Panpsychism – a blast from the pre-Socratic past

Galen Strawson, a philosopher at the University of Reading, offers an interesting, if rather bizarre, take on the foundation of consciousness (see the latest episode of Philosophy Bites). He suggests that the phenomenon of conscious experience cannot be explained as a property that emerges from the interaction of non-conscious entities such as neurons and atoms. Instead, atoms themselves must have an experiential existence, a view Swanson calls panpsychism.

This is not dissimilar to the views of Anaxagoras, one of the first western philosophers who, around 450 BCE, suggested that all objects are made up of aggregates of much smaller versions of themselves.

There are a few problems with Swanson’s view, as I see it. First, it seems to be an argument from ignorance – because Swanson cannot conceive of a mechanism by which consciousness might arise from unconscious components, he assumes that it simply cannot happen.

Second, Swanson’s idea merely kicks the can down the road. Even if consciousness can be explained by the aggregate of smaller conscious components, we are still left asking how consciousness arose in these smaller components.

Third, Swanson does not (at least in his short Philosophy Bites interview) give an account of how billions of self-aware particles could, when brought together in a brain, give rise to a single cohesive sense of consciousness belonging to that brain. This seems almost as intractable a problem as the problem of consciousness itself.

Finally, Swanson readily admits that some properties of matter do, indeed, emerge as we move from one level of complexity to another. He gives the example of liquidity: H2O molecules are not liquid, Swanson point out, even though collections of such molecules are. Swanson does not say, however, why we should see this example of emergent properties as categorically different from consciousness.

I doubt if too many philosophers take panpsychism seriously, but it’s nice to see old (in this case, very old!) ideas revived again from time to time – there’s always a chance that something valuable can be found lurking in the dark cellars of history.


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