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Panpsychism and the Religious AttitudeReview - Panpsychism and the Religious Attitude
by D. S. Clarke
SUNY Press, 2003
Review by A.P. Bober
Oct 4th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 41)

In his essay on the work of the theologian Raymond de Sebond that his father asked him to elucidate, Michel de Montaigne raises a many-sided question typical of his skeptic's Pyrrhonism: "Est-ce que je regarde ma chatte ou est-ce que ma chatte me regarde?"  Neither Clarke nor any of the half-dozen important "panpsychists"  considers this "catbird seat" issue.  For example, I once learned in the informative Tuesday "Science Times" section that lobsters have a sense of chemical smell two-million times ours.  Would this make the lobster-philosopher wonder whether to deign to include a species so lowly as the human being within the panpsychic realm of worthiness?  Or would a common-sense standard that Clarke seems to accept put "humans" in the "lobster-eye" equivalent of the limbo tennis balls, glass bottles, and rocks sensibly would belong in?

 Clarke outlines the development of a view of the "animate" and "inanimate" world probably jarring to our deepest egocentric and ethnocentric prejudices as "human" beings.  As the words in which he couches his argument may seem strange, I state the issue of "panpsychism" as that of the degree to which species and material entities other than ourselves share an ontological status to even a minimal degree like ours re independent "mentality" and control.  This immediately raises the core methodological question of panpsychism, the "analogical inference" (p. 8).  Oversimplifying, it boils down to two issues:  the little known issue of "intersubjectivity" given to us, for example, by the sociologist Max Weber, via Wilhelm Dilthey, as verstehen--simply, "We can rationally project ourselves into others' motives based on similar social action we engage in" and the statistical comparison of two populations that any undergraduate understands.  In this case we are saying that there are two populations of animate or inanimate "objects" that show characteristics A, B, C; if one also shows characteristic "X," then we opine the other likely will too. 

He runs through the views of Aristotle, Leibniz, Descartes, as well as those of such moderns as Whitehead, Nagel, and Chalmers in such a way, leaving dead or wounded arguments behind, as to give the impression of the impending crescendo his own will be.  En route he raises the important Origination Argument against the idea that at some point in "evolution" a transition occurred (p. 102) from a state "in which bodies existed with only physical attributes to one in which there were bodies with perspectives and the capacity for experiencing," a view his “humanists” though not mechanists would hold.

He concludes with a strange "definition" of theism (p. 129)--"the view that mentality can be attributed to the universe as a whole of which all individual natural bodies are a part"--which he appears to reject in his own so-called "atheism" (still remarkably theurgic in flavor) only to tell us there is an independent "religious" attitude key to, if not identical with, his view of panpsychism.  That "attitude" (p. 145), which by fiat he imposes on all of the 16,000 societies that have ever existed on this planet, "regards mentality as eternal and places a priority on a sense of the eternal in the way we conduct oursleves."

Clarke fashions a relatively dense, varied, and informative argument within the reach of the careful general reader.  Although he speaks around terms like "psyche" and "mentality," a glossary with tightly defined terms would have helped, especially since my etymological study shows "soul" to be a bit beyond psyche’s  sense of "breathing" while "mind" comes down to "memory," to me a bodily function.  (On the other hand I appreciated seeing an intelligible definition [p. 130] of "universe.")  Additionally he moves from argument to rejected argument in a way that to me fails clearly to point to his ultimate destination.  I also felt indirectly embarrassed by a "Latinic" Occam's Razor, Keep-It-Simple-Stupid, sentence (p. 119) that tries to make a neuter gerundive agree with a femininely modified noun followed by another feminine noun given a neuter ending.

Clarke gives us a lot to think about amidst a rich network of conceptual distinctions.  In the end, however, I could not shake a simple reaction on threading myself back out of his Minotaur's labyrinth:  "So what?"  Any student of  Cultural Anthropology I would recognize the hylozoic panpsychism in the "mana"/"manitou" beliefs typical of primitives.  That student would also know that anthropologists have fought hard to keep the "human" robe from the shoulders of "lower" animals until Goodall's tool-making/-carrying and tool-use-teaching chimpanzees forced a tightening of the definition of what we "are."  The more broadly we define "human" the greater the range of beings the killing of "whom" becomes "murder."  What a wonderful issue for a philosopher's class in "ethics" that I used to define to my sociology students as the "philosophy of social problems"!  There's more than just "sacred cowism" in the immensely suggestive answer (p. 96) Clarke gives his own question as to how "we justify attributing mentality to creatures" we don't interact with:  by extending "the attitudes of care and concern that underlie social cooperation with our fellow humans to other natural forms."


© 2004 A.P. Bober


A. P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view.  His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields.  Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neurophysiology.


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