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Panpsychism

Happy news: day-before-yesterday Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (IASFM for short) bought my novella “Postsingular.” And yesterday I sold a short-short story “Panpsychism Proved” to the science magazine Nature to run as one of their “Futures” features. So I’ve written and sold three stories in these last three months, the third being “Chu and the Nants,” last month, also for IASFM.

Panpsychism is the idea that every object has a mind of some sort. I’ve been reading a good book about it by David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West (MIT Press 2005). If you’re not careful, advocating panpsychism becomes simply a matter of watering down your notion of “mind” to apply to objects. But Skrbina wants to claim that it’s a real sensual mind that you’re talking about in that rock, that pen, that finger, that dust mote, that hair, that napkin torn in half (two minds now). A materialist might say there’s no content to such a claim, but I have now demonstrated the falsity of that line of attack in the definitive thought experiment described in “Panpsychism Proved”! How great to get SF into a high-brow science magazine.

I hint at one practical way to get panpsychism in my Lifebox tome, call it panpsychism-via-paracomputation. The idea is that, if a fluttering leaf is carrying out a universal computation, then it could be emulating a mind. But, again, we really are thinking of something funkier than that. Panpsychism isn’t so much about saying that a piece of matter can precisely emulate the human mind, as it is about saying that a piece of matter has that some numinous internal glow that a person does. It makes me feel high, in a good way, to think about panpsychism. Every time I hold forth on it to a class, the air gets yellow and jellied.

In my novel White Light, there’s a chapter called “Candy Hearts,” where the objects are talking to the main character, in a somewhat natural kind of way (they converse in two-word phrases like you’d see on a candy heart, like “Do Tell” or “Show Me,” like that). That chapter was, I think, inspired by a double-page drawing by R. Crumb in an early Zap Comix showing animated kitchen objects: Sneezy Pete Pepper Shaker and the like.

Once we have panpsychic paracomputation working, we also open the door to all sorts of oddball intelligences infesting the objects. Could be the toons from Frek and the Elixir, the orphidnet AIs from “Postsingular,” aliens in the form of cosmic rays as in Freeware, “angels” from the Mirrorworld, or elves from the subdimensions. The contents of your cupboards do a Thanksgiving Day parade around your kitchen, maybe the cleaver tries to attack you — and then what?

Tie up the giant yam and carry it away. Maybe I’ll work these ideas into a new story, and postpone the next novel a little more. Psychically, it’s a bit of work to keep writing stories. The big ramp-up for each one of them. The deflation of coming off the story. Like a series of one-nighters in place of a marriage. Of course if the stories are in a series, it’s not quite as hard. My guiding light remains Charles Stross’s Accelerando story cycle.

8 Responses to “Panpsychism”

  1. Mac Tonnies Says:

    I’m impressed by the fiction output. At this rate you’ll have another “Gnarl!” on your hands in a couple years.

  2. LEnz Says:

    IS taht a big yam root that the boys are carring on a truck in the next-to-last photo?

  3. Rudy Says:

    Don’t feel pressured to click the ads. I have enough money and don’t want to rattle a tin cup in your face. I’m just trying out adsense to see how it works, and will probably drop the ads after awhile. I’m somewhat curious to see if interesting ads start showing up.
    Yes, that’s a giant yam I saw in Pohnpei last year; these guys were bringing it for a man’s funeral. Search “yam” in my blog search window and you’ll find the entry.

  4. Steve H Says:

    Yeah, Stross deserves a big gold star on his report card. Enough ideas to choke an AI, all crammed into one convenient holder and tied to reasonably readable characters. Congrats on the sales!

  5. gamma Says:

    hey my poodle just had a haircut – & i wondered if his pelt could be used as a sound suppressor for the airforce?
    please help
    yur euro/ pal

  6. agatha Says:

    There have been some interesting papers by Stuart Hameroff proposing a variant on panpsychism. He speculates that consciousness is some sort of fundamental field in the universe, like gravity, that certain physical systems like brains “tune” into. His thoughts sort of play off of the work he did with Roger Penrose trying to find a physical basis for consciousness. Their ideas don’t exactly jive with universal computation though; Penrose has been claiming for a long time that consciousness requires some sort of non-computable physical process(computable as in strict turing computation, he accounts for the possibility of some sort of hypercomputation that can do things like solve the halting problem, etc.). Anyway, panpsychism is kind of a cool idea, everything alive and intelligent, vast hives of sentient beings swarming through a soda can, an armchair, etc. I look forward to reading your short story

  7. Ted Erikson Says:

    Just read somewhere that light is divergent, i.e. goes from a point in all directions while gravity is convergent, i.e., goes from everywhere to a point. So panpsychism is the accumulation of “mind” to “body” as caused by gravity? Hard to measure quantitatively because the all knowing “light” of pantheism escapes at the same time. Comment?
    BTW, I loved your bouncing tetrahedrons in a book whose name I can’t recall. But 4 points seem a more basic scheme of defining space, ala Bucky Fuller, than the 8 for a cube.

  8. Gamma Says:

    so Pan takes out his pipes & with one glint at the extremity of his Goatee hairend – Panders on it the Sofa so good & red velvet perhaps or some other tinsel stuff – so the ash falls off the cigar from CUBA & eventuallu from the cranberry stuffinf of the Pumpkin falsely accused of mutating into a central pont over the sea near Science Fiction land he espies the EYE ho silver lightening

    bless the SLACKness

    G


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