Does panpsychism have moral implications? (No.)

spock_and_horta_mind_meld-2

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.

Related reading

David Chalmers’s 2013 Amherst Lecture on “Panpsychism and Panprotopsychism” (pdf)

Philip Goff’s publications on panpsychism and related views

Panpsychism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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4 thoughts on “Does panpsychism have moral implications? (No.)

  1. “Panpsychists think that consciousness is everywhere, but they generally do not think that everything is conscious. “

    It sounds like you’re describing a panprotopsychist view. But I’m not sure what you’re getting at here:

    “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.”

    I’m not sure I understand this as an articulation of panprotopsychism. If fundamental physical stuff has mental properties, why wouldn’t everything built up from that stuff also have mental properties? It seems like this is a statement that the whole is less than the sum of its parts, that certain assemblies of fundamental stuff by their natures block, or eliminate mental properties.

    You also say that:

    “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.”

    How do you avoid the problem of emergence here? Panpsychism is attractive because it avoids the explanatory gap in the production of consciousness from certain arrangements of non-conscious matter. But if only certain arrangements of building blocks with primitive consciousness produce things that are “conscious in their own right,” how do you explain that emergence of that consciousness from primitive consciousness?

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  2. Thanks for the comment! To clarify, I don’t intend to be articulating a panprotopsychist view. When I say that consciousness is everywhere but not everything is conscious, I mean something analogous to the claim that all the members of a crowd of people are conscious but the crowd itself is not conscious. Forming a crowd doesn’t block or eliminate the consciousness of the crowd’s members, but it also doesn’t generate a new consciousness built out of the consciousnesses of the crowd’s members. Likewise, I take panpsychism to be committed to the basic building blocks of the world having mental properties but not just any aggregate of those building blocks having mental properties distinct from the mental properties of its constituents. This is partly because unique consciousness to just any aggregate results in an unacceptable proliferation of minds. A heap of sand, for example, would contain a staggering number of experiences over and above the experiences of its fundamental constituents, because you can aggregate the constituents of a heap of sand in a staggering number of arbitrary ways. So the idea is not that the whole is less than the sum of its parts, but rather that only certain wholes are more than the sum of their parts.

    Regarding emergence, “primitive consciousness” is not non-consciousness, it’s simply the most basic kind of consciousness there can be. So panpsychism as I present it here avoids the problem of strong emergence; the complex consciousness of things like human brains is only weakly emergent, because their fundamental constituents possess primitive consciousness. A bigger concern IMO is that weakly emergent complex consciousness might have to be epiphenomenal.

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    • Good stuff. What do you think the mental properties of basic building blocks are like? It sounds like you’re committed to the idea that things like human consciousness are weakly emergent, so there are some features of human consciousness that basic consciousness lacks. How do you bucket basic versus emergent features of consciousness?

      Regarding epiphenomenalism, do you find this worry to be wrapped up with microphysical determinism? It seems epiphenomenal worries in, e.g. physicalism, are based on the causal closure of the physical. The point being, I’m not sure if epiphenomenalism is a problem specific to panpsychism as a solution to the hard problem. Rather, it seems like a general opposition to any theory of mind that wants to recover mental causation.

      To the real aim of your article though, we should talk about your rejection of idea that “establishing that the constituents of nature have mental properties also establishes that the constituents of nature have intrinsic value.” I think this is right. I don’t think consciousness itself is operative in moral deliberation. Our treatment of other (human and non-human) animals seems to be wrapped up in the substantive mental states our actions might produce in those animals (pain, anxiety, etc.), not in the mere fact that those animals are conscious. We’re concerned, i.e., about “of what animals are conscious.” So I don’t see panpsychism, the idea that consciousness simpliciter is – in some sense –more ubiquitous than we thought, as providing new reasons for believing our folk theories of substantive mental states are wrong. More things might be capable of mental states, in virtue of having some rudimentary consciousness, but panpsychism doesn’t reveal any new instances of mental states.

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  3. Pingback: Panpsychism and vitalism about stellar objects: a response to Matloff | Popcorn Machine

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