Particle man, particle man
Doing the things a particle can
What's he like? its not important
Particle man

Is he a dot, or is he a speck?
When he's underwater does he get wet?
Or does the water get him instead?
Nobody knows, particle man
-They Might Be Giants

How Panpsychism Might Work

I and others have argued for the inherent incompleteness of sets of physical laws as descriptions of reality - such ladders of categorization of reality will always be missing the bottom rung. Moreover, we are confronted with a phenomenon, consciousness, that does not seem to have a natural home in the world that physics describes. Let's imagine for a moment that the panpsychists are right, and that some kind of crumb of proto-consciousness must exist down at the lowest levels of reality, along with mass, charge, and spin. Although it is probably better to say that this crumb of proto-consciousness underlies or instantiates those other physical properties, or that it implements them willfully.

I have also argued that so-called levels of organization buy us exactly nothing in terms of explaining consciousness: all "higher-level" aggregations or black boxes do for us is allow us to think of masses of low-level parts more effectively. No explanatory power is given or taken away by thinking of the lower levels chunked up in one way or another.

So how does panpsychism get around the famous combination problem? Even if at the lowest levels of physics, quarks are conscious, and quark behavior is implemented by quark consciousness, each quark is still a windowless monad, blindly knocking into other particles, interacting only by causal, functional dynamics, and we are back in the world of physics. The only way to scale up is functionally. Functionalism still wins, even if the bottom-most subcomponents are, in some way, conscious (or proto-conscious).

Particle Man

I think it would be cool to write a comic book in which the protagonist is a superhero: six foot four, barrel-chested, cape, square jaw, steely gaze. He can do anything he wants, unbound by the laws of physics, because he is an elementary particle. A big one. If you get close to him, you see that he is not made of cells, which are in turn made of molecules. He is just one big indivisible thing. He is an example of what William Seager calls a "large simple", or Galen Strawson (2009, p. 380) calls a "complex absolute unity". You've got your electrons, you've got your quarks, you've got your photons, and you've got Particle Man.

There has never been a Particle Man before, and there never will be again, so there is no existing body of laws that apply to him. Every moment of his existence, whatever he does is automatically a new law of nature, albeit a uselessly inapplicable one - the law would apply to the one moment of its coinage, and no other. There are no existing laws that define the mass of a Particle Man, so he gets to decide what his mass is at any moment. Same with his shape and size, his interactions with other stuff, his trajectory though space-time. He can collapse himself into a singularity, or he can spread himself as a fine matter-mist throughout the cosmos. He can wink in and out of existence.

Whatever he does at any time is just what Particle Man does at that time, and as such is a law of nature with all the rock-solid authority of Ohm's law. In fact, it is only whimsy on his part that he chooses to assume human form at all. It might be a pretty boring comic book, come to think of it - Particle Man would have godlike powers, far more than those of Superman (although the Green Lantern, in some interpretations, has approached this level of power).

Surely, though, Nature, which has been so tidy and parsimonious with its elementary particles and laws up to now would not create something so extravagant as Particle Man, casting off new laws willy-nilly, every instant of every day! Possibly, but our preference for neat, tidy, elegant systems, and our certainty that everything big and tricky must be made of things that are small and simple are not binding on Nature. Indeed, our preferences along these lines have guided us to astounding achievements over the years, but have also left us with some blind spots.

Now I do not think that Particle Man exists, at least as a whole man-sized solid thing. Rather, I suspect that a given unitary moment of consciousness consists of a Particle Man-like blob of - something. Consciousness just can't exist in a world made of pure physics as we understand it (if a world made of "pure physics" is even a coherent idea). Panpsychism must be true. But a conservative panpsychism that posits (proto) consciousness at the lowest level and keeps it there is stopped dead by the combination problem. We are forced to go out on a limb and speculate as to how consciousness - as such, not just as an "emergent" property of functional dynamics - scales up beyond the individual physical particles.

Quantum Holism And Chaos

Quantum mechanics tells us about different systems of small particles coming together into such blobs that, although born of complexes of smaller things, and destined to fall apart into subcomponents in the future, are, must be, one single thing as far as Nature is concerned. Quantum mechanics shows us real emergence, so-called strong or radical emergence in action, not just the perceived emergence of the flock "emerging" from the birds, or the liquidity "emerging" from the motion of the molecules of water. To be useful to a full-blooded panpsychism, it doesn't have to be a whole person, and it doesn't have to be very long-lived - it just needs to be enough of a new thing to be qualitatively unique and causally efficacious on some macro scale.

Chaos theory tells us that the universe is chock full of situations in which neighbors do not map to neighbors, in which tiny differences make huge differences - the oft-cited Butterfly Effect. The panpsychist's qualitative blob would not have to be very big at all to make the kind of difference we need it to make in order to push the brain around. Not only am I not a quantum physicist, but I am also not a neuroscientist. Nevertheless, it strikes me that in our chaotic universe, a neuron would be a fine place to look for microscopic changes having macroscopic effects.

Holism And Its Discontents

It is now generally accepted that 65 million years ago an asteroid struck the earth, and this impact resulted in the death of the dinosaurs. I remember learning when I was young, however, that when this hypothesis was first put forward, it met a lot of resistance. Apparently the mainstream geologists took a while to come around, even in the face of almost overwhelming physical evidence of such an asteroid impact. I have since read that at the end of the 19th century, even among the Harvard faculty, there were still some old geologists who believed in the literal truth of the Christian bible. These researchers looked for evidence of Noah's flood in the fossil record, for instance.

As the biblical literalists died out or retired, their views became an embarrassment to later generations of geologists. So much so, that even in the 1960's, long after any living geologist could claim to have ever met a colleague holding these views, the world of academic geology held onto a reflexive aversion to any explanations that seemed bible-adjacent, i.e. that involved single-day cataclysms. There would be no smitings, Great Floods, or destruction raining down from the sky in any of our theories, thank you very much. This more modern-minded cohort knew the kinds of theories they thought were nutty, but none of them had any individual memory of why they thought they were nutty.

We are all educated people living in a scientific age. There is a certain way of thinking about the world that comes naturally to us, since it has been drummed into our heads from elementary school onwards. We are so used to it now that we don't appreciate what a leap it was for us at one time, both culturally and individually. Children and primitive societies are natural animists, and anthropomorphizers. Cyclones are angry. The earth is a loving mother. Even rocks possess a certain stoic wisdom.

Eventually, after thousands of years, and lead by a few singular geniuses, we discovered a new way of thinking. This new reductive habit of thought consists of approaching every big complicated thing as an aggregate of small simple things that behave in consistent lawlike ways. Final causation was out, efficient causation was in. Since the time of Galileo and Newton, this kind of looking at the world has been spectacularly successful within its proper domain, and has lead to what is legitimately called the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution (the internet, vaccines, people walking on the moon, microwave ovens).

Here we are, a few hundred years later, and that revolution is still charging along, and we are all taught this way of thinking, whether we major in physics or not. We accept scientism as the default way of seeing the world. It is hard for us to imagine (or perhaps to remember culturally) just how hard-won and counterintuitive the new reductive ways of thinking are. Training ourselves to think like this was slow and difficult at one time. We have mastered it wonderfully, but it has left us with a residual knee-jerk reaction against anything that smells even faintly like the discredited old holism or anthropomorphism. Such ideas strike us as unseemly and embarrassing. Like the geologists in the 1960's, our self-imposed mental training has left us with a blind spot. Even if holism were staring us in the face, we would refuse to see it. Nothing like the zeal of a convert.