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Why Would a Neuroscientist Choose Panpsychism Over Materialism?

It seems to have come down to a choice between “nothing is conscious” and “everything is conscious”

A really significant change in brain science in recent years has been the gradual acceptance in mainstream science venues of sympathy for panpsychism — the position that everything is conscious to some degree. Leading neuroscientist Christof Koch, for example, explained last month in MIT Reader:

But who else, besides myself, has experiences? Because you are so similar to me, I abduce that you do. The same logic applies to other people. Apart from the occasional solitary solipsist this is uncontroversial. But how widespread is consciousness in the cosmos at large? How far consciousness extends its dominion within the tree of life becomes more difficult to abduce as species become more alien to us.

One line of argument takes the principles of integrated information theory (IIT) to their logical conclusion. Some level of experience can be found in all organisms, it says, including perhaps in Paramecium and other single-cell life forms. Indeed, according to IIT, which aims to precisely define both the quality and the quantity of any one conscious experience, experience may not even be restricted to biological entities but might extend to non-evolved physical systems previously assumed to be mindless — a pleasing and parsimonious conclusion about the makeup of the universe.

Christof Koch, “Is Consciousness Everywhere?” at The MIT Press Reader (March 15, 2021)

That’s MIT Reader, you understand, not Levitation News and Views. And Koch is Chief Scientist of both the MindScope Program at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and Tiny Blue Dot Foundation, which is dedicated to “Measuring Consciousness: From Theory To Practice.” He is not alone in his sympathies. A recent article in New Scientist makes that clear.

Koch distinguishes Integrated Information Theory (IIT), as a science-based theory, from purely mystical panpsychism. But if we are talking about consciousness among “non-evolved physical systems,” we are in the same territory, just with different premises.

So why is panpsychism becoming mainstream in science? Some hint of the direction, and possibly the motivation, may be gleaned from the titles and descriptions of two books by Koch in the last decade:

2012: Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist “In which a scientist searches for an empirical explanation for phenomenal experience, spurred by his instinctual belief that life is meaningful.”


2019: The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread but Can’t Be Computed (2019) “An argument that consciousness, more widespread than previously assumed, is the feeling of being alive, not a type of computation or a clever hack.” The MIT article is drawn from this book.

So Koch, an advocate of IIT — a leading theory of consciousness developed by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Giulio Tononi with clear panpsychist implications — is looking for a theory of consciousness that does a better job than typical reductive materialism.

Reductive materialist theories end in paradoxes. For example, if consciousness is a user illusion, who is the user for whom it is an illusion? If there is no user, it can’t be an illusion. If “the mind is what the brain does,” as one reductive approach puts it, how does the brain, which is material, produce the mind, which is immaterial? And, as a proverb puts it, “If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?”

Some traditional materialists (metaphysical naturalists) talk their way around such paradoxes, declaring that consciousness is a state of matter or that consciousness is not a Hard Problem at all, if only “dualist” thinking didn’t come along and gum up the works. The obvious difficulty with these positions is that it’s hard to think of a question they answer. The paradoxes and conundrums remain.

Koch does not want to give up on science; he makes clear that he wants to redeem it. He hopes that Integrated Information Theory (IIT) will help:

Most importantly, though, IIT is a scientific theory, unlike panpsychism. IIT predicts the relationship between neural circuits and the quantity and quality of experience, how to build an instrument to detect experience, pure experience (consciousness without any content) and how to enlarge consciousness by brain-bridging, why certain parts of the brain have it and others not (the posterior cortex versus the cerebellum), why brains with human-level consciousness evolved, and why conventional computers have only a tiny bit of it…

IIT can be thought of as an extension of physics to the central fact of our lives — consciousness. Textbook physics deals with the interaction of objects with each other, dictated by extrinsic causal powers. My and your experiences are the way brains with irreducible intrinsic causal powers feel like from the inside.

IIT offers a principled, coherent, testable, and elegant account of the relationship between these two seemingly disparate domains of existence — the physical and the mental — grounded in extrinsic and intrinsic causal powers. Causal power of two different kinds is the only sort of stuff needed to explain everything in the universe. These powers constitute ultimate reality.

Christof Koch, “Is Consciousness Everywhere?” at The MIT Press Reader (March 15, 2021)

On that view, if there is something that it “is like” to be an atom or a liver cell, so be it. Here, Koch is using Thomas Nagel’s famous concept introduced in the groundbreaking essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” (1974).

Because of the role experience plays in IIT, Koch is skeptical of oft-heard claims for imminent human-like AI:

Experience is in unexpected places, including in all animals, large and small, and perhaps even in brute matter itself. But consciousness is not in digital computers running software, even when they speak in tongues. Ever-more powerful machines will trade in fake consciousness, which will, perhaps, fool most. But precisely because of the looming confrontation between natural, evolved and artificial, engineered intelligence, it is absolutely essential to assert the central role of feeling to a lived life.

Christof Koch, “Is Consciousness Everywhere?” at The MIT Press Reader (March 15, 2021)

Of course, on his theory, individual atoms in the computer (“non-evolved physical systems previously assumed to be mindless”) might conceivably participate in some experience, hence consciousness. But putting all the atoms together in a computer does not produce an entity that experiences things at the human level — or not in principle anyway. In that sense, experience is not a reductive concept.

Koch’s essay at MIT Reader offers a short account of Integrated Information Theory, contrasting it with other theories of consciousness.

What difference will the gradual acceptance of panpsychism make to science?

It may lead to less emphasis on purely reductive explanations for human behavior. We’re all familiar with that sort of thing from popular science literature. For example, the mathematician only develops theorems, we may be told, because that sort of trait enabled the caveman to hunt efficiently, thus to survive and leave fertile offspring. Is it “anti-science” to reflect that eating raw meat also enabled the caveman to survive and leave fertile offspring? Yet the mathematician, for some reason, omits that part of the genetic programming. Why?

IIT is reductive but it is not attempting to reduce conscious experience to some sort of illusion. Experience is a central feature. Thus, it’s presumably accepted that mathematicians develop theorems because they like them and are good at thinking them up. IIT would not, in that sense, posit a “true,” underlying reason that bypasses individual experience in an effort to eventually trace things back to a point where nothing has any experiences because everything is mindless.

Apart from that, it is too soon to tell — except to say that a significant change seems to be afoot.

You may also wish to read:

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.


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.

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Why Would a Neuroscientist Choose Panpsychism Over Materialism?