Panpsychism – A book Review

Panpsychism: The Philosophy of the Sensuous Cosmos, Peter Ells, 20011, O-Books,Hants,UK


This lovely book might have been more accurately named idealistic panpsychism.

Idealistic panpsychism is neither idealism nor is it panpsychism, hence the distinction.  It differs from idealism in that it does not stress the extreme importance of human spirit but like panpsychism sees everything as having spirit.  It differs from panpsychism in that it does see everything as mind, and not just mind like qualities. Having said this, perhaps Ells used just panpsychism because of the plethora of distinctions around the use of the word.  As Ells puts it:  “…is the doctrine that the universe is composed of hierarchies of experiential entities, (beings) and of nothing else.”  Experiential entities are beings that have both experiential existence and empirical existence.  Further, to actually exist then is to be either an experiential entity or composed of experiential entities as is the case of more evolved organisms such as plants and animals.  The implications are vast.  Obviously, if the universe is composed of nothing but beings and beings are seen as alive, then the universe is alive.  This explains the book’s subtitle:  The Philosophy of the Sensuous Cosmos.

Ells proposes that science’s claim of objectivity is false.  Physicalism, some call it materialism, has achieved its extremely successful reputation off the back of the discipline of science.  This is evident in the following: “Science can in principle give a complete account of all the entities in our universe.”  Actually, this statement is not within science but about science thus a metaphysical claim.  This book sets out to challenge the many assumptions that are metaphysical in character and cannot be upheld through the success of the scientific method.  Ells intends in this book to point out how a sensuous cosmos composed of living entities is a far more profound metaphor than the prevalent materialistic view cited above.  Further, he criticizes the materialistic paradigm “for imposing a nihilistic helplessness on contemporary culture.”

The author proposes to show that idealistic panpsychism is a superior alternative to physicalism for the following reasons. [1] It reconciles our intuitive, commonsense understanding of ourselves as persons with the revelations of science and [2] provides clarification and solutions to philosophical problems beyond the reach or remit of physicalism. As an aid to understanding, the book compares and contrasts physicalism with idealistic panpsychism finding idealistic panpsychism superior for the two reasons cited above.

Sometimes it is more effective to define something by showing how it affects our understanding of major pieces of life’s puzzle.  Thus there are chapters on areas where the implementation of panpsychism makes a difference.  First there is a discussion of the present state of Science.  Then a section on consciousness.  Following that the author provides a detailed investigation of existence revealing explanatory problems with physicalism.  One of the more interesting chapters contains a discussion of how mental causation relates to physical causation.  Explaining the nature of causation has been a vexing philosophical problem,  especially that posed by skeptics from the time of David Hume.  For instance, how does a feeling cause a physical action?

Near the middle of the book is a chapter entitled résumé.  Here, Ells summarizes in relaxed layman’s language the contents of the preceding three chapters on existence, causation and idealistic panpsychism. I found this particularly helpful. Further, the whole tenor of the book consists of a fugue of a philosophical treatise and ordinary language.  Following are chapters on pain and suffering and free will.  In the last chapter, sensuous cosmos, I was reminded of the works of Maurice Merlo-Ponty and David Abram and phenomenology.

In conclusion, Peter Ells has not only spoken eloquently and with uncommon clarity but actually fired a fatal shot into the idea that the  questionable marriage of science and materialism has unlocked or will ever reveal the mystery of life.

Sky McCain

August 2011