"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)


"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Is All Physical Matter Conscious?

The psychologist C G Jung reported an experience he had as a child:

“Am I sitting on the stone or am I the stone on which he is sitting?”

This might be taken as a case of confused identity, but for the adult psychologist the remembered experience provided an example of how the imagination can animate the world, and how consciousness can create the Creation. That the young boy could consider himself to be the stone at the same time as having the experience of sitting on it brings the stone into the realm of consciousness – not as an inert object but as a living subject.

To regard the world in this way, as a multiplicity of subjects each with their experience of me to match my experience of them is to set the living landscape not in a frame – out there – but at an intersection with a mindscape, which itself is not to be regarded as wholly within a limited consciousness.

There is a balance to be achieved in assessing such experiences. There are some who would say that Jung’s experience was delusional, or that of a child who had not yet sorted out the difference between himself and objects in the world around him, as if the important point is that of his separateness from that world. There are others who would want to privilege the child’s experience as untainted by corrupting ideas, an innocent perception of pure being. Neither of these positions seems to hit the right note. One prioritises scientifically verifiable fact, the other prioritises experience. From the materialist standpoint stones are not usually regarded as having consciousness or any ability to react to other objects.  Trees and plants are also not regarded as conscious, though in this case there are clearly identifiable response mechanisms. Animals have consciousness, but not in the way that humans do. That’s it. All cut and dried. So the experience that a stone is responding to a human is delusional. Is it? If the experience is one of relationship, that is if I report that I have a relationship with a stone or a tree, it is difficult to see how anyone could deny my feeling of relationship. But they could, of course, deny that the stone or the tree is reciprocating.

What evidence might there be that non-animal objects could have consciousness, could, that is, be subjects capable of reciprocating a relationship? The philosopher Galen Strawson has advanced an argument which he claims emerges logically from materialist premises. He presents a carefully argued case that physicalism (the view that every real, concrete phenomenon in the universe is physical) entails panpsychism (the view that the existence of every real concrete thing involves experiential being). His view is set out – together with the views of both detractors and those who are sympathetic to the argument – in THIS BOOK

The basis of Strawson’s argument is the premise that the facility of experience is a quality possessed by all physical matter. To those who think this is nonsense he counters that the idea of consciousness emerging from unconscious matter is even more nonsensical. On this basis he asserts that it makes better sense to suppose that all matter is conscious as a condition of its existence. He acknowledges that there are problems with this view. How conscious elements combine to produce super-consciousness is by no means clear, especially if they retain their ‘elementary’ consciousness at the same time (am I composed of multiple centres of consciousness that are simultaneously ‘me’ and ‘not me’?) But Strawson insists that these problems are far less serious than the problems associated with the idea that consciousness just evolved out of unconsciousness.

A survey of the arguments for and against Strawson’s view appears in a thorough review of the book available HERE . For those who do not choose to follow such specialised philosophical debate, it might be enough to consider the implications of  Strawson’s ‘panpsychism’ for the nature of experience, and, perhaps, Jung’s stone experience. He says that “pure panpsychism has only one kind of thing in its fundamental ontology: subjects of experience … each of which is at the same time an experience, and experiencing”. The implication of this is that the experience and whatever is having the experience are [is?] literally identical. So the ‘monist’ view that matter is all there is paradoxically incorporates the ‘dualist’ view that there is also spirit. But the two are not separate. The author of the review cited above suggests that, as a result of Strawson’s demonstration of the implications of materialism, dualism might begin to look more coherent. Does this dissolve the ‘materialist -v -idealist’ dichotomy or reinforce it? I would opt for the former. But only because my experiences tend to point me in that direction.

3 comments:

Adam said...

As I stated elsewhere, it seems to make much more sense to me to regard consciousness as arising from the experience of relationship (or the experience of relationship arising from consciousness... I haven't quite ironed that one out yet :-) ). So I can say not so much that there I experience the rock and the rock experiences me, but that there is an experience of relationship between me and the rock... the experience whereby I am conscious of the experience from a localised perspective is what creates the illusion of a self to be conscious, but is necessary for the experience itself to gain "form" (this is the point at which the duality observer, observed, occurs, at which the world is cleaved into two ... but it occurs post relationship, post manifestation of consciousness).

And since I can be in relationship (kind of working backwards here) to anything, physical and non-physical, Jung's experience may not have to be limited to tangible material objects, but to music, poetry, concepts, empty space, all of which can be pregnant with the experience of consciousness, all of which can be understood to be alive in the sense that an animist might use that term.

Greg said...

Yes I agree that relationship is the key. And I can only have a relationship with something that is conscious. So while this might seem like the classic 'chicken and egg', consciousness has to come first because consciousness is possible without relationship but not vice-versa. But I also take your point that consciousness creates relationship, which suggests that the two things occur simultaneously and are therefore one thing.

Your extension to music etc is interesting and takes the argument where, I think, it needs to go.

Adam said...

I would agree... I think at the really subtle level, consciousness as we address it here is the mystery that we are all engaged with, the source... as experience arises, it necessarily creates distinction (what I mean by cleaving the world in two, though cleave is an interesting word in that it has two, completely opposite meanings :-) ). This process is mirrored in language, where as word-concepts arise, they necessarily cleave the world into a and not a.

There is a sense I get that the consciousness, at least in any form that we can recognise it, resides in the unfolding of relationship