Can Panpsychism be Tested and Does It Matter?

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Last week I had a twitter argument with Barry Smith about panpsychism and this week I had a twitter argument with Massimo Pigliucci about panpsychism. A similar issue came up in both, so I thought I’d write a post about it. Actually, it concerns an objection that is often raised against panpsychism, which goes as follows:

(A) We don’t have any evidence that consciousness exists outside of brains.

We need to be careful about how exactly we’re understanding this statement, and what exactly it’s being taken to show. Let us initially interpret it to mean:

(B) We have never observed consciousness outside of living brains.

This is certainly true, and you might think at first that this gives us strong reason to doubt panpsychism. But appreciating the following might make you think again:

(C) We have never observed consciousness inside a living brain.

The simple reason for both (B) and (C) is that consciousness is unobservable. You can’t look inside an electron to see if it has experiences, but neither can you look inside a brain and see a person’s feelings and experiences. We know about consciousness not because of any observation or experiment, but because each of us is immediately aware of her or his own experiences.

The following slogan is often thrown around

(D) Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Is (D) anything more than a slogan? The truth is that sometimes (D) is true and sometimes it’s false. It counts as evidence against a theory if the theory implies that we should expect to find a certain entity in certain circumstances, and it turns out we don’t (this fits with a Bayesian way of thinking about evidence). If a theory tells us that we would expect to find a certain particle in certain experimental circumstances, and we run the experiment and don’t find the particle, this gives us grounds for doubting the theory.

Returning to the case of panpsychism, (B) would be evidence against panpsychism only if panpsychism implies that we should expect to observe consciousness outside of brains. But this is clearly not the case. Consciousness is unobservable, and hence, whether or not panpsychism is true, we’re not going to be able to see consciousness in rocks or particles or anything else. It follows that (B) does not constitute evidence against panpsychism.

One might concede that (B) doesn’t give us reason to doubt panpsychism, but nonetheless take it to show that we don’t have any reason to accept panpsychism. The following principle might be offered in support of this:

(E) We should believe in the existence of something only if we can observe it, or if its existence is supported by what we can observe.

I accept that if (E) is true, then we shouldn’t believe panpsychism. But if (E) is true, we shouldn’t believe in consciousness either. As we noted above, consciousness cannot be observed either in or out of brains. If we rigidly follow (E), we will have no cause to postulate consciousness at all. Much simpler to believe that humans are just complicated mechanisms. Daniel Dennett is one of the few who is admirably consistent on this point.

The problem with Dennett’s position is that (E) is false. Despite being unobservable, consciousness is something we know to exist. Our principle should really be not (E) but:

(F) We should only believe in the existence of something only if its existence is supported by observation, or if its existence is better known than what is known on the basis of observation.

As Descartes appreciated over 300 years ago, the existence of our consciousness is known with greater certainty than anything else. The reality of consciousness is a datum in its own right, over and above the data of observation and experiment.

Observational evidence is crucial, but it’s not the full story. If we’re working with observational evidence alone we would have no reason to believe panpsychism, but only because we’d have no reason to believe in consciousness. The case for panpsychism is built not on the basis that it provides a good explanation of observational data, but on the basis that it provides the best explanation of how observational data and consciousness data fit together in a single, unified worldview. A large part of that case involves arguing that rival accounts of materialism and dualism face serious problems (some empirical, some conceptual) that panpsychism avoids. I have not made that case in this blog post. But I hope to have shown that merely pointing out that panpsychism is not supported by observational evidence alone is not to the point. Nobody would claim otherwise.

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.


  1. David Nyman says

    When I say that I am conscious of an apple, there is presumably a finite sequence of physical events, however complex, linking the apple, via my brain, to my vocal cords. So by what means could anything outwith this physical sequence be understood as intervening in my saying I am conscious of the apple?

    • One of the key arguments for panpsychism is that, unlike dualism, it’s perfectly consistent with causal closure of the physical. The panpsychist can agree that with precisely what you say above, whilst adding that conscious states are the intrinsic nature of those physical states.

      • David Nyman says

        Philip, thanks for your response. However I’m not sure that it gets to the point I raised. I do see what you mean in the sense that my saying that I see a red apple is now an event within, or comprised of, the ontic reductive base we’re equating with “consciousness”. But this doesn’t seem to do anything to explain how my statement about the red apple could refer to anything outwith the limits of its own *processual* logic. In other words, regardless of what its components might be said to “be”, my statement would nonetheless seem to have no means of deriving its *meaning* from anything other than what they *do*.

        As an analogy, one might compare this to the logic of the independence of a computation from the details of its physical implementation. At different times, the computation might be *implemented* in, say, silicon or photonic logic gates, but since it would have no means of differentiating these facts, it couldn’t possibly *refer* to them.

        Do you see what I mean?

  2. David, do you mean how could anything outside this sequence be understood to intervene? You must.

    I mean, my first reaction is just that the set-up seems to beg the question of a physical reality independent and outside of mind. It might even beg questions of causal sequencing that I’m way too dumb to suss out.

    But I don’t care about debating those things. I really want to stand inside your question more squarely. Are you saying that because there is no reason to think outside of the causal change the physical events that lead from seeing the apple to saying you see it, we don’t need to posit the notion of consciousness? Thanks!

    • David Nyman says

      I think the point I’m making is logically independent of the question of the “ultimate nature” of matter, whatever that might be taken to be. Independent of that question, given that physical sequences of events are conventionally considered to be causally independent in their own terms, that fact alone is sufficient to account both for my seeing the apple and my saying I see the apple. This would be true whether or not we suppose a qualitative representation of the apple to be associated with further, psychic properties not explicitly implicated in the physical sequence of events.

      This is a well known conundrum in the field, which David Chalmers has called the paradox of phenomenal judgment. It’s also closely associated with the thought experiment of the “philosophical zombie” which is, by exactly the same arguments, externally indistinguishable from us in every respect. The point of this way of posing the problem isn’t of course anything to do with the factual existence of such things but rather, once again, to illustrate the problematic nature of the apparent causal independence of physics.

      This problem isn’t common to all versions of panpsychism, only those that accept physical causal independence. Versions based on Whitehead’s process metaphysics, for example, posit a causal even-handedness between extrinsic and intrinsic causation, in what is called the oscillation between prehension and concresence. The problem here is then that the modern account of the causal independence of the extrinsic side of the matter doesn’t appear to leave any elbow room for further causal leverage, psychic or otherwise.

      Whitehead’s idea was that each step of any process of physical evolution, from smallest to largest, was potentially an opportunity for some form of conscious decision making. It’s hard nowadays to see how to square this with the observed physical regularities, which are understood much more rigorously than in his day. There doesn’t seem to be any remotely convincing evidence that physical evolution strays from a tightly-constrained system of mathematically-defined “rules” that fully account for any observed outcome. The probabilistic features we see at the quantum level don’t really help in this regard. After all, doing things at random wouldn’t really be much of an improvement over strict determinism.

      So, the problem remains, unless one holds out for an undiscovered causal gap through which panpsychic properties could exercise some influence. But let’s not underestimate what would be proposed in that case. We’d be saying that, in reality, both my seeing the apple and my being able to comment on that fact, would be *impossible* on the basis of physics as it’s presently understood. That’s quite a big ask.

      To answer your other question, I don’t agree with the deflation of consciousness, as proposed by Dennett and others, although as you’ll probably appreciate their position is a direct consequence of the foregoing analysis. Unfortunately it’s also incoherent. What that implies for me is that the central question needs to be reformulated in such a way that it leads neither to the problem of reference as I’ve described it, nor to the futility of denying the only thing we cannot actually be mistaken about. There are some hints of possibly fruitful directions, but they’re beyond the scope of this conversation.

      • Lee Roetcisoender says

        “Whitehead’s idea was that each step of any process of physical evolution, from smallest to largest, was potentially an opportunity for some form of conscious decision making. It’s hard nowadays to see how to square this with the observed physical regularities…”

        To the contrary David: It is not difficult at all to see how to square conscious decision making with the observed physical regularities. The elliptical orbit of celestial bodies is the perfect illustration. General relativity can predict those orbits with a high degree of accuracy, but that accuracy is not 100 percent. Other exotic mathematical schemes are required to fill in the gaps of those irregularities that general relativity cannot account for. Whereas in an architecture of consciousness, those irregularities can be explained by consciousness itself, simply because within an architecture of consciousness there is a limited degree of self-determination with which a discrete system can express the power of its own unique, structural qualitative properties. Also, within an architecture of consciousness, general relativity would not be required to account for the variable of space and time in Einstein’s original mind experiment, because both the sun and the earth would be aware of each other.

      • David Nyman says

        Fine, if you plump for something like Whitehead’s view of the matter, you get some causal leverage on the problem I described. I’m not clear though that this is the way panpsychists like Philip Goff or Galen Strawson see it. In any case I don’t personally find the approach of looking for gaps in physical causality very convincing. I don’t have any absolutely knock down rebuttals, but it seems to me to create more problems than it solves.

        If I had, very inadequately, to summarise my view, it would be that most attempts to account for consciousness put the explanatory cart before the horse. They are ad hoc in the sense that they’re trying to shoehorn consciousness into models shaped by essentially materialist assumptions. I’d want to reformulate the question to be one of an enquiry that begins with our impressions of personal “material” localisation and asks under what assumptions those might arise in the first place. After all, that’s essentially what we mean by consciousness: our personal self-localisation in relation to a material environment.

        This view has a different philosophical heritage than typical Western approaches. It’s implicit in the ancient dream arguments found more typically in the traditions of the East. But until recently it would have been difficult to reconcile with scientific rigour. However there is now every reason to believe that similar mechanisms are involved in dreaming and waking states. We imagine that their relative stability or evanescence is a consequence of the presumed correlation of the latter, but not the former, with independently existing “concrete” analogs. But this may be yet another version of a too naive realism.

        We have essentially no evidence, or theoretical need, for the notion of the primitive “concreteness” of an external, material world. No such assumption is necessary to account for our *impressions* of substance, which are entirely personal and internal. A chair in my dream is fully as substantial as the one on which I’m sitting, at least while I’m dreaming. In other words, what we perceive as a universe may be more like a hyper-complex, shareable dream state than a preexisting “thing”. Or as James Jeans put the case, reality “… begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” But if a dream, why a “material” one? If a thought, how come such a rigorous one?

        Do we have conceptual tools adequate to framing the deep origins of such cosmic dreams or thoughts? Why consciousness, why materiality, why physics? Where to even begin? Fortunately, in our time, given certain reasonable assumptions, such tools are potentially to hand.

      • Lee Roetcisoender says

        “They are ad hoc in the sense that they’re trying to shoehorn consciousness into models shaped by essentially materialist assumptions.”

        Exactly. That is precisely why my theory is not grounded in either materialism, idealism, substance dualism nor property dualism.

        ” I’d want to reformulate the question to be one of an enquiry that begins with our impressions of personal “material” localisation and asks under what assumptions those might arise in the first place. After all, that’s essentially what we mean by consciousness: our personal self-localisation in relation to a material environment.”

        And fundamentally, that is the problem. We dictate an architecture of understanding consciousness predicated upon our own personal experience, and that experience becomes a reference point. That logic is misdirected. One has to jettison utilizing our own experience of consciousness as a reference point and inquire into consciousness as a phenomenon in itself, separate and distinct from our own experiences.

        “But this may be yet another version of a too naive realism.”

        Any architecture predicated upon a notion of realism is fundamentally flawed, because an ontology grounded in realism will only result in dualism of one form or another. The tools are definitely at hand, the empirical evidence resides in plain sight right under our noses. Fundamentally, that evidence is too close, which means that the empirical evidence we seek is intrinsic within our own experience of consciousness.

        “Why consciousness…”

        That is the greater question which is all too often overlooked. A thorough inquiry into the why of consciousness will reveal the mystery of our own existence.

    • Thanks David, that’s very interesting. Sounds connected to Chalmers’ recent stuff on the ‘meta-problem of consciousness’? I thought your original problem was how my consciousness of the apple plays a role in causing my statement that I’m conscious of the apple. The panpsychist has a clear answer to this: the consciousness of the apple is the intrinsic nature of some of the brain activity involved in that causal chain. But in your second statement, you seem to be assuming a functionalist account of the content of thought (this relates to the meta-problem stuff). I would just reject functionalist account of thought content. In fact, I subscribe to the ‘phenomenal intentionality theory’, according to which thought content is itself grounded in consciousness.

      • David Nyman says

        Philip, thanks for your response. However, leaving aside my own speculations for the moment, I’m not sure that what you say about the panpsychist account gets to the point I raised about our ability to comment on our perceptual states. I do see what you mean in the sense that my saying that I see a red apple is now an event within, or comprised of, the ontic reductive base panpsychism equates with consciousness. But this doesn’t in itself seem to explain how my *statement* about the red apple could be understood as *referring* to anything transcending the logical possibilities delimited by its own purely processual logic.

        In other words, regardless of what its components might be said to *be*, my statement would seem to have no means of deriving the intentionality implied by its utterance from anything other than what those components *do*. There is a possible analogy here with the independence of a computation from its physical implementation. At different times, a computation might be *implemented* in the form of, say, silicon or photonic logic gates, but since it cannot have any independent means of differentiating these facts, it couldn’t possibly *refer* to them.

        Do you see what I mean?

      • David Nyman says

        Philip, I take note of your point about my supposed “assumption” of a functionalist account of the content of thought. In response, I would say that, as a first approximation, no coherent theory of mind can fail to take account of function at least to the extent of the working out and expression of thought in terms of physical action. In other words, an ineliminable “functionalism” is, to that extent, built in to any viable explanation. This is indeed, as you suggest, another formulation of the “meta problem”.

        This problem, as I see it, is not resolved by the proposition that thought content is “grounded” in consciousness. That move cannot avoid having to account for the logical or functional independence, from any such putative grounding, of explicit *references* to such thoughts as represented in physical action. Given such independence, any consistent relation between “intrinsic” thought content and its physical or functional expression would be merely adventitious. I proposed the multiple physical realisability, and hence logical independence, of computation simply as a suggestive analogy in this regard.

        I appreciate that Chalmers, in his review of the taxonomy of this foundational issue, is unable to propose any definitive resolution. Nevertheless my question to you remains: how can the panpsychist theory of the mind/brain relation deal convincingly with the “built in” functionalism exemplified by the meta problem?

      • Lee Roetcisoender says

        “how can the panpsychist theory of the mind/brain relation deal convincingly with the “built in” functionalism exemplified by the meta problem?”

        It cannot, simply because the meta-problem of consciousness “is” the functionalistic structured system of thought itself, rationality itself. Rationality is a discrete binary system, whereas consciousness is a continuous linear system. A linear system is capable of accommodating a discrete system but the inverse is not true. Oscillating rapidly enough, a discrete system is fully capable of “modeling” a linear system, nevertheless, by definition of it being discrete, a discrete system will not and cannot accommodate a linear continuous system.

        Therein lies the paradox David: Without a vocabulary that captures the “true nature” of Reality, there is never even the possibility of locating a model with which to plug in the architecture of panpsychism. So, the discourse continues…

  3. Lee Roetcisoender says

    “Can panpsychism be tested, and does it matter?”

    Even though I am in full agreement with Phillip on the notion of panpsychism; without a vocabulary that captures the “true nature” of Reality, there is never even the possibility of locating a model with which to plug in the architecture of panpsychism. As a consequence, panpsychism will forever be relegated to the annuls of history as nothing but a queer curiosity. But to answer the question: Can panpsychism be tested? The answer is yes. And does it matter? Absolutely, because understanding the true nature of reality depends upon a universal theory and panpsychism plays a definitive role in that theory.

    And if one is at all interested in moving beyond our standard model of physics, models which are predicated upon the paradigm of magic, one must be compelled to go outside the system and scrap materialism, idealism, substance dualism and property dualism. Those four alternative are not the only the only show in town.

  4. Hi Philip, I’m just wondering why you consider consciousness to be unobservable. What do you see as the arguments against the view that introspection is a type of observation?
    Whereas perception gives us observational evidence of the existence of physical objects, introspection gives us observational evidence of the existence of consciousness. If that’s the case then you can accept (E) instead of (F) and still be fully justified in believing in the existence of consciousness, contra Dennett. I understand that this view became unpopular with the rise of physicalism but it has a long history.

    • @exhabitus I don’t disagree with this. It’s fine to use the word ‘observation’ in this way. I just think that when people are standardly thinking about observational data in this context, they mean what can be know through 3rd person observation.

      • Lee Roetcisoender says

        According to my models, Power is the wild card of consciousness. I’ve found there is very little research being done on the subject of power. I do not see how anyone can have a coherent conversation about consciousness without first addressing the notion of power (and I’m not talking about the joule when I say power). The who, what, when, where, and how of power is the empirical, indisputable scientific evidence of consciousness.

        If you are interested, I found one essay written by Arthur Berndtson titled: “The Meaning of Power”: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 31. No. 1 (Sept. 1970), pg 73-84. The essay is on the website. The essay is a very thorough and an exhaustive expose’ on the epistemology of power. His epistemology of power is incomplete, because there are a couple of attributes that his epistemology cannot account for. Nevertheless, his contribution was the missing link I needed to complete my own theory. After reading his essay, followed by his book “Power, Form and Mind”, I’ve added him to my short list of geniuses.

  5. Pingback: The problems with panpsychism | SelfAwarePatterns

  6. Lee Roetcisoender says

    I posted this on in response to questions regarding the possibility of an ultimate reality. The quotations are comments from another blogger, comments without the quotations are my own:

    “If the ultimate reality is something utterly different from that, it doesn’t change our manifest reality, even if the manifest one is caused or emerges from the deeper one.”

    The only thing that changes is the knowledge that both materialism and idealism are false. That in itself is huge, a revelation which could reshape culture as we know it.

    “The question is if this ultimate reality impinges on our perceptions and models in any way.”

    The ultimate reality does not just impinge on our perceptions, it’s centric to causation, which means it is centric to who and what we are as conscious discrete systems. In other words, it is the driving force of causation which results in the novelty of motion and form, a model which supersedes the need for this notion called law.

    “In other words, is there any way to test it?”

    Absolutely! It’s called scientific observations reinforced by the empirical evidence of personal experience. We already possess the overwhelming, indisputable evidence, all one has to do is jettison materialism and idealism as the reference point and re-examine the evidence in a new light. Here’s the overwhelming obstacle to the re-examination of that evidence: this new understanding will not result in more control, in fact, it actually highlights how little control we actually have. In a paradigm predicated upon control, neither materialists nor idealists will be happy with the true nature of reality because there is no promise of salvation at the end of that tunnel. That’s the bad news.

    Materialism cannot account for mind, and idealism cannot account for the why of materialism. A model grounded in transcendental idealism revision 1.0 can account for both. Materialism is the venue for mind, and mind which is underwritten by materialism is a condition on the possibility of reality. That’s the good news, good luck…

  7. Steven Evans says

    You claim that panpsychism is an ontology of matter and also that it explains consciousness where current neuroscience cannot.
    But panpsychism as an ontology of matter tells us *nothing* about matter that can be checked by observation and is forever untestable. Whatever physics discovers about the real world, you will just keep saying, “yes, and that is a form of consciousness”. It’s completely devoid of meaning.
    Also, part of the motivation of panpsychism was to explain consciousness, but you cannot explain consciousness in terms of panpsychic matter. You gain absolutely nothing by the panpsychic assumption. All you can say is that it seems like consciousness is a subjective experience exhibited by brains made of (panpsychic) matter but it’s not understood how. We already knew that.

    This theory could hardly fail any more badly. It tells us zilch. When are you going to address these obvious, obvious failures? Or are you just a narcissist crank who enjoys attention? You are going around claiming that your theories are likely true without any justification – you are a complete fraud and a liar. Or stupid beyond belief.

  8. Lee Roetcisoender says

    “All you can say is that it seems like consciousness is a subjective experience exhibited by brains made of (pan-psychic) matter but it’s not understood how.”

    Two things Stephen: First, my model does not postulate that consciousness is a subjective experience exhibited by the brains. It postulates that consciousness is an objective experience exhibited by the brain, an objective experience which happens to be radically indeterminate. It’s not a subjective experience at all, it’s an objective one. The only reason consciousness is considered a subjective experience is because human beings are just too dumb to figure it out and therefore the experience itself is considered subjective because of our own ignorance in regards to causation. Causation is the real problem, not the notion of panpsychism. Therefore, panpsychism and causation are intrinsically linked.

    Second, materialism is double-edged sword Stephen. Materialists are at a loss to account for the physical world other than some lame magic trick called the big bang. Panpsychists are in the same boat, except for one minor distinction. Materialists have to account for three magic tricks. First, how a dead, non-living, physical universe is derived and second, how a dead universe can generate living organisms and third, how living organisms can generate objective conscious experiences. That is why it becomes imperative to determine the ontological primitive which will then solve the riddle of both causation and consciousness. My models accomplish that task…….

  9. Steven Evans says

    Lee Roetcisoender says October 16, 2019

    “It postulates that consciousness is an objective experience exhibited by the brain,”
    Fine. In the future maybe we’ll have consciousness detectors and be able to copy consciousness files around. At the moment, you are simply speculating and the speculation leads nowhere.

    “Materialists are at a loss to account for the physical world”
    I think we can bin the term “materialist” as useless. Physicists have observed the structure of the universe from 13.7 billion years ago until today. Only scientists have contributed to this deep knowledge, not philosophers or witches or voodoo priests. Physicists don’t know the structure of the universe further back than the tiny, dense soup of quarks 13.7 billion years ago, because they can’t currently observe it. If they build a gravitational wave detector in space, physicists may be able to pick up primordial gravitational waves from the very early universe which may further their knowledge. This knowledge will come from no-one but physicists. So physicists simply require the funds to build the detector in space. They are not at a loss. People like Phillip Goff are at a loss.

  10. Pingback: Panpsychism: “Show me the evidence!” – Emerson Green

  11. have great sympathy to PP but I find it very hard making sense of.

    First, it is very unclear which notion of observation is being discussed. Observation is basically perceptual measurement. We percieve something via a parameter. Do you mean something else? I think that this is what your critics assume, or even the stronger version that observation is just perception.
    Do you want to argue that we cannot percieve or measure percpetually our phenomenal state? I”ll appreciate if you can refer me to an argument that supports that conclusion because it seems super implausible.

    If anything to be in a phenomenal state is to percieve the sensations I’m feeling. These sensetations are measurable, i.e. they have an intensity, being stronger or weaker, longer or shorter. The measurement of sensation, among else, is a field called psychophysics. Do you deny that pain can be felt stronger/weaker? Is that not observation?

    You must mean something else. But what is it? You do not define observation in rigorous terms so we cant know if we can observe consciousness or not.

    Also if we cannot observe it how can we have access to it? Maybe you mean we can experience it w/o being able to report it. But it is clear that not all observables are reportable. Sometime we dont have the conceptual language to express these observabls. The history of science can be told as the development of concepts to understand observations.So it doesnt follow from limits of reportability that we cannot observe it.

    And thanks I really appreciate your reach out for hard nosed materialists, it is not obvious.

  12. Pan Darius says

    I have approached this problem from a slightly different angle. I do not use the language of philosophy as precisely and rigorously as some here, and this will become evident as I use some words interchangeably, such as awareness/consciousness, however I have been studying this problem for well over a decade, particularly through the work of philosophers such as Chalmers, Strawson, Whitehead etc. I would consider myself well read on the subject, not well educated (never attended a university, don’t have any degrees). The point of this is that you will forgive my perhaps less than perfect explanation if I don’t, at first, use exactly the correct words to describe the ideas I’m going to present to you, and you are welcome to suggest better words to use instead, but I tend to reject flat “You’re wrong!” arguments without thoughtful and considerate contemplation of what I have to say. I have spent a very long time refining my answers to these questions, drawing on what I’ve learned both from philosophers as well as physicists and cosmologists, and I have also had the pleasure (or displeasure) of arguing over these ideas with some very smart people, including some of the philosophers mentioned, so I do not take myself or these ideas lightly, and neither should you.

    With that preamble out of the way, let me get straight to attempting to describe the approach I take towards these ideas. First, my fundamental worldview is panpsychic. If I’m splitting hairs, probably more like panprotoexperientialist with some caveats, but it’s just easier to say ‘panpsychic’ as it gets the job done. The term “protoconsciousness” is extremely important to the formulation of my view, but I’ll get back to that later. I reached the conclusion that the universe is panpsychic through the use of psychedelics. I have experienced, first hand, simple states of “protoconsciousness” in other physical systems and living things (such as common plants) that became as undeniable as my own self-evident consciousness. That is, somehow through the action of the pshycedelic substance, I was able to experience the subjective conscious states of ‘other’ things besides my own physical body, things that are commonly understood to be unconscious or not-conscious. At the time, I didn’t have a word for this, I had never heard of ‘panpsychism’, and while it took me a long time to get around to it, being the naturally curious person that I am, and possessing a voracious appetite for explanation and description, once the internet became a fully functional oracle machine I sought out answers and labels for what I already knew (first hand) to be true, and thus discovered the term “panpsychism” and subsequently read a large amount of material about it, the debates surrounding it, it’s criticisms, etc.

    At the same time, I am also very interested in cosmology and physics, largely because I am one of those idiots that wants an answer to questions like “why?” and “where did it all come from?” and “where is it all going?” As a hobbyist cosmologist, I also spend a lot of time contemplating things like black holes and the nature of time.

    In all this contemplation, something struck me as both odd and fascinating about the question of consciousness: one of the aspects we have such a hard time explaining/describing is something I loosely (and by ‘loose’, I mean this isn’t’ a scientific term, it’s just descriptive) refer to as “co-locality”. The co-locality of the problem of consciousness is simply the difficulty in explaining how two things can exist in the same place at the same time. We are all familiar with logical axioms such as the law of non-contradiction and the law of the excluded middle (sometimes badly paraphrased as the law of the extruded muddle), and this is related in some senses. Consciousness appears to be something that can simultaneously exist in the same place as something else (side note: I believe this co-locality is why some find it easy to believe in substance dualism). Put even more simply, we look at a thing (a body, a brain, an electron…it doesn’t matter what the “thing” is) and if we believe it is conscious, then we have to assume that the thing itself (the brain, the body, whatever) exists as an object extended in space, but the consciousness of it also has to exist with it, or alongside it, or inside of it, co-locating in the same “space” that the conscious object itself exists in. In other words, we are proposing that a physical object (such as a brain) exists in a space that also simultaneously holds the consciousness of that object. Thus, an object and it’s consciousness co-locate, or occupy the same space at the same time.

    In order to reconcile this, we must either turn to substance dualism (a big no-no), or we must turn to some hypothesis about how consciousness is a property.

    A further consideration is the idea of a vacancy left by the physical matter that may somehow be occupied by consciousness. That is, we could imagine, at some imaginably microscopic level, something akin to a microcavity, itself being filled by the property of “consciousness”, and more importantly, something that all matter possesses (for visualization purposes, you might imagine something like an impossibly small ‘dimple’ on the surface of an electron, inside of which resides it’s fundamental ‘protoconsciousness’). Of course, we’d still have to prove the existence of such a vacancy or cavity, but the point here is that the idea of a vacancy often comes up as a possible “place” where consciousness might reside – that is, a physical void or absence, at a very, very small scale, of which all matter possesses such a vacancy, might be the “seat” of a panpsychic, universal consciousness.

    Maybe that’s the case, but I tend to fall back to the co-location concept. My intuition tells me that whatever consciousness “is”, it is something that simultaneously occupies the same space as the physical object that is conscious, but it’s not substance dualism. At first blush, of course, it’s easy to then ascribe property dualism to the issue. Matter is both extended in space (i.e. “physical”) and it simultaneously carries an intrinsic property, which isn’t extended in space but rather inherent to the hidden, internal structure of the object itself, which is protoconsciousness.

    Since I’ve been using the term several times now, I want to take a quick moment to explain ‘protoconsciousness’. The term is simply used to differentiate between rich, complex modes of consciousness, such as human consciousness, and the simpler, more primitive units of consciousness of which the panpsychic universe is made of, but which the more complex consciousnesses such as human consciousness is made up of, in aggregate. In other words, a complex consciousness such as a human’s is an aggregate of the many “protoconscious moments” that are contained in the fundamental experience of self that all matter has. And that’s all it means. It is used to differentiate the consciousness of something such as a fundamental particle from the experience of a thinking mammal, so as not to mistake one for the other (the protoconsciousness of an electron is nowhere near as rich in qualia as the daily life of a platypus, or even a fern for example).

    With the above in mind (protoconsciousness, co-location, vacancy), I have looked to physics in an attempt to find something that strongly correlates to these things. In other words, beginning from the position that I know, undoubtedly (due to having experienced it first hand), that the universe is in fact panpsychic, but that I don’t know how exactly, I have looked for theories and explanations within physics and cosmology itself that might correspond to, and explain these very specific aspects, or properties, of panpsychism (hence I began to look for physical theories and objects that might explain things like the co-location of consciousness).

    I haven’t yet found anything completely conclusive, but I have found some very interesting and promising leads, some things which stand out as so odd in our universe, and/or have properties that are similar to the problems that are found in consciousness, that I can’t help but wonder if they’re related.

    So, finally, having described my approach and the ‘why’ of it, I will now simply dump a list of these things, oddities and mysteries that I believe are related to or perhaps may provide an avenue of explanation for future research of the hard problem of consciousness;

    The EM field. The electromagnetic field, according to WikiPedia, extends indefinitely through spacetime. That is to say that it permeates throughout literally everything that exists, connecting it. There is nowhere in the universe that isn’t connected to the fundamental EM field. This could be the “pan” in “panpsychism”. As an interesting aside, a study was done recently that showed when two people are having a conversation, the EM patterns of their brain waves begin to synchronize.

    The nature of light. Light is the strangest substance in our universe. It travels at the fastest possible speed, it has no mass, and two packets of light can occupy the same space, allowing light to pass through itself (this caught my attention due to the co-location issue, and it’s also an important aspect of fiber optic communications). Light seems to play a role in the brain as well, as the light sensitive pineal gland shows, as well as recent evidence that certain cells deep within the brain are naturally optogenetic, responding to violet light. But it’s light’s co-location ability that interests me the most in regards to consciousness.

    Speaking of light, I’ve recently been learning about Roger Penrose’s Conformal Cyclic Cosmology, or C3. In it, the universe expands forever as it does in every inflationary model, and then when it has expanded to the point that matter no longer exists (heat death) it undergoes a scalar transformation of geometry that results in a new Big Bang (thus cyclical) and an new universe. However, one of the interesting side effects of this is that the light from the previous universe can cross the boundary from the old universe to the new, and it can carry information from the old universe to the new. This has several mind blowing implications. Firstly, it means that the light in the universe is eternal, that it’s seen and lived in countless (possibly infinite) past universes and will continue to exist in countless (probably infinite) future universes as well. But it also means that a civilization could encode information into the light that travels from universe to universe, leaving a message for future civilizations. Even wilder it may be possible to encode our very consciousness into this eternal light, providing an escape route from our doomed heat death universe into eternity itself, literally riding laser beams into immortality. But, in regards to consciousness, and riffing off what I have already said about light’s ability to co-locate with itself, I would find it very serendipitous if light turned out to be the culprit in consciousness, particularly if Penrose’s theory of everything turned out to be true, as this eternally traveling light of the cosmos could then explain why consciousness is also all-pervasive (as it literally survives the birth and death of every universe and pervades every universe with it’s consciousness).

    Next, I want to mention virtual particles. Virtual particles began as a neat mathematical accounting trick for explaining particle interactions. They allowed mathematicians to “balance the books” so as not to land into and really strange territory like creating a particle reaction that appears to create a perpetual motion machine or annihilate the universe, when clearly it doesn’t. It was physicists way of using “rounding errors” to smooth out equations for subatomic particles. But then someone found they might actually be real. Actual particles may pop into existence everywhere within the quantum vacuum, almost instantaneously annihilating each other in pairs of particle production, but in very extreme environments, such as that at the very edge of the event horizon of a black hole, statistically speaking one of the pairs of virtual particles will fall into the black hole, lost to it’s interior forever, freeing the other one to exist as a “real” particle in the universe. This is interesting to me in regards to the idea of consciousness as a kind of ‘vacancy’ that is filled by consciousness. Perhaps the vacancy left by the particle departing this universe may be the vacancy needed for ‘protoconsciousness’ to exist within every particle. Further, it’s also possible that every “real” particle in this universe may have began as a virtual particle pair whose partner fell into a black hole and subsequently escaped, carrying the protoconsciousness imparted to it through the vacancy left by it’s departed virtual pair into the universe. I say this because it’s possible that the Big Bang was a singularity type of event and all the matter that issued from it could easily be described as Hawking radiation, even as it became other types of matter later…it could have initially began as virtual particles splitting off from each other at the edge of the most primordial black hole of all, the Alpha Singularity. In addition to this, there are ideas from some of the most famous physicists (including Einstein) that particles themselves are miniature black holes systems. Specifically, the idea goes something like “an electron has exactly the radius for an object of exactly the electron’s mass to just barely avoid collapsing into a black hole of the radius of an electron, meaning that an electron is literally just an object that is just big enough not to collapse into a black hole). Combining this with the idea of virtual particle pair production, we have a tiny black hole system, with virtual particles that come into being (literally everywhere, even in the vicinity of this microscopic black hole), and then we could get one of those virtual particles falling into the electron’s black hole as well. In fact, at this point, we might even imagine that the energy we measure as an “electron” might BE the virtual particle that escaped the microscopic black hole of which it is now a part of. What this might mean for panpsychism, is that that microscopic black hole, and the virtual particle that fell into it, might be or create the panpsychism that’s an inherent property of that particle. In other words, the electron’s black hole, or the absence of it’s virtual particle pair, could be the vacancy which is the protoconsciousness of that particular particle and since every particle in the universe would have experienced this process, they’re all protoconscious.

    Lastly, I want to bring up Information Integration Theory or IIT. In IIT, consciousness is a measure of the integrated information of a system. I’m still trying to iron out exactly what “integrated” information is (as opposed to just information), but from what little I understand of it so far, it seems to support, at least in a small way, panpsychism, as the idea is that all systems which have at least some amount (non-zero, no matter how small or trivial) of integrated information are conscious, and it’s possible to show that the universe itself is an information processor (digital physics/pancomputationalism, holographic principle, black holes as ideal computers, etc.), then every point in space would possess at least a non-zero amount of integrated information, and thus a very small, but non-trivial amount of consciousness.

    Maybe some of these ideas are even compatible, or even complimentary to each other.

    Overall, my approach has been to accept that panpsychism (in some form) must be true because it lines up with my own undeniable experience, and then to search, in physics, mathematics, and information theories, for any evidence that possesses the same traits, or properties, that I identified must be fundamental to consciousness (such as the ability to co-locate with the physical existence of that which is conscious of itself,etc) By identifying actual physical systems and properties (such as those I mention above, which should just serve as starting points of exploration and research in our search for consciousness) which match those things we already know about consciousness, maybe we can begin to identify the right path.


  13. Pan Darius says

    I would say that

    (g) Beginning with the unassailability of the Solipsist argument (paraphrased and summarized: The claim that any part of reality can be observed independent of awareness of itself is unfalsifiable given that claims about reality require demonstration of the claim and demonstration implies awareness of that which is being demonstrated, thus awareness can never be separated from anything observed, at least not in a falsifiable sense) makes panpsychism the least objectionable explanation of consciousness to “believe” in given the alternatives.

    That is to say, that taking the unassailability of Solipsism at face value, no other alternative than panpsychism is less distasteful, and until we find a better way to conceptualize the issue panpsychism should be taken as a given, or at least given preferential status above the other current alternatives.

    Here’s an analogy: waves atop the ocean’s surface are, part and parcel, made of the same stuff as the remainder of the ocean lying underneath the waves. One could say, objectively, that there is no such thing as a “wave” that even exists as an object – the ocean itself, as a whole, simply takes on a certain shape with particular regions within that shape that we label “waves” because when we look at the surface of the ocean the outline and differentiation between these “waves” and other parts of the ocean look different to us, but in reality there are just molecules of water sloshing around in particular shapes.

    Likewise so it is with panspychism. There is an “ocean” of proto-consciousness that pervades and permeates all of spacetime, it is a fundamental property of the smallest quanta of space (whether that turns out to be the Planck length or an even smaller unit) and what we call “human consciousness” (or any other animal’s consciousness for that matter) is like the wave on top of this ocean – distinct in it’s emergent form from the bulk of the water beneath, but fundamentally made of the same stuff. Consciousness (or, more accurately, proto-consciousness) is everywhere and is a basic property of reality, whether that be matter/energy or even just spacetime, but the universe evolves, and creates more complex forms (elements, geology, chemistry, biology/life, and finally intelligence) and we tend to, through our biases, only label the highest, most emergent forms of this awareness as “conscious” because we are naturally self-centric. This centrism is the root of the bias towards thinking that only we, or at best other primates or mammals, can be “conscious”, when in fact all matter is conscious, even if in only the most primitive sense.

    An experience of self-being is fundamental to existence. An electron cannot exist without “knowing what it’s like” to be an electron. A proton has an inner sense of self-awareness of what it’s like to be a proton (which is to say not much – these ‘sensations’ would barely be registered if at all at our level of evolution).

    A non-zero level of proto-consciousness is still conscious, no matter how faint.

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