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Meet the Serious Panpsychists

These are not the "Rocks have minds!" people. They are getting a hearing about the serious problems materialism faces with understanding consciousness

Recently, panpsychism — the idea that consciousness is a basic property of matter that is not limited to highly developed life forms but rather pervades the universe — has been discussed a good deal in science venues. Many commentators are unsympathetic. Among recent ones, we can count theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder (“It’s incompatible with data”) and veteran science writer Ross Pomeroy (“mystical, seductive, and completely useless”).

Yet Scientific American has given panpsychism considerable respectful space in recent years: “Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe and Everything?” (Bernardo Kastrup, Adam Crabtree, Edward F. Kelly, June 18, 2018); “So-called ‘information realism’ has some surprising implications.” (Bernardo Kastrup, March 25, 2019); “Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?” (Gareth Cook, January 14, 2020).

The underlying problem is that there are no good theories of consciousness that match up with current science beliefs. We would likely benefit from fruitful discussions but fruitful discussions must be respectful ones as well.

At Nautilus, we can read three different perspectives on the developing issues:

Consciousness researcher Philip Goff, author of Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, clarifies that panpsychism does not mean that your socks have opinions:

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.

The main attraction of panpsychism is not its ability to account for the data of observation, but its ability to account for the reality of consciousness. We know that consciousness is real and so we have to account for it somehow. If a general theory of reality has no place for consciousness, then that theory cannot be true.

Kevin Berger & Brian Gallagher , “A Clash of Perspectives on Panpsychism” at Nautilus

Essentially, Goff is saying that naturalism (often called “materialism”), as generally conceived, cannot be true.

Neuroscientist Christof Koch puts in a word for his Integrated Information Theory (IIT) as offering an approach to the subject that keeps it within mainstream science:

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.

Integrated Information Theory makes a number of very precise predictions that philosophical panpsychism was never able to make, so it’s a much richer, more quantitative, more scientific form of panpsychism. It has an informational structure that measures quantity, so you can now make some very precise statements about consciousness.

Kevin Berger & Brian Gallagher , “A Clash of Perspectives on Panpsychism” at Nautilus

IIT’s progress will be most interesting to follow. It is currently in a literal contest funded by the Templeton Foundation with Global Workspace Theory (GWT) and a winner will be announced.

Lastly, philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci doesn’t see the need for panpsychism. In his view, consciousness simply evolved because those who had it left more offspring than those who didn’t (natural selection):

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.

Kevin Berger & Brian Gallagher , “A Clash of Perspectives on Panpsychism” at Nautilus

Annaka Harris, author of Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind thinks that current terminology is a hindrance to the discussion we need:

My own sense of the correct resolution to the mystery of consciousness, whether or not we can ever achieve a true understanding, is split between a brain-based explanation and a panpsychic one. So while I’m not convinced that panpsychism offers the correct answer, I am convinced that it is a valid category of possible solutions that cannot be easily dismissed…

Perhaps the term panpsychism, because of its history and associations, will continue to pose obstacles to progress in consciousness studies. We might need a new label for the work in which scientists and philosophers theorize about the possibility that consciousness is fundamental. However, we’re so far from having a working theory that it seems premature to label it with an “ism,” and perhaps it’s more helpful to simply give a name to this category of theories, such as “intrinsic nature theory” or “intrinsic field theory.” At the very least, it seems clear that the current incomplete picture gives us good reason to keep thinking creatively about consciousness — and specifically to continue entertaining the idea that it perhaps goes deeper than our intuitions have led us to believe.

Annaka Harris, “Consciousness Isn’t Self-Centered” at Nautilus (February 27, 2020)

Philosopher Hedda Hassel Mørch, meanwhile, sees the central problem of consciousness as a question of what makes the most sense to believe:


To critics, it’s just too implausible that fundamental particles are conscious. And indeed this idea takes some getting used to. But consider the alternatives. Dualism looks implausible on scientific grounds. Physicalism takes the objective, scientifically accessible aspect of reality to be the only reality, which arguably implies that the subjective aspect of consciousness is an illusion. Maybe so — but shouldn’t we be more confident that we are conscious, in the full subjective sense, than that particles are not?

A second important objection is the so-called combination problem. How and why does the complex, unified consciousness of our brains result from putting together particles with simple consciousness? This question looks suspiciously similar to the original hard problem. I and other defenders of panpsychism have argued that the combination problem is nevertheless not as hard as the original hard problem. In some ways, it is easier to see how to get one form of conscious matter (such as a conscious brain) from another form of conscious matter (such as a set of conscious particles) than how to get conscious matter from non-conscious matter. But many find this unconvincing. Perhaps it is just a matter of time, though. The original hard problem, in one form or another, has been pondered by philosophers for centuries. The combination problem has received much less attention, which gives more hope for a yet undiscovered solution.

Hedda Hassel Mørch, “Is Matter Conscious?” at Nautilus (February 27, 2020)

It’s going to be an interesting discussion, that’s for sure, and so far it is shaping up to be nonetheless quite respectful.

An armchair view of the developing panpsychism controversies:

No, consciousness cannot be just a byproduct. Philosopher Bernardo Kastrup responds to biologist Jerry Coyne’s claim that consciousness could be a mere by-product of a useful evolved trait.

Did consciousness evolve?: A Darwinist responds. Jerry Coyne argues that consciousness is a mere byproduct of useful traits that are naturally selected. But wait… The critical problem that consciousness poses for Darwinian evolution is that there is no survival advantage for subjective first-person existence over objective third-person existence.

Bernardo Kastrup: Consciousness cannot have evolved. How many joules of consciousness would make you a human instead of a chimpanzee? How many more joules of consciousness would make you a genius? Computer scientist and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup argues that evolution deals with things that can be measured quantitatively but consciousness cannot be quantified. 

Why would philosophers deny that consciousness is real? Because, says computer scientist Bernardo Kastrup, the materialism they are committed to makes no sense and that’s the best they can do.

Scientific American explores panpsychism… respectfully. This is a major change. At one time, a science mag would merely ridicule the idea of a conscious universe. Note: Make no mistake, panpsychism — as Goff elucidates it — is a purely naturalist view (“nothing supernatural or spiritual”). But, unlike the village atheist, he goes on to ask, but then what IS nature? Matter is all there is? But what IS matter? It turns out, no one really knows.

Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug. Or maybe not? A primer on varieties of panpsychism.


Why some scientists believe the universe is conscious

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Meet the Serious Panpsychists