Panpsychism – Introduction

Panpsychism – Introduction

– Peter Sjöstedt-H –

(Rough Lecture Notes)

panpsychism panexperientialism hylozoism animism fechner schopenhauer sjostedt nietzsche kant leibniz spinoza neutral monism

Panpsychism is the view that forms of sentience are ubiquitous in nature, in contradistinction to the popular notion that sentience is an emergent property of the physiology of complex animals.

Mind is universal.




Brief History

Philosophy: +ve & -ve

Arguments Against/Problems

Why is Panpsychism a Minority View?



–      What is panpsychism?

–      What is sentience? (levels and types of ‘consciousness’)

–      Holons vs concepts


Brief History: (thanks esp. to David Skrbina)

–      Ancient Greeks

  • Plato:
    • Sophist: Form of Being inc.s sentience; there all things participate in this Form and thus involve sentience.
    • Timaeus: the Demiurge bequeathed sentience to its creatures, like Him.
    • Laws: All that has self-generating motion has sentience, therefore all heavenly bodies, etc., have sentience.
      • Plotinus writes ‘Plato says there is soul in everything of this [earthly] sphere.’ (Ennead VI, 7, 11)


  • Aristotle:
    • Soul=(non-rational:) nutritive, sensible; (rational:) appetitive, calculative.
      • i.e. plants, animals, man.
    • The heavenly bodies move differently (orbitally) to the things of the 4 elements (up and down), thus they must be moved by a fifth element (quintessence) (ether) which is a self-movement thus ensouled.
      • The circularity strives to emulate the perfect eternity of the PM, via final cause (the PM moves without moving by being ultimate object of desire, like a beloved moves the lover without moving).
    • Pneuma: the earthly analogue of the ether. A vital power: “Animals and plants come into being in earth and in liquid because there is water in earth, and pneuma in water, and in all pneuma is vital heat, so that in a sense all things are full of soul.’ (Generation of Animals, 762a18-20)


–      Stoicism

  • Used the term pneuma and hegemonikon (leading part of the soul)


–       Early Christianity: (holy) spirit. The Greek word for ‘spirit’ used in the New Testament and the Septuagint was pneuma. Stoicism was concurrent with the writing of those texts.

  • E.g. John 4:24 – “God is spirit’ [“pneuma o theos”].
  • E.g. 1st Corinthians 6:19 – “…the Holy Spirit, who is in you…”
  • E.g. Genesis 1:2 “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (original Hebrew word translated to pneuma/spirit is ‘ru(a)h’.)


–      (Pagan) ‘animism’ (e.g. Nordic Eddas) – and ‘hylozoism’ (all has life)

  • A word (‘Animismus’) coined by German scientist Georg Ernst Stahl (a vitalist), (c.1720)
  • The English word (‘animism’) was (re)introduced by anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor in his book Primitive Culture (1871) [i.e. derogative term].
    • He thought animism was the first phase of the development of religion.
  • Differences: Animism is generally dualistic (not necessary for panpsychism); hylozoism is the view that all has life (panpsychism is the view that all has sentience).


–      Renaissance

  • E.g. Cardano, Telesio, Patrizi (coined ‘panpsychsim’), Bruno (burnt 1600).
    • Bruno: “not only the form of the universe, but also all the forms of natural things are souls.” (from ‘Cause, Principle and Unity, 1584AD)
      • This tied his panpsychism with his pantheism (as in Fechner, et al.)
      • the table is not animated as a table, nor are clothes as clothes … but that, as natural things and composites, they have within matter and form [i.e. soul]. All things, no matter how small and miniscule, have in them part of that spiritual substance .. For in all things there is spirit, and there is not the least corpuscle that does not contain within itself some portion that may animate it (ibid.: 44).


–      Then Descartes (1596 – 1650)

  • (mechanism and dualism) – NOT panpsychism (but responsible for its lack of acceptance, indirectly)
  • Only humans have minds. (cogito ergo sum, mind and body have different properties thus cannot be the same thing, therefore dualism, etc.
  • Justified the Catholic dogma, dedicated the Meditations to Pope Leo X (to prove existence of soul and of God).
  • Pineal gland, etc.


–      Spinoza (1632 – 1677)

  • Descartes’ Dualism was problematic in the interaction of mind and body, so his ‘neutral monism’ (pantheism) saw mind and matter as attributes of the one substance (“God”), as aspects (DAT). Aka. Psycho-physical parallelism – because each physical thing has a corresponding mentality (which it IS).
    • Thus no mind-body causation, either way.
    • Also complexity is reflected by both attributes: “in proportion as a body is more capable than others of doing many things at once, or being acted on in many ways at once, so its mind is more capable than others of perceiving many things at once.”
    • Also, Spinoza’s ‘conatus’ (striving) was the essence of all things, akin to Schopenhauer’s will, which (arguably) is sentient: Spinoza: ”Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being”(prop 6)
    • (Mention the ‘heresy’ of Spinozism in Kant’s Prussian time!, also Schopenhauer’s statement that:
      • ‘Spinoza had special reasons for calling his sole and exclusive substance God, namely to preserve at least the word, if not the thing. The stake of Giordano Bruno [1600] and Vanini [1619] was still fresh in the memory.’ (WWRv.2,ch.XXVII)


–      Newton (1642 – 1727):

  • Interestingly, though Isaac Newton came to sire mechanism, he did hold sympathies towards panpsychism.
    • E.g. “We find in ourselves a power of moving our bodies by our thoughts … and see the same power in other living creatures but how this is done and by what laws we do not know … It appears that there are other laws of motion … [and this is] enough to justify and encourage our search after them. We cannot say that all of nature is not alive.” (Opticks, Q22, 1706) [His Principia, was published in 1687].


–      Leibniz (1646 – 1716)

  • Inspired by discovery of ‘animalcules’ (microscopic organisms, through invention of microscope (c. 1660)).
  • ‘Leibniz’s Mill (= hard problem of cons’)
  • Monads: “each monad is a living mirror … which represents the universe from its own point of view, and is as ordered as the universe itself.” (Principles of Nature and Grace (1714b, section 3))
  • Distinguishes ‘aggregates’ from ‘dominant monads’ (e.g. rock from a plant).  (holons)
    • One person is constituted by a myriad (‘an infinity’) of monads, and there is one ‘dominant monad (or, ‘primary entelechy’) that made the person one integrated whole (as one soul).


–      Kant (1724 – 1804)

  • Taught Leibnizian (Wolffian) philosophy till his ‘Copernican Revolution in Philosophy’.
  • Argued for the limitation of human knowledge (via phen. And noumena). Even space and time were merely a human way of perceiving reality. We cannot know ultimate reality (including whether it can be sentient in its parts).
  • He did entertain a panpsychist idea in CPR (1787(B)) (but later rejected it in CJ (1790). From CPR:
    • ‘…if we consider that the two types of objects [inner and outer] thus differ from each other, not inwardly but only insofar as one appears outwardly to the other, and that what, as thing-in-itself, underlies the appearance of matter, perhaps after all may not be so different in character, this difficulty vanishes. …’
    • (Trans. Dial., ch.1, PPR (B))
    • This may have influenced Schopenhauer, whom Karl Popper said was “a Kantian turned panpsychist.”


–      Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860)

  • (one thing we can know of noumenon: will)
  • DAT like Spinoza (‘Spinoza’s ‘conatus’ = Schopenhauer’s ‘will’).
  • Will to survive.
  • All that we perceive is a representation (as ‘spatio-temporal matter’) of the wills that underlie those representations. We automatically ‘project’ space, time and causality’ upon the ultimate reality that is will so to produce our representation of the world.
    • But as space and time are the conditions of differentiation, in ultimate reality (reality-in-itself) the will is undifferentiated – it is one (‘henology’). Compassion is the intuition of this connectedness or unity.


–      Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

  • Will becomes will to power, as essence of life (and all).
  • Makes Schopenhauer’s pessimism an optimism.
  • Power is more fundamental (eg. BGE§13,§36) than survival, explains politics, life, etc.


–      Whitehead (1861 – 1947)

  • “Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms” (SMW)


(But in background since Descartes: the movement of Mechanism and its Emergentism, the contemporary paradigm.)




–      Mechanism has arguably reached a cul-de-sac: the ‘hard problem of consciousness’: how to derive (epistemologically and ontologically) phenomenology from physiology.

–      Is it not more plausible that sentience always existed rather than emerged from complex systems, brains?

  • o          ‘Consciousness, however small, is an illegitimate birth in any philosophy that starts without it, and yet professes to explain all facts by continuous evolution. If evolution is to work smoothly, consciousness in some shape must have been present at the very origin of things.’  – William James (PPv1)

–      In 21st C, notable philosophers are advocating it (Nagel and Strawson)





–      Dismiss Behaviourism (use psy-cons?)

  • From Log. Pos. (and political Marxist motives).

–      Dismiss Eliminative Materialism

–      Dismiss Epiphenomenalism/Emergentism

–      Dismiss NCC and its implications:

  • Correlation not necessarily causation (both ways), or identity.
  • Bergson’s radio analogy.
    • Imperial College results with psilocybin – corroborate Bergson’s hypothesis that brain is merely for directing sensation to bodily actions, not for producing consciousness.
  • If AI is possible, then a brain is not necessary for sentience.
    • (But the motions that a computer ‘brain’ would extract may be abstraction, and thus no sentience would be had. Consider Leibniz’s point: a ‘natural machines’ is composed of parts that themselves are ‘natural machines’, etc ad infinitum. An artificial machine is not. (Monadology).)
  • There are cases of people with hardly any brain but still conscious, and in one famous case with a degree in maths and full social skills.
    • ‘”There’s a young student at this university [Sheffield],” says [Professor John] Lorber, “who has an IQ of 126, has gained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and is socially completely normal. And yet the boy has virtually no brain.”‘

–      Dismiss Mechanism/Materialism:

  • Cannot explain consciousness (‘Hard Prob.’).
  • Matter is an abstraction (Whitehead), and a mere representation (Schopenhauer) (as above)
  • Cartesian history (again): mind and body were separated, mind was limited to mankind; post-Descartes mind was deemed unnecessary, leaving only the mechanism.
    • Tied in with the decline of Christianity (especially Catholicism) as power structure in favour of secular states, and a secular socialism that sought to utilize mechanism as a way to invalidate the foundations of Christian rule. (e.g. Marxism and Logical Positivism).
      • Also problem of non-animal minds in Christianity with regard to heaven and hell, reward and punishment.



(The arguments necessarily overlap)

–      Evolutionary/Developmental  Inconsistency (as quoted in James, above)

–      The Problem of Other Minds and Analogical Extension – the extension of inference to sentience does not stop at the human – so where (why) do we draw the line? (lobster limit, etc.) (how to ‘prove?’)

  • ‘If things emerged from a spaceship which we could not be sure were machines or conscious beings, [the question] would have an answer even if the things were so different from anything we were familiar with that we could never discover it. It would depend on whether there was something it was like to be them, not on whether behavioural similarities warranted our saying so.’ – Thomas Nagel (MQch.13)

–      Application of Direct Knowledge to Nature – as opposed to the application of indirect knowledge based on nature to ourselves (as Schopenhauer stated, ‘We must learn to understand nature from ourselves, not ourselves from nature’ (The World as Will and Representation, ch.XVIII.)

  • A. N. Whitehead makes the same point when he writes, ‘It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom, but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body.’ (Process and Reality, ch.IV§5)

–      Anthropomorphism Cuts Both Ways

  • Panpsychism may attribute human sentience to natural objects, but mechanism attributes man-made machine attributes to natural objects.
  • As Charles Hartshorne wrote against those who think that we humans introduce minds in to the universe where only brains produce consciousness, “Is this not in a class with the idea that our planet is at the center of the universe?” (1977). I.e. We project our human importance upon the universe.

–      Burden of Proof  x 2:

  • to prove that non-animals are insentient has as much burden of proof as proving that non-animals are sentient (it is an equal burden) – so what is the default position?
  • the emergence of radically distinct sentience from insentient matter is of such an extreme break that a thorough and consistent description and explanation must be provided before acceptance – the burden of proof lies with the emergentist (not the panpsychist).

–      What does ‘Proof’ mean? – empirical evidence cannot prove that another human has sentience, it only can be used to infer it, therefore lack of direct proof of panpsychism is not a valid refutation.

  • Further, the notion that something is only meaningful if it can either be empirically verified or if it is true by definition (analytic), is part of an epistemology (Logical Positivism, Empiricism) that has been refuted and rejected (even by its for initial advocates (e.g. A. J. Ayer).
    • Why? E.g. Verification Principle implodes (not verifiable or analytic); Prob. Of Other Minds (“he changed his mind”); historical propositions; universal propositions (laws); etc.
    • Therefore knowledge is based upon more than proof, which would lead to solipsism – e.g. analogy.

–      Fechner: flute analogy:

  • ‘If I remove or destroy all the strings of a piano, a violin, a lute, then there will be no tone to the instrument … so obviously the strings are the essential means for producing tones; they are so to say the nerves of these instruments …

But now when I hear that the flute after all does actually produce tones, in spite of my pretty argument, I cannot see why plants might not be able to produce subjective sensations without having nerves. The animals might be the string instruments of sensation, and the plants the wind instruments.’

(Nanna oder Über das Seelenleben der Pflanzen, 1848)

  • i.e. (possible) Fallacy of generalizing from the particular.
  • Go into analogy vs induction (and deduction, falsification, Synth a priori).
  • Go into how Fechner’s panpsychism turns into pantheism (via sentient stars, etc.)
    • Fechner’s analogy of how hearing cannot see, and sight cannot hear, but they unite in one self. Likewise, we unite in higher consciousnesses which we do not individually experience as such.


–      Plant Sensation

  • That a plant’s motion can be followed minutely via mechanistic routes does not refute panpsychism because a mechanistic route can also be followed by our human motion (thus not thereby denying our sentience).
  • There is much recent work on ‘plant neurobiology’ which suggests a sentience therein. E.g.:
    • Sight: “we now know that Arabidopsis [thaliana] has at least eleven different photoreceptors: some tell a plant when to germinate, some tell it when to bend to the light, some tell it when to flower, and some let it know when it’s night time. Some let the plant know that there’s a lot of light hitting it, some let it know that the light is dim, and some help it to keep time” – biologist Dr Daniel Chamovitz (‘What a Plant Knows’ (2012))
      • Think of a plant’s surface as the surface of the retina of your eye. An eyeball with lens is not necessary for vision.
    • Touch: “Simply stroking [the Arabidopsis’] leaves three times a day completely changes its physical development. While this change in overall growth takes many days for us to witness, the initial cellular response is actually quite rapid. In fact, Janet Braam and her colleagues at Rice University in Texas demonstrated that simply touching an Arabidopsis leaf results in a rapid change in the genetic make-up of the plant.” (ibid.)
    • Smell: The parasitic Dodder Plant spins around as it starts to grow, ‘sensing’/’smelling’ the chemicals emitted by nearby plants. It then strikes at the base of the stem of the preferred plant (tomato plant where possible!) and wraps itself around, then siphons out sugars.
    • Mimosa pudica (shy plant) has recently been shown to remember and learn; slime moulds can navigate mazes.
  • So it is not disputed that plants are ‘aware’, but the question is whether they are aware in the sense of a thermometer being ‘aware’ of the temperature, or are they ‘aware’ as we are?…
  • I call it ‘slow sentience’ (think of a filmed plant in time-lapse: animal-like).


–      Whitehead & Bergson: ‘matter’ is an abstraction.  Our representation of the world is extractive: it is only a part of reality we see, that is based on our practical needs rather than what is there in its entirety (e.g. the fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum we see as colours).

  • Therefore to believe that we can get from matter (an abstraction) mind is like believing that we can get a sweet taste from a painting of a cake. – the whole cannot be derived from abstracted parts.


–      Rationality is Conditioned upon Teleology – if sentience is a mere effect of efficient causes (mechanism), then reason would have no effect upon our actions, and as this is untenable the implication is that sentient final causes (teleology) must condition our actions and thus be part of a broader teleological cosmology which implies panpsychism

  • In the words of A. N. Whitehead, ‘Reason is inexplicable if purpose [telos/final cause] be ineffective … A satisfactory cosmology must explain the interweaving of efficient and of final causation.’ (The Function of Reason, ch. 1)



Arguments Against/Problems with Panpsychism:

–      Combination Problem

–      Derivation Problem

–      Unfalsifiability and Unverifiability

–      Panpsychological Epiphenomenalism

–      Mind without Brain (NCC)

–      Anthropomorphism

–      How are ‘holons’/’units’ defined/delineated (autopoiesis)?


Why is Panpsychism a Minority View?:

  • Christian legacy (heaven, hell)
  • Cartesian legacy
  • Newtonian legacy (ironically)
  • Political link to mechanism as against religion (secular state against the Holy Roman Empire, then Communism against Church, etc.)
  • (Neo-) Darwinism absolved teleology from the study of nature.
  • The sentience of all nature except our own selves is hidden from us.
  • Panpsychism makes hard demands on our imagination (how to conceive the sentience of an atom, etc.)
  • Logical Problems, stated above.



More plausible to believe in panpsychism than not, yet many details still need to be worked out.


©Peter Sjöstedt-H MMXV
(Acknowledgements: David Skrbina, Galen Strawson, Charles Hartshorne, William Seager, Thomas Nagel, David Chalmers, et al.)