In contemporary analytic philosophy of mind panpsychism is interpreted as the thesis that ‘all fundamental entities are conscious’: whatever the fundamentalia are, there is something which it is like to be them. This view has evolved as a response to the problem of the place of consciousness in nature, and to the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. The combination problem is the most significant and pressing problem for the panpsychist. Stated generally, the combination problem is the problem of how precisely the fundamental conscious minds come to compose, constitute, or give rise to some further, additional conscious mind (especially our own). The reason this problem is so pressing is that it threatens to undermine any theoretical advantage that panpsychism may have had over dualism or physicalism, i.e. the combination problem undermines panpsychism as a response to the ‘hard problem’ and the place of consciousness is nature. The combination problem has been presented in several ways and broken down into more specific problems and arguments over the years. It is usually taken to be the case that every aspect of mentality can ground some form of combination problem. A recent taxonomy suggests there is: the subject combination problem, grounded in the observation that experiences are had by subjects; the quality combination problem, grounded in the fact that experience involves a certain qualitatively; the structure combination problem, grounded in the observation that conscious experience has a complex structure. Some of these aspects of mentality generate more pernicious combination problems than others, and it is generally accepted to be the case that the ‘subject summing’ problem is the most pernicious problem facing contemporary panpsychists. Not all forms of the combination problem have the general form ‘how do the mental entities Xs constitute some mental entity Y’, asking how some mental entities add up. Many others ask ‘how could some mental entity Y be composed of some mental entities Xs’, the problem here being that many of the features of our mental lives seem to be unanalysable, simple, or non-decomposable. All forms of the combination problem require responses from the panpsychist, but not all responses will be combinatorial in nature. Non-combinatorial form of panpsychism (viz. ‘emergent’ or ‘identity’ forms of panpsychism) will not face combination problems.
Most key texts on panpsychism mention the combination problem, at least in passing. There are, however, fuller and more detailed treatments of it. The following are some of those treatments. William James’ ‘The Principles of Psychology’ James 1890 contains a highly-cited treatment of the combination problem. William Seager Seager 1995 cites James as the source of the problem, at the same time coining the name ‘the combination problem’ and bringing it back into mainstream discourse. James, however, also gives an extensive discussion in his ‘A Pluralistic Universe’ James 1977. In this later text James claims that the problem is insoluble, and he also focuses on what are often called ‘de-combination problems’ too – James’ focus was absolute idealism as well as mind-dust theory. Timothy Sprigge also gives an extensive treatment of the combination problem in his 1983 work ‘The Vindication of Absolute Idealism’ Sprigge 1983. Here Sprigge goes over James’ discussions in more detail and also introduces some solutions and new problems himself. Michael Lockwood’s paper ‘the Grain Problem’ Lockwood 1993 is another treatment of the combination problem, however Lockwood’s focus is on the structural and qualitative combination problems. Recent discussions of the combination problem include David Chalmers’ paper Chalmers 2016, along with Philip Goff’s chapters 7 and 8 in Goff 2017, and Luke Roelof’s Roelofs 2019.
Chalmers’ Chalmers 2016 paper focusing on the combination problem is a very good introduction and sets the scene for most of the contemporary debate. Along with outlining the problem, it also outlines some potential solutions for the panpsychist and assesses their viability. Michael Lockwood’s Lockwood 1993 is also a good introduction to the problem, along with chapters 7&8 in Philip Goff’s Goff 2017. Luke Roelofs Roelofs 2019 introduces many of the combination problems, along with assessing their basis in intuition and potential solutions to them. David Skrbina’s Skrbina 2005 history of panpsychism also contains many introductory passages on the combination problem, seen at different stages within history and in the hands of different philosophers.
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David Bourget (Western Ontario)
David Chalmers (ANU, NYU)
Rafael De Clercq
Ezio Di Nucci
Jack Alan Reynolds
Darrell P. Rowbottom
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