Friday, February 16, 2018

Evolution, Subjectivity and Purpose


'I think there is a bomb lodged in the foundations of science that may be about to go off. It is a bomb that Charles Darwin inadvertently set ticking, William James exposed for all to see - and which 20th century thought has done its best to try and bury.'

So wrote organic chemist and author Graham-Cairns Smith nearly twenty years ago. The bomb which he was referring to is William James'  evolutionary argument for the causal efficacy of consciousness (hereafter, ‘the evolutionary argument’). Although no bomb has since gone off since Cairns-Smith's words, the issues the evolutionary argument present for scientific materialism remain.

This post will review the evolutionary argument in the light of recent trends in biology, behavioural sciences and the philosophy of mind, and discuss the relevance of the argument to a Whiteheadian metaphysics.


The crux of the evolutionary argument is that our subjective feelings are generally appropriate to helping us survive, which means that these feelings must have evolved and therefore must have physical effects.

In the words of James himself:

'There is yet another set of facts which seem explicable on the supposition that consciousness has causal efficacy. It is a well-known fact that pleasures are generally associated with beneficial, pains with detrimental, experiences. All the fundamental vital processes illustrate this law. Starvation, suffocation, privation of food, drink and sleep, work when exhausted, burns, wounds, inflammation, the effects of poison, are as disagreeable as filling the hungry stomach, enjoying rest and sleep after fatigue, exercise after rest, and a sound skin and unbroken bones at all times, are pleasant. Mr. Spencer and others have suggested that these coincidences are due, not to any pre-established harmony, but to the mere action of natural selection which would certainly kill off in the long-run any breed of creatures to whom the fundamentally noxious experience seemed enjoyable. An animal that should take pleasure in a feeling of suffocation would, if that pleasure were efficacious enough to make him immerse his head in water, enjoy a longevity of four or five minutes. But if pleasures and pains have no efficacy, one does not see (without some such  a priori  rational harmony as would be scouted by the ' scientific' champions of the automaton-theory) why the most noxious acts, such as burning, might not give thrills of delight, and the most necessary ones, such as breathing, cause agony.'

Implicit in the evolutionary argument is the Darwinian assumption that organisms have evolved through natural selection of traits which increase reproductive fitness. The steps in the argument can be spelled out as follows:

1.       Evolution occurs through natural selection of favourable traits

2.       Pleasure is generally associated with events which enhance survival prospects and pain with                the opposite

3.      Given (1), the correlation in (2) must have evolved through the processes of natural selection

4.       If subjective pleasure and pain had no physical effects then natural selection would have no                 effect on them

5.      Therefore, subjective experiences such as pleasure and pain  have physical effects.

An important thing to note about the evolutionary argument is that it is not just implying that feelings evolved. Traits can evolve as a side effect of other evolutionary pressures with no selective advantage in themselves. Thus, it could be argued that feelings have evolved but are still entirely epiphenomenal, like the proverbial steam coming out of a train whistle which plays not part in the locomotion of the train. On this account, subjective feelings could be seen as evolutionarily akin to male nipples, no doubt having evolved but having no effect on fitness .

However, the appropriateness of feelings to their adaptive context undercuts the epiphenomenal argument and implies that they do have physical effects. The gnawing hunger relieved by the pleasure of eating, feelings of sexual desire associated with reproductive activity, the pain of injury associated with noxious stimuli, and the feelings of fatigue preliminary to rest could not be explained in an evolutionary context if such feelings were not meaningfully associated with physical effects. The correlation between the feeling and the adaptive response indicates that the feeling has been selected for by natural selection. And such selection could only have occured if subjective feelings have physical effects.

Although at first glance the argument may seem trivial or banal, the salience of it is made clearer by looking at exceptions to it.

 There are of course many instances where pleasant or attractive feelings are not associated with survival enhancing events. However, these instances can be reasonably explained by the fact that the conditions under which the human body evolved are very much different from those of contemporary society.

For example, in traditional hunter gatherer societies where sugar was rare and being able to convert excess sugar into fat in times of food scarcity was advantageous, sweet things having a pleasant taste was adaptive. Now it is a factor in the obesity epidemic. Similarly, a liking for salt is adaptive for hunter-gatherer omnivores who lose salt through sweating and could otherwise become sodium-depleted. However, in current conditions, where salt is readily available, a high salt diet is associated with high blood pressure and heart disease. Such cases demonstrate the strengths of  the evolutionary argument rather than any weaknesses.

At this point, it is appropriate  to consider how it is that subjective feelings could have physical effects. Of course, the common sense explanation for this is that feelings have physical effects by motivating changes in behaviour. Feeling thirsty motivates me to get up and get a drink. The numbness in my leg motivates me to give it a stretch. The pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain lead me to act with purpose, to act towards achieving goals.

The common sense explanation is obviously not popular from the perspective of the physical sciences, the reason being that it requires subjective mental states to affect physical processes. However, as a result of the evolutionary argument, the rubicon of the subjective affecting the objective has already been crossed. Hence, if feelings do affect behaviour there is no apparent reason to adopt any other explanation for this occurs than the one which accords with parsimony, intuition and common sense.

Thus, if the evolutionary argument holds it can reasonably be concluded that subjective feelings have physical effects through motivating purposeful, goal-directed behaviour.


Clearly, the conclusion that subjective feelings have physical effects has huge implications for the explanatory models of the physical sciences.

A hallmark of physical science has been the explanation  of higher-level processes in terms of lower level processes. As David Chalmers puts it, in reductive explanation an appropriate account of lower-level processes results in the explanation of the higher-level phenomenon falling out. Or, in more technical terms, a natural phenomena is reductively explainable in terms of some low-level properties when it is logically supervenient on those properties. In terms of the physiology of the human body, this means that, in principle, an explanation at the level of physical and chemical processes in the body as determined by the laws of physics and chemistry would explain all movements of the body. There is no need to infer any contribution from higher-level subjective mental states.

However, what the evolutionary argument is saying is that the higher level subjective states do in fact influence behaviour. Even if such states are initially determined at the microphysical level there must also be some ‘top down causation’ from the subjective mental states to subsequent behavior. Otherwise, there is no way that natural selection could have made the subjective feelings appropriately aligned with their behavioural effects. So subjective states must influence subsequent events at the microphysical level. Whilst Chalmers argued that consciousness cannot be reductively explained, the evolutionary argument implies that human behaviour also cannot be reductively explained.

This seems like such a radical proposition that perhaps any refutation of the evolutionary argument, no matter how weak or feeble, should be embraced for the sake of maintaining the integrity of the foundations of physics and science generally. Perhaps this would be the appropriate position to adopt if there were no defensible interpretations of physics available which are consistent both with observed empirical facts and with the proposition that subjective states influence physical behaviour. Fortunately, such interpretations are available.

For example, Whiteheadian metaphysics accounts for human behavior and the behaviour of all material objects in terms of the mutual interaction of experiential events which are influenced by past events from the surrounding environment. In complex organisms such as human bodies there exist presiding or dominant series of  events - which constitute the experience of one’s ‘self’- which can influence the character of subsequent events in the rest of the body. As Whitehead puts it; ‘ Owing to the delicate organisation of the body, there is a returned influence, an inheritance of character derived from the presiding occasion and modifying the subsequent occasions through the rest of the body’.

Under a Whiteheadian model, the causal efficacy of consciousness can be explained by the feelings of the dominant occasions influencing subsequent occasions in the body, resulting in changes in movement and behaviour of the organism.  On the other hand, bodies which are aggregations of events with no presiding or dominant occasions exerting ‘downward’ influence can adequately be explained by reductive explanation. In these cases, mutual influence is ‘predominantly of a formal character expressible in formal sciences, such as mathematics. The inorganic is dominated by the average. It lacks individual expression in its parts. Their flashes of selection (if any) are sporadic and ineffective. Its parts merely transmit average expressions’.

Whilst this is not the place for a detailed exposition of Whitehead, suffice it to say, a Whiteheadian based metaphysics can readily account for the implications of the evolutionary argument whilst also subsuming reductive explanation where this is appropriate. Thus, to the extent that reductive explanatory models are unable to account for the implications of the evolutionary argument, Whiteheadian explanation is to be preferred to reductive models.

How such Whiteheadian explanation could be integrated with conventional scientific explanation based on objective empirical observations of course poses an enormous challenge. Nevertheless, if there are grounds for concluding that subjective elements have objective effects, the difficulty of incorporating this with scientific explanation is no reason to deny such a conclusion.


In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins notes that ‘One of the most striking properties of survival-machine behaviour is its apparent purposiveness’. He then describes examples of the mechanisms of the Watt steam governor and guided missiles which rely on principles such as negative feedback to give the appearance of acting purposively. This apparent purposiveness purportedly conceals the fact that humans and other organisms are in fact ‘lumbering robots’ acting deterministically in accord with the pushes and pulls of genes and the environment.

However, this picture is now turned on its head. The implication of the evolutionary argument is that at least in some cases, organisms are not acting with apparent purpose but with actual purpose, responding to how they feel. If they did not have such feelings they would have acted differently, because the fact that such feelings are non-randomly correlated with relevant behaviours indicates that the feelings must have been selected for. They could only have been selected for if they had physical effects, so in there absence these physical effects would have been absent and the behaviour would have been different.

Therefore, if the evolutionary argument is sound then subjective feelings and purposes must be taken into account in evolutionary explanations of behaviour.

To give another example, the following is from an interview with evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker:

Pinker: Since we can imagine a robot that, behaviour-for-behaviour and state-for-state, is identical to a human, but in which there's "no one home" - no one actually feeling the pain or seeing the red - there can't be an adaptive explanation of sentience, because we've defined it as something that can have no external consequences.

the evolutionist: So it's not just a case of the adaptive explanation of sentience forever eluding us, but rather that there cannot be one?

Pinker: That's right. Something that has no consequences can have no adaptive consequences. We can imagine a robot or a zombie or an android that has no consciousness, but otherwise interacts with the environment in the same way a sentient human does.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that the evolutionary argument  tells us that consciousness (or ‘sentience’) does have external consequences. If there were no external consequences to one’s feelings then there is no reason why a consequence of evolution is that  things which feel good are generally good for us and things which feel bad aren’t. Further, it also follows from the evolutionary argument that if feelings affect behaviour, a robot or zombie without consciousness could not be functionally equivalent to a human being, as human functions are partially caused by consciousness.

Thus, another implication of the evolutionary argument is that if sentience has been defined as something which has no external consequences, then a redefinition is in order.

Whilst clearly the evolutionary argument clearly has major consequences for evolutionary theory, how this actually pans out for evolutionary explanations at the physiological level is not so clear. Like the situation with physics, it remains to be seen how an account of subjective purposes could be integrated into evolutionary explanations based on objectively observable biological phenomena.

At the level of behavioural explanation, the situation is more sanguine. For instance, cognitive ethology is a branch of ethology which studies cognitive processes in animals and which includes subjective consciousness within its ambit. This discipline recognises that whilst there will always be a lack of objective evidence involved in inferring the existence of consciousness in other organisms (just as there is in inferring it in other humans), the fact that no objectively verifiable data about non-human consciousness can ever be obtained does not mean that this subject should not be studied. Just as the study of consciousness in humans has become more respectable and sophisticated  over the years, so too has the study of animal consciousness.

In any case, regardless of how difficult it may be for evolutionary science to adapt itself to account for subjective purposes, if the evolutionary argument is sound and the effects of such purposes on behaviour are not taken into account then this science is incomplete. The implication of the evolutionary argument is that at least in some cases evolution does not act on unconscious automata but on purposive beings whose behaviour is caused by their aversion to some feelings and attraction to others. Thus, Darwinism itself suggests that alongside natural selection there exists another motor of evolution - the pleasure principle.


An obvious question which arises when considering the evolutionary argument and behaviour influenced by subjective purposes is how far down the evolutionary scale this type of behaviour extends. Some speculation on this issue will be made below. Although, as previously discussed, the evolutionary argument lends support to Whiteheadian metaphysics or something similar, this speculation will be made independently of any assumptions grounded in Whiteheadian metaphysics.

The first thing to note here is that an organism which has feelings capable of affecting behaviour would have strong selective advantages over organisms which did not have feelings or whose feelings had no impact on their behaviour. An organism which  can subjectively experience their environment in a way which motivates them to act in ways which are beneficial for their survival is likely to reproduce at a higher rate than an organism where there is ‘nobody home’. Of course, realising that such a trait would be strongly selected for does nothing to say about when it emerged, only that once it did appear it would be likely to proliferate quickly.

A second important consideration which the evolutionary argument brings to prominence is that explanations of behaviour in terms of the most simple processes may not always be superior to those made in terms of more complex processes. A fundamental principle of comparative psychology has been ‘Morgan's Canon’, which states that higher cognitive capacities to explain an observed behaviour should not be assumed if capacities lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development are able to do so. This is an application of the principle of parsimony and arose as a reaction against overly anthropomorphic explanations of animal behaviour in the 19th century.

As Primatologist and ethologist Frans De Waal has observed, overly strict adherence to Morgan’s Canon has been taken to imply that animals are merely unfeeling automata or stimulus-response machines. However,  given our own advanced cognitive abilities, the ‘blind automata’ assumption goes against evolutionary principles of gradual modification from more primitive forms. A minimalist cognitive explanation for species other than humans may imply evolutionary miracles to account for the evolution of our own capacities. As De Waals puts it, ‘the pursuit of cognitive parsimony often conflicts with evolutionary parsimony’.

The need to balance cognitive parsimony and evolutionary parsimony is further heightened by the implications of James’ evolutionary argument. The evolutionary argument implies that our own  feelings affect our behaviour, even though sequences of automatic processes involving no subjectivity could  be postulated. This reasoning can be analogously applied to the behaviour of other organisms - just because behaviour can potentially be explained by negating the influence of subjective consciousness does not mean that such explanations are always the most reasonable. Explanations which impute a gradual evolution of subjective feelings affecting behaviour are to be preferred to explanations requiring miraculous leaps.

A third and related consideration here is the relevance of inferences from our own subjective purposes. As the evolutionary argument implies that feelings affect behaviour where the latter is motivated by subjective purposes, purposive behaviours in humans give reasonable grounds for inferring subjective purpose for similar behaviours in other species. Whilst there are no subjective purposes implicated in some human movements such as the knee-jerk reflex or the beating of the heart, other movements such as the unscrewing of a lid of a jar clearly do involve intention and subjective purpose in our own case. Similar behaviours in other organisms may give reasonable grounds for inferring subjective purpose in them.

On the other hand, in this regard it is also necessary to bear in mind experiments such as Benjamin Libet’s which suggest that for some behaviours, initiation of muscular action begins before conscious awareness of the wish to move. This means that inference of subjective purpose in other species by analogy is not without risk of error. In some cases it is arguable that our behaviour may not have been purposeful even though it feels like it was, so circumspection is warranted in extrapolating purpose to other species.

Similarly, the fact that purposeful behaviour exists in humans does not mean that it can be attributed wherever it seems to appear. Some behaviours which may look purposeful are not. For example, the tropisms of plants such as growing towards the light may look  like purposeful groping when viewed with time lapse photography, but this is caused by differential rates of growth shoots depending on light exposure. No attribution of purpose is required. Thus, in potential attribution of purposive behaviour to other species, each case must be looked at on its own merits based on the known biology and the rationality of inferences from our own subjective states.

The above considerations will be kept in mind in the discussion of subjective purpose in other organisms below.

In undertaking this discussion it is apposite to note that science has not shown that there is any exclusive property of cells in the brain or the brain’s structure that are associated with subjective purposes. Thus, rather than looking for biological or neurological correlates of subjective purpose, this discussion can most profitably be undertaken by focussing on the observable behaviour of organisms. Hence, it is economical to start at the very bottom of the evolutionary scale, with unicellular organisms.

Bacteria have been shown to display an array of complex behaviour in terms of how they sense changes in their environment, analyze sensory information and respond adaptively. In a review of studies on the behaviour of bacteria,  Pamela Lyon notes that:

'Extensive experimental evidence shows that microbial behavior is guided by processes that, in other contexts, are readily regarded as part of biological cognition, capacities which together encompass an organism's ability to navigate, become familiar with, value, learn from and solve critical existential problems within its world of experience, including coordinating action with conspeciļ¬cs. … I believe there is something going on at the microscopic level that doesn’t just ‘look’ cognitive, it  is cognitive, or, more accurately, it is typically considered cognitive when studied in animals more like us.'

This description of bacteria as having cognitive capacities should not be taken to mean that the author is implying that any subjective consciousness is involved. Rather, like the methodology of cognitive science generally, cognitive processes in bacteria would be characterised by most microbiologists as the result of information processing for which no subjective consciousness need be attributed.

However, Lyon also notes:

'So how does an individual bacterium integrate the information from a dizzying array of signaling pathways—sensorimotor, physiological, chemosensory, and communicative—into a coherent adaptive response? The short answer is we don’t know. This is perhaps the greatest challenge facing work in this field.'

Given what was said above about the inference from cognition to subjective purpose, the integration of information into adaptive response could potentially be explicable by the behaviour of bacteria being motivated by subjective purpose.

The cognitive capacities of simple organisms have also been demonstrated through recent work on slime molds Physarum polycephalum is a giant single celled organism lacking neurons or a central nervous system that can grow to several meters in size. This organism has amazing decision making abilities. It has demonstrated an ability to solve complicated mazes, make trade off decisions, anticipate periodic events and use it slime trail as a form of memory to avoid revisiting areas it has already been. For example, in navigating a maze with nutrients at both ends,  the mold will send out branches some of which are subsequently retracted so that the mold will grow exclusively along the shortest path between the two pieces of food. Again, researchers on slime mold behaviour are not implying any subjective consciousness or purpose is involved. But as with humans, apparent purposive behaviour may be an indication of actual purposiveness.

Indeed there are some contemporary scientists who are taking the next step of imputing consciousness in single celled organisms. Psychologist Arthur Reber proposes that subjective consciousness is a property of single celled organisms with flexible cell walls. He posits that some of the advantages of this model are that it reformulates research on human consciousness away from the search for ‘miracle moments’ where aspects of mind suddenly emerge from the brain to the search for how complex aspects of consciousness, cognition and behaviour have evolved from more simpler functions.

Reber notes that all models which suggest that consciousness somehow emerges from the brain suffer a fatal flaw whereby complex but nonconscious neural functions reach a threshold from which  conscious states miraculously emerge. He notes that his model, whereby human consciousness evolves from consciousness of simpler organisms, also requires a miracle in the emergence of consciousness in unicellular microbes, but that this it is ‘a very small one and far more tractable’.

Of course, in reality one miracle is as fatal as any other and it would be far preferable to have a model that does not need to posit miraculous leaps. Here again we are led back to the appeal of a Whiteheadian based metaphysics,  in which experiential events in some form or another are a fundamental part of nature and the need for miracles is negated.

Of relevance here as well  is the resurgence in interest in recent years in academic philosophy in panpsychism.  This is the view that experientiality or subjectivity is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of matter (of which Whiteheadian metaphysics is one possible version). Panpsychism has a long history in philosophy, though in the last century it was largely derided as not worthy of serious consideration. However, panpsychism is now back in vogue somewhat and a number of analytic philosophers are exploring it as a viable option both for the explanation of human consciousness and of the intrinsic nature of matter. The evolutionary argument lends support to panpsychic models which postulate an active role for subjectivity in nature, such as Whitehead’s.

It is also noteworthy that although the notion of subjective purpose and consciousness going ‘all the way down’ to microbes may seem rather absurd and fantastical in this day and age, this notion was not always regarded as such by biologists. For instance, zoologist and geneticist Herbert Jennings, whilst observing that proving the existence or nonexistence of conscious states  is beyond the scope of science, wrote in 1906 that:

‘.. if Amoeba were a large animal, so as to come within the everyday experience of human beings, its behaviour would at once call forth the attribution to it of states of pleasure and pain, of hunger, desire, and the like, on precisely the same basis as we attribute these things to the dog.’

Further, the idea that subjective purpose manifests at the cellular level was considered in depth in the past by zoologist Wilfred Agar. His book, A Contribution to the Theory of the Living Organism was strongly influenced by Whitehead and develops the premise that embryological development of complex organisms occurs through the interaction of purposively acting agents, beginning at the cellular level. Some of these organisms, such as humans, may also develop a coordinating central agent.

Nature’s review of Agar’s book stated that biologists would do well to read the book if they ‘admit that they should give heed to the trend of thought in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, as sooner or later it seems they must’. More than seventy years henceforth, the evolutionary argument adds weight to the view that such a heeding is overdue.

None of the above is meant to say that the evolutionary argument by itself proves that the behaviour of  organisms all the way down to bacteria are influenced by subjective states. However, as it is a reasonable conclusion from the evolutionary argument that humans are motivated by subjective purpose, this adds weight to arguments which infer subjective purpose affecting behaviour in other species. Along with existing biological knowledge and other considerations in theory choice such as simplicity, accuracy, consistency, scope and fruitfulness, the evolutionary argument adds another ingredient into the mix in making inferences about the existence and efficacy of consciousness.


Arran Gare has described the global ecological crisis as being a manifestation of  invalid metaphysical assumptions and a defective way of defining reality that dominates modern institutions and society. At the heart of this defective model of reality is the world-view of scientific materialism, which has come to to define humanity’s ultimate goal as the endless expansion of commodity production, in which progress entails the elimination of the less fit.

The evolutionary argument for the causal efficacy of consciousness raises significant challenges to scientific materialism in terms of its epistemological and metaphysical assumptions, the effects of subjective purpose on behaviour and on evolution, and the distribution of subjective purpose across the realm of living nature.

It is true that the Darwinian theory of evolution is a significant part of the world-view of scientific materialism, and thus can be seen as a contributor to the current metaphysical and ecological malaise. However, the evolutionary argument also shows that, on its own terms, the theory of evolution by natural selection implies that subjective purposes have physical effects. In an environment where consciousness is at last being taken more seriously both within the frameworks of analytic philosophy and the biological sciences, it thus has the potential to help vitalise alternative metaphysical positions and reintroduce purposiveness back into our view of life.

Thus, while it is fundamental to scientific materialism, Darwin’s theory may also be integral to its overcoming.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Hope, Panpsychism and Utopia

Two of the principal concerns of German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885 - 1997) were the concepts of hope and utopia. Bloch argued that a future utopia, whilst not a certainty, was a distinct possibility. Integral to this argument was the view there was a dynamic subjectivity  inherent in the natural world.

There are several difficulties in understanding Bloch’s philosophy of nature. Firstly, his major works on this theme,  Avicenna und die aristotelische Linke (1949 - Avicenna and the aristotelian Left) and Das Materialismusproblem, seine Geschichte und Substanz (1972- The Problem of Materialism, Its History and Substance), have not yet been translated into English. Secondly, there are not many secondary commentaries in English on this aspect of Bloch’s philosophy available on the web either (this interview has a good overview of it). Thirdly, he can be a very hard philosopher to read and comprehend. There is definitely an opening for a “Bloch for Dummies’ book out there!

Despite these difficulties, from what I can glean of it, Bloch’s philosophy of nature offers an awesome and inspiring vision. The thoughts below (some of which are a bit rough and in need of refinement) are inspired by Bloch but make no claim to be faithful to any of his concepts.

Where to Begin?

Traditionally, the starting point for philosophical explorations have been questions such as “What can be known?” or “What is true?”.

However, the idea that there is a fundamental foundation or ground which can form the basis for inquiring into these questions has been relentlessly criticised in the last century. One of the core themes of postmodernist thought has been that there is no absolute or privileged foundation for knowledge from which truth or certainty can be sought for, or from which other perspectives can be shown to be deficient.

Given these criticisms, a more modest foundation for philosophy than one which purports to give grounds for the discovery of absolute truth or certainty is called for. The concept of hope provides such a foundation.

Whilst a water-tight definition of what hope actually may not be easy to construct  (see this article for some of the debates), a good working definition which is adequate for the purposes of this post is that:

           Hope consists of a desire for an outcome and a belief in the outcome’s possibility.

The two elements of hope in this definition address criticisms of philosophy which emphasize the lack of a certain and absolute foundation for knowledge. Firstly, the element of desire signals that a philosophy based on hope will not be one which claims to be totally objective and remote from any human concerns. Secondly, the element of belief in the possibility of an outcome signals that such a philosophy will not be making claims to absolute and certain knowledge.

Another merit of a philosophy which uses hope as a starting point is that it aligns with what I believe most people think philosophy’s major concerns should be - finding meaning in life and principles which can guide one’s actions.

 What Should I hope for?

If hope is the starting point, what next arises is the question of‘ what should be hoped for.

“Hope for the best” as the saying goes. Its seems obvious that in deciding what to hope for, one should hope for the best outcome possible. However, hoping for the best needs to be tempered by the likelihood of possible outcomes. It is possible that one could win the lottery, but given the likelihood of this happening is small, it would be a waste to focus all one’s hopes in life on this.

Thus, to avoid wasting time on futile hopes, what is hoped for should not only be possible but be a real possibility, have a reasonable chance of actually occurring. Assessment of what is a real possibility involves consideration of available facts, empirical observations and knowledge. This includes findings of science, although because scientific observations can be interpreted in a multiple of different ways this does not necessarily mean adherence to the most popular or orthodox scientific theories.

So, the best use of hope is to hope for the best that is realistically possible. And what is this?

I contend that the best that could be realistically hoped for is Universal Perfection. This could be defined in a number of ways, but a good start I think is complete harmony and absence of discord throughout the universe.

So how could anybody think Universal Perfection is realistically possible? I believe that a case for this could be developed based on the following premises:

1.        Nature (space, matter, energy and consciousness) does not have a static essence and is in a continuous state of development.

2.       Within nature there exists a universal cosmic subject.

3.         The universal cosmic subject has a drive to move beyond itself to something better.

4.        The universal cosmic subject influences the development of nature.

5.       Due to 3 and 4, the universe is  evolving towards a state of perfection.

The above premises do not imply that a state of Universal Perfection will ever be reached (at which time (1) might cease to apply). The Universe may continue to evolve towards perfection without ever reaching this state. Whether this end state is ever reached or not is not relevant here, the important thing being that it is realistically possible that the universe is evolving towards such a state.

Obviously, to justify the above premises is going to take a lot of argument and is way beyond the scope of this blog post. Nevertheless, I do think they can be justified and hope to provide some justification in future. Some foundations for this can be found in these old posts:

     Does Physicalism entail Cosmopsychism
    Thoughts on 'The Ecological Self'
    The Goldilocks Enigma
    A Case for Intelligent Design?
    Panpsychic Marxism?

There are several ways in which philosophy based on hope for Universal Perfection is internally consistent and self-grounding.

Firstly, If the universe is evolving and has no fixed essence then the traditional starting points for philosophy of what can be known or what is true do not give a firm basis to start, because these things would be in a continual state of flux. Hope is a firmer foundation.

Secondly, if the universe is striving towards Universal Perfection then it is reasonable to expect  that the Universe would give rise to beings that hope and strive for Universal Perfection. This may not be a case of logical necessity but more a case of a metaphysics of Universal Perfection harmonising well with the human hope for perfection.

Thirdly, the justification of some arguments for Universal Perfection based on aesthetics and harmony rather than truth or necessity is consistent with the putative end state of the universe being one of perfect harmony. Evolution towards perfection would likely entail an increase in aesthetic harmony more than an increase in logical certitude.

Finally, the subjective feelings of harmony which may arise in a person contemplating that is it realistically possible that the universe is evolving towards a state of perfection aligns with what one would expect if the universe were evolving towards such a state.  Evolution towards harmonious perfection if consonant with the proliferation and florescence of harmonious feelings.

What should I do?

If it is accepted that Universal Perfection is the best that can realistically be hoped for, then how should one live one’s life? Beyond the daily necessities, what are the overarching principles that could guide one’s journey?

In looking at this, some discussion is in order as to why one should act to fulfill one’s hopes.

Hope itself is usually seen as a justification in itself for action. If I ask someone why they are  searching in the garbage and they reply “I hope to find my lost wallet”, then I would accept that as a valid reason. Acting on one’s hopes is intrinsic to the nature of hope itself.

On an emotional level, it also feels right to act on one’s hopes, to follow one’s dreams.

Sometimes it may not be rational or ethical to act on one’s hopes. For example, a drug addict hoping to find his next fix may not be acting in his own or others best interests in taking actions to obtain more of the drug. However,  if one is hoping for Universal Perfection then it is rational and ethical to act to facilitate the achievement of this outcome. This is because Universal Perfection is in the best interest of any possible interest there is.

Thus, if one hopes for Universal Perfection and this goal is realistically possible, then it is rational, ethical, emotionally satisfying and intrinsic to the nature of hope itself to act towards the achievement of this goal.

So how does all this cash out in terms of practical, concrete actions?

As far as we know, human beings have the most advanced form of embodied consciousness in the universe (excluding perhaps the putative consciousness of a universal cosmic subject). If the universe is evolving towards perfection it is reasonable to expect that the most advanced form of consciousness would be at the leading edge or front of this evolution. It is also reasonable to expect that a perfect human society would be a stepping stone towards Universal Perfection. Therefore, it can be concluded that working toward the realisation of Universal Perfection entails striving for Utopia - a free, fair and loving society without unnecessary suffering, toil or want.

The details of what should be done to help achieve this will vary depending on the particular circumstances of each situation. But acting towards achieving utopia, does not justify any forms of extremist fanaticism on the basis that the end justifies the means. This is because Utopia is only a realistic hope, not a guaranteed certainty which could justify any conceivable action. Further, extreme and violent actions may impede the harmonious potentialities which are the very goal of such actions.

Part of ascertaining how one should act involves deciding whether to support or reject particular points of view or theories. In hoping for Utopia, assessment of different claims or theories is based on whether or not they help realise this goal, whether they are progressive or reactionary.

Whether bodies of thought are progressive or reactionary requires detailed analysis in each case. In some cases,  a single belief system may have both progressive and reactionary elements. For example, as Bloch recognised, religious systems can contain both progressive elements which foster and nourish the  utopian longings of humanity, and reactionary elements which encourage otherworldliness and political quietism. Similarly, science has both progressive elements which enhance our knowledge of nature, our ability to work with it and our ability to alleviate suffering, and reactionary elements, which undergird a mechanistic materialism that denies the significance of subjectivity in nature.

In the field of science, supporting progressive theories does not mean that empirical facts can be ignored, distorted or fabricated. There is no excuse for Lysenkoism. However, given that a body of facts can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways, the hope for Utopia does imply an additional parameter for choosing between theories. In striving for Utopia, the utopian potentialities of a theory should be considered alongside other criteria of theory choice such as  simplicity, accuracy, consistency, scope and fruitfulness.


Flung into an uncertain world, the best one can do is strive to realise the best of one’s hopes. Theoretical analysis, speculation and interpretation are essential in determining how to go about this. However, the objective of analysis is not to find some indubitable foundation from which to proceed. Rather, the objective is to find a reasonable basis for actions, the efficacy of which can be assessed by their effects on the progression towards that which is hoped for. The point is not to interpret the world, but to change it.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Towards an appreciation of indigenous spirituality

Like many people in the modern world today I believe there is much of value to be learned from indigenous spirituality and religions, particularly from their reverence towards and relationship with the natural world.

 However, like many others I suspect, my westernised mind often struggles with ways to make sense of these traditions without an almost automatic characterization of them as 'primitive', 'animistic', 'superstitious' or 'irrational'.

Below are some rough ideas and arguments I have found helpful in providing an entry point to appreciating indigenous spirituality. I hope to flesh these out further in the future:

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

On Non-experientiality

Galen Strawson has written another insightful, pithy and entertaining article on panpsychism titled "Mind and being: the primacy of panpsychism".

There is a lot in the article. Just one thing I would like to highlight in this post is Strawson's critique of the assumption of the non-experiential  nature of reality. Here is an excerpt:

"   '..why not suppose that the basic nature of concrete reality is non -experiential rather than experiential?’

Why suppose that its non-experiential—either in its basic nature or in any respect at all?

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Ernest Becker on the interiority of things

I recently came across the passage below from Pulitzer Prize winning writer Ernest Becker (author of 'The Denial of Death"). It is from the Introductory paragraphs to chapter 4 of "The Birth and Death of Meaning".

 I quote the passage not for the strength of its argumentation (which I think is a condesation of some of the arguments of Gustav Fechner), but as an example of an innovative interdisciplinary thinker who was influenced by panexperientialism:

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Links and Web Resources

If you come across any interesting links or news in relation to panexperientialism, please feel free to post a comment below. Apologies for any broken links - I plan to update them soon.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Nagarjuna, metaphysics and the limits of language

I have recently enjoyed working my way thorugh Jay Garfield's "The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way", which is an alaytical philosopher's translation ond interpretation of the principal work of one of  Buddhism's most influential philosphers, Nagarjuna.
One of the principal things I took from Nagarjuna in this work is the basic inadequacy of language to grasp the ultimate nature of reality, as nicely summarised by David Loy in  this  article:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mind Dust interviews

The Mind Dust website has a series of interview clips with various philosophers on the topic of panpsychism taken at a conference in Munich last year.

Includes questions answered by Galen Strawson, David Chalmers, William Seager, Gregg Rosenberg, David Skrbina and others. Most clips go for roughly 1 to 3 minutes and are well worth a look. free web page counters

Friday, August 19, 2011

Does Secular Buddhism entail rejection of Rebirth?

In recent times there has been interest in the congruence of some of the core concepts of buddhism and consciousness studies. Concepts such as impermanence and the lack of a permanent, enduring self have been argued to be consistent with modern findings of neurosicence and physics. It has also been suggested that the methods of introspective investigation and insight utilised in buddhist practices could be useful in developing a first-person methodology for studying consciousness. For instance, in her book "Consciousness: An Introduction", author and consciousness researcher Susan Blackmore devotes a chapter to buddhism and meditation as exemplars of "first person" aproaches to consciousness.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Panexperiential Holism and its implications

I came across this interesting little article by Ludwig Jaskolla and Alexander Buch regarding panexperiential holism. This is the thesis that:

“there is exactly one entity - the Universe itself. This entity can be
adequately described as being essentially
(i) an objective matter of fact,
(ii) objectively structured, i.e. not completely homogeneous,
(iii) a subject of experience and
(iv) exemplifying experiential content.”

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Strawson on Nietzsche's Metaphysics

Galen Strawson has delivered what looks like a very interesting paper on Nietzsche's Metaphysics at the recent Nietzsche on Mind and Nature conference. Here is an abstract of his presentation:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Panpsychic Marxism?

In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis and the apparent inherently crisis-prone nature of capitalism, I have been doing some reading of Marxist theory. Hence, I thought it worthwhile to explore some of the relations between panexperientialism and Marxism.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Nietzsche's Naturalism

Brian Leiter's draft paper "Nietzsche's Naturalism Reconsidered" is an engaging look at the issue of "whether and in what sense Nietzsche is a naturalist in philosophy". Leiter contends that perhaps the most worrying obstacle in reading Nietzsche as a philosophical naturalist is his doctrine of the Will To Power and the "crackpot metaphysics" that some interpretations of this doctrine may imply.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Case for Intelligent Design?

In this post I aim to have a go at the heresy of presenting a case for the plausibility of intelligent design as a factor in biological evolution (although ID of an atypical, non-supernatural sort).

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Goldilocks Enigma

Paul Davies recent book "The Goldilocks Enigma" is a fascinating exploration of why the universe seems to be "just right" for life. Interest in the fine tuning issue (which is related to the anthropic principle) has received something of a revival in recent years, primarily because of the attention paid by some physicists to the view that our universe has an improbably appropriate amount of dark energy to allow galaxies to form and hence life to evolve. In this post, I aim to evaluate possible solutions to the fine tuning problem from a panexperientialist perspective.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Forthcoming Book

I noticed on this blog that David Skrbina, author of the highly regarded "Panpsychism in the West", is editing a new book on panpsychism due out in 2008 or 2009.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Thoughts on "The Ecological Self"

Further to my last post, I've recently read Freya Mathew's book "The Ecological Self" (also partially available on Google books). In this post I'll give a brief outline of the book and make some comments on it. There is not much by way of other reviews I could find to link to (which is not to say the book has been without influence- it is frequently referred to in environmental philosophy texts and the like).

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Does Physicalism entail Cosmopsychism?

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.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Panpsychism at Tucson 2008

Panpsychism appears to have featured significantly in the recent Tucson Towards a Science of Consciousness 2008 Conference, to the extent that this reviewer remarks that "Pansychism is no longer crazy - it's the norm".

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Property Dualism - micro, macro and mystery

Fiona Macpherson in this article contends that Galen Strawson’s proposed panpsychist solution to the mind-body problem is no less of a mystery than other proposed solutions.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Will to Power, Life and Parsimony

Richard Schacht’s well-regarded book “Nietzsche” does a fine job of presenting Nietzsche’s philosophy, including his cosmology of the Will to Power, in a thorough and systematic manner. In this post I want to address a possible objection to the conception of the Will to Power and Schacht’s analysis of it.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Molnar, Merlea-Ponty and Pan-Intentionality

Steve Esser has an interesting post on his blog examining the late philosopher George Molnar’s claim that “something very much like intentionality is a pervasive and ineliminable feature of the physical world.”

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Strawson reviews

Two good reviews of Galen Strawson et al’s “Consciousness and it’s place in Nature” by Jerry Fodor and Leo Stubenberg have come out recently. They raise some issues which I’ve discussed in previous posts.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Feelings and fitness

I have been reading Sean Carroll’s book “Endless forms, Most beautiful”, which tracks recent progress in the field of evolutionary developmental biology. One of the themes of the book is the pivotal role of 'genetic switches’ within the genome, which determine when and where in the course of development of the embryo genes will be expressed. The activation of these switches is itself determined by proteins which themselves had been translated as a result of the action of other switches and so forth. Carrol writes:

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Many and the One?

One of the most problematic issues in panexperientialist theories is how purported centers of experience at the microexperiential level relate to each other and to human consciousness at the macroexperiential level. A related issue is whether there is one, all embracing experience which encompasses the whole Universe.

Implausibility and Irrelevance

Further to my previous posts re recent work of Galen Strawson and Gregg Rosenberg, The Journal of Consciousness Studies has an issue devoted to Strawson’s paper (a good discussion of which can be found here in Steve’s Guide to Reality - also the JCS discussion forum has lots of interesting posts in response to the paper), and the online journal Psyche has a symposia devoted to Rosenberg’s book.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Experience and the subject

I’ve noticed on the net that recent work of Gregg Rosenberg and Galen Strawson on panexperientialist themes seems to be generating more responses to the topic from mainstream analytical philosophy, which on the whole I think has hitherto often regarded the subject as something the absurdity of which had already been established, or for which one’s intuitions that this were the case were sufficient.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Bridging the gap

In this interesting paper, Peter Carruthers and Elizabeth Schechter (‘C & S’) argue that the case for panpsychism expounded by Galen Strawson (previously discussed here and here in this blog) fails to close the explanatory gap “between description of the physical and functional properties of the human body and brain, on the one hand, and consciousness described in phenomenal and experiential terms on the other”.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

From Fundamentality to ubiquity

In a paper entitled "Realistic monism: why physicalism entails panpsychism" (linked on this page and previously mentioned on this blog here), Galen Strawson argues against experience being an emergent phenomena on the grounds that ‘If it really is true that Y is emergent from X then it must be the case that Y is in some sense wholly dependent on X and X alone, so that all features of Y trace intelligibly back to X ’. He contends that this does not apply in relation to the supposed emergence of experience from wholly non-experiential matter.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Experience debate at the Infidel's Forum

Here is the link to an interesting on-line forum discussion I came across (on 'Panpsychism vs Materialism'). The Infidel Guy is an atheist radio announcer.

The discussion contains a number of posts by philosopher Christian de Quincey, author of Radical Nature.

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Strawson on Physicalism and Panpsychism

Philosopher Galen Strawson has recently presented a paper entitled “Why Physicalism entails Panpsychism”. Part of Strawson’s argument focuses on the incoherence of the concept of the emergence of consciousness from insentient physical processes. This argument of course is a common one against emergentism, but it is good to see a comprehensive critique of it presented by a prestigious analytical philosopher.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Agar, Embryology and Evolution

Australian Cell biologist Wilfred Agar (1882 to 1951 biography here) described his book, “A Contribution to the Theory of the Living Organism” (published 1943) as his most important contribution to biological theory. Yet the book has had a negligible impact on his field, probably because of the vast distance between the foundational assumptions of biology which he proposed and those with which mainstream biology operates. Nevertheless, I think Agar makes some seminal contributions not only to alternative foundational assumptions for biology, but also in the application of these assumptions to embryology and evolutionary theory.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Occam and Epicycles

A commonly expressed criticism of panexperientialism is that it is overly extravagant and violates Occam’s Principle that explanatory entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily . Thus, it is said, the cost of a panexperientialist explanation of human consciousness is the uneconomical view that experience extends into regions where it is not required and serves no explanatory function.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Feeling feelings - Or not?

In previous posts in this blog there has been a tension between two interpretations of the way in which we may experience the world. The tension is between whether in our conscious experience we directly experience the feelings and emotional form of our body parts and the external world, or whether the brain is responsible for constructing these feelings. By ‘directly’ I do not mean without mediation, but that conscious feelings are the result of feeling other feelings.

Hunting Zombies

The zombie trail is a well-trodden path, so I thought I might venture out myself:

The logical possibility of a zombie world -in which humans behave identically to the way they do in the real world but in which conscious experience is absent- is often used in antiphysicalist arguments to show that consciousness does not supervene on or is not entailed by the physical facts of the world.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Evolutionary Psychology and Experience

The application of Sociobiology (the study of the evolutionary basis of behaviour) to humans has received a boost in recent times through the rise of Evolutionary Psychology (‘EP’). EP has numerous critics, from accusations of genetic determinism to claims it uncritically reflects prevailing political values (in much the same way that Social Darwinism and the ‘survival of the fittest’ reflected the values of 19th Century industrialised capitalism). Yet, human beings are part of the natural world and their must surely be a place for explaining human behaviour as the outcome of evolutionary processes.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Primary Qualities

I have been reading DM Armstrong’s book “Perception and the Physical World’, in which he proffers a defence of direct realism, based on a definition of perception as the acquiring of knowledge, or the inclination to believe, particular facts about the physical world by means of the senses. On the whole I found his thesis unconvincing, due to the insufficient attention paid to the phenomenal feel of sensations and to neurophysiology (which is understandable considering the book was written more than 40 years ago).

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Hearing colors and seeing sounds

Synaesthesia, is a rare condition in which a stimulus received in one sense organ causes an experience in another. For example, in colored hearing, sound and vision may mingle: the different tones of words and letters can involuntarily evoke distinct and vivid colors.

Cells and Sympathy

Charles Hartshorne espoused the view that our cells and our conscious selves feel each other through sympathy. For example, here is a quote from this article:

"Take the case of pain. We have this feeling if certain cells of ours undergo damage. But if the cells have their own feelings, they can hardly enjoy being damaged. So what is our suffering but our participating in their suffering? Hurt certain of my cells and you hurt me."

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Philosophy of Smell

Whitehead argued that theories of consciousness often flounder because they explain what is most primitive and basic in terms of what stands out most clearly and distinctly. In contemporary times, a similar argument could be made that attempts to explain or understand experience in terms of it's more complex accomplishments (such as thought, computational ability, cognition, or language) are starting at the wrong place.

Perception in the Lower animals and beyond

This post will primarily be concerned with the question of whether the brain, sense organs and nerve cells are necessary for perception.

Friday, December 31, 2004

Whitehead's Theory of Perception

Whitehead’s theory or perception is integral to Whiteheadian panexperientialism. In particular, his analysis of ‘perception in the mode of causal efficacy’ lays the basis for the generalisation of elements of directly experienced feeling to the whole of nature. His theory of perception can also stand on its own and be fruitfuly utilised by other forms of panexperientialism, which may not be sympathetic to other aspects of Whitehead’s thought.

Whitehead, Abstruseness and Emotion

One of the barriers to the wider appreciation of the philosophy of Whitehead has been the denseness, difficulty and near impenetrability of some of his writings. Secondary commentaries on Whitehead are also often weighed down with technical, obscure and arcane terminology and argumentation.

In my view, Whitehead’s cosmology can be usefully understood as a characterisation of the world as an ocean of interplaying emotions. The best method of comprehending this may often be with an aesthetic frame of mind, rather than with the logician’s scalpel.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Placebo Effect

Here is a (fairly crudely argued) essay I wrote in 1992, which sparked my interest in all things panexperiential:

Mind, Body and Affect: A Reconceptualisation of the Placebo Effect

It is commonplace to say that the placebo effect and related phenomena constitute a nexus at which the natural and social sciences converge. Like psychosomatic disorders, ‘Voodoo Death’, Culture-bound reactive syndromes and so forth, the placebo effect provides valuable material for interdisciplinary research. Yet the inherent mind-body dualism of all the sciences has hampered such research to date. The purpose of this paper is to put forward an alternative conceptual model for analysing these phenomena.