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 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.