Is the mind just an accident of the universe?

[This post by Godehard Brüntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla, co-editors of Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2016), originally appeared at the OUPblog, and is reposted here with their generous permission.]

The traditional view puts forward the idea that the vast majority of what there is in the universe is mindless. Panpsychism however claims that mental features are ubiquitous in the cosmos. In a recent opinion piece for Scientific American entitled “Is Consciousness Universal?” (2014), neuroscientist Christof Koch explains how his support of panpsychism is greeted by incredulous stares–in particular when asserting that panpsychism might be the perfect match for neurobiology (see also his piece for Wired in 2013):

“As a natural scientist, I find a version of panpsychism modified for the 21st century to be the single most elegant and parsimonious explanation for the universe I find myself in. … When I talk and write about panpsychism, I often encounter blank stares of incomprehension.” (Koch, 2014, n.p.)

Yet despite abundant skepticism, in the end of 20th century, panpsychism has seen nothing short of a renaissance in philosophy of mind–a trend which is also beginning to be mirrored in the sciences: Physicist Henry Stapp’s A Mindful Universe (2011) embraces a version of panpsychism heavily influenced by the works of Harvard mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Panpsychism has a long, albeit unfortunately sometimes forgotten tradition in the history of philosophy. Philosophers including Giordano Bruno, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Teilhard de Chardin, and Alfred North Whitehead have embraced different forms of panpsychism, and indeed the presocratic Thales of Miletus claimed that “soul is interfused throughout the universe” (Aristotle, De Anima, 411a7).

In in his seminal 1979 work Mortal Questions, NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel put forth the idea that both reductive materialism and mind-body dualism are unlikely to be successful solutions to the mind-body problem. Specifically, a reductive world-view leaves the mind lacking any purpose, while a dualist conception deprives the non-spatial Cartesian mind of any connection to spatial matter. Additionally, the idea of an emergent mind seems inexplicable, even miraculous; it merely puts a label on something that otherwise remains completely mysterious. Thus some version of panpsychism might be a viable alternative–and may even be the “last man standing.”

Yet it was not until David Chalmers’s groundbreaking The Conscious Mind (1996) that debates on panpsychism entered the philosophical mainstream. The field has grown rapidly ever since.

Bruntrup and Jaskolla_Pan_High Res Cover Art
“Spirit in the Body” painted by Herb Greene. Used with permission.

Panpsychism is the thesis that mental being is an ubiquitous and fundamental feature pervading the entire universe. It rests on two basic ideas:

(1) The genetic argument is based on the philosophical principle “ex nihilo, nihil fit”–nothing can bring about something which it does not already possess. If human consciousness came to be through a physical process of evolution, then physical matter must already contain some basic form of mental being. Versions of this argument can be found in both Thomas Nagel’s “Mortal Questions” (1979) as well as William James’s “The Principles of Psychology” (1890).

(2) The argument from intrinsic natures dates back to Leibniz. More recently it was Sir Bertrand Russell who noted in his “Human Knowledge: Its Scope and its Limits” (1948):

“The physical world is only known as regards certain abstract features of its space-time structure – features which, because of their abstractness, do not suffice to show whether the world is, or is not, different in intrinsic character from the world of mind.” (Russell 1948, 240)

Sir Arthur Eddington formulated a very intuitive version of the argument from intrinsic natures in his “Space, Time and Gravitation” (1920):

“Physics is the knowledge of structural form, and not knowledge of content. All through the physical world runs that unknown content, which must surely be the stuff of our consciousness.” (Eddington, 1920, 200).

Panpsychism is a surprisingly modern world-view. It might even be called a truly post-modern outlook on reality–mainly for two reasons:

On the one hand, panpsychism bridges the modern epistemological gap between the subject of experience and the experienced object, the latter of whose intrinsic nature is unknown to us. Panpsychists claim that we know the intrinsic nature of matter because we are familiar with it through our own consciousness. Freya Mathews argues in her “For the Love of Matter” (2003):

“… the materialist view of the world that is a corollary of dualism maroons the epistemic subject in the small if charmed circle of its own subjectivity, and that it is only the reanimation of matter itself that enables the subject to reconnect with reality. This ‘argument from realism’ constitutes my defense of panpsychism.” (Mathews, 2003, 44)

On the other hand, panpsychism paints a picture of reality that emphasizes a humane and caring relationship with nature due to its fundamental rejection of the Cartesian conception of nature as a mechanism to be exploited by mankind. For the panpsychist, we encounter in nature other entities of intrinsic value, rather than objects to be manipulated for our gain.

We’d like to end this post with an interview of David Chalmers discussing panpsychism at the Emergence and Panpsychism – International Conference on the Metaphysics of Consciousness held in Munich, Germany in 2011, which brought together almost all the major players of the current debate. You can watch interviews with attendees with our conference playlist.


Godehard Brüntrup holds the Erich J. Lejeune Chair at the Munich School of Philosophy and is a regular visiting professor at St. Louis University. In addition to a monograph on mental causation, he is the author of a bestselling introduction to the philosophy of mind, as well as of numerous articles on philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, and philosophy of religion.

Ludwig Jaskolla is currently a lecturer in philosophy of mind at the Munich School of Philosophy. He is pursuing Habilitation-research at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, with his research foci being the metaphysics and phenomenology of persons, the philosophy of psychology, and the philosophy of action.



  1. In the opinion piece for Scientific American entitled ‘Is Consciousness Universal?’ (2014), to which you refer, neuroscientist Christof Koch writes:

    “… panpsychism is the belief that everything is ‘enminded’. All of it. Whether it is a brain, a tree, a rock or an electron. Everything that is physical also possesses an interior mental aspect. … IIT does not discriminate between squishy brains inside skulls and silicon circuits encased in titanium.”

    It is not obvious how such panpsychism can be posited on the basis that every ‘Thing’—or even every complex ‘Thing’—that is physical possesses an indiscernible, qualitatively indifferentiable, interior mental state—‘enmindedness’—which can be said to be in some sense ‘conscious’ of any interaction between the ‘Thing’ and its environment—an ‘enmindedness’ that presumably would not admit qualitative discrimination between the reasoning ability of squishy brains inside skulls, and that of silicon circuits encased in titanium.

    Reason: Whilst the interactions of a mechanical intelligence with its environment are circumscribed by mechanistic reasoning that is necessarily both determinate and predictable, the interactions of a human intelligence with its environment are qualitatively different, in that they are circumscribed by human reasoning which, in some cases, may be determinate but unpredictable.

    The nature of this distinction is detailed in the following paper which is due to appear in the December 2016 issue of ‘Cognitive Systems Research’:

    The Truth Assignments That Differentiate Human Reasoning From Mechanistic Reasoning: The Evidence-Based Argument for Lucas’ Goedelian Thesis

    The philosophical significance of the distinction is highlighted in the following paper which was presented in July 2015 at the ‘Workshop on Emergent Logics’, Unilog 2015, 5th World Congress and School on Universal Logic, at the University of Istanbul, Turkey:

    Algorithmically Verifiable Logic vis a vis Algorithmically Computable Logic: Could resolving EPR need two complementary Logics?

    Prima facie, such a distinction admits the conjecture that there may, indeed, be a determinate evolutionary (hence not accidental) point—albeit an uncomputable, hence unpredictable, one—at which (like the proverbial straw on a camel’s back) the ‘enminded’ interactions of an enminded ‘Thing’ with its environment that, till then, are necessarily circumscribed by algorithmically computable natural laws, could begin to admit the influence of natural laws that are deterministic but unpredictable, resulting in an ‘awareness’ that could be termed as the emergent ‘consciousness’ of a ‘mind’.

    CSR paper:

    Unilog 2015 paper:




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