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Is the mind just an accident of the universe?

The traditional view puts forward the idea that the vast majority of what there is in the universe is mindless. Panpsychism however claims that mental features are ubiquitous in the cosmos. In a recent opinion piece for Scientific American entitled “Is Consciousness Universal?” (2014), neuroscientist Christof Koch explains how his support of panpsychism is greeted by incredulous stares–in particular when asserting that panpsychism might be the perfect match for neurobiology (see also his piece for Wired in 2013):

“As a natural scientist, I find a version of panpsychism modified for the 21st century to be the single most elegant and parsimonious explanation for the universe I find myself in. … When I talk and write about panpsychism, I often encounter blank stares of incomprehension.” (Koch, 2014, n.p.)

Yet despite abundant skepticism, in the end of 20th century, panpsychism has seen nothing short of a renaissance in philosophy of mind–a trend which is also beginning to be mirrored in the sciences: Physicist Henry Stapp’s A Mindful Universe (2011) embraces a version of panpsychism heavily influenced by the works of Harvard mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Panpsychism has a long, albeit unfortunately sometimes forgotten tradition in the history of philosophy. Philosophers including Giordano Bruno, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Teilhard de Chardin, and Alfred North Whitehead have embraced different forms of panpsychism, and indeed the presocratic Thales of Miletus claimed that “soul is interfused throughout the universe” (Aristotle, De Anima, 411a7).

In in his seminal 1979 work Mortal Questions, NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel put forth the idea that both reductive materialism and mind-body dualism are unlikely to be successful solutions to the mind-body problem. Specifically, a reductive world-view leaves the mind lacking any purpose, while a dualist conception deprives the non-spatial Cartesian mind of any connection to spatial matter. Additionally, the idea of an emergent mind seems inexplicable, even miraculous; it merely puts a label on something that otherwise remains completely mysterious. Thus some version of panpsychism might be a viable alternative–and may even be the “last man standing.”

Yet it was not until David Chalmers’s groundbreaking The Conscious Mind (1996) that debates on panpsychism entered the philosophical mainstream. The field has grown rapidly ever since.

Bruntrup and Jaskolla_Pan_High Res Cover Art
“Spirit in the Body” painted by Herb Greene. Used with permission.

Panpsychism is the thesis that mental being is an ubiquitous and fundamental feature pervading the entire universe. It rests on two basic ideas:

(1) The genetic argument is based on the philosophical principle “ex nihilo, nihil fit”–nothing can bring about something which it does not already possess. If human consciousness came to be through a physical process of evolution, then physical matter must already contain some basic form of mental being. Versions of this argument can be found in both Thomas Nagel’s “Mortal Questions” (1979) as well as William James’s “The Principles of Psychology” (1890).

(2) The argument from intrinsic natures dates back to Leibniz. More recently it was Sir Bertrand Russell who noted in his “Human Knowledge: Its Scope and its Limits” (1948):

“The physical world is only known as regards certain abstract features of its space-time structure – features which, because of their abstractness, do not suffice to show whether the world is, or is not, different in intrinsic character from the world of mind.” (Russell 1948, 240)

Sir Arthur Eddington formulated a very intuitive version of the argument from intrinsic natures in his “Space, Time and Gravitation” (1920):

“Physics is the knowledge of structural form, and not knowledge of content. All through the physical world runs that unknown content, which must surely be the stuff of our consciousness.” (Eddington, 1920, 200).

Panpsychism is a surprisingly modern world-view. It might even be called a truly post-modern outlook on reality–mainly for two reasons:

On the one hand, panpsychism bridges the modern epistemological gap between the subject of experience and the experienced object, the latter of whose intrinsic nature is unknown to us. Panpsychists claim that we know the intrinsic nature of matter because we are familiar with it through our own consciousness. Freya Mathews argues in her “For the Love of Matter” (2003):

“… the materialist view of the world that is a corollary of dualism maroons the epistemic subject in the small if charmed circle of its own subjectivity, and that it is only the reanimation of matter itself that enables the subject to reconnect with reality. This ‘argument from realism’ constitutes my defense of panpsychism.” (Mathews, 2003, 44)

On the other hand, panpsychism paints a picture of reality that emphasizes a humane and caring relationship with nature due to its fundamental rejection of the Cartesian conception of nature as a mechanism to be exploited by mankind. For the panpsychist, we encounter in nature other entities of intrinsic value, rather than objects to be manipulated for our gain.

We’d like to end this post with an interview of David Chalmers discussing panpsychism at the Emergence and Panpsychism – International Conference on the Metaphysics of Consciousness held in Munich, Germany in 2011, which brought together almost all the major players of the current debate. You can watch interviews with attendees with our conference playlist.

Recent Comments

  1. Luke Kaven

    I might suggest that William Lycan brought panpsychism, in the form of Homuncular Functionalism, into the mainstream before Chalmers.

    It is implied in his thesis, and discussed explicitly in “The Continuty of Levels of Nature” (1990), which was published quite widely in the textbook for philosophy of mind.

  2. Josh


    The consciousness of panpsychism would imply that a particle is self aware. Whether or not a particle has intrinsic value is a different argument than whether or not a particle is conscious or intentional v. accidental.

    All things of the natural world return to a organic form of carbon and energy. These organic forms have intrinsic value in the tangible sense of their form, but also in the intangible sense of their potential. The intention, reason, or power behind the forming of the mind is unknown to us, but like all things natural we share the same intrinsic value of all energy, or at least the same law, only further evolved in this form.

    The argument remains, is this intentional or by accident? We are comprised of the natural world. To say it’s intentional is to say that there is a greater consciousness to all things, and I will argue for intention rather than accidental occurrence (the article presents an argument for an accident), because the nature of a thing is its purpose, according to tangible value, do you see what I mean?

    Energy as a particle may not understand it’s nature, but it exists according to it’s functions within the laws of physics, and is not an accident in that sense- like the universe exist and this is what it is made of. This doesn’t apply to what is “man made,” because what is man made often disrupts the natural cycle of returning to a carbon (mass)/energy form as soon as physically possible.

    Matter is energy, but it’s still adheres to the same law- that matter succumbs to it’s organic nature. Life is comprised of energy and matter, and life acts as another illustration of intrinsic value, both tangible and intangible. That is a bottom to top (the top being life/ our scope of consciousness) argument, but it doesn’t quite reach my point. What I’m getting at is that the nature of the universe (comprised of energy particles with intrinsic value, tangible [matter], and intangible potential [energy]) is to create life.

    Do you follow? Like a particle exists, though it may not know why, because knowledge of self is further along the line of evolutionary development. Knowledge of self is as much knowledge as it is the ability to doubt one’s one existence and purpose, something a particle doesn’t do haha- There aren’t a bunch of insecure particles out there, doubting their function, they simply ride the wave of existence. It’s not until energy forms matter, when it’s squared within our dimension, that it begins to develop more tangible potential, providing a greater vehicle for the influence and interplay of energy- the mind, as conscious filter for energy, and greater consciousness, but is still affected by external influences.

  3. Guenter Sostaric

    It´s not at all mindless, it is a different kind of mind, that´s all. The whole creation is made of conscious energy. Consciousness in endless gradations.

  4. […] Brüntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla write in the OUP […]

  5. Vladimir Rogozhin

    The mind is logical (natural) in the Universe. The ontological construction of primordial structure of the Universe as a whole on the basis of Superextreme Axiom “In the Beginning Was the Logos …” / “Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος …” brings to the solution of the problem of the ontological status of consciousness. Consciousness is the univalent phenomenon of the ontological (structural, cosmic) memory, which is manifested at a certain level of existence of the Universe as a holistic process of generating more and more new material-ideal structures. Consciousness is the absolute attractor of meanings. The meaning is the foundation of being. Consciousness is the vector value. Henri Bergson in “Matter and Memory” gives a good clues to solve the problem of consciousness, and Vladimir Nabokov (K.A.Barsht “Mnemozina of Vladimir Nabokov. True of the ontological memory”)

  6. James

    “Harvard mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.” Are you sure about that?

  7. Steve Turnbull

    I think Bernardo Kastrup, author of ‘Why Materialism is Baloney’, does a pretty effective job of critiquing panpsychism http://www.bernardokastrup.com/2015/05/the-threat-of-panpsychism-warning.html

  8. Gregory Wonderwheel

    Very good article for its length. I only lament the absence of mention of Carl Jung, since you do go back to William James. What passes for “psychology” today is really neurophysiology, not psychology of any variety.

  9. Vladimir Rogozhin

    Yes. indeed, the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Teilhard de Chardin, and Alfred North Whitehead gives clear direction for modeling of the process of the ontological structure of the primordial Universe – model of the “Universe that is aware of itself” (philosopher and mathematician V.Nalimov)

  10. […] a recent post at the OUP blog, Godehard Bruntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla […]

  11. Vladimir Rogozhin

    For modeling of “the universe, which is aware of itself” is particularly important the constructive ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in particular: “consciousness presents itself to our experience as the effect or the specific property of complexity”, points “Alpha” and “Omega” (“The Phenomenon of Man”)

  12. Don Salmon

    Steve Turnbull added a link to Bernardo Kastrup’s critique of panpsychism. I just wanted to be clear – in a long discussion on his forum, someone made a distinction between “bottom up” panpsychism and ‘top down” panpsychism. The bottom up variety tends to see matter as primary, as containing the potential for mind. The “top down” version is sometimes a form of non dualism, (close to Charles Pierce’s view) in which matter and mind are equally universal factors of a transcendent intelligence beyond space and time and of which matter and mind are coequal aspects. Bernardo admitted that this top down version is really not that different from his non dualist vision (his philosophy seems, at least to me, closer to Advaita and other Asian forms of non duality than to many of the Western forms of idealism).

    Bernardo felt his critique was worthwhile because so many academics tend to feel more comfortable with the bottom up variety.

  13. Bert Morriën

    See the following links.
    In the latter I made some remarks about the well known behavior of individual excited atoms and my interpretation of this as a form of panpsychism, which appears to be in accordance with Klemm’s idea. I also mentioned the – at least for me – eye-opening story of Helen Keller.

  14. Francis Hsu

    Beginnings, First Cause(s), Origins are always problematic. To posit any unitary start, O, as the beginning always gets us into trying to explain how not-O came to be at some later time. If O starts it all, how did it change to non-O? Dualism at least posits that both O and non-O began at once. Thus some ‘boundary’ even if un-expressed already existed from the beginning. The possibility for change is built-in to dualism. What was in a condition crossed the boundary and became something else. This could explain both matter to energy and vice-versa and of course matter to mind. The difficulty is to explain why dualism exists at all. Though of course in human history and philosophy, dualism pervades both our thoughts and experiences. Almost all evidence of we have explaining the origins of ancient civilizations begins dualistically: from Nothing to Something. Trying to cross that Nothing-to-Something boundary is the Biggest Challenge we have.

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