Why panpsychism (everything is conscious) is gaining ground

On Monday, we watched an evolutionary biologist from Cornell University argue — with Cornell’s apparent support — that the goldenrod plant is intelligent. This points to the rise of panpsychism (everything is conscious*) in mainstream science.

The current drift toward panpsychism was probably inevitable. A few other recent science news stories provide some background.

Dr. Chimp is in

Last week we heard that wild chimpanzees use medicinal plants to treat illness and injuries:

The results suggest that chimpanzees seek out specific plants for their medicinal effects. The study is one of the first to provide both behavioral and pharmacological evidence of the medicinal benefits of eating bark and dead wood for wild chimpanzees…

In this article, we show how looking to and learning from our primate cousins ​​can accelerate the discovery of new medicines, while emphasizing the importance of protecting our forest pharmacies.

PLOS. “Wild chimpanzees seek medicinal plants to treat illnesses and injuries.” ScienceDaily, June 20, 2024. The article is open access.

In fact, it is the tendency of animals to seek relief from pain (zoopharmacognosy) has been known since ancient times and we humans have since added that knowledge to our own stock.

Butterflies and ants do it too

However, our ancestors were probably not know that butterflies also self-medicate. They wouldn’t be surprised in principle, but outside of the focused research labs we are learning more from life forms that are more like us.

But then the question arises: if chimpanzees self-medicate because they are sentient and conscious (and long-lived), how do butterflies self-medicate?

On Tuesday we also learned that ants tend to each other’s wounds:

Saving lives through surgery is no longer exclusive to humans. Scientists now describe how Florida carpenter ants, a common brown species native to their namesake, selectively treat the injured limbs of nestmates—either by wound cleaning or amputation. When they experimentally tested the effectiveness of these “treatments,” they not only aided recovery, but the research team also found that the ants’ choice of care was tailored to the type of injury they had sustained.

Cell Press. (2024, July 2). An ant that selectively amputates the infected limbs of injured sisters. ScienceDaily. The article is open access.

The same question arises as with butterflies: ants probably benefit from a swarm mind, but is there evidence that this swarm mind is conscious rather than computer-like? And if not, how is knowledge of healing techniques acquired, preserved, and passed on?

No algae either?

algae biofuel tube in biotechnology laboratory, photobioreactor in laboratory algae fuel biofuel industry

On Tuesday we also learned that algae – photosynthetic life forms that are not plants – “listen” to their environment:

Plants have long been known to release chemicals to respond to stress and to relay information to their neighbors. A team of scientists at Bigelow Laboratory has shown that glaucophytes, a small group of single-celled algae distantly related to plants, appear to share a penchant for chemical communication. This suggests that the ability to use chemical signals in this way may not be unique to complex life as once thought, but rather evolved further up the tree of life.”

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. “Study illuminates cues algae use to ‘listen’ to their environment,” ScienceDaily, July 2, 2024. The article is open access.

So no, algae did not appear to heal themselves or others, but they goods found to listen and report. Again, is this a form of consciousness?

The ‘illusion’ phase is over

It’s no wonder that science journalist John Horgan thinks Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett (1942–2024) could mark the end of an era, an era marked by an insistence on the human mind is an illusion – and also by, in Horgan’s words, “ultra-materialistic, ultra-Darwinian, boastful, know-it-all scientism.”

Today we can hardly keep track of how many “minds” there are for which a claim could be made. No questions are answered by claiming that they are all illusions.

Panpsychism, as noted in previous posts, is a form of naturalism (nature is all there is). But unlike Dennett’s eliminative naturalism, it treats consciousness in all of nature as real, not illusory.

The greatest weakness of panpsychism

Meditative state of mind concept. Ai generative

But panpsychists will have difficulty when they attempt to place human consciousness on a simple continuum with animal consciousness, as any naturalist must. A glimpse of the problem can be seen in the above passage about the ant doctors: “Saving lives through surgery is no longer exclusive to humans.”

Well, amputation was never exclusive to humans! What is exclusive to humans is the faculty of reasoning that allows us to survey the world around us and select methods that work, whether it be reattaching limbs or moon bases. Panpsychism will face the same problem as eliminative naturalism if it seeks a continuum where there is in fact a gap. More on that later.

  • Remark: Some panpsychists believe that consciousness permeates the entire universe, others believe it exists only in life forms.

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