Consciousness permeates reality. Rather than being just a unique feature of human subjective experience, it’s the foundation of the universe, present in every particle and all physical matter.
This sounds like easily-dismissible bunkum, but as traditional attempts to explain consciousness continue to fail, the “panpsychist” view is increasingly being taken seriously by credible philosophers, neuroscientists, and physicists, including figures such as neuroscientist Christof Koch and physicist Roger Penrose.
“Why should we think common sense is a good guide to what the universe is like?” says Philip Goff, a philosophy professor at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. “Einstein tells us weird things about the nature of time that counters common sense; quantum mechanics runs counter to common sense. Our intuitive reaction isn’t necessarily a good guide to the nature of reality.”
David Chalmers, a philosophy of mind professor at New York University, laid out the “hard problem of consciousness” in 1995, demonstrating that there was still no answer to the question of what causes consciousness. Traditionally, two dominant perspectives, materialism and dualism, have provided a framework for solving this problem. Both lead to seemingly intractable complications.
“Physics is just structure. It can explain biology, but there’s a gap: Consciousness.”
The materialist viewpoint states that consciousness is derived entirely from physical matter. It’s unclear, though, exactly how this could work. “It’s very hard to get consciousness out of non-consciousness,” says Chalmers. “Physics is just structure. It can explain biology, but there’s a gap: Consciousness.” Dualism holds that consciousness is separate and distinct from physical matter—but that then raises the question of how consciousness interacts and has an effect on the physical world.
Panpsychism offers an attractive alternative solution: Consciousness is a fundamental feature of physical matter; every single particle in existence has an “unimaginably simple” form of consciousness, says Goff. These particles then come together to form more complex forms of consciousness, such as humans’ subjective experiences. This isn’t meant to imply that particles have a coherent worldview or actively think, merely that there’s some inherent subjective experience of consciousness in even the tiniest particle.
Panpsychism doesn’t necessarily imply that every inanimate object is conscious. “Panpsychists usually don’t take tables and other artifacts to be conscious as a whole,” writes Hedda Hassel Mørch, a philosophy researcher at New York University’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness, in an email. “Rather, the table could be understood as a collection of particles that each have their own very simple form of consciousness.”
But, then again, panpsychism could very well imply that conscious tables exist: One interpretation of the theory holds that “any system is conscious,” says Chalmers. “Rocks will be conscious, spoons will be conscious, the Earth will be conscious. Any kind of aggregation gives you consciousness.”