Materialism and panpsychism (puzzling about Bacon)

[Cross-posted from Modsquad.]

In my previous post I mentioned Hobbes’s worry that his materialist account of perception would lead him to a sort of panpsychism. When he explains the problem he faces, Hobbes notes that one might just accept the conclusion. After all, “there have been philosophers, and those learned men, who have maintained that all bodies are endued with sense” (De Corpore 25.5). Who were these learned men Hobbes had in mind?

One good candidate here is Tommaso Campanella. But here I want to draw attention to another possible candidate, Francis Bacon. In his Sylva Sylvarum Bacon claims that it “is certaine that all bodies whatsoever, though they have no Sense, yet they have Perception” (Bacon 1627, 211; I learned of this from David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West, 82-3).

Bacon notes the sensitivity of this “perception”, and goes on to give several examples, many of which are examples of things that are signs of the weather. The Sylva Sylvarum was a popular work, of which Hobbes would likely have known. Aside from the work’s popularity, Hobbes had the connection of having once worked for Bacon as a secretary: a connection that makes potential Hobbes-Bacon connections particularly intriguing, though they are hard to pin down.

So what did Bacon have in mind by talking about the perception of bodies?

IT is certaine, that all Bodies whatsoeuer, though they have no Sense, yet they have Perception: For when one Body is applied to another, there is a Kinde of Election, to embrace that which is Agreeable, and to exclude or expell that which is Ingrate: And whether the Body be Alterant, or Altered, evermore a Perception precedeth Operation: For else all Bodies would be alike One to Another. And sometimes this Perception, in some Kinde of Bodies, is farre more Subtill than the Sense; So that the Sense is but a dull Thing in Comparison of it: Wee see a Weather-Glasse, will finde the least difference of the Weather, in Heat, or Cold, when Men finde it not. And this Perception also, is sometimes at Distance, as well as upon the Touch; As when the Load-Stone draweth Iron; or Flame fireth Naphtha of Babylon, a great distance off. It is therefore a Subiect of a very Noble Enquiry, to enquire of the more Subtill Perceptions; For it is another Key to open Nature, as well as the Sense; And sometimes Better (Bacon 1627, 211-2).

A weather glass was a sort of thermometer, and thermometers can register changes in temperature that human sensation cannot. More generally, they look different depending on what the temperature is. But we can only explain this behaviour, Bacon reckons, if there is in the weather glass a sort of perception of the surrounding medium and its temperature. The weather glass looks like this in the afternoon because it perceives warm air, and like that at night because it perceives cold air. Similarly, a load stone attracts iron, and this depends on the perception that the thing there is iron.

In addition to the evidence provided by examples, Bacon offers a further brief argument that there must be this perception: “whether the Body be Alterant, or Altered, evermore a Perception precedeth Operation: For else all Bodies would be alike One to Another”. How does that argument work? Is the idea that bodies react differently in different situations, but can only do that because of the presence of perception? So if there was no perception, different bodies would not be able to react differently to circumstances?

One might wonder whether this talk of perception can be given a deflationary reading. Is the perception that is not sense still in fact a mental act, or is it merely metaphorically perception? Well, one thing that is notable is that Bacon does not just talk of the state of the weather glass as an effect and a sign of the temperature, language he perfectly well could have used. Much as he distinguishes what is going on in the weather glass from the sense humans have, he chooses ‘perception’ as his term, which is surely somewhat significant.

There are three questions to which I’ve suggested some tentative answers. Is Bacon a plausible candidate for being one of the learned philosophers Hobbes had in mind? Is Bacon’s talk of perception merely metaphorical? How does the argument that there must be this perception, “For else all Bodies would be alike One to Another” work? But this is all very tentative. Any thoughts?

Materialism and panpsychism (Bayle and Toland edition)

[Cross-posted from Modsquad.]

In thinking about early modern materialism, I’ve repeatedly come across the view that materialism implies panpsychism. This claim has some current resonance, in that Galen Strawson has been arguing for a version of it. And it has several early modern sources. Thomas Hobbes worried that his materialist account of perception would lead him to a sort of panpsychism. Henry More argued that the changes Hobbes made to his view to avoid this did not solve the problem. Margaret Cavendish was a panpsychist materialist, and thought that non-panpsychist materialists, such as Hobbes aimed to be, could not adequately explain the workings of the world. There’s also, I believe, a version of the claim that materialism implies panpsychism in John Locke’s Essay (in 4.10.10). And there’s another version — the one I describe below — in Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary. This being, at least, a curiously persistent theme, it seems to be worth some investigation.

In note C to the article “Dicaearchus”, Bayle argues against the view (Dicaearchus’s view, as he has it) that body can think. Bayle’s argument works in something like the following way.

  1. If thought belongs to body, then either (a) it does so as a modification, or (b) it does so essentially.
  2. But not (a), because a modification lost is replaced by another of the same kind (a colour by a colour, a degree of motion by another degree of motion) but when a body loses thought it is not replaced like this.
  3. And not (b), because then all bodies would have thought. So
  4. Thought does not belong to body.

If we accept (a), we are effectively pushed towards the view that the only possibly acceptable materialism is a panpsychist materialism. Of course, Bayle thought that was wrong too. But that’s another story. Why should we accept (a)? Bayle says the following.

Someone will tell me that feeling could be a modification of body. From which it would follow that matter, without losing anything essential to it, could cease to feel as soon as it was no longer enclosed in the organs of a living machine. I answer that this theory is absurd, for all the modalities of which we have any knowledge are of such a nature that they cease only to give way to another of the same kind. There is not figure destroyed but by another figure, nor is any color driven out but by another color (Pierre Bayle, Historical and Critical Dictionary, translated by Richard Popkin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991) 66).

He follows this with the discussion of some possible counterexamples, such as the notion that the replacement of heat by cold in a subject is the replacement of a thing of one kind by a thing of another. He finds these claimed counterexamples ineffective, and thus concludes that “the conversion of sensation into the absence of all sensation is impossible, for it would constitute a conversion of something real and positive into nothing” (Bayle 67).

After publishing the Dictionary, Bayle received a letter from John Toland, objecting to the argument of note C. Bayle then responded to Toland’s objections in note L, in the second edition of the Dictionary. Toland’s letter does not survive, but we can reconstruct Toland’s argument.

Bayle had effectively said that materialists about the human mind must adopt a sort of panpsychism, if they are to hold on to their materialism: if some body can think, all body can think. Toland argued that you can hold that some corporeal things think, without holding that all corporeal things think. The key to this, he argued, is to see that the relevant view is that appropriately organized corporeal systems think. These can think when the organization is in place, and cease to think when the organization is broken, without it being the case that every part of them can think.

Bayle responded in note L to Toland’s objection.

I maintain that something is being supposed that has hitherto been inconceivable to all mankind, if one supposes that the arrangement of the organs of the human body alone make a substance that had never thought to become a thinking one. All that the arrangement of the organs can accomplish is reducible, as in the case of a clock, to various different kinds of local motion. The difference can only consist in the greater or lesser degree of motion. But just as the arrangement of the several wheels that make up a clock would be of no use in producing the effects of this machine if each wheel, before being placed in a certain way, did not actually possess an impenetrable extension, a necessary cause of motion as soon as it is pushed with a certain degree of force; so I also say that the arrangement of the organs of the human body would be of no use to produce thought, if each organ before being put in its place was not actually endowed with the ability to think (Bayle 70).

Toland suggests the view that the thoughts of humans depend on the more obviously physical properties of their bodies. However, Bayle argues, motion and impenetrable extension (mechanical qualities, we might say) are not a suitable basis from which thought could emerge. Body would have to possess some further part of its nature, a suitable basis from which thought could emerge. And the only possible such basis is the ability to think. There is no other, fundamentally different feature (such as a fundamental ability to be part of a system that will think if appropriately organized), from which thought could emerge. The only way in which something corporeal could have the ability to think, Bayle believes, is if it fundamentally and essentially possessed the power of thinking. Neither a mechanical explanation of thought nor a pan-proto-psychism are acceptable. Contrary to Toland’s objection, the only consistent materialism is a sort of panpsychism. (Given the substance-attribute-mode framework of the discussion, it’s tempting to gloss this as ‘the only way to be a materialist is to be Spinoza’, but that’s maybe a step too far.)