New Scientist touts panpsychism

April 30, 2020 • 2:30 pm

“As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.”
Proverbs 26:11

Matthew sent me a link to this new article in New Scientist. Yes, yet another credulous git has fallen for panpsychism. Click on the screenshot to read just the first three paragraphs (it’s paywalled, though the content of this rag isn’t worth paying for):

Below are the first three paragraphs, touting the panpsychist view that I’ve criticized before: everything in the Universe, right down to electrons, has a form of consciousness. This is supposed to solve the “hard problem” of consciousness: how you get subjective sensations from nerve impulses and brains. How does this crazy suggestion solve it? By sleight of hand: if every constituent of the Universe is conscious, then when you build a nervous system and mind out of atoms and molecules, it will be EVEN MORE CONSCIOUS! Because its constituents are conscious, so it must be too—big time!

Isn’t that delightful? In this U.S. we call this a “carny trick”.

From New Pseudoscientist:

THEY call it the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. Physicist Eugene Wigner coined the phrase in the 1960s to encapsulate the curious fact that merely by manipulating numbers we can describe and predict all manner of natural phenomena with astonishing clarity, from the movements of planets and the strange behaviour of fundamental particles to the consequences of a collision between two black holes billions of light years away. Now, some are wondering if maths can succeed where all else has failed, unravelling whatever it is that allows us to contemplate the laws of nature in the first place.

It is a big ask. The question of how matter gives rise to felt experience is one of the most vexing problems we know of. And sure enough, the first fleshed-out mathematical model of consciousness has generated huge debate about whether it can tell us anything sensible. But as mathematicians work to hone and extend their tools for peering deep inside ourselves, they are confronting some eye-popping conclusions.

Not least, what they are uncovering seems to suggest that if we are to achieve a precise description of consciousness, we may have to ditch our intuitions and accept that all kinds of inanimate matter could be conscious – maybe even the universe as a whole. “This could be the beginning of a scientific revolution,” says Johannes Kleiner, a mathematician at the Munich Centre for Mathematical Philosophy in Germany.

If some hapless reader wants to ferret out the rest of the article and read it, be my guest. I would bet a substantial sum that “doing the maths” does not show that the Universe is conscious. How could it? Only empirical investigation could possibly show that.

When I asked Matthew why so many apparently smart people believe in this palaver, he simply drew four capital “S”s with vertical lines through them and then made a pungent remark about how it’s garbage but it sells.

Panpsychism is quack philosophy, and New Scientist is the National Enquirer of science.


75 thoughts on “New Scientist touts panpsychism

  1. In fact Eugene Wigner was wrong (quoted in the first paragraph of the article). Both relativity and quantum theory are based on math, but this math does lead to inconsistencies between those two fields. Especially black holes have made these problems apparent.

    1. Indeed, which is why (super)string theory exists as an attempt to unify them. I love the way that the ‘M’ in the superstring M-theory can stand for anything you like (magic? membrane?) until we understand the theory well enough to realise it’s actual meaning.

      1. I observe and think, therefore I won’t be.

        But with Woody, I don’t mind, but don’t want to be there when it happens.

      2. Is that a book? Link?

        I only just confirmed the subscription on this and see I almost missed interesting discussion!

    2. That doesn’t make Wigner wrong, IMHO. He didn’t say all mathematical models accurately portray reality. Perhaps relativity and quantum theory are wrong or incomplete.

      1. Very likely. They are approximations. There is no mathematical basis for explaining the values of the natural constants. Why do we have 118 elements? Perhaps the current universe is the result of a happy combination of physical constants that allow the existence of the universe with its 118 (perhaps more) elements. A kind of evolutionary process. If you had different physical constants, you could end up with a universe consisting only of hydrogen atoms, which wouldn’t survive (or end up being extremely boring).

        1. I think you perhaps meant to say that there’s “no mathematical basis for explaining the values of the natural constants” yet. Right now, physicists like to pretend those fundamental constants are settings on some universe maker. Perhaps they are but we have no evidence for that. Considering the history of science, a safer bet is that we simply don’t yet know what they mean.

          1. “ Right now, physicists like to pretend those fundamental constants are settings on some universe maker.”

            Say what? Like to pretend?

            1. What I mean is that physicists seem happy assuming that the so-called fundamental constants are indeed fundamental even though, if asked, they would probably admit that we have no proof that they are.

              1. No mathematician or scientist here, but I was under the impression that the periodic table was set up in such a way as to accommodate future discoveries of new elements.

                From Wikipedia: “Some discussion remains ongoing regarding the placement and categorization of specific elements, the future extension and limits of the table, and whether there is an optimal form of the table.”

                I was under the impression that some new elements have been added to the chart as a result of Hadron Collider research.

        2. Why do we have 118 elements?
          This is a human issue, not a nature issue. Very likely there are additional proton-neutron combinations that are stable for milliseconds or microseconds, we just can’t create them. IIRC, the current expected limit is something like 130 or 132. Then there’s a huge jump to when gravity starts to stabilize nuclei, and you get neutron stars, which are in some ways really really big nuclei with a very high neutron:proton ratio. But, that technically means they are elements.

    3. On the subject of why laws of physics are the way they are: Of course there is the old argument that if they were a teeny tiny bit different then the universe could not yield rocky planets and life. That notion, however popular it was for a time, seems to have been quietly put away by mainstream cosmologists (it might never have been all that mainstream). Of course those attracted to the numinous will never let go of it.
      There is the book The Fallacy of Fine Tuning by Victor Stenger, where he explains the history of this interesting but probably wrong idea.

      1. It is intellectually unsatisfying. That’s why people don’t like it.

        If this universe is merely one of an infinite number, all slightly different, the question of why is it the way it is becomes very boring – it’s just chance. Scientists want there to be a proper reason that they can discover.

        1. Scientists want there to be a proper reason that they can discover.

          I somewhat disagree. I think cosmologists are in fact probably more open to the multiverse explanation of cosmology than most religious laypeople. The skepticism within science comes from the small amount of indirect evidence we have for it (specifically, the only thing we’ve got is that eternal inflation explains a bunch of other things fairly well), not from any desire to find a more deterministic solution.

          1. The various multiverse ideas I would generally categorise as proper reasons that can be discovered. That’s not what I meant at all.

            Let me try to explain with an extreme example. Suppose there is only one infinite Universe but it consists entirely of particles (or ripples in a quantum field, if you like) just doing random things. There are no physical laws.

            The possibility that some random particles would come together in a configuration that looks exactly like the region of the Universe that we observe is astronomically small. However, because the Universe is infinite, it does exist somewhere. The probability that the random particle configuration would evolve in accordance with our physical laws is even smaller but still non zero and hence very likely in an infinite Universe. The people that inhabited that region would be under the mistaken impression that their Universe was orderly and obeyed physical laws but the reality is that all the structure they perceive could dissolve into chaos at any moment.

            Scientists don’t subscribe to that view because it is another way of throwing in the towel. It’s the exact opposite of the religionist way of throwing in the towel, if you like.

            1. I got what you’re saying, but I stick by my reply: scientists don’t reject the notion merely because they see it as “throwing in the towel”, they reject it due to lack of evidence. If evidence were to support towell-throwing-in, they’d do it.

              In fact we already have an example of science doing exactly this. Most scientists have accepted that spontaneous radioactive decay is non-deterministic. They’ve “thrown in the towel” on saying why this particular U-238 atom decays at this particular instant. It’s no longer considered a meaningful question, in that our best theory of the process says there’s no particular reason to be found. Likewise, if science discovers that the very best, most accurate theory of cosmology predicts there is no particular reason to be found as to why our patch of timespace looks the way it does, then they’ll accept that.

            2. I mostly agree, but
              “Suppose … (the) Universe … consists entirely of … ripples in a quantum field… … There are no physical laws.”

              The quantum field would seem to already involve physical laws. But maybe your intent was to discard most of what fundamentally goes into the meaning of ‘quantum field’.

            3. Scientists don’t subscribe to that view because it is another way of throwing in the towel.

              Is it throwing in the towel or is it parsimonious to assume physical laws?

              (honest question – the 2 explanations are so radically different, I don’t know how to determine which one would be considered more parsimonious.)

          2. I mostly agree with this.

            However my understanding of inflation is that

            1/ it is essentially a family of theories;

            2/ that those B-modes in that debacle about 5 years ago still remain quite possibly to eventually be a kind of good evidence whose absence would falsify inflation in general; and

            3/ whose presence may possibly still be detectable, despite the debacle above.

            No associated multiverse theory would necessarily be ’empirically proved’ of course, but some specific theories among the inflation theories would be likely falsified. And right now, by far the most likely, perhaps not falsified, of those theories do involve a multiverse.

            That kind of multiverse seems almost certainly to have nothing to do with Everett’s Many Worlds, despite one, or maybe a few, attempts to connect them, and despite writing in the same ilk as New Scientist which often now seems to occur in pop science.

            I probably misunderstand at least part of this, and surely am behind the times to some degree.

        2. It is more than just boring. To investigate why a fundamental constant has the value it has and throw one’s arms up and say, “It just has that value and that’s all we can say”, is defeatist. To throw in multiple universes, each with different values of that constant, is a lame follow-up. What’s next? God?

      2. Stenger was very probably wrong. Most of the top guys (Guth, Susskind, Green) agree that we are in a fine tuned universe.
        A multiverse and/or string theory is the proposed solution.

    4. That doesn’t make Wigner wrong, it only makes the theories wrong. If two mathematical theories of the Universe are inconsistent, they can’t both be right.

      Mathematics by itself can’t tell you anything about the Universe. You have to build a mathematical model, see what it says will happen and then compare it to what actually happens.

          1. Assuming your ‘c’ is just a big number, doubling it is just as meaningful and universal as 1 + 1 = 2. One of the interesting things about arithmetic is that we can’t imagine a universe in which the answers are different. We can still imagine Warp 2 without worrying that it is an unattainable speed.

          2. It is the case that ‘c+c=c’ in a suitable sense, is a purely mathematical (logical if you like) consequence within a correctly formulated formal theory of Special Relativity.

            Of course you know that. And often it is just one of the axioms, though my statement remains true.

            And it does not contradict 1+1=2 in the mathematical structure of real 4-dimensional vector space with a (1,1,1,-1) quadratic form.

    1. Not catchy enough, you should have said:
      “Cure for Covid-19 found [using this one weird trick with] ordinary household products!”

  2. You are right about panpsychism… it’s just gibberish trash. But, reading your posts, it seems to me that you still believe in so-called “qualia”, these qualitative and inescapably subjective conscious experiences that generate the “hard problem”. But you are wrong on this score.

    There are no qualia, and there is no hard problem.

    A materialist shouldn’t believe in qualia only because his brain tells him that he has them. Just like I don’t believe in geocentrism only because my eyes tell me this. What we need to explain is why we believe so deeply in qualia, while we don’t have them.

    You are a friend of Dennett, aren’t you? That’s exactly his point.

    1. I disagree with you. First, if experiences are real, then subjective sensations are “real”: they are what is explained by neurological reductionism. Illusions are real in the same way: they’re something we experience. It all hinges on what you mean by “real.” But if you’ve read this site before (and I’m betting you’re a newbie based on your barging in here and saying I’m flat out wrong and I should agree with Dennett), you’ll see that I’m not at all sure there’s a “hard problem.

      Finally, why do I have to agree with Dan on everything just because I consider him a friend. I don’t agree with him on everything, including, most notably, his compatibilism and his construal of “free will.” If you had read this site before, or done the least investigation, you’d know that. It is a very weird view of friendship that says you should agree with all of your friends’ intellectual conclusions.

  3. Ah yes – it is now sexy research – I would put ‘research’ in italics!
    I seem to recall Erich Von Daniken making an argument that seemed attractive when I was 14, that having had conscious beings in the universe, might acquire self-knowledge or something like that, when matter came back together in a Big Crunch. I could be doing him a disservice!
    But probably not! 🤣

    1. The author of Chariot of the Dogs [I know…]? No disservice done, though Mr von Daniken must have laughed all the way to the bank, so he probably doesn’t mind.

          1. The of the Gods was extensively rewritten by its editor, and von Däniken was accused of plagiarism as a result of his failure to attribute the authors of works that clearly influenced (to put it mildly!) his own.

          2. And now the idiotic “History” channel is featuring von Däniken again, as well as “true” “ghost” adventures and “Alternative History” (like “Alternative Facts”). Their obvious intended audience is the drooling lowest common denominator, which apparently includes about 1/3rd of the adult population of the US.

  4. I will grant that the universe is conscious, at least in part. I believe that I am conscious and also that I am a part of the universe. But a pile of bricks, not so much.

  5. I had a brief look at the beginning of the article.

    Michael Brooks gives a glib nod to Wigner’s old “Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics”, writing as though calculating somehow is all his (British) “maths” is concerned with. I don’t know if Brooks could say anything sensible if you asked him to tell you what he regards as a decent general definition of ‘mathematical structure’.

    The long dead very excellent physicist Eugene Wigner didn’t actually write that particular article very well, seemed to be very limited in his mathematical considerations there. But the matter really does seem to me and lots of others of interest. However it is the discovery of structures–manifolds, spin groups, Hilbert space, distributions, .. by mathematicians, discovered from purely mathematical curiosity, but ones which physicists later found to be fundamental in relativity, quantum theory, particle physics… (I guess distributions isn’t quite in that category in that Dirac did his stuff there before Schwartz made it into pure mathematics.)

    Anyway, it’s utterly ridiculous to think this is at all likely related to the consciousness junk he’s trying to hook the reader on, at least hook the reader to subscribe to that quickly worsening science popularization rag.
    It’s gotten much worse than Scientific American, and I’m not too keen on most of the latter these days. I doubt Brooks has any real belief in the likely success of this nonsensical consciousness of neutrinos and photons, etc.; just needs ‘sexy’ stuff to sell magazines.

    He introduces this guy, says he’s part of something I’d never heard of, the Munich Institute of Mathematical Philosophy. But it seems he isn’t. However there is a nice picture of him with backpack on top of a mountain, presumably in the Alps near Munich. Maybe the institute is down below and that’s the connection (joke). His CV looks to me to be entirely what I’d a priori regard as pure junk, but so did the CV of the head of that institute.

    However I got something out of it–a couple of external Faculty turn out to be Zalta (of Stanford Encyclopedia administrative ‘fame’), and somebody of similar ‘formal metaphysics ilk’ called Fitelsen.

    Here I actually do have some detailed knowledge about real intellectual nonsensicality (almost an academic scam IMO) It’s to do with a completely trivial logic formalization of what Zalta claims to be Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of god, from 1000 years ago. It is an order of magnitude worse than Anselm himself, looked at after 1000 years of progress, a bit of it even in philosophy itself. I actually have some admiration for the man as a person from ten centuries ago.

    So purely accidentally it was a worthwhile half-hour for me. But I’d say a waste for almost anybody else without that kind of peculiar connected interest.

  6. I don’t even need three paragraphs to show me that this is junk science. This phrase is enough: “the first fleshed-out mathematical model of consciousness”. There are no fleshed-out mathematical (or non-mathematical) models of consciousness. At this point, models of consciousness are high altitude sketches at best.

    Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is one nathematical theory of consciousness that comes to mind. It basically says that if a system has enough components, and their interconnections reach a certain level of complexity, then consciousness appears. IMHO, it’s worthless as it doesn’t explain anything. It’s an untestable theory.

    1. …and that’s why I believe panpsychism to be snake oil. If you cannot test the theory then the unsupported assertion can lend itself to any passing fad or ideology without a blush.

      It’s not a huge step from panpsychism to the existence of god. Spinoza played with this centuries ago.

      So that’s PseudoNew PseudoScientist. So bad they renamed it twice.

      1. Yes, though my joke that he maybe lives on the mountain weakens with the realization that Munich is really hard to see, likely impossible, from any decent sized Alp.

        As far as reputable universities getting stuck by being attached (joke intended) to less reputable people/institutes, that place may be perfectly fine.

        The 45 pages of references I referred to above somewhere, which actually have only about a half-page of undergrad level formal logic, by individuals attached to Stanford, are handy, so listed just below. They prove ‘1=1 implies god exists’ is sufficient premise to conclude ‘god exists’, but fail to notice the 3 line proof that ‘1=1’ is logically valid–of course it’s a formal formula other than ‘1=1’ .

        Even, perhaps only some of, Theology at uchicago, is almost certainly in that disreputable category, and it’s likely right there within the university, not just glued to it.

        Pardon the LaTeX:

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

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

        {\bf [Z-Opp 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.

    1. “and for a mathematical construct to explain itself is an impossibility”

      I don’t see why you are so confident of this. Are you referring to incompleteness? Even if that is the case, our ability to understand consciousness shouldn’t be constrained by such considerations. Understanding how brains work (and, therefore, consciousness) is not the same as attempting to have one brain understand every bit of another or itself.

      1. Yes, Godel’s Theorem. It is an open question. Imagine an extremely sophisticated computer programmed with artificial intelligence software. A lightning bolt hits the lab and the computer decides to decipher the coding of the software that drives it. Will that be possible?

        1. I’m not sure what role the lightning bolt plays in your story but I do believe someday an artificial intelligence will be able to understand its own coding. A lot rests on what it means to understand. I’m a programmer and I certainly understand the programs I code but that isn’t the same as knowing all possible results of running that same program. For example, I can write a program that computes successive digits of pi and understand how it works but that doesn’t mean I know all the digits of pi or even any really.

          An AI that could understand its own code would be very powerful. However, it doesn’t imply that it could take over the world, in case that’s where you were going. It might modify and add to its own code but it could still only do things that its makers allowed it to do. I can understand how Congress works but that doesn’t put me in charge. Of course, such a powerful AI might be the ultimate hacker and exploit security hole relentlessly. We would have to be very careful.

    2. Your reference to Scientific American

      is badly out of date. What’s happened sounds kind of bad for Alain Connes, ‘really’ a mathematician, and top flight Fields Medalist from the end of the last century. It’s bad in the sense that his theory of the 2 decades enclosing the turn of the century predicted around 170 GEV for the Higgs mass, but the particle was then discovered with a much lower mass, about 125 GEV. However, not as impressive as it would have been, but he and others have ‘fixed’ it–see:

      “Resilience of the Spectral Standard Model”
      by him and Ali …., coauthor, and

      “Noncommutative Geometry as the Key to Unlock the Secrets of Space-Time”
      by that coauthor.

      These are easily downloaded online.

      1. PS There is also, not mentioned here I think, the famous book of Max Tegmark, whose Type 4 multiverse is a purely mathematical structure, very, very speculative of course. But it does seem to obviously solve Wigner’s conundrum, as well as give a new, even stronger type of platonism. After all, the physical universe exists, so by Tegmark, at least one mathematical structure actually exists. This makes it hard to argue against ‘all of them’ existing. So abstract objects not only exist, but there ain’t anything else. (Better not say ‘ain’t nuthin’.)

        Almost everything I just said is far from well defined, neither in math nor in physics. But, as a mathematician, I can pine for the Norwegian Fjords–no, sorry,… for the Type 4 multiverse. Norwegian blue parrots are pretty smart–maybe they do too!

  7. It would be wonderful if, in my lifetime, science truly explains consciousness occurring in some forms of matter, not all.
    However, I have lived a conscious, sentient life thus far. When I die, I fully expect to
    have my molecules disaggregated and, perhaps, distributed to eventually regroup in some other formation which may, or may not, become conscious, sentient.

    1. A few molecules perhaps. I read once that in each breath we take there is, statistically, one molecule from Caesar’s last breath. I haven’t done the math.

      1. I’m pretty sure we can explain why, if I go down to the basement away from any possibilities of 300mph hurricanes, holding a brick in my hand, then let it go, and get a broken toe rather than it flying upwards or sideways.

        But I don’t claim we can explain why General Relativity should either be absolutely true, or more likely, emerges from some theory with applicability to a wider range of environments than GR does.

  8. Crap like this (plus its rampant political correctness) made me cancel my subscription to the New Scientist.

    The title of every other cover article was, “Was Einstein Wrong?” (Answer in the article: Somebody thinks maybe, but no, not really.)

      1. I had read the on-line version a couple of times, but it quickly became clear that the editorial filter was set to *crackpot*, and this was just another “Journal of Cosmology” type publication.

  9. “… right down to electrons, has a form of consciousness …” That is a massive case of moving the goalposts. If we don’t understand human consciousness let’s just claim that electrons are conscious! It still doesn’t *explain* consciousness, it just redefines it to be *elsewhere*.

    If the universe lacked any consistencies like conservation laws (see Noether’s theorem), we would not be able to describe the universe with a set of consistent mathematical equations.

  10. ” . . . what they are uncovering seems to suggest . . . may have to . . . could be conscious – maybe . . . could be . . . .”

    “Seems to suggest,” “may,” “could,” “maybe” all packed together in one short paragraph.

    What can’t be uttered using these greased pig locutions?

    I gather their work only “seems to suggest,” as opposed to “suggest,” which otherwise would be progress of a kind compared to “seems.” Obviously, how something “seems” is a statement of fact and/or evidence.

  11. I didn’t realise New Scientist was disrespected. Now I am sad.
    Having grown up in a household where the most intelligent reading was the Guardian or Grandpa’s Telegraph, I though New Scientist was great. My eldest daughter has a subscription as a yearly birthday present. My only gripe was the Christian booksellers stall at the New Scientist Fair, which struck me as outrageous.

    Can other readers please help? Is there an alternative science magazine that is as interesting and (generally speaking) as easy to understand as NS?

    1. Quanta magazine, free online, is pretty good usually I think–now let’s hope tomorrow morning we don’t get in Quanta some nonsense about god’s fantastic consciousness being the reason Republican state Governors seem to enjoy pumping up the frequency of virus deaths of the elderly, the indigenous and people with the wrong skin colour.

      It’s surprising how many of Quanta’s best writers are female compared to one or two males. I assume nobody here objects to me saying that out loud.

  12. Okay, let’s talk about “the maths.” Start with the panphychic claim that consciousness is a property of matter.

    1. Is this property additive? I.e. does 1 atom + 1 atom = a molecule with 2 amounts of consciousness, like with mass*? If so, lots of other things should be conscious. They observably aren’t. This model appears to be wrong.

    2. Is this property not additive? I.e. does 1 atom + 1 atom = a molecule with conscious being like polarity, dependent on the type and configuration? Then panphychism doesn’t solve the problem of consciousness.

    “The maths” don’t help. Panphychism is either wrong or unhelpful. At least until it puts some meat on it’s vague bones and comes up with a testable hypothesis about how these bits of consciousness come together to create higher-scale consciousness.

    *Let’s ignore E=mc2 and the slight mass increase/decrease due to bonding for now.

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