Panpsychism Discussed in the Swiss Press

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There was a rather crude attack on panpsychism published last week in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. It contained the usual cliched “arguments” – accusing panpsychists of being anti-science and really just seeking the comforts of religion – without really addressing the roots of the problem of consciousness and the merits of the panpsychist solution. On Friday there was an excellent reply by Godehard Brüntrup, Professor of Philosophy at the Munich School of Philosophy.

It’s to be expected that a proposal that pushes at the limits of our scientific paradigm should meet resistance. The irony is, physical science was never designed to deal with consciousness; indeed it has been so successful precisely because Galileo kicked things off by taking consciousness outside of its domain of enquiry and thereby gave physical scientists a more manageable task (roughly formulating mathematical models to capture the behaviour of matter). We are currently going through a phase of history where people are so blown away by the success of physical science, and the technology that has resulted from it, that they have become inclined to place all of their metaphysical faith in it. But physical science was designed for prediction not metaphysics, and its failure to explain consciousness is just one symptom of this fact.

I guess the reaction panpsychists seem to be getting is evidence that we’re having some impact. As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. In academic philosophy, panpsychism has gone from being laughed at to becoming a respected minority position. My aim now, partly through the book I’m currently working on, is to put the arguments to a general audience. I have little doubt than in twenty years time, the idea that panpsychism can be quickly dismissed as “crazy” will be seen as, well, crazy.

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.


  1. I think what might also help add some validity to the notion of consciousness and the more unexplainable esoteric components would be to find the support of the notion from another discipline.

    Physics is an example, the work being done by Klee Irwin and his research on a Grand Unification Theory, (here is a great interview on youtube of him unpacking his ideas ) might serve in the future to help debunk the common attributions of “mysticism” often associated with consciousness and esoteric knowledge.

    What do you think?

    • Thanks, I’ll have a listen. I certainly think there’s a project here that needs interdisciplinary involvement. Lee Smolin participated via Skype in a conference on panpsychism I attended a few years ago in Oslo.

  2. paulaustinmurphy says

    It’s absolutely true that some philosophers and many laypersons do use ad hominem arguments against panpsychists. Specifically, they accuse them of (to use your own words) “just seeking the comforts of religion” and other such things. Dan Dennett can be very bad in this respect. Take a look at these quotes (though they aren’t about panpsychism):

    “’I just can’t conceive of a conscious robot!’ Nonsense, I replied. What you mean is that you won’t conceive of a conscious robot.”

    “We found his [John Searle’s] though experiment fascinating because it was, on the one hand, so clearly fallacious and misleading argument, yet, on the other hand, just as clearly a tremendous crowd-pleaser and persuader.”

    “You don’t want me to disable this device [this person’s “intuition pump”]; you like the conclusion so much – Strong AI is impossible, whew! – that your eyes glaze over at the prospect of being dragged through a meticulous critique of a vivid, entertaining argument that supports your fervent hope…. The details don’t really interest you, only the conclusion. What an anti-intellectual copout!”

    “To many people consciousness is ‘real magic’. If you’re not talking about something that is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, then you’re not talking about consciousness, the Mystery Beyond All Understanding.” (313

    “I am suggesting, then, that David Chalmers has – unintentionally – perpetrated the same feat of conceptual sleight of hand in declaring that he has discovered ‘The Hard Problem’.”

    Nonetheless, there are many people who do find panpsychism appealing for religious and spiritual reasons – and some of those people are philosophers. That can’t be ignored either. Take these words from the panpsychist Rudy Rucker:

    “If the rocks on my property have minds, I feel more respect for them in their natural state. If I feel myself among friends in the universe…”


    “If my body will have a mind even after I’m dead, then death matters less to me…”

    So there may be some kind of middle way between crude ad homs against panpsychists and completely ignoring the “religious appeal” of panpsychism.

    Of course another cliché is that “philosophical positions must stand on their arguments”. Sure; though most people haven’t the time to go into detail when it comes to all philosophical positions. Thus they may rely on their “intuitions” about the religious motivations of panpsychists.

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