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Are electrons conscious?

For most of the twentieth century a “brain-first” approach dominated the philosophy of consciousness. The idea was that the brain is the thing we really understand, through neuroscience, and the task of the philosopher is try to understand how that thing “gives rise” to subjective experience: to the inner world of colours, smells and sounds that each of us knows in our own case. This philosophical project has not gone all that well–nobody has provided even the beginnings of a satisfying solution to what David Chalmers called “the hard problem” of consciousness.

More recently a quiet revolution has been occurring in philosophy of mind which aims to turn the brain-first approach on its head. According to the view that has come to be known as “Russellian monism,” physical science tell us surprisingly little about nature of the brain (more on this below). It is the nature of consciousness that we really understand–through being conscious–and hence the philosophical task is to build our picture of the brain around our understanding of consciousness. We might call this a “consciousness-first” approach to the mind-body problem. The general approach has given birth to a broad family of specific theories outlined in numerous recent publications. Suddenly progress on consciousness looks possible.

The essence of Russellian monism

The conscious mind and the physical brain seem on the face of it to be wildly different things. For one thing, conscious experiences involve a wide variety of what philosophers call “phenomenal qualities.” This is just a technical term for the qualities we find in our experience: the redness of a red experience, the itchiness of an itch, the sensation of spiciness. A neuroscientific description of the brain seems to leave out these qualities. How on earth can quality-rich experience be accommodated within soggy grey brain matter?

The Russellian monist solution, inspired by certain writings of Bertrand Russell from the 1920s, is to point out that physical science is in fact silent on the intrinsic nature of matter, restricting itself to telling us what matter does. Neuroscience characterises a region of the brain in terms of (A) its causal relationships with other brain regions/sensory inputs/behavioural outputs and (B) its chemical constituents. Chemistry in turns characterises those chemical constituents in terms of (A) their causal relationships with other chemical entities and (B) their physical constituents. Finally, physics characterises basic physical properties in terms of their causal relationships with other basic physical properties. Throughout the whole hierarchy of the physical sciences we learn only about causal relationships.

And yet there must be more to the nature of a physical entity, such as the cerebellum, than its causal relationships. There must be some intrinsic nature to the cerebellum, some way it is in and of itself independently of what it does. About this intrinsic nature physical science remains silent.

Accepting this casts the problem of consciousness in a completely different light, and points the way to a solution. Our initial question was, “Where in the physical processes of the brain are the phenomenal qualities?” Our discussion has led to another question, “What is the intrinsic nature of physical brain processes?” The Russellian monist proposes answering both question at once, by identifying phenomenal properties with the intrinsic nature of (at least some) physical brain processes. Whilst neuroscience characterises brain processes extrinsically, in terms of what they do, in their intrinsic nature they are forms of quality-rich consciousness.

Two Arguments for Panpsychism

Russellian monism is a general framework for unifying matter and mind and thereby avoiding dualism: the view of Descartes that mind and body are radically different kinds of thing. But how to fill in the details is much debated. Many have found it natural to extend Russellian monism into a form of panpsychism, the view that all matter involves experience of some form, bringing a new respectability to this much maligned view. There are essentially two arguments for this extension, one of which I don’t accept and one of which I do.

The first is the “intelligible emergence argument,” an ancient argument for panpsychism championed in modern times by Galen Strawson. The idea is that it is only by supposing that there is consciousness “all the way down” to electrons and quarks that we can render the emergence of human and animal consciousness intelligible. Experience can’t possibly emerge from the utterly non-experiential, according to Strawson, so it must be there all along. One difficulty for this argument is that even if we do attribute basic consciousness to the smallest bits of the brain, it’s still not clear how to intelligibly account for the consciousness of the brain as a whole. How do the interactions of trillions of tiny minds produce a big mind? This is the so-called “combination problem” for panpsychism, and until it is solved it’s not obvious that the panpsychist Russellian monist has an advantage over the non-panpsychist Russellian monist when it comes to explaining the emergence of human and animal consciousness.

I favour instead what I call “the simplicity argument” for panpsychism. Whilst in the mind-set that physical science is giving us a complete picture of the universe, panpsychism is implausible, as physical science doesn’t seem to be telling us that electrons are conscious. But once we accept the basic tenets of Russellian monism, things look quite different. Physical science tells us nothing about the intrinsic nature of matter; indeed arguably the only thing we know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it, i.e. the brains and humans, have a consciousness-involving nature. From this epistemic starting point, the most simple, parsimonious speculation is that the nature of matter outside of brains is continuous with the nature of matter inside of brains, in also being consciousness-involving. This may seem like an insubstantial consideration, but science is strongly motivated by considerations of simplicity. Special relativity, for example, is empirically equivalent to its Lorenzian rival but favoured as a much simpler interpretation of the data.

Against neuro-fundamentalism

Some philosophers–I call them “neuro-fundamentalists”–think the only way to make progress on consciousness is to do more neuroscience. These philosophers have an exceedingly limited view of how science operates, as though it’s simply a matter of doing the experiments and recording the data. In fact, many significant developments in science have arisen not from experimental findings in the lab but from a radical reconceptualization of our picture of the universe formulated from the comfort of an armchair. Think of the move in the Minkowski interpretation of special relativity from thinking of space and time as distinct things to the postulation of the single unified entity of spacetime, or Galileo’s separation of the primary and the secondary qualities which paved the way for mathematical physics. My hunch is that progress on consciousness, as well of course as involving neuroscience, will involve this kind of radical reconceptualization of the mind, the brain, and the relationship between them. Russellian monism looks to be a promising framework in which to do this.

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Recent Comments

  1. Wallace Murphree

    Where is A.N. Whitehead in this account? Seems to me his Process and Reality advances the details of how a philosophy of mind might successfully be conceived from such a monistic perspective.

  2. Christopher Tripos

    Your mind has evolved to sustain you as an individual as best as it can, not by means of its free will but by means of its ability. When the mind is totally quietened then you are no longer abiding by the mind and the mind is no longer abiding anywhere. This is known as the state of mind where pain is irrelevant, because there are no boundaries, you are the whole universe. You don’t get there with the aid of good intentions, sentimentality, attachment, vows, mindfulness, hope, desire or will, you get there when you do, and only by surrendering, by letting everything take its course, by realizing that you are all of it just because you are some of it. Because every part of the whole acts in accordance with the whole, every molecule, every atom, every electron, so do you. Whether you like it or not the universe, all of it, acts with one mind, it is called determinism by scientists who see only part of it and fail to see it in its entirety because they are too rigidly attached to the religious notion of free will as well, of course, as to their own individuality. Lack of free will does not imply lack of ability to make decisions. The computer decides, the robot decides, they decide within the boundaries of determinism without fail, just as humans do. Lately we have been led to believe that this does not apply to the subatomic infrastructure of the universe, and therefore free will reigns unobstructed, but this is wrong and misleading. Every quark, or what have you, acts in accordance with the whole, but we fail to see it clearly for many reasons, firstly because we cannot isolate them as we are falsely led to believe that we can do so with larger entities, and secondly because we are attempting to some extent to solve the puzzle topologically, by looking for deciding influences in their neighborhood, and so we end up been buffed with phenomena like spooky action at a distance (see Einstein). As though we have never heard of gravity or the other three fields, or possibly other sinister forces playing their roles on the battlefield, as though we are not aware of chaos theory or its implications. Finally scientists are led to believe that a total solution is plausible, as though it is possible to confine, wrap up, the universe in some equations on a piece of paper and walk away with it. I will not be implicated with judging such a notion, I only want to make clear that this is not the way forward. At any rate quantum mechanics is also called statistical mechanics because it is a probabilistic approach to phenomena that cannot be isolated effectively and scrutinized, practices that are useless at the subatomic level where the influences of an observer have been recorded. What I am really trying to say is that determinism never fails, it simply isn’t apparent as subatomic particles are more intimately connected to the functioning of the rest of the universe than larger objects seem to be. The reason is that determinism seems to want to be apparent at all levels of magnification, with larger entities showing their affiliation at a local level easier. Determinism should not be doubted due to our lack of understanding, or due to our desperate move to give free will a scientific background. Lao Tsu had said “There is nowhere in the universe room to put a wedge.”
    It is imperative that we understand this or else be lost forever. Perish might be a better word.
    Science has been baring gifts to mankind for over a millennium and will continue to do so indefinitely, if only it were more malleable or better if we were. During the whole of the 19th century as well as the first half of the 20th century, scientific breakthroughs were frequent phenomena, whereas now we are bombarded by breakthroughs in development and technology. The reason is lack of further understanding. We have reached the bottom of the well. Which well? Surely not the inexhaustible one? No! No! A man made one! It is the one called objective reality, devoid of consciousness, a children’s playground or a mindless corpse that we are continuously dissecting for fun.
    According to Heisenberg it was Thalis from Millitus the wisest of the seven wise men of antiquity that said “There is an objective reality and it can be understood”, and for this phrase alone he is considered the father of science. Thalis Greek philosopher 6th century BC.
    I hope wise Thalis will forgive us for amending his phrase and consequently merge the observer with objective reality. The universe exhibits consciousness and a more holistic approach might just be a good idea. It might sound unreasonable to some but under a more careful consideration this only translates to impossible, which in turn we very well know that it invariably becomes perfectly possible. At any rate we have already harnessed the unreasonable, quantum mechanics is a testimony to this. Fear, sloth and vanity(See free will) are the only obstacles.
    P.S. This is a recursive text. Please continue from the beginning.

  3. Bjørn Erik Juel

    Thank you for the article.
    What do you think about arguments formulated by HH Mørch about combining Russellian monisim and the Integrated information theory to deal with combination problem in panpsychism?

    – Bjørn

  4. Pat Sampong

    Ultimately you will be left with the last conclusion, the one that tells you not all is knowable, consciousness is not a specimen to be analysed or implanted in a machine, and at last you will be able to accept you know you are conscious of consciousness, but not its creator.

  5. DR

    Seems to me that the’hard’ problem is simply the impossibility of an objective description of subjective experience – as Nagel has it, what it is *like* to be a particular conscious entity. Nevertheless, the evidence we have suggests that consciousness requires a brain of some sophistication.

  6. Donald Swenson

    Dualism needs to be explored more fully. My mind or spirit is separate and distinct from my brain. Think of mind OVER matter. My words which I now use to communicate this message are derived from my mind. Donald swenson

  7. George McKee

    I really wish that philosophers would try to keep up with the sciences that they pontificate about so confidently. At about the same time that Russell was writing about his brand of monism, physicists such as Paul Dirac and Pascual Jordan were creating the foundations of quantum field theory, which was developed by many people including Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman in the 1950s into a basic model of light and electrons, and then by Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weinberg, Abdus Salam and others into the standard model that Frank Wilczek called the Core Theory which we know today. In QFT, the quantum fields are themselves the intrinsic substance of matter and of the forces among those fields. That the ways that perturbations in the fields are very complex and next to impossible to visualize is not an excuse for ignoring these developments — Since when do philosophers shy away from problems just because parts of them are complicated and difficult?

    For scholars who are having difficulty understanding the “combination problem” of how large-scale phenomena can arise from the collective action of many small entities, I would recommend a much older area of physical science, that studied by Ludwig Boltzmann on the notion of “temperature” at the turn of the 20th century, or even the ideas of Democritus 2300 years earlier.

  8. Andrea Christofidou

    I read the abstract with great interest. I was struck by two things: first, the new focus of contemporary philosophers on consciousness-first approach: “It is the nature of consciousness that we really understand–through being conscious–and hence the philosophical task is to build our picture of the brain around our understanding of consciousness.” What I find odd is how can this be a new way of approaching the mind-body problem? It is very similar to Descartes’ defence throughout his work, captured in his response to Arnauld regarding the interaction of mind-body: “it is something which is shown to us […] by the surest and plainest everyday experience [through being conscious].” (29 July 1648 AT V.222: CSMK:358)
    Secondly, that “Russellian monism is a general framework for unifying matter and mind and thereby avoiding dualism: the view of Descartes that mind and body are radically different kinds of thing. But how to fill in the details is much debated.”
    How does the unity of matter and mind avoid Descartes’ dualism, if we are serious about the irreducible reality of the mind? Union is not equivalent to identity. Furthermore, Descartes did not think there was a mind-body problem.

  9. Zvi Herzig

    The major problem for this view (or panpsychism in general) is that if consciousness is ubiquitous, then the probability that a given unit of conscious experience is associated with biological life is extremely minute.

    However, the limited conscious experience we can access is oddly associated with biology. Thus it’s highly improbable that all electrons are conscious or that panpsychism is correct.

  10. glen230277

    “And yet there must be more to be more to the nature of a physical entity, such as the cerebellum, than its causal relationships. There must be some intrinsic nature to the cerebellum, some way it is in and of itself independently of what it does.”

    Can anyone explain why this is the case?

  11. glen230277

    “once we accept the basic tenants of monism”

    Umm … ‘tenets’ perhaps?

  12. Lorenzo Sleakes

    The common sense naïve folk point of view is that certain things appear to be alive and conscious because they are self-movers. Thus entities like birds are conscious wile the feathers that shed onto the ground are not. Single celled amoebas, which don’t even have a brain appear to be as conscious as animal’s with brains. Even in modern quantum physics elementary particles can be thought of as self movers and therefore conscious as their actions are somewhat unpredictable and only in large numbers appear to be highly deterministic. Chairs on the other hand are not conscious self movers. see https://philpapers.org/rec/SLESA

  13. Karl Young

    Having an alternative to “neuro-fundamentalism” seems useful, and this version seems reminiscent of Spinoza’s more compelling ideas. But I worry about the reliance on the existence of entities having an intrinsic nature, which would seem to in turn require the highly debated ability to “cut nature at it’s joints” (perhaps my inclinations towards Buddhist thinking are showing…).

  14. Philip Goff

    Thanks for comments on my article! Here are some responses:

    Wallace: Sure, I would think of Whitehead as a version of this view. You can’t talk about everything in a short article! I have a PhD student currently working on process philosophy as it happens.

    Bjorn:I like Morch’s work very much indeed. I’m not sure IIT helps with the combination problem, but it’s a really interested theory of consciousness worth investigating further.

    Pat: I guess I think we have to speculate with the limited data that is available to us.

    DR: Yes, I think there are two ways of setting up the hard problem: one focusing on subjectivity and one focusing on phenomenal qualities. I accept both, but think the latter is slightly more dialectically powerful. What evidence did you have in mind?

  15. Vladimir Rogozhin

    First of all, it is necessary to solve the super hard problem of the ontological basification of mathematics (knowledge), and then it is already possible to solve the “hard problem of consciousness”…. Consciousness is a univalent phenomenon of ontological (structural, cosmic) memory, shown at the certain level of the Universum being as holistic process of generation of structures and meanings. Consciousness is an cognitive process of “grasping” of meanings. Consciousness is an absolute attractor of meanings.Meaning is the universal foundation of being. Meanings are primordial in the Universum. Establishment of the ontological status of consciousness is possible only on the basis of solution of the problem of the basification of mathematics (knowledge) – establishment of the ontological framework, carcass and foundation of knowledge. ..Ontological (structural, cosmic) memory of the Universum is a measure of being as a whole, “soul of matter”, qualitative quantity of absolute forms of matter existence (absolute states). Ontological memory is something that generates, keeps, develops, transforms, directs everything, i.e. it has causal, semantic, eidetic definiteness of the Universum being – meta-noumen (the integrative reason, “reason of reasons” = “entelecheia” + “nous”). Ontological memory creates the initial ontological tension of the Universum shown in hierarchical “forces” and “energy” of the Universum. Ontological memory is a semantic core of conceptual structure of the Universum as holistic process of generation of new meanings and structures. “An educated people without a metaphysics is like a richly decorated temple without a holy of holies.” (G.W.F.Hegel)

  16. Philip Goff

    I’m the author. Here are some more responses:
    @Donald Swenson
    I don’t think we can definitely rule out dualism, but I think it’s preferable all things being equal to go for the more parsimonious theory and panpsychism is more parsimonious than dualism.
    @George McKee There seem to me two options here. Either quantum fields are characterised in an entirely mathematical vocabulary, in which case we run into Newman’s problem (which I discuss in ‘Is it a problem that physics is mathematical?’ on my website). Alternately, the fields are characterised dispositionally, but then we’re not getting any account of their intrinsic nature (for more on the need for intrinsic nature, see my defence of panpsychism in current issue of Philosophy Now magazine, or chapter 6 of my book). On the combination problem stuff, it’s not simply how to get any old macro-level phenomena from micro-level phenomena, but how to get facts about macro-level subjects from facts about micro-level subjects. I’m not clear how either Boltzmann or Democritus would help use here.
    @Andrea Christofidou
    On the first issue, you’re right in a sense that the approach is Cartesian. But the difference is that Descartes wasn’t using this approach to characterise the nature of matter. That’s what’s new about the approach (“new” in the sense that it’s a rediscovery from the 1920s). On the second issue, the approach does accept that in a sense the mind is irreducible (or at least it’s not reducible to the kind of facts we get from physical science). But, according to Russellian monism, the irreducible reality of the mind just is the intrinsic nature of the brain; hence, matter and mind are brought together. It’s a beautiful theory!
    @Zvi Herzig Sounds like an interesting point, but I’m afraid I just don’t get it. If consciousness is everywhere that seems to make it much more likely that it’s going to be in the biological realm, because the biological realm is after all part of “everywhere”. Why on earth would it make it less likely?
    @glen230277 Fair enough, it was a short piece and so I just appealed to intuitions on this point. The fuller argument (from Russell and others) is that the denial of intrinsic nature leads either to a vicious regress or to a vicious circle (I explain the basic idea defence of panpsychism in current edition of Philosophy Now magazine, and in more detail in chapter 6 of my book). Also, I think there are good arguments (e.g. the knowledge argument) to the conclusion that consciousness itself is a form of intrinsic nature (its nature cannot be completely captured in causal/dispositional language), and so brains must have an intrinsic nature at least to the extent that they involve consciousness. From this point, we can run the simplicity argument: it would be very inelegant and un-parsimonious if brains were the only kind of physical entity that had an intrinsic nature.
    Thanks for pointing out the typo…how embarrassing!
    @Karl Young. There’s definitely a Spinoza influence on Russellian monism. See my last response to Glen for more on intrinsic natures. I’m sure you could run a Buddhist style version of Russellian monism, perhaps with a bundle theory of the mind.

  17. Andrea Christofidou

    Thanks for your reply. I agree that mind and matter (body) are brought together — there is “a true substantial union” between them, presupposed by their interaction, as Descartes argues. What I am unclear about is what is meant by “just is” in “the irreducible reality of the mind just is the intrinsic nature of the brain” — such a notion suggests reduction or identity. Is the brain in fact mental, and are all its material properties (Leibnizian) well-founded phenomena?

  18. Koreo

    hello mr. Goff,
    thanks for this nice article.
    Panpsychism seems more parsimonious like you said but I’m afraid it may not be sufficient to explain all the dynamics of consciousness. It may work for the abstract thought and metaphysics and I’m pretty oriented towards this approach to understand reality as idea. but when it comes to explain reality we can’t escape dualism. That’s why I think it’s important to keep it in parallel with a more Cartesian concept of dualism, which not necessarily is about separation, rather as diversification. that can be very useful as interface to access panpsychism and viceversa. in a sort of a way that’s also how I understand Whitehead who I think is very underestimated!:) what I’m trying to say is that at the end consciousness is a phenomenon based on relation. to be manifest it needs dualism, it needs a relation, it needs a dynamic, it needs tension. Panpsychism for what I understand, may help understand the essence of consciousness as potential. but we need a system of relation to explain the manifestation of consciousness. if I’m the only one in the universe, I am the universe. nevertheless I’m the universe and so we all are (electrons included). but if I’m alone, which is still a possibility, the manifestation of my consciousness becomes the reality, which creates the duality. the point is, how do I manifest my consciousness if I’m alone? (if I’m one, whole, you name it…) the possibilities are at least 2. intro-reflection or extra-reflection of that potential consciousness. in both cases we are already creating duality, still existing in a whole system. probably they are both happening at the same time, which actually generates multiplicity. so, after this sproloquious what I’m trying to say is that , yes, I think everything has potential consciousness as long as there is a relation: ideas, electrons, chairs, machines, these bytes moving across the net. they may not be conscious as we are, but they do contain consciousness and belong to the whole consciousness as we do.
    (?)

  19. dcleve

    I offer an empirical critique on your parsimony argument for panpsychism:

    The argument is an extrapolation — brains exhibit consciousness, hence why should not everything experience consciousness? This premise is easily tested — 99% of what brains themselves do is not conscious. Plus what ears, toes, and hearts do is not conscious.

    The argument is basically:
    IF all matter has consciousness
    THEN one should see consciousness in all things
    AND this is the simplest explanation for consciousness

    So if the THEN of all things having consciousness is refuted by lots of things we know don’t (all the unconscious brain processing, for a start), then you are left with no rationale for panpsychism.

  20. Marina Pavlova

    This might not be a strictly philosophical or scientific approach, but I tend to view consciousness in evolutionary terms, as a byproduct of adaptability so that it goes back to the problem of emergence of life.
    Life as a form of matter is “selfish”. Its evolution has involved a considerable degree of chance and spontaneity, but ever since certain particles with their chemical and physical properties of attraction happened to be arranged in such a way as to replicate themselves, what we refer to as life has always strived to prolong its own existence. Inanimate matter doesn’t need this as by definition it doesn’t have the same properties as live matter, namely it doesn’t die, therefore it just exists in space and time without particular design, changing its shape and composition through the workings of natural forces. In other words, it does not have consciousness because it does not need it.
    Life is fundamentally different and has always developed more and more advanced adaptability properties. As there is inevitably a lot of accidental in the process of evolution, some living things have acquired more robust and durable frames, others more fragile. Some have been more successful in protecting their own frame, some less. But what all life has in common is striving to prolong its own existence, both within one generation and across a succession of generations. This is what we still have in common with the first complex lifelike molecules in the “protobroth” capable of replicating themselves. The rate of an organism’s adaptability should be measured not in absolute terms, i.e. by the exact time span an organism has managed to survive, but in relative terms, i.e. what proportion of the time span allotted to the organism by its physical characteristics the organism has managed to survive or by what period of time it has managed to increase its naturally allotted life span.
    Now there are a lot of things in the world which seem unimaginable, at least at present, to our mind, both in dimensions and complexity. Who can say that the complexity of human mind and brain is more difficult to embrace than the scope of the universe? Yet, both are existent, and both have some properties and constituent parts. Within the evolutionary approach consciousness seems to be a property of the brain or the whole organism which enhances its adaptability. Where can we place its emergence on the timeline of species evolution? The life of bacteria seems to remain mostly within the realm of chance and their survival is mostly aimed at a succession of generations rather than at increasing the life span of an individual organism because they remain relatively uniform. Plants do not seem to have consciousness in the way we define it either as their physical frame is relatively durable and generally less affected by their ability to react to the environment in a highly differentiated way. Plants seem to be less “individualistic” than, for example, insects and their survival takes place as a whole species, by relatively quick occupation of new territory rather than by providing for the survival of an individual specimen.
    The animal kingdom enters another level, with preconditions for the emergence of consciousness as such. The most important requirement for extending its own survival (i.e. increasing the ratio of the actual time span an organism lives to its physical durability) is the organism’s awareness of the environment both for protecting itself from external threats and for finding useful building blocks (“food”) for its survival. This primitive form of consciousness is present in such modern-day organisms as insects. So at best insects survive the allotted to their physical frame one or two seasons. A lot of animal species have something in between this basic awareness of the physical environment and complex human consciousness. While we can’t really get inside animals’ mind, we can draw certain conclusions about its functioning by studying animal behaviour. The relative flexibility of their reactions to the environment tells about a greater degree of consciousness than in insects. Hence, animals’ actual life span varies much more. It’s no longer determined by natural conditions alone such as change of seasons but mostly by more complex laws such as survival of the fittest. The life span of an individual specimen is largely determined by its reactions to the environment, its “resourcefulness”, but animals usually do not use up the full potential of their physical frame the way it is possible in modern human society. Apart from this evolutionary proof, it is also unlikely that animals are self-aware in the way that humans are because, were it otherwise, we would be observing a lot of manifestations of their intellectual equality or superiority.
    Now, it happened so that brain complexity of one particular species, i.e. humans kept on evolving as one of those hardly imaginable processes which take place at different levels of physical world. Its capability of processing the information has greatly increased and the abundance of this information together with the universal tendency of live things to prolong their existence led to greater adaptability in the form of consciousness we usually consider in philosophical terms, i.e. consciousness able not only to perceive the environment and react to it but also to transform it to some extent with the aim of increasing its own life span. This increased complexity has had a lot of byproducts and side effects due to which human species can also do harm to themselves. Nevertheless, the steady increase of life expectancy since prehistoric times and up to modernity indicates that, in spite of all the setbacks and complex non-linear dialectics, increased degree of consciousness has led to higher adaptability, with human species being the only one who has managed to extend its adaptability-dependent life span well beyond the likely average figures in an environment unchanged by itself.
    However, chronological placement of the emergence of consciousness remains an open question. Presence or absence of consciousness appears more of a continuum than a binary opposition, where the comparison of extremities (from elementary awareness of the basic physical characteristics of the environment such as light and temperature to such spheres as imagination and the subconscious) leave us as astonished as many other phenomena at the micro- or the mega-level of the physical world do. Should the boundary be drawn at the time period when human brain acquired such physiological complexity as to process the amount of information necessary for such high adaptability as we have now? How can we measure consciousness? Shall we draw a boundary between a mind involved in highly abstract philosophizing and a mind of someone who’s been struggling to make ends meet all their life, hasn’t known any other way of life, and hasn’t had any chance for abstract reflection? Do extraverted and an introverted people have various degrees of consciousness? If we compare all these, it appears that consciousness is the sum of information perceived, retained and processed by the brain, which can greatly range both in terms of quantity and nature. It has a biological, sensory basis but then grows in complexity and diversification. Understanding of sciences, philosophy or poetry as an example might seem too abstract to be demonstrably reduced to a sequence of neurological processes. But such phenomena as a sudden déjà vu of a previously never recollected, unimportant scene from an unimportant dream one saw several decades ago, or humoral regulation of bodily functions as a response to a socially awkward situation provide an observable edge-of-an-abyss insight into the astonishing neurological complexity of brain, which might seem inexplicable but which exists and works according to certain principles like many other things in the world. So all in all we can view it in terms of the evolution of life, its increasing adaptability connected with accumulation and processing of information about the environment, all of which stems from the very emergence of life, which in its turn might have been a part of a greater design or might well have been accidental. Religion would suggest the former while a purely positivist worldview would explain this design, i.e. the emergence and subsequent evolution of life and then mind, as a property inherent in the constituent parts of the world such as interaction forces between particles, hitherto discovered or yet unknown. However, if we return to one of the previous stages of the process, namely such life forms as, for example, trees, then the fact that such organisms thrive and a lot of species live considerably longer than humans perhaps indicates that the emergence of consciousness was not predestined in any teleological sense but rather evolved as an adaptability technique of a particular species with particular physical characteristics.
    Well, I realize that this is a relatively one-sided positivist view which diverts the discussion from the purely philosophical sphere and does not even touch upon such concepts as thing-in-itself, or phenomenal properties of mind, or subjective idealism. But then this is more of a worldview/approach question than an attempt to find out how things really are. But while we might never be able to account for the transition between neurological processes within brain and consciousness as we experience it, I’d still prefer to view the latter not merely as a mysterious, irreducible “given”, but as something which has origin, structure, dynamics, purpose and laws of functioning, however complex.

  21. Marina Pavlova

    Concerning panpsychism and the follow-up article on it. To make panpsychism more convincing it would be logical to start with a definition of “consciousness”. While it seems intuitively obvious, or at least likely, that insects or bacteria do not possess the same level/type of consciousness as humans do, some definition of its core qualities is still lacking. In any case, it seems that consciousness is a complex concept embracing – in various degrees – awareness of the environment, of one’s own presence and position in the environment, volition, evaluation, decision-making etc. If there is only one feature present, e.g. Particle A1 enters relation X with Particle A2 according to principle X, this seems more of a property/definition/disposition and does not necessarily indicate presence of consciousness. What is an elementary particle by definition? A particle which, according to our present knowledge, cannot be further subdivided. Elementary particles, at least in the way they are (and may forever stay) known/manifested to us, have relatively simple properties which can hardly be equated to complex evaluation and decision-making processes present in the animal kingdom. Another thing is that they might have such complex nature and structure, with so many constituent parts that it can mean whole new worlds which contain their own consciousnesses. As matter is made up mostly not of “matter” as such but of spaces between its components, it might be that our atom is somebody’s “Solar system”, with zillions of civilizations thriving within ours. Likewise, our universe might be somebody’s elementary particle. But perhaps these are questions where physics meets religion (in the most abstract sense). However, I suppose we shouldn’t mix up this potential and perhaps incognizable complexity with our more or less defined and catalogued (part of the) world, in which we to some (modest) extent have succeeded in defining our place, with its axiological principles according to which we can not possibly equate what particles do (i.e. move, attract, repel, merge etc.) to what humans do. Consciousness, if we are to define it at all, is not a measurable physical value (in which case it would indeed be logical to represent it as a tapering continuum), but an axiological concept heavily dependent on the perspective from which it is being defined. On the face of it, the concept of panpsychism appears a beautiful and logical model but in fact it seems to contain a flaw or at least some degree of chicanery. It’s crucial to define what we are looking for in all those constituent parts of the world. A paradox seems to be contained in the definition. Inevitably, we define consciousness from our own perspective. We might deny consciousness in insects if we observe their mechanical actions, especially if we hadn’t discovered the purpose of their actions. Likewise, we might be observed by beings of higher order who could deny consciousness in us from their perspective. But as long as our perspective is ours and we can’t escape it, we have to define consciousness in some way and the definition will – by definition – imply certain limits, and according to it we’d have to draw a boundary somewhere. So is it possible to create a universal approach to consciousness? The very concept of consciousness is definitely laden with values ingrained into the source system from the perspective of which it is being defined and therefore pertains rather to the field of humanities with their “subjective” approach rather than to physics, from the operationally objective perspective of which “consciousness” hardly makes sense at all. Can something that invariably – at least where it intersects with our perceptible/measurable space-time dimensionality – acts in the same way under the same circumstances be assumed to have “consciousness”? To give a most crude example, do particles making up an atomic bomb differentiate what it is to set to blow up – planet Earth or an asteroid which can destroy planet Earth? (moral level) Can any external factors, apart from a particular combination of physical conditions, influence their behaviour? (awareness-of-the-environment and decision-making level) Can they start, stop, slow down or speed up the process by any means from within themselves? (volition level) Do they care about preserving themselves? (self-awareness level) etc. It seems that, even if particles do have some kind of consciousness, our consciousness and their consciousness are non-overlapping concepts and therefore require different words, definitions, and approaches.

  22. Sergio Graziosi

    In a rather disorganised discussion on Twitter, Philip very kindly asked me to articulate my objections to his specific position, an offer that I’m very happy accept.
    A full reply would be very long, so I’ll do my best to synthesise my thoughts, with the aid of a fair number of links to ideas I’ve explored elsewhere [I’m hoping this blog accepts html syntax!].

    First of all, on Twitter I was more or less agreeing with the rejection of a specific strand of Panpsychism. That is the view that everything (or all matter) comes with a phenomenal aspect. There always is a “something it is like” to be a given thing, because phenomenal aspects are fundamental to everything that exists.
    This may be the case, but I find the view unhelpful to the point of being irrelevant. If everything is somewhat conscious, the question of what makes us conscious in the way we are doesn’t get tackled at all and might become more difficult to answer via the “combination problem” and similar arguments. We may have made some progress towards side-stepping the hard problem, when understood in terms of “how can mechanisms suddenly acquire properties that appear to be of a qualitatively entirely different kind such as the phenomenal ones?”. However, we did precisely no progress in answering practical questions such as “is this patient unconscious or locked in?”. It is this latter class of questions that I’m interested in (some of my initial motivations are listed here).

    This brings me to the main issue I have with the whole field of philosophy of mind (with important exceptions, naturally). I don’t think we can make any progress towards understanding consciousness while failing to better specify what a satisfying understanding is supposed to look like. As a consequence, we end up having to specify a full (and hopefully coherent) epistemological stance. This is a prerequisite, necessary to make sure the questions we are asking about consciousness are well-formed. In this sense, what Philip tries to do on the ‘companion’ article is precisely what I’d like to see: the starting point is and should be some good old fashioned epistemology.

    Unfortunately this is also where I start disagreeing, and end up squarely rejecting the idea that questions about the “intrinsic nature of matter” are well formed or answerable in any meaningful sense. I can however share Philip’s starting point (as expressed in the other article):

    We only know what flammability is when we know what burning is; we only know what burning is when we know its numerous causal effects, for example, producing ash and smoke; we only know what ash and smoke are when we know their causal effects, and so on forever. The buck is continually passed, and hence an adequate understanding of the nature of any property is impossible, even for an omniscient being. In other words, a causal structuralist world is unintelligible.

    Or (in here):
    Finally, physics characterises basic physical properties in terms of their causal relationships with other basic physical properties. Throughout the whole hierarchy of the physical sciences we learn only about causal relationships.

    And yet there must be more to the nature of a physical entity, such as the cerebellum, than its causal relationships. There must be some intrinsic nature to the cerebellum, some way it is in and of itself independently of what it does. About this intrinsic nature physical science remains silent.

    I agree: we can only learn by observing causal relations, and this does mean that knowledge acquired in this way is indeed tainted by the threat of infinite regress (in a way that is equivalent to the problem of homuncular explanations as well as the symbol grounding problem) and/or circularity. I disagree on how to respond to such problems: the solution offered looks self-defeating to me, so I end up biting the bullet by accepting that knowledge is afflicted by the aforementioned problems.

    In short, my own stance is that the world is indeed ultimately unintelligible, we can’t make sense of the whole thing (something which we could infer from Gödel , uncomputable problems, and more fairly respected and well known stances). We *can* have limited, local understanding of something (a view that can be substantiated via developmental and ethological arguments, by asking the question: how do babies and animals start to build some knowledge of the world?), and that is precisely an understanding derived from causal relations. Why? Well, we can get to know about something because this something has some detectable effect. If X is a strong epiphenomenon that causes nothing, without exceptions, the existence of X can’t in any way cause our knowledge of it – if X is the intrinsic nature of the cerebellum, defined as the part that can’t be probed by means of its causal relationships with other entities, X has to be both unknowable and irrelevant to all practical purposes. Thus I end up claiming that looking for the intrinsic essence of anything but pure abstractions is never going to produce satisfying answers.
    In other words, my own view is that Philip’s epistemological starting point cannot lead to anything useful and will fail to produce satisfactory explanations (at least: not satisfactory to me!). You can reverse the argument and observe that if we assume the phenomenal aspects of consciousness are fundamental and irreducible qualities of matter (or of your preferred fundamental physical entity), you have implicitly already given up the project of explaining consciousness (as all explanations can do is elucidate causal relations). From the epistemological side, this leads me to advocate for what I’ve recently called deflationary epistemology, the basis of which I’ve briefly described in a comment on Conscious Entities.

    As a result, I come back to “Russellian monism”: it is true that physics only informs us about causal relations. It is also true that approaching the problem of consciousness from other perspectives can make the problem dissolve. However, positing the existence of “a-causal properties of entities” cannot produce a causal explanation of anything, let alone consciousness. Thus, if we are (like me) interested in understanding what causes consciousness (would allow to infer what is conscious and what isn’t, which is something that would resolve quite pressing practical and ethical problems), Russelian monism as described here is simply a non-starter. Might help answering other questions, but not the ones I am interested in. I would love to be proven wrong, as a secondary consequence of my epistemological stance is that using different foundational stances can help us to learn more, even if (or probably especially when) the differences are mutually exclusive.

    I hope the above is intelligible and not too sketchy. Thanks for giving me the chance to frame it in this context!

  23. Philip Goff

    @Koreo I’m not clear why you think dualism is inevitable. For the Russellian monist, consciousness is the intrinsic nature of the physical, and so dualism is avoided. What’s wrong with this view?

    @dcleve Panpsychism, or at least the kind I embrace, is not the view that everything is conscious, but that the fundamental constituents of the physical world are conscious. The panpsychist needn’t hold that all combinations of particles result in something conscious, and so she needn’t deny that there are unconscious processes in the brain. And even if all processes in the brain are conscious, it doesn’t follow that they are all part of my consciousness. I am not aware of processes in my liver, whether or not they are conscious. The same could be true of many processes in my brain.

    @marina Pavlova You seem to be assuming some radical distinction between living and non-living entities. But the success of explaining many of the processes involved in living organism in terms of the chemical processes would seem to undermine such a distinction. By ‘consciousness’ I simply mean ‘experience’. I might talk loosely of ‘particles’ or ‘matter’, but it’s the job of physicists, not philosophers, to identify the fundamental constituents of the physical world (in terms of what they do).

    @Sergio There are many different questions we might be interested in regarding consciousness, and nobody is obliged to be interested in all (or any!) of them. I’m interested in the philosophical question of how consciousness fits in with what we know about the world more generally. Other people are interested in the question of the physical correlates of consciousness. Both of these questions are important, and I don’t think the fact that some people on focus on one excludes others focusing on the other. You seem to agree that a purely physical description of the world can never be complete, but you reject my alternative: panpsychism (of the Russellian monist variety). But you don’t seem to have provided a reason to think that panpsychism is incoherent or improbable. So why should it be rejected? You suggest the it is a non-starter because ‘a-causal properties of entities cannot produce a causal explanation of anything’. But I’m not looking for a ‘causal explanation’ of consciousness, but an account of how consciousness fits into our overall theory of the world. I can’t see that you have given any reason to reject my proposal (And I don’t think Russellian monism implies that consciousness is ‘a causal’, just that it’s nature cannot be wholly captured in causal terms, which is how it avoids the regress/circularity worries). The combination problem is extremely tricky. I have lots of things to say on this in my book that I won’t repeat here. But overall, the fact that panpsychism still has challenges that need to be addressed (like any scientific theory) doesn’t entail that it should be rejected.

  24. Sergio Graziosi

    Thanks Philip,
    I think you are right. If we accept that different aims justify different starting assumptions (I do!), there is little for us left to disagree on.
    Panpsychism (of the Russellian monist variety) may help to build a coherent metaphysics. In fact there is a sense in which I can endorse it without much effort.
    It goes like this: “the fundamental constituents of the physical world all have the potential (some intrinsic property?) to sustain consciousness (when arranged in suitable ways)”. Expressing it like this might mean that I’ve twisted the original concept beyond recognition (I do think you are likely to reject my reformulation), but it works for me. I suppose my only objection comes from realising that such a definition is not very helpful. It’s just a way of making explicit a basic assumption of vanilla physicalism, at least to my eyes.
    Conclusion: I’m with you, “the fact that panpsychism still has challenges that need to be addressed (like any scientific theory) doesn’t entail that it should be rejected“. Agreed, that would be setting the bar too high, for any theory, not just panpsychism. At the same time, I don’t find panpsychism useful, because it is either true in the trivial sense I’ve formulated above, or it does not look promising for advancing the questions that I find interesting (combination problem can be seen as a reformulation of the hard problem, not much work has been done). Neural correlates are a tiny corner of the answers I’m after (and a unpromising one as well!), finding general principles that can tell us if something is conscious or not would be my overall aim.
    One question remains open, in this conversation: do you indeed reject my reformulation? I ask to satisfy my purely intellectual side.

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