Featured Research: The Combination Problem for Panpsychism: A Constitutive Russellian Solution

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The Combination Problem for Panpsychism

Since the publication of Thomas Nagel’s Mortal Questions with its chapter on panpsychism (Nagel 1979) – the view that all things have a mind or mind-like nature (Skrbina 2007) – the theory has been getting increasingly more attention in mainstream analytic philosophy of mind. My research over the last few years has, in part, aimed at contributing to this renewed attention in panpsychism.

What I tried to do during my time as a PhD student was to figure out how it could be the case that we could have subjects of experience who were made up of other subjects of experience. This is essentially the combination problem for panpsychism, and what I have been trying to do is to take the sting out of it. The combination problem for panpsychism is the biggest problem for the view and if the sting can be taken out of it, then this would count as significant progress for panpsychism.

As I see the combination problem, it is a problem about making sense of the following idea: subjects of experience that have other subjects of experience as proper parts. In short: the subject-to-subject proper parthood relation. What are subjects? They are things which there is something it is like to be (Nagel 1974). What is parthood? It is that relation which holds between atoms and molecules, bricks and walls. 

The idea of subject-to-subject proper parthood may not sound too alarming at first, we often talk as if there are things that have minds which are made up of other minded things, or which have parts that are minded. Much work is being done at the moment on the possibility of group knowledge, for example, likewise on the possibility of group vices and virtues. Moreover, lots of work is being doing on the idea that foetuses in utero are proper parts of their mothers. However, in these instances we are either speaking metaphorically about the mind of the whole (speaking about the whole as if it had a mind when it does not in fact have one), or, if the whole does indeed have a mind, we do not think that the parts’ minds contribute to the mind of the whole in any way, i.e. the mindedness of the parts is irrelevant to the mindedness of the whole. What I am interested in, and which has been considered to be more alarming, is the possibility of a minded whole in which its parts’ minds do contribute to its own. 

Surprisingly, little work has been done on positively making sense of this issue, and instead most of the work has been wholly negative: showing the idea of subject-to-subject proper parthood relations are somehow confused. This negative, critical side comes in two forms: 1) showing that some feature of minds is such that we cannot intuitively, or after a little reflection, make sense of that feature being composite; 2) showing that there are features (often essential) of minds such that they positively exclude the possibility of having parts also with that feature. You might think about calling these first sort of problems ‘problems of apparent simplicity’, and the second sort of problems ‘problems of exclusion’. In my thesis I focused on addressing both of these sorts of problems.

This meant that during my PhD research, there was a lot of new and fruitful ground to cover. I published two of the chapters of my thesis whilst working on it (which can be found here: ‘Forming a Positive Concept of the Phenomenal Bonding Relation for Constitutive Panpsychism’. Dialectica 71, pp.541–562. & ‘Can Subjects Be Proper Parts of Subjects? The De-Combination Problem’. Ratio 31, pp.137–154.) and I am currently extracting two more papers from my thesis and preparing them for publication. In these two papers I look at combination problems grounded in the internal structure of consciousness.

I am also waiting to hear back on two papers under submission which tackle recent work on priority monism and Russellian monism. Priority monism has had a lot of renewed interest of recent, and many panpsychists are appealing to it in order to try and avoid all of these combination problems. I am sceptical of this and in these two papers I try to show precisely why. Along with this, I am currently trying to source funding for a conference on priority monism and Russellian monism.

Since passing my viva with no corrections, do I have any advice for other PhD students? My advice is to support other PhD students as much as possible and take pride in the development and success of your friends’ work.