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What is Panspiritism?

Steve Taylor introduces an alternative way of conceiving consciousness.

In case you haven’t noticed, a theory called panpsychism is undergoing something of a resurgence in the philosophy of mind. [See PN Issue 121. Ed.] As dissatisfaction with physically-based explanations of consciousness increases – and as the ‘hard problem’ of how the brain produces consciousness continues to baffle – that alternative has become more appealing. Panpsychism answers the question of how mind could arise out of matter by claiming that mind was always in matter. It didn’t need to arise because it was already there. Panpsychism holds that even the tiniest particles of matter have some form of experience, even if it’s so basic and primitive that it’s impossible for us to conceive of it.

However, panpsychism certainly isn’t the only alternative to the materialist’s dismissal of mind. In this article I’d like to describe another non-materialist perspective, which I feel has more elegance and explanatory potential than panpsychism. It is an approach that in different variants has a long and rich philosophical history, and also features strongly in indigenous cultures and many of the world’s spiritual traditions. I call this approach panspiritism.

Panpsych ism literally means ‘mind is everywhere’; but usually this is taken to just mean that mind is in all material particles. However, panspiritism suggests that there is a fundamental quality inherent in all space as well as in all material things. This quality might be called ‘spirit’ or ‘fundamental consciousness’. Panspiritism, as the name suggests, takes it to be all-pervading: it is everywhere and in everything. Moreover, it is the most fundamental quality in the universe, because it is the quality from which the universe, and hence all things in it, arose. Australian philosopher David Chalmers suggested in his 1995 book The Conscious Mind that consciousness is irreducible in a way similar to forces such as gravity or electromagnetism, which aren’t caused or produced by anything – they simply are. But according to panspiritism, consciousness is even more fundamental than gravity or electromagnetism, because unlike them it precedes the formation of the universe, and the universe, including all its physical forces, is an expression of it.

Also in contrast to panpsychism, panspiritism doesn’t hold that all material particles have their own mind and therefore their own experience. That is, panspiritism suggests that although consciousness is in all things, all things do not have their own individuated consciousness. Although fundamental consciousness pervades everything, all things are not themselves conscious. Only structures that have the necessary complexity and organisational form to receive and channel fundamental consciousness into themselves are individually alive, and individually conscious.

In panspiritism there are two essential (and related) distinctions. The first is between individual conscious beings and fundamental consciousness; and the second is between material things, which are pervaded with fundamental consciousness without having their own interior consciousness, and living things, which are both pervaded with fundamental consciousness and also have their own minds. According to panspiritism, the entire universe is animate and conscious, since all things are animated with spirit. But there is a difference between the way rocks and rivers are alive and the way that people, insects, or even amoebas are alive. Rocks and rivers do not have their own psyches, and are therefore not individually conscious. So although consciousness pervades them, they aren’t conscious themselves, whereas organisms have their own individual consciousnesses, to different degrees of complexity.

We can think of fundamental consciousness as a kind of ‘dynamic field’ which enfolds and immerses the whole universe (and possibly other universes). Its creativity enables it to generate matter so that physical forms can arise and exist within it. An analogy here would be with waves on the surface of an ocean, which have an individual form as waves but are also united with the ocean as a whole and are of the same nature as the ocean. (This analogy is slightly misleading, though, since fundamental consciousness has no surface. Perhaps more accurately, we should think in terms of current or eddies that arise within the depths – or main body – of the ocean.)

Once the material universe had been generated, the dynamic creative quality of fundamental consciousness continued to operate in material structures, enabling greater organisation. Eventually this led to the development of life. Here physical forms became complex enough to channel fundamental consciousness. And once life originated, the creativity of spirit was an important factor in evolution, impelling life forms to develop greater complexity, which in turn allowed life to channel consciousness more intensely, and so to develop a more expansive internal consciousness. Living beings became more sentient and autonomous, whilst still immersed in and pervaded with fundamental consciousness.

The analogy with waves is useful because it highlights the flexible nature of the relationship – and the lack of a clear distinction – between matter and fundamental consciousness. Material structures may appear to be separate from each other and the space which surrounds them, but they are actually always part of spirit. There is little distinction between their form and the fundamental consciousness they emerge from (and are still immersed in), just as there is little distinction between a wave in the sea and the sea itself. This is particularly the case with simple material forms. In more complex forms, which have their own individuated consciousness, the distinction is stronger. Incidentally, this highlights a problem that can arise with complex forms such as human beings – a sense of alienation from ‘fundamental consciousness’. It’s like a wave forgetting that it’s part of the ocean and thinking of itself as an independent entity. It could be argued that the primary goal of many of the world’s spiritual traditions is to overcome this sense of alienation.

© Paul Gregory 2019

A Not-At-All-Brief History of Panspiritism

What I’m calling ‘panspiritism’ is by no means a new idea. In fact, the idea that the essence of reality is non-material seems to be one of the oldest and most common cross-cultural concepts in history. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean it is correct, but it at least shows that I’m not plucking it out of thin air.

In early Greek philosophy, Anaximander used the term apeiron, which literally means ‘boundless’ or ‘infinite’, for an all-pervading spiritual principle. He described apeiron as the source from which all forms arise, and to which they all return. Later Greek philosophers believed that pneuma – literally ‘wind’ or ‘breath’, but also translated as ‘soul’, ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’ – was the underlying principle of the universe, pervading everything. The Stoics saw mind and matter not as two different things, but as two aspects of the same underlying active principle, inherent in all material things, which they called logos (word or reason, sometimes translated as God). Other Greek philosophers, such as Anaxagoras, used the term nous (intelligence), conceiving of it as a single, unifying force that animated all things. Plato expressed panspiritist views too, particularly in his later dialogues such as Timaeus. He used the term anima mundi – ‘world-soul’ – and suggested that the cosmos has a soul in the same way as the body, and that everything in existence shares this soul.

Six centuries after Plato’s death, a new wave of panspiritism began with Plotinus (204-270 AD), who taught that the fundamental reality of the universe is a spiritual force he called ‘The One’. The One is a dynamic reservoir of spirit from which all individual beings arise. It continually creates and sustains our lives, like a fountain that pours out into our individual beings. It is the central force of the universe, and as such we feel a powerful attraction to it, a longing to regain contact with it.

Panspiritist ideas were also prominent in a new wave of philosophical speculation that began in sixteenth century Europe. The Italian philosopher Patrizi suggested that there was a soul of the universe that pervaded all things, including the human soul, so that in a sense every soul contained the whole universe. In his 1584 work Cause, Principle and Unity Giordano Bruno wrote that, “in all things there is spirit, and there is not the least corpuscle that does not contain within itself some portion that may animate it”. In the seventeenth century Baruch Spinoza suggested that there was an underlying single essence of all reality, which he referred to as ‘God or Nature’ (Deus sive Natura). As with the Stoics’ logos, Spinoza believed that God or Nature manifested itself in both matter and mind, so that both were expressions of the same ultimate substance.

After this, however, panspiritist ideas faded away from philosophy. One exception was the celebrated German author and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), who used the term Kraft (literally, force or energy) for the underlying substance. He attempted to integrate the concept with the new forces that had recently been discovered by scientists, such as gravity, electricity, magnetism, and light, by suggesting that they were all manifestations of the underlying Kraft.

These approaches have often been seen as forms of idealism, the theory that reality is mind-dependent, but I would argue that it is more accurate to view them as forms of panspiritism.

Similar perspectives are common in the world’s indigenous cultures, such as the concepts of a ‘great spirit’ or ‘great mystery’ in many Native American groups. This was not generally conceived of as a personal God, but as a spiritual force that existed before the world began, and is everywhere and in everything. The Ainu of Japan referred to an all-pervading spiritual force as ramut. Scottish anthropologist Neil Gordon Munro, one of the first Westerners to live with the Ainu, described ramut as a force that is ‘all-pervading and indestructible’, and decided that the best possible English translation for it was ‘spirit-energy’. Other cultures have had similar concepts. In New Guinea, imunu or ‘fundamental soul’. In Africa, the Nuer called it kwoth and the Mbuti call it pepo.

Some of the world’s major spiritual traditions also feature concepts of a fundamental spiritual force or energy that pervades all things and the spaces between all things, and underlies the world of appearances in such a way that all things arise from it. An example is the Hindu concept of brahman as described in the Upanishads. In some mystical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, God has been conceived as a formless, impersonal spiritual energy or force that radiates through all creation, bringing all things into oneness. It radiates through the human soul too, so that essentially, human beings are one with God. Christian mystics referred to this as the ‘godhead’ or ‘divine darkness’. In the Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah, it was called en sof – literally, ‘without end’ (that is, boundless or infinite).

Mind & Matter

In panspiritism, the human mind is in its essence a complex channelling of fundamental consciousness. So a distinction is made between fundamental consciousness and the human mind, with the latter arising from (and being dependent on) the interaction of fundamental consciousness with the brain. In this sense, there are three basic aspects to reality. Rather than just thinking in terms of the spiritual and the material, or mind and matter, we should think in terms of fundamental consciousness, mind, and matter. Or we could say that fundamental consciousness manifests itself in two ways: as matter and mind. We could also say that matter is the external manifestation of fundamental consciousness, while mind is its internal manifestation. Matter is pervaded with fundamental consciousness, but it is not conscious in itself. As I already mentioned, this is one of the main differences between panpsychism and panspiritism. This doesn’t mean that mind and matter are distinct, as in dualism. They are instead different expressions of fundamental consciousness. At the same time, mind is a more subtle and fuller expression of spirit than matter. It is, you might say, a higher-order expression of spirit.

You could look at this in terms of two different stages in the evolution of life. The first stage was the emergence of matter out of fundamental consciousness at the beginning of the universe 13.7 billion years ago, and its subsequent complexification. The second stage, which began to take place around four billion years ago with the first simple life forms, was the emergence of mind within matter. (And for all we know, it may have happened earlier on other planets.)

Seeing Panspiritism
Seeing Panspiritism
© Venantius J. Pinto 2019

The Emergence of Mind

All of this begs for a fuller explanation of how mind, or individuated consciousness, arose. Since, unlike panpsychism, panspiritism doesn’t hold that all material particles have mental properties, how can it account for the emergence of mind?

I suggest a ‘transmission’ model of consciousness here, whereby physical structures become internally conscious when they develop sufficient complexity to receive and channel fundamental consciousness. When matter is arranged in certain intricate ways – such as in cells and organisms – it allows a channelling of fundamental consciousness. A cell acts as a kind of ‘receiver’ of consciousness, so that even an amoeba has its own very rudimentary kind of psyche, and is therefore individually alive. So according to panspiritism, life began when physical structures became complex enough to receive and transmit consciousness. This threshold of complexity was reached with the formation of the first simple cells that were protected from their own environment and had self-contained biochemical activity. Here fundamental consciousness was able to express itself through individual structures, so that they attained a rudimentary awareness, in terms of an autonomous responsiveness to their environment. And as life forms evolved – as an organism’s cells increased in number and became more intricately organised – they became capable of receiving and channelling more consciousness, and so they became more alive, developing more autonomy and a more intense awareness of reality. This eventually led to the evolution of mammals such as human beings, who, with our incredibly intricate brains, each made up of around ninety billion neurons, have a high level of sentience.

In human beings and other animals, the channelling of fundamental consciousness takes place primarily via the brain. (I say ‘primarily’ because the cells of the rest of the body also channel fundamental consciousness to some degree. This implies that our individual consciousness is to some extent spread throughout our bodies, rather than just associated with the central nervous system.) As fundamental consciousness is channelled through us, the brain’s complex neural networks facilitate mental functions such as memory, information processing, intention or will, concentration, and abstract and logical cognition – in other words, everything that constitutes the individual mind. In this way the brain is the facilitator but not the causal generator of mind. The relationship of fundamental consciousness to mind is like the relationship between a raw ingredient and the meal which is prepared from it: fundamental consciousness constitutes the essence of mind, but it is not equivalent to it. Mind is what happens when spirit is filtered through the neural networks of the brain.

Is Panspiritism a Form of Idealism?

Despite some similarities, it would be wrong to view panspiritism as a form of idealism. Idealism is the doctrine that all things, even apparently material things, are really mental in nature. Most forms of idealism also assume a non-material reality which is transcendent to and independent of the world, from which the (apparently) material things emanate. The latter is certainly also true of my form of panspiritism, which suggests that spirit existed prior to the universe and is more fundamental than matter. However, perhaps the essential feature of idealism is the view that matter is of exactly the same nature as consciousness. This is not the case with panspiritism. In panspiritism, even though they arise from it, material things are not seen as merely the contents or subjects of fundamental consciousness. That is, matter is not viewed in mentalistic terms, as it is in idealism. Rather, fundamental consciousness generates and pervades matter, but there is a basic distinction in nature between them.

Panspiritism also avoids the tendency of some forms of idealism to insist that material forms, and even the whole phenomenal world, are illusory. An extreme version of this view is Advaita Vedanta, according to which ultimately only brahman exists, and the world of appearances generally has the status of a kind of mirage projected by brahman (hence the lack of distinction between them). However, in panspiritism, the world is not a mirage. Material things do exist, albeit as manifestations of fundamental consciousness. Fundamental consciousness therefore exists both in its unmanifest oneness and its manifest multiplicity.

Of all forms of Indian philosophy, panspiritism aligns most closely with Bhedabheda Vedanta. Bhedabheda is similar to panspiritism in that it sees brahman, or fundamental consciousness, as the source and cause of the universe. Bhedabheda literally means ‘different and non-difference’, suggesting that material forms are both the same as and distinct to brahman. Both the world and brahman are completely real. In Bhedabheda, various metaphors are used to illustrate the relationship between fundamental consciousness and material forms, including the wave and ocean metaphor I used earlier. Other metaphors are a fire and the sparks that arise from it, the sun and its rays, and a father and son.

The Appeal of Panspiritism

So why should you take panspiritism seriously as a philosophy of mind, and regard it more favourably than competing approaches such as materialism, idealism and panpsychism?

To be viable, any metaphysical framework needs to be inclusive and have explanatory power. It should provide an all-encompassing way of thinking or paradigm through which the major facets of human experience and of the nature of reality can be coherently interpreted, understood, and interrelated. I believe that panspiritism can perform this role. It can contribute to understanding mind and matter and the relationships between them, and provide insights into the origins of life and the processes of evolution. In addition, panspiritism can help us make sense of a wide range of seemingly anomalous phenomena, such as the placebo effect and physiological influence under hypnosis, mystical experiences of oneness with the universe, near-death experiences, as well as altruism and morality. (See my book Spiritual Science for details of how panspiritism can explain these phenomena).

Of course, there are crucial areas which remain unexplained. I have not explained, and perhaps it is not possible to explain, the process by which matter arises out of fundamental consciousness, or the process by which cells channel it. In this sense, you might say that the hard problem of consciousness has simply been reversed: that the mystery of how consciousness arises out of matter is replaced by the mystery of how matter arises out of consciousness! Nevertheless, I believe even simply as a broad approach that synthesises what we do know about consciousness and matter, panspiritism holds a good deal of promise. In comparison, despite its elegant reframing of the hard problem of consciousness, the range and explanatory power of panpsychism seems limited.

In addition, I believe the full attraction of panspiritism lies in the value it places on all phenomena. Whereas materialism denies the ultimate reality of mind, and idealism denies the ultimate reality of matter, panspiritism sees both as equally real and valuable. Whereas materialism sees the world as a machine, and idealism sees it as a mirage, panspiritism sees the world as a vibrant, interconnected whole.

© Dr Steve Taylor 2019

Steve Taylor is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University and chair of the Transpersonal Section of the British Psychological Society. His new book is Spiritual Science. www.stevenmtaylor.com

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