The increase in interest in panexperientialism (which I use synonymously with the term panpsychism) in recent years has focused mainly on a micropsychic form, in which microepxeriential events at the most fundamental level of nature are the basis from which human experience is constituted. However, another strand of panexperientialism imputes an overarching experience at the level of the universe as a whole.
For example, the model of Freya Mathews (briefly discussed in this blog previously here) posits the cosmos itself as a subject - "a vast field of felt impulse, of intrinsic activity, of internal expansions, swellings, dwindlings, contractions, surges, urges, and so forth." Within this "great internally differentiated field of felt impulsion" (which is described from an objective viewpoint by physical laws), certain local modes of self-realizing systems, such as human organisms, may themselves become centers of subjectivity or secondary subjects.
In this post, I aim to explore the concept of an overarching cosmic subject in the light of Galen's Strawson's influential paper "Realistic Monism: why physicalism entails panpsychism" (much discussed in previous posts on this blog).
For want of a better term, I'll call the view that there is a cosmic subject "cosmopsychism".
1. Strawson's argument
For the purposes of this post, I take the critical propositions in Strawson's argument to be the following:
1) physicalism is the view that every real, concrete phenomenon in the universe is physical . Concrete is equated with ‘spatio-temporally (or at least temporally) located’.
2) physicalism is true.
3) there is a plurality of ultimates ('using the term ‘ultimate’ to denote a fundamental physical entity, an ultimate constituent of reality, a particle,field, string, brane, simple, whatever').
4) everything physical (everything physical that there is or could be) is constituted out of ultimates of the sort we actually have in our universe.
(5) the universe is spatio-temporal in its fundamental nature.
(6) experience is a real concrete phenomenon.
(7) experiential phenomena cannot be emergent from wholly non-experiential phenomena.
(8)at least some ultimates are intrinsically experience-involving.
Proposition (8) follows from the premises that everything concrete is physical, that everything physical is constituted out of physical ultimates, and that experience is part of concrete reality.
Stawson derives panpsychism (all ultimates being experience involving) from micropsychism (some ultimates being experience-involving) on the basis of doubts that if this were not the case there would be a "radical heterogeneity at the very bottom of things".
He also takes "experience-involving" to indicate being a subject of experience, on the basis that every experience has a subject of that experience (this issue will be further discussed later).
2. Is Cosmopsychism consistent with Physicalism?
In order for cosmopsychism to be consistent with physicalism as characterized above, it is clear that at least one of the premises must be rejected. I think the most likely candidate for rejection is premise 4. This premise could be modified to:
(4) everything physical, with the possible exception of experience, is constituted out of ultimates.
The question which then arises is whether a position with this modified premise could still be called physicalism.
The modified premise could be the consistent with known physical laws. For instance, if one takes the epiphenomenalist view that experience has no effect on measurable physical activity, or the view that consciousness does not logically supervene on such activity, then it is clear that experience could be constituted from something other than ultimates without violating the laws of physics. Further, to say that experience is not constituted by ultimates is not to say that the arrangement of ultimates within a system such as the brain could not have a determining influence on the system's particular experiential features (ie the brain could be responsible for the character of human experience without being the cause of experience per se).
An analogy here could also be made with spacetime, which is not generally thought of as composed of ultimates (notwithstanding theories such as string theory which might may say otherwise) but is nevertheless part of the physical universe.
So I think with the modification of premise 4 the above set of propositions could still warrant the name physicalism. In view of this modification, the conclusion (8) now becomes:
(8)Either the universe itself, some ultimates, or something in between is intrinsically experience-involving.
With regard to what this "something in between" could be, the obvious candidate is the brain or part thereof. I considered this issue previously in the context of whether experience is a fundamental property characteristic of systems such as brains. In that post I concluded that given that other fundamental properties are widespread and associated with the most simple of systems, it seems implausible, arbitrary and unparsimonious to suppose that experience is fundamental yet also rare and wholly dependent on uniquely complex and specialized systems such as the brain. The same principles apply here to any other subsystem of the universe.
In relation to the universe itself being experiential, it might be objected here that even if experience is not constituted from ultimates it is nonsensical to speak of the universe as a single unified subject, as it is mostly empty space and it's distributed activities could not form a unified experiential whole.
I do not think this is a strong objection. In relation to human experience it is not known how the distributed activities of the central nervous system give rise to the unity of conscious perception ("the binding problem"). Nevertheless we know that conscious perception is real. Thus, just as we do not know how disparate activities of the brain give rise to the unity of conscious experience, so too we do not know how the disparate activities of the universe might be associated with a unity of experience. But the fact that human experience exists means that the analogous case of cosmic experience is not implausible.
It might be further be objected on this point that the brain is connected through the activity of neural networks whereas the universe is not. But the various elements of the universe, even across vast regions of empty space, are connected as well (through the the interactions of the fundamental forces, for instance). Certainly the type of connectivity is vastly different and presumably these differences would give rise to vast differences in experientiality, but the connectivity is there nevertheless.
The above reasoning leads to the conclusion that cosmopsychism is indeed consistent with physicalism, and that experience is most likely a property of either ultimates or the universe as a whole.
In the remainder of this post I will make some comments regarding the relative merits of these two positions.
3. Micropsychism Vs Cosmopsychism
For those who regard the notion of sub atomic particles being experiential as crazy, the notion of a cosmic subject may appear even more bizarre. Whilst micropyschism has the issue of trillions of subjects at the level of ultimates pervading the universe , cosmopsychism has that of a single subject having trillions of simultaneous experiences (assuming that every event at the subatomic level is experienced separately by the cosmic subject, which may not necessarily be the case and would depend on the model developed ).
There does not appear to be any logical or conceptual impossibility to a single subject having trillions of experiences. For instance, I can be aware of a pain in my toe, a rumbling in my stomach, the screen in front of me and the shopping list on the fridge all at the same time and there is no reason in principle that this multiple experiencing could not be stretched indefinitely for a cosmic subject. This is analogous, in the case of micropsychism, to envisaging experiences becoming simpler and simpler right down to the level of fundamental particles. So I don't think that either position has an advantage here. It may be the case, as Strawson says in relation to micropsychist panpsychism, that it is just a matter of getting used to the idea.
The combination problem and the differentiation problem
One of the major problems with micropsychism is the "combination problem" of how one gets from discrete experiential events at the micro level to experience at the macro level such as human experience - that is, how the human subject is constituted from a myriad of subjects at the level of ultimates. For cosmopsychism, there is no combination problem. Rather there is a "differentiation problem"- that of how parts of the cosmic subject branch off and become unique subjects themselves.
Whilst both these problems are major issues for each view, cosmopsychism may have some explanatory advantage in relation to the evolution of human consciousness. For instance, Richard Dawkins speculates (in the "Selfish Gene") that "perhaps consciousness arises when the brain's simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model of itself". While I don't think that such self-reflexivity does much to explain human consciousness under a standard physicalist view, under cosmopsychism it may have the potential to explain how a localised region of cosmic subjectivity could "loop back" on itself to create a secondary subject.
So perhaps the differentiation problem is less problematic than the combination problem in explaining human consciousness.
Experiences belong to subjects and subjects are necessarily discrete, indivisible unities. That is, there are boundaries between subjects such that my experiences necessarily belong to me and not another.
The discrete nature of subjectivity accords well with some aspects of quantum physics, with each quantum event being perhaps associated with a discrete moment of subjectivity. However, I do not think that the unity and discreteness of subjectivity works so well with the wave aspect of wave-particle duality. Whilst this is a topic best left to those with more knowledge of physics than me, the continuous nature of electromagnetic waves, gravitational fields and so forth seem on the face of it difficult to reconcile with a micropsyhic view which requires experiences at the micro level to be associated with discrete subjects.
Under cosmopsychism, electromagnetic waves and the like could be experienced as part of a continuum or "stream of experience" and there is no need for each physical event to form a discrete package which can be assigned to a nonuniversal subject. The contrast between the unity of subjectivity and the continuous nature of the physical realm is a major point advanced by Freya Mathews in postulating a cosmopsychic form of panpsychism.
Another aspect of quantum physics which perhaps could be better accommodated within a cosmopsychic rather than micropsychic framework is quantum non-localism and entanglement. Quantum effects between spatially distant particles may be potentially explicable under a model in which the activities of these particles are experienced by a single cosmic subject.
Obviously there is a lot more that could be said on this matter, and all of the above falls far short of showing that physicalism necessarily entails cosmopsychism. Nevertheless, it may be the case that if one accepts that experience is real and physicalism is true, the most reasonable inference could turn out to be that a cosmic subject exists.
In any case, it definitely seems to me to be something worth further pondering on.