Why Panpsychism doesn't pan out
Panpsychism is the idea that mind is everywhere and in everything. It is the view that mind or mindlike aspects are simply features of all reality or matter. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a silly and unprovable idea, or a plausible view on consciousness that’s been gaining foothold in academia in recent years for good reason. I’ve studied and researched mind, brain and consciousness for over a decade now and made myself consider it often, as key bright minds endorse it. However, it doesn’t seem like the universe works the way a panpsychist sees it, nor does panpsychism provide us any predictions we can test. So panpsychism doesn’t pan out and this post spells out why.
First of all, “pan” means “all” and “psychism” is of course “psyche”. So the idea that it doesn’t mean “all” for example, doesn’t do it any favors in terms of differentiating it from other ideas. While I consider ideas and theories in academia sometimes very problematically differentiated not only because they’re in competition with each other, but also because the people coming up with them are in competition with each other, we should forget that for a moment and consider that panpsychism certainly has to hold its own as to making a solid point or providing a good basis for a framework that explains mind and our universe. So does it?
And here we arrive at the first issue with panpsychism. What does it say, really? There is panprotopsychism, panexperientialism, panprotoexperientialism which somehow try to distinguish between the amount of mental or type of mental in the physical. Subjectivity exists somewhere, at some level of reality, in all or some basic physical parts. Okay, so then at what level? Where the mental starts or what it really means that there is a mental aspect in a photon, is never made clear, and speculations run wild in all directions. Panpsychism allows itself to be so flexible that it becomes a simple acknowledgement of subjectivity and leaves us guessing for where it really resides. Gluons? Atoms? Molecules? Matter? Energy? It wants to be everywhere, but ends up being nowhere. And the reason why this problem haunts and will haunt panpsychism, is spelled out by the next point.
Panpsychism is unfalsifiable – not the most trivial issue in the world. So then what can we really do with it? Not much. Those who champion it claim there are good theoretical reasons to consider it, but are there? A very unfortunate one that is mentioned is supposed elegance. Even Koch and Tononi, whose 2015 paper said
Yet nature is also messy and this beauty we chase with our feeble brains, may mislead. It’s certainly not immediately clear that panpsychism is parsimonious. Ockham’s razor, a great tool in the thinker’s toolbelt, can also easily lead astray – as we can rapidly switch between the economy of meaning and structure, as Quine explained.
Another contentious aspect of the razor is that a theory can become more complex in terms of its structure (or syntax), while its ontology (or semantics) becomes simpler, or vice versa. Quine, in a discussion on definition, referred to these two perspectives as "economy of practical expression" and "economy in grammar and vocabulary", respectively.
Language, math, and our abstractions, can be shifted and abstract away other parts where we easily increase or decrease complexity of an idea. Is panpychism simple and elegant? It’s simple and short to say “it’s everywhere”, but is it actually simple to shoehorn it into our models of physics or the universe across the board? If it’s not necessarily elegant and if we can’t test it, what useful does it tell us about mind and causality?
Panpsychism is fuzzy and unfalsifiable, but is it even what it says it is? Many panpsychists lean heavily into the idea that mind is a fundamental part of reality. That in fact it’s embedded. but embedding mind into the physical, is already covered by monism, really. I personally find that once you forego, as some do, the idea that panpsychism is “pan”, and you just wanna say there is no mind and physical stuff, or properties – it’s just embedded – you’ve definitely not not made much of a point without stating where and how. Some have tried to mingle emergentism of some sort with panpsychism and that really doesn’t fly either. If it’s embedded, everywhere and then needs to emerge as well – what is again it’s distinguishing feature? Galen Strawson, for example, thinks any physicalist who wants to be real about qualia or what-its-likeness, should be a panpsychist. Okay, but where and how? The more one tries to pin down panpyschism, the more it seems to need to hide “in between things” we know, almost like the dark matter of consciousness. Just claiming embeddedness is not enough. It’s either everywhere, or we’re not talking about panpsychism anymore.
Fallacy of division
We have mind, we are made out of matter, therefore matter is or has mind? Whether this argument is made explicitly or not, it seems like panpsychism may be a major case of projection of it. Given that it seems that mind is unknowable without actually having a mind, there is as little reason to look for mind everywhere as there would be to look for mind without mind. Yet mind exists, so does that make it compelling to project it onto everything? Probably, because it seems so “simple” – but the onus is on the claimant to explain how they just went from the phenomenon mind to shoehorning it into everything. If it’s true of the whole, how is it true for parts, why is, and which parts? Without answers to these questions we are left with little to nothing substantive. Issues such as these are known as combinations/subject-summing problems in panpsychism.
Assumption of homogeneity
A pet peeve of mine is ideas assuming homogeneity at some level without explicitly justifying it. One way or the other many thinkers and researchers try to homogenize some aspect of reality, to arrive at the previously discussed notion of elegance. It just seems so simple. Seeking elegance and simplicity is definitely a theme in physics and math. There is good reason for that as we’ve stumbled upon (or invented), incredibly elegant equations such as Euler’s equation or Pythagorean theorem. But is our universe really that homogenous? I think that at some levels of organization or description there is of course homogeneity. But the trend is to go too far in thinking this. And we certainly have very hard evidence and proof that our universe is differentiated. You can’t turn water into wine or hay into gold.
If one is a physicalist, is not the first thing one must realize that the quantum soup argument, i.e. homogenization of the physical world to the point that “experience is in everything” lacks any explanatory value. It does not solve anything, it’s a cop-out.
Moreover, doesn’t our knowledge of physics show that we cannot possible make this leap? Clearly, my brain cannot be made out of wood. Just like I cannot conduct electricity through wood, I can make a spark and let it burn, but conduct it? No. Electrical resistivity is a thing. Even though the wood just like my brain is just quantum soup. Just energy. Yet we cannot transform hay into gold. Why would it not follow that our brain and body, interacting with the world, harness specific processes that give rise to experience, and that we needn’t assume that mental or experiential properties are “everywhere”?
Evolution may be at odds with panpsychism
If mind is everywhere, one should start to question why there is not more mind than we see. Why did evolution need billions of years to evolve it? Why do our central nervous systems and brains have so much complexity? At the very least this implies some sort of emergence. But then that doesn’t really mix well with panpsychism. And if we posit there is panprotopsychism and it needs the appropriate structures or stuff to become mind proper – is that really panpsychism anymore? In any case, I find it strange that ubiquitous mind, embedded in reality, requires so much effort to actually become mind. In fact, the real question here is can we build mind out of everything? I don’t think so. If the panpsychist here again tries to lose the pan or somehow embed mind just so it works for emergence, and stays conveniently out of purview of falsifiability or fails to provide any sort of help in our pursuit to understand mind in our universe, then panpsychism collapses onto itself. So truly, if panpsychism or any flavor (pan-experientialism etc.) is true, why did we need nervous systems? Why did it even take billions of years? If panpsychism was true, consciousness would be harnessed much faster.
We don’t do it with any other part of our body either, life or organic matter. We have no problems assessing what the building blocks of life are. But we don’t call them proto-life, just because they potentially can be the blocks for life. We don’t invent panbioism to resolve this either. This issue is also called the combination problem, and one of several reason why Koch and Tononi distanced themselves for it as they formulated IIT: “Unlike panpsychism, however, IIT clearly implies that not everything is conscious. Moreover, IIT offers a solution to several of the conceptual obstacles that panpsychists never properly resolved, like the problem of aggregates (or combination problem [107,110]) and can account for its quality. It also explains why consciousness can be adaptive, suggesting a reason for its evolution.”
So with so many issues, does panpsychism really have anything going for it? It really seems that it doesn’t. The strongest argument is elegance and parsimony, but it’s neither clear that it’s even as elegant as it seems nor that elegance in itself is any type of good reason to give panpsychism credence. Panpsychism, is vague, fuzzy, seems to stem from, rely on or involve various biases and fallacies, and most importantly, simply gives us nothing to work with in terms of testable predictions. Panpsychism just doesn’t pan out.
Note: I will add more and proper references to this post later.