cosmosIs cosmopsychism the panpsychism we’ve all been waiting for? Itay Shani thinks so and sets out the reasons in this paper. While others start small and build up, he starts with the cosmos and works down. But he rejects the Blobject…

To begin at the beginning. Panpsychism is the belief that consciousness is everywhere; that it is in some sense a basic part of the world. Typically when people try to explain consciousness they start with the ingredients supplied by physics and try to build a mind out of them in a way which plausibly accounts for all the remarkable features of consciousness. Panpsychists just take awareness for granted, the way we often take matter or energy for granted; they take it to be primary, and this arguably gets them out of a very difficult explanatory task. There are a number of variants – panexperientialism, panentheism, and so on – which tend to be bracketed with panpsychism as similar considerations apply to all members of the family.

This kind of thinking has enjoyed quite a good level of popularity in recent years, perhaps a rising one. Regular readers may recall, though, that I’m not attracted by panpsychism. If stones have consciousness, we still have to explain how human consciousness comes to be different from what the stones have got. I suspect that that task is going to be just as difficult as explaining consciousness from scratch, so that adopting the panpsychist thesis leaves us worse off rather than better.

Shani, however, thinks some of the problems are easily dealt with; others he takes very seriously. He points out quite fairly that panpsychists are not bound to ascribe awareness to every entity at every level; they’re OK just so long as there is, as it were, universal coverage at some level. Most panpsychists, as he rightly observes, tend to push the basic home of consciousness down to a micro level, which leaves us with the problem of how these simple micro-consciousnesses can come together to form a higher level one – or sometimes not form a higher one.

Thus combination issue is a difficult one that comes in many forms: Shani picks out particularly the questions of how micro-subjects can combine to form a macro-subject; how phenomenal experience can combine, and how the structure of experience can combine. Cutting to the chase, he finds the most difficult of the three to be the problems with subjects, and in particular he quotes an argument of Coleman’s. This is, in brief, that distinct subjects require distinct points of view, but that in merging, points of view lose their identity. He mentions the simplified case of a subject that only sees red and one that only sees blue: the combined point of view includes both blue and red and the ‘just-red’ and ‘just-blue’ points of view are lost.

I think it requires a good deal more argumentation than Shani offers to make all this really convincing. He and Coleman, for example, take it as given that the combination of subjects must preserve the existence of the combined elements, more or less as the combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water does not annihilate the component elements. Maybe that is the case, but the point seems very arguable.

Shani also seems to give way to Coleman without much of a fight, although there’s plenty of scope for one. But after all these are highly complex issues and Shani only has so much space: moreover I’m inclined to go along with him because I agree that the combination problem is very bad; perhaps worse than Shani thinks.

It just seems intuitively very unlikely that two micro-minds can be combined. Two of the things that seem clearest about our own minds is that they combine terrific complexity with a strong overall unity; both of those factors seem to throw up problems for a merger. To me it seems that two minds are like two clocks: you cannot meaningfully merge them except by taking them apart into their basic components and putting something completely new together – which is no use at all for panpsychism.

For Shani, of course, combination must fail so that he can offer his cosmic solution as an alternative route to a viable panpsychism. He sets out his stall with six postulates.

  1. The cosmos as a whole is the only ontological ultimate there is, and it is conscious.
  2. It is prior to its parts.
  3. It is laterally dual in nature, having a concealed and a revealed side (the concealed side being phenomenal experience while the revealed side is the apparently objective world around us).
  4. It is like a fluctuating ocean, with waves, ripples and vortices assuming temporary identity of their own.
  5. The cosmic consciousness grounds the smaller consciousnesses within it.
  6. Conscious entities’ are dynamic configurations within the cosmic whole.
  7. These consciousnesses are severally related to particular surges or vortices of the cosmic consciousness and never fully separate from it.

That seems at least a vision we can entertain, but it immediately faces the challenge of the Blobject. This is the universal cosmic object championed by Terry Horgan & Matjaž Potr?. They are happy with the grand cosmic unity proposed by Shani but they go further; how can it have any parts? They believe the great cosmic consciousness is the Blobject; the only thing that truly exists; the idea that there are really other things is deluded.

The austere ontology of the Blobject and its splendid parsimony can only be admired. We might talk more about it another time; but for now I’m inclined to agree with Shani that the task of reconciling it with actual experience is just too fraught with difficulty.

So does Shani succeed? He does, I think, set out, albeit briefly, a coherent and interesting view; but it does not have the advantages he supposes. He believes that starting at the top and working down avoids the difficult problems we encounter if we start at the bottom and work up. I think that is an illusion derive from the fact that the bottom-up approach has just been discussed more. I think in fact that just the same problems must recur whichever way we approach things.

Take the Coleman point. Coleman’s objection is that in combining, two points of view lose their separate identity, while it needs to be preserved. But surely, if we take his blue-and-red pov and split it into just-blue and just-red we get a similar loss of the original identity. Now as I said, I’m not altogether sure that this need be a problem, but it seems to me clear that it doesn’t really matter which way we move through the problem; and the same must be true of all arguments which relate different levels of panpsychist consciousness. Is there really any fundamental asymmetry that makes the top-down view stronger?


  1. 1. Sci says:

    Thanks for the heads up Peter. IIRC Frey Matthews endorsed this view of panpsychism awhile back, and Goff recently came to similar conclusions.

    Additionally I know some see panentheism as the spiritual viewpoint that could somewhat unify different faiths, at least enough so religious people stop wantonly murdering/raping/shooting/bombing/etc each other + the rest of us. So that’s a plus.

  2. 2. Hunt says:

    I think the mind has to be decomposable in some sense, whether in the physical world as micro panpsychic agents, or as processes within our heads. I don’t see the great attraction to trying to do it “out there” in the world as opposed to inside our heads, and there’s a lot going against that idea, like for instance that we don’t see anywhere a gradation between physical object that are more and more and more conscious. Consciousness seems to be exclusive to the animal world. Some might say vegetable too, like the person who thinks she hears a carrot scream when diced (probably apocryphal). I find the idea of building up micro minds into a macro mind very attractive. (I began rereading Minsky’s Society of Mind over the summer, but didn’t complete it.) The great stumbling block to consciousness research is that no “atomic” unit has been agreed upon. Researchers haven’t even agreed on the nature of the unit, whether it’s the neuron, the cortical column, an abstraction like a thought or concept, or an algorithm. Panpsychism seems to want to find a physical unit (the conscion?) and aggregate consciousness from it. I’m very skeptical.

  3. 3. ihtio says:

    I would like to say two things.

    First thing is that I rarely see a text that confuses me so much.

    Points of view having “identities”, the combination of subjects must preserve the “existence” of the combined elements, [t]he cosmos as a whole is the only “ontological ultimate there is”. In essence, we are talking about what “is”, and what only “appears to be”. Does a car exist, or do only its parts exist (wheels? Or maybe atoms that make a wheel?…). “Car” is without a doubt something that can be seen through human-glasses (that is, through a perspective of a human), so maybe it’s a perception rather than reality (whatever that would mean)?
    If we’re talking about ontology, then I doubt we will make any progress at all with regard to consciousness, panpsychism or whatever.

    The second point is that I don’t agree with your view, Peter, on minds. When you say that “two minds are like two clocks” you are of course right to conclude that “you cannot meaningfully merge them except by taking them apart into their basic components and putting something completely new together”. However this conclusion is only warranted if we assume that the mind is a kind of a rigid, strictly modular, computer-like machine. Other metaphors may be much more useful, for example organism (combine swimming and dancing), ecosystems (add two species to a forest and the whole forest will change / adapt) or musical elements (combine metal with rap and you get… well, you’ll get something, that’s for sure!).

  4. 4. Yohan says:

    This might be a nice opportunity to connect modern western panpsychism with the Advaita idea of Nirguna Brahman, and the assertion ‘tat tvam asi’ (though art that). Erwin Shrödinger attempted something similar (and linked it with quantum physics) in his excellent book ‘Mind and Matter’.

  5. 5. Cognicious says:

    I haven’t yet found any evidence that would help me take seriously the idea that stones are even minimally conscious or that the universe is, and so on. As Hunt says in #2, “Consciousness seems to be exclusive to the animal world.” Things may be different on a distant planet–but if we were to hear from a conscious entity out there, we might want to call it an animal by default.

  6. 6. Itay Shani says:

    Thanks, Peter, for posting this nice blog on my paper (and for taking an interest in the paper in the first place). Naturally, I disagree with a few things. In particular, with your assessment that cosmopsychism is bound to suffer from the same formal combination problems as does atomistic panpsychism. In the paper I take great effort to show that the decombination problem (a mirror image of the original subject-combination problem) does not arise within the framework I offer (Goff has recently reached similar conclusion, but I don’t know enough exactly why he thinks so, or what sort of cosmopsychism he is defending). You may be right that part of the attraction of cosmopsychism is that it hasn’t be scrutinized critically as thoroughly as other models. However, I haven’t seen any argument yet which demonstrates your pessimistic conclusion. Time will tell. Also, I doubt that there is a real threat that the view I’m taking, which presupposes priority monism (of the kind defended by Schaffer), is about to collapse to existence-monism (the blobject alternative you mention). If anything, it seems to me the other way around: even supporters of the blobject hypothesis admit that it differentiates into congeals sub-components. If so, why not not call these differentiated crystalizations objects? But, anyways, these are all legitimate issues to consider critically. Thanks again for an honest and skillful discussion!

  7. 7. Itay Shani says:

    One more thing. About the conceptual affiliations of my view and its historical precedents: Yohan is right to point the connection to the Advaita Vedanta metaphysics. It certainly is one source of influence on my thinking. Interestingly, very similar ideas appear in many different spiritual traditions across the globe. Another historical view which cosmopsychism resembles in some respects is absolute idealism (in its German, turn of the 19th century, version). However, in this case there are also some important differences which I won’t get into now. As Sci says, Freya Matthews endorses a very similar view (her work is acknowledged in my paper). But there is an important difference: on her model only self-maintaining, that is biological, entities are considered conscious. I think that’s a minus, but some people, such as Hunt here, might see it as a plus. Other people which defend a similar view include Yujin Nagasawa and Kai Wager; as well as Buck and Jaskolla; and outside philosophy I know of Susan Pockett, and Erwin Laszlo. Still a very small group but with the rise of interest in panpsychism, who knows. One thing is sure: many young students and researchers are much less committed to good-old physicalism, and are much more open, than the previous generation, so interesting things are sure to come.

  8. 8. Peter says:


    Many thanks indeed for your comments. It’s quite possible I’ve sold you short – I’ll have another look at what you say about decombination

  9. 10. Bernardo Kastrup says:

    Itay, if you are still following this and could entertain two questions, I’d appreciate a brief reaction:

    1) You essentially replace the combination problem with a unification problem. The unification problem is easier to solve because, unlike the combination problem, the macro-subject’s perspective does not arise from the micro-subjects’ perspectives, but both macro-subject’s and micro-subjectives’ perspectives arise from the perspective of the absolute. Yet, both micropsychism and cosmopsychism entail that there is something it is like to be a fundamental subatomic particle; i.e. all fundamental subatomic particles are micro-subjects, or whirlpools of the absolute ocean. Correct?

    2) I do not understand the substance of the distinction between priority monism and existence monism. The difference appears to be merely semantic, or linguistic, to me. After all, your concrete particulars can all be reduced to the absolute, which is the sole ontological entity, just as entailed by existence monism. Or not? Could you comment on this?

    As an aside, you may enjoy my own work on this matter, which resembles yours at least in the choice of metaphors. Unlike you, however, I posit that there are no inanimate micro-subjects. Inanimate objects, in my view, are just ‘ripples’ of the ocean, not ‘whirlpools.’ Only living things are whirlpools, their perspective being derived from the absolute perspective through a process of dissociation. (Clearly, the metaphorical meaning I attribute to the image of a whirlpool differs from yours, but hopefully I at least got you curious.)

    Cheers, Bernardo.

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