Panpsychism recognizes that everything in the universe has a physical dimension and a mental dimension.
Another way to put this is that some form of consciousness goes all the way down to the quantum dimension of the universe and all the way up to the galactic dimension of the universe.
The Physical Dimension and the Mental Dimension: This makes pretty good sense, because the thing we know best about the universe is our own reality. Each of us humans has a physical dimension and a mental dimension and they interact intimately.
I can decide to keep on typing or go get a drink of water. Once I make that decision, my body carries it out, in this case keeping on typing. My mind gets kinesthetic awareness from my body and tells my body what to do. There is no “mind/body problem”. My mind and my body are continually intimately interacting with each other.
So, if what humans know best about the universe is this intimate interaction between mind and body, doesn’t it make really good sense to recognize that this phenomenon is not an aberration? This is the way the universe works.
As we look out at plants and animals on down to single celled organisms, we see what is best explained by the Panpsychic perspective. All living creatures appear to have a physical dimension and a mental dimension that interacts intimately. Their mental dimension receives information from their physical dimension and then causes their physical dimension to act on that information.
Looking further down the scale to the level of atoms and quanta of energy, the type of mind gets much further from our own human experience, but so does the type of physical reality—with quanta of energy going in and out of existence and appearing to act at a distance.
Looking up the scale to the level of the Earth, the Sun, and the Solar System, it’s not surprising that we may also have some difficulty understanding the type of mind, the scale of mind involved. For us to try reach up and grasp the mental dimension of the Earth may be somewhat similar to what it must be like for the mental dimension of our cells to project what the mental dimension of our human experience is like.
Alfred North Whitehead: So, let’s take the Panpsychic perspective seriously and explore what a philosophy of Panpsychism might look like.
In his magnum opus, Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead, to my taste the best 20th Century metaphysical philosopher, provides a speculative philosophical system that can serve as a pretty good foundation for the further exploration and development of Panpsychism. While he is very modest about the success of his philosophical project, it seems like a sound place to start.
Whitehead rather elegantly begins by saying that the three core concepts in his philosophy are “one,” “many,” and “creativity.” Creativity is the most basic aspect of the universe. Creativity transpires as the many become one and that one, in turn, becomes another one among the many. Each time the many become one, that one exercises its creativity in the way that it takes in some and excludes other aspects of the many (every other aspect of the universe).
Actual Entities: Whitehead calls the “ones” “actual entities” or “actual occasions.” “Actual entities are the final real things of which the world is made up…The final facts are, all alike, actual entities, and these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent.” (All quotes are from Process and Reality.)
A person or a plant or an animal or a cell are composed of these actual entities—these moments of experience and action that encounter the different aspects of the world around them and respond to that information by acting on themselves and the world beyond them.
Whitehead coined a new term to characterize the relations that actual entities have with the world, calling these relations “prehensions.” Each actual entity has a physical pole, which physically “prehends” all physical aspects of the universe. “Each actual entity is conceived of as an act of experience arising out of data. It is a process of ‘feeling’ the many data so as to absorb them into the unity of one individual ‘satisfaction.’”
Physical prehensions can be either positive, taking in some of the influences from the universe, or negative, excluding other aspects of the universe.
Each actual entity also has a mental pole which conceptually prehends all of the mental forms, ideas, universals. (He calls these “eternal objects.”) Again, conceptual prehensions are either positive, determining the nature of the actual entity in question, or negative, excluding those forms from the active self-constitution of that actual entity.
Whitehead says that every level of existence is made up of actual entities with mental and physical poles, including quanta, atoms, cells, organisms, the Earth, the solar system, our galaxy and every other galaxy all the way up to God. For God, the whole physical universe is the physical pole and all of the ideas, the forms, are the mental pole.
However, according to Whitehead, some things, which he calls “nexus,” are accumulations of actual entities and do not have their own physical or mental poles. A rock is an accumulation, a multiplicity, of actual entities – in this case atoms of various kinds. A rock can’t move itself. It is acted upon by outside forces, but it does not actively participate in its own self-constitution the way a cell or an organism do.
Time: In Whitehead’s system, every actual entity, or actual occasion, is temporal. It constitutes itself over time. That is, each actual entity has beginning that positively or negatively prehends every other actual entity in the universe, all the way down and up. The actual entities also positively and negatively prehend all the eternal objects, the forms. The positively prehended forms structure what is positively and what is negatively prehended physically and how everything that is prehended physically goes into the composition of the actual entity in question.
It takes time for an actual entity to take in experience, then organize that experience at a feeling level or a perception level or a cognitive level to make some kind of choice about that information, and then to act internally and externally in relation to that information. Mind takes time. Consciousness takes time.
Each moment of experience receives from, is caused by, its immediate past moment of experience and in turn causes its immediate future moment of experience. Each moment of experience receives from its unique past and from its engagement with all of the different aspects of the universe. Then it puts its stamp on, acts creatively on, what it receives from its past and its engagement with the rest of the universe. Finally, it actively passes on what it has received, with its creative stamp, to the next moment and also on out throughout its engagement with all of the universe.
Put another way, each moment receives a perspective on the whole universe, makes a creative contribution based on that perspective, and passes that creative contribution on to the succeeding moment and also on to the whole universe.
As one actual entity passes into the next one, the structure, the system, the form continues, so that there is a temporal continuity from one actual entity to the next in a stream of actual entities that are causing each other. Each actual entity is a drop of experience in a stream of experience and the stream has a structure that continues over time.
Human Experience: Taking the human self as an example, our consciousness in our mental dimension takes place as a succession of instants of consciousness. Some psychologists would refer to these as ‘gestalts.’ Each instant of our consciousness is born from a previous instant comes into existence, has a present moment in which it can receive experience, make choices, and undertake actions i.e. it has a certain freedom, and then gives birth to a subsequent instant of consciousness. That means that each of our instants of consciousness exists as a present that is bounded by the past and the future.
Just as in the quantum theory of physics, in which quanta of energy have the characteristics of particles and the characteristics of waves, so there is a particle aspect and a wave aspect of consciousness.
The wave dimension is crucial. Without the time-binding wave of consciousness established by actual entities remembering their past instant(s), experiencing, choosing, and acting in their present instants, and anticipating and then passing their inheritance on to their future instant(s), it would not be possible to begin a sentence and then go on to complete it in a way that has meaning. It would not be possible to interact with ourselves or other people in a way that has meaning. We couldn’t begin, continue, and complete a meal. We would forget where we were and what we were doing. We couldn’t begin, continue, and complete a walk. We would forget where we were and what we were doing. We couldn’t undertake any complex task and remember what we were doing. We certainly couldn’t drive a car or even cross a street.
If we pay attention to our own consciousnesses closely, we find that, as each moment of our experience transpires, we take in sensations from outside in the world and inside in our bodies and then we layer feelings and thoughts and images on top of these sensations to form a moment of experience with some coherence and meaning. And this moment of experience passes its sensations and feelings and thoughts and images on to the next moment of experience with some relative coherence.
Now, with an untrained mind, our sensations and feelings and thoughts and images kind of jump around outside of our control. But with a relatively trained mind, we can focus in a way that allows us to maintain a constant stream of sensations and feelings and thoughts and images and choose what we want to focus that stream on in an expansion of our consciousnesses. That is the gift of mindfulness and meditation. Using Whitehead’s language, we can say that we can work to shift our mental prehensions to embrace a different and more powerful form or idea of what it is to be human.