Panpsychism, Idealism, and the Consciousness of Rocks
This is a follow-up to a recent article of mine entitled ‘Is the Sun a Living Organism? A Return to Animism’, which discussed a paper by biologist Rupert Sheldrake entitled ‘Is the Sun Conscious?’¹. In it he mentioned “the recent revival of interest in the philosophy of panpsychism”.
This prompted Geoff Ward, one of my favourite writers on Medium, to respond: “Bernardo Kastrup sees panpsychism as a ‘mounting and extremely dangerous cultural threat’. When new thinking is at last rendering materialism untenable, panpsychism ‘threatens to extend the delusion of a universe outside consciousness for yet another century’ ”.
I am a big fan of Kastrup, and would go so far as to say that he is actually my favourite philosopher. He is a passionate idealist, therefore believes that nothing exists except fluctuations of consciousness, which is the ultimate Ground of Being. I am, however, not as critical or threatened as him by the rise of panpsychism, although I do agree with his criticisms of it, except for one, which will be the theme of this article.
I hadn’t previously been aware of this Kastrup quote. Geoff Ward told me that it comes from this article. Having read that, I replied that Kastrup’s position on panpsychism may be a little extreme: “While I agree that panpsychism isn’t the ultimate truth, it might be a step in the right direction away from pure physicalism. We have to start somewhere in difficult times, and the evolution of human consciousness seems to be a long and slow road, although I agree the need is currently urgent. It’s good to see that some scientists and philosophers are beginning to wake up, even if they haven’t yet reached Kastrup’s idealism”.
Someone who says something similar is Ren Koi who, although being a convinced idealist, nevertheless says, in relation to the Hard Problem of Consciousness, that “philosophical reasoning and the scientific method will have to join forces… I believe that panpsychism is the mediator between dualism and materialism, and as a result, I feel we are on the verge of a new paradigm — whereby we will experience the scientific validity of panpsychism and the mind-body problem will be resolved once and for all”².
Kastrup would presumably be horrified by such a statement. I am in general agreement with his ideas and in particular his assessment of, and reservations about, panpsychism. I have, however, detected one possible inconsistency in his argument. In the article quoted by Geoff Ward, he says: “The problem with panpsychism is, of course, that there is precisely zero evidence that any inanimate object is conscious. To resolve an abstract, theoretical problem of the materialist metaphysics one is forced to project onto the whole of nature a property — namely, consciousness — which observation only allows to be inferred for a tiny subset of it — namely, living beings. This is, in a way, an attempt to make nature conform to theory, as opposed to making theory conform to nature”³.
However, in his book Dreamed Up Reality Kastrup’s second chapter is entitled ‘The insufficiency of science for uncovering the true nature of reality’. There he says that “science models the relationship between things, but is surprisingly limited in clarifying their underlying nature. It leaves out the truly important questions”. He asks whether “assertions about nature that are not strictly grounded on the scientific method are valueless”, and says that, in order for that to be true, “the scientific method (must) be sufficient to explore all aspects of nature” (all italics his).
He concludes that “science seems to leave out a legitimate avenue for exploring nature: that of a purely first-person method wherein one dives into the depths and inner recesses of one’s own consciousness… It is conceivable that such inner worlds, through subjective perception mechanisms not yet scientifically understood, may give us access to aspects of nature no less ontologically verifiable, but which are inherently beyond the scope of a third-person, quantified approach. Since our inner worlds are, beyond any doubt, a part of nature, this is the first way in which science is an insufficient method for exploring nature”.
In chapter 4 he goes on to discuss various technologies of mind exploration: meditation, visualization, lucid dreaming, yoga, brain entrainment and, most importantly for my purpose here, psychedelics.
He mentions Stanislav Grof and his work with LSD, so he cannot be said to be unaware of him. Perhaps therefore he has not read Grof deeply enough, for in his book Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research⁴, Grof specifically discusses the phenomenon of his patients experiencing the consciousness of inorganic matter: “The experiential extensions of consciousness in LSD sessions are not limited to the world of biology; they can include macroscopic and microscopic phenomena of inorganic nature”.
As examples he gives:
- the ocean, fire, and “a subjective awareness of the forces unleashed in natural catastrophes”, for example volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, windstorms
- “the consciousness of a computer or identity with a flying jet, orbiting spaceship, and other modern inventions”
- “consciousness of a particular material; most frequently it was diamond, granite, gold, and steel. Similar experiences can reach even the microworld and depict the dynamic structure of the atoms, the nature of the electromagnetic forces involved, the world of interatomic bonds, or the Brownian dance of the molecules”.
Such experiences do not necessarily lead to the conclusion of panpsychism, however. Here idealism is suggested: “LSD subjects often consider the possibility that consciousness is a basic cosmic phenomenon related to the organization of energy, and that it exists throughout the universe; in this context, human consciousness appears to be only one of its many varieties and outgrowths. Episodes of consciousness of inorganic matter can be accompanied by various insights of a philosophical and religious relevance; they can mediate a new understanding of animism and pantheism, of the parallels between spiritual states and material substances”.
So Kastrup cannot have it both ways. He cannot say that there is precisely zero evidence that any inanimate object is conscious, that psychedelics are an introspective, subjective way of obtaining knowledge not available via the scientific method, but then deny that such knowledge, when obtained, is real. If a piece of granite is indeed conscious, as some of Grof’s LSD patients have experienced, this in no way, as far as I can see, makes panpsychism preferable to idealism. It seems rather to make idealism more credible.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my profile.
- Journal of Consciousness Studies, 28, №3–4, 2021, pp. 8–28
- All Is One, The Science and Spirituality of Consciousness, O-Books, John Hunt Publishing, 2021, p7
- quoting his own book, Why Materialism Is Baloney
- Souvenir Press, 1979