Mind, Quantum, and Free Will: Reviews

Below are

  • A link to brief reviews on my publisher’s website
  • A detailed review of my book
  • There are some brief reviews on my publisher’s website: HERE
  • The following review was published in The Oxford Philosophical Society’s Annual Review, 2022. Many thanks to the editor, Dr Barbera Prentiss, and the author, Dr Kanan Purkayastha, who retains copyright. The society is associated with the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, and is open to anyone with an interest in Philosophy. See oxfordphilsoc.org

Peter Ells: Mind, Quantum, and Free Will: The Birth of Physics in the Sensuous Cosmos (Iff Books, 2022)

The Mind-body problem and Pan-idealism

Kanan Purkayastha PhD

IT IS WELL RECOGNISED that the mind-body problem is not a scientific problem but philosophical one. Some philosophers argue that the mind-body problem is a metaphysical one, where metaphysics is the branch of philosophy which catalogues the fundamental entities that exist in the universe; and which describes their essential nature, together with their properties. Peter Ells, in this book argues that the mind-body problem is a metaphysical one. However he recognises that there may be ‘additional secondary things that exist, but if so, these extras are to be fully accounted for in terms of the basic entities’(Ells 2022: 3). He has provided a solution to the problem as ‘pan-idealism’ which is precisely linked to physics, and consistent with free will.

The book is divided into three parts as indicated by the title of the book. The first part, ‘Mind’, examines the mind-body problem. Ells states that ‘every physicalist approach to the mind-body problem has failed badly — at least up to the present day’(ibid:13). He suggests that there is an alternative non- physicalist framework, but in developing such an approach, one should retain respect for science’s ability to describe the universe correctly. He argues that a non-physicalist framework might remove the ‘intractable ‘Hardness’ of the mind-body problem, even if it doesn’t solve it completely’ (ibid:13).

In chapter one of part one, Ells examines the different aspects of philosophy relevant to the mind-body problem. In addition to the different aspects of physicalism, he introduces pan-idealism. According to Ells, Pan-idealism is a metaphysical system that combines panpsychism with idealism, to reinforce the strengths and eliminate the weakness of both; it inherits the advantage of realism from panpsychism. This realism is expressed with more clarity than in physicalism. In pan-idealism, the only form of causation is volition. Ells states that according to pan-idealism, there is no causation in objective physics; instead, all causation is volitional. Ells also evaluates four metaphysical systems, and according to his scoring scheme, panpsychism is invariably either greater than or equal to those of standard physicalism — but pan-idealism gets the highest score.

In the second part of the book, ‘Quantum’, Ells examines fundamental physics. Classical physics, quantum mechanics, the Copenhagen interpretation, and the entanglement and interpretation of quantum mechanics are described. He presents a very detailed account of the different aspects of Quantum mechanics. However, according to Ells, the key criterion for a suitable interpretation of quantum mechanics is that it must give an objective account of the physical world, with no mention of mind. However, the Copenhagen interpretation includes the concept of the ‘observer’. Still, Ells takes forward the Ghirardi, Rimini, and Weber (GRW) interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which the wave function for the universe is a real entity and undergoes spontaneous collapses according to specific physical laws. Ells’ chosen interpretation for part three (Free Will) of the book is GRW. His reason for such a choice is that (1) it gives an objective account of the universe, and that (2), according to GRW, the universe is stochastic in its character.

Here I can say that Quantum mechanics has a place for solving or at least interpreting the mind- body problem. Quantum mechanics has advances toward relational quantum mechanics (RQM). RQM treats the state of a quantum system as being observer-dependent. It is inspired by the idea behind special relativity that the details of an observation depend on the reference frame of the observer. As Carlo Rovelli — one of the proponents of RQM — puts it, ‘Quantum mechanics is a theory about the physical description of physical systems relative to other systems, and this is a complete description of the world’(Rovelli 2007: 216) The idea behind RQM is that different observers may give different accounts of the same system. For example, to one observer, a system is in a single collapsed ‘Eigen state’. To another observer, the system is in a superposition of two or more states. RQM argues that this is a complete picture of the world because the notion of ‘state’ is always relative to some observer.

The third part of the book, ‘Free Will’, tackles the solution of the mind-body problem, where Ells defends his position about pan-idealism. This part is divided into five chapters: (7) Physics and Concrete Reality, (8) Pan-idealism, (9) Free Will, (10) Our Pan-idealist Universe, and (11) Concluding Reflections. He starts this part by examining concrete reality, maintaining that ‘the concept of concrete reality has not been analysed with sufficient clarity until recently. This has led to difficulties, both for physicalists and for the study of the mind-body problem’(Op.sit.:269). In the ‘Physics and Concrete Reality’ chapter, the author includes many scientists and philosophers. He argues that concrete reality is a philosophical concept, and outside the scope of science. Jose Ortega Gasset, in his book The Revolt of the Masses also put forward a similar argument stating:

“All the matters about which science speaks, whatever the science be, are abstract, and abstract things are always clear. So that the clarity of science is not so much in the heads of scientists as in the matters of which they speak. What is really confused, intricate, is the concrete vital reality, always a unique thing.” (Gasset 1994:156)

Also in part three of the book, chapter eight, Ells examines ‘pan-idealism’ for the reader. He states that a brain is just a hierarchy of experiences. Therefore, zombies are impossible in pan-idealism. Pan-idealism, according to Ells, is a more radical metaphysical position than panpsychism. It holds that ‘everything that concretely exists is a mind, pure and simple. The cosmos is nothing other than an interacting collection of minds’(Ells 2022:288-289) The author suggests that this position is a ‘variant of idealism, but one that is fully realistic about the contents of the universe’. In this ‘interacting collection of minds’ I get a flavour of RQM.

Ells has presented in this book some advantages of pan-idealism. According to him, we know nothing about the physical except through our experiences. So, this resolves any explanatory gap. There is no problem of mental causation, because there is no physical causation at all. While discussing about free will and pan-idealism, the Ells argues that in any metaphysical system, the only true causation is at the fundamental level — in physicalism, randomness trumps free will. In this context, there is no libertarian free will in any form of physicalism. On the other hand, in pan- idealism, free will trumps randomness. This means there can be libertarian free will within pan- idealism. So, according to Ells, pan-idealism solves the free will and combination problem.

Ells’ intention in this book is to demonstrate that the mind-body problem is not a scientific question — instead; it is philosophical in character. However, the he believes that the solution to the problem must be a ‘rational one’. It has to be consistent with present-day science. In fact the solution given in the book, as the author claims, is precisely linked to physics. On this front, Ells argues that:

  • the catalogue of entities that exist, according to our current understanding of physics, and to pan-idealism, are identical;
  • our sole knowledge of the physical world comes to us through our experiences and our theories, which are both mentalistic in character;
  • pan-idealism gives a realist account of physical entities perceived in experience;
  • pan-idealism is consistent with free agency;
  • pan-idealism is closely tied to current, fundamental physics.

However, Ells remains silent about the recent advancement of neuroscience in areas of the conscious and the unconscious brain. I argue that it is not just physics that can address mind-body problem, other disciplines of science are also making progress in interpreting human consciousness.

Ultimately, this book is engagingly written, in an impressive breadth and depth. Readers will most certainly be enriched by it.


Gasset, J. O. Y (1994) The Revolt of the Masses, W. W. Norton & Company, New York

Rovelli, C (2007) Quantum Gravity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

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