you like, and I suspect that you do, constituted the insights that were part of Thomas’s Fifth Way.

The argument from design, the idea that nature is directed toward a goal, and the noumenological, or law-like, structure of nature that constrains the behavior of things, which has no internal explanation, must either be taken as is, which seems very strange and is deeply problematic from the standpoint of the principle of sufficient reason, to take it as a brute fact. Rather, this is something that has been imposed as a structure on reality by the divine mind. It’s discernible. It’s mathematically describable. We discover it as we analyze our experience. All of this points to the teleological structure of nature, which is a manifestation of divine intentionality.

So intentionality, in the form of teleology, absolutely pervades the structure of the universe.

Michael Egnor: It’s almost as if our minds were created in the image of the creator of the universe.

Here is the earlier discussion from this podcast: Why idealism is actually a practical philosophy. Not what you heard? Philosopher of science — and pianist — Bruce Gordon says, think again. Is reality fundamentally more like a mind than a physical object? Many are sure of the answer without understanding the question.

You may also wish to read: Consciousness is not a problem. Dualism is. Physicalist philosopher David Papineau says consciousness is just “brain processes that feel like something”


Yes, consciousness is real but that’s not the half of it. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci ends up skating deftly around the main problems.

Consciousness is two hard problems, not one. Psychology prof Gregg Henriques argues, consciousness “plays by a different set of rules than the language game of science.”

Show Notes

  • 00:43 | Introducing Dr. Bruce Gordon
  • 02:02 | Idealism
  • 03:41 | Plato’s theory of forms
  • 05:09 | Kantian idealism
  • 09:22 | Panpsychism and cosmopsychism
  • 12:31 | What is a mental thing?

Additional Resources

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A Physicist and Philosopher Examines Panpsychism