Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review of "Panpsychism in the West" by David Skrbina

In existence since pre-Socratic times and undergoing sporadic retreatment throughout the millennia since, panpsychism is one of the oldest ideas regarding the interrelationship of substance, material, and life.  A meta-theory, panpsychism does not seek to define life or matter scientifically, religiously, or psychologically—as the name might imply—rather, it is a statement about theories.  From Anaximenes’s pneuma to Leibniz’s monad, Lovelock’s Gaia Theory to Bohm’s Implicate Order, these and similar theories which to various degrees deny the linear, mechanistic view and attribute more life-like or “thinking” qualities to all matter—not just that in animate or human form—are examples to be found under the umbrella theory of panpsychism.  In his 2009 Panpsychism in the West, David Skrbina offers the most recent reworking of the subject. 

A thorough survey of panpsychisms’s evolution to date, the book summarizes the millennia of panpsychist theories and suppositions, bringing the author to conclude that panpsychism is a view verified by modern holistic science.  However, rather than seeing panpsychism as “the view that all things have mind or mind-like quality” (2), Skrbina discards the term “mind” in favor of “experience” and claims that “all objects or systems of objects, possess a singular inner experience of the world around them” (16).  This idea is elaborated upon with three distinctions:

(1) Objects have experiences for themselves; that is, the mind-like quality is something internal or inherent in the object. (2) There is a sense in which this experience is singular; to the extent that a structure of matter and energy that we call an object is one thing, this one-ness is reflected in a kind of unitary mental experience. (3) An object is a particular configuration of mass/energy, and therefore any configuration or system of mass/energy should qualify in the same sense. (16)
While the majority of Skrbina’s book surveys the millennia of theories which impute mind or soul-like qualities to matter, from the Greeks to modern science, the idea that objects have “a kind of unitary mental experience” remains central.  Skrbina’s explains that “the panpsychist asks us to see the ‘mentality’ of other objects not in terms of human consciousness but as a subset of a certain universal quality of physical things in which both inanimate mentality and human consciousness are taken as particular manifestations” (17).  He explicitly states “discussions of panpsychism should avoid the most heavily anthropocentric terms, which cloud the discussion more than they provide clarity” (18).  

Religious fundamentalism and conventional science’s main thrusts of criticism fall upon the question: to what extent does panpsychism assign consciousness or mind-like qualities to inanimate objects?  Reflecting perennial philosophy as well as the revelations of modern science, in response Skrbina outlines a hierarchy of all matter in the following four categories: 1) humans: self consciousness, cognition, 2) all animals: thought, consciousness, 3) animals and plants: sense awareness, sentience, emotion, 4) all animate and inanimate: experience, mind, mental state, what-it-is-like, qualia, nous, psyche. (18)

In the end, of interest is that this hierarchy does not lower humanity to the level of inanimacy, as many conventional scientific theories of a mechanistic, unthinking world do; rather, it elevates the position of inanimate objects to a minimum of “experience” quality: rocks remain incapable of decision-making, but gain a degree of participation in the overall experience of existence.  Students and scholars in need of research material on panpsychism, as well as those interested in the subject in general, will benefit most from Skrbina’s thorough and lucid survey, historical to modern day representation.