Archive | October, 2015

Could Electrons be Conscious?

30 Oct

I spend half my professional life arguing against one of the most popular views in philosophy – a view known as physicalism – and the other half defending one of the most ridiculed, namely panpsychism. This is not a great strategy for winning friends and having influence, and indeed when I was struggling to find an academic post I was told on a number of occasions that it would be advisable to hide my crazy views (which I sometimes did). But try as I might I can’t help thinking that panpsychism is a view worth taking seriously. In this short post I’ll try to explain some of my reasons.

The disagreement between me and my physicalist opponents concerns the best way to account for the existence of consciousness, by which I simply mean the feelings, experiences and emotions each of us enjoy every moment of waking life. Physicalists believe that the emergence of consciousness can be accounted for in terms of material entities and processes which are utterly non-conscious, such as the firings of neurons. Most scientists and philosophers agree that we have at present not the faintest idea of how to make sense of this; this is the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness.’ (For more on the hard problem see my post on zombies).

The panpsychist offers an alternative research programme: Rather than trying to account for consciousness in terms of utterly non-conscious elements, try to explain the complex consciousness of humans and other animals in terms of simpler forms of consciousness which are postulated to exist in simpler forms of matter, such as atoms or their sub-atomic components. This research project is still in its infancy. But a number of leading neuroscientists, such as Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi, are now finding that working within a panpsychist framework bears fruit. The more fruit is borne by this alternative research programme, the more reason we have to accept panpsychism.

Physicalists often make the following objection:

Just because we haven’t yet worked out how to give a mechanistic explanation of consciousness, it doesn’t follow that such an explanation will be forever beyond our grasp. Scientists before Darwin had no explanation of the emergence of complex life, which led many to suppose that there must be some divine or miraculous involvement in the emergence of life. The genius of Darwin was to come up the idea of natural selection, which removes the need for divine assistance in the biological realm. Perhaps we just need the ‘Darwin of consciousness’ to come along and do something similar in the mental realm.

This form of objection is often accompanied by a certain narrative of the history of science, according to which phenomenon after phenomenon was declared unexplainable by moaning philosophers, only to be later explained by the relentless march of science.

However, to adopt panpsychism is not to give up on the attempt to explain consciousness scientifically; panpsychism is a scientific research programme in its own right. Panpsychists do not simply declare human consciousness a sacred mystery which must have arrived by magic; they try to reduce human consciousness (and that of other animals) to more basic forms of consciousness, which are then postulated as fundamental aspects of matter.

It is true that consciousness itself is not explained in terms of anything more fundamental. But there is no a priori reason to think that science must always follow the most reductionist path. The scientific explanation of electromagnetism which eventually emerged in the 19th century involved the postulation of new fundamental electromagnetic properties and forces. Perhaps the scientific explanation of human consciousness when it eventually arrives will be similarly non-reductive in postulating fundamental kinds of consciousness.

Of course there is much more to be said about whether or not physicalism is a viable project. However, given the deep difficulties associated with the attempt to account for consciousness in physical terms, and the deep philosophical doubts about whether this is even possible, it is a good idea to examine other options. At the very least, panpsychist explanations of human consciousness are worth exploring.

People still laugh when I say I think electrons are conscious. But intellectual fashions are changing quickly, and I’m quietly confident that my gamble on panpsychism will pay off in the end.