A good critique of panpsychism but a lousy alternative

January 14, 2020 • 11:00 am

The article at hand was published by the Institute of Art and Ideas, a British organization that I hadn’t heard of but is described by Wikipedia thusly:

The Institute of Art and Ideas is an arts organisation founded in 2008 in London. Its programming includes the world’s largest philosophy and music festival, HowTheLightGetsIn and the online channel IAI TV, where talks, debates and articles by leading thinkers can be accessed for free, under the slogan “Changing How The World Thinks.”

I then remembered that they invited me to that festival a few years back, but expected me to pay my own way, which I won’t do just to help them fund their endeavors. But I will point to this article on their website by Bernardo Kastrup, identified as a “Dutch computer scientist and philosopher who has published fundamental theoretical reflections on the mind matter problem.” I have to say that if you go to his site, which is the link at his name, you will find a considerable amount of hubris! But amuse yourself later.

Kastrup is quite critical of panpsychism, and for good reasons. But then, near the end of his piece, the whole argument goes south. For Kastrup, while saying that panpsychism can’t help us understand the “hard problem of consciousness”, also claims that materialism can’t solve it either, and we need to posit that the entire universe (or, as Sean Carroll would say, the Big Wave Function) is conscious. And, like panpsychism, that’s crazy and untestable. It’s weird that a philosopher can so deftly dispose of a crazy theory but then fall under the spell of a different crazy theory. But read by clicking on the screenshot:

Kastrup’s beef is with the “combination problem” that I’ve highlighted before: how does the semi-consciousness of elementary particles (people like Philip Goff posit that the spin, charge, mass, and other properties of these particle are aspects of their “consciousness”—a semantic trick) combine to provide the “high level” consciousness of animals such as ourself? So far I haven’t seen a solution to this problem from panpsychists, only a bunch of handwaving.

Kastrup highlights the combination problem in a more physical way, involving the recognition that particles are not discrete, but aspects of the Big Wave function:

You see, I can easily accept that my cats are conscious, perhaps even the bacteria in my toilet. But I have a hard time imagining—especially when I am eating—that a grain of salt contains a whole community of little conscious subjects. The panpsychist’s motivation for wanting even the humble electron to be conscious is to treat experiential states in a way analogous to how physical properties are treated in chemistry. As the physical properties of particles combine in atoms, molecules and aggregates to give rise to emergent macroscopic properties—such as the wetness of water—the panpsychist wants the experiential states of particles in our brain to combine and give rise to our integrated conscious inner life. The idea is to fold experience into the existing framework of scientific reduction and emergence. Therein resides most of the appeal and force of panpsychism.

To do so, the panpsychist takes subatomic particles to be discrete little bodies with defined spatial boundaries. This way, their respective experiential states are thought to be encompassed by such boundaries, just as our human experiences seem to be encompassed by our skull. Indeed, since each person’s consciousness does not float out into the world, but is personal in the sense that it is limited by the boundaries of the person’s body, so subatomic particles must be understood as discrete little bodies, each containing separate and independent subjectivities.

The panpsychist then posits that the inherent subjectivity of different particles can combine into compound subjects if and when the particles touch, bond or otherwise interact with one another in some undefined chemical manner. Notice that this approach makes sense only through analogy with physical properties. The mass of an electron is ‘held’ within the electron’s boundaries, therefore it’s only logical—the argument goes—that its experiential states should also unfold within the same boundaries. Or is it?

The problem is that subatomic particles aren’t discrete little bodies with defined spatial boundaries; the latter is a simplistic and outdated image known to be wrong. According to Quantum Field Theory (QFT)—the most successful theory ever devised, in terms of predictive power—elementary particles are just local patterns of excitation or ‘vibration’ of a spatially unbound quantum field. Each particle is analogous to a ripple on the surface of a lake. We can determine the location of the ripple and characterize it through physical quantities such as the ripple’s height, length, breadth, speed and direction of movement, yet there is nothing to the ripple but the lake. We can’t lift it out of the lake, for the ripple is merely a pattern of movement of the water itself. Analogously, according to QFT, an elementary subatomic particle is just a pattern of excitation or ‘vibration’ of an underlying quantum field. Like the ripple, we can determine the particle’s location and characterize it through physical quantities such as mass, charge, momentum and spin. Yet, there is nothing to the particle but the underlying quantum field. The particle is the field, ‘moving’ in a certain manner.

The only way around this issue, says Kastrup, is to posit that what is really conscious is the field that creates the particle itself. He explains why the panpsychist can’t coherently argue why experiential states belong to particles themselves, but then his argument begins to fall apart. Why? Because Kastrup says that even if the quantitative aspects of particles could combine to produce consciousness, they would produce consciousness only as a quantitative property, but consciousness is a qualitative property—the problem of quality:

. . . deducing quality from quantity is something entirely different. Experiential states are qualities; they cannot be exhaustively described in quantitative terms. No numerical parameter can tell someone with congenital blindness what it feels like to see red; or someone who never fell in love what it feels like to, well, fall in love. Indeed, this is precisely the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’ that plagues mainstream materialism and motivated the creation of panpsychism in the first place. One cannot make an unconscious quantum field give rise to a conscious particle for exactly the same reasons that one cannot make an arrangement of matter give rise to experience.

Dr. Kastrup doesn’t seem to realize that some day I think we’ll be able to stimulate blind people’s brains in the right way and then they will see red! We can already give them a very rudimentary experience of vision. Why is he so sure that the qualia of “red” is beyond scientific understanding?

As I wrote five days ago, on similar bases Patricia Churchland has pretty much knocked down the idea that we can’t understand the origin and mechanism of subjective sensations through a materialist paradigm. I refer you again to her excellent 2005 paper in Progress in Brain Research, “A neurophilosophical slant on consciousness research”,  available free at the link. Churchland thinks, and makes a persuasive case, that just because “qualia” (sensations) are “subjective”, that doesn’t put them beyond the reach of materialist explanation. The whole “consciousness is subjective and thus can’t be understood by a materialistic approach” argument is, it seems, a red herring.

Kastrup deep-sixes the panpsychism explanation, at least in terms of the constituents of the brain having some form of consciousness, but comes a cropper (I love that phrase!) when he tries to replace panpsychism with his own theory. For that theory is simply this: the entire universe—the “quantum field”—is conscious. This, he thinks, avoids the “combination problem.” He doesn’t seem to realize that it raises another problem: testability. Also, he looks a bit foolish when he criticizes materialism, which is the only way we have ever been able to understand the universe. Here’s what he says (I’ve put his definition of a “reduction base” at the bottom):

To circumvent materialism’s failure to explain experience, the panpsychist simply adds experience—with all its countless qualities—to the reduction base. Arguably, this is a copout. Inflated reduction bases don’t really explain anything; they just provide subterfuge for avoiding explanations. A good rule of thumb is that the best theories are those that have the smallest base, and then still manage to explain everything else in terms of it. On this account, panpsychism just isn’t a good theory.

Good alternatives to materialism are those that replace elementary particles with experiential states in their reduction base, as opposed to simply adding elements to it. We call this class of alternatives ‘idealism.’ And then the best formulations of idealism are those that have one single element in their reduction base: universal consciousness itself, a spatially unbound field of subjectivity whose particular patterns of excitation give rise to the myriad qualities of empirical experience. Under such a theory, a unified quantum field is universal consciousness.

There is nothing absurd about this theory; the common impression that there is is just a knee-jerk reaction of our current intellectual habits. As a matter of fact, the theory is arguably the most parsimonious, internally consistent and empirically sound view yet devised. Importantly, as I have extensively discussed elsewhere, idealism—unlike panpsychism—can explain how our private, personal subjectivities arise within universal consciousness. I therefore hope that the momentum gathered by panpsychism in both academia and popular culture is transferred, intact, to this uniquely viable avenue of inquiry, before the inherent shortcomings of panpsychism discourage—as they are bound to eventually do—those seeking an alternative to materialism.

So now we don’t have the combination problem nor the untenable idea that each particle has some unique consciousness or apprehension of the universe. All we need posit is that the entire universe is conscious.  But that nagging little problem remains: “In what sense is it conscious?  Oh, and there’s another issue: “How do we test your theory, Dr. Kastrup?”  For a theory that can be neither tested nor falsified is a theory that can be ignored, for it’s not a scientific or empirical explanation.

Now in the passage above Kastrup links to a big book he wrote, and I’m sure he’d point me to that to show why the Universe’s wave function is conscious. But I’m not reading it—not yet. For all I anticipate there is just another species of gobbledygook, or, as Churchland calls it, “hornswoggling.” If you want to read it, by all means do so and report back here.

I wonder why so many people these days are dissatisfied with materialism and science and are drawn to metaphysics, e.g., Tom Nagel, Tom Wolfe, Philip Goff and now Kastrup. You tell me!  One thing I know: Kastrup is in good company. These are from his website:



How Kastrup defines the “reduction base” of theory (I’d call it the “turtle at the bottom”):

But because we can’t keep on explaining one thing in terms of another forever, at some point we hit rock-bottom. Whatever is then left is considered to be our ‘reduction base’: a set of fundamental or irreducible aspects of nature that cannot themselves be explained, but in terms of which everything else can. Under materialism, the elementary subatomic particles of the standard model—with their intrinsic physical properties—constitute the reduction base.

h/t: Paul

68 thoughts on “A good critique of panpsychism but a lousy alternative

  1. Are you familiar with Integrated Information Theory:


    It proposes a metric of consciousness which could characterise all physical systems. The interesting thing is if it identified an electron as having 0 consciousness would that be a form of panpsychism in the sense of a photon having a mass of zero. In some sense every physical object has a mass associated with it, even if it is zero.

    1. ITT 3.12 reminds me of Godel’s proof that god exists. First assume god exists, therefore god exists … duh. But in true Hegel style, flavour it up with a lot of philosophical gobbledigook … to get your Templeton prize.

      1. Whatever Godel actually himself believed ‘religiously’, that proof is ‘simply’ a formalization within 3rd order predicate logic of the Anselm ontological proof IIRC.
        His assumptions are plain for anyone to see, and most would not say he has assumed what he is proving. However the assumptions are not convincing to most, including me.
        But I’d dispute it as being something to be flippant about–it does some real clarification, IIRC from the time that I looked carefully at it. It is in volume 3 of his collected works.

        1. And one can conclude nothing from it, as was shown by a theorem prover done a few years back:

          There is a model of the axioms with a single platonic relation (call it “greater than”, but it doesn’t matter, so long as it is an ordering) and two platonic numbers, 0 and 1, and some Zalta-like axioms for conceivability.

          As was said at the talk about this, “I don’t think even the most platonistic of theists thinks that god *is* a number.”

          1. Technical, sorry, don’t know Keith’s email:

            If it is one of the 3 papers of Oppenheimer and Zalta to which you refer, Keith, I had written something many years ago pointing out that one of their 3 premisses had the form ‘1=1 ==> god exists’, done of course in formal logic. Checking with Oppy, he pointed me to a paper of the Polish logician Garbacz who had done the same, without making much of it, (i.e. that what is in all 3 O&Z papers included assuming that

            [a logically valid formula–a tautology for 1st order logic–implies some other formula],

            and, with it and 2 other irrelevant postulates, then a deduction of that other formula. That’s a ridiculous triviality, once you realize the logical validity.

            So the three O&Z papers are worthless, whether they ever realized that or not, worthless as any criticism of Godel in particular.

            Here with the Garbacz reference are paragraphs which I sent in the end to all four of them, saved from back a few decades to remind myself. I certainly never submitted my work, Pragacz having already made the observation.

            “….I corresponded with Zalta and Oppenheimer who didn’t seem to realize then that the Polish logician Garbacz had pointed this trivialness out (II, page 587, Vol 90, Australasian J. Phil.). Is it really the case that philosophical logicians do not realize that writing down something like ‘1=1 –> god exists’ and using it to deduce at great length the formula for ‘god exists’ might be unimpressive?

            To summarize (see Garbacz for references), many years ago Z. and O. went to great lengths to claim that a correct translation of the original Anselm into formal logic would be non-modal. And more importantly, it would have three premises, unaware as above that one of these had the form ‘a logically valid formula implies god exists’. Indeed, a second paper was written some years later trumpeting a great triumph, achieved by means of mechanization of the proof, which showed them that their other two premises were unnecessary. Yet a third paper was published on it by them. Then Garbacz finally pointed out the fact above, though he curiously didn’t make much of it, but emphasized other criticisms, ones which actually weren’t that strong (I and III, ref above).”

            O&Z’s administrative work on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is valuable no doubt.

              1. Less succinctly, at [peter hoffman in pure mathematics at uwaterloo] you’ll find my email easily for me to get yours, so that, if desired, I can send you (or anyone) a 13 page pdf from 2013 with both my final version, and with a later addendum explaining that my main point is basically already in Garbacz.

                Otherwise, below are its 4 references, with [3] being the one you gave above, and the 4th being Garbacz’s dry version of why
                …….[7=7==>god exists]……
                is all it amounts to, essentially nothing; but with many words torturing a logical language which is at least 140 years out of date; I hope philosophy courses on logic are getting better finally.

                [1] Paul E. Oppenheimer and Edward N. Zalta, On the Logic of the Ontological Argument. Philosophical Perspectives, 5 (1991): 509-529.

                [2] Paul E. Oppenheimer and Edward N. Zalta, Reflections on the Logic of the Ontological Argument. Studia Neoaristotelica, 4/1 (2007): 28-35.

                [3] Paul E. Oppenheimer and Edward N. Zalta, A Computationally-Discovered Simplification of the Ontological Argument Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 89/2 (June 2011): 333-349.

                [G] Pawel Garbacz, DISCUSSION NOTE : PROVER9S SIMPLIFICATION EXPLAINED AWAY. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 90/3 (September 2012): 585-592.

    2. Too much so: How would you respond to Scott Aaronson’s critique, namely that it predicts a 2-dimensional array of transistors to have vastly more consciousness than a human, while a 1-dimensional array has none?


      1. I guess that depends how big the array is. Presumably one assumption of materialism is that a sufficiently big cpu would have more consciousness than a human. Thanks for the reference I will look into it.

            1. No, under the physicalist paradigm, there should be a way to calculate how much consciousness something has, so that being a specific refutation of IIT, while leaving a “consciousness factor” possible should not be surprising.


        1. “…sufficiently big cpu would have more consciousness than a human”
          That reminds me of a Fred Hoyle piece of science fiction entitled ‘The Black Cloud’ from way back.

        1. Firstly, is there such a discipline in serious academics as “philosophy of number”?
          (as distinct from internet pseudo-philosophy babble). If yes, I’d be very interested in a reference.

          Secondly, “..difference between no mass and zero mass..” seems like a nominal difference is search of a distinction, or what ever the cute phrase is. Surely in particle physics, no such distinction is ever made. Every particle has ‘a’ mass, formerly called its rest mass.

          Mathematical objects, such as 0, and getting away from physics, are at best ‘mathematically emergent’ in some sense, emergent as objects within the essential mathematical systems/models/structures, three sorts of things not really the same, and “structures” having still some vagueness about it.

            1. “..philosophy of number..” is what you had said, and what I asked about. Mathematics has to do with far more than numbers

              1. Ok, but pedantry aside there is a long history regarding the question of whether zero exists. Perhaps the question of whether a photon has zero mass or no mass is not the most interesting.

              2. Whether “zero exists” has never been a question for mathematicians as far as I can tell. I’m not thinking of some putative neanderthal mathematician nor her countrymen.
                Maybe I should ask who in your opinion has been the most ‘weighty’ thinker (mathematician or otherwise) to even consider that as being worthwhile to ponder?

            1. Follows that 0x0=a, does it not? So a=0. So mass(photon) is like 0/0. That gets back to what I think you were saying, perhaps in humour, perhaps not.
              All: please don’t take this seriously, and not be insulted by me thinking I need to say that.

  2. The alternative to reductionism is, of course, holism. That wholes are ontologically distinct from parts. That understanding how the parts work does not necessarily convey what the whole does.


    The heart is an organ the purpose of which is to pump blood through the organism. Even if you understood how human stem cells form into heart cells, and you understood the physics of the heart, you would never know what it did unless you considered its role within the context of the entire organism.

    Organism that respond behaviorally to stimulus and perhaps make expressions about inner states.

    A cultural artifact. You might know how the Kung! tribe manufactures a particular artifact, but that does not disclose what the artifact is used for, or its symbolic significance to the Kung! people (religious/kinship ties/etc).

    Language. You might know biologically how an organism can produce a linguistic utterance, but that would not imbue fluency in the language.

    Why does reductionism rule then?

    First, chopping things up and understanding their component parts does convey a lot of understanding. Second, chopping things up is a lot easier methodologically from say doing anthropological field studies, and there is much less contention in the results. But you don’t need God, minds, spirits, or “consciousness” to explain things, simply holism.

    1. “The alternative to reductionism is, of course, holism”

      I’d disagree.

      Holism is not always disjoint from reductionism. There are reductionists of the type who think that eventually all of physics will be deducible by humans from something like particle physics; all chemistry from physics; all biology from physics and chemistry; etc. But that is a very simple-minded attitude which is almost never now shared by strong researchers in any of those subjects. Philosophers can speak for themselves.

      This is a difficult matter for saying definite things with high confidence. But notice that I spoke of human deduction. That does not imply, as one of an uncountably large collection of examples, that you could change the mass of the electron and expect the same suite of dinosaurs to have come into existence exactly how they did.

      Do you not think that seeing the less basic subject as emergent from the more basic one is not itself a form of holism?

      I realize that all this depends on how the words ‘holism’ and ‘reductionism’ are defined. But the quote at the top is in my opinion a long way from the truth, for any reasonable such definitions.

      1. Do you not think that seeing the less basic subject as emergent from the more basic one is not itself a form of holism?

        Yes, of course it is a form of holism. I would say conscious behavior is an emergent property of certain kinds of organisms, which emerge ultimately from matter. In saying that, while compatible with philosophical naturalism, it is not compatible with reductionism.

        If you have real wholes, then it logically follows that you have real natural hierarchies, real natural (micro)teleology (expressing relations between the parts and the whole), and real natural form (as your whole has to be described structurally). You don’t need Plato, but you do need structural features abstracted from actual particulars (like species).

        In addition, drop the Cartesian theater, let’s bring back real secondary qualities of matter, and dump representational theories of mind (I see the world, not sense data). Now most of the qualia are out there, we don’t have to “explain” consciousness so much, do we?

        As far as modeling a statement such as “I am conscious” as a description of a “thing” in an “invisible” location, the mind, I don’t accept that model. So I don’t think the solution is to attribute the statement “I am conscious” to some kind of a description of some kind of physical activity in a concealed location, the brain. Therefore I reject materialist reductionism with respect to philosophy of mind as well, without espousing dualism or panpsychism or any of that nonsense.

    2. I think the issue with consciousness is that the relationship between any parts we can conceptualize and the final product is so inconceivable. We have a notion of how the parts of a machine come together to do work. We have no experiential notion, for the most part, of how you would stack parts together and get a conscious experience.

      Whether this is a true problem or a failure of intuition on the part of our primate brains, I’m not sure. I can picture putting physical objects together to create new formations in space, or to create motion, or energy. I have a much more difficult time picturing putting physical parts together and the outcome somehow being experience. (I said below, however, this intuition has shifted a bit over time, as I think about ‘experience’ at a more fine grained level. I think it’s easier if I think of consciousness of being something of an optical illusion with many, many layers built upon one another. Consciousness is easier to understand, I think, if you say on some level that it is illusory and doesn’t actually exist in the first place.)

      Whether it ultimately makes more sense, at a philosophical level, that humans understand that you can strike flint and get a spark; but balk at the idea that you can arrange neurons and get consciousness, I don’t know. Again, maybe there really is something to balk at there, or maybe this is just a failure of intuition on our part based on the kind of cause-effect relationships our brains were designed to process. There is no reason for us to intuit that consciousness can be created because there is nowhere in our environment where we witness the creation of consciousness firsthand. Perhaps we should be equally stunned by the creation of fire but fail to do so simply because we’ve witnessed it multiple times.

  3. When it comes to the hard problem of consciousness I reject the term “problem” because it’s no problem at all that we only have materialist explanations for consciousness at this point. Sure we can continue to study consciousness but there’s nothing about what we do not yet know that is causing a problem for humanity or even for science.

    It’s not like we see behaviours in humans that don’t make any sense under materialism and so the fact that we only have materialism to explain it is a problem and so we need some alternate theory of how consciousness arises so we can understand this mysterious human behaviour.

    It might be a problem for some philosophers but it’s not a problem for scientists and psychologists. At best I would call it the interesting mystery of consciousness. But “problem?” It’s nothing of the sort. Can any panpsychists out there explain why it is a problem?

    1. “Can any panpsychists out there explain why it is a problem?”

      I’m not a panpsychist, and even if I were I’m not allowed to talk about it. So instead I’m going to try to address your question by talking about poetry—something I know more about anyway.

      One could analyze all of the properties—sound, meter, structure, figures of speech, etc.—by which a poem achieves its effects, and one could similarly record and analyze all of the sensations in the brain of someone reading the poem. Thus you would know everything that is going on in the poem to create its effects and everything that is going on in a reader’s brain as the effects happen. But you could do all this without yourself experiencing those effects.

      Now, experiencing those effects adds nothing that is analytically valuable (the counterpart of “scientifically valuable”) and tells you nothing about the mechanics of the poem or the mechanics of the brain that you didn’t already know. But if you imagine a world in which everyone understood all of the above but no one had the experience per se, you would, I think, have to admit that something important was missing. Such a world doesn’t exist, of course, but I would still consider failure to account for that missing something to be a “problem.”

      1. “One could analyze all of the properties—sound, meter, structure, figures of speech, etc.—by which a poem achieves its effects…”.

        There is a lot of poetry that I find inaccessible, so the intended effects are moot. It’s a bit like websites which tell me that their new design will improve my “experience”and so if I don’t like the website, the fault is mine, and not the fault of the designer.

  4. Science is wonderful since it eventually comes up with forever better explanations. Sure there are many interesting issues that we do not fully understand yet like how DNA maintains instincts through multiple generations or why snakes don’t eat grass. I would still encourage neuroscientists to examine memory in more depth to understand consciousness. That might even lead to how DNA does ‘remember’ animal instincts, or explain dementia better. Memory already explains human language, culture, religion, philosophy, even science … but I’m betting on science to deal with the details of dreaming, schizophrenia or why we lose consciousness when dead, duh … or do we really go to heaven?

  5. If there is a universal wave function, and there must be unless there is a Heisenberg cut between the quantum and classical worlds, then this universal wave function must be conscious *in part* because it contains the wave functions of conscious beings, like ourselves. (Unless, consciousness is an illusion and does not exist.) How, though, this conscious part makes the whole wave function conscious I do not know, because the universal wave function also contains the wave functions of rocks. Unless you think rocks are conscious, in which case we are back to garden variety panpsychism. I see nothing to be gained by introducing the universal wave function.

    1. Me neither. No reason to single out consciousness for this view of things either. Except of course it makes some philosophers feel like they are being Deep. So Deep.
      Imagine a bowl of macaroni and cheese. It must propagate a wave function of ‘cheesiness’ to all corners of the universe.

  6. My opinion:

    Somewhere in time, likely just after 2.6 mya, necessity for the survival gripped one or more species of hominin. Climate was entering the current Ice House, African vegetation was shifting. The life force is so strong, the tiniest suggestion of a pathway to objectivity caught on. “Someone” glimpsed the idea that – after a carcass was stripped clean by others and the predators and scavengers departed – nutrition could still be gleaned inside the skull and bones.

    Give it time, give it time, over hundreds of thousands of years, the trick of using a tool to crack skull and marrow bones open became established. This lead to vast improvement of nutrition delivery, an expansion of brain size and complexity, and that feedback loop in the background, if followed, lead to selection. Loop on loop on loop, with selection driving it – the brain structures that evolved to secure continuity of this knowledge – that is consciousness. No magic.

    Yes, this is similar to Arthur C. Clark’s vision. That man was a genius, much underrated. I’m saying it was the Monolith Scene without the monolith.

    1. One does not need to possess a large brain in order to extract the marrow and brains of other animals; plenty of carnivores do just that, not to mention worms. Still, our evolving brains did need, perhaps, more of the kinds of food that can be found within animal bones, so I would not be surprised if that kind of carnivory helped our evolution.

      1. Tool use for cracking bones and digging tubers would be the primate way for getting these resources, even though other species could get them with different endowments. I like to think of these events as being within a kind of Venn diagram of different traits (some carnivory, social, prehensile limbs, biped). Where they overlap , which was uniquely in the hominins, we see selection for extra large brains.

      2. Edward, I think you read me wrong. I was saying that learning to harvest brain/marrow with tools ‘lead to’ the enlargement of brains, not the other way around.

        1. Ah yes. I see I did just that. My apologies. I agree with you (and Mark) – the desire to get at that marrow without the benefit of a strong crushing jaws or other bone-breaking adaptations could easily be part of the adaptive feed-back that gave us such outsized noggins.

          1. No problem.

            What gets me going about the scenario is that this is (in my opinion) a plausible explanation for the origin of consciousness.

      1. I just read that while the switch from plant-based to meat/organ-based began around 2.4 mya, cooking is claimed to not have been seen until 500,000kya. So, raw for quite a while if true.

        Another angle here is that we did not evolve predator teeth and jaws because our meat-eating trend was basically scavenging, not killing live.

  7. Dear Mr. Coyne,

    Why don’t evolutionists just graciously admit that evolutionists will never solve the consciousness problem nor ever solve the origin of life problem? Nor will atheists ever come up with a plausible origin of matter/energy.

    By the way, have you read the 15 questions that evolutionists cannot satisfactorily answer? See: https://creation.com/15-questions-for-evolutionists

    “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”


    Peter Millen

    1. Dear Mr. Millen,

      Why don’t you just graciously admit that you are in the service of a religious delusion and know nothing about science. Virtually everything on your ridiculous list is a “god of the gaps” issue: “we don’t understand this, ergo god.” What a laugh! People used to say that about a lot of things we understand today.

      “The invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike”.

      Jerry Coyne

      p.s. Learn some damn science!

    2. To Peter Millen …Genesis 1:1 used to be a ‘decent’ explanation to the ancients of the Old Testament. Then John 3:16 became a ‘decent’ explanation’ for New Testament thinking. Today, many people still believe these summarizations of ancient, and even current silly thinking. Fortunately for many of us, science should ‘evolve’ us away from these outdated beliefs. Please join a modern, wonderful, enlightened, scientific approach to living in a beautiful universe.

    3. Dear Peter,

      It’s quite easy to explain how matter and life originated. You just need to be willing to bullshit and you can answer these questions. Religions, panpsychism, etc are capable of answering the questions science can not due to their willingness to bullshit.

      As you correctly point out, science can not answer these questions now due to the fact that it is unwilling to bullshit. Strangely this does not make me want to become religious so I can have all the answers. Go figure.

    4. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

      That quote really did it for me. How do I join creationism.

    5. Ah, those gaps again. I don’t find the putty of religion very satisfying as a filler, but the gaps are where things get interesting. The study of faults, unknowns, errors and brokenness in general is where we learn. Take the name of the festival at the start of the professor’s excellent piece – HowTheLightGetsIn. A line from Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Anthem’:
      There is a crack, a crack in everything
      That’s how the light gets in

      I can’t read that without being moved. It makes me feel tantalisingly close to grasping something I don’t understand. To actually grok it. It’s intense, pretty close to a pre-psychotic feeling of being on the cusp of true understanding and revelation. You might choose to thinks that light is heavenly, but I’ll take it to mean illumination in both senses. The artistic impulse and the religious one are closer than we think, with the small difference that art does no harm…
      I understand the attraction of making the easy choice, and agreeing with the crowd that ‘God did it’ – and there is comfort and societal solidarity in shared beliefs even if they are wrong. For myself, I prefer to revel in the wonder of the unknown slowly being exposed without jumping to any conclusions.

    6. So I am an atheist by proxy, because I think science has solved all your quoted superstition in the same way it once solved astrology. We can now tell religious magic from nature, and the result is no such magic – intercessory prayer doesn’t work (science of religion), there are no souls (matter sector complete in 2017 by LHC, there was only matter interactions) and there are no “gods” (space flat in 2018 by Planck, there is no magic deviation making matter energy or work).

      As for your presumed ‘gotchas’, science allows the answer “we don’t know yet” without that being a magic-in-the-gaps evidence. But for what its worth, if you define “consciousness” in a testable way I will admit “so it exists, but we don’t know how”. Meanwhile, experience is evolved, every animal can experience nerve reactions. Arguably how life evolved was solved 2016 with the first tree predicting the universal common ancestor lineage rooted to geology. Finally, who says matter energy had an initial state? Planck 2018 again, it observes eternal slow roll inflation – least constraint is that this just was, is and will be (except locally since we dropped out of it and passed into a big bang expansion instead).

      Gods? Star signs? Water memory? Snake oil? “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

  8. What I continue to not ‘get’ is why these folks are so convinced that ‘consciousness’ should somehow be the pervasive character of material reality. It’s like “let’s choose a sexy and mysterious quality to spout on about, so people think I’m a Profound Thinker”.
    One could better argue, with good evidence, that the qualities of mass or motion are what pervades all things to some degree. Certainly motion. But it would not seem a Deepity, so it does not hold their attention.

    1. If giraffes were the dominant species the giraffe philosophers would argue that panlongneckism was a good explanation of the appearance of the most important characteristic of their species, or possibly long necks were a ripple in the universal quantum field.

      Never mind “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” – perhaps we should be asking “What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher?”

  9. Bernardo Kastrup is a modern idealist, who wrote the book “Why Materialism is Baloney”. I had some failed communications with him and wrote a reply: “Why Idealism is Bonkers”.

    His take on randomness in evolution is that of an IT-specialist, not a biologist. He argues, that because we don’t actually know if mutations are random, they could be purposeful. I have refuted that here:

    There is a great irony in all these idealist and mind-first thinkers that they take planes to conferences to sit in forums, and return home, all the way claiming only mind exists. Because this is untenable they change the subject to Mind, and claim this is the simplest (and therefore preferable) view.

    But it is not a solution at all, it is a simplicity this side of complexity. The body side of the equation seems to disappear behind the horizon with these folks.

    1. To be fair, he might be an objective idealist – can’t tell – like Hegel or Plato, rather than a subjective idealist, like the mask worn by Descartes or Kant or Berkeley (or, it seems, Deepak Chopra).

  10. With A brain highly connected, thousands of dendrites interconnecting the receptive areas of brain cells… as many neurons as there are stars in the milky way galaxy, let alone glial cells (15 x more) cleaning up the debris, keeping the immune system happy, is that not enough? Apparently not.
    It is not consciousness explained but it is a good place to start when the “problem” comes out for an airing. I can’t help but think of all that electro chemical activity and what it generates. All the functions by the brain we are not even privy to, it just does. (Saw a glimpse of no free will in there, don’t know why)
    What fasinates me is the cerebral cortex the part that does all the thinking has no direct sensory connection to the outside world, it all comes in via input sensory modules and internal updates.
    The brain is an amazing organ.
    Panpsychism (get over it) is like an add on for the frustrated and (over) imaginative brain and not to my brain, required.

  11. I used to be of the opinion that there was indeed a ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. My view on this has shifted recently, perhaps because I spend most of the night in a twilight of half consciousness, barely asleep but on high alert for the slightest stirring of my chubby little spawn. I think I viewed consciousness as a harder problem when I viewed it as more of a binary ‘thing’ – the lights are on or the lights are off, and there’s no getting inside the subjective experience of how they come to be ‘on’. Now I view it more as a gradient, which makes it seem less impenetrable. The more I think about it, the more I’ve begun to assume that we could, hypothetically at least, sit in an MRI and experience our own consciousness coalescing from the barest of awareness to full awareness; or watch how it shifts in quality under various conditions. For whatever reason, this makes the idea of using the correlates of consciousness to discuss consciousness seem less problematic, in the way that we have long used a combination of correlates and first person report to discuss things such as vision and hearing. Yes, it is true that you can never ‘see your own sight’ or see your own eyes directly (directly, not in a mirror.) This is a philosophically interesting point, but we go about discussing the topic of vision pretty well anyways, using reflections, what we observe in other people, a combination of self-report and empirical evidence, etc.

  12. Bernardo Kastrup:

    No numerical parameter can tell someone with congenital blindness what it feels like to see red; or someone who never fell in love what it feels like to, well, fall in love.

    We’ve heard this “naturalism can’t replicate experience” argument before from panpsychists and others that claim naturalism can’t explain consciousness. In fact I’m noticing a pattern: a muddying of the distinction between explaining experience and replicating experience; or a roundabout fallacious claim that if experience can’t be replicated then it can’t be explained.

  13. A quote from Bertrand Russell (as it happens, a neutral monist):

    “All definite knowledge…belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing…”

    And from the physicist Lee Smolin, in his half of The Singular Universe:

    “If a property of an event is intrinsic it can be defined without regard to any relations to other events. That does not mean it plays no role in the dynamical equations of the theory. Let us reserve the term internal for a property of an event or a particle that plays no role in the laws of physics. Momentum can be intrinsic, but it is not internal. Qualia are intrinsic and appear to be internal…qualia are undeniably real aspects of the natural world, and because an essential feature of them is their existing
    only in the present moment, qualia allow the presently present moment to be distinguished intrinsically without regard to relational

    “I would like to offer two speculative proposals regarding the physical
    correlates of qualia. Panpsychism asserts that some physical events have qualia as
    intrinsic properties, some of which are neural correlates of human consciousness. But it does not need to assert that all physical events have qualia…[T]here are…two kinds of events or states in nature: those for which there is precedence, which hence follow laws, and those without precedence, which evoke genuinely novel events. My speculative proposal is that the correlate of qualia are those events without precedence.

    “[And second,] I would hold that events have
    relational and intrinsic properties, but relational properties include only causal relations and spacetime intervals which are derivative from them. Under intrinsic properties I would include the dynamical
    quantities: energy and momenta, together with qualia. I would go further and relate energy and qualia. I would point out that the experienced qualities of qualia correlate with changes of energy. Colors are a measure of energy, as are tones.”

  14. “Kastrup is quite critical of panpsychism, and for good reasons. But then, near the end of his piece, the whole argument goes south.”

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    Some months ago, I’d clicked something, perhaps an essay by Frank Wilczek, and accidentally ended up with that Institute… starting to put something in my email a few times a week, something which has become less than welcome. They however do seem to be able to convince a few strong researchers like Wilczek and Penrose to contribute short things. (Again, like with Sci. Am., I have to wonder.)

    So I saw and read the Kastrup, since this topic is in here with a vengeance, and then looked up his stuff. I claim I’d already decided before this that what we had here was the utter silliness of the panpsychism fad being dissed by someone who saw it as competition for his own not quite so silly silliness.

  15. Consciousness is a system of biological processes like digestion, reproduction or immune protection—all ‘miraculous’ even from a scientific perspective.
    From that perspective, we can give an evidence-based account of the supposed evolutionary lineage of consciousness through a chain of unitary, autonomous living individuals. We see that consciousness is a capacity we share with our species predecessors and co-descendants. Consciousness is always instantiated in a unitary individual, a subjective self, and functions in real time so as allow the self to adjust to the contingencies of its world and to act effectively in that world.
    From what we know objectively, our consciousness is built on and is integrated with our specie’s legacy neurophysiology and neuroanatomy. It is similarly in sync with our lives as humans—our physical faculties (opposable thumbs and bipedalism) and social interdependence (families and tribes).
    Language is the most prominent feature of human consciousness that distinguishes us from other animals, and it has made possible the ongoing cultural development of formal methods of the mind that enable humans to live more adaptively and effectively in their environment.
    Rocks, quarks, vibrating strings and universes have natural provenances entirely different from that of living things and don’t require the idea of consciousness to understand anything about them. Moreover, even if we take panpsychism as a plausible hypothesis for understanding consciousness, it is not clear how it would engender consciousness in living beings or what scientific research program might test, confirm and elucidate a causal mechanism for that.
    Consciousness is only a hard problem in the study of life.

  16. I still see no recognition that physics has solved emergence (by renormalization).

    “Experiential states are qualities; they cannot be exhaustively described in quantitative terms.”

    Tell that to someone wakening or falling asleep, lots of gradual loss of experience there.

    But maybe we are supposed to think about how we like to categorize? That is an evolved trait, say bees can categorize colors.

  17. What alternative can account for the experimental evidence in quantum physics? Bell’s loopholes continue to be closed and several years ago now, local realism was falsified. Objective scientific methodology is pointing directly to our subjective experience being fundamentally inseparable from external reality. Not just as all being filtered through mind but as an objective fact as verified using the same physics used for mundane applications

    1. Umm. . . you get one chance to show that subjective experience is fundamentally inseparable from external reality. You say there are “objective facts” supporting this. Give us some, please. Its telling that no quantum physicist, including physicist like Sean Carroll, have suggested panpsychism as an explanation for their “experimental evidence.”

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