Panpsychism, could it really be true?

Have you ever wondered how or where consciousness arises? I have and “Pan what?” was my first question when a good friend mentioned to me in conversation that what I was actually describing to him had already been theorised hundreds of years ago. “Phew, I am not the first idiot to think this” was my second thought and then “wait a second it would have been cool to come up with something new” was the third though. After the discussion, I read up on the subject I could not have been more amazed, as the inherent beauty and wisdom slowly sank deeply into my being.

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Panpsychism postulates that consciousness is everywhere and in everything and that this non-local or cosmic wide phenomenon is also without cause. Even stones and elementary particles have consciousness, not just people, bugs, or plants. Even for me, this sounds a little far-fetched until you delve into the subject a bit more. The earliest known references to panpsychism are likely attributed to early religions like Shintoism, Taoism, Paganism, and Shamanism. Even Aristotle is quoted as saying “that everything is full of gods.” Plato argued in his Sophist that all things participate in the form of being and that it must have a psychic aspect of mind and soul. “This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence … a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.” Wow, that is a big idea and not so easy for an individual to wrap his mind around it. That is probably the problem, the idea of panpsychism takes us from the comfort of our strongly held idea of an individual or ego and even the religious idea of a soul or atman to the understanding that not only are all beings one being but that all things are united in a blissful unity or beingness.

This is illustrated in Robert Fludd’s depiction of the world soul. I thought it might illustrate the idea of Panpsychism in an interesting way.

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Panpsychism has some competition it is not the only theory about the origin of mind, the emergence theory has many followers as well. Emergence Theory postulates that consciousness has emerged from some as yet unknown evolutionary chemical process. Philosopher Professor Galen Strawson articulates the relationship between panpsychism and emergence quite acutely: “The issue of emergence of mind is important because it is the mutually exclusive counterpart to Panpsychism: either you are a Panpsychist, or you are an Emergentist. Either mind was present in things from the very beginning, or it appeared (emerged) at some point in the history of evolution. If, however, emergence is inexplicable or is less viable, then one is left with the panpsychist alternative. This line of reasoning … is the (panpsychist) ‘argument from Non-Emergence.”

Interestingly there is no proof anywhere of consciousness or mind emerging from any process but either is there any proof of panpsychism. Panpsychism is, however, in my opinion, far more elegant and takes mind or consciousness a few steps further than the emergence of mind as an evolutionary or materialistic process. Even with a rather superficial level of understanding of panpsychism, one might find some comfort in this theory that we are never alone and connected to everything in every way. However, this may also strike fear into the hearts of those who are so deeply attached to their own individuality or egos. Regardless if one finds comfort or fear lets discover some more of how Panpsychism, Quantum Physics, and Buddhism might be related.

When we analyze subatomic particles, one might say that there is no difference between the protons, quarks, and leptons in my body, and the protons, quarks, and leptons in the desk in front of me except that I am conscious and the desk is not. Or is it, but at a dramatically reduced level? David Bohm theoretical physicist and philosopher said “That which we experience as mind … will, in a natural way, ultimately reach the level of the wave function and of the ‘dance’ of the particles.  There is no unbridgeable gap or barrier between any of these levels. … … in some sense, a rudimentary consciousness is present even at the level of particle physics” So here we can surmise that there is no barrier between me and the desk.

To this day we do not understand where or how consciousness arises and the role the brain plays in its formation if it plays a role at all. It could be just a receiver or radio, receiving information on several channels of perception that we would call our senses. Panpsychism skips this need to discover the relationship between the brain and the rise of conscious awareness completely, its simplicity is simply profound. No matter how shocking or strange panpsychism sounds I am reminded at what Sherlock Holmes said, that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Can science accept this deduction and if not how do we prove that which we have not been able to prove, other than keep trying even though the truth is already in front of us?

Buddhism teaches us that all beings have mind and or what we call Buddha nature, that is the ability to realize one’s full potential. Many teachers, when asked if plants have mind, would deny it and say that simply if it moves like an ant or something then it has mind. As we know plants only sort of move in their relationship to water and sunlight and the various degrees to which they require their nutrients. This could be a very basic version of attraction and aversion. This rather narrow view is on the outset not as encompassing as panpsychism. However, Buddhism requires us to break down any borders or boundaries between us and other things, this even applies to all concepts and ideas so why not to all phenomena as well. At an ultimate understanding of mind, where nothing has any true or independent existence in and of itself, all things would seem to have all the same qualities; conscious and otherwise. I would like to quote David Bohm once more here: “The notion of a separate organism is clearly an abstraction, as is also its boundary. Underlying all this is unbroken wholeness even though our civilization has developed in such a way as to strongly emphasize the separation into parts.” From the Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory

This oneness without separation or boundary is exactly what we are talking about when Buddhists say that subject, object and action come together as one. This is known as the state of Mahamudra or complete and full awareness or consciousness. Once we have reduced this ontologically either in meditation, philosophically, or scientifically all that there is left points to just consciousness or mind and nothing else seems to matter, even matter itself. Imagine that, matter doesn’t matter. In this simple state of just being, connected with everything, and aware of all that there is, a state of great joy and bliss arises. Total freedom of mind, no more running from or reaching for, just complete happiness and wisdom resting in the suchness of everything. Here is where we can be really effective in this confused and angry world. Here is where we can really be the change that we wish to see in the world.

So is consciousness everywhere and in all things? I think so. Its simple beauty is both profound and inspiring, especially to the Buddhist ear. Modern science seems to agree more and more with this conclusion and I can only ask when or will modern society see the light as well? Perhaps Panpsychism is even the solution to the hard problem of consciousness. Which is to question how and why sentient organisms have qualia or phenomenal experiences.
Personally, I think the Buddha Dharma has already answered this question, but that’s a topic for another post. This for me is just another way in which we see that consciousness is the vehicle in which the universe is becoming aware of itself. Why else would it be so beautiful and blissful to experience it either in meditation or by scientific discovery? Let us take this and use it as a tool to better the world and our fellow beings in every imaginable way. Whatever your view is on this topic I would love to hear from you, please feel free to comment below.

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