Another panpsychist flogs a dead theory

January 10, 2020 • 9:30 am

Sorry, I’m not yet done with panpsychism. The more I read about this theory, the more I’m puzzled that seemingly rational people accept such a grossly benighted view of consciousness. Seriously! Especially atheists, for panpsychism resembles theology in several ways:

  • There is not a shred of evidence supporting its tenets.
  • It was invented to plug a supposed gap in our empirical knowledge that, it’s said, can never be filled by science or empirical study alone. Theologians still try to promulgate God of the Gaps arguments, while panpsychists tout The Conscious Particles of the Gaps.
  • Panpsychists will accept no criticism of their theory—even the true one that there is no evidence for it. They are enthusiasts, like evangelical Christians, and simply don’t listen.
  • Like theologians, they constantly refer you to other discussions of their theory if you find fault with some of them. It’s always: “Wait! You haven’t read these other five books and papers on our theory. All your objections are answered there.” (They aren’t, of course.) It’s an endless chase down a rabbit hole, like dealing with Edward Feser or Alvin Plantinga.

There are other parallels, but I digress. The last point, involving my post on the hourlong BBC show in which three philosophers (Philip Goff, Hedda Hassel Morch, and Eccy de Jonge) defended panpsychism, is instantiated by a comment made by Morch on this site. Her comment appeared after my BBC post, and here’s what she said (with the link):

A BBC show on panpsychism once again shows that there’s no ‘there’ there

A comment by Hedda Hassel Mørch:

Thanks for sharing your criticisms! I understand the view might not sound plausible to everyone from the short presentation we gave. I wrote about the case for panpsychism in more detail here, which addresses some of your points:

We also didn’t get the chance to talk about the combination problem (the hard problem of panpsychism as you call it). I agree this is a very serious problem for the view, probably the most serious one. However there are arguments to support that it’s not as hard as the original hard problem for physicalism (Philip, I and many others have given such arguments and suggested possible solutions) so I don’t think it’s a knock-down of the view.

So, dutifully, I read Morch’s piece in Nautilus magazine (the site is funded by Templeton, of course, who must eat up panpsychism because of its numinous and woo-ey tinge). And, sadly but predictably, Morch didn’t really answer any of my objections, much less that of the “combination problem”: how particles with no subjective consciousness but with properties defined as consciousness—like electron charge—somehow create a humanlike subjective consciousness when you put enough of them together.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Read the article and then I’ll give my take. In my view, the Nautilus piece simply repeats what we’ve already dealt with in analyzing Philip Goff’s views; there’s nothing new here except, perhaps, her assertion that maybe there is a rudimentary type of subjective experience in particles:

Once again we deal with the same erroneous or untestable contentions. Morch’s views (and quotes from others) are indented. Morch’s main contentions are in bold:

Consciousness is a unique problem that can’t be solved with empirical research. I’m referring here to the “Hard Problem” of consciousness: “How do the workings of a material brain produce the subjective feelings, the ‘qualia’, that are an important part of consciousness. The panpsychist view is that, from the outset, the Hard Problem is not only hard and unsolved, but cannot be solved—except, perhaps, by philosophy alone. (It defies me how an empirical problem can be solved by mere rumination alone, with no predictions, test, or evidence.)

Here’s how Morch frames the supposedly empirically insoluble nature of consciousness:

This problem is distinctively hard because its solution cannot be determined by means of experiment and observation alone. Through increasingly sophisticated experiments and advanced neuroimaging technology, neuroscience is giving us better and better maps of what kinds of conscious experiences depend on what kinds of physical brain states. Neuroscience might also eventually be able to tell us what all of our conscious brain states have in common. . . But in all these theories, the hard problem remains. How and why does a system that integrates information, broadcasts a message, or oscillates at 40 hertz feel pain or delight? The appearance of consciousness from mere physical complexity seems equally mysterious no matter what precise form the complexity takes.

Nor would it seem to help to discover the concrete biochemical, and ultimately physical, details that underlie this complexity. No matter how precisely we could specify the mechanisms underlying, for example, the perception and recognition of tomatoes, we could still ask: Why is this process accompanied by the subjective experience of red, or any experience at all? Why couldn’t we have just the physical process, but no consciousness?

Other natural phenomena, from dark matter to life, as puzzling as they may be, don’t seem nearly as intractable. In principle, we can see that understanding them is fundamentally a matter of gathering more physical detail: building better telescopes and other instruments, designing better experiments, or noticing new laws and patterns in the data we already have. If we were somehow granted knowledge of every physical detail and pattern in the universe, we would not expect these problems to persist. They would dissolve in the same way the problem of heritability dissolved upon the discovery of the physical details of DNA. But the hard problem of consciousness would seem to persist even given knowledge of every imaginable kind of physical detail.

Yesterday I highlighted a paper by neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland showing that intractability does not mean we need a radical new theory. Just because we can’t even conceive of what a solution would look like now doesn’t mean that we should defer to the radical and untestable hypothesis of panpsychism. It could mean only that the problem is hard. (Churchland gave examples of scientific problems that once seemed intractable because we didn’t even know how to approach them. And then the tools arrived!) The supposedly “intractable” problem outlined by Morch, Goff, and others, is taken apart in this 2005 paper by Churchland, which you can get for free by clicking on the screenshot:

Here’s how Churchland disposes of the idea that consciousness will forever be refractory to empirical study simply because it involves subjectivity (we’ll have more on this within a few days):

. . . Pursuing this point further, the philosopher may go on to conclude that no science can ever really explain qualia because it cannot demonstrate what it is like to see blue if you have never seen blue; consciousness is forever beyond the reach of scientific understanding.

What is the merit in this objection? It is lacking merit, for if you look closely, you will find that it rests on a misunderstanding. The argument presumes that if a conscious phenomenon, say smelling mint, were genuinely explained by a scientific theory, then a person who understood that theory should be caused to have that experience; e.g., should be caused to smell mint. Surely, however, the expectation is unwarranted. Why should anyone expect that understanding the theory must result in the production of the phenomenon the theory addresses? Consider an analogy. If a student really understands the nature of pregnancy by learning all there is to know about the causal nature of pregnancy, no one would expect the student to become pregnant thereby. If a student learns and really understands Newton’s laws, we should not expect the student, like Newton’s fabled apple, to thereby fall down.  To smell mint, a certain range of neuronal activities have to obtain, particularly, let us assume, in olfactory cortex. Understanding that the olfactory cortex must be activated in manner will not itself activate the olfactory cortex in manner. We are asking too much of a neuroscientific theory if we ask it not only to explain and predict, but also to cause its target phenomenon, namely the smell of mint, simply by virtue of understanding the theory.

Churchland continues with the argument, so read the rest, but this seems to me to pinpoint the error of the Panpsychic Program. If we can reproduce the phenomenon of an odor, or of conscious awareness, with a theory that is testable, and we understand which neurons are involved, how they fire, and why, then we have understood consciousness. Its subjectivity is not necessarily a problem (Pigliucci calls it an advantage), because we can still report and thus study consciousness. We may not be able to know what it’s like to be another person, but we can study what phenomena are required for consciousness in both us and others who have the ability to report consciousness in some way.

Beyond that problem, there’s another problem that’s scientifically intractable: the intrinsic nature of matter.  


One might wonder how physical particles are, independently of what they do or how they relate to other things. What are physical things like in themselves, or intrinsically? Some have argued that there is nothing more to particles than their relations, but intuition rebels at this claim.

. . .Roughly speaking, Newtonian physics says that matter consists of solid particles that interact either by bumping into each other or by gravitationally attracting each other. But what is the intrinsic nature of the stuff that behaves in this simple and intuitive way? What is the hardware that implements the software of Newton’s equations? One might think the answer is simple: It is implemented by solid particles. But solidity is just the behavior of resisting intrusion and spatial overlap by other particles—that is, another mere relation to other particles and space. The hard problem of matter arises for any structural description of reality no matter how clear and intuitive at the structural level.

Like the hard problem of consciousness, the hard problem of matter cannot be solved by experiment and observation or by gathering more physical detail. This will only reveal more structure, at least as long as physics remains a discipline dedicated to capturing reality in mathematical terms.

This seems to me to be a manufactured problem, and in fact a meaningless problem. What, exactly, does Morch mean by “what physical particles are“? Once you’ve described everything about them that you can, and how they interact with other particles, what remains to be asked? What is the elusive essence of physical particles, the elusive “Ding an sich” that they’re supposed to have?

Well, of course they say the answer is “consciousness”, but that’s not an answer because it explains nothing. They like that answer, though, because if you say that every bit of matter in the universe has consciousness, then you don’t have to posit a scientific explanation for “higher” consciousness beyond what I call The Lego Argument: if you put together a lot of conscious particles, you get even more consciousness. But that problem—the issue of “combination” that I singled out yesterday—isn’t solved, either, for there’s supposedly a qualitative difference between the consciousness of an electron and that of a human being.

But is there?

Goff says “yes”: that the consciousness of electrons is not like human self-awareness with qualia. Rather, it consists of their unique properties: their spin, their charge, their mass, and so on. But here he’s just renaming observable properties as aspects of “consciousness,” which not only kicks the entire problem of panpsychism out the window, but also trashes the problem of finding an “intrinsic nature” of particles that eludes science. If “spin” and “charge” are part of that intrinsic nature, then it’s not only not eluded science, but we already understand the particles!

And here is one aspect in which Morch diverges from Goff:

Particles do have a rudimentary consciousness that’s not encapsulated in their observable characteristics. That is, they are wee “thinkers.”

It’s hard to tell what these people believe, for their arguments are slippery, but Morch says this:

 Some simple, elementary forms of experiences implement the relations that make up fundamental particles. Take an electron, for example. What an electron does is to attract, repel, and otherwise relate to other entities in accordance with fundamental physical equations. What performs this behavior, we might think, is simply a stream of tiny electron experiences. Electrons and other particles can be thought of as mental beings with physical powers; as streams of experience in physical relations to other streams of experience.

But in what sense can electrons be thought of as “mental beings”? Morch doesn’t tell us. Nor do we learn what kinds of “experience” they have, for it must be a kind of experience that stays with an electron over time, just like consciousness stays with us over time. But that’s not how electrons are!

Ergo, neither Goff nor Morch have solved the two problems they’ve set for themselves.

What remains is the “combination problem”—the one that, in her comment above, Morch characterizes as tractable and one to which she and Goff give solutions. How, exactly, do electrons without a real consciousness get together to produce brains with full consciousness? That problem is not automatically solved by the central tenet of panpsychism. And, at least in this piece, Morch doesn’t give an answer, either. Here’s all that she says:

A second important objection is the so-called combination problem. How and why does the complex, unified consciousness of our brains result from putting together particles with simple consciousness? This question looks suspiciously similar to the original hard problem. I and other defenders of panpsychism have argued that the combination problem is nevertheless not as hard as the original hard problem. In some ways, it is easier to see how to get one form of conscious matter (such as a conscious brain) from another form of conscious matter (such as a set of conscious particles) than how to get conscious matter from non-conscious matter. But many find this unconvincing. Perhaps it is just a matter of time, though. The original hard problem, in one form or another, has been pondered by philosophers for centuries. The combination problem has received much less attention, which gives more hope for a yet undiscovered solution.

If you can find a solution to the “combination problem” in there, you’re a better person than I. All she says is that it’s easier to get a conscious brain from conscious particles (but how?) than from non-conscious particles. In the meantime, I’ll continue my search for the solution, which means that you will be afflicted as well.

And then the final sell job:

The possibility that consciousness is the real concrete stuff of reality, the fundamental hardware that implements the software of our physical theories, is a radical idea. It completely inverts our ordinary picture of reality in a way that can be difficult to fully grasp. But it may solve two of the hardest problems in science and philosophy at once.

I’m not buying. If panpsychism were an Amazon product, I’d give it just a single star.


92 thoughts on “Another panpsychist flogs a dead theory

  1. Gawd love a duck! I am not reading her article – that’s what we have Jerry for!

    Seriously, I think most of my particles want to meet their anti-matter partners when I hear about panpsychism!

    1. And I like the “woo woo” comment. Didn’t read much further. I’m way too old for this type of “philosophy” anyway.

  2. Discussion of what parts of the brain are active during conscious or any other behavior is valuable and worthwhile investigation. And studying the same process in smaller snd smaller organisms during different behaviors is also valuable to gain knowledge. That is interesting stuff.

  3. That’s exactly it: intrinsic natures are a manufactured problem. You could hear it in Goff’s interview/debate with Sean Carroll. Sean simply says there is nothing more to understand.


    1. intrinsic natures are a manufactured problem

      Agree. One can make up any attribute, say splendorificness, and argue that naturalism can’t explain splendorificness.

  4. “If panpsychism were an Amazon product, I’d give it just a single star.”

    I’ve rated there, but forget; so assume that ZERO stars is NOT an OPTION.

  5. It occurred to me the other day – “is the Templeton Foundation somehow behind the scenes, sending out its tendrils in this latest bizarre fad?”

    The word “speechless” doesn’t really satisfy me on this point.

    And it’d have been nice if this bizarre fad were a “rabbit hole”.

      1. what I am astonished by is how, it seems, we’ve observed the rising edge of this bizarre fad – distracted by it – when under the wave is the Templeton Foundation. It’s plans unfolding before we recognize it.

  6. It is pretty easy to see how the “hard problem” emerges.

    “I am in pain”, “I am contemplating the meaning of life”, etc. etc.

    If we model “I” as a black box, and these statements as descriptions of the invisible contents of black boxes, then naturalism will never work, because in naturalism, there is no inherent inside of anything (all borders can be penetrated, all things hidden can be revealed.) [IMHO the solution is to construe such statements as expressions and not descriptions, gestures not propositions.]

    Panpsychism comes to the rescue by saying everything is a black box, even things that can’t report intentions or feelings and can’t be deceptive about their intentions or feelings.

    Can we sharpen Occam’s razor?

      1. I was just wondering the same thing. And neutron stars, where electrons and protons have merged. One wonders about “The Law of the Conservation of Consciousness” when particles are destroyed or annihilated.

    1. If you are working off the correspondence view of truth, then the assertion “the cat is on mat” is true iff the cat is on the mat.

      The assertion is distinct from the observation that verifies it.

      In contrast, “I am in pain” is true iff I am in pain. I am the one making the utterance, and I am the one “verifying” the utterance (actually, I don’t do that at all but that digresses), and I am the one in pain. There is no distinction between the sign and what it signifies. Hence, “I am in pain” is not a description of an internal state, it is an expression of my state of being, e.g. pain behavior.

      1. In contrast to the correspondence view (true/false description), there is the truth as used with respect to art and current (true or counterfeit). The person who lies about being in pain or sick is really a counterfeiter, not a liar in sense of the person who claims they went to the party but did not.

  7. “Sorry, I’m not yet done with panpsychism.”

    No need in the least to apologize. It is true that the stuff sounds so ludicrous that some good people are inclined to think it a waste of time to bother talking about panpsychism.

    But there are other things historically, and here recently, which are a bit like that, but fundamentally different: in 1500, that the earth moves would quite naturally sound ludicrous to most. However there was good evidence for it, but requiring listening carefully to the right people explaining. Right now, ‘Everett’s many worlds’ should sound ludicrous right off to most of us; but there is such a strong quantum theory as a predictor, and such a lack of seeing it as a general explanation of the world. So the evidence is even more roundabout here for discussion and taking serious all possibilities, finding their relative weaknesses and strengths. Fortunately, the advent of quantum computing has helped get this to be regarded as a worthwhile intellectual pursuit.

    For panpsychism there is nothing remotely like evidence, even in the sense of filling a lack of explanatory knowledge about genuine questions on a well tested scientific theory. (NOT the faux question: what’s the really really true nature of what an electron really is?!!) And there seems to be no end to the queue of people ready to want this kind of thing to be true, to have value, with even highly educated and literate people, and ones with responsible positions in the proverbial Faculty of Arts of Highfallutin State University, getting sucked in.

    So I guess there will be no end to the need for people like Jerry to keep hammering away at this kind of foolishness–and no reason to apologize.

  8. Panpsychism still doesn’t explain why “matter is consciousness,” how it came to be conscious, etc. It’s really no different from “everything was created by God” without saying where God came from, why God had no beginning, etc.

    1. I think the panpsychist view is that consciousness is a basic property of the Universe. Like quantum fields (if they’re basic).

  9. Why do seemingly rational people accept this, even atheists? I think it is because the hardest thing to accept about naturalism is that everything we see around us, including the panoply of life and conscious intelligent beings, is just the product of dead inert particles, organized and interacting. Although true, it is astonishing if you think about it. They want something “magical”, but they don’t want to use that word.

    1. But the world IS magical, no matter what it is composed of, or whether consciousness survives death, or whether there are a panoply of invisible beings (benevolent and malevolent) interfering with us. That can neither be added to or subtracted from it, whatever we choose to say about it.

      Its more a question what we can responsibly say about it so we don’t end up burning witches or homosexuals.

      1. The world is indeed magical in the “wondrous” sense of the word, but they want magical in the supernatural sense of the word. They want to assign a quality to matter that is not known to physics.

        1. The human psychology behind ontology:

          If something is really important, then it has to actually exist.

          Justice is really important, therefore Athena must exist. If anyone doubts the existence of Athena, they must hate justice and desire injustice.

          People, and especially the welfare of people (not suffering) is really important. Therefore, the must have something invisible that makes them special and distinct from everyone else, call it a soul. If you don’t believe in the soul, you must be some kind of sick sadist.

          The reality is that something can be really important without having some kind of inherent existence beyond its material form.

      2. Let’s say Jerry is 100% correct, and everything is basically railroad cars running on railroad tracks laid down at the time of the Big Bang (and yes, I’m not being fair to him here).

        Does that mean we can’t appreciate a sunset over the Pacific? If anything, it makes our ability to appreciate a sunset more mysterious.

        1. Yes, you’re not being fair to me here. Not everybody thinks the same things are beautiful, but of course there’s the biophilia hypothesis and the notion that some sounds are just inherently appealing to us because they conjure up emotions for no evolutionary reason (at least none that I can see). Literature can confirm our social connection with others, and also entrance us with a story, which used to be a way of group bonding.

          Seriously, you’re saying that if we evolved naturalistically, we can’t explain why some things give us pleasure?

          1. No. The miracle is always that the world exists, not how the world exists. The miracle that I am in love, not that there isn’t a perfectly good scientific explanation for why I fall in love.

            It’s two ways of seeing. The lover looks at a body differently from a surgeon, even if the two are the same person. Some seem to act as if you have a complete understanding of human anatomy, you would never be able to fall in love. Others act as if you had feelings for some skin bag consisting of blood, pus, feces, bone, and gristle, it poses a threat to modern medicine.

  10. On Morch’s “intrinsic nature of matter”, I think I understand what he’s getting at though I don’t think it justifies any crazy theory like panpsychism or consciousness.

    We are primed by evolution to think in terms of objects and forces as it is a useful model for dealing with everyday life. Scientifically, we know this is an illusion. In many respects, it’s forces all the way down. Morch is still looking for the hard stuff.

    1. ‘On Morch’s “intrinsic nature of matter…”’

      Are there academic philosophers yet who apply for grants to research the subject known as
      (Pardon the caps.)

    2. Morch just doesn’t get what physical theories are about. They *tell us* both intrinsic and relational properties of bodies and matter more generally. For example, solve Newton’s law (statement) for F=0. This result (exercise left to the reader) tells you, that with zero net force, a body will be in motion at constant velocity (including the case “rest”, which is zero velocity). This velocity is an intrinsic property of the body. Einstein showed later that it is more complicated than that, but the question is of reference, not truth. (I use this example because it is so simple.)

  11. The spin-doctoring of the combination problem, to me, is their way of widely skirting language that says that consciousness is an emergent property.
    My question is: Do they ever address the counterclaim that consciousness is an emergent property? As in, a property that comes about through the interactions between component parts?

    1. Yes. And do they deny that the concept of emergent properties in general is invalid? It seems they must because there are some pretty clear examples, such as the oft mentioned wetness of water. If they don’t then what’s the hang-up with consciousness being an emergent property of lower order stuff?

  12. You really knocked it out of the park. Your attention to the combination problem, and to Morch’s inadequate response to it, is right on. And the Churchland quote about smelling mint is also right on.

    I like to add an observation after making the same point Churchland makes. To wit, science as we know it, together with the philosophical hypothesis that experience is a physical brain process, predicts that when we learn from books about olfaction, we will NOT suddenly smell mint. And this prediction is correct! So philosophers like Morch are effectively objecting to physicalism by pointing to one of its correct predictions! Epic fail.

    1. If we reify experience, and its not clear we should, the who or what that the experience “belongs to” is not the mind, or the pineal gland, or the brain, but the organism. I smell mint. I experience mint.

      When we do attribute sensations to a bodily organ, we attribute them to the organ of sense, not the brain. “My nose smells mint” “My hand feels cold” etc.

      Its the reification of subjective experience and the simultaneous desire to assign it a location that creates the problem in the first place. You simply have states of an embodied, unitary being.

      If you reify it to a brain process (a part of the whole), then you have to ask what portion of the process (when), the process in which parts of the brain (where), etc. etc., then it will disappear upon dissection, and the dualist will be smug.

      1. Good point. It is a mistake to try to pinpoint an exact location to an emergent, macroscopic scale process. On the other hand, people can experience subjective sensations upon direct stimulation of the brain, without the usual sense organ activation. And it’s the subjective sensation, not the whole experience, that the dualists want to focus on. So I’m not too worried about narrowing that down to “the brain”.

        1. Please don’t take this the wrong way, the brain is very important.

          But people can experience subjective sensations from shaking their hand, kicking them in the ribs, etc. You can create “false” perceptions by manipulation of surrounding colors, through misleading cues (dunking the hand in hot water but they report sensations of cold), etc.

          But just because (conscious) people experience sensations, it does not follow that there is a “thing” a “sensation” located somewhere in the body. When we do locate sensations in ordinary language though, we locate them in the organ of sense. What you have are a set of feedback loops.

          1. “But people can experience subjective sensations from shaking their hand…”

            None of that happens in the absence of a brain. In fact, all of those sensory organs are “parts” of brains, extensions of a single nervous system.

          2. “But just because (conscious) people experience sensations, it does not follow that there is a “thing” a “sensation” located somewhere in the body.”

            On your view then, what *are* sensations if they aren’t locatable? They are certainly real enough, at least for the experiencer.

          3. If I’m too hasty to pigeonhole you, by all means complain, but it sounds like you are heavily influenced by Ordinary Language Philosophers like Wittgenstein, Austin and Ryle. Whereas I tend to view that approach as extremely useful, but only after the science (especially, here, psychology) has been sorted out into a nice stable robust set of theories and observations. And, though it may be too early to tell, my hunch is that there is a distinctive subset of what we call, in ordinary language, experience, which dualist philosophers are excited about. If so, pointing out to them that ordinary language as now practiced makes no room for their worries, will not make those worries go away. They want to reify, so it behooves us to ask what’s real, and only then address their worries.

  13. “Why should anyone expect that understanding the theory must result in the production of the phenomenon the theory addresses?”

    Simplicity itself. Scratch & sniff theories!

    1. Incidentally, there’s a paper in the collection _Of Minds and Molecules_ that attempts to address what sort of science an organism with a better sense of smell and taste would develop, rather than the vision-centred one we arguably have. It is a fun little thought experiment but I am not sure what to conclude.

  14. The “hard problem” of consciousness again:

    Having been caught up in the consensus that “consciousness” is really important, and that “consciousness” must exist (because it is so important), and be something invisible and magnificent, the “hard problem” is that natural science will never be able to discover something truly invisible and magnificent.

    [Because science can’t succeed, therefore the gods exist, and the demons and angels torment us, and we can just go back to slavery and feudalism. Actually, I don’t think even Templeton wants to go back that far.]

    Maybe consciousness is like the Queen in chess? There is nothing special scientifically about the piece that represents the Queen in chess viz. the other pieces, the Queen is important because of the role the Queen plays in the game.

    1. What kinds of consequences result when there are mistakes about whether someone is really conscious or unconscious? How are the stakes different than a mistake over whether someone is actually hungry or not?

      1. There is, of course, something special scientifically about the human brain, but remember, the scientific understanding of the human brain can’t yield the answers to the “hard problem”. [Of course not, because those problems have the nature of legal and ethical quandaries.]

  15. It seems to me that the primary objection to the “Hard Problem of Consciousness,” let alone to panpsychism, is to ask why its proponents would expect our neural processes NOT to produce subjective experiences/qualia. Since everyone we can talk to, and whose writing we can read, etc., reports subjective experience, it seems that the starting point should be that these neural processes by their nature produce subjective experience…that that’s just what it’s like to be a human brain/mind (and probably many another type of brain/mind). To assume otherwise would seem to imply a kind of solipsism.

    1. My thought exactly! You’ve got this wet squishy thing with millions of sensors connected to a central nervous system connected to a brain with billions of neurons firing at light speed and the whole system is electrified and hard-problemists can’t see how such a thing could be experiencing qualia? They simply can not proceed with life until someone explains this great mystery to them.

    2. One of the Churchlands has a paper which makes this point too. Qualia are unanalyzable (or so their proponents claim), but the paper points out that this is exactly expected. How would any discriminating system have infinite resolution on any dimension? So they are *experiential* simples, exactly as one would expect. Are they somehow *completely* unanalyzable? Of course not, but from the third person perspective! (HINT: The guy who invented the McGill Pain Questionnaire just died: he showed one one can not only study subjectivity objectively, but also even clinically treat it!!)

  16. I’ve been wondering what happens when a panpsycher bumps into a flat-earther. I’m getting a vision of a Gary Larson cartoon….

  17. Hedda Hassel Mørch:

    One might wonder how physical particles are, independently of what they do or how they relate to other things. What are physical things like in themselves, or intrinsically? Some have argued that there is nothing more to particles than their relations, but intuition rebels at this claim


    It never fails to perplex me to see an educated person appeal to intuition like this.

  18. Feynman … ‘wishful thinking’ …
    Hume … ‘more likely that we say things’ …
    Nietzsche …’all made up’ …
    Wittgenstein … ‘playing with words’ …
    Nagel …’the will to believe never ends’ …

  19. Perhaps this problem – we may not be able to know what it’s like to be another person – is merely that the problem is incoherent. If experience is defined and understood to be peculiar to one person, then it’s incoherent to wonder how I could have another person’s experience. We just can’t. We also can’t move faster than the speed of light but that doesn’t pose any philosophical problems.

    1. I don’t see how that is really incoherent, just not possible with today’s technology. Once we understand how the brain works, it seems likely we could wire one person’s experiences into another’s. There may be some data conversion needed and the resulting experience might not be absolutely identical to that of the other person.

      Still, incoherent seems too strong a word. It is much easier to conceive of this than going faster than the speed of light. Oh, wait, they’ve done that coherently on Star Trek and there are real scientists trying create FTL drives.

      1. I think it’s a simple bet that we can translate some experiences soon. If I remember correctly neuroscientists can now, with the help of FMRI, identify a movie scene in the mind of someone that has been asked to remember it. I think the recently discovered hexagonal grid coordinates used by neurons to map space works out to mirror the movie under introspection (here memory experience).

        But I would agree that terms like “consciousness” (or “qualia”, “hard problem”) are incoherent, since they have no testable definition.

        Nitpick: FTL drives do not work in nature, relativity forbids it and the loopholes are either dumb (such as the impossibility to put FTL matter inside relativistic solutions that move space volumes FTL) or fantastic (they destroy physics of causality – one physicist IIRC described it as something like ‘and then the universe implodes’).

        1. Nit with your nitpick. I have no problem with scientists pursuing the “impossible” as long as they don’t start invoking woo. They may learn some things even if they never reach their ultimate goal. And it’s kind a fun too.

  20. It seems to me that panpsychism seems to derive from the same type of yearning for human specialness common among believers, and as is so common among believers the primary argument of panpsychists is an Argument From Personal Incredulity. They also seem to take a page out of the Idealist handbook, that we can never really know anything outside of our own minds, to lend plausibility to their base claim that consciousness is a unique category of mystery.

    But if they accept, which most seem to do, that we can be sure enough of the knowledge we’ve gained about the many physical things outside of our minds necessary to make GPS systems then they still haven’t explained what’s so special about consciousness that places it outside the grasp of science.

    In my opinion we have already solved the problem of consciousness in the most general sense. I think we know enough already to be quite sure that consciousness arises from the nervous systems of living organisms and that those nervous systems are comprised of stuff obeying the laws of physics as we already know them. No, we don’t know the details, can’t model it and can’t reproduce it. As of yet. But I think we can be pretty sure of that much.

      1. I don’t think that’s what panpsychists typically think. They think that all matter has some essence of consciousness but to get human level consciousness you have to add up all the little tiny bits of consciousness from all the particles that make up a human body and they have to be arranged in just the right way, or something. Human consciousness is still special.

        Even though God is the big dog, omni-everything, the desert dogmas are still all about human specialness. All of creation, the whole shebang, is for humans.

              1. “I wish I was special
                But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo
                What the hell am I doing here?
                I don’t belong here….”

          1. Believers and wooists add another dimension to it that distinctly changes what humans being special means compared to what I might agree with. They think that the universe cares about humans. I care about humans but the universe, dare I say it (?), couldn’t care less.

            1. I think the idea of the “wooists” know this, and to win their audience, posit that we as humans are the universe, and therefore the universe *does* care about us. I have to admit, Carl Sagan said something like (I do not use quotes here) we are a way for the universe to know itself. that is a wonderful figurative idea, but the wooist will mean something like that literally.

            2. Exceptionalism seems to be a human trait whether it be as nations, individuals or humanity as a whole. Religious people think God is watching especially over them. The indifference of nature to our suffering is a bit frightening. I suppose that is why believing one is special is so comforting. As children, most of us were treated as special and we thought the universe revolved around us. Many never outgrew that.

  21. Something of an aside, but on reflection, is there really any difference between the ‘correlates of consciousness’ camp and the ‘understand consciousness subjectively’ camp? I was going to write a muse-y comment about how when I meditate, I become very interested in how consciousness changes based on various ways of examining it (One thing I have found interesting, by way of example, is how pain – for me at least – is instantly decreased if I drop out visualization of where it is happening. If my back hurts, and I examine my experience, I notice that in addition to feeling a baseline sensation, and thinking ‘Ow! My back hurts!’, I am also picturing the portion of my back that hurts. If I deliberately try to stop picturing it and locate the sensation alone, it becomes much less intense. So I find the idea of trying to watch consciousness grow, shift, intensify, change, and so on quite interesting.)

    Upon doing that, however, I realized that the two are not necessarily parallel lines that never intersect. For example, say consciousness is a complex relationship between sense data and the human conception of ‘self’ (something proposed in various spiritual traditions, I think.) I think it would be entirely possible to feel a relaxing of the ‘self’, see the correlates of this empirically, and also subjectively observe the changing nature of consciousness as this occurred. In fact, for the most accurate description possible, where consciousness is zoomed in under a microscope in as much detail as possible, this may be inevitable, as you of course need a subject giving a subjective report of what they are experiencing to verify the empirical side of things.

  22. I’ve tried to understand this who panpsychism thing and its rationale but I just can’t. I listened the Sean Carroll’s podcast with Philip Goff when it first came out and I just couldn’t hear a clear definition of what it really was. Good grief, I’ve heard clear definitions of how quantum physics works and although I don’t fully get that, I’m way closer to understanding it then what the heck this panpsychism is.

    1. “I’ve tried to understand this who panpsychism thing …”

      I think if it didn’t have a box office name for itself, it’d be someone saying “matter has consciousness”, and therefore, nobody would try to understand it.

      Recall Scientology’s prime directive : keep Scientology working. Likewise, it appears to me that panpsychism is tasked primarily with keeping panpsychism working.

  23. ‘Like the hard problem of consciousness, the hard problem of matter cannot be solved by experiment and observation or by gathering more physical detail’.

    The assertion of the armchair philosopher throughout history!

  24. Sorry, I’m not yet done with panpsychism.”

    It’s an interesting debate and I’d like to see it play out – but I smell the air-freshner odour of Sophisticated Panpsychism(tm) trying to mask its own inadequacies.

    Bait-and-switch, you must read all these other books, the argument from authority, switching the meanings of words within the argument, avoiding technical descriptions etc. In the end it’s all arm waving and the Goff gallop.

  25. Pat Churchland:

    “To smell mint, a certain range of neuronal activities have to obtain, particularly, let us assume, in olfactory cortex.”

    This is likely the case, with the relevant neural correlates yet to be precisely determined. But the question will still remain: why just those sorts of correlates and not others? That’s where a theory connecting function and phenomenology may eventually fill the explanatory gap. Stay tuned, for who knows how long.

    1. I don’t see this as a problem: it’s like asking, “Why these laws of physics and no others.” The answer could just be “that’s just the way it is.”

      The question you say that remains seems like a non-question to me.

      1. Interesting. I think the evidence thus far suggests that consciousness is associated with certain sorts of functions and capacities and not others. In which case it seems to me that there’s a possible explanation having to do with why certain functions (I suspect they are representational) entail that the system will have phenomenal experience. Thomas Metzinger has some interesting ideas on what that explanation might be in his books Being No One (a very tough read) and The Ego Tunnel (much easier, but not simplistic).

  26. The culprit here is the vagueness of the term “consciousness”. Trying to argue with people about what causes consciousness without having a prior agreed clear definition of consciousness is always going to be a waste of time. Many people who call themselves scientists are guilty of maintaining the muddiness of this water simply in order to gain funding and so perpetuate the myth that conciseness is something mysterious, rather than a natural product of evolution. The better that a creature can sense its environment, the better it can make an internal model of its world. The ability not only to do this, but also to be able to imagine a possible world where it can predict possible consequences of its actions is an ability that can aid survival. Abilities like this are probably something to do with the notion of consciousness, and there’s nothing mysterious about that.

  27. No matter how precisely we could specify the mechanisms underlying, for example, the perception and recognition of tomatoes, we could still ask: Why is this process accompanied by the subjective experience of red, or any experience at all?

    If the “experience of red” is subjective, why is it then we have objective methods for diagnosing color-blindness? In fact, why do we say people are blind? Shouldn’t we just call them “other-seers”, since what they see is subjective, and we can’t see what they see?

    1. Diagnosing color blindness involves discriminative behavior which leaves aside (and intact) the experienced subjective qualities of the colors being discriminated. So I don’t see Morch’s question as being ill-posed, although her pessimism about getting an answer is unjustified. Specifying all the physical and functional details is exactly what’s needed to inform a viable theory of why subjective experience arises only under certain conditions.

      1. If the qualities are subjective and private, how come we agree on what to call red?

        I am visualizing a “Murphgoodle” in my head right now. I going to point to a “Murphgoodle” to show you what it looks like. How can you be sure that is actually a “Murphgoodle” and I’m not “Murphgoodle”-blind?

        1. Reaching intersubjective agreement about what looks red (pointing to a fire truck) leaves open the question of whether my experience of red is the same as yours. No such question arises for public objects that everyone can see: we all agree it’s a red fire truck.

  28. Panpsychism is very easy to understand: it’s the panicky go-to of scientists who have discovered that once they die, it will be the same as if they never existed.

  29. The man behind the panpsychist curtain is personal incredulity in regards that we can experience introspection. The curtain is a mishmash of more incredulity in regards physics combination with misunderstandings of it.

    To take the philosopher model first, we can add or remove opsins for colors in rats and see them adapt to it. There is no need for understanding introspection in such model systems.

    Then, epiphenomena in physics is something Sean Carroll describes. We can as well ask ‘How and why does water molecules that make hydrogen bonds become water drops when sufficiently many’ as putting Morch’s question. This is a solved problem in modern physics, modern gauge theories – theories invariant under transformations including scaling – build on it.

    “Renormalization is a collection of techniques in quantum field theory, the statistical mechanics of fields, and the theory of self-similar geometric structures, that are used to treat infinities arising in calculated quantities by altering values of quantities to compensate for effects of their self-interactions. … When describing space-time as a continuum, certain statistical and quantum mechanical constructions are not well-defined. To define them, or make them unambiguous, a continuum limit must carefully remove “construction scaffolding” of lattices at various scales. Renormalization procedures are based on the requirement that certain physical quantities (such as the mass and charge of an electron) equal observed (experimental) values.” [ ]

    In other words, physics on various scales must behave differently in order to have natural laws. And we can account for that.

    Further, quantum particle fields, some of which make matter and some which make interactions, do not contain hidden variable databases. What you observe is what you get, and having laws guarantee that we can make robust observations.

    Finally, Morch doesn’t know what a solid is. It is not particles but electromagnetic fields that makes chemically bonded solids have a resistance to pressure. This should not be confused with particle collision “resistance” of quantum fields. The latter is, as far as I know, described by perturbation theory based on the localized action that the field has due to relativity applied to quantum physics – relativity causes locality and causality to appear in the light cone. Particle collisions are universal for fields. Solids are, on the other hand, a state of matter and see above on the difference between all fields and fermionic “matter” fields).

    1. “in regards physics combination with” – in regards physics in combination with.

      “do not contain hidden variable databases” – do not contain hidden variable databases of properties (explicitly forbidden in quantum physics). And I should add here the observation in the thread, that the standard particle model now explicitly leaves no room for panpsychist “extras” outside the particles either (for energies where our material bodies operate).

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