The Mind Particle: Minimal Panpsychism and Conscious Experience

Panpsychism nowadays most often takes a combinatory form: microsubjects combine to form macrosubjects. That is, entities that form the fundamental layer of reality – be it particles or fields or whatnot – have the property of consciousness and are able to combine in order to produce larger subjects at higher levels of reality, such as humans and animals.

Combinatory panpsychism is faced with the aptly named combination problem, the claim that subjects cannot combine. More specifically, the problem is this: no set of subjects need ever necessitate the existence of a further subject. William James presented the most poignant formulation of the combination problem in his magnum opus The Principles of Psychology:

Where the elemental units are supposed to be feelings, the case is in no wise altered. Take a hundred of them, shuffle them and pack them as close together as you can (whatever that may mean); still each remains the same feeling it always was, shut in its own skin, windowless, ignorant of what the other feelings are and mean. There would be a hundred-and-first feeling there, if, when a group or series of such feelings were set up, a consciousness belonging to the group as such should emerge. And this 101st feeling would be a totally new fact; the 100 original feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together; but they would have no substantial identity with it, nor it with them, and one could never deduce the one from the others, or (in any intelligible sense) say that they evolved it.

James’ claim here is that the co-existence of a group of subjects (or ‘feelings’) does not necessitate the coming about of a new subject. There is no subject belonging to the group and, if it were to emerge, its emergence would be unintelligible. Specifically, this is the subject-summing version of the combination problem, widely regarded as the most serious obstacle to combinatory panpsychism.

In order to avoid the combination problem, I offer what I call minimal panpsychism. The term ‘minimal’ here denotes both that the theory is concerned with the most basic level of reality and that it attempts to introduce the minimum amount of entities in its ontology. Minimal panpsychism was inspired by David Chalmers’ The Combination Problem for Panpsychism, specifically the following part on identity panpsychism:

The version of identity panpsychism that first comes to mind is what we might call the ‘dominant monad’ view, by analogy to Leibniz’s view on which subjects are identical to a single localized monad. On this view, the subject of our experiences is a single localized fundamental entity: perhaps a single quark somewhere in our brain. The microexperiences of this quark are precisely our macroexperiences. There are obvious worries here about this quark’s stability (what happens when it disappears?) and about its causal role (how could its properties play the rich causal role that macroexperiences seem to play?).

To clarify, minimal panpsychism is best understood as a version of identity panpsychism but it also differs from it in several aspects. My aim is to avoid the combination problem and answer the questions raised by Chalmers. The premises of minimal panpsychism are:

  1. Combinatory subjects do not exist.

This is merely the acceptance of the conclusion of the combination problem. Fundamental subjects cannot combine or aggregate to form larger subjects.

  1. If combinatory subjects do not exist, then only fundamental subjects exist.

The only subjects that exist are those found at the fundamental level of reality. Accordingly, all subjects are fundamental subjects (yes, including you).

  1. Complex experiences are not the result of fundamental subjects combining into larger subjects.

If combinatory subjects do not exist, then the richness of our conscious experience cannot depend on their existence. But how can we account for rich subjective experience then?

  1. Complex experiences are the result of an asymmetrical relation obtaining between fundamental subjects.

What I mean is the following: a group of fundamental subjects can ‘inform’ or ‘route’ their phenomenal content into one particular fundamental subject whose phenomenal content grows as a result. I call this the phenomenal routing relation. If it is conceivable, then that means that complex experiences, such as mine, are not the result of fundamental subjects combining into a larger subject (me) but the result of a group of fundamental subjects routing their phenomenal content into one fundamental subject who then receives the phenomenal content of the whole group (and thus becomes me). Here is a simple illustration:

So, the group of fundamental subjects A, B and C routes their phenomenal contents x, y and z into the fundamental subject D, who then has the phenomenal content of the whole group (x, y and z). Now imagine the same but with a billion of fundamental subjects and you get a consciousness as complex as ours. Phenomenal routing relations might just be the causal relations that obtain in the brain considering that causal relations involve the exchange of information as well (and thus can serve the role of phenomenal routing).

All of the subjects involved are fundamental subjects, at the lowest level of reality, so the subject-summing version of the combination problem – the most difficult one for panpsychism – is avoided since the subjects do not combine but merely inform each other about their phenomenal contents. The quality combination problem – the question of how qualities of experience can combine – is certainly an issue but one admittedly less serious than the subject-summing problem.

Here is my answer to Chalmers’ questions. The first one was: what happens if the dominant fundamental subject (D) disappears? There are two answers. One of them is death or coma and there are some studies that suggest that a very small portion of the brain is responsible for consciousness (see Sources). The less extreme one is that the subjects could potentially re-route their phenomenal contents into a different fundamental subject who then replaces the original dominant subject. Provisionally speaking, neuroplasticity seems to support the possibility of re-routing.

It is also important to note that minimal panpsychism is not an emergentist form of panpsychism, where the interaction of fundamental subjects causes the larger subject as a result at higher levels. There are no higher levels in minimal panpsychism: all that happens does so at the fundamental level, between fundamental subjects. I have briefly addressed the problem of emergence in this article.

To conclude, I think that minimal panpsychism is preferable over combinatory forms of panpsychism since it avoids the combination problem (and answers Chalmers’ questions). Potentially, it is also preferable over emergentist forms of panpsychism since it does not involve the problematic notion of (radical) emergence. Ultimately, it is a very simple theory that, at least prima facie, seems to be internally consistent. People might raise their eyebrows when they hear the ostensibly wild claim that we are fundamental subjects, but perhaps that reaction is mitigated by the intuition that we do not appear as aggregates to ourselves. Rather, our consciousness appears to us as a single unified stream – precisely as it would if we were metaphysically simple subjects.



David B. FischerAaron D. BoesAthena Demertzi, et al. – A human brain network derived from coma-causing brainstem lesions.

David Chalmers – The Combination Problem for Panpsychism.

Francis C. Crick, Christof Koch – What is the function of the claustrum?

Hal Blumenfeld – A master switch for consciousness?

Michael Rugnetta – Neuroplasticity.

William James – The Principles of Psychology.

5 thoughts on “The Mind Particle: Minimal Panpsychism and Conscious Experience

  1. Very interesting idea but I wonder if it maybe suffers from a version of the homunculus problem?

    1. Thanks for commenting! I think that that’s definitely something that I need to address in further work on minimal panpsychism. Provisionally speaking, though, if it does suffer from the homunculus problem, that might still be a less serious issue than the combination problem. (Perhaps I can come up with a more refined answer though – only time will tell!)

  2. Nino, my advice is to keep studying. Try to read something about the Theory of Hylozoism for example. Also group consicousness differs from individual consciousness, expecially if that group belongs to a Master’s Ashram. Understand that thing material are only reflections of thing spirtual. Our universe is nothing but energy, so any explanations of anything needs to be understood in terms of energy vibratory rates, which differ from plane to plane of our solar system. Without these
    differentiations, there is only the eternal ONE. Best wishes, Don Crawford.

    1. Thanks for your comment Don! Hylozoism is certainly interesting, though I’m quite confused about the rest of what you mentioned. I will look into it.

  3. Hi Nino

    I think there are fundamental subjects in our world and I take a guess at what they are here:
    The reason some panpsychics insist on combination is because in their view the most elementary subjects are responsible for the qualia that are built into the fabric of the more complex experiences. But if we separate the subjective observer from the content/qualities observed the problem goes away. Qualitative experiences maybe the creation of material organization but like matter they are public and physically real. Russell and James both believed this. Multiple fundamental subjects at different levels (quark, animal) may then view the same exact physical qualitative universe with no need for combination.

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