experience: n. & v. - n. 1 actual observation of or practical acquaintance with facts or events. 2 knowledge or skill resulting from this. 3 a an event regarded as affecting one (an unpleasant experience). b the fact or process of being so affected. - v.tr. 1 have experience of; undergo. 2 feel or be affected by (an emotion etc.).
(Concise Oxford Dictionary 1992.)
When I use the word “experience” I will be using it in a manner that is covered by none of the above dictionary definitions in any strict sense, though some of those uses do hint at it. The best I can do is to allude to my use through examples. There are visual experiences, auditory experiences, tactile experiences, gustatory experiences, and olfactory experiences. Hunger and thirst are experiences, as are vertigo and nausea. Pleasure and pain are experiences. Thoughts, emotions, memories, and anticipations are also experiences, as are hallucinations and dreams. Moreover, when I wish to refer collectively to the entire set of all such items of experience in any instant I will do so by use of the phrase “the field of experience” regardless of whatever arguments might be brought to bear against my employment of the term “field”.
The field of experience encompasses the native conviction that every other person is associated with subjective experiences. It would follow from this conviction that every other person would be associated with a field of experience that similarly divides into an objective world and a subjective world. To put it another way, just as the field of experience encompasses the conviction that it is associated with a unique conceived person inhabiting the objective world, so all perceived people inhabiting the objective world are, by extension, conceived to be associated with fields of experience. It is, as it were, an inductive inference based on a single sample, and so it is possible to call this default assumption into question, and this is known as the “problem of other minds”.
There is nothing contentious about accepting on face value the instinctive conviction that all people are associated with minds, and perhaps nothing too contentious about extending that assumption to all anthropoids on grounds of structural similarity. But to go much further becomes controversial. It might be argued that there must be a threshold at some point on the phylogenetic scale, the location of which would depend upon structural similarity or dissimilarity, but this claim can be nothing more than a matter of prejudice given that even our grounds for imputing minds to other people cannot be given empirical support. The bottom line is that there is no justifiable argument for denying minds to even non-anthropoids - e.g. I could extend the claim without inconsistency to all mammals, and indeed to all animals throughout the phylogenetic scale, right down to the single-celled protozoa. Furthermore, if there are no logically consistent grounds for denying minds to animal cells then why not to plant cells? I could even continue on to the cellular organelles, and further still to the molecules that comprise them. And if the argument applies to molecules then why should it not apply to atoms, and even to sub-atomic particles? The particular view to which this line of reasoning leads was championed by Alfred North Whitehead and has been given the name panexperientialism. A common argument arraigned against this view confuses mind with cognition - an argument that rejects the idea that e.g. cells might be associated with minds on the grounds that a single cell is incapable of cognition. It should be clear, however, that this is an incoherent objection - a mind need not encompass cognition, or even emotions. The constituents comprising any mind that might be associated with a single cell need not be as rich as those accompanying a person.
The problem arises as to how a collection of minds, each mind being associated with an object within a cohesive system of objects, can combine to yield a single over-arching mind that is associated with the system as a whole - e.g. cells combine to yield an organism, so how do the minds of the cells combine to yield the mind of the organism? This objection is known as the “combination problem” and was first raised by William James as “the mind dust problem”. In this paper I present a defence of panexperientialism along with a proposed solution to the combination problem. Some common misconceptions are cleared away, and it is shown that the characteristic problems accompanying this view are not fatal. Neither are they as serious as some of the problems accompanying competing views. Finally, support is garnered for panexperientialism from a number of sources, mainly (but not entirely) deriving from the manifest need for a new paradigm that is forced upon us by the quantum theory. For this reason I have appended a very brief overview of some relevant developments in physics since the close of the nineteenth century, but an understanding of these developments is not essential to an understanding of the main thesis presented below.
I make use of the words Experience, Objective, Subjective, Mind, Consciousness, Matter, etc. and my descriptions of these words are intended to be taken in a Wittgensteinian spirit. That is to say that I am telling the reader how I am using the words for the purpose of this analysis, and not how the words “should” be used in other situations.