Panpsychism Yesterday and Today

Even in the golden times of magic and astrology, many eminent thinkers were much more cautious than the average scholars. In the fourth century a.d., for example, Saint Augustine expressed disapproval of the "mathematicians," viz. the astrologers. In contrast, the impressive comeback of astrology in our society — which, according to many a scientist, should

16. Barrow and Tipler, Anthropic Cosmological Principle.

17. Cf. the passage quoted above.

know better — shows that, if there has been any progress during the last few millennia, it has not concerned certain basic intuitive ideas. A plausible explanation of the belief in influences and sympathies may be found in a built-in tendency of human beings to animism, i.e., to attribute a rudimentary "soul" to everything. Now, nonconformist but respectable thinkers of our time, particularly the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardini8 and the German zoologist Bernhard Rensch, proposed that a "psychism" should be attributed to all objects in the universe; thus, not only is animism, a characteristic of primitive societies, well alive in our consumer society, but it has received some support by respected scientists. We shall see in chapter eleven that current science, if one succeeds in crossing the barriers between disciplines, can provide a convincing explanation and interpretation of these views; for they can be recast in terms of the concepts of the science of communication, and then the strictly animistic implication that there are intelligent spirits animating rocks, plants, and animals can be removed; and belief in spiritual realities, required, according to many thinkers and scientists, to ensure the coherence of the world-view offered by today's science, can be given a more serious foundation.

What seems to be valid of the notions on which magic and astrology are based is that certain distant and physically unrelated objects — say, a planet and a bird — could affect by their presence and changes, in a way not covered by mechanism, other objects that are capable of modifying their properties in response to signals coming from their environment, and could therefore influence through them in a similar way, in virtue of positive feedback and amplification, the state of the part of the cosmos to which those objects belong. This consideration, as mentioned, is related to the concept of communication (information transfer) and to its role in the evolution of the universe. In this way, the difficulties arising when influences and sympathies are treated as forces disappear. In particular, the limitations otherwise imposed by energy requirements are definitely not in question. Consider an example. One might include among influences the relation of the astronavigating blackcap to the stars. Now, it is true that the little bird receives energy from the stars which guide it, because vision requires energy. However, only a few photons are necessary, and they carry an extremely small amount of energy and momentum. The astronomers do measure those quantities by highly sophisticated instruments, but they confirm that no significant force is associated with them. Mersenne was right when he said that in such cases no "vis" should be invoked. The process by which the blackcap orients itself is due to another property of the light coming from the sky: the "information" it

18. P. Teilhard de Chardin, Le Phénomène humain (Paris: Seuil, 1955); B. Rensch, Das universale Weltbild (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1977).

carries. Exchange of information does require energy, but just enough to be felt by the sense organs. The latter amplify the message, transmit it to the decision centers, and the little bird changes its course accordingly. It is the same as when your car radio tells you that the road you are on is barred a mile ahead: the resulting detour is not caused by a force, but by a piece of information, a message, causing you to make a certain decision. Also pain is a message: it tells the brain that the condition or situation of a particular part of the organism is not normal, and should be given priority over other motives of action at a level depending on its intensity.

It would seem that we should classify long-range interactions in the universe into two types: direct ones, which are mediated by actual forces, and indirect ones, which are mediated by information processing. The former bring about, for example, the tides induced by a celestial body on another not too distant celestial body (say the moon on the earth). As to the universe at large they are certainly of little import for events on our earth, but they do exist, and may shape history at the million-year scale, because the whole solar system is subject to gravitational forces produced by the rest of our galaxy, and other galaxies exert some gravitational action on ours. Indeed, within the general trend of the so-called Hubble expansion, nearby galaxies appear to move toward accumulation centers, for instance the Great Attractor in the region of the Centaurus constellation in the southern hemisphere. A very special form of direct interaction between bodies in the universe is the arrival (or departure) and the possible impact of meteorites, comets, and asteroids in the solar system. An enormous meteorite may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs: where was it from? It could come from the permanent asteroid reservoir of the solar system, but it could come from outer space as well. The meteorites that should cause the end of mankind according to prophecies may well have been already traveling millions or billions of years toward their destination. In the light of unifying principles such as the general laws of physics, the anthropic principle, self-amplification of fluctuation, such catastrophes too are part of the Great Dance.

The interactions of the second type have little or no direct effect, as a rule. Consider the light arriving to us from the depths of space. It does not carry sufficient energy to bring about any significant direct effect. It is, however, rich in information; it may therefore induce significant changes at the receiving end whenever suitable information processors, in particular human beings, are available. Consider as an example the effect of the sight of the starry sky on a person. It consists in a subtle change in mood and way of thinking about nearby things, which in turn may induce actions that would otherwise not take place. And since, as Dante would say,

Poca favilla gran fiamma seconda a little spark is followed by a great flame"

it may rightly be expected that the starry sky, especially in those seasons when it is brightest and purest, would "influence" the conditions on the whole earth.

The above is an extreme example illustrating the general point that changes in the moods of animals, their migrations, hunting expeditions and reproductive seasons are determined through information processing by a number of external factors which include the constellations. The effect of nearer objects, even when it is only psychological, is of course even more important, from the sight of the moon by a wild dog to the odors which may determine our choices without our realizing the cause, and finally to affinities of ideas or sensations. Whether transmitted over a large distance or not, indirect interactions seem to provide a reasonable scientific counterpart of notions such as sympathies, affinities, influences, etc.

In conclusion, reflection on the theoretical background of magic and astrology confirms that it is not right to think of relations as if they always implied that type of interdependence which is called in mechanics "strong direct coupling." Two systems are coupled if changes in one of them affect the other; they are directly coupled if their coupling does not depend on third parties; they are strongly coupled if events affecting one affect the other almost to the same extent. In contrast, although similarity also is a relation, we do not consider it in any way as a sort of interdependence. As an example, let us consider the pentacle, which magicians considered a powerful symbol, capable of trapping demons. Those magicians were most probably mistaken, but, since their brains worked as well as ours, the idea that a geometrical drawing can exert a power cannot be discarded merely on the grounds that magic does not work. The point, as we shall see in chapter eleven, is that a pentacle is a symbol, i.e., a sign which the minds of intelligent beings associate with an inaccessible reality and which they may interpret as prompting or interdicting action; therefore, it might establish a measure of interdependence inasmuch as it can indirectly affect material reality through (and only through) direct coupling to minds.

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