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Are Electrons Conscious?

A classical philosopher can explain why the belief that everything is conscious is wrong

In response to the utter inadequacy of materialism to account for the mind, several philosophers have suggested panpsychism as a solution to the mind–body problem. Perhaps, they argue, all matter is inherently conscious but more primitive aggregates of matter may only have primitive consciousness. From that perspective, humans are very conscious and electrons are maybe just a little bit conscious.

Philosopher Philip Goff:

The panpsychist offers an alternative research programme: Rather than trying to account for consciousness in terms of utterly non-conscious elements, try to explain the complex consciousness of humans and other animals in terms of simpler forms of consciousness which are postulated to exist in simpler forms of matter, such as atoms or their sub-atomic components. This research project is still in its infancy. But a number of leading neuroscientists, such as Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi, are now finding that working within a panpsychist framework bears fruit. The more fruit is borne by this alternative research programme, the more reason we have to accept panpsychism.

Philip Goff, “Could Electrons be Conscious?” at Conscience and Consciousness

Their view is not entirely crazy, or at least it’s a bit less crazy than materialism. Of course, electrons are not conscious. Even if they were, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle means that they could never make up their minds! But let’s look into why we think animals and humans are conscious but not inanimate things?

Hydrogen atom orbitals at different energy levels. An electron is most likely in a brighter one/FlorianMarquardt, GNU

First, what is consciousness? It is tempting to define it as subjective (first-person) experience, but I think this is inadequate. After all, it is at least conceptually possible to be conscious of something other than ourselves, but not to be conscious of ourselves. Babies likely experience consciousness in this way—they seem to discover themselves for the first time when they “discover” their hands. What is unique to consciousness is that it is awareness of something. That something may be ourselves or objects other than ourselves.

Consciousness always has an object, something to which it points. Thoughts are always about something. Thinking things (animals, humans) have the power to think about things. This property of “aboutness,” called intentionality by philosophers, is the hallmark of consciousness. Inanimate things have no inherent power of intentionality; they are never about anything. They merely exist.

So how does intentionality work? How can a thought be about a tree in my front yard, for example? The classical answer — and I think the correct one — is that the mind grasps the form of the tree without grasping the matter of the tree. Intentionality, which is the essence of consciousness, is the ability to grasp the form — the sensible and intelligible principle — of the object of thought.

How do we get access to forms external to us? This raises a fundamental principle of Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics: Our only access to forms is via our senses. In the philosopher Aristotle.’s maxim, “Everything in the mind was in the senses first”. We have no innate thoughts. All thought is derived from sense data.

Thus, to have a mind, an object must have sense organs. Animals with eyes and ears can grasp forms and think about them. Objects without sense organs have no access to forms and thus cannot think. Interestingly, this implies that living things with rudimentary sensation (photoreceptors on plants, chemoreceptors on bacteria) do have the potential for rudimentary thought. That raises interesting questions about the nature and quality of thought in lower forms of life. But it is at least reasonable to infer that thought is possible for any living thing that has the ability to sense the environment. In fact, “sensation” implies experience of some sort, however rudimentary.

So particles like electrons and larger inanimate things aren’t conscious because they have no sense organs, and thus have no access to forms external to themselves. They cannot think about anything because they cannot sense their environment and cannot access information external to them. Consciousness presupposes content and subatomic particles, like all inanimate things, lack access to content.

Panpsychism is essentially a confession of the manifest inadequacy of materialism to explain the mind. In that respect, it is worthy of consideration. But, for the reason I’ve given, it is not true. Panpsychism does, however, provide an impetus to explore what consciousness is and what enables it.

To sum up, Aristotle’s answer to panpsychism is that consciousness is the ability to grasp forms via the sense organs. Things that lack sense organs can’t be conscious. I think he got that pretty much right.

Also by Michael Egnor: In one sense, consciousness is an illusion

Does Your Brain Construct Your Conscious Reality? Part I A reply to computational neuroscientist Anil Seth’s recent TED talk


Does Your Brain Construct Your Conscious Reality? Part II In a word, no. Your brain doesn’t “think”; YOU think, using your brain

Before you go: Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug Materialists have a solution to the problem of consciousness, and it may startle you

Note: Electrons courtesy Florian Marquardt, GNU (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Are Electrons Conscious?