Panpsychism is the view that all of the fundamental entities in the universe possess some degree of mentality or consciousness, where this mentality or consciousness is not exhaustively explicable in terms of their physical properties. The opposing position is often referred to as "emergentism," which asserts that mentality or consciousness is not a feature of everything, but rather only emerges (perhaps inexplicably) when certain non-mental entities are arranged in certain ways. The chief motivation behind panpsychism is that it allows one to avoid the threat of just such an inexplicable emergence of mentality from the non-mental.
The view has appeared numerous times in the history of philosophical thought, though often in radically differing forms. Thinkers who have been counted as panpsychists (though almost never without controversy) include Thales, Anaxagoras, Girolamo Cardano, Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Leibniz, Gustav Fechner, and Josiah Royce. This article will focus on the core of the panpsychist position, by considering the line of thought that best supports it, and then by briefly considering what may be the clearest and most influential example of panpsychism as presented in the philosophy of Leibniz.
Panpsychism, at least in its stronger forms, is not an intuitive position. People naturally think of much of the universe (rocks, light-waves, etc.) as different from themselves in a very fundamental way—namely, that living creatures have a mind and are conscious, and those other, inanimate things aren't. Such a division is at the root of many ethical views, as well. People tend to think that there is something much worse about stabbing an animal with a hot poker than there is about stabbing a rock or a machine (even a complex machine). The reason for that simply seems to be that animals, by virtue of having minds, have a capacity for pain that rocks and circuit boards simply lack.
Given this, it is natural to wonder what motivation panpsychism could possibly have that could weigh against such a well-entrenched intuitive position. The chief motivation becomes more clear when one reflects on the question of how it is that consciousness, or minds, could appear in the world.
Consider the growth and development of an animal like a cow. Typically, one believes that a full-grown cow is a conscious being, but that the individual reproductive cells of its parent-cows and the food they ingest are not conscious. Yet, sometime after the time when the reproductive cells establish physical contact, a conscious being seems to appear where none had been there before (note that this issue is distinct from the issue of life, since, intuitively, there are plenty of non-conscious living beings). In this way of describing things, an observer can say that consciousness emerges, where this means that a certain property comes into being where it had not existed before.
The emergence of some properties in the world is not so mysterious. For instance, as a result of a certain political process, some entity might suddenly acquire the property of being Prime Minister, where it had not been Prime Minister before. The reason this does not seem mysterious is that anyone who understands what the property of being Prime Minister is will be able to see how it could have arisen from some combination of other properties (that is, the property of being a candidate, plus the property of being voted for by A, plus the property of being voted for by B, etc.). Such an understanding will allow someone to predict, with a great deal of precision and confidence, when (and where) the property of being Prime Minister will emerge.
But the same can't be said for the property of being conscious. Each human being seems to have some sort of grasp on what it is to be conscious, yet has no idea how such a property could emerge out of some combination of non-conscious cells and molecules. This lack of understanding is manifested in a complete inability to say, with any confidence, when it is in the development of an animal that consciousness emerges. The central point is that the property of consciousness just seems to be radically different from any physical property that, there's no way one can imagine how some combination of physical properties could produce it.
One response to this line of thought is to claim that an important part of the growth of an animal has been left out—namely, that at some point, its body comes to be inhabited by a special sort of entity, a soul, and that this entity is what explains why the body comes to have consciousness. On this view, consciousness never emerges at all, for, souls are always conscious.
Of course, such a response requires the existence of souls, as entities distinct from matter and with patterns of motion (e.g. entering into bodies) that appear to resist scientific explanation. That makes the response unacceptable to those who either deny that any such non-physical things can exist (for example, Hobbes) or those who believe that, regardless of whether souls exist, they shouldn't be appealed to outside of religious contexts. Yet, even philosophers who were completely convinced of the existence of souls, and who appealed to their existence in scientific contexts (a good example being Leibniz, discussed below) have found such a response unsatisfying in its mysterious appeal to floating souls.
The key thought behind panpsychism appears at this point. It is very hard to understand how consciousness could emerge out of non-conscious properties. But it's less hard to understand how more complex consciousnesses (e.g. a mind that's contemplating physics) could emerge out of less complex consciousnesses (e.g. individual thoughts about particular shapes and numbers). If that's right, then one way to avoid the problem of emergence without appeal to souls would be to claim that some degree of mentality is present in all matter in the universe.
The great German philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, Gottfriend Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was at the center of some of the brightest moments of the European Enlightenment. Of particular importance was his discovery of microorganisms, following the sixteenth century invention of the microscope. Many apparently lifeless substances, it turned out on closer reflection, turned out to be swarming with living entities. Impressed by this and the line of thought described above, over the course of his career, Leibniz developed a systematic metaphysics centered on the idea of "monads." Monads were to be the building-blocks of reality. They were infinitely small (unextended, in fact) and yet all had conscious, perceptual states. Those conscious states were, in fact, confused representations of other monads. As monads entered into certain combinations (as ordained by God), their representations became less and less confused. On Leibniz's view, each human had a dominant monad, but that monad's conscious thoughts were perfectly correlated with the happenings in the other monads that composed its body (one of the more mature expositions of these thoughts is Leibniz's 1714 Monadology).
To put matters somewhat metaphorically, Leibniz understood mentality to be more fundamental to reality than physicality. Part of his motivations for this came from his concerns about what sort of entity even could be basic (in short: Only a simple one, and the only simple thing is a mind). To Leibniz's mind, the suggestion that mentality could emerge from something non-mental was incoherent because it was the exact opposite of the truth.
Though sympathetic with much of Leibniz's system, in his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant charged that Leibniz had posited mentality as the inner nature of substances because of his inability to conceive of any alternative for inner natures (see the Amphiboly of Reflection). Kant thought that it was possible that Leibniz was right, but that if so, it would have merely been a lucky guess, for Kant held that people are unable, in principle, to know anything about the inner natures of substances.
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