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Powers and the Pantheistic Problem of Unity

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If the universe and God are identical, as pantheism holds, how can we reconcile the supposed unity of God with the apparent dis-unity of the universe’s elements? I argue that a powers ontology, which generates a form of pantheism under plausible assumptions, is apt to solve the problem of unity. There is reason to think that the directedness of powers is equivalent to the directedness, or intentionality, of mental states. This implies that intentionality is a feature of the physical world at large, not just the mind. As Pfeifer (2016) argues, this physical intentionality represents a mild form of panpsychism that is interpretable as a brand of pantheism. I argue that the theory of powers holism (Mumford 2004; Williams 2010) explains the unity of the universe’s elements and thus the unity of a pantheistic God, and that powers holism is strengthened by fully recognizing the role of physical intentionality.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Although these thinkers agree with the physical intentionality thesis, they disagree about its implications for understanding the relation between mind and world. Others of course disagree with the physical intentionality thesis altogether (Bird 2007; Mumford 1999; Mumford and Anjum 2011). Oderberg (2016) presents a balanced, nuanced assessment of the physical intentionality thesis, arguing that physical intentionality is not identical to, yet retains important similarities with, mental intentionality.

  2. 2.

    Two possibilities should be noted. First, a mixed view of properties is possible, wherein one holds that some properties are categorical while others are powerful. Second, Taylor (2017) argues, contrary to the assumption of authors cited above, that there is no genuine metaphysical difference between the powerful qualities view and the powers view (according to which powers are ‘pure,’ with no qualitative nature whatsoever): each simply posits that properties are through and through powerful.

  3. 3.

    For further discussion, see Psillos (2006) and Bauer (2012).

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    For example, the Copenhagen interpretation necessarily relates mind to physics, holding that observation triggers the collapse of the wave function into a definite state. Brüntrup and Jaskolla (2016: 2) summarize various attempts to incorporate elements of mind into our understanding of physics and fundamental reality, citing Bohm (1990), Bohm and Hiley (1993), Epperson (2012), Hameroff and Penrose (1996), Penrose (1996), and Stapp (2007).

  5. 5.

    Skrbina (2005: 88) refers to Spinoza’s view, developed in Ethics, as ‘classical pantheism’ (Nature = God).

  6. 6.

    Baker (2009) worries about the coherence of the divine ‘reality’ that supposedly goes beyond the scientific picture, on Johnston’s view.

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    Meixner (2016) provides a list of four types of panpsychism, explicitly including idealism: dualistic atomistic panpsychism; dualistic holistic panpsychism; idealistic atomistic panpsychism; idealistic holistic panpsychism. Provided a less sophisticated kind of mind in nature, we could reasonably envision these as four types of panprotopsychism. Meixner’s list excludes purely physicalist options: ‘physical atomistic’ and ‘physical holistic’ panpsychism. I think Pfeifer’s view is intended as a kind of physical atomistic view, on which physical properties have intentionality naturally built into them.

  8. 8.

    Pfeifer (2016: 44) contends that ‘G must be of such a nature as to underlie and underwrite the diversity or lack of solid sameness manifest throughout our universe.’ On this view, objects, persons, and properties are distortions of fields (or G). This could be interpreted as a form of supersubstantivalism, according to which spacetime is the one and only substance, with objects and their properties reduced to points or events within this substance. For example, Sider (2011: 296) holds that material objects are identical to ‘sets of occupied points’ and Heil (2012: 146-147) holds that material objects amount to ‘thickenings’ of space.

  9. 9.

    The presence of intentionality in information transmission is found in the lawful dependencies or regularities on which information transmission depends (Dretske (1981: 76). Law-like regularities are the source because they ensure one state X is about another state Y, that there is appropriate correspondence and thus ‘about-ness’ as required for intentionality. Given the powers ontology we are working with here, these regularities must be grounded in or realized by powers (Pfeifer 2016: 49).

  10. 10.

    I want to carefully note (thanks to a reviewer) that Dretske does not reference ‘powers’ or ‘dispositions’ in the context of grounding intentionality in nomic dependencies. Indeed, Dretske accepts a universals-based account of laws of nature (Dretske 1977) similar to Tooley (1977) and Armstrong (1978, 1983). Although the argumentation here extends Dretske’s framework beyond its intended boundaries, I (along with Pfeifer) think that talk of interconnections between dispositionality, information, and intentionality is logically consistent (for instance, consider that just as information is causal, so are dispositions).

  11. 11.

    It should be observed that any theory which holds that mind or consciousness is composed of smaller mental states or entities, not just panpsychism, faces the combination problem. For example, suppose one hypothesizes that individual neurons have a degree of consciousness: how do individual neurons work to produce complex, thinking brains or minds?

  12. 12.

    The essentialist thesis is universally agreed upon by powers theorists. Reciprocity, the claim that powers must work together to manifest (e.g., salt’s power to dissolve in water needs the dissolving power of water), is widely accepted (Heil 2003; Martin 2008; Mumford and Anjum 2011). Intrinsicality, the claim that powers are not relations faces challenges from arguments that some powers are extrinsic (McKitrick 2003; Bauer 2011). However, even if some fundamental powers are extrinsically grounded (Bauer 2011), the problem of fit is still generated because their being extrinsically grounded does not necessarily mean that their identity and individuation conditions depend on extrinsic factors. Even if it does mean that, then although the problem of fit could be avoided for some subsets of powers, for other subsets (including only intrinsic powers) the problem would be unavoidable.

  13. 13.

    The problem of unity, as well as the combination problem and the problem of fit, do not arise in a single-entity universe where there is only one simple thing: a lone ‘atom’ with no proper parts, a lone property, etc.

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    Substantial unity and organismal unity have some attractive features, but they are less parsimonious than psychological and nomological unity, for they add unnecessary conceptual layers: either the claim that the universe is a substance, or that it is an organism.

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    Powers, as modal properties relevant to what would happen under various conditions, have a metaphysical connection to laws of nature and thus to nomological necessity. But powers theorists disagree on details. Bird (2007) thinks powers entail laws of nature (the laws supervene on powers). Mumford (2004) denies the existence of laws, arguing that powers do all the work (of course he allows statements of law characterizing the behavior of powers, given that powers play a law-like role in scientific theorizing).

  16. 16.

    A reviewer asked if this claim is consistent with essentialism (as discussed in the previous section). I think part of Mumford’s point is that if one power were changed, the result would be a different system of powers. So it is not metaphysically possible (though it may be logically possible) for just one power to change without changes in the whole system. (However, it may not be that every other property that makes up the entire system must change if one is changed; there could be powers on the periphery of the system, distant from the one power that hypothetically changes, which remain unaffected.) This observation, as I suggest above, shows the sensitivity and connection between powers, i.e., their systematicity and unity.

  17. 17.

    If one rejects holism, Mumford (2004: 183) claims that one then accepts a theory of discrete properties (discreta) with quiddities. Perhaps, but I will not evaluate that claim here.

  18. 18.

    See Heil (2003, 2012) and Martin (2008) for discussion of the mutual manifestation model of powers.

  19. 19.

    At least, if powers’ natures were determined individually, it would be metaphysically more complicated in contrast to the more organic simplicity of the powers holism solution. This is because it would take some kind of external metaphysical force or instruction (at the minimum, a governing law) to regulate the potential interactions of powers in the ‘system.’ The systematicity would come from outside the system.

  20. 20.

    M will occur, that is, provided that no conditions prevent F from manifesting as discussed, for instance, by Bird (2007: 36–38).

  21. 21.

    The unifying power of directed unity might bear some similarity to the phenomenal bonding relation advanced by Goff (2016) to solve the combination problem. Directed unity creates a kind of intentional bonding relation.

  22. 22.

    Other views of properties to consider, vis-à-vis pantheism and the problem of unity include the identity thesis (properties are simultaneously powers and qualities, i.e., properties are powerful qualities) and a mixed view (some properties are powers, some are qualities). The identity thesis (Heil 2003, 2012) is compatible with everything argued for in this paper, because on this view properties, although qualitative, are powerful, directed, etc. On the mixed view, the viability of the solution presented in this paper would depend on which properties are essential to nature’s processes: if the properties that are essential to nature’s processes (and thus God’s processes, given pantheism) are indeed powers, then powers holism and directed unity could be obtained.


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This project was completed with the support of a Summer Stipend from the Pantheism and Panentheism Project, led by Andrei Buckareff and Yujin Nagasawa and funded by the John Templeton Foundation. I thank the project’s organizers for the prompt that got me going on this topic.

Additionally, I thank an anonymous reviewer for several constructive comments.

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Correspondence to William A. Bauer.

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Bauer, W.A. Powers and the Pantheistic Problem of Unity. SOPHIA 58, 563–580 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11841-018-0654-9

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  • Dispositions
  • Holism
  • Intentionality
  • Panpsychism
  • Pantheism
  • Powers
  • Unity