Responding to some recent criticisms

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It was great to see lots of responses in the latest edition (December/January) of Philosophy Now magazine to the edition I recently edited on ‘Radical Theories of Consciousness’. Of course, not all are sympathetic! I’d like to take the opportunity to respond to some of the objections and criticisms which were raised.

John Radcliffe thought that the range of articles was too narrow, as ‘all four contributors, to varying degrees are sympathetic to panpsychism.’ In fact, only two of the authors defend panpsychist views (myself and Morch), one (McQueen) has as far as I know expressed no sympathy for panpsychism, and another (Coleman) is positive hostile to it. Overall, I thought we got a wide-range of anti-materialist views. I’m curious to know which positions John thought we had neglected. Perhaps we should have included something on idealism. Or perhaps John thought we should have had some form of materialism, but materialism – as the dominant worldview – is very widely represented; the point of this edition was to explore alternatives. The rest of the letter generally ridiculed panpsychism, but without saying anything about the arguments I put forward for it in my piece. Does John disagree with me that physics fails to reveal the intrinsic nature of matter? Does John disagree with me that the simplest theory of matter’s intrinsic nature consistent with what we know is panpsychism? Instead of saying where my argument goes wrong, he simply repeats the familiar line that panpsychism is analogous to vitalism and will go the same way. However, in my editorial I argued for an alternative perspective on the history of science which I believe undermines this analogy. John says nothing about this argument.

Thomas Jeffreys accuses me of making an ‘argument from analogy, which has no logical value’. However, neither of the arguments I make in the piece is an argument from analogy. One of the arguments defends panpsychism on the grounds of its potential to explain human/animal consciousness, the other on the grounds that it is the simplest theory of matter’s intrinsic nature consistent with the only thing we know about matter’s intrinsic nature (i.e. that some matter has a consciousness-involving nature). Jeffreys says nothing in response to these arguments. He does, however, offer an interesting argument of his own: (A) human consciousness is a matter of our being aware of ourselves and our relationships with our surroundings, but (B) it is implausible to suppose that basic particles are aware in this sense, and therefore (C) either I’m changing the meaning of the word ‘consciousness’ when it comes to basic particles or panpsychism is false. I think the problem here is that the word ‘consciousness’ is a bit ambiguous. I don’t use it as a synonym of ‘awareness’, but rather to refer to the more basic property of experience. Although all forms of awareness involve experience, not all experience is a form of awareness; the feeling anxiety, for example, does not involve awareness of any features of reality outside of the feeling itself. Perhaps it’s incoherent to imagine that electrons have awareness, but it is not incoherent to suppose that they have experience, of some unimaginably simple form (Of course it’s a further question whether such a view is plausible, but I have offered arguments that have not been responded to).

I enjoyed Paul Buckingham’s letter (I can take a joke!). But to respond to the implicit argument contained therein: There is an important difference between the project of explaining the emergence of limbs in terms of our DNA, and the project of explaining the emergence of consciousness in terms of brain processes. In the former case, we are trying to explain one causal structure in terms of another, and even if we haven’t completely worked out the details yet, there is no in principle reason to think it can’t be done. But in the latter case, we are trying to explain the qualities of experience in terms of causal structure. As I argued in my editorial, the success of physical science is due to the fact that Galileo took the qualities of experience out of its domain of enquiry; from that point onward physical science has been in the business of mapping causal structure. The fact that the project of mapping causal structure has gone well gives us no ground for thinking that this project could adequately deal with the quality-rich phenomenon of consciousness. Moreover, as I argue at great length in the first half of my book Consciousness and Fundamental Reality, there are powerful philosophical arguments for the conclusion that Galileo was perfectly correct in thinking that the qualities of consciousness cannot be captured in the purely qualitative language of physical science. There are no analogous arguments applying to limbs or to life. Of course these philosophical arguments may not be sound, but Buckingham provides no reason to think this.







The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.


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