Ultimate Foundations

We humans have an inveterate disposition to ask bigger questions than we are fit to answer. Our excuse is simple: We are curious animals by nature and the world is an infinitely puzzling tangle of occurrences, both within and without. In the face of any such occurrences, we feel compelled to raise the question “why?” and that already at a tender age, when our experience—together with the difficulty of understanding its causes and implications—is mediated by language.

The archetypal question that exceeds our ability to answer it comprehensively and conclusively is also primary: Why does the universe exist the way it does instead of differently or not at all? We may, however, reduce this question by resorting to a tautological shortcut that avoids infinite regress with a simple “because it does.” This means that the fact of being is self-evident and leaves no open and challenging question other than its mode of being, observable and describable by way of experimentation and theorization, albeit imperfectly.

This shortcut has considerable merit, because the fact of being logically implies the eternity of being in one form or another, manifest or latent. Conversely, you cannot derive the fact of being—at some degree zero of existence—from absolute nothingness. The modifier “absolute” marks a clear and critical distinction between the type of nothingness just mentioned and relative nothingness, containing the potentiality of being, which precedes and explains the actuality of being.

This relative nothingness is therefore a latent form of being that constitutes the generative foundation of being in its manifest form. It is logically inferred from this manifest form of being, which excludes the possibility of absolute nothingness. In other words, the fact of being admits of neither beginning nor end, though it can alternate between potentiality and actuality. It is self-sufficient and self-explanatory. As such, it can perfectly fulfil the role normally assigned to God in great religions, the latter being relegated—from this pantheistic perspective—to the status of superfluous or expendable mental construct.

So the only reasonable question that remains appears to read as follows: How does the universe exist, given the eternal necessity of its existence? Science—which is predicated on the study of the objective exteriority of things, dubbed physical, as opposed to the subjective interiority of the scientists, namely their consciousness that is the nonphysical bedrock of their observations and conceptualizations—has much to say about that. And yet, it must be stressed that by reason of its outward focus, science is mute on the subject of consciousness proper (distinct from brain states, evidenced by such neuroscientific techniques as functional MRI’s). 

Of course, consciousness can be dismissed as an illusion, leaving only its physical substratum as a substantial object of study, but then we set ourselves up for a confounding rebuttal: One cannot entertain an illusion without being conscious in the first place, in terms of mental events versus brain scans. That is, we cannot safely assume the reality of what we strive to deny.

All this suggests that a dualist view of the world—at least as regards humans—is the most defensible, not only against materialistic reductionism, but also against idealistic reductionism, according to which matter is an illusion. Our human nature is patently twofold, mind and body, like it or not. 

Even so, the two do not necessarily conform to the split view of René Descartes. The monism of Baruch Spinoza is arguably more organic and intuitively satisfying, as it portrays mind and body as the complementary aspects of a single thing, like the complementary sides of a single coin.

Recently, the philosopher David Chalmers has used information as an intermediary concept to characterize the thing in question, neither mind nor body separately, but both interdependently. This concept follows the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, establishing a parallel between the existential mind/body complex and its linguistic signified/signifier homolog.

Can this philosophical insight be extended beyond the scope of our human nature? Truth is, more than ever, we are ill equipped to answer this question with empirical authority. While the “physical” or objective exteriority of things provides ample and public evidence that it is a fundamental feature of the universe, irrespective of the relative simplicity or complexity of things, our mind—as a highly evolved form of subjective interiority, capable of retention, cogitation, and imagination—is a private matter, solely observable introspectively and shareable verbally, to the extent that others can identify with us. In other words, we are congenitally blind to any subjective interiority but our own, notwithstanding the communicative virtues of language that hinge on people’s self-awareness, interpersonal honesty, and the relatability of their human experience. 

Now, is there a way to circumvent the limitations of our consciousness, held in a manner of solipsistic lockup, with no direct and intimate access to the consciousness of our fellow humans, let alone that of animals or any other entity? The answer is an equivocal yes and no, with yes being loosely speaking and no being strictly speaking.

More precisely, we cannot have a first-person experience of what others may be feeling or thinking, but on the basis of a logical and analogical rationale, we are justified in assuming that they are indeed feeling or thinking something and that whatever this something happens to be, it shares with our own feelings and thoughts some common human attributes. In short, to the extent that they are roughly like us physiologically, against a similar environmental and cultural background, they are likely to be roughly like us psychologically as well.

The problem arises when we venture to extend the notion of subjective interiority—in terms of mindless presence to the here and now of being, at a minimum—to other species or entities whose physical characteristics differ from ours, possibly in some critical respects, like their mode of organization or their level of complexity. The greater this difference, or the more tenuous the outward points of comparison between us humans and these other species or entities, the more our assumptions are bound to be questionable as to whether they also possess an inward dimension of subjectivity, or as to what this inward dimension may exactly consist of, if they have one. 

What about the subatomic world of elementary particles, which is far remote from that of humans: the most evolved form of multicellular organisms? Is it in fact so alien from us that there is virtually no analogical ground for extending the notion of subjective interiority to them? Perhaps, perhaps not. After all, elementary particles are—at the most fundamental level—the inorganic building blocks of all multicellular organisms, including us. How did they converge evolutionarily to make up such organisms, and particularly humans who have a rich inner life that complements a rich outer life, if they did not in some elementary way feature both an objective physical facet, common to all things, and a subjective nonphysical facet, which would provide the ontological basis for the evolution of subjectivity, from a mindless presence to the here and now of being to one that is layered with memory, intelligence, and imagination? This is what David Chalmers refers to as the hard problem of consciousness.

Should we consider panpsychism as a conjectural solution (impossible to falsify and hence unscientific) to this problem, we would be confronted with another: the so-called combination problem. How does a multitude of distinct elementary points of experience integrate into a complex but unified consciousness? Are these points more or less behaving like a source of incoherent natural light that merges into a beam of coherent laser light through optical amplification? Or do they somewhat resemble separate bits of information that collectively and interactively cohere into a message within the scope of meaningful communication?  Of course, these are only metaphors that bear little relevance to the actual problem and cannot be chalked up as a compelling solution. Yet they obliquely afford a vague sense of possibility.

On reflection, both sides of the theoretical divide between panpsychism and radical emergence are plagued with difficulties and uncertainty. However, I would argue that the theory of radical emergence is more problematic. According to this view, the universe is exclusively physical from the outset and consciousness, as a nonphysical epiphenomenon, is an emerging property that is contingent on a high degree of organizational complexity. Translated in the language of mathematics, this would be tantamount to claiming that zero can equal one, provided we apply to it a sufficiently large multiplier, which is asinine. This is redolent of Abrahamic religions that paint a picture of miraculous intervention thanks to which spirit is infused into matter.

So let us explore panpsychism as a theoretical option that is doomed to remain tentative and controversial, for the simple reason that it cannot be empirically tested. For starters, we should abandon materialism for the organic realism of Alfred North Whitehead. From this perspective, everything is a process of becoming—versus a state of being—that results dynamically from the interactions taking place between itself and its environment and between its parts. Its essence is elusive like the flow of a river. It carries the promise of novelty at every turn: emergent properties that include and exceed the fundamental reality of primary elements in direct proportion to its order of complexity and level of interactions. 

To put it briefly, emergence is a function of relational dynamics in a complex system. It implies a gradual actualization of the intrinsic creative potential of the universe in the course of evolution as things proceed from simple beginnings to infinitely elaborate forms of organizational entanglements.

Also, within the framework of Whitehead’s process philosophy, which gives an organic flavor of panpsychism, experience is a fundamental feature of reality that pervades inwardly the entire cosmos (just as appearance is a fundamental feature of reality that pervades outwardly the entire cosmos), but as expected and quite appropriately this philosopher defines experience contextually by relating it to the conditions of its occurrence. Consequently, human experience as a subjective dimension of our being—deemed nonmaterial—must perforce be considered in connection with the objective complexity of our human constitution, especially our highly evolved cerebral matter. Likewise, every other variant of experience, as we descend the ladder of evolution, is inseparable from the material attributes that characterize the context of this variant.

Whitehead even appears to suggest that below a certain order of complexity, experience is better described as an elemental proto-experience, distinct from experience proper in the same way that a seed or lava is morphologically different from the plant or butterfly that it contains latently. The difficulty in this case lies in trying to specify this order of complexity, which is a critical threshold beyond which experience becomes intuitively fathomable. Again, in the end, the absence of empirical testability or falsifiability makes this difficulty intractable.

In conclusion, panpsychism is an ontologically coherent philosophical adventure in metaphysics that daringly purports to elicit the ultimate foundations of reality. It will appeal to some and not to others.

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