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

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.

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

May 28, 2020 • 9:00 am

I continue to be baffled by the presence and lucubrations of apparently sentient people who claim that consciousness inheres in all matter, from electrons to us. This view that everything (including the Universe itself) is conscious is called panpsychism, and I’ve written about it at length.

Why is this cockeyed theory so popular? Because it purports to solve the “hard problem” of consciousness—the “problem” of understanding how events in our environment are perceived by our senses and than translated into “qualia,” or subjective sensation. My view (and that of philosophers like Patricia Churchland) is that once we understand the mechanism of how this works—all the neural correlates of having various qualia—then the hard problem disappears. Or rather, it’s a pseudo-problem.

But that’s not sufficient for the panpsychists. They say that correlation is not understanding, and seek some deeper understanding. But the “deeper understanding” always seems to enter the murky swamp of philoso-babble, leaving science behind.

Panpsychism is a supposedly naturalistic attempt to solve the hard problem, but it does so by sleight of hand: by assering that all matter is conscious, even electrons, rocks, and stars.  And when you combine enough atoms and molecules, each with a rudimentary consciousness, then presto!, you get the higher-level consciousness of animals like us.  The sleight of hand is that this is a “turtles all the way down” strategy, and never solves the “combination problem”: how the rudimentary consciousness of many molecules combines in a way to create more complex and sophisticated states of awareness and sensation in humans.

The empirical problem with panpsychism is twofold: it’s an assertion with no evidence to back it up, and there is no way of testing whether it’s true.  But now Tam Hunt praises the theory once again in Nautilus—a site and magazine partly supported by the John Templeton Foundation—and links to his year-old piece in Scientific American where, he claims, there are ways of testing whether nonliving matter has consciousness.

We met Tam Hunt nine years ago, when he was touting what I called “stealth creationism”, a claim that neo-Darwinism was grossly inaccurate, espousing instead a teleological view that, among other things, was panpsychist:

. . . . mind and thus purpose are inherent in all of nature – but extremely rudimentary in most cases. However, as matter complexifies in macromolecules like amino acids (which form spontaneously in many situations), this innate mind and purpose starts to play an increasingly significant role in evolution. It is, thus, a bootstrapping process that has no end in sight. . .

Below (click on screenshot) is Hunt’s new article at Nautilus, where he pushes panpsychism and also links to an article where he outlines some possible tests of the hypothesis. Note that in the title he claims that electrons may “very well be conscious.” That implies a degree of certainty that’s simply not warranted by the evidence. In fact, there is no evidence for the consciousness of electrons.

We can first dismiss two of the lines of evidence used repeatedly by Hunt as evidence of panpsychism:

a.) Panpsychism has been around a long time. 

 So why should we think that creatures with brains, like us, are the sole bearers of consciousness? In fact, panpsychism has been around for thousands of years as one of various solutions to the mind-body problem. David Skrbina’s 2007 book, Panpsychism in the West, provides an excellent history of this intellectual tradition.

But of course, so have many false or unevidenced notions, like Christianity and Judaism, as well as even older forms of faith. The durability of an idea has no bearing on its truth. What we need is evidence.

b.) Famous people have been panpsychists or limned the idea.  Hunt names, among others, Alfred North Whitehead, Galen Strawson, David Bohm, and others who have adhered to some form of panpsychism, as well as physicists like Neils Bohr and Freeman Dyson, who have been naturalists but not panpsychists. Hunt likes to argue that naturalism supports panpsychism because in the end, mind is made of matter, and if brains evince consciousness, then, well, so must matter. But that, of course, doesn’t mean that all matter is conscious, any more than it means that all matter is alive even though living beings are made of electrons and other particles. The Argument from Authority and Famous People again doesn’t move me; we need evidence.

Here’s some of Hunt’s argument:

While inanimate matter doesn’t evolve like animate matter, inanimate matter does behave. It does things. It responds to forces. Electrons move in certain ways that differ under different experimental conditions. These types of behaviors have prompted respected physicists to suggest that electrons may have some type of extremely rudimentary mind. For example the late Freeman Dyson, the well-known American physicist, stated in his 1979 book, Disturbing the Universe, that “the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when made by electrons.” Quantum chance is better framed as quantum choice—choice, not chance, at every level of nature. David Bohm, another well-known American physicist, argued similarly: “The ability of form to be active is the most characteristic feature of mind, and we have something that is mind-like already with the electron.”

Many biologists and philosophers have recognized that there is no hard line between animate and inanimate. J.B.S. Haldane, the eminent British biologist, supported the view that there is no clear demarcation line between what is alive and what is not: “We do not find obvious evidence of life or mind in so-called inert matter…; but if the scientific point of view is correct, we shall ultimately find them, at least in rudimentary form, all through the universe.”

Tam further argues that the nature of quantum mechanics itself supports panpsychism, saying things like the following, which borders on the ridiculous (let me replace “borders on the” with “is”):

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, author of the 2018 book Lost in Math, has taken a contrary position. “[I]f you want a particle to be conscious, your minimum expectation should be that the particle can change,” she argued in a post titled “Electrons Don’t Think.” “It’s hard to have an inner life with only one thought. But if electrons could have thoughts, we’d long have seen this in particle collisions because it would change the number of particles produced in collisions.”

Yet “change” means many different things, including position in space over time. What Dyson is getting at in his remark about electrons and quantum theory is that the probabilistic distribution-outcomes of quantum experiments (like the double-slit experiment) are better explained as the product, not of pure chance (another way of saying “we don’t know”), but of numerous highly rudimentary choices by each electron in each moment about where and how to manifest.

Does a rock make such choices, then? If so, why don’t we see rocks moving as well as they choose “where and how to manifest”? “And now I am become Conscious Rock, the Befuddler of Neurology.”

But enough; Tam’s argument is pure panpsychist boilerplate. Where it becomes novel is where it becomes “testable”, or so Tam says. In this year-old article in Scientific American, Tam says (above) that he was trying to transform some philosophical considerations into “a testable set of experiments.” But when you read the piece, you see that what he proposes isn’t testable at all (click on screenshot):

Here he argues that there are three types of correlates of consciousness that we can use to test “inanimate” matter to see if it has consciousness:

Neural correlates.  We can use EEG, fMRI, and other neurological tools to see if a patient is conscious. But of course you can’t use these on electrons or rocks, as they have no neurons!

Behavioral correlates.  Tam uses the example of cats purring, flexing their toes, snuggle when petted, and appearing to show fear and curiosity. To him that’s evidence for consciousness. The response is obvious: you can build robots that show these behaviors, too; in fact, some already exist. Are those robots conscious simply because they show behavior similar to those of organisms we think are conscious? Not in my view!

Creative correlates. I’ll let Tam describe this one:

Creative output is another source of information for assessing the presence of consciousness. If for whatever reason we can’t examine neural or behavioral correlates of consciousness, we may be able to examine the creative products of consciousness for clues.

For example, when we examine ancient architectural structures such as Stonehenge or cave paintings in Europe that have been judged to be as much as 65,000 years old, are we reasonable in judging the creators of these items to be conscious in ways similar to our own? Most of us would say: obviously, yes. We know from experience that it would take high intelligence and consciousness to produce such items today, so we reasonably conclude that our ancient ancestors had similar levels of consciousness.

What if we find obviously unnatural artifacts on Mars or other bodies in our solar system? Do we reasonably infer that whatever entities created such artifacts were conscious? It will depend on the artifacts in question, but if we were to find anything remotely similar to human dwellings or machinery on other planets, but which was clearly not human in origin, most of us would reasonably infer that the creators of these artifacts were also conscious.

But robots could do that, too. In response, Tam says that we can distinguish creative things that are products of consciousness from creative things that are the product of, say, artificial intelligence:

We can conduct a kind of “artistic Turing test” and ask study participants to consider various works of art and say which ones they conclude must have been created by a human. And if AI artwork consistently fools people into thinking it was made by a human, is that good evidence to conclude that the AI is at least in some ways conscious?

My answer is “no.” But this is all ludicrous anyway, for we’re not asking about AI, but about rocks, electrons, glasses of water, or, for that matter, bacteria and flatworms. None of these could show creativity of that type. It is curious that while panpsychists don’t accept correlation studies in neurology as a solution to the “hard problem” of consciousness, Hunt touts exactly similar types of studies as a way to see if inanimate matter is conscious.

Thus, all three of Tam’s “correlates” fail to yield a program for determining whether electrons are conscious.  There is no such program.

Then, you’re probably asking yourself, how do we determine whether anything is conscious, including our fellow humans? And my answer is “Inference and self-report”.  We infer that humans are conscious because they’re similar to our individual selves, and that primates and mammals have a consciousness somewhat similar to ours because they’re our evolutionary relatives. As for self-report, well, I tell you that I’m conscious. You could say “prove it”, or take me for a zombie, and I couldn’t really convince you otherwise.

In the end, we can infer that some animals are conscious (given that we define consciousness as subjective sensations and thoughts), but we can’t make an airtight inference. But that’s true of all science. All we can do is make inferences to the best explanation, and I’d claim that the most reasonable inference is that everyone reading this is conscious—not a bot or a zombie. And the best inference about electrons, rocks, and hydrogen atoms is that they’re not conscious, for they show none of the features that makes us think that our fellow humans are conscious.

I am not one of those scientists who denigrate philosophy as a whole. But some philosophers are prey to ludicrous ideas, and panpsychism is one of them. The popularity of the idea shows that intellectual termites are chomping away at the framework of philosophy. Perhaps, as Matthew Cobb said in his interview with Michael Shermer, panpsychism—which he said is “not even wrong”—will shortly disappear from the scene (see 4 minutes in). One can hope!


h/t: Paul

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.


Panpsychism: a big bag of nothing

February 21, 2020 • 9:00 am

I was suckered by the Courtier’s Reply of panpsychists like Philip Goff, and so have finished his popular (i.e., trade) book, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. I am not going to summarize it or review it at length, as it says little beyond what I’ve summarized previously. It has not convinced me that there’s anything to panpsychism: in fact, it’s turned me away from it, since it seems bundled up with all kinds of mysticism as well as additional bizarre and untestable views.

What is new in the book is Goff’s proposed “solutions” to the “combination problem”: How do atoms and particles with rudimentary consciousness, when they get together in a human brain, suddenly produce “higher”, self-reflective consciousness able to have subjective experience (“qualia”)? This is the “hard problem” of panpsychism, but there is no good solution. (Of course, it’s insane to accept at the outset that atoms and electrons are conscious, anyway.)

Goff offers two solutions, but neither makes sense. The first invokes experiments with “split brain” patients, which, he says, have “two consciousnesses” when you divide the corpus callosum. (I think neuroscientists would take issue with the “two separate consciousness” bits, for the patients, while having some aspects of their consciousness divided, don’t perceive of themselves as two distinct people.)  But Goff goes on to extrapolate downwards: if you divide the brain in two and get two consciousnesses, then eventually, if you keep dividing, you will get down to atoms or molecules that are also conscious. I kid you not. I repeat: the logic is that if you get two consciousnesses by dividing a brain in two, you’ll get trillions of consciousnesses if you keep on dividing. A quote (it’s a screenshot from Google books and there was yellow in my capture because I searched for a phrase:

Yeah, there are all those pesky dead people that have conscious atoms in their brains but inconveniently lack consciousness themselves! So there’s yet another problem to be solved.

And, of course, this doesn’t solve the problem at all, it’s just a “top down” way of saying that the consciousness of the brain’s material constituents manifests itself in a “higher” consciousness of the brain. “Reverse this process, and you’ve got mental combination” is simply a misleading way of restating the combination problem, not solving it.

Goff’s second solution involves something called the “Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness (IIT), proposed by his colleague Hedda Mørch at the University of Oslo. But that boils down to saying that when a system of atoms and molecules is sufficiently integrated (as in our brain), you get “higher” consciousness as an emergent property. I won’t go into the details of IIT, but there is no “there” there: what we have is just an assertion that at a certain level of “maximum integration”, consciousness appears. This is not a theory but merely a claim based on armchair speculation of the empirically uninformed sort. Here’s a bit of Goff’s discussion:

This isn’t a solution to the combination problem, but a form of magic that simply puts the problem into fancy words, invoking “basic principles of nature” (i.e., magic).

There’s a lot more I could say and criticize, but I have neither the time nor the will. Just let me mention one more issue: free will. Despite the assertion of some readers here that nobody really believes in “you can do otherwise” libertarian free will, Goff in fact does. He thinks that not only humans can decide at any given moment to behave in several different ways, so can particles! He posits a brain having particles that are not only conscious, but have free will of a sort, so they can “decide” what to do based on their “inclinations.” These inclinations appear free from the laws of physics:

This then is a form of pan-free-willism.  Particles aren’t compelled to act by the laws of physics, but via their own rudimentary consciousness.

But is there anything in the laws of physics that claims particles act on their own volition? Could you argue that when a radioactive atom decays—and that is unpredictable in principle—that the particle is decaying under its own volition? But of course it’s unwise to rest libertarian free will at a higher level on quantum mechanics, because we have no evidence that our decisions rest on indeterminate quantum events, and no libertarian wants to argue that their choosing fish rather than steak was based on a quantum event at the molecular level.

Goff’s explanation of libertarian free will makes no sense to me, unless he’s simply renaming “quantum unpredictability” as “the inclinations of particles.” And even so, the combination problem still obtains on the macro level: how is the so-called libertarian free will of particles translated into the libertarian free will of our brain? Remember, Goff is not a compatibilist like Dennett; he is a libertarian when it comes to free will. He’s also not a dualist, and so has to explain libertarian free will in purely physical terms. He does this by claiming that we’re made up of particles that have free will.  I needn’t dwell on the intellectual vacuity of that solution, nor on Goff’s annoying penchant of anthropomorphizing particles by saying that they have inclinations and pressures to behave in certain ways. 

At the end, the book degenerates into mysticism and the idea that the world may not be real but all a figment of our occupying a Matrix, but I’ll leave you to fry your brains on that bit.

To me, panpsychism remains a religion, which, though not accepting a deity, accepts a number of fiats for which there is no evidence, and yet is promulgated by fervent believers like Goff. (“Good afternoon. Do you have some time to talk about the consciousness of electrons?”)

Shall we call it a pseudophilosophy?


Even more on panpsychism

February 16, 2020 • 12:15 pm

As I near the end of Philip Goff’s trade book (Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness), aimed at convincing the public that panpsychism is true, I came across a tweet that led me to an online “letters” conversation between Goff and philosopher/biologist Massimo Pigliucci, which you can read in the second screenshot below. Twitter does have its uses (h/t Matthew Cobb):

In the exchange referred to above, each participant has four short letters, and they argue back and forth about whether panpsychism is a necessary theory, whether it’s a true theory, and whether it’s a scientific theory.

Let me first lay out in a series of numbered statements, which I intended to do before I read this exchange, what I think is Goff’s theory. I’ll then simply quote a few of Massimo’s ripostes, some of which were coincident with my earlier objections, and some other ones which come from his greater expertise as a philosopher. I have to say again that although Massimo and I have had our differences—many, actually—I’ve never hesitated to admit when he’s right, and in this case I think he pretty much takes Goff apart.

But first, here’s what I see as Goff’s theory, which is also the way many people conceive of panpsychism. Remember, this is how I interpret Goff, not what I believe myself. I’ve had to add comments about bits of the theory that I find problematic.

1.) Materialism, the underlying basis of science, is wrong.

2.) Why? Because materialism and the science that uses it rely on quantitative analyses, and if a phenomenon in the Universe can’t be expressed quantitatively, but is still a real phenomenon, then it disproves materialism. (I use the term “naturalism” instead of materialism, as some of the realities of the cosmos, like gravity, aren’t “material” but are nevertheless real phenomena.)

3.) Consciousness is one such phenomenon. No matter how much scientists labor at understanding consciousness—and by that term Goff means “qualia”: the subjective experience of seeing the color orange or tasting salt—no materialistic (scientific) theory will ever explain how that sensation feels. It may provide neurological “correlations” of such experiences, but understanding why the color orange looks as it does, and other subjective experiences, will always elude quantitative explanation. Therefore materialism is false, and it’s false because it can’t explain how we come to “feel.”

4.) Further falsification of materialism comes from its failure to tell us what the “intrinsic nature of matter” really is. All we can do with something like electrons, avers Goff, is to measure how they behave and how they interact with other particles. But we can’t really express what their “intrinsic nature” is. (I have to say that this “intrinsic nature” stuff mystifies me, especially when Goff defines the consciousness of electrons; see below.)

5.) Goff isn’t a dualist, so he doesn’t think that there is “consciousness stuff” separate from matter. Therefore he has a “scientific” theory (see the subtitle of his book) for how we get consciousness. It is panpsychism. Panpsychism isn’t new (Goff mentions Eddington’s version), but Goff (also citing his ex-advisor Galen Strawson) says that there’s a resurgence of interest and acceptance of panpsychism due to his efforts and those of Strawson.

6.) Panpsychism arises because, Goff concludes, we can’t derive a materialistic explanation of consciousness, yet it exists, so it must somehow be inherent in the brain in a way that has eluded us.

7.) Why is it inherent in the brain? Because says Goff—and this is the crux of panpsychism—every bit of matter in the Universe is conscious, and since brains are built of particles, the consciousness is also inherent in the brain. That’s where consciousness comes from—its conscious constituent particles.

8.) So what is the nature of consciousness in particles like electrons or atoms? Goff isn’t clear, but does say they have a rudimentary form of consciousness that differs from the “higher” self-reflective form of consciousness in humans. What form does particle consciousness take? Goff says that, for electrons, for example, it consists of stuff like their spin, their charge, and their mass. (Again I am mystified, as those properties are again detected by quantitative materialistic analysis, the so-called “correlations”. Why they constitute “consciousness” remains for me a mystery, and seems like a semantic issue.) Asserting that particles are conscious, says Goff, finally solves the vexing problem of what the “intrinsic nature” of matter is. It is consciousness. 

9.) Finally, when you get a brain like ours that is built of many semi-conscious particles, somehow you get a massive increase in consciousness, so now the particles can have experiences, see red, and reflect on their experiences. How this happens is what philosophers call the “combination” problem, and so far I have not seen a solution, though I still have about 1/4 of Goff’s book to read.

Here’s a summary from Goff’s first letter of the exchange:

Very roughly, the idea is that physics only tells us about the causal structure of the physical world – what things do – and leaves us completely in the dark about the intrinsic nature of matter that realizes that structure. The Russellian panpsychism holds that consciousness is the intrinsic nature of matter. Why believe this? Well, we know that consciousness exists, and we have to fit it in to our theory of reality somehow. Russellian monism offers us a way of doing this, and I’ve argued at length that it avoids the deep difficulties I believe face the more conventional options of materialism and dualism.

That is the scientific theory of consciousness, but it’s not really “scientific” because, as even Goff admits, it’s untestable. If you assert that electron spin is “consciousness”, you haven’t explained anything.

At any rate, as the letters go back and forth between Massimo and Goff, Massimo gets more and more perturbed, for Goff, like all advocates of panpsychism, is very clever at avoiding specifics (like how spin  = consciousness and how “combination” works) and is good, as Massimo asserts, at sophistry.

Anyway, here are a few quotes from Massimo, given in order. If you want to see Goff’s claims, just click on the link above. I think I’ve summarized them pretty fairly above. Massimo’s quotes are indented:

When you say that neuroscience cannot “express” the quality of consciousness, what exactly do you mean? If neuroscience were one day capable of delivering a complete mechanistic account of how consciousness is made possible, what would be missing? Don’t say “the experience itself,” since that would be a category mistake: we are talking about explaining the experience, not having it.

Here Massimo refers to a critique of panpsychism by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, “Electrons don’t think.

Thanks for clarifying where you think Hossenfelder goes wrong. The problem is, she at least provides a coherent view of panpsychism, and one that would be empirically testable to boot. By contrast, when you say that mass, charge, and spin are forms of consciousness I think you crossed into incoherence, and so I withdraw my provisional assent to (1). What does that even mean? Is there, for instance, a different kind of consciousness that accounts for each of the fundamental properties of matter? How does consciousness account for such properties? Why do physicists think that it is other things, like the Higgs boson, that account for some of these properties, like mass? Are they wrong? What reason do you have to say so?

I applaud the empiricism in the quote below!

Finally, you are not actually giving any evidence for panpsychism, you are simply arguing a priori that it must be the best explanation. But as I wrote last time, I believe first philosophy died with Descartes: we can’t arrive at firm conclusions about how the world works by simply thinking about it. We need evidence. Which means that we need science.

In Goff’s book, one of his major points is that you don’t need to refer to or observe nature to find out what’s true about nature. Rumination is sufficient.  He uses an example of a thought experiment that by itself shows contradictions in the idea that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. Ergo, the idea that all objects fall at the same rate (in a vacuum, absent air resistance) is a conclusion that can be derived entirely from philosophy. But of course that theory needed to be tested, because it could have been wrong, and it was tested.

I can’t think of any conclusions about the universe that would be universally accepted without having been subject to empirical testing. That’s why string theory is in the doldrums, and why panpsychism will eventually wane in popularity. Goff’s claim is, I further suspect, part of a strategy to diminish the hegemony of science in explaining nature, and bring many of those explanations into the bailiwick of philosophy alone.

Finally, after further back and forth, it’s clear that Massimo is getting pissed off.

You insist that panpsychism is coherent, but there too you keep falling into an ambiguity. If by coherent you mean logically so, then sure, we agree. But literally an infinite number of models of the world are logically coherent. That doesn’t help at all. We want coherence with the kind of data and theories we get from science. And that’s where panpsychism spectacularly fails. There is absolutely nothing in modern physics or biology that hints at panpsychism, and you have acknowledged that no empirical evidence could possibly bear on the issue. That acknowledgement, for me, is the endpoint of our discussion: once data are ruled out as arbiters among theories, those theories become pointless, just another clever intellectual game.

And so it ends with this salvo by Pigliucci:

The path you, Chalmers and others are attempting to chart has already been tried, centuries ago, and has brought us—as David Hume put it—nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Now you may say that I’m unfair in quoting only Massimo, but too bad. You can read Goff’s answers at the link above, and if you sign on to panpsychism, Ceiling Cat help you. Truly, I do not understand why apparently smart intellectuals have any truck with this bizarre theory—a theory that is not only untestable, but isn’t even a theory at all since it’s missing key parts, like where does the consciousness reside in an electron?  

A survey of philosophers shows that while a bare majority leans toward physicalism in the mind, more than a quarter are “non-physicalists” when it comes to the mind:

Unlike some other scientists, I don’t dismiss philosophy, as I think it has immense value in teaching us to think clearly. Philosophers are, after all, people trained in spotting logical errors, confusions, and other such muddles. But philosophy is not perfect, and sometimes it goes off the rails in a big way—sometimes because someone is overly ambitious. Panpsychism is a spectacular example of such derailing, and I agree with Massimo that it’s going nowhere. But in the meantime, people actually get paid to limn such theories—if you can call them theories.  It’s more a cult based on bizarre and untested (and untestable) claims, making faith-based assertions about the world.

Why is it so popular? You tell me!