Pan Psychism’s Fitness

What kind of fabric is reality woven from? I remember my youth reading a physics book by Brian Greene who popularized string theory with its many and varied dimensions, and the super-cooled higgs field that was the precondition for the big bang. My early mind was shaped by science. However, once I made contact with philosophy my faith that science held the tools to understand ultimate reality suffered a limitation. That limitation leads one into the dead end of eliminative materialism. Eliminative materialism is founded on the limitations of scientific explanation, which is limited in that it can’t make contact with our essential self, our conscious life where our humanity is rooted, because consciousness can’t be seen with the scientific eye. One can’t point at consciousness because it’s not something that is objective. Since hard scientific explanation has no explanation for consciousness, science eliminates it along with all things mental. To the scientific reductionist, all we are is but matter in motion; or dust in the wind as the poets say. It reduces pain to merely unmylenated c fibers firing signals to the brain. Consciousness, freewill, qualia are all but a strange fiction, a delusion, an illusion. Science merely looks at causes and not reasons. Science can’t even tell you why Fred is going to the bus stop. Against every grain of common sense it contorts and perverts all our beliefs attached to our humanity to fit into the neat, objective, empirical facts. Artificial intelligence is materialism through and through, and the difficulties with creating a thinking feeling machine has proven to be a long lasting problem. So far, scientists and programmers haven’t been able to create a machine that can actually feel the sensation of pain. Neither has a machine been programmed to play chess, and love it so much that it doesn’t want the game of chess to end, much like we don’t want life to end. So when explaining a complete picture of reality, scientific reductionism found in materialism isn’t even on page two yet.

During my university days I clung to Cartesian dualism because ideas, feelings, and sensations really do seem to be different than chairs, apples, and automobiles. However, there has always been a loose thread in my argument in dualism. The major problem with dualism, as I see it, is how can immaterial stuff move material stuff? In other words, how can the mind move the body? How can they possibly interact since they are completely different substances? Simple deductive logic says they can’t. However, if you add a third substance into the mix, let’s call it “God”, then it can be the great mediator between the two substances. Now let’s take a step back and look at the Frankenstein our logic has created. Now between every bodily movement, every dose of medicine, ever surgical slice, God needs to mediate with absolute precision for the argument to hold. This clever bulwark makes my mind weary and although it is logical, it just complicates things and doesn’t seem neatly ordered. It’s too dependent on a third substance to do all the heavy lifting, a substance that we know absolutely nothing about. A God might exist, but using it for such purposes seems like we are forcing the theory. We know about ideas and matter, but nothing of God except for innate hunches and spiritual experiences that don’t fit neatly in a critical philosophy. There might be a God but perhaps we can make sense of the interaction between mind and matter with a more common sense solution.

Let’s take a step back and examine what we do know about the brain. For surely we can lose an arm and replace a heart, but we can’t replace the brain. So let’s take a look at three extraordinary cases of the brain. If one were having epileptic seizures the cord of last recall would be to cut the corpus collosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain together. It acts as a bridge that lets the two hemispheres communicate with each other. However, when we observe these patients, who have had their corpus collosum snipped, the seizures have mostly stopped, but also their consciousness becomes partitioned, and the left side of the brain can control the right hand; and the right side of the brain can control the left hand, each working independently. There are amazing videos of these patients drawing a picture with the left hand while writing a letter with their right. It’s remarkable because the mind has been split into two by severing this bridge in the brain. Another case study is the case of conjoined twins. Their thalamus is connected and when one eats something the other can taste it. This is another moment of pause in philosophy of mind, because these two twins can share a consciousness. They are sharing phenomenological experiences of taste due to their thalamus connection. Finally, an experiment has been successful in which a percipient looked at an image and the occipital lobe was scanned. With the scan of the occipital lobe activity, neuroscientists have been able to recreate the image that was seen. This is an amazing point, and points to the fact that the image had a physical representation in the brain.

An old theory with a long beard has been given a fresh face. It’s called pan psychism. It’s the idea that for there to be consciousness at all there needs to be consciousness universally. All matter is infused with consciousness. It takes into account intrinsic, mental properties, and also takes into account extrinsic, physical properties and collapses them into one type of “stuff”. It’s a monistic theory but with two properties that are just different sides of the same coin. In this view the world is alive with vitality. Everything from the dread abyss to a rock is interlaced with consciousnesses. This entails that there is some sort of fundamental consciousness to all matter intrinsically. The thread that unraveled cartesian dualism, the interaction problem, of how could something immaterial cause something material to move, is now solved when we collapse these two things into one substance. So under pan psychism, of course a cut to the corpus collosum would split the mind into two; of course conjoined twins could share a consciousness if they shared a thalamus. It would also mean that perhaps the physical representation of the image seen “out there” is represented in the brain by way of a physical impression on the brain, and sense the brain is the physical representation of the mind, then that’s just the image subjectively seen!

One of the main objections to pan psychism is the absurdity that a thermostat or a rock is conscious. But let’s take a look at ourselves first. If I were to cut off my arm, would my arm then be conscious? The answer is subtle so let me explain. There is a difference between a composite consciousness and a unified consciousness. I am a unified consciousness so long as blood flows through my veins, my nervous system sends an receives messages, and my brain neurons are having synapses. But if I cut off my arm blood would no longer flow, the nerves would be unresponsive and decay and withers away. My arm would no longer be unified with me, and it would be reduced to a composite consciousness hence forth. Are rocks conscious? A rock is merely a composite consciousness. The rock was merely assembled by physical acts such as gravity and motion, which glue it together. Therefore, its particles have intrinsic consciousness but act independently, they aren’t working together, they aren’t unified by processes like that which allows the brain to function as one singular entity with pains and plans. There’s something about organic processes that mold fat, protein, and water, and chlorophyl into unification, and evolve consciousness. Maybe there is a mental representation to some of our physical laws, that would tell us why, here on Earth, across the surface of the planet, life has evolved with such complex conscious awareness.

Metaphysics is rife with turbid, turbulent waters. Science is a reliable hammer, but sometimes you need a screwdriver or a utility knife. Since there are more viewpoints to view reality by we can’t rely just on scientific explanation. I departed from scientific reductionism because it cut away what was most essential about me, my mental life. I departed from Cartesian dualism because parsimony over how mind and matter interact. My main concern over pan psychism is in trying to understand what this fundamental consciousness is exactly. I obviously know what it is capable of when I look into my friend’s eyes, but what is it capable of when it is reduced? Also, what is its “will” when the psychic properties create the germ of organic life? Does it have a telos?

I find it fascinating that our intrinsic consciousness creates order and builds bridges to escape the throes of solipsism with the sense of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. It drives us to know the world, to believe in the world when we touch a rock and feel hardness, and reach towards more abstract truths when we gain insights such as the Pythagorean theorem or the idea of infinity. What is it about this stuff that allows this to be possible?