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Can Panpsychism Save Naturalism From Itself?

Panpsychism can be seen as an effort to save naturalism by acknowledging the reality of the mind while insisting that the mind is wholly natural

This article is an excerpt of one that originally appeared in Salvo 61 (Summer 2022), under the title “Everything is Conscious? Panpsychism goes mainstream.”

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Panpsychism — the view that all of the universe participates in consciousness, which is most fully developed in humans — has been gaining popularity in science in recent years. Does that sound unbelievable? Is not science committed wholly to materialism and nothing but materialism? Will consciousness not soon be “explained” by an accidental glitch in brain wiring that natural selection retained?

Science doesn’t seem nearly as committed to that view just now.

A 2018 article at Quartz by Olivia Goldhill was titled “The idea that everything from spoons to stones is conscious is gaining academic credibility.” Christof Koch, a prominent Allen Institute neuroscientist, acknowledges that neuroscientist Giulio Tononi’s popular integrated information theory (IIT) of consciousness, which he champions, is panpsychist.

Scientific American has run a number of pieces sympathetic to panpsychism in recent years (here and here, for example). New Scientist followed suit this year with a sympathetic long-form discussion.

Philosopher Analytical philosopher Galen Strawson gave an extensive interview to Robert Wright in 2020 in which he explained why he had abandoned materialism for the panpsychist approach.

Avery Hurt noted at Discover Magazine earlier this year,

Philosopher David Chalmers once suggested that a foray into panpsychism is nigh inevitable once one thinks seriously about consciousness. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the idea is taking hold again. Though it is implausible, Chalmers writes, it is not any more implausible than other theories of consciousness… But the idea — crazy as it sounds — that everything is conscious is becoming more mainstream all the time.

Avery Hurt, “Panpsychism: The Trippy Theory That Everything From Bananas To Bicycles Are Conscious” at Discover Magazine (February 16, 2021)

It was Chalmers who coined the now iconic term “the “Hard Problem of Consciousness.”

Why panpsychism is likely gaining ground on materialism

Panpsychism is probably gaining ground on materialism because, as Strawson told Wright, it seems more reasonable to say that everything is conscious — to at least some degree — than to deny that one is conscious oneself.

Panpsychist notions are showing up in the research literature and books by scientists. University of Chicago biochemist James Shapiro titled a recent journal paper “All living cells are cognitive.” Similarly, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, in a book excerpt at The Scientist, says that we cannot deny viruses some fraction” of intelligence, based on the similarity between their strategies and those of insects. Viruses?

It is possible that future debates over origins of intelligence, consciousness, etc., may feature panpsychists vs. theists rather than materialists vs. theists.

Why might this be happening? I think it is driven by what I call “Egnor’s Principle,” in honor of neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, a defender of the reality of the mind: If your hypothesis is that your mind is an illusion, then you do not have a hypothesis.

Many materialists, eager to spread the good word of Darwinian nihilism, do not grapple with this problem. But other researchers and philosophers do. They realize that they must uphold the reality of the mind in order to uphold the reality of any viewpoint whatsoever. To believe in the integrity of his own viewpoint, the panpsychist chooses to believe that the human mind really exists and the phenomena associated with it are real.

Thoroughgoing materialism is slowly being destroyed by its sheer implausibility. Here is a simple illustration: A currently popular materialist thesis is that human consciousness evolved in order to help humans hunt better in groups. But wait. Wolves hunt quite easily in groups without anything like human consciousness.

What would human consciousness contribute to a wolf pack? Philosophy and ethics?: “Brother wolves, I feel it is wrong to tear fellow mammals limb from limb. I have resolved to become a vegan.” Such an appeal would fall on very sharp ears — but morally deaf ones.

Our human consciousness is clearly an anomaly in nature, if not the universe. Unless, of course — and this is the panpsychist view — it is simply the pinnacle of the development of a consciousness that pervades all nature…

Thus, panpsychism is perhaps best seen as an effort to save naturalism from materialism, to make it viable by acknowledging the reality of the mind but insisting that the mind is a natural part of the universe.
In a 2018 essay, philosophy professor Philip Goff, author of Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness (2019) sees the fine-tuning of the universe as an argument for cosmopsychism (a form of panpsychism):

In the past 40 or so years, a strange fact about our Universe gradually made itself known to scientists: the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of our Universe, are fine-tuned for the possibility of life. It turns out that, for life to be possible, the numbers in basic physics – for example, the strength of gravity, or the mass of the electron – must have values falling in a certain range. And that range is an incredibly narrow slice of all the possible values those numbers can have. It is therefore incredibly unlikely that a universe like ours would have the kind of numbers compatible with the existence of life. But, against all the odds, our Universe does.

Philip Goff, “Is the Universe A Conscious Mind?” at Aeon (February 8, 2018) Here’s his scholarly article on the topic.

In Goff’s view, the best account of the matter is that consciousness is fundamental to the nature
of the universe. This is rather a different approach to consciousness from the usual “Eureka! We
have figured out human consciousness!” (for the 1457th time… ). He sees his view as a form of mechanics:

The American philosopher Jonathan Schaffer argues that the phenomenon of quantum entanglement is good evidence for holism. Entangled particles behave as a whole, even if they are separated by such large distances that it is impossible for any kind of signal to travel between them. According to Schaffer, we can make sense of this only if, in general, we are in a Universe in which complex systems are more fundamental than their parts.

Philip Goff, “Is the Universe A Conscious Mind?” at Aeon (February 8, 2018) Here’s his scholarly article on the topic.

According to the cosmopsychism for which Goff argues, “the Universe is conscious, and that the
consciousness of humans and animals is derived not from the consciousness of fundamental
particles, but from the consciousness of the Universe itself.” He wrote a book on the topic, Consciousness and Fundamental Reality (2017).

Many don’t like the whole business, including well-known theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder. But the fact that she even takes it on shows that arguments against it must now offer more than witty rejoinders…

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Can Panpsychism Save Naturalism From Itself?