Is Panpsychism irreconcilable with Idealism?

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed, commented on and approved for publication by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author.)

Orbitals of a hydrogen atom.
Source: WIkimedia Commons.


The well-known writer Bernardo Kastrup, an idealist, has repeatedly argued against the notion of panpsychism, even calling it a "threat." In this article, I will argue that Kastrup's interpretation of panpsychism is but one among many and that there are interpretations of panpsychism possible which do not contradict idealism in the least. One of these interpretations is my "hierarchical panpsychism of self-sustaining systems." Although I fully recognise that consciousness is ultimately unified and that the world, its objects and inhabitants are in non-dual consciousness rather than the other way around, I do not see why the line of sentience should be drawn at biology. As a biochemist, I will inter alia argue the versatile and complex nature of the behaviour of atoms and molecules at the individual level, their ability to respond to stimuli and their morphological fitness to harbour a reflective cybernetic feedback loop. Please note that I am not arguing that chairs and rocks are sentient; give me the benefit of doubt and do not condemn my theory prima facie based on the use of the heretic terminology "panpsychism." I am not presenting some kind of naive animism. Explore whether you can agree with me if an atom and/or a molecule could perhaps harbour a form of sentience.


In the past philosophers defined panpsychism as the view that consciousness, mind or soul (psyche) is a universal and primordial feature of all things. A materialistic interpretation thereof is that matter either has consciousness or that consciousness is an intrinsic aspect of matter. In such an interpretation of panpsychism consciousness is fragmented, unlike the unified form it has in idealism. Moreover, this type of panpsychism would suggest that our human consciousness is merely the aggregation of all our atomic "consciousnesses." Rocks and chairs, by this definition, would also be sentient.

In my idealist interpretation of panpsychism or hylozoism consciousness expresses itself as a hierarchical fractal, which is also unified, but in which every sufficiently autopoietic, or at least self-sustaining, phenomenon is endowed with a form of sentience at an individual level. Primordial consciousness or "That Which Experiences" (TWE) is thus able to sense via these phenomenal self-enabling forms at every level of existence, not excluding sensing such phenomena from within via an individualised perspective. In the more traditional philosophy of idealism only biological life is capable of consciousness and inanimate or inorganic phenomena could be considered as mere metaphorical ripples in an ocean of non-dual consciousness. It has always puzzled me whether in this interpretation inanimate or inorganic phenomena could be sensed in all aspects of their versatility, and the present essay is an attempt to show that it is not excluded that a form of individual experience (but still ultimately experienced by TWE) is also present within the most simple self-enabling phenomena such as atoms and molecules.

The Primacy of Consciousness

The terminology "The Primacy of Consciousness" was introduced by Peter Russell. It entails that consciousness is the most fundamental, irreducible ground of existence. If it is irreducible, it is impossible to define or express it in terms of other things or concepts. After all, everything is then made out of consciousness rather than the other way around. This primordial consciousness is also the ground of our human, individual consciousness and this is often where the Babylonian confusion starts. After all, we can describe certain aspects of our consciousness: It is that inner faculty that allows us to become aware, that is, to know our surroundings and ourselves; it is that via which we know that we feel, that we have sentience. This ability to sense, feel and "know" in an undifferentiated, formless omnipresence may well be ground of being and our individualised ability to sense, feel and know, a metaphorical "tentacle" thereof.

Are these individualised abilities to sense, feel and know, reserved for biological life forms? Can there only be sentience in biological life? If so, at what level does it start? And where does egoic self-reflective awareness start? Does an insect have egoic self-reflective awareness or is it reserved to vertebrates only, or even to just more complex forms thereof? Are the building blocks of biological life, the macromolecules, molecules and atoms more like metaphorical eddies in an ocean of otherwise undifferentiated consciousness, in which egoic self-reflective awareness would be like metaphorical whirlpools?

The idea that sentience and self-awareness are limited to biological life forms is also a hypothesis. Nobody (other than some mystics perhaps) has ever been able to sense from the perspective of an atom, molecule or macromolecule. Another, perhaps equally likely, alternative is that all self-sustaining or independent forms of existence might have a quality of sensing, perhaps even a sense of individuality. Yet another alternative is that the ability to sense does not arise before there is a kind of network capable of integrating information and acting as a consequence thereof. Is then only animal life, by virtue of its neuronal networks, capable of sentience? Or do plants or even single celled organisms, such as yeast or bacteria, which have or form other types of networks of information transfer, display a form of sentience?

This brings us to the question "What is sentience?" Is it merely a cybernetic feedback loop involving input, throughput (integration), output and feedback? Or is there something more to the story? Is there a sense of individuality associated with the ability to make choices?

My speculation is that sentience indeed involves a cybernetic feedback loop encompassing input, throughput (integration), output and feedback, but that this is not enough to render an entity sentient. It would mean that networks in computers are sentient, if this feedback loop were enough. I postulate that only entities that have evolved in a natural way, as metaphorical tentacles of the singular primordial consciousness, and which form a kind of reflective feedback loop allowing them to sustain themselves, are sentient. They may even have a sense of individuality and the ability to make choices at a rudimentary level. This notion of a "hierarchical panpsychic fractal of autopoietic systems" does not need to contradict idealism.


This brings us to the topic of "autopoiesis." Autopoiesis is Greek for Self-Enabling. I learnt about this terminology when reading in books about computer networks, such as Ben Goertzel's Creating Internet Intelligence, where the possibility to create self-sustaining artificially-intelligent agents was discussed. This term was however first coined by Maturana and Varela to describe biological systems, which not only are able to sustain themselves but also to replicate themselves. Since this reproductive aspect was perhaps not intended by Ben Goertzel, I must conclude that it seems the terminology "autopoiesis" has undergone some semantic drift.

Whereas I originally intended to use the terminology "autopoiesis" for self-sustaining systems, I will try to see in this essay if my arguments can be stretched to even meet the stronger requirement of the ability to replicate. I will now explore how far the terminology "autopoietic" can be attributed to atoms, molecules and macromolecules.

The opposite of autopoietic is allopoietic, which is a terminology used for systems that do not organise themselves but are rather assembled in a kind of factory. This applies not only to human utilities we fabricate, but also to, for example, a virus. A virus is a conglomerate or aggregate of macromolecules (DNA and proteins), which cannot self-replicate, but which can be replicated by a cell functioning as a factory.

Are atoms autopoietic or at least self-sustaining?

Let us start with the atom. It is assumed that the first atoms were formed when space expanded after the Big Bang and elementary particles such as electrons, protons and neutrons started to condense to form a kind of plasma. Electrons were trapped by the nuclei being formed and thus the first atoms arose, mostly hydrogen, some helium and perhaps a trace of lithium. As space expanded, the temperature dropped to a level where nucleosynthesis was no longer possible. By gravitation, atoms attracted atoms forming clouds of atoms, which under the pressure of gravity collapsed into what became stars. The internal pressure here was so high that nucleosynthesis started again, giving rise to heavier atoms. Eventually, atoms formed that were so heavy they had only a limited lifetime and decayed after a while, giving birth to inter alia helium atoms (alpha particles); a process we call radioactivity. Stars have a limited lifetime and, depending on their size, can undergo different paths to dying. Often they become an exploding supernova, which flings a great deal of matter into space, whereas the remainder collapses to form dwarf stars, neutron stars and finally black holes.

If an atom escapes the environment of a star and is stable, it can "live" almost indefinitely until it is scavenged by another celestial body and finally destroyed in a collapsing star again.

We see that the life-cycle of an atom is strongly intertwined with the life-cycle of a star. Should we see a star as a factory that assembles atoms (in which case atoms are allopoietic), or is it in a certain way fair to see a star as a higher order stage and part of the life-cycle of an atom? Analogously, one could say that our bodies are not really factories to assemble cells, but rather a higher order stage and part of the life-cycle of cells.

If you do not accept this argument, perhaps you have some sympathy for the notion that radioactivity gives birth to new alpha particles, so that it cannot be ruled out 100% that atoms cannot self-replicate.

You may still consider these arguments far-fetched and consider the processes of nucleosynthesis and radioactivity as purely clockwork mechanisms, but you should be aware that these processes take place at the quantum level, where indeterminacy plays an important role, so that only the behaviour of an ensemble of particles can be predicted but never of that of an individual particle. This indeterminacy of atomic behaviour at the quantum level might be a pointer to the ability to make choices at the individual level, whereas at the macro level these choices appear cancelled out by probability.

Can atoms sustain themselves?

There are 81 elements in the periodic table that are stable and not prone to radioactive decay. Once formed and liberated from a star these atoms will exist for almost an indefinite amount of time as explained above. What makes these atoms so stable? Why do the negatively charged electrons not crash into the positively charged nucleus? It is said that, when approaching the nucleus, the potential energy of an electron goes down, but that this is more than compensated for by a gain in kinetic energy, which prevents it from crashing into the nucleus. But why does the sum of potential and kinetic energy always stay the same? Why is the balance never lost? Why does an atom appear to defy the second law of thermodynamics? You might answer, "but the electrons in an atom move in a vacuum, there is no friction." The "frictionlessness" of the vacuum has however been challenged by the observed slowing down of the Pioneer spacecraft after it left the solar system. I am not a physicist, (I'm a chemist) so maybe I see these things wrongly, but to me it appears that an atom maintains its total energy content and internal order against entropy.

Can atoms sense?

Whenever atoms approach other atoms, there can be repulsion or attraction. Electromagnetic forces are predominant at this level of aggregation, so attraction or repulsion is mostly ruled by charges in motion. Is the nearby presence of another atom sensed by an atom, which then redistributes its internal charges when the other atom approaches, or are these laws of nature like clockwork mechanisms? Again I remind you that, at this quantum level, indeterminacy is still present and that the behaviour of an individual atom cannot be predicted. Thus the ability to choose cannot be ruled out a priori.

When an atom catches a photon and becomes excited, lifting electrons into a higher orbital, is this a merely automatic reaction, or does the system as a whole sense the raise in energy in one of the orbitals? Clearly the whole atom reacts holistically. The redistribution of charge has consequences through the whole atom and changes the overall reactivity of the atom in regard to external factors. Do the different electrons in different orbitals in cooperation with the nucleus form a kind of intricate information network? Is such a network capable of integrating the information so as to come up with an appropriate reaction? Or is this some kind of emergent harmony arising as a feedforward side effect?

Personally, I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think they merit some consideration. We should at least wonder whether by putting the dividing line of sentience at biological systems we aren't throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

It is my conjecture that if some kind of cybernetic feedback loop is present in an atom, this is a natural consequence of the sentience of the atom as it attempts to know itself. This does not imply reducing sentience to mere stimulus and response: As I said, I require that the information stimulus is integrated and then willingly acted upon by intent to give an output. The throughput integration and associated action by will discriminates this idea from e.g. sand forming dunes by the action of wind or water evaporating by the action of sunlight. Of course I do not have proof of this, but I think we must not underestimate the complexity and inner workings of an atom.

By virtue of their orbital shapes, atoms present an ideal vessel—at least morphologically—for sentience to engage in a process resembling (self-)reflection; a kind of turning in upon itself. There is a certain morphological analogy to the above in the metaphorical notion of whirlpools as a representation of egoic awareness. Not that I wish to imply that atoms can be aware of themselves! Rather, I see the "self-reflectivity" loops of the orbitals as a physical representation of their mind-like processes. The conscious energy of the primordial consciousness ocean might form reflective micro-loops, which at the atomic level may be visible to us as the overall interference pattern of an atom's orbitals, at the molecular level as the molecular orbitals, at the cellular level as the cell's nucleus, and at the organism level as a brain. Thus a hierarchy of sentient, reflective feedback loops can be present. The physical forms we can perceive are perhaps but the lower-dimensional shadows of a higher-dimensional metaphysical reality, with the consciousness fractal as its ground. Electromagnetism or other primordial forces such as gravity and the strong and weak nuclear forces might be the physical reflections of a mind in action, a mind willing and intending, a mind that consists of societies of smaller minds, but is not emergent therefrom.


A strong counter-argument can be that I'm basing my ideas on abduction: The fact that it walks and quacks like a duck does not necessarily mean that it is a duck. The fact that I see whirlpool-like structures in inanimate natural phenomena does not mean that they are conduits for self-reflection involving egoic awareness. I will certainly not argue that a whirlwind is aware. Rather, I argue that if a vortex-like structure is self-sustaining and if there is a possibility of information integration in a system, these might be indicators we're looking at a sentient entity.

Giulio Tononi indicated that there can be feedforward complexes in network systems, which behave exactly the same as feedback systems, where integration of information takes place. A whirlwind or a virus can perhaps be compared to such a feedforward complex, a living cell or an atom to an integrative feedback system.

Molecular sentience

With molecules my speculative game reaches a new level of complexity. There are plenty of circular and toroidal orbitals in molecules, but this does not necessarily mean that they can give rise to an integrative self-sustaining feedback loop that could harbour sentience. At least for as long as a molecule "lives," it would appear to defy the laws of thermodynamics in the same way as an atom. Most molecules, however, are not that stable and decay, disintegrate or form other molecules by reaction. Extremely stable molecules often have very strong bonds between their atoms. Is a molecule a mere society of atoms or can there be a higher-level of sentient energy that uses a molecule as a vessel? Again we see an indeterminacy of molecular behaviour at the individual level as a pointer to the ability to make choices at this level, whereas at the macro level these choices again cancel out by probability.

Perhaps it depends on the nature of the molecule. Crystals can grow out of molecules and/or atoms and, at least in esoteric traditions, these have often been associated with more sentience than molecules, which do not undergo crystallisation. Crystallisation is a kind of morphological self-replication in a sense. Are molecules that can undergo crystallisation already meeting the requirements of "autopoiesis" in its stronger form? Or do we have to seek until we get really self-replicating molecules such as RNA? RNA can self-replicate and sustain and repair itself. It does not necessarily need the factory of a cell to achieve this feat. RNA can also curl upon itself, form hairpin loops. A very versatile molecule, this RNA. It can interact with cofactors and perform catalytic and autocatalytic functions. A reflective feedback loop in form and function? Are the conformations it adopts to perform these functions a mere random walk resulting in haphazardly clicking into the right conformation? Is it electromagnetically steered? Or is there "will" and individual sentience involved?

An RNA molecule is not what qualifies as a living cell yet. Is RNA a mere feedforward complex occurring in nature, or is it already an integrative feedback system that can harbour the reflective feedback activity I postulate for sentience?

Note that I have carefully avoided speaking about DNA, because DNA leads to a chicken and egg problem: To synthesise DNA you need the enzyme DNA polymerase, but to make DNA polymerase, you need DNA. I have no clue how nature pulled off this trick.


Is this model parsimonious enough? It states that every self-sustaining expression by primordial consciousness is a kind of reflective feedback loop; a form of proto-egoic self-involvement. It argues that matter appears as a reflective feedback loop in consciousness, endowed with a form of individual sentience, wherever such a loop can be formed in a self-sustaining manner. This formation of reflective feedback loops might even be what happens when a string forms in string theory. Loops of self-involvement, loops of individualisation, loops creating the will and desire to experience and sense. (The question of at which level self-reflective egoic awareness starts, involving being aware of one's awareness, could become the topic for a future essay).

This model is highly monistic, I would say. One could also ask, isn't reserving sentience exclusively for biological systems an unwanted form of dualism?

If my model is monistic, how can it deny parsimony? Is the fractal too pluralistic? Or is everything joined at the hip?


I have tried to argue that placing the dividing line for sentience at biological systems might be arbitrary. I have tried to argue that atoms and certain molecules might meet the definition of autopoiesis or at least be self-sustaining rather than an assembled aggregate. I have tried to argue that these systems not only are sensitive to stimulus and response but that this might happen due to an integration of information involving individuality, choice and will. Of course it is speculation. But I seriously doubt whether it is more speculative than materialism or pure idealism. Call it the third ontology if you wish. Consciousness groping to know itself by generating sentient self-representations at different levels of complexity: A highly parsimonious model.

Copyright © 2017 by Antonin Tuynman. Published with permission.


  1. Hello Antonin, congratulations on your essay!

    You suggest that stars might be part of the life-cycle of atoms, perhaps comparable to the way slime moulds swarm and fuse. Is it your view that a star is not hierarchically higher than any of the individual atoms comprising it, so has no more sentience than one of its atoms? (A star does have complex behaviour, in spite its lack of molecular complexity). Also, is it your view that (say) a carbon atom exhibits more sentience than a simple hydrogen atom?

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Ben. I hypothesise indeed that a star as a whole experiences more than the sum of its constituent atoms. Just like we experience more than the cells our body is made of. A carbon atom possibly has a more versatile experience than a hydrogen atom. But it is all speculation. It's an inquiry, not a stance.

  2. Antonin, great deep thinking, thank you !!

    It goes down all the way and reveals that it doesn't make sense to stop consciousness at some point, that indeed creates dualism.

    It is also very important the concept of consciousness groping to know itself, that is the whole idea that drives idealism, I think.

    The next speculative jump I would like to ask you about is if we could say that this impulse to know itself is a fundamental movement and if we could say that it has the nature of "good" so we can jump into the idea that "all is good"?

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Claudio. As to the question whether all is good, I will have to write another essay. The question is not trivial and we'll have to work from clear definitions.

    2. Thank you Antonin!

      Your idea also explains beautifully string theory and DNA formation... great indeed!

      If we could jump from all is good to all is love it would unite many spiritual concepts.

    3. Thank you for your kind words, Claudio. If you liked this, you will definitely like my books "Technovedanta", "Transcendental Metaphysics" and "Is Intelligence an Algorithm?" in which I try to build a bridge between science and spirituality based on an underlying philosophy that the whole universe strives to achieve a full integration. Call it "good" or "love" if you wish, I think it means the same.

  3. I would say both are true. Panpsychism is the all-pervading consciousness as the ground or true nature of reality directly from our soul energy that supports the illusion of material, but also gives rise to the Idealism of the Mind. It's our nature of duality. The mind versus the heart. Panpsychism is of the heart/soul which divides to produce the Idealism of the mind. Could we consider that as an incarnation into another realm - the mental construct? We have mental constructs and we have heart constructs. Sounds plausible?

  4. I think you guys would enjoy this essay on Time and the Human Soul. Both topics are presented with different language.

  5. It's interesting that Albert Schweitzer, when listing, in "The Philosophy of Civilization," several manifestations of the will-to-live (the primal impulse to develop potential and express fullness of being) includes the crystal, along with the flowering tree, the strange forms of the medusa, and the blade of grass. Such a shame that this 20th Century polymath--who earned several doctorates and authored seminal works on the historical Jesus, the music of Bach, organ building, and ethics--is remembered for his extraordinary humanitarian work in his jungle hospital while his equally extraordinary philosophical work is largely forgotten. I couldn't help but think of these unusual words of his as I read your perceptive, provocative essay.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I am indeed unaware of this philosophical work by Albert Schweitzer. It seems worthwhile to have a look at.

  6. It seems to me we can either speculate whether something or someone other than us is sentient or not. Or we can assume that they are or are not. For deeply realized mystics there is no doubt that all of existence is sentient. In fact this IS the nature of reality reported by them. For others it may be inconvenient to think this and the more so to the degree that they deny the reality of, or worse actually harm other life forms.
    That bird flying across the sky IS real on the inside and real to itself folks. Its as real as you and is the whole of existence just like you are.

    1. You bet that bird is real and so are we, but then again that bird will die and so will we. So how real can humans be? Real would mean a state of permanence and not so temporary. I could hypothetically say, a rock is more real than I because it will remain here on Earth a lot longer than me. The atoms of empty space are indeed very complex.

    2. Waterkingdavid I couldn't agree more. In fact my original query into "panpsychism" started with texts from Hinduism claiming that every atom is inhabited by Vishnu.

  7. Here is something along these lines that bothers me about Idealism (which I am otherwise quite inclined to accept). It might be called the "scandal of physicality." Human beings exist in this world only through a body that operates through an incredibly complex series of processes--digestion, respiration, urination, defecation, reproduction--that are all subject to endless malfunctions. We can control these processes consciously to some extent--perhaps to a greater extent than we realize. But on the theory that all is mind, why bother with such a complicated and limited way of interacting with the world? Why can't we just be beings that float through life observing and interacting with the world based on pure mental energy, needing no food or drink, suffering no intractable pain? The limits of our physicality has always caused pessimists (Gnostics, pessimist Hermeticists, Schopenhauer, etc.) to say there is something really wrong with the world. One of the best answers I ever heard to that was Colin Wilson's. He said (using an admittedly Eurocentric metaphor) that the physical world is like an unexplored, savage country that we higher beings have been sent to colonize with consciousness. But this metaphor completely fails on a purely Idealistic account. Why does Mind create a primitive country where its manifestations suffer?

    1. Great question hfgibbard: Why does Mind create a primitive country where its manifestations suffer? I will chalk the Mind's miscalculations to the nature of being born and living in a disordered universe. But there is something underneath us all. If one studies Near Death Experiences the word used to describe a death is Light. People who leave their bodies for short periods of time almost always meet Light beings. And they themselves shine with Light too. Clear evidence that there is another universe made of Light. And what if that Light universe is filled with science and technology? Perhaps the human mind has been slowly advanced over the years to bring that science and technology into existence. And science and technology will end those stupid manifestations we suffer. Goggle The Venus Project, it very well could be our future.

      And a video of mine that is boring but accurate, but the best part is half of it contains the best personal accounts of NDEs.

    2. Hfgibbard, I would even say that in a certain sense Bernardo Kastrup is among those pessimists, when he qualifies our existence as alters as a multiple personality disorder of That What Experiences...

    3. Karl Gary, in a previous book by me "Technovedanta" I have even postulated that photons are the most simple soul-entities and that sentience starts even at the level of photons.

    4. Iconomen, I agree. If you believe in the concept of a soul made of Light, that soul would be a mixture of photons. The original building block. But these photons are not like the photons that pierce our universe. They are conscious versus a one dimensional lighting source. The photons of this universe are strictly designed for lighting this dark empty void of illusionary space, via a flexible aspect of particle and wave.

      Can the internet awaken as a conscious entity represented in your book description, if we applied only photons?

      I do not believe so with the photon version of this universe. They are unconscious, but can be programmed. Perhaps a programmable consciousness can emerge that appears to have freewill due to the infinite possibilities that can be programmed as a selected response. But would that really be consciousness or just an infinitely deep and fancy code?

      Boy, there are some smart people on this website searching for the abstract principles to explain our existence. Never stop thinking men. The younger generation would rather look at cats on utube.


Post a Comment

Most popular posts of the past 12 months

Dismantling idols: the current cultural inflection point

Thoughts and plans for 2017

Upcoming Sages & Scientists event

Aristotle, Nagarjuna and the Law of Non-Contradiction in Buddhist Philosophy

The LSD study: you're being subtly deceived (again)