Panpsychism and Play

There is much to admire in David Graeber’s recent and much-commented upon article about the importance of play. Graeber playfully proposes a “principle of ludic freedom”: this states that play is a central principle for all living things, and even perhaps for all entities in the universe. Graeber admits that this is (ungrounded for now) speculation, but he draws a line from quantum indeterminacy — the way that an electron or a photon may “choose” its behavior, which is why this behavior cannot be deterministically predicted, but only expressed in terms of probabilities — all the way up to playful behavior in both nonhuman animals and human beings. Graeber is right, I think, to suggest that, at least for biological organisms, the urge to play — or to deploy “the free exercise of an entity’s most complex powers or capacities” — is precisely what makes these organisms’ behavior irreducible to the calculus of rational utility maximization that neo-darwinian theorists have borrowed from “rational choice” economics and applied to the evolutionary “survival of the fittest.” (Graeber doesn’t mention Bataille, but his argument is coherent with Bataille’s arguments about non-utilitarian general economy; one reason for this parallelism may be Graeber’s and Bataille’s common interest in the work of Marcel Mauss on gift economies).

In any case, for me the most thought-provoking aspect of Graeber’s essay is that he links this principle of play to panpsychism (the thesis that all entities in the cosmos are in some sense sentient). Graeber cites Galen Strawson‘s argument for panpsychism as an alternative to strong emergentism as a non-reductionist explanation for sentience, consciousness, or experientiality.This is an argument that I find persuasive as well. Emergence has become too much of a catchall explanation for something (like mentality) that cannot be explained any other way. Strawson concludes that, if we are therefore to reject the emergentist explanation of sentience, but we also reject either eliminativism a la Daniel Dennett and Cartesian dualism, then the only alternative is to conclude that sentience already exists as a quality or power of all matter. Graeber draws on this in order to extend his “principle of ludic freedom” beyond (or before) the biological. (Strawson himself rejects casting this in terms of “free will”; but one might think here instead, or as well, of Conway & Kochen’s “free will theorem” in quantum mechanics).

Graeber’s connection between play and panpsychism really helps me with something that I have been trying to formulate. One way to understand panpsychism is to say that sentience = information processing. This is why philosophers like David Chalmers have been willing to entertain the idea that something like a thermostat is minimally conscious; the identification of consciousness with information processing is also implicit in formulations like Giulio Tononi‘s phi principle. However, this approach has bothered me, because it seems too exclusively cognitivist; I think that “cognition” and “information” have become way overrated in recent discourse, and that sentience needs to be seen first of all as affective (or as involving “feeling” in Whitehead’s sense) before it is seen as cognitive or informational. Affect or feeling both precedes and exceeds cognition or information, in the same way that play, in Graeber’s formulation, precedes and exceeds utility maximalization. What clicks for me especially in Graeber’s formulation is the way that “the free exercise of an entity’s most complex powers or capacities” necessarily involves energetics as well as informatics. Sentience as a power or capacity must thus also be understood in energetic terms rather than only informatic ones (and this is for me precisely where the panpsychist leanings of Chalmers and Tononi need to be supplemented). 

I still haven’t worked out in any coherent way how to put all this together. Energetics, as well as informatics, needs to be part of any panpsychist explanation of sentience. Also, an energetic (instead of informatic) understanding of physical processes (including but not limited to biological processes) needs to take in account Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan’s insights into self-organizing systems (and most complexly, living systems) as ways of reducing energy gradients in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics (a living system is internally negentropic, because this allows it to reduce energy gradients, or increase entropy, in the surrounding environment more thoroughly or consistently than would otherwise be the case. This is where we should be able to find the connection between energy expenditure and sentience. 

I will add, just to make things even more confusing, that all this is not necessarily opposed to eliminativist approaches to consciousness (which I am currently also thinking about through Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory and his novel Neuropath, and through Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight). The eliminativist approaches have the virtue of decentering the disucssion of sentience from that of consciousness: as Whitehead insists from an entirely different line of reasoning, consciousness is only a very narrow and specialized part of mental activity (of of what I call sentience). Panpsychism insists that all entities have some sort of experiential or sentient component, and that all entites in some sense make “decisions.” But Whitehead is right to say that experience and decision far exceed consciousness; which is why the eliminativist accounts of consciousness have the virtue of drawing attention to the other, more basic and substantial, aspects of mental activity. This is despite the fact that I reject the eliminativists’ assumption that mental activity must  be understood in functionalist terms. Rather, I think that Graeber’s play, or Whitehead’s “feeling”, is not primordially functional: although it leads to or grounds functional activity, in itself it is non-functional or even dysfunctional. 

Sorry for the disorganized state of what I am saying: I am just trying to list the pieces of an argument I have not yet succeeded in pulling together, or the requirements for an as yet incomplete theory of universal sentience.

Liking Vs Wanting

The philosopher Jesse Prinz, in his book Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion, notes — following research by Kent C. Berridge — that “liking and wanting are actually dissociable and… reside in different neural systems.” At least in the case of rats, “the liking system involves the shell of the nucleus accumbens, the ventral pallidum, and the brainstem region. Wanting involves the dopamine projection system from midbrain to nucleus accumbens.” As a result of this dissociation:

if one creates a lesion in the wanting system of a rat, the rat will not eat. It will starve to death. But if you force the same rat to eat agreeable food (e.g., something sweet) it will display behavior that suggests it enjoys the experience. It likes food, but it doesn’t want food. Conversely, one can stimulate the wanting system to achieve wanting without liking. A rat in this condition will eat everything you give it, including food that it dislikes. It will gorge itself on foods that cause it to display aversive reactions at every bite. Berridge compares this to addiction. Addicts often pursue their drug of choice even after that drug no longer induces pleasure.

Now, leaving aside the sadism of such experiments, and my own lack of knowledge about how much of this can be transferred physiologically from rats to human beings, the comparison of wanting without liking to addiction (or at least, to one sort of addiction) makes a great deal of sense. But what, then, about the reverse? Is there a human analogue for liking without wanting?

I’d suggest that, if wanting without liking is an addictive state, then liking without wanting is an aesthetic one. “Liking without wanting” is more or less what Kant means when he says that aesthetic pleasure is “disinterested.” I am pleased by a certain combination of colors or sounds, by a certain narrative, etc., without being concerned one way or another as to whether whatever is being represented by such colors or sounds or narrative lines exists in actuality. (In many cases, I might well positively not want the thing from whose representation I take pleasure to actually exist — this would be the case with horror novels and films, or with stories about charismatic characters who would certainly harm or kill me were I to meet them in real life). And this may well happen — for me it often happens — in “real life” as well as in the contemplation of works of art (e.g., I might find some person’s sexuality likeable or pleasurable, despite my not having any wish to actually have sex with that person).

The horror of a rat starving to death amidst food it likes, because it doesn’t want to eat is, I think, a good emblem of the aesthetic — or at least of one aspect of the aesthetic. And it explains, perhaps why so many people on the Left have a basically anti-aesthetic stance (“the aestheticizing of politics [i]s practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art”).

However, I think that we should affirm aesthetics as liking without wanting, if only because this is a good antidote to the bombastic exaggerations of theories of desire. I refer here equally to Lacanian theories of desire as lack, and Deleuzian/Guattarian theories of desire as production. Both sorts of theories of desire take wanting, even when divorced from liking, very seriously — desire is either the labor of the negative or the actual process of production. Both sorts of theories of desire tend to marginalize, or leave little room fo,r nonproductive play — which is to say, they leave very little room for the wayward pleasures of aesthetics, even if they exalt certain great works of art.

We might think here even of someone like Roland Barthes, who exalts works of “bliss” or jouissance while denigrating works of pleasure. Barthes is especially interesting here because he is definitely an aesthete, but an avant-garde modernist one, who only loves art when it is difficult and repellent. Barthes associates the art of which he approves with desire (wanting, even when it is without liking) rather than with the aesthetic state of liking without wanting.

In conclusion, I will note that all three of the attitudes I have been describing have their roots in Kant. Desire as lack or negativity comes of course from Hegel, who erects his system by abusively revising the Transcendental Dialectic in Kant’s First Critique. Deleuze & Guattari’s theory of desire producing the real comes directly (as they themselves note) from the Second Critique. Both of these positions emphasize wanting; they may both be contrasted with the liking without wanting that, as I have already noted, is theorized in the Third Critique.