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David Ray Griffin

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Panexperientialist Physicalism

and the Mind-Body Problem


VI: Panexperientialist Physicalism

Panexperientialist physicalism portrays the world as comprised of creative, experiential, physical-mental events.  I will lay out the basic ideas of this position by taking these four terms in reverse order. 

All the world’s actual entities in the fullest sense are momentary events.  These are all spatiotemporal events with a finite inner duration, ranging perhaps from less than a billionth of a second at the subatomic level to a tenth or twentieth of a second at the level of human experience.

All enduring individuals, such as electrons and minds, are temporal societies (sometimes called “world tubes”) of such events.  There is no dualism, accordingly, between purely spatial and purely temporal actualities; all unit-events are spatially and temporally extensive. 

Each such event has both physical and mental aspects, with the physical aspect always prior.  The physical aspect is the event’s reception of the efficient causation of prior events into itself.  This receptivity can, with Whitehead, be described in terms of the notion of “physical prehension,” a mode of perception more basic than sensory. 

An event originates with a multiplicity of physical prehensions, each of which has two aspects: an objective datum (which corresponds to what Chalmers [1995, p. 216] calls the “physical aspect” of information) and a subjective form (which corresponds to what he calls the “phenomenal [or experiential] aspect”).  In its physical pole, then, an event repeats the forms of energy imposed upon it by the past universe, the only difference from materialist physicalism at this point being that these forms of energy have subjective as well as objective aspects. 

Another difference arises with regard to mentality.  Every unit-event (as distinct from an aggregational event) has a mental aspect, and this mentality involves an element, however slight in the most elementary events, of spontaneity or self-determination.  Although the event’s physical pole is given to it, its mentality is its capacity to decide precisely what to make of its given foundation.  Its physicality is its relation to past actuality; its mentality involves its prehension of ideality or possibility, through which it escapes total determination by the past. 

Each event is experiential from beginning to end, which means that, in distinction from usage reflecting dualism, the “mental” is not equated with the ”experiential” nor the “physical” with the “vacuous”: an individual’s mentality is simply its experience insofar as it is self-determining. 

Also, to say that all unit-events have (or are) experiences is not to say that they all have consciousness, which is a subjective form of experience that arises, if at all, only in a late phase of a moment of experience.  Its arising requires an adequate content, the contrast between a proposition and an alternate possibility. 

To use the language of “intentionality” (in the sense of aboutness): very elementary events, by virtue of synthesizing prior events and possibilities into rudimentary analogues to propositions, have incipient intentionality; somewhat higher-level events, complex enough to form propositions, have proto-intentionality; while only very high-level events are sophisticated enough to contrast propositions with alternative possibilities, thereby enjoying what Whitehead (1978, pp. 266-7) calls “intellectual prehensions,” which alone have the subjective form of consciousness.[4]

With regard to the remaining of the four terms in the opening definition, creative, I have already stated that each event is, in its mental pole, self-creative, deciding precisely how to respond to the efficient causation exerted upon it.  The second dimension of an event’s creativity, which comes after its self-determination, is its efficient causation on subsequent events, by which it shares in the creation of the future.  This position, it should be noted, prevents mental experience from necessarily being merely epiphenomenal or close to it (which is suggested by the statement by Chalmers [1995, p. 217] that experience might have only “a subtle kind of causal relevance”).  The event does not necessarily simply pass on exactly what it had received from prior events. 

In the case of higher-level events with more mentality, the event’s efficient causation may be based significantly upon its self-determining mentality, as when our decision to raise a hand causes the hand to raise.  In this version of panexperientialism (in distinction from that suggested by Chalmers, in which most of the causal efficacy seems to be exerted by a purely “physical” [in the sense of “vacuous”] aspect of the basic processes), all causation is exerted by experience, with distinctively mental experience playing a greater role in more complex experiences.  We can thereby do justice to the power really manifested by human decisions. 

In any case, the transition from self-creation to efficient causation betokens another distinction to be made with regard to each unit-event.  Each such event exists first as a subject of experience, with its physical and mental poles.  But then its subjectivity perishes and it becomes an object for subsequent subjects. 

In each enduring individual from electrons (or quarks) to human minds, accordingly, there is an oscillation between two modes of existence: subjectivity and objectivity.  This idea provides a solution to one of the most vexing questions of modern philosophy and science: how can entities that are enmeshed in the universal causal nexus, both receiving and exerting efficient causation, be understood to have any degree of freedom? How, in other words, is final causation compatible with efficient?

In some forms of “panpsychism,” such as those of Leibniz, Spinoza and Bernard Rensch (1960; 1976), the mind with its final causation and the brain with its efficient causation are said to run along parallel with each other, without interacting.  In the case of Spinoza and Rensch, this conclusion is required, because they regard the mind and brain as numerically identical.  Panpsychism as such has sometimes been rejected by interactionists (Popper & Eccles, 1977, pp. 53-5, 71, 516) on the mistaken assumption that all forms of it imply this kind of parallelism.

Indeed, one of the problems with the term “panpsychism” is that, besides suggesting a too high-level form of experience to be attributed to all individuals, the term “psyche” also suggests that the most fundamental entities of the world are enduring individuals.  That doctrine makes it difficult to see how the various individuals, with their internal final causation or self-determination, could exert efficient causation on, and receive efficient causation from, other such individuals—as with the Leibnizian “windowless monads,” whose apparent interaction was explained in terms of supernatural coordination. 

The idea that the ultimate individuals are momentary experiential events—which the term “panexperientialism” better suggests—avoids parallelism and thereby any appeal, explicit or implicit, to a deus ex machina.  Each event begins as an open window, as it were, into which stream the influences from the past world; this is its physical pole.  Then the window is shut while the event exercises whatever capacity for self-determination it may have; this is its mental pole.  At that point its moment of subjectivity comes to an end and it becomes an object, exerting efficient causation on others - or rather, in them, having aspects of itself prehended into them. 

(This is the way of explicating the twofold existence of events suggested earlier: rather than being “simply located,” each event prehends aspects of the past into itself and then gets aspects of itself prehended into future events.)

In any case, this idea of momentary events, which are first subjects and then objects, allows for final causation, or self-determination, to be exercised between the reception and the subsequent exertion of efficient causation.  Being fully enmeshed in the universal causal nexus does not render genuine self-determining activity impossible. 

This same idea also provides a way of thinking of the relation between the temporal (or durational) aspect of the events and the purely spatial appearance of the world: as subjects, events enjoy an inner duration; as objects, however, they are purely spatial.  An event cannot be prehended until its moment of subjectivity is finished, because it is nothing fully determinate until its moment of self-determination is completed.  By the time it can be perceived, accordingly, it is purely spatial.  This is one reason, at least, why sensory perception presents us with a purely spatial world. 

In the above sketch of the basic ontology of panexperientialist physicalism, I have referred to various levels of events, pointing out that consciousness can appear only in very high-level ones and suggesting that these would also have greater freedom.  The obvious question, of course, is how, assuming physicalism, higher-level actualities could evolve.  The answer to this question will bring out how this form of physicalism allows for downward causation based on self-determining freedom. 

Materialist physicalism is unable to affirm freedom because it must regard all large things as analogous.  Appearances to the contrary, humans and other animals must be thought by analogy with rocks, billiard-balls, and computers.  Even if an element of ontological indeterminacy be allowed at the quantum level, accordingly, it cannot provide the basis for attributing any freedom to human behaviour: Just as, by the “law of large numbers,” all indeterminacy is canceled out at the level of the billiard ball, the same must be true in humans and other animals.  The crucial role played by this idea is plain in some recent discussions of downward causation (Kim, 1993, pp. 77, 95, 96, 101, 103, 168) and freedom (Lycan 1987, pp. 113-4; Searle, 1984, pp. 86-7, 93-4). 

The reason why materialist physicalists must think of all part-whole relations as analogous is that their basic entities or processes, being vacuous, are unable to give rise to higher-level actualities.  Because these entities have no insides, all their relations to other things must remain external to them, so that all their associations must be thought to be merely aggregational collections.  The idea that no higher-level actualities emerge lies behind the dictum that all causation in “macro-objects,” be they rocks or human beings, must be reducible in principle to the causality of the subatomic constituents (Kim, 1993, pp. xv, 96, 99; Searle, 1984, p. 93). 

The elementary unit-events of panexperientialist physicalism, by contrast, are internally constituted by their appropriations (prehensions) of aspects of the other events in their environments.  Certain combinations of enduring individuals allow for the emergence of higher-level individuals, with the resulting totality being what Hartshorne (1972) has called a “compound individual.”

The momentary events constituting the higher-level enduring individual have more mentality, thereby more capacity for self-determination, than the more elementary ones.  They also have more power to exert efficient causation, allowing for the “global control” of behaviour, to which Chalmers (1995, p. 212) refers, by virtue of which the higher-level series of experiences can be called the “dominant” member of the compound society. 

The most obvious examples of compound individuals are animals with central nervous systems.  But this kind of part-whole relation should also be attributed to any entity seeming to respond as a whole with a degree of spontaneity to its environment.  Single-celled organisms, such as amoebae and neurons, accordingly, could be supposed to be compound individuals, having a unity of experience over and above that of their constituents. 

The same might be true of organelles, macromolecules, ordinary molecules, atoms, and even those enduring individuals that had, prior to quarks and gluons, been called “elementary.” These are empirical matters; the important philosophical point is that, with the idea of compound individuals, we can lodge our evident consciousness, freedom, and power in a high-level, full-fledged actuality. 

The notion that individuals have physical prehensions, by which they internally take account of their environments, means that sensory perception is a higher-level, derivative kind of perception.  Although its products tend to be so overwhelming as to lead many to the conclusion that it is our only kind of perception, the nonsensory kind is (by hypothesis) going on all the time.  On this basis, we can explain how we can perceive normative values and “Platonic mathematical truths.” Assuming the reality of this more primordial, presensory kind of perception also means that reports of religious and paranormal experiences need not be dismissed a priori. 

A final difference between materialist and panexperientialist forms of physicalism is brought out by the way in which the latter allows for downward causation from the mind to the body.  The difference in question can be approached by reflecting upon the recent statement by Penrose (1994, p. 23) that “somehow the structure of the physical world is rooted in mathematics” and that this fact is “a very great mystery.”

In some of the Renaissance naturalisms that resulted from the revival of mathematical Platonism, each unit of nature was understood in such a way—perhaps as a microcosm of the whole—as to be capable of embodying mathematical patterns.  Although the so-called scientific revolution of the latter seventeenth century retained the emphasis on mathematics, its adoption of the Democritean view of matter made nature’s units seem intrinsically incapable of embodying mathematical patterns. This fact necessitated—or allowed—the aforementioned explanation of the “laws of nature” in terms of supernatural imposition. 

With the transition to the fully materialistic worldview, the Divine Imposer was dropped, but the notion of vacuous bits of matter “obeying” external laws was retained.  Even Chalmers (1995, p. 210) seems to accept this view, referring to the universe as “a network of basic entities obeying simple laws.”  Interestingly, he speaks of this position as “entirely naturalistic,” even though it is, we could say, implicitly supernaturalistic.  In any case, materialist physicalists (e. g.  Kim, 1993, p. xv) assume the bottom layer of nature—that studied by physics and chemistry—to consist of vacuous particles whose movements are totally governed by external laws. 

It is the assumption that this bottom layer is entirely autonomous, closed to any influence (“interference”) from higher layers, that makes it necessary to assume that, even if we had minds capable of an element of self-determination, our bodily behaviour could not be influenced by them: our bodily behaviour must (in principle) be fully understandable in terms of “the laws of physics and chemistry.” Even Chalmers (p. 210) believes it necessary to hold to this dogma, assuring his readers that his view does not allow experience to “interfere with physical laws” which are said to “form a closed system.”

(Chalmers’ acceptance of that dictum makes it puzzling how he can attribute to experience even “a subtle kind of causal relevance,” but it does explain why he thinks of this suggestion as irrelevant to a “scientific theory”—as distinct from a more inclusive philosophical theory [p. 217].  One implication of my argument about hard-core common sense is that we cannot rest content with such a bifurcation: there is no higher criterion for any theory, whether it be called “scientific” or “philosophical,” than adequacy to those beliefs that we inevitably presuppose in practice.)  

It is, in any case, this idea that has made it impossible for materialist physicalists, such as Kim and Searle, to reconcile” science” with the obvious fact, which we cannot deny without presupposing, that our bodily movements are influenced by our partially free decisions. 

In panexperientialist physicalism, by contrast, the regularities of nature are not due to externally imposed “laws” but are—as suggested long ago by James, Peirce and Whitehead (Griffin et al., 1993, pp. 67-8, 224-5)—nature’s most long-standing habits—the habits of its most elementary members, reflecting patterns that they have internalized.  And, just as our habits do not fully determine our behaviour, neither do the habits of cells, DNA molecules, or electrons fully determine theirs. 

Because the physical poles of their constituent events are determined by the influences coming in from their environment, their behaviour is always determined in part by the particular environment they are in.  When an electron in an inorganic environment gets taken into a living cell, it becomes subject to different influences.  Likewise, if that cell is in the brain of a human body, it is subject to different influences if the body is alive and awake instead of a corpse. 

When we make decisions, therefore, they can affect the experience and thereby the behaviour of even the simplest constituents of our bodies (probably by first affecting the neurons and through them the individuals at increasingly elementary levels).  The electron in the living human body, accordingly, will behave differently than it did in the inorganic environment, not because the “laws of electron behaviour” have been “violated” but because it is there subject to different influences. 

Part of the reason this idea will seem “anti-scientific” to some is the widespread acceptance of the wholly unwarranted idea that the laws of physics and chemistry are sufficient by themselves to explain the behaviour of all “physical processes.” To explain the behaviour of the bodies of humans and other compound individuals, the downward causal influences from higher members, which may well reflect considerable spontaneity, must also be taken into account. 

The relation of this panexperientialism to dualism and materialism can be expressed in the following terms. 

Dualism recognized an organizational duality between two kinds of physical bodies: those with a mind as a dominant member and those without.  But it understood the relation between these minds and their bodies as an ontological dualism. 

Materialism, to avoid the resulting problems, dropped the minds so as to have an ontological monism.  Given the conception of “matter” that it had inherited from dualism, however, it was forced, against all appearances, also to affirm an organizational monism, which led to even more severe problems than dualism had. 

Panexperientialism allows us to return to the recognition of the organizational duality (between compound individuals and nonindividualized societies of individuals) while retaining an ontological monism.  There is no “ghost in the machine” because the body is no machine. 

Panexperientialism can combine the best of both previous doctrines because of its different conception of the underlying “stuff” of which the world is made. 

Dualism assumed that there were two kinds of basic stuff: (temporal) “consciousness” and (spatial) “matter” (later, “matter-energy”), with embodiments of the latter capable only of efficient causation. 

Materialism tried to work out an adequate worldview on the assumption that all things are embodiments of the latter kind of stuff. 

Panexperientialism (as espoused here) agrees with materialism that there is only one kind of stuff, but enlarges “energy” to “experiential creativity.”

Critics might be tempted to ask how the creativity and the experience arose.  But, as Chalmers (pp. 209-10) points out, every position begins with some reality, or set of realities, assumed to be fundamental.  Panexperientialism assumes that it lies in the very nature of things for events of experiential creativity to occur—for partially self-creative experiences to arise out of prior experiences and then to help create subsequent experiences.  The process by which our (sometimes partly conscious) experiences arise out of those billions of events constituting our bodies at any moment is simply the most complex example of this process of which we know—and the only one the results of which we can witness from the inside. 

Should such a doctrine be called a species of physicalism?

On the negative side, such a proposal may seem simply confusing, given the prior association of physicalism with materialism and therefore reductionism. 

On the positive side, however, is the fact that this form of panexperientialism shares many of the doctrines usually said to characterize physicalism.  I will mention nine (which are based on Kim, 1993; see Griffin, 1997, Ch.  10). 

First, all events have a physical aspect; there are no purely mental events. 

Second, when events also have a mental aspect, the physical aspect is always prior. 

Third, some events (namely, aggregational, nonindividualized events) have no mentality whatsoever. 

Fourth, most events do not have consciousness. 

Fifth, all events are spatially as well as temporally extensive and have a determinate spatiotemporal location. 

Sixth, all events have energy that can interact with the energy embodied in the entities studied by physics. 

Seventh, all events exert efficient causation. 

Eighth, all events are causally conditioned by antecedent events, and some events (aggregational ones) are fully determined thereby. 

Ninth, all causal efficacy is exerted by physical events (as defined in the first, second, fifth, sixth, seventh and eight points), so that the “physical domain” (as thus defined) is closed to outside influences; dualism and supernaturalism are thereby excluded. 

Even with all these agreements, the differences with physicalism as hitherto understood are significant enough to make debatable the suggestion that this form of panexperientialism can be called a version of physicalism. 

What is not debatable is the propriety of the position’s name with regard to the mind-body relation in particular: nondualistic interactionism. 

It is interactionism, in that the mind is numerically distinct from brain, both influencing and being influenced by it.  But it is not dualism, in that the mind is different only in degree, not in ontological kind, from the neurons comprising the brain (and the more elementary individuals comprising the neurons). 

If nothing else comes of this essay, I would hope to see an end to the twofold assumption that interactionism necessarily involves dualism, and that dualism and materialism, therefore, constitute the only forms of realism. 



1 One of the central problems of Leibniz’s doctrine is alluded to in the final words of the above quotation from Kant (which were replaced by the ellipses): “the only question that remains being how in general a communion of substances is possible.” Kant was referring to the Leibnizian doctrine that all “monads” are “windowless,” meaning that they cannot perceive or influence each other. 

2 I had completed this essay prior to the appearance of William Seager’s excellent article in this journal, in which he defends a version of panpsychism (albeit with “great diffidence”), providing various considerations that, he now believes, “ameliorate its implausibility” (1995, pp. 279, 283n). 

3 As will become increasingly evident, my position draws heavily on that of Alfred North Whitehead.  While I have tried to keep this essay relatively free of Whiteheadian technical terms, I have developed my position much more fully as an explication of Whitehead’s philosophy in Griffin (1997). 

4 This account, which agrees with the dictum that “consciousness is always consciousness of something,” is an account of ordinary consciousness.  Whether there can be extraordinary states of consciousness that are contentless is another question. 



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