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.


10 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 ( 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..: 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,

  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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: