Panexperientialism Vs Panpsychism Vs Animism – Outlined in a Table

Animism - spirit cat

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):

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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.


  1. Hi Fizan,
    I noticed your strong commentary over at SelfAwarePatterns so I’m quite pleased to find that you’ve recently started this site. From these first posts it’s clear to me that we’re going to be having lots of interesting discussions. Apparently my site generally confuses people about my own views however (which I really should see to), so I’ll first say a bit about myself.

    I’m 48, and back in college decided that our mental and behavioral sciences had a huge blind spot regarding the nature of welfare — philosophers only consider this in respect to the social construct of morality, and scientists avoid speculation on the nature of welfare altogether (perhaps in the futile quest to appear objective). Given the apparent strength of this paradigm I decided to go it alone, and then potentially come back with a possibly more valuable perspective than I’d achieve from within. Once I was satisfied with what I’d developed a few years ago I started blogging heavily. It’s been great fun becoming familiar with various new terms and ideas, though the situation that disturbed me then seems just as strong today. I’ve noticed that people on the science side seem perturbed with me for suggesting that they’re still missing something basic, while people on the philosophy side seem to hope that nothing will ever compete with their moral form of ethics. I don’t mean to hijack your post however, so if anyone would like to discuss this I can be reached at my site or try this email address with an @.

    I haven’t had a good term from which to describe ancient beliefs, as was practiced by the indigenous Americans, so thanks for “animalism.”

    To me panpsychism is essentially a modern academic plague, though its prominence does seem to support my position that there are serious problems in academia today. Recently Michael Smith put up a wonderful post on the subject. ( He divided panpsychism into a naturalistic form that represents epistemic failure (given that if you degrade the term “consciousness” such that everything has it, then low and behold, the term becomes worthless). Apparently Giuliano Tononi’s IIT takes this route. Then he referenced a dualistic form of panpsychism as well, such as the kind proposed by René Descartes (who I nevertheless consider great). While I can’t say that this position is wrong, I believe that we need to openly call voids in causality nothing short of “magic”.

    I hadn’t heard of panexperientialism. If I understand you right the thought here is that materialists have gotten a bit lazy by presuming that things like electrons and people exist as such rather than change each instant. Hmm… Well if so then good luck to the cause. Still I don’t believe that I’ve thought that things were static. As you’ve suggested, I believe that I’ve simply used terms like “mountain” and “proton” for convenience, and then presumed that people knew that I didn’t mean fixed entities in themselves.

    I’m leery of Whitehead using the term “perception” in a manner such that something which isn’t conscious can perceive. This seems similar to defining everything to be conscious as the naturalistic panpsychist does. One could say that the ball perceives the bat when it’s hit, but I consider it more useful to revert back to the notion of causality, and so the ball “perceives” nothing, though is nevertheless caused to do what it does.


    1. Hi, Eric. Thank you for the comment, I’m hoping to have good interesting discussions here as well. I would love to read what you have to say about social welfare, as I don’t think I’m much familiar with the depths of this issue.
      For the time I agree with your view on Panpsychism and this is going to be the focus of my next post (drafted), as I will try to dissect the arguments made by Christof Koch in his TEDx talk on consciousness and Panpsychism, Tononi’s consciousness was also mentioned so I will briefly appraise that as well.

      Panexperientialism is more interesting for me and a little more complicated to grasp. It challenges fundamental materialistic beliefs, while not making direct claims to consciousness. I find myself inclined to Whitehead’s position in the way he describes fundamental reality as being in a state of flux rather than being static objects with external causes acting on them. So in a way what he says is that it isn’t a rock or ball (or any other matter) which experiences, rather experience (for the lack of a better word) is all there is. The notion of a ball or rock or electron is an illusion based on the presumption that they are defined brute objects with certain properties.
      I believe identities or ‘psychic continuity’ (as Noam Chomsky says) are illusory, they help us with language and perhaps consciousness. Prehension is difficult to grasp and I will attempt to dig deeper and reflect on it probably in a later post.

      Ultimately I consider myself not committed to any specific ideas, I am only in a state of learning 🙂

  2. I think that you have a few concepts wrong when it comes to Animism. You state rather briefly that Animism is the belief that all things have spirits and in a sense that is true, but the nature of the concept of spirit changed dramatically since the spread of Christianity and their concept of a spirit separable from the physical. I believe that Plato also had a similar ideology. However, in many animistic cultures there was no separation of the spirit from the physical they are one and the same. It could be equally correct then to say that their spirit is in essence consciousness as there would be any real distinction. I mean sure they talked about spirits that existed all around them and to be honest such an observation was absolutely correct. I mean in the soil there is an entire invisible microbiome responsible for the health and productivity of the land. It is also curious here than many of the rituals that honored the land spirits or gods of fertility contained a ritual component that would actually serve to feed these microorganism. For example, burying eggs/eggshells during pagan Easter festivals which server in a very real sense to make the land more fertile. These self same animists that believed in the invisible spirits of the land were able to domesticate a wide variety of invisible microorganisms such as yeast and cheese cultures. The had real tangible interactions with the invisible spirits around them. I am positive that they would view a mountain as a singular being as the violent actions that would have driven the mountain up would have exposed a variety of different minerals in the soil and would have likely had very different growing characteristics vs land more distant from the mountain. This is due in part to the minerals, but also due to a variance in the microbiome. These same cultures would also claim that sickness is in fact an evil spirit attacking a person, but then if spirits are microorganisms isn’t that in reality what is happening? This is all very real phenomenon that recent science has only begun to understand.

    Now to accompany animism is the whole concept of ancestor worship. Which is in essence the worship of DNA or familial lines. It is the cultivation and respect for the choices of your ancestors and is in reality a method of guided evolution as it ensures the values and traits your parents valued would likely be respected and you would choose a made or make life choices which were inline with theirs allowing for a greater degree of determination in evolutionary pathways. At the same time in a culture that believed in no separation of the spirit from the material components would see that when their ancestors died various fungi and “spirits” would devour them and they would return to the land. This of course justifies how many cultures would leave out food to rot for their honored ancestors as in reality the physical components that comprised them likely comprised the bacteria/fungi/”spirits” which would consume that meal. To further that when an ancestor was buried the entirety of its energy and molecules would in reality be returned to the soil and would end up distributed to the plants and animals which lived upon that land. This is of course why such care was taken for the well being of the life upon that land. That life in a generational land IS your ancestors. When you eat from the bounty of that land some part of your ancestors will be returned and LITERALLY live on in you. Your bones will be forged from their flesh recycled through nature. This is animism. It is much more indepth and diverse than you presented it. I mean in actuality you have presented a much more indepth discussion of panexperientialism which in my opinion the least put together of the three options where the most true to reality is the Animist viewpoint. Though I will concede there are a bunch of people who make a claim to animism who try to hammer it into some new age philosophy which it just isn’t.

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