The threat of panpsychism revisited
|Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released in the public domain.|
A few days ago, I published an essay discussing the threat of panpsychism in our culture's journey away from materialism. In essence, my point was this: now that reason and observations are rendering materialism untenable, panpsychism offers a bandaid solution that, in my view, threatens to perpetuate the absurd notion that matter is more primary than mind either in substance or in structure.
Now, Matthew David Segall, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the California Institute of Integral Studies, offered a critique of my essay. In this post, I'd like to briefly comment on his critique.
Segall correctly infers that the version of panpsychism that I sought to refute in my original essay was that articulated by, among others, Galen Strawson and David Chalmers. He then states:
Kastrup defends [monistic idealism], but only against a rather oversimplified, caricatured version of panpsychism.I have two brief comments on this. First, if the panpsychism I attempted to refute is 'caricatured' and 'oversimplified,' then Segall should perhaps direct the criticism towards Strawson, Chalmers, neuroscientist Christof Koch and others who articulate it. I'd applaud the attempt if he chooses to do so, as my original point was precisely that this articulation of panpsychism is incorrect. Second, 'caricatured' and 'oversimplified' as it may be, it is this articulation of panpsychism that is gaining momentum in academia and elsewhere today. Many people in neuroscience, for instance, will understand by the term 'panpsychism' exactly what I described it to mean in my original essay.
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I will even go further and say that the choice of the term 'panpsychism' to label this ontology is correct. 'Pan-psychism' literally means 'soul everywhere,' which suggests an 'everywhere' outside soul, where soul can be located. This is precisely what monistic idealism rejects: according to it, all 'wheres' are in consciousness/soul, not consciousness/soul somewhere. There is a quote by Henry Corbin that captures this perfectly: 'it is the where, the place, that resides in the soul.' (in Swedenborg And Esoteric Islam, page 14).
Kastrup’s main concern with panpsychism (so defined) is that it “fragments” consciousness into atomic bits ... But these concerns are, I argue, resolved by the process-relational version [of panpsychism articulated by Alfred North Whitehead]. Although Whitehead’s panpsychism does involve the particulation of psyche, these psychic particles ... are each and all internally related and co-constituting; they are interpenetrating drops of experience, not isolated monads of private mentality. Fragmentation is thereby averted.Am I alone here in wondering what this means exactly? It comes across to me as a vague, handwaving attempt to have it both ways; to say that Whitehead's panpsychism entails that consciousness is both fragmented (it 'does involve the particulation of the psyche') and non-fragmented ('Fragmentation is thereby averted'). Which is it? If psychic particles are 'interpenetrating,' 'co-constituting' and not isolated, in what way are they still particles? In what way are multiple 'drops' that interpenetrate each other still 'drops,' instead of just one puddle? And if they cease to be particles only once they become integrated with each other by some unexplained magical step, then they were fragmented before they magically joined together. As such, the underlying, original nature of reality is still one of fragmentation and the problem isn't averted at all.
You see, what is in contention here is the fundamental, underlying nature of reality, not its superficial appearances. There is no question that reality appears to be constituted of fragmented building blocks. The question is whether this apparent fragmentation isn't merely the result of human conceptualization, the underlying nature of reality being a holistic unity. When Segall speaks of 'psychic particles [being] each and all ... co-constituting,' he seems to be either incurring in contradiction or suggesting that the 'particulated' aspect is a more superficial appearance, while the underlying reality of these 'particles' is that of unity. But it is this underlying level that is the only point in contention here, not the appearances. Is the underlying level fragmented or unitary? Segall cannot have it both ways.
[Whitehead's] is not a polemical but a diplomatic philosophy, always searching for the middle ground that incorporates the elucidatory aspects of all approaches in search of an adequate compromise.Personally, I am interested in what is true, not in what avoids conflict through vague, ambiguous, diplomatically-skilled discourse. Ontology is not about seeking compromise; it's not about giving people a warm and fuzzy feeling. Ontology is about getting us closer to truth in a clear and explicit manner. To create an ontology purely for the sake of accommodating disparate and contradictory views is an artificial exercise that can only result in a philosophical Frankenstein monster; a monster that doesn't necessarily bear any link to actual states of affairs.
To my mind, what Kastrup [is] arguing for in this essay is only another form of reductionism–reduction to Unity and Mind instead of to Matter.Here Segall falls for the false mind-matter polarity: he implicitly frames 'mind' and 'matter' as contradictory concepts at the same level of abstraction, so that a reduction to either of them is seen as equally abstract. But the mind-matter polarity is a linguistic and conceptual illusion; it isn't a true polarity at all. Here is a passage from my book Why Materialism Is Baloney that hopefully makes this clear:
Since I am arguing that everything – absolutely everything – is mind, why bother with the word ‘mind’? The word itself may be said to be useless. In a sense, it may be claimed that my articulation of idealism renders the very category ‘mind’ null and void. ... [But] materialists (in fact, all realists) have themselves invented an abstracted category of things that are not mind. As a matter of fact, they have invented an entire universe of things and phenomena that are, supposedly, not mind. Since I am arguing my case against theirs, it is entirely valid that I use the word ‘mind’ to differentiate my metaphysics from theirs. As such, my insistence in using the word aims at making clear that I deny their invented, abstracted, unprovable universe of things and phenomena outside subjective experience. (Why Materialism Is Baloney, page 200)Mind is simply what there is, as far as anyone can ever know. It's the ground of knowledge. It's what exists before we start theorizing, conceptualizing and abstracting. Mind isn't an abstraction like 'matter,' but the very ground of all abstractions. Indeed, 'matter' is an abstraction of and in mind. When Segall talks about reduction to 'mind' or 'matter' he is speaking from within mind. Where else? He cannot step out of mind and speak of it as just another abstraction; nobody can.
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Mind is the only carrier of reality we can ever know. To say that mind and matter are a polarity is a mistake of categories. Matter is a conceptual invention of mind. To reduce everything to mind is not at all equivalent to reducing everything to matter: in the latter case we reduce reality to an abstraction, while in the former case we simply acknowledge the ground of all existence we can ever know.
Ontological pluralism seems more true to experience (both common every day experience AND mystical experience), since it doesn’t deny the possibility of unity, it only denies that things are necessarily unified. [The italics are mine]Before you raise your eyebrows and exclaim 'Wait... is he really saying this?!' let's remain objective. Segall seems to be suggesting that mystical experience allows for the possibility that one day there may be unity through bottom-up integration, but that at present there is no sign in mystical testimonies that this unity is complete.
This is flagrantly incorrect. Testimonials throughout history overwhelmingly indicate precisely the opposite. Moores wrote that 'Mysticism, then, is the perception of the universe and all of its seemingly disparate entities existing in a unified whole.' (Moores, D. J. (2006). Mystical Discourse in Wordsworth and Whitman: A Transatlantic Bridge, Peeters Publishers, p. 34. The italics are my own) Indeed, mystical traditions in both East and West have always insisted that reality is unified at bottom. In India, they called the fundamental unity of all reality Brahman. 'The world [of multiplicity] is illusory; Brahman alone is real; Brahman is the world,' said Sri Ramana Maharshi, echoing Shankara. The notion of 'The One,' the absolute, permeates nearly every world religion, including polytheistic ones. Mystical experience across the ages has revealed the unity underlying all reality, as discussed by Psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke in his famous case-studies book titled Cosmic Consciousness. Aldous Huxley researched and wrote about it in his book The Perennial Philosophy. I could go on and on but I think most readers will immediately recognize what I am trying to say and feel rather surprised at Segall's assertion. That he even capitalized the 'AND' for emphasis makes it only more bewildering.
Necessary unity is politically frightening to me. It is too fascist, too totalitarian.I feel a little embarrassed to have to point out that we are discussing the nature of reality here, not politics.
I prefer democracy both politically and ontologically. Order, oneness, unity, etc must be freely affirmed, freely achieved. They cannot be metaphysically imposed.The conflation of categories here is frankly disconcerting. Does anyone seriously think that our (political) views and preferences bear any relevance to what nature is? Personally, I am interested in what is true, not what I'd prefer to be true. This line of argument by Segall is, at best, irrelevant.
I appreciate Segall's feedback and sympathize with many of his personal preferences. But any serious pursuit in ontology is a pursuit of truth, not of personal comfort, peace of mind or political correctness. It must also represent the evidence correctly, whether it comes from 'objective' science or subjective introspection. Finally, it must be articulated explicitly, clearly and unambiguously, if it is to offer any meaningful contribution to the debate. I believe Segall has failed on all three counts.