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Essays, Pantheism

All is Mind: A Fresh Look at Spinozan Panpsychism, part 2 of 2

Now that we’ve applied the proper guillotine treatment to the aberrant idea that mind can be separated from body in Part 1, 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.
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 mundi of Neoplatonismand 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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