There is a problem with panpsychism that I haven't seen discussed in the literature, so I was wondering if anyone could give me pointers to discussions of it. For purposes of this question, I understand panpsychism to be the view that consciousness is an integral part of nature such that all matter has some degree of consciousness just as all matter has some degree of energy. There are laws of nature that specify how and when consciousness arises so that human consciousness arises from these general laws of nature in some way.

One of the problems with this view is the problem of sensation without biological cells. Everything we know about sensation indicates that it requires cells to react to a stimulus and cells to transfer that stimulus to where it can be experienced. If you cut the nerve cells between a man's hand and brain, he can no longer feel with his hand. If you destroy the rods and cones in his retina, he can no longer see. There is no known mechanism for a stimulus to get from the world to the mind without being received by specialized cells (which I believe are usually nerve cells as well) and being passed up through nerve cells to the brain.

So let's suppose a rock has some level of consciousness. What is the rock conscious of? Everything we know about sensation tells us that a rock without biological cells can't experience anything. It can't even know if it's in light or dark, cold or hot, whether it's falling or sitting still. How would it have any access to the non-mental world? Is the claim of panpsychism then that all of the non-biological consciousnesses have nothing to do but introspect on their own processes?

This is a problem because there are good reasons to think that consciousness cannot exist without an object to be conscious of, but whether you buy this argument or not, the consciousness of the rock seems to be a pure theoretical object that not only has no effect on the outside world, but such that the outside world has no effect on it. It seems to be completely outside nature, which makes it odd to postulate that it is a part of nature.

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    This would be an aspect of the combination problem. If we cut the connection between a cell and the brain the brain will no longer feel what the cell feels, but the cell will still feel it, a panpsychist would maintain. So the question is how these micro-feels assemble into macro-feels, in a human or in a rock, but especially in a rock that has no integrating infrastructure. The same can be asked about assembling feels of atoms into those of a cell through (apparently) nothing but chemical bonds.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 16 at 19:59
  • You're just contextualizing or recontextualizing a stone's sensory consciousness within human's, thus it could be said the exactly same judgment from a stone's perspective about human assuming panpsychism. It's possible a stone's sensation is extremely feeble compared to humans for their overlapping range, but that's moot. So long as there's a sky view and causal chain, interaction or entanglement emerges and goes on. It perhaps hints various electrons human detect at different positions with various momentum may be the same electron or same event from the said electron's sensible view... Commented Mar 17 at 6:14
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    The existing answers and comments tell you that there is no way we can imagine the consciousness of the rock, that no words could describe it, that it is utterly inscrutable. You might wonder then, how pan-psychism can be meaningful at all. Commented Mar 17 at 6:57
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    @TKoL But how can a rock be sensitive to anything when it has no cells to react to the sensation? Commented Mar 17 at 17:05
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    @TKoL, as I said in the question, all of the sensation that we know of is controlled by cells. The idea that there is some other mechanism for sensation is pure speculation. It's just another wild speculation to pile on the other ones that panpsychism requires. Commented Mar 18 at 10:09

5 Answers 5


Everything we know about sensation indicates that it requires cells to react to a stimulus and cells to transfer that stimulus to where it can be experienced. If you cut the nerve cells between a man's hand and brain, he can no longer feel with his hand.

The panpsychist view is that there is experience everywhere, regardless of whether it reaches a brain or not. When you cut the nerves, the man no longer feels with his hand because he is causally disconnected from it, but the hand is still experiencing the same thing it was before - because it is still causally connected to itself. What the hand experiences is barely even related to what the man feels, because the structure of causal interactions within the hand (which results in the hand's own experience) is much different from the structure of causal interactions within the brain (which results in what the man feels). When there's pressure on the skin, the hand doesn't feel a "touch" as the man would understand it; the hand experiences something else, which the man probably has no words for.

In the panpsychist view, every part of your body has its own experiences, and what you call your own consciousness is only the experiences of a particular subsystem of the brain. There are plenty of others, even within the brain itself. The main thing that privileges that particular subsystem over all the others, is the influence that subsystem has over the rest of the body, allowing it, for example, to control utterances from the mouth.

What is the rock conscious of?

Consciousness results from the pattern of causal interactions within a system. You are conscious of the influence of certain patterns of neural activity upon other patterns of neural activity within your brain. If you look at a pen, in your brain is formed a pattern of activity that represents the pen. You are then conscious of this pen-representing pattern of activity, precisely because it influences other patterns of activity, such as those that allow you to speak about the pen or decide how to pick it up.

The meaning of the pen-representing pattern depends entirely on how it is situated in causal relation to the rest of the brain - just as the meaning of a word depends entirely on how it is used within a community of language users. Or, the meaning of a variable in a computer program depends entirely on how it causally relates to other variables within the program. It is this meaning, determined by the causal relations in the brain between the pen-representing pattern and the pen-grabbing or pen-talking-about patterns (and many others), that gives rise to the pen qualia.

And should those same causal relations be present in some other system, that other system would also have the same pen qualia.

In the panpsychist view, the rock is conscious of the causal relations within it, too. There are actually a lot of causal interactions within a rock. Most significantly, there are complex acoustic interactions as sound waves pass through the rock and are reshaped by it and bounce around inside it. It would take a powerful supercomputer to model these acoustic interactions at atomic fidelity; they are complex.

What kind of experience this actually is, is very difficult for us to say. We could try to map it to some part of the causal structures within the brain, and if we were successful in that mapping then we would be able to say by analogy that the rock experiences something similar to the experiences obtained from those brain-structures. But more likely, there would be no such mapping; there are probably no analogous brain-structures that have quite the same causal structure as is present inside the rock. So, we would lack words for what the rock experiences. We would be in the position of a man, blind since birth, trying to understand what the color "magenta" is. The rock's experiences would be as inscrutable to us as ours are to it.

The consciousness in the rock is the structure of causal relationships between components of the rock. It all works by familiar physics. Awareness is transmitted through the rock via sound waves in the same way that awareness is transmitted through the brain via spreading patterns of neuron activation. In the brain or the rock, consciousness is decentralized, the outcome of many interacting parts

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    I can accept as an answer that panpsychists posit a mysterious coagulating mechanism for sensation (although that mechanism is also extremely problematic), but how does the sensation get started without nerves or any sort of sensory mechanism? Commented Mar 17 at 7:33
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    @DavidGudeman There's nothing particularly special about biological nerves. If the nerves were replaced with nonliving electrical components serving the same function, the resulting sensations would be the same. The nerves are merely a means of transmitting a signal from point A to point B. There are other ways to transmit signals. In the rock, the signals are sound waves (phonons) which are transmitted by the vibration of adjacent atoms. That's the equivalent of a nerve impulse.
    – causative
    Commented Mar 17 at 10:38
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    @causative, I was asking about the initial stimulus. Nerves not only transmit the stimulus, they also detect it. A stimulus goes from the mechanical to the mental via a biological mechanism. We know of no other way for that to happen. Commented Mar 17 at 17:08
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    @DavidGudeman The initial stimulus in this case would be the entry of a phonon from outside the rock.
    – causative
    Commented Mar 17 at 18:45
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    @DavidGudeman The rock reacts to the phonon, doesn't it? There's a causal chain from the entry of the phonon to the subsequent complex vibrations of the rock. The fact that no biological cells are involved in this causal chain is irrelevant. There's nothing particularly special about biological cells in relation to consciousness. What matters for the purpose of consciousness is the causal relationships between the parts of a system, which are present in the rock as they are in a brain.
    – causative
    Commented Mar 18 at 4:51

Your question presumes the parallelist dualism of David Chalmers and the other parallelist panpsychicists.

All parallelist panpsychism has a massive problem with causation, and additionally with association with any higher level structure.

IF matter is causally closed, THEN all awareness is epiphenomenal. There is no causal effect between awareness and matter. So we can't even get any data about consciousness for ourselves, much less any other object. There would be no causal relation between being aware of something, and an individual SAYING they were aware, and no way to test for any coupling consciousness/awareness hypothesis or relationship. Physically closed parallelist panpsychism is pre-committed to an assumption that prohibits there ever being any ability to discover awareness/matter laws.

Your question is inspired by inferences off our self-observed consciousness, and inference to animal consciousness. Note, however, that all our Theory of Mind thinking is based on mind being CAUSAL, so there is a massive conflict between physical causal closure, and acceptance of mind being real. Physicalists get around this with Identity Theories of various kinds (the Hard Problem of Consciousness is hard because so far these all fail HPC tests, but the CONCEPT of Identity Theories solve the correlation problem and solving the HPC can be a "further task" for physicalists). Both interactive emergent and spiritual dualists break causal closure, so they solve this observational/data problem as well. Idealists also assume interactivity, so this problem is unique to non-interactive pan-psychists and epiphenomenal dualists.

Your inference is that neural systems are key to all experiences we know of or can reasonably infer, and is a good starting point to considering how to build up a models of awareness or consciousness. And IF one does that, then one would expect ether an interaction principle, or an identity relation, to involve neurons. This is an entirely valid inference. But it isn't DATA yet, it is too weak an inference to use as data. Our theories of consciousness have no consensus, or anything near.

Parallelism has not just an observational problem with this, it also has a coupling problem. The only "real" objects in physicalist and parallelist reductionism are elementary particles. And parallelism couples consciousness to those particles. Why consciousness world build up and apply to the "heap" objects of our macro scale world, such as ourselves, is unexplained. The electro-mechanical interactions that temporarily hold a heap of matter together, are not causal on the mental aspect of parallelism, and we know they are not associatively determinative for consciousness based on our not being conscious all the time, and our not gaining conscious memories of a body part that is reattached after an injury. Parallelism needs a whole suite of coupling rules and principles, that MIGHT involve neurons, but also might not, and requrie3 that awareness and physical objects both have parallel emergence principles, for either to operate on our "heap" macro world. The inability to test any such hypothesis in parallelism, however, makes it scientifically useless. Additionally, the reason Chalmers embraced parallelism in the first place anyway was because of the concern he had over the logic problems of strong emergence, and downward causation. So needing to develop PARALLEL mergence principles to allow downward causation in both realms -- removes the main reason he adopted parallelism in the first place.

Aside: I mentioned idealism. Idealists are often pan-psychists, but they don't have either of the problems above. The most common version of idealist pan-psychism holds that the rock and a person ARE aware of the whole universe thru clairvoyance. BUT-- that humans have found that we need to focus our awareness locally, and the purpose of our neurons is to block out 99.999999% of the world, so we can del with the nearby things that mater to us. So not all pan-psychists have these two problems. There are other issues with this "filter" theory of consciousness, but idealist pan-psychists at least would hold that rocks are aware of both internal state, and the exterior inputs that change their internal states. But that because rock cannot focus on just themselves and their locality, their internal/local experiences would be awash in a universe of other non-relevant experiences.

  • "David Chalmers and the other parallelist panpsychicists." Can you give a source that Chalmers describes himself as a parallelist? You're talking about en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychophysical_parallelism , the position according to which mind and body happen to coincide without any causal connection between them ? I'm not aware of Chalmers taking this position. Do you just mean dualism, and not parallelism?
    – causative
    Commented Mar 19 at 0:22
  • Good answer, but as @causative indicates your principal points could do with more elaboration and/or references. As to the substance of the argument: Materialists invariably fall into an egregious fallacy of reification: Just as physics ≠ equations-of-physics. Likewise consciousness ≠ biophysics of neuroscience
    – Rushi
    Commented Mar 19 at 6:39
  • @causative -- Chalmers in The Conscious Mind asserts causal closure of the physical, and dual reductionism of mind and body, with TBD mechanism to link them. This implies one-way reaction, from physical to mind -- which is epiphenomenalism, and that is how Kim reads Chalmers in Physicalism or Something Near Enough, when Kim defends epiphenomenal dualism. But Epiphenomenalism is still mind spawned by body, and Chalmers rejects that with his dual reduction. He admits in the last chapter that his views are basically pan-psychist. Phillip Goff's pan psychism is an elaboration of Chalmers'.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Mar 19 at 7:19
  • A "TBD" mechanism to link body and mind is not parallelism. Parallelism proposes there isn't any mechanism linking body and mind, and that they are just predetermined to coincide. Panpsychism does not generally imply or involve parallelism.
    – causative
    Commented Mar 19 at 14:58
  • It has been about 20 years since I real Chalmers, so not all details are still in my head, but he was very explicit on parallelist reductionism. That impels causal closure parallelism too, and you only get that with some meta-principle that forces parallelism. This I don't recall him being explicit on mental causal closure, but he was explicit on physical closure, and on both reductions. What this gets one to is a Russellian monism, and like Russel he then has to have parallelism, with some TBD meta ontology driving it.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Mar 19 at 15:18

One minor point, one major point

Minor: Sensation

  • If you define consciousness as intelligence, only humans are alive
  • If you allow more general responsiveness, animals are alive as well
  • Still more general and plants are alive as well

Why are you equating consciousness with sensation?

Major: "Conscious" vs "Conscious of"

This is in fact one of the fundamental differences between the eastern and the western outlooks: In the western tradition "conscious" is necessarily transitive — One is always conscious of something. In the eastern traditions, this is a misunderstanding and a limitation — our waking state (so-called) is one of delusion and suffering whereas deep sleep — ie. dreamless sleep — is the closest that we know in everyday life to absolute perfection. Until 'Self-Realization' occurs. Different names in different traditions of course but the idea is common.

Here are two Krishnamurti clips that pithily describe the tension between the Eastern and the Western viewpoints

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    Consciousness is just first person experience; it is not intelligence or sensation. I discussed sensation because sensation is the only known way for consciousness to be conscious of the external world. I also did not assume that consciousness has to be consciousness of something, nor, contrary to what you claim, is that an assumption in Western philosophy. I mentioned that there are arguments to that effect but my point did not rely on those arguments. Commented Mar 17 at 2:57

Re "There are laws of nature that specify how and when consciousness arises so that human consciousness arises": Are there laws that specify how and when consciousness arises in a stone?

Someone in here wrote that "In the panpsychist view, the rock is conscious of the causal relations within it, too." Well, what is the use of it?

Living organisms need to stay alive, grow and multiply, so their senses, perception and consciousness --even quite elementary as they are-- help them survive and do all that. A stone has no need to survive. It is never "born" and it never "dies".

Otherwise, I won't discuss panpsychism. It makes no sense at all to me. (I wish I had only one question about it, like you. 🙂)


One presupposition for human psychic processes is the physical base formed by special cells, neurons, which are capable to transmit electrical polarization and depolarization. The main characteristic is the circuitry of these neurons in neuronal nets, and the temporal pattern of the dynamic along these nets.

Panpsychism has to propose a similar dynamic within inanimated matter.

The difficulty of this task is shown by the present search of neuroscience for the “neural correlate of consciousness” (NCC). I have not seen that adherents of panspychism make any effort to find a mechanism of conscious information processing within inanimate matter.

“Phonon” is a useful concept for the physics of solid bodies. But has any panpsychist explained the claimed consciousness of rocks by phonons?

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