Panpsychism: Is mind everywhere?

Are bismuth crystals conscious to some extent?

The problem of what is the relation between matter and mind, and more particularly, between the physical stuff of our brain, on the one hand, and our consciousness and their conscious, qualitative states (also known as ‘qualia’), certainly is one of the deepest and hardest questions in all philosophy. I have already written in Mapping Ignorance about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness (here and here, for example), but I want now to discuss one of the most popular approaches to the problem, at least in recent times: panpsychism, the theory according to which the qualitative, subjective aspect of consciousness is just one case or example of a property shared by all matter; i.e, the thesis that all physical nature is ‘conscious to some extent’, only that in our brains these ‘conscious atoms’ are particularly arranged.

One of the things that makes panpsychism attractive is that the two other more popular alternatives (materialism and idealism), both have serious difficulties in explaining the connection between matter and mind. In particular, for materialism (at least, roughly understood), matter, in all its physical forms, is the only thing that there is, and consciousness would just be some kind of ‘epiphenomenon’, and idle subproduct of the workings of atoms, without any intrinsic causal power within the big mechanism of the universe. On the other hand, for idealism only the mind is real, and nature and matter are just some kind of illusion, or at most something that emerges out of our (?) minds.

Panpsychism combines the virtues of materialism (because it admits that physical matter is the only real thing in the natural universe) and of idealism (because it admits the real existence and substantiality of the mental). One of the biggest inspirers of panpsychism was the great Bertrand Russell (though he himself wouldn’t classify as a panpsychist, for reasons I shall comment in a while, and named his own theory as ‘neutral monism’). Some more recent defenders of this view are Adam Karman 1 and Pat Lewtas 2. According to Russell’s argument 3 , physics and natural science only give us knowledge about the structural relations between natural entities and processes; or, in different terms, they just inform us about what mathematical equations those entities and processes obey. Science says nothing about what these entities are intrinsically, or how they are ‘in themselves’, for only talk about their extrinsic relations, or their behaviour. Scientific knowledge of matter is, paradoxically, only formal knowledge, not ‘material’ or ‘substantial’.

Does this entail that we cannot know anything about ‘how are natural things in themselves’? No, says Russell, for our own subjective experience or perception allows us to know how are some things ‘intrinsically’. Of course, these things are no other than our own sensations (or qualia), which are the ‘intrinsic aspect’ of certain neuronal processes. For example, the sensation of green that we experience when looking at a tree in the summer is a quality intrinsically possessed by a specific natural processes: not the tree, of course, but what is happening in our visual cortex in the act of perceiving the tree. It is true that, when we observe another brain while its owner looks at a tree, we don’t see anything green in that brain, but we have to take into account that we are not perceiving that brain ‘as it is in itself’, but only a representation that our own brain constructs when our eyes are stimulated by light proceeding from that brain. I.e., we are seeing that brain ‘from the outside’. However, our own brain we see it ‘from the inside’: our sensations or qualia are one real, substantial, intrinsic part of our own brain. The green qualia the other brain is experiencing is just an intrinsic part of its neuronal processes, and as such, can only be perceived ‘from the inside’, i.e., being that brain in that moment.

Then, if the only intrinsic properties we can know about natural entities and events are our own qualia, it seems reasonable to conclude that the intrinsic properties of the remaining natural entities will be similar to those. After all, neurons are composed of totally normal atoms, and so, the intrinsic properties of the former will have to be the result of the combination of the intrinsic properties of the atoms and particles they are composed of. Hence, qualia must be the result of some combination of the ‘intrinsic properties’ of electrons, quarks, fields, and the like… what probably justifies to conclude that the ‘subjective’ character of qualia would just be a consequence of matter having in general such a property of ‘subjectivity’, or what we call consciousness. (This jump, from our brain to the rest of matter, is the one Bertrand Russell would probably not be ready to make, so that his position wouldn’t classify as panpsychist).

Unfortunately, panpsychism presents many problems in itself, making it in sum not much a better theory than idealism or materialism. Let’s see a bunch of these difficulties. In the first place, if the intrinsic properties of electrons, quarks, etc., are the ones that, in combining with those of other particles, generate in us sensations like green or red, how is it that these very same atoms, combined in a similar way but in different portions of our brains, produce sensations so intrinsically different, like sounds, odours, pain, tickling, surprise, panic…? And, if something of those other intrinsic subjective qualities is present in every atom, how is it that not all our sensations –I mean, every one of them– is not a mixture of vision, audition, emotion, etc.?

Second, if all matter possesses consciousness, why are we conscious just of one small part of our brain activity? Why are we unconscious sometimes? Why are we not conscious of what happens in our cerebellum, or in our liver, as we are of some things that happen in our visual cortex? Consciousness seems to depend more strongly on the type of connections between neurons (and hence, on some ‘extrinsic’, ‘behavioural’ relation between them) than on the fact that these neurons have one ‘intrinsic’ nature or another.

Third, one of the most important properties of our consciousness is its unity: we are conscious of things ‘as a whole’, we perceive what is around us and within us in a unique experience, not in something resembling a ‘mosaic’ of sensations intrinsically separated from each other. If qualia correspond to some properties of individual atoms, fields or electric currents, it seems difficult to explain why we perceived all of them (for example, the sight, sound and humidity of a waterfall, together with the awe we feel in contemplating it) in what is a unique experience.

Lastly, we can imagine a universe that were composed of some type of matter intrinsically different from that of our own universe (in particular, matter that lacked those ‘atoms of conscience’), but which were exactly like normal matter in its ‘extrinsic’ properties, i.e., whose behaviour could be described by exactly the same physical equations. In a universe like that, there could be beings that behaved exactly as we do, and that claimed with total conviction that they do perceive qualitative sensations, though, ex hypothesi, they couldn’t have a subjective, qualitative experience, no matter what they say. They would be what philosophers call ‘zombies’, and hence, if we doubt about the possible existence of ‘zombies’ (humans that behave exactly as ourselves, but that lack subjective consciousness), this will immediately transform into an argument against panpsychism.


  1. Karman, Adam (2014), “The Reasonability of Panpsychism”, Binghamton Journal of Philosophy, 2(1), 69-91.
  2. Lewtas, Pat Kuehner (2015), “Russellian Panpsychism: Too Good to Be True?”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 52(1), 57-71.
  3. Russell, Bertrand (1927), The Analysis of Matter, London: George Allen and Unwin.

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