Panpsychism is the view that posits that all physical objects have mental states associated with them. This is an attempt to explain our consciousness without invoking specific soul-substances that inhere in us but not in other matter. Instead, we can attribute a low level of consciousness to all existing matter, and only in us does it reach a high pitch due to our matter being interconnected in a complex enough manner to allow the vast number of atoms that make each of us up to be collectively conscious. This seems like an elegant way to explain consciousness, especially as it evades the question “what is special about brains that generates consciousness in them?” However, it equally begs the question “what is it about matter that generates consciousness in it?”
A frequently used, and sometimes misused, analogy for consciousness is that of life. Before the discovery of DNA, the physical substrates of life were just as mysterious as is the question of consciousness today. This led some researchers to posit the ‘vital force’, an ephemeral animating power that somehow manifested in living bodies and was responsible for their quasi-mystical generative abilities. However, once DNA was understood with its molecular basis for self-replication, this generative power became physically tractable and no longer required the invoking of anything supernatural. Is it possible that something similar can happen in the case of consciousness?
An appealing notion that recently occurred to me was the natural similarity of reproduction to representation, both being the central characteristics of the phenomena to explain: life and consciousness, respectively. In the former, a physical entity generates a copy of itself by sequestering nearby matter and incorporating it into its organization, using it as a canvass on which to paint its self-portrait, symbolically speaking. In representation, a physical situation is encoded in a physical entity which gathers data about the situation and uses this as the template for the landscape which it paints on the canvas of its own matter. In both cases, the crucial point is that a structure is enforced upon matter, whether it is the structure of the reproducing body or that of the represented situation.
The life metaphor for consciousness may have a certain appeal to reductive physicalists or other types of materialist. But, does it stretch the bounds of logic to take this analogy too far, and if so, what are these limits? In other words, I am asking what are the crucial differences between life and consciousness that preclude our taking this analogy too seriously, appealing though it may be. First, proponents of reduction or emergentism rally around this metaphor and see it as a template for the explanation of consciousness whereby a phenomenon that previously seemed unexplainable without hypothesizing a ‘magical force’ is suddenly reduced to mechanistic explanation. However, life is a property of objects in the world and involves transformations of states of matter in readily observable ways. Also, the phenomenon of life has a great many physical contingencies that are known to us and which implicate physical states in its elucidation. If a force were assumed in order to aid with this, it would be a force of nature like other forces known to us such as the electromagnetic force or gravity and would mediate the change in state of matter as it gets incorporated into living bodies. Consciousness, however, seems decidedly non-physical in a way that life does not at first glance. While this may be the effect of an illusion that surrounds the phenomenon of interest with a shimmering glow and mystical air, there seems to be something to it that I hope I can articulate here. Consciousness stands in a peculiar relation to the rest of perceivable reality as its supporter or necessary correlate. Thus does Schopenhauer proclaim “no object without subject” and that it is absurd to say that consciousness is a modification of matter. This is because all of the matter with which we have been acquainted and refer to when we say the word ‘matter’ is only what has been conditioned by our own peculiar mode of knowing and hence does not necessarily reflect what the world is in its inner nature. What we refer to when we say ‘matter’ is really just a description of all the various interactions that may be externally observed that occur between things the inner being of which, however, we know nothing about. So, whereas life is a phenomenon that is entirely within the representation and can be completely characterized therein, consciousness seems to evoke more of a metaphysical quality in its necessity for the existence of the whole world of representation; in other words, it transcends the world of representation. Alternatively, it may be that representation exhausts the nature of consciousness and thus that the two are identical, rather than needing to invoke a separate consciousness that apprehends the representation, but I am still unsure about this. All this has been to temper the usage of the analogy of life for an explanation of consciousness as the two are not entirely analogous.
To return to panpsychism, it seems that this theory can be harmonized with what has been said above since we have found that consciousness may not be entirely reducible to modifications of matter as life is since it is transcendent. Perhaps the being-in-itself of every entity is mental, and specifically volitional before being physical. This is not the same as the volition which we conventionally hold to emerge from the brains of certain higher animals but is something more general and universal. This intrinsic will that is at the core of every physical being is constantly stirring and inducing affectations on neighboring beings, some of whom are complex enough to construct a world of matter and physics in accordance with these affectations in order to better their chances of affirming what they will. What continues to confuse me, however, is the claim that the subject conditions the ordering of the representations as well as space and time, and how this is to be reconciled with talk of the will without positing that this will is itself also individuated and ordered similarly. For how can the will induce these affectations which are responsible for the world of representation if it isn’t already individuated according to its appearance in the representations?
I want to return right now to the symbolic and mythic interpretations of all this. If we take a cosmic evolutionary perspective, we find some common themes across the different epochs that we have knowledge of. The first thing we know of is the Big Bang, which led to the dispersal of the plasma soup of subatomic particles. This initial condition was one of absolute homogeneity and hence is perhaps closest to the unindividuated original spawning entity. Then, as this soup began to cool and atoms began to congeal, more complicated materials began to form into the familiar condensed matter, in all its variety of elements each with its own unique properties. This represents the first evolutionary leap of complexity. Great colossal cosmic clouds of gaseous nebulae condensed into burning furnaces at the hearts of stars, and constellations of galaxies, comets, black holes, and other astronomical objects were born. The crucial step was the binding of subatomic particles into atomic and basic molecular unions, whose precise structure of combination allowed enormous variation, and thus mediated this first stage of individuation. The next step was the birth of the first self-replicating organism. This was made possible through the development of the extraordinarily complicated physical substrates of life, namely amino acids, nucleic acids, and the like. These are essentially formed from the binding together of those atoms and molecules which had been brought into existence in the previous step. This configuration, namely cell-based biochemistry, allowed vastly greater variation and produced qualitatively different phenomena that we call living beings. These were markedly more complex that the rocks and oceans which accompanied them in their environments. Finally, the opening of the first eye represents the third act in this ever evolving cosmic play. This was mediated by the unification of cells in the brains of a subset of living things. The star unified atoms, the womb unified molecules, and the brain unified cells. The next stage is the unification of people into collective societies which will represent the transcendence of the individuality of the singular animal and the transferring of this to the collective, as has taken place at each previous stage.
This grand orchestration of creation from the very beginning has been a constant development towards greater and greater unification. The initial moment of error was the desire for individual existence, after which the deterministic transition from one form to another according to the principle of sufficient reason has brought about the successively more integrated universe that we live in which aspires to complete unification with itself and a return to the original undifferentiated state. Its final act will be the complete integration of all matter into a collectively organized entity that will in a sudden instant of realization understand its essential unity in the underlying reality and the delusion that first spawned this world of appearances and individuals. May we aid in the bringing about of this realization.