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.

11 Responses to “Could Electrons be Conscious?”

  1. forrestjsschreick February 12, 2016 at 12:15 am #

    Professor Goff,

    I’m curious how panpsychism could be a scientific research program. From my understanding of your lectures, science answers structural and relational questions and not intrinsic questions. For example, science tells us what matter does not what matter intrinsically is. Could contemporary science accommodate panpsychism in structural/relational terms? Or is a new scientific revolution needed?

    Thanks,
    Forrest

    • conscienceandconsciousness February 12, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

      Thanks for great comment! I try to outline how I envisage this in the last chapter of my book (manuscript on my website). So it wouldn’t be *physical* science, and would probably be inherently more speculative. I think we need to move to a ‘post-Galilean epoch’, in which we take the findings of empirical science, and the direct knowledge we have of consciousness, and we try to work out the most simple and elegant theory which accommodates them both. It doesn’t look likely at the moment, but I’m confident it’ll happen in the end, as the reality of consciousness is so certain, and reductionist accounts of it so implausible.

      • lawrencecarsonLawrence carson February 12, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

        IMO – There Are No Nouns

        If we as curious seekers of life go back to the Greeks original definition of science, “scire” it meant “to know.” And I would guess that it meant “to consciously know” (con +scire) by any means possible, not just by measurement apparatus and the application of inductive and/or deductive logic.

        Point number two would probably be that the Greeks did not seek to restrict their scope of curiosity’s conscious fields of searching just to know that which is limited to the sensory preceptors of physical realms and realities. The Greeks were obviously very curious about all states of the psyche’s exploratory nature and focus on the extrinsic and intrinsic perceptions of the mind.

        And for point number three we ALL need to continually broadcast and illuminate the obvious. The core nature and precursor of all science (knowing) is courageous curiosity. Its courageous curiosity that is the principle precept to man’s transparent evolutionary calling and that one can only be serencified by, and at one level of knowing, i.e. the cognitive, experiential, at-one-with the territory “nous.” And it’s at this level that one smiles and reduces to the freshman level, all alleged conscious knowledge to that of abstract maps. Abstract maps when compared to what one experiences by having tapped into the one-with-one levels within co-resonant harmonic fields of enlightened entanglement become pure child’s ramblings.

        And at that realm of reflectively entangled “communion” one awakens one’s intuitive that there is not one femtosecond of difference between the co-resonant frequencies between “The Love of Truth” … and … “The Truth of Love” … “The Agape of Scire … and … “The Scire of Agape.”

        Aware + Meaning + Intention … (AMI) are not just the precursor attributes of consciousness but collectively they also scire all that is manifested from the singularity into the manifolds of duality. Panpsychism’s AMI, when experientially understood totally explains the territorial essence behind C.S. Lewis’s world famous quote.

        “We shall not cease from exploration,
        and the end of all our exploring …
        will be to arrive where we started …
        and know the place for the first time.”
        C.S. Lewis

        However he should have used the words … “… and nous the place for the first time.”

        PS:
        Panpsychism would also tell us that all states of consciousness … is energy … just as all states of energy …. is conscious.

        The “Relational” logic of co-resonant reflective entanglement of the two deems it so for synergistically neither could be sired without their beloved companion.

      • forrestjsschreick February 13, 2016 at 1:50 am #

        Thanks for taking the time to reply!

        I’m looking forward to reading your book. But, I’m curious, aside from simplicity and elegance, how would a we be able to select between two competing theories in post-Galilean science? In other words, if a post-Galilean scientist is given the choice between theory-A and theory-B and A is just as simple and elegant as B, what other factor should she default to?

    • lawrencecarson March 2, 2017 at 7:56 pm #

      VIDEO #I
      “How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci ~
      While Transcending A Life of Ignorant Beliefs.”

      Has anyone in your life ever shared with you how “YOU” … and only “YOU” can design and set off on a Personal Expedition to explore, experience and discover for yourself:

      I. Why you really came to this celestial outpost called earth?

      II. Who you really are after you have explored and transcended these belief systems?

      III. The Primordial nature and essence of the Conscious Operating System (C-OS) of the Universe and, how it is literally programmed to work 100% of the time.

      IV. The Genesis of all Belief Systems (BS) and, how to this very day, they are still the dominant human handlers of humanity?

      V. The: i) Magnetic Compass of “Your” Truth; the ii) Sextant revealing exactly where “You” are at, and … iii) the iii) Meta Scope for exploring the essence in-and-of the seas of L.I.F.E.? – a word and treasured acronym.

      The Following two (2) YouTube videos are very “Brief Summary Overviews” of a series of workshops that I have assembled as a result of a) an amazing Near Death … Life On the Other Side Experience … and b) reading hundreds of book written by others with similar experiential gifts.

      It is highly recommended that you view these in the sequence as presented below.
      And when done, I would deeply appreciate all feedback and support in getting these ideas and perspectives out into our world that is still waiting to wake up.

  2. lawrencecarson February 12, 2016 at 3:56 pm #

    IMO – There Are No Nouns

    If we as curious seekers of life go back to the Greeks original definition of science, “scire” it meant “to know.” And I would guess that it meant “to consciously know” (con +scire) by any means possible, not just by measurement apparatus and the application of inductive and/or deductive logic.

    Point number two would probably be that the Greeks did not seek to restrict their scope of curiosity’s conscious fields of searching just to know that which is limited to the sensory preceptors of physical realms and realities. The Greeks were obviously very curious about all states of the psyche’s exploratory nature and focus on the extrinsic and intrinsic perceptions of the mind.

    And for point number three we ALL need to continually broadcast and illuminate the obvious. The core nature and precursor of all science (knowing) is courageous curiosity. Its courageous curiosity that is the principle precept to man’s transparent evolutionary calling and that one can only be serencified by, and at one level of knowing, i.e. the cognitive, experiential, at-one-with the territory “nous.” And it’s at this level that one smiles and reduces to the freshman level, all alleged conscious knowledge to that of abstract maps. Abstract maps when compared to what one experiences by having tapped into the one-with-one levels within co-resonant harmonic fields of enlightened entanglement become pure child’s ramblings.

    And at that realm of reflectively entangled “communion” one awakens one’s intuitive that there is not one femtosecond of difference between the co-resonant frequencies between “The Love of Truth” … and … “The Truth of Love” … “The Agape of Scire … and … “The Scire of Agape.”

    Aware + Meaning + Intention … (AMI) are not just the precursor attributes of consciousness but collectively they also scire all that is manifested from the singularity into the manifolds of duality. Panpsychism’s AMI, when experientially understood totally explains the territorial essence behind C.S. Lewis’s world famous quote.

    “We shall not cease from exploration,
    and the end of all our exploring …
    will be to arrive where we started …
    and know the place for the first time.”
    C.S. Lewis

    However he should have used the words … “… and nous the place for the first time.”

    PS:
    Panpsychism would also tell us that all states of consciousness … is energy … just as all states of energy …. is conscious.

    The “Relational” logic of co-resonant reflective entanglement of the two deems it so for synergistically neither could be sired without their beloved companion.

  3. lorenzo sleakes April 14, 2016 at 3:03 pm #

    Consciousness can only be efficacious if it is truly a fundamental entity and independent force in nature. There is no way to have your cake and eat it too. This implies that causal closure of the known physical laws is not true. If causal closure is true then consciousness is merely a puppet popping suddenly out of nowhere with no purpose at all but even this requires some change to show how the known laws can create these meaningless subjective worlds. If subjective consciousness has no efficacy why are we even discussing it?
    I take the position that individual private mentality is built into the fabric of the universe and acts as an additional independent force. Consciousness at the most foundational level is simply the ability for a being to take in the local environment and interact dynamically, intelligently and purposefully towards it. Particles can sense each other and interact to create atoms and molecules. Cells sense and interact with each other to create complex organisms including brains. The complex network of electrical firings in the brain does not create the conscious observer anew each second, but generates the “content of consciousness” for that observer. This content can be enriched with imagination, memory and expectation thereby generating a spatially and temporally extended meaningful “virtual world” for the observer to act upon. But subjective observers were already part of the growing organism before the brain developed and harnessed the power already there.
    see: http://scientificanimism.blogspot.com

    • conscienceandconsciousness April 22, 2016 at 1:20 pm #

      @Lorenzo Sleakes: Thanks for your thoughts. I basically agree, except if consciousness it the intrinsic nature of the physical (see my post ‘A way forward on the hard problem of consciousness’) then the causal efficacy of consciousness is consistent with physical casual closure.

  4. lawrencecarson April 15, 2016 at 4:53 pm #

    A Promise Waiting To Self-Manifest

    In the double slit experiment – that has been replicated umpteen times, tells us that when the electro-magnetic field detects (i.e. conscious knows via a coherent, co-resonant nous level – perhaps even coherently entangled level) that “it” is being watched (monitored, measured and recorded) by some other coherently conscious field (system) then that “unified field of observer-observed relationship” collectively unfolds photon particles (quanta) which show up as discrete dots on the background. And if that entangled observer-observed relationship does not show up, the field does not unfold its treasurers of light. Simply stated, it’s all about consciously entangled relationships and how they work.

    As stated by Slekes ” Particles can sense (coherently and consciously entangle with) each other and interact to create atoms and molecules” . . . and do so at amazing femto-second resonant speeds.

    As one who has personally experienced the ontological source (a living operating system) of the fundamental, cause-effect nature of energy I only have two wishes for the post-integral field of science:

    1 – Stop trying to change the living belief systems that limit the minds permanently housed inside of those rigid libraries of dogmatic opinions. Change demands a hero’s journey out of the subjective “known zones” and into the “unknown zones” where all new awaits the awe of discovery. Belief Systems (Be + Lie + Fs) are only imperious impediments to the real Marco Polos setting out on new expeditions deep within the wonders of source creation.

    2 – Seek empirical ways to test and corroborate the valid replicability of this posed universal OS (Operating System’s – the black box of singularity’s monism) and its Fundamental Consciousness primal nature by inducing alternate fields of in+form+ation while observing the manifested outputs in order to note cause-effect implications from this wondrous OS of Universal Consciousness.

    SUMMARY:
    Make the hypothesis simple, such as “The Infinite-Timeless Zero Point Field+ of Non-Duality” is Consciousness awaiting to create and unfold its knowing but only within the time-space domains of reality.

    For anyone wishing to contemplate an interesting “algorithmethic map” given to me purporting to replicate the Universal Operating System, feel free to contact me at LawrenceCarson@Centurylink.net

  5. Olav Drageset March 1, 2017 at 6:56 pm #

    Professor Goff
    I am really surprised and impressed by finding a scientist/philosopher with your views. I have worked for 12 years on these matters and support your views fully. I also share your experiences that mainstream represents a wall of impenetrable neglect and protection of traditional beliefs. I am a concept engineer and use science and findings made by others to make new concept, new views and new understanding. Introspective experiences enable a new understanding/description of mind and consciousness. Review of string theory (particle physics) indicate that this new understanding of mind and consciousness can be modelled by particle physics. It is all pretty simple if you just look at things a bit different from the mainstream. My findings support your views. You find explanations at amatterofmind.net You can download this overview: http://amatterofmind.net/uploads/ThesisFirstPart-170224.pdf

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