All Is Mind: A Fresh Look at Spinozan Panpsychism

“So then, who are you? The organism is inseparable from its environment, so you are the organism-environment. You are no less than the whole universe. Each one of you is the universe expressed in the place you feel as here and now. So when you feel that you are a lonely, isolated, little stranger confronting all this, you have an illusory feeling because the truth is the reverse. You are the whole works.” –Alan Watts

This is the most basic metaphysical truth of our existence, and no one was better at translating it into relatable, rational, everyday English than Alan Watts. His prolific collection of books and recorded lectures on the subject are absolute gems, no less precious for their ubiquity, and are the main reason that many modern pantheists look upon him as something like a prophet though he never precisely lay claim to that mode of thought.

But metaphysics, I’ve long felt, gives us exactly half of our existential truth –or, perhaps more aptly, a metaphysics of pure holism can be no more than half-accurate. Another oft-quoted passage from Watts’ The Way of Zen makes a great illustration of this:

“You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing.”

It is important to remember that unity is not uniformity, and monism doesn’t obliterate qualitative distinctions while revealing the many unique functions of a whole as existentially unified. The wave is not rendered an illusion simply by recognizing that it is the whole ocean that is “waving.” There is still an observable pattern of oceanic activity within the greater context, which can be distinguished as an individual wave, and a wave crashing on Assateague Island in September is not the same as one lapping the shore of Normandy in July, though it is the same ocean waving in different locations and times. The illusion is not the temporary existence of these waves, but the dualistic idea that they are something other than the ocean, and thus lonely, isolated, little experiences that “appeareth for a little time and fadeth away.” (James 4:14)

Similarly, the sensation of “I” is an experience the universe is having in a specific space-time, never once precisely the same as another, creating a recognizable pattern of behavior that we call a person, place, thing, idea etc. The illusion is not the temporary existence of these patterns, but the dualistic idea that they are something other than the universe. Your life, which James aptly compares to a vapor that appears and fades away, is not the extent of who “you” are. You are also “the whole works,” infinite and eternal, omnipresent and beyond any boundary of space-time.

Pantheism recognizes this absolute Self, and correctly attributes all of our notions of an absolute Being to this reality: in a nutshell, “All is God.”

It is relatively simple to follow the non-dual logic that strings this conclusion together, and fairly easy to bring diverse ontologies to the pantheist table because even the most dyed-in-the-wool materialists can trace the holism of the physical universe back through linear time to the singularity of the postulated Big Bang event. A monism of matter challenges some antiquated ideas of divinity, but not so drastically that they cannot be reconciled by proper understanding of symbology.

But why does the same principle seem to fall on deaf ears when we consider the mind? Namely, why do we pantheists tend to maintain that consciousness (and the mental activity that seems to emanate from it like mist from a crashing wave) is private property of the organism exhibiting it? If we understand that “you are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself” (another gem from Watts), why is it seldom suggested that our thoughts about the universe are the universe thinking about itself?

To address this with the proper breadth and depth, I suggest that we take a fresh, non-dual look at another philosophy of antiquity that is finding a sort of renaissance in Post-Modern Holistic thought: Panpsychism.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, panpsychism is ”the doctrine that mind is a fundamental feature of the world which exists throughout the universe.” In its present-day context, the origins of panpsychism are traced to the first Presocratic philosophers of ancient Greece (Thales, c. 624-545 B.C.E., is often mentioned as a pioneer), though in reality it shares a root system, and possibly even its trunk, with even more ancient forms of animism. It is easy and very tempting to swan dive down a multidimensional rabbit hole whenever exploring the many varieties of panpsychism and their various tenets, so I will need to avoid that here and stay focused on its relationship to pantheism. For that, there is nowhere better to start than the panpsychism of Baruch Spinoza.

The character of Spinoza’s neutral monism is best expressed in juxtaposition to the now dominant mentality of dualism that was its foil through the Age of Enlightenment and continues to hold it as some kind of philosophical fringe or pseudoscience. From the Stanford Encyclopedia:

“It was the modern “mechanistic” picture of the world inaugurated by Galileo, Descartes and Newton which put the problem of the mind at center stage while paradoxically sweeping it under the rug. The whole problem-space was severely distorted by what was virtually a stipulated separation of matter from mind, so that what could have been merely a useful conceptual distinction was transformed into an ontological gulf. Thus, everything that could not be accounted for in terms of the interactions of simple material components was conveniently labelled a “secondary quality” inhabiting not the “real” world but merely the conscious mind….Thus the world was made safe for physics.

Or (to use an image we’ll see later in more depth) it is like trying to learn how a radio works by searching its wiring for the source of the music.

“But the problem of the relation of the physical world to conscious minds was unavoidable and became ever more pressing. One option was simply to give up—remove the mind from the expanding scientific picture of the world, and such was the motivation for René Descartes’s infamous dualism of mind and body. But this leaves us with an untidy, perhaps incoherent, and certainly disintegrated view of the world. Another approach was to question the underlying definitional move of the scientific revolution, which was to stipulate that science was to study a “purely physical” world, voided of mentality by fiat. For one can wonder whether there is such a world. This question exacts its own price, however, which is our familiar dilemma, to which many thinkers responded with an endorsement of panpsychism.”

Spinoza’s endorsement was at once more complicated than monistic panpsychism, and elegantly simple in a way that should immediately remind us of Taoism. He regarded mind and matter as aspects of God –of the infinite, eternal, and omnipresent substance of the universe itself. This substance is not constructed of mind and matter like, say, a cake is made by combining flour, eggs, and sugar. Rather, to use a fairly crude but not inaccurate example, mind and matter emanate from God like taste and texture from the cake. These aspects are polar to each other, meaning they have a complimentary relationship of dependent origination — one automatically implies the other. There is no matter without mind, and there is no mind without matter.

“We might say that, for Spinoza, physical science is a way of studying the psychology of God. There is nothing in nature that does not have a mental aspect—the proper appreciation of matter itself reveals it to be the other side of a mentalistic coin.”

For Spinoza, therefore, a naturalistic philosophy is inseparable from a panpsychist one. They are two ways of looking at the same reality. Keep this in mind as we look at how a Spinozan might address what we could call the “Unconscious Rock” problem of relating panpsychism to a materialist culture. (Critics of panpyschism love to pick on rocks and chairs for some reason.)

From Stanford: “Panpsychism’s assertion that mind suffuses the universe presents a fundamental and sharp contrast with its basic rival, emergentism, which asserts that mind appears only at certain times, in certain places under certain—probably very special and very rare—conditions. But trying to explicate a little more precisely the key terms of this vague characterization of panpsychism results in several different versions of it. A cardinal distinction within the realm of the mind, though one that still carries more than a whiff of controversy, is that between conscious and unconscious mental states, and thus we could wonder whether panpsychism claims that consciousness is everywhere or merely that some unconscious form of mentality (often labelled “proto-mentality) lurks throughout the universe.”

This is a step in the right direction, though in my opinion it is limited by a key bias that causes us to conflate “consciousness” with “sentience.” The Wikipedia definition of the latter is “is the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively. Eighteenth-century philosophers used the concept to distinguish the ability to think (reason) from the ability to feel (sentience).” But there is nothing about the panpsychist use of “consciousness” or “mind” (nor the Cartesian, for that matter) that limits it to the capacity we call sentience. One must only consider the state of the sleeping human being to see that there is constant, interactive neural activity of which no one and nothing is sentient in any sense we can grasp. To differentiate whether that activity is conscious or unconscious based on observation by a broader organization of sentience is rather odd (though “normal” as it may be in our Cartesian enslavement), and it would strongly behoove us to heed the suggestion mentioned earlier and not transform this “conceptual distinction” into an “ontological gulf.” This idea of a proto-mentality starts us heading in a Spinozan direction, but I’d like to take it further. Back to Stanford:

“With regard to the ubiquity of the mental, we might wonder whether every thing has a mind (or associated mental attributes) or whether there is, even from within a panpsychist view of the world, a viable distinction between things with minds and things lacking minds (as we have seen, the world-mind form of panpsychism may have the resources to fund such a distinction). We might go so far as to wonder whether mind is to be thought of as some kind of field-like entity or in analogy with something as fundamental as energy, spread out over the universe and not connected directly with or dependent upon any particular things [emphasis mine].”

Bingo. If mind and matter are inseparable aspects of the same universal entity, and “you are a function of what the whole universe is doing,” it stands to reason that all of your un/conscious mental activity is a function of universal mind. We should start to wonder, now, whether the human nervous system produces consciousness, or receives and broadcasts it like a radio antenna. Furthermore, sentience is no longer an aggregate picture created by sensory information as a child’s building blocks are formed into a castle, but it is the refinement of the complete picture of consciousness by selective attention and the amplification of what the sentient being considers important within that picture. It is a winnowing of consciousness, not the entire basis of it. This is a revolutionary distinction that can and should change everything we have been taught about what it is to perceive and think about our world.

Now that we’ve applied the proper guillotine treatment to the aberrant idea that mind can be separated from body, let us work backwards from here and speculate on what accounts for sentience where it is observed and lack of it where it is not.

I hope to show that 1) the chase for the sentience of a rock or a chair or a quark, however fanciful to the imagination, and not impossible on the quantum level, is an enormous red herring that in no way invalidates the central premise of panpsychism that says the patterns of behavior we call physical forms are all functions of omnipresent Mind, and 2) that the debate between panpsychism and emergentism is also a fish of an even deeper shade of rouge because it is fundamentally possible (and in our case, necessary) for both of them to be true.

Note the stream of data between the two poles of entanglement…very key concept.

In common vernacular, “God” and “consciousness” are both ambiguous terms with no consensus at all about what they mean, and frankly no real hope of coming to one in the sense they are commonly used. Spinozan pantheism suggests that this is for the same reason in each case: they are words that are trying to represent a “something” that isn’t a something, but rather, an “allthing” –not a particular phenomenon relative to others, but a totality or ground of all phenomena. Verbal language has no setting for this; just like we cannot count to infinity, there is no way to put absolute reality into words. Any word or set of words represents an approximation or an aspect thereof.

But we can tweak our ontological ideas so that we more easily recognize that we are talking about an allthing rather than a something. This, we should all understand by now, is what pantheism does for God. 

In a very similar way, this is also what panpsychism does for consciousness.

In the vernacular sense, there is an infinite, eternal God A, and finite, temporal creation B, and they relate to each other as two different somethings, like “potter <–> pottery”, or “A <–> B.” (To an atheist and to some pantheists, there is no A, only a self-replicating B. It’s not my intent to challenge that perspective here, just to make note of it while bypassing it.)

But in dealing with God as an allthing, pantheism effectively says “God is AB”. Or, to say the same thing in a different way, God is the “interbeing” of AB, an infinite Ocean eternally making innumerable impermanent waves of itself. The practical value of knowing this is that it revolutionizes the concept of the relationship between specific things, the B’s we can see and hear and touch etc.  No matter how many waves the ocean produces over the aeons, existentially it interpenetrates every part of those waves’ limited existence –in English, there has never been nor will there ever be a wave that is not also the Ocean. Likewise, no matter how many ways we partition B into “separate things,” from subatomic particles to the physical universe itself, the timeless infinity of A interpenetrates every distinction, so the essential “ABness” is the same at any scale of observation. Therefore God is fully omnipresent in any B we want to consider, and all B’s are interconnected through this shared ground of being called A. Nothing exists in isolation, and all is divine by being an essential aspect of AB. This is how the pantheist understanding of God differs from that rendered by dualism, and “reunites” us with the ground of existence from which, of course, we were never actually separate.

Panpsychism is a little more difficult to explain, but the idea is the same. In the vernacular sense, consciousness is a property of subject B1 as it observes object B2. But in treating consciousness as an allthing instead of a something, panpsychism sees it as the entire information exchange between poles of the interbeing of “B1B2” –which, because we know our pantheism, we will recognize as an expression or manifestation of God, or “AB.”

Therefore, consciousness at its root is not a property of individual things. The sophisticated sentience which we observe in humans and other complex organisms is a winnowing or refinement of consciousness using neural feedback, more accurately called “cognition.” Where/when there are not the physical conditions necessary for such a feedback loop, there will be no such feedback and no pattern of sentience will be evident, just as radio waves will travel in all directions but only result in a song when they encounter a device designed to receive and broadcast them. The radio “tunes out” far more signals than it tunes in as it carves your favorite song from the airwaves.

It should be clear that this pattern of behavior depends upon a complex nervous system that is not omnipresent, but emergent from an astronomically special and rare set of conditions that we are confusing with consciousness. This confusion leaves us in the sometimes horrifying position of believing that our subjective knowledge is ungrounded by anything but itself –the so-called “island of consciousness” experience, surrounded by dumb, lifeless matter.

Consciousness, primitively speaking, is more analogous to a field of all the possible radio waves occurring at once in all possible places and times, the infinite creative potential of God –which, on closer inspection, is God. Properly understood, God and mind/consciousness are the same allthing with different names that highlight different aspects of our interbeing: God is the divine ground of being, consciousness the divine ground of knowledge. Same ground, different functions.

Students of Eastern philosophy will recognize universal consciousness in a couple contexts. There is a perfect analogy for it in “Buddha mind,” or “luminous mind” (Sanskrit prakṛti-prabhāsvara-citta) which Buddhism holds as the singular allthing and the only non-contingent reality. In Vedanta, consciousness is the Self, or Atman, the “I AM” of the world, which the student learns to perceive and compare to God –Brahman, the ground of all being– leading eventually to the supreme realization that “Atman is Brahman.” And if you dig into the metaphor deep enough, you’ll find the same selfsame relationship between the Son and the Father in Christian theology. The most obvious analogies in Western thought are the “world-soul” or anima mundiof Neoplatonism, and to some extent, Emerson’s “Over-soul.”

For the most part, though, in the Cartesian West, we are left to puzzle over how panpsychism can claim that inanimate objects “have consciousness,” but this is asking the wrong question. A rock does not have consciousness; consciousness has a rock.

When I say, “I see a rock,” this is shorthand for, “Right now, at this exact space-time location, in my field of perception, consciousness is offering a set of sensory data that I am receiving and finding identical to a pattern template that I call ‘rock.’” It is an exchange between two poles of a single process, and that process is a microcosmic manifestation of the information exchange that is the root of consciousness.

Degrees of cognition constitute the only mentalistic difference between me and the rock. The latter has no discernible cognition of me because it has no awareness of its own rockhood; it simply shares the pattern of information that it is without independent motive or self-will. If the rock were a raccoon, it might see me while I see it. Its rudimentary sense of self, based on a singular feedback loop that makes the raccoon aware of its awareness, would likely lead to a general recognition of danger, and a directive to flee instead of attack. If it had a second feedback loop, providing awareness of that awareness of awareness, it might think something like “Furless biped!” as it processes this double-feedback, and it might have a range of possible responses that have been employed in the past, such as engaging me in friendly conversation.

I, the human observer, put that information through two cognitive feedback loops in order to say “I see a rock” –the first loop produces cognizance of “I,” the second produces “re-cognition” of the resemblance to the pattern “rock.” For my two year old son, that might be the extent of what he now gathers from the recognition loop, but because I as an adult have become so proficient at using this second feedback loop, I have virtually limitless hard drive storage for an astounding variety of cognitive templates. (Is it sedimentary? Metamorphic? Igneous? Will it hurt me if I drop it on my toe? Is it aerodynamic enough that I can throw it all the way across the inlet? Etc etc)  We have so many templates in such vivid detail and contrast that the world seems to be made of them, and somehow seems more real because of them, just as a map with geographical names and political boundaries seems more real to us than, say, a satellite photograph of the actual territory.

If we aren’t careful, we can begin to think that our overlay of templates is reality, and perhaps this is a key to understanding how we duped ourselves into thinking that only the template-makers are aware and potentially sapient. In truth, one could argue that the rock is wiser than we, that it already is, without effort, what our Buddhas are trying to achieve in its selflessness and non-resistance to change, and the raccoon, though it differentiates itself from its surroundings and will fight for its survival, does not take the further step of existentially isolating itself from its total environment. Its “I” is not so precisely analyzed and defined that, for instance, the template of mortality hangs like an albatross around its neck.

In pushing the envelope of neural evolution (on the front lines, perhaps, of a teleological quest for experience?) the human being effectively stretches this capacity to the edge of usefulness, and the Cartesian rationalist, however technologically brilliant and innovative, comes within a hair’s width of snapping it. Knowing this, the temptation to retreat into animalistic simplicity, or ride a slippery slope of “altered consciousness” toward rock-like cognitive inertia, feeds a vicious cause-effect cycle of self-conscious degradation and ultimately, mental illness. Once we have opened the seal of that envelope and acquired the tools to process consciousness to a certain degree of complexity, there is no going back –not without making insensitive, subnatural monsters of ourselves in various ways.

A deliberately holistic panpsychism, freed from the red herring of dualistic conflation with sentience and errant monistic tendencies to seek uniformity in our unity with rocks and raccoons, might hold the key to releasing us from this distorted view of consciousness, and show us that even our deepest, most private thoughts are but the waves of our divine Ocean, the That which Thou most fundamentally Art, connecting us with each other and our environment in ways we have only begun to glimpse.

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Published by Waldo Noesta

Enough about me. Let's talk about you....

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