Ripples and whirlpools
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
|Whirlpool and ripples.|
Yesterday I gave a long and extremely engaging interview to Rick Archer, of Buddha at the Gas Pump. Rick pressed me very intelligently on the distinction I make between idealism and panpsychism; that is, between the notions that everything is in consciousness and that everything is conscious. As my readers know, I reject panpsychism: I reject the idea that everything, like a rock or your home thermostat, is conscious. But I strongly endorse the notion that everything is in consciousness and exists only insofar as it is in consciousness. To Rick, this distinction wasn't clear, and he argued his case very well. I replied to him as best as I could during the interview, but wanted to clarify the point with some more structure in this brief essay.
As my readers will conclude from my book Why Materialism Is Baloney, I make a distinction between inanimate objects on the one hand, and living beings on the other hand:
Inanimate objects: these are excitations of consciousness, like vibrations are excitations of a guitar string or ripples are excitations of water. There is nothing to a vibrating guitar string other than the string itself, yet the string manifests a discernible behavior that we call vibrating. Analogously, there is nothing to a ripple other than water, yet water manifests a discernible behavior that we call rippling. Both behaviors obey certain patterns and regularities that can be modeled mathematically, which is what science does. Now, in exactly the same way, inanimate objects are simply 'vibrations' or 'ripples' of consciousness and, ultimately, nothing but consciousness itself. They are images in mind of excitations of mind. (Here, as in the book, I use the words 'mind' and 'consciousness' interchangeably.)
Living beings: these are images of processes of self-localization of consciousness, like a whirlpool is the image of a process of self-localization of water. However, in exactly the same way that a whirlpool causes disruptions of the water flow surrounding it, mental self-localization also causes excitations of consciousness in their surroundings. Because of this, living beings can also be perceived as objects. Do you see the point?
While mental self-localization causes excitations of consciousness, not all excitations of consciousness arise because of mental self-localization. In other words, while living beings are also perceived (especially by other living beings) as images in consciousness, not all images in consciousness are of living beings. Some are merely of inanimate objects. The key difference between the two is that there is nothing it is like to be an inanimate object, while there is something it is like to be a living being. There is something it is like to be you, but I don't think there is anything it is like to be the electronic device you are using to read this essay. The electronic device exists in consciousness, but you are conscious. You ground a subjective, localized point-of-view into reality at large. The electronic device doesn't, although it is part of the same reality.
Living beings are split-off, dissociated segments of the one mind, while inanimate objects are merely images in that mind. Here is another analogy to help you grasp this: inanimate objects are paintings on the canvas of mind ('vibrations' of the canvas would be more accurate for dispensing with paint, but bear with me), while living beings are particular segments of the canvas. One is a painting on the canvas, the other is a part of the canvas itself. Do you see what I mean? You, I, other people, and all living beings, are dissociated segments of the one mind behind all nature. Inanimate objects are paintings on that mind.
How to gain intuition into this dissociation I am speaking of? Think of Dissociative Identity Disorder, which WebMD describes as follows (the italics are mine):
Most of us have experienced mild dissociation, which is like daydreaming or getting lost in the moment while working on a project. However, dissociative identity disorder is a severe form of dissociation, a mental process which produces a lack of connection in a person's thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity. ... Dissociative identity disorder is characterized by the presence of two or more distinct or split identities or personality states that continually have power over the person's behavior. ... there's also an inability to recall key personal information that is too far-reaching to be explained as mere forgetfulness. ... The "alters" or different identities have their own age, sex, or race. Each has his or her own postures, gestures, and distinct way of talking.
My claim is that each living creature is a dissociated 'alter' of the one mind underlying nature. The process of dissociation is a process of mental localization (a 'whirlpool' in mind). The image of the process of dissociation is what we call life. Inanimate objects, therefore, are not dissociated 'alters': they are just images in mind; that is, excitations of mind.
When the unified mind behind all nature 'breaks up' or dissociates, each dissociated 'alter' will appear to the others and to itself as an image: a biological body. When we see other living creatures, we see these images of other split-off 'alters' of the one mind. After all, just like a whirlpool causes disruptions in the water flow surrounding it, the process of self-localization/dissociation also causes excitations (that is, images) on the broader canvas of mind. But an 'alter' is more than just the image it causes: it has inner life, in the sense that there is something it is like to be it. An inanimate object, however, is just the image (that is, just the excitation), without the inner life. It is a painting on the canvas, not a dissociated segment of the canvas.
Though both whirlpools and ripples are nothing but water in movement, ripples aren't whirlpools. Idealism holds, not panpsychism.