Robert asked:

Does a person who is sympathetic to panpsychism have a moral obligation to rocks?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

On the Pathways web site it says:

Remember: There is no such thing as a foolish question.
But also: Consider the possibility that you may be wrong.

(Following your Pathway)

So I am going to take Robert’s question seriously, even though at first sight it looks a bit facetious.

‘Of course, we don’t have any moral obligation to rocks!’ you will say.

What about Mount Everest? That’s a rock. Don’t human beings have a moral obligation to keep this great mountain in a decent state, and not foul it up with abandoned tents, food cans and used toilet paper? I think we do.

On the other hand, it seems hard to imagine that a rock randomly picked up from Brighton Beach has even the slightest moral claim on me.

That of course is a different question from the one raised by the Brighton and Hove City Council Byelaw against pilfering attractive rocks from the beach for personal gain or to decorate your home, because you are harming other human beings who have a right to enjoy the beach in its unmolested state. The rock itself isn’t harmed if you or I break this Byelaw. (Perhaps the same argument applies to Mount Everest, but I would prefer to leave that question open.)

However, according to one version of panpsychism, every physical entity in the universe, from quarks to galaxies and everything in between has some degree or measure of ‘consciousness’. (In Whitehead’s Process and Reality the ‘actual entities’ that compose physical reality are events rather than spatio-temporal particulars, but I don’t think it would make any difference to this argument.)

Let’s assume, naively perhaps, that consciousness is a kind of ‘stuff’ that things can have in a greater or lesser amount. Humans have more consciousness than butterflies, and butterflies have more consciousness than pebbles.

Let’s also assume that if you harm anything that has consciousness, whether more or less, then that is something bad, perhaps in proportion to the degree of consciousness possessed by the entity in question. Catching and killing butterflies for your butterfly collection is less bad than killing humans for your shrunken heads collection.

The question, however, is how you can harm a rock. I don’t think that this is entailed by the panpsychist theory, and here’s why:

The amount of consciousness in a given rock is determined purely by the aggregation of its parts. That is because a rock, as such, has no internal principle of organization. In Leibnizian or Lockean terms, it is not a ‘substance’. It doesn’t have an ‘essence’ from which its properties flow, other than the properties that arise from composition, such as having a striped pattern, or being smooth or crumbly. On the panpsychist theory, if I break a rock in two, then there is just as much consciousness as there was before, only now distributed in two parts.

By contrast, the consciousness of a single living cell is more than the aggregation of the consciousness of its chemical constituents. On the panpsychist view, in parallel with the physical organization of the cell, there is a ‘mental’ organization of its conscious aspect. This is what Leibniz held about his ‘monads’. A human being has a ‘principal monad’, which is the self, which is something extra added on top to the descending hierarchy of organized structures, from limbs and organs, to cells and their ultimate physical structure.

It follows that if you destroy a living cell, you reduce the total amount of consciousness in the universe. Cells can be harmed. Causing unnecessary harm is bad. Ergo, we have a moral obligation — albeit rather small and easily overridden by other moral considerations — to every living cell on Earth, or perhaps in the Universe if there is life elsewhere.

A rock, on the other hand, as we have seen cannot be harmed. On the panpsychist theory, you cannot reduce the amount of consciousness in the universe by splitting the rock in two, grinding it down to a powder, or doing anything else to it. Even if you could convert all of its matter into energy, you would still have the same amount of consciousness but in a different form.

That disposes of one ground, at least, for thinking panpsychism absurd. Whether panpsychism is, or could be true, is an entirely different matter.