Praying for an Election Christmas Miracle

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My political philosophy is simple and evidence based. For 40 years after the war, we (UK, US and much of Western Europe) had highly regulated capitalism with high taxes on the wealthy, and society become more equal and more prosperous. From 1980s onwards (my lifetime), we’ve had Wild West capitalism, resulting in massive inequality and perennial financial crises, culminating in 2008 when bankers brought the west to its knees. We’ve now reached a point where most of the population know the economic model isn’t working for them and are crying out for solutions from the radical left and the radical right. Either we persuade people the solution to their woes is to ‘take back control’ with a radical democratisation of the economy, or we’re going to get fascists in parliament. I feel tomorrow is the UK’s last chance to go for the former rather than the latter.

I don’t know what’s electorally possible tomorrow. But I’m going to bed tonight praying (A) the youth get out to vote, (B) the tactical voting that’s needed happens (see this), and (C) that people don’t believe the bullshit demonisation that happens every time someone dares to try to make the lives of working people better.

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Jerry Coyne Refuses to Publish my Response

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Jerry Coryne occasionally publishes these slightly ranty blog posts on my work. He approved my first comment on the latest (I published this comment as my last blog post) and responded; I counter-responded over a week ago, but my counter-response hasn’t appeared on his blog. I thought I’d publish it here:

I agree that panpsychism cannot be directly tested. But neither can materialism or dualism or any other theory of consciousness. There is a deep problem at the heart of consciousness science: consciousness is unobservable. You can’t look inside an electron to see whether it’s conscious, but nor can you look inside someone’s head to see their feelings and experiences. This puts strict limits on our capacity to investigate consciousness experimentally.

What we can do is establish correlations between brain activity and experiences; this relies upon the fact that we can ask people about their private experiences that we can’t observe directly. This is very important data but it’s not a complete theory of consciousness; what we ultimately want from a theory of consciousness is an explanation of those correlations. Why is it that certain kinds of brain activity are associated with certain kinds of experience? As soon as we try to answer that question we move beyond what can directly be tested; we essentially start doing philosophy. The various options — physicalism, dualism, panpsychism — are empirically equivalent, and so we have to move to other methods of theory choice to decide between them.

Can I have some straight answers to some straight questions?

  1. Do you agree that consciousness is unobservable?
  2. Do you agree that (1) makes the problem of consciousness importantly different from any other scientific problem (science is used to postulating unobservables, but in the unique case of consciousness the explanandum is unobservable)?

Reply to Jerry Coyne

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I’m flattered that Jerry Coyne has once again chosen to respond to my work. I just posted a counter response on his blog.

Thanks for this Jerry. But you haven’t really addressed two central arguments:

  1. Consciousness is unobservable, and hence we can’t straightforwardly test theories of consciousness. The best we can do is map correlations, by asking people what they’re experiencing while we scan their brains. But there are various theories that offer explanations of these correlations: the kind of materialist emergence theory you seem to favour, David Chalmers’ naturalistic dualism, my panpsychism. All of these theories are empirically equivalent, so we can’t distinguish between them with an experiment. We have to turn other methods of theory choice (i.e. do philosophy).
  2. The big problem with the materialist emergence view as that it has a huge explanatory gap at its core: between the quantitative properties of physical science and the qualitative properties of consciousness. Nobody has ever made any progress on closing this gap.

You may say, ‘Well look how successful physical science has been; surely this should give us confidence that it’ll one day crack the problem of consciousness.’ But as I argue in detail, this view results from a misunderstanding of the history of science. Yes, physical science has been incredibly successful, but it has been successful precisely because it was designed, by Galileo, to exclude consciousness. It has done very well focusing on the observable, quantitative features of matter, but this gives us no grounding for thinking it will be able to explain unobservable, qualitative properties of subjective experience.

You have provided no response to this central argument. Moreover, why wait for a theory that might never come, when we already have one that is just as parsimonious as materialism but avoids its explanatory gap?

‘Galileo’s Error’ published!

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My book ‘Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness’ was published this week. To mark the occasion, I have been involved in putting out a variety of podcasts, videos and articles on its themes. Here is a selection:

Philip Pullman and I were interviewed on the consciousness, panpsychism and the philosophy of His Dark Materials on the BBC’s flagship radio news show (around 1 hour, 22 secs in).

Pullman and I also had a public discussion on consciousness, panpsychism, and the philosophy of His Dark Materials at Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford.

The physicist Sean Carroll and I argued about panpsychism on his podcast.

I debated ‘Does consciousness point to God?’ with the Christian neuroscientist Sharon Dirckx (actually we only debate God in the last 10 mins).

I wrote a piece for Scientific American explaining why I think Galileo is to blame for the problem of consciousness. I also wrote a piece for The Conversation discussing both this problem and my proposed solution. An extract from the final chapter of my book, discussing how panpsychism can help us deal with the environmental crisis, was published in in Nautilus magazine. Finally, on a lighter note, I wrote a piece for Penguin website on five of the best films to explore the philosophy of AI.

Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness

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I’ve just finished a draft of a new paper, exploring whether reflection on consciousness can help us make progress on foundational questions in quantum mechanics. You can access it here:

It’s going to come out with a volume called ‘Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness,’ which will be published with Oxford University Press (edited by Shan Gao). All comments welcome! It’s not incredible accessible, I’m afraid. Below is the first section, which gives the big picture.

Quantum mechanics is one of the best predictive machines humankind has ever produced. Much of our modern technology, from computers to smart phones to GPS, is reliant on its predictive power. The trouble is nobody knows what quantum mechanics is telling us about reality. There are numerous proposals but no consensus on which is most probable. As things stand, the empirical data seems to underdetermine the theory.

In this kind of situation, philosophy has an important role to play, helping us to evaluate the evidential situation with respect to the various hypotheses. But it is generally assumed in this context that philosophy is not able to offer us new data, over and above the scientific data of observation and experiment. The usual expectation is that the philosopher of physics will contribute conceptual clarity and perhaps a cost-benefit analysis of the various interpretations of quantum mechanics in terms of theoretical virtues, such as simplicity, parsimony, non ad-hocness, etc.

In contrast to this standard assumption, I’m inclined to think that philosophy does have new data to offer, and that this data might have bearing on the ontology of quantum mechanics. What I have in mind is data pertaining to the reality of consciousness. Consciousness is not something that we know about through observation and experiment. If we were just going off the data of third person observation and experiment, we would have no need to postulate subjective experiences, as Daniel Dennett (2007) has argued very effectively. Nonetheless, contra Dennett, we do know that consciousness is real: we know that it’s real in virtue of the immediate awareness each of us of our own feelings and experiences. Any theory of reality unable to account for the reality of consciousness is at best incomplete. In this sense, the reality of consciousness is a datum in its own right. I call the theoretical obligation to account for this datum ‘the consciousness constraint.’

I believe that scientists and philosophers of the future will be baffled by the fact that their late twentieth century/early twenty first century ancestors did not make more use of the consciousness constraint. There is a certain phenomenon known to be real with something close to certainty, and yet the ontological implications of that phenomenon are completely ignored by most theoretical scientists, and even most metaphysicians. It is true that the problem of consciousness, broadly understood as the challenge of understanding ‘how brains produce consciousness,’ is now taken to be a serious scientific problem. However, this is generally assumed to be a problem that will go away with a bit more neuroscience. But the problem of consciousness is radically unlike any other scientific problem, not least because the fundamental datum that needs to be accounted for does not come from observation or experiment. Consciousness is something we know about independently of third-person empirical science; as such it is a valuable source of information to be added to the data of observation and experiment.

The bearing of consciousness on quantum mechanics has been very little explored. Of course, a small number of heterodox thinkers have tried to make sense of the old idea that consciousness might have a role at the heart of quantum mechanics (see Chalmers and McQueen this volume). But this has never been articulated as part of a general approach of working out how the reality of consciousness constrains theory choice in this area. This paper will take a first step in rectifying this, by tentatively exploring the question of whether wave function monism – a popular interpretation of the ontology of quantum mechanics – is able to satisfy the consciousness constraint.

The New Copernican Revolution: A Response to John Horgan

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Panpsychism gets flak from a lot of directions. But a new one on me was John Horgan’s accusation that panpsychists are guilty of ‘geo-centrism,’ the attempt to drag us back to the pre-Copernican view that reality revolves us human beings:

As far as we know, consciousness is property of only one weird type of matter that evolved relatively recently here on Earth: brains. Neo-geocentrists nonetheless suggest that consciousness pervades the entire cosmos. It might even have been the spark that ignited the big bang.

Let us set aside the suggestion in the last sentence that panpsychism has something to do with theism (in my experience, most panpsychists are atheists just looking for the best scientific account of consciousness). Not only would I resist the charge that panpsychism involves geo-centrism, I would go further and say that panpsychism saves us from geo-centrism. For non-panpsychists, consciousness – the source of all that is of value in existence – is to be found on the planet alone, and only in its very recent history. In the immensity of the cosmos, we are uniquely special and privileged. Panpsychists, in contrast, propose a new Copernican revolution, according to which there’s nothing special about human consciousness; it’s just one highly evolved form of the stuff of the universe. Panpsychist Hedda Hassel Mørch put it well in a tweet to Horgan:

Geocentrism says we are special. Panpsychism says we are not special at all – yes, everything is like us, but therefore we are like everything else.

Moreover, Horgan’s approach in this article doesn’t seem to me a good way to deal with scientific questions. He is starting from an a priori assumption as to what reality ought to look like: it ought not to revolve around human beings. This seems to me just as flawed as the proponent of religion who starts from an a priori assumption that the world ought to have us at the centre. Surely we should just look to the evidence and arguments to tell us what reality is like?

Perhaps, as is hinted at in the first line of the above, Horgan would argue that the fact that we find consciousness only in highly evolved systems counts as evidence against panpsychism. As I discuss in my last post, this would count as evidence against panpsychism only if we would expect to find consciousness in particles if it were there (this reflects a standard Bayesian way of thinking about evidence). But given that consciousness is unobservable, we wouldn’t expect to observe consciousness in particles, whether it was there or not. Nor can we observe consciousness in brains. We know about consciousness not through observation and experiment but through the immediate awareness each of us has of her or his own conscious experience.

Of course, before we take panpsychism seriously, we need to have reason to believe it. Hedda and I, and many others, have argued at length that panpsychism offers the best account of how consciousness fits into a scientific worldview. Of course, those arguments can be challenged in all sorts of ways. But to reject panpsychism simply on the basis that it doesn’t reflect how you think reality ought to be is not good science.