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:

Joyce Carol Oates eulogizes her late husband in a science journal

December 11, 2020 • 11:30 am

This is a first, I think: a major literary figure writing a piece in a science journal. The award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates was married to distinguished neurobiologist Charlie Gross for a decade—until Charlie died in 2019. (They both taught at Princeton.) I met them at the Great New Yorker Cat vs. Dog Debate in 2014, where Joyce was on Team Cat, and had dinner with them afterwards at the Union Square Cafe. They were clearly deeply connected, and I remember that dinner fondly.

I’ve kept in touch with Joyce ever since, and know how devastated she was when Charlie passed away. She told me how, like me, Charlie was addicted to travel, especially to Antarctica, and also loved photography. She added that she was more of a homebody, but went with him on some of his trips.

This is recounted in a lovely new memorial that Joyce wrote for Charlie in Progress in Neurobiology—in a special issue devoted to him. Hers is a short piece, highlighting Charlie’s photos from around the world and connecting his vocation with his avocation.

I’ll give an excerpt and show a few of his photos. You can read the piece for free by clicking on the screenshot (if the link doesn’t work, a judicious inquiry will yield a pdf):

An excerpt:

If the world is essentially a mystery, research scientists are investigators, explorers, pilgrims, even at times mystics; “scientific method” is the crucial tool, but the motive underlying the pursuit of intransigent truth in a world of shifting illusions and delusions is likely to be deep-rooted in the personality, as the motives for art are deep-rooted, essentially unknowable. The research scientist, like the writer and artist, is not satisfied with surfaces—the “superficial”; the comprehension of underlying principles and laws are the goal.

Neuroscience dares to address the most basic of all questions involving life: what is the neural basis of behavior? how can it possibly be that out of molecules, ions, and nerve cells somehow there emerges the vast richness of human consciousness and experience? It isn’t an accident that Charlie Gross spent most of his professional life exploring vision in the cerebral cortex. He was never more fiercely concentrated in thought—(if indeed it was “thinking” that so absorbed him)—than when he was taking photographs, and afterward working with the digital images he’d captured. Out of the raw image, what “meaning” can be discovered? The camera lens radically narrows the visual field into an aesthetically satisfying form because it is limited, reduced; “coherence” is created out of a chaos of impressions that without the camera lens lack focus and meaning. Surely there is some fundamental analogy here with the mechanisms of the eye—the visual cortex.

. . . Charlie and I were married in March 2009 and in the decade we spent together traveled widely—to Spain, Italy and the Greek Islands, Capri, Corsica, Dubrovnik, Galapagos and Ecuador, Australia, and Bali as well as, more frequently, to London, Paris, Rome, and (his favorite) Venice. We spent time in the most scenic parts of California—Berkeley, Humboldt State Redwood Park, Big Sur; we visited many National Parks—Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Yosemite. To all these places Charlie brought his photography equipment and spent many hours taking pictures, ideally at dawn. He was exacting and patient; he could wait a long time for a perfect combination of landscape, sky, and light. His work is surpassingly beautiful — not a consequence of accident but design. Though Charlie did not “photoshop” his work, he spent much time selecting images he wanted to make permanent. He was a serious artist of beauty but he did not theorize —he followed his intuition.

For the article Joyce selected nine photos “that are most abstract and apolitical—indeed, ahistorical—in their beauty; and those set in the West, which he loved and had visited many times.” Three of them are below— and one of Charlie as well.

Go to the article to read more about Charlie and photography, and to see more of his work.

Bryce Canyon at twilight:

Yosemite. A Magritte-like boulder suggestive of a glacier or a dream image seems to push through the surface of the water in this Yosemite scene:


Charlie in Antarctica, photo by Rowena Gross:

Panpsychism hangs around like an unwanted guest

October 27, 2020 • 10:40 am

I’ve written a fair few critical posts about panpsychism, the idea that the “hard problem of consciousness” is solved by positing that all matter in the Universe is conscious. Advocates of panpsychism say that understanding consciousness in an organism like humans is impossible with present approaches, for figuring out how the feeling of “subjective experience”, or “qualia” can never be accomplished by simple mechanistic study and manipulation of biological features like neurons. Panpsychists reject a correlational approach—that if we have a complete picture of what structures have to be there for an organism to experience consciousness, we’ve solved the problem. It maddens them that this, in fact, is the way neuroscientists are approaching the problem.

Instead, they “solve” the problem by saying that all matter, from electrons on up, has a form of consciousness, and so—problem solved—humans are conscious because all the matter in their bodies and brains are conscious. But this raises two issues. First, how does the rudimentary consciousness of electrons, atoms, and molecules combine in a human to create a much more sophisticated kind of consciousness? This is known as the “combination problem.” Advocates of panpsychism, including Philip Goff—an assistant professor of philosophy at Durham University—have no solution to this problem.  (Yes, I read his book on panpsychism and found it deeply flawed.)

Further, the claim that inanimate objects like electrons, rocks, and spoons have a form of consciousness is untestable in any way I can see, and so the theory is a non-explanation: a kind of metaphysical claim that will lead nowhere, even as neuroscientists beaver happily away, figuring out what is required for consciousness and its sub-bits.

Nevertheless, every time I write about panpsychism, or post about it on Twitter, I get a passel of enraged advocates who tell me that it’s a great theory and I misunderstand it. My answer is this: no, it’s a crappy theory and I don’t misunderstand it. For some reason, perhaps because of its numinous, almost dualistic aspect, it attracts a certain kind of person—the kind of person who worships quacks like Rupert Sheldrake and Deepak Chopra.

But I won’t psychologize further; this post is to point out that neuroscientist Anil Seth went after panpsychism over two years ago on NeuroBanter, as well as more recently.  I had missed this earlier critique, but it’s short and sweet, and is still absolutely relevant since panpsychism, being untestable, has not progressed since then. 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.” You can read his critique by clicking on the screenshot below:

I’ll give a few quotes and then move on. Re the claim of people like Goff that panpsychism is getting more attention lately, Seth says this, referring to” a recent piece by Olivia Goldhill in Quartz with the provocative title: ‘The idea that everything from spoons to stones are conscious is gaining academic credibility’ (Quartz, Jan 27, 2018).

Goldhill’s article is about panpsychism, which is the idea that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, present to some degree everywhere and in everything. Her article suggests that this view is becoming increasingly acceptable and accepted in academic circles, as so-called ‘traditional’ approaches (materialism and dualism) continue to struggle. On the contrary, although it’s true that panpsychism is being discussed more frequently and more openly these days, it remains very much a fringe proposition within consciousness science and is not taken seriously by many. Nor need it be, since consciousness science is getting along just fine without it. Let me explain how.

He then explains how “consciousness scientists” are going about their work without a nod to panpsychism. As Laplace supposedly said about God, “We have no need of that hypothesis.”

But consciousness science has largely moved on from attempts to address the hard problem (though see IIT, below). This is not a failure, it’s a sign of maturity. Philosophically, the hard problem rests on conceivability arguments such as the possibility of imagining a philosophical ‘zombie’ – a behaviourally and perhaps physically identical version of me, or you, but which lacks any conscious experience, which has no inner universe. Conceivability arguments are generally weak since they often rest on failures of imagination or knowledge, rather than on insights into necessity. For example: the more I know about aerodynamics, the less I can imagine a 787 Dreamliner flying backwards. It cannot be done and such a thing is only ‘conceivable’ through ignorance about how wings work.

In practice, scientists researching consciousness are not spending their time (or their scarce grant money) worrying about conscious spoons, they are getting on with the job of mapping mechanistic properties (of brains, bodies, and environments) onto properties of consciousness. These properties can be described in many different ways, but include – for example – differences between normal wakeful awareness and general anaesthesia; experiences of identifying with and owning a particular body, or distinctions between conscious and unconscious visual perception. If you come to the primary academic meeting on consciousness science – the annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC) – or read articles either in specialist journals like Neuroscience of Consciousness (I edit this, other journals are available) or in the general academic literature, you’ll find a wealth of work like this and very little – almost nothing – on panpsychism. You’ll find debates on the best way to test whether prefrontal cortex is involved in visual metacognition – but you won’t find any experiments on whether stones are aware. This, again, is maturity, not stagnation. It is also worth pointing out that consciousness science is having increasing impact in medicine, whether through improved methods for detecting residual awareness following brain injury, or via enhanced understanding of the mechanisms underlying psychiatric illness. Thinking about conscious spoons just doesn’t cut it in this regard.

Seth talks a lot about “integrated information theory” as panpsychists’ way of asserting that consciousness is inherent (in a narrowly defined way) in matter, but that claim is highly technical and I’ll let you read about it yourself. Instead, here’s his take on why an “explanation” of consciousness in scientific terms may be unsatisfying, just as an explanation of quantum uncertainty may be unsatisfying (“that’s just the way it is”), but at least it counts as an explanation. (Correct explanations may not seem emotionally or intuitively satisfying to us.):

. . . people often seem to expect more from a science of consciousness than they would ask of other scientific explanations. As long as we can formulate explanatorily rich relations between physical mechanisms and phenomenological properties, and as long as these relations generate empirically testable predictions which stand up in the lab (and in the wild), we are doing just fine. Riding behind many criticisms of current consciousness science are unstated intuitions that a mechanistic account of consciousness should be somehow intuitively satisfying, or even that it must allow some kind of instantiation of consciousness in an arbitrary machine. We don’t make these requirements in other areas of science, and indeed the very fact that we instantiate phenomenological properties ourselves, might mean that a scientifically satisfactory account of consciousness will never generate the intuitive sensation of ‘ah yes, this is right, it has to be this way’. (Thomas Metzinger makes this point nicely in a recent conversation with Sam Harris.)

Metzinger’s discussion is apparently over 3 hours long (oy!), but you can hear 50 minutes of it at the link.

Finally, the Big Problem with panpsychism:

This leads us to the main problem with panpsychism. It’s not that it sounds crazy, it’s that it cannot be tested. It does not lead to any feasible programme of experimentation. Progress in scientific understanding requires experiments and testability.

As Seth notes, panpsychism is often justified because big names like Arthur Eddington, as well as influential figures like neuroscientist Christof Koch, have favored panpsychism. But even though these people made big contributions to science, panpsychism isn’t made any more credible just because some famous scientists have pushed the theory. In the end, we need data and we need testability—and those things we ain’t got.

I’ve quoted a lot here, as I have little to add to what I’ve said before, but I’ll argue again that the current penchant for panpsychism, which seems to me more a religion than an adherence to science (after all, there is some scientific underpinning to as-yet-untestable theories like string theory, while panpsychism is a form of assertion that didn’t come from science), is baffling. Perhaps its adherents really do believe it instead of glomming onto it to carve themselves out a niche in neuroscience, but we needn’t pay them any heed until they tell us how to test whether spoons are conscious. The last word goes to Seth:

At the end of her piece, Goldhill quotes Chalmers quoting the philosopher John Perry who says: “If you think about consciousness long enough, you either become a panpsychist or you go into administration.” Perhaps the problem lies in only thinking. We should instead complement only thinking with the challenging empirical work of explaining properties of consciousness in terms of biophysical mechanisms. Then we can say: If you work on consciousness long enough, you either become a neuroscientist or you become a panpsychist. I know where I’d rather be – with my many colleagues who are not worrying about conscious spoons but who are trying, and little-by-little succeeding, in unravelling the complex biophysical mechanisms that shape our subjective experiences of world and self. And now it’s high time I got back to that paper on training synaesthesia.

UPDATE: I found that Goff published a response to Seth’s piece (and to another piece) called “The problem with materialism and the explanatory power of panpsychism: A more considered response to Seth and Mitchell.” As the title suggests, it’s explicitly nonmaterialistic, ergo non-naturalistic. Two quotes; you can read the rest for yourself:

But in my view, the opposition to materialism is rooted in the belief that the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science is ill-suited to the task of capturing the qualities of conscious experience.

Capturing is one thing, understanding is another. And there’s this:

One gets the impression reading Seth’s piece that he thinks anti-materialists are stopping neuroscientists making progress. But in so far as neuroscience is giving us correlations/explanations, it is neutral between materialism, dualism, and panpsychism. The proponents of these views would simply give different philosophical interpretations of the data: the materialist would see the physical states as constituting the conscious states, the dualist would see the physical states as causing the conscious states (in conjunction with basic psycho-physical laws of nature), the panpsychist would see the conscious states as the intrinsic nature of the physical states. In so far as some neuroscientists are trying to reductively explain consciousness, then of course they are pursuing a goal inconsistent with dualism/panpsychism. But a plurality of different theories are pursued in science and philosophy without it being a problem. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

I don’t understand that form of dualism, which seems explicitly naturalistic, and re panpscyhism he uses psychobabble that doesn’t explain anything. “Let a thousand flowers bloom” is not a good mantra when some of the flowers are stinkweeds, like creationism is to the beautiful blossom of evolution. Panpsychism isn’t a flower, for it hasn’t ever blossomed.

A blast from the past

August 22, 2020 • 10:30 am


by Matthew Cobb

About six months ago, in the time before lockdown, I gave a talk about my then new book, The Idea of the Brain, at the Royal Institution in London. About a week later, the country went into lockdown and because the RI staff were furloughed, they could not work on the video. Reader Christopher mailed Jerry last night to tell him that the video was now online – I didn’t know! Anyway, here you are:

The talk was chaired by my pal the science journalist and author Adam Rutherford, who fell ill with covid a couple of days later and is still not fully recovered. Be careful out there. . . 

JAC: The question-and-Answer section of Matthew’s talk has surfaced, and I’m posting it below:

New Scientist touts panpsychism

April 30, 2020 • 2:30 pm

“As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.”
Proverbs 26:11

Matthew sent me a link to this new article in New Scientist. Yes, yet another credulous git has fallen for panpsychism. Click on the screenshot to read just the first three paragraphs (it’s paywalled, though the content of this rag isn’t worth paying for):

Below are the first three paragraphs, touting the panpsychist view that I’ve criticized before: everything in the Universe, right down to electrons, has a form of consciousness. This is supposed to solve the “hard problem” of consciousness: how you get subjective sensations from nerve impulses and brains. How does this crazy suggestion solve it? By sleight of hand: if every constituent of the Universe is conscious, then when you build a nervous system and mind out of atoms and molecules, it will be EVEN MORE CONSCIOUS! Because its constituents are conscious, so it must be too—big time!

Isn’t that delightful? In this U.S. we call this a “carny trick”.

From New Pseudoscientist:

THEY call it the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. Physicist Eugene Wigner coined the phrase in the 1960s to encapsulate the curious fact that merely by manipulating numbers we can describe and predict all manner of natural phenomena with astonishing clarity, from the movements of planets and the strange behaviour of fundamental particles to the consequences of a collision between two black holes billions of light years away. Now, some are wondering if maths can succeed where all else has failed, unravelling whatever it is that allows us to contemplate the laws of nature in the first place.

It is a big ask. The question of how matter gives rise to felt experience is one of the most vexing problems we know of. And sure enough, the first fleshed-out mathematical model of consciousness has generated huge debate about whether it can tell us anything sensible. But as mathematicians work to hone and extend their tools for peering deep inside ourselves, they are confronting some eye-popping conclusions.

Not least, what they are uncovering seems to suggest that if we are to achieve a precise description of consciousness, we may have to ditch our intuitions and accept that all kinds of inanimate matter could be conscious – maybe even the universe as a whole. “This could be the beginning of a scientific revolution,” says Johannes Kleiner, a mathematician at the Munich Centre for Mathematical Philosophy in Germany.

If some hapless reader wants to ferret out the rest of the article and read it, be my guest. I would bet a substantial sum that “doing the maths” does not show that the Universe is conscious. How could it? Only empirical investigation could possibly show that.

When I asked Matthew why so many apparently smart people believe in this palaver, he simply drew four capital “S”s with vertical lines through them and then made a pungent remark about how it’s garbage but it sells.

Panpsychism is quack philosophy, and New Scientist is the National Enquirer of science.


Five laudatory reviews of Matthew’s book

April 23, 2020 • 9:00 am

Matthew’s new book about the history of research on the brain is now out in both the UK and the US (Amazon links provided). I read it in advance and blurbed it; it’s very good.

I’m not alone in my opinion, as the first five reviews that I know of all praise the book unstintingly. Links below:

1). New Statesman, review by Henry Marsh, brain surgeon and author.
Money quote: “an intellectual tour de force, and a brilliant demonstration of how a historical approach is often the best way of explaining difficult scientific problems… I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.”

2.) Science, review by Alex Gomez-Martin, researcher at the Instituto de Neurociencias (CSIC-UMH), Alicante, Spain
Money quote“Cobb’s erudition and engaging writing style take us on an enthralling journey”

3). Wall Street Journal, review by Carol Tavris, social psychologist and well known author.  Full review not free online but I can send you a pdf.
Money quote: “The Idea of the Brain” is “elegant… engrossing… clear and lively… The reader will come away from this illuminating history of thinking about the brain with a renewed appreciation of the task that remains.

4.) Science News, review by Laura Sanders, neuroscience writer and journalist.
Money quote: “a fascinating tour of how concepts of the brain have morphed over time. His writing is clear, thoughtful and, when called for, funny.”

5.) Scientific American, on list of “Recommended books” by Andrea Gawrylewski.
Money quote: “If you know nothing about neuroscience and need to get up to speed fast, don’t go out and buy an “Idiot’s Guide.” Instead try this brilliant offering, in which zoologist and science historian Cobb dives into the fundamentals—and the frontiers—of our understanding of the brain.”

Well, what are you waiting for? I told you it was good!

A new BBC video on free will

March 23, 2020 • 11:30 am

The BBC has just begun a video series on free will, and, thanks to reader Tom C., I got a link to part 1 of 3. The BBC’s notes are these:

There are many forces behind our everyday decisions. In a three part series we look at the hidden powers behind the choices we make.

Part one of three looks at the neuroscience behind our understanding of free will.

A series by Melissa Hogenboom and Pierangelo Pirak

Click on the screenshot to watch the 8½-minute clip, which isn’t bad, though it’s a bit confusing in places, as when describing experiments of “readiness potential” in non-choice situations.

Also, the language in places is a bit misleading or confusing as well, as when the Asian researcher (not named) says, “I want to argue that internal virtual-reality of our imagination is where free will is really active. It’s not picking, as in the Libet test, but it’s really an issue of choosing consequential decisions.”

That seems like obfuscation, and doesn’t even include a definition of “free will”, unless you think that decisions that are consequential involve free will by definition, while “minor decisions”, like what to buy at the grocery store, don’t involve “free will”.  That’s not very enlightening, is somewhat tautological, and doesn’t at all comport with what most people think of as free will. The one nod to the importance of the definition in deciding whether we have free will is well articulated by the woman speaking at 7:30.

I see that the second part is up, too, but I’ll deal with that later.

An extract from Matthew’s new book

February 27, 2020 • 9:45 am

In a comment on this morning’s Hili post, reader “Snake” called attention to the publication in today’s Guardian of “The Long Read”, which happens to be a nice big extract from Matthew’s new book, The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience. The book will be out March 12 in the UK and April 21 in the U.S. Here’s the U.S. version (click to go to Amazon site):

As I said before, I read the book in galleys and recommend it highly. It’s a history of ideas about how the brain works, starting from the ancient Greeks and proceeding on to today. It’s more a history of science combined with science than a pure scientific discussion about the brain. It turns out that at each period of time, scientists derived their ideas about how the brain works from their contemporary technology, ergo the title of the extract below.

And, as Matthew notes, we still know very little about the brain works, though he’s convinced that knowledge will accrue slowly. He also has no patience for panpsychism—the idea that consciousness is somehow inherent in each particle of matter rather than a phenomenon that arises when the brain reaches a certain level of complexity.

Here’s my blurb on Amazon (it’s on the cover too):

“In this engrossing book, Matthew Cobb deftly recounts the tortuous history of research on the brain, in which researchers pursue the hard problems of memory, consciousness, and volition, always limited by forced comparisons between human brains and the machines available at the time. A work of history and deep scholarship, but written in an engaging and lively way, The Idea of the Brain is optimistic about the recursive attempts of our brains to understand themselves, yet reminds us that the three most important words in science are, ‘We don’t know.'”―Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True

Read the extract by clicking on the screenshot below. I’ll give just one brief bit:

This is in fact the last paragraph of the book. I like the last one-word sentence:

There are many alternative scenarios about how the future of our understanding of the brain could play out: perhaps the various computational projects will come good and theoreticians will crack the functioning of all brains, or the connectomes will reveal principles of brain function that are currently hidden from us. Or a theory will somehow pop out of the vast amounts of imaging data we are generating. Or we will slowly piece together a theory (or theories) out of a series of separate but satisfactory explanations. Or by focusing on simple neural network principles we will understand higher-level organisation. Or some radical new approach integrating physiology and biochemistry and anatomy will shed decisive light on what is going on. Or new comparative evolutionary studies will show how other animals are conscious and provide insight into the functioning of our own brains. Or unimagined new technology will change all our views by providing a radical new metaphor for the brain. Or our computer systems will provide us with alarming new insight by becoming conscious. Or a new framework will emerge from cybernetics, control theory, complexity and dynamical systems theory, semantics and semiotics. Or we will accept that there is no theory to be found because brains have no overall logic, just adequate explanations of each tiny part, and we will have to be satisfied with that. Or –

Muddled philosopher: Consciousness could not have evolved

February 7, 2020 • 10:30 am

Here’s another philosopher who’s wrecked himself on the shoals of reason and logic when trying to deal with consciousness. Not all philosophers screw up when discussing issues of neuroscience, of course (Patricia Churchland and Dan Dennett are among those who are pretty much on the mark), but so often many of them simply look ridiculous, at least to scientists, when they tell us what could be true and what cannot be true. Today’s article, by a philosopher who maintains that consciousness could not have evolved, is a prime example.

The nescience is on view in an article from iai (The Institute of Art and Ideas) that’s wrong in almost every way that it could be (i.e., it’s “not even wrong”). The author, Bernardo Kastrup, is identified as a “Dutch computer scientist and philosopher who has published fundamental theoretical reflections on the mind matter problem.” Click on the screenshot to read (and weep):

Kastrup’s thesis is that consciousness could not have evolved. His alternative view of why it exists seems to be panpsychism: consciousness was always there as a “fact of nature”. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s Kastrup’s train of logic from the article:

1.) Evolution is a materialistic process.

2.) The salient characteristic of materialism is that all entities “are defined and exhaustively characterized in purely quantitative terms”.

3.) Consciousness cannot be characterized in quantitative terms: it is a qualitative and subjective property manifested by qualia: the sensations that inhere in “consciousness” like (classic example) “what it is like to see red” or “what it feels like to hear a Vivaldi sonata.”

4.) Ergo consciousness is not explainable by materialism.

5.) Materialism must therefore not be a universal explanatory schema for understanding nature; as Kastrup says, “Our very sentience contradicts materialism.”

6.) Because experience or qualia are not “materialistic” phenomena, they “cannot have a function under materialism”. Therefore, “It must make no difference to the survival fitness of an organism whether the data processing taking pace in its brain is accompanied by experience or not.” [JAC: note that natural selection is about reproduction, not survival itself].

7.) Therefore, qualia and consciousness could not have evolved by natural selection.

Let’s take these up one by one, but first let me dispose of contention #7 first. Traits can evolve but need not have evolved by natural selection. They could be byproducts (“spandrels”) of other traits that were selected, like the red color of our blood that’s simply the color of hemoglobin, or they could have been “neutral” traits that came to predominate by random genetic drift (much evolution of DNA sequences is of this sort). Or they could even be detrimental, rising in frequency in small populations despite counterselection (the high frequency of genetic diseases in small populations is likely due to this).  Many scientists think, for instance, that consciousness may not have been selected for directly, but is simply an epiphenomenon—a byproduct that appears when neurological complexity reaches a certain level. Our ability to play chess or do advanced mathematics, for example, are epiphenomena of this type, for they certainly weren’t objects of selection. They were things that became possible when our brains got sufficiently large and complex.

So the first error we find is that Kastrup conflates evolution with natural selection.

And if consciousness is either a spandrel, a byproduct of neutral evolution, or the direct object of selection, it is still a property of our brains, for there are many experiments and studies showing that consciousness can be affected or removed or altered by manipulating our brains. If this be true, then consciousness must have evolved one way or another, even if not by selection. But Kastrup thinks that not only is materialism untrue when it comes to consciousness, but also that consciousness is not a property of a sufficiently complex brain, or even of organic matter; rather it is a property of all of nature. While he’s not explicit, he seems to be adhering to panpsychism, the view that all matter—even electrons—have a rudimentary form of consciousness that in some unexplained way becomes a “higher” form of consciousness when enough matter piles on top of each other. Panpsychists think that rocks, dirt, and stars are conscious in some way. They’re nuts.

Back to the contentions, taken in the order above:

1.) Yep, evolution is a materialistic process, though I prefer the word “naturalistic” because “material” implies “stuff”, and lots of nature, like gravity, isn’t “stuff.”

2.) Kastrup is dead wrong that materialism requires all entities to be measurable. Here’s a question: do you have a liver? The answer is based not on measurement, but on observation. I have never heard a definition of “materialism” that requires quantitative measurement, but that’s Kastrup’s definition and it seems to be one he’s confected to rule out consciousness as a material phenomenon, or the result of a material phenomenon. Unfortunately, he rules out a lot of material phenomena that can’t be quantified as well, like “love”. (I’ll let readers quibble about that one.)

Here, for instance is the definition of “physicalism” (which is said to be the same as “materialism”) from authoritative Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (my emphasis):

Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical. The thesis is usually intended as a metaphysical thesis, parallel to the thesis attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, that everything is water, or the idealism of the 18th Century philosopher Berkeley, that everything is mental. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical. Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.

That seems pretty accurate, especially with “supervene on the physical” at the end (for that is what consciousness is), and it says nothing about quantitative characterization. 

Kastrup’s definition of “materialism” is bogus.

3.) It’s not just human consciousness that is the “hard problem” because we find it difficult to characterize. Any sensation in animals, be they bacteria or humans, involves some sort of qualia. For example, what does it “feel like” to the crustacean Daphnia to detect a predatory fish in its pond? We know that Daphnia can detect fish, and some species respond by growing spines to deter predators. And we may even work out the entire pathway of detection and developmental response. But we might be able to do that for consciousness in humans as well! As Patricia Churchland has pointed out, once we work out the pathway that leads to a particular sensation that we can detect (and granted, detection is hard—but not impossible—with human consciousness), then the Hard Problem goes away. We have understood consciousness and qualia, and no further effort is required (see here). As Churchland wrote:

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

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

4.) Ergo, it’s way premature to say that consciousness can’t be explained by materialism (see Churchland here as well). We already have lots of evidence that consciousness and qualia are in fact phenomena requiring a materialistic brain, and that manipulating that brain can change or efface consciousness. Science is making progress on the problem, and those like Kastrup who assert that this or that problem can never be explained by science are showing their ignorance of the history of science.

5.) I’ve already addressed the claim that materialism can’t explain sentience. That is a “panpsychism of the gaps” argument.

6.) I have no idea whether consciousness is a direct product of natural selection or a byproduct of selection on features like our brain. It could be a direct adaptation or it could be a spandrel. We may never know the answer. But if it does supervene on our physical brain, as the evidence clearly shows, then it has evolved, for our physical brain has evolved.

I can in fact think of ways that subjective sensation could be adaptive and increase reproduction, thereby being favored by selection. The feeling of pleasure that comes with orgasm, for example, is a qualium (is that the singular of qualia?). And that pleasure is what drives many people to copulate, so people able to experience that subjective sensation would copulate more often and leave more offspring. If you were able to experience pain, and it hurt, then you might be selected to avoid situations that could damage you and diminish your reproduction. There are many ways one could think of that the experience of qualia, which is consciousness, could be the target of natural selection.

7.) I’ve already refuted this contention as well. Consciousness shows every sign of being a property that supervenes on our brain, and if that’s the case, it evolved. It need not have evolved by direct natural selection—something Kastrup doesn’t seem to have grasped. In contrast to the evidence from neuroscience, Kastrup’s own theory, that nature has consciousness as an innate property, which seems to be a form of panpsychism, has no evidence supporting it. Nor, as some panpsychists say, can there be any evidence, which makes panpsychism like string theory: a hypothesis that can’t be tested—at least in any way we know now.

There is a ton more evidence for the material origin of consciousness than there is for Kastrup’s foolish contention that consciousness “can only have been there from the beginning as an intrinsic, irreducible fact of nature.” There is, as I said, not an iota of evidence for that claim.

Katrup’s piece is weak, poorly argued, and rests on a logical chain whose center (and edges) cannot hold. The sad part is that it may appeal to those who haven’t read the philosophical arguments against his position, and are also unaware of the data from neuroscience showing that qualia and consciousness are intimately connected with the brain—that they supervene on the physical.

Another philosopher embarrasses himself in public, and you don’t have to be a professional philosopher to see through his arguments.


h/t: Several readers sent me this article, so thanks to you all.

The weirdness of split-brain experiments

January 16, 2020 • 10:15 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Conscious:

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

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

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

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

Off to dine with Pinkah!