Panpsychism: what it is and the philosophical theories that defend it

Since the dawn of philosophy, several questions have been asked of human beings: to what extent is consciousness a purely human thing? Are other animals conscious? Even the simplest? The rocks, the water, the grass … could it all be conscious?

panpsychism it is the set of philosophical doctrines in which it is maintained that consciousness is not something exclusive to the human species, that other living beings and even inanimate elements can have it or have perceptions subjective aspects of the world around him.

    What is panpsychism?

    The word panpsychism (from the Greek “bread”, “everything, anything” and “Psyche” “soul, spirit”) refers to the set of philosophical doctrines in which we consider that it is not only the people of beings that we have a conscience. In other words, panpsychists believe that other forms of life or even objects which at first glance we would say inanimate may possess properly conscious qualities or have a subjective perception of the world around them.

    Note that not all panpsychist ideas are the same. Some argue that not only animals which, from a very anthropocentric point of view, could be classified as superior or which, thanks to their larger or smaller and developed brains, could harbor a consciousness. This view of consciousness has also been linked to insects, plants and even microorganisms. The most extensive and radical panpsychism defends the idea that subjective experience is omnipresent: it is in all things.

    Historical context

    Then we will see briefly of each period in which it appeared, in one way or another, the panpsiquistas doctrines, their authors and what was his exact vision of the concept of brings back to consciousness in all, or almost all. , the of things.

    1. Classical Greece

    Although they do not have a specific term to define the idea that is in the concept of panpsiquismo, already since the time of ancient Greece philosophized on consciousness and subjective experience.

    Before the Socratic school, Thales of Miletus, considered as the first philosopher, defended the idea that “everything was full of gods”, that is to say that he had a pantheist vision of nature.

    According to Tales, in every object, every animal, every grain of sand, was something with properties similar to what we mean by consciousness.. This idea is considered to be one of the earliest panpsychist doctrines.

    Years later, Plato, outlining his philosophy, defended the idea that all things, insofar as they are something and therefore exist, must have a property which can also be found in the mind and in the soul. , things that, for him, also existed. . The world, from Plato’s point of view, was something of soul and intelligence, and that every element that composed it was also a living entity.

    2. Renaissance

    With the advent of the Middle Ages, Greek philosophy fell into obscurity, as did many other Hellenic knowledge and contributions.

    However, centuries later, thanks to the arrival of the light that the Renaissance supposed, the panpsiquistas ideas could resurface and figures such as Gerolamo Cardano, Giordano Bruno and Francesco Patrizi have contributed to his visions. In fact, it is to this last Italian philosopher to whom we owe the invention of the expression “panpsiquismo”.

    For Cardano, the soul, which could well be understood as consciousness, was a fundamental part of the world, something that could not be separated from reality.

    Giordano Bruno believed that nothing in this world could come without a soul or without a vital principle. Everything had to have an essence that, to a greater or lesser extent, reminded us of what human beings identify as consciousness.

    3. 17th century

    Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz presented the two panpsychist doctrines.

    Spinoza says that reality is made up of a single substance, Which is eternal and which would become like something synonymous with God or the concept of Nature. We would all be a whole, a little conscious but in its entirety.

    Instead, Leibniz talks about the idea that reality is made up of small, conscious, infinite and indivisible units (monads) which are the fundamental structures of the universe, a kind of atoms of consciousness.

      4.20th century

      Arriving at century XX, the most remarkable figure of panpsiquismo that we have at Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). In his ontology, he presented the idea that the fundamental nature of the world is made up of events and processes, which are created and destroyed. These processes are elementary events, which he calls “occasions” and are part of the idea of ​​the mind. For him, mental operations have an impact on the constitution of nature, they shape reality.

      Carl Jung argued that psyche and matter are contained in the same world and are in constant contact with each other. Psyche and matter are two different aspects of the same thing, as if they are part of the same room.

      Panpsychism today

      With the arrival of World War II the panpsiquistas doctrines lost force before the logical positivism. However, they made a comeback in 1979 with the publication of Thomas Nagel’s article “Panpsychism”. Later, other authors, such as Galen Strawson with his 2006 article Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Involves Panpsychism, dared to approach the concept of panpsychism in a much more scientific way than ever before.

      Today we have the idea that consciousness is one of the fundamental truths of human existence.. Each of us is aware of what we feel, of what we perceive. We may not have enough language skills to be able to express it, but we have a subjective perception of reality. Our consciousness is what we know in the most direct way possible, there is no way to separate from it.

      However, in the same way that it is much closer to us than the office table where we work, the glasses or the clothes we wear, it is in turn the aspect of ourselves, as species that the most mystery continues to produce us. What is consciousness?

      David Chalmers, an Australian analytical philosopher spoke of his panpsychist view of reality, from a much more current perspective and with language more typical of the century we are in if we compare him to Plato or Schopenhauer. In fact, he exposes it extensively in his book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (1996), in which he explains the need to understand to what extent it is not necessary to accept that other living things, however elementary they may be, can be conscious.

      In this book, he talks about two problems that science faces when it comes to understanding human consciousness, which show that it is not possible to completely exclude the idea of ​​consciousness outside of it. human race. These two problems are called the easy problem and the difficult problem of consciousness:

      The easy problem of consciousness

      With Easy Problem of Consciousness, he explains how science, in particular neuroscience, has tried to do research on consciousness but by establishing, a priori, the object of study they want to tackle. That is, it is specified in every research on an aspect related to consciousness and described in an empirically observable way. Therefore, we speak of consciousness as the ability to discriminate, categorize and react to a certain stimulus, or to fix attention, to control the behavior to put.

      To better understand this idea, let’s look at a fairly descriptive example. We think about how humans see colors. Scientists know that the fact that we see something red, green, or blue is because objects with those colors emit light rays with different wavelengths.

      So these rays, when they enter the eye affect cones, cells specializing in distinguishing color. Depending on the wavelength, one type or another of cone will be activated. When activated, these cones will send an electrical impulse through the optic nerve, which will reach the areas of the brain responsible for processing color.

      This is all a very brief explanation of the neurobiological correlates of color perception in the eye. human i they could be verified by means of an experiment of distinguishing objects of different color, Neuroimaging techniques that show which areas are activated during this activity, etc. It is empirically provable.

      The difficult problem of consciousness

      Chalmers explains in his book that science is not, and perhaps never is, prepared to demonstrate by empirical techniques how the experience of a particular stimulus is given. We are not talking about how they are activated depending on cells or areas of the brain; We are talking about the subjective experience itself: how to register?

      When we think or perceive a stimulus, it is clear that we are processing it, as in the previous case of color, but there is a subjective aspect that cannot be explained so scientifically. How is it possible to see the color green as green? Why this particular color? Because before a certain wavelength we just perceive this color and not another?

      Not only do human beings have a conscience

      As we have seen previously, the idea of ​​panpsychism, that is, that everything has consciousness or soul, suggests that objects which at the beginning do not appear to be anything at all with a certain consciousness could really do so. to have.

      Today, and in the same spirit as classical philosophers such as Leibniz, there are those who argue that every particle has a consciousness and, as a whole, can create more complex systems, as would be the case with consciousness. human. Each particle has a minimum consciousness which, added to those of the others, generates a greater one..

      Until recently, the idea that only humans were able to experience everything was quite widespread, both in science and in general culture. It was more or less accepted that other animal species, especially large primates or complex animals, could experience subjective experience. and to be, to a greater or lesser extent, conscious.

      However, the American neuroscientist Christof Koch considers that it doesn’t make much sense to think that only humans and phylogenetically related animals can be conscious is not as logical as one might think.

      While one does not take a view as drastic as a stone can feel when struck, it does hold that, unless proven otherwise, the idea that multicellular organisms cannot experience pain or pain. pleasure is not something for nothing as crazy as you might think. .

      They may have an infinitely vaguer sense of being alive than humans, but that doesn’t mean they don’t. By having a smaller brain, or not even something you can call a brain, your sense of awareness will be less sophisticated than ours, but it will still be there. It would be a living being that would have its own way of feeling subjectively.

      Another interesting case is that of plants. Stefano Mancuso, so interesting book Sensitivity and intelligence in the plant world, exposes his investigation into the intelligent behavior of plants, which manages to grant consciousness.

      While it is difficult to talk about the idea that plants are self-aware, their research group, based on their research, came to the conclusion that plants are far from being considered as passive organisms: they must have some sort of consciousness. their intelligence would be extracted, to be able to adapt to the form in which they do it.

      Criticisms of panpsychism

      The greatest critique of panpsychism, and using terms inspired by the idea of ​​the difficult problem of consciousness, is the so-called “combination problem”. How do these small particles with supposedly tiny consciousnesses form a more complex consciousness?

      From the idea that our atoms are conscious particles and their combination arises our human consciousness, more complex and, so to speak, “more self-aware”: what if we humans were like conscious particles? Is humanity as a whole a conscious superorganism? Is nature, as Spinoza said, a conscious substance? How do we do something with a higher consciousness, without our being aware of it?

      Bibliographical references:

      • Chalmers, DJ (2019) Idealism and the Body-Mind Problem. A Seager, William (ed.). The Routledge Manual of Panpsychism. Routledge. ISBN 978-1138817135.
      • Chalmers, D. (2015). “Panpsychism and panprotopsicism”. In Alter, Torin; Nagasawa, Yugin (ed.). Consciousness in the Physical World: Perspectives on Russellian Monism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-992735-7.
      • Crick, FC .; Koch, C. (1990). “Towards a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness” (PDF). Neuroscience seminars. 2: 263-275.
      • Chalmers, DJ (1995). “Facing the problem of consciousness”. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2 (3): 200-219.
      • Nagel, T., (1974), “How does it feel to be a bat?”, The Philosophical Review, 83 (4): 435-450. doi: 10.2307 / 2183914
      • Nagel, T. (1979), “Panpsychism”, in Nagel’s Mortal Questions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 181-195
      • Mancuso, S. and Viola, A. (2015). Sensitivity and intelligence in the plant world. Gutenberg Galaxy. ISBN: 9788416252633

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