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Radical Theories of Consciousness

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The Case For Panpsychism

Philip Goff thinks that everything has some degree of consciousness.

According to early 21st century Western common sense, the mental doesn’t take up very much of the universe. Most folk assume that it exists only in the biological realm, specifically, in creatures with brains and nervous systems. Panpsychists deny this bit of common sense, believing that mentality is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the universe. Mind is everywhere (which is what ‘panpsychism’ translates as).

There have been panpsychists in Western philosophy since at least the pre-Socratics of the 7th century BC, and the view achieved a certain dominance in the 19th century. Panpsychism fared less well in the 20th century, being almost universally dismissed by Western philosophers as absurd, if it was ever thought about at all.

However, this dismissal was arguably part and parcel of the anti-metaphysics scientism of the period: the attempt to show that any questions which cannot be answered by scientific investigation are either trivial or meaningless. This project failed, and metaphysics is back in a big way in academic philosophy. At the same time, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the physicalist approaches to consciousness which dominated the late 20th century, and a sense that a radically new approach is called for. In this climate panpsychism is increasingly being taken up as a serious option, both for explaining consciousness and for providing a satisfactory account of the natural world.

The Essence of Panpsychism

Panpsychism is sometimes caricatured as the view that fundamental physical entities such as electrons have thoughts; that electrons are, say, driven by existential angst. However, panpsychism as defended in contemporary philosophy is the view that consciousness is fundamental and ubiquitous, where to be conscious is simply to have subjective experience of some kind. This doesn’t necessarily imply anything as sophisticated as thoughts.

Of course in human beings consciousness is a sophisticated thing, involving subtle and complex emotions, thoughts and sensory experiences. But there seems nothing incoherent with the idea that consciousness might exist in some extremely basic forms. We have good reason to think that the conscious experiences a horse has are much less complex than those of a human being, and the experiences a chicken has are much less complex than those of a horse. As organisms become simpler perhaps at some point the light of consciousness suddenly switches off, with simpler organisms having no subjective experience at all. But it is also possible that the light of consciousness never switches off entirely, but rather fades as organic complexity reduces, through flies, insects, plants, amoeba, and bacteria. For the panpsychist, this fading-whilst-never-turning-off continuum further extends into inorganic matter, with fundamental physical entities – perhaps electrons and quarks – possessing extremely rudimentary forms of consciousness, which reflects their extremely simple nature.

Reasons To Believe Panpsychism I: Solving The Hard Problem Of Consciousness

Panpsychism offers the hope of an extremely elegant and unified picture of the world. In contrast to substance dualism (the view that the universe consists of two kinds of substance, matter and mind), panpsychism does not involve minds popping into existence as certain forms of complex life emerge, or else a soul descending from an immaterial realm at the moment of conception. Rather, it claims that human beings are nothing more than complex arrangements of components that are already present in basic matter. The only way in which panpsychism differs from physicalism is that the basic components of the material world also involve very basic forms of consciousness, from which the more complex conscious experience of humans and other animals derives.

Physicalists believe that consciousness can be fully accounted for in terms of physical entities and processes. But many scientists and philosophers agree that at present we have not the faintest idea how to make sense of experience being generated from material activity such as the firings of neurons. This is the difficulty David Chalmers famously called ‘the hard problem of consciousness’. Physical mechanisms are well-suited for the explanation of physical behaviour; but it’s hard to make sense of a mechanistic explanation of subjective experience. No matter how complex the mechanism, it seems conceivable that it might have functioned in the absence of any experience at all, which seems to imply that mechanistic explanations shed no explanatory light on the existence of experience.

Of course there is much more to be said about whether or not physicalism is a viable project. But, given the deep difficulties associated with the attempt to fully account for consciousness in physical terms, and the deep philosophical doubts about whether this is even a coherent idea, it is perhaps a good idea to explore other options. And the panpsychist offers an alternative research programme. Rather than trying to account for consciousness entirely in terms of non-conscious elements, panpsychism tries to explain the complex consciousness of humans and other animals in terms of simpler forms of consciousness which are postulated to already exist in simpler forms of matter. This research project is still in its infancy. But a number of leading philosophers and neuroscientists are now finding that working within a panpsychist framework bears fruit. (To take one example, see Mørch’s account of Integrated Information Theory later this issue.) The more fruit is borne by this alternative research programme, the more reason we have to accept panpsychism.

Physicalists may object: “Just because we haven’t yet worked out how to give a mechanistic explanation of consciousness, it doesn’t follow that such an explanation will be forever beyond our grasp. Scientists before Darwin had no explanation of the emergence of complex life, which led many to suppose that there must be something divine or miraculous in the existence of life. The genius of Darwin was to come up with the idea of natural selection, which removes the need for divine creation in the biological realm. We just need a ‘Darwin of consciousness’ to come along and do something similar in the mental realm.” This kind of objection is often accompanied by a certain narrative of the history of science, according to which phenomenon after phenomenon was declared inexplicable by philosophers, only to be later explained by the relentless march of science.

However, to adopt panpsychism is not to give up on the attempt to explain consciousness scientifically. Rather, panpsychism is a scientific research programme in its own right. Panpsychists do not simply declare animal and human consciousness a sacred mystery which must have arrived by magic. Instead, they try to explain animal and human consciousness in terms of more basic forms of consciousness: the consciousness of basic materials entities, such as quarks and electrons. It is true that consciousness itself is not explained in terms of anything more fundamental: the basic consciousness of basic physical entities is a fundamental postulate of the theory. But there is no reason to think that science must always follow the most reductionist path. The scientific explanation of electromagnetism which eventually emerged in the 19th century involved the postulation of new fundamental properties and forces: electromagnetic ones. Perhaps the scientific explanation of human consciousness, when it eventually arrives, will be similarly non-reductive in postulating fundamental kinds of consciousness.

Reasons To Believe Panpsychism II: The Intrinsic Nature Argument

In the public’s minds, physics is on its way to giving us a complete account of the fundamental nature of the material world. It’s taken to be almost tautological that ‘physics’ is developing the true theory of ‘the physical’, and hence that it is to physics that we should turn for a complete understanding of the nature of space, time, and matter. However, this commonplace opinion concerning the comprehensiveness of the explanatory reach of physical science comes under pressure when we reflect on the austere vocabulary in terms of which physical theories are framed.

brain against stars
Panpsychism says mind is everywhere

A crucial moment in the scientific revolution was Galileo’s declaration that “the book of the universe is written in the language of mathematics.” From that point onwards mathematics has been the language of physics. The vocabulary of physics is arguably not entirely mathematical, since it involves causal notions (such as the notion of a law of nature); but the kind of qualitative concepts found in the Aristotelian characterisation of the universe before the scientific revolution – ideas, for example, of colours and tastes – are wholly absent from modern physics. Physical theories are nothing more than mathematical models of physical causation.

The problem is that it’s not clear that such an austere vocabulary is capable of giving an adequate characterisation even of the nature of matter, let alone of the nature of experience, since mathematical models are mere tools for prediction. A mathematical model in economics, for example, abstracts away from the concrete reality of what is really going on – what is being bought or sold, and what actual jobs people are doing. It is simply an artificial representation that can be used for predicting certain outcomes. This is exactly what physics does to matter. Electrons are real, concrete entities. And yet physics abstracts from the concrete reality of the electron, presenting us with an abstract model that enables us to predict its behaviour. As Bertrand Russell put it, “Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little.”

This difficulty arising from the austerity of the physicists’ way of speaking about the physical world might be evaded if we had a correspondingly austere conception of physical reality itself. Causal structuralists have such a conception. They believe that there is nothing more to the nature of a physical entity, such as an electron, than how it is disposed to behave: if you understand what an electron does you know everything there is to know about its nature. On this view things are not so much beings as doings. If you assume causal structuralism, it becomes plausible that the models of physics can completely characterise the nature of physical entities; a mathematical model can capture what an electron does, and in doing so will tell us what the electron is.

However, there are powerful arguments against causal structuralism. Most discussed is the worry that causal structuralist attempts to characterise the nature of matter lead either to a vicious regress or a vicious circle. According to causal structuralists, we understand the nature of a disposition only when we know the behaviour to which it gives rise when it is manifested. For example, the manifestation of flammability is burning; we only know what flammability is when we know that it’s manifested through burning. However, assuming causal structuralism, the manifestation of any disposition will be another disposition, and the manifestation of that disposition will be another disposition, and so on ad infinitum. The buck is continually passed, and hence an adequate understanding of the nature of any property is impossible, even for an omniscient being. In other words, a causal structuralist world is unintelligible.

Let us try to make this clear with an example. According to general relativity, mass and spacetime stand in a relationship of mutual causal interaction: mass curves spacetime, and the curvature of spacetime in turn affects the behaviour of objects with mass (as matter tends, all things being equal, to follow geodesics though spacetime). What is mass? For a causal structuralist, we know what mass is when we know what it does, i.e. when we know the way in which it curves spacetime. But to really understand what this amounts to metaphysically, as opposed to being able merely to make accurate predictions, we need to know what spacetime curvature is. What is spacetime curvature? For a causal structuralist, we understand what spacetime curvature is only when we know what it does, which involves understanding how it affects objects with mass. But we understand this only when we know what mass is. And so we find ourselves in a classic Catch 22: we can understand the nature of mass only when we know what spacetime curvature is, but we can understand the nature of spacetime curvature only when we know what mass is. G.K. Chesterton said that, “We cannot all live by taking in each other’s washing.” Russell played on this idea in articulating this worry about circularity: “There are many possible ways of turning some things hitherto regarded as ‘real’ into mere laws concerning the other things. Obviously there must be a limit to this process, or else all the things in the world will merely be each other’s washing.”

This argument presses us to the conclusion that there must be more to physical entities than what they do: physical things must also have an ‘intrinsic nature’, as philosophers tend to put it. However, given that physics is restricted to telling us only about the behaviour of physical entities ­– electrons, quarks and indeed spacetime itself – it leaves us completely in the dark about their intrinsic nature. Physics tells us what matter does, but not what it is.

What then is the intrinsic nature of matter? Panpsychism offers an answer: consciousness. Physics describes matter ‘from the outside’, that is to say, physics gives us rich information about the behaviour brought about by mass, spin, charge, etc. But there must be more to what something is than what it does; and according to panpsychism, mass, spin, charge, etc, are, in their intrinsic nature, forms of consciousness.

What reasons do we have to accept this proposal? Firstly, it’s not clear that there’s an alternative, as it’s not clear that we have a positive conception of any intrinsic properties beyond those we know about in our own conscious experience (that is, beyond the properties of the experiences themselves). So the available choice seems to be between the panpsychist view as to the intrinsic nature of matter, and the view that matter is, as John Locke put it, “we know not what.” So insofar as we seek a picture of reality without gaps, panpsychism may be our only option. The great physicist Arthur Eddington (the first scientist to confirm general relativity) thought this argument enough to embrace panpsychism, suggesting that given that we can know nothing from physics of the intrinsic nature of matter, it was rather ‘silly’ to suppose that its nature is incongruent with mentality, and then to wonder where mentality comes from!

Furthermore, panpsychism looks to be the most theoretically virtuous theory of matter consistent with the data. I call this the ‘simplicity argument’ for panpsychism. We know that some material entities – brains – have an intrinsically consciousness-involving nature (assuming that Descartes was wrong about the mind being separate from the brain). We have no clue as to the intrinsic nature of any other material entities. And so the most simple, elegant, parsimonious hypothesis, is that the nature of the stuff outside of brains is continuous with that of brains, in also being consciousness-involving. Arguably, then, the reality of our consciousness supports the truth of panpsychism in much the same way that the Michelson-Morley discovery that the speed of light is measured to be the same in all frames of reference supports special relativity: in both cases the theory is the most elegant account of the data.

Of course, merely saying that the intrinsic nature of matter is ‘consciousness’ does not give us an understanding of the specific intrinsic nature of any given physical property. What kind of consciousness is mass, as opposed to the consciousness of negative charge? What is it like to be an electron? These are questions for the panpsychist research project to address over the long term. Panpsychism is a broad theoretical framework, and it will take time to fill in the details. Similarily, it took a couple of centuries for the Darwinian paradigm to get to DNA.

But Isn’t It Crazy?

Panpsychism is increasingly being taken seriously in both philosophy and science, but it is still not unknown for panpsychists to receive the odd incredulous stare. The supposition that electrons have some form of consciousness, albeit extremely basic, is still thought by many to be just too crazy to take seriously.

This may be the result of a mixture of cultural factors. The rejection of idealism was one major motivation in the founding of analytic philosophy, and an intuitive distrust of related views such as panpsychism still hangs heavy. Another factor is the widespread public perception that physics is on its way to giving us a complete picture of the nature of everything. There is little understanding of the difficulties which arise when we reflect on the austere vocabulary of the physical sciences and of the dubious coherence of physicalist accounts of consciousness. In the mindset of thinking that physics is on its way to giving a complete story of the universe, a consciousness-filled universe seems extremely improbable, as this doesn’t seem to be what physics is telling us. But if we accept that physics tell us nothing about the intrinsic nature of matter, and indeed that the only thing we really know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it involves consciousness, panpsychism starts to look much more plausible.

It is certainly true that in popular culture views which sound a bit like panpsychism have been defended with rather unrigorous reasoning. But it shouldn’t need to be pointed out that just because a view has been defended with all sorts of bad arguments, it doesn’t follow that there are no good arguments for that same view. Serious philosophy requires us not to indulge in flights of fancy; but it also demands that we approach the arguments without prejudice.

At the end of the day, ‘common sense intuition’ should have little sway against a view which pulls its weight theoretically. The view that the world is (more-or-less) round; that we have a common ancestor with apes; that time slows down the faster you move – all of these ideas were or are wildly counter to common sense, but clearly that counts little, if at all, against their truth. If panpsychism can provide us with a plausible account of human consciousness and/or a coherent account of the intrinsic nature of matter, then we have good reason to take it very seriously indeed.

© Dr Philip Goff 2017

Philip Goff is Associate Professor in Philosophy at Central European University in Budapest, and author of Consciousness and Fundamental Reality (OUP). Visit his website, his blog, or tweet @philip_goff.

• Developed from a piece in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness (2nd edition, 2017).


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