Archive | March, 2017

The Simplicity Argument for Panpsychism

18 Mar

I recently published an article in Aeon magazine defending what I call ‘the simplicity argument for panpsychism.’ This is a shorter version of the argument I develop in at length in my forthcoming book Consciousness and Fundamental Reality (the book is not very accessible to non-specialists; I’m currently working on a book aimed a general audience). I’d like to take the opportunity to respond to a few of the objections that came up repeatedly in the comments.

1st objection: You don’t give any evidence for panpsychism

I agree that I don’t give any evidence for panpsychism. But scientific theory choice depends on (at least) two things: (i) evidence, (ii) considerations of simplicity and parsimony. For any set of data, there are an infinite number of theories that fit the data, and we must choose between them on the basis of simplicity and parsimony.

Don’t believe me? Take the standard model of particle physics: call that theory ‘T’. Now add the postulation of one epiphenomenal angel (i.e. an angel that can’t affect the physical world) and call the resulting theory ‘T*’. Then add the postulation of two epiphenomenal angels to make a third theory, call it ‘T**’. Then add the postulation of three angels, to make a fourth theory T***, and so on ad infinitum. All of these theories will make exactly the same predictions. How should we choose between them? On the basis of parsimony: we can dump the angels without loss of predictive power.

Often the simplest theory consistent with the evidence is obvious (as would be the case in the above example), which can make it seem as though Ockham’s razor isn’t doing any work. But sometimes the mere formulation of a simpler theory can result in a major scientific change. This was the case with special relativity. Special relativity is empirically equivalent to the Lorentzian theory it replaced, but it gave a much simpler explanation of the data, and brought greater unity to physics. Similarly, panpsychist theories of the intrinsic nature of matter are empirically equivalent to non-panpsychist theories of the intrinsic nature of matter, but they are to be preferred on grounds of simplicity.

2nd objection: The supposition that electrons have consciousness is less parsimonious than the supposition that they don’t

The crucial starting point of my article is that physics only tells us how electrons behave; it tells us nothing of the intrinsic nature of electrons. Assuming that an electron has an intrinsic nature, we must go beyond physics in speculating about what it is. We can either adopt the panpsychist hypothesis that the intrinsic nature of an electron is constituted of some very basic form of consciousness. Or we can adopt the non-panpsychist hypothesis that electrons have some entirely unknown intrinsic nature. The former hypothesis is much simpler than the latter: we already know that the intrinsic nature of some physical entities (i.e. brains) involves consciousness; why postulate two kinds of intrinsic property when you can make do with one?

So it’s not like the panpsychist postulates something and the non-pansychist doesn’t (in that case non-panpsychism would be simpler). Both panpsychist and non-panpsychist theories of the intrinsic nature of matter go beyond physics. The only question is which is the more parsimonious extension of physics.

3rd objection: The most parsimonious view is that electrons don’t have an intrinsic nature at all

This is an interesting response, and I certainly agree it would be simpler to simply deny that matter has an intrinsic nature. On this kind of view, there is nothing more to an electron that how it behaves; an electron is not so much a being as a doing.

However, I think there are two considerations that count strongly against the denial of intrinsic natures:

  1. The reality of one’s own consciousness is itself a datum, in addition to the data of observation and experiment. And I think there are good arguments (e.g. the knowledge argument) for the view that consciousness is an intrinsic property. Therefore, assuming (on parsimony grounds) that dualism is false, we know that brains have an intrinsic nature (constituted of their conscious experience). It would lead a radically disunified theory of reality to hold that brains have an intrinsic nature but all other material entities (including the parts of brains) lack an intrinsic nature. (To be honest, I don’t even know what such a theory would look like).
  2. I think it can be demonstrated that the denial of intrinsic natures leads to a vicious regress, and that it follows that that such a view is unintelligible. Can a mere philosophical argument have such a strong conclusion? Well, Galileo refuted Aristotle’s view that heavier objects fall faster with a purely philosophical argument. Bertrand Russell and others gave versions of this argument; I give mine in the ‘Against causal structuralism’ section of chapter 6 of my book.