I have been reading a book by Marjorie Woollacott, Infinite Awareness: The Awakening of a Scientific Mind (2015). Woollacott is a respected neuroscientist, the latest to move away from reductionist materialism, which holds that consciousness arises somehow from neural activity, to the view that consciousness has an existence independent of the brain and is transmitted rather than generated by it. Woollacott does more than break with materialism, though—she embraces a particular philosophical position on the nature of consciousness, panpsychism (or more properly in her case, panentheism).
Woollacott is not the only recent writer to endorse some variety of panpsychism. Christof Koch, another neuroscientist and once a staunch defender of the reductionist position, wrote a book called Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (2012) in which he explained why he too had come to accept that the brain does not generate consciousness and converted to a variety panpsychism. Psychologists Imants Barušs and Julia Mossibridge endorse panpsychism in their Transcendent Mind (2017), published this year by the American Psychological Association with a copyright date of next year. Ed Kelly and several of the psychologists and philosophers who wrote papers for the edited volume Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality (Kelly, Crabtree, & Marshall, 2015) are also inclined toward panpsychism.
So what is panpsychism? There are several different kinds. The idea can be made to sound rather silly, often willfully so, by those who wish to discredit it. Basically it is the idea that entities at all levels possess some form of experience, mind, or consciousness. This does NOT mean that iPhones and running shoes are conscious in the way we are, much less that they observe the world around them and think about it. Nor does it mean that plants and nonhuman animals possess the same conscious awareness we do. It just means that consciousness, mind, and experience are conceived more broadly, not always in human terms, but in terms appropriate to whatever type of entity is under consideration.
Panpsychism has not always been taken seriously, and in fact until recent years it hardly ever was, so why the rush towards it among those who favor the filter model? There seem to be basically two reasons. One is that panpsychism is consistent with interpretations of quantum mechanics that place consciousness at the center of existence and suppose that consciousness is primary. Dualistic views used to be more in vogue but with a greater understanding of quantum mechanics is coming a turn to idealism, as it is called. Rather than a dualism of mind and matter, mind is considered to be responsible for the creation of matter, from which it follows that some sort of mind may be inherent in all sorts of matter. Panpsychism and idealism are different philosophical positions, but they are compatible and contemporary panpsychists are idealists also.
The other reason for the increasing acceptance of idealist panpsychism is that its world view is very compatible with mystical states of consciousness. This is how Woollacott got there. Alongside her scientific work, she practiced yoga and meditated. She had experiences that she could not reconcile with materialist reductionism and eventually she realized that she needed to bridge the two parts of her life. She found panpsychism—and panentheism, which considers some part of God to inhere in everything—to be in many ways exactly like the Eastern teachings she was following and gave up the materialist world view in its favor.
Now, the reason this turn to idealist panpsychism is important for us, the reason I am writing this post about it, is that many of these same writers embrace postmortem survival and reincarnation. This is very significant. If it were just the reductionist model that were being rejected, then it is more or less obvious why survival and even reincarnation might follow. If consciousness is understood to be independent of the brain then nothing would keep it from surviving the body’s demise. Panpsychism itself says nothing about the survival much less the reincarnation of consciousness and survival is not implied or contemplated by it. Koch does not see a survival implication, yet many people have. Why? And how would it work?
I believe that it has to do with the joining of idealism with panpsychism. Panpsychists as I have said believe that there is consciousness in everything, but not that everything is conscious in the same way. Idealism carries with it evolutionary implications, because if consciousness is the ground of everything, and if it is in everything, then it could have been differentiating and evolving over time, just as the physical and biological worlds have differentiated and evolved over time. Perhaps it was with the emergence of biological life that streams of consciousness capable of survival began to emerge.
So survival and reincarnation are entirely compatible with an evolutionary idealist panpsychism and may be even be logical extensions of it. Survival and reincarnation are also compatible with dualistic ideas of mind /body relations, of course. The question naturally arises, what if anything does panpsychism bring to our understanding of survival that substance dualism does not? Are there advantages to considering survival from the point of view of an evolutionary idealist panpsychism?
I believe that there are advantages. Substance dualism cannot explain why mind, or soul, or whatever one wishes to call the enduring fundamental essence of the self, came into existence, or what it was doing before there were human bodies for it to occupy. An evolutionary idealist panpsychism, on the other hand, presumes consciousness to be the origin of all and that it has differentiated and evolved over time. Evolutionary idealist panpsychism also allows more readily for new streams of consciousness to come into being, emerging from the background consciousness or evolving from more primitive forms, whereas substance dualism seems to require that the souls we have now have been with us all along.
This same process would allow for the creation or evolution of nonhuman spirits mentioned in religious and occult traditions and encountered in NDEs and intermission experiences. Guardian angels are an example. These spirit entities are not of the same nature as our human streams of consciousness, and cannot incarnate in human bodies, but because we share the same evolutionary roots, we can communicate with each other. This we do in extra-sensory ways, using psi, which I believe to be an intrinsic trait of consciousness, one which very likely has its origin far back in time.
No matter what you think of my ideas about these things, it is important to realize that more and more neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers are turning to panpsychism, to an evolutionary idealist panpsychism in particular. The same thing is happening in other sciences, including quantum physics, as the materialist world view continues to crumble. This may be a fad that will pass in a few years but it may very well turn out to be a perspective that is here to stay.
This post is updated from one written for my Signs of Reincarnation Facebook group on July 10, 2016. https://www.facebook.com/groups/965923533422836/permalink/1380005548681297/