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Sabine Hossenfelder, Taking on Consciousness, Tackles Panpsychism

She wants to apologize to all carrots who are watching her video — but carrots are not watching and that’s the point

Recently, I’ve been looking ( here and here) at theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder’s argument that quantum mechanics does not show that consciousness is essential for understanding the universe. The topic has become very interesting because of the growth of panpsychism in science — which Hossenfelder references in the video. Panpsychism is the belief that all of nature participates in some way in consciousness but that it is most highly developed in humans. Many prefer it to materialism because the panpsychist does not need to show that human consciousness is some kind of illusion that we evolved to believe in (?). It is part of the normal functioning of the universe even if we don’t understand how it works. To see Read More ›

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Panpsychism: If Computers Can Have Minds, Why Can’t the Sun?

Sheldrake’s argument that the Sun is conscious cannot be dismissed out of hand by those who insist that computers can become conscious

Recently, biologist Rupert Sheldrake asked at the Journal of Consciousness Studies, “Is the Sun conscious?” It’s the sort of question that people might have asked before the dawn of modern science (and the usual answer was yes). Sheldrake is pretty controversial but he is likely right to note a “recent panpsychist turn in philosophy.” Prominent philosopher David Chalmers, who coined the term the “Hard Problem of consciousness,” has also said “We’re not going to reduce consciousness to something physical … it’s a primitive component of the universe.” But Sheldrake might have added that there is a panpsychist turn in science as well. After all, a mainstream neuroscientist recently argued in a science publication last year that even viruses are intelligent Read More ›

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Why Physicalism Is Failing as the Accepted Approach to Science

The argument that everything in nature can be reduced to physics was killed by the philosophical Zombie, as Prudence Louise explains
At Medium, Prudence Louise, a writer on philosophy and religion, explains that in 1994 philosopher David Chalmers killed the Zombie in cold blood, igniting “a zombie apocalypse.” Sounds like an unusual role for a philosopher. And the Zombie?: “The philosophical notion of a “zombie” basically refers to conceivable creatures which are physically indistinguishable from us but lack consciousness entirely (Chalmers 1996)” — Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Louise asks us to picture that: Imagine you meet your doppelganger. Someone physically identical to you, atom for atom. The only difference is the doppelganger has no inner consciousness. They look happy or sad, they even tell you of their hopes and dreams. But there is nothing more than physical processes moving in response to physical causes. Their lips move and sounds which are meaningful to you come out, but they experience nothing at all. From the outside you are identical. But from the inside the zombie is a hollow imitation. That is a philosophical zombie. The physical structure, functions and behavior are identical, but there is no consciousness. What exactly is the missing ingredient? Prudence Louise, “The Impossibly Hard Problem of Consciousness” at Medium (October 30, 3021) The zombie could, in principle, exist. At the same time, we all know we are not zombies in the sense that we know we are conscious more certainly than we know anything else. And if consciousness is an illusion, well, whose illusion is it? As Louise goes on to show, for a physicalist (a person who believes that everything is physical), the zombie is an “explanatory nightmare.” It forces us to sense that there is something besides the physical. Although we can explain more and more about the human body in terms of structure and function, there is no good science-based theory of consciousness on the horizon. And if we can explain everything about a human being except consciousness, well, we haven’t explained, say, the difference between Jane and Zombie-Jane, which humans generally agree is important. As Louise explains in her short article, “The stakes are high. If there can’t be a scientific explanation of conscious experience, this shows physicalism is false.” One problem is that science explains third-person phenomena but consciousness is a first-person phenomenon. She then goes into much more careful logical and philosophical detail but here’s the gist: When you move your body to the fridge in response to a desire for a snack, or take medication in response to pain, or lock the doors due to a fear of burglars, there is no causal connection between those conscious states and the physical effects of your body moving. This view isn’t fatal to the physicalist theory, but it puts it on critical life support. Our mental states cause actions which move matter constantly, giving us a lot of evidence it’s true. Any arguments those powers are illusory will need to be stronger than our confidence our conscious states cause our bodies to move. Prudence Louise, “The Impossibly Hard Problem of Consciousness” at Medium (October 30, 3021) Physicalism took root in a mechanistic view of the universe, pioneered by Isaac Newton. And before the Zombie even showed up, that view was already being challenged by quantum mechanics, in which the conscious observer plays a key role in what happens. But, for scientists, physicalism is not the only game in town: Alternative metaphysics, like idealism, substance dualism or panpsychism all avoid the hard problem by denying causal closure. They accept the observation that consciousness is non-physical, and it’s causally effective, which means causal closure must be false. Unlike the observations of consciousness and its causal powers, causal closure isn’t based on observations of the world. It’s a metaphysical commitment. Physicalism is confronting a problem created by its philosophical commitments being in conflict with our observations of the world. Prudence Louise, “The Impossibly Hard Problem of Consciousness” at Medium (October 30, 3021) Of the three alternatives Louise lists, panpsychism seems to the one many scientists are gravitating to. Instead of “nothing is conscious,” many now think everything is conscious. Just recently, prominent biochemist James Shapiro titled a paper “All living cells are cognitive.” And prominent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio offered that viruses have some type of intelligence. Other well-known science achievers argue that electrons have a rudimentary mind. In response to criticism from physicists Sabine Hossenfelder and Sean Carroll, philosopher Philip Goff points out that panpsychism is not in conflict with physics. It offers a simpler view of physics than dualism, with fewer gaps than materialism (including physicalism). Essentially, panpsychism offers a way for scientists to address human consciousness, as currently understood, without explaining it away as an illusion. It would allow them to say that if Zombie-Jane existed, she would be missing something critical that Jane has (and so does everything else, to at least some extent). Whether that benefit makes panpsychism a better explanation of reality than idealism or dualism is a separate question. Each of these points of view has its own issues but the Zombie isn’t one of them. You may also wish to read: Theoretical physicist slams panpsychism Electrons cannot be conscious Sabine Hossenfelder’s view because they cannot change their behavior. Hossenfelder’s impatience is understandable but she underestimates the seriousness of the problem serious thinkers about consciousness confront. There is a reason that some scientists believe that the universe is conscious: It would be more logically coherent to say that you think the universe is conscious than to say that your own consciousness is an illusion. With the first idea, you may be wrong. With the second idea, you are not anything. Read More ›
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Did Minimal Consciousness Drive the Cambrian Explosion?

Eva Jablonka’s team makes the daring case, repurposing Hungarian chemist Tibor Gánti’s origin of life studies

Eva Jablonka is “one of the world’s foremost experts in epigenetic inheritance and evolution” but she has also had a longstanding interest in consciousness studies. She was author, with Marion J. Lamb, of Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (MIT Press 2006/rev. 2014). She and neurobiologist Simona Ginsburg, along with illustrator Anna Zeligowski, offer a new approach to the origin of consciousness in an essay at IAI.TV — one with an interesting departure from many approaches to consciousness: Taking their inspiration from Hungarian chemist Tibor Gánti (1933–2009), who posited a chemoton — the minimal life form or protocell — as the origin of life, they first attempt to define minimal consciousness, Read More ›

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The Day Philosophers Started To Take Consciousness Seriously

Of course, once they did, they found themselves deep in huge conundrums

We sometimes forget how far we are from solving the mystery of consciousness. An anecdote from 1994 might help us understand. Picture an utterly boring, pointless conference in Tucson, Arizona, one of whose attendees was an obscure philosopher from Australia, scheduled to give the third talk. And shook everything up: The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all “easy problems”, in the scheme of things: given enough time and money, experts would figure them out. Read More ›

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Will We Soon Be Able to Test Theories of Consciousness?

Proponents of two leading theories of consciousness are trying to develop tests for their models, in a hitherto baffling field

Science journalist and author Anil Ananthaswamy has written a thoughtful piece at New Scientist on the leading models of consciousness and their relationship to quantum mechanics (quantum physics). Are we reaching the point where we can test at least one of them? Ananthaswamy is well qualified to assess the arguments. He is the author of both Through Two Doors at Once (2018) on quantum physics and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2015) on the nature of the self. Models of consciousness that assume that “consciousness isn’t separate from the material reality that physics explains” (materialist or naturalist theories) fall into three general classes, as he explains. Analysts like Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett and Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano argue that consciousness Read More ›

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Science Journalist: No Hype. Consciousness Is a HARD Problem!

Michael Hanlon reflected on the many futile efforts to “solve” consciousness

British science journalist Michael Hanlon (1964–2016), co-author with Tracey Brown of In the Interests of Safety (2014), had some sobering things to say about the trivial pursuit of an easy theory of consciousness. Considering materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett and less materialist philosopher David Chalmers (who coined the term the “Hard Problem of Consciousness”), he reflects, Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Daniel Dennett wrote that: ‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery.’ A few years later, Chalmers added: ‘[It] may be the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.’ They were right then and, despite the tremendous scientific advances since, they are still right today. I do not think that the Read More ›

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How WOULD We Know If an AI Is Conscious?

It might be more complicated than we think. A powerful zombie is still a zombie.

Neuroscientist Joel Frohlich (pictured) asks us to reflect on the “philosophical zombie.” That’s not the zombie of the late nite frites. It’s an entity that behaves outwardly in every respect like you and me but has no inner experience (think Stepford Wives). Philosopher David Chalmers originated the term in 1996, by way of illustrating why consciousness is a Hard Problem. A powerful computer can crunch through many difficult jobs without any inner life or consciousness. But, Frohlich, who is editor in chief of the science communications website Knowing Neurons, asks, what if we weren’t sure? How would we test that? Trying to determine if a powerful AI is conscious means getting past programming that might enable it to generate plausible Read More ›

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Can Mathematics Help Us Understand Consciousness?

Gregory Chaitin asks, what if the universe is information, not matter?

In last week’s podcast, “The Chaitin Interview IV: Knowability and Unknowability,” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks interviewed mathematician Gregory Chaitin, best known for Chaitin’s Unknowable Number, on, among other things, consciousness. What can mathematics contribute to the discussion. Also, what does Chaitin think about panpsychism (everything is conscious”)? The discussion began with reference to David Chalmers’s 1996 book, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, in which Chalmers coined the term “Hard Problem of Consciousness.” The term acknowledged what everyone knew, that human consciousness is a very difficult problem to understand, especially from a materialist perspective.Are there other approaches? Chaitin offers a look at the challenge panpsychism presents to materialism: https://episodes.castos.com/mindmatters/Mind-Matters-127-Gregory-Chaitin.mp3 This portion begins at 28:25 Read More ›

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The Chaitin Interview IV: Knowability and Unknowability

What does it mean for something to be unknowable? Is creativity non-computable? Do all things have a level of consciousness? Jump into today’s podcast, where Robert J. Marks continues his discussion with Gregory Chaitin about mathematical theory and philosophy. Show Notes 00:23 | Introducing Gregory Chaitin 00:40 | What is unknowability? 06:07 | Does non-computable mean unknowable? 09:43 | A Read More ›

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Has Neuroscience “Proved” That the Mind Is Just the Brain?

This is hardly the first time that bizarre claims have been made for minimal findings. In neuroscience, materialism is the answer only if you don’t understand the questions.

Last month, materialist neurologist Steven Novella made a rather astonishing claim in a post at his Neurologica blog: A recent open-access study of learning and decision-making in mice shows that the human mind is merely what the human brain does. That’s a lot for mice to prove. In the study, the mice were trained to choose holes from which food is provided. Their brain activity was measured as they learned and decided which holes were best. The research looks specifically at quick and intuitive decision-making vs. decision-making that is slower and involves analysis of the situation. The investigators found that analysis-based decisions in the mice involve brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a region of the brain Read More ›

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Why Some Scientists Believe the Universe Is Conscious

They’re not mystics. But materialism is not giving good answers so they are looking around

These prominent thinkers are driven to panpsychism because materialism about the mind doesn’t really work. So if panpsychism ends up seeming absurd, dualism—there really is an immaterial world—is also worth considering.

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Panpsychism: You Are Conscious but So Is Your Coffee Mug

Materialists have a solution to the problem of consciousness, and it may startle you
To understand why Scientific American would take panpsychism or the "multiple personality disorder" universe seriously, one needs to begin by grasping how very hard the problem of consciousness is for materialists (naturalists). Put simply, it is easier for many today to stomach the idea that an electron is conscious than the idea that consciousness is not a material entity. Read More ›