Does panpsychism have any religious implications?

omegadirective_116.jpgThe Borg had a religious attitude to the perfect order of the Omega molecule, but the Federation thought it was more trouble than it was worth

At the end of a recent post responding to Philip Goff’s simplicity argument for panpsychism, Jerry Coyne notes:

It seems to me that panpsychism is a numinous concept that feeds into religion by asserting that the whole universe is conscious, which some people consider a religious attitude. Some, for instance, consider the “mind of the universe” to be God—that God is a mind that pervades the entire Universe.

That, at least, could be one explanation for the penchant for magazines like Aeon, or philosophers like Nagel with a teleological bent, to argue for panpsychism.

Coyne makes this point independently of his critique of the simplicity argument, and I take it that Coyne doesn’t think it has any bearing on the success of his critique or the merits of the argument he’s responding to. However, the point does open a useful line of inquiry. Would panpsychism justify a numinous attitude on the part of those who accept it? Does panpsychism have a religious aspect? And what religious implications might it have?

Religion, as I understand it, involves more than just a package of metaphysical beliefs. It also includes, at the very least, a set of individual and social practices (such as prayer, ritual observances, communal worship, and recognition of some sacred authority) which are regarded as appropriate (and possibly obligatory) in light of certain metaphysical facts, and a guiding ideal of transcendence or liberation (e.g. salvation, moksha, tikkun olam, nirvana). On this understanding, it’s not immediately clear that panpsychism has any special relevance to religion. The truth of panpsychism might rule out certain religious beliefs, such as those that are predicated on the existence of a substantial soul (at least where the soul is understood to be the seat of consciousness) or the attribution of conscious experience to human beings alone, and it would appear to be consistent with certain other religious beliefs, such as those predicated on denial of a substantial soul or on the claim that there is a deep unity underlying the superficial appearance of diversity in the world. But the same could be said of a more conventional kind of strict materialism, which people normally think of as having an anti-religious aspect.

I’m having trouble seeing the religious aspect of panpsychism which is so immediately obvious to Coyne, but it could be that I’m just not trying hard enough. So here’s an attempt to work up a panpsychist foundation for religious belief.

The universe is developing towards a state of maximal entropy. Entropy is associated with disorder in a system, and with diminishing amounts of useful energy. This implies that the universe once existed in a state of perfect order and maximum potential for creation. Panpsychism holds that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe, so it follows that the universe once existed as a perfectly ordered consciousness with maximum potential for creation. The universe today expresses the unfolding of that perfectly ordered consciousness’s creative potential. Conceivably, the perfectly ordered consciousness is infinite in extent and exists eternally beyond our universe, which may not be the whole of what exists.

Now this is somewhat more recognizable as a religious view, although it arguably relies on some equivocation about the meaning of technical terms like energy and entropy. Leaving that aside, “perfectly ordered consciousness with maximum potential for creation” may describe some gods of religion pretty well. But the reverse doesn’t hold; various Christian conceptions of God, for example, possess many important qualities (e.g. personality, moral perfection, a penchant for intervention) that do not follow from the reasoning given above. The divine qualities that are missing from the “perfectly ordered consciousness” are the ones that matter most from a religious perspective. Without those qualities, panpsychism commits one to nothing further than Natura naturans: “Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world“. From the standpoint of the committed atheist, this result should seem fairly benign.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s