Philosophy In Seconds

59. Panpsychism, or why this stick might be conscious too


In the philosophy of mind, two fairly important views vie for the most plausible explanation of the mind-body problem, or how it is that supposedly ‘mental’ substances can interact with ‘material’ substances, because they are of completely different natures. René Descartes defended the position of substance dualism, which holds that these substances do exist, are completely different and must interact with each other. In contrast, modern philosophers and scientists hold a very different view known as materialism which rejects the mind-body problem as a false dichotomy, i.e.: they broadly hold that there is no such thing as the mental. These views have dominated philosophical literature up until recently, when panpsychism – a fairly old belief – started gaining more attention due to the dissatisfaction with the aforementioned substance dualism and materialism. In brief, the dissatisfaction with substance dualism seems to violate the “causal closure of the physical world” – which is to say that physical things should have physical causes and to suggest that they also be caused mentally can lead to causal over-determination – and materialism seems to suffer from an “Explanatory Gap” since we feel that there’s something fundamentally irreducible about what it’s like to be a living being, or a bat, or even a stick. Before we go on, I will have to define philosophical panpsychism clearly so as to not suffer the associations with new-age mysticism which make it supposedly illegitimate:

“Panpsychism is the view that there is some level of conscious experience throughout the entire physical universe.”

Bearing this important definition in mind, I will proceed by delineating a powerful argument for panpsychism by Thomas Nagel and answer the objections that inevitably ensue from this shocking conclusion.

To begin with, Nagel’s argument in favour of panpsychism results from premises whose denial he deems more implausible than their acceptance. The first premise of his argument argues that everything is made of matter, hence we can see a blatant denial of substance dualism, which had to contend with the problem of the causal closure of the physical world. The second premise argues in favour of non-reductionism (which was alluded to above) which states that it is impossible to completely explain conscious experiences in purely physical terms. The third premise is a sort of reinforcement of the second and it argues for Realism-with-a-capital-r, which basically means that qualia or the ‘what-it’s-likeness’ of things are in fact, real phenomena. Finally, the fourth and probably most contentious premise argues against metaphysical emergence – which holds that X-things can arise from completely non-X-things (liquidity arises from non-liquidity in H20 molecules). This is what happens when we lay his argument out premise by premise:

  1. Materialism, as understood as everything being made up of matter, is a true doctrine, i.e.: people, bats and sticks are made up of matter.
  2. Conscious experiences cannot be reduced to physical phenomena, there is something indescribable about what it is like to be a human, bat (or even a stick).
  3. These irreducible phenomena are a real part of the world.
  4. When it comes to explaining things that have conscious experience, it cannot emerge randomly out of things that have no conscious experience.
  5. Conclusion: Hence, there is no limit to what can have conscious experience, there must be something that it is like to be a stick or any other object in the universe.

Generally, when philosophers read this argument they find the first premise completely uncontroversial but they start to find the second premise (non-reductionism) objectionable and the fourth premise (non-emergence) to be especially contentious. Since there is a staggering amount of literature on the second premise alone (see “Epiphenomenal Qualia” by Frank Jackson or this video), this article will focus on the lesser discussed phenomenon of non-emergence.

Where are we so far? We have (hopefully) accepted the first premise defending materialism, but for those who are skeptical of non-reductionism due to the abstract property dualism that results from the second premise, it is not essential that panpsychism be articulated in a Nagelian way. Philosopher Galen Strawson cleverly evades the objectionable view of non-reductionism by arguing that there is simply  “no good reason” to dismiss the idea that “experiential phenomena are physical phenomena” (2). So we are saying that one fundamental quality of matter or the ‘physical’ is conscious experience and if we really think about it, the idea of conscious experience is not immediately “irreconcilable” with the physical. In any case, Strawson goes on to attack emergentism which he deems to be the view that a materialist has to hold if they believe that physical stuff (inanimate objects, particles) is non-experiential and also that conscious experience is a “real concrete phenomenon”.

On the face of it, emergentism seems like a fairly obvious view to hold with regard to the way the world works. Take the commonly used example of liquidity. It makes sense to say that when H20 molecules are assembled together that liquidity ’emerges’ as a property which did not exist within each of these individual H20 molecules. Hence, it makes sense to say that experiential phenomena might arise from non-experiential phenomena and thus not everything must have conscious experience. Strawson however, believes this line of reasoning fails. He tries to make emergence more tangible by suggesting that emergence contains the idea of “total dependence”, that is to say that liquidity (Y) is totally dependent on the H20 molecules which are non-liquid (not-Y). The problem, holds Strawson, is that the idea of emergence is a lot more difficult to conceptualise for experiential phenomena such that it is not as easy to grasp the idea of my conscious experience of the colour red as being totally dependent on some (unexplained) non-experiential phenomenon as it is to grasp that liquidity is totally dependent on non-liquidity.

Furthermore, we can understand why it is that liquidity might emerge from non-liquidity due to the forces underpinning the behaviour of the molecules, but if we try to analogize in exactly the same way for experiential phenomena we find that we have to assert a brute fact – a fact that we supposedly must accept even though there seems no credible reason to believe in it.  Strawson then suggests that “emergence [in all cases] can’t be brute” and since it is not a brute fact for liquidity, we can say that it is not based on a brute fact that experiential phenomena emerge somehow from non-experiential phenomena. Additionally, he argues that in a description of liquidity emerging from non-liquidity (Y emerging from not-Y) there are no real “new properties”, i.e.: it is not the case that liquidity is some strange phenomenon that somehow emerges. It must be same for the case of conscious experience; the properties of conscious experience do not emerge, but were always present and thus we arrive at panpsychism. We must say that the stick has some level of conscious experience!

In conclusion, one might readily reject panpsychism in the same way that John Searle does by claiming that the view is “completely absurd”. Indeed, on the face of it, telling people that you believe a stick can have some conscious experience is likely to make them think you might need a visit to a mental health facility. But as we saw with Nagel’s argument for panpsychism and Strawson’s powerful objections to emergentism that panpsychism (assuming we have temporarily conceded non-reductionism) is actually not that unreasonable. Perhaps, we find the notion so strange because we conceptualise conscious experience as all-or-nothing, when in fact, there might be degrees of conscious experience in the universe, i.e.: animals and humans might be more conscious than a stick. Certainly, for the sake of brevity and originality, we have avoided discussing the many angles to the debate between materialism and dualism so that we might focus more directly on panpsychism as a viable alternative. It is very likely that the reader might still be taken with one of the two views and have his/her mind completely unchanged by this article, in which case I would like to direct them to some Aristotelian wisdom:

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle.


  1. Nagel, Thomas. “Panpsychism.” Mortal Questions. N.p.: Cambridge U Press, 1979. 170-84. Print.
  2. Strawson, Galen, and Anthony Freeman. Consciousness and its place in nature: does physicalism entail panpsychism? Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2006. Print.
  3. Seager, William. “Panpsychism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 2001. Web. 30 Dec. 2016.
  4. Jackson, Frank. “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” The Philosophical Quarterly32.127 (1982): 127. Web. 31 Dec. 2016.