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David Ray Griffin

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Panexperientialist Physicalism

and the Mind-Body Problem


III: Why Should We Be Suspicious of Vacuous Actuality?

Dualists and materialists agree (against idealists) that “the physical world” is actual, and they also agree on the nature of the actualities comprising that world.  They both accept a materialistic analysis, according to which these actualities, at least the most elementary ones, are wholly devoid of experience.  We can, following Whitehead (1978, p. 167), call this the idea of “vacuous actuality.”[3]

This idea has seemed so self-evident in the modern period, since the time of Galileo, Descartes and Newton, that no special name for it, beyond “realism,” has been deemed necessary.  To be a realist, holding the physical world to exist apart from our perceptions and conceptions of it, has been virtually identical with accepting the reality of “matter” understood as vacuous actuality. 

In the present section, however, I will mention seven reasons for at least entertaining suspicions about the reality of vacuous actualities.  I will then, in the following section, suggest four positive reasons for adopting an alternative form of realism, according to which experience and its spontaneity, like the lady’s turtles, go all the way down. 

To begin with a purely philosophical reason to be sceptical of vacuous actualities: In the foregoing discussion, I suggested that this idea of nature’s ultimate units is at least as speculative as the idea that these units experience.  I now point out that it is even more speculative: we know from our own experience that experiencing actualities can exist, but we have no experiential knowledge that a vacuous actuality is even possible. 

Closely related is Berkeley’s question: What does it mean to say that physical things exist? Berkeley pointed out that our immediate experience provides only two meanings of “to be”: to perceive (percipere) and to be perceived (percipi).  Simply to be perceived, however, is not to be actual but to be merely an idea in the mind of some perceiver.  Only “being a perceiver” (which for Berkeley included the notion of being an active agent) gives us a meaningful notion of what it is to be an actuality. 

Berkeley, of course, used this argument for his idealist view, according to which the physical world exists only as perceived (by divine and finite minds); but Leibniz, by positing “petite perceptions” in nature’s elementary units, showed Berkeley’s point to be compatible with realism.  As Whitehead (1967a, p. 132) says, Leibniz “explained what it must be like to be an atom” (now there’s a title for an essay!). 

It can, of course, be pointed out that we cannot say very much about what it must be like to be a bat, let alone an atom.  But to be able to say only a little bit about what we mean by believing that such things are actual, existing in themselves (apart from our perceptions and conceptions of them), is better than being able to say nothing at all. 

A third reason is the recognition, recently emphasized by historians of science, that the “mechanical philosophy of nature,” according to which the units of nature are wholly devoid of experience, spontaneity, and the capacity for influence at a distance, was adopted in the seventeenth century less for empirical than for theological-sociological reasons, such as defending the existence of a supernatural deity, the reality of supernatural miracles, and the immortality of the soul (Easlea, 1980, pp. 100-15, 125-38, 233-5; Klaaren, 1977, pp. 93-9, 173-7). 

For example, this idea of nature’s elementary units, according to which they were wholly inert and (in Newton’s words) “massy, hard, and impenetrable,” proved (to the satisfaction of Boyle, Newton and their followers) that motion and the mathematical laws of motion had to have been impressed upon these particles at the beginning of the world by an external creator.  The fact that this strategy eventually backfired, as this idea of matter eventually led to an atheistic, materialistic worldview, has long obscured the original theological motives.  Now that we know them, however, we have an additional reason for suspicion. 

The philosophy of science gives us a fourth reason, which is that science, like any other activity, abstracts from the things it discusses, focusing only on those aspects germane to the questions being asked.  As Chalmers (1995, p. 217) says, “physics characterizes its basic entities only extrinsically, in terms of their relations to other entities .  .  .  .  The intrinsic nature of physical entities is left aside”—which is reminiscent of Whitehead’s (1967b, p. 153) “physics ignores what anything is in itself.  Its entities are merely considered in respect to their extrinsic reality.”

This insight is ignored when Searle, for example, says that “science tells us” what the ultimate units of nature are like in themselves.  It does no such thing.  It tells us about those aspects of those entities that its methods have been suited to reveal, and those aspects, for all “science” knows, may well be abstractions from the full reality of those entities.  Simply to equate those abstractions with the concrete entities themselves is to commit what Whitehead (1967b, p. 51) called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

A fifth point is that our direct experience, phenomenologically analysed, also gives no evidence of vacuous actualities.  Some dualists and materialists seem to consider it obvious that some actualities are devoid of experience.  John Beloff (1994, p. 32), for example, says that, “when it comes to unicellular organisms, I am confident that they are devoid of all consciousness whatsoever” (which seems to mean all experience whatsoever).  Perhaps they think they can know this simply by looking; but, of course, our sensory perceptions do not tell us what things are in themselves. 

McGinn may seem to be giving such an argument when, to support his claim that the brain is “utterly unlike” our experience, he describes the latter as “damp grey tissue” (1991, pp. 100, 27).  His argument, however, is more sophisticated.  He is pointing out that our senses “essentially present things in space with spatially defined properties” (p. 11), the relevance of which is that purely spatial entities cannot intelligibly be thought to have experience (pp. 13, 60, 79). 

McGinn is right about these matters, but his pessimism about the problem of consciousness is partly grounded in the further assumption that sensory perceptions constitute our most direct observations of nature.  Our sensory percepts of nature, however, arise from an extremely complex, indirect process.  When a surgeon, having cut open a skull, looks at and touches the patient’s brain, the percepts symbolized by the words “damp” and “grey” result from chains of billions of neuronal (and in vision photonic) events, plus the mysterious process through which the data received from the neurons get transmuted into the sensory percepts. 

A far more direct experience of nature is the surgeon’s experience of his or her own body, through which the perception of the patient’s body is mediated—a point that I will develop below in providing positive reasons for thinking of nature’s units as nonvacuous.  The negative point here is that, given the fact that sensory perception is a very complex, constructive process, the fact that it presents us with a purely spatialized nature may tell us more about sensory perception than it does about the nature of nature itself. 

At this point, however, one could well counter: “True, we cannot directly perceive that physical entities do not have experience, or even that they do not have temporal duration.  Another necessary basis for reasonably inferring that anything has experience, however, is that it appear to be capable of spontaneity or self-motion.  Our paradigmatic examples of physical things, such as rocks, tables and planets, seem to be completely inert.  The attribution of experience to them, therefore, would be baseless.”

The answer to this problem illustrates the way that empirical discoveries can be very relevant to the conceptual dimension of the mind-body problem.  The relevant discoveries here, such as those resulting in cellular and atomic theories, have shown that things devoid of signs of spontaneity are not simply individuals but large clusters, or aggregational societies, thereof.  For a considerable time, of course, it was assumed that the more ultimate units were to be understood by analogy with those visible things: atoms were essentially like billiard balls, only a lot smaller. 

The chief philosophical implication of quantum physics, however, has arguably been to show the falsity of that assumption (Capek, 1991).  A sixth reason to be sceptical about vacuous actualities, accordingly, is that science has increasingly undermined what had probably been the main basis in everyday experience for inferring their existence, the assumption that the ultimate units of nature must be analogous to the “solid material bodies” that Popper & Eccles (1977, p. 10) take as “the paradigms of reality.”

Because it is so crucial to the issue of plausibility, I should emphasize a point implicit in the previous paragraph: that to affirm some version of panpsychism or panexperientialism does not necessarily entail attributing experience to things such as sticks and stones as such (as distinct from their unitary constituents).  The idea that this conclusion is entailed has provided the primary grounds for dismissing it out of hand.  For example, the charge by McGinn (1982, p. 32) that panpsychism is “absurd” is based on his assumption that it implies that “rocks actually have thoughts,” and the similar charge by Popper & Eccles (1977, p. 55) that it is “fantastic” follows from his assumption that it attributes feelings to things such as telephones. 

There have, to be sure, been versions of panpsychism, such as those of Spinoza, Fechner and Schiller, that did take the “pan” to mean literally everything, so that experience (perhaps even consciousness) was attributed to all identifiable objects.  Leibniz, however, distinguished between true individuals (“monads”) and aggregational societies of such, attributing experience only to the former, and many other panexperientialists, such as Whitehead and Hartshorne, have done the same. 

Being in this tradition myself, I would not follow Chalmers (1995, p. 217) in thinking that a thermostat might have even a “maximally simple experience.” Likewise, I would resist Seager’s conclusion (1995, p. 285) that anything with quantum coherence, such as liquid helium, must have a primitive state of consciousness (which seems to follow from Seager’s apparent assumption that quantum coherence would be a sufficient, not merely a necessary, condition for the emergence of a unified experience). 

A seventh reason is provided by the mind-body problem itself.  Given our conscious experience and a naturalistic worldview, one task of rational thought is to describe the ultimate units of nature in such a way that the emergence of creatures such as us is intelligible (apart from any appeal, even implicitly, to supernaturalism).  The speculative assumption that these units are vacuous actualities allows for two possibilities: dualism (including epiphenomenalism) and materialism.  The failure of both of these positions seems terminal.  The mind-body problem can reasonably be taken, therefore, as a reductio ad absurdum of the view that the ultimate units of nature are vacuous actualities.  As Seager says, because the problem of the generation of conscious experience is a real problem and so otherwise intractable, “one can postulate with at least bare intelligibility that [experience] is a fundamental feature of the universe” (1995, p. 282). 


IV: Why Should We Affirm Panexperientialism?


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