Strawson on the Primacy of Panpsychism

My apologies to Galen Strawson for this article, which is based on my thoughts on his 2015 essay “Mind and being: the primacy of panpsychism“. I am not so much critiquing his position as using it to launch my own variations of its principles. I am getting into conjectures that are intended to pick up where Strawson leaves off in this paper. Having the utmost respect for Strawson and his pioneering contribution to modern panpsychism, I would encourage anyone who is serious about this subject to take the time to understand his views first and not to leapfrog from physicalism to the pansensitive view that I’m proposing. It is critical to have a solid understanding of exactly why panpsychism is an improvement on physicalism before entertaining the question of how panpsychism can be improved.

In the paper, Strawson lays out some propositions in support of panpsychism:

  1. Matter is force or energy
  2. Being is becoming
  3. Being is quality
  4. Being is mind

These four points are explained in the paper in detail, and I agree with them…in a sense. I agree with them as a better alternative to the physicalist model, which might go something like this:

  1. Matter is physics
  2. Being is merely the function of physics
  3. Physics is quantity
  4. Physics is structure

If we put these two together, and then add to that total set the inversion of their difference, I think we get closer to my view (Multisense Realism or Aesthetic Foundationalism) in which matter, energy, spacetime, being, becoming, are all defined qualitatively. Being is quality, but mind and structure are also quality.

Proposition 1: Stoff ist Kraft (matter is energy)

Strawson begins by writing that ‘Leibniz, too, declared: “quod non agit, non existit”’ […] What doesn’t act doesn’t exist.” He equates force (Kraft in German) with Aristotelian energeia or energy and Matter (Stoff) with spacetime. He says “substance is that which acts: ‘activity … is of the essence of substance“, and supports it with the footnote “See also, strikingly, Faraday 1844: 140ff, Bohm 1957: §1.6; and many others. I’m inclined to include Plato, who holds that ‘being is nothing other than dunamis’, i.e. potency, power, force.” He’s making a case for action being the fabric of reality. But can action exist in the absence of some perception of action? Can there be movement without some capacity to detect spatial relations? Can movement be separated from a narrative sense of where X was and where X went, and how those positional states S and S’ are related?

The concept of energy is poorly understood, even within physics. Gravity is typically referred to as a fundamental force but not as an energy. A planet orbiting a star in circular motion doesn’t expend energy to do it, yet orbiting can be considered an action or force. Planets fall rather then force their way around the sun. If energy is the capacity to do work, then work would imply the generation of one force against another, such as the force of lifting an object up off of the ground against gravity. There’s potential energy as well as kinetic, so a boulder on top of a cliff or a drum of oil can be said to have energy of a sort without acting. The term energy could instead be used in a more informal sense which combines force and energy as a general ‘immaterial agent of material transformation’.

That which doesn’t act publicly may still feel or sense privately.

That matter is actually caused by immaterial agents makes a lot of sense and is held as undeniable by many people who have done a lot of thinking about it – and it made sense to me also – except when we factor in consciousness. Is receptivity an action? Is it a force? It would seem to make more sense that receptivity is the capacity required prior to force being presented or defined.  If we look at our most naive evidence of immaterial agents, we have to admit that all immaterial phenomena are inferred directly as sensations of our own body or indirectly as the changes we can detect in other bodies . We don’t experience energy per se, we experience feelings like warmth or motion, or we see or hear effects which are associated with excitation and change. An explosion, for example, is an event in which some object is violently dispersed across space. We see debris scattering, brightening both the surrounding objects and our own field of vision. A flash, for example is either air molecules becoming ionized, as a flame or spark, or it is an interior event which reflects a sudden change in the brain (stroke), eye (pressing on the eyeball until you see stars), or the retina (the reflection of a distant illumination source fills our field of vision, like a flash bulb). Our conscious experience does not consider these sources to make a difference in one sense, but there are aesthetic cues which can be used to gain some epistemological traction.

I have developed some tinnitus in one ear in recent years, probably from spending too much time working in large data centers where the whir of thousands of server fans and souped up air conditioning is all but deafening. The noise is white noise in that it is constant and hypnotic, but there are multiple layers in which some tones or screeches can be heard to oscillate in a wandering, unpredictable way. Well, that’s what my ringing ear sounds like now when it’s quiet and I’m trying to sleep. The thing is, I can pick out at least two distinct types of ringing going on simultaneously. The ring that I have been describing which oscillates irregularly seems to be coming from an outside source. I had to get up out of bed on several occasions to satisfy myself that it was actually in my head rather than a ventilation fan in the attic. It *really* sounds like a ‘real’ thing in the world which I’m hearing. I can contrast that with the other type of ringing which is very high pitched and ‘close’ feeling. That high whine that you may be familiar with after attending a loud concert. Even though I understand that both sounds are not coming from the outside world, the second sound feels unmistakably closer to me than the first sound.

All of that was to make the point that reality is a continuum which includes both subjective-seeming perceptions and objective-seeming perceptions, but that does not mean that any of them are perceptions of something else, such as matter in the physicalist sense; some ‘thing’ out ‘there’ which simply exists independently of all aesthetic quality. The physicalist foundation is built on trust in the stuffness of stuff, whereas I am proposing that the only true and absolute stuff is the not like the physical stuff at all, but rather is like Wheeler’s participatory stuff – a capacity to directly experience and to embody an experience (indirectly).

If the universe has an aesthetic foundation rather than a ‘stuffy’ physical one, the idea that matter is energy is not necessarily true in the most important sense. The capacity to discern an aesthetic difference between material qualities and energetic qualities would be the more fundamental pillar upon which realism is built. The unity of matter and energy is never seen by us directly as an experienced reality, it can only ever be inferred intellectually as an equation. Even as an equation, E=mc² refers to the equivalence of mass and energy, not matter, with its three dimensional lattice structures and four dimensional algebraic functions. Mass is not a material, it is a measure of resistance to change. It’s worthwhile to note also that most of the energy released by nuclear reactions is not from particles turning into energy, but rather particles being rent from their nuclear configurations. Fusion is small numbers of particles moving in together, while fission is large collectives of particles breaking into smaller groups. The change is a chain reaction of particles which is energetic because it does material work on other particles, not because protons and nucleons are being annihilated into pure workfulness.

There is something called the Law of Conservation of Nucleon Number which says that “In a nuclear reaction total number of nucleons before and after the reaction remains the same, i.e. nucleons cannot be created nor destroyed during a nuclear reacton” (Introduction to Nuclear and Particle Physics Mittal V. K., verma R. C., gupta S. C., 4.4.4). This means that a proton might become a neutron, but it doesn’t become energy. There may be a better case to say that energy is what matter does in space than to say that matter is energy. If we interpret matter as energy, we can better explain some of our reality, but we are doing it by invoking a model of the universe which is in a sense unreal/anti-real and inconceivable aesthetically. A bowling ball is conceivable, a balling of bowl is not. What makes the universe real is not that matter is energy are united, but that matter and energy seem aesthetically opposite. Without that asymmetry, I can only imagine a universe of hallucination or abstract magic. To take that asymmetry one final step further, I propose that we should see the foundation of realism in the way that matter and energy seem opposite and in the way that both matter and energy together seem opposite to ‘seeming’ itself – to sense.

Matter, energy, and sense.

Sense or what I call pansensitivity is not a stuff but rather the inter-stuff within which all appearances of stuff should be thought of as occlusions or bubbles. To talk about matter being bubbles is not literal here, because the medium that these bubbles exist in is not spatially extended. The medium is ordinary experience, but without the assumption of a necessary thing-which-is-experienced.  Like the Aboriginal dreamtime, perhaps, I conceive of sense like a primordial dreaming through which all dimensions and descriptions are conceived, encountered, hidden and appreciated. Beneath force, action or energy there is sensitivity to what is going on, and sensitivity need not act or react publicly as far as I know. Sensitivity defines all: What action is, what it is that acts and what action does to the actor. Please do not mistake this to refer only to human sensation, or sense organs, or even living organisms. This notion is about the ontology of sense itself as a concept, as a legitimate and final context within which all of physics and psychology (human or otherwise) exists. As Strawson points out brilliantly, panpsychism should not be considered a Neutral Monism, but a doubly committed, ‘Experiential-Hylal’ monism. Awareness does not stand aloof from material and abstract reality, it is what is reflected and embodied by material and abstract reality.

Must we say that this E-H monism is action though? If we want to say that what doesn’t act doesn’t exist, that can still be true, if we take existence literally as an external or public presence rather than the universal notion of existence as that-which-is-not-nothing. With an aesthetic foundation, it is the interior sense of excitement which would logically be the more fundamental resource of existence, the insistence which arises privately as an intention to exist publicly in spacetime. Action occurs so that its accomplishment can be admired in some sense. We write because we read, not because there is writing. Action then is always a reaction to some deeper quality of expectation – an affect that insists on an effect. Sense is not only being and becoming, subject and object, space and time, but the sensory-motive significance of participation. Sense is the aesthetic totality through which the ‘versing’ of the Universe continues.

Proposition 2: Wesen ist Werden (being is becoming)

Strawson writes “All concrete being is essentially timebeing—whatever exactly time is. Being is being.” I would counter that by saying that being is not only be-ing, but been, has been, and may be. All of the past-tense and future-tense influences on the now should not be pushed out into another category. As unreal as past and future may seem in some sense, the influence of past and future makes up a tremendous portion of the present. We are permeated by our past, we embody it, and that embodiment often seems to foreshadow possible futures. Being should be understood to extend beyond time, beyond stasis and beyond change. Stasis and change are qualities of perception, and relativistic ones at that. The faster we are, the slower our world appears. Speeding up or slowing down our rate of awareness reveals new phenomena that extend our world. Instead of saying everything is process, we might say ‘everything is project’. Not merely a doing and going but of placing and replacing.

Under this heading Strawson also writes

“To say this is not to ‘desubstantialize’ matter in any way, and it is most emphatically not to suggest that matter is really only what we can possibly observe (as per the fatal modern tendency to epistemologize metaphysics). It’s simply to express in a certain way the point that the nature of concrete being is energy”

To this I agree that matter should not be desubstantialized in any way. Rocks are as real as anything ever could be. It is only that what is a rock to our body may be more like a sponge or even a cloud to something which is faster, smaller, or less solid that we are. I would agree also that matter is not only what we can possibly observe,  however I would disagree with any implication that this means that matter can be anything other than that which can be perceived. The nature of concrete being may not be energy, but the sense which preserves unity and differences across all qualities, including suites of qualities that we call energy.

Proposition 3: Sein ist Sosein (being is quality)

Here I am in complete agreement with Strawson and Lewis, whom he quotes about concrete reality being ‘an arrangement of qualities. And that is all’. I would add that even arrangement is a quality. As he writes “In the case of any concrete entity, again, its Sosein (its being the way it is) is identical to its Sein (its being).” I am reminded of Kant’s understanding that Existence is an empty predicate. There is no quality of existing without some without some aesthetic qualities which can be appreciated through sensory-motive participation. In short, there is no input or output in the absence of some concrete experience. There is no such thing as ‘input’ in and of itself – no ‘sense data’ without sense itself.

This is of course a major complaint of mine against both eliminativism, and computational theory of mind/Strong AI – that the map is not only mistaken for the territory, but the territory…the concrete power of sensation is demoted to an emergent abstraction of epiphenomenal status. Because physics and computer science arise out of mathematical sensibilities that objectify and systemize, they are intrinsically biased against the opponent channels of awareness, namely empathy and intention. While there is great beauty in numbers in the Platonic-Pythagorean sense, the idea of a cosmos that is purely arithmetic and formal leaves us with a worldview of a computer which lacks a screen, keyboard, or user.

Proposition 4: Ansichsein ist Fürsichsein (being is mind)

In this passage, Strawson affirms the notion of Kant and William James that in order for something to exist, there must be ‘something it is like to be it, experientially’. I would challenge his assertion that ‘We can’t hope to prove that the notion of nonexperiential
(or inert) concrete being is incoherent’, by looking at the alternative. If there were a such thing as nonexperiential being, there would have to be some difference between it and nonexperiential nonbeing other than the empty predicate of being…so it’s a non sequitur. Even if it weren’t a logical impossibility, in practical terms a universe which is devoid of awareness or in which awareness is shared with non-awareness, the non-experiential has no capacity to define itself as existing. Indeed, the moment in which experience begins to exist is the only meaningful beginning of time. Whether there is timeless non-experience or not is only something which can be debated within experience.

Where I take issue is in presuming that experience is always an experience of being some thing. Just because human experience is dominated by that kind of individuality doesn’t necessarily mean that there are not more exotic kinds of mindless experience which is non-human, or even inorganic. If Strawson’s creed is an identity metaphysics, I might say that mine is a trans-identity meta-ontology. Even the most fundamental concepts of energy, process, quality, and mind are still concepts – still roots in the garden of sense. Sense should be understood to contain all of reality and sanity, but to extend far beyond both.

Moving on, I applaud his assertion against radical or brute emergence:

“it’s metaphysically far more extravagant and anti-naturalistic to reject the No Jumps thesis and postulate radical emergence of the experiential from the nonexperiential, than it is to postulate non-radical emergence of the human experiential from the non-human experiential—whatever difficulties the second idea may also seem to raise.”

My sentiments exactly. Applying emergence to consciousness is like applying the Pythagorean theorem to Pythagoras. Likewise I concur with his thoughts on naturalism and experience:

“experience is the most certainly known concretely existing general natural phenomenon, and is indeed the first thing any scientist encounters when they try to do science.”

He follows this by reclaiming, as I do, the sovereignty of materialism and naturalism from the forces of reduction to physical structure. Physics is silent on the non-structural, intrinsic nature of concrete reality, so it should not be allowed to frame the definition of nature and material in immaterial, structural terms.

After some discussion of the incoherence of Neutral Monism and the incompatibility of non-experience with experience, which I will leave to those who have not yet understood the superiority of ultra-strong panpsychism, I come to the section:

Experience entails an experiencer

He writes

“I’m aware that experience entails an experiencer so I’m going to have to allow that there are as many experiencers as there are genuinely ontologically distinct portions of experience—even though this may appear to make things more difficult for me as a fledgling panpsychist.”

That seems straightforward enough…but wait. Is being aware that experience entails an experiencer really a solid assumption. Sure, *our* experience entails an experiencer, but we are a very specific kind of thing – an evolved experience which encounters itself as a living body in a world of other bodies, living and otherwise. Our experience of being an experiencer may be local to zoology or biology – an artifact of being enveloped in skin yet able to move around using our intention. If we are serious about existence being aesthetic, then the unbounded aesthetic which transcends even ontology would dissolve even is-ness in a continuum of seems-ness. Seeming is not less than being, it is more. On the absolute level, fact is a type of fiction and fiction or pretending is the ultimate tendency.

This is a controversial concept to entertain, especially as it could be construed as an attack on theism. If we say that an experiencer is a kind of experience of experiences, and not ontologically primitive, then do we do away with God as a kind of giant experiencer in a realm where no experiencer logically needs to define itself that way.

On the other hand, tying our own subjectivity to the morphology of our body may be a Just-so story, and the dichotomy of experiencer and experience may simply be how it is. In that case, monotheism is a natural enough way to frame the totality of experiencers – as a super-experiencer.

A third option is what I call ambi-theism, or a superposition of the absolute, in which both experiencer and non-experiencer qualities are merely colors on the palette of sense. The grand movie contains dramas with characters and plots as well as austere documentaries with only the pristine admiration of nature for itself as an it.


Next I find an issue where I do disagree:

“We know the experiential is real and we also know—about as well as we know anything in science—that it’s literally located in the brain: human experience is neural activity. This is by now far beyond reasonable doubt.

I’m a little surprised at this, given that Strawson is sincere about the primacy of consciousness. Maybe I’ve just been arguing with others about this issue for so long that I now assume that people who are focused on consciousness are aware that there are studies of NDE’s, embodied cognition, and many other exotic issues which do provide doubt of complete mind-brain identity. Whether that doubt is ‘reasonable’ is debatable to some, but given what we’ve already discussed about matter being energy and energy being mind, it seems regressive to me to then turn around and say that human experience *is* neural activity. No, human experience is irreducible, and neural activity is (an admittedly important and directly correlative) part of that experience.

In his point about fungibility, “all physical stuff is fungible in the sense that any form of it can in principle be transformed into any other—so that if for example one broke hydrogen down into leptons and quarks one could reassemble it as gold” I would agree, however I would not agree that all experience is physical in that sense. We cannot reassemble World War II. Not only because of thermodynamic irreversibility/entropy/the arrow of time, but because consciousness is not an isolated ‘now’ but rather the view from within a bubble of eternity. The view cannot be copied or assembled from simpler forms, it has to be a unique and in some sense unrepeatable part of the totality. In my view, the fungibility of physics, or public-spatial physics is an inversion of the deeper anti-fungibility of awareness. That which is perceived to happen over and over, or to be put together from parts is witnessed by that which has never happened and will never happen again, and which is irreducible to parts.

I agree with his points about consciousness not being a mystery at all, but would add that because consciousness is absolute, it is at once the most mysterious and least mysterious phenomenon. If you don’t think that consciousness is mysterious at all, talk to some people who have ingested Ayahuasca. There is discussion of the combination problem, which is a serious issue for panpsychism, or it would seem to until you commit to absolute panpsychism or pansensitivity as I propose. After that, mereological worries of sums and parts disappear as the multiplicity of conscious states which define reality are nested in ways that we may not even be able to imagine. States of ‘mind’ in which all of history is a single moment, spatialized perhaps from a God’s eye view. The premise of multisense realism and aesthetic foundationalism opens the door to a whole other hemisphere, at least, of the universe.

Finally Strawson ties it all up in a world knot:

“The notion of being self-sprung is metaphorical. But I think that something about it smells right—the idea that the ‘self-sprungness’ or ‘self-intimation’ of experience is the fundamental form or self-sustaining structure of the energy which is concrete reality. Self-sprungness makes—constitutes—force, and Stoff ist Kraft. Matter—more generally, the physical, all concrete being—is force or activity or power or energy. Matter-force is essentially dynamic, being is essentially becoming: Wesen ist Werden. We travel smoothly down the chain of terms which—it now appears—forms a circle: a panpsychist circle.

I think he’s on the right track, and the metaphor of the circle and Schopenhauer’s world-knot (mind-body problem) that he mentions relate to a more literal twisting of the continuum of sense, which I have named ‘Ouroboran Monism’ after Ouroboros. Even as mind and body confront itself as opposite ends of the snake in one sense, like the inflection point of head eating tail, they are also mere points in a circuit which gradually evolves through mind-like and body-like coils, spiraling around and within itself. A non-orientable surface like a Klein bottle or Mobius strip is a good metaphor of how these aesthetic extremes can be reconciled, but of course, these are only metaphors. The continuum of sense is not a structure or manifold, but the phenomenon of feeling, of drama and coherence.


My reworking of the paper’s propositions then are:

  1. Mind is the sensible relation of aesthetic qualities.
  2. Sense is the intervention of becoming upon what has become.
  3. Sense is a continuum of ‘minding’ and relatively mindless perspectives.
  4. Sense precedes being, existence, or matter.
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