Panpsychism, the idea that inanimate objects have consciousness, gains steam in science communities

An expanding notion of what "consciousness" is could have profound repercussions

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 23, 2021 4:09PM (EDT)

DNA, Atoms and particles (Getty Images/Yuichiro Chino)
DNA, Atoms and particles (Getty Images/Yuichiro Chino)

Dr. Martin Picard is an associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, specializing in both psychiatry and neurology. Together, expertise in these two fields suits one well to understanding the essence of what makes one human. Picard is particularly knowledgable about mitochondria, a structure found within nearly all cells that have a nucleus. They provide most of the chemical energy that cells use in their various biochemical tasks, and are sometimes likened to batteries.

Picard sees something else in mitochondria, too. Last year, he and a Swiss scientist named Dr. Carmen Sandi published a paper in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, which posited that mitochondria do not merely keep us alive, but in many ways, have lives of their own. And, perhaps, are even "social" creatures.

"Sociality has profound evolutionary roots and is observed from unicellular organisms to multicellular animals," Picard and Sandi write. "In line with the view that social principles apply across levels of biological complexity, a growing body of data highlights the remarkable social nature of mitochondria."

They continue: "Similar to individuals among social networks, mitochondria communicate with each other and with the cell nucleus, exhibit group formation and interdependence, synchronize their behaviors, and functionally specialize to accomplish specific functions within the organism. Mitochondria are social organelles."

Of course, if mitochondria are conscious beings, that would mean we have trillions and trillions of these brainless beings chilling throughout literally every cell of our bodies. That idea may seem absurd until you consider a scientific concept which could explain it: Panpsychism, or the idea that consciousness is inextricably linked to all matter and simply grows stronger as a physical object become more complex.

This, emphatically, is not what Picard and Sandi had in mind when they wrote their article (Picard told Salon that "I do not know enough about panpsychism to make an informed comment.") At the same time, their discovery is just one more piece of fascinating scientific trivia that could be explained by this revolutionary theory.

Panpsychism's appeal may stem partly from the fact that scientists currently can not explain what consciousness – the thing that gives you a mind and makes you self-aware — actually is. During the 17th century Enlightenment, philosopher René Descartes famously argued for a so-called "dualist" approach to explaining how our mind interacts with our body. He argued the physical matter of our bodies and whatever substance creates a mind are separate entities (perhaps connected by the pineal gland), with our flesh essentially serving as a house for our souls. This argument holds that if science could explain everything, it should be able to quantify a mind/soul — visually describe it, hear it, feel it, measure and record it. None of that has happened; indeed, the very notion of it happening seems nonsensical.

This may be partly why, although most scientists and philosophers today are monists (meaning they believe our mind directly comes from our physical bodies), dualistic ideas are still quite prevalent in our culture.

"The problem is a lot of regular people, who are not philosophers, are dualists, because they believe in the mind or the soul as a separate entity from their physical being, their physical body," David Skrbina, a philosopher and author of the book "Panpsychism in the West," told Salon. "And so a lot of people for religious reasons, and just 'common sense' reasons, tend to think in dualist or Cartesian terms without really even understanding it. And so when we talk to the public at large, we are sort of stuck dealing with the Cartesian question, even though most philosophers, I think, do not give it much credibility at all."

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That said, those who believe our minds come directly from our bodies are also facing some logical challenges.

"They have to accommodate mind and consciousness within a physicalist framework, which is arguably quite difficult," Skrbina explained. "And that's been sort of one of the central challenges today, is to figure out how to not be a dualist, but still explain the reality, the evident reality of mind and consciousness."

In other words, there is no equation, no theory that would account nor explain our conscious feelings, the everyday state of awareness and thought that constitute life and existence. There is nothing in physics or chemistry or biology that accounts what it is like to be

That's not to say that scientists haven't tried to explain consciousness through science. The most obvious approach would be to find physical features that correspond to states of consciousness. For instance, if you could figure out which parts of the brain are associated with feeling happy, sad, inspired or bored, you could in theory follow that lead to ultimately learn about how the brain itself "produces" consciousness.

"It has not been successful," Skrbina pointed out. "This has been one of the major frustrations, I think, in the scientific community, is to actually find the physical correlate of the various states of consciousness. As far as I can tell, and the latest research I've seen, they have been unable to do this, which suggests that consciousness is either a deeper or a more complex phenomenon than most of our scientists have thought and maybe are willing to admit."

This is where panpsychism fills in the void. It offers an explanation for consciousness that doesn't try to do an end run around the known laws of the physical world, but assumes consciousness is an intrinsic part of it.

Besides — as Luke Roelofs, a philosopher of mind at NYU's Centre for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness, told Salon — the most popular framework for explaining consciousness does not hold up to scrutiny.

"The biggest motivation is dissatisfaction with the mainstream approach to explaining consciousness, which is to identify it with some sort of complex information processing structure," Roelofs explained by email. "Panpsychists generally think that structure alone can't do the job: taking completely non-conscious ingredients and arranging them in a complicated way seems compatible with the whole system remaining completely non-conscious." Because the human brain is made up of the same basic matter as everything else in existence, "the most natural view seems to be that [consciousness] is a general feature of matter."

Hence, panpsychism — and hence the idea that matter, in general, is conscious, regardless of whether it is an organism or not.

As for the opposition to panpsychism? One problem is that skeptics feel it is ludicrous at face value.

"I think that mostly comes from more basic differences in how people think about consciousness," Roelofs told Salon. "Panpsychists think that thought, reasoning, decision-making, vision and hearing and smell and all of our cognitive complexity: none of those are the same thing as consciousness. Consciousness is just subjectivity, just 'is there something it's like to exist right now?' And so they think it makes sense for consciousness to exist in simple forms without thought, without reasoning, without vision or hearing or smell. A lot of critics think that's just a mix-up: they think that once you take away thought, reasoning, etc. that's it, there's nothing left to talk about."

The obvious next question, then, is: what is conscious? And how does it separate itself? Would a rock or a table have a single unified conscious — or perhaps something bigger, like a planet, or even a solar system?

For those questions, too, panpsychists have ideas. 

"Panpsychism typically does not take all things to be conscious as a whole, or to have their own unified consciousness," Hedda Hassel Mørch, a philosopher and associate professor at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, told Salon by email. "Fundamental particles would have simple, unified consciousness. Sometimes, this simple consciousness 'combines' or unifies into more complex forms. This happens in the human brain—we have unified consciousness as whole. But it probably doesn't happen in e.g. tables and chairs—these things are mere collections of independently conscious particles."

Another criticism, which Roelofs acknowledged at least addresses the idea on its own terms, is that panpsychism does not necessarily answer all of the questions that it poses.

"Panpsychists think you can't explain human consciousness by putting together lots of non-conscious things in the right structure; okay, but is it actually easier to explain it by putting lots of conscious things in the right structure?" Roelofs asked. "Does it even make sense for a group of minds to combine into one bigger mind?" He added that he has written extensively on this subject, "investigating why combining minds seems so puzzling, and whether we can make sense of it anyway. But it remains a genuinely difficult challenge to panpsychism as a view."

On the other hand, science is equally stuck when it comes to explaining the subjective experiences that we can embrace when we listen to music, enjoy delicious food, watch a movie or fall in love. There is something unquantifiable about the joys of life, a reality that is not encompassed when we try to reduce emotions to hormones.

This brings us to Philip Goff, associate professor of philosophy at Durham University, who told Salon that there is another philosopher whose ideas we must challenge, one who lived in the same period as Descartes — Galileo Galilei.

"What Descartes was making very rigorous was the philosophy of Galileo," Goff explained, citing his book "Galileo's Error." He argued that because consciousness could not be explained in the qualitative and mathematical terms that Galileo's deemed essential for something to be scientific, the great scientist concluded it had to be decoupled from the scientific process and explained through other intellectual disciplines.

"Consciousness involves quality — the redness of a red experience, the smell of coffee, the taste of mint," Goff said. "These qualities that can't be captured in a purely quantitative vocabulary of mathematics. So Galileo said that if we want mathematical science, we need to take consciousness out of the domain of science. In Galileo's worldview, there is this radical division in nature between the quantitative mathematical domain of science and the physical world, and the qualitative domain of consciousness with its colors, and sounds, and smells and tastes." 

Panpsychism, by its very premise, would make it possible to merge the two disciplines.

Panpsychism also has radical implications for religions, since so many focus on questions of what happens after we die. It is likely that our brains still comprise the bulk of our identity (so when the neurons which store your memories die, the memories most likely die forever along with them), but panpsychism allows for the possibility that your conscious "self" lives on in some form. It does not even entirely preclude the possibility that we take some of our identity with us; to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick when he directed "The Shining," the seemingly horrifying prospect of ghosts existing at least means that death is not final.

If true, panpsychism would raise questions about other substances and the degree to which non-human things are self-aware. Does that mean inanimate objects are also self-aware? Do a chair, a pair of pants and a rock have the capacity to think as a human, a dog and a pig? What about more primitive organisms like bacteria and viruses?

"Panpsychism does suggest that there may well be some level of consciousness everywhere in nature," Roelofs explained. "Panpsychists all accept dog-consciousness, but some might not want to accept chair-consciousness: they might say that each particle making up the chair is conscious, but it's not constructed the right way for these to 'add up' to anything. Others might think that chairs have consciousness, but of an incredibly diffuse sort: because there's no brain or nervous system, there's no order or structure to the chair's experience, just an undifferentiated blur."

Ultimately, he added, "The impact of panpsychism isn't so much to answer these questions, but to suggest continuity: don't expect to find a discontinuous boundary somewhere between the simplest animal that is conscious and the most complex animal that isn't." Roelofs says there isn't a line that one could draw: "even if some sorts of consciousness are so simple that it's more useful for us, in practice, to treat them as 'mindless', nevertheless the differences are ultimately just matters of degree."

In the end, it may prove impossible to ever definitively ascertain whether panpsychism holds water. After all, without some way to visually or otherwise physically identify consciousness, we can't precisely say whether an inanimate object has any rudimentary "consciousness" in it. It's not like you can ask a virus or chair if they are self-aware.

"Scientifically speaking, we're in quite a bind with consciousness in particular and with the mind in general, just because of the nature of what it is," Skrbina told Salon. "It is not the kind of thing that is really, like I say, subject to scientific analysis."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Consciousness Life Neurology Panpsychism Philosphy Reporting Science