Archive | February, 2018

First review of ‘Consciousness & Fundamental Reality’

14 Feb

The first review of my book ‘Consciousness and Fundamental Reality‘ has just come out, by Daniel Stoljar of Australian National University. It has flattery at the beginning and end with razor sharp critique in between, which is my favourite kind of sandwich! I will write a response as soon as I get a chance, probably at the beginning of March.

Fine-Tuning and Panpsychism

8 Feb

This admittedly speculative attempt to give a panpsychist explanation of fine-tuning just out:

It feels crazy, but I can’t as yet see the problem with the argument…

The Problem with Materialism and the Explanatory Power of Panpsychism: A more considered response to Seth and Mitchell

5 Feb

I woke up Saturday morning with a strange, unpleasant feeling in my stomach. I initially thought it was indigestion, but after a certain amount of reflection I diagnosed it as guilt. I feel my last post was a bit dismissive and defensive, and so I’d like to make recompense by giving a calmer and more considered response to Seth and Mitchell.

Response to Seth

I worry my post gave the impression that non-philosophers have no business engaging with philosophical questions (as Mitchell tweeted in response). In fact, I have very much valued Seth’s engagement with philosophy, for example, raising Chalmers’ distinction between the “hard” and “easy” problems and giving his own take on it. I shouldn’t be dismissing his engagement, as I did in my last post, just because he hasn’t read every last detail of Chalmers’ Two-Dimensional Argument against Materialism.

At the same time, I respectfully disagree his position, and I would like to articulate in a bit more detail the source of my disagreement. Seth claims that opposition to materialism is rooted in claims about what can be imagined. If this were all it amounted to, then as he says opponents of materialism would be open to the charge of mistaking a failure of imagination for an insight into necessity. But in my view, the opposition to materialism is rooted in the belief that the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science is ill-suited to the task of capturing the qualities of conscious experience.

Here’s the basic premise on which I’d rest my case:

The Key Premise – A congenitally blind neuroscientist could never, through reading neuroscience in braille, come to know what it’s like to see colours.

It follows that language of neuroscience could never convey the qualities involved in colour experience; if a neuroscientific theory could convey the qualities involved in colour experience, it would be able to teach the blind what it’s like to see colours. And if neuroscience can’t even describe these qualities, then it certainly can’t reductively explain them. For a reductive explanation would involve describing these qualities and then accounting for their existence in terms of physical processes in the brain.

(For those who have looked into this debate in a lot of detail, of course it gets more complicated, requiring responses, for example, to the phenomenal concept strategy, but this is the starting point. The full argument can be found in the first half of my book).

My interest was piqued by Seth’s suggestion that predictive processing might provide resources to bridge this gap. I’d love to hear more details, but from what I know so far about predictive processing I can’t see how this could help. My test would be: Could a congenitally blind neuroscientist come to know what it’s like to see colours by reading about the predictive processing in the brain?

How can I prove that neuroscience alone will never bridge this gap? I can’t, but the conviction that it inevitably will seems to me an unjustified leap of faith. Perhaps the most common defence of this conviction, given by Seth and others, is to appeal to the track record of physical science. The fact that physical science has explained so much of our universe, it is claimed, ought to give us confidence that it will one day explain consciousness.

I have a different way of thinking about the history of science. The rightly celebrated success of the physical science began when Galileo declared that the qualities of consciousness were in the soul and so outside of its domain of natural science, which allowed physical science to focus exclusively on the purely quantitative properties of the physical world. In other words, physical science was designed as an inherently limited project, describing quantities and ignoring qualities. The fact that it has had great success in modelling quantities gives us no grounds for supposing it capable of dealing with qualities. But that’s precisely what a true theory of consciousness would need to do, as consciousness is an essentially quality-laden phenomenon. A reductive theory of consciousness would have to explain the colours, sounds, smells and tastes that characterize our inner subjective lives in terms of the physical properties of the brain.

Seth goes on to argue that people like me are expecting too much from a theory of consciousness:

“As long as we can formulate explanatorily rich relations between physical mechanisms and phenomenological properties, and as long as these relations generate empirically testable predictions which stand up in the lab (and in the wild), we are doing just fine. Riding behind many criticisms of current consciousness science are unstated intuitions that a mechanistic account of consciousness should be somehow intuitively satisfying, or even that it must allow some kind of instantiation of consciousness in an arbitrary machine. We don’t make these requirements in other areas of science…”

In fact, I do not expect anything more than correlations and predictions from neuroscience. But I would expect more from an empirical case for materialism. I think the materialist is obliged to provide reductive explanations of higher-level phenomena. For most other phenomena – life, water, heat – such reductive explanations are available, at least in principle. These explanations are intuitively satisfying. Why is it so hard to reductively explain consciousness? In the case of life, water and heat, what we are looking to explain are functional properties, that is to say, properties to do with how things behave, or how their parts behave. The quantitative language of physical science is well suited to this. But in the possibly unique case of consciousness we are dealing with qualities, and the quantitative language of physical science is simply not up to this task.

I can’t rule out materialism with 100% certainty, but many decades of hard work has, in my humble opinion, produced zero progress in the project of reductively explaining the qualities of consciousness. This is not surprising as the project of articulating the qualities of consciousness in quantitative language is on the face of it incoherent. Moreover, the drive to find a materialist solution to the problem of consciousness is unmotivated. In the 1920s Russell and Eddington did for consciousness science what Darwin did for the science of life (see below): They showed how to fit consciousness into our scientific story of the world. The job has already been done.

Having said all that though, I certainly wouldn’t want to stop materialists trying to explain consciousness in the language of physical science, and it would be a remarkable development if they ever managed to do it. One gets the impression reading Seth’s piece that he thinks anti-materialists are stopping neuroscientists making progress. But in so far as neuroscience is giving us correlations/explanations, it is neutral between materialism, dualism, and panpsychism. The proponents of these views would simply give different philosophical interpretations of the data: the materialist would see the physical states as constituting the conscious states, the dualist would see the physical states as causing the conscious states (in conjunction with basic psycho-physical laws of nature), the panpsychist would see the conscious states as the intrinsic nature of the physical states. In so far as some neuroscientists are trying to reductively explain consciousness, then of course they are pursuing a goal inconsistent with dualism/panpsychism. But a plurality of different theories are pursued in science and philosophy without it being a problem. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Response to Mitchell

Kevin Mitchell took the time to write a lengthy response to my simplicity argument for panpsychism, and I didn’t respond to any of his points in my post (my bad!). So let me say a little more here.

I think I learnt something from the exchange with Mitchell, and that is that my simplicity argument for panpsychism is dependent on my rejection of materialism (In fact, this is clear in my book, but has not been transparent in my non-academic work, such as the piece Mitchell discusses). If a standard kind of materialism is true, then consciousness is to be explained in terms of the (broadly construed) functional features of the brain. But that disqualifies consciousness from being an intrinsic property of the brain. The relevant distinction here is:

Functional properties – Properties that concern the behaviour of an entity, or the behaviour or its parts.

Intrinsic properties – Properties which are not purely functional properties, i.e. their nature cannot be entirely captured in terms of how its possessor is disposed to behave (or how its parts are disposed to behave).

(I appreciate this is a bit of a non-standard use of ‘intrinsic property’, but the usage has kind of stuck in these debates. Really I’m talking about what Derk Pereboom calls ‘absolutely intrinsic properties’, or what Chalmers calls ‘quiddities’.)

Premise 1 of my argument is that physical science tells us nothing of the intrinsic properties of matter: physical science merely tells us what stuff does not how it is. But if consciousness can be explained in terms of the functional properties of physical science, then premise 2 is false: consciousness is not an intrinsic property of the brain. On the other hand, if materialism is false and the properties of consciousness cannot be accounted for in terms of the functional properties of the brain, then conscious states do look like a good candidates for being the intrinsic properties of the brain. Therefore, the simplicity argument has force only if we already have good reason to think materialism is false.

This point is made clear by Mitchell’s analogy of my argument using the property of life. I take it that life is a functional property: for something to be alive is for it or its parts to exhibit various complex forms of behavioural functioning, e.g. growth, reproduction, etc. And for precisely this reason, the ‘panvitalist’ argument Mitchell outlines fails. If consciousness were also a functional property, then my argument for panpsychism would fail for the same reason.

But that’s okay, as I do think we have very strong reason to think materialism is false, as I explained in my above response to Seth. And that doesn’t mean my argument is circular. The argument is intended to show that panpsychism is the best view among the non-materialist options, e.g. dualism, neutral monism, etc. I’m grateful to Mitchell for helping to make this clear; it’s probably led to a lot of talking at cross purposes in the past.

Once the dependence on anti-materialism is made clear, I don’t think any of the other criticisms Mitchell makes have force (he’s welcome to correct me!). There is the common complaint that panpsychism doesn’t ‘explain’ or ‘predict’ anything. I agree that panpsychism can’t be directly tested, simply because consciousness itself cannot be directly observed. This is deep problem that raises worries for any theory of consciousness.

But I would disagree that panpsychism doesn’t explain anything. It accounts for consciousness, in the sense that it provides a place for consciousness in our scientific conception of the universe. We know that consciousness exists, and hence any theory of the world must be able to account for the reality of consciousness. I believe that materialism cannot account for the reality of consciousness and so must be false. Of the anti-materialist options that can account for the reality of consciousness, panpsychism is the simplest, which I think gives us strong reason to think it’s the one most likely to be true. If you like, you can think of it as an inference to the best explanation, as Hedda Hassel Morch suggested in the twitter exchanges. Of course panpsychism does not account for consciousness in more fundamental terms (although it may account for human consciousness in terms of more fundamental forms of consciousness), but the idea that we are obliged to do this seems to me a prejudice of materialism.

Neuro-Fundamentalism and the Importance of Philosophy

2 Feb

In recent academic philosophy, panpsychism has gone from being an object of public ridicule to being a respected minority view. A recent article by Olivia Goldman covered this development. A couple of neuroscientists, Anil Seth and Kevin Mitchell, have written strongly worded articles in response. There is a lot I could say in counter-response to Seth and Mitchell, but given time constraints I’ll restrict myself to making a few points:

Neither Seth nor Mitchell show any awareness of the reason academic philosophers have recently taken an interest in panpsychism

This is in fact due to the recent rediscovery of certain ideas from the 1920s of the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the scientist Arthur Eddington. In the public mind physics is on its way to giving us a complete account of the nature of matter. But what Eddington argued, building on Russell, is that physics is not a mirror of reality but a tool for prediction. The equations of physics do not tell us what physical properties – mass, charge, space, time – are, and if you try to extract for physics a definition of any physical property you’ll quickly find yourself looping back in a circle. But even if we don’t know the nature of physical properties, we can recognize them in the world, and by applying the equations of physics we can predict with great accuracy how matter will behave.

What has all this to do with consciousness? What Russell/Eddington are drawing our attention to is a huge gap in our scientific picture of the universe: physical science tells us nothing of the real nature of physical properties (there are corresponding gaps in higher-level physical sciences, assuming the properties of such higher-level sciences are ultimately constituted of the properties of physics). Eddington’s insight (again building on Russell) was that we could fill that gap with consciousness, by holding that consciousness properties are simply the real nature of physical properties.

It was previously thought that there were only two options for accounting for consciousness: physicalism (consciousness is to be explained in terms of physical science) or dualism (consciousness is something extra to the physical properties of the brain). Both of these views face profound problems (see the next point). Eddington’s panpsychism is attractive because it avoids the deep difficulties facing the other two options. It is not strictly speaking testable, simply because consciousness itself cannot be observed, but if it offers a more parsimonious and less problematic account of consciousness than its rivals, then this gives us strong reason to take it seriously (As I often point out in this context, special relativity is empirically equivalent to the Lorentzian view that preceded it, and yet the scientific community almost universally embraced it because it brought greater internal unity to physics).

The hard problem is, in the first instance, a philosophical problem.

The hard problem is rooted in a number of arguments, such as the knowledge argument and the conceivability argument, that purport to show that physicalism is incoherent. I can’t get into too much of the details here (although see the first half of my book for the full story), but the basic idea is that the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science is not suited to characterising the qualitative properties of consciousness. You could not convey in the language of neuroscience what it’s like to see red (if you could, then the congenitally blind could in principle know what it’s like to see colours through reading neuroscience in braille); and if neuroscience can’t even convey these qualities then it certainly can’t explain them.

To be fair, Seth does say something about the conceivability argument, but what he says reveals deep confusions about how it’s supposed to work. Seth claims that it’s all about what can be imagined. But in the versions defended in the academic literature, e.g. by David Chalmers or myself, the focus is not on imaginability but on logical coherence. Logical coherence is not the kind of thing you can test in a lab or observe through a telescope. It’s the proper domain of careful philosophical reflection.

Which brings me to my third and final point:

This is symptomatic of the casual rejection of philosophy in contemporary culture

I would never dream of wading in and casually dismissing the views of Seth and Mitchell without careful engagement with their empirical work. Any yet they think they can casually dismiss the conclusions of academic philosophers without careful engagement with their arguments. This contrasts strongly with the attitude of Eddington. As Seth points out, Eddington is one of the most important experimental scientists of the 20th century. And yet he was also a keen reader of the leading philosophers of his day, while expressing due humility about it not being his own area of specialization (an attitude also exemplified by the contemporary physicist Sean Carroll, who – from the opposite side of the debate to me – bothers to give a careful examination of the philosophical arguments on consciousness in his recent book). I love the following quote from Eddington, concerning the work of his philosophical contemporary Alfred North Whitehead:

“Although this book [Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World] may in most respects seem diametrically opposed to Dr. Whitehead’s widely read philosophy of Nature, I think it would be truer to regard him as an ally who from the opposite side of a mountain is tunnelling to meet his less philosophically minded colleagues. The only thing is not to confuse the two entrances.”

What a beautiful image to capture the spirit of collaboration that ought to exist between philosophers and scientists. And yet what we find in the twenty first century is scientists like Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodniow beginning a book by declaring that ‘Philosophy is dead’, before going on to do incredibly crude philosophy in later chapters. I love science; in fact I’m a huge fan of Seth’s work. But philosophy is important too. Let’s tunnel together.