(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Panpsychism

“Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way”*…

Some scientists, when looking at the ladder of nature, find no clear line between mind and no-mind…

Last year, the cover of New Scientist ran the headline, “Is the Universe Conscious?” Mathematician and physicist Johannes Kleiner, at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Germany, told author Michael Brooks that a mathematically precise definition of consciousness could mean that the cosmos is suffused with subjective experience. “This could be the beginning of a scientific revolution,” Kleiner said, referring to research he and others have been conducting. 

Kleiner and his colleagues are focused on the Integrated Information Theory of consciousness, one of the more prominent theories of consciousness today. As Kleiner notes, IIT (as the theory is known) is thoroughly panpsychist because all integrated information has at least one bit of consciousness.

You might see the rise of panpsychism as part of a Copernican trend—the idea that we’re not special. The Earth is not the center of the universe. Humans are not a treasured creation, or even the pinnacle of evolution. So why should we think that creatures with brains, like us, are the sole bearers of consciousness? In fact, panpsychism has been around for thousands of years as one of various solutions to the mind-body problem. David Skrbina’s 2007 book, Panpsychism in the West, provides an excellent history of this intellectual tradition.

While there are many versions of panpsychism, the version I find appealing is known as constitutive panpsychism. It states, to put it simply, that all matter has some associated mind or consciousness, and vice versa. Where there is mind there is matter and where there is matter there is mind. They go together. As modern panpsychists like Alfred North Whitehead, David Ray Griffin, Galen Strawson, and others have argued, all matter has some capacity for feeling, albeit highly rudimentary feeling in most configurations of matter. 

While inanimate matter doesn’t evolve like animate matter, inanimate matter does behave. It does things. It responds to forces. Electrons move in certain ways that differ under different experimental conditions. These types of behaviors have prompted respected physicists to suggest that electrons may have some type of extremely rudimentary mind. For example the late Freeman Dyson, the well-known American physicist, stated in his 1979 book, Disturbing the Universe, that “the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when made by electrons.” Quantum chance is better framed as quantum choice—choice, not chance, at every level of nature. David Bohm, another well-known American physicist, argued similarly: “The ability of form to be active is the most characteristic feature of mind, and we have something that is mind-like already with the electron.”

Many biologists and philosophers have recognized that there is no hard line between animate and inanimate. J.B.S. Haldane, the eminent British biologist, supported the view that there is no clear demarcation line between what is alive and what is not: “We do not find obvious evidence of life or mind in so-called inert matter…; but if the scientific point of view is correct, we shall ultimately find them, at least in rudimentary form, all through the universe.”…

Electrons May Very Well Be Conscious“: Tam Hunt (@TamHunt) explains.

* Kingsley Amis


As we challenge (chauvinistic?) conventions, we might spare a thought for a man who was no great respecter of consciousness, B. F. Skinner; he died on this date in 1990. A psychologist, he was the pioneer and champion of what he called “radical behaviorism,” the assumption that behavior is a consequence of environmental histories of “reinforcement” (reactions to positive and negative stimuli):

What is felt or introspectively observed is not some nonphysical world of consciousness, mind, or mental life but the observer’s own body. This does not mean, as I shall show later, that introspection is a kind of psychological research, nor does it mean (and this is the heart of the argument) that what are felt or introspectively observed are the causes of the behavior. An organism behaves as it does because of its current structure, but most of this is out of reach of introspection.

About Behaviorism

Building on the work of Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson, Skinner used operant conditioning to strengthen behavior, considering the rate of response to be the most effective measure of response strength. To study operant conditioning, he invented the operant conditioning chamber (aka the Skinner box).

C.F. also: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.


“In the oldest religion, everything was alive, not supernaturally but naturally alive”*…




One of science’s most challenging problems is a question that can be stated easily: Where does consciousness come from? In his new book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, philosopher Philip Goff considers a radical perspective: What if consciousness is not something special that the brain does but is instead a quality inherent to all matter? It is a theory known as “panpsychism,” and Goff guides readers through the history of the idea, answers common objections (such as “That’s just crazy!”) and explains why he believes panpsychism represents the best path forward…

Goff answers questions from Scientific American editor Gareth Cook: “Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?

* D.H. Lawrence, “New Mexico,” Phoenix: the posthumous papers of D. H. Lawrence


As we think about thinking, we might neon-pink birthday greetings to Don Featherstone; he was born on this date in 1936.  An artist, is is surely best remembered for his creation of the plastic pink flamingo in 1957 while working for Union Products.  It went on sale the following year– and now ornaments lawns nationwide.

In 1996, Featherstone was awarded the 1996 Ig Nobel Art Prize for his creation; that same year, he began his tenure as president of Union Products, a position he held until he retired in 2000.


A Featherstone flock



Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 25, 2020 at 1:01 am

“We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness”*…


Ockham’s razor is the principle that, all things being equal, more parsimonious theories – that is to say, theories with relatively few postulations – are to be preferred. Is it not a great cost in terms of parsimony to ascribe fundamental consciousness to the Universe? Not at all. The physical world must have some nature, and physics leaves us completely in the dark as to what it is. It is no less parsimonious to suppose that the Universe has a consciousness-involving nature than that it has some non-consciousness-involving nature. If anything, the former proposal is more parsimonious insofar as it is continuous with the only thing we really know about the nature of matter: that brains have consciousness…

One of the thinkers quoted in (Roughly) Daily’s recent piece on panpsychismPhilip Goff, has elaborated on his argument that the Universe and everything in it is conscious.  Cosmopsychism, as he now calls the notion, might seem crazy; but as he explains, it provides a robust explanatory model for how the Universe became fine-tuned for life: “Is the Universe a conscious mind?

* Max Planck


As we ascribe some level of sentience to absolutely everything, we might send brave birthday greetings to Fang Lizhi; he was born on this date in 1936.

An astrophysicist, vice-president of the University of Science and Technology of China, who published published a paper (in 1972) on a topic central to the argument for cosmopsychism– the Big Bang theory, previously a forbidden topic in China (Marxists claimed that the universe was infinite)– which met condemnation from the Communist Party.  He became an advocate of intellectual freedom and civic reform, whose liberal ideas helped inspire the pro-democracy student movement of 1986–87 and, finally, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989– and for which he was expelled from the Communist Party and forced into exile.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”*…


Consciousness permeates reality. Rather than being just a unique feature of human subjective experience, it’s the foundation of the universe, present in every particle and all physical matter.

This sounds like easily-dismissible bunkum, but as traditional attempts to explain consciousness continue to fail, the “panpsychist” view is increasingly being taken seriously by credible philosophers, neuroscientists, and physicists, including figures such as neuroscientist Christof Koch and physicist Roger Penrose…

The materialist viewpoint states that consciousness is derived entirely from physical matter. It’s unclear, though, exactly how this could work. “It’s very hard to get consciousness out of non-consciousness,” says [David Chalmers, a philosophy of mind professor at New York University]. “Physics is just structure. It can explain biology, but there’s a gap: Consciousness.” Dualism holds that consciousness is separate and distinct from physical matter—but that then raises the question of how consciousness interacts and has an effect on the physical world.

Panpsychism offers an attractive alternative solution: Consciousness is a fundamental feature of physical matter; every single particle in existence has an “unimaginably simple” form of consciousness, says [Philip Goff, a philosophy professor at Central European University in Budapest]. These particles then come together to form more complex forms of consciousness, such as humans’ subjective experiences. This isn’t meant to imply that particles have a coherent worldview or actively think, merely that there’s some inherent subjective experience of consciousness in even the tiniest particle…

More at “The idea that everything from spoons to stones are conscious is gaining academic credibility.”

(For a speculative playing out of this notion (and a basketful of other mind-twisting conceits of consciousness) at a cosmic scale, enjoy Vernor Vinge’s exquisite A Fire Upon the Deep…)

* Stephen Hawking  (Panpsychists argue that consciousness is the answer to his question.)


As we treat inanimate objects with more respect, we might send carefully-catalogued and phrased birthday greetings to Émile Maximilien Paul Littré; he was born on this date in 1801. A philosopher (friend and supporter of Auguste Comte, and contributor, with Comte, to the development of positivism), he is better remembered for his Dictionnaire de la langue française, commonly called “The Littré,” a project that ran from 1844-1872, and was originally issued in 30 parts– the largest lexicographical work on the French language at that time.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 1, 2018 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: