Can a Physicalist be a Panpsychist?

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Here‘s the second part of the debate between me and David Papineau (KCL) on ‘Can Science Explain Consciousness?’, hosted by the Panpsycast (which, incidentally, is not a podcast on panpsychism…).

David really surprised me in this part of the discussion by expressing a sympathy for panpsychism!!!! It’s especially interesting as he hasn’t given up his commitment to ‘brute identity’ physicalism: the view that we solve the hard problem of consciousness by means of an empirical identity between conscious states and physical states, analogous to the empirical identity between water and H2O or heat and molecular motion (AKA ‘type-B physicalism’ in David Chalmers’ typology). But whilst most brute identity physicalists identify conscious states with neurophysiological states of the brain, thus making consciousness a property only of physically complex organisms, Papineau is inclined to identify consciousness with a much more basic and much more ubiquitous physical property. Thus he ends up being both a physicalist and a panpsychist.

Galen Strawson is another panpsychist who calls himself a ‘physicalist’, but this is a reflection of his non-standard use of the word ‘physicalism’. Although I would not call myself a physicalist, in fact Strawson and I defend the same view — Russellian monism  — and this view is quite different from standard forms of physicalism. Standard physicalists think that physical science can in principle give us a complete account of the fundamental nature of reality, and consciousness is then accounted for in terms of that reality that physical science has made known to us (I don’t think this can be done, which is why I’m not a physicalist). Russellian monists, in contrast, think that physical science only captures the causal structure of the physical world, telling us nothing about its intrinsic nature. It is this hidden (from the perspective of physical science) intrinsic nature of matter, according to Russellian monism, that explains consciousness.

The interesting thing about Papineau is that he adopts a very standard form of physicalism whilst at the same time being sympathetic to panpsychism. I don’t think there’s another philosopher on the planet who has such a view. (Anyone care to correct me???) If I understand him correctly, Papineau thinks that resistance to panpsychism is largely motivated by the dualist assumption that there is something special or magical about consciousness, that it’s somehow extra to the physical world. Once such assumptions are dropped, according to Papineau, panpsychism looks much more tenable.

I still have very strong philosophical disagreements with David, but it is heartening to see yet another scientifically-minded philosopher not being put off panpsychism by its superficial cultural connotations. I predict that in 50 year’s time the ‘new age feel’ of panpsychism will have completely disappeared, and it will be accepted as the default view of the mind.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.

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