Spock knows that consciousness can be found in surprising places
In a recent post at the OUP blog, Godehard Bruntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla write:
…[P]anpsychism paints a picture of reality that emphasizes a humane and caring relationship with nature due to its fundamental rejection of the Cartesian conception of nature as a mechanism to be exploited by mankind. For the panpsychist, we encounter in nature other entities of intrinsic value, rather than objects to be manipulated for our gain.
Panpsychism is simply the doctrine that consciousness or mentality of some kind is a fundamental and pervasive feature of the world. If panpsychism did imply the theory of value that Bruntrup and Jaskolla attribute to it, would have good reason to think that panpsychism is false. So given the explanatory virtues of panpsychism, we’re fortunate that it does not. Panpsychism has no moral implications whatsoever.
The authors seem to be assuming that possession of mental properties is both necessary and sufficient to be a bearer of intrinsic value; necessary, because they appear to hold that as long as we understand nature as consisting in dumb matter, we would be justified in viewing nature in purely instrumental terms, and sufficient, because they write as though establishing that the constituents of nature have mental properties also establishes that the constituents of nature have intrinsic value.
Bruntrup and Jaskolla claim that adopting their view will improve our relationship with nature, but in fact it would licence almost any abuse of nature while ruling out any non-instrumentalist environmental ethics. This is because the elements of nature to which panpsychists make their surprising ascriptions of primitive consciousness are virtually immune from being affected by any human action, whereas panpsychists do not ascribe consciousness to the elements of nature we directly encounter in the world and with which environmental ethics is normally concerned.
Panpsychists think that consciousness is everywhere, but they generally do not think that everything is conscious. The fundamental constituents of the world have mental properties, but it doesn’t follow that just anything built up from those constituents will have mental properties. Panpsychists take some teasing for the claim that, say, electrons have experiences of a sort – “that there is something it is like to be an electron” – but they do not claim that there’s anything it is like to be a chair, a rock, or a flower. All the building blocks of nature have a primitive kind of consciousness, but only certain kinds of arrangements of those blocks (such as we find in human brains, for example) will be conscious in their own right.
There are live debates in environmental ethics about whether an entity like an ecosystem might have intrinsic value or direct moral status of a kind, over and above the value and moral status of the individual animals that partly constitute the ecosystem. And there are similar controversies about the value and status of species, considered independently of the value and status of any or all members of the species. But there is little debate over whether an ecosystem or a species can possess consciousness in its own right, separate from the consciousness of any constituent of the ecosystem or member of the species. So on Bruntrup and Jaskolla’s view, the matter is settled right away: ecosystems and species are not conscious, and so they cannot possibly be bearers of intrinsic value. Of course we have good reasons not to clearcut all the forests or hunt species to extinction, but those are just a familiar mix of prudential reasons and moral concern for the rights or welfare of individual animals. That may turn out to be the right answer – I’m skeptical of the idea that ecosystems and species have intrinsic value myself – but I can’t see how this view would lead to any improvement on the relationship with nature that follows from the caricature of the Cartesian picture that Bruntrup and Jaskolla provide.