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: http://www.philipgoffphilosophy.com/uploads/1/4/4/4/14443634/quantum_mechanics_and_the_consciousness_constraint1.pdf

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.

Can Panpsychism be Tested and Does It Matter?

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Last week I had a twitter argument with Barry Smith about panpsychism and this week I had a twitter argument with Massimo Pigliucci about panpsychism. A similar issue came up in both, so I thought I’d write a post about it. Actually, it concerns an objection that is often raised against panpsychism, which goes as follows:

(A) We don’t have any evidence that consciousness exists outside of brains.

We need to be careful about how exactly we’re understanding this statement, and what exactly it’s being taken to show. Let us initially interpret it to mean:

(B) We have never observed consciousness outside of living brains.

This is certainly true, and you might think at first that this gives us strong reason to doubt panpsychism. But appreciating the following might make you think again:

(C) We have never observed consciousness inside a living brain.

The simple reason for both (B) and (C) is that consciousness is unobservable. You can’t look inside an electron to see if it has experiences, but neither can you look inside a brain and see a person’s feelings and experiences. We know about consciousness not because of any observation or experiment, but because each of us is immediately aware of her or his own experiences.

The following slogan is often thrown around

(D) Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Is (D) anything more than a slogan? The truth is that sometimes (D) is true and sometimes it’s false. It counts as evidence against a theory if the theory implies that we should expect to find a certain entity in certain circumstances, and it turns out we don’t (this fits with a Bayesian way of thinking about evidence). If a theory tells us that we would expect to find a certain particle in certain experimental circumstances, and we run the experiment and don’t find the particle, this gives us grounds for doubting the theory.

Returning to the case of panpsychism, (B) would be evidence against panpsychism only if panpsychism implies that we should expect to observe consciousness outside of brains. But this is clearly not the case. Consciousness is unobservable, and hence, whether or not panpsychism is true, we’re not going to be able to see consciousness in rocks or particles or anything else. It follows that (B) does not constitute evidence against panpsychism.

One might concede that (B) doesn’t give us reason to doubt panpsychism, but nonetheless take it to show that we don’t have any reason to accept panpsychism. The following principle might be offered in support of this:

(E) We should believe in the existence of something only if we can observe it, or if its existence is supported by what we can observe.

I accept that if (E) is true, then we shouldn’t believe panpsychism. But if (E) is true, we shouldn’t believe in consciousness either. As we noted above, consciousness cannot be observed either in or out of brains. If we rigidly follow (E), we will have no cause to postulate consciousness at all. Much simpler to believe that humans are just complicated mechanisms. Daniel Dennett is one of the few who is admirably consistent on this point.

The problem with Dennett’s position is that (E) is false. Despite being unobservable, consciousness is something we know to exist. Our principle should really be not (E) but:

(F) We should only believe in the existence of something only if its existence is supported by observation, or if its existence is better known than what is known on the basis of observation.

As Descartes appreciated over 300 years ago, the existence of our consciousness is known with greater certainty than anything else. The reality of consciousness is a datum in its own right, over and above the data of observation and experiment.

Observational evidence is crucial, but it’s not the full story. If we’re working with observational evidence alone we would have no reason to believe panpsychism, but only because we’d have no reason to believe in consciousness. The case for panpsychism is built not on the basis that it provides a good explanation of observational data, but on the basis that it provides the best explanation of how observational data and consciousness data fit together in a single, unified worldview. A large part of that case involves arguing that rival accounts of materialism and dualism face serious problems (some empirical, some conceptual) that panpsychism avoids. I have not made that case in this blog post. But I hope to have shown that merely pointing out that panpsychism is not supported by observational evidence alone is not to the point. Nobody would claim otherwise.

What Game of Thrones can Teach us about Brexit

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Half the people wanted Jon Snow to be executed for treason; half the people wanted him to be exonerated. The decision to send him permanently to the wall left no one happy, which, as Tyrion wisely observed, is the definition of a compromise. No one was happy but no one went to war.  

In 2016 the UK voted 52 to 48 to leave the European Union. With a result so close, a compromise position was the obvious way to bring the country back together and move on. A very soft Brexit – possibly the Norway plus model – would have left both sides judging, correctly, that we were worse off than before. But it would have delivered what was voted for in the referendum. If the PM had stressed from the start that the close result called for a compromise, a consensus might have been achieved that would have isolated extremes. Instead she put forth a tautological battle cry: ‘Brexit means Brexit!’

Whether or not compromise was once a possibility, Thursday’s EU elections have revealed that British voters now have no appetite for meeting halfway. Half the country is saying, ‘F**k you, we’re gonna stop Brexit’ and half the country is saying ‘F**k you, we’re going to leave with no deal.’ In this climate, the Labour party has no option but to come out wholeheartedly as the party of Remain, and to energise its base in those terms.

It is also crucial, however, for Labour to shift the narrative. Whilst most of my peer group seem obsessed with reversing Brexit as the only goal of political importance, the really important fight is not between leavers and remainers but between the 99% and the 1%. Legendary polling guru Professor John Curtice has shown how whether one is leave or remain has no implications for one’s position on economic justice, which gives hope that an inspiring vision from the radical left has the potential to unite leavers and remains in a common goal. People know the system isn’t working and they’re looking to the extremes of left and right for solutions. Either the radical left can inspire the masses with a plan for a Green New Deal, the Preston model, and workers having equity in firms, or the easy options of nationalism, nostalgia and scapegoating of immigrants will win out. Labour has no choice now but firmly to back remain; but they must also do their very best to change the subject.

What have Consciousness, Religious Fictionalism, and a Leading Hotel Comparison Website got in Common?

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This is just a quick plug for some recent/forthcoming things I’m doing, in case anyone’s vaguely interested.

Last week I did a talk for Trivago Academy, which is a series of talks by academics Trivago put on for general public at their HQ in Dusseldorf. It was really nice to talk to the general public instead of academics. Plus there was free beer. I had a good conversation with a man who has invented the male vest that opens at the front (www.lespirant.com). He had materialist inclinations. They recorded the talk, and it’ll go up on youtube soon (only problem is my bald patch was on display most of the talk…).

Monday 1st April I’ll be debating David Papineau at the Oxford Literary Festival. David and I have debated at length (e.g. https://thepanpsycast.com/panpsycast2/2017/7/30/episode-25) but it might be a bit different this time as he’s recently expressed sympathy for panpsychism, albeit of a materialist variety. There will be an audio recording of this. https://oxfordliteraryfestival.org/literature-events/2019/april-1/the-oxford-debates-is-consciousness-everywhere

Finally, in Easter week I’ll be recording a debate with the ‘Unbelievable’ radio show/podcast, which I’m really excited about. In general, Unbelievable hosts debates between Christians and atheists, but in this episode I’ll be debating religious fictionalism with Kristi Mair, based on my recent TLS article on this topic: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/believers-without-belief-religious-fictionalism/ Not sure when this will be put out.

That’s all.

Religion But Not As We Know It

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Last week I published an article for the Times Literary Supplement outlining three alternative approach to religion, one of which was religious fictionalism. A religious fictionalist is (roughly) someone who finds value in practicing a religion despite holding that the contentious claims of the religion (e.g. God exists, Jesus rose from the dead) are false. Publishing this article felt a little bit like coming out for me. Every time someone asks me the dreaded question ‘Are you religious?’, I panic and go all Vicky Pollard (“yeah but no but…”). Now the next time someone asks me I can just direct them to this article.

No sooner had the ink dried than Jerry Coyne has published a response on his blog. I’m grateful to Jerry for taking the time to do this, as he’s made me realise that some things were not quite clear enough and I’d like to take the opportunity here to articulate more clearly the views I was discussing.

In his reply to me, Jerry cut and pasted a lot of stats indicating how literal the religious views of many Americans are, and seemed to take this to refute the claims of my article. In fact, these stats are completely irrelevant to the positions I was outlining. I was not claiming that fictionalism captures the view of the majority of those involved in religion. Although I do think the fictionalist approach is more prevalent than many are aware of (e.g. in my experience, it is extremely prevalent in the Church of England) my article was focused more on what religion could be not what it currently is.

To be fair, I did begin with Karen Armstrong’s view that before the scientific revolution and the protestant reformation, faith was understood in terms of engagement or commitment rather than belief. Even so, stats about the present are completely irrelevant to how people understood religion five hundred years ago. So what is going on here? After giving these stats and declaring they ‘are enough to put paid to Goff’s claim’, Jerry does go on to say:

“As for the history of religion, just read Aquinas and Augustine and see if you think they didn’t really have a literal belief in the truth claims of Christianity.”

If Jerry has read Aquinas, I’m surprised he doesn’t know that Aquinas’s view of God is pretty close to the semi-fictionalist view I describe towards the end of my article. Aquinas didn’t think that predicates like ‘wise’ and ‘all-powerful’ literally and straightforwardly apply to God; rather they reveal to us something about the nature of God by analogy. This was a middle way between the view that God literally has personal characteristics and the view that God’s nature is completely unknowable. The latter view, which is effectively a form of fictionalism vis a vis a personal God, was very common in the history of Christianity. I gave numerous examples of church fathers and influential, mainstream Christians from history who adopted this view, none of which Jerry disputed.

Having said that, I don’t believe that fictionalism extended much further than that in the history of Christianity. I wouldn’t want to claim, for example, that fictionalism about the resurrection or the afterlife have been common among Christians in history. Probably most Christians historically have believed in these things. How does this fit with the Armstrong’s distinction between belief and faith? Actually, there is no inconsistency here. Armstrong’s claim, as I interpret it, is that faith, and therefore religious identity, was not (from 30,000 BC to 1,500 CE) defined in terms of belief. Faith and belief, on this view, are two different things that can come apart. You can have belief but not faith (if you think a certain religion is true but you wish it weren’t) and you can have faith but not belief (if you are rooting for truth of some religion but are not convinced enough to believe it). But just because faith and belief are different things, it doesn’t mean they don’t very often go together. Faith and belief are different, but historically they have often overlapped.

If in general faith and belief overlap, it may seem pedantic to insist on distinguishing them. But, in fact, it is very important. Belief is not something that is dependent on the will; it is, or at least it ought to be, an involuntary responsiveness to evidence. It’s irrational and harmful to make involvement in a religious community dependent on what is believed, to make people fear that they’re failing because of doubts they can’t help. If Armstrong is right, this irrational and harmful obsession is a modern aberration. I reproduced a fair bit of Armstrong’s argument for this claim in my article, and I referred to Daniel Howard-Snyder’s detailed defence of the thesis that what the Jesus of the new testament is praising when he talks of ‘faith’ is not belief (in the modern sense) but resilient engagement. Jerry responded to none of this.

What might be confusing Jerry is that I discuss in the article three incompatible views:

  1. Non-doxasticism – On this view, faith, and hence religious identity, is defined in terms of hopeful commitment rather than belief. (It doesn’t follow that religious people don’t believe, just that they need not).
  2. Fictionalism – Fictionalism is a much stronger view. Religious fictionalists positively disbelieve the contentious propositions of religion, even though they engage in religious practice. (This is incompatible not only with belief but also with non-doxastic faith, as you can’t hope for something you believe to be false).
  3. Semi-fictionalism – There are various forms of semi-fictionalism, according to which some but not all of the contentious propositions of religion are false, e.g. one might believe/have faith in God but be a fictionalist about the resurrection, or one might believe/have faith in a transcendent spiritual reality but be a fictionalist about its personal characteristics.

Let me completely clear on my view on how these categories map onto the history of Christianity. I think semi-fictionalism about God has been pretty mainstream (although not universal) in the history of Christianity right back to the early church fathers. And I tentatively agree with Armstrong that the non-doxastic conception of faith was the norm pre-16th century. I’m perfectly happy to accept that pure fictionalism, or semi-fictionalism that involves fictionalism about the resurrection and the afterlife, has not been, and is not, the norm (although it’s more common than you might think). So what? As I say, I’m talking not about what is but what could be.

The final move in the post is to decisively reject the idea that fictionalism would or could be a good thing. Jerry says:

“Goff’s whole argument hinges on the fact that worshiping God and professing belief gives you a sense of community that is inaccessible by any other route.”

In fact, I didn’t say this and I don’t think it. The humanist Philip Kitcher, in his excellent book Life After Faith (which I reviewed for TLS, accessible here), agrees with me that there are many crucial social roles religion has played historically, such as binding the community together and promoting positive social action. However, after a careful discussion of what he calls ‘refined religion’ (something like what I call ‘semi-fictionalism) he ends up arguing that humanists should work to develop alternative structures and institutions that could play the same role. I think that’s a great idea and I honestly wish him well. But it’s not an either/or. The fact remains that secular humanism has not managed to produce institutions that bring ordinary people from all socioeconomic backgrounds together for weekly meetings, celebrating rites of passages, and marking the changes of the year. And the advantage of reinterpreting religion rather than starting again is that you get to keep the traditions, the beautiful buildings, and the structures and resources of a way of life stretching back thousands of years. I understand the objections to the beliefs of religion, but I find it hard to understand the concern if some people (such as myself) want to maintain the traditions whilst dispensing with some or all the beliefs.

This brings me to the final question I would like here to consider: Why did my article irritate Jerry so much? Why would you want to shut down so hastily the possibility of something that has the potential to bind communities together and direct their energies to a common ethical goal? The only sense I can make of this is that he likes the great Science V Religion war to be black and white and is irked by the introduction of shades of grey. Ideologies, whether communism or scientism or religious fundamentalism, bring a comforting certainty that allows us to avoid the messy complexities of the real world. If only life were so simple.

Is Panpsychism Inconsistent with Physics?

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I’ve been commenting on this piece that tries to argue in a not particularly sophisticated way that panpsychism is inconsistent with physics. For some reason, my comments have come up under the name “Art Uncut,” which was a now defunct campaigning group I was involved in 8 years ago. Here is my final comment:

I’ll try to explain the view one more time. Physics gives us behavioural structure; panpsychism is a proposal about what underlies that behavioural structure. Think about a mathematical model in economics that’s just a bunch of equations that abstracts away from the concrete realities of labour, prices, etc. The reality of labour doesn’t add to the reality specified by that model; to the contrary, labour is the very thing one of those symbols refers to! Similarly, according to panpsychism, physics gives us mathematical models that abstract away from the concrete reality of a universe filled with consciousness. The term ‘mass’ refers to something that physics characterises in terms of its behaviour but which in its intrinsic nature is a form of consciousness. If that view makes sense, then there’s no conflict with physics. There are all sorts of ways you could (and people do) challenge it, but you haven’t given us one.

Indeed, the very reason philosophers like David Chalmers, Sam Coleman and myself are interested in this form of panpsychism is that, in contrast to dualism, it avoids a conflict with physics. There’s been a significant number of peer reviewed articles published in academic journals on this view in the past 10 years or so. Do you really think that if there were such a basic conflict with physics, it would not have been picked up on before? Philosophers working on this stuff may be profoundly misguided, but we’re not idiots.

I’ll leave it there.