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At Nautilus: Electrons DO have a “rudimentary mind”

Panpsychists in science believe that nature is all there is but, they say, it includes consciousness as a fundamental fact of nature

A leading theory of consciousness, Integrated Information Theory (IIT) proposed by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Giulio Tononi and championed by by another leading neuroscientist, Christof Koch, has clear panpsychist affiliations. It is favored by proponents of the idea that electrons are conscious.

Whoa!, you say. How can electrons be conscious? Wouldn’t they at least need a brain to be conscious? Let’s hear an explanation from proponent Tam Hunt (right) at Nautilus:

You might see the rise of panpsychism as part of a Copernican trend—the idea that we’re not special. The Earth is not the center of the universe. Humans are not a treasured creation, or even the pinnacle of evolution. So why should we think that creatures with brains, like us, are the sole bearers of consciousness?…

Panpsychists look at the many rungs on the complexity ladder of nature and see no obvious line between mind and no-mind. Philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked in 1974 what is it like to be a bat, to echolocate and fly? We can’t know with any certainty, but we can reasonably infer, based on observation of their complex behaviors and the close genetic kinship between all mammals and humans—and the fact that evolution proceeds incrementally—that bats have a rich inner life. By the same logic, we can look steadily at less-complex forms of behavior that allow us to reasonably infer some kind of mind associated with all types of matter. Yes, including even the lowly electron.

Tam Hunt, “Electrons May Very Well Be Conscious” at Nautilus (May 14, 2020)

Now, a skeptic would point out that we assume bats have some sort of consciousness because as mammals, they have some experiences that correlate with ours. A bat knows, in some sense, what it is like to be frightened or hungry or enraged by invaders of its territory. The bat does not need reason or moral choice to be the subject of such experiences.

Does a sea squirt have consciousness? Well, we don’t really know what consciousness is and the behavior of a sea squirt is much harder for us to interpret. We could give the squirt the benefit of the doubt, of course. But we don’t really have any basis for extending consciousness to inanimate objects. It has, however, been traditionally thought to be an outcome of life.

But, as we see, that approach is undergoing a challenge. As noted earlier, a recent article at New Scientist featured physicist Johannes Kleiner of the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Germany, who told author Michael Brooks that a mathematically precise definition of consciousness could mean that the cosmos is suffused with subjective experience. Kleiner is a proponent of the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness noted above:

The question of how the brain gives rise to subjective experience is the hardest of all. Mathematicians think they can help, but their first attempts have thrown up 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 (May 4, 2020)

Scholar, lawyer, and writer Tam Hunt, affiliated with the University of California, is helping to popularize the idea in thinkmags.

Panpsychists are, generally speaking, naturalists. They believe that nature is all there is. But they address the seemingly intractable mind-body problem by seeing consciousness as a part of nature like gravity, present everywhere but perhaps most evident in humans. Probably, the reason their perspective is becoming more acceptable in science is that the semi-official alternative sounds less sane: Our minds are illusions that merely promote Darwinian survival.

Well, if our minds are illusions that merely promote Darwinian survival, what becomes of our science? Why should anyone believe it and what would believing it even mean? Faced with a choice, some would prefer to just say hello to the electron. That way, they can keep the idea that consciousness somehow relates to the true nature of our universe—without which, science is impossible. Hunt tells us that, in addition to Alfred North Whitehead, Freeman Dyson, J. B.S. Haldane, and David Bohm have been sympathetic to one or another point on the spectrum of panpsychist ideas.

At any rate, from that perspective, philosopher David Papineau’s dismissal, “Conscious states are just ordinary physical states that happen to have been co-opted by reasoning systems,” must surely be seen as an evasion. What is this talk of “reasoning systems”? It puts one in mind of the old joke in which the devil told God that he too could create a man if only God would throw down a sack of dirt. “What?” thundered the voice from heaven, “You create your own dirt! Then we’ll talk!”

One controversy that may develop—and it would be very interesting to watch—could focus on Darwinism. As noted earlier, even if they are naturalists, panpsychists need not be Darwinians. Hunt offers a clue as to why not:

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.

Tam Hunt, “Electrons May Very Well Be Conscious” at Nautilus (May 14, 2020)

True. Inanimate matter doesn’t evolve. Darwinism, as in “how did consciousness evolve?”, assumes that consciousness must have evolved. (From what, exactly, is unclear.) Panpsychist philosopher Bernardo Kastrup, for one, would disagree. If consciousness is a fundamental part of nature, it no more needs to evolve than gravity or dark matter. Many questions swirl around gravity and dark matter but not, “How did they evolve?” We just don’t think about them that way.

The panpsychists, who are taken increasingly seriously in science writing, have respectful critics as well. Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder (whose critique Hunt addresses) argues that electrons cannot be conscious, because they cannot change their behavior. Changes in behavior, especially complex ones in response to new information, are one of the ways we identify intelligence and, possibly, consciousness, in life forms. Watching an octopus open a jar

or a turtle learning to right itself or righting another turtle reminds us of that fact:

Panpsychists should heed Hossenfelder’s critique; if they remain respectable in science, this topic will come up again. What do electrons do that seems like intelligence or consciousness?

Michael Egnor, who respects but also disagrees with the panpsychists, offers some further thoughts on the nature of consciousness:

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.

Michael Egnor, “Are electrons conscious? A classical philosopher can explain why the belief that everything is conscious is wrong” at Mind Matters News

Again, panpsychists will need to square claims for the electron with conventional understandings of the requirements for consciousness. But in a world of people merely trying to get others Canceled, this certainly promises to be an interesting debate!

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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)

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At Nautilus: Electrons DO have a “rudimentary mind”