Phenomenology of Fundamental Reality

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Panpsychism, the view that consciousness is present everywhere at the fundamental level of reality, has established itself as an increasingly popular option in the philosophy of mind. Situated between substance dualism and reductive physicalism, panpsychism aims to capture the intuitions behind both, integrating consciousness into the physical world without explaining it in terms of purely physical facts. In this thesis, I offer a defence of panpsychism.

First, I examine influential arguments against physicalism, such as Thomas Nagel’s (1974, 1979) perspective-based proposal, Frank Jackson’s (1982) knowledge argument, David Chalmers’ (1996, 2010) conceivability argument, as well as vagueness arguments (Antony 2006a; Tye 1996). I argue that none of them offers a knockdown case against physicalism, particularly because of the threat presented by the phenomenal concept strategy (Chalmers 2007; Papineau 2007a), though they suggest panpsychism as a promising alternative that avoids many common objections.

Second, I discuss independent arguments for panpsychism, including the Russellian monist view (Goff 2017; Russell 1927/1992), the intrinsic nature argument (Seager 2006; Strawson 2006), recent developments in the literature as presented by Hedda Hassel Mørch (2018, 2020) and Luca Dondoni (2022), Tye’s (2021b) representational panpsychism based on the vagueness argument, as well as cosmopsychism (Nagasawa & Wager 2016; Shani 2015) – an alternative to panpsychism that shares its aims whilst claiming to avoid its shortcomings.

Third, I address the most pressing objection to panpsychism: the combination problem or the question of how fundamental consciousness can combine to lead to complex consciousness (James 1890). Focusing especially on the subject-summing version of the combination problem or the issue of how small subjects can combine to form complex subjects, I go over various proposals for either solving or avoiding it, such as Philip Goff’s (2016) phenomenal bonding relation and William Seager’s (2010) combinatorial infusion proposal, arguing against both and agreeing at the end with Sam Coleman (2014), who advocates that subject-summing is demonstrably incoherent.

However, as I argue in the fourth and final chapter, the panpsychist still has an option that avoids the subject-summing problem, while also circumventing the objections faced by the alternative view of cosmopsychism. Inspired though not reliant on the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1902/2005), I introduce what I call monadic panpsychism, the view that the phenomenal character of any given consciousness-bearing physical ultimate is determined by its relations to other such ultimates featuring in the relevant causal structure.

The theory consists of two key claims. The first is that phenomenal qualities are relational rather than intrinsic. This view has precedent in literature on the philosophy of mind, such as in Rudolf Carnap (1928), Gottlob Frege (1956), Moritz Schlick (1959), as well as more recently in David Hilbert and Mark Kalderon (2000) and Austen Clark (2000), though not in the context of panpsychism.

The second claim is that physical ultimates only possess a very basic form of consciousness necessary for experiencing as such. There are many ways to conceptualise this basic consciousness: non-relational or intrinsic, rudimentary and non-specific, a point of view without experiences, the minimal subject, a mere conduit for experience, phenomenal space, etc. Russellian panpsychists offer a more detailed proposal in which every physical ultimate has an appropriate associated type of experience. For example, all quarks have the same quark-type of experience, assuming for the sake of discussion that quarks are ultimates. Still, arguing for a more minimal notion, as I do, requires making less claims and should not be controversial to any panpsychist.

So, what follows from these two claims? I propose that the relational constitution of phenomenal qualities has its endpoint at the fundamental level rather than at the level of a combined complex or emergent subject. Put simply, physical ultimates guarantee the basic consciousness or the point of view that I occupy, while the relational structure constitutes my rich and full human experience. So to speak, relationally constituted phenomenal qualities ‘anchor’ themselves in physical ultimates. As long as these relations result in a phenomenally unified experience, which is an uncontroversial thesis, then no matter where that process reaches the end of its causal chain, it will necessarily be experienced from a subjective point of view.

Since only qualities but not subjects need to combine, my proposal avoids the subject-summing version of the combination problem, which is arguably an insurmountable challenge to other forms of panpsychism. Because of this, I conclude that my theory contributes to the field, serving as a good starting point for further developments of neither combinatory nor emergent panpsychism with regard to subjects.
Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorDavid Papineau (Supervisor) & Matthew Soteriou (Supervisor)

Cite this