Against Panpsychism

Panpsychism has been in vogue in the last decade or so, beloved particularly by analytic Australians. It is a misguided doctrine, because consciousness is specifically biological. And it can only be in organisms, that is, beings that organize and self-organize, cause and self-cause, that constantly react and act on the environment around them.

Why? Because consciousness arises out of the problem of constraint, of potentiality and possibility. That is, conscious beings, constrained by energy and time, cannot do everything that is open to them, but can only actualize parts of the array of possibilities open to them. It is from this problem of grasping actuality out of potentiality that consciousness arises. This is why attention is so important to consciousness: what we pay attention to organizes our perception in such a way as to make certain possibilities more salient to us than others, urging us to actualize that rather than some other thing.

This process in which consciousness confronts potential is conceptualized in mythologies as the adventure into chaos and darkness which retrieves something of value. Whether the hero who saves the Father from the belly of the whale (c.f. Pinocchio), King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail by entering the darkest part of the forest (incidentally “matter” came from the Latin word for wood—the actuality that grows out of the potentiality of the earth), or Harry Potter going down to the Chamber of Secrets. This is why it is so incredibly important to pay attention to the right things, for one’s attention literally changes the world that one inhabits. It is that which makes actuality out of potentiality, of what one can be (the best and the worst) into who one is.

Panpsychism fundamentally misunderstands the nature of consciousness. It is more than the qualia of perception (the pure sensation of redness), but the organizing of perception that itself changes and directs qualia (therefore there is the famous example from Marleau-Ponty: the woolly red of a scarf is different from the shiny red of a Porsche). A rock cannot be conscious, for it cannot live as an agent who faces the problem of potentiality and actuality.

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