The Problem With Panpsychism
by Adam Robbert
Is not that it’s bad theory. The problem with panpsychism is that it’s often marshaled to generate an overly homogenizing sense of unity in the cosmos. The issue I have with this reading is that nothing about panpsychism warrants such a statement. From the thesis that all things prehend, abstract, affect, or experience — terms I use as synonymous with panpsychism — it does not follow that those experiences are (a) anything like one another; (b) translatable into terms that can be exchanged without friction across domains; or (c) form some kind of underlying stratum through which all entities communicate.
I started thinking about the questions raised by panpsychism this morning because of THIS post from Graham Harman. It got me thinking about how panpsychist theories get treated in academia as opposed to other ontological theories. Nobody runs around challenging materialism on the grounds that it flattens the distinctions between different entities. We say, for example, that the Sun and Monet paintings are both made of material stuff but no one is at pains to point out that the Sun and painted water lilies are qualitatively very different because everyone already understands that that’s not the point being argued. It’s the same with panpsychism; saying that humans and daffodils share an ontological capacity to abstract from a richer environment is not to make any comment on the kinds of worlds these entities bring forth. To bring this charge against panpsychism is to assume a claim that’s not being made by the theory. In other words the charge that panpsychism flattens the distinction between different entities is a strawman.
Panpsychism is interesting precisely because it implies difference. See that jelly fish over there? It lives in its own world. See that rose bush? Fully in a world. See that blue whale? It lives in a universe all its own. What we humans have in common with these other creatures is that we are equally thrown into a world of meaning, affect, and consequence, it just might not be anything like the world(s) as it exists for jelly fish, roses, and blue whales. The paramount problem of panpsychism is then of attending to irreconcilable differences between enacted worldspaces. We learn, for example, that the Navy’s use of radar is disruptive to the whale’s cognitive ecosystem, so now radar technology is part of what counts as ecology. Ecology means trying to attend to the whale and its world, not just one or the other and panpsychism generates a plausible account of the conditions necessary for the possibility of doing such cognitive ethology. I for one think this kind of work matters when constructing eco-social ethics.
What we need is not a whole sale rejection of panpsychism but rather a critical turn in how we conceptualize what panpsychism means. What does panpsychism mean for politics? For notions of alterity? For social and ecological justice? I’m more interested in seeing where panpsychism can drive these discussions than I am in justifying whether or not panpsychism is a tenable thesis at all. That much has already been established and it’s time to move the theory into new territories.