Spinoza’s Panpsychism: A Supportive Evaluation

 

In Ethics, Benedict De Spinoza presents the controversial claim that everything has a mind. Also known as panpsychism, Spinoza commits himself to the position that all things are animate, albeit to differing degrees. Upon proper examination of what counts as thinking, as well as the idea of a body, panpsychism presents a compelling and believable view of the world. While objections exist, most rest on faulty, anthropocentric premises of what consciousness must be like.

It is first important to begin with Spinoza’s introduction of substance, “…what is in itself and is conceived through itself…”[1]; attribute, “…what the intellect perceives of a substance…”[2]; and mode, “…the affections of a substance…”[3]. God, also thought of as Nature, the one substance for Spinoza, consists of an infinity of attributes, with two known by us: thought and extension.[4] All modes of extension are bodies, and all modes of thought are ideas.[5] Bodies, in turn, are “distinguished from one another by motion and rest, speed and slowness, and not by reason of substance.”[6] All events regarding a body follow from extension, and similarly all ideas follow from thoughts. Here, Spinoza constructs a view of parallelism between ideas and bodies. This is to say there is no causal interaction between the two; however, there is an ongoing correlation between the two: “a mode of extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, but expressed in two ways.”[7][8] Because God is the fundamental unification of all things in Nature, and thus the one substance, both thought and extension (recall that these are both attributes of God) are two different ways of expressing the same thing. Thus, the first step toward panpsychism can be said, that all bodies can be comprehended through ideas.[9]

Next, Spinoza demonstrates that all bodies have minds, since all extension can be known through thought. This is rather simply proven. First, it can be said that all things certainly have a corresponding idea. And since an idea is simply thought, all things have some corresponding thought. This is to say that all bodies are thinking things.[10] Second, if all extensions lie within the same domain of bodies, and if parallelism is the case, so too must all minds (thinking things) be in the same domain of thought. Since bodies, chairs, tables, etc., are all extensions of one substance, God, it can be said that all extensions lie within the same domain.[11] Similarly, if humans can be conceived through their extensions (body) or through their parallel thoughts (idea/mind), then all minds exist in the same domain of thought that produces ideas. So, if humans can have ideas and a mind, so too must tables, chairs, etc. also have minds. This is panpsychism. In sum:

“From these [propositions] we understand not only that the human mind is united to the body, but also what should be understood by the union of mind and body. […] For the things we have shown so far are completely general and do not pertain more to man than to other individuals, all of which, though in different degrees, are nevertheless animate. … [W]hatever we have asserted of the idea [that is, mind] of the human body must necessarily also be asserted of the idea of everything else.”[12]

One possible objection would be to address whether God exists. However, since Spinoza

readily substitutes God with Nature, and those rejecting theistic positions would likely be materialists, it seems that this kind of objection would be quelled by simply saying that all thought and bodies rest within the domain of Nature. A better objection would be to point out a false dichotomy between ideas and thinking things. That is, it’s unclear how the presence of an idea, or thought of an object, necessarily gives rise to something that can also have cognitive function and be considered a thinking thing. Cognition, or “products of modular processing to produce, for example, representational knowledge such as language, and mechanisms that intervene between stimulus and response,”[13] does not seem to apply to things like chairs or rocks. Rocks certainly don’t seem to have language, and there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism that intervenes between a stimulus, such as me kicking it, and a response, even if we let the rock moving away from my foot count as the response. In fact, I seem to be in total control over the direction, speed, and magnitude at which the rock flies away from my foot. The rock clearly is incapable of intervention. Despite there being a clear idea of what a rock is, it does not follow that the rock is a thinking thing.

Two objections arise. The first is that the previously discussed objection is merely semantic. The only way for the idea of a body to exist is for there to be a corresponding extension. Any time thinking occurs, and thus an idea of something produced, it lies upon the notion that both the attribute of extension and the attribute of thought exists. For example, it seems unlikely that that a human body could be extended and have a corresponding idea without thinking. If this is true for humans, upon what rests the position that other bodies (such as rocks) could be extended and have corresponding ideas without thinking? To suggest that humans possess some unique capability (most likely denoted as cognition) would equally imply that human bodies distinguish themselves from other bodies by some reason of substance. But all bodies are under the domain of the same substance, be that God or Nature, making the conclusion of this objection false. [14] Therefore, while rocks and chairs would certainly have a different degree of thinking, consciousness, or being animate, that is not to say they don’t have a mind. Second, this fails to address the extant parallelism between bodies and ideas. In other words, just as a rock has a different degree of extension than a human, so too is the degree of thought different. Though a rock’s mind has less functionality, it still possesses the ability of thought, and therefore has a mind.

This would be a good objection by Spinoza. The anthropocentric position of cognition fails to address why there must be “language” or “response” as humans understand that to be. In fact, this seems to simply provide examples of what makes thinking for humans of a higher degree than other objects. Spinoza might happily accept that “language” and “response,” as anthropocentrically defined before, are simply markers of thinking that pertains to humans and not to rocks. Since it still holds that there exist relational properties between extensions and thoughts, it is not radical to propose a view that all things have minds. Again, it’s important to understand that if you implicitly pack “human” into “mind,” i.e., thinking Spinoza is claiming “all things have (human) minds,” you’re already fundamentally misunderstanding what it means to be a thinking thing. Instead, a proper comprehension of the parallel relationship between all bodies and ideas gives rise to the reasonable conclusion of panpsychism.

In conclusion, Benedict De Spinoza offers a challenging yet beautiful conception of our world. If one can free themselves from the anthropocentric view of what it means to be a thinking thing, panpsychism becomes far more relatable and clear. Objections to this position rely on myopic understandings of the interconnectedness of Nature.

 

[1] Spinoza, “Ethics”. 1d3

[2] Spinoza, “Ethics”. 1d4

[3] Spinoza, “Ethics”. 1d5

 

[4] Tano S. Posteraro, “Spinoza, Panpsychism, and the Image of Thought”. http://artsciweb.concordia.ca/ojs/index.php/gnosis/article/view/326/231 Pg. 43

 

[5] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/#HumaBein Paragraph 2

[6] Spinoza, “Ethics”. 2l1

[7] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/#HumaBein Paragraph 2

[8] Spinoza, “Ethics”. 2p7s

[9] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/#HumaBein Paragraph 2 and 3.

[10] Tano S. Posteraro, “Spinoza, Panpsychism, and the Image of Thought”. Pg. 43 first paragraph

[11] Tano S. Posteraro, “Spinoza, Panpsychism, and the Image of Thought”. Pg. 47 first paragraph

[12] 2p13s, shortened by http://www.iep.utm.edu/panpsych/#SH2b

[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3055511/ paragraph 1

[14] Spinoza, “Ethics”. 2l1

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