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Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism

by Galen Strawson


[1] A physicalist holds that every concrete phenomenon is wholly physical.

[2] A realistic physicalist is a full-fledged realist about consciousness. So

[3] a realistic physicalist must hold that consciousness is a wholly physical phenomenon, and that at least some arrangements of matter are conscious or constitute consciousness. I assume for argument the truth of

[4] realistic physicalism [RP] and also that

[5] all physical stuff is wholly constituted of the same fundamental entities or ultimates (leptons and quarks, strings,...)  I then argue against the popular view that

[6] physical stuff is, in itself, in its fundamental nature, something wholly and utterly non-experiential. [NE]. I defend the plausible principle that

[7] for certain things A, you cannot get A from non-A and argue that

[8] consciousness is one of those things.

Added to [4] and [5], [7] and [8] entail that [6] is false: that matter cannot be wholly non-conscious in its intrinsic or ultimate nature. It follows that

[9] any realistic any truly serious physicalist must be a micropsychist, and accept that at least some ultimates are intrinsically experience-involving. From this it is a short step to [10] any realistic physicalist must at least be a panpsychist.

[7] is crucial: the claim for certain things A, you cannot get A from non-A. Liquidity phenomena can certainly be said to emerge from non-liquid phenomena. But concrete phenomena cannot be supposed to emerge from wholly non-concrete (abstract) phenomena. Could consciousness emerge from wholly non-conscious phenomena, like liquidity from wholly non-liquid phenomena? Or is the conscious/non-conscious case more similar to the concrete/ non-concrete case?  

The concrete/abstract case is in a sense too powerful, and I restrict attention to concrete-concrete cases: Could the extended emerge from the intrinsically wholly non-extended? Could the spatial emerge from the intrinsically wholly non-spatial? Could existence emerge from non-existence something from nothing? Surely not. But whatever you think about these cases, I argue that consciousness could not emerge from wholly non-conscious phenomena. For if it really is true that Y is emergent from X then it must be the case that Y is in some sense wholly dependent on X. For any feature Y of anything that is correctly considered to be emergent from anything X, there must be something about X in virtue of which Y emerges. Emergence cannot be brute. It cannot be brute in the sense of there being absolutely no reason in the nature of things why the emerging thing is as it is (so that it is unintelligible even to God, as it were).

One can allow for argument that a fundamental particle’s possession of its fundamental properties could be brute in the sense of there being no reason for it in the nature of things, so long as it is agreed that emergence cannot be brute. One problem is that brute emergence is by definition a miracle every time it occurs, for it is true by hypothesis that in brute emergence there is nothing about X, the emerged-from, in virtue of which Y, the emerger, emerges from it. It is also a contradiction in terms, given the standard assumption that the emergence of Y from X entails the supervenience of Y on X, because this means that it is a strictly law-like miracle and a miracle is by definition a violation of a law of nature. How did the notion of brute emergence gain currency? By one of the most lethal processes of theory formation, or term formation that there is. The notion of brute emergence marks a position that seemingly has to exist if one accepts both RP and NE. Many are irredeemably committed to both RP and NE, and so the position that relies on the notion of brute emergence comes to feel substantial to them by a kind of reflected energy. It has to be there, given these unquestioned premisses, so it is felt to be real. The whole process is underwritten by the wild radical-empiricism-inspired metaphysical irresponsibilities of the twentieth century that still linger on (to put it mildly) today.

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