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.

18 Comments

  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

        Phillip,
        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 jstor.org 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 selfawarepatterns.com 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…

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