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On panpsychism, everything has consciousness. If so, does it entail that all entities in the universe, such as rocks, bricks, plants, water, air, etc., can experience suffering? If this holds, what implications does this have for morality? Does moral realism align with panpsychism, and if rocks indeed possess the capacity to suffer, how should one approach their moral treatment?

If rocks experiencing pain or suffering is nonsensical even if panpsychism is granted, then what is it like to be a rock on panpsychism?

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  • If a plant did not experience suffering, how could it heal wounds? As for the brick that is struck with a trowel, the stress is more than it can bear, and it shatters. Commented Mar 23 at 20:18
  • Are you a panpsychist?
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 23 at 20:24
  • In a holistic universe, John Donne's No man is an island is relevant. Commented Mar 23 at 20:24
  • If panpsychism is the case, rocks still can't see or smell. I think pain is with that - they don't have the tools to see or smell. Most panpsychists will think along those lines. I'm not a panpsychist but I'm sympathetic to it
    – TKoL
    Commented Mar 24 at 7:35
  • We have yet to see a sufficiently worked-out panpsychic theory for this question to be effectively debated. This does not, of course, foreclose on anyone having an opinion about the matter.
    – sdenham
    Commented Mar 25 at 19:18

2 Answers 2

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The short answer is yes, under (some interpretations of) panpsychism, rocks and other things might be said to experience a prototypical kind of suffering, which I'd prefer to call "aversive qualia." However, moral duty attaches to sapience (higher cognitive function) rather than merely sentience (subjective experience), so this does not create a moral duty to reduce this sensation for the rock.


First of all, what kind of suffering might a rock experience?

The meaning of a stimulus is given by the effect that stimulus has on the rest of the conscious system. The quale "blue," viewed as a pattern of nerve impulses, has many effects on the brain, causing a change in how it processes certain things. For instance, it might cause the brain to classify an object as "sky." The quale "blue" has the specific subjective nature it has, as a consequence or embodiment of the set of all these possible effects it causes.

It is the same for suffering. Suffering has a certain effect on the brain, and causes a subjective quale because of, and wholly dependent on, that effect.

Now, there are many types of suffering. From a sharp pain in your foot, to heartbreak, to losing a game of chess, to seeing your house burn down, to feeling like there isn't any meaning in your life. It's not just a single sensation, and all these forms of suffering have (somewhat) different effects on the brain.

But there is something that unifies all these types of suffering. They are all things you do not want; things you would take action to avoid, if you could. Suffering is an aversive stimulus.

As I'll explain, there are ways of interacting with a rock that we can interpret as aversive stimuli. However, it is perhaps a stretch to say that any aversive stimulus should be categorized as suffering. Perhaps there are other elements that are important; perhaps we should define suffering as not only an aversive stimulus, but a stimulus that the organism plans ahead to avoid. A rock does not plan ahead, it only reacts.

This is merely a question of terminology. There's no "inherent" definition of the word "suffering" we can refer to. We can call any sensation anything we like.

For now I think I will use the neutral term "aversive qualia" to refer to any sensation produced by an aversive stimulus. This notion captures some, but not all, of the character of human suffering.

To determine whether a certain stimulus to a system is aversive, we could set up hypothetical situations where the stimulus might happen, and ask whether the system moves in a way that reduces or eliminates that stimulus. This is essentially the same as how we could detect when the system is pursuing a goal: aversive qualia are produced by any condition that the system has a goal to eliminate or reduce. Put another way, aversive qualia result from any condition that would go against the goals of the system. The reduction of aversive qualia is an attractor of the system.

A rock has such attractors. For this we should understand that a rock, mechanically, is springy. Like any solid material it has a finite bulk modulus. You can push on it with your finger, and it will push back, like a very stiff spring.

The effect of this springiness is that the rock seeks to maintain its original shape. You push it, it deforms (very) slightly, and the springiness tends to undo this deformation and put the atoms back at the same distances from each other that they were before. Maintaining the rock's shape is an attractor for the rock. From a panpsychist perspective, it wants to maintain its shape, and will respond to a large set of disturbances such that it does so (provided the force does not exceed certain bounds).

So, pushing on the rock, thereby deforming it - which works against this attractor - creates aversive qualia for the rock. It is similar (in a certain limited way, as described earlier) to what we call suffering for humans.

But these aversive qualia are different from human or animal suffering. The rock has no anticipation of the push, no ability to plan ahead and avoid it. It is only reactive. The rock cannot pre-emptively slide out of the way of your finger before you touch it. The rock does not conceptualize the suffering, does not build a model of the world around it to place the suffering in proper context.

An argument from moral philosophy about why it is not as bad to kill animals as it is to kill humans, is that (some) animals do not conceptualize their own deaths. Well, the rock does not conceptualize its own aversive qualia.

So, the moral concept that we should reduce suffering in general - which was derived primarily from the kind of suffering that humans experience, and the complex plans we make to reduce it - is not applicable to the rock.

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  • Between minerals and animals are plants. Do they have an aversive stimulus, plan ahead? Yes: their DNA is a plan. After they germinate they react to atmospheric conditions and gain strength to grow bigger, when theyy are more exposed to ... etc. Commented Mar 23 at 21:24
  • @WeatherVane DNA is a plan, but it's not the plant's plan; the DNA is a different system from an individual plant. DNA does its "planning" (adaptation to conditions) on a time scale of many plant generations.
    – causative
    Commented Mar 23 at 22:05
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    Interesting answer. But we know that much aversion response is not painful, as humans enjoy light to moderate defections of their surfaces, which then spring back. The inference from aversion to pain is an over generalization.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Mar 23 at 22:33
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    I fail to see how the DNA and the plant are two separate entities. They are two partial descriptions of the same thing. Commented Mar 23 at 22:35
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    Causative, so the same deflections cause multiple experiences in multiple entities, some of which are pleasurable, and others of which are pain? But we are only aware of the one experiencer and one experience. Why postulate this myriad of unevidenced and untestable entities and experiences? And what is the basis for the postulations as to which are negative?
    – Dcleve
    Commented Mar 24 at 9:23
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There is no way to provide a definitive answer to your question. The possibility that rocks experience pain is purely a matter of conjecture. Pain as we know it seems to be associated with chemical activities in living bodies. The pain disappears if nerves are cut, or drugs are applied etc. There is no comparably chemical activity in rocks, so some people might be tempted to assume that the idea of rocks feeling the kind of pain we feel is implausible. However, you cannot prove it either way.

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