Nagasawa’s Argument against Panpsychism


Head of Metaphysics and Mind
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on facebook

A review of Yujin Nagasawa’s “A Panpsychist Dead End” (2021)

Recently, philosophers of mind have been trying to find an alternative to materialism and dualism, and one of the most widely embraced alternatives but also frequently questioned is panpsychism. It is a view that conscious experience or phenomenal properties are fundamental and ubiquitous. According to this view, complex objects, such as human brains, and fundamental objects, such as particles, have conscious experience.

The panpsychism view is often proposed to solve what is called the “hard problem of consciousness,” a problem in explaining the presence of phenomenal properties (such as “what it is like to fall in love with someone”) in organisms like us. Panpsychism deals with the problem by postulating two arguably strong facts: that 1) phenomenal properties are fundamental properties and that 2) phenomenal properties belonging to humans are a highly complex-structured form of phenomenal properties and derived from the fundamental ones. With the postulate in mind, we no longer need to ask why we have phenomenal properties.

Although it seems successful in dealing with the hard problem of consciousness, panpsychism faces another serious problem referred to as the “combination problem.” The problem problematizes how highly complex phenomenal properties in macro-level entities (called macrophenomenal properties) can be derived from the simple phenomenal properties in micro-level entities (called microphenomenal properties). This problem primarily challenges so-called constitutive panpsychism suggesting that microphenomenal properties are combined in such a way to constitute macrophenomenal properties.

One variant of panpsychism that is considered the most promising in solving the combination problem is constitutive Russellian panpsychism. However, in an illuminating and fascinating article titled “A Panpsychist Dead End” (2021), Yujin Nagasawa argued that constitutive Russellian panpsychism cannot solve the problem and will hit a dead end. Here I’ll try to summarize Nagasawa’s argument.

Nagasawa started his article by clarifying the concept of constitutive Russellian panpsychism (CRP) consisting of three cores, namely 1) panpsychism, 2) constitutivism, and 3) Russellianism.

The first element assumes that phenomenal properties exist in the macro-level of reality and the micro-level of reality. In other words, not only are there macrophenomenal properties but also microphenomenal properties. This view extends the common-sense view of reality which regards phenomenal properties only exist in the macro-level of reality. Extending phenomenality to the micro-level of reality can provide panpsychism with an elegant and continuous picture of the world that the common-sense view cannot do (see the slide below).

The common-sense view (surmounted by panpsychism)
Panpsychism's view

The second element assumes that macrophenomenal properties are constituted by microphenomenal properties. By incorporating constitutive elements, panpsychism seems to be able to minimize the hard problem because macrophenomenal properties are not assumed to come from the same level macromaterial entities but are constituted by microphenomenal properties at the lower level, and therefore eliminates the hard problem in the macro-level of reality. The constitutive element is so beneficial for panpsychism that panpsychism would have to deal with two hard problems at once. the macro-level of reality and the micro-level of reality, in the absence of it. Now, constitutive panpsychism only needs to deal with the hard problem in the micro-level: why do micromaterial entities like particles realize microphenomenal properties?

Russelianism is adopted to precisely answer the question. This third element of CRP assumes that microphenomenal properties constitute macrophenomenal properties and represent quiddities of micromaterial entities. CRP, therefore, believes that the hard problem in both macro-level and micro-level of reality has been solved. Micromaterial entities have microphenomenal properties because the latter is the intrinsic or categorical nature of the former.

The last two arguments are fairly promising to answer the problem. That being said, the Russellian manuver has not responded to the combination problem. The combination problem asks why the combination of microphenomenal properties realizes highly complex macrophenomenal properties. To solve the problem successfully, panpsychists should at least answer these three questions:

  1. What are microphenomenal properties?
  2. What are macrophenomenal properties?
  3. How can an aggregate of microphenomenal properties yield macrophenomenal properties?

We can easily answer (2) because we have immediate access to macrophenomenal properties from the first-person point of view. We know very well what it is like to fall in love with someone when we are falling in love with someone or what it is like to be pregnant when we are being pregnant. However, we cannot have any transparent knowledge of what it is like to be a micromaterial entity like a particle. The only available way to answer (1) is by inferencing what microphenomenal properties are from the answer to the question (2) and (3). Unfortunately, even though we can easily answer (2), we cannot answer (3) without knowing first the answer to (1). Again, however, we cannot know the answer to (1) without knowing first the answers to (2) and (3). We find ourselves going back and forth in a vicious circle.

Nagasawa made an analogy of a dish to explain this argument. Suppose that someone gives you a dish that you do not know the ingredient (ingredient problem) and the way to make it (process problem). Question (1) is like the ingredient problem, while question (3) is like the process problem. We cannot have information on how to make a dish without knowing the ingredient first. But the information on the ingredient is not accessible to us. The only thing we figure out is just the dish. That is what Nagasawa called the “cognitive dead end”. Panpsychists cannot go further to find out either the ingredient or the way to make the dish. Something that panpsychism can do here is no more than eating the dish, and it is undoubtedly a pretty accurate analogy. Please eat the dish and forget the combination problem.

This article is originally published in the author’s blog:

Editor: Banin D. Sukmono