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New Scientist Offers a Sympathetic Account of Panpsychism

A serious, long form article shows that physicalism (“the mind is just what the brain does”) is failing

Panpsychism, the view that all nature participates in consciousness, has been growing under the radar for some time in science. But it is now coming into plainer view. New Scientist is one of the last places one might have expected to find a serious, long-form account of panpsychism — one that, in the context, amounts to a defense.

Thomas Lewton

Yet that’s just what science writer and filmmaker Thomas Lewton has been permitted by the editors to do. He tells us about his own journey at his site: “Studying physics, I thought telescopes and particle colliders would offer firm answers, but instead they raised more questions.”

And at New Scientist, he tells us why:

It can seem as if there is an insurmountable gap between our subjective experience of the world and our attempts to objectively describe it. And yet our brains are made of matter – so, you might think, the states of mind they generate must be explicable in terms of states of matter. The question is: how? And if we can’t explain consciousness in physical terms, how do we find a place for it in an all-embracing view of the universe?

Thomas Lewton, “A new place for consciousness in our understanding of the universe” at New Scientist (March 30, 2022)

That’s an admirably blunt statement of the central problem, the failure of physicalism, the view that the mind is merely what the brain does. That, as philosopher David Papineau puts it, consciousness is just “brain processes that feel like something.”

A surprising number of physicists are rethinking all that, “convinced that we will never make sense of the universe’s mysteries – things like how reality emerges from the fog of the quantum world and what the passage of time truly signifies – unless we reimagine the relationship between matter and mind.” Which, they realize, can’t be done simply by eliminating the mind from science thinking.

Lewton sounds prepared to deal: “Modern physics was founded on the separation of mind and matter.” Indeed, it was. And if that doesn’t work, materialism is dead. His approach is shorn of the “any minute now, science will explain… ” that characterizes so much popular science writing in this area.

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Einstein’s General Relativity theory, in Lewton’s view, enabled a “view from nowhere” approach to the universe that could leave the mind out. Then quantum mechanics came along and introduced the conscious observer, whose observation causes particles to collapse from a cloud of improbabilities into a definite state.

Philip Goff explains, “The irony is that physicalism has done so well and explained so much precisely because it was designed to exclude consciousness.” But excluding something in principle does not cause it to cease to exist.

However, what if…

One option is to suggest that some form of consciousness, however fragmentary, is an intrinsic property of matter. At a fundamental level, this micro-consciousness is all that exists. The idea, known as panpsychism, rips up the physicalist handbook to offer a simple solution to the hard problem of consciousness, says Goff, by plugging the gap between our inner experiences and our objective, scientific descriptions of the world. If everything is to some extent conscious, we no longer have to account for our experience in terms of non-conscious components.

Thomas Lewton, “A new place for consciousness in our understanding of the universe” at New Scientist (March 30, 2022)

So panpsychism is an effort to rescue naturalism (the view that nature is all there is, often called “materialism”) by including the mind in nature rather than attempting to disprove its existence.

Most proposed alternatives to panpsychism sound like… panpsychism

Lewton also looks at emergence theory as a competitor to panpsychism:

Emergence is the idea that behaviours and properties that don’t seem to exist when we look at the individual components of a complex system suddenly take shape when we see the system as a whole. Emergent phenomena are, essentially, more than the sum of their parts. Individual water molecules aren’t wet, for instance, and yet wetness is a property of water.

Thomas Lewton, “A new place for consciousness in our understanding of the universe” at New Scientist (March 30, 2022)

It’s not clear what specific problems that solves.

There’s also a new entry, sponsored by cosmologist Lee Smolin among others, according to which physical laws evolve:

Near the big bang, novel events would have been very common. Consciousness would permeate the universe in a picture not unlike panpsychism. But as the universe ages, unprecedented events become much rarer. One potential wellspring of novelty today, however, is the highly complex human brain. Perhaps our brains evolved to make use of these novel events and their freedom to determine the future, says Cortês. The idea is that our awareness results from this creative freedom.

Thomas Lewton, “A new place for consciousness in our understanding of the universe” at New Scientist (March 30, 2022)

“Not unlike panpsychism”? It sounds like a form of panpsychism, actually. Similarly, physicist Carlo Rovelli offers a view that is “a very mild form of panpsychism” in which the distinction between the subject and the object is blurred.

Fundamentally, the scientists Lewton writes about acknowledge that neuroscience does not smooth everything over by explaining how or why the brain produces conscious experiences. And naturalism cannot indefinitely get away with “just around the corner” talk (promissory materialism).

If efforts to rid science of the human mind are widely seen to be failing, the world will hardly be the poorer. But panpsychism takes science into unknown territory. We must wait to see what unfolds.

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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New Scientist Offers a Sympathetic Account of Panpsychism