A Case for Panpsychism

The essence of Transpersonal study revolves around elements of experience occurring outside the norm.  It’s a uniquely subjective field investigating phenomena that frequently elude conventional scientific scrutiny.  It assumes the existence of unseen forces driving human intuition, belief and behavior.  Despite this avowed respect for the non empirical there nonetheless remain certain epistemological biases in many who study these experiences. This is understandable.  For those whose scientific understanding is rooted within the positivist and objective tradition, the tendency to force this same paradigm upon the unseen phenomena they encounter is all too common.

Within the field of anthropology this form of ‘transpersonal scientism” is most evident when studying the spiritual beliefs of traditional cultures; particularly those with deep animist orientations.  The overwhelming tendency is to assume there to be only symbolic or metaphoric reality regarding claims that certain objects or entities possess mind or spirits.  Those rites and rituals designed to muster or placate such forces are labeled with such common psychological pathologies as transference, archaic sublimation or base superstition.  The ideas that such ordinary objects as rocks and wood or aggregates such as forests or water actually possess any form of mind or consciousness are often dismissed.  This is surprising considering there is no conclusive evidence to support such a position and so much deductive reasoning suggesting the opposite may well be true.  I believe the time for active anthropological consideration that aspects of mind lay within all things or Panpsychism as it is known philosophically is long overdue.

Panpsychism has never been one of the major fields of philosophy.  Its possibilities and intrigues usually surface as a consequence of other, more fundamental areas of study such as the Mind-Body dualism, Phenomenalism, Pragmatism and Process philosophy.  Despite its peripheral status Panpsychism has nonetheless received its fair share of philosophical consideration.  From the time of the Pre Socratics to the present it has engendered a host of different theories by thinkers renowned and obscure.  Predictably, these thoughts and explanations run the gamut from the theistic to the scientific with detours at every possible junction in between.  However, serious consideration of Panpsychism within the field of anthropology has been largely absent.  The attribution of mind to the seemingly inanimate has been repeatedly noted in the field work of ethnographers.  It is virtually an archetypal aspect of human cultural structure.  Curiously, very few stop to ponder the rationality of the phenomena or actively investigate the veracity of its existence.  This seems a great oversight.

Unfortunately, as a label of study the term Panpsychism is heavily loaded with definitional problems.  Linguistically reduced to its basic Greek, Panpsychism simply means “all mind or soul.”  In other words we’re talking about a belief that everything has mind.  Humans, animals, plants, rocks, water, you name it; all have minds or souls.  Of course this is just where the fun begins.  Critical examination of the Panpsychist notion first requires an accurate definition of the term “mind” to be understood.  What exactly is the constitution and capability of this mind or soul which is claimed to be present within all entities?  Before we allow imagination to carry the day let’s get right on track.  Just what does it mean to have mind?

Within the Panpsychist discussion many different concepts of mind exist.  Most of these concepts are hierarchically distinguished by different levels of ability.  In other words there are “stages” of mind.  In so many ways it’s a classic Darwinian scenario.  On the bottom rung mind is conceived as little more than a dynamic process allowing for basic sensation.  The next stage may allow for an elementary ability to implement basic survival strategies.  This survivalist mind is capable of little more than instinctual function seeking material for self sustenance and generally avoiding danger or pain.  This definition conventionally extends to basic protozoan creatures, plants and singular cells within greater organisms.  As greater structural sophistication and complexity develops mind may evolve to the point of awareness of immediate surroundings and possibly a certain degree of self awareness.  And upward we go.  Through further development mind may allow, (to the extent the body is capable,) for an increasing ability to causally effect its surroundings.  Each new ascending level produces greater cognitive abilities until eventually minds appear capable of forming social relations, constructing tools, thinking abstractly, composing poetry and formulating mathematical equations.  Recognizing the possibility of differing levels of mind is essential for any fruitful Panpsychic discussion.  We don’t want to create categorical problems by assuming all minds must be akin to those found in humans.

Gaining a conceptual handle on the “psychi” part of Panpsychism is easy.  The idea of there being different levels of mind operating within the realm of existence has rarely been controversial.  The more unsettling issue comes with extending this capability outward.  Few would deny most biological entities have some degree of sensation, awareness, mind or consciousness.  But how far is one willing to allow the presence of mind to penetrate?  Are plants included?  What about such basic “inanimate” entities such as rocks, wood, water and fire?  Do they or can they also have any level of mind?  Here the plot thickens.

Perhaps the strongest argument for the existence of Panpsychism at any level revolves around what is called the Continuity Theory.  This theory asserts all entities constructed of the same materials share the same essential characteristics inherent within such materials.  Human mind exists because its potentiality lies within the elements of our constitution.  As such it stands to reason all other entities composed of the same elements and materials should also have mind.  It’s quite obvious all animate, mindful organisms are composed of the same elements and materials as those entities we would describe as inanimate.  Rock or reptile, wood or mammal, water or human it matters not.  Every entity is constructed from materials found in our friendly Periodic Table of the Elements parts store.  Consequently, all entities are elementally the same, any difference lies in the measurement and mixing.   Of course the kind, degree and capability of mind inherent within all things would most likely be linked to other developmental factors.  However, Continuity theory demands the essential material of our constitution be inherently imbued with some element of mind.  To those who would point out the obvious differences between rocks and humans, Panpsychists point to the levels of consciousness distinction.  Just because rocks don’t write poetry doesn’t mean they don’t have their own distinctive forms of mind which may go unrecognized by humans.  While the Continuity theory offers a rational as to if all things have mind, the question now shifts to how all things have mind.

All agree there is indeed something known as mind.  The question as to whether all objects have any degree of mind hinges on the conceptions of how mind fundamentally arises. Philosophical theory has historically entertained countless theories on this question.  However, when stripped to the bone, all of these theories revolve around one of two essential avenues of approach; either mind is an intrinsic, primal quality that somehow existed prior to the evolution and development of all things, or mind is an emergent quality that somehow arises out of the purely material under the right set of circumstances and conditions.   Though the choices may be slim, human creativity has instilled each with a wide variety of imaginative particulars.

If mind is somehow an intrinsic, essential quality in existence preceding any of the material forms through which it eventually resides and evolves the question becomes how did it originally arise?  You don’t have to be a genius to see this one coming.  In most corners of the world the definition of an original, all pervading, formless mind is God, the world soul, the Ultimate, the cosmic consciousness, the uncaused first cause or any other appellations you care to offer.  If mind is primal it could only have come from an Original source.  We have mind and soul because the Original source or God has mind and soul. Of course whether all in existence are just imbued with Gods qualities or whether all are god themselves in different manifestations is subject to great debate.  Those who assume the latter, that all things are God would be better described as Pantheists as opposed to Panpsychics.  Many Eastern religions, Taoism and Hinduism in particular are fond of this rational.  To them the appearance of the “separateness” of all entities is just illusion.  All are merely different manifestations of the Ultimate “One.”  But however you choose to extend this argument one underlying assertion remains: God or some original force extended consciousness into Being.

Those not wishing to go the “all is God” route can freely take the “all has God” path on their ontological and teleological journey.  This is accomplished by having God or some form of Cosmic Consciousness imbue the elements of existence with his/her/its mind or spirit.  In this manner the original entities of existence which become the building blocks of matter, while not being God, contain within them the essence or mind of God.  Leibniz’s concept of Monads is perhaps the best known example of such a process.  Leibniz considered Monads to be atom like entities each containing their own aspect of God’s mind and soul.  As Monads combine into physical forms God’s mind like qualities are integrated within the entity of which they are now a part.  The use of intermediaries to place and animate God’s mind within the building blocks of matter enjoys a long and storied tradition within the Panpsychist field.  From a psychic wind, (pneuma,) breathing spirit into matter to Plato’s demiurge who enlivens the cosmos, theories abound as to how essential mind is first infused into matter. However, all these vast and varied theories share one constant; mind is a quality originating outside and prior to the realm of the physical.

One of the classic sticking points attendant with the notion of God or some kind of Cosmic Consciousness that ensouls the materials of existence are the connotations associated with these terms.  Mind is not the only term needing tight definition for the purposes of discussion.  The term God, Supreme Power, Cosmic Consciousness, World Soul or any other words used to describe an Ultimate power also demand the same type of definitional precision.  It would take volumes to articulate a defensible definition of any of the above appellations.  Within the context of this piece such terms are only cited as relatable references used to denote an all pervading First Cause having the capacity of mind.  It would be erroneous to endow this First Cause with any of the personal, religious, spiritual, ethical, or hierarchical qualities so common within the use of general society.  This point can’t be stressed strongly enough; there are NO moral, spiritual or behavioral characteristics attached to these terms.  Historically the numerous and diverse attributes and character of this Ultimate force are individually and culturally derived and have no relevance to this discussion.

Those disinclined to believe in ultimate powers or deny the existence of Panpsychism in all its forms have only one basic philosophical avenue to explain the origin of mind. They must accept the principle that somehow at some point mind emerged from a state of non mind.  Within Panpsychic parlance this is referred to as “Emergence Theory.” The principle is simple; one moment you have a lump of mindless matter than suddenly something occurs within the structure of this matter creating mind.  The question then becomes how is this possible?  Through what combination of elements in what proportion or through what “force” does mind suddenly emerge?  Strangely enough there are as yet no plausible explanations though entire schools of thought such as Epiphenomenalism emphatically claim some must exist.  You know, the old absence of evidence is not evidence of absence bit?   Science has provided credible theories as to how biological life emerged from the proverbial cosmic soup. However, we are still left with the problem as to how and at what point does mind or soul emerge from the inanimate?  How does something purely physical acquire mental processes absent within its constituent parts?

Most philosophers assert such scientific efforts to be misplaced.  They claim logic demands the Emergent scenario to be categorically untenable.  They remind us of the fundamental impossibility of something containing or evolving qualities from anything devoid of those same essential qualities.  Unless the fundamental building blocks of matter contain within their structure an element of mind, mind can’t be present within any more evolved or sophisticated form.  As the old saying goes, “something can’t come from nothing.”  The one commonality between scientists and philosophers regarding the Emergence theory is that while both acknowledge the problems reaching a feasible explanation both sides are extremely reluctant to accept what would appear to be the only viable alternative; the primal existence of some sort of Cosmic Consciousness.

Regardless of the discomfort of scientists and philosophers with the implications of Panpsychism, the integrity of the argument and lack of any other currently defensible explanations for the presence of mind would seen to demand its serious consideration and investigation.  This is particularly true with respect to the field work of anthropologists.  That Panpsychist implications underlie the basis of virtually all spiritual systems found within traditional cultures is a commonality too fundamental to blithely dismiss.  Unfortunately, some within our field cling to the prejudice that traditional societies misunderstand the workings and realities of their world because they have yet to transition to the Western scientific paradigm.  This perspective does great disservice to the cause of truth and human understanding.

The empirical and materialist process has been a successful tool in explaining many elements of existence.  To denigrate its place and value within the realm of human understanding would be foolish and anachronistic.  However, even science’s most faithful practitioners realize the limitations of their perspective and the circumstances of its inadequacy.  Fortunately, most physical scientists understand the world of knowledge is always subject to change and modification.  Consistent with this spirit, within the last thirty years the study of Panpsychism has been receiving new interest and consideration from the “hard” sciences.

At this moment new ideas are emerging within the fields of physics, chemistry, neuroscience and medicine that are radically redefining the conventional notions of Panpsychism.  Numerous observations within the field of quantum science suggest there may be mental elements within the essential ingredients of matter.  Neuroscientists are actively investigating the possibility that mind may indeed have an active role within the creation and capabilities of external phenomena.  A growing body of empirical and statistical evidence suggests these pursuits are well founded.  Indeed there is much to suggest the thought worlds and beliefs of traditional cultures have a much more realistic and pragmatic base than before realized.

Of course, when investigating subjective phenomenon such as the existence of mind many display a lamentable tendency to go too far to the other side and ignore science entirely.  Though science has yet to get a handle on the origin of mind it would seem foolish for anthropologists to abandon the empirical in its assessment of cultural thought and belief.  Those who would ditch this paradigm in favor of a purely interior perspective and uncritically accept the traditional and anecdotal as true would also be guilty of faulty scholarship and in many cases raw sentimentalism.

When it comes to the study of Panpsychism anthropologists occupy a very privileged position.  The study of traditional culture puts them on the front lines of the applied Panpsychic phenomena.  Ours is not the world of the theoretical or the philosophical.  Members of this fraternity have actively encountered and researched whole cultures, thought worlds and lines of human development that revolve around the deep belief of mind within all objects.  As noted before, Panpsychism is treated as a fundamental truth within the fabric of most traditional culture.  I would never suggest that anthropologists by virtue of their work be the new carriers of the Panpsychic torch.  However, I would remind them to treat this theory as viable perspective until such time as a more definitive possibility appears.  To date only a handful of ethnographers such as Edith Turner in her discussion of the reality of spirits, (1997) and Michael Harner who has made an entire career investigating shamanic phenomena have championed the importance of understanding metaphysical incidence from the perspective of the subject culture.  I think it beneficial that Panpsychism should become a specific area of study by anthropologists.  Within the current literature of the field there is a noticeable anthropological absence.  This is surprising.  I would think those who deal with this subject in the real world as opposed to the laboratory or the salon could offer extremely valuable perspectives.  It is incumbent on anthropologists to not only observe phenomena and custom but to try and explain it using all their investigative tools at hand.  They should be researchers and scientists within their own right as it relates to elements of the unknown.

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