There’s an interesting ontological problem in the philosophy of physics. As David Chalmers writes:
[P]hysical theory only characterizes its basic entities relationally, in terms of their causal and other relations to other entities. Basic particles, for instance, are largely characterized in terms of their propensity to interact with other particles. Their mass and charge is specified, to be sure, but all that a specification of mass ultimately comes to is a propensity to be accelerated in certain ways by forces, and so on […] Reference to the proton is fixed as the thing that causes interactions of a certain kind, that combines in certain ways with other entities, and so on; but what is the thing that is doing the causing and combining ? As Russell (1927) notes, this is a matter about which physical theory is silent.1
In other words, physical ontology is empty. The incredible successes of the discipline assure us that it has discovered real relations and real entities, but it cannot tell us their nature. We know how physical entities behave, but not why they do so, or what they really are.
Let me put aside a common objection right away. Even if future physicists discovered that electrons are really made of X and Y particles, for instance, it would still leave the nature of X, Y, and electrons obscure. Indeed, we would only know X and Y in terms of their abstract relationships, and not in terms of their nature. The same would still go for electrons, which are made of X and Y. To put it shortly, physics, in principle, restricts itself to studying only the abstract, mathematical relationships between entities, rather than their intrinsic natures.
So, that’s a problem—or we might say an opening—at the very bottom of our ontology. For people who, like me, have come out of an academic formation in the hard sciences, this problem can be quite a blessing. Indeed, for someone who has spent years learning to see the world in terms of particles governed by abstract mathematical equations, learning that there must be more to the world than math is a hopeful and eye-opening experience.
It allows us to ask an important question, as Stephen Hawking does: “What breathes fire into the equations”?2 If mathematical language can only teach us about the extrinsic behavior of entities, how can we learn about their intrinsic nature? In this essay, I will outline two approaches. I will start with panpsychism, which is a popular position these days. This straightforward metaphysics proposes that the intrinsic nature of physical entities is consciousness. After having pointed out shortcomings in panpsychism, however, I will introduce Christian neoplatonism, which proposes that, to know the deepest nature of things, we must turn to love.
Right now, a popular approach to the question “What breathes fire into the equations” is panpsychism. This position, which answers with consciousness, is championed by David Chalmers, who himself came to philosophy from a mathematics background,3 like the most famous panpsychists of the 20th century, namely Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead. The fundamental insight here is that while we do not have immediate access to what happens in electrons, we do have immediate access to what happens in us. Fundamentally, the reasons behind our behavior is to be found in our conscious choices. The panpsychist proposes that this is the case at all layers of the hierarchy. Behind every physically describable event is fundamentally a conscious event.
Say you get up at this moment to go grab a coffee. Behaviorally, the panpsychist grants that it’s possible to describe the event in purely physical terms. One could describe you as a certain set of particles, following certain equations. While it’s impossible in practice to predict the complex events unfolding at that moment, it would nonetheless be possible in theory, using probabilities if need be, or so the story goes. When you rose from your chair, certain physical events happened in your brain that triggered electric currents traveling down to your legs so that you would move towards the kitchen. In principle, a physicist could describe all of your behavior this way, down to your very particles, without ever appealing to your conscious desire for coffee.
That’s only an extrinsic description, however. It explains your macro behavior in terms of the micro behavior of your particles, but as mentioned above, such physical explanations are bound to remain empty. Stuck at the superficial level of behavior, they never get at the deep reasons behind anything, and especially not behind you getting up to grab a coffee.
On the other hand, a great and obvious candidate for the cause of that event is your desire for coffee! You got up because you wanted, in your phenomenal experience, to have a coffee, and whatever physical language can say about that event will only remain a secondary explanation. In other words, the language of consciousness describes the intrinsic nature of events, while the language of physics, with its abstract equations, describes events only extrinsically.
For panpsychists, that would be true at all scales of reality. The behavior of your neurons, for instance, would be due to some simple neuronal consciousnesses. In other words, neuroscience would be an extrinsic description of entities that are intrinsically conscious. Similarly, the behavior of your molecules would be due to some even simpler consciousnesses, and similarly down the ontological hierarchy, right down to fundamental particles like the electron, which have the simplest possible consciousnesses. For panpsychists, every physical description of an event is bound to remain superficial. Rather, true and fundamental explanations are to be found at the level of consciousness.
Note that panpsychists wouldn’t simply hold that everything is conscious, but rather that everything is conscious at some level. At the very least, fundamental particles are conscious. They can then assemble in higher entities where their micro-consciousnesses combine in higher consciousnesses, as is the case in humans for example, but they can also combine in higher objects where their micro-consciousnesses do not yield higher consciousnesses, as is the case of tables for example. The particles and molecules of the table would be conscious, but not the table as a whole.
Now, while I think panpsychism is a great first step away from materialistic reductionism, it is by no means a full-fledged worldview. I was quite happy to take that step myself a few years ago, after having inherited a reductionist worldview from my studies in mathematics and theoretical computer science. But, notably thanks to discussions with John Vervaeke, I have now walked away from panpsychism for something I believe to be richer.4
For one thing, when you get to the extremes of creation, namely potential and forms, it doesn’t look like you’re dealing with consciousnesses. The fields of potential at the bottom of physics are too formless to qualify as candidates for consciousness—or even to qualify as any thing. Not to mention pure potential, i.e., Aristotelian prime matter, which is the possibility of change implied by probabilistic physics. Prime matter is too far from actuality to speak of consciousness—or to speak of any thing, really.
Plus, on the other side of the spectrum, pure patterns don’t look conscious either. The pythagorean theorem, for instance, is too abstract, non-spatiotemporal and unchanging to be conscious. And yet, it must exist. The platonic argument behind this affirmation is now common in this corner of the internet,5 but the idea is that if you deny the reality of forms like the pythagorean theorem, you deny the reality of your access to reality, thus refuting yourself. In particular, for physicists and panpsychists to speak meaningfully about entities using equations, they must hold that those equations really exist, lest they undermine their own arguments. However, it doesn’t seem plausible to say that abstract, non-spatiotemporal forms like the pythagorean theorem are conscious.
So, in short, panpsychism doesn’t seem able, as an ontology, to account for the two extremes of Creation, namely potential and forms.
Plus, even if one wanted to ignore these problems, there are also important ones internal to panpsychism. The main such problem is called the “combination problem”.6 Indeed, how is it that consciousnesses combine? William James formulated the problem over a century ago, when panpsychism was gathering interest, and his formulation is still around today as panpsychism is undergoing a revival. Basically, the issue is that panpsychism requires micro-consciousnesses to gather in macro-consciousnesses, at all scales of reality, but this simply doesn’t seem to happen.
Take a sentence of a dozen words, and take twelve men and tell to each one word. Then stand the men in a row or jam them in a bunch, and let each think of his word as intently as he will; nowhere will there be a consciousness of the whole sentence.
[the] private minds do not agglomerate into a higher compound mind.7
There are attempts made by panpsychists to try to get around this, and I have myself contributed such attempts in my panpsychist days,8 but now I would rather suggest moving on to a more promising and time-tested framework altogether.
To put it bluntly, a much better candidate for the deep nature of reality is love. We can even start from our own conscious experience to make this hypothesis, since consciousness in fact rests on love. Listeners of John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis series will recognize this idea,9 about which Hans Urs von Balthasar and D.C. Schindler write beautifully.
“The little child awakens to self-consciousness through being addressed by the love of his mother,” Balthasar writes in the first sentence of his essay, “Movement Toward God.” The personal gesture that the mother addresses to the child is what gives rise to his capacity to respond in kind. [This view of consciousness] affirms that the soul’s conditions of possibility are not fixed prior to and thus independent of the (receptive) encounter with what is other than consciousness, but instead occurs in the encounter. The conditions of possibility arise, as it were, not wholly from below, but as a gift from above, which, precisely because of its generosity, creates the space for the “from below” capacity to receive it. In other words, because the mother’s smile is a gesture of love that “welcomes” the other, her child, it does not impose itself as an opaque and indeed violent demand, but as an enabling invitation[.]10
More broadly, the point is that consciousness rests on love, both top-down and bottom-up. Top-down, love shines as beauty, as a kind of care and self-sacrifice, as in the mother’s smile, which invites nascent consciousness, bottom-up, to strive upwards. Beauty invites the formless towards form, the unconscious towards consciousness.
Another, more bottom-up way to put it is that love, such as the love of the mother, opens a space for the emergence of consciousness, which does not happen willy-nilly, but is constrained top-down by beauty, or we might say by love.
Love, since it gives rise to consciousness, is thus more fundamental than consciousness, which means that panpsychism jumps the gun. Indeed, if love is more fundamental than consciousness, shouldn’t we say that the intrinsic nature of physical entities is love, rather than consciousness? To fill the ontological void of physics, shouldn’t we turn to love rather than to consciousness?
As abstract, difficult to grasp or even hopelessly romantic as this proposal can seem, it has the advantage of elegantly responding to all three puzzles raised above. Indeed, in addition to sidestepping panpsychism’s combination problem altogether, it also gives ontological status both to prime matter and pure forms. First, in an ontology of love, prime matter is understandable as receptive, emerging, feminine love. Think of the child. And conversely, pure forms are understandable as self-sacrificial, emanating, masculine love. Think of the mother’s smile.
The entire ontological hierarchy would then be intelligible in terms of love. It’s love all the way down and all the way up. When a particle informs a field of potential, this is a real, albeit small, communion in love between potential and pattern. Potential, which is love from below, strives towards a form, which is love from above, as both meet in love. And the same threefold pattern would hold at all scales of reality. When multiple atoms bond together in love, they strive for the form of a molecule, which conversely condescends in love. The same goes for cells, organisms, and ultimately for Christ and the Trinity.
Obviously, love gets deeper and deeper, richer and richer, more and more fundamental as we ascend this hierarchy towards God, who is Love itself. Indeed, the love that exists at the level of particles pales in comparison to the love that exists at the level of human persons, which itself pales in comparison to the Love that exists at the level of divine Persons. Nonetheless, there is a real analogy there. We can genuinely speak of love at all those levels, especially since higher loves don’t nullify lower ones, but rather open up space for them. Ultimately, divine Love creates worldly love altogether, letting it emerge and nurturing it in a manner analogous to the mother’s love giving rise to the consciousness of her infant.
[T]he “cause of all things” gives rise to a substantial world other than himself, not by withdrawing or refusing himself (self-concealing), but rather by giving himself so radically that the other comes forth in some sense “of itself.” The giving and receiving is one and the same, a single “cause”. God’s ecstatic reaching out to the world includes within itself an allowing himself, as the beautiful and the good, to be pursued by the world, and his causing the world is, as it were, the context in which things can, so to speak “cause” themselves[.]11
The French poet Charles Péguy describes the loving father whose deepest desire, in all of the work he does to raise his son, is to see him stand, straight and proud, on his own two feet. God the Father gives being to his creatures in such a way as to enable them to stand on their own, to stand under themselves: to subsist.12
Too Good to Be True?
This may at first seem too mystical for the mathematician just turned panpsychist. While he simply wanted to fill the ontological void of physics and to find a place for human consciousness in a physical universe, he now ends up with not only that, but with a full blown cosmology of love! It turns out that it is by loving and by being loved that one can get closest to the heart of everything! Though lab experiments are still useful to learn about the behaviour of electrons, for instance, it is nonetheless our participation in love that teaches us most about their nature.
So, this may all sound too good to be true. It probably would have to me a few years ago, back in my panpsychist days… It is worth noting however, that, as eloquent and moving as Balthasar and Schindler are, their position is actually fairly mainstream Christian neoplatonism. It is an old and venerable tradition, whose intellectual rigor has withstood the test of time, which is far from being the case of panpsychism.
Further, this is not only a robust and enchanted metaphysics, it is a great cosmic drama in which we can participate. The bottom-up love of creation towards God is mediated by Christ, who also reciprocally mediates God’s top-down love towards Creation. And this reciprocal exchange of love, this cosmic drama centered around the Cross, is Creation itself. As hard as it is to believe, the panpsychist would thus not only find himself on more metaphysically robust ground in Christian neoplatonism, but also on a much more fertile and enchanted one. He would find out that love allows him to become a participant in the very Drama that makes the world.
[A]s the “seed of God” (1 Jn 3:9), God’s love implants itself into this threefold absolute openness of love as fiat, giving it determination and form; it is the Father’s “will”, “pleasure”, “plan”, “intention”, “decision”, “predetermination” (Eph 1:1-2), in which the Son’s mission takes form. This form, then, informs the Church’s mission, which, in turn, informs the Christian’s mission and ultimately, in the service of God’s comprehensive plan, informs the entire structure of creation with its countless individual structures in space and time. Nature’s forms spring forth from creation, rising up and opening themselves in spirit and love to the infinity of fructifying grace; they thus receive from above their ultimate form, which recasts everything natural and reorders it. The archetype of this process is the way in which the human nature of Christ points “ek-statically” toward his divine Person and, in fact, draws its existence from this Person. The Father’s mission gives form, not only to his office and destiny as redeemer, down to its most insignificant details, but also gives form to the essential traits of his individual nature. He takes on a human existence in order to sacrifice it to God for all men and for the world as a whole, in order to unite God and the world in this liquidation of himself, in order to receive the sacrificed nature (and thus the world) transformed and eternalized in the Resurrection, and in order to lay this same nature (and thus the world) eternally into the Father’s hands.13
- Chalmers, David. “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory” at 153, Oxford Paperbacks, 1996
- Hawking, Stephen. “A Brief History of Time” at 174, Bantam Books Toronto, 1988
- Chalmers, David. “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory”
- For the first of those discussions, see Marceau, Jean-Philippe and Vervaeke, John, “Panpsychism and the Meaning Crisis”, YouTube, July 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XccFYuTGskc
- Vervaeke, John, Vanderklay, Paul and Pageau, Jonathan. “Emergence and Narrative” at 25:20, YouTube, August 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5enaol6dGWU
- Chalmers, David J. “The combination problem for panpsychism.” Panpsychism: contemporary perspectives 179 (2017): 214.
- James, William. “Principles of Psychology” at 160, Vol. 1, Cambridge: Harvard University Press,  1981.
- Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “The Combination Problem for Panpsychism, the Bergsonian Solution, and the Price to Pay”, YouTube, July 2019, https://youtu.be/co_YPdQ1xy4. Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “La fermeture causale de la physique et le problème de l’évolution de la conscience: Bergson à l’aide du naturalisme.” Ithaque 21, 2017: 201-221. https://papyrus.bib.umontreal.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1866/19613/marceau-19613.pdf
- “Ep. 16 – Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – Christianity and Agape”, YouTube, May 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jbwm03djuJc
- Schindler, D.C. “The Catholicity of Reason”, at 45. Eerdmans, 2013
- Schindler, D.C. “The Catholicity of Reason”, at 213.
- Schindler, D.C. “The Word as the Center of Man’s Onto-Dramatic Task” at 77, Communio, 46.1 Spring 2019. https://www.communio-icr.com/articles/view/the-word-as-the-center-of-mans-onto-dramatic-task
- von Balthasar, H.U. “Love Alone Is Credible”. Translated by Schindler, D.C., at 126-127. Ignatius Press, 2004