In academic circles it is commonly assumed that consciousness is generated by the brain. But some philosophers have been dissatisfied with this idea. Why is it that some particular arrangement of matter would cause Mind (a totally different type of thing) to emerge from that matter? To many that seems no more plausible than the idea that some particular arrangement of crystals in a rock might cause the rock to gush out blood.
One alternate idea is to assume that we have something like a soul, and that our mental experiences are produced not just by matter (the brain), but something that is itself spiritual. Another alternate idea is the radical notion known as panpsychism. Panpsychism is basically the idea that consciousness is in everything.
A panpsychist might believe that every piece of matter is in some sense conscious. At first this may seem to help in explaining how brains can produce consciousness. If every neuron is a little bit conscious, it might explain why billions of cells in the brain can produce consciousness.
But it does not seem that there is any evidence that little pieces of matter are conscious. Electrons seem to behave with complete predictability according to the laws of electromagnetism, not as if they were semi-conscious little things with wills of their own. And oxygen molecules do not act as if they had some interest in their surroundings. When you enter an empty room, you do not feel a gush of wind coming your way, as you might feel if the air molecules were interested in seeing who was entering the room.
Panpsychism seems rather inconsistent with theism. Consider the moon. The idea that the moon is conscious may have a certain appeal. But imagine all those rocks on the moon's surface, lying there for billions of years. Think of what torture it would be if such rocks were actually conscious – they would have to suffer billions of years of absolute boredom, just sitting there with nothing to observe or experience. It would be hard to think of a reason why any deity would wish to endow such rocks with consciousness, to suffer such billion-year boredom and stagnation. And what about all the rocks and little pieces of matter underneath the surface of the moon and other planets, who would have the dullest experiences imaginable for billions of years?
I'm not sure we would want to believe that all the little pieces of matter around us are conscious. Do you want to believe that every time you walk on the autumn leaves, that you are crushing conscious beings underneath your foot? And if you accepted panpsychism, it would seem that every time you bake some cookies, you would have to worry about slowly torturing the poor conscious little cookies.
An alternative to panpsychism, and something equally as radical, is the philosophical doctrine of idealism. Rather than maintaining that consciousness is in everything, an idealist maintains that everything is in consciousness.
An idealist maintains that the only thing that exists are different types of minds, and that material things only exist in the sense that they are elements within the mental experiences of minds. Perhaps the best way to explain this idea to the modern person is to consider what goes on in a video game. Suppose you are playing some Star Wars video game in which you are trying to blow up the Death Star. Now to what extent does this Death Star exist? It has no physical existence outside of the game world. The Death Star exists as a shared perception, something that is seen by all of the players of the video game under certain conditions. Similarly, an idealist may believe that Earth's moon has no physical existence outside of minds. According to such a person, our moon only exists as a shared perception within the mental experience of humans. An idealist thinks that if somehow all minds were to be destroyed, there would be no more moon.
So the idealist believes that the sole reality of physical things we perceive is their reality inside our minds. To such a person, the history of the universe is simply a history of mental experiences; and there was no state of the universe in which matter existed before minds.
There is no way to prove this philosophical doctrine, but there are no observations that we could ever have that would disprove this idea. Think about it. Every single observation or measurement we can make can be boiled down to a human experience. If you see a rock, that's a human experience. If you weigh the rock, that's also a human experience. If you measure the rock with a measuring rod, or determine its chemical content using a mass spectrometer, that's also a human experience. There is no way to verify that the rock exists outside of human experience.
Any credible theory of idealism requires a belief in some higher agent that acts to assure that there are certain consistencies in human experiences. But since idealism ends up removing quite a few dilemmas and difficulties in the “first matter, then mind” story of the universe, idealism ends up being at least as credible as any other philosophical worldview. A surprisingly compelling case for idealism was made in the 18th century by the British philosopher George Berkeley.
Today idealism is rather unfashionable, but in certain circles it is fashionable to speculate that we are just items in some computer simulation created by extraterrestrials. But the underlying concept is quite similar – that the things we perceive do not exist independently of our experiences, and that there is some external reality guaranteeing that we have certain common perceptions (such as the perception of the moon when we look up at night), rather than each of us having totally unique mental experiences.
But if you maintain that we are participants in some computer simulation crafted by extraterrestrials, you haven't removed any explanatory difficulties. The vexing problem is how is it that Mind can arise from matter, a totally different type of thing. With idealism such as advanced by Berkeley, that problem is removed, for you end up with the doctrine that there are only minds. But with some extraterrestrial simulation theory, the explanatory problem becomes twice as bad. For the theory maintains that biological matter gave rise to one type of minds (extraterrestrial minds), and that such minds then produced electronic matter that give rise to our minds. With that theory, you have two types of “Mind from matter” difficulties.
Both panpsychism and idealism are rather radical philosophical doctrines, and we are not forced to choose between the two. But if I had to choose between the belief that consciousness is in everything (panpsychism), and the belief that everything is in consciousness (idealism), I would choose the second of these. I don't care to believe that my cookies are suffering when I bake them.