Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Panpsychism is the philosophical position that mind is a fundamental feature of the world. Given our scientifically dominated world-view, it is an odd concept for most, but it is not without its philosophical merits,  it is very hard to refute, and remains a valid philosophical alternative as long as Emergentism isn't proven by science. Even though it posits fundamental properties to the world for which there is no current scientific support, it is not a doctrine at opposition to science and empirical research. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry is a very good resource to read more about it.

Panpsychism attributes mental properties to fundamental constituents of the world (the elementary particles of physics) and one of the things that preoccupies me about Panpsychism is the question of whether these elementary particles are conscious or unconscious. One can postulate that elementary particles do indeed possess states of consciousness, but that this consciousness is of an extremely impoverished degree. Much perhaps like electrons possessing gravitational force. They do, but it is so tremendously weak as to be undetectable. One advantage of this postulate is that it by-passes the hard problem of emergence by taking consciousness itself down to the fundamental level. Nonetheless, it is clear to us that some combinations of elementary particles display higher level consciousness, while other combinations do not, so there is still some account required of how and why this happens. Perhaps it may be something of the sort of electromagnetic properties. All electrons possess electromagnetic properties, but only certain objects display magnetism while most others do not. So a certain account of weak emergence is still required. Secondly, the thought of an electron possessing consciousness makes me uneasy because it appears to me that consciousness is always consciousness of something, and the objects of consciousness for living organisms are provided by the sense organs. In the absence of sensory perception, what can consciousness be conscious of? What would an electron be conscious of? What is it like to be an electron?

The other alternative open for panpsychists is to maintain that elementary particles possess mental properties but are not conscious. The mental properties would act as precursors of consciousness, and here again an account of emergence would be required as to how these precursor properties generate consciousness. Can mental states exist without consciousness? It sounds like an odd idea when talking about elementary particles, but unconscious states of mind definitely exist in the human brain, as psychoanalysts are well aware. Can we really make a valid analogy between human unconscious and the unconscious mental properties of electrons? I don't know. Furthermore, the explanation of how conscious mental states arise from unconscious mental states requires a greater philosophical leap compared to the explanation of how impoverished conscious states lead to full-fledge conscious states, raising the question of why such a panpsychism is explanatory superior to emergentism.

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