Panpsychism, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say panexperientialism, has seemed to be quite a popular view in previous discussions here, but I’ve always found it problematic. Panexperientialism, as the name suggests, is the belief that experience is everywhere; that experience is the basis of reality, out of which everything else is built. Objects which seem dead and inanimate ultimately consist of experience just as much as we do: it just doesn’t seem like that because the experiences which make them up are not our experiences. The attractive feature of this view is that it removes some of the mystery from consciousness: instead of being a very rare phenomenon which only occurs in very specific circumstances, such as those which exist in our brains, consciousness of a sort is universal, and so it’ s not at all surprising that we ourselves are conscious.
One of the problems is the question of how many experiential loci we’re dealing with. Does the table have experiences? Does half the table? Do the table legs have four separate sets of experiences, and at the same time a sort of federal joint experience as a composite entity? There are ways to solve these problems, but they’re distinctly off-putting to me. More fundamentally, I’m inclined to doubt whether the theory is as helpful in explaining things as it seems. OK, so my brain has experience just because it’s an object and all objects have experience; but surely that brain-as-an-object experience is the same kind of thing as the experiences rocks have, while the experience I’m interested in, the kind that influences my bodily behaviour, is something else; something which remains unexplained.
One of the sources of difficulty here, I think, as with many metaphysical theories, is that the philosophical point of view is not well integrated with any clear scientific conception. When we need to pin down our loci of experience we’re left to rummage around and see what we can come up with – atoms? Too small. Discrete physical entities? What exactly are they? (Shintoism, if I understand it correctly, has bitten this kind of bullet and given up on a sharp definition of what is animate: lots of things can have souls, but only if they’re salient or impressive. Mount Fuji definitely gets one, but some anonymous pile of dirt in your back garden is just a pile of dirt.)
But what about Finite Eventism? This theory (as expounded by Carey R. Carlson in Chapter 12 of Mind that abides: Panpsychism in the New Millennium) is a theory of physics first and foremost, one that happens to provide a neat basis for a solution to the mind-body problem taking a panpsychist/panexperientialist view. It is based on the late ideas of Russell and Whitehead, though one of its appealing features is that it dovetails well with quantum theory in a way Russell and Whitehead were not aware of.
The gist of the theory is a radical reduction of physics to a minimalist ontology consisting of events and the basic temporal relations of being earlier or later (there’s also cause and effect, which I take to be causally connected varieties of earlier/later). There are some rules which prevent inconsistency (events can’t be earlier/later than themselves) and that’s it. In particular, there is no initial concept of space or extension. We are allowed convergent and divergent causal paths, so we can construct complex multiple ‘honeycomb’ pathways like the one shown. The four consistent axes which appear in these diagrams are taken to make up a 4-D manifold of space-time, with neutrinos and electrons delineated by gaps, and the repetition of patterns in sequence representing persistence over time. Quanta, in this theory, are represented by the steps between two events; the number of intermediate steps between two events corresponds with the relative frequency of the relevant path, and these relative frequency ratios provide relative energy ratios, following Planck’s E=hf.
I hope those brief, inadequate remarks give a hint of how the basics of physics can be built up in a very elegant manner from the simple topology of these sequences: it looks impressive, though I must frankly admit that I’m not competent to explain the theory properly, never mind evaluate it. Readers may like to look at this short description (pdf).
The question for us is, what are these ‘events’? Carlson follows Whitehead in seeing them all as ‘occasions of experience’; in some ways they resemble the monads of Leibniz’s radically relativist ontology; they are pure phenomenal moments. Carlson argues that the basis of all science is phenomenal experience; historically, in order to account for those experiences better through Newtonian style physics it became necessary to postulate unexperienced abstract entities; and then the phenomenal experience dropped out of the theory leaving us with a world made of fundamentally unaccountable entities.
The best part of it for me is that the theory provides relatively good and clear answers to the problems I mentioned above. It’s clear that the loci of experience are situated in the events: I take it that continuity of experience is guaranteed in exactly the same way as physical continuity by repeating patterns (though what the nature of those patterns amounts to is an interesting question). If that’s so, then the relationship between the consciousness of my brain-as-object and the consciousness of my brain-as-brain is also helpfully clarified.
How far, though, is the actual nature of my consciousness clarified? The explanation of most of my mental characteristics is deferred upwards to be explained by the working of the brain. That is, no doubt, exactly as it should be: but it leaves me with no particular reason to adopt panpsychism. The one feature which the theory does explain is phenomenal experience (alright, a fairly important feature!); but it really only does so by telling us that things just do have phenomenal experience. Why should we take it that the events are phenomenal in nature – doesn’t ontological parsimony suggest they should be featureless blips?
Still, I think this is the most viable and attractive formulation of panpsychism/panexperientialism I’ve seen.