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Panpsychic Ricochets • A Solace of Quantum • In Praise of Brain Hats • Serious Baby Talk • Serious Misrepresentations • Philosophy as Pattern Recognition • Poet’s Corner

Panpsychic Ricochets

Dear Editor: Issue 121 contained four articles on radical theories of consciousness. The guest editor, Dr Philip Goff, is one of the four authors. It might have been better if an editor had been invited who was more detached from the debate, as all four contributors, to varying degrees, are sympathetic to panpsychism.

To describe panpsychism as counterintuitive is a considerable understatement. The only example of consciousness to which we have direct access is that of humans, and this we can confidently assert is dependent upon the activity of our brains. By analogy, on observing the behaviour of higher animals we accept them as being conscious too. How far down the animal kingdom this goes is debatable. Most of us would be comfortable accrediting mice with some level of consciousness, but would draw the line at, say, an amoeba. But panpsychists regard all physical entities as possessing consciousness. This extraordinary claim is founded upon our inability to give a detailed account of how consciousness emerges in objects made up of quarks, electrons etc. Presumably if quarks and electrons have some rudimentary consciousness, then a uranium atom, say, which is much more complex, has a considerably enhanced level of consciousness. What about a pebble on the beach? What kind of inner life does it possess? By the time we get to the Rock of Gibraltar it must have a very substantial conscious mental life indeed! I confidently assert that no one has, or ever will have, any evidence that it has.

I’m not arguing that consciousness could only exist in biological entities. In the vastness of the universe who can say what might have emerged? I also have an open mind regarding man-made conscious systems. That some computer-based systems exhibit at least some aspects of intelligence is indisputable. We must be careful not to set the level of intelligence demanded too high for consciousness or we will disqualify most animals, and indeed many humans.

The mysteriousness of all mental processes generally, and consciousness in particular, is reminiscent of the earlier debate between mechanists and vitalists. Virtually nobody now defends the notion of the élan vital as a necessity for life. I believe that panpsychism will suffer the same fate. I don’t know whether science will ever wholly understand consciousness, but no doubt much will be learnt in the endeavour. It is certainly much too early to give up on the enterprise.

John Radcliffe, Welwyn Gdn City

Dear Editor: While agnostic on the issue, I would offer a couple of points in support of Phillip Goff’s panpsychism in Issue 121. I condition this on downplaying the term ‘consciousness’ and turn, rather, to a suggestion made by Camilla Martin in the PN podcast, ‘Free Will and the Brain’ [available at philosophynow.org/podcasts, Ed]: What we experience as consciousness is a composite effect of data.

First, I would ask the reader to think about the act of reading this, then think about their selves reading this, then think about their selves thinking about their selves reading this… We could go on like that forever. But what we’ll never see is what is looking out: the perceiving thing. And how is our basic perception any different to that of, say, a gnat? The only difference, as Douglas Hofstadter points out in I Am A Strange Loop, is the symbolic filters we use. And why stop with a gnat? Plants, as recent research suggests, communicate. How far of a jump would it be to basic elements containing data?

D.E. Tarkington, Bellevue, NE

Dear Editor: The idea of panpsychism is that awareness is inherent in every aspect of matter, even though normally we only recognise it in the animal kingdom. The argument seems to be that because particles have consciousness, we are also able to have consciousness. But no explanation is given of how this may work. It’s a ‘just so’ story.

Our consciousness however means that we are aware of ourselves, and of ourselves in relation to our surroundings. So in what way are the physical properties of sub-atomic particles – mass, spin, charge, etc – in their intrinsic nature forms of awareness, as Dr Goff asserts? Yes, they interact with other particles in precise ways, but that’s not awareness.

Panpsychists argue that it’s a question of degree. So we don’t ascribe human-like awareness to mice or spiders. And so just as we find it difficult to imagine having a spider’s form of awareness, we find it even more difficult to understand the awareness enjoyed by a subatomic particle. And this, they say, leaves open the possibility that it has awareness in some way. This is, however, argument by analogy, which has no logical value. And, more importantly, if the argument is to have any persuasive power, consciousness must be recognisably the same at whatever level it is said to exist. Unless we want to be in Humpty Dumpty land, ‘consciousness’ cannot completely change meaning as it shrinks. Indeed, if panpsychism is the best explanation currently available, I think I shall get out my self-aware Ouija board to see what’s next in line to ‘explain’ consciousness.

Thomas Jeffreys, Warwickshire

Dear Editor: As a reason for disbelieving panpsychism, Raymond Tallis, in ‘Against Panpsychism’ (PN 121), asks how the macroscopic consciousness of organisms can be built up out of elementary constituents and why such building up happens in some things but not others – in brains, for example, and not pebbles.

The answer is found in the organization of the elementary constituents. If everything has an inside or subjective aspect as panpsychism suggests, as well as an outside or objective aspect, then the organization of the outside should have some bearing on the richness of the inside. There is something unique about how matter is organized in living beings, as opposed to non-living things, that can account for the emergence of our complex and vivid form of consciousness.

Living things are strikingly different from inanimate objects. The matter that composes living things is constantly changing through metabolism, the process by which matter is ingested, transformed and excreted. What persists is not the matter itself but the form in which that matter is organized. I follow Hans Jonas here (pp.64-67 in Mortality and Morality, ed. Lawrence Vogel, 1996), when he says that the sense of being a whole conscious entity emerges with the ability of a simple organism to maintain its structure through time by exchanging matter with its environment. Thus a changing material process that has a unity of form over time gives rise to a unity of experience over time which is of a higher order than the micro-experiences of the constituent elements.

This higher order depends on the ability of mentality to bleed through, so to speak, from one event to another. Anecdotal evidence of telepathy suggests that mentality does indeed have such an ability.

Given this account of how the mentalities of constituents can combine to form a single richer mentality, panpsychism does indeed make sense. I discuss the argument for panpsychism in detail at bmeacham.com/blog/?p=568

Bill Meacham, USA

Dear Editor: As a means to understand consciousness, I believe that panexperientialism (a term coined by the Whiteheadian David Ray Griffin) is to be preferred to panpsychism. It has the advantage of being entirely consistent with the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness. In panexperientialism, a fleeting experience is generated whenever physical systems exchange energy-information, since they’re equivalent. How this might happen can be understood by considering the simplest stable atomic system, the hydrogen atom. In its lowest energy state, it consists of a positively charged proton orbited by a single negatively charged electron. Here we have a system of sub-atomic particles forming a dynamic yet self-contained physical system with no consciousness. When, however, this system interacts with an externally sourced photon, the electron jumps to a higher energy orbital. From the information perspective, the system has responded to a specific input of datum, which for the panexperientialist is a fleeting experience of something outside itself. Consciousness is a result of the evolutionary process when organisms are selected that are able to integrate, attenuate or amplify trillions of such data. As a result, the organism experiences the build-up of emotional states. These emotions produce actions which, as required by evolution, must be directed towards the organism’s survival and reproduction. In this way, the process of evolution ensures that simple experiences become sophisticated presentations of the world.

Dr Steve Brewer, St Ives

Dear Editor: Philip Goff suggests that physicalists might object to panpsychist claims by arguing that “We just need a ‘Darwin of consciousness’ to come along” (p.7). I suggest that physicalists already have Darwin[s] of consciousness. One was Gerald Edelman (1929-2014), who shared a 1972 Nobel Prize with Rodney Robert Porter and wrote Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (1992). The neurologist Oliver Sacks called his ideas “a radically biological global evolutionary theory of mind”.

An interesting example of how Edelman’s major contributions to our understanding of consciousness have been extended is Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory, as discussed by Hedda Hassel Mørch in Issue 121. Tononi was a young member of Edelman’s team of researchers back in the 1990s, and with Edelman co-authored Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination in 2000. Tononi’s AI ‘conscious machine’, engineered by “mimicking the natural selection by which the human brain was created” as Mørch says (p.15), is significantly reminiscent of Edelman’s team’s ‘neurally organised mobile adaptive device’ (NOMAD). Edelman also reminds us that “the conscious life [that science] describes will always remain richer than its description” (Ibid, p.209).

Colin Brookes, Leicestershire

Dear Editor: The concept of panpsychism (Issue 121) has made me see that invoking the existence of a hitherto undetected-as-universal property to explain the unexplained can be extended to other mysteries. For instance, we are all too ready to believe that our DNA codes give us two legs and two arms. But why? No-one has ever shown in complete detail the biochemical processes by which this happens. Our acceptance of a DNA-based explanation is just another example of a misplaced reliance on physicalism. And in the absence of a complete physical explanation, the origin of our limbs remains unexplained and so should obviously be referred to as the hard problem of limbs.

For a philosopher, however, this problem is simple to resolve. We need only postulate a panlimbist world. Specifically, the reason we humans normally have four limbs is that everything has four limbs, down to and including the smallest sub-atomic particle. Of course we might have to modify our definition of limbs a little bit, and also the meaning of the number 4, in view of the absence of anything actually like limbs forming part of mountains or oceans, or indeed electrons and protons. We can instead say that they have an inherent quality much like, say, mass or spin or the electro-weak force, which we could simply name ‘limb’. We may then assert that this is fundamental to enabling us to have what we would normally describe as limbs – just like the assertion by panpsychists that the existence of consciousness in all matter, although not in a form that fits the definition of consciousness, is the source of human consciousness. Problem solved.

Paul Buckingham, Annecy, France

A Solace of Quantum

Dear Editor: Reading about the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics (deterministic and probabilistic) in Issue 121 brought to mind the contrast between when we are experiencing ‘flow’ and when we are painfully self-aware. In flow it can feel that we lose consciousness and are merely acting through learned memories, completely absorbed and confident (deterministic). While self-conscious, however, our behaviour can feel and appear to ourselves and others as erratic, inconsistent, and unlike ourselves. When self-consciousness is causing us to ‘measure’ our performance against perceived expectations (that we believe we cannot meet), it seems that our behaviour changes compared with presenting to an empty room or when experiencing flow, therefore the outcome is more uncertain (so probabilistic), with a greater probability that we will appear ridiculous.

Felicity Williams, Milton Keynes

In Praise of Brain Hats

brain hat boy

Dear Editor: I am writing to tell you how much I enjoyed the cover photo on #121. The brain hats are so imaginative and inventive! I’m seriously considering how to make one for myself. It might be of some help when I am thinking about philosophical problems. Sometimes all you need is a little extra confidence.

D. N. Dimmitt, Lawrence, Kansas

Serious Baby Talk

Dear Editor: I would argue that Quinn Rivet, in commenting in Letters, Issue 121 on my dialog ‘Are Designer Babies Our Future?’ in Issue 119, is actually in the same camp as I. In the case of the exchange between my two acquaintances, Pat simply served as my dialog’s convenient foil in alluding to the putative downsides of genetic manipulation, especially of so-called ‘designer babies’. My position on genetic engineering and designer babies should have been clear from the arguments presented by Sally in order to push back against Pat – arguments that I made stronger than Pat’s. For instance, the dialog opens with Sally saying, “I want to decide my baby’s traits. Genetic engineering is making that possible” and ends with her saying, even more forcefully, “I believe it’s just a matter of time. Eventually people will iron out the scientific, ethical, and social wrinkles, and be selecting their babies’ preferred traits. What’s seen as acceptable will change dramatically over the next twenty or thirty years, and gene editing can’t be uninvented! Personally, I intend to embrace it as far as the means are available. I think not only do I have a right to give birth to a healthy, smart, capable, competitive child if I can, I have an obligation to do so.” I think Sally’s point of view and way forward – that she ‘intends to embrace [having a designer baby]’ and that the choice is both her ‘right’ and ‘obligation’ (both words originally italicized) – are unequivocal.

Keith Tidman, Maryland

Serious Misrepresentations

Dear Editor: I notice that Vincent di Norcia refers to my book Environmental Philosophy: An Introduction (Polity, 2015) in his review of Patrick Curry’s Ecological Ethics in Issue 122 of Philosophy Now. I am grateful to Professor di Norcia for mentioning my book; however, I must point out that he has misrepresented my view on the issue of population control. He claims that I argue that we must not just limit population growth, we must reduce our numbers to sustainable levels, and, in support of this claim, he refers the reader to p.54 and pp.144 ff of my book. Yet I argue no such thing. On p.54, I maintain that it would be appalling to suggest we should welcome such events as droughts and famines, which reduce the global population of human beings. On pp.144 ff, I do not argue that we must reduce the global population of human beings; I suggest that rates of population growth in some of the world’s poorer countries could be reduced by such measures as alleviating poverty and enacting social reforms to give women more control over their lives.

Simon James, Durham University

Dear Editor: Issue 122 of PN has just arrived, excellent as ever. I question, however, whether the portrait purportedly of Michael Oakeshott (whom I knew) is really of Oakeshott and not of his colleague, Maurice Cranston, whom I also knew. A quick check on the Internet shows the resemblance of the portrait to Cranston. [Ed: You’re right, it is Cranston. Very sorry about that!]

Dr Geoffrey Thomas, Formerly research fellow, Birkbeck College, University of London

Philosophy as Pattern Recognition

Dear Editor: Knowing nothing about philosophy, I was introduced to your journal some eighteen months ago and I now feel in a position to offer an observation on the nature of the discipline:

1. Philosophy studies how patterns of symbols interact to form new patterns.

2. The relationship between these symbols and reality is contested. They have no meaning except by reference to other symbols and are ultimately self-referential.

3. The mechanisms by which new patterns of symbols emerge are not understood.

4. There is no convergence between the patterns that emerge.

5. The relationship between these processes and the structure of their claimed target is not known.

Er that’s it. Should I cancel my subscription? [No. Why resort to merely symbolic gestures? – Ed]

David Kernick, Exeter, Devon

Poet’s Corner

Dear Editor: Interviewed in Issue 120, Raymond Tallis mentioned his disagreement with D.H. Mellor’s notion that time is a causal dimension of space-time. This got me to wondering:

were time to cease –
would strings cease their singing?
spheres cease their song?

K.O. Smith, Asheville, NC

Dear Editor: A haiku response to 118’s ‘Hens, Ducks & Human Rights in China’:

China/West memo:
‘We’ is not a plural ‘I’.
Hens and ducks talking.

Alasdair Macdonald, Glasgow


Numbers are better than words he said,
For numbers exist outside our heads.
But words are made up by you and me,
And do not exist in reality.

Jeffrey Wald, Falcon Heights, MN

Dear Editor: From Russell’s quote in 120, “To be happy, one must first not be unhappy” I was inspired by a Rodgers and Hart standard, and by Lord Byron:

Glad To Be Unhappy

Fools rush in, so here I am
Very glad to be unhappy
I can’t win, but here I am
More than glad to be unhappy
Unrequited love’s a bore
And I’ve got it pretty bad
But for someone you adore
It’s a pleasure to be sad
Like a straying baby lamb
With no mammy and no pappy
I’m so unhappy
But oh so glad!

Ray Sherman, USA

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