This is a clarificatory note on an issue related to panpsychism. The gist is: panpsychism isn’t about saying that “electrons are conscious” because that implies that the electron is like a little individual, united with itself but separated from its surroundings. That’s the form of consciousness living things have evolved, but we needn’t think it’s the type that all of reality has.
We habitually think of consciousness in terms of being someone’s consciousness – if it is said that there is a feeling or thought, we can then ask whose feeling or thought. If we keep this idea, then any attempt to understand the idea of consciousness as the stuff of the universe will be very difficult, because we’ll be faced with endless unanswerable questions – is a molecule conscious, or are its constituent atoms themselves separately conscious?
Fortunately, that idea of the necessary ‘ownership’ of consciousness can be seen to unravel at the edges in various ways. Sometimes when our brains are impaired by certain drugs or certain mental techniques (e.g. meditation), people report that they no longer feel like a separate entity, no longer feel distinct from the things around them. Obviously we shouldn’t just accept mystical stoner pronouncements – but they have as much validity, surely, as our more common everyday experience, and it doesn’t seem ridiculous to suggest that they may be a better guide to what non-animal, non-brain consciousness is like (after all, don’t we tend to assume that drugs ‘impair’ our brains, and thus make them closer to ‘dead’ brains or non-brain matter than to ‘healthy’ functioning ones?).
Similarly, there is some evidence (or at least argument) in recent work at the boundary of philosophy and neuroscience (work which I’m currently studying) that conscious experience can sometimes be separate from ‘access’, i.e. the ability to report, act on, write into memory, etc. information.
For example, if two stimuli are shown but my attention is impaired, I may only ‘notice’ (report seeing, act on, remember, etc.) one of them, but the brain activity that normally accompanies seeing the other (e.g. it’s red, activity in the ‘red’ nucleus (which doesn’t really exist but whatever)) still happens. So it looks like there may ‘be’ conscious experience in our brain, but without us ‘knowing about it’. We might still insist that such experience is ‘our experience’, but the notion has at least been dented. Indeed, the philosopher linked to above sometimes has to defend himself against the accusation that his theories will lead to ‘panpsychic disaster’. 🙂
So the alternative would be something like this: consciousness by itself has no ‘owner’, it is just exists. The distinctive feature of brains is that they create a distinct owner, a ‘self’ that distinguishes itself from the rest of the world. I could go further into how it might do this, what sort of features of neural systems might be important, but won’t.
Another way to phrase the same thing would be that the distinctness of our minds from the rest of the world is something they have to constantly work to maintain. As they become less effective (more sleepy, more confused, more drunk, more ill, less evolved) this distintness becomes more and more faded and blurry, and the ‘self’ becomes more and more merged with the ‘self’ of any other consciousness. Below a certain level, there is no longer any ‘self’ worth talking about.
This is how I would imagine it stands with my jumper. Each proton in it “is conscious”, but none has any ‘self’ distinct from that of the surrounding protons and electrons, so the jumper as a whole is just as much ‘a single conscious thing’ as any part of it – and the same then applies to the larger mass of non-living things that contains that jumper.
So if we asked “who is there in the universe?”, the best answer would be something like “me, other humans, animals, and rest of the universe”. The rest of the universe is more like one enormous (and breathtakingly stupid, unaware, and badly-motivated) person than anything else – although of course this sort of description still misleads, ‘person’ is still not really the right word.