I have been doing some reading and research around these ideas and it seems that Panexperientialism is often confused with related ideas of Panpsychism and Animism that have been around for a long time. For the sake clarity I have attempted to summarize the differences in the table below (further explanations, especially with regards to Panexperientialism, can be found below it):
Panexperientialism Vs Panpsychism Vs Animism
Category Panexperientialism Panpsychism Animism
Experience Present as prehension i.e. non-conscious. Present in a subjective / conscious way. Present in a subjective / conscious way.
Materials Materials are not concrete, they are fluid and creative in the moment of time and exist in relation/interaction and reaction to each other. They become defined and concrete as the moment moves on continuing their creativity in the moment of time. Materials are concrete but have a nature that must be (even at quantum levels) conscious either because there is no other way to account for consciousness in the world or because they appear to exhibit properties of consciousness. Either there is no material, only spirit. Or materials are imbued with spirit.
Consciousness at sub-microscopic scales No consciousness present at the elementary level e.g atoms. Only non-conscious experience. Everything including to the quantum level is conscious. More concerned with the conscious / spirit aspects of larger organised collections of matter such as a mountain. Although there is no denial of pervasive consciousness at smaller scales.
Consciousness at the macroscopic level Only present in complex organism capable of being aware of their own experience. Present at all levels. Although it is more complex in organisms like humans. Same as above.
Free will There is a free will at the most fundamental level. This is the unpredictable and creative nature of things. This exists within limits defined by the free will of everything else. As things only exist in interaction to one another. Less is said about free will at atomic levels. However complex creatures do have a free will (as it denies materialistic determinism). The spirit / spirits of things have their own free will, which is constrained by their nature and purpose.
Purpose / Direction There is no goal or purpose that is external or transcendental. There is only that which happens in the process. There is no purpose apparent at the atomic levels of consciousness. However this is obviously present for complex organisms. Animism is distinct here as the spirit is said to have some kind of goal/ purpose or direction within it. To either self preserve or to destroy etc.
Panpsychism is the view that everything in the universe is conscious. That everything from the smallest such scale as quantum particles to the largest such as galaxies and in fact the whole universe possesses consciousness.
Panpsychism can be thought of as an umbrella term and sometimes Panexperientialism is thought of as being within this umbrella. Panpsychism is a philosophy based on the notion that you cannot arrive at consciousness without consciousness being fundamentally present, to begin with.
That is to say that, no matter what you do with materials that are supposed to be inert (as scientific materialism proposes), no matter how complex they get or any structure they arrange in, you can never arrive at consciousness.
Hence consciousness must be fundamental and everything must have a consciousness of its own. Implied in here is that there is a subjectiveness to being anything, e.g. an electron. That there is something like to be a bat and there is something like to be a mountain (although there are nuances here).
This is an interesting concept and is gaining a lot of popularity recently with many eminent philosophers and scientists starting to warm up to this philosophy. I intend to discuss this in more detail in a separate post.
Animism is a spiritual concept and it is the oldest known belief system in the world. It is much similar to Panpsychism although slightly different. This is the belief that everything, including inanimate things, has a spirit. The sea has a spirit, so does the wind, the forest, the rocks and the moon etc.
In a way, there is an implied uniqueness to each of these spirits and an identity. This is different from Panpsychism where the focus is on consciousness only. That at an elementary level it should be similar and pervasive for all things (i.e. there is no uniqueness). Although in Panpsychism as well, there can be various arrangements and aggregations for this consciousness. In itself, it does not imply a purposeful consciousness of say, the river as would be considered in spiritual animism. Panpsychism would rather view the river as an aggregation of many smaller consciousnesses.
The term Panexperientialism was coined by Philosopher David Ray Griffin in the 1970s, to capture Whitehead’s metaphysical world view.
Panexperientialism does not claim that inanimate materials, be it molecules or rocks, have a consciousness or have a spirit. It does not make any claims to consciousness at the quantum level either. Although one could derive theories within its metaphysics of how consciousness could be arrived at. I feel it’s best to read Alfred Whitehead’s original ideas to get a clearer picture of what his philosophy was. A good paper to read is ‘PANEXPERIENTIALIST PHYSICALISM AND THE MIND BODY PROBLEM’ by David Griffin. For a quick overview, you can read the Alfred Whitehead page on Wikipedia.
I have tried to summarize Panexperientialism here:
In essence, Whitehead states some very clear and obvious facts which have been denied by classical scientific materialism. That is that the assumption that a material thing continues to be the same throughout time is false.
In materialism, we believe that fundamentally things remain the same and any change is only secondary. For example, “Sarah became obese after steroid treatment”, here we assume Sarah has an identity which continues to be the same throughout time and any change (obesity) is a secondary thing. That’s why we say ‘Sarah’ became obese, assuming Sarah remained the same.
This assumption although useful for language does not have any justification on its own. Rather it would be truer to say that things are always in a state of change.
The thin Sarah and the obese Sarah are in reality fundamentally completely different. This isn’t only because she became obese, in fact looking at it more closely we realize, most of her cells would have been renewed after some time. Even more fundamentally all the molecules in her body have changed in many variables, for example, that they are not at the same place or time anymore.
So what makes Sarah, Sarah ?. It is, in fact, an abstract idea we have imposed. In fact, we can see that all identities are abstract metaphors we assign to them.
So an electron is not a stationary, brute, defined material which travels in space and time and which only reacts to external forces (secondarily to it being an electron first). Rather it is something that is constantly changing in an unpredictable way, in relationship to other similar changing things.
It is the interaction they have with each other as a whole which defines them. An electron has an unpredictable nature you can call this a creative nature which is bound within the limits created by all the other unpredictable things. Hence they define each other and give meaning to each other. In fact, it is only relative to each other that they exist because if something does not interact with anything else then it cannot be observed in any way, hence it could be thought of as not existing at all.
This is the concept of Panexperientialism which proclaims that nothing is inert, that no material has only external causes acting on it, as is the view of scientific materialism. Rather everything has a will of its own, an unpredictable nature of creativity/ possibility and that it exists in relationship to everything else in a state of flux.
This experiential flow exists in the moment of time and as the moment of time moves on the previous moment can be seen and measured. In a way, it has become concrete, because it is now in the past.
This begs the question, who is experiencing ? as an experience must have a subject, hence subjectivity and consciousness?
To make his position clear Whitehead coined the term ‘Prehension’. Prehension in short means unconscious experience. Whitehead divides this further into two types 1. Physical Prehension (causal efficacy) 2. Conceptual Prehension (presentational immediacy), More on this can be found in Whitehead’s writings and on his Wikipedia page.
I hope this was helpful. Don’t forget to leave a comment below.
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