Panpsychism hangs around like an unwanted guest

I’ve written a fair few critical posts about panpsychism, the idea that the “hard problem of consciousness” is solved by positing that all matter in the Universe is conscious. Advocates of panpsychism say that understanding consciousness in an organism like humans is impossible with present approaches, for figuring out how the feeling of “subjective experience”, or “qualia” can never be accomplished by simple mechanistic study and manipulation of biological features like neurons. Panpsychists reject a correlational approach—that if we have a complete picture of what structures have to be there for an organism to experience consciousness, we’ve solved the problem. It maddens them that this, in fact, is the way neuroscientists are approaching the problem.

Instead, they “solve” the problem by saying that all matter, from electrons on up, has a form of consciousness, and so—problem solved—humans are conscious because all the matter in their bodies and brains are conscious. But this raises two issues. First, how does the rudimentary consciousness of electrons, atoms, and molecules combine in a human to create a much more sophisticated kind of consciousness? This is known as the “combination problem.” Advocates of panpsychism, including Philip Goff—an assistant professor of philosophy at Durham University—have no solution to this problem.  (Yes, I read his book on panpsychism and found it deeply flawed.)

Further, the claim that inanimate objects like electrons, rocks, and spoons have a form of consciousness is untestable in any way I can see, and so the theory is a non-explanation: a kind of metaphysical claim that will lead nowhere, even as neuroscientists beaver happily away, figuring out what is required for consciousness and its sub-bits.

Nevertheless, every time I write about panpsychism, or post about it on Twitter, I get a passel of enraged advocates who tell me that it’s a great theory and I misunderstand it. My answer is this: no, it’s a crappy theory and I don’t misunderstand it. For some reason, perhaps because of its numinous, almost dualistic aspect, it attracts a certain kind of person—the kind of person who worships quacks like Rupert Sheldrake and Deepak Chopra.

But I won’t psychologize further; this post is to point out that neuroscientist Anil Seth went after panpsychism over two years ago on NeuroBanter, as well as more recently.  I had missed this earlier critique, but it’s short and sweet, and is still absolutely relevant since panpsychism, being untestable, has not progressed since then. Seth is professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex as well as “Co-Director (with Prof. Hugo Critchley) of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science and Editor-in-Chief of Neuroscience of Consciousness.” You can read his critique by clicking on the screenshot below:

I’ll give a few quotes and then move on. Re the claim of people like Goff that panpsychism is getting more attention lately, Seth says this, referring to” a recent piece by Olivia Goldhill in Quartz with the provocative title: ‘The idea that everything from spoons to stones are conscious is gaining academic credibility’ (Quartz, Jan 27, 2018).

Goldhill’s article is about panpsychism, which is the idea that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, present to some degree everywhere and in everything. Her article suggests that this view is becoming increasingly acceptable and accepted in academic circles, as so-called ‘traditional’ approaches (materialism and dualism) continue to struggle. On the contrary, although it’s true that panpsychism is being discussed more frequently and more openly these days, it remains very much a fringe proposition within consciousness science and is not taken seriously by many. Nor need it be, since consciousness science is getting along just fine without it. Let me explain how.

He then explains how “consciousness scientists” are going about their work without a nod to panpsychism. As Laplace supposedly said about God, “We have no need of that hypothesis.”

But consciousness science has largely moved on from attempts to address the hard problem (though see IIT, below). This is not a failure, it’s a sign of maturity. Philosophically, the hard problem rests on conceivability arguments such as the possibility of imagining a philosophical ‘zombie’ – a behaviourally and perhaps physically identical version of me, or you, but which lacks any conscious experience, which has no inner universe. Conceivability arguments are generally weak since they often rest on failures of imagination or knowledge, rather than on insights into necessity. For example: the more I know about aerodynamics, the less I can imagine a 787 Dreamliner flying backwards. It cannot be done and such a thing is only ‘conceivable’ through ignorance about how wings work.

In practice, scientists researching consciousness are not spending their time (or their scarce grant money) worrying about conscious spoons, they are getting on with the job of mapping mechanistic properties (of brains, bodies, and environments) onto properties of consciousness. These properties can be described in many different ways, but include – for example – differences between normal wakeful awareness and general anaesthesia; experiences of identifying with and owning a particular body, or distinctions between conscious and unconscious visual perception. If you come to the primary academic meeting on consciousness science – the annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC) – or read articles either in specialist journals like Neuroscience of Consciousness (I edit this, other journals are available) or in the general academic literature, you’ll find a wealth of work like this and very little – almost nothing – on panpsychism. You’ll find debates on the best way to test whether prefrontal cortex is involved in visual metacognition – but you won’t find any experiments on whether stones are aware. This, again, is maturity, not stagnation. It is also worth pointing out that consciousness science is having increasing impact in medicine, whether through improved methods for detecting residual awareness following brain injury, or via enhanced understanding of the mechanisms underlying psychiatric illness. Thinking about conscious spoons just doesn’t cut it in this regard.

Seth talks a lot about “integrated information theory” as panpsychists’ way of asserting that consciousness is inherent (in a narrowly defined way) in matter, but that claim is highly technical and I’ll let you read about it yourself. Instead, here’s his take on why an “explanation” of consciousness in scientific terms may be unsatisfying, just as an explanation of quantum uncertainty may be unsatisfying (“that’s just the way it is”), but at least it counts as an explanation. (Correct explanations may not seem emotionally or intuitively satisfying to us.):

. . . people often seem to expect more from a science of consciousness than they would ask of other scientific explanations. As long as we can formulate explanatorily rich relations between physical mechanisms and phenomenological properties, and as long as these relations generate empirically testable predictions which stand up in the lab (and in the wild), we are doing just fine. Riding behind many criticisms of current consciousness science are unstated intuitions that a mechanistic account of consciousness should be somehow intuitively satisfying, or even that it must allow some kind of instantiation of consciousness in an arbitrary machine. We don’t make these requirements in other areas of science, and indeed the very fact that we instantiate phenomenological properties ourselves, might mean that a scientifically satisfactory account of consciousness will never generate the intuitive sensation of ‘ah yes, this is right, it has to be this way’. (Thomas Metzinger makes this point nicely in a recent conversation with Sam Harris.)

Metzinger’s discussion is apparently over 3 hours long (oy!), but you can hear 50 minutes of it at the link.

Finally, the Big Problem with panpsychism:

This leads us to the main problem with panpsychism. It’s not that it sounds crazy, it’s that it cannot be tested. It does not lead to any feasible programme of experimentation. Progress in scientific understanding requires experiments and testability.

As Seth notes, panpsychism is often justified because big names like Arthur Eddington, as well as influential figures like neuroscientist Christof Koch, have favored panpsychism. But even though these people made big contributions to science, panpsychism isn’t made any more credible just because some famous scientists have pushed the theory. In the end, we need data and we need testability—and those things we ain’t got.

I’ve quoted a lot here, as I have little to add to what I’ve said before, but I’ll argue again that the current penchant for panpsychism, which seems to me more a religion than an adherence to science (after all, there is some scientific underpinning to as-yet-untestable theories like string theory, while panpsychism is a form of assertion that didn’t come from science), is baffling. Perhaps its adherents really do believe it instead of glomming onto it to carve themselves out a niche in neuroscience, but we needn’t pay them any heed until they tell us how to test whether spoons are conscious. The last word goes to Seth:

At the end of her piece, Goldhill quotes Chalmers quoting the philosopher John Perry who says: “If you think about consciousness long enough, you either become a panpsychist or you go into administration.” Perhaps the problem lies in only thinking. We should instead complement only thinking with the challenging empirical work of explaining properties of consciousness in terms of biophysical mechanisms. Then we can say: If you work on consciousness long enough, you either become a neuroscientist or you become a panpsychist. I know where I’d rather be – with my many colleagues who are not worrying about conscious spoons but who are trying, and little-by-little succeeding, in unravelling the complex biophysical mechanisms that shape our subjective experiences of world and self. And now it’s high time I got back to that paper on training synaesthesia.

UPDATE: I found that Goff published a response to Seth’s piece (and to another piece) called “The problem with materialism and the explanatory power of panpsychism: A more considered response to Seth and Mitchell.” As the title suggests, it’s explicitly nonmaterialistic, ergo non-naturalistic. Two quotes; you can read the rest for yourself:

But in my view, the opposition to materialism is rooted in the belief that the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science is ill-suited to the task of capturing the qualities of conscious experience.

Capturing is one thing, understanding is another. And there’s this:

One gets the impression reading Seth’s piece that he thinks anti-materialists are stopping neuroscientists making progress. But in so far as neuroscience is giving us correlations/explanations, it is neutral between materialism, dualism, and panpsychism. The proponents of these views would simply give different philosophical interpretations of the data: the materialist would see the physical states as constituting the conscious states, the dualist would see the physical states as causing the conscious states (in conjunction with basic psycho-physical laws of nature), the panpsychist would see the conscious states as the intrinsic nature of the physical states. In so far as some neuroscientists are trying to reductively explain consciousness, then of course they are pursuing a goal inconsistent with dualism/panpsychism. But a plurality of different theories are pursued in science and philosophy without it being a problem. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

I don’t understand that form of dualism, which seems explicitly naturalistic, and re panpscyhism he uses psychobabble that doesn’t explain anything. “Let a thousand flowers bloom” is not a good mantra when some of the flowers are stinkweeds, like creationism is to the beautiful blossom of evolution. Panpsychism isn’t a flower, for it hasn’t ever blossomed.

37 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted October 27, 2020 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Sub

  2. Posted October 27, 2020 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Even if it were true, which I am quite sure it is not, panpsychism does not solve the hard problem, as it purports to do. The hard problem is the question of how a material entity can have an “immaterial” subjective experience. Panpsychism supposedly solves the problem by granting consciousness to the components (without providing any evidence, of course). But that just pushes the problem down many levels. One can still ask how a material electron can have an immaterial conscious experience. How is the hard problem solved?

  3. jezgrove
    Posted October 27, 2020 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Good grief, Spooky Spoon is real after all! https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=W_k-KGDTqsY

  4. Posted October 27, 2020 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    As I see it, the reason for the recent rise of panpsychism and Integrated Information Theory are that consciousness, and how the brain works more generally, have proven to be very hard problems. Scientists are getting impatient. Some scientists have given up looking for the normal kind of solution and are looking for a kind of intellectual shortcut. The more wooish among them go for panpsychism and the more analytical go for IIT. They have more in common than their proponents would probably admit. Instead of thinking that consciousness is a mechanism, it’s a mass property of the brain, or a part of the brain.

    Even those researchers who haven’t given in to impatience are investigating consciousness as if it were a fundamental property of all or part of the brain. The search for the so-called neural correlates of consciousness also smacks of treating consciousness as if it was a fundamental property. For example, researchers talk about coming up with a test for consciousness involving measuring brain activity and giving a yes/no answer to whether the person is conscious. Unfortunately, until we know more about how brain works from a detailed point of view, we won’t have a good enough definition of what it means to be conscious. Without that, I don’t much use in developing a test for it.

    I understand the impatience but scientists shouldn’t give in to empty theories like panpsychism and IIT.

  5. Posted October 27, 2020 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    “Explaining” consciousness by saying that all the bits of the universe have a little consciousness is no more useful than “explaining” life by saying that all the little bits of the universe have tiny amounts of life in them.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 27, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Good analogy. I can’t see any utility at all in panpsychism. It does nothing. Except perhaps tickling that craving for woo some people have?

    • A C Harper
      Posted October 27, 2020 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Panpscyhism… vitalism for the new millennium?

  6. Tim J Reichert
    Posted October 27, 2020 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    I can never figure out why anyone entertains the P-Zombie argument. To consider the possibility of a P-Zombie you would have to be of the opinion that conscious experience has zero effect on the way we act. If a non conscious zombie acts exactly like a fully conscious human, then conscious experience has zero effect on the behaviour of conscious beings. If this were true why would one dedicate their entire career to studying consciousness, a phenomenon with zero effect on human behaviour?

    Panpsychist arguments are eerily similar to the religious “god of the gaps” arguments. “Our theory explains what science can not.”

    I’ll say one thing about panpsychists. They certainly have managed to cause us to give them way more attention than they deserve. For that they can claim a victory of sorts though it’s not a victory I would be too proud of.

    • Posted October 27, 2020 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      “If a non conscious zombie acts exactly like a fully conscious human, then conscious experience has zero effect on the behaviour of conscious beings.”

      I agree. This makes no sense. The opposite claim seems much more reasonable. No matter how we define consciousness, it is likely an important part of how the mind works.

    • Posted October 27, 2020 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      “To consider the possibility of a P-Zombie you would have to be of the opinion that conscious experience has zero effect on the way we act.”

      Exactly. It just gets worse from there. For example, why would I trust a memory that I was in pain yesterday? Memory is just a bunch of brain states (as we can see by administering drugs or electroshocks that interfere with memory). But if consciousness can’t affect material things, then my alleged yesterday-pain couldn’t have played any role in laying down this “memory”.

  7. Posted October 27, 2020 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    The Metzinger conversation is worth listening to, not least because he rather soundly (but politely) pooh-poohs Sam Harris’s sympathy for the “hard problem” pretty early on, and he’s a very interesting guy. I bought his book, which he himself disparages, and it is a very tough one to try to get through. I haven’t done it yet.

    Sam’s conversation(s) with Anil Seth are very good, too. I think there was more than one, one of them live…

  8. Christian
    Posted October 27, 2020 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    There’s a great deal we don’t understand about how a cell works let alone how consciousness works.

    For instance we don’t even understand the basic function of many proteins and more than a few don’t even have names (just a open reading frame designations).

    So I’m surprised anyone is impatient about neuroscientists’ progress in understanding consciousness using materialistic/mechanistic approaches…

    • Posted October 27, 2020 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      I was suggesting that it is the neuroscientists themselves that are impatient, though I suppose the rest of us are too. That said, they are probably just doing what they can to further their science. It’s a difficult problem so nibbling at the edges is perhaps the best we can do at this point.

  9. peepuk
    Posted October 27, 2020 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    To cite Jaegwon Kim:

    “we must seek a naturalistic explanation for mind because mind is a natural phenomenon, and supernatural explanation only provides “one riddle over another”.

    If panpsychism is compatible with Kim’s causal exclusion principle than consciousness is a weak emergent phenomenon and just creates unnecessary semantic confusion. This means “the theory panpsychism” would be scientifically uninteresting.

    If they however are claiming that there are collective effects of particles not accounted for in the standard model of physics, they implicitly make the claim that the standard model is wrong. In this case we physicalist’s can treat it as just another form of dualism as long as there is no new scientific evidence.

  10. Posted October 27, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that the most sensible position is that consciousness is adaptive, that is, it’s been selected for by evolution because it provides, on balance, an advantage in the struggle for survival and the competition for reproduction. It has an obvious causal role, but only in the domain suitable for describing human behavior.

    This implies that there’s nothing inevitable about consciousness. Evolution could have “chosen” a different path that gave rise to creatures with a level of complexity and flexibility not dissimilar to ours, but with no subjective mental states; it just so happens that qualia (individual instances of subjective experience) arose at some point, and then evolution worked on them in such a way that now consciousness functions in the elaborate and sophisticated manner experienced by humans (and most likely, to various degrees, by other animals).

  11. Posted October 27, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Panpsychism doesn’t really elucidate anything, for it doesn’t explain what the function of consciousness would be, if it has any, at the most fundamental level of physics. If atoms have consciousness, but their behavior can be fully explained and predicted without taking their subjective experiences into account, what’s the point? How does panpsychism help us advance our understanding of cause and effect, of intentionality and volition, if it doesn’t provide a coherent and testable mechanism at all levels of reality?

  12. Posted October 27, 2020 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Such a strange idea. And further, the idea that panpsychism ‘solves’ the hard problem of consciousness… I don’t see how it would solve that at all.

    It must be emphasized to them, over and over again, that the ball is in their court to disprove that consciousness as an emergent property.

  13. Posted October 27, 2020 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I remember Official Website Physicist Sean Carroll saying something similar, that we have a set of equations we call laws of physics, and we map those onto phenomena, and that’s okay. You don’t need deeper “explanations” (unlike quantum mechanics’ measurement problem, I’d add).

    -Ryan

    PS Not sure if it’s a mobile site issue or not, but I can’t seem to reach Seth Anil’s article by clicking the screenshot.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 27, 2020 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      It’s a problem with the link in the OP. It leads to a png file.

      The first 3 words of the title brought the article up as the 1st hit in a google search, for me.

    • Posted October 27, 2020 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      I fixed the problem; the screenshot now goes to Anil’s article.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted October 28, 2020 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      You don’t *need* a deeper “explanation” for the Born rule – underlying the so called “measurement problem” – in quantum physics since “shut up and calculate” works.

      It may be dissatisfactory though. Apparently even Nobel laureate Weinberg has started to dabble in additive “interpretations” (“explanations”) for that reason. I commented on that the other day, re how a group has uncovered that – without additions – it* can be a relativistic effect of not having preferred reference frame. Relativity demands in some situations that the observation result is stochastically spread out among the possible local frames.

      [If that is useful or not depends on your take – Einstein relied on exactly such an inversion, using the result as the constraint instead of looking for deeper “explanations” – when establishing relativity in the first place. I.e. the group claims that “wavefunction collapse” is analogous to “time dilation” and “length contraction”.]

      *It, the whole shebang, is my generalization. The authors really look at fermion spin entanglements and how that enforces the Born rule in that case.

      • Posted October 31, 2020 at 2:55 am | Permalink

        If you don’t need a deeper explanation of the Born rule, then you’re saying that the quantum state goes from a superposition of positions to one definite position instantaneously. But that means there will be influences travelling back in time in another frame, which would be forbidden by relativity.

        -Ryan

  14. darrelle
    Posted October 27, 2020 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Most of the thoughts I had reading through this have already been made by previous commenters.

    1) Panpsychism seems exactly like any other argument from incredulity, for example God must exist because __ can not be explained.

    2) Panpsychism doesn’t explain anything, it just sweeps it all under the rug, out of sight out of mind. Turtles all the way down. The supposed goal, explaining consciousness, still remains completely unexplained.

    3) Untestable. Though I suppose that could change in the future (modifications to panpsychism that result in testable claims.)

    4) Even it were true, which doesn’t appear to be testable, it doesn’t explain anything. All of the work of figuring out how consciousness happens would still be before us.

    5) Obviously I am no expert, but “strong” IIT seems exactly as pointless as panpsychism. I don’t see how any given mechanism that integrates information, from the simplest, most basic to the most complex, entails consciousness in all of the bits of stuff that make up the information integrating mechanism. That seems to be assuming panpsychism from the start. Why wouldn’t we assume that any degree of consciousness that any given mechanism may exhibit is a result of how the mechanism functions? How all the itty bits that make it up interact with each other? That is how everything we have reached a good understanding of actually does work. And if this is so then how does strong IIT differ from a mechanistic / materialistic explanation, unless it does start with the premise that panpsychism is true?

    • eric
      Posted October 27, 2020 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      Untestable is right. If Goff is serious about his “…But in so far as neuroscience is giving us correlations/explanations, it is neutral between materialism, dualism, and panpsychism…” argument, then he should propose a different test which can distinguish between them. But, they won’t.

  15. Posted October 27, 2020 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Re Goff’s position being “explicitly nonmaterialistic, ergo non-naturalistic”, I don’t think we should equate naturalism with materialism (physicalism). Although consciousness is obviously a natural phenomenon, it may not be explicable as a straightforwardly physical phenomenon. Indeed, no purely physicalist explanation has yet emerged as to why conscious experience – subjective and qualitative – accompanies only certain neurally instantiated functions. Not to say one won’t eventually emerge, but we shouldn’t blithely assume it will. That assumption might foreclose pursuit of other naturalistic explanatory approaches, for instance having to do with representational content. Content, although real, may not be perspicaciously understood as physical even though it’s carried by physically instantiated representational vehicles in natural systems like us (see https://naturalism.org/sites/naturalism.org/files/Locating%20Consciousness_0.pdf ).

    None of this is to endorse substance dualism, nor to endorse panpsychism, which I agree has nothing scientific or empirical going for it, even if its purveyors claim to be naturalists.

    • eric
      Posted October 27, 2020 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

      In science, the that observation often comes before the how explanation…but this doesn’t mean the that observation is somehow wrong or weak.

      I think it is pretty clear that certain types of neural activity are the phenomena we call consciousness. We alter the neural activity, consciousness changes. We scoop out neurons, it goes away. We put electrodes on sleeping people, and they lose consciousness as their neural activity changes. We can even predict people’s simple choices seconds before they consciously make the choice by watching their neurons fire. Consciousness as neural activity is a very well confirmed observation.

      True, we don’t know the how yet. But this should not send us reaching for nonphysical or magical explanations. After all, we’d think doing that for any other such science problem was ridiculous. Opening the door to “spirits do it” explanations for the how of consciouness is exactly as ridiculous as opening the door to “spirits do it” explanations for the how of gravity quantization.

      • Posted October 28, 2020 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        Yes, there’s a close correlation between certain sorts of neurally instantiated processing and conscious experience, but the identity relation (“certain types of neural activity *are* the phenomena we call consciousness”) isn’t obviously the case. Brains are public, experiences private: they only exist for the experiencer. And note that on the identity relation experience isn’t produced as an additional effect, so there won’t be any explanatory “how” to be had. If identity turns out not to be the case, the explanatory alternatives aren’t necessarily magical (non-naturalistic), and they might involve phenomena and concepts that aren’t straightforwardly physical, e.g., representational content.

        Here’s a nice apposite quote from Roy Wood Sellars I came across today from his 1922 book Evolutionary Naturalism: “The materialist is a naturalist who reads nature in a limited way and believes he has exhausted its possibilities.”

        • Posted October 28, 2020 at 10:07 am | Permalink

          Pain is also private, which I guess means that everything from electrons to spoons feels pain as well. We can’t, then, study what causes pain, much less try to ameliorate it.

          As for the quote about materialism, it sounds good, but we don’t have evidence for anything else. If there was such evidence, we’d consider other possibilities.

          • Posted October 28, 2020 at 10:52 am | Permalink

            Pain is private but its neural correlates are public, which means we can often study, treat, and reduce pain even if we don’t have a settled theory of consciousness. I’m with you in discounting panpsychism, so I don’t think spoons or electrons feel anything.

            We have good evidence for the existence of representational content, see Nicholas Shea’s 2018 prize-winning book “Representation in Cognitive Science,” freely available online (link to pdf below). But whether content is straightforwardly physical, even if it isn’t a non-physical substance, is an open philo-scientific question. Here’s more Roy Wood Sellars from Evolutionary Naturalism (p. 317), anticipating much of my current thinking on consciousness by 100 years:

            “Psychical entities are not substances, but rather peculiar characteristics of neural wholes and inseparable from them. As soon as such psychical entities are thought of as self-sufficient things, dualism breaks out and they are extruded from the brain by our thought. As soon as they are conceived as more than contents, as more than they themselves reveal, as soon as they are given *by themselves* power to do things, they become to the deceived thinker non-physical and alien to physical reality…Psychical entities are, then, contents, which arise in the synthetic brain, and they are aids in the discrimination and correlation of objects. In terms of such contents acts of memory and anticipation clothe themselves, all of this proceeding in the brain as a natural part of its adjustmental function.”

            https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:bd813fd7-8871-4e0d-9d7a-1cede72a7520/download_file?file_format=pdf&safe_filename=Shea_Repn_Cog_Sci_2018_OpenAccess.pdf&type_of_work=Book

  16. C.
    Posted October 27, 2020 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    A better title for this post would be: Panpsychism hangs around like a fart in an elevator”.

    I can’t say anything about it that others haven’t already said more intelligently. I simply cannot fathom the appeal to this ideology. It seems so infantile, on par with how I felt as a child, worrying that some of my toys would feel lonesome if I didn’t play with them, but I was 4 or 5. These are adults who purport to be educated. It’s like a religion, and I just don’t get it.

    • Posted October 27, 2020 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      I agree. The differences between the free will compatibilists and the no free will incompatibilists have some content worth debating, but panpsychism is too lame to argue or even think about, IMO.

      • Posted October 27, 2020 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

        Interesting analogy – because I think panpsychism starts from the opinion that materialism and consciousness are incompatible. So now they need a whole new metaphysics to stick into the world, to save the common sense idea that people are conscious. The incompatibility assumption is the problem, however.

  17. Posted October 27, 2020 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Anil Seth rocks:

    indeed the very fact that we instantiate phenomenological properties ourselves, might mean that a scientifically satisfactory account of consciousness will never generate the intuitive sensation of ‘ah yes, this is right, it has to be this way’.

    The only thing I would change is from “might mean” to “does mean”. An objective view upon sensations won’t automagically bring to mind the subjective view from inside, but this is exactly what a naturalistic view predicts. Just notice that the brain activity in the visual cortex upon watching an fMRI scan differs from the brain activity in the thalamus, hypothalamus, and sensory cortex when you stub your toe. Even if the fMRI scan is of your brain, just after you stubbed your toe.

  18. Posted October 28, 2020 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    You don’t understand panpsychism, so this is a crappy critique.

    https://footnotes2plato.com/2019/09/29/physicalism-and-its-discontents-a-study-in-whiteheads-panexperientialist-alternative-draft/

  19. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted October 28, 2020 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Re “panpsychism, which seems to me more a religion than an adherence to science”, it is exactly right, and the problem is that it seques into philosophy which is pure superstition.

    I’m happy that Seth choses empiricism, the only way to knowledge we know of.

    an explanation of quantum uncertainty may be unsatisfying (“that’s just the way it is”),

    I think you mean the Born selection axiom with its stochastically distributed outcome, which works well under “shut up and calculate” methods, here. And not Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in its many guises which we have more illustrative explanations for.

    “Mathematically, in wave mechanics, the uncertainty relation between position and momentum arises because the expressions of the wavefunction in the two corresponding orthonormal bases in Hilbert space are Fourier transforms of one another (i.e., position and momentum are conjugate variables). A nonzero function and its Fourier transform cannot both be sharply localized. A similar tradeoff between the variances of Fourier conjugates arises in all systems underlain by Fourier analysis, for example in sound waves: A pure tone is a sharp spike at a single frequency, while its Fourier transform gives the shape of the sound wave in the time domain, which is a completely delocalized sine wave.”
    [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle ]

    In other words the difference between real waves and wavefunctions (which describe the state of the system) is that we have a fundamental ratio (constant) involved.

    Complementarity can also be understood by analogy as it falls out of quantum field theory. It is (like the Born rule may be) a relativistic effect of having a field which embodies both wavefunctions and particles.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted October 28, 2020 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      I looked at some of Seth’s texts, and this is cool: Max Tegmark, a fellow Swede, has dabbled in the taxonomy of integrated information measures. (He has written on neuroscience before, criticizing Penrose and other’s “quantum consciousness”.)

      This is not so cool:

      – Seth publishes in Aeon.

      – Seth works at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex in Brighton. As of 2019 they still refused to refuse donations from the Sackler family [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Sussex#Sackler_family_donations ].

      The former is on Seth, the latter is just sad.


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