Panpsychic perspective

The Western worldview, based as it is on a materialist assumptions and scientific method, tells us the natural world is purely material. To attribute any inner dimension, whether we call it mind or spirit, to material objects is seen as a romantic conceit. There is, of course, no scientific proof of this, it is simply an assumption of the scientific perspective, which has been a remarkably successful approach to understanding and controlling our world.

However, this worldview channels our thinking in two important ways. It tells us the world is made of separate things. These objects of nature are composed of inert matter, operating according to causal laws. They have no subjectivity or intelligence, no intrinsic purpose or meaning. It tells us that mind and physical reality are separate. Humans alone have the capacity for reflective consciousness, and for understanding and giving meaning to the world. This split between humanity and nature, and the arrogation of all mind to humans, is what the sociologist Weber meant by the disenchantment of the world. It leads directly to the ecological crisis we are currently experiencing.

From a panpsychic perspective, it is a mistake to see the reality in this way. Rather, the universe is from its origins a process of creative evolution that includes both external/material and inner/spiritual dimensions. Mind and matter are two aspects of a single reality expressed in the immense diversity of the universe. The universe as a whole, and everything in it, has both an inner, spiritual or subjective dimension, a being for itself; and an outer, physical dimension. There is a spiritual capacity in carbon just as carbon is implicit in our highest spiritual experience. The inner dimension provides the capacity for self-organization and self-transformation that is the evolutionary process of the universe. This is expressed through its outer being in the matter and energy that make up the whole universe. These two dimensions are like two sides of the same coin, they are different but inseparable.

One argument for a panpsychic perspective lies in the observation that all experiential phenomena are physical phenomena. What else could they be? Another lies in origin a sentience in living beings: for if some kind of subjectivity were not immanent in the order of things, for it to appear in living beings and blossom into reflective consciousness in some “higher” animals including humans would imply a disjuncture that could only be explained by positing the existence of a transcendental deity.

So, following Thomas Berry, a priest and theologian who taught about the deep connections between spiritual and scientific understandings of life, we must learn to see that “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” This must be the starting point for our understanding of all things, and the only place from which we can act if we are to contribute to meeting the challenges of our times. Thomas Berry laments that we are no longer in conversation with the more than human world. He wrote

… if we do not hear the voices of the trees, the birds, the animals, the fish, the mountains and the rivers, then we are in trouble… That, I think, is what has happened to the human community in our times. We are talking to ourselves. We are not talking to the river, we are not listening to the river. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking the conversation we have shattered the universe. All these things that are happening now are consequences of this “autism”.

The panpsychic perspective contradicts our modernist assumptions about the nature of the world, but actually is a strong thread through Western philosophy reaching back from Plato through the Renaissance to the present day. But it remains difficult to find appropriate words for this sense of the presence of the world. Words like “subjective” or “psychic” or “spiritual”, are deeply contaminated by the dominant materialist perspective when applied to the material world, in the same way that describing something as “romantic” can be derogatory. One might borrow words from other traditions, and call it Dao, or Atman, or Great Spirit, but this would not offer any clarity and distort their meaning in their original discourses. Or one might follow the philosopher Spinoza – who is often seen as the originator of modern panpsychism – and simply call it God, seeing God as synonymous with Nature. But the word God carries with it such strange baggage that is likely to lead to yet another set of misunderstandings. I am inclined to follow my friend Stephan Harding and adopt the ancient term anima mundi, literally the soul of the world that permeates the cosmos and animates all matter. Anima mundi not associated with modern meanings of subjectivity, sentience or consciousness, and points to some kind of mysterious and indefinable aliveness permeating everything.

Berry, T., & Clarke, T. (1991). Befriending the Earth: a theology of reconciliation between humans and the earth. Mystic, Connecticut: Twenty-Third Publication, p.20
Harding, S. P. (2009). Animate Earth. Foxhole, Dartington: Green Books.

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