Do inanimate objects have a mental life? Probably not, but the question isn’t quite as absurd as it sounds. Avery Hurt, Discover magazine. February 2021.
Consciousness has been famously dubbed the “hard problem” of neuroscience (as opposed to the “easy” problems of, say, how memories are stored and retrieved, or what the neural causes of psychiatric disorders might be). The hard problem is, basically, the question of how the experience of consciousness arises from the chemical reactions and neural connections that make up the brain.
While neuroscience has made tremendous progress in sussing out how the brain works, the mind is still a mystery. Science hasn’t yet figured out how the brain produces the smell of rain, the feeling of joy, and most fundamentally, the sense of being aware that you are aware.
We’re All in This Together
There are two basic views about consciousness: materialism and dualism. Materialists say that physical matter is all there is. Consciousness emerges (somehow, no one can explain just how) out of the physical brain. Dualists, on the other hand, argue that consciousness is something separate from matter. Neither viewpoint is totally satisfactory. Materialism can’t explain how matter produces consciousness; dualism can’t explain how immaterial consciousness interacts with matter.
Panpsychism provides a way around this conundrum. Panpsychism is the idea that consciousness did not evolve to meet some survival need, nor did it emerge when brains became sufficiently complex. Instead it is inherent in matter — all matter.
In other words, everything has consciousness. Consciousness is not limited to humans and other animals. Plants have it, too. It doesn’t stop at living things, either. Stones and stars, electrons and photons, even quarks have consciousness. According to some versions of the theory, the universe itself is conscious. (This variety of panpsychism is known as cosmopsychism.)
This may sound like the wackiest idea ever — far crazier than space aliens living secretly among us. But plenty of sane and reputable thinkers take panpsychism seriously, and the numbers of those who do are increasing.
Though it sounds like something that sprang fully formed from the psychedelic culture, panpsychism has been around for a very long time. Philosophers and mathematicians Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, physicists Arthur Eddington, Ernst Schrödinger, and Max Planck, and psychologist William James are just a few thinkers who supported some form of panpsychism. The idea lost traction in the late 20th century, but recently, philosophers and scientists such as David Chalmers, Bernardo Kastrup, Christof Koch, and Philip Goff have revived the idea, making strong claims for some form of panpsychism.
Read more: In Discover magazine