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Essays, Pantheism

All Is Mind: A Fresh Look at Spinozan Panpsychism, Part 1

“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.”


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. 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?

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.
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.

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.

“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.”

I've seen this image before and found it hysterical, so I had to find a proper place for it. The battle ends as soon as you realize that dualism is just misunderstood polarity (the "two sides of one coin" analogy). So while dualism makes its long-winded argument about the importance of qualitative distinctions in making anything comprehensible, monism leans over and swallows it whole.
I’ve seen this image before and found it hysterical, so I had to find a proper place for it. The battle ends as soon as you realize that dualism is just misunderstood polarity (the “two sides of one coin” analogy). So while dualism makes its long-winded argument about the importance of qualitative distinctions in making anything comprehensible, monism leans over and swallows it whole.

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.

Continue to Part 2

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