panpsychism through direct experience

Nautilus published a really cool philosophy of mind article about an interesting idea: we can solve the hard problem of consciousness and the hard problem of physics by positing that matter is consciousness. Maybe all matter is conscious, and the easier hard problem is how all the individual particles combine their consciousness into something like ours (“the combination problem”). This view is called dual-aspect monism, where physical properties and qualia are the two aspects of matter.

Might the hard problem of consciousness and the hard problem of matter be connected? There is already a tradition for connecting problems in physics with the problem of consciousness, namely in the area of quantum theories of consciousness. Such theories are sometimes disparaged as fallaciously inferring that because quantum physics and consciousness are both mysterious, together they will somehow be less so. The idea of a connection between the hard problem of consciousness and the hard problem of matter could be criticized on the same grounds. Yet a closer look reveals that these two problems are complementary in a much deeper and more determinate way. One of the first philosophers to notice the connection was Leibniz all the way back in the late 17th century, but the precise modern version of the idea is due to Bertrand Russell. Recently, contemporary philosophers including Chalmers and Strawson have rediscovered it. It goes like this.

The hard problem of matter calls for non-structural properties, and consciousness is the one phenomenon we know that might meet this need. Consciousness is full of qualitative properties, from the redness of red and the discomfort of hunger to the phenomenology of thought. Such experiences, or “qualia,” may have internal structure, but there is more to them than structure. We know something about what conscious experiences are like in and of themselves, not just how they function and relate to other properties.

For example, think of someone who has never seen any red objects and has never been told that the color red exists. That person knows nothing about how redness relates to brain states, to physical objects such as tomatoes, or to wavelengths of light, nor how it relates to other colors (for example, that it’s similar to orange but very different from green). One day, the person spontaneously hallucinates a big red patch. It seems this person will thereby learn what redness is like, even though he or she doesn’t know any of its relations to other things. The knowledge he or she acquires will be non-relational knowledge of what redness is like in and of itself.

This suggests that consciousness—of some primitive and rudimentary form—is the hardware that the software described by physics runs on. The physical world can be conceived of as a structure of conscious experiences. Our own richly textured experiences implement the physical relations that make up our brains. Some simple, elementary forms of experiences implement the relations that make up fundamental particles. Take an electron, for example. What an electron does is to attract, repel, and otherwise relate to other entities in accordance with fundamental physical equations. What performs this behavior, we might think, is simply a stream of tiny electron experiences. Electrons and other particles can be thought of as mental beings with physical powers; as streams of experience in physical relations to other streams of experience.

This idea sounds strange, even mystical, but it comes out of a careful line of thought about the limitations of science. Leibniz and Russell were determined scientific rationalists—as evidenced by their own immortal contributions to physics, logic, and mathematics—but equally deeply committed to the reality and uniqueness of consciousness. They concluded that in order to give both phenomena their proper due, a radical change of thinking is required.

And a radical change it truly is. Philosophers and neuroscientists often assume that consciousness is like software, whereas the brain is like hardware. This suggestion turns this completely around. When we look at what physics tells us about the brain, we actually just find software—purely a set of relations—all the way down. And consciousness is in fact more like hardware, because of its distinctly qualitative, non-structural properties. For this reason, conscious experiences are just the kind of things that physical structure could be the structure of.

Given this solution to the hard problem of matter, the hard problem of consciousness all but dissolves. There is no longer any question of how consciousness arises from non-conscious matter, because all matter is intrinsically conscious. There is no longer a question of how consciousness depends on matter, because it is matter that depends on consciousness—as relations depend on relata, structure depends on realizer, or software on hardware.

The idea that everything is conscious is also called panpsychism, and Christof Koch is sympathetic.

It strikes me that all of this is similar to Buddhist debates about whether inanimate objects have Buddha-nature. There’s a long history of the idea in both Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.

Sometime during the seventh and eighth centuries a new doctrine gained currency among Chinese Buddhist exegetes, a doctrine that came to be known as “the buddha-nature of the insentient” (wu-ch’ing fo-hsing 無情佛性, hereafter “BNI”). According to this teaching, not only do all sentient beings possess the inherent nature of buddhahood, but so do plants and trees, stones and tiles, and even particles of dust. Of course, stated in this manner, it might appear as simply another expression of the familiar Mahaayaana teaching of nonduality: since everything is dependently originated and thus devoid of an abiding essence or “self-nature” (svabhaava), everything is inherently pure, empty, and quiescent. From this perspective, there is no ultimate distinction between the absolute on the one hand (be it styled dharmakaaya, tathataa, nirvaana, suunyataa, original mind, buddha, or what have you), and the multifarious world of lived experience on the other.

On this view, Buddha-nature is synonymous with emptiness. The last link is to a chapter of Pruning the Bodhi Tree, a book about this controversy. Is Buddha-nature a skillful means of talking about emptiness, making it sound like something positive instead of something nihilistic? Or is it crypto-Hinduism, bringing back the eternal Self?

While Hui-yüan has all the pieces in place, he never actually states that insentient objects possess buddha-nature. The first to do so appears to have been the San-lun commentator Chi-tsang 吉藏 (549-623). Chi-tsang takes a somewhat different approach to the issue than does Hui-yüan: rather than beginning with a bifurcation of buddha-nature into two aspects, one of which is coterminous with the insentient and one of which is not, Chi-tsang argues that the distinction between sentient and insentient is itself ultimately empty.

Thus if you are going to deny buddha-nature to something, then not only are grass and trees devoid of buddha-nature, but living beings are also devoid of buddha-nature. But if you hold to the existence of buddha-nature, then it is not only living beings that have buddha-nature, but grass and trees must also have buddha-nature…. Since there is no duality between the dependent and the true, if sentient beings possess buddha-nature, grass and trees must also possess buddha-nature. For this reason we maintain that it is not only sentient beings that possess buddha-nature, but grass and trees also possess buddha-nature. If we understand that all dharmas are equal and do not view the two marks of the dependent and the true, then in reality there are no marks of attainment or non-attainment. Since there is no non-attainment, we provisionally speak of attaining buddhahood. Thus at the moment when sentient beings attain buddhahood, all grass and trees also attain buddhahood.

For Chi-tsang, the rubric of buddha-nature is merely another way of affirming emptiness, dependent origination, and the middle way, from which vantage point all distinctions, including that between sentient and insentient, must be relinquished. Buddha-nature is not a something that could be possessed by, or reside in, sentient, much less insentient, things

The interpretations get progressively more literal.

The Ch’an student asked: “If the insentient actually possess mind, can they preach the dharma or not?” The Master said: “They preach magnificently, they preach continually, and they preach eternally without a moment’s pause.” The Chan student asked: “Then why is it that I do not hear it?” The Master said: “Just because you yourself do not hear it, it does not mean that others do not hear it.” [The Ch’an student] continued: “Then who can hear it?” The Master said: “All the sages hear it.”…

A T’ien-t’ai source puts it similarly:

A plant, a tree, a pebble, a speck of dust—each has the Buddha nature, and each is endowed with cause and effect and with the function to manifest and the wisdom to realize its Buddha nature….

A plant, a tree, a pebble, a speck of dust—each has the Buddha nature, and each is endowed with cause and effect and with the function to manifest and the wisdom to realize its Buddha nature.

Some more arguments were added in the Tendai tradition:

Trees and plants do not possess Buddhahood in and of themselves, but do so when they are viewed by Buddhas…

The self-nature of trees and plants is not capable of being described and, therefore, the Buddha-nature possessed by trees and plants is also ineffable…

The principle that the 3,000 realms (i.e., all phenomena) are contained in one thought means that the mind (shin) is all things and all things are the mind. Trees-and-plants as well as sentient beings both possess all things. This is why sentient beings can conceive of trees and plants. If this were not so, there could be no cognition. The real and original nature of all things (hossho or dharmata) has two aspects. Its quiescent aspect is the one mind and its illuminating aspect is the 3,000 realms of being. The internal unity of these two aspects makes both for knowledge and for the fact that essentially plants and trees have the Buddha-nature.

In that light, this is funny:

One day, Master Tao-wen, who was a scholar from the Tien-tai School, went to visit Chen-kuan and paid his respect. Tao-wen was about fifty years old at the time and had been studying Tien-tai doctrine for more than thirty years. He told Chen-kuan with great sincerity, “I’ve studied the Lotus Sutra of the Tien-tai School ever since I was a child, but there’s still one point I could never understand.”

Chen-kuan straightforwardly retorted, “The Lotus Sutra is complex and profound. It is comprehensive and flawless. People who read it are supposed to have many questions. Yet you only have one! What is your question?”

Tao-wen declared, “It states in the Lotus Sutra: ‘The sentient and the non-sentient will both attain prajna.’ This implies that trees, grass, and flowers can all become Buddhas. Is this possible?”

Chen-kuan replied, “Well, in the past thirty years, you’ve been worrying about whether trees, grass, and flowers can attain Buddhahood. What benefit will you get from knowing that? You should have concerned yourself with the question of whether you can become Buddha.”

Tao-wen was startled by this response. Finally, he said, “I’ve never thought of this question. May I ask, how can I become a Buddha?”

Chen-kuan answered, “You said that you only had one question, so you’ll have to answer the second question yourself.”

“Big mind” is another way of getting at this same idea. From Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

It will take quite a long time before you find your calm, serene mind in your practice. Many sensations come, many thoughts or images arise, but they are just waves of your own mind. Nothing comes from outside your mind. Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not a true understanding of our mind. The true understanding is that the mind includes everything; when you think something comes from outside it means only that something appears in your mind. Nothing outside yourself can cause any trouble. You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. This mind is called big mind.

If your mind is related to something outside itself, that mind is a small mind, a limited mind. If your mind is not related to anything else, then there is no dualistic understanding in the activity of your mind. You understand activity as just waves of your mind. Big mind experiences everything within itself. Do you understand the difference between the two minds: the mind which includes everything, and the mind which is related to something? Actually they are the same thing, but the understanding is different, and your attitude towards your life will be different according to which understanding you have.

That everything is included within your mind is the essence of mind. To experience this is to have religious feeling. Even though waves arise, the essence of your mind is pure; it is just like clear water with a few waves. Actually water always has waves. Waves are the practice of the water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion. Water and waves are one. Big mind and small mind are one. When you understand your mind in this way, you have some security in your feeling. As your mind does not expect anything from outside, it is always filled. A mind with waves in it is not a disturbed mind, but actually an amplified one. Whatever you experience is an expression of big mind.

The activity of big mind is to amplify itself through various experiences. In one sense our experiences coming one by one are always fresh and new, but in another sense they are nothing but a continuous or repeated unfolding of the one big mind. For instance, if you have something good for breakfast, you will say, “This is good.” “Good” is supplied as something experienced some time long ago, even though you may not remember when. With big mind we accept each of our experiences as if recognizing the face we see in a mirror as our own. For us there is no fear of losing this mind. There is nowhere to come or to go; there is no fear of death, no suffering from old age or sickness. Because we enjoy all aspects of life as an unfolding of big mind, we do not care for any excessive joy. So we have imperturbable composure, and it is with this imperturbable composure of big mind that we practice zazen.

In a sense, the difference between Chinese/Japanese Buddhism and the Western panpsychism at the top of the post is that, in Buddhism, it’s said that you can experience the truth directly and nonverbally.

The Lacanian real is nonverbal. Zen is about the ineffable. Difficulty verbalizing is part of autism. Another article published in Nautilus, at the same time as the panpsychism one, contained a very interesting account of someone’s aphasia after a stroke. She’s since recovered, since she’s writing about it, and what she writes is fascinating:

This was not a Quiet I had known before. It was a placid current, a presence more than an absence. Everything I saw or touched or heard pulsed with a marvelous sense of order. I had a nothing mind, a flotsam mind. I was incredibly focused on the present, with very little awareness or interest in my past or future. My entire environment felt interconnected, like cells in a large, breathing organism. To experience this Quiet was to be it…

One of these moments of marvel took place during a move between the critical unit and the recovery ward. I was being transported in a mirrored elevator, and although there were no bandages on my face and my vision was clear, it was almost impossible for me to recognize my own reflection. Yet, somehow, this didn’t disturb me. In fact, it made remarkable sense because I was quickly realizing that my reflection was not the only thing that was different. Transformation felt abundant. Once-fixed concepts, like “wall” and “window,” weren’t as easy to identify anymore, and the differences between “he” and “she” and “I” and “it” were becoming indistinguishable. I knew my parents were my parents and my friends were my friends, but I felt less like myself and more like everything around me…

At this point I didn’t know much about my brain injury at all. I wasn’t in any pain, so my thoughts about my new condition were unfocused and fleeting. Instead of being occupied by questions about why I was in the hospital and what had happened to me, my mind was engrossed in an entirely different set of perceptions. The smallest of activities would enthrall me. Dressing myself, I was awed by the orbital distance between cloth and flesh. Brushing my teeth, I was enchanted by the stiffness of the bristles and the sponginess of my gums. I also spent an inordinate amount of time looking out the window. My view was mainly of the hospital’s rooftop, with its gray and untextured panels, though I developed a lot of interest in a nearby tree. I could only make out the tops of the branches, but I’d watch this section of needles and boughs intently, fascinated by how the slightest wind would change the shape entirely. It was always and never the same tree…

With this simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar book in my hands, I first took in the actual loss of words. For my entire life, language had been at the forefront of every personal or professional achievement, and very few things had brought me as much joy and purpose. If I had ever been warned that I might be robbed of my ability to read, even for a limited amount of time, it would have been a devastation too cruel to bear. Or so I would have thought. But a day did come when I couldn’t read the book in front of me, when paragraphs appeared to be nothing more than senseless jumbles, and the way I actually processed this massive loss was surprisingly mild. The knowledge of the failure was jarring, without a doubt, but was there any misery or angst? No. My reaction was much less sharp. A vague sense of disappointment swept through me, but then … my inability to use words in this way just felt like transient information. Now that the ability was gone, I could no longer think of how or why it should have any influence on my life whatsoever.

It’s shocking to reflect on that moment, and think about how the loss of something so crucial washed past me with such a vague wisp of emotion. But I was living so deeply in the present—and in the comfort of the Quiet—I couldn’t fully realize how my sense of identity had shifted. It would be several weeks before I detected how much of myself had gone missing, and how hard I’d have to fight to regain it. However, the unpleasant sensations that came with holding that book drifted away as soon as I closed it. And with no effort at all, my attention settled back on the impossible blue sky…

The constant stream of language, which I had always assumed was thought, had stopped. It’s hard to describe this voice exactly, and even harder to describe its lack. It is the internal monologue that turns on in the morning, when we instruct ourselves to “Get up” and “Make breakfast.” It’s a voice we use to monitor ourselves, to criticize or to doubt—and it can be pernicious this way. However, it can be an effective tool as well. We can motivate ourselves with it, understand our environment better, and sometimes modify our situations as well. My inner speech returned very slowly, not on a certain day, but in bits and bobs. In the hospital, though, I didn’t realize that I no longer had access to it, only that something in me felt substantially … different.

However, I certainly was able to think after the aneurysm’s rupture. In many ways, my thinking had never been clearer. I retained the capacity for complex thought, but it was not represented by words or phrases, and my ideas didn’t cluster or activate one another the same way. It wasn’t ignorance, but there was an element of innocence.

And on the whole, this silence served me very well. With my internal monologue on mute, I was mainly spared from understanding my condition early on. Unable to ask myself: What is wrong with me? I could not, and did not, list the many things that were.

I was no longer the narrator of my own life.

Currently, I’m reading a book about dakini symbolism in Tibetan Buddhism, which is an alternate way of representing the ultimate nature of reality…or something like that.

It’s interesting to me that Zen discourages worrying too much about hallucinatory stuff, calling it “makyo” or illusions. Tibetan Buddhism seems to emphasize them. I really like verbal abstraction, so it chills me out to think about the emptiness of emptiness. I wonder if Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices are similar for people who are better visualizers?

I can eat cannabis edibles and lie in a float tank and not get a whole lot of visual stuff beyond the normal static. I’ve always preferred zazen to eyes-closed forms of meditation. On philosophical grounds, I like the idea that it makes it easier to transfer the state of mind to daily life if you’re not closing yourself off from reality. On the other hand, the float tank works really well, and you’re depriving yourself of a lot of proprioceptive input either way.

The idea of super dissociative experiences is that you experience something like “bare awareness.” What is it like to be an inanimate object?

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