Philosophy Club chews on panpsychism


Before the festivities of Springfest weekend, students gathered in Wold House ]for a philosophy discussion surrounding the infamous theory of panpsychism.

Led by Dan Pallies ’15, the discussion explored the legitimacy of the radical school of thought.

For many, the concept of panpsychism may sound strange, and even “ridiculous.”

Panpsychism can be found dating back to at least Ancient Greek times and thus has undergone a great deal of criticism and intrigue since.

The core belief of panpsychism is that the psyche, consciousness or mentality, is a component of all things, animate and inanimate.

Dan Pallies began the discussion by explaining, “In a very brief sense, this is the idea that mental properties are existing all the way down to the smallest particles, such as atoms. Essentially, this belief is that is that ‘mental stuff’ doesn’t just happen in complex physical systems, but at all levels of existence.”

While the concept itself may seem difficult to grasp, particularly because the idea of mentalist, psyche and consciousness are debatable terminologies as well, students attempted to put the idea into perspective.

Panpsychism falls in direct opposition to the popular philosophical theory of radical emergence, which is the more favored of the two concepts regarding matter.

Dating back to a similar time of origin, emergence has existed in philosophy for just as long, creating quite a debate.

This “emergence” implies rather that one’s conscience and mentality develops at higher levels than the atomic.

Pallies attempted to decipher the two theories by applying them to water.

“Liquid water has the property of liquidity, and this emerges from the particles that are in the system, hydrogen and oxygen. However, in terms of pansychism, one would believe that there is a deeper story within the particles and decision as to how they create a property such as liquidity.”

While there are few arguments against radical emergence, students began begging the question as to how the panpsychist mindset could be conceptualized in everyday life.

The ultimate question being tempted here: if physical things such as atoms retain no mental qualities whatsoever, how can they come together to create mental objects, such as the brain?

James Boggs ’15 offered, “It sounds like panpsychism would solve this problem within radical emergence, but it creates many more for itself. If you accept that there are mental properties for every physical thing, then why not accept that there is something about us that is not radically emergent, but uniquely human?”

The questions of humanity and consciousness raised other questions within the group.

While it is easy to conclude that human beings maintain mental processes, we are also inherently physical beings. Both arguments attempt to reconcile this divide.

Claire Kokoska ’15 posited, “Maybe it’s not something greater than the physical, but maybe mental properties are merely a way that one thing communicates with another. We all have inner systems as human beings, and everything beneath that is made of smaller components, so a mental property could just come down to this different levels of communication.”

So perhaps, if there are mental forms of communication occurring at molecular levels, what makes the human experience different in all its complexity? Pallies remarked, “Then you are left with the mysterious idea of ‘subjective experience.’”

The idea of the subjective experience was tossed around by comparing the awareness of robots and their decision making abilities.

Boggs prompted the group as to whether or not a computer could be considered in a subjective state due to its ability to make decisions.

Kokoska responded, “We have no way of being sure that other things don’t have a subjective state.”

Pallies interjected, stating, “That is where this theory gets crazy, because you don’t have a choice between a concrete theory and an improbable one. Both ends of the spectrum are pretty extreme here.”

The group continued with various comparisons of where lines are drawn in the animate and inanimate world as far as panpsychism.

If all matter is capable of mental processes on some level, do you need to feel sorry when you sit on your couch, treating it as a being?

The confusing relationship between the physical and mental world is one that will likely challenge philosophers for many more centuries.

The ability of humans to use their mental processes to evolve and make more informed decisions is apparent, however the ability to rule out occurring mental processes on smaller levels is not there.

A final example that permeates into pop culture: the gold and white or blue and black dress.

There is a sort of convergence of the physical and mental which allow a person to see the dress and then interpret it in their mind as looking a particular way.

As students wrapped up, there was remaining skepticism surrounding panpsychism and its many possibilities. There is something ideal about accepting a theory which could so easily explain the composition of the brain or the way people and beings interact.

The philosophy club continues to tackle these questions in an open discussion each week in Wold House.


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