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How a Materialist Philosopher Argued His Way to Panpsychism

Galen Strawson starts with the one fact of which we are most certain — our own consciousness

In 2018, science writer Robert Wright interviewed physicalist philosopher Galen Strawson (pictured) who, in a long conversation, explained the logical steps by which he — a philosopher who holds that nature is all there is and that everything is physical — also came to believe that consciousness underlies everything. Wright published a long excerpt from the discussion in June 2020, in which Strawson explains his reasoning.

Wright starts things off by noting that “In recent years more and more philosophers seem to have embraced panpsychism—the view that consciousness pervades the universe and so is present, in however simple a form, in every little speck of matter.”

Indeed, even publications like Scientific American have run panpsychist opinion pieces in recent years. The currently most popular theory of consciousness, Integrated Information Theory (IIT), is panpsychist. What’s changed? Strawson’s journey might shed some light.

Strawson, who also describes himself as a naturalist and atheist, told Wright that, in his usage, “physicalism” is equivalent to “materialism” in everyday language.

He begins with physics. At a fundamental level, there is no physical “stuff”:

There just seem to be patterns in fields — like the electromagnetic field — and that’s really all there is. There are no grainy little bits, even at the very bottom… I think a lot of people think that we shouldn’t even think of them as things. They’re just vibratory patterns in fields.

Robert Wright, “What is it like to be an electron? An interview with Galen Strawson” at NonZero (June 28, 2020)

His materialism “amounts to thinking there’s only one kind of stuff, and, indeed, that physics says a lot of true things about it…”

But then, what about consciousness?

Perhaps each of us knows for certain that he or she exists—fine—but the only other general thing we know for certain is that consciousness exists.

Robert Wright, “What is it like to be an electron? An interview with Galen Strawson” at NonZero (June 28, 2020)

Some physicalist philosophers — Strawson names Daniel Dennett and Keith Frankish — deny that consciousness exists. He thinks that if it does exist, it would have a physical character, compatible with physics: “In my view, the only thing we know for sure about it [physics] is that sometimes it manifests as the kind of conscious [experience] we’re having right now. …”

He breaks his approach down into steps:

Step one is: one thing we know for sure is that consciousness is real.

Step two—this is an assumption, technically— [is] I believe there’s only one kind of stuff and I call it “physical stuff.”

So, I’m a physicalist and I know that consciousness is real. I have to say that consciousness is physical. That’s step three.

Robert Wright, “What is it like to be an electron? An interview with Galen Strawson” at NonZero (June 28, 2020)

But now what is Step four? If consciousness is physical, is it universal in both animate and inanimate nature?

Wright asks “Isn’t it kind of challenging to imagine that it’s like anything at all to be my curtains?” and Strawson replies,

I don’t think there is anything that’s like to be curtains…

What I do think is … that the weave of energy stuff that they’re made of — [that] consciousness resides in that.

To think that the stuff of which it’s made involves consciousness … doesn’t entail that every piece of every particular clumping of it also is a subject of consciousness. That’s no more plausible than thinking that a football team is a subject of consciousness because it’s made of subjects of consciousness.

Robert Wright, “What is it like to be an electron? An interview with Galen Strawson” at NonZero (June 28, 2020)

Strawson posits that the energy of electrons is itself consciousness:

So, what is the electron made of? Well, in some sense, it’s just energy. I think of it as a sort of “bzzzz”—you know, just a little buzzing thing of energy.

And … what is the intrinsic nature of that, above the things we know it does, the effect it has on other things? It’s consciousness. That’s the suggestion.

The point is simply that it’s a very elegant and parsimonious theory, because we haven’t postulated any non-experiential stuff at all. And again, the only thing we know absolutely for certain is that there is consciousness. So why are we going out there and postulating that there’s something utterly non-conscious, and then creating for ourselves a huge theoretical problem about how we get consciousness out of the non-conscious?

Robert Wright, “What is it like to be an electron? An interview with Galen Strawson” at NonZero (June 28, 2020)

Later, he adds, “The energy process is experiencing. So I don’t touch anything in physics. I simply replace the picture of energy that most people have with the idea that this energy is somehow experiencing. That’s it.”

Strawson’s version of panpsychism appears economical in that it dispenses with the conundrum of the origin of consciousness. Except for one thing: To bridge the gap to human consciousness, he relies on evolution, seen as an active force rather than as a sequence of events:

But the fact about evolution is that evolution needs something to work on. So just as it found bodily shape and worked on that and gave us opposable thumbs and wonderful things like that, so too it found consciousness and worked on that and worked it up into vision and hearing and all these wonderfully adaptive forms.

But I don’t need to explain how it got to be at all. It’s just that it was already part of the material that the evolution found.

What evolution does … [is] it takes purely physical stuff and molds it into a form in which it … operates effectively.

It just so happens that the stuff it worked on was already, as it were, consciousness-involving.

Robert Wright, “What is it like to be an electron? An interview with Galen Strawson” at NonZero (June 28, 2020)

In the subsequent discussion, Strawson makes clear that he wants to get rid of any notion of a “threshold” at which human consciousness kicks in. That’s the attraction of the panpsychist assumption that consciousness is latent in electrons. He describes electron consciousness as “a very dull, kind of undifferentiated sentience.”

He summarizes his motivation:

Wanting to be a physicalist, committing to physicalism, and realizing the only thing I know for sure about it is what I know when I have conscious experience.

Robert Wright, “What is it like to be an electron? An interview with Galen Strawson” at NonZero (June 28, 2020)

Readers may sense a contradiction in the theory: “Evolution” is a designer and engineer in Strawson’s telling: “Evolution finds a consciousness base and tunes it in a way that makes it serve those functions.” But how does that fit with the physicalist universe he describes? There isn’t supposed to be an active agent creating things.

Whether or not Strawson’s panpsychism offers a coherent view of evolution, it’s easy to see the attraction: a way of accommodating consciousness, the one thing of which we feel utterly certain, in a wholly material universe. Those who are content to make fun of panpsychism are probably underestimating that attraction.

Note: The interview is available as a video at Meaning of Life TV:

You may also wish to read: 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.”

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How a Materialist Philosopher Argued His Way to Panpsychism