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Panpsychism: What is it?

Panpsychism is perhaps the most fascinating of all the metaphysical belief systems that attempt to explain the ultimate reality. As with most ontologies there is more than one form of it. This page will be concerned with the monistic pantheist form, rather than the dualistic panentheist form. An accepted definition of panpsychism would be that all matter is in someway conscious or sentient. This does not mean that rocks can think. It does mean that the individual atoms in the rock feel or experience each other and are somehow connected to the entire universe.

The explanation of panpsychism I liked best was by Christian de Quincey. He said, "If both mind and matter are real, and are not separate substances, and neither can emerge or evolve from the other, then both matter and mind have always existed together, are coextensive, co-eternal and in some way, co-creative. Panpsychism, variously called panexperientalism or radical materialism, proposes that matter (or physical energy) itself is intrinsically sentient or experiental, all the way down." (When de Quincey says, "all the way down," he means from the entire universe down through the sub atomic particles or waves.)

Panpsychism rejects Materialism because it needs a supernatural miracle to account for consciousness. Panpsychism doesn't have this problem because it is an ontology where matter and mind are not separate substances. It is consciousness. Most scientists are materialists and almost reflexively reject the panpsychist belief that matter can be sentient. All too often they attempt to ridicule it by saying, "Thinking that rocks have feelings is silly!" While panpsychists do believe matter is sentient, most of us do not believe that rocks have feelings, but we do believe that individual entities feel or experience.

Charles Hartshorne (a disciple of Whitehead) attempted to answer the critics of panpsychism by referring to (1) the distinction of knowing from within and without; (2) the difference between aggregates and compound individuals; (3) an indistinction of sensory perception. The microscopic world is far from inert.

If you have ever looked at a drop of pond water under a microscope you begin to believe that even single celled organisms have some sort of primitive consciousness. They search for food, avoid danger and their waste products, and move about with a purpose. I doubt if they have self-consciousness. Even listening very carefully, I have never heard an amoeba say, "I think, therefore I am."

Another Hartshorne contribution to panpsychism was to make is that there is a hierarchy of compound individuals. He lists atoms, molecules, cells, multi-celled animals, and the universe as a whole. Each higher individual embodies lower ones, and contains the ability to feel and experience at a higher degree.

Hartshorne, like myself, seemed to have trouble with the word and didn't like to call it panpsychism, so he settled for psychicalism. I also have trouble with calling it panpsychism because I do not believe "all" things have a mind. Even the "psychism" is misleading because it isn't necessary for an experiencing entity to have what is commonly thought of as cognitive ability or mind. In spite of its name, I believe ours is the ontology which best accounts for mind, consciousness and the ultimate reality.

Unfortunately, Hartshorne loses most of us scientists when he gets into his brand of dualistic theology with its "loving father." Some of the people in the "New Thought" religions seem to be embracing Hartshorne's panpsychism and his Process Theology because they feel it can explain divine healing by using the power of the creative Mind.

Leibniz called the mind in animals the "dominate monad." A true individual, such as an animal, has a unity of feeling, experience and purpose and responds to its environment as a unified whole. In an aggregate such as a rock, no such dominating experience exists because it has no dominating center; the movements in the atoms of the rock cancel each other out. So the rock remains passive unless pushed or pulled by some external force.

Panpsychists today believe individual entities act and feel as one and are influenced by other entities in that environment. Quantum physics agrees by saying that the individual entities are not clockwork parts but are a network of relations.

Many panpsychists believe that even though mind and matter are not separate substances they are not identical. Christian de Quincey explains: "Matter or energy is not the same as mind. Mind or consciousness is not a form of energy. But panpsychism says that all matter/energy has an interiority, it is intrinsically experiential. Matter feels. The agent (or subject) of feeling is consciousness, what is felt (the object) is the Matter/energy. They always go together." (From an E-mail)

The environment and the experience of a carbon atom in the Hope diamond are surely different from the experience of a carbon atom in one of Steven Hawking's brain cells. Hawking conceded that physics itself offers no guide to "what breathes fire into the equations and makes there for us a world to describe." Hawking, by the way, can get away with a phrase such as "the mind of God." He and others have proposed a quantum cosmology in which an electron at one end of the universe is instantly influenced by and experiences an electron at the other end of the universe. Under this theory sentient matter violates the faster-than-light condition but substantive matter does not. If we accept this, an electron can no longer be thought of as a substance or particle that exists independently of other entities, but one that experiences and feels. (The Superstring theory [quantum gravity] could be one explanation for this and for particles communicating faster than the speed of light?)

Of course, quantum cosmology is itself speculative, but even quantum mechanics was not too long ago considered speculative and weird. Our ability to use tools such as the probing electron microscope allowed physicists to actually form a corral of iron atoms around a standing wave. This as well as many thought experiments and inventions have helped confirm all this quantum weirdness.

Quantum cosmology and the Superstring theory often need ten, eleven, or even more dimensions and it is somehow believed the entire cosmos is connected. However, we may have to wait for a new math to be invented to prove the Superstring theory and Hawking's quantum cosmology. By then, many scientists may at least be entertaining the idea that matter might be sentient, will have quit calling us panpsychists silly, and may even find panpsychism more palatable. If Newton and Liebniz could invent calculus to prove their theories, then perhaps we won't have long to wait.

NOTE: Besides Christian de Quincey, this article considered ideas from Charles Birch, Charles Hartshorne, Gottfried von Leibniz, David Griffith, and others.

This article first appeared on the Pantheist Net Forum in February 1999 (revised 2001).

Note: In 1999 when I typed panpsychism into my search engine it insisted I had misspelled it. In less than three years the same search engine showed 745 results.