Problems with Panpsychism



Problems with Panpsychism


I will list as concisely as possible a number of problems that I see with panpsychism. Panpsychism comes in two forms, partial and total. Partial panpsychism says that all matter has a mental aspect as well as a physical aspect; total panpsychism says that all matter is wholly mental. I will focus on the total kind for ease of exposition, though the problems arise equally for both versions of the doctrine. In addition, panpsychism has been proposed to deal with two problems, which I will call the matter problem and the mind problem. The matter problem is the problem of what constitutes matter, and the claim is that the intrinsic nature of matter is consciousness. The mind problem is the problem of what makes mind possible, and the claim is that mind is possible because it arises from matter construed as consciousness.[1] These are separate claims: the first does not entail the second; nor does the second entail the first. I shall suggest that panpsychism cannot in principle solve the mind problem, though its prospects for solving the matter problem are brighter. That is, even if true as a theory of matter, panpsychism cannot explain how mind arises from matter, or how it is possible. The list runs as follows.


  1. The Incompleteness Problem. If there is any property of consciousness that is not explicable in terms of particle consciousness, then panpsychism cannot be the solution to the mind problem. The panpsychist position is that consciousness in animals can only arise from consciousness in the elementary components of matter, whatever they are (particles, strings, fields): so if there are facts of consciousness that cannot be explained in this way, then the theory fails. If there are such facts, then particle consciousness (as I shall say for convenience) is not needed to explain animal consciousness, so we may as well abandon it altogether. Even if there is just one consciousness property that cannot be explained in this way, then the theory is doomed—as it might be, one type of sensation that does not arise from more elementary consciousness. But clearly there are many properties of animal consciousness that are not mirrored in particle consciousness, whatever that may be like. For particles are few in type and cannot contain every form of consciousness that exists in the animal world: how can they harbor even the sensations found in the five human senses? The particles must contain only a subset of the consciousness properties that actually exist, but then their properties cannot explain the existence of those properties. It is no use saying that the latter arise by combination of the former, since it is not credible to suppose that sensation types are combinations of other sensation types—visual sensations of red are not combinations of auditory sensations, say. Animal consciousness contains many irreducible types of conscious state, far too many to be anticipated by particle consciousness, which must be quite limited given the physical facts. Electrons have one type of consciousness, protons another, and neutrons a third: that is a very meager basis for deriving the full panoply of animal consciousness. The explanatory basis is inevitably incomplete. The panpsychist might suggest that the brain fills the explanatory gap: it is the way the particles are arranged in the brain that generates the full variety that we see in the animal world. This is vague, but anyway it throws in the towel as a solution to the mind problem: for now we are admitting that the brain as a physical object plays an explanatory role in producing consciousness. Particle consciousness alone is not sufficient; we also need input from the brain’s structure if we are to account for animal consciousness–say, from the cellular structure of neurons. Neurons not neutrons are now doing the explaining. The explanatory basis in particles is just too exiguous to do the job. Of course, we don’t know how the brain does the job—that’s the basic problem–we just know that particles alone can’t do it.


  1. The Uniqueness Problem. The panpsychist typically agrees that not every physical object is a conscious being—brains are, but rocks are not. The components of rocks are conscious, but not the rocks themselves. But this raises a question: why is that so? There must be something about brains apart from the consciousness inherent in their particles that makes the difference. A brain and a rock may be identical in respect of their particle consciousness, since they may contain the same particles, so it must be something about the brain that accounts for the difference—and this something is not reducible to particle consciousness. But then the existence of consciousness in brains and not rocks must be explicable by something other than particle consciousness—say, by the organization of brains. But this implies that some other fact about matter is the explanation of consciousness in the one case but not the other. Brains uniquely produce (macro) consciousness and yet their quotient of particle consciousness does not differ from that of non-conscious objects: so the difference must trace back to a property of brains other than the consciousness of their constituents. Again, we don’t know what this is, but we know that it must be so—in which case panpsychism can’t explain the existence of (macro) consciousness. It can’t even explain why a brain is conscious and a rock isn’t! Even if all matter is agreed to be conscious, we still need something else to explain the facts about (macro) consciousness, specifically its distribution.


  1. The Overabundance Problem. This problem is connected to the previous one: how to explain why rocks are notconscious. Something must prevent a rock from possessing consciousness given that all of its parts are brimming with it. If there is so much consciousness within it—and nothing else if total panpsychism is true—how come it is devoid of consciousness itself? There is something it is like for every constituent of the rock but nothing it is like for the rock—odd! If we say that the constituents of the rock are not organized like the constituents of a brain, we are admitting that something other than particle consciousness plays an explanatory role—this becomes a brain organization theory of consciousness not a panpsychist theory. The difficulty is that to avoid the problem of why rocks are not conscious the panpsychist must invoke something other than particle consciousness to explain the facts about consciousness—in this case its absence from nearly all macroscopic objects. To get out of this difficulty the panpsychist may choose to say that rocks are conscious, so there is no problem about explaining why they are not given the panpsychist’s premises. But this is (a) massively implausible and (b) raises the question of why brains exist at all, given that they are not needed for full-blown consciousness. Why did evolution produce them if they are not needed to have the equivalent of an animal mind? This makes the brain’s complex machinery quite redundant in the business of engineering a conscious mind. And are we to suppose that rocks might have richer minds than ours, despite our large complex brains? Here the mounting absurdities are too much even for the staunchest panpsychist.


  1. The Specificity Problem. Animals have quite specific conscious states each clearly differentiated from the others, but how is that possible given that the raw materials afforded by particle consciousness are so limited? Shouldn’t animal minds be much less heterogeneous? Shouldn’t one type of conscious state blur into another? Let’s suppose that there are precisely three kinds of conscious state possessed by the basic constituents of matter, corresponding to electrons, protons, and neutrons—three types of what it’s like. How can many more types of conscious state arise from this slender basis? Shouldn’t animal minds be a lot simpler than they are? How can panpsychism explain the origin of the specific sensation of red, say, without something closer to that sensation? The panpsychist will not want to attribute such specific sensations to particles, hoping to work with something more capacious and pliable; but then how does that specific conscious state arise? How do conscious distinctions arise? Again, we cannot appeal to the brain’s organization, because that is to admit that we need another ingredient to explain the properties of consciousness. The more undefined we make the basic consciousness properties the harder it becomes to explain the specific character of the various conscious states we encounter. Something else will need to be invoked in order to reach consciousness as it actually exists.


  1. The Mind-Mind Problem. The claim is that the mini minds in particles explain the maxi minds in animals. One type of mind underlies another type of mind. Here the panpsychist faces a dilemma: either the mini minds are just like the maxi minds or they are not; the claim that they are thus alike is absurd, so it must be that they are not; but then how do they explain the maxi minds? Suppose someone was to say that human consciousness arises from insect consciousness: that would involve either attributing a lot to insect consciousness or supposing that a rather radical form of emergence is possible. We can dismiss the first alternative, but the second lands the panpsychist just where he started. For now the claim is that something quite unlike human consciousness can be the sole explanation of human consciousness—as if our consciousness can intelligibly arise from mosquito consciousness. What kind of consciousness is possessed by electrons? Presumably it is nothing like ours—maybe we can’t even know what it is like. But then how can it explain our consciousness? That is like supposing that bat minds are just extensions of human minds. You can’t get one type of mind from another of a radically different type. But how can particle consciousness fail to be radically different from animal consciousness? This is the mind-mind problem: how to get from one type of mind to another type without positing radical emergence—precisely the problem panpsychism was designed to solve. If electrons experience sensations of attraction and repulsion, how does that convert into the normal range of animal sensations? Some sort of magical transformation would need to be posited, just what panpsychism is supposed to avoid.


  1. The Species Problem. What kinds of conscious state should we attribute to matter? It is natural to be guided by our own case—particles have the kinds of conscious state that we have. They are like tiny mirrors of ourselves. But what about other species, here on earth or elsewhere, real or imaginary? Why not suppose that bats are the correct model for matter generally? Maybe electrons have sensations somewhat like a bat’s echolocation sensations, not like our visual sensations. Or maybe there is a species in another galaxy that is quite unlike any species on earth, and this species is the one that electrons most resemble. The question seems entirely arbitrary: why our species and not some other species? But species differ in their phenomenology, so which is it to be? The problem is that particles are uniform and must have uniform phenomenology; but animal minds are not, so the panpsychist is forced to choose arbitrarily. It’s all very well to say that all matter is conscious, but there is the question what kindof conscious—and this exposes a kind speciesism at work. We tend to think we are the model for matter in general, but that is anthropocentric and arbitrary. The only way out is to postulate some sort of species-neutral consciousness, but this is (a) not clearly intelligible and (b) lands us back with the Specificity Problem. Vagueness on the question of the precise character of electron consciousness is what enables the panpsychist to avoid confronting this problem. At bottom the problem arises from the variety of animal consciousness and the (relative) uniformity of matter.


  1. The Extension Problem. Are the mini minds extended in space? If they are, then presumably maxi minds are too: but that flies in the face of a strong intuition. If they are not, then how can they constitute matter, which is extended in space? The problem is that to solve the matter problem panpsychism exacerbates the mind problem: matter is extended, so whatever constitutes it must be too; but then it can’t constitute mind, if mind is not extended. To solve one problem disqualifies the theory from solving the other. Suppose that a particle has a certain size and shape; then its constituting mental entity must have that size and shape too. Very well, let it be so: but then we are committed to holding that the mental entities it composes also have size and shape. We might be willing to accept that, but we need to be aware that we are accepting it. Panpsychism either entails that the material word is non-spatial or that the mental world is spatial—which is it to be?


I am myself rather inclined to think that the stuff of the so-called material world and the stuff of the (also so-called) mental world are fundamentally the same stuff. I also think that panpsychism has at least the form of an adequate theory of the material world (though I have problems with the details). Perhaps the uniform stuff is most closely approximated by the simple minds of simple creatures, before complex minds like ours developed, so that reptiles (say) exist in a more unified way than mammals. Or maybe we need to descend further down the phylogenetic scale in order to find mind stuff in its purest form. The basic metaphysical picture promoted by the panpsychist seems to me not wide of the mark. But I am far more skeptical of the claim to solve the mind-body problem for the reasons stated above (and for other reasons too). It might conceivably offer a partial solution, but other ingredients would need to be added if we are ever to understand how consciousness came to exist.[2] It can’t be the wholeaccount of the origin of consciousness. So it looks like panpsychism has a better chance of solving the body problem than the mind problem, ironically enough.[3]



[1] For my reasons for calling it the mind problem, see my “The Mind Problem”.

[2] A hybrid position heaves into view: panpsychism plus mysterianism. The emergence of animal consciousness results from a combination of primitive consciousness at the basic level and an unknown factor at the level of the brain. The brain uses this unknown factor to convert primitive consciousness into the full-blown kind. How, is a mystery.

[3] A problem I have not mentioned because it is very recherché is this: why suppose that the basic mental properties apply to the objects identified by physics? Why should the soul of the universe be divided up according to the physicist’s carving knife? Why not suppose that mental reality exists in the interstices of the objects of physics? Perhaps space itself is permeated by consciousness, and electrons only derivatively upon that. True, this view prevents us from literally identifying electrons with packets of consciousness, but it still allows that consciousness is basic to reality. So the panpsychist needs to tell us why she insists that particles are the locus of consciousness and not the spatiotemporal manifold. In short: why isn’t space conscious but not particles in space? This shows how under-motivated the theory really is—and yet how attractive to the imagination.

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