Panpsychism and the Relationship between Mind and Matter

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For over two millennia a metaphysical theory about mind and matter, consciousness and the Cosmos has fiercely divided philosophers and scientists. The theory is called ‘Panpsychism’ and it is now re-emerging in the 21st Century as a live topic, driven by advances in neuroscience and artificial intelligence.

Despite significant advancements in understanding the human nervous system, the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, as coined by philosopher David Chalmers, remains a formidable puzzle which some respected scientists are now suggesting could be solved by accepting that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the Universe, and that all matter possesses some degree of consciousness.

In other words EVERYTHING, animate and inanimate, which takes in you, your dog, the cat next door, the trees and flowers in your garden, the rocks in your rockery, your car, your fridge and even your supermarket shopping trolley (how many of us have sworn they have minds of their own anyway?) may have some level of awareness. If this theory has any basis at all the implications are beyond profound. It means our minds may have the ability to ‘communicate’ with the consciousness that lies within all things.

The roots of panpsychism can be traced back to ancient Greece, where philosophers like Democritus and Thales proposed that all matter was composed of tiny, conscious particles called ‘atoms’ or ‘monads.’ This idea was later developed by Western philosophers like Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, who argued that consciousness was a universal property of all substances, not just living beings.

David Chalmers is one of today’s foremost advocates of panpsychism believing it holds a potential solution to his ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Despite all the advances in neuro-science no-one has managed to solve the enigma of where consciousness comes from. Does it arise from the brain? Or is it somewhere in the non-physical realm?

In his book The Conscious Mind, Chalmers argues that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the Universe and cannot be reduced to purely physical or biological processes. He writes, “We might then take the basic physical constituents to have not just physical properties, but experiential properties as well… Consciousness is a fundamental feature of the world.”

Scientists, as well as philosophers, have also shown an interest in panpsychism. Physicist Bernardo Kastrup argues that panpsychism is supported by contemporary physics. He writes, “If panpsychism is true, then consciousness is a universal feature of the cosmos, akin to space and time… Contemporary physics offers us some intriguing hints in this regard.”

Neuroscientist Christof Koch, who has written extensively on consciousness, has also expressed a view. He writes, “I favour a panpsychist view of consciousness, where consciousness is a fundamental property of matter.”

Panpsychism has a number of implications. One is that we should treat all living things with respect. If all matter has some degree of consciousness, then we should not harm or exploit other living things without good reason.

Another implication of panpsychism is that we should be open to the possibility of other forms of consciousness. If consciousness is a fundamental property of the Universe, then it is possible that there are other forms of ‘mind’ that are very different from our own.

Polymath, physicist, biologist, biophysicist, botanist and archaeologist, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, one of the most prominent Indian scientists, proved by experimentation that both animals and plants shared much in common. He demonstrated that plants are also sensitive to heat, cold, light, noise and various other external stimuli. But he caused a stir in his scientific community when he added that inanimate objects had the same responses too! He said famously, “I have studied metals all my career and I am happy to think that they have life.” (Back to the shopping trolley).

Despite the growing interest in panpsychism, it remains a controversial theory. Some critics argue that it is too speculative and lacks empirical support. Others say that it is incompatible with other scientific theories, such as quantum mechanics. Nonetheless, the idea that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the Universe is gaining ground.

Phillip Goff, Associate Professor in Philosophy at the Central European University in Budapest, says the theory of panpsychism is crazy but most probably true. “I maintain that there is a powerful simplicity argument in favour of panpsychism. The argument relies on a claim that has been defended by Bertrand Russell, Arthur Eddington and many others, namely that physical science doesn’t tell us what matter is, only what it does.”

He goes on, “In the public mind, physics is on its way to giving us a complete picture of the nature of space, time and matter. While in this mindset, panpsychism seems improbable, as physics does not attribute experience to fundamental particles. But once we realise that physics tells us nothing about the intrinsic nature of the entities it talks about… the issue looks very different.”

He concludes, “Panpsychism offers a picture of the Universe as being filled with conscious entities, each with their own unique experiences.” Goff argues that this view of the Universe can help us develop a more holistic and interconnected understanding of the world around us.

As the discourse continues, panpsychism invites us to reconsider fundamental questions about the relationship between mind and matter, consciousness and the cosmos. It may also provide an answer to the so far insoluble conundrum of what consciousness really is.

 

Anthony Talmage is author of four books in his Psychic Mind series, Dowse Your Way To Psychic Power, In Tune With The Infinite Mind, Unlock The Psychic Powers Of Your Unconscious Mind and the just-published Crack the Cosmic Code (and write your own tomorrow) all available in Kindle, printed and audio versions from Amazon. Anthony also covers more of the above themes in his popular podcast, available for free to listen or download here.

 

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