Changing How the World Thinks

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Will We Ever Understand Consciousness?

Why compromises like panpsychism aren't the way forward

Will we ever understand consciousness

There is an arguably bizarre theory in philosophy today—gaining momentum in both academia and popular culture—called ‘panpsychism’. It has many variants, but the most recognizable one posits that elementary subatomic particles—quarks, leptons, bosons—are conscious subjects in their own right. In other words, the idea is that there is something it feels like to be an electron, or a quark, or a Higgs boson; their experiential states are allegedly an irreducible property of the particles themselves, just like mass, charge or spin. According to this theory—which has been openly embraced by influential mainstream figures, including reductionist neuroscientist Christof Koch—our complex conscious inner life is constituted by an unfathomable combination of the experiential states of myriad particles forming our brain.

I understand the urge to circumvent the failures of mainstream materialism, according to which matter is all there truly is (experience being somehow an emergent epiphenomenon of certain ephemeral material arrangements). There is growing awareness in both science and philosophy that materialism is untenable, as I discussed in a previous article. The question is whether simply adding—next to mass, charge, spin—fundamental experiential properties to matter is a persuasive and legitimate way out, or just avoids the need for explanation.

I can accept that my cats are conscious, perhaps even the bacteria in my toilet. But I have a hard time imagining that a grain of salt contains a whole community of little conscious subjects.

You see, I can easily accept that my cats are conscious, perhaps even the bacteria in my toilet. But I have a hard time imagining—especially when I am eating—that a grain of salt contains a whole community of little conscious subjects. The panpsychist’s motivation for wanting even the humble electron to be conscious is to treat experiential states in a way analogous to how physical properties are treated in chemistry. As the physical properties of particles combine in atoms, molecules and aggregates to give rise to emergent macroscopic properties—such as the wetness of water—the panpsychist wants the experiential states of particles in our brain to combine and give rise to our integrated conscious inner life. The idea is to fold experience into the existing framework of scientific reduction and emergence. Therein resides most of the appeal and force of panpsychism.

To do so, the panpsychist takes subatomic particles to be discrete little bodies with defined spatial boundaries. This way, their respective experiential states are thought to be encompassed by such boundaries, just as our human experiences seem to be encompassed by our skull. Indeed, since each person’s consciousness does not float out into the world, but is personal in the sense that it is limited by the boundaries of the person’s body, so subatomic particles must be understood as discrete little bodies, each containing separate and independent subjectivities.

The panpsychist then posits that the inherent subjectivity of different particles can combine into compound subjects if and when the particles touch, bond or otherwise interact with one another in some undefined chemical manner. Notice that this approach makes sense only through analogy with physical properties. The mass of an electron is ‘held’ within the electron’s boundaries, therefore it’s only logical—the argument goes—that its experiential states should also unfold within the same boundaries. Or is it?

The problem is that subatomic particles aren’t discrete little bodies with defined spatial boundaries; the latter is a simplistic and outdated image known to be wrong. According to Quantum Field Theory (QFT)—the most successful theory ever devised, in terms of predictive power—elementary particles are just local patterns of excitation or ‘vibration’ of a spatially unbound quantum field. Each particle is analogous to a ripple on the surface of a lake. We can determine the location of the ripple and characterize it through physical quantities such as the ripple’s height, length, breadth, speed and direction of movement, yet there is nothing to the ripple but the lake. We can’t lift it out of the lake, for the ripple is merely a pattern of movement of the water itself. Analogously, according to QFT, an elementary subatomic particle is just a pattern of excitation or ‘vibration’ of an underlying quantum field. Like the ripple, we can determine the particle’s location and characterize it through physical quantities such as mass, charge, momentum and spin. Yet, there is nothing to the particle but the underlying quantum field. The particle is the field, ‘moving’ in a certain manner.

Panpsychism is physically coherent only if the quantum field is conscious as a unitary subject. And because the field doesn’t have spatial boundaries, panpsychism implies universal consciousness and fails to explain our own personal subjectivities.

What is fundamental in nature is the quantum field, not the elementary subatomic particle it happens to form through excitation or ‘vibration’; after all, the latter is, by definition, reducible to the former. The panpsychist is thus forced to attribute consciousness not to the particle, but to the underlying field itself. The particle represents just a particular modulation or configuration of experience, not the creation of consciousness out of unconsciousness. Panpsychism is physically coherent only if the quantum field is conscious as a whole, as a unitary subject. And because the field doesn’t have spatial boundaries, panpsychism implies universal consciousness and fails to explain our own personal subjectivities. How about that, Dr. Koch?

Here the panpsychist could counter-argue that the physical properties of an elementary subatomic particle —such as mass, charge and spin— are localized and belong to the particle, not to the whole quantum field. After all, the particle’s mass, charge and spin are akin, in the analogy above, to the height, length and breadth of the ripple, which are indeed local properties of the ripple, not of the whole lake. Therefore—the argument goes—why can’t we say that experiential states, too, belong to the particle alone, not to the quantum field as a whole?

To see why this doesn’t work, notice first that one can easily deduce or predict the quantitative parameters that define a ripple—e.g. height, length, breadth—from the equally quantitative parameters that describe the behavior of the lake. Physicists do it all the time in the field of fluid dynamics. Deducing the quantitative physical properties of a particle from the quantitative physical parameters that describe the underlying quantum field is entirely analogous. There is thus no fundamental problem in deducing quantity from quantity.

However, deducing quality from quantity is something entirely different. Experiential states are qualities; they cannot be exhaustively described in quantitative terms. No numerical parameter can tell someone with congenital blindness what it feels like to see red; or someone who never fell in love what it feels like to, well, fall in love. Indeed, this is precisely the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’ that plagues mainstream materialism and motivated the creation of panpsychism in the first place. One cannot make an unconscious quantum field give rise to a conscious particle for exactly the same reasons that one cannot make an arrangement of matter give rise to experience. Therefore, once again, the panpsychist either defeats their own purpose or must attribute consciousness to the quantum field as a whole, as a fundamental property of the field, which implies universal consciousness and fails to explain our private inner lives.

Panpsychism cannot explain private, individual experience.

Granted, this is not what the panpsychist was bargaining for. For in light of this insight, experiential states can no longer be treated analogously to physical properties in chemistry. Experience is no longer local, encapsulated in little bodies of matter—as physical properties can still be imagined to be—but ‘smeared out’ across spacetime instead. The entire rationale for explaining our conscious inner life through the combination of discrete experiential states at a microscopic level goes out the window: there is nothing to be combined within the boundaries of our skull anymore, just spatially unbound, universal fields and their patterns of excitation. Panpsychism cannot explain private, individual experience.

This is a coup de grâce for panpsychism, for the idea that microscopic subjects of experience can somehow combine to form seemingly unitary, macroscopic ones already constitutes a ‘hard problem’ in its own right: what kind of magical interaction between two particles could possibly have the extraordinary effect of combining two fundamentally distinct fields of experience? Even the logic underpinning panpsychism is faulty: the panpsychist attributes to the subject of perception a structure discernible only in that which is perceived. That the physical world we see seems ‘pixelated’ at the level of elementary subatomic particles may be an artifact of the screen of perception, not a reflection of the structure of the perceiver. As an analogy, notice that the image of a person on a computer screen appears pixelated when looked at closely. Yet, that doesn’t mean that the person is herself made of discrete rectangular blocks! The pixelation is an artifact of the screen, not the structure of the person represented on it. By the same token, that our body is made of subatomic particles says something about how we are represented on the screen of perception, not necessarily about the subject that does the perceiving.

Don’t get me wrong: the panpsychist is going in the right direction when they consider consciousness irreducible, and such openness is a valuable commodity in our overwhelmingly materialist culture. My hope is that, freed from the missteps discussed above, the panpsychist finds intellectual space to contemplate a more promising alternative—one that entails leaving every vestige of materialism behind, instead of striking a half-way, Frankenstein-monster-like compromise. The idea is that, in lieu of preserving physical properties alongside experiential states as fundamental aspects of nature, the way to go is to reduce the physical to the experiential.

You see, every scientific and philosophical explanation entails reducing a phenomenon to some other aspect of nature, different from the phenomenon itself. For instance, we reduce or explain a living organism in terms of organs, organs in terms of tissues, tissues in terms of cells, molecules, atoms and subatomic particles. But because we can’t keep on explaining one thing in terms of another forever, at some point we hit rock-bottom. Whatever is then left is considered to be our ‘reduction base’: a set of fundamental or irreducible aspects of nature that cannot themselves be explained, but in terms of which everything else can. Under materialism, the elementary subatomic particles of the standard model—with their intrinsic physical properties—constitute the reduction base.

To circumvent materialism’s failure to explain experience, the panpsychist simply adds experience—with all its countless qualities—to the reduction base. Arguably, this is a copout. Inflated reduction bases don’t really explain anything; they just provide subterfuge for avoiding explanations. A good rule of thumb is that the best theories are those that have the smallest base, and then still manage to explain everything else in terms of it. On this account, panpsychism just isn’t a good theory.

Good alternatives to materialism are those that replace elementary particles with experiential states in their reduction base, as opposed to simply adding elements to it. We call this class of alternatives ‘idealism.’ And then the best formulations of idealism are those that have one single element in their reduction base: universal consciousness itself, a spatially unbound field of subjectivity whose particular patterns of excitation give rise to the myriad qualities of empirical experience. Under such a theory, a unified quantum field is universal consciousness.

There is nothing absurd about this theory; the common impression that there is is just a knee-jerk reaction of our current intellectual habits. As a matter of fact, the theory is arguably the most parsimonious, internally consistent and empirically sound view yet devised. Importantly, as I have extensively discussed elsewhere, idealism—unlike panpsychism—can explain how our private, personal subjectivities arise within universal consciousness. I therefore hope that the momentum gathered by panpsychism in both academia and popular culture is transferred, intact, to this uniquely viable avenue of inquiry, before the inherent shortcomings of panpsychism discourage—as they are bound to eventually do—those seeking an alternative to materialism.


If you want to hear from leading thinkers like this debating renowned philosophers, cutting edge scientists, headline-making politicians, and beloved artists, come to HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2020 for four days of debates and talks alongside music, comedy and parties.

Bernardo Kastrup will be appearing in The Limits of Material discussing consciousness and idealism.

See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
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Jesse Redman 12 April 2020

According to this theory, elephants should be smarter than humans and the Earth even smarter. Or, more sentient. Doesn't make sense.

Matt Keyes 3 February 2020

...wish I could edit posts :)

The question regarding the definition of consciousness is also important. For example, how does a tree "know" how to grow? How does a crystal "know" its crystalline structure? I would argue those are forms of "consciousness" although very different from our consciousness as humans, of course

Matt Keyes 3 February 2020

It seems what is overlooked in this argument is that consciousness doesn't have to be complete at a microscopic level. The disconnect is that materialism tends to compartmentalize everything yet tries to maintain an emergent sense of reality from other "levels" of discrete particles. I think this takes more of a jump than looking at things in a more holistic way.

In other words, elements of conciousness have to exist at smaller levels that combine to form what we define as "experience". Thus, at some fundamental level, consciousness exists in everything and appears when those disparate parts combine together. An individual particle (or quantum wave collapse if you like) does not have to have "experience" as we know it, but, when joined together with a virtual infinite number of others, produces "experience" at a larger level. In this view, the elements of consciousness are ubiquitously everywhere and in everything.

John Flagg 10 January 2020

I agree with most of Dr. Kastrup's critique of panpsychism. I've done a good deal of reading on the subject and it has always struck me that panpsychism is something like "idealism lite". A lot of bright people who recognize the severe limitations of physicalism but can't quite let go of it seem to be turning to panpsychism as the least radical alternative. A bibliography and references would be good here. I know there are several recent articles by David Chalmers assessing the current state of panpsychism. As Dr. Kastrup points out, the basic idea seems to be to keep the concept of what is known as "emergentism" which contends that consciousness/mind somehow "emerges" from the complex combination of physical entities, an idea which, in its strictly physicalist rendition is patently absurd. Putting panpsychism into the mix, though, while arguably solving the "hard problem of consciousness" (Chalmers' term) gives rise to its own hard problem, the hard problem of combination. I frankly don't see why the combination of fundamental entities of awareness into more complex compound awareness should be a problem. But it does seem to be considered one of their main difficulties by panpsychists themselves. Anyway, I've been a card-carrying idealist ever since I did my thesis on the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a quintessential Neoplatonist if ever there was one. Only for a long time I didn't really realize this or act on it. Thanks in part to Dr. Kastrup's recent book "The Idea of the World" I'm now trying to work out the specifics of exactly what being an idealist entails. And for all the reading I did on the subject of panpsychism, I think I was never terribly happy with the idea of adopting it for myself as my basic philosophical perspective -- largely for the reasons Dr. Kastrup outlines in this article, I think....