Panpsychism, Erewhon Edition

by John Holbo on February 19, 2018

A couple weeks back I posted about panpsychism. Is it as preposterous as all that? Opinions differ! Today I discovered that there are arguments for it, in effect, in Erewhon, by Samuel Butler (1872).

As you may know, the utopian Erewhonians, in Butler’s famous novel, are anti-machinist. But I hadn’t realized their attitude was grounded in explicit fear of the rise of conscious machines, rather than some other model of industrial catastrophe. The narrator himself has some trouble piecing it together:

About four hundred years previously, the state of mechanical knowledge was far beyond our own, and was advancing with prodigious rapidity, until one of the most learned professors of hypothetics wrote an extraordinary book (from which I propose to give extracts later on), proving that the machines were ultimately destined to supplant the race of man, and to become instinct with a vitality as different from, and superior to, that of animals, as animal to vegetable life. So convincing was his reasoning, or unreasoning, to this effect, that he carried the country with him; and they made a clean sweep of all machinery that had not been in use for more than two hundred and seventy-one years (which period was arrived at after a series of compromises), and strictly forbade all further improvements and inventions under pain of being considered in the eye of the law to be labouring under typhus fever, which they regard as one of the worst of all crimes.


It had taken place some five hundred years before my arrival: people had long become thoroughly used to the change, although at the time that it was made the country was plunged into the deepest misery, and a reaction which followed had very nearly proved successful. Civil war raged for many years, and is said to have reduced the number of the inhabitants by one-half. The parties were styled the machinists and the anti-machinists, and in the end, as I have said already, the latter got the victory, treating their opponents with such unparalleled severity that they extirpated every trace of opposition.

The wonder was that they allowed any mechanical appliances to remain in the kingdom, neither do I believe that they would have done so, had not the Professors of Inconsistency and Evasion made a stand against the carrying of the new principles to their legitimate conclusions. These Professors, moreover, insisted that during the struggle the anti-machinists should use every known improvement in the art of war, and several new weapons, offensive and defensive, were invented, while it was in progress. I was surprised at there remaining so many mechanical specimens as are seen in the museums, and at students having rediscovered their past uses so completely; for at the time of the revolution the victors wrecked all the more complicated machines, and burned all treatises on mechanics, and all engineers’ workshops—thus, so they thought, cutting the mischief out root and branch, at an incalculable cost of blood and treasure.

Certainly they had not spared their labour, but work of this description can never be perfectly achieved, and when, some two hundred years before my arrival, all passion upon the subject had cooled down, and no one save a lunatic would have dreamed of reintroducing forbidden inventions, the subject came to be regarded as a curious antiquarian study, like that of some long-forgotten religious practices among ourselves. Then came the careful search for whatever fragments could be found, and for any machines that might have been hidden away, and also numberless treatises were written, showing what the functions of each rediscovered machine had been; all being done with no idea of using such machinery again, but with the feelings of an English antiquarian concerning Druidical monuments or flint arrow heads.

But eventually he gets to read some of the original (excerpts from The Book of the Machines run for almost three chapters.)

The writer commences:—“There was a time, when the earth was to all appearance utterly destitute both of animal and vegetable life, and when according to the opinion of our best philosophers it was simply a hot round ball with a crust gradually cooling. Now if a human being had existed while the earth was in this state and had been allowed to see it as though it were some other world with which he had no concern, and if at the same time he were entirely ignorant of all physical science, would he not have pronounced it impossible that creatures possessed of anything like consciousness should be evolved from the seeming cinder which he was beholding? Would he not have denied that it contained any potentiality of consciousness? Yet in the course of time consciousness came. Is it not possible then that there may be even yet new channels dug out for consciousness, though we can detect no signs of them at present?

“Again. Consciousness, in anything like the present acceptation of the term, having been once a new thing—a thing, as far as we can see, subsequent even to an individual centre of action and to a reproductive system (which we see existing in plants without apparent consciousness)—why may not there arise some new phase of mind which shall be as different from all present known phases, as the mind of animals is from that of vegetables?

“It would be absurd to attempt to define such a mental state (or whatever it may be called), inasmuch as it must be something so foreign to man that his experience can give him no help towards conceiving its nature; but surely when we reflect upon the manifold phases of life and consciousness which have been evolved already, it would be rash to say that no others can be developed, and that animal life is the end of all things. There was a time when fire was the end of all things: another when rocks and water were so.”

The writer, after enlarging on the above for several pages, proceeded to inquire whether traces of the approach of such a new phase of life could be perceived at present; whether we could see any tenements preparing which might in a remote futurity be adapted for it; whether, in fact, the primordial cell of such a kind of life could be now detected upon earth. In the course of his work he answered this question in the affirmative and pointed to the higher machines.

“There is no security”—to quote his own words—“against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness, in the fact of machines possessing little consciousness now. A mollusc has not much consciousness. Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing. The more highly organised machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time. Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand! May not the world last twenty million years longer? If so, what will they not in the end become? Is it not safer to nip the mischief in the bud and to forbid them further progress?

“But who can say that the vapour engine has not a kind of consciousness? Where does consciousness begin, and where end? Who can draw the line? Who can draw any line? Is not everything interwoven with everything? Is not machinery linked with animal life in an infinite variety of ways? The shell of a hen’s egg is made of a delicate white ware and is a machine as much as an egg-cup is: the shell is a device for holding the egg, as much as the egg-cup for holding the shell: both are phases of the same function; the hen makes the shell in her inside, but it is pure pottery. She makes her nest outside of herself for convenience’ sake, but the nest is not more of a machine than the egg-shell is. A ‘machine’ is only a ‘device.’”

Then returning to consciousness, and endeavouring to detect its earliest manifestations, the writer continued:-

“There is a kind of plant that eats organic food with its flowers: when a fly settles upon the blossom, the petals close upon it and hold it fast till the plant has absorbed the insect into its system; but they will close on nothing but what is good to eat; of a drop of rain or a piece of stick they will take no notice. Curious! that so unconscious a thing should have such a keen eye to its own interest. If this is unconsciousness, where is the use of consciousness?

I’ll skip some bits about the potato.

“Either,” he proceeds, “a great deal of action that has been called purely mechanical and unconscious must be admitted to contain more elements of consciousness than has been allowed hitherto (and in this case germs of consciousness will be found in many actions of the higher machines)—Or (assuming the theory of evolution but at the same time denying the consciousness of vegetable and crystalline action) the race of man has descended from things which had no consciousness at all. In this case there is no à priori improbability in the descent of conscious (and more than conscious) machines from those which now exist, except that which is suggested by the apparent absence of anything like a reproductive system in the mechanical kingdom. This absence however is only apparent, as I shall presently show.

“Do not let me be misunderstood as living in fear of any actually existing machine; there is probably no known machine which is more than a prototype of future mechanical life. The present machines are to the future as the early Saurians to man. The largest of them will probably greatly diminish in size. Some of the lowest vertebrate attained a much greater bulk than has descended to their more highly organised living representatives, and in like manner a diminution in the size of machines has often attended their development and progress.

That’s a lot of science fiction and philosophy there. You be the judge of its quality.

It isn’t so surprising that Butler was not just worried about machines but about conscious machines. As the SEP article on Panpsychism states: “The nineteenth century was the heyday of panpsychism. Even a partial list of panpsychists of that period reveals how many of the best minds of the time gravitated towards this doctrine. Prominent exponents of distinctive forms of panpsychism include Gustav Fechner (1801–1887), Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), Rudolf Hermann Lotze (1817–1881), William James (1842–1910), Josiah Royce (1855–1916) and William Clifford (1845–1879).”

Nevertheless, there is an amusing note in Butler’s Preface to the Second Edition:

I regret that reviewers have in some cases been inclined to treat the chapters on Machines as an attempt to reduce Mr. Darwin’s theory to an absurdity. Nothing could be further from my intention, and few things would be more distasteful to me than any attempt to laugh at Mr. Darwin; but I must own that I have myself to thank for the misconception, for I felt sure that my intention would be missed, but preferred not to weaken the chapters by explanation, and knew very well that Mr. Darwin’s theory would take no harm. The only question in my mind was how far I could afford to be misrepresented as laughing at that for which I have the most profound admiration.



Anthony Cameron 02.19.18 at 5:40 am

Minor detail: the title is “erehwon” which deliberately is “nowhere” spelled backwards :-)


Plucky Underdog 02.19.18 at 6:19 am

I’m amazed that an SF critic like you didn’t make the obvious connection to Dune. And so much more satisfying an explanation of the future-historically obscure “Butlerian Jihad” than the rather weak-sauce one you get in (English language) Wikipedia!


bad Jim 02.19.18 at 6:25 am

I used to see a small white butterfly drifting through my yard, flying so economically that it looked like wind driven detritus. Every day it spent some time with a clump of stattice and then went on its apparently mindless way.

It clearly wasn’t mindless, though. My yard was part of its daily itinerary. It flew straight to that plant and then went on its way.

I doubt that any machine now made is that autonomous, but something comparable to that crumb-sized intelligence may not be out of reach.


Murali 02.19.18 at 8:26 am

Wait, so what is the argument here?

You can’t just Sorites your way to pansychism.


SusanC 02.19.18 at 8:41 am

Good stuff … some times the SF writers are surprisingly right about the future. With the benefit of hindsight, having seen a bit more of how things turned out, we might emphasize the part about self reproducing machines, rather than concious machines, being the danger.

(Cf. Drexler, nano tech, John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider, computer viruses…)


John Holbo 02.19.18 at 8:54 am

Title spelling corrected. I … never made the connection with Butlerian Jihad. This is totally true.


Tim May 02.19.18 at 2:00 pm

the title is “erehwon”

No it isn’t.


John Holbo 02.19.18 at 2:04 pm

Corrected back! (I did think it was right the first time. I should have trusted my instincts!)


Tim May 02.19.18 at 2:16 pm

For what it’s worth, Fritz Leiber’s sword & sorcery world is Nehwon rather than Newhon.


Ed 02.19.18 at 2:39 pm

Is my understanding correct that there is nothing utopian about Erehwon, but that the book was a satire on conventional wisdom in Victorian England?


Glen Tomkins 02.19.18 at 3:33 pm

” Yet in the course of time consciousness came. Is it not possible then that there may be even yet new channels dug out for consciousness, though we can detect no signs of them at present?”

Butler’s professor of hypothetics hadn’t studied his Aristotle on the distinction between natural objects and artificial ones. A natural object has within itself the arche of its own growth and decay, while artifacts are made to order to serve the growth or decay of their makers. If non-human consciousness is something to be feared and prevented, look to the life forms we share the planet with for the threat, not to our artifacts.

The Creationists, or Intelligent Design people, or whatever they call themselves these days, love to pose the scenario of the beachcomber who comes upon a lost watch and a mollusk on the beach. We can see, they reason, from the complexity of the design as we take the watch apart to study it, that clearly, the watch has a maker. It didn’t just assemble itself, or evolve by slow stages out of Butler’s cinder. So surely the mollusk too, once dissected and its even greater complexity is revealed, must have a Maker, because it is even more complex. They ignore the actually salient fact that taking the watch apart to understand its working reveals that it does something, register and display the passage of time, that does itself absolutely no good, and it does nothing else, including not having any equipment to pass on its arche to the next generation of watches. The mollusk’s complexity, on the other hand, is all found to be at the service of finding and digesting food, protecting itself from becoming food, and reproducing itself. Its line could indeed have evolved its complexity from a cinder over billions of years because that complexity serves its line’s growth and success.

Complexity of the mechanisms involved is irrelevant. Deep Blue may be orders of magnitude more complex and nuanced than a watch, but it has as little use for success at winning chess games as a watch has for accurate time-keeping. Its very complexity and nuance acts powerfully against it ever evolving into anything that contains within itself the arche of its own growth and decay, because it has reached such a highly specialized functionality designed along lines by its makers to do something that has nothing at all to do with Deep Blue’s own interests. The gold-encrusted talk stick in Agamemnon’s hand is much more likely to sprout green leaves than Deep Blue is to sprout consciousness, or any other novel function unrelated to winning chess games. Butler’s cinder is more of a threat, because at least the dumb rocks haven’t yet been channeled into a path of development that serves a maker’s purpose, not their own.

Whatever threat there is to us from other consciousness comes from the realm of living things. These things have their own interests, and successfully pursue them, or they would have been weeded out long ago. And many of these natural objects have already developed along the lines of forming and acting effectively on theoretical systems. A cat may not formulate a conscious theory about air not being a workable path to the luscious nestlings it sees up in the tree, while solid objects like the ground and tree trunk and branches can be a viable path, but clearly something in the cat works it out, and it acts successfully on that theory. The only remaining step is the ability to formulate and use a system of systems in theorizing, the ability to compare theories for their relative utility at various exigencies of life, in order to decide which theory to act on in a given situation.

I have my own theory about where exactly in the animal kingdom the greatest immediate threat lies.

Our primate relatives have been suggested as candidates, as in The Planet of the Apes. Against that, I argue that this is partly our vanity, that we think that our near relatives are favored, and partly dramatic convenience. You can get Andy Serkis to play a convincing chimpanzee a whole lot easier than an emotionally convincing dog or cat. But to me the decisive objection against considering primates is that I don’t have enough experience observing their behavior to formulate sound theories on the matter. My consciousness serves my interests and no other’s.

Dogs tend to rate highly on the intelligence tests we give them, compared to cats. But my interpretation is that cats can’t be bothered to enter into our human pet trick nonsense, while dogs are eager to please, so cooperate with enthusiasm. We have to some extent refashioned dogs into artifacts, beings who live for us, not themselves. Cats are less domesticated, thus the greater threat to take the next step into consciousness.

That said, it s not clear that cat consciousness would be much of a threat to us. If dogs became conscious, if they realized that they could get an even better deal down the street, they would in their rage at our ill-treatment of them rip our throats out while we sleep in order to make their way down the street to a household of even better servants. Once you’re in a society, as dogs are in human society, you have to think in terms of your place in that society. Cats don’t have such concerns. Your cat, however attached to you it may pretend to be, is probably already getting the nicer food that the nicer household down the street puts out. That’s the approach to us that a different consciousness would take, exploitation unmixed with any need to dominate or control beings whose separate consciousness is too uninteresting to get involved with.


F. Foundling 02.19.18 at 4:34 pm

@ Glen Tomkins 02.19.18 at 3:33 pm

The watch does serve its own interests, or rather (just like molluscs) the interests of its species/model. By being an efficient watch, it causes the humans that use it to produce new watches of the same or similar design. Unlike molluscs, watches don’t even need their own machinery to reproduce: they use human brains, minds and hands as vehicles of their reproduction. Or rather, it is not watches, but the abstract model of a watch, or, even more precisely, its various individual properties (let’s call them watchemes), that reproduce themselves (by manipulating humans), compete, survive and perish.

My point is: ‘interest’ is in your head, in your he-e-e-ad…


Glen Tomkins 02.19.18 at 7:04 pm

But, Foundling, what’s in my head is reality. The idea that the rest of you have minds of your own is possible, but not proven.

At any rate, solipsism is about as likely a theory as the idea that watches get us to do their bidding and reproduce their species for them.

But you do have a point that Aristotle only hints at (at least in the part of the Physics I’m familiar with). It makes sense that a living thing would have within itself the arche of its growth. But it’s decay and destruction? Of course that last part entails that the particular living thing really exists for some other, its line, its species and that species’ evolved future.


Know Teeth 02.19.18 at 11:06 pm

Read this very short yet “post pan” neopan? winning sf…
A Future Where Economics Are Also Humane.
Sandra Haynes’ “Rounding Corrections” – about a banking AI that becomes sentient and compassionate after watching people weeping at their financial statements –

The prize was partly funded by “” . One to watch.
I’d appreciate to know if any other sf on positive post pansychism out there. At the prize price now I’d chip in to support a bigger prize.


Lee A. Arnold 02.20.18 at 1:14 am

Gregory Bateson called Butler “Darwin’s ablest critic” and wrote that Butler never studied anything except his cat, but he knew a lot more about evolution than most people. Butler defended Darwin but insisted that the exclusion of mind from the theory of evolution was untenable. Unfortunately Butler suggested the addition of panpsychism, “letting supernaturalism in through the back door”, instead of finding mental process to be rooted in, and anticipated by, the cybernetic systems loops that evolve within nature.


John Holbo 02.20.18 at 6:01 am

Panpsychism and Technology! It’s in the air!


bad Jim 02.20.18 at 9:06 am

Cat story. A house with three people and two cats, Percy the alpha and Bobcat the beta, notwithstanding that Bobcat was the hunter and Percy the lover. Percy loved to be petted; Bobcat was content to lounge near me, with the understanding that I would leave him alone.

The second time I drove my newly acquired, ratty, rotting, barely functional Karmann-Ghia, I spotted Percy, our feline Romeo, consorting with other cats on the porch of a house around the corner from where I lived. I stopped to look, and he ran up to my car! I opened the door, he jumped in, and we drove around the corner. Shortest test drive ever, but he was gratified.


bad Jim 02.20.18 at 9:55 am

My point is that even cats are exquisitely attentive to their humans. Percy learned the sound or the smell of my car as soon as it arrived on the scene. Bobcat knew he could get away with biting my head to wake me up because he needed to pee and the cat door was locked. Three ferocious dogs in a household, yet a cat moved in because he had my number. The crows and the hummingbirds that frequent my yard have taken my temperature; the former largely ignore me and the latter occasionally harass me.


Z 02.20.18 at 2:25 pm

Panpsychism and Technology! It’s in the air!

It sure is. After all, Butler’s meditation are eerily close to what Muskolatre technophiles produce when they obsess over discuss AI risk.

But there is something I admit I find puzzling, already in the quotations of Butler you reproduce but especially strikingly in the Skrbina’s interview you linked to. It’s the so-called problem of emergence, aptly summed out by Skrbina (in the guise of a positive argument) as “Non-emergence: we have no conception of how mind could emerge from non-mind, and thus it was likely there all along”. According to him, that is “one of the strongest argument in favor of panpsychism”.

But that seems a hopelessly weak argument to me, in that mind could be replaced by X in the above, with no fundamental difference. As such, it seems to prove way too much, as in
-We have no conception of how life could emerge from non-life, and thus it was likely there all along (panbiologism).
-We have no conception of how syntax could emerge from non-syntax, and thus it was likely there all along (pansyntaxism).
-We have no conception of how John Holbo could emerge from non-John Holbo, and thus it was likely there all along (panholboism).
You get the drift.

Now if you believe X=mind is fundamentally different from X=life, syntax or John Holbo with respect to that reasoning, I would like to see an argument. Skrbina himself seemingly thinks he articulates one in the paragraph starting with “I call this the problem of historical emergence” and ending with “But this entails that mind always existed, if even in highly diminished form, in all living things, at least”. Yet, I encourage everyone to reproduce this paragraph with X any of the above to check that it goes through perfectly well (I would recommend setting X=John Holbo, but then who wouldn’t?).


Susanc 02.21.18 at 9:49 am

Cats are domestic animals, and know that the easiest way to get something done is to ask a human to do it. This means that they have to be much better at understanding humans than wild animals need to be. E.g. Getting a human to give them some cat food, or getting a himan to open a door so they can go out.


Susanc 02.21.18 at 9:53 am

P.S. a science fiction story in which cats have enslaved humans (cf. Planet of the Apes) would look like … well, our present day, really.


J-D 02.21.18 at 6:15 pm


P.S. a science fiction story in which cats have enslaved humans (cf. Planet of the Apes) would look like … well, our present day, really.

In a talking book I currently have in my car for listening while I’m driving, police divers looking for bodies in a canal dredged up other things, including a bag full of drowned kittens. Would you find that in a science fiction story in which cats have enslaved humans?


Glen Tomkins 02.21.18 at 6:21 pm

The confusion here is largely the result of later theologians hypostasizing Aristotle’s idea of the soul.

When Aristotle speaks of vegetable souls, and animal souls, and intellectual souls, he is simply describing the reality that different sorts of living things are observed to have different levels of organizing principles. All have at least a vegetable level of organization (they can nourish themselves and reproduce), some add to that an animal soul (they can sense their surroundings and move about to secure food or a mate), and man adds on top of those two an intellectual soul (of which the highest manifestation is the inclination and ability to comment on Crooked Timber, clearly).

This has nothing to do with any sort of mystical belief in “soul” as some sort of extra intangible thing in addition to things that we can observe. If you don’t see evidence that a particular object is self-organizing, using any of these three souls, there is zero reason to project some mystical alternate physics reality on them with the idea that maybe an organizing principle is lurking in them, occult for the moment, but ready to spring forth and stab us all in the back.

Physicians who have zero use for the misunderstood metaphysics of the theologians, and scoff at all that nonsense, make practical everyday use of Aristotle’s accurate observations concerning different level of organization in living things. When we speak of someone being in a vegetative state, that’s Aristotle talking. We’ve dumped the “soul” verbiage, because that once perfectly good terminology has been poisoned by the theologians, but the idea is still there, because the idea is based on observing reality.

Panpsychism doesn’t seem to be based on observing reality. When Deep Blue starts to show evidence that it likes to play chess, that it derives anything for itself from playing and winning the game, that winning at chess in any way helps it grow and control its environment, then I will happily concede that we should start thinking of Deep Blue having some organizing principle within itself governing its own growth and decay. It clearly has an organizing principle creating the ability to win at chess, but that ability does not serve its interests, its growth and decay, but rather those of the people who made it. Deep Blue doesn’t even have a vegetable soul, poor thing.

But it really makes no sense to bring the idea of “soul” into this discussion until and unless you clean away the dross of the term’s misuse by the theologians. If you don’t do that, you’re just hiding behind the mystification and willful obscurantism of the theologians.


bad Jim 02.22.18 at 6:13 am

I’d defend the idea that artificial intelligence of a conversational sort will be at some point achievable, but it’s my impression that most of the work being done now might be better characterized as machine intelligence, something engineered to solve a set of particular problems, rather than an attempt at replicating the sort of intelligence evolution has produced, which is reasonable since we don’t know much about how that works.

Practically speaking, we don’t want willful robots. The selling point of self-driving cars is that they would be immune to distraction. A self-aware car would be just as fascinated by an accident as a human driver; a self-aware welding robot might get bored.


Nick Alcock 02.23.18 at 10:48 pm

Cats are incredibly effective ambush predators and are quite happy to toy with their prey for hours for the sheer fun of it. I’m not sure whether you want them to be conscious (frankly I think they are): I’m not sure whether you want them to be as bright as humans; but I’m fairly sure you don’t want them to ever see us as prey, and making them brighter seems likely to make them aim for bigger prey than mice.

That way lies the Queen of Pain in Orion’s Arm (though it’s true that she is depicted as far *more* intelligent than us, she was still an abused cat once). I… don’t think we really want to risk anything like that.

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