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Panpsychism Is, in Angus Menuge’s View, a Desperate Move

But he thinks it is worth keeping an eye on as an understandable reaction to materialism

In Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks’s second podcast with philosopher Angus Menuge, the big topic is the perennial “Hard Problem of consciousness and various proposed solutions. Last time, they talked about the surprisingly large philosophical problem created by a concept like “red.” This time, they talk about whether Integrated Information Theory (IIT) and panpsychism in general are a way out of the dead end of naturalism. That is, if our science hypothesis is that consciousness is just an illusion, then we don’t — and can’t — have a hypothesis. There must be a better solution than that:

This portion begins at 10:35 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Robert J. Marks: Okay. Let’s get back to some of the models of consciousness here. You mentioned one in the last podcast, panpsychism. This seems to me to be a cop-out to people that can’t define consciousness in materialistic form.

Angus Menuge: (pictured): Panpsychism does seem to me a rather desperate move. It wants to say that all of matter either has a mind or, in panprotopsychism, that it’s incipiently mind-like. Therefore the mind is somehow a potentiality that’s built into matter. And it’s just a matter then of getting the right configuration and you will get all the wonders of mind appearing.

Note: Philosopher David Chalmers, who coined the term “Hard Problem of Consciousness,” offers an explanation of panpsychism in the written copy of his 2013 Amherst Lecture in Philosophy: “Panpsychism, taken literally, is the doctrine that everything has a mind. In practice, people who call themselves panpsychists are not committed to as strong a doctrine. They are not committed to the thesis that the number two has a mind, or that the Eiffel tower has a mind, or that the city of Canberra has a mind, even if they believe in the existence of numbers, towers, and cities.

Instead, we can understand panpsychism as the thesis that some fundamental physical entities have mental states. For example, if quarks or photons have mental states, that suffices for panpsychism to be true, even if rocks and numbers do not have mental states. Perhaps it would not suffice for just one photon to have mental states. The line here is blurry, but we can read the definition as requiring that all members of some fundamental physical types (all photons, for example) have mental states”

Angus Menuge: One of the problems with this though, is of course, the unity of consciousness, because if these individual particles are mind-like, and then they formed together, what you would predict and expect is the emergence of many consciousnesses. And in fact, we find the most striking fact about consciousness is that it’s unified.

That problem is also a problem for physicalism because physicalism has this very complex brain. And we now know for certain that the different parts of the brain are used for processing information about different parts of an object.

And yet, in consciousness, that object is one thing, like a blue bowl. It’s not as if there is a consciousness of blueness and a consciousness of being a bowl and they’re separate from one another. There’s this objectual unity. And I think that that combinatorial problem is a strong problem for panpsychism just as it is for materialism.

Robert J. Marks (pictured): I think the idea of assigning a consciousness to matter the same way you assign mass or energy or something like that is really stretching things. So there are still people that are really backing the concept of panpsychism. And I suppose if you’re a materialist, you don’t have a lot of options, but that’s one of your options.

Another model of consciousness is so-called integrated information theory. I had a chat with one of my mathematical heroes, Gregory Chaitin and I confessed to him I did not understand integrated information theory as popularized today by Christof Koch. And he admitted to me, “I don’t understand it either.” …

Do you have any opinions on it?

Note: Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is currently the leading theory of consciousness. Its model of consciousness is that the human mind emerges from brain activity in the same way that, for example, complex patterns emerge from the Golden Ratio. It depends on the assumption that the basis for consciousness already exists in, say electrons. As Christof Koch explains, “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.”

Angus Menuge: It’s a somewhat interesting approach. It admits the hard problem of consciousness — namely that, from nothing we know physically, can you predict or explain consciousness. So it suggests that we go about it in the opposite direction. What it basically says is that we first do an analysis of the essence of conscious experiences. And we call them in the theory, the axioms. This is where we’re going to begin and we’re going to accept consciousness as it presents itself. Now that side of it, I think, is admirable.

I get disturbed by eliminative materialists like Paul Churchland who seem to deny that we’re really conscious, that we even have beliefs and desires. But these phenomena are there and that’s denying the facts. So he [Christof Koch] starts by accepting that there is an accessible intrinsic character of consciousness. And then from that tries to infer, well, what would the physical correlates of consciousness be like to support these characteristics of consciousness?

Note: Philosopher Paul Churchland “is famous for championing the thesis that our everyday, common-sense, ‘folk’ psychology, which seeks to explain human behavior in terms of the beliefs and desires of agents, is actually a deeply flawed theory that must be eliminated in favor of a mature cognitive neuroscience.” – Tadeusz Zawidzki, “Churchland, Paul” Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind

Angus Menuge: So it’s like a reverse engineering project. And what’s interesting too, is that it wants to be a scientific account, it wants to make scientifically testable claims about what the state of the cortex would have to be in order for you to have a conscious experience.

And the idea is that it’s correlated with the ability to have integrated representations of a certain kind and so that when you’re comatose or drifting off to sleep, what’s happening is that ability to form those representations breaks down. And that’s the point at which consciousness breaks down. So I think it’s worth following and looking into it.

I tend to think though, there are going to be some obvious problems with it. It is offering in effect an allegedly causal account of consciousness. But the problem is that there is nothing about those physical substrates that really gives you any reason to expect subjectivity to arise. And there is nothing about those states that really explains intentionality.

So you’ll see, sometimes it will talk about the structure or even the geometry of these representations. I’m not sure what’s being said anymore, because it seems like there are now physical metaphors being used of our thoughts. So when I think about a triangle, my thought is not triangular and intentionality, it really doesn’t reduce to anything physical for some fairly obvious reasons.

I can think about the future, but the future cannot be physically causing me to think about it. I can think about the Eiffel Tower right now, and it’s not closely influencing me. And I can also think about non-existent objects like elves and hobbits. So the difficulty is, even if you could find some of these causal correlates, most likely they are just preconditions. It may very well be that normally if your brain is not in a certain state, you won’t be conscious of various things. That’s the kind of thing I would expect scientists to be able to give good evidence for.

But there’s going to be a gap between these causal preconditions for you to be conscious and explaining what it is that you are thinking about or what it is that you are feeling. There’s a content there. And that intentionality doesn’t seem to me to reduce to anything physical or be explained by those states of the brain.

Robert J. Marks: Okay. I think I have a better understanding now of integrated information theory than I did before. I read a report that Christof Koch gave his theory of integrated information theory to an audience of computer programmers who were very hopeful of a future of artificial general intelligence. And they did not like Koch’s claims that this would be not computable in the near future, that we had a long way to go into development of the future. So that’s rubbing people the wrong way, I guess, in some cases.

Next: Can quantum mechanics help us understand consciousness and free will?


Here’s the earlier discussion in this podcast:

Angus Menuge explains why “red” is such a problem in philosophy. “Red” is an example of qualia, concepts we can experience that have no physical existence otherwise. Materialism would be easy if it weren’t for concepts like “red” which are quite real but abstracted from physical reality.

Show Notes

  • 00:26 | Introducing Dr. Angus Menuge
  • 01:01 | Phenomenal consciousness and qualia
  • 07:25 | Experiencing vision and color
  • 10:35 | Problems for panpsychism
  • 12:48 | Integrated information theory
  • 18:22 | Quantum consciousness
  • 25:33 | Testing consciousness in artificial intelligence

Additional Resources

Podcast Transcript Download


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Panpsychism Is, in Angus Menuge’s View, a Desperate Move