On the Limits of Panpsychism and Eliminative Materialism

I used to flirt around with the view of “Panpsychism,” the general idea that everything that exists has some degree of consciousness in it, which entails that mind is ubiquitous throughout the universe.

There are many different versions of Panpsychism, all which in their own way try to explain the relationship between the physical constitution of something and the mental activity that is said to form a complex association with it. Panpsychist views often come about from taking on an anti-mechanistic and non-reductionist lens to many contemporary problems in places as far ranging as the philosophy of mind, science of artificial intelligence, cosmology, ethics, and ecology. It presents a view of reality as a complex interconnected system of beings who are simultaneously subjects and objects of each others’ experience, and whose movements are not the effects of blind, impersonal, externally imposed forces but are caused by aware, possibly personable, internally motivated agencies.

I was attracted to this movement of thought because it seemed to be a promising avenue for an integral worldview that could seamlessly unite otherwise fractured disciplines and concerns into a unified framework that made sense of the world and its problems. It also often presented itself as a contemporary update on the ancient concept of animism, and by doing so, would aim to raise up this age-old theory with the philosophical and technical resources afforded to us by our present age. The desire for a unified, integral view of reality, as well as the notion of returning to the past by means of the future, drew me to this view. My deep aversion to reductionist or Eliminative-Materialist approaches that made little room, if any, for the ontological significance of consciousness and personal agency is what made me consider myself an adherent to this movement of thought. I considered Eliminativist views to be the conceptual entertainment of privileged people who took advantage of scientific discourse to suggest that my personal agency was not very important. Much of my interest in Panpsychism was equally driven by an aversion to Eliminativism as much as it was attractive by itself. In retrospect actually, I could even say I was more averse to Eliminativism than I was attracted to Panpsychism.

A bit of time after I first learned of Panpsychism, at the confluence of a variety of different factors (persistent dysphoria or sense of lacking wholeness, paradoxical gender troubles, a traumatic break-up that undid my world, and a profound dream that woke me up to myself), I was inspired to follow the Buddha’s Dharma or Way of life in an effort to deal with my life-long confusion and suffering.

At first Panpsychism and the Buddhist outlook seemed to resonate well with each other, as views that recognize the importance and irreducibility of conscious experience. But the deeper I got into it, it was not just
what I thought that started to change but how and why I thought what I thought that also changed, and I soon realized that a Panpsychist world-view, in spite of its many dazzling qualities, was on the wrong track. Many of its usual difficulties such as the mereological problem (how do many simple consciousnesses combine into unified complex consciousnesses?) and a divisibility problem (what determines the boundaries between different consciousnesses?), which I initially thought were not that serious, now seemed impossible to resolve within the assumptions immanent to the foundations of the world-view.

It started to become apparent to me that Panpsychist world-views risk reifying, or misplacing the concreteness of, the abstractions that result from the abstractive capabilities of the human mind. Panpsychism assumes that in principle consciousness can be meaningfully divided, except it is precisely consciousness that meaningfully divides up the world. It assumes that there are objective boundaries naturally existent in the world, but it is precisely consciousness that draws boundaries within the field of experience. It assumes that entities are the sort of thing which can “have” consciousness, but it is precisely
within consciousness that such entities arise for consideration in the first place. Consistently, Panpsychism will objectify the subjective character of consciousness in an effort to save consciousness from elimination. Ironically, it itself has eliminated consciousness from its system insofar as its notion of consciousness is alien to the very operations of consciousness that gave rise to such a notion. Panpsychism is not a philosophical idealism since it does not think consciousness “is” everything but “in” everything, yet it still remains as a form of theoretical idealism in the sense that it plays with the products of thought without being reflexively aware of the antecedent pre-reflective processes that are the conditions for the arising of such thoughts, and hence cannot account for the nature of such conditions.

Suddenly, the Eliminativist approach started to become less scary and seem more sober. Much of what we tend to think are inherently existing objects of awareness are only virtually present illusory phenomena that are actually constructed by complex causal processes that precede them. The desire to save the “redness” of the red perceived, when explaining that the red perceived is merely the product of a causal process involving a multitude of other events and processes, starts to feel like an expression of “philosophical commodity fetishism” that ascribes more reality to something than it actually has (by highlighting the nominal abstraction at the expense of the concrete substance), which gives rise to the anxiety over the potential non-existence of this fetish-object.

However, what Eliminativist approaches seem to miss is that I am, nonetheless, subsequently “moved” by my perception of red, as well as the fact that I previously had to be “moved” towards it. That is to say, even though we can verify directly with meditative concentration and indirectly through inferential reasoning that there is no necessary quality of red-ness over and above the simple red being perceived, I was still involved in the process of getting to the point where the red, simple or not, came to become an object of experience in the first place. Let’s say in this example, I saw some roses on my path to home and stopped to take a look. At a decisive moment I chose to stop and take in the beautiful roses rather than get home faster. When exactly this decisive moment happened, what had happened during this moment, where this moment happened, how this moment happened, and why this moment happened matters less here than that it simply happened. At that moment I
valued the experience of the roses over my experience of coming home faster, and the whole possibility of trying to figure out the reality or non-reality of the quality of redness was afforded to me by the evaluative decision-making process that resulted in the perception of the red. Eliminativist accounts of mind cannot go to the extreme of denying the value-laden aspect of experience without falling under incoherence, because it is precisely because we value some things over others that makes it possible for us to talk about anything at all, including the nature of consciousness. Any Eliminativist account of the mind that gets rid of value also ultimately undermines any reason for its own being as a form of thought.

So Pan-psychism and Eliminativist Materialism, which are often mutually antagonistic metaphysical orientations (in spite of the fact that they are often trying to solve the same problems), are rather extreme instances of attempts by which consciousnesses which are alienated from themselves try to make sense of themselves within the scope of that alienation. They are not reflexively aware of their alienated condition and thus cannot hope to truly deal with any of the problems they seek to resolve without reproducing the same alienating conditions that gave rise to them, which in turn would reproduce those same issues in same or different form.

One view sees reality as like a divine empyrean assembly of conscious agents. The other view sees reality as like a blind black-box of impersonal causal processes. The problem is that their seeing is dependent upon their thinking, rather than the other way around. The citizens of these worlds live upside-down. To stand on any meaningful ground, they must first have to relinquish their attachment to holding the “true view” of “reality” and instead orient themselves to creating tools that will help us change our realities by allowing us to more intelligently interact with it in the present. Until then, these orientations cannot go beyond the horizon of mere speculation, will remain without real causal efficacy and with nothing to offer but mere intellectual entertainment.

There are political parallels to this. The analogies are complex so I don’t have the time and space to do this here, but a few remarks will do.

Panpsychism can correlate to the rise in a Democratic Socialist current that is fed up with the technocratic neo-liberal capitalist paradigm that has dominated thought and action for the last few decades. Though in its vision something like nation-states and markets still exist, they imagine that with the establishment of truly democratic relations and procedures and great public oversight, we will ensure the progressive elimination of poverty, exploitation, and be well posed to deal with a myriad of , if not all, intersectional social justice issues.

Eliminativism can correlate to what I am calling the Insurrectionary Communisation current, which, like its philosophical counterpart, re-evaluates its past incarnation and decides that it was not as materialist and revolutionary as it could have been but can be now, and that this revolution demands an immediate replacement of all superfluous market-mediated exchanges with the direct and unmediated fulfillment of real necessities.

Panpsychism/Democratic Socialism only seem radical because of how much we’ve become used to the dualistic and mechanistic forms of thought and action that capitalist modernity both gives rise to and results in. When the current reality is so bland, anything with extra flavor starts to taste great. But the flavor is just added fluff to the same gross base, and so this orientation is reformist to the core.

Eliminativism/insurrectionary communisation present themselves as the truly revolutionary course of action best posed to solve all problems, yet in both instances they are at the fringes of popular consideration. No one takes their most extreme variations seriously because it either results in incoherence (as with Eliminativism) or inaction (as with Communisation), and very few can even consider them seriously because of the dense wall of jargon. Interestingly, in order to account for their limitations in the present, both orientations put a wager on some hypothetical opportune moment in the future, a point where all social and technical conditions are ripe to finally set to motion the vindication of the truth of this view. Ironically, you can’t get any more mystical and vitalist than that.

I think that the resources that are offered to us by Madhyamaka Buddhist thought and practice can show the way to truly resolve crisis by helping to undermine the conditions for their genesis, and that the correlative political orientation is the movement towards a commons-based society of freely associating “holonic” agents (creative individuals who embody, and hence instantiate, the whole with which they form a part).

Thanks for following this long-winded exercise of me thinking out loud.

2 Replies to “On the Limits of Panpsychism and Eliminative Materialism”

  1. Very interesting post framing the dispute in a Marxist and then Madhyamaka perspective. I was wondering if you are aware of Jay Garfield’s work, a prolific Buddhist scholar with his own translation of Nagarjuna’s MMK who also happens to be an illusionist/eliminativist? It’s notable that he makes contrary claims, specifically that the Madhyamaka perspective goes hand in hand with illusionism. I think Garfield would take issue with your framing of the alluring red roses as something that “came to become an object of experience in the first place.” I think that his account eliminates “direct objects” of perception, which in his view splits the world into the external world of objects and an inner world of private experiences (including redness and a state of desire). He has also utilized Vasubandhu and his three natures doctrine to argue against “The Myth of the Given” that he sees as implicit in such accounts.

    I’ve also found the work of Matt Segall (and his blog Footnotes2Plato) very useful in forging promising connections between Buddhism and panpsychism (I believe he also has a history of Zen practice). You mention that “[panpsychism] does not think consciousness “is” everything but “in” everything” and raise the oft-mentioned mereological or combination problem. Segall puts forward a similar criticism when he distinguishes between Russellian substance-property panpsychism (advocated by analytic philosophers like Philip Goff) and process-relational panpsychism. He defends the latter view by “de-spatializing” panpsychism with the help of Whiteheadian process ontology, arguably overcoming the combination problem. He has also drawn interesting links between Whiteheadian process-relational panpsychism and the Chinese Huayan Buddhist tradition with the metaphor of the Net of Indra.

    Also are you trans lol… I ask because you mentioned dysphoria and I’m a transfemme of colour who is basically into everything you write about and I’d love to have a dialogue about Buddhism and transition (among other things).


    1. Hi thanks for your engaging comment! I’m familiar with Garfield’s work and his translation and commentary on the MMK was my first reading of the MMK though I have since preferred the Siderits & Katsura edition. Sometimes I get the sense that Garfield’s fictionalism is excessively rational, and I don’t understand why there cannot be an account of givenness on the conventional level that is empty at the ultimate level. I am informed a lot by Whitehead’s process philosophy (actually thanks to Matt Segal) and we find some account of givenness in his thought that is nonetheless mind-dependent (in the sense that the givenness of the “settled world” is always prehended by a particular perspective of an actual occasion, and prehension itself is part of a creative process of concrescence). I am definitely much more open these days to a process-relational version of panexperientialism that can serve as an adequate view on the conventional level without contradicting the Madhyamaka insight into ultimate non-arising.

      Yes I am a trans woman of South Asian descent, would love to connect with another trans fem! If you have instagram, you can message me at @art_ificialx, otherwise my email is adishatki1994@gmail.com


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