Mind-Body Problem and Panpsychism

Panpsychism (from pan and psyche, the Greek for all and soul, respectively) is the doctrine that what exists is sentient or made up of sentient parts; sometimes, but perhaps less clearly, the doctrine is formulated as the claim that experience is a fundamental feature of all reality. In this context such words as “sentient” and “experience” do not mean anything as complex as the reflective experience or sense experience which human beings enjoy: what is meant is that the ultimate constituents of reality possess some awareness of the surrounding environment, however vague and indistinct that awareness may be and however difficult it may be for us to imagine its specific nature. Early versions of the doctrine may be traced back to the origin of Western philosophy. Process philosopher Charles Hartshorne, one of its most powerful advocates, mentions in this connection Plato’s notion that the soul is the principle of all motion as well as Aristotle’s idea that all things are moved by their love of God (Hartshorne 1950, 443). On a widespread interpretation, the most important exponent of panpsychism in modern times is Leibniz, and indeed most versions of the doctrine, including the one put forward by Whitehead, can be viewed as more or less sophisticated modifications of the theory of monads which Leibniz advanced as an alternative to the modern conception of matter as constituted by bits of insentient stuff.

Panpsychism acquired momentum in the second half of the nineteenth and in the first decades of the twentieth century, as a spiritual and religious reaction against materialism, which in the eyes of many deprived human life of significance and value. But the theory was also a serious philosophical attempt at solving theoretical problems in the foundations of the natural sciences. Discoveries in the physical sciences, eventually leading to the development of quantum physics, suggested that the traditional conception of the atom as an inert substance, a thing-like entity existing in its own right, had to be replaced by a conception of the ultimate constituents of reality as internally related events. At the same time, a consistent application of evolutionary theory made it inevitable to ask how life could have emerged out of lifeless matter. Finally, the impetus towards panpsychism was strengthened by biological observations, which showed that small organisms invisible to the human eye, such as amoebas or paramecia, display a surprising variety of behaviour (see Jennings 1906, for example, for a description of the behaviour of single-celled organisms). Cumulatively, these factors conferred credibility on metaphysical views that depicted reality as dynamic and organic—as an animated living whole.

In A Pluralistic Universe (1909) James speaks of “the great empirical movement toward a pluralistic panpsychic view of the universe, into which our own generation has been drawn” (270). And indeed philosophers as important as Hermann Lotze, Gustav Fechner, James Ward, Charles Sanders Peirce and Josiah Royce endorsed a version of the theory. Interestingly, James’s expression in the quoted passage is “pluralistic panpsychic view of the universe” [my emphasis]. Although the characterization of panpsychism as the theory that what exists is sentient or made up of sentient parts naturally suggests a close link between panpsychism and pluralism, the doctrine can be incorporated within a quite different metaphysical framework. Royce, for example, held that reality is filled with centers of experience, each of which is an aspect of a larger unified totality: the entire universe is a cosmic center of experience, which articulates itself into a plurality of lesser centers. Philosophers who, like James in his later works, adopted a version of panpsychism (Ford 1982), struggled to remain within a pluralistic framework: the problem they had to face was to explain how distinct individuals could be interrelated so as to constitute one cosmos, while at the same time retaining a significant degree of independence.

The following discussion consists of four sections. In Section 1, attention will be devoted to some main arguments urged in support of panpsychism and to some of the objections that can be raised against it: panpsychism will here be treated as a general philosophical position and no direct reference will be made to Whitehead’s version of the theory, which is discussed in Section 2. Section 3 provides some additional information as to the fortune of panpsychism in recent philosophical discussions, while Section 4 brings the exposition to a close by speculating as to why panpsychism strikes many as a highly implausible position—one that can be rejected simply on the ground that it flies in the face of common-sense.

1. The Case for Panpsychism

Among the arguments used by panpsychists in support of their position, three stand out with a certain prominence. In the first place, it is argued that panpsychism provides a way of understanding what things are “in themselves,” as opposed to what they are when considered from the standpoint of natural science. Secondly, panpsychism is supposed to avoid the shortcomings of Cartesian dualism and of materialism with respect to the mind-body interaction. Thirdly, it is contended that panpsychism provides a very straightforward account of the evolutionary origin of consciousness, and perhaps even the only intelligible one.

The first argument advanced by panpsychists, sometimes referred to as the “intrinsic nature argument,” is that science deals with quantitative determinations, but says nothing about the inner nature of the basic constituents of reality. On this view, science provides a detailed and certainly true description of what there is, yet only of its skeleton. As one panpsychist has put it:

[W]e are throughout dealing with quantitative relations among abstract possibilities. The whole of mechanical science deals with such relations. It is in no way concerned with the inner qualitative nature of the real existences on which these possibilities depend (Frankland 1881, 117).

What can we say about the nature of the basic individuals of which reality is composed, if this is something upon which science remains silent? Following what they take to be Leibniz’s teaching, panpsychists argue that the only clue as to the intrinsic nature of reality is provided by our own mind, which is the most complete instance of individuality we are acquainted with, as well as the only actuality we know from within. “The self of which we are conscious,” one of panpsychism’s advocates writes, “furnishes us with our first paradigm of what we are to understand by the individuals of our plurality” (Ward 1911, 52). By an act of imaginative generalization, we are then led to the conception of reality as a network of centers of experience: “It is assumed that there exists an indefinite variety of selves, some indefinitely higher, some indefinitely lower than ourselves” (Ward 1911, 52). The idea underlying this gigantic step is very simple: if the mind is part of nature and all constituents of reality are of the same ontological type, then we are justified in taking our mind as exemplifying what actuality amounts to. To be sure, the panpsychist does not claim to have proved his view. The claim is weaker and amounts to the proposition that panpsychism is the only positive hypothesis we can formulate about the intrinsic nature of reality. The alternative is admitting that reality’s inner nature is entirely unknown to us, an option that the logic of the panpsychist’s argument would indeed seem to leave open.

In the second place, panpsychism looks attractive in the light of the difficulties that alternative views encounter in dealing with the mind-body interaction. On a Cartesian understanding of the nature of the mind and of the body as utterly different in kind, the nature of that interaction is incomprehensible. How could a spiritual substance, such as the mind is supposed to be, exert an influence upon an extended one? Attempts at solving this problem have led to a variety of artificial solutions, like Malebranche’s occasionalism, according to which God mediates between the mind and the body, or various forms of parallelism, according to which there is a synchronism between changing states of the body and changing states of the mind. The panpsychist regards these theories as a reductio ad absurdum of the basic assumption involved with Cartesian dualism, the bifurcation of nature into a realm of spirit and a realm of matter. Panpsychism offers a much more plausible way of thinking of existing actualities as being equally parts of nature, for on that hypothesis our minds, our bodies and the entire environment are all constituted by subject-like centers of experience. The problem of how different substances can interact does not arise in the traditional form associated with Cartesian dualism, for all basic constituents of reality are identical in kind.

Thirdly, a strong drive behind panpsychism has been evolutionary theory. If we take evolution seriously, it would seem that we will have to postulate the existence of experience at the very bottom of things, for how could mind have emerged out of insentient bits of matter? According to the panpsychist, evolutionary continuity implies ontological continuity: we can understand the transition from matter to mind only if mind and matter are instances of the same ontological kind, i.e. what is required in order for a transition to occur is that there is a genus of which mind and matter are both species. Panpsychism assumes that the higher genus must be “experience”: yet if the genus is not to be identified with experience, what remains? Once more, the alternative seems to be that of holding an agnostic position.

Before entering into a discussion of Whitehead’s own version of panpsychism, it might be useful to consider two main objections that panpsychism has to face. William James states one of these in a chapter of his Principles of Psychology (1890) entitled “The Mind-Stuff Theory.” A very influential version of panpsychism had been put forward by W. K. Clifford, who postulated that each atom of matter was associated with a quantum of experience, a small piece of “mind-stuff.” This piece of mind-stuff, an “atom” of experience amounting to something less than a complete thought or feeling, was held to be capable of constituting thoughts and feelings by way of combination. “When molecules are so combined as to form the brain and nervous system of a vertebrate,” Clifford wrote, “the corresponding elements of mind-stuff are so combined as to form some kind of consciousness.” Analogously, he argued that “[w]hen matter takes the complex form of a living human brain, the corresponding mind-stuff takes the form of a human consciousness, having intelligence and volition” (Clifford 1878, 65).

Clifford’s theory is a dual aspect theory: the “mental” and the “physical” are regarded as the opposite sides of the same natural event. This theory raises problems of different sorts. One first difficulty is that the theory assumes the possibility of there being experiences which are not owned by any subject, such as the smallest pieces of mind-stuff will have to be. Secondly, it is doubtful that anything is explained by arguing that mind is “the other side” of matter or that “mind” and “matter” are aspects of the same event; after all, these are just metaphors awaiting to be cashed out in terms of clear-cut concepts. But the greatest difficulty for the mind-stuff theory is the problem of composition. James conveys the point with a compelling example:

Take a sentence of a dozen words, and take twelve men and tell to each one word. Then stand the men in a row or jam them in a bunch, and let each think of his word as intently as he will; nowhere will there be a consciousness of the whole sentence. We talk of the “spirit of the age,” and the “sentiment of the people,” and in various ways we hypostatise “public opinion.” But we know this to be symbolic speech, and never dream that the spirit, opinion, sentiment, etc., constitute a consciousness other than, and additional to, that of the several individuals whom the words “age,” “people,” or “public” denote. The private minds do not agglomerate into a higher compound mind (James 1890, 160).

Replace “men” with “neurons” and you have the problem: how could the experiences of the neurons coalesce so as to form the unified experience that constitutes the human mind at any one moment? As Thomas Nagel has more recently put it, “we lack the concept of a mental part-whole relation” that would enable us to see how distinct experiences could fuse into one (Nagel 1986, 59).

Many philosophers believe that this difficulty amounts to a conclusive refutation of panpsychism. It is important to note, however, that James did not think that the composition problem proved that all versions of panpsychism are false, for he was only concerned with criticising Clifford’s mind-stuff theory. “All the ‘combinations’ which we actually know,” James also wrote, “are effects wrought by the units said to be ‘combined’, upon some entity other than themselves” (158, James’s emphasis). James’s idea in this passage is that it is possible to make a positive use of this notion of combination as the conjunct effect of many causes, by thinking of the mind as numerically distinct from the cells in the brain and at the same time as capable of collecting and integrating their experiences. It is not necessary to think of the mind as an N+1st experience which emerges out of the N experiences in the neurons, for the mind could just be one of the N experiences in causal interaction with the others. Now, James is right in arguing that such a theory, which he refers to as a version of Leibnizian monadism (James 1890, 180), does not have to deal with the composition problem. Nevertheless, the question remains open as to how the dominant center, which on this view constitutes the mind, integrates the many experiences of the brain cells. The composition problem is avoided, but only to be replaced by what, for want of a better expression, may be called the “integration” problem.

Another powerful objection against panpsychism is that the problem of the evolution of human mentality is not solved by ascribing experience to the ultimate constituents of reality. The experience that could be ascribed to such ultimate units must be very simple and most panpsychists would draw a distinction between conscious experience, meaning by this the high-level form of experience enjoyed by human beings and the higher animals, and unconscious experience, a low-level form of experience whose nature we cannot grasp except as the hypothetical limit of a continuum of experiences. With this distinction, however, the problem of explaining the transition from insentient matter to consciousness reappears in the form of the problem of accounting for the transition from unconscious or low-level to conscious or high-level experience. A. C. Ewing states the problem very clearly:

Can it be consistent dogmatically to deny the possibility of the conscious having developed out of the unconscious (in the sense of the totally unfeeling), and yet to assert the development of the humanly intelligent out of what is quite incapable of reasoning? If we are to reject the former supposition on the ground of unintelligibility, it seems that we ought to reject the latter too (Ewing 1934, 412).

This problem shows that the panpsychist needs to provide a theory of degrees of experience to explain on what general principles higher forms of experience develop out of lower ones. Otherwise, panpsychism stands in no better position than materialism and the way is open for a supernatural intervention: if neither materialism nor panpsychism can explain the emergence of mind, why then not hold to dualism and supplement it with a theistic doctrine? Why not argue that God infuses matter with spirit? The point of making this remark is not to defend the theistic move but rather to emphasize that, despite its somewhat perplexing designation, panpsychism is an attempt to remain within a naturalistic framework.

The arguments and ideas that have just been exposed had been amply discussed by philosophers when Whitehead begun to develop his metaphysics; as will appear shortly, they exerted a strong influence upon his own version of panpsychism.

2. Whitehead’s Panexperientialism

Whitehead advocates panpsychism in Adventures of Ideas, Modes of Thought and Science and the Modern World. In Process and Reality, his commitment to panpsychism is manifest in his rejection of what he terms the doctrine of “vacuous actualities” (PR xiii), the idea that there may be actualities wholly devoid of experience. “[A]part from the experiences of subjects,” he writes, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness” (PR 167). Notwithstanding this categorical statement, Whitehead never called himself a panpsychist: when his student and biographer Victor Lowe asked him whether he was one or not, he is reported to have answered with “a rather evasive ‘Yes’ and ‘No’” (McHenry 1995, 2). How is this to be explained? Following a suggestion made by process philosopher David Ray Griffin, it is possible to speculate that Whitehead believed that the term “panpsychism” was apt to produce serious misunderstandings. In particular, the experience that can be ascribed to the ultimate constituents of reality must not be conceived as having in all cases the complexity of a human mind or “psyche.” “Panexperientialism,” Griffin suggests, could be used as a better designation for Whitehead’s theory of reality (Griffin 1998, 78, 107).

The term “panpsychism” also carries with it the misleading suggestion that the ultimate constituents of reality are substances with a continued existence through time. In Whitehead’s ontology, however, reality’s basic individuals are not continuants, but occurrents or events, serially ordered and linked in such a way that a common pattern is transmitted from one occurrent to the next: a simple enduring object A, such as an electron, is conceptualized as a route of occurrents a1, a2, … an; other sorts of enduring objects, such as the macroscopic physical objects of every-day life, are viewed as complex structures of many such routes. Taking the mind as the paradigm of individuality, Whitehead conceives of each occurrent as a unified moment of experience—as a single yet internally complex psychical whole. Each such whole comes into being as the result of a process that begins with the retention and appropriation (prehension) of aspects of occasions in the immediate past. The appropriated contents are then integrated the one with the other in the course of a synthetic process (concrescence), whose final product is a wholly determinate moment of experience (satisfaction):

The ultimate attainment [of the synthetic process in the course of which a moment of experience comes into being] is “satisfaction”. This is the final characterization of the unity of feeling of the one actual entity […] which is familiarly termed the “subject” (PR 166).

When the final unity of experience has been achieved, the occasion is superseded by a novel one. Most importantly, the process generating the unified moment of experience is partially determined, i.e. subject to the limitations set by the nature of the appropriated contents, and partially “spontaneous” or “free”: together, determination and self-creativity account for the final synthesis achieved in the satisfaction.

Although Whitehead writes that he arrived at his view of reality by reason of his reflections on the foundation of physics (SMW 152), there is no doubt that his panpsychism is largely indebted to James’s psychology. James holds in the Principles that our enduring self is not an underlying substance, but a construction out of a series of interconnected momentary selves. Whitehead’s discussion of the mind-body problem, moreover, is strongly reminiscent of James’s critique of Clifford’s mind-stuff theory. Consider, for example, what Whitehead says concerning the mind-body problem in the following passage from Process and Reality:

It is obvious that we must not demand another mentality presiding over these other actualities (a kind of Uncle Sam, over and above all the U.S. citizens). All the life in the body is the life of the individual cells. There are thus millions upon millions of centres of life in each animal body. So what needs to be explained is not dissociation of personality but unifying control, by reason of which we […] have […] consciousness of a unified experience (PR 108).

This passage addresses the composition problem: if the body, and specifically the brain, is a complex of occasions of experience, how do we explain our “consciousness of a unified experience”? The collection of all American citizens does not give rise to the higher entity “Uncle Sam;” analogously, the N experiences in the brain do not give rise to the N+1st experience that is supposed to be the human mind. Again, James had observed that the composition problem could be avoided by holding the doctrine of the dominant monad, according to which the mind is one of the already existing N experiences in causal interaction with the others. This is Whitehead’s own theory: “in an animal body the presiding occasion […] is the final node, or intersection, of a complex structure of many enduring objects” (PR 109). In other words, the enduring object we call mind is a society of serially ordered occasions of experience, each of which is capable of collecting and integrating the experiences of the occasions constituting the other parts of the brain. On this theory, there is neither a mind existing independently of the body nor a living body independent of mind; the real individual is the entire psycho-physical organism, viewed as a complex of occasions, some of which perform a leading role in virtue of their position relative to all others.

This theory nicely accounts for our common intuitions concerning the mind’s relationship with the body, for we think of our mind and our body as distinct and yet at the same time we are aware that they are inextricably linked. In the first place, Whitehead explains our sense of personal identity by arguing that the occasions constituting our present unit of mentality are capable of retaining aspects of the experiences of the occasion constituting our mind in the immediate past. Secondly, as an explanation of our sense of intimacy with the body, he holds that the present occasion constituting the mind prehends aspects of the occasions in the brain. Thirdly, when the mind prehends aspects of the occasions constituting the brain, contents are transferred from the brain to the mind, which explains the body’s power to act upon the mind; when occasions in the brain prehend aspects of the occasion constituting the mind, contents are transmitted in the opposite direction, which accounts for the mind’s power to act upon the body.

In the light of the distinction between complexes with and complexes without a dominant stream of occasions, moreover, the common objection that panpsychism is inherently implausible appears to be based upon a misunderstanding. To argue that panpsychism cannot be true because macroscopic objects such as chairs and tables do not have experiences is to be guilty of the fallacy of composition—the mistaken belief that if a whole does not have a property, then its parts must lack it too. Only in the case of complexes with a dominant stream is it appropriate to ascribe experiential states to the whole as well as to its parts; in the case of complexes devoid of a dominant monad, there is experience in the parts but no such thing as the experience of the whole. Interestingly enough, the objection could be reversed and used as an argument against materialism. Starting with centers of experience, the panpsychist accounts for the existence of insentient objects, which can be conceptualized as societies of occasions without a dominant center: can the materialist do the same and explain the existence of sentient beings starting with insentient stuff?

The discussion of the preceding section has shown that there are two problems which panpsychism must overcome. First, since he holds a version of the Leibnizian theory of the dominant monad, Whitehead has to explain not composition but integration: how are the many experiences collected and integrated by the dominant occasion of experience? Secondly, there is the problem of providing a theory of degrees of experience: how does conscious experience evolve out of unconscious one? These questions can be answered solely by entering into a close discussion of Whitehead’s notion of an actual occasion and especially of his theory of concrescence. In the course of the concrescence integration takes place, and at some stage during the process consciousness emerges, activated in the case of a high grade occasion sustained by a proper environment. An explanation of the different phases the occasion goes through during the process of concrescence lies outside what can be accomplished within the range of the present article: Griffin (1998) provides a careful reconstruction as well as a vigorous defense. Before concluding this section, however, it is worth pointing out that the notion of experience as having degree, apart from having a long philosophical history, is intuitively very plausible. We just need to compare our experiences when we are first awake in the morning with our experiences when we are fresh and fully concentrated to see how much variation our experiences go through in the course of a single day. Since experience comes in many shapes and gradations, the emergence of higher forms of mentality from lower ones would seem to be less difficult to understand than the emergence of the sentient out of the insentient.

3. After Whitehead

Whitehead’s metaphysics has not been very popular, except among a certain blend of US theologians such as Hartshorne, Cobb and Griffin. A theory that depicts nature as constituted by subjects of experience, each of which is partially spontaneous or self-creative, makes it possible to think of the world’s ultimate constituents as capable of entering into communication with God. This advantage is exploited by Whitehead in his account of divine causation. According to him, the process of concrescence leading to the formation of a unified moment of mentality aims at the realization of an ideal presented by God to the creature when still in the phase of becoming. God is therefore constantly operative in the world as a structuring power, yet not in the guise of an entirely determining force, for Whitehead also thinks that the creature is free to modify the divine ideal in the process of its becoming. Considered from a purely theological perspective, Whitehead’s theory of reality is therefore very appealing, even though it is rather strange to conceive of God as presenting ideals to such things as electrons and protons: the charge of anthropomorphism would seem here to be entirely justified. At the same time, it is not clear that the reality of free-will is vindicated by simply ascribing an iota of spontaneity to the concrescing occasions, for certainly one still has to explain how spontaneity differs from mere chance.

In the second half of the twentieth-century, the strongest case in support of panpsychism is probably the one provided by Timothy Sprigge in The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1983). Sprigge summarises his panpsychistic conviction with the following words:

I believe that the world ultimately consists of innumerable flows of experience, some of them of the high level which constitutes our own streams of consciousness, others streams of mere dumb feeling with a certain volitional charge. As all these intermingle, they constitute a system with a certain overall structure which is what science seeks to capture in its description of the natural world, and of which our life-world gives a less precise indication (Sprigge 1998, 216).

As a matter of fact, this passage provides a nice statement of Whitehead’s own vision of the world. However, Sprigge disagrees with Whitehead as to whether such a view can be regarded as ultimately valid. Since Sprigge rejects Whitehead’s notion that past occasions of experience become objects for novel ones, he believes that Whitehead has failed to explain how many occasions could be related to each other. The only way to explain the unity of many centers of experience into one reality, he concludes, is to abandon Whitehead’s pluralistic assumption and conceive of the many centers as aspects of a single overarching Reality. “But how,” he asks, “do these streams form any kind of unitary world within which they can exchange mutual influence?” The only solution is “to suppose them united in an absolute experience, and to interpret space and time as either the sensory presentation of, or the abstract structure of, one main way in which they belong together there” (Sprigge 1988, 261). A panpsychistic view akin to Whitehead’s thus gives way to the Spinozian view of a single static reality outside of time and space, which appears as temporal and spatial to the many centers into which it individualizes itself.

Process theologians and absolute idealists are unusual appearances on the contemporary philosophical scene. Within mainstream analytic philosophy, Whitehead’s philosophy of mind has been marginalized. In the last few decades, however, there has been a revival of interest in both panpsychism and Whitehead’s philosophy. Thomas Nagel (1979) has provided an updated version of James’s discussion of panpsychism in the Principles of Psychology. According to Nagel, who rejects radical emergentism, it is inconceivable that a purely physical system, like the human brain is commonly believed to be, could sustain consciousness. Unfortunately, he contends, the composition problem makes it impossible to adopt panpsychism, which must therefore be considered as one more failed attempt at understanding how the mind is related to the physical world. Another philosopher who has taken panpsychism seriously is William Seager (1995, 1999), who has argued that a possible solution to the combination problem may come from quantum physics, which in his view provides useful conceptual resources for explaining how the experiences in the brain cells can fuse into one mind. But the strongest case for panpsychism in recent years is the one set up by David Chalmers in The Conscious Mind (1996). Reductive explanatory models derived from psychology, neurobiology and cognitive sciences explain how systems function, but why should there also be experiences? We can understand how biological systems process information derived from the environment, but why should such processes be associated with a phenomenology? Chalmers’s tentative hypothesis is that physical states and phenomenological states are parallel ways in which information-systems are instantiated. Since all physical states can be viewed as states of information-systems, he concludes that “it is not just information that is ubiquitous. Experience is ubiquitous too” (293).

Eventually, however, none of these authors endorses panpsychism. Gregg Rosenberg has recently tried to work out a panpsychist theory along Whiteheadian lines in A Place for Consciousness (2004) and Galen Strawson has vigorously defended it in the essay “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism” (2006), yet it seems correct to say that panpsychism still tends to be easily dismissed as “absurd,” “outrageous” or “intrinsically implausible.” Most recently, for example, Searle has criticised panpsychist philosophers in the following words:

Panpsychism is the view that consciousness is everywhere. This view is seldom stated explicitly, but it is implicit in several authors particularly among the mysterians who think that if we are going to explain consciousness in terms of microprocesses, then, somehow or other, some form of consciousness must already be present in the microprocesses (Searle 2004, 148).

This attitude is very disappointing, for if philosophers refuse to pay attention to bold speculative interpretations of reality, who else is supposed to do it? And if philosophers shy away from rationally controlled speculation about the ultimate nature of what there is, how does their work differ from that of the scientist? At any rate, since we experience inert objects such as chairs and tables as well as our own experiences in the form of sensations, thoughts and emotions, it is not prima facie clear why panpsychism should be regarded as more absurd than materialism, which enjoys on the contrary a very wide acceptance.

4. Concluding Remarks

It has been argued in the above that there are fully coherent lines of argument conducive to panpsychism, even though they lack the force of a full demonstration. It may be useful to conclude the present discussion by addressing the question why panpsychism—and Whitehead’s panexperientialism in particular—is regarded with suspicion, striking philosophers and common sense alike as a highly implausible theory. A first reason is probably guilt by association. Since panpsychism is a form of metaphysical idealism, it might be easily mistaken with views that deny that the physical world “truly” or “fully” exists. Berkeley’s subjective idealism, for example, ascribes to the natural world an ideal existence, conceiving of physical objects as clusters of ideas generated in our minds by God. The sort of idealism involved with Whitehead’s panpsychism is not of the subjective sort: nature does not exist as an idea within the mind, but is actually composed of occasions of experience; these are real constituents of objects whose existence is independent from that of an external observer. Another reason is probably panpsychism’s allegedly unscientific character. Panpsychism is not a scientific theory, however, but a metaphysical one. Some philosophers might argue that metaphysics is a meaningless enterprise, but then it is difficult to see the alternative positions one inevitably ends up taking—dualism, various forms of materialism, neutral monism—as being other than metaphysical claims.

There is, however, a more serious reason for scepticism. Panpsychism is supposed to make a positive claim as to the inner nature of the basic constituents of reality, yet it is not so clear that this is true: how, for example, is the experience of an electron to be conceived? In order to avoid being charged with anthropomorphism, the panpsychist will have to say that the electron’s experience is radically different from the experience of a human being. The problem is how far we can stretch ordinary language without loss of meaning, and this is implicitly recognized by Whitehead: “This word ‘feeling,’” he writes, “is a mere technical term; but it has been chosen to suggest that functioning through which the concrescent actuality appropriates the datum so as to make it its own” (PR 164). Commenting upon his use of the expression “conceptual prehension,” which refers to an occasion’s grasping of an eternal object or ideal form, he also remarks: “The technical term ‘conceptual prehension’ is entirely neutral, devoid of all suggestiveness. But such terms present great difficulties to the understanding, by reason of the fact that they suggest no particular exemplification. Accordingly, we seek equivalent terms which have about them the suggestiveness of familiar fact” (PR 33, see also PR 211). In light of passages such as these, how literal is the panpsychist’s use of the word “experience” supposed to be? With respect to the example of an electron’s experience, panpsychism seems to retreat to the claim that there is some unknown property or nature in the electron, which under suitable conditions might give rise to higher forms of mentality. At this point, it is not easy to see that panpsychism is really helpful: to call an unintelligible nature “experience” is to name a problem, not to solve it.

Does this imply that panpsychism provides a verbal solution to a real problem? Despite its rhetorical overtones, this question is not so easy to answer. Written more than one century ago, the following words from William James summarise the status quaestionis while also providing the best apology for philosophical tolerance:

[In reflecting about panpsychism, we] dive into regions inaccessible to experience and verification; and our doctrine, although not self-contradictory, becomes so remote and unreal as to be almost as bad as if it were. Speculative minds alone will take an interest in it; and metaphysics […] will be responsible for its career. That the career may be a successful one must be admitted as a possibility—a theory which Leibnitz, Herbart, and Lotze have taken under their protection must have some sort of a destiny (James 1890, 180).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Chalmers, David. 1996. The Conscious Mind (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Clark, D. 2004. Panpsychism: Past and Recent. Selected Readings (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Clifford, W. K. 1878. “On the Nature of Things-in-Themselves,” Mind, 3, 9, 57-67

Ewing, A. C. 1934. Idealism: A Critical Survey (London, Methuen & Co).

Ford, Marcus Peter. 1982. William James’s Philosophy: A New Perspective (Amherst, University of Massachussetts Press).

Frankland, F. W. 1881. “The Doctrine of Mind-Stuff,” Mind, 6, 21, 116-20.

Griffin, David Ray. 1998. Unsnarling the World Knot: Consciousness, Freedom and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley, University of California Press).

Hartshorne, Charles. 1950. “Panpsychism” in A History of Philosophical Systems, edited by V. Ferm (New York, Philosophical Library), 442-53.

James, W. 1890. The Principles of Psychology (New York, Henry Holt and Co).

James, W. 1909. A Pluralistic Universe: Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy (New York, Longmans, Green and Co).

Jennings, H. S. 1906. Behaviour of the Lower Organisms (New York, Macmillan).

McHenry, Leemon B. 1995. “Whitehead’s Panpsychism as the Subjectivity of Prehension,” Process Studies, 24, 1-14.

Nagel, Thomas. 1979. “Panpsychism” in Mortal Questions (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Nagel, Thomas. 1986. The View from Nowhere (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Rosenberg, Gregg. 2004. A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Seager, William. 1995. “Consciousness, Information and Panpsychism,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2.3, 272-88.

Seager, William. 1999. Theories of Consciousness (London, Routledge).

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Author Information

Pierfrancesco Basile
Institut für Philosophie
Universität Bern, Länggassstrasse, 3000 Bern 9

How to Cite this Article

Basile, Pierfrancesco, “Mind-Body Problem and Panpsychism”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/thematic/psychology/mind-body-problem-and-panpsychism/>.