Why Neopagan Marxists are Not Pantheists or Animists

How Far Back Does the Internality of Nature Go?


In human life it is clear that we are external nature – we have an affinity with other life forms like primates as real, objective beings. However, we also have an internal nature – a psychology – of mental states, goals, imagination and sexual urges that is internal to us. We know from cosmologists that the natural world goes all the way back to subatomic particles. But how far back does internal nature go?

Nine Ways of Understanding the Body-Mind Problem

Descartes’ mind-body dualism

In the history of philosophy, David Skrbina tells us there are usually six possible modes of interaction between bodies and minds. For purposes of this article, I’ve added three more. Perhaps the most famous is Descartes’ answer depicted as mind-body dualism. Here the mind and the body (or nature) are thought of as two different substances (thought and extension) that interact through the pineal gland. Each substance is subject to its own laws.

Epiphenomenalism and eliminative materialism

Epiphenomenalists such as Santayana or the behaviorists are primarily focused on body or nature. Bodies affect mind, but minds do not affect bodies. Mind is the result of the interaction between the brain and the body. By not being a physical entity the mind has no causal power. It is like a shadow on a wall. Eliminative materialism (or mechanical materialism) takes the body-nature emphasis to an extreme. People like Patricia and Paul Churchland, along with W.V.O Quine, argue that there are only bodies. Mind is an illusion. This philosophy is also called physicalism.

Idealism and neutral monism

Idealists like Plato say that the world is primarily spiritual and matter is a derivative and less real. Spiritual, eternal forms are the archetypes of the world while matter is understood as an inferior copy. The idealist theory of mind holds that mind is really a soul that is distinct from the body and has nothing to do with the brain. The next theory of the mind-body problem is neutral monism. The two extremes of eliminative materialism and idealism are challenged by a third contender. In the hands of first, Spinoza and then Ernest Mach, nature (or the body) and mind are two sides of the same coin. They are the creatures of a third substance which is beyond nature and mind which Spinoza called substance,

Hylozoic monism and pre-established harmony

While physicalists claim that everything is made of matter, hypozoic monists claim that all of what exists is life. They might strive to discover the properties of life that may be found in parts of the world that are considered inanimate. Ernest Haeckel, Fredrick Paulsen and David Bohm were all representatives. But to say all nature is life that does not mean that all of life has mind or psyche. Many forms of life exist without nervous systems that are self-maintaining and self-creative without having any psyche at all. Neither are any of these forms conscious. Much of the natural order is self-regulating without any conscious regulation. Even with human beings, much of our thinking is unconscious and part of the ancestorial brain with no reflection at all.

Leibniz had what was to me the strangest system of mind-body interaction which he called preestablished harmony. The universe consisted of an infinite number of monads (the lowest unit of possible organization). A monad is windowless and is like a living atom. All monads are active and conscious, but they vary in clarity and distinctiveness. Each monad had a final cause or purpose. Leibniz believed that monads do not influence each other. There is a correspondence between each monad’s perceptual state and the conditions of the external world (nature or the body). However, those perceptions can only mirror external events. Neither can cause the other.

Pantheism and emergent evolution

As opposed to materialism, idealism or neutral monism in its starting points all agree that the psyche or the mind is a late development in evolution. Even idealists will say that the soul is given to humanity by God late in His creation. Pantheism opposes all this and states that the mind, soul or spirit goes all the way back in nature – including molecules and subatomic particles. Animists seem to be a kind of pluralist pantheist. They have a more specific claim about the internal structure of matter. Animists claim that not only that every piece of matter has a soul or psyche but that these souls have intentions including rocks, rivers and wind. Animists and pantheists claim that the mind is embedded in nature, right from the beginning.

In emergent evolution, nature undergoes a series of quantitative and qualitative changes. As a result of qualitative change, new levels emerge and mind is added at a certain level of complexity. In emergent evolution the effects of something can be more than the cause as genuine novelty appears. Past a level of complexity, the shear creativity of matter produces new things. While initially the body in the form of the brain impacts the mind, the mind can reciprocally react back on nature or the body. Higher stages, while more complex than lower levels, are still dependent on it.

Neopagan Marxism

Marxian materialists believe the world is composed primarily of matter and that mind is a late development in evolution. The materialist theory of mind has at least two basic assumptions:

  • The mind is limited to humans and perhaps higher animals.
  • The mind is somehow dependent on the physical substrate of the human brain.

Materialists usually draw the line where mind emerges with the arrival of a central nervous system. As dialectical materialists we understand the mind as an emergent property of matter. As with emergent evolutionists there can be more in the effect than there is in the cause. However, emergent evolutionists say that cosmic evolution can be divided into matter, life and mind. For us the levels are matter, life and society. Societies are what provide for the material conditions (along with the brain) for mind to emerge. For us the brain and the mind are distinct. You need a brain to have a mind but mind is a product of a new layer of nature, society. Without societies there are no minds.

What is My Claim?

We agree with pantheists and animists that nature has an internality far back in cosmic evolution. However, my claim is that pantheists’ claim about internality being composed of minds, spirits and consciousness is coming at internality at too high a level of complexity. Internality is present in more primitive forms such as experience, memory, irritability, circular feedback, metabolism, attraction-aversion and tension between community and individual and in holons. These existed long before consciousness, mental life or psyches emerged in evolution.

Why should you care? As materialists we are in no great rush to tack on consciousness, mentality and psyche into nature to make it respectable. Matter already has a respectability in the form of self-creation and self-maintenance long before mind consciousness or psyche existed.  We sympathize with pantheist views because they see nature as self-regulating and in no need of any extra-cosmic buttinskies. However, we reject their claim that mind goes all the way back or down to subatomic particles. As for animism, Marxist Neopagans feel sympathy that the animists claim every object has soul and intention, because it makes nature creative with purpose rather than being the passive creatures of an all-powerful God. However, we question the existence of souls or that rocks and rivers have intentions.

What is Pantheism?

What is the difference between saying “God is in everything” and “everything is God?” Since most every Christians will imagine God as bodiless, unworldly and spiritual, to say “God is in everything” seems to mean that even disguising body products such as phlegm or feces is somehow spiritual. But if you say everything is God, you are starting with nature as it is immediately, without any prettying up, including phlegm, feces, and decay just as they are materially and elevating it to the spiritual. This kind of God is simply the king of matter and not very noble at all. In pantheism God is identical with all that exists and no more. 

So pantheism is simply an ontological claim about the relationship between nature and God. Now there are two ways of dividing the pantheistic universe. One is to say pantheism is swallowed as a single whole, a kind of king of matter. The other is a kind of riot of pluralistic panpsychism where there are infinite individual centers of psyche-matter. This seems indistinguishable from animism. As David Skrbina writes in his book Panpsychism in the West all things, however defined, possess some mind-like, noetic quality. It says nothing specific about what the nature of what mind is. Neither does it insist on the specific proportionate relationship between matter and mind. It rejects drawing the line where mind begins. It argues for a theory of continuity non-emergence. There can be nothing in the effect that is not in the cause. This makes it both the opposite of both emergence and physicalism.

To many scientists of the early 20th century, panpsychism was uncomfortably close to the recently discredited theory of vitalism. Virtually all contemporary naturalistic theories of mind are forms of emergentism. They argue that mind is a rare and unique phenomenon that arises under only highly specialized circumstances.

David Skrbina argues there are at least four reasons for studying the relevance of Panpsychism today:

  • It offers resolutions to the mind-body problem that dualism and physicalism find intractable.
  • It has important ethical consequences, specifically a compassion for nature that comes with ecological values.
  • It brings into sharp relief both Descartes mind-body dualism and the physicalism of Hobbes.
  • Panpsychism is the most under-analyzed philosophical position in Western philosophy. The last systematic study was performed hundred years ago.

Do We Need to Say Internal Life is Mind, Mentality, Spirituality and Conscious?

When we speak as pantheists what is inside of matter is claimed to be

  • Mind
  • Mental
  • Spiritual
  • Conscious
  • Soul-like

As I stated in my claim, I think this is coming at internality at too high a level of complexity. This is called the pathetic fallacy. When hard scientists argued that all biological or social phenomenon were “nothing but” chemical or physical processes they were called reductionists. Conversely, when philosophers or sociologists claim that physical phenomenon are really about consciousness or mental phenomenon they commit the pathetic fallacy.

As dialectical materialists we say mind is a property of matter at a very high level of evolution. In fact, the mind is the property of the brain after the brain has been humanized. To claim that all of matter has mind ignores a long history of matter without mind. The same thing is true for consciousness. The word consciousness comes from the Greeks meaning “together knowledge”. Consciousness, at least self-reflective consciousness, is the product of human societies. Other animals may be aware, but since they don’t pool their knowledge, they are not self-conscious. Other animals have mental life where thoughts, feelings and intentions, much of mental life, is not conscious. Lastly, to say that matter is spiritual implies taking an otherworldly dimension into the bargain and one with laws that usually go beyond nature. If it didn’t, we would have no need to call anything spiritual.

Why Does Inanimate Nature Seem to Lack Internality

Skrbina says there are at least four reasons why inanimate objects appear devoid of mind: a) inactivity and inertness; b) lack of freedom and initiative; c) no clear distinction between parts and wholes; and d) lack of purpose. Process philosopher Hartshorne says mechanism and materialism assume that inanimate matter is; a) dead; b) blind; c) uncreative; and d) insentient.

Forms of Internality Without Mind, Consciousness, Mental Life or Soul

Panexperientialism What is experience? As a result of the impact of external nature we are changed so that some adjustment has been made internally. This does not require consciousness, mental life or the existence of souls or spirits. For example, when I go out running in the morning the result is that physiologically I feel more lively and relaxed. It requires no consciousness or mental life to have that experience. Panexperientialism means all matter experiences. This term was coined by David Ray Griffin, deriving from Whitehead and Hartshorne.


Humans record experiences through morphological changes in the brain.

Ancient documents such as fossils, rocks and even planetary fragments can be dated with reasonable precision because of the permanent, cumulative record of all things acquired. William James says the whole sea and the whole tree are registers of what has happened to them. Bergson elaborated the philosophy of memory as the decisive factor in a graded transition from matter to mind. Bergson wrote in his first book, Matter and Memory in 1896, of a continuum from matter to life. As Skrbina points out, duration implies time, and in the realm of life this implies memory. Memory grows with the complexity of the organism. Humans have the most memory and memory dwindles as nature becomes more primitive. The most primitive matter has perception without memory. There are both novelty and stability in all aspects of nature. Stability is an aspect of memory.


Even in the most primitive forms matter does not passively react in a completely predictable and mechanical way. They become irritable, twisting and turning in unpredictable ways to get away from the initial irritant. This needn’t involve any consciousness, mental life or purpose.

Circular feedback (Bateson)

Gregory Bateson was very aware of the importance of concepts of energy, feedback and information anticipating later development in chaos theory and nonlinear dynamics. Quoting Skrbina, Bateson was adamant that it was the circular feedback system itself that was important as an elementary cybernetic system and its messages. Cybernetic feedback systems pervade nature at all levels of organization from molecular to galactic, anywhere that parts intersect and persist. The exception for him are the fundamental atomic particles because they are without parts and lack the dynamic feedback interrelationships. More complicated systems are more worthy of being called mental systems. Interacting with parts is only a necessary condition of mind, not a sufficient condition. Chalmers agrees with Bateson and concludes that it is reasonable to assign experience an even consciousness to a simple feedback system like a thermostat.


Another characteristic of internal life without bringing up souls, minds or consciousness into the picture is the self-motion of organisms in their ability to learn; their ability to maintain themselves by feedback; repair themselves; elimination of waste; and self-replenishment through the search for resources.

Attraction-aversion (love and strife)

As far back as Empedocles there was a tension between attraction and aversion, or more poetically between love and strife. Hartshorne assessed that pure sympathy would destroy individuality by merging all into one. On the other hand, pure antipathy would not allow for any structure or knowledge at all. All of nature is driven by attraction and aversion. Chardin writes that the universe is driven by forces moving away from the center to the periphery (centrifugal forces stretching out) and centripetal forces moving from the periphery to the center.

Individual vs community

Beginning at the more complex end of mammalian levels of evolution, there is tension between individuals and communities as laid out in primate social life between individual and group selection. Of course this carries through the entirety of social evolution.


As Koestler points out in his books The Ghost in the Machine and Janus, virtually every part of nature is both self-assertive in expressing relative autonomy and at the same time must participate in a larger system in which it is a part. Koestler claims this tension goes all the way back in nature. He calls this whole/parts holons.

The Place of Process Philosophers in Panpsychism

For one thing, process philosophy understands time as an ontological category.  It understands space, not as a container of matter but in a dialectical relationship with time on one hand, and matter on the other. As many of you know, the new physics has challenged mechanical descriptions of physical reality when we reach the subatomic level. Because human consciousness is involved in determining whether subatomic matter is a wave or a participle, this new physics created some fissures for process philosophy and panpsychism to nestle into them. The standard view of process philosophy after Whitehead is that atoms, molecules and cells are included among the sentient.

Leibniz, along with Whitehead, Hartshorne and Griffin deny consciousness to inanimate material objects but grant it cells and molecules. Hartshorne openly advocated for panpsychism and was the first western philosopher to extensively employ the term panpsychism. Hartshorne made some interesting distinctions between matter as an aggregate and matter as individuals.

Matter as Individuals vs Matter as an Aggregate

Contrary to popular understanding of animism, in process philosophy tables, rocks and houses do not have consciousness. This is because they are mechanical, predictable and display no unified action. They do not have experience and they have no minds. They are a collection of inorganic objects. On the contrary, from single-celled organisms up to humanity, they have a consciousness because they are individuals with an organic unity, even the atoms from quantum theory. Individuals have spontaneity and are unpredictable. They display unified action or purpose. Individuals have experience. They are like Koestler’s holons. They are a both a part of a larger system and a whole to a smaller system. All aggregates, even though composed of sentient atoms, molecules and cells are not in themselves sentient.

Hartshorne criticizes science for treating objects in nature only as aggregates, not as individuals. The problem that Hartshorne had to explain was why such things as rocks and tables, though composed individual monads, lost their individuality and became aggregates. Skrbina points out that Whitehead names four types of aggregates:

  • non-living which is dominated by the average
  • vegetable grade – coordinated individuality and the average
  • animal grade aggregates which contain both individual organisms and aggregates such as herds
  • human grade aggregates such as crowds of individuals

A living aggregate is clearly different from a non-living aggregate but there is no explanation as to how they are different. Skrbina claims that moving into the 21st  century there are five varieties of panpsychism:

  1. quantum mechanics – imitated by Haldane in the 1930s and elaborated by Bohm
  2. information theory, Bateson and Chalmers
  3. process philosophy – Whitehead, Hartshorne, Griffin
  4. part-whole hierarchy – Cardano, Koestler, Wilber
  5. nonlinear dynamics – Peirce and Skrbina

The Greeks Had the Right Idea: There is no Independent Psyche in Ancient Greece

In his book True to the Earth, Kadmus writes that in archaic Greece the psyche was not the ultimate organizing principle of the body. The psyche and the body are engaged in a complex partnership rather than a division between chaotic matter on the one hand (the body) and order on the other (psyche). To separate the psyche from the body is to treat the body as an object, which the psyche puts in motion. Kadmus writes that psyche should best be understood as a body within a body. He says what is really going on in nature is the transformation of bodies, rather than the transmigration of souls. This is the transformation from one process to another, whether it be into grains of wheat or waves on the sea.

All bodies live but saying they live does not mean all bodies and minds are self-reflexive consciousnessunless we are talking about the most complex forms of evolution on this planet. To focus on the mind and self-consciousness as the foundation of life or natural existence is to engage in a specific kind of anthropomorphic projection backward in time when neither mind nor self-consciousness existed. Most living bodies do not have a psyche.

A focusing psyche in the body does not necessarily mean being conscious

Being aware is something we and our bodies act and do, rather than  something that we have or are. The process of paying attention only gets turned into an abstract entity or a property with the development of writing which pushes us to turn to turn verbs and action words into timeless nouns. After all, we act, speak and think only in moments of breakdown. Then we reflect in such a way as to become conscious of these things when there is a problem. To capture the high pagan view of the cosmos, we must resist the urge to turn the action of focusing on something into having awareness. Any time contemporary animism or panpsychism tries to bring in consciousness as the governing force of nature we have fallen into Anthropomorphism and commit the pathetic fallacy.


The article begins by describing nine ways of understanding the body-mind problem including philosophical dualism; epiphenomenalism; physicalism (eliminative materialism); idealism; the preestablished harmony; neutral monism; hylozoic monism; pantheism of Whitehead, Hartshorne and Griffin; and the emergent evolution. Lastly, I briefly include the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels because this is the philosophy of Neopagan Marxism. After brief descriptions of each I spend more time discussing pantheism, since this is a common philosophy of Neopagans.

The purpose of this article is to say that as Neopagan Marxists with an orientation towards process philosophy, we don’t need to attribute mind, consciousness, souls, or mental life into the cosmos from the beginning in order to make an immanent nature self-maintaining and self-creative. We say that internality in nature is present all the way back in nature in pan experience: in memory; irritability; circular feedback; metabolism; attraction-aversion; tension between community and individual; and in holons. Minds, souls and spirits, whether pagans believe in them or not, are emergent properties of human beings at a very high level of evolutionary complexity.

About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

View all posts by Bruce Lerro →

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