The dynamical combination problem

Panpsychism is the idea that basic physical entities are essentially micro-consciousnesses and that our macro-consciousnesses result from combining the phenomenal natures of the physical entities that constitute us. The view faces the combination problem: how do simple, discrete micro-consciousnesses combine to produce complex, unified macro-consciousnesses? This problem has been much discussed, but there’s an aspect of it that has, I think, been relatively neglected. Here it is.

It looks like a sensible methodological assumption that if two entities are qualitatively identical from a physical point of view, then they are phenomenally identical too. If panpsychists don’t make this assumption, then it’s hard to see how they could construct anything like a science of consciousness. If panpsychism is true, then we are acquainted with only a tiny fraction of phenomenal reality — the portions that constitute our consciousnesses. The rest can be known only indirectly, by inference from corresponding physical features. But if phenomenal properties could vary independently of physical ones, then there would be no stable phenomenal-physical correspondences, and the bulk of phenomenal reality would not be even indirectly accessible to us. This could be case, but if it is, then there is no hope of explaining consciousness.

If the assumption is true, however, then it follows that there is very little phenomenal variation at the fundamental level. There are only a few types of fundamental particles, and all tokens of these types are qualitatively identical from a physical point of view, differentiated only by their spatio-temporal location. Every up-quark is physically identical to every other up-quark. So all tokens of each particle type are phenomenally identical too. (Differences in their spatio-temporal location are relational ones and cannot affect their intrinsic natures.)

It follows that fundamental phenomenal reality is quite uniform. There will just be a few different phenomenal ‘notes’ played billions upon billions of times. The combination problem is thus doubly difficult: the phenomenal elements from which our macro-consciousnesses are formed are not only simple but few in number, and we must explain how variety emerges from uniformity as well as how richness emerges from simplicity.

But this isn’t all. There is another aspect to the problem, which looks even more challenging. It’s a dynamical aspect. For if our assumption is sound, the phenomenal properties of the fundamental entities never alter. Fundamental particles do not change or age. So, except in exotic circumstances where particles are created or destroyed, the overall phenomenal soundscape stays the same, unaffected by particles’ changes in location (which, again, are irrelevant to their intrinsic natures). The fundamental phenomenal world is almost completely static. How, then, does a dynamical, ever-changing human consciousness emerge from a static phenomenal base? We might call this the dynamical combination problem.

Of course, all this assumes a rather old-fashioned picture of the microphysical world as one of discrete fundamental particles located in spacetime. The problem may look different, and perhaps more tractable, if we adopt a more sophisticated physics.

If you have any thoughts on this problem or any references to relevant discussions in the panpsychist literature, do please post them in the comments.

Posted in Blog, Consciousness, Mind.


  1. It seems a contradiction in terms that you talk about “qualitatively identical from a physical point of view”, since I thought we all agree that from a physical point of view, there is no such thing as qualitative anything. The term simply never comes up.

    More fundamentally to what you are saying here, we do not know the psycho-physical laws. We don’t know the mapping. There may well be space for daylight between your one pole “identical physical dynamics implies identical phenomenal properties” and the other pole of “otherwise there are no rules and we should all give up trying to understand any of this”. There my be lots of different phenomenal states that instantiate/implement/underlie a single given physical state.

    For myself, I think your last normative paragraph is the lede: quantum mechanics opens up all kinds of stuff here.

  2. Some of the panpsychists I interact with lean on quantum randomness. The idea is that it provides the variation that’s missing from the analysis you provide.

    Of course, the problem is that, across large numbers of particles and interactions, the randomness averages out to deterministic patterns. So for that to make a difference, you have to think that macroscopic conscious systems have mechanisms to magnify individual quantum events. Mainstream neuroscience sees nothing in the data to indicate that. Even a neuroscientist like Christof Koch, who has panpsychist sympathies, doesn’t go there.

    In any case, the version of consciousness panpsychism envisages, even if accurate, doesn’t really explain what I’m interested in, which is our consciousness, our experience. For that, the only alternatives seem to be studying the brain and its interaction with the body and world, or attempting to reproduce its functionality in AI research.

  3. There are only 4 DNA base types but they make millions of different proteins.. I’m no fan of panpsychism but that there are only a few base phenomenal types is not a combination show stopper..

  4. If we assume that fundamental particles have a very limited set of states (which could be the case, but I think there is still a lot of room to argue the opposite), then:

    It could work in the same way that we can use simple 1’s and 0’s to model virtually anything. Simple things can combine to create complexity.

    Imagine something like an ASCII table where you have every character mapped to a number. If you have a single bit, it can only access the characters represented by 0 and 1. But if you add more bits into the mix, you can access completely new characters that aren’t composites of the previous characters.

    One particle may have a low number of states, but when it combines with another particle to create a new object, the number of states that new object can have is much higher, thus allowing for entirely new phenomenal states to be accessible.

  5. Most physicists seem to regard quantum field theory as the best game in town. And as Wikipedia says, “QFT treats particles as excited states (also called quanta) of their underlying fields, which are more fundamental than the particles.” If I had a good handle on QFT, I’d try to assess whether you could restate your argument in its terms and be good to go.

    Matthew Rapaport and tealpajamas (great moniker for the Covid era btw) have a good point about DNA and ASCII combinations. But I suspect it’s a point that panpsychists can’t use. It’s precisely their refusal to see the enormous power of combinations to unlock new properties, that gets them into panpsychism in the first place. If you’re going to admit that (A) emergent properties are a thing and (B) they can bear surprising relations to low level properties, then just be a vanilla naturalist already.

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