sleepOUP Blog has a sort of preview by Bruntrup and Jaskolla of their forthcoming collection on panpsychism, due out in December, with a video of David Chalmers at the end: they sort of credit him with bringing panpsychist thought into the mainstream. I’m using ‘panpsychism’ here as a general term, by the way, covering any view that says consciousness is present in everything, though most advocates really mean that consciousness or experience is everywhere, not souls as the word originally implied.

I found the piece interesting because they put forward two basic arguments for panpsychism, both a little different from the desire for simplification which I’ve always thought was behind it – although it may come down to the same basic ideas in the end.

The first argument they suggest is that ‘nothing comes of nothing’; that consciousness could not have sprung out of nowhere, but must have been there all along in some form. In this bald form, it seems to me that the argument is virtually untenable. The original Scholastic argument that nothing comes of nothing was, I think, a cosmological argument. In that form it works. If there really were nothing, how could the Universe get started? Nothing happens without a cause, and if there were nothing, there could be no causes.  But within an existing Universe, there’s no particular reason why new composite or transformed entities cannot come into existence.  The thing that causes a new entity need not be of the same kind as that entity; and in fact we know plenty of new things that once did not exist but do now; life, football, blogs.

So to make this argument work there would have to be some reason to think that consciousness was special in some way, a way that meant it could not arise out of unconsciousness. But that defies common sense, because consciousness coming out of unconsciousness is something we all experience every day when we wake up; and if it couldn’t happen, none of us would be here as conscious beings at all because we couldn’t have been born., or at least, could never have become aware.

Bruntrup and Jaskolla mention arguments from Nagel and William James;  Nagel’s, I think rests on an implausible denial of emergentism; that is, he denies that a composite entity can have any interesting properties that were not present in the parts. The argument in William James is that evolution could not have conferred some radically new property and that therefore some ‘mind dust’ must have been present all the way back to the elementary particles that made the world.

I don’t find either contention at all appealing, so I may not be presenting them in their best light; the basic idea, I think is that consciousness is just a different realm or domain which could not arise from the physical. Although individual consciousnesses may come and go, consciousness itself is constant and must be universal. Even if we go some way with this argument I’d still rather say that the concept of position does not apply to consciousness than say it must be everywhere.

The second major argument is one from intrinsic nature. We start by noticing that physics deals only with the properties of things, not with the ‘thing in itself’. If you accept that there is a ‘thing in itself’ apart from the collection of properties that give it its measurable characteristics, then you may be inclined to distinguish between its interior reality and its external properties. The claim then is that this interior reality is consciousness. The world is really made of little motes of awareness.

This claim is strangely unmotivated in my view. Why shouldn’t the interior reality just be the interior reality, with nothing more to be said about it? If it does have some other character it seems to me as likely to be cabbagey as conscious. Really it seems to me that only someone who was pretty desperately seeking consciousness would expect to find it naturally in the ding an sich.  The truth seems to be that since the interior reality of things is inaccessible to us, and has no impact on any of the things that are accessible, it’s a classic waste of time talking about it.

Aha, but there is one exception; our own interior reality is accessible to us, and that, it is claimed, is exactly the mysterious consciousness we seek. Now, moreover, you see why it makes sense to think that all examples of this interiority are conscious – ours is! The trouble is, our consciousness is clearly related to the functioning of our brain. If it were just the inherent inner property of that brain, or of our body, it would never go away, and unconsciousness would be impossible. How can panpsychists sleep at night? If panpsychism is true, even a dead brain has the kind of interior awareness that the theory ascribes to everything. In other words, my human consciousness is a quite different thing from the panpsychist consciousness everywhere; somehow in my brain the two sit alongside without troubling each other. My consciousness tells us nothing about the interiority of objects, nor vice versa: and my consciousness is as hard to explain as ever.

Maybe the new book will have surprising new arguments? I doubt it, but perhaps I’ll put it on my Christmas present list.

34 Comments

  1. 1. VicP says:

    Panspsychism like most problems is neither true nor false but simply a way of thinking about the world. I like the water analogy or water is something very special which we only find under certain conditions or as a panaquatist its spookiness only goes away when we realize how the forces of nature cause the mechanism of liquid water. Nothing mysterious about consciousness. Only a mystery of the lower functions and of course the complexity of brains, but the fossil record of brain evolution is pretty easy to follow from simple evolved motor systems to language. Of course the vestiges are all present in our own bodies from simple one cell organisms on up.

  2. 2. SelfAwarePatterns says:

    Well said.

    My issue with panpsychism is, let’s suppose it’s true. Then what? How does it change our view of reality? Does it in anyway change the interesting distinction between the amount of consciousness a c-elegans worm has versus what a mammal has? Or do we need to come up with a new word to refer to the consciousness of complex brains so that we can distinguish that phenomena from the consciousness of plants?

    Consciousness as emergent from non-conscious processes may not satisfy people’s desire that it be fundamental in some objective way, but it also doesn’t sweep under the rug the difference between systems we’ve historically regarded as conscious and those we haven’t.

  3. 3. Scritch says:

    I think the word ‘consciousness’ gets in the way, sometimes, because it can mean so many different things to different people. I don’t like to use it, personally, when describing concepts like these – so to say something like “everything has a mote of consciousness within it” is a little misleading because everyone *thinks* they know what ‘consciousness’ means, but when you really probe them it turns out they all think it means something different from everyone else.

    So when discussing ideas like panpsychism, I prefer to break apart the concept into specific, well-defined terms. When you do this, it almost seems *obvious* and not surprising that things that are generally considered non-conscious might experience awareness. Consider a thermostat that controls a room air conditioner – on some level it must be *aware* of the temperature of the room it’s in in order to actuate. This awareness is purely physical and not ‘spooky’ in any way – we understand all of its parts, because we built the mechanisms – but given we live in a physical universe, *all* awareness is purely physical, so in a sense a thermostat isn’t much different from a human being except in terms of complexity.

  4. 4. Arnold Trehub says:

    Scritch: “Consider a thermostat that controls a room air conditioner – on some level it must be *aware* of the temperature of the room it’s in in order to actuate.”

    You are too loose with the concept of awareness. To be aware of something one must perceive it. There is no evidence that a thermostat perceives the temperature that automatically activates it.

  5. 5. howard berman says:

    Do claimants for pansychism posit necessarily that everything aware is alive too?

  6. 6. Dan says:

    “because consciousness coming out of unconsciousness is something we all experience every day when we wake up”

    I can’t accept this. No one has ever *experienced* consciousness coming out of unconsciousness, and no one ever could. It’s also unclear what “consciousness coming out of unconsciousness” means here.

    “and if it couldn’t happen, none of us would be here as conscious beings at all because we couldn’t have been born., or at least, could never have become aware.”

    Then it’s possible we did not become aware, in a sense.

  7. 7. David Duffy says:

    Hameroff and Penrose are the purest physicalist example I can see:

    [The] Diósi–Penrose proposal…suggests each “objective reduction” event, which is a purely physical process, is itself a primitive kind of ‘observation’…Each such event would lack cognition or any non-computational influence, but would be associated with an undifferentiated ‘proto-conscious’ experience, one without information or meaning. Such undifferentiated experiences are taken, in the Orch OR scheme, to be irreducible, fundamental features of ‘Planck scale geometry’, perhaps ultimately having a physical role as important to basic physics as those of mass, spin or charge.

  8. 8. Peter says:

    No one has ever *experienced* consciousness coming out of unconsciousness

    I don’t know exactly what your objections are: but anyway for the point I’m making it’s enough that life includes alternating periods of being unconscious and conscious, which seems uncontroversial.

  9. 9. Scritch says:

    @Arnold Trehub – I disagree that I’m being ‘too loose’ with the term. Is not detecting temperature, and then changing the physical state of the system in response to its rising or falling, in a sense perceiving the temperature? Or do you disagree that perception is physical?

    I’m not suggesting that a thermostat is self-aware or possesses any form of intelligence beyond what it’s been programmed to possess, and I’m not suggesting that it ‘experiences’ any form of ‘inner world’ of temperature, or anything silly like that. The sort of experience we have comes from our complexity, but that complexity is built upon the same sort of interactions that a thermostat might have with its surroundings.

    I don’t think this is terribly controversial.

  10. 10. Dan says:

    I thought my first objections could be inferred from the comment. Trying to paraphrase the whole line of argument:

    1. Consciousness can’t come from something of a different nature to itself, therefore it must have subsisted always.

    2. (Objection) We experience it arising from unconsciousness (when we wake up).

    3. (Counter-objection) We don’t really experience such a thing, and the notion itself is incoherent. Also it is unclear what consciousness arising out of unconsciousness might mean exactly.

    4. (Conclusion) Therefore it hasn’t been shown that consciousness has arisen out of something other than itself, or out of a composite entity or entities.

    It does seem uncontroversial that life includes alternating periods of being unconscious and conscious, but it is a not precise expression of the situation, and the way it is expressed here might assume the view you wish to put forward. Interestingly, we can wake up practically instantaneously as a result of all kinds of stimulation, so there is still that consciousness potential ready to be activated at all times. You can be in coma for thirty years, for various reasons, but when the conditions are right, you respond and you already have awareness and then you wake up. Those “periods of unconsciousness” are not fully understood or described.

  11. 11. Scritch says:

    @Dan: “It does seem uncontroversial that life includes alternating periods of being unconscious and conscious, but it is a not precise expression of the situation, and the way it is expressed here might assume the view you wish to put forward.”

    This is precisely why I don’t like using the term ‘consciousness’ in this way, since it invites equivocation.

  12. 12. Peter says:

    I thought my first objections could be inferred from the comment

    I thought you might be raising a more technical objection, based on the point that you have to be conscious to experience anything and that strictly speaking we therefore never experience unconsciousness. (Which I think is true but not really material.)

    In fact if I understand you correctly anyone who is conscious must always have been conscious: so I was conscious a thousand years ago, and someone who won’t be born for another five thousand years, someone whose component atoms are currently scattered around the world, is already conscious?

  13. 13. Callan S. says:

    Are there many investigations of how an organism could simply detect something about itself, particular in regards to its neurological functions, that wasn’t 100% accurate. But it treated it as perfectly accurate and called these detections ‘consciousness’?

    I mean in terms of the two stories, that’s less exciting than panpsychisms story. But less exciting or fantastical can make for a more convincing story as well (particularly for fans of Occam).

  14. 14. Dan says:

    @Peter I said that it must have subsisted always, but nothing much other than that about it. The atoms going around now aren’t the consciousness, and they’re not the person. And were you conscious a thousand years ago? Well what do you mean by “you”?

    Why would the technical objection you suggest be immaterial? You’re using this waking up argument to support a very large claim.

  15. 15. Peter says:

    Dan,

    Why can’t consciousness arise from something of a different nature to itself? Can cars only be made out of other cars, and bicycles only out of older bicycles?

    What’s incoherent or unclear about the assertion that sometimes I’m conscious and sometimes not?

    You say I’m making large and unclear claims, but I believe I’m merely defending common sense. Actually “it must have subsisted always” looks pretty grand and vague to me!

  16. 16. Tom Clark says:

    Michael Silberstein has a good talk online critiquing panpsychism, with a nice bit of its history, and why scientists are increasingly signing on to it. He says panpsychism does no better than strong emergence as an explanation of consciousness: they both simply posit some brute mental property that sits alongside standard physical properties, whether it emerges or whether its fundamental. His punchline:

    “When it comes to ‘qualia,’ I’m not sure there is any significant metaphysical or explanatory difference between materialism, strong emergence, panpsychism or property dualism.”

    He goes on to offer a neutral monist hypothesis (William James and Russell, progenitors) which he thinks neatly dissolves the hard problem by challenging standard conceptions of matter, somewhat along the lines of ontic structural realism ala Ladyman and Ross. Matter, on this view, is not inherently non-mental, is not material in the standard sense, has no intrinsic properties, and isn’t fundamental. Nor is experience essentially mental (in contrast to physical). The commonsense opposition or contrast between mind and matter is a (false) induction we make about reality, not a fact required by either science or experience. I’m not sure his proposal about what *is* fundamental holds water, but it seems worth investigating.

  17. 17. Sci says:

    “When it comes to ‘qualia,’ I’m not sure there is any significant metaphysical or explanatory difference between materialism, strong emergence, panpsychism or property dualism.”

    Yeah they all seem equally bad, with the historical penchant for materialism being merely political.

  18. 18. Sci says:

    That we dream and can be awoken by qualia (pain, need to go to the bathroom, loud noises) suggests we aren’t unconscious in the way matter is nonconscious?

  19. 19. Dan says:

    @Peter

    “Why can’t consciousness arise from something of a different nature to itself? Can cars only be made out of other cars, and bicycles only out of older bicycles?

    What’s incoherent or unclear about the assertion that sometimes I’m conscious and sometimes not?

    You say I’m making large and unclear claims, but I believe I’m merely defending common sense. Actually “it must have subsisted always” looks pretty grand and vague to me!”

    Cars are don’t have to be made out of the same things as themselves (i.e. cars), but they need to be of fundamentally of the same kind.

    In an ordinary manner of speaking, it’s not unclear to say I’m conscious sometimes and sometimes not. But I don’t think it can do the work you want it to To go back to your post again, with a slightly different tack, you say that “to make this argument work there would have to be some reason to think that consciousness was special in some way, a way that meant it could not arise out of unconsciousness.” But hang on, you’ve narrowed down the ‘things of a different kind to consciousness’ to unconsciousness alone, a not fully understood state that may well have some kind of relation to or continuity with consciousness itself. The sleep cycle isn’t fully understood, the movement from sleeping to waking isn’t fully understood or described, so it appears risky to take unconsciousness as the paradigm example of ‘things of a different kind’.

    Science, philosophy and mathematics is littered with common sense claims that turned out to be false, so unsure if this helps? My phrase may sound grand and vague but what it sounds like is hardly a measure of anything.

    @ Tom Clark Interesting post. I’m not sure I’d have an issue with some of this, the way it’s stated here. If you’re asserting neither mind nor matter a lot of objections and problems just fall away.

  20. 20. Peter says:

    I dunno, Dan; I can get the fact that people are not always conscious from my direct experience of my own mind.

    But maybe you’re getting your belief that nothing ever changes in a similar way…
    😉

  21. 21. Dan says:

    I think you’re making your original point in a slightly different way, so I would just have to refer you to my first comment and the last one.

    I’m not sure what you mean by the second paragraph…I don’t think nothing ever changes. I do alter my opinions sometimes, but usually for a reason.

  22. 22. Peter says:

    No offence, Dan: I believe you think that nothing that isn’t conscious can become conscious (and vice versa), and nothing can be made into a car unless it has a fundamentally car-like nature, so I supposed you might think no-one could change their nature in respect of being (or not being) a panpsychist.

  23. 23. Dan says:

    Well likewise no offence but there’s no progress if you just tell me what I think. As I say, I addressed some of this further up. You not having shown that awareness can arise from a rock – by the example of a person waking up – doesn’t imply that I don’t think you can change your mind.

  24. 24. john davey says:

    Isn’t the problem here that consciousness is evidently quite easily destructible ? Is there a law of conservation of consciousness ? ie if there is another mass shooting in the US, does that mean the destroyed consciousness splatters into bits, like matter, waiting to be reconstructed ?

    In which case doesn’t the question become ‘how do bits of consciousness organise to create real whole,consciousness ?

    It doesn’t seem to advance us anywhere. It’s actually quicker and far simpler to just assume that brain-stuff causes consciousness. Oh – and that’s almost certainly what happens as well, which helps.

  25. 25. Michael Murden says:

    I suggested in response to a previous post that consciousness can be defined as the suite of abilities organisms lose when under general anesthesia. That definition provides both a test for consciousness and a definition of what kinds of entities can be considered to be conscious. What do you all think of that definition?

    Also, if the geologists are correct that the first life on Earth came into existence one to two billion years after the Earth came into existence wouldn’t we have to agree either that some consciousness existed before life existed or that conscious things have arisen from unconscious things?

    It occurs to me that one problem with the general anesthesia definition is that even though I have no memory of anything that happened during my surgery (just a routine over fifty colonoscopy) and all the clocks and all the people assure me that time passed I can’t definitively rule out the possibility that I was conscious and did conscious kinds of activity but have no memory of them. The definition might not seem rigorous enough for philosophical purposes to some. It’s one thing for a person to claim she is conscious at the exact moment she is making the claim, but do we all agree to accept our memories as proof that we were conscious in the past?

    What non-theological reasons do we have for thinking that human consciousness is special? How might you describe the difference-in-kind between the consciousness of a thermostat and the consciousness of a person? I agree that a difference in degree can be said to exist, but it seems to me that to claim a difference in kind is to claim that there is some non-mechanical component to human consciousness. If so, what is that non-mechanical component? What evidence do we have for its existence?

  26. 26. Peter says:

    …that awareness can arise from a rock…

    It’s the panpsychists that think that!

  27. 27. Dan says:

    Well presumably they think the rock is also mind. But you think it’s a physical object. I’m still not sure you’ve advanced your argument – the one I was criticizing – beyond repeated assertion.

  28. 28. Dan says:

    I do like this: “I’d still rather say that the concept of position does not apply to consciousness than say it must be everywhere”

  29. 29. Sci says:

    “Why can’t consciousness arise from something of a different nature to itself? Can cars only be made out of other cars, and bicycles only out of older bicycles?”

    Well “car” is only a human projection onto what is just a collection of atoms (or I guess quantum foam?).

    The question seems to be whether consciousness is the bottom level stuff (or the stuff seen from a different perspective), is spread through all the bottom level stuff, or comes out of specific arrangements of the bottom level stuff.

    As I said above, none of these feels very convincing save perhaps the “stuff seen from a different perspective” which I guess is the aforementioned Neutral Monism?

    Really seems to come down to aesthetics, intuition, and preference.

  30. 30. Peter says:

    Panpsychism seems to be everyhere just now…

  31. 31. Sci says:

    Thanks for those links Peter, though the author of the second one seems to be confused in the same way Graziano is – exactly who is being fooled by the illusion (or strong impression as it’s referred to there)?

    I noticed your comment about panpsychism needing two kinds of consciousness for a brain – when it’s alive and when it’s dead. That’s one of the better arguments against panpsychism that I’ve seen.

  32. 32. Dan says:

    I looked at the comment. But I don’t think panpsychists should say everything *has* consciousness, but rather each thing is an aspect of consciousness. And what would it mean for a brain to “have consciousness” while in a human being, or another kind of animal? We don’t really know, and we fail to give a very good account of it. (And not for want to trying.)

  33. 33. howard says:

    Allen Ginsberg thought everything had consciousness and had erotic appetite

  34. 34. Dan says:

    Where does he say that?

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