quarkOne of the main objections to panpsychism, the belief that mind, or at any rate experience, is everywhere, is that it doesn’t help. The point of a theory is to take an issue that was mysterious to begin with and make it clear; but panpsychism seems to leave us with just as much explaining to do as before. In fact, things may be worse. To begin with we only needed to explain the occurrence of consciousness in the human brain; once we embrace panpsychism we have to explain it’s occurrence everywhere and account for the difference between the consciousness in a lump of turf and the consciousness in our heads. The only way that could be an attractive option would be if there were really good and convincing answers to these problems ready to hand.

Creditably, Patrick Lewtas recognises this and rolling up his sleeves has undertaken the job of explaining first, how ‘basic bottom level experience’ makes sense, and second, how it builds up to the high-level kind of experience going on in the brain. A first paper, tackling the first question, “What is it like to be a Quark” appeared in the JCS recently (Alas, there doesn’t seem to be an online version available to non-subscribers.)

Lewtas adopts an idiosyncratic style of argument, loading himself with Constraints like a philosophical Houdini.

  1. Panpsychism should attribute to basic physical objects all but only those types of experiences needed to explain higher-level (including, but not limited to, human) consciousness.
  2. Panpsychism must eschew explanatory gaps.
  3. Panpsychism must eschew property emergence.
  4. Maximum possible complexity of experience varies with complexity of physical structure.
  5. Basic physical objects have maximally simple structures. They lack parts, internal structure, and internal processes.
  6. Where possible and appropriate, panpsychism should posit strictly-basic conscious properties similar, in their higher-order features to strictly-basic physical properties.
  7. Basic objects with strictly-basic experiences have the constantly and continuously.
  8. Each basic experience-type, through its strictly-basic  instances. characterizes (at least some) basic physical objects.

Of course it is these very constraints that end up getting him where he wanted to be all along.  To justify each of them and give the implications would amount to reproducing the paper; I’ll try to summarise in a freer style here.

Lewtas wants his basic experience to sit with basic physical entities and he wants it to be recognisably the same kind of thing as the higher level experience. This parsimony is designed to avoid any need for emergence or other difficulties; if we end up going down that sort of road, Lewtas feels we will fall back into the position where our theory is too complex to be attractive in competition with more mainstream ideas. Without seeming to be strongly wedded to them, he chooses to focus on quarks as his basic unit, but he does not say much about the particular quirks of quarks; he seems to have chosen them because they may have the property he’s really after; that of having no parts.

The thing with no parts! Aiee! This ancient concept has stalked philosophy for thousands of years under different names: the atom, a substance, a monad (the first two names long since passed on to other, blameless ideas). I hesitate to say that there’s something fundamentally problematic with the concept itself (it seems to work fine in geometry); but in philosophy it seems hard to handle without generating a splendid effusion of florid metaphysics.  The idea of yoking it together with the metaphysically tricky modern concept of quarks makes my hair stand on end. But perhaps Lewtas can keep the monster in check: he wants it, presumably, because he wants to build on bedrock, with no question of basic experience being capable of further analysis.

Some theorists, Lewtas notes, have argued that the basic level experience of particles must be incomprehensible to us; as incomprehensible as the experiences of bats according to Nagel, or indeed even worse. Lewtas thinks things can, and indeed must, be far simpler and more transparent than that. The experience of a quark, he suggests, might just be like the simple experience of red; red detached from any object or pattern, with no limits or overtones or significance; just red.  Human beings can most probably never achieve such simplicity in its pure form, but we can move in that direction and we can get our heads around ‘what it’s like’ without undue difficulty.

Now the partless thing begins to give trouble; a thing which has no parts cannot change, because change would imply some kind of reorganisation or substitution; you can’t rearrange something that has no parts and if you substitute anything you have to substitute another whole thing for the first one, which is not change but replacement. At best the thing’s external relations can change. If one of the properties of the quark is an experience of red, therefore, that’s how it stays. It carries on being an experience of red, and it does not respond in any way to its environment or anything outside itself. I think we can be forgiven if we already start to worry a little about how this is going to work with a perceptual system, but that is for the later paper.

Lewtas is aware that he could be in for an awfully large catalogue of experiences here if every possible basic experience has to be assigned to a quark. His hope is that some experiences will turn out to be composites, so that we’ll be able to make do with a more restricted set: and he gives the example of orange experience reducing to red and yellow experience. A bad example: orange experience is just orange experience, actually, and the fact that orange paint can be made by mixing red and yellow paint is just a quirk of the human visual system, not an essential quality of orange light or orange phenomenology. A bad example doesn’t mean the thesis is false; but a comprehensive reduction of phenomenology to a manageable set of basic elements is a pretty non-trivial requirement. I think in fact Lewtas might eventually be forced to accept that he has to deal with an infinite set of possible basic experiences. Think of the experience of unity, duality, trinity…  That’s debatable, perhaps.

At any rate Lewtas is prepared to some extent. He accepts explicitly that the number of basic experiences will be greater than the number of different kinds of basic quark, so it follows that basic physical units must be able to accommodate more than one basic experience at the same time. So your quark is having a simple, constant experience of red and at the same time it’s having a simple, constant experience of yellow.

That has got to be a hard idea for Lewtas to sell. It seems to risk the simple transparency which was one of his main goals, because it is surely impossible to imagine what having two or more completely pure but completely separate experiences at the same time is like.  However, if that bullet is bitten, then I see no particular reason why Lewtas shouldn’t allow his quarks to have all possible experiences simultaneously (my idea, not his).

By the time we get to this point I find myself wondering what the quarks, or the basic physical units, are contributing to the theory. It’s not altogether clear how the experiences are anchored to the quarks and since all experiences are going to have to be readily available everywhere, I wonder whether it wouldn’t simplify matters to just say that all experiences are accessible to all matter. That might be one of the many issues cleared up in the paper to follow where perhaps, with one cat-like leap, Lewtas will escape the problems which seem to me to be on the point of having him cornered…


  1. 1. Toma Susi says:

    Sounds connected to the platonic ideas of Penrose and Hameroff (see, e.g. http://www.metanexus.net/essay/morality-planck-scale-chat-stuart-hameroff). Does Lewtas discuss this connection at all?

    Coincidentally, while it seems Lewtan really does mean panpsychism, my pet peeve is how everyone conflates panpsychism with hylopathism (see http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/11/christof-koch-panpsychism-consciousness/ for a recent example). To be pedantic about it, “hylopathism is not necessarily a belief in the universality of sentience, but rather in the derivation of sentience from matter” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hylopathism).

    Of course, hylopathism doesn’t really address the explanatory gap, and some sort of emergence seems required to get to consciousness from matter, even matter that has an inherent potential for it. However, at least I find hylopathism eminently more believable than ascribing consciousness as such to quarks.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    No, I don’t think Lewtas sees a connection with Penrose and Hameroff – doesn’t mention one, anyway.

    ‘Panpsychism’ does tend to get used loosely as a blanket term for several related but distinct ideas – panexperientialism is another.

  3. 3. Tom Clark says:

    Speaking of constraints, how about that of having some empirical evidence connecting experience to fundamental particles? As far as I know, the evidence thus far suggests that experience is associated with representational capacities that support complex, flexible and novel behavior, http://www.naturalism.org/kto.htm#Neuroscience That we don’t yet have a canonical system-level explanation of this association doesn’t seem to me to justify the elaboration of panpsychist speculations. As you say Peter, it doesn’t help. But some folks think it does, which points up an interesting disagreement about what constitutes a productive explanatory strategy.

  4. 4. Vicente says:

    Tom, I don’t buy panpsychisim, but what supports those representational capacities? if you claim that they are emerging properties of the brain works, you have just swapped problems, intrinsic by emerging.

  5. 5. Arnold Trehub says:

    I don’t think it is just swapping problems if you can show how brain mechanisms can have relevant representational properties. For an example of a productive explanatory strategy see Ch. 7 here:


  6. 6. Jorge says:

    I don’t understand how anyone thinks panpsychism is tenable. When I fall asleep and enter dreamless sleep, my brain, which previously had some property we call “consciousness” now lacks it. Same physical stuff, widely differing phenomenological state. If simply falling asleep seems to eliminate the thing we call consciousness why the hell do we think we can ascribe such a property to particles that are more mathematical abstractions than things we can point at?

    I don’t mind metaphysical theories that want to unify consciousness and material objects under a monadic paradigm, but this is not the way to do it! Consciousness, as far as I can tell really does ‘emerge’. Next time you wake up, fall asleep, or go under an anesthetic pay attention. You’ll see how fuzzy the line between Being and Nothingness really is.

  7. 7. Vicente says:

    Jorge, as you said… when you wake up… you fall asleep, and you recall and analyse those experiences, you will see….

    For us, these units of experience are meaningless, because we operate intrinsically on a subject/object basis. The idea of a pure “redness” experience, linked to some material substrate, makes no sense. There has to be an observer to perceive it. Furthermore, we cannot understand the perceptual experience if it is not wrapped with some epistemological cover that provides the meaning.

    Regarding “nothingness” during those time periods, well… as far as memories are involved, this is a tricky issue (related to the previous post). In a way, you could say that if you don’t remember at all what you did last summer, you didn’t exist for that time, as far as you are concerned, except for the impact that whatever you did then has on your present. I will take advantage to insist in the idea that consciousness needs to be approached from an ontological perspective, as much as from an epistemological one.

    Mind you, very clever guys with brilliant and original scientific minds like Charles Sanders Peirce, had some “heterodox” ideas about this mind-matter relationship.

  8. 8. quen_tin says:

    @tom clark
    As far as representational abilities are required for remembering and talking about experience, there is no evidence at all that experience is only associated with representational abilities. It would be like supposing one’s keys are under public lights at night because it’s the only place we could possibly see them.

  9. 9. Tom Clark says:

    quent-tin: “there is no evidence at all that experience is only associated with representational abilities.”

    I’m not saying it’s associated only with representational abilities, but that representation seems central to the functions that consciousness is associated with. See the references in the section I linked to above, and also see http://www.unicog.org/publications/DehaeneChangeux_ReviewConsciousness_Neuron2011.pdf Lots there having to do with representation at both sensory and higher levels.

  10. 10. quen_tin says:

    I agree but I assume that panpsychism involves a distinction between consciousness construes as cognitive and representational abilities and phebomenal experience (otherwise it would be obviously false indeed)

  11. 11. Peter says:

    Vicente: “There has to be an observer to perceive it.”

    Lewtas accepts this explicitly; he is just content to let his quarks have multiple distinct and pure subjects the same way they have multiple distinct and pure experiences.

    Not by any means to say that that is unproblematic!

  12. 12. Jorge says:

    Vicente wrote:
    “In a way, you could say that if you don’t remember at all what you did last summer, you didn’t exist for that time, as far as you are concerned, except for the impact that whatever you did then has on your present. I will take advantage to insist in the idea that consciousness needs to be approached from an ontological perspective, as much as from an epistemological one.”

    Yes, this harkens back to an old blog post that mentions the use of amnestics during painful surgeries: if you prevent the formation of a memory of an unpleasant phenomenal experience, did you have one in the first place? The issue is very unclear, but at least it highlights the complex relationship between memory and consciousness.

    I grant it’s possible that during dreamless sleep I am ‘conscious’ in some sense without memorable phenomenal content (including the passage of time) and then cannot report consciousness upon waking simply because I do not remember it.

    As for ‘dangling qualia’ without subjects to experience them… I don’t have a problem with it because I can’t imagine it, I have a problem with it because it lacks parsimony and elegance. Even if such a framework is intended to be monadic, it seems like dualism in disguise.

  13. 13. Vicente says:

    Well, looking at the brain, charge seems to be the most important fundamental aspect of matter in order to support brain activity, compared to mass or spin, quarks attributes, etc. With only two distinct types of charges: positive and negative, we can arrange the whole brain activity, providing cell currents, polarisation layers etc etc… only two types. Why for the experiences side “multiple distinct and pure experiences” are required? Maybe, there could be only two, or three,or… types of experience arranged in multiple patterns.

    Following Lewtas reasoning, we should require an infinite number of pure experiences… consider sound, from 0 Hz end for bass, increasing frequency to as trebble as you want, not being limited by specifically human experience… Or how would Lewtas experience elements account for sound? Now consider all the nuances in music…

    Experiences seem to be continous to me, and that entails an infinite number of points in a potential experience space.

    Consider the quarks in the atoms that build the brain, why on Earth the cell activity should arrange them in such a way that they support a representational function, more than any other higher level arrangement in the brain, beginning with the activity patterns themselves?

    For example, to make it simpler, without representational features, we can measure, alpha, beta or delta waves as oscillating polarisation charge distributions propagating over the brain, and directly associate them to some psychological experiences (eg: concentration, relaxation). Now, why to translate that to the quark level? because it is the most fundamental one so far? what about neutrinos, can they hold experiences? and photons? if not, why? because they have no mass? because they are just radiation?

    I don’t know of any neurophysiological process in which quarks directly play a role.

    If Lewtas would make some provisions to make his model coherent to some extent with NCCs data, in the next paper, it would definitely improve the idea appeal.

  14. 14. Callan S. says:

    Hi Vicente,

    The idea of a pure “redness” experience, linked to some material substrate, makes no sense. There has to be an observer to perceive it.
    Depends – if the capacity and scope of the observer is taken to be a reflection of how compelling and absolute the ‘redness’ experience is – well then if one has little peripheral information about how low resolution that experience is, it could be a very blocky experience. Yet for the lack of detail on how blocky it is, the experience would seem not blocky but incredibly compelling (somewhat like how one does not see the blindspot in ones vision unless you draw your thump to the right spot. Your vision seems high res, even as an utterly low resolution/blind point sits right near the middle of it), and with it the observer status would seem huge in scope.

    If I’m reading you right, you’re taking it that the compelling experience of the red is taken to be a reflection of size, scope and tangibility of the observer experiencing it?

  15. 15. Vicente says:

    Hi Callan, I am not really sure if I have understood your question.

    The question is that at a certain point the the observer and the experience have to become one single thing, i.e. the observer is the experience. Otherwise, you get into all kind of infinite recursions problems.

    In a way, this is the basis for panpsychism. Each conscious entity is an evolving (fleeting) assemble of these experiential items. Again, I am inclined to accept that HOTs are right to say that you need to be conscious about being conscious, to really have a complete conscious experience altogether. One thing is to have paints, and another is to draw a landscape as such.

    Besides, this kind of pure experiences are difficult to picture, I guess that concentrating on a red sheet, forgeting about everything else is the closest we can get to it (but note that the experience itself only becomes meaningful when you recall it).

    In that case, what is the assemble of quarks in your brain that accounts for it?

    I don’t know if I am addressing your question.

  16. 16. Callan S. says:

    Hi Vicente,

    You’re mention of an infinite recursion problem sounds really interesting!

    I’m not sure if I’m understanding you right in proposing this, but could that be – not so much resolved – but ended by a recursive exhaustion? It could recurse several times, but then simply gives up at some point at a close enough is good enough kind of point? That point being dictated more as an evolutionary artifact? So you perhaps get several layers of recursion – and you might even get layers of recursion about recursion (reflection upon reflecting). But at a certain point the recursion ceases, but of course you don’t get a recusion/a reflection of that. The subject is completely unaware of the absence of this level – it would requite the subject have an extra layer of recursion to be aware of the previous level. And indeed that new layer would need another layer to be aware of that. And so on.

    I think that’d be another take on your infinite recusion problem, so I find that different perspective on apparently the same thing an exciting one to bump into!

    The key matter is though that the recursion, whether it’s evolution putting a natural limiter on the number of recursions allowed or something else doing that, means you are already at the red sheet level. One simply lacks the ‘final’ recursion to witness that. But then again that ‘final’ recursion would need another, in order to witness that one. And again I think this ties into your infinite recursion problem – and it seems quite exciting to get into this cross over of ideas! :)

  17. 17. Vicente says:

    Callan, I was just referring to Descartes theather with the homunculus implications, which entails an infinite regression. The inner observer, requires of an additional inner observer, which requires a new one, and so on ad infinitum. To break the loop an intrinsic observer needs to be posited… one in which object and subject fuse.

  18. 18. Callan S. says:

    What if you just fool the recuring ad infinitum, in that it just ends and as it has no further recusion to see that object and subject have not fused, it just assumes they are fused? All such a creature needs is to be able to do complicated tasks as well. Otherwise it’s just unable to percieve that it never arrived at an object/subject fuse. One could argue such a creature could not perform complicated tasks in that case, but I’m not sure that’s a strong argument.

    I may have drifted subject a bit, sorry!

  19. 19. Chris Olson says:

    This is confusing being and non-being. One does not exist without the other, and both exist together as a third, which is “all things”.

    This produces self and other.

    Quite simple, really.


    And what accounts for it?

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