I’ve written a fair bit about panpsychism (see here for all the posts), and I don’t really feel in the mood to summarize the problems at length. Suffice it to say that it’s a “theory”—probably an untestable one, or maybe it’s better seen as a religion—that every bit of matter in the Universe has some form of consciousness, including electrons and rocks, and if you put them together the right way, as in a dog or a human, you get “higher” consciousness automatically. It’s a “turtles all the way down” view that finesses the problem of consciousness—i.e., how we get qualia, or subjective sensations—by simply making up stuff.
The problems with it are many, and you can read my posts to see the issues that I and others have found with it. They include the following:
a.) There’s no evidence that rocks or electrons or water are “conscious”, and there’s no way to find out if they are because the proponents never define what it means for this kind of matter to be conscious.
b.) There’s the “combination problem”: how do we put together “conscious” molecules in a way to create the kind of consciousness that humans have? At what point do “qualia” appear. If you make a complex machine like a typewriter, it’s a combination of lots of conscious molecules, too, but doesn’t have “higher” consciousness. There has been no convincing solution to the “combination problem” by even the advocates of panpsychism
c.) A problem raised by one of its proponents (one of the four boosters whom Salon uses to say panpsychism is “gaining steam”:
“Panpsychists think you can’t explain human consciousness by putting together lots of non-conscious things in the right structure; okay, but is it actually easier to explain it by putting lots of conscious things in the right structure?” Roelofs asked.
c.) The entire theory is untestable, as one of the proponents admits in the Salon article below (click on screenshot). It is not a scientific theory as much as mental masturbation. At least scientific theories of consciousness, like what neurons are required to have it, and how to change or eliminate it, can be testable.
Count on Salon, the Daily MIrror of websites, to have an article claiming that panpsychism is “gaining steam in science communities.” There’s no evidence adduced at all that the theory is spreading in science communities. Author Rozsa cites, beside Philip Goff, one of the theory’s long-time proponents, only three other people who accept this cockamamie view. None of them are scientists; all four are philosophers of mind. Nor is the author of the piece a scientist. That’s because no respectable scientist would say we should study how consciousness arises by simply assuming that all matter is inherently conscious.
Read and weep:
Here’s how the article frames the “hard problem” of consciousness:
On the other hand, science is equally stuck when it comes to explaining the subjective experiences that we can embrace when we listen to music, enjoy delicious food, watch a movie or fall in love. There is something unquantifiable about the joys of life, a reality that is not encompassed when we try to reduce emotions to hormones.
. . .”Consciousness involves quality — the redness of a red experience, the smell of coffee, the taste of mint,” Goff said. “These qualities that can’t be captured in a purely quantitative vocabulary of mathematics. So Galileo said that if we want mathematical science, we need to take consciousness out of the domain of science. In Galileo’s worldview, there is this radical division in nature between the quantitative mathematical domain of science and the physical world, and the qualitative domain of consciousness with its colors, and sounds, and smells and tastes.”
My own view, which I derived from Patricia Churchland, is that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of a certain arrangement of living molecules, most of them in the brain. Once you have all the ingredients for consciousness in place (and science is beginning to learn about some of them), then you get the phenomenon of consciousness and the presence of subjective sensation. End of the story; nothing more to find out. To me, there’s nothing more to the explanation than that: once the components are there, the being is conscious. The scientific task is to find those components and, if we could, assemble them to see if we get consciousness, or at least fiddle with them to see if we can alter, diminish, or erase consciousness in predictable ways.
But I’m not a neuroscientist, so I’ll leave it to people like Churchland to go after panpsychism. The fact is that, contra Salon, the idea is not gaining steam, but winding down as people realize that panpsychism is a worldview that is absolutely untestable. In fact, Luke Roelofs at NYU more or less admits that:
“Panpsychism does suggest that there may well be some level of consciousness everywhere in nature,” Roelofs explained. “Panpsychists all accept dog-consciousness, but some might not want to accept chair-consciousness: they might say that each particle making up the chair is conscious, but it’s not constructed the right way for these to ‘add up’ to anything. Others might think that chairs have consciousness, but of an incredibly diffuse sort: because there’s no brain or nervous system, there’s no order or structure to the chair’s experience, just an undifferentiated blur.”
Ultimately, he added, “The impact of panpsychism isn’t so much to answer these questions, but to suggest continuity: don’t expect to find a discontinuous boundary somewhere between the simplest animal that is conscious and the most complex animal that isn’t.” Roelofs says there isn’t a line that one could draw: “even if some sorts of consciousness are so simple that it’s more useful for us, in practice, to treat them as ‘mindless’, nevertheless the differences are ultimately just matters of degree.”
In the end, it may prove impossible to ever definitively ascertain whether panpsychism holds water.
Well, if it doesn’t answer questions but “suggests continuity” (that is, positing that all matter is conscious), then it cannot form a program for scientific research.
Well, as Sabine Hossenfelder said in the video this morning (see Hili dialogue), if a scientific theory doesn’t help us make progress in understanding the universe, it should be thrown into the bin for the cockatoos to eat. And surely panpsychism is such a theory.
Two more points. In trying to explain why inanimate matter might be conscious, Roelofs produces a classic Deepity (I’ll put it in bold):
“Panpsychists think that thought, reasoning, decision-making, vision and hearing and smell and all of our cognitive complexity: none of those are the same thing as consciousness. Consciousness is just subjectivity, just ‘is there something it’s like to exist right now?’ And so they think it makes sense for consciousness to exist in simple forms without thought, without reasoning, without vision or hearing or smell. A lot of critics think that’s just a mix-up: they think that once you take away thought, reasoning, etc. that’s it, there’s nothing left to talk about.”
I don’t understand what the “subjectivity” of an atom can be: does an atom know “what it’s like to exist right now”? No, “consciousness is just subjectivity” is a Deepity, which sounds good, but when you dig deeper, you find. . . well, empty words.
Finally, the proponents of panpsychism are now pointing out that it may help us live on after death. Many people want that (that’s why there’s Christianity), and if every atom in our brain is conscious, is it beyond possibility that maybe, just maybe, our memories could live on in those molecules? Yes, I know it’s stupid, but here’s what Salon says:
Panpsychism also has radical implications for religions, since so many focus on questions of what happens after we die. It is likely that our brains still comprise the bulk of our identity (so when the neurons which store your memories die, the memories most likely die forever along with them), but panpsychism allows for the possibility that your conscious “self” lives on in some form. It does not even entirely preclude the possibility that we take some of our identity with us; to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick when he directed “The Shining,” the seemingly horrifying prospect of ghosts existing at least means that death is not final.
Fine; let the theologians discuss this, but I reject it since there’s no evidence. The paragraph above is simply porcine shampoo, that is, hogwash.
When the panpsychists start making real progress in understanding consciousness instead of simply positing an infinite regress of the phenomenon, then we can talk.