I’m just here to pass on this information from reader Merilee, which she got in an email. I won’t be able to watch Dan’s lucubrations, but you can:
Tonight, March 17 from 8-9 pm ET, we host Daniel Dennett for a Munk Dialogue on the origin of human consciousness, and how our minds have been shaped by natural selection and generations of cultural evolution.
Daniel Dennett is a world-renowned philosopher and cognitive scientist, and the Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.
The latest issue of Nautilus Magazine has a special issue on panpsychism, which means that I’m compelled to read and discuss several articles on this untestable and almost certainly false explanation for consciousness. Just to refresh you, panpsychism is the view that humans are conscious (and perhaps other organisms) because the matter from which we and our brains are made itself has a rudimentary form of consciousness. And when you assemble all those semi-conscious electrons, protons, and neutrons into the stuff that makes up our brain—presto!—we’re conscious.
This is bogus for several reasons, and I’m quite puzzled why anyone takes it seriously. It is not an explanation of consciousness, but rather fobs the problem of consciousness onto molecules. How are they conscious? How can combining the rudimentary consciousness of constituents lead to “higher level” consciousness in organisms like us? This is a “turtles-all-the-way-down” theory.
Further, you cannot test the “theory”—it is an assertion that is not at present available for empirical assessment. Although in his article in this issue (see below) Christof Koch claims that Integrated Information Theory, a panpsychic “theory” does make testable predictions, I haven’t seen any (I’ve read some of the theory), nor does Koch give any.
Finally, as Sean Carroll has emphasized repeatedly, panpsychism, with its attribution of a new property (rudimentary consciousness) to atoms and particles, violates the laws of physics subsumed under the “Standard Model”. Goff simply has no rebuttal to Carroll’s criticisms (see the article and video here).
There are two big articles on panpsychism in the issue, one by Annaka Harris and the other by Hedda Hassel Mørch—both advocates of panpsychism—and I hope to deal with them in the coming days. Today I’ll make a few comments about the three short pieces collected in the single article below: one by Philip Goff, the “big name” in panpsychism promotion, one by Christof Koch, another advocate of panpsychim at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and Massimo Pigliucci, philosopher and biologist and CUNY-City College in New York. Massimo and I have had our differences, but I have to say that he’s 100% right in his criticisms of panpsychism.
Click below to read for free.
I’ll take the gentlemen one at a time.
Philip Goff. Goff is deeply confused here. He first claims that entities like rocks and socks aren’t conscious as entities, but their constituent molecules could have a form of consciousness. Well, that’s not necessarily contradictory, but he goes on to impute consciousness to entities like trees.
This view is much misunderstood. Drawing on the literal meaning of the term—“pan”=everything, “psyche”=mind—it is commonly supposed that panpsychists believe that all kinds of inanimate objects have rich conscious lives: that your socks, for example, may be currently going through a troubling period of existential angst.
This way of understanding panpsychism is wrong. Panpsychists tend not to think that literally everything is conscious. They believe that the fundamental constituents of the physical world are conscious, but they need not believe that every random arrangement of those particles results in a conscious subject. Most panpsychists will deny that your socks are conscious, while asserting that they are ultimately composed of things that are conscious.
Okay, but then he says this:
. . . panpsychists believe that consciousness pervades the universe, and is as basic as mass and charge. If panpsychism is true, the rainforest is teeming with consciousness. As conscious entities, trees have value in their own right: Chopping one down becomes an action of immediate moral significance. On the panpsychist worldview, humans have a deep affinity with the natural world: We are conscious creatures embedded in a world of consciousness.
WHAT? Socks made of conscious particles are not conscious entities, but trees made of conscious particle are conscious entities? How does that work? Is each leaf conscious? How about the roots and fruits? I would like to know what these people are claiming!
Goff then asserts without evidence that rudimentary consciousnesses combine in unknown ways as the complexity of the organism they constitute increases. He never tells us, and can’t, how electrons can be conscious. This fundamental assertion is untestable, and, moreover, violates the laws of physics. All they can do to answer the “combination problem” is to speculate or make stuff up:
Perhaps more importantly, panpsychists do not believe that consciousness like ours is everywhere. The complex thoughts and emotions enjoyed by human beings are the result of millions of years of evolution by natural selection, and it is clear that nothing of this kind is had by individual particles. If electrons have experience, then it is of some unimaginably simple form.
In human beings, consciousness is a sophisticated thing, involving subtle and complex emotions, thoughts, and sensory experiences. But there seems nothing incoherent with the idea that consciousness might exist in very simple forms. We have good reason to think that the conscious experience of a horse is much less complex than that of a human being, and the experiences of a chicken less complex than those of a horse. As organisms become simpler perhaps at some point the light of consciousness suddenly switches off, with simpler organisms having no experience at all. But it is also possible that the light of consciousness never switches off entirely, but rather fades as organic complexity reduces, through flies, insects, plants, amoeba, and bacteria. For the panpsychist, this fading-while-never-turning-off continuum further extends into inorganic matter, with fundamental physical entities—perhaps electrons and quarks—possessing extremely rudimentary forms of consciousness, to reflect their extremely simple nature.
It is possible. . . perhaps. . and maybe soon. There’s nothing here that is testable. We divine consciousness by self-report, and although we can mostly agree that other people are conscious because their brains are the same as ours, and they show signs of consciousness, is that true of a gorilla brain? Probably. But none of this buttresses the theory of panpsychism. We can’t ask an electron or a tardigrade whether it’s conscious.
Let us abandon this mishigas and move on to. . .
Christof Koch. Koch sees the salvation of panpsychism in “Integrated Information Theory”, which, he says, makes “a number of very precise predictions that philosophical panpsychism was never able to make.” But if that’s the case, why doesn’t he give any? As far as I know, that’s because there aren’t any. If there were, people would be taking panpsychism more seriously. Instead, Koch tells us repeatedly that he doesn’t know how panpsychism works or how it’s instantiated in atoms and subatomic particles:
Panpsychism can be terribly elegant in its simplicity. You don’t say consciousness only exists if you have more than 42 neurons or 2 billion neurons or whatever. Instead, the system is conscious if there’s a certain type of complexity. And we live in a universe where certain systems have consciousness. It’s inherent in the design of the universe. Why is that so? I don’t know. Why does the universe follow the laws of quantum mechanics? I don’t know. Can I imagine a universe where the laws of quantum mechanics don’t hold? Yes, but I don’t happen to live in such a universe, so I believe our universe has certain types of complexity and a system that gives rise to consciousness. Suddenly the world is populated by entities that have conscious awareness, and that one simple principle leads to a number of very counterintuitive predictions that can, in principle, be verified.
In principle? Okay, Dr. Koch, give us some of those predictions! And then there’s this:
What makes systems conscious? Are there any systems that are not conscious? Panpsychism doesn’t answer these questions. But Integrated Information Theory does. It makes some very specific predictions. It says, for instance, all complex neurobiological systems—all creatures that have brains—may well have consciousness, including bees and worms and octopi. It may also be possible that if you build a brain out of wires and transistors, that you find consciousness there, too.
May well have consciousness. I’m prepared to believe that a horse has consciousness, but what about a protozoan or a flatworm? Note that these are not testable predictions, and they’re not really falsifiable either, for if these simple organisms don’t have consciousness, Koch could just say, “Well, I said that they may well have consciousness and it “may be possible that a computer will have consciousness.” This is not evidence, it is assertion trailed by equivocation.
Massimo Pigliucci. Yay, Massimo! He says it straight and true:
Panpsychism doesn’t make any contact with the empirical world. My specialty is philosophy of science and so I tend to be sensitive to the difference between metaphysics and science, and whenever an account or theory makes no empirical predictions, and there is no way to test it, at least no foreseeable way to test it, then to me that’s just not science, it’s a metaphysical construct.
Massimo then notes that parts of real physics are getting pretty metaphysical, like string theory (at present also untestable). But. . . .
But there is a difference between panpsychism and string theory. String theory is built on top of quantum mechanics, which is a very empirically based, supported theory. Panpsychism on the other hand is not rooted in anything. It’s just a way to solve what some philosophers of mind call the hard problem of consciousness—the question of how is it possible that a lump of matter like the brain makes it possible for people to have first-person experiences or conscious experiences. Postulating that consciousness is another mental property of the universe is one way to get around that. But I don’t think it actually solves anything. It just replaces one mystery with another.
I don’t find that convincing at all. I come at consciousness from a point of view of a biologist. To me, consciousness is a highly evolved property of certain biological systems and it does require not only a certain structure, but certain materials. I don’t think that if you could build, for instance, an exact replica of the human brain made out of cardboard, you would have a conscious thing out there, probably not even made of very much more interesting materials like silicon. The reason for that is because biological consciousness, the little we know about it, is made possible by not only certain structures in the brain but also certain chemicals and certain chemical reactions and certain interactions between chemicals.
Consciousness probably evolved for specific reasons because, after all, it costs a lot metabolically to maintain the kind of brain that can engage in conscious thoughts. There must be a reason and it must be advantageous from the point of view of natural selection. I don’t see any reason to think that inert things are conscious. I don’t even see a particular reason to think that a lot of other biological things, like plants, bacteria, things like that, are conscious. But that’s just one perspective and one way to look at it.
I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with panpsychism. It’s probably because I see it as scientific snake oil. It’s philosophy pretending to be science but not behaving like science, for it’s just a bunch of untestable assertions that cannot be falsified. And if a theory cannot be falsified, we cannot regard it as conveying scientific truth. I once had a theory that resembles panpsychism in that way. It was when I was a young child and had a bunch of stuffed animals (including Toasty). My “theory” was that when I left the room, they would get up and move around, but as soon as I was about to peek at them, they’d resume their former positions. (Actually, you could use a video camera to test that, I suppose, but I could invoke the “observer effect” that ESP advocates use to avoid being tested.)
Isn’t it time for us to stop taking this nonsense seriously? I regard panpsychists as I regard theologians: they both make stuff up, nothing they say is testable, and they both actually get paid to foist nonsense on the public.
I’ve written a fair amount on this site about panpsychism,, the view that everything in the Universe, including electrons, rocks, and organisms, have a form of consciousness. The “conscious” molecules and atoms are supposed to combine, under certain unspecified and mysterious rules, into brains that have a higher-level consciousness. Voilà: the “hard problem” of consciousness explained! Philip Goff, one of the three discussants in the video below, is the primary exponent of this theory.
Panpsychism is, I think, pure bunk, and you can read my earlier posts to see why. One of those posts highlights a paper by Sean M. Carroll that, in my view, demolishes the idea of panpsychism because it grossly violates the laws of physics—of the “complete” description of the world that “the core theory of physics” presents. In the very long video below (3 hours 14 minutes!), there’s a mano a mano verbal exchange in which Sean, in his usual polite but firm way, tells Goff that he’s simply wrong about panpsychism and that Goff is too stubborn to admit it.
This is a lot more fun than reading the paper, especially watching Goff as he sees his whole theory crumble under the relentless onslaught of Carroll’s physics. Sean’s views are similar to those given in his paper, but I like seeing the exchange between a physicist and a panpsychist (Goff is the person most closely associated with this crazy theory.)
Also in the discussion is Keith Frankish, a British philosopher of mind. Wikipedia notes of him: “[Frankish] holds that the conscious mind is a virtual system, a trick of the biological mind. In other words, phenomenality is an introspective illusion. This position is in opposition to dualist theories, reductive realist theories, and panpsychism.”
Now, you don’t have to watch the entire 3-hour video to see the exchange about the value of panpsychism as an explanation of consciousness. If you click on the screenshot below, you’ll go to the YouTube video starting 6 minutes in, when Sean gives his view of consciousness as an epiphenomenon of evolution rather that will eventually be explained. (This is also my view, though I’m neither philosopher nor physicist.)
There’s then a philosophical digression, and the discussion of consciousness begins again at 7:50. This discussion and its putative explanation by panpsychism ramps up gradually with detours into lucubrations about emergence and related matters.
In my view, the discussion starts reaching its apogee starting at about 1 hour and 25 minutes in, when Goff says that the “core theory’s” success doesn’t lay a hand on panpsychism, which requires a different or supplemental theory of physics. (You may want to start the video here.) Carroll disagrees strongly and is “blunt” about telling Goff he’s just dead wrong. Goff tries to impute his views to a colleague rather than himself, but that’s not correct. He’s using another panpsychist like a ventriloquist uses a puppet.
At 1 hour 30 minutes in, things get a bit heated, and it’s time to get out the popcorn. Goff even floats the idea that the laws of physics differ between electrons in the brain and electrons everywhere else! (This is part of his view that panpsychism cannot be accommodated by the core theory.) Frankish is on Carroll’s side, but doesn’t speak as much as the other two.
I watched only until an hour and 45 minutes in, so I can’t tell you what happens in the rest of the discussion. But if you watch up to that point, and listen to Sean’s eloquent and patient explanations, and see the sweating panpsychist professor try to prop up his crumbling ideas, you will not be any more enamored with panpsychism than you were before. In other words, you’ll see that it’s a theory without substance.
Here’s a new Scientific American column by science writer John Horgan who, unlike many of his fellow op-ed writers on the magazine, at least has the decency to stick to science and not foist social justice dogma on the science-minded readers. (There a dreadful Sci. Am. column this week on that issue, and we’ll deal with it tomorrow.)
In this new piece, Horgan declares himself an agnostic about three matters noted in the title: God, quantum mechanics, and consciousness. What they have in common is simply that Horgan is agnostic about them. And he does seem “agnostic” about God, though the difference here between agnosticism and atheism is a matter of degree rather than kind. As for quantum mechanics and consciousness, Horgan seems to evince no doubt that they work; rather, he’s agnostic about the explanations that people offer about why they work. I have a different take on Horgan’s thoughts in each area, so I’ll divide them up below. Click on the screenshot to read his lucubrations.
GOD: Horgan is more of an agnostic than, say, Dawkins or I, because he seems to find some positive evidence that there might be a God (I know of none). Therefore, on the “believer scale”, he’d put himself closer to 1 (firm believer) than Richard or I on Dawkins’s “spectrum of theistic probability.” (In that scale, 1 represents no doubt that God exists, while 7 represents strong atheism, that is, “I know that God doesn’t exist”). Now no scientist would put themselves at 7, simply because there’s always a finite probability that some godlike creature exists and you’d have to change your mind (of course, you’d have to proffer your definition of God before positioning yourself on the scale). Dawkins puts himself at about 6.9, and I’d be close to that point as well.
The question is this: what difference is there between an agnostic and an atheist? I’m not going to argue about this at length, but simply give my view. An atheist, to me, is someone who simply doesn’t entertain a belief in gods, which would mean 4 and above on that scale. But an agnostic who says, “I just don’t know about God don’t see the evidence, so I profess no belief in gods”, could also be seen as an atheist. As many have pointed out, agnosticism could be considered atheism.
But Horgan’s agnosticism isn’t really atheism as many of us hold it, since he seems to see some evidence that God exists. To wit:
Francis Collins, a geneticist who directs the National Institutes of Health. He is a devout Christian, who believes that Jesus performed miracles, died for our sins and rose from the dead. In his 2006 bestseller The Language of God, Collins calls agnosticism a “cop-out.” When I interviewed him, I told him I am an agnostic and objected to “cop-out.”
Collins apologized. “That was a put-down that should not apply to earnest agnostics who have considered the evidence and still don’t find an answer,” he said. “I was reacting to the agnosticism I see in the scientific community, which has not been arrived at by a careful examination of the evidence.” [JAC: Seriously? I’ve seen frozen waterfalls and I’m still not convinced.] I have examined the evidence for Christianity, and I find it unconvincing. I’m not convinced by any scientific creation stories, either, such as those that depict our cosmos as a bubble in an oceanic “multiverse.”
Well, yes, we should be an agnostic about the “multiverse” since there’s no evidence for it. But not all “scientific creation stories” warrant agnosticism. Evolution is one, with the Ur-organism forming via naturalistic processes. I assume Horgan accepts that, though I don’t know. And I also presume he doesn’t doubt the big bang, which is the “scientific creation story of our Universe.” He may doubt what made the Big Bang happen, but that’s a different kind of agnosticism. Maybe Horgan is agnostic about only those creation stories for which there’s no evidence.
And there’s this. Horgan avers that evil poses a problem for most Abrahamic theists, and the “free will” explanation for moral evil isn’t convincing (and there’s no good explanation for the existence of physical evil, though Horgan mentions “free will of cancer cells). But then he comes out with this:
On the other hand, life isn’t always hellish. We experience love, friendship, adventure and heartbreaking beauty. Could all this really come from random collisions of particles? Even Weinberg concedes that life sometimes seems “more beautiful than strictly necessary.” If the problem of evil prevents me from believing in a loving God, then the problem of beauty keeps me from being an atheist like Weinberg. Hence, agnosticism.
I’m not sure there is a problem of beauty. First of all, it has to have something to do with evolution, because to a planarian or a lizard, I doubt that the world “seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.” In other words, the more complex your nervous system, the more beauty you can experience, which to me points not to god, but to beauty as either an evolved perception—one Ed Wilson suggests in Biophilia or, alternatively, the perception of human beauty connected with reproductive fitness—or an epiphenomenon of our nervous system (music could be such a reaction, playing on aural tropes that somehow affect emotion). But at any rate, I don’t see this problem of “excess beauty”, and therefore I don’t see it as any kind of evidence for God. One could just as well argue that for virtually all organisms, there is excess pain, danger, and unpleasantness.
And there are good evolutionary explanations for friendship and love: bonding to a mate or to members of small, cohesive groups. Also, there’s reciprocal altruism. . .
QUANTUM MECHANICS: There’s no doubt that quantum mechanics is a good theory because it predicts everything that we see, down to the umpteenth decimal place. The controversy about it is not whether it works, but what it means. Does it involve an observer, as some have evoked for the “double slit” experiment, does it involve wave functions that don’t need observers, and could it involve multiverses? We don’t know. And it’s above my pay grade to adjudicate explanations like the “Copenhagen Interpretation” against its rivals. It may be that there will never be any explanation of quantum mechanics that makes sense to us for we’re evolved creatures with limited comprehension.
That’s summarized in biologist J.B.S. Haldane’s famous quote, “The world is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Quantum mechanics may be one of those things that evade supposition. Because of that, Horgan is agnostic not about quantum mechanics as a workable (or “true”, if you will) theory, but about how we can make sense of it on a human scale. And we might never be able to. I’m not agnostic about it, though: I’m ignorant about it.
CONSCIOUSNESS: Horgan is also hung up about explanations of consciousness, in particular the “hard problem”. How do neural impulses and their interpretation by the brain lead to “qualia”—subjective sensations like that of redness, or sadness, or pain. He seems to need a “theory” of consciousness that he can understand, as opposed to my view, which is if you have parts A, B, C, D, and so on, then you get consciousness—as either a phenomenon or epiphenomenon. To me, that is the only “explanation” or “theory” that we need, though of course one requires some kind of self-report or assessment to see if something really is consciousness that has the requisite parts connected in the requisit way.
In his search for the solution, Horgan is agnostic, but flails about to the extent that he might want Buddhism in his theory, or even panpsychism!
Gradually, this consensus collapsed, as empirical evidence for neural theories of consciousness failed to materialize. As I point out in my recent book Mind-Body Problems, there are now a dizzying variety of theories of consciousness. Christof Koch has thrown his weight behind integrated information theory, which holds that consciousness might be a property of all matter, not just brains. This theory suffers from the same problems as information-based theories of quantum mechanics. Theorists such as Roger Penrose, who won last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, have conjectured that quantum effects underpin consciousness, but this theory is even more lacking in evidence than integrated information theory.
Researchers cannot even agree on what form a theory of consciousness should take. Should it be a philosophical treatise? A purely mathematical model? A gigantic algorithm, perhaps based on Bayesian computation? Should it borrow concepts from Buddhism, such as anatta, the doctrine of no self? All of the above? None of the above? Consensus seems farther away than ever. And that’s a good thing. We should be open-minded about our minds.
Indeed, but the idea that we’re actually falling behind in our efforts to understand consciousness is wrong: we already know how to assess it, and which parts of the brain are necessary to show it. We know how to fool it and how to take it away, and then how to restore it (removing anesthesia). Consensus is not farther away than ever.
As for integrated information theory, well, it’s intimately connected with a theory that Horgan has called “self-evidently foolish”: panpsychism, which, as he notes above, “holds that consciousness might be a property of all matter, not just brains.” IIT is one way that panpsychists say you can combine dimly conscious things like molecules into deeply conscious things like human brains. But panpsychism isn’t even a scientific theory. For one thing, it can’t be tested, and second, the “combination” problem is finessed with fancy language that explains nothing. There is no there there.
Horgan is right that we don’t yet understand how consciousness arises, either mechanistically or evolutionarily. So yes, he’s right to be agnostic about how it comes about. But I’m confident that we will understand it one day, and not through Buddhism or panpsychism. We have to keep plugging away, and using not religion or Buddhism or panpsychism, but straight old laboratory and experimental naturalism.
As for God, well, if Horgan thinks that an “excess of beauty” constitutes a tick on the God side of the ledger, let him. I don’t buy it. And as for quantum mechanics, well, the universe may be queerer than we can suppose, and while we may know the laws, they may never make “common” sense to our evolved brains.
I don’t know why he sees these three diverse issues as part of a single mystery, as they’re not very related. Their only commonality is that we are ignorant about some aspects of these phenomena. Is Horgan’s “single, impenetrable mystery” a divine one? Why does he think they’re even connected?
But, just sticking with God for the moment, what kind of “revelation” would convince Horgan that there is no God? If the Nazis and kids getting leukemia won’t do it, what would? I can’t imagine how he’d answer.
I’m heartened to see that other scientists and philosophers of mind I respect, like Sean Carroll and Patricia Churchland, have analyzed the idea of “panpsychism” and found it wanting. As I noted yesterday, adding some of my own criticisms, panpsychism is somewhat of a philosophical fad (or even a religion). It claims that we’ll never understand consciousness through a combination of neuroscience and philosophy, but instead must posit that every bit of matter in the universe has its own form of consciousness. And if you put enough of those conscious atoms and molecules together, you get “higher” consciousness: the feelings of subjectivity, pain, pleasure, and the perception of colors known as “qualia”.
The problems with panpsychism are at least fourfold: the theory is untestable, there’s no evidence for consciousness of inanimate matter, there’s no explanation how the “rudimentary” consciousness of molecules and atoms can combine to produce to the complex consciousness of humans and (surely) other mammals, and we have made no progress in understanding consciousness by considering or adhering to panpsychism. It seems to be a view that, ultimately, will not help us understand consciousness.
The physicist Sean Carrol takes another angle in a new (and yet unpublished) paper that was cited by reader Vampyricon and is online. Click on the screenshot to read it. I’ve included the abstract and the place where it will be published (the book referenced, Galileo’s Error, is advocate Philip Goff’s big defense of panpsychism, but I wasn’t impressed).
As he has in previous books and papers, Carroll demonstrates that our present theory of physics is perfectly adequate to explain the physics of everyday life—unless we go sticking our heads in a black hole or something. Further, adding “mental” properties to our known core theory of physics not only changes that core theory, but is unlikely to explain consciousness, which, though we don’t yet understand it, is in principle perfectly consistent with the laws of physics, with consciousness being an epiphenomenon of physical processes. Yes, we don’t understand it, but that doesn’t mean that we must go tinkering with the laws of physics to explain consciousness or positing untestable mental properties of inanimate matter.
Carroll’s is a long paper, and has some equations that I don’t understand, but his conclusions are clear, and demands that panpsychism clarify its propositions in explicit physical terms beyond merely saying “all matter has consciousness”. Here’s his conclusions:
Any discussion of mental aspects of ontology must specify one of two alternatives: changing the known laws of physics, or positing that these aspects exert no causal influence over physical behavior. We cannot rule out the first option either through pure thought or by appeal to existing experimental data, but we can ask that any modification of the Core Theory be held to the same standards of rigor and specificity that physics itself is held to. The point of expressions like (1) and (3) is not that mentally-induced modifications of physical parameters are impossible, but that a promising theory of consciousness should be specific about how they are to be implemented.
The passive mentalism option, where mental aspects have no impact on physical behavior, seems even less promising. “Behavior” should not be underrated; the behavior of physical matter is literally “what happens in the universe.” Crying at a funeral is behavior, as is asking someone to marry you, as is arguing about consciousness. No compelling account of consciousness can attribute a central explanatory role to metaphysical ingredients that have no influence on these kinds of behaviors.
We don’t know everything there is to know about the laws of physics, and there is always the possibility of a surprise. But the solidity of our confidence in the Core Theory within its domain of applicability stands in stark contrast with our fuzzy grasp of the nature of consciousness. The most promising route to understanding consciousness is likely to involve further neuroscientific insights and a more refined philosophical understanding of weak emergence, rather than rethinking the fundamental nature of reality.
I have a feeling that in one or two decades panpsychism (which has been around in one form or another for centuries) will no longer be regarded as a fruitful way to understand consciousness.
I’ve written a fair bit about panpsychism (see here for all the posts), and I don’t really feel in the mood to summarize the problems at length. Suffice it to say that it’s a “theory”—probably an untestable one, or maybe it’s better seen as a religion—that every bit of matter in the Universe has some form of consciousness, including electrons and rocks, and if you put them together the right way, as in a dog or a human, you get “higher” consciousness automatically. It’s a “turtles all the way down” view that finesses the problem of consciousness—i.e., how we get qualia, or subjective sensations—by simply making up stuff.
The problems with it are many, and you can read my posts to see the issues that I and others have found with it. They include the following:
a.) There’s no evidence that rocks or electrons or water are “conscious”, and there’s no way to find out if they are because the proponents never define what it means for this kind of matter to be conscious.
b.) There’s the “combination problem”: how do we put together “conscious” molecules in a way to create the kind of consciousness that humans have? At what point do “qualia” appear. If you make a complex machine like a typewriter, it’s a combination of lots of conscious molecules, too, but doesn’t have “higher” consciousness. There has been no convincing solution to the “combination problem” by even the advocates of panpsychism
c.) A problem raised by one of its proponents (one of the four boosters whom Salon uses to say panpsychism is “gaining steam”:
“Panpsychists think you can’t explain human consciousness by putting together lots of non-conscious things in the right structure; okay, but is it actually easier to explain it by putting lots of conscious things in the right structure?” Roelofs asked.
c.) The entire theory is untestable, as one of the proponents admits in the Salon article below (click on screenshot). It is not a scientific theory as much as mental masturbation. At least scientific theories of consciousness, like what neurons are required to have it, and how to change or eliminate it, can be testable.
Count on Salon, the Daily MIrror of websites, to have an article claiming that panpsychism is “gaining steam in science communities.” There’s no evidence adduced at all that the theory is spreading in science communities. Author Rozsa cites, beside Philip Goff, one of the theory’s long-time proponents, only three other people who accept this cockamamie view. None of them are scientists; all four are philosophers of mind. Nor is the author of the piece a scientist. That’s because no respectable scientist would say we should study how consciousness arises by simply assuming that all matter is inherently conscious.
Read and weep:
Here’s how the article frames the “hard problem” of consciousness:
On the other hand, science is equally stuck when it comes to explaining the subjective experiences that we can embrace when we listen to music, enjoy delicious food, watch a movie or fall in love. There is something unquantifiable about the joys of life, a reality that is not encompassed when we try to reduce emotions to hormones.
. . .”Consciousness involves quality — the redness of a red experience, the smell of coffee, the taste of mint,” Goff said. “These qualities that can’t be captured in a purely quantitative vocabulary of mathematics. So Galileo said that if we want mathematical science, we need to take consciousness out of the domain of science. In Galileo’s worldview, there is this radical division in nature between the quantitative mathematical domain of science and the physical world, and the qualitative domain of consciousness with its colors, and sounds, and smells and tastes.”
My own view, which I derived from Patricia Churchland, is that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of a certain arrangement of living molecules, most of them in the brain. Once you have all the ingredients for consciousness in place (and science is beginning to learn about some of them), then you get the phenomenon of consciousness and the presence of subjective sensation. End of the story; nothing more to find out. To me, there’s nothing more to the explanation than that: once the components are there, the being is conscious. The scientific task is to find those components and, if we could, assemble them to see if we get consciousness, or at least fiddle with them to see if we can alter, diminish, or erase consciousness in predictable ways.
But I’m not a neuroscientist, so I’ll leave it to people like Churchland to go after panpsychism. The fact is that, contra Salon, the idea is not gaining steam, but winding down as people realize that panpsychism is a worldview that is absolutely untestable. In fact, Luke Roelofs at NYU more or less admits that:
“Panpsychism does suggest that there may well be some level of consciousness everywhere in nature,” Roelofs explained. “Panpsychists all accept dog-consciousness, but some might not want to accept chair-consciousness: they might say that each particle making up the chair is conscious, but it’s not constructed the right way for these to ‘add up’ to anything. Others might think that chairs have consciousness, but of an incredibly diffuse sort: because there’s no brain or nervous system, there’s no order or structure to the chair’s experience, just an undifferentiated blur.”
Ultimately, he added, “The impact of panpsychism isn’t so much to answer these questions, but to suggest continuity: don’t expect to find a discontinuous boundary somewhere between the simplest animal that is conscious and the most complex animal that isn’t.” Roelofs says there isn’t a line that one could draw: “even if some sorts of consciousness are so simple that it’s more useful for us, in practice, to treat them as ‘mindless’, nevertheless the differences are ultimately just matters of degree.”
In the end, it may prove impossible to ever definitively ascertain whether panpsychism holds water.
Well, if it doesn’t answer questions but “suggests continuity” (that is, positing that all matter is conscious), then it cannot form a program for scientific research.
Well, as Sabine Hossenfelder said in the video this morning (see Hili dialogue), if a scientific theory doesn’t help us make progress in understanding the universe, it should be thrown into the bin for the cockatoos to eat. And surely panpsychism is such a theory.
Two more points. In trying to explain why inanimate matter might be conscious, Roelofs produces a classic Deepity (I’ll put it in bold):
“Panpsychists think that thought, reasoning, decision-making, vision and hearing and smell and all of our cognitive complexity: none of those are the same thing as consciousness. Consciousness is just subjectivity, just ‘is there something it’s like to exist right now?’ And so they think it makes sense for consciousness to exist in simple forms without thought, without reasoning, without vision or hearing or smell. A lot of critics think that’s just a mix-up: they think that once you take away thought, reasoning, etc. that’s it, there’s nothing left to talk about.”
I don’t understand what the “subjectivity” of an atom can be: does an atom know “what it’s like to exist right now”? No, “consciousness is just subjectivity” is a Deepity, which sounds good, but when you dig deeper, you find. . . well, empty words.
Finally, the proponents of panpsychism are now pointing out that it may help us live on after death. Many people want that (that’s why there’s Christianity), and if every atom in our brain is conscious, is it beyond possibility that maybe, just maybe, our memories could live on in those molecules? Yes, I know it’s stupid, but here’s what Salon says:
Panpsychism also has radical implications for religions, since so many focus on questions of what happens after we die. It is likely that our brains still comprise the bulk of our identity (so when the neurons which store your memories die, the memories most likely die forever along with them), but panpsychism allows for the possibility that your conscious “self” lives on in some form. It does not even entirely preclude the possibility that we take some of our identity with us; to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick when he directed “The Shining,” the seemingly horrifying prospect of ghosts existing at least means that death is not final.
Fine; let the theologians discuss this, but I reject it since there’s no evidence. The paragraph above is simply porcine shampoo, that is, hogwash.
When the panpsychists start making real progress in understanding consciousness instead of simply positing an infinite regress of the phenomenon, then we can talk.
In this 36-minute episode of Closer to Truth, host Robert Kuhn grills Dan Dennett about his views on consciousness, panpsychism, and artificial intelligence. (Click on screenshot below to hear the episode, though you’ll have to register or use your Facebook account.)
The summary of the episode, assuming this is the only one, is a bit misleading:
Daniel Dennett discusses the nature of consciousness, if consciousness is an illusion, artificial intelligence and virtual immortality, and how he covers all of this in his book, Just Deserts: Debating Free Will, co-authored with Gregg D. Caruso.
In act, there’s no reference to free will or to Dan’s book with Caruso, which I briefly evaluated here.
I won’t summarize this, as most readers like to watch the videos, but will say that Dan takes up—and peremptorily dismisses—the idea of panpsychism, the view that every bit of matter in the Universe, from electrons on up, has a form of consciousness. Dan says this theory is “regressive and unfortunate” but “just what one should expect” in a world where “You gotta be different; you gotta have your own theory, so lots of young philosophers are trying to figure out what radical thesis might springboard them into notoriety, which is a path to fame.”
He further characterizes panpsychism as “almost embarrassing” because it doesn’t explain anything at all. In the end, he says it’s not even a theory but “a labored definition of mentality or consciousness.”
Kuhn then asks Dan to explain why he, Dennett, considers consciousness an illusion, and I think Dan’s answer is too quick in this short video to be fully comprehended, but has to do with a collections of neurons collaborating to give an illusion of a single decider, with the whole business having evolved to give us “self control.”
The rest of the conversation is about whether one could download consciousness, or back it up at night, and, if so, what would be the implications. There’s talk of zombies, artificial intelligence, and so on, but, sadly, not a peep about free will.
I’ve had my differences with Dan, especially about free will, but there’s no denying that the guy is a force—a really smart philosopher who has the chops to make his ideas intelligible to the public. And he clearly hasn’t slowed with age. And despite out differences, we both agree that panpsychism is “not even a theory”, but a desperate attempt for its adherents to get attention by standing apart from the pack.
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.
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.
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!
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.