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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 tenants 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.

Featured image credit: Abstract lights. Image by Little Visuals. Public domain via Pexels.

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. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

  10. glen230277

    “once we accept the basic tenants of monism”

    Umm … ‘tenets’ perhaps?

  11. 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

  12. 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…).

  13. 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?

  14. 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)

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