Daniel Dennett is a panpsychist. He wouldn’t admit it in public, and he might not even realize it. Yet Dennett, one of the foremost materialists in the early part of the 21st century, advocates views regarding consciousness, biology, and philosophy that unavoidably lead to that most ridiculous of philosophical views: that all things have some degree of consciousness, otherwise known as panpsychism.
For those who don’t know, Dan Dennett is a professor of philosophy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. I had the good fortune of meeting Dennett recently and found that he is in fact a very pleasant man, courteous, and with a great sense of humor.
Dennett has written numerous books, including, most recently, Breaking the Spell, an anti-religion screed that places him firmly among the “new atheists” school of thought. The new atheists, which include Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others, take as their primary target the traditional view of God as a creator and patriarch who exercises an ongoing role in his creation. This traditional view, known as theism, is quite hard to defend for anyone who has scientific or philosophical training. But Dennett and the rest of the new atheists go too far, rejecting most notions of divinity as part and parcel of their rejection of traditional religion.
Dennett has also written books on Darwinian evolution (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) and consciousness (Consciousness Explained and Brainstorms, among others). He is, with the British biologist Dawkins, probably the best-known proponent of what I call “crude materialism.” Crude materialism is the hardcore — some would say dogmatic — version of materialism. It is the view, in essence, that the universe is all just matter and space, there is no God, and all things can in principle be explained fully through human inquiry and theorizing.
Crude materialists believe, to speak very generally, that mind (consciousness) is “merely” what brains do. Once we explain the brain’s various functions we have then explained all that there is to explain. Explain the brain and we have explained the mind.
Dennett has acknowledged, however, that “subjective experience” is real. The phrase subjective experience refers simply to the first-person perspective (I, we) as opposed to a third-person (he, she, it, they) perspective. It is the sense of being here — right here, somewhere behind my eyes and between my ears, or so it seems. When philosophers talk about explaining consciousness, or when they speak of the mind-body problem, this is what they are trying to explain.
Dennett has also argued forcefully against the idea of conscious experience being something fundamentally different than what is simply matter. Dennett seems to be most opposed to what is called “dualism.” Descartes was the best-known dualist and he argued that there is physical stuff and there is mental stuff. There is also some organ in the body, most likely the pineal gland at the base of the brain, that allows these two different stuffs to interact. For Descartes, only humans had mind, so all other animals were considered mere automatons devoid of any kind of consciousness or spirit. Dualism is not a common position today among philosophers or scientists, but it’s still fairly common in religious views of the world which refer to “spirit” or “soul” as something separate from mindless matter.
Dennett often mentions the history of “vitalism” in biology, as an argument by analogy, to show why dualism is wrong. Vitalists argued that there is something special, some élan vital, imbuing certain kinds of matter with properties that make it “alive.” Vitalism was a fairly common view until the early 20th century. This argument has long since been (rightly) discredited because we have found that there is nothing else to explain about “life” once we explain the functions of living organisms. In other words, according to anti-vitalists like Dennett, “life” isn’t a quality or a thing, it’s just a label we give to certain types of matter that exhibit more complex behavior than what we generally think of as being not alive. But there’s not a clear dividing line between life and non-life.
Now here’s my main point, though it’s admittedly a fairly subtle point. If Dennett is a materialist, and he admits that subjective experience is real — and he is an anti-vitalist and anti-dualist — then he must also be a panpsychist. This is the case because if materialism is true, and at the same time subjective experience is real, then matter must include subjective experience — consciousness itself.
If anti-vitalism is true, life does not suddenly appear where it was not present before. It must exist in a continuum from the simplest forms of matter through the chain of being all the way to us, human beings. As an anti-vitalist, Dennett can’t argue consistently that consciousness materialized at some arbitrary point in the history of the universe. Ergo, life and consciousness are present, in some amount, in the simplest forms of matter as well as the most complex forms we know of today. In other words, all things are alive to some degree, and all things are conscious to some degree. This is panpsychism.
A difference between what we consider to be “life” and what we consider to be “consciousness” is that explaining the functions of consciousness does not explain consciousness itself. The various functions of human consciousness, such as sight, dreaming, etc., we may explain, but these functions presuppose a first-person point of view, subjective experience. We must explain this first-person point of view if we’re seeking insight into the nature of the universe — or “merely” of consciousness.
I have in recent years come to the position that panpsychism is the best explanation we have of mind, matter, and spirituality, after pondering these issues for more than 20 years. The best-known panpsychists in Western history include Spinoza, Schopenhauer, William James, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin, J.B.S. Haldane, David Bohm, and many others. Unfortunately, panpsychism is still not taken seriously by most scientists or philosophers. But it should be.
So why does all of this matter (pardon the pun)? It matters because it shows that crude materialism, an increasingly common worldview in the Western world, holds inherent contradictions, the surest sign that a theory or paradigm is problematic.
And it shows that consciousness is not, as materialists generally argue, a property particular to complex forms of matter (such as human beings). Consciousness is in fact a property of all matter. As matter has complexified, through the process of evolution, consciousness has complexified. This can form the basis for not only a satisfying and consistent philosophical and scientific worldview, it also forms the basis for linking science and spirituality in a rational framework that incorporates areas more traditionally left to faith.
More like this story
Tam Hunt is a Santa Barbara attorney and lecturer at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management.