Sabine Hossenfelder on consciousness and the collapse of the wave function

November 20, 2022 • 12:10 pm

In the video below, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder deals with the deeply weird nature of quantum mechanics—in this case, can human consciousness cause collapse of the wave function? This is connected with famous experiments like the “double slit experiment” or the Gedankenexperiment of Schrödinger’s cat—scenarios where the apparent outcome of a study depends on whether someone is looking at it and measuring the outcomes. For example, if you let photons from a single source go through two slits in a plate, and don’t observe which slit they go through, they form an interference pattern on a screen on the other side, implying that light is a wave, and is going through both slits at once. But if you put a detector at each slit, observing which one each photon goes through, you now get a mirror of the two-slit pattern on the screen: the photons go through one slit and not both. The results, then,  differ depending on whether you’re looking and measuring. As Wikipedia notes:

The double-slit experiment (and its variations) has become a classic for its clarity in expressing the central puzzles of quantum mechanics. Because it demonstrates the fundamental limitation of the ability of the observer to predict experimental results, Richard Feynman called it “a phenomenon which is impossible […] to explain in any classical way, and which has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In reality, it contains the only mystery [of quantum mechanics].

This kind of result has deeply troubled physicists for years, for it implies that our own brains somehow influence quantum physics and the behavior of particles. How can that be? As Sabine says, if consciousness can do that, it must have physical effects on reality, which doesn’t seem tenable. (The idea also leads to all kinds of quantum hokum à la Deepakity.) And would the consciousness of a worm suffice? How can the nature of reality depend on whether someone is looking at it? Well, there are many solutions proposed, including the many-worlds hypothesis, but I’ll let you read the book at the bottom to get the full story.

This all derives from a persisting dichotomy in quantum mechanics: is it telling us something about what is real, or only giving us a mathematical analysis that, while it works, doesn’t give us the ability to visualize what’s really going on on the particle level?  Bohr and his famous “Copenhagen interpretation” of QM espoused the latter: the “shut up and calculate” version. Einstein and others believed that there is a fundamental reality to nature that must be graspable by our brains, and is only approximated by quantum mechanics.  Or so I interpret.

At any rate, I found Sabine’s discussion somewhat confusing, mainly because you have to know a bit about quantum mechanics and its history before you can understand her presentation. I did, however, like her dismissal at the end of the video of the Penrose/Hamaroff idea that consciousness doesn’t cause the collapse of the wave function, but rather the opposite: the collapse of the wave function, working on “microtubules”in the brain, is itself responsible for consciousness.  Right now there’s no evidence for this, or for the panpsychism that Hossenfelder also dismisses.

 

I just finished this book, which is really all about the observer effect and whether quantum mechanics tells us something about what is real in the world. It’s not too hard going, and is a fascinating story going from Heisenberg up to modern disputes about the many-worlds hypothesis. And it’s heavily historical, showing how the charisma and intelligence of Neils Bohr all but shut down the debate for many decades. Of all the books on quantum mechanics that I’ve read, this is the clearest, and the one that best describes the disputes over what QM means. I recommend it highly. Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site.

(h/t Steve)

Brian Greene: We don’t have free will: one idea in a wide-ranging book

July 8, 2022 • 9:20 am

Physicist Brian Greene published the book below in 2020, and it appears to cover, well, just about everything from the Big Bang to consciousness, even spiritually and death. Click image to go to the Amazon site:

Some of the book’s topics are covered in the interview below, and its breadth reminds me of Sean Carroll’s book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. I’ve read Sean’s book, which was good (though I did disagree with his free-will compatibilism), but I haven’t yet read Greene’s. If you have, weigh in below.

I’ll try to be brief, concentrating on Greene’s view of free will, which is that we don’t have it, we’re subject only to the laws of physics, and our idea of free will is an illusion stemming from our sense that we have a choice. The interview with Greene is in, oddly, the July 1 issue of Financial Review, and is paywalled, but our library got me a copy. (Judicious inquiry may yield you one, too.) You might be able to access it one time by clicking below, but otherwise ask or rely on my excerpts:

Greene also dwells on the fact that we’re the only creatures that know that we’re going to die, an idea that, he says, is “profoundly distressing” and in fact conditions a lot of human behavior. More on that below. Here are a few topics from the interview:

Free will:  Although Greene, as I recall, has floated a form of compatibilism before (i.e., our behaviors are subject to natural laws and that’s all; we can’t have done otherwise by volition at any given moment, but we still have free will), this time he appears to be a rock-hard determinist, which I like because I’m one, too. Excerpt from the interview are indented:

What’s more, beyond thoughts of death, my colleagues, according to Greene, are mistaken in their belief they are making their own choices to change their lives. Thoughts and actions, he argues, are interactions between elementary particles, which are bound by the immutable laws of mathematics. In other words, your particles are doing their thing; we are merely followers.

“I am a firm believer,” he says, “that we are nothing but physical objects with a high degree of order [remember these words, “high degree of order” – we’ll circle back to that], allowing us to have behaviours that are quite wondrous, allowing us to think and feel and engage with the world. But our underlying ingredients – the particles themselves – are completely, and always, governed by the law of physics.”

“Free will is the sensation of making a choice. The sensation is real, but the choice seems illusory. Laws of physics determine the future.”

So then, free will does not stand up against our understanding of how the universe works.

“I don’t even know what it would mean to have free will,” he adds, “We would have to somehow intercede in the laws of physics to affect the motion of our particles. And I don’t know by what force we would possibly be able to do that.”

Do you and I have no more options than say, a fish, in how we respond to the world around us?

“Yes and no,” says Greene. “All living systems, us included, are governed by the laws of physics, but the ways in which our collection of particles can respond to stimuli is much richer. The spectrum of behaviours that our organised structure allows us to engage in is broader than the spectrumof behaviours than a fish or a fly might engage in.”

He’s right, and there’s no attempt, at least in this interview, to be compatibilistic and say, well, we have a form of free will worth wanting. 

Death: From the interview:

“People typically want to brush it off, and say, ‘I don’t dwell on dying, I don’t think about it,”‘ says Greene via Zoom from his home in New York, where he is a professor at Columbia University. “And the fact that we can brush it off speaks to the power of the culture we have created to allow us to triumph over the inevitable. We need to have some means by which we don’t crumble under the weight of knowing that we are mortal.”

. . . Greene believes it is this innate fear of death twinned with our mathematically marching particles that is driving my colleagues to new horizons, and driving my decision to write this story, and your choice to read it, all bolstered by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Greene’s view appears to be that a substantial portion of human behavior is driven by a combination of two things: the “naturalism” that deprives us of free will, combined with our learned (or inborn) knowledge and fear of death. The death part is apparently what, still without our volition, forces us into action. I’m not sure why that’s true, as the explanation’s not in the interview but perhaps it’s in the book. After all, some people argue that if you’re a determinist doomed to eternal extinction, why not just stay in bed all day? Why do anything?  If we do things that don’t enhance our reproduction, it’s because we have big brains and need to exercise and challenge them. Yes, we know we’re mortal, but I’m not sure why this makes me write this website, write books, read, or do science. I do these things because they bring me pleasure. What does mortality have to do with it?

Natural selection:  According to the writer and interviewer Jeff Allen (an art director), Greene thinks that the promulgation of our mortality, as well as much of our communication, comes from storytelling, which has been instilled into our species by natural selection. Things get a bit gnarly here as the interview becomes a bit hard to follow. I’m sure Greene understands natural selection better than Allen, but Greene’s views are filtered through the art director:

Natural selection is well known for driving physical adaptation, yet it also drives behavioural change, including complex human behaviours such as language and even storytelling. Language is a beneficial attribute that helps us as a species succeed, as is the ability to tell stories, which prepare the inexperienced with scenarios that may benefit them in the future.

“Evolution works by tiny differentials in adaptive fitness, over the course of long timescales. That’s all it takes for these behaviours to become entrenched,” says Greene. “Storytelling is like a flight simulator, that safely allows us to prepare ourselves for various challenges we will face in the real world. If we fail in the simulator, we won’t die.”

Darwin’s theory of evolution is one of the recurring themes of Greene’s book.

Note in the first paragraph that evolved language and storytelling “helps us as a species succeed”. That’s undoubtedly true—though I’m yet to be convinced that storytelling is anything more than an epiphenomenon of evolved language—but whatever evolved here was undoubtedly via individual (genic) selection and not species selection. Traits don’t evolve to enable a species to succeed; they evolve (via selection) because they give their bearers a reproductive advantage. I’m sure Greene knows this, but Allen balls things up by throwing in “species success”.

Consciousness: If you’re tackling the Big Issues that deal with both philosophy and science, it’s consciousness, defined by Greene (and I) as both self-awareness and the presence of qualia, or subjective sensations (Greene calls it “inner experience”).  I’ve written about this a lot, and don’t propose to do more here. We have consciousness, we don’t know how it works, but it’s certainly a physical property of our brains and bodies that can be manipulated by physical interventions. The two issues bearing on Greene’s piece are where it came from and how will we figure out how it works. (Greene implicitly rejects panpsychism by asking “”How can particles that in themselves do not have any awareness, yield this seemingly new quality?”. That will anger Philip Goff and his coterie of panpsychists.)

I’m not sure about the answer to either., We may never know whether consciousness is an epiphenomenon of having a big brain or is partly the result of natural selection promoting the evolution of consciousness. I suspect it’s partly the latter, since many of our “qualia” are adaptive.  Feeling pain is an aversive response that protects us from bodily damage; people who lack the ability to feel pain usually accumulate substantial injuries. And many things that give us pleasure, like orgasms, do so because they enhance our reproduction. But this is just speculation.

Greene also thinks that natural selection has something to do with human consciousness, but it’s not clear from the following whether he sees consciousness as an epiphenomenon of our big brain and its naturalistic physical properties, or whether those properties were molded by natural selection because consciousness enhanced our reproduction:

“My gut feeling,” says Greene, “Is that the final answer will be the Darwinian story. Where collections of particles come together in a certain kind of organised high order ‘brain’, that brain is able to have particle motions that yield self-awareness. But it’s still a puzzle at this moment.”

Where Green and I differ is in what kind of work might yield the answer to how consciousness comes about. Greene thinks it will come from work on AI, while I think it will come, if it ever does, from neurological manipulations. Greene:

“That’s perhaps the deepest puzzle we face,” says Greene. “How can particles that in themselves do not have any awareness, yield this seemingly new quality? Where does inner experience come from?”

Greene’s suspicion is that this problem will go away once we start to build artificial systems, that can convincingly claim to have inner awareness. “We will come to a place where we realise that when you have this kind of organisation, awareness simply arises.”

In June this year, Google engineer Blake Lemoine said an AI he was working on, named LaMDA (Language Models for Dialogue Applications), got very chatty and even argued back.

I suppose this is a version of the Turing test, but it will be very, very hard to determine if an AI bot has “inner awareness”.  Hell, I don’t even know if my friends are conscious, since it depends on self-report! Can you believe any machine that says it has “inner experiences”?

With that speculation I’ll move on. Greene also muses on the origin and fate of the universe, and whether it might “restart” after it collapses, but cosmology is above my pay grade, and I’ll leave you to read about that yourself.

h/t: Ginger K.

Dan Dennett discusses consciousness tonight in a “Munk Debate”; starts in 20 minutes

March 17, 2022 • 6:38 pm

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.Simply click on the link below just before 8 pm ET to watch:https://munkdebates.com/dialogues/daniel-dennett

According to Google, this post will go up at about 7:40 ET, so you have twenty minutes to prepare. Enjoy, because I can’t! Oh, and let me know how it went.

Panpsychism again?

November 19, 2021 • 12:00 pm

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.

Do electrons behave differently when they’re in brains? Sean Carroll takes Philip Goff apart on panpsychism

November 12, 2021 • 9:15 am

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.

h/t: Paul

John Horgan: a proud agnostic

August 21, 2021 • 12:00 pm

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.

Horgan ends his piece by saying this:

I’m definitely a skeptic. I doubt we’ll ever know whether God exists, what quantum mechanics means, how matter makes mind. These three puzzles, I suspect, are different aspects of a single, impenetrable mystery at the heart of things. But one of the pleasures of agnosticism—perhaps the greatest pleasure—is that I can keep looking for answers and hoping that a revelation awaits just over the horizon.

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.

Sean M. Carroll shows that panpsychism is unlikely and unnecessary

July 26, 2021 • 11:00 am

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.

Panpsychism hangs around like a bad penny

July 25, 2021 • 12:00 pm

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.

 

h/t: Tim

Dennett on consciousness and other stuff

June 16, 2021 • 2:15 pm

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.

h/t: Paul

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: