A philosophical red flag

February 11, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Okay, I took the bait and am now reading Philip Goff’s trade book on panpsychism, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. (Why do I let myself repeatedly fall victim to the Courtier’s Reply? I am a sucker.) It hasn’t convinced me so far that matter is somehow conscious, and yet there seem to be a fair number of people who buy into what is essentially a form of religion, since there’s no evidence for panpsychism, its propositions are bizarre, and yet the belief remains fervent. (Some of its adherents, like Goff, also claim that their theory, like religion, vouchsafes us a new form of reassurance and joy.)

And I can’t tell you how many angry and nasty emails and comments I’ve gotten from people who revile me for criticizing panpsychism—all of which convinces me even more that it’s a form of religion. Many of these comments and emails strikingly resemble those I get from religious believers who damn me for going after faith.

And one of the signs of a desperate faith is the claim that belief in your faith is spreading. When you see a statement like the one in the penultimate sentence in this screenshot, you may suspect that you’re dealing with woo (p. 23 from the book). You hear the same kind of claim from Deepak Chopra and from Rupert Sheldrake:

I’m not sure whether I’ll engage further with this form of woo, as it’s like fighting with Ken Ham: panpsychotics are true believers. But I do predict that the idea will die, and in the future people will wonder, “why did they ever entertain such a crazy notion?”

In the meantime, I’m still wondering why people who seem to have a respectable titer of neurons do entertain it. The attraction mystifies me. Why not say that all matter, from electrons and rocks on up, is alive and therefore life (whose origin we still don’t understand) is simply what happens when a combination of “living” inorganic atoms get together in a body? No need to explain the origin of life—it’s already part of everything in the universe!

I’m steeling myself for another onslaught of opprobrium, but I have a fine Bordeaux to drink tonight.

UPDATE:  The termites have already started chewing: here’s a comment that won’t appear:

UPDATE: Readers pointed out that the comment above may actually be a joke about panpsychism. I was too obtuse to see that, so I take back my disapprobation, and have removed the person from moderation. My bad.

But there are lots of other past comments and emails that simply cannot be interpreted charitably at all.

115 thoughts on “A philosophical red flag

  1. It seems wooish to me too & I keep wondering if I’m missing something. What I find frustrating is every time I try to listen to a podcast about it, no one seems to define their terms and I don’t learn anything.

  2. It seems some people (especially the religious) refuse to give up the idea that there may be consciousness outside the brain and life after death- they can’t accept that they will be nothing(for them) after they die- just like there was nothing(for them) before they were born.

  3. Enjoy the wine. I listened to Goff on Mindscape, and while I thought it was an interesting conversation it wasn’t ultimately convincing to me or, I think, to Sean Carroll. At least I wasn’t yelling at the car radio as the laws of physics compelled me to do for the free will component of his conversation with Jenann Ismael recently.

      1. They seemed to be talking past one another:
        Goff asserts that science as we know it cannot account for subjective experiences, and therefore our mathematics will be unable to account for consciousness.
        Carroll believes that mathematics can be used to eventually describe the precise interconnectedness of everything within physical reality, including consciousness; it’s simply a matter of putting in the work.
        Carroll doesn’t understand what Goff’s panpsychism adds to what we already know, given that it is made to fit entirely into our current scientific understanding of the universe and doesn’t contribute any new testable hypotheses.
        In the end, it seemed to me that Goff was simply giving the label of “consciousness” to the physical interconnectedness of things described by Carroll. Nothing new added, just shift in semantics.

        1. I disagree. Goff (and Chalmers, et al) are concerned with how it feels to us to perceive and think. This is the so-called hard problem of consciousness. Science presumably has a way to explain the brain mechanisms that implement consciousness and we’ll get there eventually but science, as currently defined, has a hard time explaining how a mechanism that performs a function experiences that performance.

          Everyone, Carroll included, acknowledges that how it feels to us to perceive and think is something worthy of consideration and study. People like Goff look for a magical solution for which there is no evidence. People like Carroll recognize that there’s no real reason to believe in such things.

  4. You poor guy, now battling faith *and* panpsychism! The attraction is perhaps having one’s cognitive and perhaps existential discomfort assuaged by a congenial cosmic conclusion, evidence be damned. It really is remarkable how Goff and other panpsychists like Galen Strawson (a very smart cookie) see no need for any empirical basis for their claims. It’s a completely armchair exercise. In any case, you have my sympathies.

      1. They at least have the excuse of scale (i.e. we can’t yet do experiments to detect strings, due to the small scale).
        Panpsychism predicts a new intrinsic property that adheres to everything from quarks to mountains.

        Such consciousness, uncoupled from any ability to act or perceive…I can’t see why anyone would want to believe in panpsychism. The notion is hellish.

        1. They also have the math so there is some logic though of course that doesn’t make it so in nature but it’s probably more than panpsychism has (though I can’t tell because I can’t seem to get a clear explanation of it).

          1. There is definitely no mathematical model that can explain panpsychism. They exist for relativity and even for string theory. But it is not always certain that mathematical models, even if they predict certain properties or effects, represent physical reality. But some scientists, and mathematicians, like Alain Connes, believe that reality is entirely mathematical. I’m not convinced. There is no mathematical model that describes all the physical constants.

  5. To me a decent explanation is …
    Feynman … wishful thinking.
    Hume … saying things is more likely.
    Wittgenstein … all playing with words.
    Nietzsche … all made up.
    Nagel … belief never ends.
    Also proven by Intelligent Design, Irreducibly Complex, the Anthropic Principal, any religion, any philosophy, any culture, any language, any fiction, any music, etc.

    1. Panpsychism seems to me to be just another recent pseudoscientific attempt to keep god in our universe. Many humans and even scientists somehow need a god to oversee the idea of their soul, heaven and purpose. And the idea of god has been around for a long time, so we should not expect things like panpsychism to fade until science gets more respected. But science has been around for only a few centuries and even less … maybe it is non-existent for many uneducated humans.

    1. Wow! Thanks for pointing this out. At first, i thought it was Tegmark’s idea of a joke but it appears he is serious. At least reviewers are taking it seriously. He’s lost his mind.

    2. Wikipedia claims that Max Planck said in 1944, “As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent spirit (orig. geist). This spirit is the matrix of all matter.”

      1. Let’s assume for the moment the attribution is correct. Then what? You can show he’s wrong easily enough. A theory of reference (like Bunge’s) was actually created 50 years ago or so that cleanly does it, though Maxwell refuted the first part by dimensional analysis about 80 years before that.

        Also note the non-sequitur. Even if the “energitism” (or “forcism”) is granted, it does not follow that anything need be behind it, never mind a “intelligent spirit”.

        1. I find it interesting when your intellectual heroes take positions that are drastically at odds with your own. One of my favourite examples is Pythagoras’ belief in numerology. Call it an appeal to authority but I can’t help but take Max Planck’s opinions seriously.

  6. And I can’t tell you how many angry and nasty emails and comments I’ve gotten from people who revile me for criticizing panpsychism…

    That is sad. And unnecessary. Without representing anyone else, I’d hope that panpsychism proponents would instead come here and write plainspoken, cogent defenses of their idea.

    As a science type, I’m particularly interested in trying to understand what this hypothesis does. I.e., what experiments does it suggest? What different observables does it predict compared to non-panpsychic ideas?

    And one of the signs of a desperate faith is the claim that belief in your faith is spreading.

    Well lol, I suppose that may be true. When you start very small, and has access to the internet, it’s easy to grow. “Growth” of course doesn’t mean any significant per capita support. Nor does it mean anyone should extrapolate that growth continuing ad infinitum.

  7. “Believers” know the history of religions is a horrible nightmare. They don’t want that. They have a blindingly voracious need to not see reality in the raw, especially oblivion on the death of the organism. They want to live forever.

    Saying “everything is alive” gets them off the hook.

  8. “Enjoy your Bordeaux! I’m not at all convinced it will enjoy you.”

    I take this line as a joke that slams panpsychism. A panpsychist might claim that your Bordeaux is conscious and that it is reasonable to consider whether it enjoys you. Am I being too accommodating? Is that too much of a stretch?

    1. Interesting take. Yeah, it could’ve been a subtle joke. If so, I guess the author can always write JAC back and explain. Or maybe his computer can do it for him.

  9. It just depends on how much you want to believe. Many people seem to be vulnerable to any pseudo-religious idea simply because it’s charming and likeable and new and different. What’s not to like about thinking your toothbrush is thinking about you while you rub it’s fur against your teeth?

    “Awwww…she’s helping to shine my smile. Here you go little one, back in the holder to watch me head out for work. I bet you’d wave goodby if you could. I used to be so lonely.”

      1. I don’t think you’re missing anything. At least one of the smart people who blurbed that book told me privately that they didn’t buy panpsychism at all. I wonder why the person contributed a blurb!

        1. Possible reasons for writing a blurb:

          (A.) Wanting to help out a friend or a colleague.
          (B.) Logrolling: somebody wrote a blurb for Goff’s book in the hope that they can ask him for a blurb one day for their own book.
          (C.) Desire for publicity: a blurb can act as a mini-advertisement for your own book.
          (D.) Being too nice to say no.

          1. I would just say, “Yeah I know I agreed to write a blurb so you’d write a blurb but your ideas are bad and consequently your book sucks so get me on the next one ok?”

            This is why I can’t be friends for someone for political reasons and why I am where I am.

    1. How is it charming? It posits the entire universe is filled with paralyzed sentiences unable to communicate or have control over what’s done to them. That’s if they’re lucky and they have sensory capability. If they don’t, they’re trapped in their own minds with no external stimuli at all.

      1. You’re right. And they must feel terrible watching helplessly while humans and other life enjoying a glass of beer or a blade of grass.

  10. I feel I’ve come to these conclusions about panpsychism in general:

    – It’s not clear to me that if such a thing exists, that it isn’t mostly a semantic game, seeing as how the proposed ‘consciousness’ in atoms and the consciousness in a human brain are thought even by panpsychists to be very different. Perhaps I would feel differently if I’d done psychedelics and had one of those experiences people talk about of feeling everything buzzing with “pure consciousness, without an object”. Maybe then such proposed elemental levels of consciousness would have more of a referent for me. Otherwise, though, it seems to me that saying the quality you hypothetically find in atoms is wildly different than the quality you find in brains means that where consciousness really emerges is, again, something of a semantic point.

    – I do understand the ‘argument from qualities’ (for want of a better term) for panpsychism. I wanted to come up with an example for the above point, for example, and kept going around like this… “I could say it would be like saying “Atoms contain elephant=ness in small amounts, because all elephants are made of atoms. But wait, that doesn’t work, because atoms and elements do have basically the same properties. They have something we think of as substance, movement, predictable patterns of cohesion and movement (akin to ‘life’, I think,) the ability to move and organize in space and time – there is almost no quality that an elephant has that an atom doesn’t have. And any quality that does seem genuinely emergent in an elephant is actually attributable to consciousness. The way an elephant looks or feels, for example, are really instances of conscious perception coming into play. (Also true of the ‘wetness of water’ example that people often use – wet is a conscious perception, not an atomic state.)”

    So I get the argument that there is simply no precedent for the type of radical emergence that means qualities of a totally different kind simply appear on combination. I just don’t know if lack of precedence actually means anything. It might, it might not.

    – I think the hard problem of consciousness does present a bit of an issue in that we will always have to rely on the correlates of consciousness to study consciousness itself. Whether or not that is that big of an issue, however, I’m not sure. I suppose it’s an issue in instances where you really want to work with consciousness itself, and not the correlates, but in those cases I think we have contemplative traditions and such. People who want to discover the nature of consciousness firsthand can meditate and people who want a reliable method for knowing where it appears can search for correlates – I’m hard pressed to think of examples where there would be a significant problem caused by the fact that we “can’t see consciousness with consciousness”, in the way that we can’t see our own eye directly. Maybe that’s a failure of creativity on my part, but for the most part I can only come up with philosophical conundrums of the “brain in a vat” sort when thinking about real world issues with this dynamic.

    1. (Also true of the ‘wetness of water’ example that people often use – wet is a conscious perception, not an atomic state.)”

      Untrue. ‘Wetness’ refers to viscosity (and possibly some other contributing bulk properties). The way H20 molecules in bulk react to a surface. But they react differently in bulk than individually, because in bulk, there is hydrogen bonding that occurs between the H20 molecules themselves. It truly is an emergent property, in the sense that the properties of the collection are different than (and not even just a linear combination of) the properties of the individual molecules.

      The same is going to be frankly true of a lot of atomic interactions, because the ability to share elections changes how the collection reacts. Sodium? Highly reactive. Chloride? Highly reactive. Sodium chloride? Not reactive. Where did the stability come from? It’s a property that only arises from combining the two. Even mass is not immune. What’s the mass of the proton? 938.272 MeV. What’s the mass of a neutron? 939.5 MeV. Whats the mass of 2 protons + 2 neutrons (aka a helium nucleus,aka an alpha particle)? 3727 MeV. Do the math. Doesn’t work out, does it? And it’s not a rounding error, the difference is about 30 MeV. That difference is real. Not a result of our ignorance or measurement error. An alpha particle’s mass is in some ways emergent; it’s not a sum of the parts. That’s because the bonding itself has properties that are not intrinsic to the particles. In this case, the bonds impart a stability to the protons and neutrons they don’t have when “free,” meaning that on combination some of their rest mass is released as energy. If you prefer math over chemistry, graph theory would provide yet another good analogy. Physical bits are ‘nodes’. Their interactions are ‘edges’. And yes, Virginia, edges do have properties.

      Which is a very long-winded example-filled way of saying yes, sometimes qualities of a different kind appear on combination. OTOH, I’ve never heard a chemist or physicist think this is particularly mind-blowing, the way philosophers seem to wrap themselves around the axle trying to explain how emergence could happen. Nature is weird. Get over it. Not understanding why it’s weird is not a cogent argument for saying the weirdness can’t exist.

      1. That’s well put, regarding weirdness.

        I think ‘non-intuitive emergence’ might be a better name than ‘radical emergence’, since what is at issue is the properties of an ensemble can leave us gobsmacked. But this shouldn’t be too surprising, since the properties of fundamental particles also leave us gobsmacked. Intuition can’t handle modern science, and so that’s too bad for intuition. Chomsky calls this the one true scientific revolution – the divorce of intuition and physical theory, which he dates back to Newton and consisted in a diminution of the goals of science, so that our only tether to deep principles of reality is mathematical, our having dropped the original cherished goal of ‘intelligilibity of phenomena’. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but there’s no recourse.

        1. Well, on the optimistic side, intuitions are generally shaped by experience. What you call ‘brute facts’ are, after all, simply life as we’ve always known it. If we lived in a world where we saw consciousness created in test tubes or some such thing, it seems likely enough that we’d simply shift to a new set of axioms / brute facts, and probably puzzle over how we ever could have seen it a different way before.

          1. I only partly agree. There are two kinds of intuitions. One kind is encoded in our genes, which determine the contours of what we can understand intelligibly; this must be the case, since we aren’t blank slates. The other class of intuition is more like post hoc acclimation to the pervasive oddities of science like you describe. The latter class of intuition comes to feel semi-natural only after much training (e.g. graduate school), but I don’t think it’ll ever be sufficient for bridging the chasm to understanding consciousness, since it just seems like we haven’t yet evolved the neural wiring for encoding the requisite concepts. (Concepts being necessarily in our genes, since we are not silly puddy whose structure is determined by the environment).

            1. Well, I meant that in a semi-ironic / bemused way, as I think we likely can be easily programmed with naive intuitions that are for the most part wrong. This does not solve anything in science, but it solves the problem of incredulity! For example, look at the relationship between mass and energy (I’m sure someone versed in physics could describe this far, far more eloquently, so keep in mind I won’t have a lot of precision with my vocabulary here, but enough for you to get the gist.) Granted, this is not the best example in the it is actually similar to what panpsychism proposes, however, from the level of our intuitions, this is not the case. We only know about particles and waves after years of intense study by humankind. What our primate brains see and accept, however, is simply that there is a sort of magical transformation between the two. This seems to me to be fairly analogous to consciousness, in that substance and movement seem different in kind – but we can easily accept instances of matter moving around, or catching fire, and so on, just – because. Because, I assume, when we’re small children, we pick up a block and drop it and it falls downward and that’s the way it is. Another example might be the way volition appears in consciousness. If you stop and examine what really happens when you go to move your arm, it is really rather strange. A thought appears in your mind – ‘move arm’ – and then you sort of mentally gesture towards your arm, and off it goes, moved by mind control.

              Of course I can’t prove that these intuitions aren’t part of our genome, but it seems unlikely given that seeing items move in different environments – outer space, for example, where you might drop an object and watch it just hang there – does not totally blow our minds.

              Also should note that substance and movement are a bit more similar in kind that substance and consciousness, as we can mentally visualize both substance / movement but cannot visualize consciousness. That said, it seems to me that something truly unique does happen in the case of movement, that really is categorically different from substance in at least a somewhat analogous way to substance / consciousness.

      2. Untrue. ‘Wetness’ refers to viscosity (and possibly some other contributing bulk properties).

        I would say if this is all it referred to, we would simply call it viscosity. My point being that, we already have plenty of words to describe the correlates of wetness. But the word ‘wet’ is not defined in terms of those correlates if you look it up in a dictionary. And why? Because, I think, what we actually mean by ‘wet’ is the conscious experience of wetness. The movement of atoms? Yes, I see what you’re saying about emergent properties there, but my point is that nothing fundamentally new happens within that process. This is indeed an emergence of a mundane kind, where nothing really novel is introduced, the old elements are simply switched up. I think, however, that when people use ‘the wetness of water’ as an example of emergence, there’s often a subtle bait-and-switch involved, as they tend to go from ‘the properties of molecules’ to ‘the properties of molecules perceived in consciousness’ (wetness). This gives the impression that more significant cases of emergence already exist, when in fact two different sorts of concepts are being blended (and one – consciousness – is the one that is the subject of so much debate in the first place.)

        1. We often use the same word for the sensation of a property (itself a property, of course, or maybe a process) and the property itself in sloppy usage. Strictly speaking, for example, loudness is psychophysical and sound intensity is physical. But we often are sloppy and say “loudness” for both. This gets confusing in such discussions. (And feeds into what I have been saying about the panpsychists owe us a rigorous theory of properties.)

  11. I have wondered when a electron gets its arse kicked by a photon whether its excitment from this interaction with energy is a “I feel good” moment.
    Entanglement of a pair of electrons is a form of latin dancing like the tango, nice.
    A rock on the other hand is a conservative member of the universe that does not like change, anticipate a good dust up if you do as resistance is all that matters to a rock.
    Nature in a handbag, time to go Panpsychism!

  12. Not sure if you all saw his recent exchange with Massimo Pigluicci, but apparently even properties like mass and charge count as consciousness under Goff’s account. That was truly a mystifying statement.

    Nevertheless, I do get the motivation for the philosophy: a recognition that non-experience and experience are separated by a seemingly impassable explanatory gap. If victory is to be claimed over understanding consciousness, then the panpsychist makes the bet that placing consciousness at the fundamental level is the only strategy capable of doing so.

    I’d argue that the explanatory gap says more about the limits of human cognition than it says about what the real world is like. Our epistemic shortcomings have nothing at all to say about whether electrons have feelings, which is beyond epistemic concerns, being a statement about ontology. And unlike panpsychism, limits of cognition are a topic amenable to empirical investigation.

    1. It’s like saying that we’ll never understand earthworm “consciousness” because when you poke them, they recoil. Yes, we can figure out how the reaction works, but “what is the earthworm REALLY feeling?” The same could be applied to any creature that can’t self report on whether it’s conscious or not.

      1. If we do end up discovering the correlates of consciousness, then the answer about whether the earthworm feels anything at all is presumably answerable. And correlates are within scientific reach, I think we all agree. Whether after finding such a correlate, we will ever have a satisfactory understanding of how it is that the correlate secretes conscious feeling is another matter, again probably due to limitations of our brains that delimit the kinds of explanations which count as intelligible and which are perceived as brute facts.

        Of course, “never” being able to understand the issue of consciousness is too strong of a prediction, since our cognition is subject to evolution. Other matters, like where do the ultimate laws of physics come from, on the other hand, may be refractory to any kind of cognitive effort, of any creature, from this planet or any other.

        1. That makes it seem like a problem in the same family as solipsism.

          The solipsist thinks nothing else in the universe is conscious; the panpsychist on the other hand things every potato is conscious. The true, presumably, lies somewhere in between.

          1. It’s more that you can’t prove that the way I feel something is the same as you feel it with complete accuracy.

            1. It’s a bigger problem with animals; we know in a general way that they have emotions and thoughts of some kind, but their internal thought process is obscure. There’s a famous philosophical paper called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” by Thomas Nagel.

              1. “It’s a bigger problem with animals…”

                I’m not convinced, since we’re animals. Seems to me that the “problem” simply scales with degree of relatedness.

              2. [T]he “problem” simply scales with degree of relatedness.

                I don’t dispute that. I would just point out that with humans, we can share ideas with language (or even pantomime if you don’t speak the same language). With a deer or a rabbit, on the other hand, you can’t really know what it is thinking. You can only observe it and draw analogies with human behavior (e.g. you can probably tell when a deer is frightened, but you don’t know what specific thoughts it’s having at the moment.)

    2. I’m skeptical there’s a deep problem here, vs. a shallow problem akin to the weak anthropic principle. Animals capable of distinguishing 680 nm photons from 520 nm photons experience ‘red’ and ‘green’ differently for the same reason animals capable of wondering about how the universe can support life always find themselves in a universe that can support life – because the question simply wouldn’t arise under other circumstances.

  13. If pan-psychism is true, what would that mean if a human brain were dissolved into its constituent parts? For example, if a human brain decomposes, does that mean that each molecule or atom has a kind of mini consciousness? What is the smallest unit of consciousness? A molecule? An atom? Is a brain a colony of miniature minds, like a beehive?

    The more I think about it, the weirder it seems.

              1. I think you all are really into something. Who do you register this new unit of measurement with. Let’s get going on developing some measurement equipment and processes.

          1. Right, it’s the quality of his consciousness that’s lacking, not the quantity. The size of his ego may be unmatched in the history of the species.

      1. If even a rock is conscious, then in theory you could smash it with a hammer and create a horde of miniature rock minds. Maybe Goff has some kind of explanation worked out for that. I’m kind of curious now.

        1. But they’d be less conscious than the whole rock. By extension you could combine a bunch of goop into a super goop and create a super conscious goop being.

          Yeah, it’s probably not how it’s supposed to work and they are going to prove it right and we are going to look like Dunning-Kruger inflicted anti-vaxxers.

  14. A lot of discussions on consciousness seem to be a cross-purposes because people use the word “consciousness” in different ways. Chapter 1 of David Chalmers book “The Conscious Mind” (most of which is available for free preview) has a good discussion of the differences between “phenomenal consciousness” and “psychological consciousness”.
    It is true that there is no direct evidence for Goff’s panpsychism. But there is also no direct evidence that people other than oneself have phenomenal consciousness either.

    1. There’s not really even direct evidence that “I” have my own consciousness, since I can’t be sure that I am not experiencing a collective hallucination of the same conscious experience that multiple people (or all people) are having simultaneously. I.e. a pan-consciousness. Or that time has ever really passed, and that I’ve only ever experienced a single instant of time.

      At some point, parsimony takes the day, by fiat, and that’s that. The alternative is that you can’t even get started thinking about much more non-trivial riddles of existence if we get stuck in that kind of solipsism.

      Some of Goff’s claims don’t seem to even rise to the level of invoking parsimony. The claim that mass IS a form of consciousness is plain gobbledygook.

      1. If parsimony takes the day, then isn’t it more parsimonious to say there is one form of matter (matter with consciousness) rather than two (matter with consciousness and matter without consciousness)?

        1. If consciousness is necessarily based on the evolution of a complex adaptation, then it would not be parsimonious for a theory to spew consciousness all over the universe, rather than have it exist only in very particular locations, those which have experienced a long and fortuitous path of natural selection.

          If consciousness is divorced from biological structure, then yeah, it’s an efficient theory in the tradition of monism.

          It’s just that the former account is much more plausible, especially since our only experience of consciousness is intimately tied up with a very complex organ (the most complicated structure in the universe, excepting the possibility of even more spectacular creatures on other planets).

    2. Some of us remember all the hoopla when this came out. Some of us still think it is modern Leibnizian BS, dressed up with Kripke semantics.

      (Shame, because Chalmers has some interesting stuff to say otherwise.)

  15. Whilst psychological consciousness has certainly evolved, for phenomenal consciousness to be influenced by natural selection would require some form of ‘top-down’ causation from felt experiences to physical and chemical processes. So it is problematic to argue for the adaptiveness of phenomenal consciousness in support of physicalism.

    1. Why is this a problem? Even at the chemical level, emergence makes top-down causation routine. Read J. Kim’s stuff and replace “mental” with chemical (etc.) everywhere. It should sound like special pleading even if one has done a few semesters of chemistry. Kim not only should have read more neuroscience, he should have read a basic organic chemistry textbook. Heck, even H. Putnam gets this right (he points out somewhere about shape being a perfectly reasonable “top down cause” – though he may be wrong about the cause vs. boundary condition, but that’s a quibble here).

      1. If what is felt can influence molecules in the body, then behaviour is not fully determined by neurobiology. By ‘what is felt’ I mean feelings themselves, not the neural events that feelings are correlated with.

        1. The feelings ARE the neural events, at least some of them. If you start with the assumption that the neural events are separate from the feelings, then you start looking for mechanisms that are outside the brain, outside of physics, etc.

          1. The feelings are what is felt, whereas the neural events are observable (at least in principle) physicochemical processes. The feeling of pain or nausea is different from the neural events which are correlated with such feelings.

            On the other hand, if feelings are defined as neural events and nothing more, then it is arbitrary to say that only neural events are feelings. Under this line of reasoning, why aren’t all physicochemcial events feelings, from movement of amoeba to behaviour of electrons?

            1. I don’t say only neural events are feelings. I expect that an artificial intelligence will one day have feelings. Feelings are just a brain function which is some kind of computation. We don’t yet know enough to say exactly what that computation does but that’s no reason to think it is happens outside the brain’s normal functioning. Just because we have an experience and feel things is just not reason to think it requires something magic.

              1. If feelings could be attributed to AI devices, then it seems also reasonable to attribute it to microbes, who respond to their environment in many ways like animals with brains. Going further down the scale, it then becomes a matter of whether it is more reasonable to infer that feelings somehow pop into existence at a certain level of material complexity, or just become less complex as the arrangement of matter does.

              2. I don’t agree. AI devices that we deemed to have feelings would have mechanisms that implement them. It is unlikely we’d find those mechanisms in a microbe. A car has a mechanism to allow it to move from A to B. A microbe lacks such a mechanism (or can’t move as far or fast). Consciousness and feelings are functional mechanisms, not simple properties.

                You could say that as the complexity moves farther and farther away from having the functionality we consider conscious, we find less and less consciousness. In other words, a rock just has a lot less consciousness than a human. But it is a pointless thing to do. It’s like saying that something green is also less red, much less red. You can say it and there’s a way in which it is true but it seems vacuous and useless to do so.

                I don’t know the thought process that gets one to panpsychism but it seems like it comes from just a doubt that feelings could come from a mechanism. This belief causes one to look elsewhere for it. I believe this is false. All the rest of human functionality is explainable in terms of biology, chemistry, and physics. I see no reason why consciousness and feelings should be made exceptions.

              3. I think it is often overlooked that human emotion is a function of the body and computational brain. The computations of the brain, in isolation, won’t give you much in the way of emotion. Emotion comes about through the interaction of the brain with the hormonal body. A “feeling” such as anger, or amusement, or love, may originate outside the brain – in glands and sensors that interact through hormones and electrical circuitry with the brain’s computations. The brain uses feedback loops with the endocrine system to establish emotional states which may be ramping up or down or remain stable. This is where humans get motivation to act. We seek pleasurable emotional states, and go off in pursuit of them in the world at large. So, for an AI device to have/feel emotion in the human sense, and to have motivations, you’d need to either simulate the complex endocrine system, or endow the device with an actual hormonal system – which might mean embedding the device, somehow, within an animal body. Otherwise, you’d end up with something like Spock from Star Trek.

              4. I agree with some of this but not all. I think the endocrine system largely acts as a global broadcast system throughout the body and including the brain. However, it is largely triggered by the brain and the brain is also the major recipient. When we see a lion bounding towards us, that’s the brain. It activates some sort of fear center (brain) to which endocrine glands are connected (not sure which ones). This causes substances that make major changes to various bodily processes but it also effects our thinking in a massive way.

                An AI could easily detect a situation that causes focus of attention on a threat, suppression of certain activities, etc. This would be similar to reasons for our fear mechanism. Similar arguments can be made for other emotions. Some may be undesirable to design into an AI (envy, shame, etc.) We may have no use for a blushing AI but if we can make an AI think like a human, we could certainly make it blush in analogous circumstances.

              5. “It activates some sort of fear center (brain) to which endocrine glands are connected”

                I referred to this as feedback loops. Here’s an interesting expert account describing how the amygdala, once believed to be the center of fear, is actually only a component:

                ‘My hypothesis, then, is that the feeling of “fear” results when the outcome of these various processes (attention, perception, memory, arousal) coalesce in consciousness and compel one to feel “fear.” This can only happen in a brain that has the cognitive wherewithal have the concept of “me,” or what Endel Tulving has called “autonoetic consciousness.” ‘

              6. I can imagine a lot of creatures have fear without much of a concept of “me”. I get your point but warn that it is a slippery slope that you’re on the edge of. The panpsychists believe that everything has consciousness but simpler creatures just have less of it. Sounds right but once we understand brain mechanisms more thoroughly, we will undoubtedly draw lines between conscious and not-conscious (or use some other definition entirely). Same for the “me” concept.

              7. (so that Justin gets answered, despite the thread being pushed over)

                Feelings are something like representations of (some of the) internal state (and, in complex things, state history) of the organism. Systems which do not have a representation of their own state do not have feelings. (I would say that this is necessary but not sufficient as a criterion.) That analysis will tell you that feelings are about 500 million years old and that lineages that are not in this one do not have feelings. (In fact, there’s a fairly recent book – MIT Press, I forget the title, on this.)

                The over-all idea goes back to W. James, but current versions are found in (for example) A. Damasio.

          1. There’s a lot of assumptions behind the view that feelings are (always) representations of internal states. And even if you go back 500 million years you still have the oddness of feelings suddenly popping into existence from a world of n0n-feelings (one of the reasons that William Janes was a panpsychist, at least some of the time).

            The book you’re thinking of might be “The First Minds” by Arthur Reber??

            1. There’s no evidence for “feelings suddenly popping into existence” 500 million years ago. I don’t have the book but my guess is that whoever came up with it just used the age of the first creature with enough of a nervous system to imagine that feelings were involved. How could it be otherwise? After all, we don’t even have any way to prove that modern animals have feelings and we can actually poke and prod them and observe their reactions. There’s just no way we can do any more than just guess at how a creature behaved 500 million years ago.

              1. I’m sure feelings appeared quite early. When you drop a few grains of salt near a flat worm, it turns the other way as if he’s been insalted. 😎

                OK. I’m leaving now.

              2. There’s a lot of truth in what you say, not just humor. Any coordinated response to a threat may be accompanied by fear of some kind and they are intimately entwined in even the simplest creature.

              3. He argues that consciousness first arose in bacteria (a cell wall required, but no nervous system needed).

              4. So maybe a cell wall is a necessary requirement for having the concept of “me” and that in turn is a necessary requirement for experiencing fear. That’s ok but it ignores the need for an apparatus to actually experience the fear. Not a problem for a panpsychist, of course. As with discussions of consciousness, it is hard to go far without a more complete understanding of how it works in humans. Without that, consciousness doesn’t really have much of a definition. I think Patricia Churchland has the right idea. Let’s wait until we know more about how the brain works and then ask the questions again.

  16. Radical panpsychism is inspired in part by evolutionary biology. Universes that are very intelligent and conscious with free will and invest an enormous amount of time and energy into reproduction by raising and educating particles that after billions or trillions of years can be mature enough to be born again as a new universe will be the universes that become common.

    The particles are conscious and can think and dream and if they receive certain electromagnetic codes get visual, audio and other qualia not necessarily representing reality. The particles inherited these capabilities from the universe. Time perception is proportional to mass because higher mass particles have higher frequency. Small rigid molecules and the nucleus of atoms act like particles most of the time because they pass the double slit test and are conscious like particles.

    The real particles are like babies that just dream and learn and intelligent virtual particles babysit them and have them follow the laws of physics that was designed by the Universe. Eventually virtual particles can transform to real particles after they put in enough service but they must relearn everything.

    A very massive particle or quantum coherent molecule can serve as homunculus in the brain. When it is in a chemical environment that allows it to be quantum coherent it is awake.

    The brain sends sense information to the homunculus by electromagnetic code using microtubules and other molecules as antennas. The brain also receives electromagnetic codes from the homunculus for voluntary free will actions and decisions.

    Breaking the electromagnetic homuncular code will be the greatest scientific discovery ever because then artificial bodies can be built and the homunculus can be moved there. Every year, artificial bodies will be better because of brilliant engineers and death and pain will be a thing mostly gone! Also bodies can be engineered for a wide variety of environments in the universe, like Mars.

    We might even find a way to communicate directly with our universal parent, the Universe, and then finally paradise will have arrived!

            1. Yes, and the other three continued the job with their hoax “Grievance Studies” papers. I figured the original post was so far off the wall as to be indistinguishable from a hoax.

  17. Annaka Harris, in her book Conscious suggests that there might be a consciousness field permeating space-time which, if you hit it hard enough with a solar system sized collider, might pop out a consciousness carrying particle. There is, of course, no evidence for such a thing, nor does it arise as a theoretical possibility from the current detailed understanding of Quantum Mechanics. What the consciousness of a subatomic particle might look like remains as mysterious as the topic as a whole.

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