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.
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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.