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Nautilus Offers a “Primer” on Panpsychism

Noting the growth in interest from science writers as well as neuroscientists and philosophers, the magazine offers four essays discussing current approaches

Recently, we’ve been discussing the way panpsychism is creating competition for naturalism in the sciences. Where naturalism sees cognition/consciousness as an illusion that happen to aid survival, panpsychism sees it as part of the substrate of nature, more obviously present in more complex entities like humans than in less complex ones. Neither view appeals to the supernatural in principle but to the panpsychist, information is as much a part of nature as matter or energy. Its effects are pervasive and real. And consciousness is not something to just be explained away. Such a view may change the way many see nature on topics ranging from the environment to evolution.

In a 2020 special edition of Nautilus, “Panpsychism: This Changes Everything,” editor Kevin Berger provides an overview of the trend:

In one of Nautilus’ most popular articles, “Is Matter Conscious?” Hedda Hassel Mørch explained how the hard problem [of consciousness] wasn’t that hard at all. Rather than fret over how the hardware of brains gives rise to the software of consciousness, we could find peace by reversing the order.

… “The possibility that consciousness is the real concrete stuff of reality, the fundamental hardware that implements the software of our physical theories, is a radical idea,” Mørch admitted. “It completely inverts our ordinary picture of reality in a way that can be difficult to fully grasp. But it may solve two of the hardest problems in science and philosophy at once.”

Kevin Berger, “Panpsychism” at Nautilus (February 27, 2020)
George Musser

Here are four articles from that edition that shed light on panpsychism:

➤ Award-winning science writer George Musser, author of Spooky Action at a Distance and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory, discusses the problems, intractable to naturalism, that panpsychism might help resolve, for example,

Second, panpsychism would solve the hard problem of consciousness. The objective methods of science seem inherently incapable of explaining subjective experience. The scent of a rose or awfulness of scratching a blackboard is not decomposable into smaller pieces, not mathematically describable, and not experimentally accessible. It seems to require a new feature of reality as deep as anything in physics, or perhaps even deeper. Complex minds are composed of simpler ones—“mind dust,” as William James put it. If so, everything in the universe is conscious to some degree.

Panpsychism might also solve a complementary problem: the hard problem of matter. Philosophers such as Hedda Mørch and Philip Goff argue that physics describes what material objects do, but not what they are—their intrinsic nature. Subjective experience might plug that gap, because it is intrinsic. There is something about scents and screeches that is impossible to grasp by reference to anything else; it must be experienced directly. By this argument, everything in the world has phenomenal as well as material qualities.

George Musser, “The Forest Spirits of Today Are Computers” at Nautilus

He notes correctly that several of today’s leading theories of consciousness imply panpsychism.

➤ Science editor and writer Annaka Harris, author of a New York Times bestseller, Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind (2019) talks about what consciousness does and doesn’t mean from a panpsychist perspective:

When considering panpsychic views it’s important to first distinguish between consciousness and thought. We should be careful not to reflexively rail against the idea that rocks and spoons are conscious, which is obviously false when put this way. If consciousness is fundamental, all matter must entail consciousness by definition, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to specify such things as “moon consciousness” or “tree consciousness.” We would expect that the region of spacetime occupied by a rock, say, entails consciousness because matter is present there. We can’t imagine what that region of particles feels like (or that it has a unified perspective at all, which seems unlikely). What we can be fairly sure of, however, is that it doesn’t contain a humanlike experience or even a single “point of view.” Just as we wouldn’t expect (the collection of atoms that make up) a rock to get up and walk or sing—that’s not what atoms configured in such a way do—we also wouldn’t expect it to feel a single, unified point of view. And we certainly wouldn’t expect it to have anything like human thoughts or intentions.

If some version of panpsychism is correct, we would still assume that information in a complex and integrated form is required to produce experiences like ours. We shouldn’t feel compelled to wonder if there is a specific “rock consciousness” any more than we’re compelled to wonder if there is a “rock-plus-the-five-blades-of grass-the-rock-is-touching consciousness.” That description of consciousness is based on an anthropomorphic view, projecting separateness in isolated packages: me, you, rock, spoon. But perhaps there is a felt experience present—in a form we can’t imagine—across the matter in any given area of spacetime.

Annaka Harris, “Consciousness Isn’t Self-Centered” at Nautilus

➤ New York University philosopher Hedda Hassel Mørch talks about the way a proper understanding of consciousness might help solve problems related to matter (the Hard Problem of matter):

Might the hard problem of consciousness and the hard problem of matter be connected? There is already a tradition for connecting problems in physics with the problem of consciousness, namely in the area of quantum theories of consciousness. Such theories are sometimes disparaged as fallaciously inferring that because quantum physics and consciousness are both mysterious, together they will somehow be less so. The idea of a connection between the hard problem of consciousness and the hard problem of matter could be criticized on the same grounds. Yet a closer look reveals that these two problems are complementary in a much deeper and more determinate way. One of the first philosophers to notice the connection was Leibniz all the way back in the late 17th century, but the precise modern version of the idea is due to Bertrand Russell. Recently, contemporary philosophers including Chalmers and Strawson have rediscovered it. It goes like this.

The hard problem of matter calls for non-structural properties, and consciousness is the one phenomenon we know that might meet this need. Consciousness is full of qualitative properties, from the redness of red and the discomfort of hunger to the phenomenology of thought. Such experiences, or “qualia,” may have internal structure, but there is more to them than structure. We know something about what conscious experiences are like in and of themselves, not just how they function and relate to other properties.

Hedda Hassell Mørch, “Is Matter Conscious?” at Nautilus

➤ Finally, editors Kevin Berger and Brian Gallagher offer a summary of a variety of perspectives on panpsychism, including: that of neuroscientsit Christof Koch:

What makes systems conscious? Are there any systems that are not conscious? Panpsychism doesn’t answer these questions. But Integrated Information Theory does. It makes some very specific predictions. It says, for instance, all complex neurobiological systems—all creatures that have brains—may well have consciousness, including bees and worms and octopi. It may also be possible that if you build a brain out of wires and transistors, that you find consciousness there, too.

Kevin Berger and Brian Gallagher, “A Clash of Perspectives on Panpsychism” at Nautilus

and naysaying philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci:

Consciousness probably evolved for specific reasons because, after all, it costs a lot metabolically to maintain the kind of brain that can engage in conscious thoughts. There must be a reason and it must be advantageous from the point of view of natural selection. I don’t see any reason to think that inert things are conscious. I don’t even see a particular reason to think that a lot of other biological things, like plants, bacteria, things like that, are conscious. But that’s just one perspective and one way to look at it.

Kevin Berger and Brian Gallagher, “A Clash of Perspectives on Panpsychism” at Nautilus

What’s really interesting about Pigliucci’s comments is that even a decade or so ago, his was an utterly conventional view. Now he feels he must qualify it by saying “But that’s just one perspective and one way to look at it.” It seems that fewer researchers today expect the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” to suddenly yield to a new research finding — a situation that leaves many looking with interest and sympathy at a non-naturalist approach like panpsychism.

You may also wish to read: Why panpsychism is starting to push out naturalism. A key goal of naturalism/materialism has been to explain human consciousness away as “nothing but a pack of neurons.” That can’t work. Panpsychism is not dualism. By including consciousness — including human consciousness — as a bedrock fact of nature, it avoids naturalism’s dead end.

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Nautilus Offers a “Primer” on Panpsychism