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The moral parody argument against panpsychism


I exploit parallel considerations in the philosophy of mind and metaethics to argue that the reasoning employed in an important argument for panpsychism overgeneralizes to support an analogous position in metaethics: panmoralism. Next, I raise a number of problems for panmoralism and thereby build a case for taking the metaethical parallel to be a reductio ad absurdum of the argument for panpsychism. Finally, I contrast panmoralism with a position recently defended by Einar Duenger Bohn and argue that the two suffer from similar problems. I conclude by drawing some general lessons for panpsychism.

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  1. 1.

    I assume that there is a fundamental level of reality, but my arguments can be restated so that they are consistent with the falsity of this assumption. Cosmopsychists maintain that a cosmic subject is fundamental (e.g., Goff, 2017). I won’t consider cosmopsychism here; I use “panpsychism” as shorthand for what Goff (2017) would call “constitutive smallist panpsychism.”

  2. 2.

    Following Rosen (2010), I take grounding to be a multigrade relation between facts, understood to be “structured entities built up from worldly items—objects, relations, connectives, quantifiers, etc.—in roughly the sense in which sentences are built up from words” (p. 114). I use “[P]” as a function term for the fact that P, which obtains just in case P. When [\(P_{1}\)], [\(P_{2}\)], \(\dots\) \(\in\) \(\varDelta\), I write “\(\varDelta\) < [Q]” for “[\(P_{1}\)], [\(P_{2}\)], \(\dots\) ground [Q].” The primary notion of ground is full: if \(\varDelta\) < [Q], then nothing needs to be added to \(\varDelta\) in order to explain the obtaining of [Q]; and it is metaphysically necessary that if every fact in \(\varDelta\) obtains, then [Q] obtains. But we can define a notion of partial ground (\(\prec\)) in terms of full ground: [P] \(\prec\) [Q] just in case [P] fully grounds [Q] on its own or in combination with other facts. The partial grounding relation is a strict partial order.

  3. 3.

    I take the notion of essence to be canonically expressed by the operator “it lies in the essence of x that.” As Fine (1995, p. 69, n. 2) points out, we needn’t take a subexpression of the form “the essence of x” to be a singular term that refers to a special sort of entity, just as we needn’t take the subexpression “not” to be a significant grammatical component of the operator “it is not the case that.” Moreover, Lowe (2008, pp. 38–40; 2012, pp. 941, 946–947) provides reasons to deny that the essence of a thing is some further entity. The notion of essence is closely related to a notion of real definition (Rosen, 2015).

  4. 4.

    This terminology is inspired by Goff (2017), who distinguishes “o-phenomenal” properties from the hypothetical phenomenal properties posited by panpsychists (“u-phenomenal” properties in my terminology).

  5. 5.

    Fine (2012) argues that in addition to a metaphysical grounding relation, we should also recognize a normative grounding relation that is of special interest to ethics and a natural grounding relation that is of special interest to science (see also Bader, 2017). Fine maintains that these relations differ in modal strength: if the facts in \(\varDelta\) normatively ground [Q], then it is normatively necessary that if the facts in \(\varDelta\) obtain, then [Q] obtains; whereas if the facts in \(\varDelta\) naturally ground [Q], then it is naturally necessary that if the facts in \(\varDelta\) obtain, then [Q] obtains. Fine (2002/2005) argues that neither of these two forms of necessity is reducible to the other or to metaphysical necessity. On this basis, he maintains that obtaining moral facts are normatively necessary but metaphysically contingent (see also Rosen, 2020).

  6. 6.

    This definition of a microphysical object expands upon Wilson’s (2006) “no fundamental mentality” constraint (see also Goff, 2017, Chap. 2.1.6). I use the phrase “completed physics” as a placeholder for whichever account of physical theory is best suited for formulating physicalism.

  7. 7.

    For ease of discussion, I am setting aside the question of whether physicalism is best formulated to allow for o-phenomenal facts that have a fundamental totality fact as a partial ground (Blaesi, 2021). None of my arguments turn on how we answer this question.

  8. 8.

    On one interpretation, emergentist panpsychists deny the grounding claim (Goff, 2017, p. 19). Recall that I am using “panpsychism” as shorthand for “constitutive smallist panpsychism” (see n. 1 above).

  9. 9.

    I have adapted the term “ultimate” from Strawson (2006/2008).

  10. 10.

    More carefully, while the claim is compatible with the versions of dualism I considered in Sect. 2 above, it is incompatible with versions of dualism according to which o-phenomenal facts are neither partially metaphysically nor fully naturally grounded in any microphysical facts. One of these holds that the instantiation of every o-phenomenal property is merely naturally necessitated by the obtaining of microphysical facts. If there are fundamental psychophysical laws, we might say that the obtaining of an o-phenomenal fact [P] is naturally necessitated by the conjunction of the microphysical facts in \(\varDelta\) just in case it is metaphysically necessary that if the facts in \(\varDelta\) obtain and the psychophysical laws hold, then [P] obtains. If, contrary to Chalmers (1996), the psychophysical laws hold of metaphysical necessity, then the obtaining of [P] is naturally necessitated by the conjunction of the facts in \(\varDelta\) just in case the obtaining of [P] is metaphysically necessitated by the conjunction of the facts in \(\varDelta\). Another version of dualism holds that the obtaining o-phenomenal facts stand in neither an explanatory nor a nomic relation to the microphysical facts but merely happen to be correlated with them in the actual world. These versions of dualism strike me as implausible, so I have set them aside throughout. However, my stipulative definition of “arises from” can be easily modified to accommodate these versions of dualism. Similar remarks apply to robust realism in Sect. 4 below. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me to clarify my terminology.

  11. 11.

    More precisely, Strawson (2006/2008) seems to think that reductive physicalism is obviously false; he independently argues that a version of non-reductive physicalism is committed to “brute emergence” (see n. 17 below).

  12. 12.

    See also Broad’s (1925) objection to a view he calls “behaviourism”: “However completely the behaviour of an external body answers to the behaviouristic tests for intelligence, it always remains a perfectly sensible question to ask: ‘Has it really got a mind, or is it merely an automaton?’ ” (p. 614).

  13. 13.

    See, for example, the discussions by Kripke (1980, Lecture III) and Trogdon (2017, p. 2347). This claim is not uncontroversial; realizer functionalists such as Lewis (1980/2013) would reject it and instead maintain that “phenomenal redness” is a non-rigid expression that picks out its referent in terms of a role that it happens to play for the “appropriate population” (p. 219).

  14. 14.

    In response, some philosophers deny that there is an asymmetry between “water = H\(_{2}\)O” and “phenomenal redness = r-fiber firing” by arguing that it is not a priori that water is the stuff around here that plays the watery role (e.g., Block and Stalnaker, 1999; Tye, 2009, Chap. 3.5). Others accept the asymmetry but attempt to provide a physicalistically acceptable explanation of it by appealing to the special nature of phenomenal concepts (e.g., Levin, 2019; Papineau, 1998). Still others argue that the connections from the less fundamental to the more fundamental are generally not a priori knowable and thereby challenge the assumption that synthetic identity statements such as “water = H\(_{2}\)O” can be a priori deduced from the microphysical facts (e.g., Schaffer, 2017). I am grateful to an anonymous referee for urging me to clarify the open question argument against physicalism and acknowledge some responses to it.

  15. 15.

    I use the uppercase “\(\varLambda\)” to distinguish “\(\varLambda\)x” from “\(\lambda\)x,” which some use as a device for forming complex predicates as opposed to names for properties (Fine, 2012, pp. 67–68).

  16. 16.

    Some philosophers respond by arguing that Mary doesn’t know all the physical facts about color experience inside her black-and-white room (e.g., Alter, 1998; Moran, n.d.). Others attempt to make sense of Mary’s apparent discovery while avoiding the anti-physicalist conclusion by arguing that she only gains new know-how (e.g., Lewis, 1988/2004); that she gains new knowledge-that by coming to know a previously known physical fact under a new concept (e.g., Horgan, 1984); that she comes to bear a new (distinctive) relation of truth-apt knowledge to a physical fact of which she already had (ordinary) knowledge-that (Pelczar, 2005); that she gains new knowledge by acquaintance of a physical property (e.g., Conee, 1994; Tye, 2009); or that she comes to base her knowledge-that of a previously known physical fact on her knowledge by acquaintance of a physical property (Grzankowski and Tye, 2019).

  17. 17.

    Strawson’s (2006/2008) objection appears to be directed at a version of non-reductive physicalism rather than property dualism, which he claims “is strictly incoherent (or just a way of saying that there are two very different kinds of properties) in so far as it purports to be genuinely distinct from substance dualism” (p. 73). However, since Strawson’s objection has as much force against dualism as it does against certain versions of non-reductive physicalism (see, e.g., his p. 62, n. 24), I have applied his discussion to premise (4).

  18. 18.

    I am indebted to an anonymous referee for inspiring me to make this connection.

  19. 19.

    That said, it is unclear why the psychophysical laws of dualism should make for a theory that is any less simple or unified than versions of non-reductive physicalism (Pautz, in press). Moreover, as an anonymous referee pointed out to me, the dualist might respond to the simplicity argument by insisting that the holding of a fundamental psychophysical law does not cry out for explanation in its own right. By analogy, if the occurrence of an event is causally explained by the occurrence of its cause in accordance with a causal law, we aren’t inclined to think that the holding of the causal law itself requires a causal explanation. Similarly, the dualist might maintain, if the o-phenomenal facts are naturally grounded in microphysical facts in accordance with fundamental psychophysical laws, we shouldn’t expect the holding of each fundamental psychophysical law to have an explanation. Proponents of the simplicity argument can push back against the dualist’s response in several ways. First, the explanandum of a causal explanation is the occurrence of an event. If causal laws are not events, then it is a category error to suggest that the holding of a causal law has a causal explanation. That is arguably why the holding of a causal law is not apt to be causally explained. By contrast, it is not obvious that the natural grounding relation imposes any constraints on the (distinct) facts that it can relate. This calls into question whether the analogy with causal explanation actually supports the conclusion that the holding of a fundamental psychophysical law is not apt to be naturally grounded. Second, even if the the holding of a fundamental psychophysical law is not apt to be naturally grounded, it doesn’t thereby follow that it is not apt to be metaphysically grounded. Consider causal explanation again. While we aren’t inclined to think that the holding of a causal law requires a causal explanation, we might nonetheless assess a theory for whether the causal laws that it posits are such that their holding is metaphysically explained by more fundamental facts. The analogy with causal explanation does not alleviate the worry that the holding of each fundamental psychophysical law has no metaphysical explanation, because even in the case of causal explanation, we expect the holding of a causal law to have a metaphysical explanation (say, in terms of more fundamental laws of nature). Third, even if the holding of a fundamental psychophysical law is not apt to be explained, this only alleviates the worry that dualism leads us to mystery. It does not alleviate the worry that dualism leads us to discontinuity or complexity (Pautz, 2015, in press). Similar remarks apply to my discussion of robust realism in Sect. 4 below.

  20. 20.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me to emphasize that my main points do not require the arguments against physicalism or dualism to succeed.

  21. 21.

    Another respect in which the putative identity between goodness and desirability seems to differ from standard synthetic identities is that it is hard to see how it could be a priori deduced from the microphysical facts (even if all other o-moral facts can be). This makes the naturalist vulnerable to the objection (summarized in Sect. 3 above) that their identity statements are ad hoc and mysterious.

  22. 22.

    There is an interesting question of what exactly is required for one to possess moral concepts, but this question is largely irrelevant to the argument. The point of the example is that just as Mary should be able to learn everything there is to know about color experience without undergoing color experiences (if physicalism is true), so too Moral Mary should be able to learn everything there is to know about morality without sharing whatever it is that we have (and some other conscious subjects lack) that explains why we possess moral concepts (if naturalism is true). Thanks to A. B. Jimenez-Cordero for helpful discussion on this issue.

  23. 23.

    All that said, it is far from obvious that it does follow from panpsychism under plausible assumptions about the normative significance of consciousness that the ultimates instantiate normative properties and their instantiating those properties has no full metaphysical explanation. First, while it is plausible that certain phenomenal properties have normative significance, it is debatable that all of them do. Second, it is controversial that when a conscious experience instantiates a normative property, the instantiation of that normative property by that experience has no full metaphysical explanation. Finally, even if the ultimates undergo conscious experiences that have normative properties, it doesn’t thereby follow that the ultimates themselves have those normative properties. I am grateful to Josh Dever, Hedda Hassel Mørch, Bradford Saad, Joseph C. Schmid, and an anonymous referee for helpful comments that led to the inclusion of the preceding discussion of the incredulous stare.

  24. 24.

    An anonymous referee suggested that Philip Goff has defended a view along the lines of panmoralism. In personal communication, Goff clarified that while he has presented material arguing that panqualityism helps solve an epistemological problem for robust realism (as opposed to panmoralism), his thoughts on moral epistemology have subsequently shifted and he may not pursue the original material in future work.

  25. 25.

    According to Sturgeon (1986), for instance, “We often clearly attribute causal efficacy to them [moral properties]. We point to injustice, along with poverty, as a cause of revolution, or of pressure for reform; we think that Hitler’s depravity led him to do a variety of terrible things; and we suppose that moral decency keeps other people from doing things like that, and would have kept him from doing them if he had been decent” (p. 75).

  26. 26.

    I am inclined to take this to be a reductio ad absurdum of the causal argument for panpsychism, but that is a topic for another paper.

  27. 27.

    Fine (2002/2005) and Rosen (2020) are two rare detractors.

  28. 28.

    Pautz (2015, Sect. 4) argues that Russellian monism confronts a similar problem of “psychophysical luck,” while Dreier (2019, Sect. 2.5) independently argues that the view that the most fundamental moral facts are metaphysically contingent implausibly leads to widespread “moral luck”.

  29. 29.

    I use the phrase “reducible to” as a placeholder for either identity or real definition; the two are (arguably) related (Rosen, 2015, p. 190, n. 2; see also Correia, 2017). I also draw on Pautz’s (2015, pp. 5–6) helpful distinction between “quiddity-involving” and “quiddity-neutral” properties; in this terminology, reductive panmoralists hold that (i) o-moral properties are reducible to quiddity-involving properties and (ii) u-normative properties are among the fundamental quiddities on which physics is silent.

  30. 30.

    Drawing from Papineau (2003) and Sider (2001), Pautz (2015) develops a parallel problem of reference for reductive Russellian monism.

  31. 31.

    For now, I briefly sketch three related responses that can be given to this objection. First, the growing literature on what Litland (2017) calls the “Problem of Iterated Ground”—the question of what (if anything) grounds the facts about what grounds what—suggests that grounding connections are apt to be metaphysically explained. After all, the problem arises in part because there are reasons to believe that the facts about what grounds what can and should be grounded (e.g., Litland, 2017, Sect. 3). Second, Dasgupta (2014) and Rosen (2017a, 2017b) have argued that the best solution to the Problem of Iterated Ground is to take the facts about what grounds what to be partially grounded in and thus partially metaphysically explained by essentialist facts. Third, there is an important question of what distinguishes metaphysical explanation from scientific explanation. Rosen (2017a) has provided (in my view, compelling) reasons to think that the most plausible answer to this question is that a fact is metaphysically grounded in some facts only if that grounding connection is mediated by the essence of the grounded. But if that is right, it is very natural to go a step further and conclude that all metaphysical explanations admit of a further explanation that some scientific explanations do not—namely, an essence-based explanation. Contrary to Dasgupta (2014) and Rosen (2017a, 2017b), however, we needn’t take essence-based explanation to be a type of grounding explanation. According to Lowe (2012), “We should regard essence-based explanation just as one more distinctive species of explanation” (p. 938).

  32. 32.

    I am indebted to an anonymous referee for challenging me to address these general worries about the dilemma for panmoralism. These same worries will arise when I present a similar dilemma for pannormism in Sect. 6; I will leave it to the reader to recall my above replies.

  33. 33.

    I have modified the original notation slightly to bring it in line with my own.

  34. 34.

    Quantifying into predicate position: \(\exists\)F((Basic(F) \(\wedge\) (Moral(F) \(\vee\) Normative(F))) \(\wedge\) \(\forall\)x\(\forall\)yy((Fx \(\wedge\) ([Byy] < [Bx])) \(\rightarrow\) Fyy)). In order to capture the intended idea that basic o-moral or o-normative properties are not “emergent” in Bohn’s (2018) sense, the view needs to be complicated to specify that when a non-basic object has a basic o-moral or o-normative property, the fact that it has that property is grounded in the fact that a more fundamental plurality of objects (whose being grounds the being of that non-basic object) collectively has that property: e.g., conjoin the previous existential generalization with \(\forall\)G\(\forall\)z\(\forall\)vv(((Basic(G) \(\wedge\) (Moral(G) \(\vee\) Normative(G))) \(\wedge\) (Gz \(\wedge\) ([Bvv] < [Bz]))) \(\rightarrow\) ([Gvv] < [Gz])) (Bohn, 2019, p. 390).

  35. 35.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for inspiring me to consider potential counterexamples to TDP.

  36. 36.

    If the problem of the plural subject can be solved, thereby removing what some take to be an important obstacle to mereological nihilism, the solution would bring into renewed focus the question of why we should prefer collective pluralized panpsychism over a version of eliminativism according to which there are no mereologically complex subjects of experience. For there is a case to be made that considerations of parsimony favor eliminativism (e.g., van Inwagen, 1994). However, Bohn (2014) defends the thesis of composition as identity and would deny that considerations of parsimony favor eliminativism over collective pluralized panpsychism. Not surprisingly, the question of whether mereology is “ontologically innocent” is a matter of ongoing controversy.

  37. 37.

    Needless to say, Moran’s (2018) metaphysical framework is not uncontroversial, and proponents of other metaphysical frameworks (including the essence-based framework introduced in Sect. 2 above) may prefer to pursue different solutions to the problem cases that Moran considers (assuming they take them to be genuinely problematic in the first place).

  38. 38.

    They also turn in part on how TDP is to be interpreted. Recall that since grounding is a multigrade relation between facts, a sentence of the form “the being of x is grounded in the being of yy” is to be treated as shorthand for something along the lines of “the fact that x has being is grounded in the fact that yy has being.” Moreover, it is natural to use the term “has being” interchangeably with “exists.” Yet, Bohn (2018, p. 4108, n. 4) implies that he doesn’t intend “being” to mean the same thing as “existence.” What then is a sentence of the form “the being of x is grounded in the being of yy” (translated into English from “[Byy] < [Bx]”) supposed to mean? It’s not obvious. Here’s a suggestion: replace sentences of the form “the being of x is grounded in the being of yy” with a sentence along the lines of “for any way that x is, x’s being that way is grounded in yy’s being some way.” Quantifying into predicate position: \(\forall\)F(Fx \(\rightarrow\) \(\exists\)G([Gyy] < [Fx])). For example, a philosopher might claim that the being of a particular seizure (a) is grounded in the being of some neuron firings (bb) in the sense that for every property that a has, there is some property that bb collectively has such that the fact that a has the one property is grounded in the fact that bb collectively has the other property. But on this interpretation, anyone who holds that badness is a basic property of a that isn’t collectively had by bb will simply deny (on pain of contradicting themselves) that the being of a is grounded in the being of bb. They will insist that the grounding claim simply begs the question against their view. Unfortunately, considering all the various ways that TDP might be interpreted is a task for another paper.

  39. 39.

    O’Conaill (2021) argues that this makes collective pluralized panpsychism vulnerable to the charge of objectionable bruteness: “Both the emergentist and the pluralized panpsychist hold that consciousness is a basic property that can only be instantiated when basic objects are arranged in specific ways. The main difference between them, by Bohn’s lights, is that he regards consciousness as a PCP [plural collective property] of pluralities of basic objects, not (only) as a property of non-basic objects. But it is not clear why this should make the difference between objectionable and non-objectionable bruteness” (p. 3). The same can be said of pannormism.

  40. 40.

    The second horn of this dilemma raises the same general worries that I considered in Sect. 5 after laying out a similar dilemma for panmoralism. My replies are the same, but I leave it to the reader to fill in the details. In the present context, I have one more point to make. Suppose that the pannormist attempts to evade the dilemma by holding that grounding connections do not need essence-based explanations. This may come at an additional dialectical cost. Bohn (2018) motivates a ban on emergence by arguing that “it is a good methodological rule to not postulate emergence beyond necessity” (p. 4111). He then suggests that this methodological rule is a good one because it is “intended to rule out unnecessary and unexplained things” (p. 4111). As a result, there is some pressure on the pannormist to explain why it is a good methodological rule not to postulate emergence beyond necessity but a bad methodological rule not to postulate brute grounding connections beyond necessity, given that both rules are intended to minimize unexplained facts.

  41. 41.

    Goff (2009) offers a similar diagnosis in terms of a priori entailment. One of his main points is that the conceivability/possibility link that some panpsychists use to argue against physicalism is a double-edged sword that—by parity of reasoning—can be used to undermine panpsychism as well.

  42. 42.

    Thanks to Daniel Muñoz for helpful discussion.

  43. 43.

    As Pelczar (2009, p. 28, n. 4) notes, it is possible to extract a knowledge argument against (a version of) physicalism about meaning from Quine’s (1960/2013) argument for the indeterminacy of translation.

  44. 44.

    See Loeb’s (2003) discussion of a position he calls “gastronomic realism.”


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I am extremely grateful to Michael Tye for encouraging me to develop my ideas into this paper and urging me to send an early draft to publishers; and to Jon Litland and Josh Dever for reading several drafts and providing invaluable feedback at every stage of the writing process. I owe additional thanks to Bryce Dalbey, Troy Dana, Alex Grzankowski, Hedda Hassel Mørch, Adam Pautz, Bradford Saad, Mark Sainsbury, Galen Strawson, Cody Turner, Louise Williams, Michel-Antoine Xhignesse, Imran Yusuf, and several anonymous referees for very helpful comments on drafts of this paper; to Einar Duenger Bøhn, A. B. Jimenez-Cordero, Cory Juhl, Hans Kamp, Alex Moran, Daniel Muñoz, Shankara Pailoor, Jeremy Pober, Joseph C. Schmid, Keith Eric Turausky, Shane Wagoner, and audiences at the Spring 2018 UT Austin Graduate Colloquium Series, the 4th Annual UConn Philosophy Graduate Conference, and the 2019 Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association for helpful discussion; and to the editors and staff at Philosophical Studies for their support throughout the publication process.

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Blaesi, Z. The moral parody argument against panpsychism. Philos Stud (2021).

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  • Panpsychism
  • Panmoralism
  • Pannormism
  • Moral realism
  • Emergence
  • Grounding
  • Essence