Unpacking the Soul Problem: Panpsychism-The Jedi Philosophy Part 1
In my last article, What Is Consciousness, I talked a bit about the two major opposing views as far as consciousness and the soul are concerned. Just to recap, the materialists (or physicalists) believe that consciousness is nothing more than a byproduct of neurology. It’s simply a neurological function science and technology haven’t been able to map yet. The dualists, however, believe that consciousness is immaterial, residing outside of the body and completely separate from it.
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The materialist can tell us the functioning of the brain and its dynamics, the behavior it produces. Everything we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch travels through our bodies in the form of electrical signals. Once these signals reach our brains, they get interpreted and another set of signals is sent out as a response. The dualists take these physical realities and then begin to argue why the soul cannot fit neatly into this world. Yes, science can explain how our bodies function. We know where emotions are produced, how our brains are wired, etc. But can it explain something like, for example, the experience of the color blue? Nope. It can’t, not sufficiently.
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What if they are both right? What if the soul is both immaterial and something that can be explained in scientific terms. This is the question that Panpsychism attempts to answer. It is a melding of the two views and has actually been around for quite some time. Put very broadly, Panpsychism is the view that everything is conscious, on some level. You may roll your eyes at this and say “Yeah, pretty sure my shoes aren’t conscious. Or my table. Or the knife I used to cut my steak with.” Stick with me here for a moment and we’ll come back to the steak knife.
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Let’s go back to ancient Greece for a moment. This time, we’re going Pre-Socratic. One of the very first philosophers of the ancient world was a man by the name of Thales of Miletus. Thales, a captain-bearded man from Ionia (modern-day Turkey), is considered to be the first scientist and one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece. Most of what we know about him comes from Aristotle, as none of this writings have survived through history. Thales was an interesting character. He pretty much was curious about everything. His work covers a vast range of subjects, including astronomy, science, mathematics, engineering, geometry, and philosophy, to name a few. He was renowned for being an original thinker and the first to question the origin of matter.
Thales proposed that the everything was made up of something, searching for the physis (or nature) of objects that caused them to behave in certain ways. For Thales, that something that everything was made of was water. It was the primary principle, the origin of all things. Everything emerged from water and returned to water. This may seem a bit silly to us but, for the ancient Greeks, it was a revolutionary idea. Here was a natural and scientific way to look at the world around them. Thales also had something to say about the soul.
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In his observations concerning magnetism and static electricity, Thales concluded that the power to move other things without the mover itself changing was a characteristic of life and that anything that has animation and the power to act is alive in some way. Aristotle would later speak of Thales’ beliefs stating “Some think that the soul pervades the whole universe, whence perhaps came Thales’s view that everything is full of gods.” In terms of Panpsychism, Thales is most known for the latter part of this statement:
“Everything is full of gods.”
Thales was the first Pre-Socratic thinker to suggest this idea that everything, in some way, is alive. He most certainly would not be the last. Enter Empedocles. This snazzily dressed Moses look-a-like was even more interesting than Thales. Empedocles was a philosophizing poet, a physician, a shamanic magician, a materialist physicist, a fraud, and a democratic politician. Oh, and he considered himself a living god. Descended from an aristocratic line, Empedocles was wealthy and eccentric. He actually had a signature look, which consisted of a purple robe, a golden belt, and bronze sandals.
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Where Thales believed that everything was made of water, Empedocles, author of the four-element theory of matter, believed that everything was made up of earth, air, fire, and water. They were constantly fighting each other for supremacy due to the cosmic forces of Love and Strife. So widely accepted was this view that it actually held for two millennia. Aristotle would later speak about this flamboyant ancient philosopher saying “Empedocles (says that the soul) is composed of all the elements and that each of them is actually a soul.” Perhaps Empedocles’ most well-known contribution to the concept of Panpsychism is his statement on thought:“By good fortune, all things are able to think”
“By good fortune, all things are able to think.”
Enter Plato. Yep that guy. The Dialogues dude. Teacher of Aristotle. Student of Socrates. Plato, joining the ranks of the captain-bearded philosophers, introduced to us the concept of anima mundi or, the world-soul. See, Plato accepted Empedocles’ four-element theory and argued that the universe is also made up of these elements. Since the human body and the universe are both well-ordered and exhibit signs of rationality, then it makes perfect sense that the cosmos themselves also have a soul. And, since the cosmos have a soul, then everything within them also have a soul. Plato ends up resolving the issue which originated with Thales, stating quite firmly in his work, Laws:
“Now consider all the stars and the moon and the years and the months and all the seasons: what can we do except repeat the same story? A soul or souls…have been shown to be the cause of all these phenomena, and whether it is by their living presence in matter…or by some other means, we shall insist that these souls are gods. Can anybody admit all this and still put up with people who deny that ‘everything is full of gods?”
And so we arrive where we started with Thales. Everything is full of gods, or as we more widely accept, everything is full of souls, of consciousness. We are minds in a world of minds. Next week I will talk a bit more about this concept-the idea that everything has consciousness, or a soul, on some level. Remember that steak knife I promised to go back to? What is it composed of? Metal? Wood? Correct. What are those composed of? Matter. And matter is made of electrons and neurons. Are these conscious? Perhaps not to the extent that you and I are, but they do have energy, do they not? On some basic level, can we argue that these things, these particles do have some small state of awareness? What do you think?