Panpsychism vs Inorganicism

In my review of Giulio Tononi’s book Phi, I accused him of being a panpsychist. Apparently, Tononi does not consider himself a panpsychist. Why? Because he doesn’t think every single thing in the universe is conscious, including every quark or electron. I think this is a slightly disingenuous move considering we only need to lighten the restriction from literally all things to merely organic things in addition to some inorganic things. I quote several passages throughout the book where Tononi suggests that his theoretical criterion for ascribing consciousness (integrated information) would ascribe it to many different inorganic entities, including a meager photodiode.

In order to distinguish this weaker but still very strange view from fullblown panpsychism I have coined the term inorganicism, which is the view that consciousness exists in the organic realm and in some but not all inorganic entities. If you ask a layperson to provide a list of things that are conscious, it’s likely the list will just be a list of living creatures like cats, dogs, babies, people, etc. My guess is that the average person would find it strange to think of a lowly photodiode as conscious (putting aside worries about whether laypersons even have a single concept of consciousness that corresponds to the philosophical notion of phenomenal experience). I also want to bracket questions about Strong AI, because the question of whether it’s plausible that artificial brain or brain-like systems of enormous complexity would count as conscious is much different than the question of whether a simple inorganic entity like a photodiode is conscious.

For this reason I don’t think Tononi’s theory really counts as a garden variety version of functionalism because most functionalists think that the relevant functions are functions carried out by things that are similar to brains, particularly human brains. Whatever function a photodiode is capable of, it is a far cry from the intelligent reactivity of organic life that compels us to ascribe intentionality and mindedness. Even peering through a microscope at an amoeba “hunting” its small prey around a petri dish would elicit these feelings more readily than studying an inorganic hunk of matter like a photodiode.

With that said, I don’t think human projections of intentionality are really a good way to do fundamental metaphysics of mind. Personally, I like Alex Rosenberg’s way of putting it: all that exists are fermions and bosons, or [insert the future Peircean consensus on theoretical physics*]. We just have to begin the arduous task of aligning our manifest image with the cold hard truth that the completeness of physics implies. Often we will be completed deluded that we “have minds” (like we “have a car”), or that there is “something-it-is-like” to be us (whatever that means). But when we really sit back and think about it, we will realize that there are no such things as thoughts. Neurons cannot possibly have the extra quasi-magical function of being “about” something (even if it does not exist!) in addition to have all the causal-functional roles of rearranging space-time by performing cellular work. So brains are not about anything at all. They, like everything else, are just highly complex configurations of fermions and bosons. A brain or subset of brain activity could no more be “about” anything than a rock could. All such talk about minds, consciousness, beliefs, desires, psychology, emotions, representations, feelings, etc., is just that: talk. But just as we cannot help but persist in seeing visual illusions even after we know they are illusions, we cannot  help but persist in believing in these metaphysical illusions. So why do we not all become panpsychists? Well, simply put, it’s because it’s more conceptually productive to use psychological/mentalistic constructs to refer to a limited class of animal and animal-like entities. 

*I want to emphasize an underscored difference between Peircean and Jamesian forms of pragmatism as applied to the quest for scientific truths. The crucial difference is that whereas Peirce thought the Truth crashed to Earth will rise again, James thought there was no such guarantee. The difference underscores Peirce’s commitment to a more robust realism than James’ “Will to believe” allows because Peirce maintained that if human society crashed, and life evolved again future scientists would come to more or less similar conclusions as our least disconfirmed theories (like evolution by natural selection). In other words, the process of trial and error in experimentation will eventually “force” future scientists to confront the same mind-independent reality that we humans face. The false will fall away and the truth will rise, or at least be approximated within an agreeable range.




Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

18 responses to “Panpsychism vs Inorganicism

  1. ledge

    “Personally, I like Alex Rosenberg’s way of putting: all that exists are fermions and bosons. ”

    I am continually perplexed by this point of view, common though it is. The only things we have direct evidence of are thoughts, aboutness, “something-it-is-like”s, consciousness, beliefs, desires, psychology, emotions, representations, feelings, etc. To me it is a peculiar kind of blindess that would dismiss all these as illusions merely because a particular way we have of looking at a particular facet of the world has difficulty dealing with them.

    • Gary Williams


      To call something an illusion is not to deny its existence. Rather, the point is to say that all these phenomena are *not what they seem* when we are being ontologically serious. Im not “dismissing” these phenomena when I call them illusions, I am merely trying to understand what they really are. When science tells me that rocks are really mostly collections of empty space, this does not make me disbelieve in the existence of rocks. Rather, science makes me reconsider the true nature of rocks. Similarly, I still believe psychological phenomena exist, I just think we are mistaken about their true nature.

      Also, I want to push the way you framed it. You said we “have evidence of consciousness, etc.”. What does it mean to “have evidence”? Who has evidence? My Cartesian soul? What is the nature of this “we” that “has” evidence about it’s own mental states? My brain? What is the nature of this “having” relation? Such talk of consciousness “presenting” things to an observer strikes me as a hold-over from direct acquaintance and Russellian sense-data theories.

      When it comes down to it, we can choose to remain loyal to the manifest image or the scientific image. Whenever the scientific image conflicts with the manifest image, many philosophers try to hold onto the manifest image as much as possible. My personal inclination is to wholly embrace the scientific image and just try to deal with the counter-intuitiveness of it. But in a way, the counter-intuitiveness is thrilling. Entertaining the thought that I have no thoughts is a fun way to pass the afternoon.

  2. ledge

    ‘Illusion’ is a loaded term though, and one that to me seems to promise more than it can deliver. An illusion of a patch of red in the visual field is still red. Red itself as an illusion – I can’t even figure out what that means! Redness seems undeniable. (I suppose you would say the rockness as we perceive it is thanks to science easily deniable – I am inclined to want to hold on to that rockness.)

    I’m not so much thinking of consciousness presenting itself to an observer – the observer is consciousness. And experience just is consciousness so an experience calling into question the existence of consciousness is paradoxical. If that is any less muddy or question-begging.

    Of course I know my own inclination has its own fun counter-intuitiveness. Conscious photo-diodes? Count me in!

    • Gary Williams

      “an experience calling into question the existence of consciousness is paradoxical. If that is any less muddy or question-begging.”

      Ahh, but I won’t let you grant the hidden premise: that experiences exist and are capable of calling things into question. What are the truthmakers behind that statement? As far as I am concerned, what you are seeing is not an experience denying itself (an absurdity, I admit), but rather, words on a computer screen that were triggered by a physical hunk (me) on the other side of a long-chain of telecommunication links. You are being belied by my utterly pragmatic use of mental words as an implicit affirmation of a supposed mental layer of reality. As a card-carrying naturalist, I believe all that exists is natural and that there is only a single physical reality, nothing more nothing less. That means no epiphenomenal, emergent, or supervenient mental or phenomenal reality that is “above” or somehow “generated out of” the physical reality. There is a just a single kind of reality. If we imagined the entire physical universe as a huge configuration of space-time, this entire internet conversation as well as my written language projected on a computer screen masquerading as thoughts with “meanings” is just a particular squiggle within that total configuration, with no special ontological properties distinct from any other region of space-time.

      I fully grant this is a difficult picture to swallow. It is strangely weird for consciousness to deny it’s own existence (particularly while in the middle of introspective loops of navel-gazing). But that very same consciousness can deny its existence while simultaneously asserting the existence of space-time and understanding that “it” (whatever that is) is somehow a part of that space-time, thus securing it’s existential sense of reality, its sense of connectedness to that which is wholly real. I thus believe it’s possible for humans to become existentially comfortable with “sparse” physical worldviews like Rosenberg’s. In fact, it is due to the power of human consciousness that consciousness can realize that itself is an grand illusion. I think it’s plausible that language itself helps generates these illusions, and I’m interested in investigating possible mechanisms along these lines. Zen Buddhists have long born witness to the possibility of feeling “one” with the universe writ large. Heideggerian concepts like facticity and thrownness also help convey the natural sense of utter concreteness that comes along with being physical beings living in a physical world (albeit with a different “mode” of space-time wiggling than ordinary inorganic matter).

  3. ledge, have you read much William James? (Late career William James?) I think you would like it. He makes the types of points you are making, and places them as the basic facts philosophers have to work with. (e.g., When I experience something as red, the one thing we shouldn’t deny, for God’s sake, is that I am experiencing something as red!)…

    Though I think James would ultimately reject conscious photo-diodes, he wouldn’t rule out the possibility a priori.

    (Peirce might actually be OK with conscious diodes, but his terms all have very-specific hard-to-keep-track-of meanings, so I’m not sure without going back and reading deeply.)

  4. Vanitas

    I do hope you realize that almost every single post you write can be distilled down to the phrase: “Silly humans with their ordinary beliefs! Science! Bam!” Notwithstanding truth or falsity, does it ever get tiring?

  5. Han

    I think the extreme reductionist ontological position that only fermions and bosons “exist” is not even held by all physicists. I highly recommend two articles by Nobel Laureates:

    The Theory of Everything:

    More is Different:

    For a popular account of this sort of thing, check out this book:

    Solid state physicists are generally very critical of the idea that only particle physicists can lay claim to the word “fundamental”. It rests on the idea that only the smallest spatial scale is “real”. However, solid state physicists remind us that we cannot really use first principles to go from particles to complex molecules, let alone cells and organisms. At each state it appears that a phenomenon called symmetry breaking occurs. Thus the lower-level physics laws are not violated, but they cease to fully characterize the system. Quasiparticles and effective theories are often invoked to make actual headway. As you move up the size scale, new theories and entities are always necessary, and it is only convention that prevents these laws and “objects” from being granted ontological status.

  6. Gary Williams


    In that first article, “The Theory of Everything”, it seems to me they are talking about the possibility of finite human beings constructing a set of equations to describe everything to their own intellectual satisfactions. I don’t really think THAT is possible. But I think it is absolutely crucial to keep metaphysical questions separated from epistemological questions. Limitations on what humans can intelligibly describe does not change the fundamental nature of reality.

    I agree fully that descriptions of the universe in terms of fermions and bosons cannot “fully characterize the system [under study]”. Descriptions of fermions don’t characterize, for example, how human social groups work, at least not in a way that humans can meaningfully process. However, this is an epistemic issue, not a metaphysical one.

    Furthermore, what Rosenberg is doing is not dogmatically saying “all that exists is fermions and bosons”, end of discussion. He’s say, “This is what scientists tell us are the ‘elemental’ building blocks of reality, and that’s what’s going to be my fundamental metaphysics”. Rosenberg is advocating metaphysical scientism. But notice how it’s not dogmatic. If next century physicists say the elemental building blocks of the universe are super strings, then he would advise we update our metaphysics.

    I grant that new theories at different levels of descriptions are necessary…for humans to make practical headway in manipulating the world to suit our needs. But this is a necessity sprung from the limitations of the human mind. It is only sub specie aeternitatis that Rosenberg’s sparse ontology looks plausible. It seems like if we take physicists seriously when they say fundamental particles compose everything else, we must admit in principle that causality is “physically complete” meaning, all causal effects could be accounted for in terms of the lowest level. But notice “lowest” is meant spatially, not metaphysically. That is, “levels” are compositional, not existential. A spark plug is a part of a larger mechanism, but it does not exist on a wholly other plane of reality. A statue is just a “mode” of the fundamental elements of reality arranging themselves. These elements could be elementary particles, or the statue could be a mode of Einsteinian space-time or Spinoza’s Nature. But all these systems are ontologically monist. And monism has a long and esteemed history, dating back to the presocratics. But instead of Democritus’s atoms, we have fermions and bosons.

  7. Han

    I think part of what I am trying to get at is that all physicists do not agree on what the word “fundamental” means. Philosophers often look at scientists as trying to answer metaphysical questions, which, strictly speaking, they do no. As Feynmann says, the logic of causality works in both directions — bottom-up and top-down. Picking which of the conceptual tools is “real” is a choice that science doesn’t help you make. For example, multiple interpretations of QM are all consistent with the mathematics, and it’s really up to you to choose which interpretation to hold as “ontological”. Particle physicists, unsurprisingly, like to choose their objects of study as fundamental, but solid state physicists often see processes and phenomena as fundamental, irrespective of scale. This is a completely different way to structure your ontology, and nothing in the bare science rules it out.

    The first chapter of Manuel DeLanda’s book Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy gets at this sort of perspective, which is motivated by dynamical systems. His ontology is again “optional” but might prove richer in the face of ongoing scientific problems.

    Also: thermodynamics is an important example of a lock-out phenomenon. The laws of thermodynamics will be unchanged even if particle physics is completely re-written. This is because thermodynamics makes no reference to subatomic particles — it’s truth is not dependent on microscopic particulars. This is one of Laughlin’s important themes: insensitivity to microscopics. Practically speaking, simply asserting that causality resides and the lowest spatial level (or highest energetic level) doesn’t actually serve any useful purpose. In practice one really needs falsifiability, verifiability or predictive power, and that often requires imaginative invention/use of meso-scale “entities” or processes.

    With a different conception of “fundamentalness”, one could have a “flat” ontology as opposed to a hierarchical one — in such a system relatively domain-specific “entities” such as phonons, magnons or perhaps even “thoughts” have equal status as relatively domain-general leptons and quarks.

    Basically, I don’t think simply gesturing towards particle physics suffices as a justification of any particular ontology. Science is not a monolithic body of knowledge, and is best understood as a loose grouping of epistemological tools, that tells us how our repeatable observations relate to each other, rather than which of them are “real”.

  8. Charles Wolverton

    Gary –

    While I agree with everything you say in the post (and what you attribute to Rosenberg), I find:

    All such talk about minds, consciousness, beliefs, desires, psychology, emotions, representations, feelings, etc., is just that: talk.

    a bit dismissive and therefore misleading. While it’s a common observation that there are at least two vocabularies at play here – “mind talk” and “physics talk” – it’s not that the former is somehow second class (Davidson argues that it is “indispensable”), just that there are dangers in mixing them. They’re intended for different purposes and are therefore irreducibly different. I see much of the seeming confusion in these topics as stemming from such mixing. (In fact, it seems to me that Davidson sometimes mixes them and gets led astray – an admittedly presumptuous position, but in at least one instance Lepore and Ludwig appear to concur.)

    Eric –

    When I experience something as red, … we shouldn’t deny … that I am experiencing something as red!

    I’d like to understand precisely what you mean by this. In one interpretation, it seems to me a fundamental error.

    As Gary suggests, once you’re past light emitted by an object and stimulating the retina, and focus on the brain, there’s nothing to observe but neural activity. Ie, there’s nothing (and in particular, no thing) to “experience as red” in any sense that involves color other than some words uttered (or written, etc) in response to that activity (eg, “red”, “rot”, “czerwony”, etc). Of course, there’s the so-called “mental image”, but whatever that is and however it’s formed, it must be in some sense a representation of patterns of neural activity. We “experience a “patch” of that activity as red” only in the sense that “red” is the word we have learned to associate with occurrence of the underlying neural activity.

    Since it’s considerably more likely that I would make a fundamental error than that you would, probably I’m misinterpreting that quote. But if not, I’d like to know where you think I’m on the wrong tack.

  9. Han,

    I agree with you in spirit. I just reduced all that Delanda-virtual-intensive-process-complexity stuff into the compact phrase “highly complex configurations of fermions and bosons”. The key part is “highly complex”, as in complexity theory, chaos, nonlinearities, etc. The phrase “it’s all fermions and bosons” conveys more of a political message, a signal of naturalist toughmindedness rather than any accurate summation of scientific truth. So I agree that when fermions and bosons start interacting in the real world, they “give rise” (I hate that dead metaphor) to complex “middle size” (note the metaphor of “middleness”) objects like brains that are not easily understood with a set of equations. However, there are some conceptual dangers in using complexity theory to handle things like the mind-body problem, as they potentially give rise to a false understanding of how the “mental” might “emerge” or be “generated out of” the physical. When we use metaphors like “top-bottom”, “low-high”, “give rise to”, “emerge from”, we risk projecting our metaphors of spatiality inherited from human bias onto reality, arbitrarily dividing our ontologies into different “layers” of reality. For modern people some divisions are worse than others e.g. the tripartite division of Hell, Earth, Heaven, or the Cartesian Substance Dualism of matter and mind. However, modern theorists are susceptible to similar problems when they talk about the universe having dual “aspects”, one physical and one phenomenal (Bertrand Russel unfortunately helped spark this still popular trend in academic philosophy). To me this is simply an importation of the old metaphysics but masking it with modern and hip lingo like “phenomenality”, “what-it-is-like”, etc. In my mind, the brain can be wholly conceived as a complex configuration of matter that has only one “mode” or “way” of being: its causal-functional mode (leaving aside worries about the definition of causality). There is no “higher” psychological, phenomenal, or emergent layer, level, or property-type for mental properties to hide in. Any emergent properties are just further emergent causal, not phenomenal properties. I just can’t even make sense of how a phenomenal property would interact with a physical property, or what that really means. I say when doing serious ontology throw out the notion of such high-level psychological-phenomenal properties.

  10. Charles Wolverton

    when doing serious ontology throw out the notion of such high-level psychological-phenomenal properties

    Forgive my persistence, but it seems to me that one might instead throw out ontology – serious or not – thereby avoiding the danger of mistakenly inferring existence of X from words that seem to refer to X but really are only being used to “talk about” (possibly inexistent) X. (cf “talk about” theoretical entities or fictional characters). This is suggested in Rorty’s PMN and elaborated in Ramberg’s essay “Post-ontological Phil of Mind” in “Rorty and His Critics”.

    Some of what you see as ontological mistakes seem to me merely examples of such mistaken inferences. I agree that in a strict ontological sense “there is no such thing as a thought” and “we can’t have minds”, but those words properly used and stripped of ontological implications are part of a vocabulary that is useful for some purposes. OTOH, your observation that “brains aren’t about anything” seems merely confusing – why would anyone think a brain per se could have intentionality?

    I agree that “dividing our ontologies into different layers of reality” is undesirable, but that requires only neither misapplying, nor reifying the concepts of, Han’s “domain-specific” vocabularies, which are indispensable, arguably even in the psychological domain.

    re Phi: as I recall, Edelson and Tononi defined integrated information as the difference in the uncertainty (Shannon sense) in the state space of a system and the sum of uncertainties in the individual state spaces of its subsystems, where integration of the subsystems can reduce the former uncertainty relative to the latter. In the case of a single photodiode, there is only one subsystem – viz, the “system” itself – and hence the integrated information is zero. If (as I recall) integrated information was proposed as a measure of consciousness, why doesn’t that suggest that the photodiode isn’t “conscious” at all?

    • Hi Charles,

      “those words properly used and stripped of ontological implications are part of a vocabulary that is useful for some purposes.”

      I totally agree…for some purposes. Psychological words/concepts are extremely useful for humans as they allow us to do all sorts of things that are not possible for creatures who lack such words/concepts. But as you know, usefulness is not a good guide to serious ontology because it introduces human biases and projections. Your suggestion to “throw out” ontology is interesting, and one I am sympathetic to. This reminds of David Lewis’ contextualist response to skepticism. The idea is that that skepticism only destroys knowledge (i.e. justification) *while* one is contemplating the possibility of Evil Demons or being a brain-in-a-vat. But once you stop contemplating such possibilities, knowledge is restored because, as Lewis said, you don’t have to be “responsible for” possibilities that you are currently ignoring, and when we are doing the dishes we are probably not skeptical about the mind-independent existence of the dishes, let alone our hands. I think a similar response can be given for ontological seriousness when it comes to “sparse” physicalist ontologies. When I am contemplating ontology seriously, I am liable to want to toss out our psychological vocabulary. But once I start cooking dinner or having a conversation, I ignore “serious” ontology and unhesitatingly employ psychological concepts (otherwise people wouldn’t understand me!). This is how I can have my cake and eat it too. Complete eliminatism is psychologically unrealistic e.g. saying “My pain neurons are acting up!” instead of “That hurts!” will only make you look weird and nerdy in front of anyone except other physicalist philosophers.

      “why would anyone think a brain per se could have intentionality?”

      The answer to this question depends on how we spell out the “per se”, but I think it’s not uncommon for many people to think patterns of neurons are in fact “about” things. This is the cornerstore of the representationalist theory of mind. When neuroscientists say neurons in MT “represent” the direction of motion, than are in essence saying that the neurons are “about” or “directed towards” the moving stimuli out in the world. If that’s not the case, then talk of representations are just shorthand for descriptions of causal regularities (something we don’t need “mentality” for). Maybe scientists don’t put much metaphysics into these notions, but I would be very surprised if there wasn’t a primitive concept similar to intentionality at work behind representational paradigms in philosophy of mind and cog sci. Going from the Helmholtzian view of perception as “unconscious inferences” to the idea that the brain represents or is “about” the external world is very natural. We start from the assumed ambiguity of the stimulus and the need to provide a “coherent interpretation” of what the external world is like, and we end up with the view that the brain represents or is “about” the world. The representational aboutness concerns these “interpretations” of the world i.e. the difference between sensation and perception marks the presence of aboutness, for the sensation causally reacts to the world whereas the percept is somehow mysteriously about the world. I could go on and on exposing the implicit metaphysics of contemporary cog sci, but I don’t think its controversial to assume that theorists of all stripes believe, if anything “has” intentionality at all in the universe, then the brain is the best candidate for harboring it. Not sure whether this is “per se” though.

  11. Charles Wolverton

    Thanks for the reply, Gary.

    Re throwing out vocabularies, I mistakenly inferred from your post that you were proposing a complete linguistic spring cleaning. As clarified, I concur with your position.

    Re “about”, I was distinguishing the brain as an entity from any specific neurological structures. I tend to think not in terms of “representations” but in terms of “patterns of neural activity”. I suppose that one could argue that any activity in the brain that is causally related to some entity “out in the world” is a representation of it, but even then I’d express it like that – “of”, not “about”. Describing neural activity using the intentional idiom strikes me as the kind of vocabulary mixing to be avoided.

    But I do take your point that many probably would – and do – mix. The way I expressed the desirability of avoiding that probably suggested that I thought it would be easy to do, but I don’t. Based on my limited experience, mixing appears to be the norm rather than the exception. But we can at least try.

  12. Charles,
    I, for one, would be in favor of occasional linguistic spring cleanings.

    I’m working on a reply to your earlier request for clarity on William James. It is running long, and I am swamped at the moment. Expect something to appear over on my blog… hopefully soon.

  13. For those who missed it, there is quite a discussion about some of this over at my place ( Feel free to jump in without reading any of the existing comments…

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