Park Street Press, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-59477-340-2

Reviewed (the 2002 edition) by John Clarke


The American philosopher W.V.O. Quine once remarked that “Consciousness is to me a mystery, not one to be dismissed. We know what it is like to be conscious, but not how to put it into satisfactory scientific terms” (Quidities pp. 132-3). So consciousness, along with the whole subjective nature of our inner mental and spiritual life, gets left out of the scientific world picture. Thus, the orthodox account of evolution tells us that living beings emerged and developed as ever-more complex physical entities, but nowhere in this story is there a place for the subjective phenomena of consciousness. These seem to be of a different order of being entirely, and the only way of accounting for them is to imagine a kind of miracle whereby at some point in the evolutionary process complex physical systems produced a wholly different kind of reality, namely consciousness.

Christian de Quincey, who is professor of philosophy and consciousness studies at John F. Kennedy University in the USA, offers us a radically alternative paradigm. What if, he asks, consciousness did not appear like a genie out of a lamp at some arbitrary point in biological evolution, but rather has been present within, and a component of, the very stuff of the universe, an essential complement to its material constitution? Perhaps, to adapt a famed remark quoted by William James, it’s not ‘turtles all the way down’ but ‘consciousness all the way down’.

de Quincey starts out from two basic problems in his exploration of this hypothesis. The first is the unsatisfactory nature of our contemporary paradigm from a purely theoretical point of view. This paradigm has been shaped since Descartes’ time by the assumption that there is a profound split in the nature of things, an absolute division between mental and physical realities. From a purely philosophical point of view this presents us with some intractable problems, particularly the question of how the mental world can possibly interact with the physical. From a scientific point of view, it strikes at the heart of science’s attempt to give a coherent and comprehensive account of reality. It is forced to be content with the seemingly miraculous birth of consciousness which eludes its allencompassing grasp. It is inconceivable, he argues, that “sentience, subjectivity, or consciousness could ever evolve or emerge from wholly insentient, objective, non-conscious matterenergy” (p.263). Of course, many scientists simply ignore the fact of consciousness, and are content to view organisms simply as physical machines. But as de Quincey argues, this runs in the face of the facts of experience, namely our immediate awareness of the presence and efficacy of our own consciousness in the world.

The second problem with our contemporary paradigm is of a more practical nature. Its image of the basic stuff of the universe is one which is totally devoid of meaning or purpose, or any of those spiritual qualities that give value to life. This is not only an issue that concerns our personal lives and our individual sense of purpose and meaning, but has wider implications for the way in which we run our social and political affairs, and the way in which we engage with our natural environment. In the shadow of this paradigm, our world has “become a giant machine, without any intrinsic feeling”, its only value being its potential for exploitation, a world which, unsurprisingly, turns out to be profoundly ‘pathological’ (p.5). What we need, he argues, is a new cosmological story, “an ecological account of the world in which we humans find our fit, our place, our home. We need a new story because the current dominant cosmology, based on modernist science, has left us alienated in the universe” and we need “a way to heal the split between knower and known, and to develop a worldview that includes the storyteller” (pp.19 & 83).

The story which fits this requirement is, according to the author, panpsychism. This theory maintains firstly that all physical things have an interior dimension of experience or feeling, and are in some respects both material and psychic and secondly, that this feature of the universe is essential to it and has therefore been intrinsic to nature right from the start. Such a story not only enables us to avoid imagining some kind of miraculous birth of consciousness seemingly out of nothing, but also embeds us in a universe of unfolding meaning.

The outline I have given is inevitably sketchy, and gives only a hint of the wide-ranging scholarship and sophisticated argument that the author brings to bear over nearly 300 closely argued pages. The book not only traces the development of panpsychism in the context the historical debates about consciousness and the nature of mind, psyche and soul, but also draws on recent arguments of process philosophers such as Whitehead and Griffin whose speculations are closely interwoven with de Quincey’s own.

One of the key arguments of the book revolves round one of panpyschism’s most plausible competitors, namely the theory of ‘emergence’, the view that entirely new beings emerge in biological history. de Quincey devotes much attention to refuting this rival theory. In my own opinion, however, emergentism fits somewhat better with contemporary thinking than panpsychism. This new thinking has moved decisively away from mechanism and reductionism, views which are certainly hostile to the idea of consciousness, and is moving towards a conception of reality as radically creative, as constantly producing new forms, right from its beginnings in the Big Bang up to the emergence of intelligent life. This idea is captured in the concept of ‘autopoiesis’, coined by Maturana and Verela who see self-generation as a key characteristic of life. It has also been espoused by the biologist Brian Goodwin who identifies creative emergence as the central characteristic of the evolutionary process, and by Stuart Kaufmann of the Santa Fe Institute with his speculations concerning new types of order that can emerge spontaneously in complex systems. According to de Quincey, however, emergentism is profoundly mistaken in that it involves the creation of something out of nothing which is “not only unscientific, it is logically absurd” (p.207). This is questionable. It seems to me there is nothing logically contradictory about this notion, and it is only ‘unscientific’ in terms which ignore recent theories in biology concerning the spontaneous emergence of new order, and developments in physics and cosmology where the spontaneous creation of elementary particles from nothing is almost commonplace, and the universe itself is seen as emerging from the quantum vacuum. Moreover the emergence of consciousness, though unpredictable, and not merely a reshuffling of existing material, is open to explanation in Darwinian terms, and hence not an entirely inexplicable miracle.

Arguably, the possession of consciousness has a survival advantage over its non-possession, and so, while its intrinsic nature cannot be explained in terms of its preceding conditions, its functional properties may well be. This consideration might be linked with recent developments in our understanding of consciousness in relation to the brain whereby consciousness is seen, not as some kind of freakish excrescence, but as an integral component of the whole cognitive process, linked intimately with the evolutionary emergence of increasingly complex living structures. There seems to me to be no pressing need to extend this model backwards into non-living matter where similarly complex structures are absent. Is a universe impregnated from top to bottom with some form of consciousness even conceivable? de Quincey vehemently rejects the ‘lazy’ objection that, according to panpsychism, everything from tables and telephones to atoms and bacteria would have thoughts and perceptions. He insists that panpsychism does not imply that every particle of matter, right from the Big Bang, has been endowed with an interior dimension of consciousness that resembles our own. Rather, all matter contains an elemental quality of feeling, a primitive form of consciousness of which our own is (probably) the most sophisticated development.

It is not clear to me, however, what possible role consciousness, even in a most primitive form, could play at a pre-biotic level. We certainly need consciousness to explain human, and some animal, behaviour, but I cannot see what it adds to a purely physico-chemical explanation of processes prior to the emergence of living beings. Is a world pervaded with consciousness more meaningful than one which views it as a latecomer? Is it one in which we can feel more at home? I can see the attraction of such a view which links us to the universe in a kind of family relationship. But personally, however, I feel no desire to link my own sense of meaning and spiritual purpose with some grand cosmic scheme, or with an infinite multitude of conscious beings. The vestigial conscious properties of matter do not seem to add anything to what I know or care about my own and human life in general. I do not need to feel that mountains, oceans and forests, or the very atoms they are made from, have a conscious dimension in order to experience and admire their sublime beauty, or to treat them with reverence; as far as I am concerned they are not ‘dead’, a term which de Quincey frequently uses to characterise the ‘merely’ material. Gaia does not have to be mindful for me to experience and treat it in mindful ways. In any case, much about human consciousness is not at all admirable or worthy of reverence, and its products at the human level are often worse than meaningless – they are positively evil.

It is anthropocentrism of the worst kind to assume that consciousness is somehow what is of supreme value about the world; as Kierkegaard suggested, it might even be viewed as a disease. So, while admiring de Quincey’s bold and sophisticated defence of panpsychism, in the end I still prefer emergentism; apart from any philosophical reasons, I simply feel more at home in that kind of universe. Like Walt Whitman, “I know nothing else but miracles”. For me, it’s miracles all the way down.