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Steven TaylorSteve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. He is the current chair of the Transpersonal Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. He is the author of The Leap and his new book Spiritual Science: Why the science needs spirituality to make sense of the world, Watkins Publising, 2018. See:


Consciousness and Complexity

A Defence of Panspiritism

Steve Taylor

As consciousness cannot be derived from physical laws, it has to be seen as a fundamental feature of the universe.

I would like to thank Andy Smith for his considered response ["Panning Panisms"] to my essay 'Beyond Belief,' which raises some interesting issues.

Let me first of all respond to Smith's point about altruism. He argues against my view that altruism is the result of a fundamental connectedness amongst human beings. He states that 'If there is a universal form of consciousness animating all life, we should feel connected to all life. We should act altruistically not only to members of our own species, but to members of other species as well. Clearly, this is not the case.'

With regard to the last sentence, I would say that there is nothing 'clear' about this at all. In fact, I would say that this is clearly not the case. Of course we act altruistically to members of other species! Human beings often act with tremendous kindness towards members of different species—not only to our pets, but to many other animals we encounter. What happens when we come across injured birds or foxes or other animals? I know many people who have driven many miles out of their way to take injured animals to vets. I know many people (including myself) who regularly remove spiders and other insects from the shower or bathtub so they won't be in danger of drowning. A sense of empathy towards other species motivates many people to become vegetarians and vegans.

It is certainly true that, as Smith points out, 'we have adopted a purely utilitarian attitude towards other species. We have treated them in any way that suits our purposes, from servitude, to a source of food, to outright enemies that need to be exterminated.' However, it is important to point out that, to an extent, our brutal treatment of animals is the result of abstract thoughtlessness, rather than intentional cruelty. It is likely that many more people would become vegetarians or vegans if they were aware of the brutality and cruelty which lie behind meat products (or if they were required to kill the animals they eat). All in all though, our treatment of animals is not dissimilar to our treatment of other human beings. It covers a very wide spectrum of behaviour, from saintly altruism to psychopathic brutality.

So in my view our shared fundamental consciousness does make it possible for us to empathise with animals as well as other human beings. At the same time, I would agree that altruism is stronger towards members of our own species. Presumably because of closer contact and our common mental features and shared environmental experiences, we feel the strongest empathic connection to other human beings. At the same time, it is completely plausible that if we had equally strong contact with members of other species, then we would feel the same degree of empathy towards them. (And in fact, this is true of our pets.)

Why Aren't Psi Powers more Common?

A related point made by Smith is that psi powers are rare, and this doesn't seem to fit with the idea that they are the result of interconnected consciousness. 'If there is a universal consciousness, why is it manifested so weakly in some people, and not in all in most?' Smith asks.

There is a good point. The particular issue which puzzles me, when I ponder over it, is why altruism is very common, while telepathy is quite uncommon, when both have the same source: i.e. our interconnected consciousness. But there are a number of issues that can be raised in response. Firstly, I don't think psi abilities are as uncommon as Smith suggests. There are some 'everyday' types of telepathy which are so common that we tend to take them for granted: for example, what Rupert Sheldrake has referred to as 'the sense of being stared at.' So it is possible that we have frequent telepathic experiences without being aware of them. It is also worth mentioning that the existence of telepathy has been taken for granted by many traditional societies. When the South African writer Laurens van der Post lived with the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, he learned how they had a mental “wire” with which they communicate across a distance. For example, a hunter would mentally send “news” of a successful catch back to camp, so that others could prepare.

Nevertheless, the fact that telepathy (which is the ability we are specifically talking about here, since I explain it as the result of our interconnected consciousness) does not manifest itself more frequently does need to be explained. Most likely, it is related to our strongly developed egoic selves, with their incessant chattering thoughts and their strong sense of separateness. This seems to be obscure our innate connectedness. You could compare it to spiritual experiences. The essence of our being is fundamental consciousness, which we share with all other beings. Spiritual experiences occur when we 'tap into' this fundamental oneness, usually in states of deep mental quietness, and in exhilarating moments of connection with the natural world. However, although this state is potentially open to us all the time, we experience it very rarely, because of our strongly developed egoic selves.

So it may be that telepathy and spiritual experiences are relatively uncommon (compared to altruism) because they depend on a heightened degree of union than altruism. That is, they require our normal egoic sense of separateness to dissolve away altogether, rather than simply to soften, or weaken. And with regard to telepathy, it is probably important that it depends on the mental state of two people. Both people must undergo a softening of ego-separateness for telepathy to occur - and that mutual occurrence is obviously much more rare than its occurrence in one person.

It is also important to remember that psychic abilities vary from person to person. In some people, they don't appear to exist at all, whereas others (such as creative people) may possess them to a high degree. ( I cited research showing that creative people perform around twice as well as others in psi experiments.) Psychic abilities may also be situational; even with a person who normally demonstrates them to a high degree, there may be some circumstances when they fail—for example, when they are nervous or stressed. You can compare ESP abilities to creative abilities like painting or writing poetry. Some people have very little ability in these areas, perhaps none at all. Some people might be able to do them passably, and some people—probably the smallest group—are very skilled in them. Even a very skilled creative person may not be able to demonstrate his or her creativity in an uncongenial environment, in which they feel uneasy. Both ESP and creative abilities work best in states of calm and relaxation.

More broadly, ESP and creative abilities may be linked in that they are both related to 'labile' self-boundaries. The more labile a person's self-boundary is, the more open they are to creative, psychic and spiritual experiences. Again, we can see the connection between these abilities and our strongly developed egoic self.

Smith writes that, 'So again, it appears that believers in psi have to put forth their own convoluted arguments.' What other convoluted arguments is Smith referring to here? Earlier he seems to be tacitly accepting the existence of psi phenomena, but arguing that my explanation of them (in terms of an interconnected consciousness) is invalid. But in this statement he seems to show a prejudicial attitude towards them. At the end of the essay, he suggests an intriguing possible explanation of telepathy (as the result a kind of interconnected social being) which I think is worthy of further development, so it is clear that he has not rejected the possibility of ESP outright.

Mind and Brain

In response to the discussion of how the mind can influence the functioning of the body, Smith writes that my argument is invalid because materialists (and/or scientists) do not see the mind as an epiphenomenon but as an emergent phenomenon. Some examples would be welcome here, because I do not think this is representative of most materialists or scientists. There is a common belief amongst materialists that all mental states can be reduced to brain states. If we have psychological problems, they are supposed to be due to neurological imbalances or malfunctions that can be 'corrected' by medication. If we have anomalous experiences—such as higher states of consciousness, out of body experiences or near-death experiences - they are supposed to be due to aberrational brain activity. Such experiences have no reality in themselves, but are just brain-created illusions. (As the philosopher Daniel Robinson put it, 'All mental states, events, and processes originate in the states, events, and processes of the body and, more specifically, of the brain.')

This attitude is so prevalent, and so embedded in our culture, that it's often reflected in the language that people use to talk about psychological issues. Neurological terms are used to describe psychological phenomena, as if they are the same thing. A person who is suffering a mental problem might say that their 'brain is all messed up' or that they need to 'get their brain sorted out.' But of course, they are actually talking about the mind, not the brain.

But even if it is true that materialists see the mind as an emergent phenomenon, it is still not clear how it could have such a powerful influence on the body. Smith writes that: 'A materialist, though, would just say that it was the activity in the neural networks that had this effect. While the way in which this activity does this may not be understood, it's quite explainable in principle.' This sentence makes very little sense to me. To state that the suggestions of a doctor could affect the neural networks of the brain in such a way that they have a painkilling or healing effect is nothing short of magical. (And of course, the effect of the mind over the body manifests itself in a variety of other settings than placebos. As discussed in my book, phantom pregnancy is an especially interesting phenomenon.)

In the same way, the term 'emergent' phenomenon in itself explains nothing. To say that the mind can emerge from the brain is like saying that wine can emerge from water—in other words, just a variant of the 'hard problem.' Like many materialists, Smith is simply couching magical beliefs in scientific terminology.

Complexity and Consciousness

Smith also wonders 'why brains are even needed to receive this consciousness if it already exists.'

One point here is that, for me, the term fundamental consciousness is synonymous with spirit. (In my book Spiritual Science, I use the term spirit more frequently. In philosophical papers I prefer to use the term fundamental consciousness, as the term has more philosophical relevance. as similar concepts have been developed; most notably by David Chalmers). But perhaps if we think in terms of spirit, then this issue is not so problematic. In a sense, the question is a non sequitur. There is no necessity for brains to exist. They simply do. As I describe in my book, spirit (or fundamental consciousness) should be envisaged as possessing a dynamic creative quality. Once the universe had been generated, the creative and dynamic quality of spirit continued to operate in material structures, enabling them to move towards greater complexity and organisation. Eventually this led to the development of sentience, when physical forms became complex enough to canalise fundamental consciousness. Following this, the creative and dynamic quality of fundamental consciousness was an important factor in evolution, impelling life forms to develop greater complexity over time, which allowed those life forms to canalise consciousness more intensely, and so to develop an more intense and expansive internal consciousness. Living beings became more sentient and autonomous, whilst still immersed in and pervaded with fundamental consciousness. But there was no necessity in any of this. The development of matter, living beings with nervous systems and human beings with brains is simply an expression of the dynamic quality of spirit.

The question 'how did the more complex appear before the less complex?' is also something of a non sequitur in relation to panspiritism. First of all, spirit (or fundamental consciousness) is not complex. It has no material form, so it cannot be thought of in terms of complexity. One should think of spirit as a subtle and dynamic field which enfolds and immerses the whole universe (and possibly other universes). Its creative dynamic quality enables it to generate matter, so that physical forms can arise and exist within it. An analogy here would be waves arising on the surface of an ocean, which have an individual form as waves but are united with the ocean as a whole and are of the same nature as it. Or perhaps more accurately (since fundamental consciousness obviously has no surface) we should think in terms of current or eddies that arise within the depths - or main body - of the ocean. In the same way, matter emerges from fundamental consciousness and is pervaded with it, sharing in its nature. At the same time, material entities have their own form.[1]

Of course, a variant of Smith's question is sometimes justifiably asked by atheists: if God created the world, who created God? Sophisticated theologians would answer: nobody created God. God simply is and always will be, in timeless being. Although I am not religious, I would answer Smith's question in a similar way. In fact, Chalmers does this in his philosophy. He suggests that consciousness is an irreducible quality with a similar status to fundamental forces like gravity and electromagnetism, which are not caused or produced by anything: they simply are. As consciousness cannot be derived from physical laws, it has to be seen as a fundamental feature of the universe. I would say the same, only that in my view consciousness may be even more fundamental than gravity or electromagnetism, because it precedes the formation of the universe, and the universe - with all of its material particles and forces and laws - is an expression of it.


Smith ends his piece by voicing his support for panpsychism. I am sympathetic to panpsychism. I agree with Smith that it 'proposes that conscious experience exists on a spectrum.' (Although panspiritism does this too, in the sense that more complex nervous systems or brain facilitate the canalisation of spirit more intensely.) However, one of the reasons why I prefer a panspiritist perspective is because the explanatory power of panpsychism is very limited. Despite its elegant reframing and resolving of the hard problem, panpsychism offers little or no explanations of the phenomena I discuss in Spiritual Science, such as mystical or spiritual experiences, near-death experiences, psi phenomena, evolution or altruism.

Smith is clearly aware of some of the problematic issues of panpsychism. The problem of where consciousness originates is just as much as an issue in panpsychism as it is (at least from Smith's perspective) in panspiritism. However, where Smith goes astray—and where he under-estimates the difficulties of panpsychism—is when he states that 'how [simple consciousness] became more complex is explained by its association with material processes, and specifically with brains.' Panpsychism does not explain this at all. This relates to what has been called the combination problem. This is the issue of explaining how small experiential entities (e.g. atoms) could combine to produce larger experiential entities, with a much more intense conscious experience, such as human beings. How does human consciousness relate to the infinitesimally small consciousnesses of the billions of material particles which constitute a human being? While this problem is not solved, there is no way of explaining how increasingly large collections of material particles give rise to correspondingly complex or intense forms of consciousness.

However, from the standpoint of panspiritism, this is not a problematic issue. There is no combination problem, because tiny material particles do not combine to produce larger consciousnesses. The difference between material particles and conscious organisms is one of complexity and organisation. The initial difference is in terms of whether they have sufficient complexity to receive and canalise fundamental consciousness; the second difference is in the degree to which they can canalise fundamental consciousness, depending on how complex they are.

Smith's support for panpsychism seems to lie in his belief that it is possible to hold panpsychist views (and hence solve the hard problem) at the same as holding physicalist views in other areas. But is it really possible to be a materialist and a panpsychist in tandem? If you believe that evolution has been purely accidental, if you believe that altruism is just the result of genetic and adaptive factors, and if you are sure that psi phenomena cannot exist because they (somehow) contravene the laws of physics, then surely it is not viable to believe that consciousness is an intrinsic property of matter. This would entail the kind of 'magical' thinking which Smith criticises me for. At any rate, this is an issue which Smith could potentially elucidate.

In conclusion, I thoroughly disagree when Smith writes that 'The effect of mind on body is not a problem. The evolution of complexity is not a problem. Anomalous phenomena, including psi, the kinds of behavior Sheldrake claims in support of his morphic fields, and various undocumented medical claims, are in my view not yet well supported enough to constitute a problem.' I believe that such a viewpoint is only possible if one is unaware of the weight of evidence in favour of the existence of such 'anomalous' phenomena as ESP and near-death experiences, if one is not aware of the full import of the influence of the mind over the body, and if one has not fully considered the deficiencies of the Neo-Darwinian model of evolution. In other words, such a viewpoint is only possible if one has a pre-existent adherence to the materialist belief-system, which informs and influences one's evaluation and interpretation of evidence.


[1] The analogy with waves (or currents and eddies) is also useful for panspiritism because it highlights the labile nature of the relationship - without clear distinction - between matter and fundamental consciousness. Material structures may appear to be distinct and separate to each other, and to the space that surrounds them, but they are actually always part of fundamental consciousness. There is very little distinction between their form and the fundamental consciousness which they emerge from (and are immersed in), just as there is very little distinction between a current or eddy and the ocean that it is part of. This is particularly the case with simple material forms. In more complex forms, which have their own individuated consciousness, this distinction is stronger. (This incidentally highlights a problematic issue that can arise with more complex forms such as human beings: a sense of alienation from fundamental consciousness. This will be discussed in more detail later.)

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