Goodbye decade that politicised me with the lies of austerity and Brexit. As things stand the future doesn’t look good, but I choose to live in hope. It’s been a shit decade for the world, but this is my blog so I’m obliged to report that the 2010s have blessed me with so many wonderful things. I commit to doing what I can to make the 2020s better than the 2010s.
When I was first looking for academic jobs in 2006, I was told by well-meaning professors to keep my research on panpsychism to myself. In the thirteen years since, panpsychism has gone from being something that was laughed at in so far as it was thought of at all, to being a well-respected albeit minority position. This year, for the first time in its history, there was a session on panpsychism at the UK’s main annual philosophy conference The Joint Session of the Mind and Aristotelian Society, which featured talks by me, Luca Dondoni, Marta Santuccio and Gregory Miller. In addition, I organised a panpsychism workshop at the Science of Consciousness conference, which this year was in Interlaken, Switzerland (photos from both events below: Angela Mendelovici, David Bourget, Luke Roelofs).
2019 also saw four books on panpsychism published with major publishers, one of which was a New York Times Bestseller:
- Conscious: A Brief guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, by Annaka Harris
- The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness is Widespread but Can’t be Computed, by Christof Koch (Christof and I will be reviewing each other’s books in 2020).
- Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, by yours truly.
- The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes Donald Hoffman (Is Hoffman defending panpsychism? If not, something very close to it; I’ll post some on this soon).
The science of consciousness has come a long way in recent history. For much of the twentieth century, consciousness was a taboo topic, not seen as appropriate subject matter for serious science. Those days are long gone, and it is now generally accepted that we must find a way of integrating consciousness into our scientific worldview. However, although the problem is taken very seriously, it is commonly held that we just need to plug away with our standard ways of investigating the brain and we’ll eventually crack the mystery of consciousness. What this fails to appreciate is that consciousness is radically unlike any other scientific phenomenon.
I think the next stage is to persuade the scientific and philosophical community of the unique status of the problem of consciousness. This has been the focus of my public exchange of letters with Massimo Pigluccio, and something I intend to focus on in 2020. It will be the topic of my plenary talk at the Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson, Arizona this April (Hoffman will also be giving a plenary at this conference).
Panpsychism workshop at the Science of Consciousness conference, Interlaken Switzerland, 25th-28th June 2019
Panpsychism session at the 93rd Joint Session of the Mind and Aristotelian Society, Durham University, UK, 19th-21st July 2019
There is currently an intense and acrimonious dispute going on within the Labour party over the cause of our recent electoral defeat. Supporters of Corbyn want to put it all down to the fact that traditional Labour supporters wanting Brexit chose to vote Conservative to ensure we leave the EU; opponents of Corbyn claim it was the fault of Corbyn’s far too radical political programme that was always going to end in disaster.
I think both over-simplify. Clearly the Brexit issue was a major factor. But anyone who canvassed for Labour (myself included) can’t deny the intense dislike of Corbyn on the doorstep. However, opponents of Corbyn are conflating dislike of Corbyn with dislike of the policies he was supporting. Poll after poll has shown these policies — including renationalisation of the railways and a Green New Deal — to have strong popular support. The problem was that Corbyn just wasn’t a skilled communicator of those policies. He never wanted to job of leader and never expected to get it. Any Labour leader that tries to challenge the neo-liberal consensus is relentlessly demonised by most of the UK media (including the BBC), and you need to be a larger than life personality to beat this; Corbyn, for all his virtues, just wasn’t up to the job. If we had had someone as articulate and message-disciplined as Bernie Sanders selling this manifesto, I think we could have cut through, although whether that would have been enough to get round the Brexit problem is hard to say.
The aims of the right of the party are clear: to discredit once and for all the programme of the radical left and to push Labour back to the ‘centre’ of politics. The problem with making a virtue of ‘centrism’ is that the centre moves. For the thirty years after the war, the centre of politics involved a commitment to a far more radical programme of state ownership, regulation and high taxes on the wealthy than anything we find in Labour’s recent manifesto. I have a friend in his 70s who is an old school Tory who never got down with the Thatcher programme; his views on the economy are slightly to the left of Corbynism (at least the 2017 manifesto). Thatcher dragged the centre the right, and the neo-liberal establishment now pretend that this is the sacred and eternal place of the centre, and that anyone who questions its fundamental assumptions is beyond the pale.
Moreover, I think a lurch to the centre at this time would be disastrous for Labour. This election was as much about people’s lack of interest in centrism as anything else, as shown by the bad performance of the Lib Dems and the complete collapse of Change UK. Every centrist MP that left Labour and Conservatives in protest lost their seat. As soon as neglected leave voting communities realise that Brexit doesn’t make life better, and there’s still insecure work, in work poverty, collapsing NHS, food banks, neglected communities, etc., there’ll be looking for radical solutions from left and right. Either we inspire them with a radical rethink of the economic model or we’ll get fascists in parliament. I don’t think Labour has a hope of winning back working class seats if it becomes Change UK mark II.
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.
Massimo Pigliucci and I have had a series of twitter rows on the topic of consciousness and panpsychism. Recently we decided to go old school and write some letters, which you can access here. I’ve just written my second. Subscribe to follow the debate!
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?
- Do you agree that consciousness is unobservable?
- 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)?
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:
- 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).
- 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?