19 and Panpsychism
Letters to the Editor of Philosophy Now sent in by me and under one of my pseudonyms, Thomas Jeffries
Published in Issue 138 - June/July 2020
Dear Editor: I have been reminded by the inroads into our lives of COVID-19 of the idea of panpsychism – that rather strange assertion by certain philosophers that consciousness is inherent in every aspect of matter, down to the smallest subatomic particle. Well, the coronavirus is a very large molecule. Its chemical formulation enables it to ‘take over’ our cells’ production lines and substitute the replication of the virus. No-one in the scientific world, however, is proposing ‘intention’ here. What’s happening is no different in principle to the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen to produce water: ultimately, certain molecules simply interact. [Hence the search for other chemicals – drugs – to hinder those interactions, rather than giving the virus a good telling-off. - edited out!]
The virus is itself a mutation of one of its forebears, typically found in bats. Does this mean that its alleged self-awareness for panpsychists was involved in that mutation, knowing that there were bigger and better hosts to parasitise? If not, and if its reproduction is not dependent on self-awareness, we are left asking what its consciousness actually amounts to. If the molecule is not actually aware of its awareness and cannot use it for anything, then in what sense does it have awareness? [And if it cannot be shown either to exist or not exist, then it doesn’t conform to any normal definition of a scientific hypothesis – i.e. that it should be testable. - edited out] Isn’t panpsychism better characterised as mumbo jumbo, a fairy story?
Paul Buckingham, Annecy, France
Dear Editor: I have not seen discussed a difficult moral point which comes with panpsychism. If everything does indeed have self-awareness, then surely that must bring with it a knowledge of the consequences of actions, and so, moral responsibility. How then does the coronavirus justify its actions? And how do we justify our genocidal attempts to rid ourselves of what panpsychism tells us is a sentient being? We’re not even in a position to anaesthetise the virus to stop it suffering as we destroy it.
Clearly we need to rebuild our entire approach to morality to enable us to remove this dilemma. I suggest that we repurpose the somewhat neglected concept of purposivism: the idea that intent or purpose is to be found in all human and animal life. We could perhaps call it panpurposivism. This would state that all matter has purpose. We would have to accept that purpose may vary according to the configuration it then has. For instance, the purpose of hydrogen can vary considerably, from providing the sun’s heat by fusion, to being part of the water molecules essential for the formation of life as we know it. Combine hydrogen with oxygen and carbon, and we get ethanol – a substance which a major recent international study tells us is dangerous to human life at even the smallest dose; but which is nonetheless a comfort for many in a time of coronavirus lockdown.
In the case of the virus, its purpose is to multiply at our expense. One of our purposes as human beings is to defeat its purpose. Each of those conflicting purposes is, however, fully justified morally, because the purpose is imposed on it and us by our panpurposivist configurations.
Thomas Jeffries, Warwickshire
In case you're confused, yes, it's a leg-pull...