In his 2020 book Helgoland, in which Carlo Rovelli outlined his theory of “relative relevant information”, or relationalism, and its derivation from quantum physics, he discussed briefly the concept of panpsychism—the idea that the basis of consciousness is somehow intrinsic to the universe. At the time he wrote, “I don’t find. . . ‘pan-psychism’ persuasive in the slightest.” But in a short contribution to the October 2021 Journal of Consciousness Studies, he amended his position somewhat:
I point out in this note that 20th Century physics has already vindicated a—very mild—form of panpsychism. This is because of the profoundly relational aspect [of] this physics, manifest in general relativity, but especially in quantum mechanics. 20thCentury physics is not about how individual entities are by themselves. It is about how entities manifest themselves to one another. It is about relations.
As Rovelli explains, nothing exists in pure isolation. For an entity to have any detectable properties at all, it must interact with something else. Elucidating this in Helgoland, he invokes at some length the Tibetan Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna; and putting the idea succinctly in the same terms, we may ask, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” (—notwithstanding Bart Simpson’s single-handed deflation of the ancient koan).
Rovelli concludes that reality is therefore perspectival: to experience it at all, we must experience it from a particular viewpoint or perspective. For this insight he draws on the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics, invoking Neils Bohr’s emphasis on the role of the “observer” (or more properly, the equipment involved in an observation) in defining what is observed. We might say with Thomas Nagel that there is no “view from nowhere,” or to use an older expression, no “Archemidean point.”
To the extent that “the world is not described from the outside; it is always described relative to a physical system,” Rovelli recognizes similarities between relationalism and panpsychism. But he still does not find panpsychism persuasive. In fact he believes that relationalism allows us to discount it, more or less in the manner of Occam’s Razor:
This is perhaps not panpsychism, because there is nothing specifically psychic or mental in the relational properties of a system with respect to another system. But there is definitely something in common with panpsychism, because the world is not described from the outside: it is always described relative to a physical system. . . this very relationalism may suffice to resolve the very problems that motivated panpsychism in the first place: do we really need elementary physics to include more aspects in common with the mental world than this?
Rovelli believes that the problem motivating panpsychism is Chalmer’s “hard problem of consciousness.” He regards this problem as “based upon an intuition: that subjective experience, the ‘first person perspective’, must be incompatible with the world as we describe it now in physics.” Using an image also found in Helgoland, he compares this to “the compelling ‘intuition’ that lightning and thunder are evidence of the rage of Odin.”
Rovellli’s interpretation of the hard problem as some kind of pre-rational intuition we have about our experience does not quite do it justice. It isn’t at all about attributing a “ghost in the machine,” to use Gilbert Ryle’s well-known phrase. The hard problem is about the phenomenon of experience itself, and the fact that any complete account of the physical world, as currently conceived, can get along perfectly well without it. The true application of Occam’s razor, from the point of view of physics, is that we can dispense with phenomenal experience altogether and get exactly the same results. Yet as a moment’s introspection shows, our phenomenal experience not only exists; it is all we know. It stands as an incontrovertible reality, for which our current physical science has no place. This is “the hard problem.”
Once this confusion is cleared up, Rovelli’s relationalism looks less like a “very mild” form of panpsychism, and more like something called “pan-experientialism,” or perhaps “pan-proto-psychism,” flavours of panpsychism that postpone ideas of consciousness or other advanced expressions of phenomenalism, but still place some kind of experiential interaction at the heart of reality. Rovelli is quite right to point out that “All phenomena of which I am aware that are more related to psyche or mind are connected to a brain, a neural system, sensory organs, feedback loops or the like. I cannot imagine anything even vaguely more like psyche or mind, without some structure like those.” Yet he drifts very close to panpsychism more broadly conceived, when he writes that “the existence of a subjective perspective is precisely the generic situation in physics: how systems ‘appear to one another’.”
To put “appear to one another” in quotes is to distance himself from the idea that there might actually be some quality of “appearing” involved; yet this is the crux of the matter. The project of panpsychism is not to revive some “ghost in the machine,” but to ask whether, at the very finest and most atomic level, the activity of relations with respect to one another is somehow purposive rather than “purely physical” — by which latter is usually meant, dismissively, “mindless” in a very loose sense. If, following Whitehead, we restore to reality some fundamental form of agency, a sensitivity he called prehension, we are ultimately in a better position to include the raw fact of our own phenomenal experience in our account of the world—although it is still a long way to get to consciousness, a journey involving something called the “combination problem.”
Further to his reflections on Odin and the thunderstorm, Rovelli writes:
. . . the intuition of a tension between mental and physical is based on two assumptions. The first is that the subject of experience is an irreducible entity. The second is that the material world is formed by substances having properties. . . Both these assumptions seem to me to be wrong. There is a vast philosophical literature about the first and I will not go into it. Rather, I focus here on the second.
But Whitehead’s thought, like Rovelli’s, pointedly dispenses with the second assumption. I cannot help feeling that, in neglecting Alfred North Whitehead, Rovelli is missing something very important to his own ideas.
Rovelli and Whitehead: Path Blocked, Interference Destroyed
Wittgenstein, Spinoza,and Rovelli: Language and Intelligibility
Alfred North Whitehead on Experience
The Reality of Caring
Dawkins and Subjectivity