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!