One of the Yule/ Christmas presents my partner gave me this year was a book called “The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature” by Emma Restall Orr. It is a fascinating book yet I have found a lot of it very difficult to understand and am still trying to get my head around the concepts explained in it. Much of the book is made up of looking at different philosophies and building a theory of metaphysics to explain the world as an Animist sees it. This post isn’t exactly a review of the book, but it will use a lot of the information from the book to explain the idea of Panexperientialism/ Panpsychism and what it offers to Naturalistic Pantheists.
One of the biggest questions in philosophy and neuroscience is the Mind-Body problem. This essentially examines the relationship between mind and matter, between consciousness and the physical brain and asks the question – how can we get mind/ consciousness from matter? It has been a problem discussed by philosophers throughout history and is now being taken up by scientists too. There have been a variety of answers given and I will first explore these possibilities and the problems they have before we look at Pansychism/ Panexperientialism as a possible answer.
There are many possible answers to the question of how mind comes from matter. They can be split into two headings – Dualism and Monism. Dualism essentially says that there is a rigid distinction between mind and matter. Dualism can best be seen in the religious idea of an immortal soul, the “ghost in the machine” – there is the physical body and then there is the immaterial soul that is a separate, distinct, non-physical substance. However, there is a big problem with this theory….Despite thousands of years of the best minds of philosophers and scientists trying to figure it out…there is still no answer to the question of how the physical and the mental can interact. There is no answer to the question of how an immortal, non physical “soul” can control or influence the physical body.
In response to this failure, came the various theories of Monism. Monism can be split into three possibilities – Materialism, Idealism and Panpsychism. Monism essentially says that there are not two different substances but one basic substance. With the rise of the scientific worldview, Materialism arose with its claim that the only true substance making up the universe is Matter (energy/matter technically). It said that mind was simply activity in the brain. However, it still couldn’t answer the question of how exactly the material physical brain gave rise to consciousness and the mind. To make matters worse, it has no answer to questions like – where is the line between experience and non-experience? Or – when in the process of evolution did mind/ experience arise? And – how can mind come from non-mind in the first place?
Idealism suggested that rather than everything being physical matter, the world is actually an illusion built in our minds…in other words, everything is mental, not physical. But this theory has a big problem too – what about shared experiences? What about the fact that multiple people see and hear and feel the same things in the same ways?
While scientists and philosophers may one day find answers to these problems, there is another theory which is beginning to gain acceptance, especially with the insights that are coming from quantum physics. That theory is Panpsychism or Panexperientialism. What is it? It’s the idea that mind/ experience exists at every level of the universe – from the smallest atom to the largest tree or human, rather than emerging from matter at some unspecified time in the past as if by magic. It is a monistic doctrine that says mentality and physicality are two aspects of the same phenomenon. In other words, the mental (mind) and physical (matter) are not two separate substances, nor are they illusions, rather they are simply both aspects of, or states of, a third underlying substance or essence. Using the insights of quantum mechanics, Panpsyhism argues that at its most fundamental level, the universe is not made of physical substances, but of events, and that these events are “experiential.” The ultimate entities that constitute the universe are not lumps of stuff but events. And leading from this is the idea that everything, even the smallest sub atomic particle, has subjectivity i.e. it experiences in some way, even if its a very simple level of experience.
What does it mean to “experience”? Do you have to have complex states of consciousness to experience or is it possible to experience in a very simple way. Experience can be many things – percieving, sensing, feeling, thinking, emoting, knowing, anticipating, intending, remembering. For there to be mind, does there have to be the capacity for every one of these mental states? Does an atom have some kind of simplistic mind that allows it to sense its neighbours in some way and react accordingly? We have all heard of our subconscious that acts without us being consciously aware of it – that is mind. So perhaps mind can exist even where things aren’t consciously aware. We know from physics that atoms can self organise. We know from biology that single celled organisms can react to their environment and even learn. While it’s blatantly obvious that rocks, trees and atoms don’t have the complex consciousness that we humans do, the idea that they don’t experience, at least on a very simplistic level of perception, is based on faith – we simply don’t know either way. While we can verify our own experience, we cannot verify the experience of another – we can only make assumptions. And considering that the only type of “mind” or experience we know is a complex one, we have to ask whether we humans would be capable of spotting or understanding more simpler levels of experience within other aspects of nature. So what is it like to “be an atom?” or to “be a tree?” To a Panpsychist, there is a capacity for perception, memory and response in every part of nature…and there always has been. The problem of Dualism – how two totally distinct substances could interact is solved by the fact that there is not a divide between substances. The problem of Materialism – how does mind arise, where did it come from and where do we draw the line, is solved because mind is always and everywhere present. The problem of Idealism – how an illusion of the mind can lead to to shared reality, is solved because nature is not an illusion. So, while Panpsychism/ Panexperientialism can’t be proven, and does require an act of faith, it is a reasonable one…..albeit with radical implications for the way we live our lives. In simple terms then – Panpsychists believe that everything in the universe has mind/ everything experiences, even if its only in a very simplistic level of percieving, sensing and responding.
David Skirbina said, “Panpsychism is perhaps the most under-analysed and under-appreciated philosophical position in the history of western philosophy, and is long overdue for a detailed treatment. It is rather astonishing that a philosophical position held by so many major philosophers throughout history has had virtually no in depth study, no detailed analyses, no thorough survey of positions, little serious discussion of its merits.”
Panpsychism is not just some way out there theory dreamt up by a few mad philosophers. It has many highly distinguished thinkers and scientists accepting it in some form or another. For example, Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, said “I cannot avoid the conclusion that all matter is composed of intelligent atoms and that all life and mind are merely synonyms for the aggregation of atomic intelligence.”
Now lets move the discussion onto Animism. In her book, Emma Restall Arr, defines Animism as “a monist metaphysical stance based upon the idea that mind and matter are not distinct and separate substances, but an integrated reality, rooted in nature” and that is is “based upon ubiquitous and integrated mindedness.” This is essentially the same thing as Panpsychism/ Panexperientialism. It is the idea that mind is an integral part of nature and everything is minded, all the way down to the atom. Mind and Matter are not the primary substance, they are states of an even more underlying essence that we cannot actually know. We only know this essence through its properties i.e. mind/ matter. Nature isn’t mind (that would be idealism), its minded – mind is an integral part of nature.
In the book Emma talks of about the concepts of individual subject, the tribe and the community. When we see every element in the cosmos as being aware is some sense, “the surrounding world is experienced less as a collection of objects and more as a community of active agents or subjects – humans within a wider, more than human community of beings.” Every ecosystem can be seen as a community of beings, all percieving and sensing and experiencing, a constant flow of interactions and a pattern of relationships. She defines the individual (or what would be called a “person”) as any entity that has a single coherent mind. The individual has self awareness, whether simple inner prehension or complex consciousness, and acts as a whole. It could be that the individual is a community of many experiencing subjects, but to count as an individual they have to respond as a whole e.g. a human is full of individual cells, atoms, bacteria e.t.c that are all experiencing, but they act as one whole organism. The opposite to the individual is a community called a “tribe.” The tribe is a group of entities that experience separately and can’t cohere enough to percieve as a whole. For example, a forest. It can be made up of any number of other communities and individuals and may even make shared decisions, but there is no unified “mind” to direct it. There are often examples where it’s difficult to tell whether the entity is an individual or a tribe and we must make our own decisions e.g. a tree – does it act as a whole or is it just a community/ tribe acting together with no unified coherent mind? Is it made up of lots of subjects experiencing alone and in community, or can it cohere together enough to experience as one? We will probably never know so we must each make a choice in how we see it.
Finally, I just want to consider how Emma Restall Orr talks about the soul. It is a beautiful definition that can help us as Naturalistic Pantheists in the way we relate to nature. She defines soul as “the wholeness of a being with all its history of interaction”. In other words, a soul is the wholeness of a being, community or place, taking into account all its history and heritage. A soul is the summation of all that has been, the incorporation of every moment of its experience up to that point, the presence of its complete past, every influence of its contextual heritage and environment. She talks about the “soul of the sun” being every moment, interaction and relationship that has brought it to the present. The soul is the sum of a being or a community or a place – the sum of its entire history, its relationships, every moment and interaction is has ever known. Soul is neither mental, nor physical, it is both. We can talk of the soul of a community, the soul of a person, the soul of a forest, the soul of a mountain, the soul of a house e.t.c. I love this definition of the soul.
I have come to the conclusion that an Animism based on the theories of Panpsychism/ Panexperientialism is a valid, reasonable and ethical worldview that can bring many benefits for Naturalistic Pantheists who choose to incorporate it into their life. It answers the Mind-Body problem and gives a foundation for Animistic Ethics of treating the world and all life with respect, reverence and honour. Emma’s book is the philosophical basis behind her 2007 book “Living With Honour” and I am about the start reading that next. I will review it when I have finished.