Another befuddled person touts panpsychism, proposing some possible (but impossible) tests of the idea that all matter is conscious

I continue to be baffled by the presence and lucubrations of apparently sentient people who claim that consciousness inheres in all matter, from electrons to us. This view that everything (including the Universe itself) is conscious is called panpsychism, and I’ve written about it at length.

Why is this cockeyed theory so popular? Because it purports to solve the “hard problem” of consciousness—the “problem” of understanding how events in our environment are perceived by our senses and than translated into “qualia,” or subjective sensation. My view (and that of philosophers like Patricia Churchland) is that once we understand the mechanism of how this works—all the neural correlates of having various qualia—then the hard problem disappears. Or rather, it’s a pseudo-problem.

But that’s not sufficient for the panpsychists. They say that correlation is not understanding, and seek some deeper understanding. But the “deeper understanding” always seems to enter the murky swamp of philoso-babble, leaving science behind.

Panpsychism is a supposedly naturalistic attempt to solve the hard problem, but it does so by sleight of hand: by assering that all matter is conscious, even electrons, rocks, and stars.  And when you combine enough atoms and molecules, each with a rudimentary consciousness, then presto!, you get the higher-level consciousness of animals like us.  The sleight of hand is that this is a “turtles all the way down” strategy, and never solves the “combination problem”: how the rudimentary consciousness of many molecules combines in a way to create more complex and sophisticated states of awareness and sensation in humans.

The empirical problem with panpsychism is twofold: it’s an assertion with no evidence to back it up, and there is no way of testing whether it’s true.  But now Tam Hunt praises the theory once again in Nautilus—a site and magazine partly supported by the John Templeton Foundation—and links to his year-old piece in Scientific American where, he claims, there are ways of testing whether nonliving matter has consciousness.

We met Tam Hunt nine years ago, when he was touting what I called “stealth creationism”, a claim that neo-Darwinism was grossly inaccurate, espousing instead a teleological view that, among other things, was panpsychist:

. . . . mind and thus purpose are inherent in all of nature – but extremely rudimentary in most cases. However, as matter complexifies in macromolecules like amino acids (which form spontaneously in many situations), this innate mind and purpose starts to play an increasingly significant role in evolution. It is, thus, a bootstrapping process that has no end in sight. . .

Below (click on screenshot) is Hunt’s new article at Nautilus, where he pushes panpsychism and also links to an article where he outlines some possible tests of the hypothesis. Note that in the title he claims that electrons may “very well be conscious.” That implies a degree of certainty that’s simply not warranted by the evidence. In fact, there is no evidence for the consciousness of electrons.

We can first dismiss two of the lines of evidence used repeatedly by Hunt as evidence of panpsychism:

a.) Panpsychism has been around a long time. 

 So why should we think that creatures with brains, like us, are the sole bearers of consciousness? In fact, panpsychism has been around for thousands of years as one of various solutions to the mind-body problem. David Skrbina’s 2007 book, Panpsychism in the West, provides an excellent history of this intellectual tradition.

But of course, so have many false or unevidenced notions, like Christianity and Judaism, as well as even older forms of faith. The durability of an idea has no bearing on its truth. What we need is evidence.

b.) Famous people have been panpsychists or limned the idea.  Hunt names, among others, Alfred North Whitehead, Galen Strawson, David Bohm, and others who have adhered to some form of panpsychism, as well as physicists like Neils Bohr and Freeman Dyson, who have been naturalists but not panpsychists. Hunt likes to argue that naturalism supports panpsychism because in the end, mind is made of matter, and if brains evince consciousness, then, well, so must matter. But that, of course, doesn’t mean that all matter is conscious, any more than it means that all matter is alive even though living beings are made of electrons and other particles. The Argument from Authority and Famous People again doesn’t move me; we need evidence.

Here’s some of Hunt’s argument:

While inanimate matter doesn’t evolve like animate matter, inanimate matter does behave. It does things. It responds to forces. Electrons move in certain ways that differ under different experimental conditions. These types of behaviors have prompted respected physicists to suggest that electrons may have some type of extremely rudimentary mind. For example the late Freeman Dyson, the well-known American physicist, stated in his 1979 book, Disturbing the Universe, that “the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when made by electrons.” Quantum chance is better framed as quantum choice—choice, not chance, at every level of nature. David Bohm, another well-known American physicist, argued similarly: “The ability of form to be active is the most characteristic feature of mind, and we have something that is mind-like already with the electron.”

Many biologists and philosophers have recognized that there is no hard line between animate and inanimate. J.B.S. Haldane, the eminent British biologist, supported the view that there is no clear demarcation line between what is alive and what is not: “We do not find obvious evidence of life or mind in so-called inert matter…; but if the scientific point of view is correct, we shall ultimately find them, at least in rudimentary form, all through the universe.”

Tam further argues that the nature of quantum mechanics itself supports panpsychism, saying things like the following, which borders on the ridiculous (let me replace “borders on the” with “is”):

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, author of the 2018 book Lost in Math, has taken a contrary position. “[I]f you want a particle to be conscious, your minimum expectation should be that the particle can change,” she argued in a post titled “Electrons Don’t Think.” “It’s hard to have an inner life with only one thought. But if electrons could have thoughts, we’d long have seen this in particle collisions because it would change the number of particles produced in collisions.”

Yet “change” means many different things, including position in space over time. What Dyson is getting at in his remark about electrons and quantum theory is that the probabilistic distribution-outcomes of quantum experiments (like the double-slit experiment) are better explained as the product, not of pure chance (another way of saying “we don’t know”), but of numerous highly rudimentary choices by each electron in each moment about where and how to manifest.

Does a rock make such choices, then? If so, why don’t we see rocks moving as well as they choose “where and how to manifest”? “And now I am become Conscious Rock, the Befuddler of Neurology.”

But enough; Tam’s argument is pure panpsychist boilerplate. Where it becomes novel is where it becomes “testable”, or so Tam says. In this year-old article in Scientific American, Tam says (above) that he was trying to transform some philosophical considerations into “a testable set of experiments.” But when you read the piece, you see that what he proposes isn’t testable at all (click on screenshot):

Here he argues that there are three types of correlates of consciousness that we can use to test “inanimate” matter to see if it has consciousness:

Neural correlates.  We can use EEG, fMRI, and other neurological tools to see if a patient is conscious. But of course you can’t use these on electrons or rocks, as they have no neurons!

Behavioral correlates.  Tam uses the example of cats purring, flexing their toes, snuggle when petted, and appearing to show fear and curiosity. To him that’s evidence for consciousness. The response is obvious: you can build robots that show these behaviors, too; in fact, some already exist. Are those robots conscious simply because they show behavior similar to those of organisms we think are conscious? Not in my view!

Creative correlates. I’ll let Tam describe this one:

Creative output is another source of information for assessing the presence of consciousness. If for whatever reason we can’t examine neural or behavioral correlates of consciousness, we may be able to examine the creative products of consciousness for clues.

For example, when we examine ancient architectural structures such as Stonehenge or cave paintings in Europe that have been judged to be as much as 65,000 years old, are we reasonable in judging the creators of these items to be conscious in ways similar to our own? Most of us would say: obviously, yes. We know from experience that it would take high intelligence and consciousness to produce such items today, so we reasonably conclude that our ancient ancestors had similar levels of consciousness.

What if we find obviously unnatural artifacts on Mars or other bodies in our solar system? Do we reasonably infer that whatever entities created such artifacts were conscious? It will depend on the artifacts in question, but if we were to find anything remotely similar to human dwellings or machinery on other planets, but which was clearly not human in origin, most of us would reasonably infer that the creators of these artifacts were also conscious.

But robots could do that, too. In response, Tam says that we can distinguish creative things that are products of consciousness from creative things that are the product of, say, artificial intelligence:

We can conduct a kind of “artistic Turing test” and ask study participants to consider various works of art and say which ones they conclude must have been created by a human. And if AI artwork consistently fools people into thinking it was made by a human, is that good evidence to conclude that the AI is at least in some ways conscious?

My answer is “no.” But this is all ludicrous anyway, for we’re not asking about AI, but about rocks, electrons, glasses of water, or, for that matter, bacteria and flatworms. None of these could show creativity of that type. It is curious that while panpsychists don’t accept correlation studies in neurology as a solution to the “hard problem” of consciousness, Hunt touts exactly similar types of studies as a way to see if inanimate matter is conscious.

Thus, all three of Tam’s “correlates” fail to yield a program for determining whether electrons are conscious.  There is no such program.

Then, you’re probably asking yourself, how do we determine whether anything is conscious, including our fellow humans? And my answer is “Inference and self-report”.  We infer that humans are conscious because they’re similar to our individual selves, and that primates and mammals have a consciousness somewhat similar to ours because they’re our evolutionary relatives. As for self-report, well, I tell you that I’m conscious. You could say “prove it”, or take me for a zombie, and I couldn’t really convince you otherwise.

In the end, we can infer that some animals are conscious (given that we define consciousness as subjective sensations and thoughts), but we can’t make an airtight inference. But that’s true of all science. All we can do is make inferences to the best explanation, and I’d claim that the most reasonable inference is that everyone reading this is conscious—not a bot or a zombie. And the best inference about electrons, rocks, and hydrogen atoms is that they’re not conscious, for they show none of the features that makes us think that our fellow humans are conscious.

I am not one of those scientists who denigrate philosophy as a whole. But some philosophers are prey to ludicrous ideas, and panpsychism is one of them. The popularity of the idea shows that intellectual termites are chomping away at the framework of philosophy. Perhaps, as Matthew Cobb said in his interview with Michael Shermer, panpsychism—which he said is “not even wrong”—will shortly disappear from the scene (see 4 minutes in). One can hope!


h/t: Paul


  1. Posted May 28, 2020 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Typo alert: I think you mean Patricia Churchland in the second para.

    • Posted May 28, 2020 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      Indeed; a typo. I fixed it, thanks.

      • Peter
        Posted May 28, 2020 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

        Typo alert, I think 🙂

        I think you mean electron instead of elections, but maybe elections are conscious too 😀

  2. Posted May 28, 2020 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Electrons are conscious 🙂

    I remember talking to someone who wrote a book on the consciousness of electrons. He maintained that the uncertainty principle is easily explained by the consciousness theory of electrons — another example of inventing a term or phrase and and calling it an explanation.

    • rickflick
      Posted May 28, 2020 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

      Makes you wonder how many advocates are pulling our legs.

  3. steve oberski
    Posted May 28, 2020 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    a.) Panpsychism has been around a long time.

    b.) Famous people have been panpsychists or limned the idea.

    c. ) Panpsychism gives us sense of purpose.

    d. ) Panpsychism tells us how to behave properly.

    e. ) Panpsychism helps people to become more social.

    f. ) Panpsychism can make you feel at peace with death.

    g. ) Panpsychism gives you a feeling of security.

    h. ) Panpsychism can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not.

    i. ) The practice of panpsychism a form of social interaction that can improve psychological health.

    Etc, etc. ad nauseam.

  4. Roger
    Posted May 28, 2020 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Where’s My Consciousness-ometer?

    IMO that should be Dude, Where’s My Consciousness-ometer?I can’t believe Scientific American dropped the ball on this title opportunity.

    • chrism
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      Anesthetists would surely love to have one. There is no way of knowing whether a paralysed patient is conscious, and as a result a few times a year someone ‘wakes up’ from a surgery and says they felt everything and can describe exactly what the surgeons said to each other etc. EEGs and fMRIs don’t tell you. There are hints from lacrimation and sweating (provided no anticholinergic pre-med was given) and maybe changes in heart rate, but they are only hints at best.

  5. eric
    Posted May 28, 2020 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    The empirical problem with panpsychism is twofold: it’s an assertion with no evidence to back it up, and there is no way of testing whether it’s true.

    I think those are minor problems.

    The true major problem (IMO) is that observation contradicts their claim. If consciousness grows with matter, then larger things should be more conscious. Even restricting ourselves to brains, their claim would imply that larger brains are more conscious. But this is simply not true. It’s not what we observe.

    (1) Many birds are much smarter and can understand language better than larger-brained mammals. On the other end…

    (2) Whales don’t seem to be all that able to understand communications or communicate back, unlike their smaller cousins dolphins. By all empirical observables, they are less conscious. Finally…

    (3) Any panpsychism concept that does not heavily factor in structure and reaction/metabolism* has an enormous number of additional counter-demonstratives, from stars to dead humans (all the same atoms are there! But no consciousness!).

    So, IMO we are not in the situation of “no evidence (in favor of it)”, we are in the situation of “enormous amounts of contra-indicating evidence and no evidence in favor of it.”

    (*Yet if they do factor in structure and reaction, then the “all atoms have it” claim gets weaker and weaker. What does it mean for all matter to “have consciousness” if that matter’s consciousness only actually becomes conscious when the right amount of the right types of matter are arranged in the right pattern and interact in the right ways? It means panpsychism as something different from traditional science has all but disappeared. There’s no longer any “there” there.)

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted May 28, 2020 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      #3, dead people, really is a problem for panpsychism. Everything that makes living people conscious and dead people not goes against panpsychism. If humans lose the interesting part of human consciousness when they die, then clearly whatever part is “just in the atoms” is of no interest to us.

    • boudiccadylis
      Posted May 28, 2020 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Does it.mean that it I can’t speak and/or understand your language you have no “appropriate” means of communication? Whales vs. Dolphins . Dolphins seem to be able to communicate with humans as well as among themse!ves. Whales seem to respond among themselves only. Language or interest?

      • eric
        Posted May 28, 2020 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        That could be the start of an entire panpsychic parrot sketch.
        “Sir, your rock is not conscious.”
        “‘e’s not non-conscious, ‘e’s just disinterested!”

        It’s possible, but at some point it’s reasonable to take lack of a cogent response to mean lack of ability to cogently respond.

        I can’t remember where I read it, but I vaguely remember reading some nature book that made the point that what’s interesting about human communication (vs. other animal’s communications) is not that we can understand signals and make signals – loads of animals do those things – but that we’re about equally good at both. In most animals, their ability to comprehend other signals is much greater than their ability to communicate detailed messages back. Vervet monkeys have different alarm calls for eagles and a bunch of other predators. But they can understand all vervet alarm calls, plus many other species’ predator alarm calls.

        Maybe that helps the panpsychics make their claim. Maybe rocks are really good at listening but lousy at communicating themselves (…insert sexist joke here). But personally, I really don’t think it gives them much to stand on. Given that empiricism accesses behaviors and rarely internal states, it’s on behaviors that we’re going to decide whether an hypothesis is well supported, poorly supported, or undermined by the evidence.

  6. Posted May 28, 2020 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Okay, so fanatical reductionists were right after all. Where even the most materialist scientists and philosophers declare themselves baffled by how subjective consciousness arises, panpsychists proclaim that consciousness is simply the sum of a bunch of smaller parts, and can be pulled apart like lego blocks.

  7. Posted May 28, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    “pure chance (another way of saying “we don’t know”),”

    Wrong: the universe may be objectively chancy!

    Also, Jerry’s point about can’t *conclusively* verify goes quickly to Dennett’s point about the silliness of (philosopher’s) zombies. They would be perpetually trapped not even able to *say* they are such, in *any* way.

    (Of course this is where he looks verificationist – there’s more to the argument that absolves him – and Jerry – from this mistake.)

  8. Posted May 28, 2020 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    So here is a dichotomous key for how a conversation with him might go.
    1. Ever hear of ’emergent properties? Could you please describe how the properties of water are emergent properties?
    a. He explains emergent properties of water correctly. Go to 2.
    b. He claims that what is described as the emergent properties of water is really just a manifestation of more consciousness. A pool of water is more conscious than a water molecule. Go to 3.

    2. OK, then! So surely you can agree that an intact and living human brain is conscious, while the same brain under anesthesia is unconscious, right? Or a blue whales’ brain, which is a lot bigger, has some demonstrations of consciousness but is not nearly as creative or imaginative as a human brain. So aren’t those clear directives that consciousness is an emergent property? The key detail being that higher orders of consciousness emerges from both the arrangement and interactions among component parts?
    a. He spins and babbles and gesticulates, urgently disagreeing that consciousness is an emergent property. Every other property seen in any variety of matter is an emergent property at some level, but consciousness somehow exists in all levels of matter because that is a solution to the hard problem of consciousness.
    b. He spins and babbles and gesticulates, urgently disagreeing that consciousness is an emergent property. Every other property seen in any variety of matter is an emergent property at some level, but consciousness somehow exists in all levels of matter because that is a solution to the hard problem of consciousness.

    3. Hmmm, you are making an unsupported claim right off the bat. Could you explain why a single molecule of water lacks any measurable surface tension, is not a strong solvent, and expands when frozen, while a pool of water molecules clearly exhibits those features? Are you saying that those properties are actually present in single water molecules, only they are very weak and that they are manifestations of awareness?
    a. He spins and babbles and gesticulates, while saying that just because we don’t see those properties in single water molecules does not mean they are not there. They could be there, and that would be consciousness.
    b. He spins and babbles and gesticulates, while saying that just because we don’t see those properties in single water molecules does not mean they are not there. They could be there, and that would be consciousness.

  9. Posted May 28, 2020 at 10:21 am | Permalink


    • boudiccadylis
      Posted May 28, 2020 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      I Could Be

  10. Posted May 28, 2020 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I do not think one can use a Turing test to identify consciousness. Suppose a Turing test convinces me that a party with which I am conversing is as conscious as I am, and the other party turns out to be a machine. Do I conclude that the machine is conscious or do I conclude that the thing I call my consciousness is an illusion that can be faked by a mechanical process?

    I think we need a proper definition of consciousness, perhaps a self-referential mental model of the organism and its environment, before we can talk about whether this or that is conscious. Such a model would require a high level of information processing, which rules out rocks and electrons.

    • Posted May 28, 2020 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      So basically you are not a believer in the Turing Test? If a machine was able to fool several competent questioners over a long period, you would still not accept that the machine was conscious? If so, then one would have to conclude that you believe there’s some special essence that humans have that machines could never have.

      • Posted May 28, 2020 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        Without a definition I do not see how a Turing test can do anything. Intelligence is perhaps well enough defined for a Turing test to work, but I do not think consciousness is. People can be easily fooled into thinking simple devices, like puppets, are “conscious” when consciousness is defined simply by overt behavior. Feynman once said “What I cannot create, I cannot understand.” I expect we will need to create consciousness to fully understand it. And I think it will eventually be done.

        • Posted May 28, 2020 at 11:44 am | Permalink

          I take issue with your claim that the Turing Test is easy to pass. The situations where people are “easily fooled” are where they don’t even know there’s a test being done or they aren’t very good at coming up with questions.

          Let’s say some AI passes the test performed by multiple qualified inquisitors. Can we not query the programmers behind that AI and find out how it was done? Would that not tell us something about consciousness? While it might not tell us all we need to know about how the brain pulls it off, we would know what to look for much more than we do now. I think the “magic” of consciousness would have be exploded, though I suspect we would still be left with a huge amount of awe at what evolution had produced. Hopefully it would be the beginning of the end of panpsychism.

          • Evan Plommer
            Posted May 28, 2020 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

            Hi Paul: Churchill, Searle, and their followers have buried the Turing test, as far as I can see. You must have read some of their work? They’ve been brave enough to question the assertion that brains are a kind of digital computer for a long time; decades. Their argument, (compressed mightily), is that consciousness is not a ‘thing’ but rather a description of a system in operation. If these naturalistic philosophers of mind are making bad arguments, I think you (like the panpsychists), need to explain what errors they make.

            • Posted May 28, 2020 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

              Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment has been debunked ad nauseum. I’m not going to repeat the arguments against it here. It makes no sense to anyone who works with computers. Like those that believe in the “hard problem” of consciousness and panpsychists, believers in the Chinese Room are looking for some sort of “secret sauce” that the brain has but computers can never have.

              Those that claim that the behavior of the brain can’t be duplicated by a digital computer either take a very narrow definition of what a computer can do or place unreasonable requirements on it. An example of the former argument is that a computer can only do what its programmer can code. The halting problem debunks that theoretically but there are many examples of how one has to actually run a program in order to see what it will do. An example of the latter argument is that they require a digital computer to, say, write a symphony. First, most people can’t do this either. Second, a digital computer that is conscious and can think will likely not share our culture and won’t have a body like ours. I take it as uncontroversial that a digital computer will not be human to that degree, at least not in our lifetime. Only in science fiction.

              • Evan Plommer
                Posted May 28, 2020 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

                As we know this site isn’t for a lot of back and forth, but your ‘secret sauce’ comment demonstrates that you haven’t read Searle; rather others characterization of his work. Dennet, very likely. Searle in fact explicitly rules out a secret sauce. As for The Chinese Room being debunked, I disagree strongly. If you want to go farther with this that’s fine, but not here, please.

              • Posted May 28, 2020 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

                Of course Searle wouldn’t consider it “secret sauce”. BTW, I have read him. There’s also Dreyfus’s “What Computers Can’t Do.” They are both ridiculously naive. Sure, there’s no reason to argue this stuff here. It has a long history and we’re unlikely to come up with anything new.

                People that work in AI (AGI, not the neural network stuff) are resigned to a future in which people will come to regard the issue as settled because they work with smart programs on a daily basis. This parallels Churchland’s thesis that it is silly to start looking to magical sources of consciousness now. Just let the neurobiologists do their work and ask about it later.

          • Posted May 28, 2020 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

            I did not claim that a Turing test is easy to pass. I am claiming that a Turing test (a simulation that cannot be distinguished from the “real thing”) cannot be used to determine whether something is conscious because consciousness is a subjective phenomenon. I believe I am conscious because of my ability to interrogate my own mental processes, among other things. But shouting that to the world cannot demonstrate to others that I am conscious. In fact there is nothing I can do to demonstrate that I am conscious. I could be a zombie. We do infer consciousness, but my inference (say) that you are conscious is based more on my knowledge that you are made the same way as I am, rather than your behaviors or your claim to be conscious.

            However, now I think about it, since I have never met you in person, you could be a clever bot, in which case I would have no good reason to think that you are conscious. Sorry, Paul, you have failed the Turing test.

            • Posted May 28, 2020 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

              “Sorry, Paul, you have failed the Turing test.”

              I can live with that. 😉

              There are lots of problems with the Turing Test, at least in its straight-forward form. A useful AI that thinks and is regarded by most humans as conscious would probably still not pass the test. It would not share our culture. It would have to lie in response to so many questions or those questions would have to be placed off-limits to the inquisitor.

              So what kind of definition of consciousness would work? The AI would have to have the ability to introspect. It would have to give reasonable, non-trivial answers to questions like, “Why did you give that last answer?” Of course, the AI could be a zombie but so could we. That path leads to madness.

              • Posted May 28, 2020 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

                As I said earlier, I think that our subjective sense of consciousness results from the fact that we have evolved mental processes that utilize a dynamic model of our body and its interaction with the environment, *and* this model includes a self-referential model of those same mental processes. (I am speculating of course, but these ideas come from some respected neuroscientists.) Someday, I believe we will be able to build such a thing and we will enter the age of AC (artificial consciousness) as well as AI.

                You would know better than I, but I have read that the AI in self-driving cars contains a car-environment model but without the self referential part. I do not think building the latter is an insurmountable problem, although we have no clue yet. And when we solve it we will finally understand consciousness and perhaps discover how it works in our own brains.

                There is a question of whether consciousness, if it is real, is needed. Although nature perhaps invented consciousness to help organisms function, it may not be needed. Perhaps we can build zombies that function just as well as conscious entities. Those zombies could pass the Turing test on behaviors but still be zombies in the subjective sense. Or perhaps we are zombies with an illusion of consciousness, whatever that means.

              • Posted May 28, 2020 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

                It’s kind of interesting to think about whether we would want our car’s AI to be conscious or introspective. Perhaps we would like to ask it questions about its own capabilities and why it reacted the way that it did. Of course, it is possible to do that without involving anything worth calling consciousness. Many computer programs contain self-referential and introspective functions. Software to control a nuclear reactor, for example, might have one or more programs that watch the main program and raise alarms when they do something wrong. Such detection could be built into the main program but there’s benefit from them being separate. If the main program got stuck in a loop or its computer hardware failed, the others could presumably still detect that.

                The whole question of zombies will have to wait until we have a more precise definition of consciousness.

            • Jim Swetnam
              Posted May 28, 2020 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

              It’s interesting that very few people ever reference Turing’s original 3 party test:

              “Turing’s original article describes a simple party game involving three players. Player A is a man, player B is a woman and player C (who plays the role of the interrogator) is of either sex. In the imitation game, player C is unable to see either player A or player B, and can communicate with them only through written notes. By asking questions of player A and player B, player C tries to determine which of the two is the man and which is the woman. Player A’s role is to trick the interrogator into making the wrong decision, while player B attempts to assist the interrogator in making the right one.[7]”

              Turing then asks:

              What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game? Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?”


              There are various versions with different combinations of men and women, and the idea seems to be that there are subjective qualia that are “gendered’ and that a machine might not be able to convincingly replicate. I’m agnostic on the subject, but I’d be interested in your learned opinions.

              • Posted May 28, 2020 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

                I am in favor of the general principle behind the Turing Test. We should test behavior only so as to avoid simply concluding “if it isn’t human, it isn’t real thinking.” However, the Turing Test has huge problems in practice. I suspect Turing knew that and only proposed it as an interesting thought experiment. My guess is that there’s no version of the test that escapes all the problems.

  11. Jenny Haniver
    Posted May 28, 2020 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I’m going to apply for a Templeton grant to study consciousness in turds. Why, I’ll bet I get the Templeton Prize for Bullshit.

  12. rickflick
    Posted May 28, 2020 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    It’s like gravity before Einstein. They would have said, little fairies push things together – that makes gravity. Once our Einstein of consciousness arrives, panpsychism will go away.

    • Evan Plommer
      Posted May 28, 2020 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Although an ‘Einstein’ of consciousness would help, I think that we need to give credit right now to those who are doing neurobiology. As our understanding of how brains work increases, we’re bound to get an improved understanding of how they cause consciousness. Such researchers aren’t proceeding with their investigations based on the old idea that the brain is a digital computer. They’re going where the evidence leads them. We may not get a full answer for centuries; possibly never, but it’s still a worthy path.

      • Posted May 28, 2020 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        “As our understanding of how brains work increases, we’re bound to get an improved understanding of how they cause consciousness.”

        I agree with gist of your whole comment. Neurobiologists are doing great work. We may not ever have an Einstein but I believe we will still get there eventually.

        I do want to point out some things embodied by the quote above. Isn’t consciousness simply a part of how the brain works? The phrase “cause consciousness” evokes a sort of sudden lighting up like when a ball of hydrogen grows large enough for fusion to start and it becomes a star. This may be inadvertent on your part but this smacks of the “secret sauce”.

        Consciousness is amazing but I believe that it only looks that way because of our unique perspective. Consciousness is really only amazing when we think of our own consciousness. If one thinks scientifically about someone else’s consciousness in terms of stimulus and response, the amazement disappears. We need to look at consciousness as a neurobiologist.

      • rickflick
        Posted May 28, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

        The “Einstein” we’re looking for might be in the form of a network of little Einsteins distributed throughout to the research world.

  13. Posted May 28, 2020 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Come on, Jerry. Release your inner hippie. Break throught that prison-house of science. Drop out, turn on, tune in!

  14. Posted May 28, 2020 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to see the look on Sabine Hossenfelder’s face if and when she reads this guy’s stuff. But hopefully she doesn’t bother.

  15. Jimbo
    Posted May 28, 2020 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I just can’t understand how panpsychism still exists in intelligent people beyond a vague “universal energy” description. Consciousness, subjectivity, even zombies require neurons. Even a dualist who thinks that thoughts or ideas or consciousness itself exist outside the body must admit that they somehow interact with a body to become known or discoverable. But not without brains and neurons and neurotransmission they don’t. Then there’s the problem of scale. How could consciousness ever inhabit anything smaller than a neuron such as a molecule or an atom or even an electron? Answer: impossible. It’s like saying that the program encoding Microsoft Windows operating system exists inside each silicon atom found in one of its semiconductor processors or that Beethoven’s 5th symphony resides eternally inside one carbon atom and the two protons bound to it inside the varnish coating on the neck of the third cello of the London Symphony Orchestra.

  16. Posted May 28, 2020 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    “Many biologists and philosophers have recognized that there is no hard line between animate and inanimate.”

    True. But they do not then conclude that therefore all things are animate.

    • Posted May 28, 2020 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Yes! I think you’ve captured it in a nutshell, as they say. The panpsychists seem to be saying, “If we can’t decide what’s conscious and what isn’t, let’s just say everything is conscious and life will be simpler.”

  17. A C Harper
    Posted May 28, 2020 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    1) First define consciousness
    2) Panpsychism goes away


    a) Let consciousness be any damn thing you want and change it whenever it suits you
    b) Panspsychism is the least of your worries

  18. Florent
    Posted May 28, 2020 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    “Note that in the title he claims that **elections** may “very well be conscious.” That implies a degree of certainty that’s simply not warranted by the evidence. In fact, there is no evidence for the consciousness of electrons.”

    If elections are conscious, then it might help the People of the USA to absolve from Trump ever getting elected as POTUS ? =)

  19. Posted May 28, 2020 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    “…once we understand the mechanism of how this works—all the neural correlates of having various qualia—then the hard problem disappears.”

    Well, it might get *solved*, since after all the problem is legit: why do only certain sorts of neurally-instantiated cognitive functions entail qualitative subjective experience? A theory of consciousness must explain why experiences only exist for the instantiated system (their subjectivity) and why they are qualitative (qualia). As suggested in a recent Journal of Consciousness Studies paper, I think representationalist approaches to explaining consciousness might do the trick, and of course I agree that panpsychism is a complete non-starter.

    Click to access Locating%20Consciousness_0.pdf

  20. Roo
    Posted May 28, 2020 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    I think the issue here is one of semantics, as the term ‘consciousness’ is generally so ill-defined when it comes to talk of panpsychism. Depending on what this means, what is being proposed could be absolutely ludicrous to absolutely banal, with many shades in between.

    At the ludicrous end is the idea that everything is conscious in the way that human (or animal) minds are – self-consciously aware, with feelings, etc. But I think if anyone holds this belief it is a tiny minority. Other options include:

    – The totally banal – i.e., saying that every ‘thing’ out there contains subatomic particles, space, etc., and eventually these building blocks form consciousness, so in some sense everything ‘contains’ a bit of consciousness. This is just rephrasing of the idea that the fundamental building blocks of the universe create many different things.

    – The interesting but plausible – for example, say we finally understood consciousness and found out it had a direct correlation with the concentration of, I don’t know, a particular quark (that may be a bad example, but hopefully you get the general idea.) If you had enough of this quark, you have what we consider a ‘conscious but currently asleep’ person, add even more and you have a ‘conscious but awake’ person, even more and you get some sort of wild hyper focus, etc. But this quark was also present in extremely low concentrations in all things. Does that mean that all matter is ‘conscious’? I mean, it means it all contains a more specific building block that has a direct correlation to consciousness, but it might be like saying that anything that creates h2o as a byproduct is wet. It’s sort of a fanciful rewording, to my mind.

    – The ‘spiritual but not religious’ version, that people seem to talk about frequently on acid trips where they report feeling sure that everything was buzzing with consciousness. This implies that a) Some substance that correlates with consciousness at higher concentrations exists in all things and b) Rather than this being a semantic point, there is some qualitative consequence of things possessing this mystery substance. Unfortunately, people generally say that whatever this quality is, it can’t really be put to words, making this rather hard to test. If it could be defined, I suppose it would be like saying “all objects have density” or something along those lines.

    • Posted May 29, 2020 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      In the philosophical literature, it refers specifically to “qualia” in the strong sense.

      (This is why, at first glance, the responses about “but electrons aren’t asleep or awake” miss the point.)

      • Roo
        Posted May 29, 2020 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        To talk about qualia in the absence of any of the five senses (as in the case of a rock, for example) sounds almost equally vague. If a rock is having an ‘experience’ but one that does not involve sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch, then it’s hard to define what is meant by ‘experience’ there.

  21. Posted May 28, 2020 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    My view (and that of philosophers like Patricia Churchill) is that once we understand the mechanism of how this works—all the neural correlates of having various qualia—then the hard problem disappears. Or rather, it’s a pseudo-problem.

    I agree with the broad thrust of your post, but not this point. It’s not just the neural correlates of qualia themselves, but also the neural and psychological correlates of beliefs about qualia and about the external world, that will “solve” the Hard Fact. I call it the Hard Fact, not the Hard Problem, because this fact – that no purely objective characterization of a human being will automatically bring to your mind a picture of their qualia – is not a problem.

    It would only be a problem if our leading naturalistic theory of human minds predicted that one could simply “read off” qualia from objective descriptions. It does not. It predicts the Hard Fact. The very fact that woo-peddlers think is ammunition against straightforward naturalism about the mind, is actually more evidence in its favor.

  22. Colin McLachlan
    Posted May 30, 2020 at 6:22 am | Permalink


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