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.

 

17 Responses to “The Simplicity Argument for Panpsychism”

  1. Robert de Vos March 18, 2017 at 10:44 am #

    ” …adopt the panpsychist hypothesis that the intrinsic nature of an electron is constituted of some very basic form of consciousness.”

    I really think that before we start to ascribe values, behaviour, characteristics to matter, especially inanimate if we consider an individual electron, that we arrive at a universal definition of “consciousness”.

  2. danielpaulmarshall March 18, 2017 at 11:03 am #

    Do you think panpsychism in any way fits in with Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory?

    • Dan Pallies March 18, 2017 at 4:45 pm #

      They are very similar in at least on respect: they are both theories which predict that consciousness is pretty much everywhere. However, it’s not totally clear how far the similarities go beyond that because it’s not always totally clear to me what IIT is saying. However, on one interpretation of IIT, it is a sort of panpsychism.

      IIT might be saying that integrated information has a structural/dynamic ‘side’ and an intrinsic ‘side’. The structural/dynamic aspect of information is accessible to third-person empirical science, and the intrinsic aspect of information is consciousness.

      • danielpaulmarshall March 18, 2017 at 10:11 pm #

        I figured as much. They are both fascinating ideas. Would be interesting to see somebody investigate the two & see if any advances might be made through tying them up into a more complete picture of consciousness. Thanks for the clarification.

  3. Name March 18, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    The 3rd objection is quite interesting, but consider this: If we acknowledge the existence of phenomenal consciousness, then it is more parsimonious to assume that everything-that-is-not-me has a nature continuous to my own, instead of assuming that it is radically different and that we are somehow special.

    This argument goes both ways, of course: a physicalist would say that we are nothing over-and-above the physical since it is more parsimonious to assume that our nature is continuous to the nature of everything else in the universe.

    The trick is figuring out which methodological starting point is firmer. Because of Descartes (and maybe Kant), I would say – consciousness.

    It is also interesting to note that the starting point differs across cultures: some cultures (e.g. some groups of Aboriginal Australians) take it for granted that both their physical and mental nature shares properties with everything else. To them, the mechanistic picture of the world is as crazy as panpsychism is to Western physicalists.

  4. stathis March 19, 2017 at 3:09 am #

    I have a problem if the idea that electrons have intrinsic consciousness implies that consciousness is substrate-specific, since that position is challenged by David Chalmers’ “fading qualia” argument (http://consc.net/papers/qualia.html). I’d be open to a variant of functionalism: that even a simple system such as electrons interacting with other particles may have a basic consciousness, but this conscioness would depend on system, not on the nature of its components. I’m not sure if that would still qualify as “panpsychism”.

  5. Finja March 19, 2017 at 11:09 am #

    Hello Philip,
    I’m no philosophic scientist, but somehow I strongly believe that there must be some intrinsic nature within electrons, you are giving some really good explanations here. Maybe the human brain is just such an accumulation of “special energies”..
    Happy I stumbled upon your name via Twitter recently, I really want to dive further into philo and the Aeon mag seems as well as such a great resource.
    (I blog about a lighter version of philosophy, nothing as fancy as you do though..: http://www.effcaa.com. My motivation is to bring higher thinking concepts to the masses, to the younger audience and embed it into everyday living, inspire others to think further. I kind of feel that philosophy is oftentimes just sitting in universities, far away from the general public).
    Have a good Sunday,
    Finja

  6. Buddy Landry March 22, 2017 at 3:14 pm #

    I am surprised that you do not mention (even to reject) A. N. Whitehead’s attempt to work out a metaphysic that asserts subjectivity as an fundamental property of existent things. I first encountered the argument that you make in the pages of Process and Reality, and remain convinced that something like Whitehead’s view is correct.

  7. lorenzo sleakes March 23, 2017 at 3:44 pm #

    in quantum physics electrons are active and dynamic and not quite predictable self movers. all signs of hidden mentality.

  8. conscienceandconsciousness June 15, 2017 at 12:14 pm #

    Feel terrible taking ages to reply to these…

    DanielPaulMarshall: I agree with what Dan Pallies said 🙂

    Name: Sounds good to me. The reality of consciousness is the thing we are most certain of, and as I explain in the Russellian monism video (couple of posts after this), physics doesn’t tell us the intrinsic nature of matter.

    Stathis: Yeah, this is a really interesting issue. But doesn’t the problem go away given that each fundamental particle is present in each conscious system? Strictly speaking consciousness may be substrate-dependent, but only in the sense that a thing’s consciousness would change if you swapped its particles with particles from a parallel universe with different matter. Chalmers’ argument isn’t intended to demonstrate that fading qualia is metaphysically impossible.

    Finja: Great! I’m very keen as well to reach out to a broader audience. Having just finished my academic book, I’m about to start on a book aimed at a general audience.

    Buddy Landry: Fair point. It was only a short article, so not possible to mention every relevant historical philosopher (Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer and many more…), but I confess in general I ought to go more into the historical precedents…

    • stathis June 17, 2017 at 12:45 pm #

      Thanks for your reply. Substrate-dependence presents serious logical difficulties for the concept of consciousness, because you could make a partial zombie. If this is possible, it would mean that you could right now be completely blind but not know it; but what meaning – either in the semantic or emotional sense – could be assigned to visual experiences if that is the case?

  9. paulaustinmurphy June 16, 2017 at 9:46 am #

    “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.”

    True; though there’s a large difference between a theory being *entirely* based on evidence/data and a theory having *no* evidence/data at all. Does panpsychism have no evidence to support it? You say that you “don’t give any evidence for panpsychism”.

    Simplicity and parsimony also run up against other criteria of theory-choice. That raises the question as why a particular theorist has chosen simplicity over the other criteria. (If it’s ever that simple!) Is it partly psychological? Some theorists and scientists don’t deny that.

    *) If part of theory T includes an “angel who can’t affect the world”, aren’t you choosing an easy target here? What about an angel who could possibly affect the world? After all, those who believe in angels think they often affect the world. What’s the point of angels who don’t causally affect at least some believers and events? Thus such believers will cite what they call “evidence” and even offer us “predictions” about angels. Belief in angels is, of course, a load of bullshit, sure; though I’m just saying. Best to think of another example – if there is one.

    “But sometimes the mere formulation of a simpler theory can result in a major scientific change.”

    Yes, a simpler theory with lots and lots of other good stuff too. Simplicity *alone* never does the trick. Or surely it can’t. I don’t know.

    “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.”

    Here again, special relativity isn’t only simpler than the Lorentzian theory. So perhaps the simplicity of Einstein’s theory showed other scientists why the other parts of his own theory were superior to Lorentz’s…

    I’ll get back on consciousness and the notion of “intrinsic nature”.

  10. paulaustinmurphy June 16, 2017 at 2:09 pm #

    “… 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.”

    Why is that so? I acknowledge that it may take a long time to explain. This reference to simplicity, again, is difficult. Perhaps your previous angels provide a simple account of things. It will be unscientific; though the same is said of panpsychism.

    “The supposition that electrons have consciousness is less parsimonious than the supposition that they don’t.”

    That would depend entirely on what both disputants take consciousness to be. One could simply assume, for example, that it would be silly to say that electrons-in-supposition have consciousness? The other disputant can simply ask: “Why?”

    “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.”

    That seems to be true. However, is it all about behaviour? For the ontic structural realists, for example, it’s all about (mathematical) structure; though that structure may/will account for behaviour too. Perhaps your point also assumes that electrons must have an “intrinsic nature”. Bertrand Russell believed otherwise, didn’t he?

    “Assuming that an electron has an intrinsic nature, we must go beyond physics in speculating about what it is.”

    That’s almost like saying that because *4 plus 4 equals 5*, therefore we must go beyond maths in speculating as to why that is the case. Okay, that’s a little unfair! Perhaps it’s like saying that *because the intrinsic nature of angels takes us beyond physics, we must speculate about them instead*. That clause, “…. because of X we must go beyond physics”, crops up all over the place. Sometimes, perhaps, for good reason. (Think of Penrose and Hameroff.)

    “… 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?”

    That would be a goof argument if everything else you’ve said is also true/correct; as you already know.

    “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.”

    Or its mathematical structure.

    “The reality of one’s own consciousness is itself a datum, in addition to the data of observation and experiment.”

    True, Chalmers says that it *must not* be ignored. I agree. It’s what follows from that which is of interested or contention. Those materialists who reject and/or deny such a thing are strange to me.

    • conscienceandconsciousness June 20, 2017 at 2:09 pm #

      Hi Paul! Great to hear from you, it’s been a while 🙂

      On evidence for panpsychism: I take consciousness itself to be a datum, and I think panpsychism is the simplest theory consistent with our basic data, i.e. the reality of consciousness + empirical data. The reality of human consciousness supports panpsychism in the same way that the datum that the speed of light is measured to be the same in all frames of reference supports SR. What the other advantages of SR apart from simplicity?

      On intrinsic nature, yeah, I’ve over-simplified slightly. Alyssa Ney argues (in the OUP volume on Russellian monism) that matter might have a purely mathematically defined nature. But I think mathematical descriptions abstract away from concrete reality, e.g. a mathematical model in economics abstracts away from what is being bought and sold and the nature of labour.

  11. paulaustinmurphy June 22, 2017 at 9:32 am #

    I didn’t think you’d recognise my name.

    “I take consciousness itself to be a datum…”

    I should have worked this out myself. I already knew that David Chalmers takes this position.

    If consciousness is a datum; it’s a very odd datum and not scientific at all. This, however, doesn’t stop it from being a datum and I think I take it that way too.

    “I think panpsychism is the simplest theory consistent with our basic data, i.e. the reality of consciousness + empirical data.”

    Still not sure about that; as my references to your angels partly pointed out.

    “The reality of human consciousness supports panpsychism in the same way that the datum that the speed of light is measured to be the same in all frames of reference supports SR. What the other advantages of SR apart from simplicity?”

    I don’t really understand the comparison of SR to panpsychism. Do you mean that *consciousness is the same for all* in the same way that SR “is the same in all frames of reference”?… As I said before about another theory, there’s more to SR than its simplicity. You can’t be reducing panpsychism and SR down only to their simplicity. And if there’s more, then that raises many other questions which you won’t have time to to tackle here. For a start, sometimes the appeal of simplicity for a theory is jettisoned when other criteria of theory-choice are deemed superior (for whatever reasons). Not only that: simplicity sometimes looses out in the battle against things such as data, experiments, other theories, etc.

    “I think mathematical descriptions abstract away from concrete reality, e.g. a mathematical model in economics abstracts away from what is being bought and sold and the nature of labour.”

    Absolutely. And that’s why I have a big problem with ontic structural realism; though sometimes I think that I don’t really know what the precise position on this is.

    In one of the pieces (on Russell) I sent you I wrote this:

    “Mathematical equations and values are the mere bones of the physics. Mathematics only deals with structures; not with what have been called ‘intrinsic properties’. This position seems to be at odds, then, with the realism of James Ladyman, Don Ross and other contemporary ontic structural realists.”

    And here:

    “The upshot of Russell’s position (if only at this time) is that there are no intrinsic or essential properties and, consequently, there aren’t really any things or objects. That is, all x’s properties are both contingent or external.

    “Russell’s bottom line is that we have no access – either observationally or otherwise – to the intrinsic characteristics of such things. Instead ‘[w]hat we know about them’ is simply ‘their structure and their mathematical laws’. That is, all we’ve got is structure and maths. Thus it’s structure and maths ‘all the way down’ (to quote Ladyman ad Ross).

    “There is one conclusion that we must face here. If all properties are contingent or external, then there’s little point in using these terms at all. If I can offer an analogy. Say that everyone in a class can recite the 12-times-table and are consequently all called ‘geniuses’. Thus that term is gratuitously used about everyone in that class. The same is true of all references to ‘external’ or ‘contingent properties’ – they only have meaning in reference to their (as it were) antonyms: ‘intrinsic’ or ‘essential’…”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Panpsychism and theoretical virtue in philosophy of mind | Popcorn Machine - March 22, 2017

    […] For further reading, see Goff’s response to some critics of his article: https://conscienceandconsciousness.com/2017/03/18/the-simplicity-argument-for-panpsychism-2/ […]

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