Book Reviews


Godehard Brüntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla (eds.)

Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives

New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, 424 pp.
ISBN: 978-0199359943

Reviewed by David Skrbina

It is a striking fact that, despite growing interest in panpsychism over the past two decades, there have been very few books dedicated to the subject. Among the four or five monographs, perhaps the first was Griffin’s Unsnarling the World Knot of 1998. De Quincey’s survey, Radical Nature, was issued in 2002, and Clarke’s short enquiry, Pan­psychism and the Religious Attitude, came out the following year. My own study, Panpsychism in the West, appeared in 2005 (revised edition 2017).

Anthologies are equally rare; only four have been released. The first was Imprint Academic’s own work, Consciousness and its Place in Nature (2006). Though not a traditional compilation, this collection of responses to Galen Strawson’s outstanding essay ‘Realistic Monism’ is notable for its many sceptical voices. Three years later came my own anthology, Mind That Abides (2009). Third was Blamauer’s inspiring collection, The Mental as Fundamental (2011). And now a fourth: Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by the very able German team of Godehard Brüntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla. Published with the imprimatur of Oxford University Press, this is undoubtedly the most prestigious anthology to date. It’s a compilation of 16 essays by a wide range of current philosophers, all grappling with the many pros and cons of panpsychism. The book is a fasci­nating, occasionally frustrating, but truly enlightening collection.

Panpsychism is an ancient and venerable doctrine, dating from the very origins of Western philosophy. Subject to varying definitions, it means, roughly, that all things in the universe, including at least some of the ultimate particles, have a psychical or experiential aspect. Simply put, it means that all things have minds. Others prefer ‘con­sciousness’, and some exclude certain select physical objects or systems, but the general idea is that mind, experience, or subjectivity is a widespread and fundamental aspect of reality.

As befitting the OUP line-up, this is a work of solidly analytical philosophy, and the various authors apply a rigorous philosophical treatment. It is well organized into four main units: an introductory Part I lays out the logical geography, Part II contains four studies of panpsychist ontologies, Part III addresses the infamous combination problem, and Part IV contrasts panpsychism with various standard positions in philosophy of mind. I will offer a few brief comments on each piece, and then conclude with some general thoughts on the over­all approach taken here, and on panpsychism more broadly.

The book leads off with a lengthy overview piece by David Chalmers. He, of course, brought the topic of panpsychism to some prominence in 1996 with his The Conscious Mind, where he examined it in detail but did not endorse it. Somewhat surprisingly, in the inter­vening 20 years Chalmers still has not made a commitment: ‘I am by no means confident that panpsychism is true, but I am also not con­fident that it is not true.’ A true philosopher’s conviction! From my standpoint, this is unfortunate; we who have been defending pan­psychism could use another strong analytic voice of support. One wonders how long we will have to wait.

Chalmers’ first few pages run through a series of proposed defi­nitions for panpsychism, from ‘everything has a mind’ to ‘some fun­damental physical entities have mental states’ or are ‘conscious’, to a final view that ‘everything is (or at least some things are) funda­mentally physical and fundamentally mental’. He then addresses a variety of views, including panprotopsychism, constitutive and non-constitutive approaches, Russellian concepts, and panqualityism. Favoured topics like quiddities and zombies make obligatory appear­ances. The logical positions are detailed and clear. He concludes that substance dualism and Russellian monism are the ‘two serious con­tenders’ for a theory of mind, each with ‘fairly equal credence’.

In the second essay, Brüntrup defends an emergent, non-constitutive form of panpsychism. In its constitutive variations, some or all of the ultimate atomic particles are experiential, conscious, or subjects in their own right, which then combine in certain ways to form higher-order minds such as found in humans and other animals. But it is very unclear how such a combination is to work — hence, the ‘combination problem’. Brüntrup avoids this altogether by advocating non-combinatorial (non-constitutive) panpsychism, which relies on a kind of ‘strong emergence’ — something less than the ‘superstrong’ variant of emergent dualism — in order for higher-level minds to appear. But many questions remain. Is his system really panpsychism? Do all objects above the particle level have emergent minds? What about systems of objects? Do any ultimates have minds? Details are lacking, and hence we are hard-pressed to evaluate his position.

The next piece, by Galen Strawson, is for me a highlight of the book. He argues not merely that panpsychism is a viable theory, but that it ought rightly to be the default view of mind; that is, we should favour panpsychism above all competing theories, unless and until one can mount a definitively stronger case. Now there’s an assertive view! No defensive manoeuvres here — attack!

Strawson’s essay is structured around four identity claims: being is energy, being is becoming, being is quality, and being is mind — the latter, of course, asserting panpsychism. In other words, energy, process, quality, and mind come to the same thing, and each, in its own way, describes reality. He then combines this outlook with a stance against radical or brute emergence, alongside a ‘stuff monist’ viewpoint, to arrive at a kind of pure panpsychism in which the sub­stance of reality is wholly experiential. He is quick to note that, despite appearances, this has nothing to do with a Berkeleyan idealism in which qualities or ‘ideas’ exist in someone’s mind. The experiential is objective — a view that recalls Peirce’s ‘objective idealism’ and, even earlier, Schopenhauer’s ‘objectified will’.

‘There is no good reason to believe that anything nonexperiential exists’ — a striking claim. Realizing its truth, says Strawson, ‘is one of the most important experiences that a philosopher can undergo’. I think this chapter is on track to become a classic piece, on par with his 2006 essay (first published in JCS), ‘Realistic Monism’.

Nagasawa and Wager then ramp up the metaphysical speculation by examining ‘priority cosmopsychism’ — the view that the cosmos as a whole is conscious, and that all lesser minds, such as ourselves, are decompositions or derivatives of this ontologically prior reality. A bold claim, to be sure, but again this is an ancient idea, recalling the anima mundi of Plato. And it has been explored in other variants recently, such as in the work of Freya Mathews (whom the authors cite). The idea of a dual-aspect cosmopsychism seems particularly intriguing, though the authors are only able to give it passing mention.

Brogaard’s and Rosenberg’s pieces are the first of three or four to make an important observation about the mind, namely that it may be promising to treat consciousness, like energy, as a field entity. I will address this issue separately below.

Part III returns to Chalmers with an extended discussion of the combi­nation problem. It turns out that ‘the’ combination problem is actually three problems, relating to subjects, qualities, and structures. But we then learn that there are even more aspects: unity problem, boundary problem, awareness problem, and grain problem. But wait, it gets worse! ‘There are analogous versions of all these problems for pan­protopsychism.’ By my count, that yields something like 14 distinct problems to deal with. No wonder philosophers have made so little progress.

Chalmers’ proposed solution to this mass of problems is appro­priately complex: combining ‘phenomenal bonding or quantum holism’, ‘small qualitative palettes’, ‘informational composition’, and ‘a somewhat deflationary account of awareness of qualities’. ‘It is not at all clear’, he adds, ‘whether these ideas can work together… all at once’ — agreed!

After Chalmers’ daunting piece, Montero’s essay is like a breath of fresh air: clear, concise, and imaginative. She again treats the mind like a field, so I defer comment for now. Seager then offers up a ‘combinatorial infusion’ model in which macrostates of conscious­ness, such as the human, arise from a ‘transmutation’ of microstates (of particles?). He argues that such lower-order states can give rise, via a soft form of emergence, to ‘a new state, which infuses its precursors’. Along the way he makes some interesting observations, such as the idea that as physical ultimates progressively form more complex physical objects, ‘so too does consciousness become more complex’. I like this concept; it recalls, of course, Teilhard’s ‘complexity-consciousness’ thesis and also the earlier work by Schiller. I also like Seager’s suggestion that the best way to under­stand consciousness is via some form of dual-aspect theory; this pre­serves the role of science and the causal closure of the physical while still respecting the equally fundamental — and equally pervasive — role of consciousness. But I worry that he must resort to quantum entanglement and black holes to make his analogies; perhaps better models await.

Next, Coleman tackles neutral monism and the problem of the summing of subjects, which is a variation on the combination problem: how can individual, discrete microsubjects ever sum together to create a larger macrosubject? In the end he rejects pan­psychism in favour of a panqualityism that allows for the emergence of new subjects.

The follow-on piece by Goff addresses phenomenal bonding as a solution to the subject combination problem. He closes with a contro­versial but potentially important insight, namely that subjects always sum, no matter the configuration in question. Called ‘unrestricted combination’, this view holds that every conceivable combination of objects is a new object, including such bizarre ‘objects’ as the one composed of my teacup, the Eiffel tower, and Jupiter. Since, on the panpsychist view, each constituent object is also a subject, then so too is the new combined object. (I myself defended such a view back in 2009, with my essay ‘Minds, Objects, and Relations’.) The cosmos, then, is a vast hierarchical network of subjects, each experiencing the world from a particular point of view. Such a universalism has important implications for panpsychism and beyond.

The concluding Part IV covers a range of alternatives to pan­psychism. McLaughlin provides a clear and helpful account of various issues, all while rejecting any form of panpsychism or panexperi­entialism. He ends with support for a ‘neurobiologicalism’ that seems to be an identity variation of non-reductive physicalism. Achim Stephan is blunter in his rejection of panpsychism; panpsychists, he says, must in the end accept a form of emergence that is no better than that required of conventional physicalists. This, combined with the presumption of unknowable micro-experiences of atomic particles, makes panpsychism untenable. Stubenberg addresses neutral monism once again — a companion piece to Coleman — and provides an admirably clear and instructive study of the issues, demonstrating an excellent grasp of the complexities of Russell’s thinking on the matter.

The final two pieces, by Taliaferro and Meixner, introduce a theol­ogical component into the discussion, something that’s rare (but not unexpected) for studies of panpsychism. Taliaferro is impressed — as I am — with the criticisms directed at conventional physicalism, and he takes seriously — as I do — the primacy of experience. This leads him to a panpsychist theological dualism (!) that I can’t quite accept, but it’s a welcome addition to the discussion. Finally Meixner defends an holistic idealistic panpsychism, of the sort advocated by Husserl. This urges him to a single cosmic or transcendental subject (‘God’) that makes an interesting comparison with the cosmopsychism thesis of Nagasawa and Wager.

Such are the essays. They are inventive, scholarly, and informative. What about shortcomings? A few are worth mention. On a superficial level, I found a fair list of typos, missing references, and other elementary errors in the text; for example, the number of misspellings of ‘panpsychism’ (‘pansychism’) in the McLaughlin piece is dis­concerting. (Can OUP no longer afford proofreaders?) On a content level, the dialogue sometimes seems stuck in certain ruts — do we really need to continue to talk of the ‘hard problem’, for example? And the writers often seem unaware of relevant historical views. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, to name but two, offer many pertinent ideas but go virtually without citation. And several authors quote the early James on the combination problem, but seem generally (apart from Seager) unaware of his later and final stance in A Pluralistic Universe.

There are deeper concerns. The book (and not only this book!) is pervaded by what I would describe as a kind of naïve realism: that the world is ‘really’ just one way, that there is an absolute truth about mind, consciousness, and the universe, and that we just need to work hard enough and we’ll find it. I think we need to re-look at more sceptical views of epistemological absolutism, whether from Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, or Skolimowski. Correspondence theories of truth inevitably fail. The human mind is a more creative participant in the search for truth than many realize.

Also somewhat limiting are presumptions about the subject as a discrete, autonomous unit. More than a century ago Nietzsche warned us of the fallacy of the ‘soul atomism’, of viewing the human as a bearer of a finite and singular unity of soul. Today he would warn us of ‘subject atomism’; too many of the authors take the subject to be a discrete, bounded, finite, and indecomposable entity. It would be much more freeing to view the subject, and the mind, as a fluid, dynamic, and somewhat nebulous entity — yes, as a field. Hence my closing thoughts.

Viewing mind or subjectivity as a field demands much more analysis and holds much promise. The field concept works spectacu­larly well in the physical domain where, as Einstein famously observed, ‘There is no place in… physics both for the field and matter, for field is the only reality’. Along the same lines, Russell stated that ‘it is energy, not matter, that is fundamental in physics’. Fields of energy do all the work in modern physics, so why cannot fields of subjectivity do the same in philosophy of mind? Why cannot experiential fields be ‘the only reality’?

A few of the authors appear to have sensed this. Brogaard writes approvingly of field-like particles of consciousness called ‘mentons’. Rosenberg uses a wave analogy, and notes the usefulness of ‘matrix or vector addition for things like waves and fields’. Montero writes of a field-based ‘continuous expanse of consciousness, what might be called “psych”’, that could mirror quantum field theory. And Coleman examines ‘fields of qualities’ and ‘qualia-space’, in a very promising context. As I see it, all these ideas are on the right track. Not coinci­dentally, field concepts also hold perhaps our best hope for resolving, or maybe dissolving, the combination problem(s).

This anthology on panpsychism is the combined effort of some of our best thinkers in philosophy of mind — period. They are creative and ground-breaking individuals, addressing one of the most fasci­nating and yet neglected topics in modern philosophy. We can only hope that more such works will appear in the coming years.

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