Panpsychism and Hylozoism

(Rudy Rucker is a guestblogger. His latest novel, Hylozoic, describes a postsingular world in which everything is alive.)

I was happy to see a lot of response to my BoingBoing post of a few days ago, "Everything is Alive." Let me throw a little more fuel on the fire.

[A flowering plant eats a signpost!]

There's actually two different words we can play with here. "Hylozoism" is the doctrine that everything is alive, while "Panpsychism" is the belief that everything is conscious. These are close in meaning but not quite identical, although I'm comfortable with believing both.

Panpsychism is by no means a wacky new-age concept, it's been around since the dawn of philosophy. David Skrbina's fascinating study, Panpsychism in the West, (MIT Press, 2005) maps out the whole history. Here's a link to a page of Skrbina's book where he's discussing one of my favorite panpsychic philosophers, Gustav Theodor Fechner…more about him below.


One funny line from Skrbina, quoting the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce: "what we call matter is not completely dead, but is merely mind hide-bound with habits."

In discussing hylozoism and panpsychism, we're not talking about the notion that the universe as a whole is alive and conscious. We're concerned with viewing individual object, even atoms, as being alive and conscious—although there's nothing wrong with adding on the quite reasonable belief that the universe as whole is alive as well.

Here's a short essay of mine called "Mind is a Universally Distributed Quality" which I wrote for John Brockman's annual Big Question page at his Edge site. The Big Question was, "What is your dangerous idea?"

[The Mad Professor cover art and design is by Georgia Rucker Design.]

A point discussed in Skrbina’s Panpsychism in the West is that if you’re not careful, advocating panpsychism becomes simply a matter of watering down your notion of "mind" to apply to objects. But, with Skrbina, I want to claim that it’s a real sensual mind that you’re talking about in that rock, that pen, that finger, that dust mote, that hair, that napkin torn in half (two minds now). A materialist might say, hah, there’s no content to such a claim, but I feel that I demonstrated how it really would feel to talk to objects in my science-fiction story, “Panpsychism Proved” which appeared in no less august a journal than Nature magazine. And to think they dared call me mad! Oh, by the way, my story also appears in my anthology, Mad Professor. Here's a free PDF of the story —I put it online for you just now.

[Goosie the finger-puppet is alive.]

The scientist-philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner was a fascinating guy. He liked to talk about the daylight view versus the nighttime view. In the daylight view of the world, everything is flooded with soul and life. In the nighttime view, the world is dead, dark, inhospitable, and we sentient and living beings are but tiny firefly sparks. Not too many of his books have been translated into English, but here's one of them that I found online, On Life After Death, from Google Books.

[This Big Sur tree is conscious.]

Finally, here's a quote from the philosopher William James's Pluralistic Universe online , describing Fechner's work:

For him the abstract lived in the concrete, and the hidden motive of all he did was to bring what he called the daylight view of the world into ever greater evidence, that daylight view being this, that the whole universe in its different spans and wave-lengths, exclusions and envelopments, is everywhere alive and conscious… The original sin, according to Fechner, of both our popular and our scientific thinking, is our inveterate habit of regarding the spiritual not as the rule but as an exception in the midst of nature. Instead of believing our life to be fed at the breasts of the greater life, our individuality to be sustained by the greater individuality, which must necessarily have more consciousness and more independence than all that it brings forth, we habitually treat whatever lies outside of our life as so much slag and ashes of life only; or if we believe in a Divine Spirit, we fancy him on the one side as bodiless, and nature as soulless on the other. What comfort, or peace, Fechner asks, can come from such a doctrine? The flowers wither at its breath, the stars turn into stone; our own body grows unworthy of our spirit and sinks to a tenement for carnal senses only. The book of nature turns into a volume on mechanics, in which whatever has life is treated as a sort of anomaly; a great chasm of separation yawns between us and all that is higher than ourselves; and God becomes a thin nest of abstractions.