Is consciousness everywhere? Is it a basic feature of the universe, at the very heart of the tiniest subatomic particles? Such an idea—panpsychism as it is known —might sound like New-Age mysticism, but some hard-nosed analytic philosophers have suggested it might be how things are, and it’s now a hot topic in philosophy of mind.
Panpsychism’s popularity stems from the fact that it promises to solve two deep problems simultaneously. The first is the famous ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. How does the brain produce conscious experience? How can neurons firing give rise to experiences of color, sound, taste, pain and so on? In principle, scientists could map my brain processes in complete detail but, it seems, they could never detect my experiences themselves—the way colors look, pain feels and so on: the phenomenal properties of the brain states involved. Somehow, it seems, brain processes acquire a subjective aspect, which is invisible to science. How can we possibly explain this?
The second problem concerns an apparent gap in our scientific picture of the world. Physics aims to describe the fundamental constituents of the Universe—the basic subatomic particles from which everything is made, together with the laws that govern them. Yet physics seems to leave out something very important from its picture of the basic particles. It tells us, for example, that an electron has a certain mass, charge and spin. But this is a description of how an electron is disposed to behave: to have mass is to resist acceleration, to have charge is to respond in a certain way to electromagnetic fields, and so on. Physics doesn’t say what an electron, or any other basic particle, is like in itself, intrinsically. And, arguably, it never could, since its conceptual resources—mathematical concepts, together with the concepts of causation and spatiotemporal position—are suitable only for describing structures and processes, not intrinsic qualities. Yet it is plausible to think that particles can’t just be collections of dispositions; they must have some intrinsic categorical properties that give rise to their dispositions.