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Does the forest hear the sound of a tree falling when no one is around? Are electrons aware they are being watched?  Can rocks really cry out? As obvious as consciousness is to those who experience it every day, its essence has remained a persistent mystery. Consciousness is difficult to deny—as Descartes pointed out—without asking who is doing the denying. Yet, we only ever have access to our own states of consciousness. We assume that people around us have minds like us, but how much consciousness should we assume for entities that are not like us? 

The ancient theory of panpsychism may hold the key to resolving the stubborn mystery of mind.  As Durham University philosopher Philip Goff describes in Galileo’s Error, “consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of physical reality.” While this doesn’t mean that everything is literally conscious, it does entail a belief that the fundamental constituents of the universe have incredibly simple forms of experience, and that the complex experience of the brain is somehow derived from the experience of the brain’s most basic parts.

For the panpsychist, consciousness goes all the way down. And, as it rises up, it becomes more multifaceted—from atoms and rocks, to trees, animals, and humans.

Pre-Modern Panpsychism

The panpsychist perspective began over 2,500 years ago, with the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus. Noticing that magnets have the capacity to move iron, Thales reasoned that “the world is not divided into animate and inanimate as easily as we might think.” Associating psyche, or soul, with movement, Thales maintained that even inanimate things have a type of “psyche.”  For Thales, the world is alive because “soul is mingled in the whole universe.”

Five hundred years later, the Apostle Paul similarly described the physical creation in overtly cognitive and personalistic terms as he spoke of it having “its own will”, “waiting with eager longing”, “hoping”, “groaning in labor pains” and “being set free from slavery to decay.” (Romans 8:19-22)

In the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea likewise reflected on the panpsychic responsiveness of reality as a reflection of nature’s capacity to obey the Creator’s laws. Basil affirmed that God granted material creation the capacity to obey God’s laws for nature. When God thus commands, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures,” Basil explains that “This command has continued even to this day and earth does not cease to obey the Creator.” The waters likewise “hasten to obey the Creator’s command” because God gifted the waters with the capacity to respond and “empowered the waters to bring forth life.”

Basil’s view of creation as teeming with consciousness and with the capacity for lawful obedience continued for over a thousand years in both the Eastern and Western Christian traditions, reaching its peak in the mystical reflections of St. Francis of Assisi. Preaching to the birds and the flowers while addressing the sun as brother and the moon as sister, St. Francis envisioned a creation filled with an intrinsic awareness of God and an inherent capacity to respond.

Separating Subject from Object

While the early modern scientists of the 16th and 17th centuries adopted and developed Basil’s physical insight about inertia and the laws of nature, many began to part from him in viewing nature as a mechanism rather than a living creation with the capacity to respond to God’s laws. Johannes Kepler continued to embrace Christian panpsychism, but Galileo viewed God’s laws for nature simply as disembodied mathematical descriptions revealing how objects behave, rather than why they behave as they do.

As Descartes indomitably divorced subject from object, consciousness—and soul—became the exclusive possession of human beings. The Cartesian creed reducing animals to machines led to an equally mechanistic understanding of the human being as spelled out in Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s Man a Machine (1748). By the end of the 18th century David Hume and many other Enlightenment philosophes reduced even the capacity to reason itself to “nothing but a mechanical power…which we possess in common with the beasts.”

Panpsychicism never fully disappeared from science, however. While Leibniz was an early advocate of the mechanistic worldview, his basic constituents of the universe—the monads—were mind-like entities. Newton considered the possibility that all matter was alive, and by the end of the 19th century the panpsychist theory was given renewed life by American psychologist William James. Offering a strong line of reasoning in favor of panpsychism in his Principles of Psychology, James observed that the essence of the “mind-stuff approach” is that, as with the monads of Leibniz, higher-order consciousness is made up of simpler, atomic mental entities. Thus James contended that

“consciousness in some shape must have been present at the very origin of things.”  

The Mind as the Matrix of all Quantum Matter

As the sun set on the Enlightenment and the 20th century dawned, mechanical clocks gave way to quantum clouds. Consciousness came dramatically back into the spotlight of science as physicists came to realize that the mathematics of quantum mechanics is directly concerned with the knowledge of observers. As quantum physicist Eugene Wigner reflects: “through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again: it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.”

While Wigner focused on the role of the conscious human mind, the founder of quantum physics, Max Planck, understood the Mind of God as the foundation of the consciousness underlying physical reality. As Planck explains: “As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force is the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.”

The Eclipse of Panpsychism

While many pioneers of 20th century quantum mechanics perceived consciousness as a fundamental reality, key philosophers and biologists of the same era rejected panpsychism as irrational and unscientific. Influential philosopher of science Karl Popper dismissed panpsychism as “gratuitous”, “fantastic” and “baseless.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, disparaging the notion of panpsychism, asked “Could one imagine a stone’s having consciousness? And if anyone can do so—why should that not merely prove that such image-mongery is of no interest to us?” Philosopher of Mind Colin McGinn similarly asked, “Are we to suppose that rocks actually have thoughts and feelings which they happen to be unable to communicate?” and derided panpsychism as “metaphysically and scientifically outrageous” Many biologists of this period, like Francis Crick, strove to reduce the mind to the most basic constituents of physics, avowing that “the problem of consciousness can, in the long run, be solved only by explanations at the neural level.”

The Re-Emergence of Panpsychism

The first two decades of the 21st century have witnessed a widespread return of the panpsychist perspective among both scientists and philosophers of mind. Among philosophers, Thomas Nagel, Galen Strawson, David Chalmers, William Seager, Philip Goff, Yujin Nagasawa and Andrei Buckareff have all offered cogent defenses of panpsychism. Scientists who have opened up avenues of discussion and research that seriously consider panpsychism include Stuart Kauffman, Simon Conway Morris, Christof Koch, Giulio Tononi, Terrence Deacon, and Robert Ulanowicz.

These philosophers and scientists are asking questions such as: How deep does intelligence extend, and might it manifest itself in unexpected ways? Is mind preexistent to matter? Is evolution simply the process to discover mind? Yet, even in the midst of the current renaissance of panpsychism, many questions from skeptics remain. Is panpsychism scientific? Can it be tested? Is it compatible with traditional theism? And could we ever coherently speak of what is it like to be a plant, or a rock?

A cosmos consciously enlivened at numerous levels could mean that Kepler’s music of the spheres may be more than mere metaphor. In a re-enchanted world of panpsychism, then perhaps stars really do sing, and the rocks can cry out.