The 19th century concept of “panpsychism” gets a 21st century upgrade (2008)

I was walking along a beach in the Gulf Islands, on a brilliantly sunny afternoon. As I looked out to sea, my thoughts drifted to a news item I’d read earlier in the day. Out in the Pacific, between Hawaii and Japan, there are two vast islands of plastic garbage, held in place by swirling underwater currents.

According to
The Telegraph, the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" or "trash vortex,” is believed to contain about 100 million tons of flotsam. It’s a plastic soup running to the depth of 10 metres, and twice the size of the continental United States. That’s right, two agglomerations of floating junk, totalling twice the size of the US.

While some of this crap comes from storm-tossed container ships, most of it has been dumped off passenger ships and other vessels. But I’m not concerned here with the particulars of eco-catastrophe. With time running out, we desperately need new ways of thinking and feeling. The old ways are obviously broken beyond repair.

I reached down to pick up a rock from the beach, and cradled it in my hand. I appreciated its symmetry and smoothness, but there was nothing really remarkable about it. Like every other inanimate object, it’s essentially an inert thing. It’s as dumb as… well, a rock, I guess.

Yet, according to the emerging science of “digital physics,” the rock’s true nature is pure information. This is true for everything on the beach and beyond. All matter and energy, and all of its evolving forms, are expressions of a massive parallel processing program – an inconceivably long and large cosmic computation.

The universe is binary in nature, according to digital physics. Everything from crayfish to cathedrals to Cate Blanchette is the “output” of universal computation. All biological and cultural evolution, all our hopes and dreams, our aches and pains and flights of joy, ultimately derive from binary operations.

It all seems a bit counterintuitive. If I were to accidentally drop the rock on my foot, I wouldn’t normally say I had an interaction with information. But science has a way of surprising us.

In the 1970s, computer scientist John Conway came up with The Game of Life, a computer game in which organic-looking patterns and self-replicating “entities” emerged on a computer screen from a few simple, repeating rules. In the 1980s, the eminent theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler, a collaborator with Einstein, claimed that atoms are made up of bits of information. “Every it – every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself – derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely from binary choices, bits. What we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes/no questions."

Zen philosopher Alan Watts said virtually the same thing back in the sixties, albeit in a more poetic way. He called it the cosmic game of yes and no. The vibratory buzz of existence derives from microscopic transitions between on and off states, he claimed, drawing on the ideas of Taoism.

By the eighties, the idea of cosmic computation was enough of a sci-fi staple that author Douglas Adams could lampoon it in
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. (The ultimate answer to the riddle of existence, “42,” was a source of great confusion to the book’s characters.)

The magnum opus of digital physics arrived in 2002, with
A New Kind of Science, a huge tome by mathematician Stephen Wolfram. At the age of 13, Wolfram won a MacArthur “genius grant” and went on to make a fortune from his academic software program Mathematica. He used the proceeds to finance the publication of his 1,200-page brainbuster. For some reviewers the book was the ultimate in vanity publishing. Here was a guy who had the temerity to say he’d discovered a whole “new science”! A flurry of scientific interest followed, but the book’s daunting size put off many reviewers.

Back in the 1980s, Wolfram began to investigate “cellular automata.” These are simple logical procedures in which the output of each operation is fed back as input, much like Conway’s Life computer game. Wolfram noticed that printed outputs of his cellular automata sometimes created complex patterns, resembling those seen in seashells, leaves and sea creatures. By tweaking the input, Wolfram found he could generate a surprising amount of beauty and complexity. Wolfram believed he had hit on the Rosetta Stone for the cosmic code; a trippy theory that could subsume every conceivable entity and force in the universe.

Wolfram didn’t just riff off the ideas of his predecessors. He gave formal rigour to what had previously been vague scientific speculations. One of his more intriguing findings is the “Principle of Computational Equivalence.” One computer is capable of emulating another computer, regardless of its speed or capacity. This is why a Mac can run as a PC or function as a slow supercomputer. All complex systems can model each other, Wolfram claims. A stream of water, a windstorm, a caterpillar in a pupa, the human brain, are equivalent in their computational complexity.

In a 2002 essay published in
Wired, former editor of the magazine, Kevin Kelly, wrote enthusiastically describing Wolfram’s ideas: “Your brain and the physics of a cup being filled with water are equivalent… for your mind to compute a thought and the universe to compute water particles falling, both require the same universal process.”

The extraordinary consequences of Wolfram’s ideas only become clear toward the end of his massive book, a place most deadline-driven book reviewers avoided. From the standpoint of digital physics, a stream flowing past a rock is no less complex than a human brain, says Wolfram. The stream can be said to be “solving problems,” just as the brain does, although in this case the problems involve fluid dynamics, flowing around rocks and other obstructions.

Wolfram continues, “And while from the point of view of our intellectual modern thinking this may come as quite a shock it is perhaps not so surprising at the level of everyday experience. For there are certainly many systems in nature whose behaviour is complex enough that we often describe in human terms. And indeed in early human thinking it is very common to encounter the idea of animism: that systems with complex behaviour in nature must be driven by the same kind of essential spirit as humans.”

Although he isn’t explicitly endorsing animism or spirits, Wolfram was close to venturing into the boggy territory of “pansychism.” This is the notion that mind imbues all things, living and nonliving.

Panpsychism was in its heyday back in the 19th century, The heyday of panpsychism was back in the 19th century, but it’s recently made a comeback. In 2006, British philosopher Galen Strawson argued in his book, Consciousness and Its Place in Nature, that if we are nothing more than an arrangement of stuff, then this arrangement of physical stuff has “interiority,” or a capacity for experience.

The vast majority of us believe that experience requires, at minimum, a brain. Not so, insist the panpyschists, who believe that mind can run on a wide range of platforms and that it’s the processing that’s important. Anything that is an information processor – virtually every object in the universe, in other words – partakes in the cosmic computation. It therefore has some semblance of mind.

From the standpoint of digital physics, a rock is hardly an inert object. It “senses” the world around it. Its atoms jiggle in response to the air temperature; the electron shells respond to pressure from the atoms in my hand. The rock is a buzz of activity, in constant communication with the world outside, though there’s no intelligible output. We can be fairly certain it doesn’t fear a blow from a hammer, or dream of being a boulder. Yet there’s a lot going on inside, a world’s worth of subatomic information processing. You might even say it has a memory of sorts, inscribed into its fracture lines and pitted surface. (Rocks and stones have always been the explanatory favourites for panpsychists – see sidebar.) Panpsychists take this digital take on things and run with it.

Okay, fine. Some of us might accept there is some subjective experience attached to being a mayfly. But a lump of granite? That interpretation is lunacy, it seems.

Yet scientists still barely understand how human subjective experiences emerge from the activity of neurons. We don’t regard ourselves as Darwinian robots, reflexively responding to our surroundings, without feelings. So how can we know with any assurance that other complex systems, both organic and inorganic, are different? As the Australian philosopher David Chalmers says, “Experience is information from the inside; physics is information from the outside."

Brave New World author Aldous Huxley insisted that human consciousness is a very specialized form of thought, engineered for survival as a savannah-hunting primate. Huxley called the human mind a “reducing valve” for consciousness, allowing in a controlled trickle of what he referred to as “Mind at Large.” To the late British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington, “The stuff of the world is mind-stuff.” Freeman Dyson, who followed Einstein at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study, was more explicit. "The laws [of physics] leave a place for mind in the description of every molecule… In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree and not in kind…"

At the other end of the cosmic scale, British biologist Rupert Sheldrake, inventor of the concept of morphic resonance, has speculated that the sun might have some form of consciousness. He’s even asked other scientists to explain to him why it can’t. So far, no one has offered a satisfactory refutation, he says.

Sheldrake’s notion of solar awareness came to him after reading
The Black Cloud, a sci-fi novel by the late astronomer Fred Hoyle. In the novel, scientists discover signals from an extraterrestrial intelligence in space. It turns out to be a cloud of interstellar gas, which “thinks” through the transmission of electric charges among its free-floating atoms.

There isn’t the space here to explore all the shades of panpsychism, or the debate surrounding the theory. And in spite of the scientific silverbacks who’ve given it a nod, it remains on the fringes of academic respectability, with the vast majority of thinkers giving it no more thought than a rock would.

But one thing is undeniable: pansychism introduces the possibility that our world is far more vibrant and alive than previously thought. We become open to the possibility that everything around us is “ensouled.” And aren’t there far worse ways to look at the world, what with the icecaps melting and honeybees disappearing? It’s never too late to start thinking of the world as a thou, rather than an it. Many so-called primitive people have done so for millennia; in fact, only in the past 500 years have some civilized people thought otherwise.

It’s arguable that we’re in such trouble largely because of our beliefs of who and what we are. In one view, humans are mere accidents of evolution, huddling on a small planet in orbit around an average star, on the suburbs of one galaxy among billions, in a cold, meaningless universe. In another view, God whipped everything into existence in less than a week, and it shows: the planet we’ve inherited from Adam and Eve is said to be corrupt and fallen.

On the one side, the religious tribalism of monotheists. On the other, the Earth-eating ethos of materialists. These are the dominant camps of belief on the planet, and both are clearly unsustainable.

If modern science has one central message for us, it’s interconnectedness. Both ecology and quantum theory attest that all things are mutually involved with one another. No sparrow can fall from a tree without sending out ripples of causation into the biosphere and beyond. Digital physics takes this idea to the furthest point; our deepest identity isn’t the socially constructed self, but the whole shebang it’s embedded in.

Until we have a better operational definition of “mind,” I’m not totally sold on panpsychism. And if the idea does make headway in popular culture, I could easily imagine it getting dumbed-down to a spiritual Ponzi scheme like The Secret. But one thing seems likely: If most planetary citizens thought of the physical world, and its constituents, as being ensouled, we probably wouldn’t treat it with such contempt. We wouldn’t allow polar bears, songbirds or Bengal tigers to disappear into the history books. We wouldn’t be reading insane news about continent-sized whirlpools of garbage in the Pacific.

Panspsychism may or may not remain the orphan child of Western philosophy. Digital physics, on the other hand, appears to be gaining ground among researchers and thinkers.

Copernicus exiled Earth from the centre of the universe, and Darwin demonstrated human beings are animals. For the past few centuries, it’s been one blow after another to human pride. And now Wolfram and his colleagues say we are nothing more than a bunch of bits. Yet the theory of digital physics may take us all the way around the other side, to our pre-Copernican starting point.

Stephen Wolfram insists we’re deeply connected to a binary ground of being: “So while science has often made it seem that we as humans are somehow insignificant compared to the universe, the Principle of Computational Equivalence now shows that in a certain sense we are at the same level as it is. For the principle implies that what goes on inside us can ultimately achieve just the same level of computational sophistication as our whole universe.

In Auguries of Innocence, the Victorian-era poet William Blake put it another way:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Geoff Olson