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Why Is Science Growing Comfortable with Panpsychism (“Everything Is Conscious”)?

At one time, the idea that “everything is conscious” was the stuff of jokes. Not any more, it seems

A recent article at New Scientist treats panpsychism as a serious idea in science. That’s thanks to the growing popularity of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT):

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.

Michael Brooks, “Is the universe conscious? It seems impossible until you do the maths” at New Scientist

Here’s the open-access paper by Kleiner and Tull.

But it’s not just New Scientist. In recent years, Scientific American has been sympathetic to panpsychism as well. Earlier this year, Gareth Cook interviewed panpsychist philosopher Philip Goff (right), author of Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, at SciAm in a respectful way, as if he really wanted to know what Goff thought and why (January 14, 2020).

Similarly, in 2018, SciAm offered space to Bernardo Kastrup, Adam Crabtree, and Edward F. Kelly to argue that “the condition now known as “dissociative identity disorder” (DID) might help us understand the fundamental nature of reality. Their thesis is that the universe itself is conscious and individual consciousnesses are dissociated fragments:

We know empirically from DID that consciousness can give rise to many operationally distinct centers of concurrent experience, each with its own personality and sense of identity. Therefore, if something analogous to DID happens at a universal level, the one universal consciousness could, as a result, give rise to many alters with private inner lives like yours and ours. As such, we may all be alters—dissociated personalities—of universal consciousness.

Moreover, as we’ve seen earlier, there is something dissociative processes look like in the brain of a patient with DID. So, if some form of universal-level DID happens, the alters of universal consciousness must also have an extrinsic appearance. We posit that this appearance is life itself: metabolizing organisms are simply what universal-level dissociative processes look like.

Bernardo Kastrup, Adam Crabtree, and Edward F. Kelly, “Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe and Everything?” at Scientific American

At one time, a science mag’s typical contributors would merely ridicule the conscious universe, convinced that science will shortly explain consciousness away anyhow.

So why the thaw toward panpsychism over the past few years? Possibly, panpsychism offers a way to be a naturalist (nature is all there is) without the absurdities of physicalism (everything in nature must be physical). The panpsychists who are gaining attention are, generally speaking, naturalists. That is, they do think that nature is all there is. But, as Philip Goff explains,

Consciousness, for the panpsychist, is the intrinsic nature of matter. There’s just matter, on this view, nothing supernatural or spiritual. But matter can be described from two perspectives. Physical science describes matter “from the outside,” in terms of its behavior. But matter “from the inside”—i.e., in terms of its intrinsic nature—is constituted of forms of consciousness.

What this offers us is a beautifully simple, elegant way of integrating consciousness into our scientific worldview, of marrying what we know about ourselves from the inside and what science tells us about matter from the outside.

Gareth Cook, “Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?” at Scientific American

But dropping physicalism likely entails some changes. Panpsychists need not be Darwinists, for example. That is, they need not account for human consciousness either as a trait that evolved to help ancestors of humans survive on the savannah or as a byproduct of such a trait. Bernardo Kastrup has argued explicitly, in response to Darwinist Jerry Coyne, that human consciousness cannot be a mere byproduct of human evolution because it cannot even be measured in traditional science terms.

Indeed, Kastrup (right) argues, consciousness cannot have evolved (in the sense that a dinosaur might evolve into a bird).

Consciousness could be more like a fact of nature of the sort that doesn’t evolve, in the sense that oxygen and photons don’t evolve.

Panpsychists need not reject evolution in principle. But Darwinism, as commonly expressed, is an outgrowth of physicalism (everything is physical). That is why Darwinian accounts of consciousness are frequently restricted to considerations of what traits helped prehuman ancestors survive.

The reasoning seems feeble at best. A life form hardly needs human consciousness to survive and the claim that human consciousness is a mere byproduct of natural selection for other purposes (cf. Coyne) is an assertion without evidence. Because the panpsychist believes that consciousness pervades nature, accounting for human consciousness presents no difficulty similar to what a Darwinist faces.

Because panpsychists and their sympathizers remain naturalists, they don’t see themselves as crossing a Rubicon when they reject physicalism. Others sense the implications for naturalism:

Many academics remain unconvinced by IIT, in part because of its complexity but mainly because of its far-reaching implications for a conscious universe.

Dan Robitzski, “These Mathematicians Think the Universe May Be Conscious” at Futurism/The Byte

They’ve had time to think about it. Back in 2014, a piece at LiveScience made clear the elements of panpsychism in IIT:

The basic idea is that conscious experience represents the integration of a wide variety of information, and that this experience is irreducible. This means that when you open your eyes (assuming you have normal vision), you can’t simply choose to see everything in black and white, or to see only the left side of your field of view.

Instead, your brain seamlessly weaves together a complex web of information from sensory systems and cognitive processes. Several studies have shown that you can measure the extent of integration using brain stimulation and recording techniques.

The integrated information theory assigns a numerical value, “phi,” to the degree of irreducibility. If phi is zero, the system is reducible to its individual parts, but if phi is large, the system is more than just the sum of its parts.

This system explains how consciousness can exist to varying degrees among humans and other animals. The theory incorporates some elements of panpsychism, the philosophy that the mind is not only present in humans, but in all things.

Tanya Lewis, “Scientists Closing in on Theory of Consciousness” at LiveScience (July 30, 2014)

Starting in 2004, Giulio Tononi developed IIT in response to researchers’ realization, after many years’ research, that they could not isolate a “consciousness” module in the brain or even tell if an entity—brain-damaged human, animal, or computer—is conscious. Many of the facts relating to consciousness are counterintuitive, as neuroscientist Christof Koch told Lewis. For example, the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain—thought to be associated with consciousness—has fewer neurons than the cerebellum, the back part which coordinates muscles activity. Physical models just weren’t working.

IIT is currently pitted against Global Workspace Theory (GWS), which sees consciousness as functioning more like a computer’s memory bank. In a historic contest sponsored by Templeton World Charity, one side or the other will be the winner. GWS seems to have fewer controversial implications from a physicalist perspective yet it has not emerged as a clear favorite.

One real advantage IIT offers over many proposals is the potential for mathematics to contribute to the discussion:

Using previous techniques, the time taken to measure information integration across a network increases “super exponentially” with the number of nodes you are considering – meaning that, even with the best technology, the computation could last longer than the lifespan of the universe. But Toker has recently proposed an ingenious shortcut for these calculations that may bring that down to a couple of minutes, which he has tested with measurements from a couple of macaques. This could be one first step to putting the theory on a much firmer experimental footing. “We’re really in the early stages of all this,” says Toker.

David Robson, “Are we close to solving the puzzle of consciousness?” at BBC Future (March 26, 2019)

One attraction of panpsychism in general is that, if the conundrum of consciousness is resolved by ascribing consciousness to everything, the mystery is subsumed into the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, originally asked by calculus pioneer Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). If to exist is to be conscious to some degree, the two questions can’t easily be disentangled. And Leibniz’s question is treated as a valid one in science.

If IIT continues to gain a sympathetic hearing, panpsychism could become, over time, a part of normal science.

Note: Bernardo Kastrup has also published a paper on the subject.

Further reading on panpsychism:

Why some scientists believe the universe is conscious. They’re not mystics. But materialism is not giving good answers so they are looking around

No materialist theory of consciousness is plausible. All such theories either deny the very thing they are trying to explain, result in absurd scenarios, or end up requiring an immaterial intervention. (Eric Holloway)

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

How can consciousness be a material thing? Maybe it can’t. But materialist philosophers face starkly limited choices in how to view consciousness.


Can machines be given consciousness? A prominent researcher in consciousness studies offers reasons for doubt.

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Why Is Science Growing Comfortable with Panpsychism (“Everything Is Conscious”)?