Posts tagged ‘panpsychism’

Following up on his post about the simplicity argument for panpsychism, Philip Goff went on to defend  the idea that physical things must have an intrinsic nature. Actually, it would be more accurate to say he attacks the idea that they don’t have intrinsic natures.  Those who think that listing the causal properties of a thing exhausts what we can say about its physical nature are causal structuralists, he says, committed to the view that everything reduces to dispositions; dispositions to burn, to attract, or to break, for example.

But when we come to characterise these dispositions, we find we can only do it in terms of other dispositions. A disposition to burn may involve dispositions to glow, get hot, generate ash, and so on. So we get involved in an endless circularity. Some might argue that this is OK, that we can cope with a network of mutual definitions that is, in the end, self-supporting; Goff says this is as unsatisfactory as making our living by taking in each other’s washing.

There’s a problem there, certainly. I think a bit more work is needed to nail down the idea that to reject intrinsic natures is necessarily to embrace causal structuralism, but no doubt Goff has done that in his fuller treatment. A more serious gap, it seems to me, is an explanation of how intrinsic natures get us out of this bind.

It seems to me that in practice we do not take the scholarly approach of identifying a thing through its definition; more usually we just show people. What is fire? This, we say, displaying a lit match. Goff gives an amusing example of three boxes containing a Splurge, a Blurge, and a Kurge, each defined in terms of the next in an inescapable circle. But wouldn’t you open the box?

We could perhaps argue that recognising the Splurge is just grasping its intrinsic nature. But actually we would recognise it by sight, which depends on its causal properties; its disposition to reflect light, if you like. Those causal properties cannot have anything to do with its intrinsic nature, which seems to drop out of the explanation; in fact its intrinsic nature could logically change without affecting the causal properties at all.

This apparently radical uselessness of intrinsic properties, like the similar ineffectual nature of qualia, is what causes me the greatest difficulty with a perspective that would otherwise have some appeal.

Philip Goff gives a brief but persuasive new look at his case for panpsychism (the belief that experience, or consciousness in some form, is in everything) in a recent post on the OUPblog site. In the past, he says, explanations have generally been ‘brain first’. Here’s this physical object, the brain – and we understand physical objects well enough  – the challenge is to explain how this scrutable piece of biological tissue on the one hand gives rise to this evanescent miracle, consciousness, on the other. That way of looking at it, suggests Goff, turns out to be the wrong way round.  We don’t really understand the real nature of matter at all: what we understand is that supposedly mysterious consciousness. So what we ought to do is start there and work towards a better understanding of matter.

This undoubtedly appeals to a frustration many philosophers must have felt. People at large tend to take it for granted that what we really know about is the physical external world around us, described in no-nonsense terms (with real equations!) by science. Phenomenology and all that stuff about what we perceive is an airy-fairy add-on.  In fact, of course, it’s rather the other way round. The only thing we know directly, and so, perhaps, with certainty, is our own experience; the external world and the theories of science all finally rest on that first-person foundation. Science is about observation and observation is ultimately a matter of sensory experience.

Goff notes that physics gives us no account of the intrinsic nature of matter, only its observable and causal properties. We know things, as it were, only from the outside. But in the case of our own experience, uniquely, we know it from the inside, and have direct acquaintance with its essential nature. When we experience redness we experience it unmasked; in physics it hides behind a confusing array of wavelengths, reflectances, and other highly abstract and ambiguous concepts, divorced from experience by many layers of reasoning. Is there not an argument for the hypothesis that the intrinsic nature of matter is the same as the intrinsic nature of the only thing whose intrinsic nature we know -our own experience? Perhaps after all we should consider supposing that even electrons have some tiny spark of awareness.

In fact Goff sees two arguments. One is that there simply seems no other reasonable way of accounting for consciousness. We can’t see where it could have come from, so let’s assume it has always been everywhere. Goff doesn’t like this case and thinks it is particularly prone to the compositional difficulties often urged against panpsychism; how do these micro-consciousness stack up in larger entities, and how in particular do they relate to the kind of consciousness we seem to have in our brain? Goff prefers to rest on simplicity; panpsychism is just the most parsimonious explanation. Instead of having two, or multiple kinds of intrinsic natures, we assume that there’s just one. He realises that some may see this as a weak argument far short of proof, but parsimony is a strong and legitimate criterion for judging between theories; indeed, it’s indispensable.

Now I’m on record as suggesting that things out there have one property that falls outside all physical theories – namely reality.  Am I not tempted to throw in my lot with Goff and suggest that as a further simplification we could say that reality just consists in having an intrinsic nature, ie having experience?  Not really.

Let’s go back a bit. Do we really understand our conscious experience?  We have to remember that consciousness seems to have two faces. To use Ned Block’s terms, there is access or a-consciousness; the sort that is involved in governing our behaviour, making decisions, deciding what to say, and other relatively effable processes. Then there is phenomenal or p-consciousness, pure experience, the having of qualia. It seems clear it is p-consciousness that Goff, and I think all panpsychists, are taking about. No-one supposes electrons or rocks are making rational decisions, only having some kind of experience. The problem is that though we do seem to have direct acquaintance with that sort of consciousness, we haven’t succeeded in saying anything much about it. In fact it seems that nothing we say about it can have been caused by it, because in itself it lacks causal powers. Now in one way this is exactly what Goff would expect; these difficulties are just those that come up when talking about qualia anyway, so in a back-handed sort of way we could even say they support his case. But if we’re looking for good explanations, the bucket is coming up dry; no wonder we’re tempted to go back and talk some more about the relatively tractable brain-first perspective.

In addition there are reasons to hesitate over the very idea that physical things have an intrinsic nature. Either this nature affects observable properties or it doesn’t. If it does, then we can use its effects to learn about it and discuss it; to naturalise it, in fact, and bring it within the pale of science. If it doesn’t – how can we talk about it? It might change radically or disappear and return, and we should never know. Goff rests his case on parsimony; we might counter that by observing that a theory that fills the cosmos with experiencing entities looks profligate in some respects. Isn’t there a better strategy anyway? Goff wants to simplify by assuming that apparently dead matter is in fact inwardly experiential like us: but why not go the other way and believe that we actually are as dead matter seems to be; lacking in qualic, phenomenal experience? Why not conclude that a-consciousness is all we’ve got, and that the semblance of p-consciousness is a delusion, as sceptics have argued? We can certainly debate on many other grounds whether that view is correct, but it seems hard to deny that dispensing with phenomenal experience altogether must be the most parsimonious take on the subject.

So I’m not convinced, but I think that within the natural constraints of a blog post, Goff does make a lucid and attractive presentation of his case.

(In another  post, Goff brings further arguments to defend the idea of intrinsic natures. We’ll have a look at those, though as I ought to have said in the first place, one should really read his book to get the full view.)

Could the Universe be conscious? This might seem like one of those Interesting Questions To Which The Answer Is ‘No’ that so often provide arresting headlines in the popular press. Since the Universe contains everything, what would it be conscious of? What would it think about? Thinking about itself – thinking about any real thing – would be bizarre, analogous to us thinking about the activity of the  neurons that were doing the thinking. But I suppose it could think about imaginary stuff. Perhaps even the cosmos can dream; perhaps it thinks it’s Cleopatra or Napoleon.

Actually, so far as I can see no-one is actually suggesting the Universe as a whole, as an entity, is conscious. Instead this highly original paper by Gregory L. Matloff starts with panpsychism, a belief that there is some sort of universal field of proto-consciousness permeating the cosmos. That is a not unpopular outlook these days. What’s startling is Matloff’s suggestion that some stars might be able to do roughly what our brains are supposed by panpsychists to do; recruit the field and use it to generate their own consciousness, exerting some degree of voluntary control over their own movements.

He relies for evidence on a phenomenon called Parenago’s discontinuity; cooler, less massive stars seem to circle the galaxy a bit faster than the others. Dismissing a couple of rival explanations, he suggests that these cooler stars might be the ones capable of hosting consciousness, and might be capable of shooting jets from their interior in a consistent direction so as to exert an influence over their own motion. This might be a testable hypothesis, bringing panpsychism in from the debatable realms of philosophy to the rigorous science of astrophysics (unkind people might suggest that the latter field is actually about as speculative as the former; I couldn’t possibly comment).

In discussing panpsychism it is good to draw a distinction between types of consciousness. There is a certain practical decision-making capacity in human consciousness that is relatively well rooted in science in several ways. We can see roughly how it emerged from biological evolution and why it is useful, and we have at least some idea of how neurons might do it, together with a lot of evidence that in fact, they do do it.  Then there is the much mistier business of subjective experience, what being conscious is actually like. We know little about that and it raises severe problems. I think it would be true to claim that most panpsychists think the kind of awareness that suffuses the world is of the latter kind; it is a dim general awareness, not a capacity to make snappy decisions. It is, in my view, one of the big disadvantages of panpsychism that it does not help much with explaining the practical, working kind of consciousness and in fact arguably leaves us with more to account for  than we had on our plate to start with.

Anyway, if Matloff’s theory is to be plausible, he needs to explain how stars could possibly build the decision-making kind of consciousness, and how the universal field would help. To his credit he recognises this – stars surely don’t have neurons – and offers at least some hints about how it might work. If I’ve got it right, the suggestion is that the universal field of consciousness might be identified with vacuum fluctuation pressures, which on the one hand might influence the molecules present in regions of the cooler stars under consideration, and on the other have effects within neurons more or less on Penrose/Hameroff lines. This is at best an outline, and raises immediate and difficult questions; why would vacuum fluctuation have anything to do with subjective experience? If a bunch of molecules in cool suns is enough for conscious volition, why doesn’t the sea have a mind of its own? And so on. For me the deadliest questions are the simplest. If cool stars have conscious control of their movements, why are they all using it the same way – to speed up their circulation a bit? You’d think if they were conscious they would be steering around in different ways according to their own choices. Then again, why would they choose to do anything? As animals we need consciousness to help us pursue food, shelter, reproduction, and so on. Why would stars care which way they went?

I want to be fair to Matloff, because we shouldn’t mock ideas merely for being unconventional. But I see one awful possibility looming. His theory somewhat recalls medieval ideas about angels moving the stars in perfect harmony. They acted in a co-ordinated way because although the angels had wills of their own, they subjected them to God’s. Now, why are the cool stars apparently all using their wills in a similarly co-ordinated way? Are they bound together through the vacuum fluctuations; have we finally found out there the physical manifestation of God? Please, please, nobody go in that direction!

Is there a Hard Problem of physics that explains the Hard Problem of consciousness?

Hedda Hassel Mørch has a thoughtful piece in Nautilus’s interesting Consciousness issue (well worth a look generally) that raises this idea. What is the alleged Hard Problem of physics? She say it goes like this…

What is physical matter in and of itself, behind the mathematical structure described by physics?

To cut to the chase, Mørch proposes that things in themselves have a nature not touched by physics, and that nature is consciousness. This explains the original Hard Problem – we, like other things, just are by nature conscious; but because that consciousness is our inward essence rather than one of our physical properties, it is missed out in the scientific account.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that the original Hard Problem is about an aspect of the world that physics misses out, but according to me that aspect is just the reality of things. There may not, according to me, be much more that can usefully be said about it. Mørch, I think, takes two wrong turns. The first is to think that there are such things as things in themselves, apart from observable properties. The second is to think that if this were so, it would justify panpsychism, which is where she ends up.

Let’s start by looking at that Hard problem of physics.  Mørch suggests that physics is about the mathematical structure of reality, which is true enough, but the point here is that physics is also about observable properties; it’s nothing if not empirical. If things have a nature in themselves that cannot be detected directly or indirectly from observable properties, physics simply isn’t interested, because those things-in-themselves make no difference to any possible observation. No doubt some physicists would be inclined to denounce such unobservable items as absurd or vacuous, but properly speaking they are just outside the scope of physics, neither to be affirmed nor denied. It follows, I think, that this can’t be a Hard Problem of physics; it’s actually a Hard Problem of metaphysics.

This is awkward because we know that human consciousness does have physical manifestations that are readily amenable to physical investigation; all of our conscious behaviour, our speech and writing, for example. Our new Hard Problem (let’s call it the NHP) can’t help us with those; it is completely irrelevant to our physical behaviour and cannot give us any account of those manifestations of consciousness. That is puzzling and deeply problematic – but only in the same way as the old Hard Problem (OHP) – so perhaps we are on the right track after all?

The problem is that I don’t think the NHP helps us even on a metaphysical level. Since we can’t investigate the essential nature of things empirically, we can only know about it by pure reasoning; and I don’t know of any purely rational laws of metaphysics that tell us about it. Can the inward nature of things change? If so, what are the (pseudo-causal?) laws of intrinsic change that govern that process? If the inward nature doesn’t change, must we take everything to be essentially constant and eternal in itself? That Parmenidean changelessness would be particularly odd in entities we are relying on to explain the fleeting, evanescent business of subjective experience.

Of course Mørch and others who make a similar case don’t claim to present a set of a priori conclusions about their own nature; rather they suggest that the way we know about the essence of things is through direct experience. The inner nature of things is unknowable except in that one case where the thing whose inner nature is to be known is us. We know our own nature, at least. It’s intuitively appealing – but how do we know our own real nature? Why should being a thing bring knowledge of that thing? Just because we have an essential nature here’s no reason to suppose we are acquainted with that inner nature; again we seem to need some hefty metaphysics to explain this, which is actually lacking. All the other examples of knowledge I can think of are constructed, won through experience, not inherent. If we have to invent a new kind of knowledge to support the theory the foundations may be weak.

At the end of the day, the simplest and most parsimonious view, I think, is to say that things just are made up of their properties, with no essential nub besides. Leibniz’s Law tells us that that’s the nature of identity. To be sure, the list will include abstract properties as well as purely physical ones, but abstract properties that are amenable to empirical test, not ones that stand apart from any possible observation. Mørch disagrees:

Some have argued that there is nothing more to particles than their relations, but  intuition rebels at this claim. For there to be a relation, there must be two things being related. Otherwise, the relation is empty—a show that goes on without performers, or a castle constructed out of thin air.

I think the argument is rather that the properties of a particle relate to each other, while these groups of related properties relate in turn to other such groups. Groups don’t require a definitive member, and particles don’t require a single definitive essence. Indeed, since the particle’s essential self cannot determine any of its properties (or it could be brought within the pale of physics) it’s hard to see how it can have a defined relation to any of them and what role the particle-in-itself can play in Mørch’s relational show.

The second point where I think Mørch goes wrong is in the leap to panpsychism. The argument seems to be that the NHP requires non-structural stuff (which she likens to the hardware on which the software of the laws of physics runs – though I myself wouldn’t buy unstructured hardware); the OHP gives us the non-structural essence of conscious experience (of course conscious experience does have structure, but Mørch takes it that down there somewhere is the structureless ineffable something-it-is-like); why not assume that the latter is universal and fills the gap exposed by the NHP?

Well, because other matter exhibits no signs of consciousness, and because the fact that our essence is a conscious essence just wouldn’t warrant the assumption that all essences are conscious ones. Wouldn’t it be simpler to think that only the essences of outwardly conscious beings are conscious essences? This is quite apart from the many problems of panpsychism, which we’ve discussed before, and which Mørch fairly acknowledges.

So I’m not convinced, but the case is a bold and stimulating one and more persuasively argued than it may seem from my account. I applaud the aims and spirit of the expedition even though I may regret the direction it took.

eyesPhilip Goff tells us that panpsychism is an appealingly simple view. I do think he has captured an important point, and one which makes a real contribution to panpsychism’s otherwise puzzling ability to attract adherents. But although the argument is clear and well-constructed I could hardly agree less.

Even his opening sentence has me shaking my head…

Common sense tells us that only living things have consciousness.

Hm; I’m not altogether sure such questions are really even within the scope of common sense, but popular culture seems to tell us that people are generally happy to assume that robots may be conscious. In fact, I suspect that only our scientific education stops us attributing agency to the weather, stones that trip us up, and almost anything that moves. It isn’t only Basil Fawlty that shouts at his car!

Goff suggests that the main argument against panpsychism (approximately the view that everything everywhere is conscious: I skip here various caveats and clarifications which don’t affect the main argument) is just that it is ‘crazy’ – that it conflicts with common sense. He goes on to rebut this by pointing out that relativity and Darwinism both conflict with common sense too. This seems dangerously close to the classic George Spiggott argument so memorably refuted in the 1967 film Bedazzled;

Stanley Moon: You’re a nutcase! You’re a bleedin’ nutcase!
George Spiggott: They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud, and Galileo.
Stanley Moon: They said it of a lot of nutcases too.
George Spiggott: You’re not as stupid as you look, are you, Mr. Moon?

But really we’re fighting a straw man; the main argument against panpsychism is surely not a mere appeal to common sense. (Who are these philosophers who stick to common sense and how do they get any work done?) One of the candidates for the main counter-argument must surely be the difficulty of saying exactly which of the teeming multi-layered dynasties of entities in the universe we deem to be conscious, whether composite entities qualify, and if so, how on Earth that works. Another main line of hostile argument must be the problem of explaining how these ubiquitous consciousnesses relate to the ordinary kind that appears to operate in brains. Perhaps the biggest objection of all is to panpsychism’s staggering ontological profligacy. William of Occam told us to use as few angels as possible; panpsychism stations one in every particle of the cosmos.

How could such a massive commitment represent simplicity? The thing is, Goff isn’t starting from nothing; he already has another metaphysical commitment. He believes that things have an intrinsic nature apart from their physical properties. Science, on this view, is all about a world that often, rather mysteriously, gets called the ‘external’ world. It tells us about the objectively measurable properties of things, but nothing at all about the things in themselves. No doubt Goff has reasons for thinking this that he has set out elsewhere, probably in the book of which he helpfully provides an interesting chapter.

But whatever his grounds may be, I think this view is itself hopeless. For one thing, if these intrinsic natures have no physical impact, nothing we ever say or write can have been caused by them. That seems worrying. Ah, but here I’m inadvertently beginning to make Goff’s case for him, because what else is there that never causes any of the things we say about it? Qualia, phenomenal consciousness, the sort Goff is clearly after. Now if we’ve got two things with this slippery acausal quality, might it not be a handy simplification if they were the same thing? This is very much the kind of simplification that Goff wants to suggest. We know or assume that everything has its own intrinsic nature. In one case, ourselves, we know what that intrinsic nature is like; it’s conscious experience. So is it not the simplest way if we suppose that consciousness is the intrinsic nature of everything? Voila.

There’s no denying that that does make some sense. We do indeed get simplicity of a sort – but only at a price. Once we’ve taken on the huge commitment of intrinsic natures, and once we’ve also taken on the commitment of ineffable interior qualia, then it looks like good sense to combine the two commitments into, as it were, one easy payment. But it’s far better to avoid these onerous commitments in the first place.

Let me suggest that for one thing, believing in intrinsic natures poisons the essential concept of identity. Leibniz tells us that the identity of a thing resides in its properties; if all the properties of A are the same as all the properties of B, then A is B. But if everything has an unobservable inner nature as well as its observable properties, its identity is forever unknowable and there can never be certainty that this dagger I see before me is actually the same as the identical-looking one I saw in the same place a moment ago. Its inward nature might have changed.

Moreover, even if we take on both intrinsic natures and ineffable qualia, there are several good reasons to think the two must be different. If we are to put aside my fear that my dagger may have furtively changed its intrinsic nature, it must surely be that the intrinsic nature of a thing generally stays the same – but consciousness constantly changes? In fact, consciousness goes away regularly every night; does our intrinsic nature disappear too? Do sleeping people somehow not have an intrinsic nature – or if they have one, doesn’t it persist when they wake, alongside and evidently distinct from their consciousness? Or consider what consciousness is like: consciousness is consciousness of things; qualia are qualia of red, or middle C, or the smell of bacon; how can entities with no sensory organs have them? Is there a quale of nothing? There might be answers, but I don’t think they’re going to be easy ones.

There’s another problem lurking in wait, too, I think. Goff, I think, assumes that we all exist and have intrinsic natures, but he cannot have any good reason to think so, because intrinsic natures leave no evidence. We who believe that the identity of things is founded in their observable properties have empirical grounds to believe that there are many conscious entities out there. For him the observable physics must be strictly irrelevant. He has immediate knowledge only of one intrinsic nature, his own, which he takes to be his consciousness;  the most parsimonious conclusion to draw from there is not that the universe is full of intrinsic natures and consciousnesses of a similar kind, but that there is precisely one; Goff, the single consciousness that underpins everything. He seems to me, in other words, to have no defence against some kind of solipsism; simplicity makes it most likely that he lives in his own dream, or at best in a world populated by some kind of zombies.

Crazy? Well, it’s a little strange…

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.

world alterBernardo Kastrup has some marvellous invective against AI engineers in this piece…

The computer engineer’s dream of birthing a conscious child into the world without the messiness and fragility of life is an infantile delusion; a confused, partial, distorted projection of archetypal images and drives. It is the expression of the male’s hidden aspiration for the female’s divine power of creation. It represents a confused attempt to transcend the deep-seated fear of one’s own nature as a living, breathing entity condemned to death from birth. It embodies a misguided and utterly useless search for the eternal, motivated only by one’s amnesia of one’s own true nature. The fable of artificial consciousness is the imaginary band-aid sought to cover the engineer’s wound of ignorance.

I have been this engineer.

I think it’s untrue, but you don’t have to share the sentiment to appreciate the splendid rhetoric.

Kastrup distinguishes intelligence, which is a legitimate matter of inputs, outputs and the functions that connect them, from consciousness, the true what-it-is likeness of subjectivity. In essence he just doesn’t see how setting up functions in a machine can ever touch the latter.

Not that Kastrup has a closed mind, he speaks approvingly of Pentti Haikonen’s proposed architecture; he just doesn’t think it works. As Kastrup sees it Haikonen’s network merely gathers together sparks of consciousness: it then does a plausible job of bringing them together to form more complex kinds of cognition, but in Kastrup’s eyes it assumes that consciousness is there to be gathered in the first place: that it exists out there in tiny parcels amendable to this kind of treatment. There is in fact, he thinks, absolutely no reason to think that this kind of panpsychism is true: no reason to think that rocks or drops of water have any kind of conscious experience at all.

I don’t know whether that is the right way to construe Haikonen’s project (I doubt whether gathering experiential sparks is exactly what Haikonen supposed he was about). Interestingly, though Kastrup is against the normal kind of panpsychism (if the concept of  ‘normal panpsychism’ is admissible), his own view is essentially a more unusual variety.

Kastrup considers that we’re dealing with two aspects here; internal and external; our minds have both; the external is objective, the internal represents subjectivity. Why wouldn’t the world also have these two aspects? (Actually it’s hard to say why anything should have them, and we may suspect that by taking it as a given we’re in danger of smuggling half the mystery out of the problem, but let that pass.) Kastrup takes it as natural to conclude that the world as a whole must indeed have the two aspects (I think at this point he may have inadvertently ‘proved’ the existence of God in the form of a conscious cosmos, which is regrettable, but again let’s go with it for now); but not parts of the world. The brain, we know, has experience, but the groups of neurons that make it up do not (do we actually know that?); it follows that while the world as a whole has an internal aspect, objects or entities within it generally do not.

Yet of course, the brain manages to have two aspects, which must surely be something to do with the structure of the brain? May we not suspect that whatever it is that allows the brain to have an internal aspect, a machine could in principle have it too? I don’t think Kastrup engages effectively with this objection; his view seems to be that metabolism is essential, though why that should be, and why machines can’t have some form of metabolism, we don’t know.

The argument, then, doesn’t seem convincing, but it must be granted that Kastrup has an original and striking vision: our consciousnesses, he suggests, are essentially like the ‘alters’ of Dissociative Identity Disorder, better known as Multiple Personality, in which several different people seem to inhabit a single human being. We are, he says, like the accidental alternate identities of the Universe (again, I think you could say, of God, though Kastrup clearly doesn’t want to).

As with Kastrup’s condemnation of AI engineering, I don’t think at all that he is right, but it is a great idea. It is probable that in his book-length treatments of these ideas Kastrup makes a stronger case than I have given him credit for above, but I do in any case admire the originality of his thinking, and the clarity and force with which he expresses it.

lightChristof Koch declares himself a panpsychist in this interesting piece, but I don’t think he really is one. He subscribes to the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of Giulio Tononi, which holds that consciousness is created by the appropriate integration of sufficient quantities of information. The level of integrated information can be mathematically expressed in a value called Phi: we have discussed this before a couple of times. I think this makes Koch an emergentist, but curiously enough he vigorously denies that.

Koch starts with a quotation about every outside having an inside which aptly brings out the importance of the first-person perspective in all these issues. It’s an implicit theme of what Koch says (in my reading at least) that consciousness is something extra. If we look at the issue from a purely third-person point of view, there doesn’t seem to be much to get excited about. Organisms exhibit different levels of complexity in their behaviour and it turns out that this complexity of behaviour arises from a greater complexity in the brain. You don’t say! The astonishment meter is still indicating zero. It’s only when we add in the belief that at some stage the inward light of consciousness, actual phenomenal experience, has come on that it gets interesting. It may be that Koch wants to incorporate panpsychism into his outlook to help provide that ineffable light, but attempting to make two theories work together is a risky path to take. I don’t want to accuse anyone of leaning towards dualism (which is the worst kind of philosophical bitchiness) but… well, enough said. I think Koch would do better to stick with the austere simplicity of IIT and say: that magic light you think you see is just integrated information. It may look a bit funny but that’s all it is, get used to it.

He starts off by arguing persuasively that consciousness is not the unique prerogative of human beings. Some, he says, have suggested that language is the dividing line, but surely some animals, preverbal infants and so on should not be denied consciousness? Well, no, but language might be interesting, not for itself but because it is an auxiliary effect of a fundamental change in brain organisation, one that facilitates the handling of abstract concepts, say (or one that allows the integration of much larger quantities of information, why not?). It might almost be a side benefit, but also a handy sign that this underlying reorganisation is in place, which would not be to say that you couldn’t have the reorganisation without having actual language. We would then have something, human-style thought, which was significantly different from the feelings of dogs, although the impoverishment of our vocabulary makes us call them both consciousness.

Still, in general the view that we’re dealing with a spectrum of experience, one which may well extend down to the presumably dim adumbrations of worms and insects, seems only sensible.

One appealing way of staying monist but allowing for the light of phenomenal experience is through emergence: at a certain level we find that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts: we do sort of get something extra, but in an unobjectionable way. Strangely, Koch will have no truck with this kind of thinking. He says

‘the mental is too radically different for it to arise gradually from the physical’.

At first sight this seemed to me almost a direct contradiction of what he had just finished saying. The spectrum of consciousness suggests that we start with the blazing 3D cinema projector of the human mind, work our way down to the magic lanterns of dogs, the candles of newts, and the faint tiny glows of worms – and then the complete darkness of rocks and air. That suggests that consciousness does indeed build up gradually out of nothing, doesn’t it? An actual panpsychist, moreover, pushes the whole thing further, so that trees have faint twinkles and even tiny pieces of clay have a detectable scintilla.

Koch’s view is not, in fact, contradictory: what he seems to want is something like one of those dimmer switches that has a definite on and off, but gradations of brightness when on. He’s entitled to take that view, but I don’t think I agree that gradual emergence of consciousness is unimaginable. Take the analogy of a novel. We can start with Pride and Prejudice, work our way down through short stories or incoherent first drafts, to recipe books or collections of limericks, books with scribble and broken sentences, down to books filled with meaningless lines, and the chance pattern of cracks on a wall. All the way along there will be debatable cases, and contrarians who disbelieve in the real existence of literature can argue against the whole thing (‘You need to exercise your imagination to make Pride and Prejudice a novel; but if you are willing to use your imagination I can tell you there are finer novels in the cracks on my wall than anything Jane bloody Austen ever wrote…’) : but it seems clear enough to me that we can have a spectrum all the way down to nothing. That doesn’t prove that consciousness is like that, but makes it hard to assert that it couldn’t be.
The other reason it seems odd to hear such an argument from Koch is that he espouses the IIT which seems to require a spectrum which sits well with emergentism. Presumably on Koch’s view a small amount of integrated information does nothing, but at some point, when there’s enough being integrated, we start to get consciousness? Yet he says:

“if there is nothing there in the first place, adding a little bit more won’t make something. If a small brain won’t be able to feel pain, why should a large brain be able to feel the god-awfulness of a throbbing toothache? Why should adding some neurons give rise to this ineffable feeling?”

Well, because a small brain only integrates a small amount of information, whereas a large on integrates enough for full consciousness? I think I must be missing something here, but look at this.

“ [Consciousness] is a property of complex entities and cannot be further reduced to the action of more elementary properties. We have reached the ground floor of reductionism.”

Isn’t that emergence? Koch must see something else which he thinks is essential to emergentism which he doesn’t like, but I’m not seeing it.

The problem with Koch being panpsychist is that for panpsychists souls (or in this case consciousness) have to be everywhere. Even a particle of stone or a screwed-up sheet of wrapping paper must have just the basic spark; the lights must be at least slightly on. Koch doesn’t want to go quite that far – and I have every sympathy with that, but it means taking the pan out of the panpsychist. Koch fully recognises that he isn’t espousing traditional full-blooded panpsychism but in my opinion he deviates too far to be entitled to the badge. What Koch believes is that everything has the potential to instantiate consciousness when correctly organised and integrated. That amounts to no more than believing in the neutrality of the substrate, that neurons are not essential and that consciousness can be built with anything so long as its functional properties are right. All functionalists and a lot of other people (not everyone, of course) believe that without being panpsychists.

Perhaps functionalism is really the direction Koch’s theories lean towards. After all, it’s not enough to integrate information in any superficial way. A big database which exhaustively cross-referenced the Library of Congress would not seem much of a candidate for consciousness. Koch realises that there have to be some rules about what kinds of integration matter, but I think that if the theory develops far enough these other constraints will play an increasingly large role, until eventually we find that they have taken over the theory and the quantity of integrated information has receded to the status of a necessary but not sufficient condition.

I suppose that that might still leave room for Tononi’s Phi meter, now apparently built, to work satisfactorily. I hope it does, because it would be pretty useful.

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…

Picture: Honeycomb series. Panpsychism, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say panexperientialism, has seemed to be quite a popular view in previous discussions here, but I’ve always found it problematic. Panexperientialism, as the name suggests, is the belief that experience is everywhere; that experience is the basis of reality, out of which everything else is built.  Objects which seem dead and inanimate ultimately consist of experience just as much as we do: it just doesn’t seem like that because the experiences which make them up are not our experiences.  The attractive feature of this view is that it removes some of the mystery from consciousness: instead of being a very rare phenomenon which only occurs in very specific circumstances, such as those which exist in our brains, consciousness of a sort is universal, and so it’ s not at all surprising that we ourselves are conscious.

One of the problems is the question of how many experiential loci we’re dealing with. Does the table have experiences? Does half the table? Do the table legs have four separate sets of experiences, and at the same time a sort of federal joint experience as a composite entity? There are ways to solve these problems, but they’re distinctly off-putting to me. More fundamentally, I’m inclined to doubt whether the theory is as helpful in explaining things as  it seems. OK, so my brain has experience just because it’s an object and all objects have experience; but surely that brain-as-an-object experience is the same kind of thing as the experiences rocks have, while the experience I’m interested in, the kind that influences my bodily behaviour, is something else; something which remains unexplained.

One of the sources of difficulty here, I think, as with many metaphysical theories, is that the philosophical point of view is not well integrated with any clear scientific conception.  When we need to pin down our loci of experience we’re left to rummage around and see what we can come up with – atoms? Too small.  Discrete physical entities? What exactly are they? (Shintoism, if I understand it correctly, has bitten this kind of bullet and given up on a sharp definition of what is animate: lots of things can have souls, but only if they’re salient or impressive. Mount Fuji definitely gets one, but some anonymous pile of dirt in your back garden is just a pile of dirt.)

But what about Finite Eventism? This theory (as expounded by Carey R. Carlson in Chapter 12 of Mind that abides: Panpsychism in the New Millennium) is a theory of physics first and foremost, one that happens to provide a neat basis for a solution to the mind-body problem taking a panpsychist/panexperientialist view. It is based on the late ideas of Russell and Whitehead, though one of its appealing features is that it dovetails well with quantum theory in a way Russell and Whitehead were not aware of.

The gist of the theory is a radical reduction of physics to a minimalist ontology consisting of events and the basic temporal relations of being earlier or later (there’s also cause and effect, which I take to be causally connected varieties of earlier/later). There are some rules which prevent inconsistency (events can’t be earlier/later than themselves) and that’s it. In particular, there is no initial concept of space or extension. We are allowed convergent and divergent causal paths, so we can construct complex multiple ‘honeycomb’ pathways like the one shown. The four consistent axes which appear in these diagrams are taken to make up a 4-D manifold of space-time, with neutrinos and electrons delineated by gaps, and the repetition of patterns in sequence representing persistence over time.  Quanta, in this theory, are represented by the steps between two events; the number of intermediate steps between two events corresponds with the relative frequency of the relevant path, and these relative frequency ratios provide relative energy ratios, following Planck’s E=hf.

I hope those brief,  inadequate remarks give a hint of how the basics of physics can be built up in a very elegant manner from the simple topology of these sequences: it looks impressive, though I must frankly admit that I’m not competent to explain the theory properly, never mind evaluate it. Readers may like to look at this short description (pdf).

The question for us is, what are these ‘events’? Carlson follows Whitehead in seeing them all as ‘occasions of experience’; in some ways they resemble the monads of Leibniz’s radically relativist ontology;  they are pure phenomenal moments. Carlson argues that the basis of all science is phenomenal experience; historically, in order to account for those experiences better through Newtonian style physics it became necessary to postulate unexperienced abstract entities; and then the phenomenal experience dropped out of the theory leaving us with a world made of fundamentally unaccountable entities.

The best part of it for me is that the theory provides relatively good and clear answers to the problems I mentioned above. It’s clear that the loci of experience are situated in the events: I take it that continuity of experience is guaranteed in exactly the same way as physical continuity by repeating patterns (though what the nature of those patterns amounts to is an interesting question).  If that’s so, then the relationship between the consciousness of my brain-as-object and the consciousness of my brain-as-brain is also helpfully clarified.

How far, though, is the actual nature of my consciousness clarified? The explanation of most of my mental characteristics is deferred upwards to be explained by the working of the brain. That is, no doubt, exactly as it should be: but it leaves me with no particular reason to adopt panpsychism. The one feature which the theory does explain is phenomenal experience (alright, a fairly important feature!); but it really only does so by telling us that things just do have phenomenal experience.  Why should we take it that the events are phenomenal in nature – doesn’t ontological parsimony suggest they should be featureless blips?

Still, I think this is the most viable and attractive formulation of panpsychism/panexperientialism I’ve seen.