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Atomic structure. Futuristic concept on the topic of nanotechnology in science. The nucleus of an atom surrounded by electrons on a technological background
Atomic structure. Futuristic concept on the topic of nanotechnology in science. The nucleus of an atom surrounded by electrons on a technological background
Electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus Adobe Stock licensed

Theoretical Physicist Slams Panpsychism

Electrons cannot be conscious, in Sabine Hossenfelder’s view, because they cannot change their behavior

Sabine Hossenfelder (left) is known for straightforward dissent from pop physics (way more fizz than facts). Whether her target is unstrung string theory or the demand for ever bigger supercolliders— on the apparent hope that if the particle mill is big enough, it’s sure to tumble into something—she’s not afraid to say Whoa! In an age of celebrity scientists, that contrast earns her a hearing among thoughtful people, whether they agree with her analysis or not.

Yesterday, she offered a case against panpsychism (the view that consciousness pervades the universe):

Now, if you want a particle to be conscious, your minimum expectation should be that the particle can change. 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.

In other words, electrons aren’t conscious, and neither are any other particles. It’s incompatible with data.

Sabine Hossenfelder, “Electrons Don’t Think” at Nautilus

But what if the consciousness is somehow latent in “more fundamental constituents” in the particle and could only be detected at energies we cannot yet produce?

… it is indeed possible to add internal states to elementary particles. But if your goal is to give consciousness to those particles so that we can inherit it from them, strongly bound composites do not help you. They do not help you exactly because you have hidden this consciousness so that it needs a lot of energy to access. This then means, of course, that you cannot use it at lower energies, like the ones typical for soft and wet thinking apparatuses like human brains.

Sabine Hossenfelder, “Electrons Don’t Think” at Nautilus

Hossenfelder assumes that panpsychism is the preserve of philosophers. But recently, popular science media have been willing to entertain it more easily than one might have expected in the past. Scientific American, owned by Nature, explored panpsychism respectfully earlier this year in an interview with Philip Goff. In mid-2018, Scientific American also hosted an opinion piece by Bernardo Kastrup, Adam Crabtree, and Edward F. Kelly, accounting for consciousness by suggesting that “we may all be alters—dissociated personalities—of universal consciousness.”

And, whatever one may think of panpsychism, realistically, there are no good materialist theories of consciousness—indeed, materialist theories are an especially woeful sight. Dutch computer engineer and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup (right) made some waves recently by pointing out that consciousness can’t just “evolve” or be a “byproduct” of evolution because of its essentially immaterial nature.

Perhaps thinking that consciousness evolved would be a bit like thinking that the number 7 evolved (from the number 6?). Not every meaningful entity can be accounted for that way.

Some philosophers argue that consciousness is material or that it is an illusion. But these approaches either lack the evidence that would make them serious theories or are self-refuting. As Michael Egnor notes, “How can you have a proposition that the mind doesn’t exist? That means propositions don’t exist and that means that you don’t have a proposition.”

He also jokes that if electrons were conscious, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle would mean that they could never make up their minds… He does not believe that panpsychism is true but admits to some sympathy with its adherents. At least panpsychists take consciousness seriously.

Hossenfelder’s impatience is understandable but she underestimates the seriousness of the problem serious thinkers about consciousness confront. There is a reason that some scientists believe that the universe is conscious: It would be more logically coherent to say that you think the universe is conscious than to say that your own consciousness is an illusion. With the first idea, you may be wrong. With the second idea, you are not anything.

Note: Sabine Hossenfelder is the author of Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray and she blogs at BackRe(Action) and a video channel as well.

Further reading: Pioneer neuroscientists believed the mind is more than the brain. A number of them were Nobel Laureates and their views were informed by their work. In a podcast discussion with Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor talks about how many famous neuroscientist became dualists—that is, they concluded that there is something about human beings that goes beyond matter—based on observations they made during their work.

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Theoretical Physicist Slams Panpsychism