Does Dispositionalism Entail Panpsychism?


According to recent arguments for panpsychism, all (or most) physical properties are dispositional, dispositions require categorical grounds, and the only categorical properties we know are phenomenal properties. Therefore, phenomenal properties can be posited as the categorical grounds of all (or most) physical properties—in order to solve the mind–body problem and/or in order avoid noumenalism about the grounds of the physical world. One challenge to this case comes from dispositionalism, which agrees that all physical properties are dispositional, but denies that dispositions require categorical grounds. In this paper, I propose that this challenge can be met by the claim that the only (fundamentally) dispositional properties we know are phenomenal properties, in particular, phenomenal properties associated with agency, intention and/or motivation. Versions of this claim have been common in the history of philosophy, and have also been supported by a number of contemporary dispositionalists (and other realists about causal powers). I will defend a new and updated version of it. Combined with other premises from the original case for panpsychism—which are not affected by the challenge from dispositionalism—it forms an argument that dispositionalism entails panpsychism.

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  1. 1.

    After Bertrand Russell, who offered an especially clear articulation of it (Russell 1927), even though he ended up endorsing neutral monism, a different but closely related view (see footnote 2 below).

  2. 2.

    Note that Russellian panpsychism, the view that physical properties are realized by phenomenal properties, is a subspecies of Russellian monism, the view that physical properties are realized by non-physical properties which could be either phenomenal or protophenomenal/neutral (neither physical nor phenomenal). Some find non-panpsychist Russellian monism equally (if not more) capable of solving the mind–body problem and accounting for the categorical grounds of the physical world as the panpsychist version. But arguably, non-panpsychist Russellian monism comes too close to noumenalism to be compatible with the argument from anti-noumenalism, and is too reductive to be compatible with the argument from philosophy of mind. I will therefore set non-panpsychist Russellian monism aside in this paper. However, those who prefer some form of non-panpsychist Russellian monism to the panpsychist version are welcome to read this paper as supporting a response to the challenge from dispositionalism to parallel arguments against their view, according to which dispositionalism entails non-panpsychist Russellian monism—because the only fundamentally dispositional properties we know or can positively conceive of are neutral/protophenomenal properties (and perhaps also phenomenal properties, but they could be dismissed in view of arguments that support non-panpsychist Russellian monism over panpsychism). However, this would require refuting my arguments below that we have no positive concept of non-phenomenal, neutral powers (neither a primitive positive concept nor one that can be abstracted away from our experience of phenomenal powers).

  3. 3.

    In view of problems such as Hempel’s dilemma, physical properties are also often defined negatively as (fundamentally) non-mental (see, e.g., Papineau 2001). But given the negative definition, it is not possible to distinguish physicalism from non-panpsychist Russellian monism (given that protophenomenal or neutral properties are also non-phenomenal and non-mental). I will therefore employ the positive definition in terms of physics, despite its problems.

  4. 4.

    Such as the absence of finks, antidotes and other kinds of interference discussed in the literature (which may not be definable in non-dispositional terms, cf. footnote 18 below).

  5. 5.

    At least on some readings of Kant, such as Langton (1998).

  6. 6.

    Some relational properties such as spatiotemporal relations are arguably not purely dispositional, and if so, the arguments from categorical properties would not imply that they are phenomenal. This would still be compatible with panpsychism insofar as panpsychism primarily requires that all things in space and time are phenomenal, but not that space and time itself is phenomenal. More generally, panpsychism can be understood as the view that non-relational properties are all phenomenal, but there may also be relational properties that are not phenomenal or phenomenally grounded. The kind of panpsychism that allows for some fundamental non-phenomenal relations, such as spatiotemporal relations, is known as impure panpsychism. The kind of panpsychism that takes all properties including relations to be phenomenal or phenomenally grounded is known as pure panpsychism (Chalmers forthcoming).One might think that if spatiotemporal relations are fundamental, then dispositions can be grounded in purely spatiotemporal relations rather than phenomenal properties. But even if spatiotemporal relations are fundamental, they seem to require relata with non-spatiotemporal properties, otherwise they would not be capable of constituting a non-empty physical world, or a spacetime that is actually occupied by anything besides empty points or locations.

  7. 7.

    One problem with the appeal to simplicity is that noumenalists may claim that phenomenal properties are reducible to noumenal properties, which means that noumenalism also only posits one fundamental kind of categorical property and is therefore just as simple. The methodological motivation does not have this problem.

  8. 8.

    The argument from philosophy of mind is mainly challenged by the combination problem, according to which panpsychism may account for how microphenomenal properties can be both fundamental and explanatory with respect to the physical world, but fails to account for our own macrophenomenal properties (Goff 2009; Chalmers 2016). The argument from anti-noumenalism can be challenged by arguments that we should expect the fundamental nature of the world to be unknowable and inconceivable in view of features of our cognitive constitution or overall epistemic situation (McGinn 1989), or by claims that we can positively conceive of categorical non-phenomenal properties on the basis of imagination, abstraction, or in accordance with primitive concepts (arguments that fundamentally dispositional properties can be positively conceived on this basis will be discussed below). Both arguments can also be challenged by the claim that phenomenal properties are not really categorical (as per reductive functionalism, phenomenal externalism and so on), or the claim that physics actually does tell us about categorical properties.

  9. 9.

    In this way, ontic structural realism avoids Newman’s problem, according to which, unless physical relations have some qualitative or non-structural features, knowledge of physical relations reduces to knowledge of the mere cardinality of their relata (Demopoulos and Friedman 1985). This problem often comes up in the panpsychist literature as a response to various forms of structural realism (e.g., Seager 2006), but it presupposes that relata are prior to relations, which ontic structural realism denies (Ladyman and Ross 2007, p. 128).

  10. 10.

    According to the structuralist conception of mathematics (Shapiro 1997).

  11. 11.

    Though see Lewis and Langton (1998) for some further qualifications.

  12. 12.

    I have defined categorical properties as properties that are not essentially linked to the manifestation of any further properties and dispositional properties as properties that are essentially linked to the manifestation of further properties, given which the identity claim would seem contradictory. But identity view could perhaps be defined as the view that the essence of properties partially consists in being directed towards or otherwise linked to the manifestation of further properties, but also partially consists in some (at least conceptually) independent aspect or component, such as qualitativeness. This would distinguish the identity view from pure categoricalism, which could be defined as the view that the essence of properties not even partially consists in being linked to the manifestation of further properties, and pure dispositionalism, which could be defined as the view that the essence of properties fully and exhaustively consists in being linked to manifestations (and does not even partially consists in any independent aspect or component such as qualitativeness).

  13. 13.

    The characterization of categoricalism could be understood as implicitly including the same fundamentality qualifier. But it seems widely assumed that categorical properties cannot be realized by dispositional properties, in which case the qualifier would be redundant.

  14. 14.

    This might not seem like much for physics to reveal. But relational properties may include not only logico-mathematical properties, but also irreducibly spatiotemporal properties and perhaps other fundamental relations (as long as these relations are still such as to arguably require intrinsic/non-relational relata, the role of which can be occupied by phenomenal properties) (see footnote 7). And according to structural realism, an influential position in philosophy of science motivated entirely independently of panpsychism (and which comes in both an ontic and a less radical epistemic version compatible with panpsychism (see, e.g., Maxwell 1971), structural knowledge adequately accounts for our knowledge of the physical world.

  15. 15.

    For example, in view of the sort of problem noted in footnote 12 above.

  16. 16.

    The challenge from dispositionalism obviously presupposes that dispositionalism is true. This does not imply the premise labelled Dispositionalism above, which expresses a more restricted version of dispositionalism according to which physical properties are realized by, but not identical to, fundamentally dispositional properties. Dispositionalism broadly construed may take physical properties to be identical to fundamentally dispositional properties (i.e., take such properties to be directly revealed by physics). In the context of the present argument, the claim that physical properties are not identical to (and thus rather realized by) fundamentally dispositional properties follows from Mental Dispositionality, according to which the only fundamentally dispositional properties we know or can positively conceive of are phenomenal, and the fact that physics does not include phenomenal properties as fundamental.

  17. 17.

    At least in the case of deterministic causation. Some hold that causation need not involve necessitation because causation can be indeterministic. But it seems indeterministic powers should still necessitate an increase in the objective probability of their effects occurring. I will set indeterminism aside for the sake of simplicity, but most of the discussion to follow could be translated to apply to indeterministic views, e.g., instead of claiming that a cause is inconceivable without an effect, one could claim it is inconceivable without some objective probability its effect.

  18. 18.

    It might be complained that the claim “A necessitates B ceteris absentibus” reduces to the truism “A is followed by B except when it isn’t”. This might be a problem for reductive analyses of powers, which are committed to defining interference in non-dispositional terms. But if dispositions are irreducible, as per dispositionalism, interference can be defined in terms of other dispositions or powers, as in “A necessitates B when there are no other powers directed at non-B”, which is not a truism.

  19. 19.

    One possible exception is asymbolic pain which, as discussed by Grahek (2007), does not seems to make subjects try to avoid it even in the absence of any interfering motives. In other work (Mørch forthcoming-b), I argue that this does not refute the phenomenal powers view because evidence suggests that asymbolic pain is phenomenologically different form normal pain. In this paper, I use the term pain to refer to phenomenologically normal pain and assume that it excludes asymbolic pain.

  20. 20.

    Dispositionalists could reject the assumption that the intrinsic character of phenomenal properties is constituted by their phenomenal character, by disputing that phenomenal character exists at all or that it is intrinsic. But disputing this would constitute a distinct objection to the overall case for panpsychism different from the challenge from dispositionalism (given that dispositionalism is also fully compatible with phenomenal character existing and being intrinsic), which is outside the scope of this paper.

    One might think dispositionalists would still reject the assumption that properties necessitate their effects in virtue of their intrinsic character. Rather, they would hold that they just brutely necessitate their effects, and that is all there is to them. But if dispositions consist merely in sets of brute necessitation relations it is hard to say what would be intrinsic about them, and relatedly, how dispositionalism differs from ontic structural realism. And in any case, the “in virtue of” interpretation should at least be regarded as a valid version of dispositionalism. If phenomenal properties are inconceivable without their effects given this version, it supports (if the arguments I will offer below are correct) that phenomenal properties are dispositional in the sense of this version.

    Another worry is that dispositionalism may seem to imply that the intrinsic character of properties should be fully capturable by dispositional concepts, understood as concepts that that pick properties out only in terms of their effects or manifestations and circumstances. But according to Russellian panpsychism, phenomenal character cannot be captured in dispositional terms (if so, the epistemic gap from physical to phenomenal properties should be easily closable, assuming that dispositional descriptions qualify as physical descriptions). Therefore, to say that the intrinsic character of phenomenal properties is constituted by their phenomenal character would be incompatible with either dispositionalism (assuming phenomenal character cannot be captured in dispositional terms) or Russellian monism (assuming it can be captured in dispositional terms). A further problem is that if phenomenal character could be fully captured in dispositional terms that pick it out in terms of its actual effects, it would follow trivially or analytically that it could not have different effects. And inconceivability in virtue of analyticity is not an indicator of causal necessity of the kind involved in fundamental dispositionality.

    But dispositionalism does not imply that the intrinsic character of properties should be fully capturable by dispositional concepts (as defined above). First of all, if dispositions are regarded as that in virtue of which properties necessitate their effects, it would seem that concepts that only specify that they necessitate particular effects could not capture their full nature. Second, if the identity view is correct, dispositions should also have a categorical or qualitative aspect that should also not be capturable in dispositional terms. Non-dispositional concepts of phenomenal properties could therefore be regarded as capturing one or both of these aspects of the intrinsic character of phenomenal properties, assuming they are dispositional.

  21. 21.

    One might also think pain and pleasure must be conceived of in purely dispositional terms given dispositionalism, but as discussed in footnote 20 above, dispositionalism (or at least some versions of it) also allows that dispositions have (intrinsic and/or categorical) aspects that are not captured in dispositional terms (that pick them out by their effects and triggering circumstances alone), and in terms of which non-dispositional concepts could therefore successfully refer to them.

  22. 22.

    Note that even if there is no logical connection between purely phenomenal concepts of pain and pleasure and their respective effects, there could still be a conceptual connection in a broader sense, because phenomenal concepts are arguably constituted by the phenomenal properties they refer to (or faint “Humean copies” thereof) (Chalmers 2010, pp. 265–266, 272). If there is a necessary connection between pain and avoidance attempts, and the concept of pain is constituted by (a Humean copy of) pain, there will also be a necessary connection between the concept of pain and avoidance attempts. But this sort of conceptual connection presupposes a necessary causal connection between the properties themselves, and so cannot be used to explain the appearance of a causal connection away as merely conceptual.

  23. 23.

    A related objection would be that the inconceivability must derive from implicitly assuming a kind of analytic functionalism about pain and pleasure, according to which they must be considered under functional concepts, which would also pick them out in terms of their effects, but without specifying that they must be produced in a dispositionalist way. But if the inconceivability also follows from conceiving pain and pleasure under phenomenal concepts, it refutes this objection as well, because phenomenal concepts are both non-dispositional and non-functional.

  24. 24.

    At this point, one might wonder whether the same kind of argument could support that volitions (or other intentional properties) could also be known or positively conceived of as fundamentally dispositional—because it might seem harder to conceive of volitions coming apart from the actions they are directed given the assumption that they necessitate some effects in virtue of their phenomenal character. Perhaps, but such an argument would not be entirely analogous. First of all, it is more difficult to get a firm grasp of volitions in purely phenomenal, completely non-dispositional or non-functional terms (that define them in terms of the particular actions they are aimed at) and thereby more difficult to demonstrate causal as opposed to merely analytic (or constitutive) necessity. Second, volitions are not universally recognized as phenomenal or even mental. As noted above, it has been denied that intentionality is a mark of the mental (but rather a mark of the dispositional), and one might think volitions are purely intentional and not phenomenal [although it has been argued that intentionality is essentially phenomenal, as per the so-called phenomenal intentionality thesis (see Bourget and Mendelovici 2016), and also that volition is necessarily accompanied by a distinct kind of phenomenology (Horgan et al. 2003; Ginet 1997)]. In contrast, pain and pleasure are phenomenal properties, and even granted that intentionality may not be a mark of a mental, it is hard to deny that phenomenology is (and denying this would in any case be futile for the purpose of blocking an argument for panpsychism understood as the view the all things involve phenomenal properties, but not necessarily mental properties in any other sense). For these reasons, the Mental Dispositionality premise seems at least more easily defensible in terms of motivational properties and their relation to volitions than in terms of volitions and their relation to actions (or other intentional properties and their relations to their effects, which would have the same problems as volitions).

  25. 25.

    Or at least non-functional concept (discussed in footnote 23 above), which picks its out in terms of its effects or theoretical role, but without presupposing a dispositionalist ontology.

  26. 26.

    It might seem extreme to conclude that fundamental dispositions would not be physical based on the conceivability criterion alone. But under the current strict definition of the physical as fully revealed by physics, it should not be that controversial, unless one takes the regularity theory and realism about laws to be incompatible with physics, i.e., directly refuted by the straightforward empirical discovery of irreducible causal powers. Also note that dispositions could still be physical by the other common definition of the physical as non-mental (see footnote 3) (though not positively conceivable as non-mental, if my arguments below are successful).


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I would like to thank Sam Coleman, Sebastian Watzl, Philip Goff, David Chalmers, Andrew Lee, two anonymous referees, and participants at the conference “Panpsychism, Russellian monism and the Nature of the Physical” at the University of Oslo for comments on various drafts of this paper.


This work has been funded by The Research Council of Norway through a FRIPRO Mobility Grant, Contract No. 240328/F10. The FRIPRO Mobility Grant scheme (FRICON) is co-funded by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under Marie Curie Grant Agreement No. 608695.

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Mørch, H.H. Does Dispositionalism Entail Panpsychism?. Topoi (2018).

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  • Panpsychism
  • Dispositionalism
  • Categoricalism
  • Causal powers