Constitutive Panpsychism


A lot of my work has been about exploring and defending panpsychism, the idea that (roughly) everything is conscious. More carefully put, constitutive panpsychism is the idea that some incredibly simple version of our own conscious experience is one of the fundamental properties of our universe’s matter, just like mass, charge, and spin, and that human beings inherit our complex consciousness from the intricately-related consciousness of our many material parts.

My work on panpsychism falls into three clusters:

1. What is Panpsychism?

These papers explore how to define panpsychism and how to relate it to other popular views, like materialism, dualism, illusionism, naturalism,

My review of a really useful anthology of papers on panpsychism.

Some critics worry that panpsychism is unscientific, or out of step with a naturalistic worldview. I think the opposite: panpsychism is the most scientific view available, and I tried to summarise why in this piece (a commentary on Philip Goff’s book Galileo’s Error).

A paper about how to balance the radical implications of panpsychism with our everyday intuitive sense of some creatures as more likely to be conscious than others, and particularly about why accepting a radical theory doesn't have to undermine our everyday moral judgements about the relative moral value of differnt beings. (This links up with my work on the extent and value of consciousness in nature.)

A paper about certain structural convergences between panpsychism and Daniel Dennett's account of the mind. Essentially, Dennett suggests that the appearance of a single well-defined stream of consciousness is an illusion: there are really many layers, many 'drafts', circulating at once, and what we subjectively report is an effort to force them into local agreement. But while Dennett thinks this means that consciousness itself is an illusion, I show that we can combine the multiple drafts structure with a strong realism about consciousness.

  • “Illusionism and Panpsychism.” (Forthcoming in a special issue of Klēsis; draft shareable on request)

A paper about the relationship between illusionism and panpsychism, through the lens of the perennial definitional question: what do you mean by 'consciousness'? It explores how the surface metaphysical disagreement (which things are conscious - all or none?) relates to underlying disagreements about the semantics of introspective reference.

2. Solving the Combination Problem

The most pressing objection to panpsychism is the 'combination problem', the worry that having a trillion very simple minds isn’t enough to get you one complex mind, and that therefore panpsychism can’t explain human consciousness. This was my original reason for being interested in mental combination, and Combining Minds devotes a lot of attention to this problem, especially in chapters 3 and 4.

I summarise the different strands of the combination problem, and the solutions I develop in Combining Minds, in this paper:

“Combination Problems and Combination Solutions.”

Five papers of mine address specific aspects of the combination problem - the subject-summing problem, palette problem, revelation problem, unity problem, and privacy problem:

This explores the ‘subject-summing problem’: how to get a single subject out of many subjects. It compares and contrasts three approaches: experience-sharing, phenomenal bonding, and subject-fusion, and suggests that a combination of the first two has thebest prospects. (These ideas are developed at more length in Combining Minds, pp.81-120.)

This examines the ‘palette problem': how to get a qualitatively diverse consciousness out of the small number of basic qualities that are  supposedly associated with the fundamental physical properties. I argue that we have familiar examples of exactly this kind of 'phenomenal blending', and thus that this problem is not a threat to panpsychism.

This address the ‘revelation problem': if my consciousness arises from trillions of simple parts, why can't I tell that by introspection? This is a problem especially because the arguments panpsychists use against physicalists often rely on a 'revelation principle': having an experience reveals the nature of how it feels. I distinguish different versions of the revelation principle, and show that the most plausible ones are compatible with panpsychism but not with physicalism.

A paper arguing that the relation known as 'phenomenal unity' or 'co-consciousness', which is often thought to connect all of a given subject's experiences to all others, could also connect two distinct subjects' experiences. That is, the unity of consciousness need not be an exclusively within-subject relation, but could in principle be a between-subjects relation as well. (This is important for mental combination more generally.)

  • “In Defence of Phenomenal Sharing.” (co-authored with Philip Goff; forthcoming in The Phenomenology of Self-Awareness and Conscious Subjects, edited by Julien Bugnon, Martine Nida-Rümelin, and Donnchadh O’Conaill. Routledge; presented in a talk at NYU.)

A paper arguing that a single conscious experience could potentially belong to two or more different subjects, if one of those subjects was a part of the other, or they partly overlapped. This is an idea I defend at length in Combining Minds, and here we consider a range of potential counter-arguments in detail, concluding that none are persuasive. (This is important for mental combination more generally.)

Some panpsychists see a big difference between 'micropsychism' (what most fundamentally exists is many very small things, and their consciousness) and 'cosmopsychism' (what most fundamentally exists is the universe as a whole, and its consciousness). I think the difference here is less significant than it's usually taken to be: I like to see the trillions of tiny parts and the one enormous whole as the same reality, considered under different aspects. I've given a couple of talks outlining why I don't think that shifting from one to the other significantly changes the difficulty of the combination problem:

3. Spinoza and Panpsychism

One of my favourite historical philosophers is Baruch Spinoza, one of the most famous historical panpsychists. A longstanding interest of mine has been to explore the resources Spinoza provides for contemporary panpsychists.

  • “Combining Minds in Spinoza’s Animate Cosmos” (talk given at the 2022 APA and at Marist College; slides here)

A talk about why Spinoza seems to be not just a panpsychist but a combinationist, and how his ideas can usefully inform current panpsychist theories.

  • “Complexity and Power: Towards a Spinozistic Theory of Consciousness.” (2011 talk given at Washington and Jefferson College; draft available on request)

A talk about how to interpret Spinoza's claim that all things have souls, but 'in different degrees', and some shortcomings of existing interpretations.

  • “Consciousness in Spinoza: What Is It Like to Be God?” (2010 talk given at Willamette University; draft available on request)

A talk about how Spinoza's talk of minds and ideas relates to the contemporary distinction between 'phenomenal consciousness' and 'access-consciousness'.