Patricia Churchland on consciousness and the brain

June 10, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Here’s a 26-minute presentation from the Institute of Art and Ideas by neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland, someone whose work on consciousness I’ve always liked. I like it because she sees the problem of consciousness as not some kind of unsolvable philosophical mystery, but as a scientific problem whose solution comes down to this: if you understand what physiological and neurological phenomena give rise to consciousness and the perception of qualia (sensations), you’ve already solved the problem. What is required for us to be conscious is THE explanation of consciousness, and the rest is commentary. Or so I think.

Here are the website’s notes on her talk:

Have you ever made a decision and wondered why you made it? Or wondered where your morality comes from? Renowned philosopher of mind and founder of Neurophilosophy Patricia Churchland takes us on a journey into the brain, the nature and data of morality and the origins of nonconscious decision-making.

The Speaker

Patricia Churchland is a the distinguished founder of neurophilosophy. A pioneer of eliminative materialism, Patricia heralds a radically different way to understand the brain, arguing that ideas like pure morality and reason will eventually be abandoned in favour of a purely scientific view of the human mind.

Because of her mechanistic approach to the problem, she analyzes and explains what we know about the neural basis of consciousness and unconsciousness.  How do anesthetics like propofol and ketamine work? What can restore consciousness when it’s vanished, as in comatose people? You may not consider this a satisfying approach to understanding consciousness, but it’s the only one that, in the end, will make inroads on the problem.

Churchland also discusses the neural basis of reinforcement learning, of pleasure (the interaction of dopamine with specific neurons), and of maintaining life goals (a conscious phenomenon) as well as attaining those goals (unconscious processes, as are the “execution of well-honed skills”).

I was pleased to see criticize panpsychism several times; that’s the harebrained idea that every bit of the universe, including electrons, rocks, and pizza, is conscious. I won’t embarrass the purveyors of this nonsense by naming them, but Churchland tells us, correctly, that their approach to consciousness (roughly, “when the little conscious bits of matter get together in a brain, we get big-time consciousness”) tells us absolutely nothing about the mechanism of feeling pain, how anesthesia works, or other scientific questions about consciousness.

Click on the screenshot to her her short talk:

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

May 28, 2020 • 9:00 am

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

Anil Seth on the “real” problem of consciousness—and his hypothesis

April 5, 2020 • 10:00 am

Scholarpedia defines the “hard problem” of consciousness this way:

The hard problem of consciousness (Chalmers 1995) is the problem of explaining the relationship between physical phenomena, such as brain processes, and experience (i.e., phenomenal consciousness, or mental states/events with phenomenal qualities or qualia). Why are physical processes ever accompanied by experience? And why does a given physical process generate the specific experience it does—why an experience of red rather than green, for example?

. . . and characterizes the “easy problems” this way:

The hard problem contrasts with so-called easy problems, such as explaining how the brain integrates information, categorizes and discriminates environmental stimuli, or focuses attention. Such phenomena are functionally definable. That is, roughly put, they are definable in terms of what they allow a subject to do. So, for example, if mechanisms that explain how the brain integrates information are discovered, then the first of the easy problems listed would be solved. The same point applies to all other easy problems: they concern specifying mechanisms that explain how functions are performed. For the easy problems, once the relevant mechanisms are well understood, there is little or no explanatory work left to do.

Here’s a new article in Aeon, brought to my attention by reader Rick, that tries to show that this distinction is not fruitful, and that’s there’s a third way: the “real problem” of consciousness. The author, Anil 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.”

After I read the article three times, I decided two things:

a.) There is no “hard problem of consciousness”. Once you connect empirically studied brain functions with qualia as given by self-report, you’ve solved the only meaningful problem. The “hard problem” is not a scientific problem, but a metaphysical problem.

b.) Seth’s suggestion, that consciousness is the same thing as the brain’s evolved method of checking its a priori models of the world by testing them against sensory input from the outside, sounds good, but I’m not sure how it produces consciousness.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at Seth’s distinction between the “hard” and “easy” problem, and his posing of what he calls the “real problem of consciousness”:

Let’s begin with David Chalmers’s influential distinction, inherited from Descartes, between the ‘easy problem’ and the ‘hard problem’. The ‘easy problem’ is to understand how the brain (and body) gives rise to perception, cognition, learning and behaviour. The ‘hard’ problem is to understand why and how any of this should be associated with consciousness at all: why aren’t we just robots, or philosophical zombies, without any inner universe? It’s tempting to think that solving the easy problem (whatever this might mean) would get us nowhere in solving the hard problem, leaving the brain basis of consciousness a total mystery.

In other words, the easy problem is establishing what parts of the brain are responsible not just for consciousness, but the content of consciousness: our feeling of “I-ness” and, more important, qualia: the way we have sensations, like why the sensation of blue is different from that of red, or how we can tell the scent of a lemon from that of mint.

But this is a correlational approach, and as such is denigrated by metaphysical “researchers” such as Philip Goff, who say that even if we can know every neurological detail from the sniffing of a lemon to the perception of the scent of a lemon, that doesn’t explain why we have these sensations. In other words, claim people like Goff, we could understand everything connected with the perception of the color red—every neural and physiological detail that makes it different from the perception of the color yellow—and yet not understand why red looks red and yellow looks yellow. (Goff’s solution is just to fob the hard problem off on lower levels: every bit of the universe, like atoms and molecules, has some form of consciousness, ergo in complex organisms these rudimentary bits somehow combine to get the “higher” consciousness that creates the hard problem. This is the nonsense called “panpsychism.”)

The more I think about it, the more I think there IS no hard problem. That is, as Patricia Churchland and the more sensible neurophilosophers say, establishing the correlation does solve the hard problem.  Red looks red because there is a certain sequence of events that make things look red to people. And we can, in principle, figure that out using science: a combination of neurophysiology and self-report (“I see red”).  To ask the further “hard” question: “but WHY do things look red?” simply has the answer “because that’s the way it is.” To further query, as the metaphysical neurophilosophers do, “but why do we perceive and feel things at all?” is not a “how” question but a “why” question. Seth, though he doesn’t dwell on this, has one “why” answer: “because natural selection favored the advent of consciousness.”  In other words, consciousness would be favored by selection because it gives us survival and reproductive advantages. Seth’s theory is implicitly evolutionary, as you’ll see. And the evolutionary answer is the only sensible answer to the “why” question.

Further, an evolutionary answer is testable in principle, but of course isn’t a satisfactory answer to people like Goff. The metaphysical types want to know why we have sensations instead of being insensate zombies, and why those sensations are like they are. To me, the combination of proximate explanations (the string of events that cause us to perceive qualia) and “ultimate” explanations (evolution led to consciousness) is the answer. There is no answer to Goff’s “why” besides his ludicrous and untestable hypothesis of panpsychism—an approach that Seth rejects in his article.

Here’s what Seth sees as the “real problem” of consciousness, and I agree with him.

But there is an alternative, which I like to call the real problem: how to account for the various properties of consciousness in terms of biological mechanisms; without pretending it doesn’t exist (easy problem) and without worrying too much about explaining its existence in the first place (hard problem). (People familiar with ‘neurophenomenology’ will see some similarities with this way of putting things – but there are differences too, as we will see.)

There are some historical parallels for this approach, for example in the study of life. Once, biochemists doubted that biological mechanisms could ever explain the property of being alive. Today, although our understanding remains incomplete, this initial sense of mystery has largely dissolved. Biologists have simply gotten on with the business of explaining the various properties of living systems in terms of underlying mechanisms: metabolism, homeostasis, reproduction and so on. An important lesson here is that life is not ‘one thing’ – rather, it has many potentially separable aspects.

This makes sense, except it is possible to contemplate the evolutionary origin of consciousness (“its existence”), even if any solution is very hard to test. To me, the “real problem”—the correlational problem—is the only meaningful problem of how consciousness works, while the evolutionary problem deals with how it originated.  All else is metaphysics. Further, no person I know of, least of all me, pretends consciousness doesn’t exist. Dennett, for example, says it’s real, and he’s the Boss.

Seth draws useful distinctions between various kinds of consciousness: the level of consciousness, the content of consciousness (qualia), and the “conscious self”: the experience of being a unitary and sentient organism. He argues, and I agree, that each of these can be (and some have been) investigated scientifically, and we’re beginning to get answers. We’re starting, for instance, to find the neural correlates of the separate aspects of consciousness. Seth also parses the different ways we perceive “self”: the “perspectival self”, the “volitional self”, the “narrative self” and the “social self”. I’ll leave you to read about them, but again, in principle, these can be empirically investigated, and Seth describes some studies. Consciousness, or its components, are not unitary phenomena with a single correlational solution.

What I find really interesting about Seth’s article is his theory about where consciousness comes from. He offers  a mechanical (correlational) solution, but it’s also implicitly evolutionary. It’s a kind of Bayesian hypothesis, in which the brain makes models or predictions about the world, and then these are refined through sensory input. Here’s how he describes it:

The classical view of perception is that the brain processes sensory information in a bottom-up or ‘outside-in’ direction: sensory signals enter through receptors (for example, the retina) and then progress deeper into the brain, with each stage recruiting increasingly sophisticated and abstract processing. In this view, the perceptual ‘heavy-lifting’ is done by these bottom-up connections. The Helmholtzian view inverts this framework, proposing that signals flowing into the brain from the outside world convey only prediction errors – the differences between what the brain expects and what it receives. Perceptual content is carried by perceptual predictions flowing in the opposite (top-down) direction, from deep inside the brain out towards the sensory surfaces. Perception involves the minimisation of prediction error simultaneously across many levels of processing within the brain’s sensory systems, by continuously updating the brain’s predictions. In this view, which is often called ‘predictive coding’ or ‘predictive processing’, perception is a controlled hallucination, in which the brain’s hypotheses are continually reined in by sensory signals arriving from the world and the body. ‘A fantasy that coincides with reality,’ as the psychologist Chris Frith eloquently put it in Making Up the Mind (2007).

. . . To answer this, we can appeal to the same process that underlies other forms of perception. The brain makes its ‘best guess’, based on its prior beliefs or expectations, and the available sensory data. In this case, the relevant sensory data include signals specific to the body, as well as the classic senses such as vision and touch. These bodily senses include proprioception, which signals the body’s configuration in space, and interoception, which involves a raft of inputs that convey information from inside the body, such as blood pressure, gastric tension, heartbeat and so on. The experience of embodied selfhood depends on predictions about body-related causes of sensory signals across interoceptive and proprioceptive channels, as well as across the classic senses. Our experiences of being and having a body are ‘controlled hallucinations’ of a very distinctive kind.

. . . These findings take us all the way back to Descartes. Instead of ‘I think therefore I am’ we can say: ‘I predict (myself) therefore I am.’ The specific experience of being you (or me) is nothing more than the brain’s best guess of the causes of self-related sensory signals.

. . . It now seems to me that fundamental aspects of our experiences of conscious selfhood might depend on control-oriented predictive perception of our messy physiology, of our animal blood and guts. We are conscious selves because we too are beast machines – self-sustaining flesh-bags that care about their own persistence.

In other words, consciousness is the set of brain processes that makes guesses about the world and then refines them from what we take in from the real world via our senses. And this, of course, is adaptive in both a physiological and evolutionary sense. It’s useful to know, for instance, when your arm is being shaken: whether you have some condition that makes it shake, or whether an enemy or a predator has hold of it.  This could, in principle, explain the feeling one has of being a “self.” But testing the evolutionary hypotheses seems very hard, if not impossible.

Still, there seems to be a missing link in Seth’s hypothesis. Isn’t it possible to do this same kind of Bayesian perception and action without any “consciousness”? If your arm is shaking, there could be a computer program that determines if it’s endogenous or connected to another computer or object. Why can’t the entire system of self-prediction and refinement be done without any consciousness at all? Couldn’t a non-conscious computer do exactly these things? It, too, could have a sense of “self,” but one that is programmed rather than “conscious.”

Perhaps I’m not understanding what Seth is saying, or why it’s a solution to the issue of “qualia”. He does give some facts that he considers tests of his hypothesis, like the existence of hallucinations, which he sees as the brain’s predictions unconstrained by input from the outside world. But those aren’t definitive tests.

At any rate, Seth’s solution, be it right or wrong, is still a “correlational” solution: how the brain creates the sensation of consciousness. (It’s also evolutionary in that it suggests how natural selection gave rise to consciousness.) But what it is not is metaphysical. If anything seems to be true, it is that the phenomenon of consciousness will be solved, if it is solved, by a naturalistic program.  Philosophy has little to add save important guidance about how to think clearly. And metaphysics like panpsychism has nothing to offer.


Panpsychism: an interview and a critique

January 17, 2020 • 11:30 am

Yes, we’re gonna have more on panpsychism today, and, after I read Goff’s book (coming via interlibrary loan) I think I’m pretty much done.

I’ve now finished Annaka Harris’s book book Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, and, as I said yesterday, it’s a good read but suffers from her unaccountable penchant for panpsychism, the view that animals like us are conscious because bits of the universe are conscious—not necessarily like us, but in the fact that they have “experiences.”

Harris gives the same two justifications for panpsychism as does Philip Goff in the interview below: there is no way to understand how subjective perception (“qualia”) can arise from purely materialistic phenomena in the brain (this is the “hard problem of consciousness”, and, second, because science cannot tell us what the real intrinsic nature of matter is. Supposedly philosophy can, and that intrinsic nature includes consciousness. How philosophy alone can supply this conclusion baffles me.

But on to Goff, who’s busy flogging his new book on panpsychism Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. As part of his publicity campaign, he has an interview with Gareth Cook in Scientific American, where Goff is a regular columnist. You can see the short interview by clicking on the screenshot below.

First, Goff assures us that panpsychism doesn’t mean that rocks and electrons have the same kind of subjective experience we do. Rather, their consciousness is instantiated this way (my emphasis):

It might be important to clarify what I mean by “consciousness,” as that word is actually quite ambiguous. Some people use it to mean something quite sophisticated, such as self-awareness or the capacity to reflect on one’s own existence. This is something we might be reluctant to ascribe to many nonhuman animals, never mind fundamental particles. But when I use the word consciousness, I simply mean experience: pleasure, pain, visual or auditory experience, et cetera.

But there are two ways to understand “experience”. First, it’s just the things that could happen to an electron: it could go through a slit, travel into outer space, collide with another particle, travel through a wire, and so on. But that’s just a restatement of what an electron does, not what it is. One could also posit that the “experience” had by an electron is something it somehow perceives. But then we’re back to qualia. And if an electron has “pleasure, pain, or visual or auditory experience,” well, that means it does experience subjective sensation. Defining consciousness in that way means that Goff really does think that particles and inanimate objects have a kind of subjective sensation. But he’s a slippery arguer, changing his positions from article to article and refusing to be pinned down.

Then Goff raises the Two Big Arguments for Panpsychism:

1.) The qualitative experience of consciousness cannot be understood by a program of scientific materialism.  I indent Goff’s quotes:

Despite great progress in our scientific understanding of the brain, we still don’t have even the beginnings of an explanation of how complex electrochemical signaling is somehow able to give rise to the inner subjective world of colors, sounds, smells and tastes that each of us knows in our own case. There is a deep mystery in understanding how what we know about ourselves from the inside fits together with what science tells us about matter from the outside.

While the problem is broadly acknowledged, many people think we just need to plug away at our standard methods of investigating the brain, and we’ll eventually crack it. But in my new book, I argue that the problem of consciousness results from the way we designed science at the start of the scientific revolution.

A key moment in the scientific revolution was Galileo’s declaration that mathematics was to be the language of the new science, that the new science was to have a purely quantitative vocabulary. But Galileo realized that you can’t capture consciousness in these terms, as consciousness is an essentially quality-involving phenomenon. Think about the redness of a red experiences or the smell of flowers or the taste of mint. You can’t capture these kinds of qualities in the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science. So Galileo decided that we have to put consciousness outside of the domain of science; after we’d done that, everything else could be captured in mathematics.

This is really important, because although the problem of consciousness is taken seriously, most people assume our conventional scientific approach is capable of solving it. And they think this because they look at the great success of physical science in explaining more and more of our universe and conclude that this ought to give us confidence that physical science alone will one day explain consciousness. However, I believe that this reaction is rooted in a misunderstanding of the history of science. Yes, physical science has been incredibly successful. But it’s been successful precisely because it was designed to exclude consciousness. If Galileo were to time travel to the present day and hear about this problem of explaining consciousness in the terms of physical science, he’d say, “Of course, you can’t do that. I designed physical science to deal with quantities, not qualities.”

Other philosophers disagree, and I think that, first, consciousness doesn’t have to be described in equations; many phenomena, such as evolution, can be understood without many (or any) equations. If you can find a way to detect consciousness—and we are arriving at ways of doing that—then you can study mechanistically how it arises. And when you do that, as Patricia Churchland argued in 2005, you have understood the mechanics and origin of consciousness. It is simply what you get when a certain neuronal pathway is followed. As she argues, you don’t need to experience the results of the experiment personally (consciousness) to study how it arises.  This first argument for panpsychism is simply an argument from ignorance, whose solution is the Particle Consciousness of the Gaps.

2.) Only panpsychism, deduced through pure philosophy, tells us what the intrinsic nature of matter is, and that matter has a form of consciousness. 


 But what philosophers of science have realized is that physical science, for all its richness, is confined to telling us about the behavior of matter, what it does. Physics tells us, for example, that matter has mass and charge. These properties are completely defined in terms of behavior, things like attraction, repulsion, resistance to acceleration. Physics tells us absolutely nothing about what philosophers like to call the intrinsic nature of matter: what matter is, in and of itself.

So it turns out that there is a huge hole in our scientific story. The proposal of the panpsychist is to put consciousness in that hole. Consciousness, for the panpsychist, is the intrinsic nature of matter. There’s just matter, on this view, nothing supernatural or spiritual. But matter can be described from two perspectives. hysical science describes matter “from the outside,” in terms of its behavior. But matter “from the inside”—i.e., in terms of its intrinsic nature—is constituted of forms of consciousness.

The claim that there is an intrinsic nature of matter not accessible to empirical study but to philosophers alone defies belief. It is both obscurantist and infurating. What is that intrinsic nature, given that most physicists don’t think anything is missing from our description of particles, nor that there are “intrinsic” properties of matter in principle inaccessible to science? To Goff, those properties apparently comprise consciousness. But how do we test whether matter, the Universe, or the Big Wave Function are conscious? This is what interviewer Cook asks Goff, and Goff simply gives no answer. Look how he avoids the question:

Do you foresee a scenario in which panpsychism can be tested?

There is a profound difficulty at the heart of the science of consciousness: consciousness is unobservable. You can’t look inside an electron to see whether or not it is conscious. But nor can you look inside someone’s head and see their feelings and experiences. We know that consciousness exists not from observation and experiment but by being conscious. The only way we can find out about the consciousness of others is by asking them: I can’t directly perceive your experience, but I can ask you what you’re feeling. And if I’m a neuroscientist, I can do this while I’m scanning your brain to see which bits light up as you tell me what you’re feeling and experiencing. In this way, scientists are able correlate certain kinds of brain activity with certain kinds of experience. We now know which kinds of brain activity are associated with feelings of hunger, with visual experiences, with pleasure, pain, anxiety, et cetera.

This is really important information, but it’s not itself a theory of consciousness. That’s because what we ultimately want from a science of consciousness is an explanation of those correlations. Why is it that, say, a certain kind of activity in the hypothalamus is associated with the feeling of hunger? Why should that be so? As soon as you start to answer this question, you move beyond what can be, strictly speaking, tested, simply because consciousness is unobservable. We have to turn to philosophy.

The moral of the story is that we need both the science and the philosophy to get a theory of consciousness. The science gives us correlations between brain activity and experience. We then have to work out the best philosophical theory that explains those correlations. In my view, the only theory that holds up to scrutiny is panpsychism.

So Goff evades the question, not telling us how or even whether panpsychism can be tested. Very slippery!

So we have two alternatives: First, like Goff, assert that the problem of consciousness is completely inaccessible to science, and the solution relies on philosophical propositions that are untestable. Alternatively, one could say, “Well, we don’t yet understand how consciousness arises, but we’re going to plug away at the problem with science and hope to answer it. After all, we’ve already made progress.” I don’t know about you, but I find the second program far more promising.

Finally, at Wiring the Brain, genetics/neuroscience professor and writer Kevin Mitchell levels a harsh critique at panpsychism, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot.

You can read Mitchell’s incisive critique for yourself, but I’ll give just one excerpt that, to my mind, reveals the big flaw of panpsychism:

Goff claims (here) that panpsychism “solves the hard problem of consciousness” – the mystery of how mere physical matter can give rise to subjective experience. This would be pretty remarkable, if true, given that is one of the deepest mysteries left for science to even begin to resolve. The “solution”, however, is simply to assert that consciousness is a fundamental property of all matter. There’s no real reason to think that is the case – certainly no evidence that it is. Nothing follows from the assertion. It makes no predictions, testable or otherwise. It doesn’t explain the nature of subjective experience that a rock may be having or how that property comes to be. The hard problem remains just as hard – harder even, as now we have to ask it about electrons and photons too.

Indeed, you can make exactly the same series of arguments with respect to “life” instead of “consciousness”, highlighting the absurdity not just of the claim, but of the logic:

  1. We don’t understand the intrinsic nature of matter.
  2. Some forms of matter are alive.
  3. It is therefore parsimonious to conclude that all forms of matter are a bit alive.

Again, that’s a simple statement, but it’s not a simple theory, because it’s not a theory at all.

If you would counter that “life” is too nebulous a concept for this comparison to be apt, I would argue that though the boundary between living and non-living is fuzzy at certain points, if you think about the boundary between living and dead, that makes it pretty clear that being alive is a real, definable property of some things, under some conditions, and not others.

More broadly, the comparison with life highlights a huge unstated premise – the hidden assumption – that underlies this chain of logic. It is that the properties of organised, complex, dynamic systems derive solely from the properties of their components (or at least may do so). Though Goff refers to the theory as “non-reductive”, I can’t think of anything more reductive than claiming that the most crucial property of what may be the most complex system we know of – the human brain – inheres in its simplest components.

The answer to the mystery of consciousness – and it remains very much a mystery – surely lies in a nonreductive physicalism that recognises that complex, even seemingly miraculous properties (like consciousness, or life itself), can and do emerge from the dynamic interactions of matter when it is organised in certain highly complex ways, not from the bits of matter themselves. In this view, consciousness is a property of a process (or of many interacting processes), not of a substance.

So, after due consideration (maybe more than it is due), I will stick by my assessment, that panpsychism is not even wrong. But I remain willing to be convinced that it is.

I had thought of the life analogy as well, and to some extent it merges with the supposed problems of consciousness because a.) we don’t understand how it evolved, and b.) there is something it is like to be alive. But nobody raises the “hard problem of life” the way they do the “hard problem of consciousness.”

I’m convinced that panpsychism is the Emperor’s New Clothes moment of modern philosophy, for it’s simply an untestable assertion, supported by no evidence at all, that many people are buying into. Fortunately, people like Pigliucci, Mitchell, and especially Churchland, some of whom are philosophers like Goff, are pointing out the follies of panpsychism.

Remember, an assertion that is both untestable and purports to explain everything is not only an unscientific claim, but one that we can ignore. Give us some evidence, panpsychists!

h/t: Harry

Addendum by Greg Mayer:

Brian Leiter, a legal philosopher at the University of Chicago, has also caught wind of the upsurge in panpsychism, and seems to be both amused and appalled. In the first vein, concerning Goff’s article detailed by Jerry above, he wrote yesterday

Panpsychism makes “Scientific American”!

What’s next, intelligent design? (OK, bad joke.)

Today, he asks “Which currently fashionable philosophical view is the most preposterous?“, and is holding a poll among six philosophical views. The candidates include panpsychism, external world skepticism, and libertarian free will. (Jerry will like inclusion of the latter!) Philosopher Michael Strevens, tongue firmly in cheek, suggests to Leiter that “I think that panpsychism is likely to come out looking much better if you let everything vote, not just people,” to which Leiter replies that voting by possible people in possible worlds might affect the result, too.  You can follow the link to Leiter’s site and the poll, and can click to see the results (even if you haven’t voted). Although done in good fun with no expectation of a scientific polling result (as his exchange with Strevens shows), I think Leiter’s original idea was to get his philosopher readers to respond to the poll, so I would advise not voting unless you’re a philosopher. (I didn’t vote.)

The weirdness of split-brain experiments

January 16, 2020 • 10:15 am

I’m reading Annaka Harris‘s recent book Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, which is a short but very readable and absorbing account of recent work on consciousness, both empirical and philosophical. Although she seems to have a weakness for panpsychism, I’m not yet through with that bit and so will report on it later. (I may post a bit later today on a new Goff piece on panpsychism.)

What I wanted to mention now are two experiments described by Harris that were conducted on “split brain” patients: those unfortunates who, afflicted with terrible epilepsy, undergo a surgical “splitting” of most of the brain (the division of the corpus callosum that connects the brain’s hemispheres). This is done to prevent electrical “storms” that produce epilepsy from spreading throughout the brain. In such operations, depending on what the surgeons do, there may remain some possibility that the brain’s hemispheres could communicate with each other through subcortical structures, but they don’t communicate in some obvious ways (see below). This radical surgery does seem to work pretty well.

The interesting bit to me is how this division of the brain seems to divide consciousness or awareness as well as volition. This is based on some stuff we already knew: for example, that visual information from the left eye goes to the right side of the brain and vice versa, and also that the language center resides on the left side of the brain.

So here’s one experiment about consciousness. You present the word “key” to the subject’s left eye only. That visual information goes to the right side of the split brain. When you ask the subject what word she saw, she says “I saw nothing”, because the ability to formulate language is on the other side of the brain, the left side. This apparently means that the consciousness of having seen the word has been split.

But when the subject is asked to reach through a hole with her left arm (controlled by the right brain) and feel a number of objects, and asked to then pick the object that she’s seen on the screen, she will correctly pick up the key. This seems to mean that the consciousness of having seen the word “key” and picking it out is physically separated from the consciousness of knowing what a key is and identifying it. What’s weirder is when you ask the subject what happened when she picked out the key, she sometimes reports that her right hand acted on its own, without any conscious will to pick up a key. The notion of volition has disappeared from the the left side of the brain.

Well, you can argue about what this means, but this next experiment is even weirder. I’ll just reproduce Annaka’s description. (Matthew Cobb has a description of some of these experiments in his upcoming book on the history of brain research, but I don’t have the book at hand.)

From Conscious:

The split-brain literature contains many examples suggesting that two conscious points of view can reside in a single brain. Most of them also topple the typical notion of free will, by exposing a phenomenon generated by the left hemisphere that [Michael] Gazzanaga and his colleague Joseph LeDoux dubbed “the interpreter.” This phenomenon occurs when the right hemisphere takes action based on information it has access to that the left hemisphere doesn’t, and the left hemisphere then gives an instantaneous and false explanation of the split-brain subject’s behavior. For example, when the right hemisphere is given the instruction, “Take a walk” in an experiment, the subject will stand up and begin walking. But when asked why he’s leaving the room, he will give an explanation such as, “Oh, I need to get a drink.” His left hemisphere, the one responsible for speech, is unaware of the command that the right side received, and we have every reason to think that he does in fact believe his thirst was the reason he got up and began walking.  As in the example in which experimenters were able to cause a feeling of will in subjects who were in actuality were no in control of their own actions, the phenomenon of “the interpreter” is further confirmation that the feeling we have of executing consciously willed actions, at least in some instances, is sheer illusion.  [pp. 59-60]

I talk about those “other experiments” in my lecture on free will. In one of them, doctors are stimulating the brain of a conscious patient undergoing surgery (this is not done as pure science, but as probes during operations on the brain). This causes the patient to raise his arm and wave it. When they asked the guy why he moved his arm, he replied, “Oh, I saw that nurse over there and wanted to wave at her.” Again, in this case the subject confabulates an act of will to account for something he did, suggesting that the idea that “will” made him voluntarily move his arm is an illusion. He was not in any way in control of what he did.

Experiments of this sort are the kind that I use to convince people that “will”, “volition” and “consciousness” are the results of purely physical processes in the brain, and thus that the idea of non-brain stuff is not part of will, dispelling dualism. But most people here aren’t dualists anyway. Still, the experiments also suggest that perhaps the notion of consciousness and of will are things that merely report to us after the fact the deterministic actions of our brain, and are not in any way part of a causal chain. That, at least, is what Annaka thinks. (I think Sam Harris agrees as well.)

Also, it makes you at least think about the truth of panpsychism. Do we really expect to split consciousness by splitting the brain if consciousness is simply a property of the particles of matter that make up the brain (remember, the brain isn’t completely split), or, as some think, not of the particles themselves but of the wave function that encompasses all matter? Answering that question is, for the time being, above my pay grade.

Off to dine with Pinkah!



Podcast: Dan Dennett and Sean Carroll on illusions, consciousness, free will, and other stuff

January 13, 2020 • 10:15 am

Reader Paul called my attention to a new episode of Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast. It’s two hours long, so of course I don’t have the patience to listen to it (you can by clicking on the screenshot below), but fortunately there’s a transcript you can get by clicking on “Click to show episode transcript” near the bottom.

Everyone seems to be hosting podcasts these days, and I’m not sure why. My best guess is that most people would prefer to listen to discussion than to read a website post or even a transcript, as they can do other things while listening—especially driving. (I read faster than I can listen, and so prefer the printed page, even for discussions.) Also, it’s only on podcasts where you get a spontaneous give-and-take between two people, and when they’re both of the caliber of the physicist Sean Carroll and philosopher Dan Dennett, you get some fascinating listening—or in my case, reading. Oh, and if you’re being interviewed by a savvy person like Sean, you can get your ideas out there in extended form without having to write them down, but they’re preserved on the Internet.

I did quickly read through the transcript, and wanted to say a few words on free will. Dennett and Carroll are both determinists, but underplay that by simply saying there are “no miracles” in one’s actions or decisions. To me that is an overly quick acknowledgment of a problem far more important than simply confecting a definition of free will that comports with how most people conceive it. (Actually, when people are asked for their understanding of free will, most espouse a dualist, libertarian view, one in which one really could have chosen or behaved otherwise through changing one’s will.) But people like Sean and Dan, and other colleagues like Steve Pinker and Richard Dawkins, seem to prefer to comport a definition of free will with what they conceive of as how most people regard it. They’re wrong about how most people regard it, but that doesn’t necessarily overturn their project, for philosophers can make us think about those concepts.

As readers here know, I don’t much care about the semantic games involved in philosophical compatibilism, especially because every philosopher has his or her favorite definition of “free will”—and the compatibilist definitions are incompatible with each other! So what is free will? I prefer to think of it as people always have (except for a few Sophisticated Philosophers): the illusion that we are able to control our actions by force of will alone, i.e., libertarian free will). I also prefer to concentrate on determinism (which Sophisticated Philosophers don’t deal with much) than on the semantic games of compatibilism.

But I digress; here’s the podcast:

The part on free will starts at 1:41:03, and I want to deal with one issue: the social consequences of doing away with the idea of free will (or of telling people that their behaviors are all determined by the laws of physics). Dan and Sean seem to think that people like me and Sam Harris are engaged in “anti-social behavior” and “cognitive vandalism”, and we should just shut up about determinism.

But first, both Dan and Sean aver that they are genuine determinists. Just for the record:

1:41:03 SC: So would we take the same angle on free will, that there’s an aspect of it that’s real, aspect which is an illusion?

1:41:12 DD: Yes and no, of course.

1:41:15 SC: That’s a philosopher’s favorite answer to everything.

1:41:16 DD: Yes, yes. The traditional idea of free will where somehow our bodies or our brains are shielded from causation, that’s crap. It’s just gotta be false.

1:41:36 SC: We’re not laws unto ourselves.

1:41:36 DD: We’re not laws unto… There’s no miracles happening like that. So if that’s what you think free will has to be, if you think free will is incompatible with, say, determinism, then there’s no free will. Then free will isn’t real. It’s an illusion. But I would prefer to say free will is perfectly real, it just isn’t what you think it is.

And that’s the end of the admission that our behaviors are determined. Pity that, because the implications of determinism for behavior are, to me, profound—far more profound than confecting conceptions of compatibilistic free will. Why don’t philosophers like Dan discuss the consequences of what they’ve just admitted? Are they not interesting? (Yes, some philosophers like Alex Rosenberg do talk about that stuff.)

Some of you may say that there’s no real consequences of realizing that all our behaviors are determined by physical laws, but I’d say you’re dead wrong. It’s wrong because the law already takes into account that there are legal mitigations of behavior if you have no libertarian free will. Now just extend that to all criminal acts. No criminal behavior is a free choice. And that means that there are mitigations that have to be considered in every case: what made you do the act? If you think there are no consequences of that musing, you’re doubly wrong. I’m not saying, of course, that we should dispense with punishment, incarceration, or the idea of responsibility, but we need to fix the system of judgment and punishment.

Then Dan offers two different definitions of free will that comport with his (and Sean’s and some other people’s) notion of free will. The first is if you’re coerced into something, then you don’t have free will:

1:42:17 DD: Not just an explanatory role, it plays a huge role in people’s lives, as I was saying before. Since our society has the concept of free will, when I signed the mortgage papers for this house I was asked if I was signing this of my own free will. I said yes, yes I am, yes.

1:42:44 SC: Did the agent have any idea who he was talking to or who she was talking to?

1:42:46 DD: Well, the notary was reading this off a piece of paper and I was only too happy to answer. But some people don’t have free will. Some people are incapacitated. Some people aren’t in control. So there’s a very real difference, and it makes a huge difference in life. . .

What does it mean, though, to be “in control”? It surely doesn’t mean that you can, by your will, control whether or not you sign a mortgage. What it must mean is that your brain is wired in such a way, through both evolution and experience, that it conforms to society’s expectations of your behavior—you appear calm and controlled. And what is “free” about “lack of external coercion”? Maybe you’re signing the mortgage because your spouse or kids want you to have that house, but you don’t. Or you don’t want to commit that kind of money. Is that “free”? Is that “you being in control”? I don’t think so. There are different things that coerce people into doing different things, but none of them are “choices”.  There are just different degrees of weighing up things that make you decide one way or another. All of it can be seen as neural coercion.

Which brings us to Dan’s second definition of free will: that it’s the behavioral outcomes of a complex and evolved brain that neurologically “weighs” different outcomes and then spits out a decision. This is the view he takes in his latest book on free will (I believe it’s Elbow Room), and is instantiated here:

1:43:36 DD: Empirically, we have millions of degrees of freedom, and we’re not in anybody’s control but our own. Or we can try to control people. Parents. I like the idea that parents eventually have to launch their children, and once they’ve launched them, they’re no longer guided missiles. They’re now autonomous. And how do we dare let people do this? We dare let people do this, because we trust that people will have done their best to turn their offspring into self controlled responsible agents.

But what does “self control” mean here? Surely it’s not that we are able to override our neurons and control our behavior when we could have behaved otherwise! No, it cannot be that, for that’s the libertarian free will that Sean and Dan eschew. What Dan means is that some people have brains that make them behave in a way society expects if we’re to operate harmoniously. But whether we do that or not is a function of our genes and environment. The very term “self controlled responsible agents” even implies libertarianism.

As I’ve said before, yes we are responsible for our decisions, but only in the sense that society must hold us accountable if society is to run smoothly. We are not, however,  morally responsible for our decisions, as that implies libertarian free will. Indeed, most people who are asked whether determinism makes people morally responsible will say “no.”

Dan and Sean then decry the idea, which I’ve broached, that many people promote compatibilistic free will because it makes us seem less like puppets, and that’s good for both us and society. And indeed, there is a tradition of trying to find definitions of free will that are compatible with determinism for purely philosophical reasons. I’m just not sure that, at least for Dan, he’s free of the “do-it-for-the-good-of-society” motivation. Here he and Sean reject any of these motivations:

1:45:04 SC: And I know that you said things, I wanna take this opportunity to clarify as much as we can, you’ve sort of hinted at the idea that even though we sophisticated scientists and philosophers know that there are laws of physics and we all obey them we should let the people have their free will in some sense. Because it makes them act more morally. That may or may not be true for me personally, that fact has nothing to do with why I think that it’s sensible to talk about free will. My reason for talking about free will is just the answer you just gave, which is that it does play this role in helping to explain what goes on.

1:45:39 DD: Yeah. Well I think… I don’t think that the idea that we have free will is a sort of holy myth that we should preserve for the good of hoi polloi. No, no, no, we all need it. I think it’s extremely paternalistic, patronizing to say, “Well I don’t need the illusion of free will, but everyday folks they need it.” No, I think that’s… First of all I think that’s just obnoxious.

1:46:15 SC: Right.

But Dan has also said this:

If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.

Well, I disagree vehemently with jettisoning the idea of holding people to account, but I’ve explained that a gazillion times. And it’s a deliberate exaggeration to say that abjuring moral responsibility means emptying out prisons and abolishing mortgages. You can be held responsible, and jailed, without being held morally responsible.

Dan also said this, in his Erasmus Prize lecture:

We don’t want our children to become puppets! If neuroscientists are saying that it is no use—that we are already puppets, controlled by the environment, they are making a big, and potentially harmful, mistake. . . We [Dennett and Erasmus] both share the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate social consequences if not rebutted forcefully.”

That sounds an awful lot to me like the view that rebutting the “puppet” view is important because the spread of that view would harm society. (It won’t, by the way: I know of no hard determinist who has harmed society.)

And then Dan takes off the gloves and punches down at me, and punches on the level at Sam Harris as well, for these statements are clearly aimed at us (my emphasis):

1:46:18 DD: We all go through life, gauging our opportunities, making choices taking them as seriously as we do, which is sometimes not seriously enough and sometimes…

1:46:33 SC: In trying to persuade others.

1:46:34 DD: And sometimes too serious, in trying to persuade others. It’s no secret that this pattern of activity including mental activity, including hamlet-like thinking and mulling and musing and worrying, no secret why it exists, it’s what makes civilization possible. And I for one would rather live in a civilized world.

1:47:07 SC: But so, that’s a very crucial distinction I think that has the danger of slipping by there, it’s not that we need to tell people they have free will to make them civilized. It’s that we have to appreciate that we have free will so that we create civilization.

1:47:22 DD: Yes, absolutely right, yes.

1:47:24 SC: Got it. Okay, that’s very good.

1:47:25 DD: But then that does mean that the free will skeptics, including some heavy hitting scientists.

1:47:34 SC: Some of our best friends. Yeah.

1:47:36 DD: Yeah, some of my best friends. They’re really engaging in a sort of an anti-social behavior, it’s a sort of cognitive vandalism. I try to shock them with that term. . .

I object strongly to this characterization of people like Sam and me as engaging in anti-social behavior and cognitive vandalism. It’s almost an ad hominem argument. The truth of what I talk about—of determinism, which happens to be true for behavior—is independent of its consequences for ourselves or society. (I happen to think that grasping those consequences is in fact good for us and society.) I could respond by saying that compatibilism is a form of cognitive displacement, of sweeping the really important and socially consequential problems under the rug. But I won’t.

Dan tries to land one more punch. Here he’s talking about the experiment in which neuroscientists tell someone they’ve implanted a device in someone’s head that controls their behavior, and won’t let them do bad stuff, but it’s a lie. And then the person goes ahead and does bad stuff expecting to be controlled. What that has to do with free will defies me, because the person’s behavior in that circumstance is still determined—controlled by the environmental input that the neuroscientists have lied to him.

And here’s Dan’s attempted roundhouse (my emphasis):

1:49:19 DD: Okay, so I wonder if Black Mirror has the sequel that I have… So this fellow goes off and reassured that he’s got this safety net, he becomes a little bit slovenly in his decision making and he makes some bad decisions, pretty soon he ends up in court. And the judge confronts him and asks him, “What about this?” He says, “Well, no. I don’t have any free will.” “You know I’m controlled… “

1:49:49 SC: Just obeying the laws of physics.

1:49:52 DD: I just obey the laws of physics. And the neurosurgeons, you know they are… They’re… I’m their puppet.” And the judge calls in the neurosurgeon says, “Did you tell this man that when you put this device in that henceforth that he would be a sort of electronically controlled puppet.” And she said, “Yeah, yeah we did.” He says, “It’s not true, is it?” She says, “No, of course not. We’re just messing with his brain.” Now, she did something evil. Well, if she in her white coat, her scientist white coat is doing something evil for that guy, what about you folks out there in science land who are going around telling everybody that free will is an illusion, that they don’t, that they’re all really just puppets? Why isn’t that the same sort of anti-social behavior that this neurosurgeon, this imaginary neurosurgeon is engaged in?

That’s sort of nasty, and offends me. If we are puppets in the sense that our neurons pull our strings and we can’t affect that by some numinous will, well, that’s an important truth—not “anti-social behavior.” In the end, although Dan denies being motivated in his compatibilism by fear that the notion of pure determinism will harm society, it looks an awful lot to me like that idea imbues much of what he says about free will.

The truth of a proposition is not determined by how it makes people feel. If determinism leads to a bleak world view (I don’t think it does), so be it; but there are real social benefits that come from grasping determinism.  If I’m an antisocial person, and have influenced any readers here to behave badly by promulgating determinism, by all means let me know in the comments! Not that it will stop me, as the laws of physics have made me a determinist!


Another panpsychist flogs a dead theory

January 10, 2020 • 9:30 am

Sorry, I’m not yet done with panpsychism. The more I read about this theory, the more I’m puzzled that seemingly rational people accept such a grossly benighted view of consciousness. Seriously! Especially atheists, for panpsychism resembles theology in several ways:

  • There is not a shred of evidence supporting its tenets.
  • It was invented to plug a supposed gap in our empirical knowledge that, it’s said, can never be filled by science or empirical study alone. Theologians still try to promulgate God of the Gaps arguments, while panpsychists tout The Conscious Particles of the Gaps.
  • Panpsychists will accept no criticism of their theory—even the true one that there is no evidence for it. They are enthusiasts, like evangelical Christians, and simply don’t listen.
  • Like theologians, they constantly refer you to other discussions of their theory if you find fault with some of them. It’s always: “Wait! You haven’t read these other five books and papers on our theory. All your objections are answered there.” (They aren’t, of course.) It’s an endless chase down a rabbit hole, like dealing with Edward Feser or Alvin Plantinga.

There are other parallels, but I digress. The last point, involving my post on the hourlong BBC show in which three philosophers (Philip Goff, Hedda Hassel Morch, and Eccy de Jonge) defended panpsychism, is instantiated by a comment made by Morch on this site. Her comment appeared after my BBC post, and here’s what she said (with the link):

A BBC show on panpsychism once again shows that there’s no ‘there’ there

A comment by Hedda Hassel Mørch:

Thanks for sharing your criticisms! I understand the view might not sound plausible to everyone from the short presentation we gave. I wrote about the case for panpsychism in more detail here, which addresses some of your points:

We also didn’t get the chance to talk about the combination problem (the hard problem of panpsychism as you call it). I agree this is a very serious problem for the view, probably the most serious one. However there are arguments to support that it’s not as hard as the original hard problem for physicalism (Philip, I and many others have given such arguments and suggested possible solutions) so I don’t think it’s a knock-down of the view.

So, dutifully, I read Morch’s piece in Nautilus magazine (the site is funded by Templeton, of course, who must eat up panpsychism because of its numinous and woo-ey tinge). And, sadly but predictably, Morch didn’t really answer any of my objections, much less that of the “combination problem”: how particles with no subjective consciousness but with properties defined as consciousness—like electron charge—somehow create a humanlike subjective consciousness when you put enough of them together.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Read the article and then I’ll give my take. In my view, the Nautilus piece simply repeats what we’ve already dealt with in analyzing Philip Goff’s views; there’s nothing new here except, perhaps, her assertion that maybe there is a rudimentary type of subjective experience in particles:

Once again we deal with the same erroneous or untestable contentions. Morch’s views (and quotes from others) are indented. Morch’s main contentions are in bold:

Consciousness is a unique problem that can’t be solved with empirical research. I’m referring here to the “Hard Problem” of consciousness: “How do the workings of a material brain produce the subjective feelings, the ‘qualia’, that are an important part of consciousness. The panpsychist view is that, from the outset, the Hard Problem is not only hard and unsolved, but cannot be solved—except, perhaps, by philosophy alone. (It defies me how an empirical problem can be solved by mere rumination alone, with no predictions, test, or evidence.)

Here’s how Morch frames the supposedly empirically insoluble nature of consciousness:

This problem is distinctively hard because its solution cannot be determined by means of experiment and observation alone. Through increasingly sophisticated experiments and advanced neuroimaging technology, neuroscience is giving us better and better maps of what kinds of conscious experiences depend on what kinds of physical brain states. Neuroscience might also eventually be able to tell us what all of our conscious brain states have in common. . . But in all these theories, the hard problem remains. How and why does a system that integrates information, broadcasts a message, or oscillates at 40 hertz feel pain or delight? The appearance of consciousness from mere physical complexity seems equally mysterious no matter what precise form the complexity takes.

Nor would it seem to help to discover the concrete biochemical, and ultimately physical, details that underlie this complexity. No matter how precisely we could specify the mechanisms underlying, for example, the perception and recognition of tomatoes, we could still ask: Why is this process accompanied by the subjective experience of red, or any experience at all? Why couldn’t we have just the physical process, but no consciousness?

Other natural phenomena, from dark matter to life, as puzzling as they may be, don’t seem nearly as intractable. In principle, we can see that understanding them is fundamentally a matter of gathering more physical detail: building better telescopes and other instruments, designing better experiments, or noticing new laws and patterns in the data we already have. If we were somehow granted knowledge of every physical detail and pattern in the universe, we would not expect these problems to persist. They would dissolve in the same way the problem of heritability dissolved upon the discovery of the physical details of DNA. But the hard problem of consciousness would seem to persist even given knowledge of every imaginable kind of physical detail.

Yesterday I highlighted a paper by neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland showing that intractability does not mean we need a radical new theory. Just because we can’t even conceive of what a solution would look like now doesn’t mean that we should defer to the radical and untestable hypothesis of panpsychism. It could mean only that the problem is hard. (Churchland gave examples of scientific problems that once seemed intractable because we didn’t even know how to approach them. And then the tools arrived!) The supposedly “intractable” problem outlined by Morch, Goff, and others, is taken apart in this 2005 paper by Churchland, which you can get for free by clicking on the screenshot:

Here’s how Churchland disposes of the idea that consciousness will forever be refractory to empirical study simply because it involves subjectivity (we’ll have more on this within a few days):

. . . Pursuing this point further, the philosopher may go on to conclude that no science can ever really explain qualia because it cannot demonstrate what it is like to see blue if you have never seen blue; consciousness is forever beyond the reach of scientific understanding.

What is the merit in this objection? It is lacking merit, for if you look closely, you will find that it rests on a misunderstanding. The argument presumes that if a conscious phenomenon, say smelling mint, were genuinely explained by a scientific theory, then a person who understood that theory should be caused to have that experience; e.g., should be caused to smell mint. Surely, however, the expectation is unwarranted. Why should anyone expect that understanding the theory must result in the production of the phenomenon the theory addresses? Consider an analogy. If a student really understands the nature of pregnancy by learning all there is to know about the causal nature of pregnancy, no one would expect the student to become pregnant thereby. If a student learns and really understands Newton’s laws, we should not expect the student, like Newton’s fabled apple, to thereby fall down.  To smell mint, a certain range of neuronal activities have to obtain, particularly, let us assume, in olfactory cortex. Understanding that the olfactory cortex must be activated in manner will not itself activate the olfactory cortex in manner. We are asking too much of a neuroscientific theory if we ask it not only to explain and predict, but also to cause its target phenomenon, namely the smell of mint, simply by virtue of understanding the theory.

Churchland continues with the argument, so read the rest, but this seems to me to pinpoint the error of the Panpsychic Program. If we can reproduce the phenomenon of an odor, or of conscious awareness, with a theory that is testable, and we understand which neurons are involved, how they fire, and why, then we have understood consciousness. Its subjectivity is not necessarily a problem (Pigliucci calls it an advantage), because we can still report and thus study consciousness. We may not be able to know what it’s like to be another person, but we can study what phenomena are required for consciousness in both us and others who have the ability to report consciousness in some way.

Beyond that problem, there’s another problem that’s scientifically intractable: the intrinsic nature of matter.  


One might wonder how physical particles are, independently of what they do or how they relate to other things. What are physical things like in themselves, or intrinsically? Some have argued that there is nothing more to particles than their relations, but intuition rebels at this claim.

. . .Roughly speaking, Newtonian physics says that matter consists of solid particles that interact either by bumping into each other or by gravitationally attracting each other. But what is the intrinsic nature of the stuff that behaves in this simple and intuitive way? What is the hardware that implements the software of Newton’s equations? One might think the answer is simple: It is implemented by solid particles. But solidity is just the behavior of resisting intrusion and spatial overlap by other particles—that is, another mere relation to other particles and space. The hard problem of matter arises for any structural description of reality no matter how clear and intuitive at the structural level.

Like the hard problem of consciousness, the hard problem of matter cannot be solved by experiment and observation or by gathering more physical detail. This will only reveal more structure, at least as long as physics remains a discipline dedicated to capturing reality in mathematical terms.

This seems to me to be a manufactured problem, and in fact a meaningless problem. What, exactly, does Morch mean by “what physical particles are“? Once you’ve described everything about them that you can, and how they interact with other particles, what remains to be asked? What is the elusive essence of physical particles, the elusive “Ding an sich” that they’re supposed to have?

Well, of course they say the answer is “consciousness”, but that’s not an answer because it explains nothing. They like that answer, though, because if you say that every bit of matter in the universe has consciousness, then you don’t have to posit a scientific explanation for “higher” consciousness beyond what I call The Lego Argument: if you put together a lot of conscious particles, you get even more consciousness. But that problem—the issue of “combination” that I singled out yesterday—isn’t solved, either, for there’s supposedly a qualitative difference between the consciousness of an electron and that of a human being.

But is there?

Goff says “yes”: that the consciousness of electrons is not like human self-awareness with qualia. Rather, it consists of their unique properties: their spin, their charge, their mass, and so on. But here he’s just renaming observable properties as aspects of “consciousness,” which not only kicks the entire problem of panpsychism out the window, but also trashes the problem of finding an “intrinsic nature” of particles that eludes science. If “spin” and “charge” are part of that intrinsic nature, then it’s not only not eluded science, but we already understand the particles!

And here is one aspect in which Morch diverges from Goff:

Particles do have a rudimentary consciousness that’s not encapsulated in their observable characteristics. That is, they are wee “thinkers.”

It’s hard to tell what these people believe, for their arguments are slippery, but Morch says this:

 Some simple, elementary forms of experiences implement the relations that make up fundamental particles. Take an electron, for example. What an electron does is to attract, repel, and otherwise relate to other entities in accordance with fundamental physical equations. What performs this behavior, we might think, is simply a stream of tiny electron experiences. Electrons and other particles can be thought of as mental beings with physical powers; as streams of experience in physical relations to other streams of experience.

But in what sense can electrons be thought of as “mental beings”? Morch doesn’t tell us. Nor do we learn what kinds of “experience” they have, for it must be a kind of experience that stays with an electron over time, just like consciousness stays with us over time. But that’s not how electrons are!

Ergo, neither Goff nor Morch have solved the two problems they’ve set for themselves.

What remains is the “combination problem”—the one that, in her comment above, Morch characterizes as tractable and one to which she and Goff give solutions. How, exactly, do electrons without a real consciousness get together to produce brains with full consciousness? That problem is not automatically solved by the central tenet of panpsychism. And, at least in this piece, Morch doesn’t give an answer, either. Here’s all that she says:

A second important objection is the so-called combination problem. How and why does the complex, unified consciousness of our brains result from putting together particles with simple consciousness? This question looks suspiciously similar to the original hard problem. I and other defenders of panpsychism have argued that the combination problem is nevertheless not as hard as the original hard problem. In some ways, it is easier to see how to get one form of conscious matter (such as a conscious brain) from another form of conscious matter (such as a set of conscious particles) than how to get conscious matter from non-conscious matter. But many find this unconvincing. Perhaps it is just a matter of time, though. The original hard problem, in one form or another, has been pondered by philosophers for centuries. The combination problem has received much less attention, which gives more hope for a yet undiscovered solution.

If you can find a solution to the “combination problem” in there, you’re a better person than I. All she says is that it’s easier to get a conscious brain from conscious particles (but how?) than from non-conscious particles. In the meantime, I’ll continue my search for the solution, which means that you will be afflicted as well.

And then the final sell job:

The possibility that consciousness is the real concrete stuff of reality, the fundamental hardware that implements the software of our physical theories, is a radical idea. It completely inverts our ordinary picture of reality in a way that can be difficult to fully grasp. But it may solve two of the hardest problems in science and philosophy at once.

I’m not buying. If panpsychism were an Amazon product, I’d give it just a single star.


Pigliucci on panpsychism and Churchland on “intractable problems”

January 9, 2020 • 12:00 pm

I’ve had several public disagreements with Massimo Pigliucci (I believe he considers me a philosopher manqué), but I’m not so set in my ways that I can’t give him kudos when he writes a good paper or has some good ideas. And his new piece on Medium, which is largely a critique of panpsychism, is good. Pigliucci is almost uniquely qualified to critique panpsychism—at least in terms of his street cred—since he’s a working philosopher who used to be a working biologist. He also sees through bullshit easily but calls it out politely, though in the present article he can’t quite contain his distaste at the end!

I guess the new piece on panpsychism stems from his continuing published dialogue with Philip Goff, whom Pigliucci calls “one of the leading supporters of the idea.” (That’s true.) I haven’t yet read the dialogue, but I give a link below. In the meantime, below is an essay in which Massimo incisively critiques panpsychism. Some of his points we’ve dealt with before, but it’s good to see them in one place, and he makes some new points, as well as situating panpsychism within the history of philosophy.

Massimo’s critique makes two main points. The first is that the “hard problem of consciousness” (how it mechanistically arises from our brain) only looks hard because it’s early days and we aren’t yet close to a solution. His response, which is echoed by Patricia Churchland in the older article below, is that the “hard problem” is composed of several “easier problems” that we’re solving right now, and when those are done we will either understand the origin of consciousness or have a better idea of how to attain that understanding. He, like Churchland (and like me) sees nothing uniquely intractable about “the Hard Problem”. To wit:

First, Massimo quotes philosopher David Chalmers, and then rebuts him (Chalmers’s words in italics):

 “. . . . .It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”

No, it doesn’t seem “objectively” unreasonable at all. It depends on one’s own metaphysical assumptions (more on this later). Now, if there is a hard problem of consciousness, surely there are “easy” problems. Sure enough, Chalmers gives us a list:

The ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
The integration of information by a cognitive system;
The reportability of mental states;
The ability of a (brain) system to access its own internal states;
The focus of attention;
The deliberate control of behavior;
The difference between wakefulness and sleep.

I have suggested elsewhere that the problem Chalmers is so concerned with is based on a category mistake, and that it dissolves into a number of sub-problems, all of which he refers to as “easy.” Once (if, really, since there is no guarantee in science!) neuroscience and evolutionary biology will have answered the easy problems of consciousness, there won’t be a hard problem left, above and beyond the easy ones.

Pigliucci then deals with the “Mary’s room” argument for the irreducibility of consciousness (you can read that for yourself), and then dismantles Goff’s view that the very properties of inanimate matter like particles comprise their “consciousness”.  He argues further against the irreducibility of the Hard Problem and supports the view that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, and considers panpsychism a form of “property dualism” in which matter arranged in a certain way aquires brand-new properties (“higher” consciousness):

All sorts of new physical properties “emerge” when matter is organized one way or another. For instance, the wetness of water does not exist at the level of individual molecules of H2O. It emerges only when there is a large number of such molecules, and when they interact with each other within certain ranges of pressure and temperature.

What makes property dualism a kind of dualism is the further stipulation that consciousness is ontologically irreducible to neurobiology and physics. But why? If we simply stipulate this, we are engaging in a massive instance of begging the question. If, instead, we are invoking irreducibility just on the ground that science hasn’t arrived at it yet, then we are making an argument from ignorance. Either way, things don’t look good for dualism.

After dealing with these higher-level issues of whether or not a problem is tractable, Massimo gets back to panpsychism. And he makes his second point—that the idea is incoherent—using Goff’s own characterization of what “consciousness” means when it’s applied to particles. Here’s an excerpt, with Goff’s statements again italicized, while Massimo’s response is in plain text (emphases mine):

“I think Hossenfelder misunderstands the view she’s attacking. When one first hears about panpsychism, one thinks it’s the view that in addition to its physical properties — mass, charge, spin — a particle also has non-physical consciousness properties. That kind of panpsychism would lead to the kind of problems Hossenfelder points to, because we’d want to know what the consciousness properties of particles are doing over and above their physical properties. But Russellian panpsychism is very different: the view is that mass, charge and spin are forms of consciousness. If that makes sense (which we’re currently assuming), i.e. if micro-level forms of consciousness are identical with the properties invoked in the standard model, then clearly it’s mistaken to wonder what these forms of consciousness do over and above the properties of the standard model (because this implies that they’re distinct, when ex hypothesi they are identical).”

Goff is seriously mistaken here. First off, Hossenfelder is most definitely not assuming that consciousness is a non-physical property. If it were, she wouldn’t expect it to show up in physical experiments.

Second, I simply don’t know what it means to say that “mass, charge and spin are forms of consciousness.” Notice that Goff says that this is assumed ex hypothesi, that is, a priori. Problem is: this assumption is precisely what is under scrutiny, so one cannot take it as foundational. Are there any empirical reasons to think it holds? No, by definition. Are there any philosophical arguments to support it? Well, Philip continues:

“But how on earth could mass, charge and spin be identical with forms of consciousness? … You seem to suggest that the postulation of intrinsic natures is incoherent if particles are elementary. I’m happy to accept that quarks and electrons are fundamental, but we still need to ask about the nature of their properties. In my view, physics tells us what mass, charge and spin do (or more precisely the behavioral dispositions they endow to their bearers) but does not tell us what they are. Hence, it is coherent for the panpsychist to suppose that they are forms of consciousness.”

No, it isn’t. For a number of reasons. First, the panpsychist has to come up with a good argument for why there should be anything to say about electrons, quarks, etc. above and beyond their physical properties. The search for essences — which is what Goff is talking about — should have ended sometime during the Middle Ages, with the demise of the Scholastics. Second, even if we entertain the possibility that particles have essences, then we need to be told what such essences would look like, and how we could discover them. Last, but not least, the panpsychist would still have to come up with a positive reason for why the essence of particles is consciousness. Oh, and after all of that, we still wouldn’t know why human beings have first person experiences and rocks don’t. Or do they?

Like Massimo, I’m perplexed, because when you ask Goff to tell us in what sense electrons are “conscious”, he just redefines their properties—spin, mass, charge, and so on—as consciousness. But if you pull that trick, then explaining human consciousness just becomes a purely physical problem, given Goff’s addendum that when you bundle enough conscious atoms and molecules and neurons together, you get a human brain. In other words, why isn’t consciousness then an epiphenomenon of the collection of molecules that make up the brain?

Further, Goff seems to think there is some “intrinsic nature” of matter that isn’t given by its behavior and observable properties. But to a physicist, the described properties of an electron completely characterize an electron for any purpose that we want. And if you call those properties “consciousness” and say that when there are enough conscious particles in a lump you get “higher” humanlike consciousness, then you’re saying nothing beyond describing what neuroscientists are already trying to do. There are no essences beyond what we can observe. Or, if there are, Goff can’t tell us what they are, though he strains mightily to do so.

In the end, Massimo accuses Goff of practicing a form of metaphysics, or “first philosophy” of the brand emitted by Decartes. Finally, patience exhausted, Massimo sticks in the knife. But he’s right to perform that act of intellectual evisceration, because he’s already refuted panpsychism but the proponents persist:

The problem is that Goff not only is going back to first philosophy, he actually thinks that it can provide the underpinnings of a whole new science! His book is tellingly entitled Galileo’s Error. Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. But Galileo did not make the error Philip is charging him with. And there is no such thing as a science based on statements that are entirely empirically untestable. The error isn’t Galileo’s, is that of some modern philosophers who insist in creating problems that don’t exist, and then spend a lot of time “solving” them in a way that rolls human understanding back four centuries.

Perhaps another piece of advice from Wittgenstein comes handy here: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” (Tractatus, 7)


Patricia Churchland is a prominant “neurophilosopher” who wrote a paper in 1996 about whether the Hard Problem was in principle permanently intractable to normal scientific investigation. Back then she didn’t deal with panpsychism, though she does now—and finds it pretty ludicrous. And she’s been slugging it out with Goff on Twitter (go see for yourself). To wit:

Anyway, Churchland’s 1996 paper on hornswaggling is largely about her view that the Hard Problem, while hard, isn’t in principle intractable, and doesn’t call for new methods of inquiry. Like Massimo, she writes about Mary’s room problem,  and the breaking down of the higher problem into more tractable sub-problems which, when solved, might give us the key to the mechanism of consciousness. You can get the paper for free by clicking on the title below:

I’ll give just one quote from Churchland:

The point is this: if you want to contrast being able to imagine brain mechanisms for attention, short term memory, planning etc., with being unable to imagine mechanisms for consciousness, you have to do more that say you can imagine neurons doing one but cannot imagine neurons doing the other. Otherwise one simply begs the question.

To fill out the point, consider several telling examples from the history of science. . .

. . . Consider now a biological example. Before 1953, many people believed, on rather good grounds actually, that in order to address the copying problem (transmission of traits from parents to offspring), you would first have to solve the problem of how proteins fold. The former was deemed a much harder problem than the latter, and many scientists believed it was foolhardy to attack the copying problem directly. As we all know now, the basic answer to the copying problem lay in the base-pairing of DNA, and it was solved first. Humbling it is to realize that the problem of protein folding (secondary and tertiary) is still not solved. That, given the lot we now know, does seem to be a hard problem.

What is the point of these stories? They reinforce the message of the argument from ignorance: from the vantage point of ignorance, it is often very difficult to tell which problem is harder, which will fall first, what problem will turn out to be more tractable than some other. Consequently our judgments about relative difficulty or ultimate tractability should be appropriately qualified and tentative. Guesswork has a useful place, of course, but let’s distinguish between blind guesswork and educated guesswork, and between guesswork and confirmed fact. The philosophical lesson I learned from my biology teacher is this: when not much is known about a topic, doní’t take terribly seriously someone else’s heartfelt conviction about what problems are scientifically tractable. Learn the science, do the science, and see what happens.

Finally, I’ve put a link below (click on screenshot) to the exchange between Goff and Pigliucci. I’ll read it ASAP, but give it here for your delectation.

I realize I’m posting more about panpsychism than I intended, but it’s because I keep looking for a more tangible explanation of how the properties of inanimate matter are supposed to comprise “consciousness” in a way different from how physicists have described those properties via materialism. And I keep looking for a mechanism whereby molecules that have only rudimentary components of consciousness, like spin and charge, are supposed to get together and produce human consciousness in a way that differs from my own view that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of neuronal organization that has reached a certain level of complexity.

I have found no answers, and am concluding that, with panpsychism, there is no “there” there. It seems to be a hornswoggle—an intellectual equivalent of the shell-and-pea game. (“Nope. Consciousness is over there—under that shell!”) And yet serious people take the view seriously. It’s baffling. Are they falling for a “panpsychism of the gaps” argument?

A BBC show on panpsychism once again shows that there’s no “there” there

January 8, 2020 • 9:30 am

UPDATE: In the first comment on my thread below, reader Coel calls our attention to a year-old critique of panpsychism by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, “Electrons don’t think.” It makes some physics-related criticisms of panpsychism that I could not have made, but also adds a nice comment, a response to the claim (made by Goff among others) that the spin, charge velocity, and other properties of particles are part of their “consciousness”.

Part of a reader’s comment:

Your response reveals that you haven’t understood the view you’re attacking, at least if you’re aiming to target the form of panpsychism that is currently taken seriously in academic philosophy (what article was this in response to?). The claim is (A) that physics doesn’t tell us what physical properties are; it merely provides mathematical models that predict their behaviour, and (B) those very properties that physics characterises behaviouristically are, in their intrinsic nature, forms of consciousness.

Part of her response:


You are evading to address my point. If you rename “spin” into “consciousness” you still have the standard model of particle physics and no panpsychism.

“those very properties that physics characterises behaviouristically are, in their intrinsic nature, forms of consciousness”

I like the way Sabine gets in there and battles with the more nescient readers. There are 715 comments!


If you’re sick of panpsychism by now, you can skip this post and the podcast below. But it’s not going away soon, I think, given the vociferous nature and arrant careerism of its proponents. And so it’s incumbent upon us to understand this idea. I’ve listened to the podcast to once again try to understand what it means to say that components of the Universe, like atoms or rocks, are “conscious”.

So here’s a new 48-minute (ends at 44:37) broadcast show that just appeared on BBC Radio 3 (click on screenshot below to hear it). It features three guests (all philosophers) publicizing the resurgent but deeply misguided views of panpsychism: that everything in the Universe has some form of consciousness or some essential component of consciousness, and thus humans are conscious because our brains are cobbled together from semi-conscious atoms and molecules. But there’s also one detractor/skeptic, who happens to be a neuroscientist. Moderator Matthew Sweet, I must say, does a terrific job, asking all the right questions.

I’ll soon stop posting about this, but I wanted readers to see how deeply wrong an idea can be (maybe “woo-ish and untestable” is a better characterization than “wrong”) and still be popular. I am still baffled by its popularity, though nobody I respect has adhered to this idea.

Here is the Beeb’s description of the show; I’ve provided links to the participants.

Panpsychism is the view that all matter is conscious. It’s a view that’s gaining ground in contemporary philosophy, with proponents arguing that it can solve age-old problems about the relationship between mind and body, and also fill in gaps in other areas of our understanding of nature. But is it true? And if it is, how could it change our understanding of ourselves?

Matthew Sweet is joined by panpsychists Philip Goff and Hedda Hassel Morch, the neuroscientist Daniel Glaser, who is sceptical of panpsychism, and Eccy de Jonge, artist, philosopher and deep ecologist, who has written about the 17th-century philosopher and possible precursor of panpsychism, Spinoza.

The gist of the theory is really found in the first 30 minutes, when Goff tries to explain how stuff like atoms and rocks are “conscious”. It turns out that he doesn’t think they’re conscious in the same way that we are, but that atoms and rocks do have a rudimentary form of consciousness that pervades the whole Universe:

Goff: “The fundamental constituents of physical reality, perhaps electrons and quarks, have almost unimaginably simple forms of experience, and the very complex experience of the human or animal brain is somehow derived from the very simple experience of their most basic parts.”

Well, this fails on two counts. First, he doesn’t say what it actually means for an electron to have “experience”. Sure, they have spin and move around, but in what sense is that “experience” if they don’t “experience” it? What he’s saying is more or less what he told Sean Carroll on the podcast I posted yesterday: all matter has “properties,” like mass and spin and velocity, and if you call those properties “consciousness,” then yes, everything is conscious. But then he’s made no advance beyond pure physics.

And this doesn’t solve the second problem: how do the rudimentary consciousnesses of the molecular bits of our brain somehow come together to produce full consciousness in the whole organ: consciousness in which we have qualia—feelings, perceptions, and sensations? This remains a mystery that neither Goff nor Morch appear to solve.

Morch agrees with Goff, saying that tables and chairs aren’t conscious but have conscious constituents, but human brains have conscious constituents that can combine to give us consciousness. This is pure sleight of hand, because this doesn’t answer the Hard Problem of Panpsychism: How do the semisconscious bits of brain stuff combine to make a brain conscious, but the semiconscious bits of tables and rocks don’t? These philosophers don’t tell us, and so there’s a gaping hole in their “theory”—if you want to call an untestable and largely semantic issue a “theory”.

Goff, who dominates the conversation, says that electrons and quarks have experience, and that is their consciousness. He asserts again, along with Morch, that scientific materialism is powerless to solve the problem of consciousness because science is quantitative and consciousness is a qualitative experience that can’t be put in an equation. Science, he avers, can only give us correlations between brain activity and the experience of consciousness, but that approach doesn’t tell us how brains produce consciousness. (I think he’s wrong here: enough correlations produce that understanding.)

And Goff bangs on, as he did in Sean Carroll’s podcast, that physics cannot tell us what matter really is—all it does is tell us how matter behaves. That, say Goff and Morch, doesn’t tell us what we want to know. As Goff says, “Physics leaves us in the dark about the intrinsic nature of matter–what matter is, in and of itself. . . Panpsychism puts consciousness in that hole.”  This is Panpsychism of the Gaps!

And it sounds to me like more bullshit. Does saying that matter has “experience” now finally tell us about the intrinsic nature of matter? (Never mind that there’s no evidence for the “experiential” part of matter save that it behaves—which is what physics already tells us.) Goff finally pronounces that panpsychism has given us an attractive answer to the “hard problem” of consciousness: how does the brain’s workings produce sensations?

Goff: “The idea is that there’s just matter, nothing spiritual or supernatural, but matter can be described from two perspectives: physical science describes it, as it were, from the outside, in terms of its behavior; but matter from the inside, in terms of its intrinsic nature, is constituted of forms of consciousness. It’s a beautiful way to bring together these two stories.”

No, it’s a beautiful way to describe what comes out of the south end of a cow facing north. Panpsychism does not in any way solve the physical basis of conscious experience. It just punts it down to a lower level, and then adds the claim that when enough semi-conscious atoms come together in a brain, voilà, you have full consciousness! It’s magic!

Neuroscientist Glaser, the only voice of reason beside moderator Sweet, pipes in and says that neuroscience doesn’t need saving by panpsychism—not just yet. It’s early days in trying to understand consciousness, he says, and we don’t even have a clue how the brain produces and comprehends language or stores memories. When we figure out those things, he claims, then we can tackle consciousness, and if we fail at that then we can start thinking about stuff like panpsychism (16:46).

Things begin to get boring at this point (Matthew gave up 30 minutes in), but I listened to the bitter end. de Jonge comes in as a “deep ecologist” (a new term to me), saying that panpsychism is congenial to deep ecologists, who believe that humans are nothing special in natural ecosystems (duhh. . .), and this jibes nicely with panpsychism’s claim that our consciousness is nothing qualitatively different from the consciousness of a rock. We’re all part of the whole! In other words, de Jonge likes panpsychism not because there’s any evidence for it, or because it makes sense, but because it makes humans seem part of a greater whole, just like Deep Ecology.

Finally, Goff claims again (34:08) that materialism bequeaths a bleak and depressing worldview, while panpsychism give us a picture of the world that makes us “more comfortable in our own skin”. He admits that it doesn’t make it true, but I, at least, am not much comforted by thinking that my electrons have experiences. In fact, it freaks me out. Fortunately, it isn’t true.

I’m becoming aware that people like Goff and Morch like panpsychism because, they say, it gives philosophers alone the ability to do what scientists can’t: explaining not only the “intrinsic nature of matter” but also the hard problem of consciousness. In other words, these philosophers are claiming the Big Territory in a turf war between neuroscience and philosophy.

I would argue that although philosophers have a valuable role in helping empirical workers figure out how to properly frame a research program for understanding how consciousness arises, philosophers cannot solve the problem by themselves. And Goff and Morch’s philosophy doesn’t even seem to be real philosophy. As one genuine philosopher told me: “it is just a gimmick on the part of those philosophers who are stunningly ignorant of science, especially the biological sciences.”

I will continue to listen and read, though I’ll try to inflict as little of this as I can on readers. But nothing I’ve heard has convinced me that there’s anything to panpsychism but a lot of puffery and empty assertions about the “experience” of rocks and electrons. It fails to define what that “experience” consists of beyond the physical properties and behavior of matter, and it fails big time in explaining how the “experience” of the organic molecules in our brain can come together to produce human consciousness, when it can’t do that for rocks or viruses. Panpsychism is neither a theory nor a philosophy, but a semantic trick performed by piling a few bogus claims atop each other. Why is it popular? You tell me!

Here’s the show (the answer to the title question, of course, is “NO!”).

And a relevant cartoon by reader Pliny the in Between’s site, The Far Corner Cafe:

Sean Carroll vs. Philip Goff on panpsychism

January 7, 2020 • 10:30 am

Since we’ve been talking about panpsychism lately—that’s the theory that the entire Universe and its constituents are in some way conscious—I thought I’d post a podcast in which two opposing academics hash out the issues.

I’ll be posting a bit more about panpsychism in the weeks to come as I read and learn more about it, but the more I learn, the more I see it as a form of either woo or religion. Its advocates don’t seem to define what it means for matter (like an electron) to be “conscious”, and they admit that there’s no way to test their theory. But they see it as a superior alternative to dualism (i.e., the view that there is material “brain stuff” and nonmaterial “mind/consciousness stuff”) and also to materialism (consciousness is an epiphenomenon of a brain that reaches a certain level of complexity) as way of explaining human consciousness. If the constituents of the brain—and all matter—have some kind of consciousness or some component of consciousness, they argue, then consciousness is inherent in our brain, just as it is in a rock or, as Patricia Churchland put it, in a dust bunny. Ergo, problem solved—or so they think.

I see panpsychism as a cult or a religion: an untestable proposition that adds no explanatory value to neuroscience or non-wooey philosophical approaches to consciousness. And, like religion, its advocates won’t admit of any evidence against their theory (i.e., the many palpable connections between the brain and consciousness), but maintain their hypothesis with no supporting evidence. It’s just consciousness all the way down. And they can maintain it to those who don’t think too hard because there can be no evidence against it—not until they tell us what consciousness means for a rock or an atom.  As philosopher/panpsychism booster Philip Goff says:

I agree that panpsychism cannot be directly tested. But neither can materialism or dualism or any other theory of consciousness.

He’s wrong. We’re already making progress on understanding what neurology requires for consciousness, and how to alter its presence or nature.

Except for free will, I’ve never received as much pushback against what I see as a reasonable, science-based stand as I have for my opposition to panpsychism. I get emails, ticked-off posts by philosopher/panpsychism booster Philip Goff on his website, and even arguments by some readers who favor panpsychism.

Goff himself, in the podcast below, repeatedly states that he’s “heartened” by the increasing (but still minority) view among philosophers that panpsychism is the way to go in explaining consciousness. And others, like physicist Lee Smolin, authors Annaka Harris and Philip Pullman, and philosopher Stephen Law, have endorsed Goff’s new trade book, though this doesn’t mean they all endorse panpsychism. Goff’s claim, in the podcast below and elsewhere, that other philosophers agree with him doesn’t move me, for the number of people who adhere to a falsehood doesn’t increase its truth value.

But on to the podcast: Sean Carroll’s “Mindscape” that you can access by clicking on the screenshot below.  Sean, of course, is a physicist, cosmologist, and author, who knows a lot about philosophy. Debating him is Philip Goff, a philosopher at Durham University and perhaps the most vociferous advocate of panpsychism (he has a new book about it).  Sean states from the outset that he doesn’t accept panpsychism, and that materialism (his view of the world) is perfectly capable of explaining consciousness, though it’s a hard problem and will take a long time to understand.

The podcast is 94 minutes long, and I’ve listened to all of it. I won’t summarize it in detail, but if you want to listen to just the heart of the argument, start at about 1:11:00—71 minutes in.

A brief view of the controversy. Goff avers that materialism won’t help us understand consciousness because all it produces are correlations between brain activity and conscious experience. That, he says, is useless because it doesn’t enable us to get at the heart of consciousness: subjective experience or “qualia”. As he says, “How can you capture in an equation the spiciness of paprika?” (Understanding consciousness won’t necessarily require equations, though.)

In the other corner, on the side of materialism, Sean Carroll, is puzzled at what all the fuss is about. Once he understands how the laws of physics work, he says, we will understand how consciousness arises. (That’s not good enough for Goff, as he says that that “correlational” approach doesn’t tell us what consciousness is, just like Goff says that a definition of mass in physics doesn’t tell us what mass really is.).  Carroll finds this puzzling, since if he has a comprehensive system of understanding how something comes to be, including the real phenomenon of consciousness, then that’s all there is.

(I am summarizing based on one hearing here, and urge you to at least start listening for yourself, at least to the last half hour.)

Carroll’s general response to panpsychism begins about 37 minutes in. In response to Goff’s statement that we need to know what consciousness really is,  Carroll answers he doesn’t really care about the “intrinsic nature of subjective experience”. If you have consciousness and know how it’s produced from neurons and the brain, that’s all there is to know.

As I said, the heart of the disagreement starts about 71 minutes in, when Goff argues that yes, everything is conscious: even the mass, spin, and charge of physical particles like electrons are forms of consciousness: a “limited form of conscious experience.” But that’s about as far as he goes in defining consciousness of inanimate objects. When Carroll asks him if he means that everything is conscious, because everything has physical properties, and whether the the Universe’s wave function is also conscious (Sean talks about that wave function his latest book Something Deeply Hidden), Goff gives a reluctant “yes”. Goff also declares that panpsychism is completely congruent with what physics tell us about the Universe.  Carroll then asks him what panpsychism adds to our understanding of the Universe, and—at least to me—Goff doesn’t produce a coherent answer.

At the end, we see one of Goff’s beefs with materialism when he says that materialism produces a bleak view of life. Instead, says Goff, knowing that “we’re conscious creatures in a conscious Universe” can make us feel better about ourself. It also, he says, will enable us to treat the environment better, for when we realize that plants are conscious, too, we won’t destroy them. (But should we eat them?). But, say I, rocks are conscious as well: does that mean we shouldn’t dig up rocks or pulverize them? Should we split atoms if they are conscious? Is a plant more conscious than a rock?

I am completely with Sean here, as we are both materialists (or “naturalists”, if you will), and I see no explanatory value of panpsychism. But those of you who still adhere to panpsychism might be surprised, as I was, at how poorly the advocates of that theory defend it. It’s not even philosophy, as there doesn’t seem to be much rationality about it.

But click and listen.