Why Philip Pullman Is Obsessed with Panpsychism

The biggest mystery in Philip Pullman’s books is an enigmatic substance called Dust, which comes right out of current debates among scientists about the theory of panpsychism

Nautilus sat down with Pullman at his home just outside Oxford, England, to talk about the ideas behind his novels and why this celebrated atheist is so intent on seeing consciousness in everything around him.

Why did you come back to Lyra and the story of your earlier trilogy, His Dark Materials? Did you feel like there was unfinished business in the story?

Yes, mainly Dust. The Dust that figures in the title of this trilogy, The Book of Dust. It’s the Dust that’s mentioned in the very first chapter of The Golden Compass—Dust with a capital letter D. It’s the mysterious thing that exists everywhere. But the people with the knowledge who are in charge, the Magisterium, are afraid of it because it seems to be linked in some weird way with human consciousness and sin and all the things they would like to control and banish, if they could.

I didn’t get to the point of actually saying much more about Dust than what’s said in The Amber Spyglass, the final book of the first trilogy. I’d been wondering how I could revisit that. And I’m very grateful to the world of science for its utter failure so far to discover what dark matter is. I made a link to the dark matter in our universe—the matter that’s holding the galaxies together gravitationally—and I was keeping my fingers crossed that we wouldn’t discover what it was before the book was published. Well, 25 years later, they still don’t know. In fact, they’ve found a new kind of darkness, dark energy.

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