• J. W. Barlament

Uncovering the Answer to the Question of Consciousness

The history of panpsychism — the doctrine of all existence possessing “psyche”, or some form of consciousness — has roots stretching down as far as the start of the human story. In its contemporary form, though, panpsychism only emerges in the early 20th century with the work of Alfred North Whitehead and his “process philosophy”, also often called “panexperientialism”. From his landmark works emerged a new school of thought that, for many decades, stayed firmly in the philosophical underground. Lately, though, this school has seen a meteoric rise, meeting materialism’s issues with a new framework from which to understand both the universe and ourselves.

Whitehead was a hidden giant of philosophy. Mathematician, metaphysician, mentor to Bertrand Russell, endlessly inventive and legendarily productive, he altered the course of philosophy by keeping alive a tradition that, by his time, had fallen far out of fashion. Now, his writings — even his seminal Process and Reality — have acquired a reputation for being headaches to comprehend. However, the man himself summed it up with stunning simplicity. Whitehead’s three core concepts, according to Whitehead, are “one”, “many”, and “creativity”; “one” being the ultimate unity of existence as one intertwined and experiential substance, “many” being the multiplicity of experiential entities within that substance, and “creativity” being the principle that impels the endless flow of the one into the many and the many into the one.

Simple doesn’t mean digestible, though, and without an introduction to Whitehead’s “actual entities”, our picture of his philosophy is incomplete. These are our experiential entities of above; in Whitehead’s words, “the final real things of which the world is made up … the final facts are, all alike, actual entities, and these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent” (Process and Reality). Like atoms in atomic theory and strings in string theory, these actual entities are proposed to be the smallest indivisible building blocks of existence, except for in Whiteheadian thought, these building blocks have an experiential component to them.

Now this, most crucially, doesn’t mean these actual entities are conscious. They are, rather, equipped with the potential for consciousnesses — a sort of experiential quality — in which said entities experience and perhaps unconsciously react to events, but not consciously understand them. Now, according to Whitehead, some objects are merely accumulations of entities, clumped together without any higher connections between them. Where entities formed a network of web-like connections, though, their singular experiential qualities combine to create evermore conscious conglomerates of connected individual experiences. And it is here, within these fine philosophical details, that the spark of the new school of the panpsychists began.

“Verwendung von Technik und Benutzung der Künste im Mikrokosmos des Menschen, Dargestellt in Kreissegmenten” by Robert Fludd (popularly used as an artistic depiction of panpsychist beliefs)

This line of thought we may also deem (yes, more terms) a kind of “micropsychism”, in which the all-pervading consciousness of the universe stems from the smallest elements of existence. In micropsychism, therefore, as atoms combine to create ever-complexifying matter in atomic theory, the proto-experiential actual entities combine to create both ever-complexifying conscious and non-conscious experiential entities. It’s perhaps the most popular variant of panpsychism, being championed both by Whitehead a century ago and the popular Integrated Information Theory of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi as recently as 2004, which uses a “phi” factor to theoretically measure the amount of “integrated information” in a given material system. This “phi”, of course, is analogous to consciousness, with “integrated information” being analogous to how extensively networked, and therefore conscious, the micropsychist experiential entities are. Now, with all this metaphysical tinkering and protracted vocabulary, it isn’t hard to see why such ideas are often confined to obscure corners of academia. Put simply, then, by panpsychist philosopher Philip Goff: “all facts — including the facts about organic consciousness — are grounded in consciousness-involving facts at the micro-level.”

This is all in contrast to the second major school of panpsychism today; cosmopsychism. Perhaps the more historical school, cosmopsychism states that universal consciousness comes not from the micro, but rather the macro, of existence. It’s an idea similar to the “World Soul” of the Stoics and Neoplatonists, as well as countless Eastern philosophies; in which consciousness is an inherent property of the universe as a whole, which then implants it into every succeedingly small bit of existence. Thus, rather than coming from the ground up, consciousness comes from the cosmos down. Generally, it’s accepted that this universal consciousness configures itself in different quantities in different smaller systems, not dissimilar from micropsychism, explaining why massive stars are less conscious than mere people, despite them containing much more matter. Philosopher-physicist-historian Bruce Gordon puts it thus: “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 … are manifestations of the universe’s consciousness as a whole.”

Ultimately, both micropsychism and cosmopsychism remain popular today for their potential to solve both the perennial mind-body problem (the problem of the relationship between mental and material matter) and the confounding hard problem of consciousness (the problem of how conscious matter arises from unconscious matter). In Whiteheadian thought, the mind-body problem is effectively neutered; switching matter out for experientiality as a unified basis of existence and effectively placing both the mental and material in this existence. Any panpsychist strain, meanwhile, renders the hard problem of consciousness no problem at all. If consciousness, or at least its building blocks, is everywhere, then it needs not arise from any completely unconscious matter in the first place. It is these promises of solving centuries-old philosophical conundrums that keeps the fire of the panpsychists alive — even when they haven’t had a well-known proponent in a hundred years.

And so, as we’ve seen, although the problems plaguing the panpsychists of today are far from all resolved, and cohesion seems but a dream, their school is still as thriving as ever. Despite the many seismic metaphysical differences between the different subgroups discussed above, they all remain panpsychists, and they all remain fiercely devoted to the promotion of both their own and all their colleagues’ ideas. This we can attribute not only to the inherent excitement of a budding movement, but additionally, that panpsychism is just as much a feeling as it is a philosophy. Few concepts — especially amidst the jargon of modern philosophy — really capture the spirit more than the concept of every bit of existence containing consciousness. Perhaps such a feeling could be most succinctly put by the contemporary panpsychist author Lukasz Lamza in his book Beyond Whitehead: Recent Advances in Process Thought, declaring that “the universe is a vast cosmic liturgy celebrating itself in every mode of being, and people throughout the ages could experience the presence of holy mountains and, in many cases, declare ‘Earth is alive’.”

Alfred North Whitehead, Philip Goff, Bruce Gordon & Giulio Tononi