DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N079-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 14, 2024, from

2. Arguments for panpsychism

The first argument for panpsychism is that it can ground the best account of how something so apparently novel as consciousness could have arisen within a physical world whose development has otherwise been simply a re-arrangement of the homogeneous. One theory based on this argument is that the experience of those non-ultimate units in nature which are conscious are literally composed of the experiences of their ultimate parts. Thus my experience consists in the experiences of my neurons (and those of the experiences of their ultimate parts) which unite in a way in which the experiences of the parts of non-conscious things do not. Thus nothing essentially novel has come into the universe with human or animal consciousness, only new solidifications of the consciousness (sometimes called ‘mind dust’) already pervasive in the universe.

This is not a very satisfactory view. For consciousness seems to exist only in distinct individual units or ‘centres’, and it seems doubtful that these can combine to make more comprehensive ones. Even if this is not in principle impossible (and some panpsychists have reasons for thinking it possible in principle), introspection of our own consciousness hardly suggests that any of its components have a distinct sense of their own being.

However, there are various ways in which the theory may be made more promising. Perhaps it is a law of mental nature that when conscious individuals form a system of a certain type, that system becomes conscious in its own right so that its behaviour is due to a combination of the mental states of its parts and its mental state as a whole, without the latter strictly being composed of the former. If so, the emergence of high-level consciousness like ours is due to laws concerning the ‘charge’ of consciousness associated with matter in general rather than the result of its purely physical character, and thereby seems more intelligible.

The panpsychism we have considered so far implies no particular view of the nature of physical reality. It simply holds that each ultimate unit of the physical world has a certain ‘charge’ of sentience, which is additional to its physical characteristics, and that in certain circumstances more complex units of nature receive their own individual ‘charge’ of sentience too.

The second argument for panpsychism favours the different conclusion that consciousness is the real ‘stuff’ of the physical universe (though this may be further reinforced by the first argument). It starts with the claim that, metaphysics apart, we only know the structure of physical things as such (and of the physical world in general) and their sensory effects on centres of consciousness like ourselves – identified as the consciousness pertaining to certain complex physical things similarly specified – not the content in which that structure is realized concretely. Thus our knowledge of physical reality, so far as it goes beyond characterizations of things simply as the cause of certain sensations in ourselves, is rather like the kind of knowledge of a piece of music which someone born deaf might have from a musical education based entirely on the study of musical scores, such as could lead them to play (perhaps somewhat lifelessly) compositions on the piano without having any idea of the specific quality of heard sound in general or of the particular sounds currently being produced.

It being acknowledged that (metaphysics apart) we only know the structure of physical reality (or only the structure and the experiences it produces in us), a speculative mind will wonder whether its qualitative nature must remain entirely unknown. They will reflect that there is one kind of thing, after all, of which we do know the inherent quality, namely our own consciousness and, by inference, also the consciousness of other humans and to a limited extent animals. In short, we know the generic nature of consciousness and a good deal about the specific forms it can take. Moreover, we are incapable even of conceiving in any genuinely full way any thing more than a mere abstract structure (needing to be embodied in something more concrete to exist) which is not a form or a content of consciousness. (This is an essentially idealist claim which cannot be examined here: see Idealism §2.) Could this be because what we call the generic essence of consciousness is in fact the generic essence of all possible fully concrete reality? If so, the reality which produces ‘perceptual’ experiences in us, and the structure of which science (and less precisely, common sense) aspires to formulate and control, must somehow be composed of consciousness. This is at least a hypothesis worth exploring as the only alternative to saying that matter is unknowable in its inner essence, and as likely also to cast light on the mind–body or mind–brain relationship.

Citing this article:
Sprigge, T.L.S.. Arguments for panpsychism. Panpsychism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N079-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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