Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

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Essays by Me

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Panexperientialist Physicalism

and the Mind-Body Problem


IV: Why Should We Affirm Panexperientialism?

To see several reasons for being dubious of the hitherto dominant view of nature’s fundamental units is, of course, already to have some reason to move toward the alternative form of realism, according to which they are not vacuous. 

However, this idea may seem so counterintuitive, especially to minds conditioned by over three centuries of scientific and philosophical thought that has rejected this idea, as to lead to some other view, such as idealism, phenomenalism, or agnosticism. 

Accordingly, it would be helpful if there were also some positive reasons for affirming panexperiential-ism, which, in my version anyway, involves the dual notion that the genuine units of nature have both experience and spontaneity.  I will suggest four such reasons. 

One reason follows from the fact we human beings, with our consciousness and freedom, seem to be fully natural, if in important respects exceptional, members of the world.  Our conscious experience is part of nature as much as anything else; for one thing, it clearly (prohibiting dogma aside) interacts with other parts of nature. 

The most plausible interpretation of our conscious experience, accordingly, is that it provides us a unique insight into the very nature of nature: it is the one place where we can observe what natural individuals are in themselves, as distinct from how they appear to others.  Unless there is some good reason to prohibit it, then, we should generalize the results of our two-sided knowledge of human beings—from within and from without—to all other beings that appear to be true individuals, meaning those whose behaviour seems to betoken an element of spontaneity, analogous to our own power of self-determination. 

Adopting this method requires deciding, of course, just which dimensions of our own experience are generalizable to which other beings.  Self-consciousness and the correlative anticipation of death, for example, seem to be limited primarily to our own species.  Moral experience (at least under some construals) seems to extend a little further, and aesthetic experience considerably further (do not birds seem to sing at least partly for the sheer enjoyment of it?).  How far down we would generalize “consciousness itself (as distinct from full-blown self-consciousness) would depend partly on the definition. 

Whereas, like many others, Chalmers (p. 201) seems to equate “experience” and “conscious experience.” I reserve the latter for that relatively high-grade experience in which contents are clearly discriminated and contrasted, at least implicitly, with other possibilities not present.  Consciousness, in other words, involves negation, contrasting what is with what is not.  With this definition, probably only relatively few types of individuals would experience consciously. 

Sensory perception would, of course, only be generalizable to beings having sensory organs.  Deciding which aspects of our own experience are generalizable to all individuals would involve carrying out the suggestion by Nagel (1986, p. 21) that we try to ascertain “subjective universals.”  In any case, carrying out the whole project is distinct from the first step, which is simply to agree that, given our status as fully natural entities, we should in some sense generalize our own experience to all other individuals. 

A second reason to do this is that science, besides providing reasons to be suspicious of the idea of vacuous actualities, has also given positive support to thinking of all individuals as embodying spontaneity and experience.  Whereas Descartes denied experience to all earthly creatures except humans, some leading ethologists now attribute it at least as far down as bees (Griffin, 1992). 

Going much further down, Stuart Hameroff (1994, pp. 97-9) has recently summarized a wide range of evidence suggestive of the idea that single-cell organisms, such as amoebae and paramecia, have a primitive type of consciousness (I would say “experience”), mentioning as well a few respectable scientists—including Sherrington and Darwin—who have accepted this interpretation.  Going still further, to the prokaryotic level, some biologists have provided evidence for a rudimentary form of decision-making, based on a rudimentary form of memory, in bacteria (Adler & Tse, 1974; Goldbeter & Koshland, 1982).  Furthermore, although DNA molecules were originally pictured in mechanistic terms, more recent studies have suggested a more organismic understanding (Keller, 1983). 

Going all the way down, quantum physics, as already mentioned, has shown entities at this level not to be analogous to billiard balls, and, as Seager has stressed, quantum theory implies that the behaviour of the elementary units of nature can only be explained by attributing to elementary particles something analogous to our own mentality (1995, p. 282-3; see also Bohm & Hiley, 1993, pp. 384-7).  Also relevant to the issue of spontaneity is the convertibility of matter and energy: besides contradicting the early modern view of matter as wholly inert, it at least allows the belief that all individual events involve an element of internal spontaneity. 

The physics of our century, furthermore, has suggested that the ultimate units of nature are (momentary) events, not enduring substances, and that these events are temporal as well as spatial.  The old view of matter as purely spatial meant that, although matter was temporal in the sense that it endured through time, it did not require any lapse of time but could exist in a durationless “instant.”

That this is false is suggested not only by quantum physics (Capek, 1991, pp. 135, 205, 211) but also by relativity physics.  By saying both that space and time are results of spatial and temporal happenings, not preexisting containers, and that they are inseparable, it seems to imply that the ultimate units of nature are spatiotemporal events.  The only way to make sense of this, arguably, is to say that these events, like our own experience, have an inner duration (even if it be only a billionth of a second or less). 

Thinking of them as having temporal as well as spatial extensiveness removes the main basis, stressed by McGinn, for supposing them incapable of experience.  Indeed, it is arguably impossible to conceive of inner duration apart from experience.  In these various ways, in sum, recent science has given us bases for overcoming the (Cartesian) assumption that experience and spontaneity are not fully natural in the sense of characterizing the elementary units of nature. 

A third basis for adopting panexperientialism is provided by our immediate experience of nature, which is not, as I suggested earlier, to be equated with our sensory perception of objects outside our bodies.  Our most immediate experience of nature is our experience of our own bodies.  By this I mean not our external sensory perception of it, as when we look at our hands, but our inner experience of our body’s interaction with our conscious experience.  Nature observed in this way gives us reasons, both direct and indirect, to suppose it to be permeated by experience. 

An indirect reason is provided by sensory perception itself when considered in terms of its entire process, which involves a remarkable twofold fact. 

On the one hand, the body is a self-sufficient organ of sensory percepts: as we know from dreams and hallucinations, the body need not be currently receiving any causal influence from the outside world that corresponds to the sensory percepts it produces. 

On the other hand, our waking sensory percepts generally do, in some important respects, correspond to entities beyond our bodies. 

Whereas the first point undermines any naive realism, according to which sensory perceptions result directly from the causal influence of exterior objects, the second point suggests that the entities comprising the body’s sensory system are capable of incorporating into themselves and then passing on aspects of those exterior objects. 

This observation reinforces our earlier point, that these entities are evidently not exhausted by their exteriors, but have an inside in which aspects of other entities can be incorporated before being passed on.  This “inside” could well be that earlier suggested inner duration, a necessary condition for supposing them to have experience. 

Reflection upon the interaction between our experience and our bodies provides another reason to think of its components as analogous to our own experience.  The supposed absolute difference between mind and matter can be couched in terms of the idea that the latter is, to use Whitehead’s (1967b, p. 49) phrase, “simply located.” To ascribe simple location to bits of matter is to say that they are just where and when they are, with no essential reference to other spatiotemporal locations—in other words, to the past or the future.  This would make physical events different in kind from our own experience, given its essential relatedness to both the past, which we remember, and the future, which we anticipate affecting. 

This Humean and materialist notion that physical events are simply located—which has, among other things, made the grounds for induction extremely problematic—is rooted in the idea that sensory perception of the world outside our bodies provides our best and only means for understanding the nature of nature. 

A less superficial empiricism, however, leads to another view.  Our own immediate experience is internally constituted, in part, by its appropriation of influences from our bodies.  When someone kicks my shin, my experience is partly constituted by the pain in my leg.  The cellular activities in the leg, therefore, seem to have a twofold existence: an existence in themselves, there in the leg, and a subsequent existence in my experience.  Likewise, when I make a decision to reach down to grab my leg, that moment of experience seems to have a twofold existence: first in and for itself and then in the nerve cells that take the decision to the appropriate muscles. 

If my experience is part of nature, furthermore, this mutual influence between it and my bodily cells should be generalized.  Cellular events, accordingly, would not be merely externally related to other cellular events, as if causation between them should be understood by analogy with billiard-ball impacts, but each event would appropriate prior events into itself and then get itself appropriated in future events. 

Finally, we should generalize this account of unit-events to all of nature.  Just as we interpret our bodies in terms of what we learn about nature by external methods, we should interpret the rest of nature in terms of what we learn from our immediate experience of our bodies.  From the resulting notion the (Buddhist and Whiteheadian) idea that all events are internally constituted by their appropriation of aspects of prior events—it is a short step to the conclusion that they must all have experience. 

To move now from indirect to direct evidence.  Although we cannot, by looking inside our bodily cells, see any experiencing, we can notice that they give every possible sign of having some type of experience.  We derive pains, pleasures, and appetites from them.  The natural interpretation, forbidding dogma aside, is that we are feeling their pains, pleasures, and appetites.  Then again, on the assumption that entities within our bodies are not different in kind from those without, we can generalize some degree of experience to all units in nature, thereby arriving at Whitehead’s description of nature as an “ocean of feelings.”   The essential point here is that this description, while involving some speculation, derives more naturally from a correct phenomenology than the alternative view.  As Hartshorne (1991, p. 13) has put it:

The “ocean of feelings” that Whitehead ascribes to physical reality is not only thought; so far as our bodies are made of this reality, it is intuited.  What is not intuited but only thought is nature as consisting of absolutely insentient stuff or process.  No such nature is directly given to us. 

A fourth reason to adopt panexperientialism is that it is the one form of realism that allows for a solution to the mind-body problem.  That this is so is the burden of the remainder of this essay.  Before providing a sketch of my particular form of panexperientialism, I will discuss some criteria for an acceptable solution to the mind-body problem and the failure of dualism and materialism to fulfil them. 


V: Some Criteria and the Failure of Dualism and Materialism


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