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Is There Consciousness in Everything?

A new volume on panpsychism suggests new ways of solving traditional challenges

A new volume of papers on panpsychism edited by philosophers Godehard Bruntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla just appeared with Oxford University Press. It features paper by prominent philosophers David Chalmers, Galen Strawson and Brian McLaughlin, among many others. According to the traditional version of panpsychism, everything around you is conscious: the chair your are sitting on, the rock you use as a doorstopper at home and the thick hurricane-safe windows in your office. Panpsychism literally means that particular kinds of psychological states are embedded in everything. An alternative to the traditional view is the view that everything around you has a form of rudimentary consciousness.

A good number of papers in the new Oxford volume are devoted to an old objection to panpsychism first formulated by philosopher William James. James argues against the hypothesis that consciousness and subjectivity can arise from the assembly of other more basic elements that themselves contain a rudimentary form of consciousness and subjectivity. The problem, as James formulates it, is this:

Take a sentence of a dozen words, and take twelve men and tell to each one word. Then stand the men in a row or jam them in a bunch, and let each think of his word as intently as he will; nowhere will there be a consciousness of the whole sentence ... Where the elemental units are supposed to be feelings, the case is in no wise altered. Take a hundred of them, shuffle them and pack them as close together as you can (whatever that might mean); still each remains the same feeling it always was, shut in its own skin, windowless, ignorant of what the other feelings are and mean. There would be a hundred-and-first feeling there, if, when a group or series of such feeling were set up, a consciousness belonging to the group as such should emerge. And this 101st feeling would be a totally new fact; the 100 original feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together; but they would have no substantial identity with it, nor it with them, and one could never deduce the one from the others, or (in any intelligible sense) say that they evolved it (1890/1950: 160)

This problem is also known as the combination problem for panpsychism. The problem can be avoided to some extent by focusing more on the qualitative aspect of consciousness rather than that of subjectivity. Human color experience, for instance, may require a certain degree of brightness of the stimulus. But this does not imply that there aren't lower degrees of brightness that are not associated with human color experience.

If, however, consciousness requires passing certain thresholds of qualitative features, then we can imagine that there is qualitative consciousness at lower levels of organization that lacks the intensity and subjectivity of animal consciousness. On this view, a certain qualitative threshold must be reached and a first-person point of view must be present in order for lower-level qualitative consciousness to add up to what we humans and other animals consciously experience.

The virtue of panpsychism, compared to physicalism—the view that consciousness is ultimately explainable in terms of, or constituted by, physical properties—is that it takes consciousness, or at least some forms of it, to be a primitive that cannot be fully explained in terms of even more primitive elements. Consciousness may be a force akin to electromagnetism or gravity that exists in some form on the fundamental level of reality.

As neuroscientist Christof Koch has argued, this sort of view does not undermine the efforts of neuroscientists, because there are indefinitely many other questions concerning consciousness that are in dire need of an answer, such as questions about how the brain functions when we are conscious.

The papers on panpsychism are available online through Oxford Scholarship Online.

Berit "Brit" Brogaard is a co-author of The Superhuman Mind

Penguin, used with permission
Source: Penguin, used with permission
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