A Surprise Point of Agreement With Sean Carroll

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I’ve had some great philosophical interactions with Sean Carroll, of late. I was on Sean’s podcast a while back, and more recently he kindly contributed to a volume of essays responding to my book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness (I counter-responded to all of the essays, including Sean’s, here). We then debated this for three hours on the Mind Chat podcast I host with Keith Frankish. Finally, Sean wrote this blog post summarising his reflections on the Mind Chat discussion.

At the end of the post, Sean conceded that, if panpsychism is true, consciousness underlies my behaviour in the same way that the hardware of my computer underlies its behaviour. However, he then went on to make a surprising statement: because of substrate independence, the panpsychist can’t claim that ‘consciousness gets any credit at all for our behavior in the world.’

Why not? I really don’t get where Sean’s coming from here. The term ‘substrate independence’ just means that the same function can be realised by different hardware. It certainly doesn’t mean that hardware doesn’t do anything! If my consciousness underlies my behaviour in the same way the hardware of my laptop underlies Microsoft Word, that’s as much of a causal role for consciousness as anyone could reasonably want.

I’m so glad Sean and I ended on a point of agreement: consciousness does ground behaviour on a panpsychist worldview.

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. Stephen says

    Let’s update the analogy from zombies to non-player characters.
Multi-player computer games have characters acting within them controlled by humans – the players. They also have non-player characters (NPCs). The actions of NPCs are determined by the coding of the computer game, there are no players deciding their actions. The zombie argument is now the non-player-character argument.

    Within such a computer game, the NPCs can be sophisticated enough that we would not know for sure whether a character was an NPC or was being operated by a player, by a human. An NPC has no self-awareness, has no first-person perspective, it is not conscious. I, on the other hand, a player of a character, know from my own immediate experience that I am conscious and aware and am playing the game. Other characters I interact with in the game may be like me or they may be NPCs.

    Carroll says that a zombie world is indistinguishable to a world with conscious humans, and so the consciousness of humans does not make anything happen. Within our computer-game analogy, he would be saying that because NPCs can be indistinguishable from player characters, player characters don’t make anything happen. This is obviously false. Characters that are not NPCs are directly and only controlled by the players playing them.

    Indistinguishable outcomes can be generated in completely different ways. The behaviour of a character could be the result of a player or of computer code. The fact that we may not be able to tell the difference does not change that fact. And we know for certain from our own experience that not all characters are NPCs.

    Carroll also asserts that the zombie argument means we don’t need to explain consciousness to explain the world. Within our computer-game analogy, he would be saying we can fully understand how the computer game works by ignoring any players and assuming all characters are NPCs. Someone who thinks they understand a multi-player computer game by ignoring the players, does not understand the game. Someone who can explain how NPCs work has not explained how player characters work.

    Not only would the understanding and explanation of Carroll be incomplete, it would be missing the most salient and meaningful part of the game. The whole purpose of the game, the playing of it, would have been lost. He is missing entirely the most important, most meaningful, and only undeniable, part of life.

    If Donald Hoffman and others are correct, that this reality is in fact virtual, then I think this analogy becomes even more compelling.

  2. It seems to me that to get credit for behavior, something has to make a difference with respect to that behavior. So how would any behavior be different if consciousness were absent?


    • I agree that *in the actual universe*, the presence or absence of consciousness ought to make a difference. but we’re talking here about difference between different possible universes. Again, the fact that microsoft word can be run either on my desktop or on my laptop, doesn’t render the mechanisms in my laptop redundant!

      • But the relevant description of what the laptop is “doing” refers to the software: Word. The property of the laptop which allows it to do Word is its ability to process information in a certain way. If you take away that property, it’s behavior changes. What if that same property is responsible for letting the brain do what it does, consciousness? What if when you ask “how does it feel?”, you’re asking the software, and so the software will respond, but only so long as the information processing is happening?


  3. High Mass Particle says

    I think that not only can people uplift animals, but animals could in a way uplift humans! According to radical panpsychism, dark matter particles are baby universes that evolved after a very large number of generations of universes to be little holodecks for virtual homunculi for use in a real or artificial brain! The lower mass particles evolved to be good for generating energy in stars and also to be good at constructing bodies and machines! The virtual homunculus in dark mater particles can have an enormous range of body types and shapes matching the creature’s actual body!

    The high mass dark matter particle serves as a transducer with a complex instruction set that converts EM homuncular code sense information to consciousness and also outputs libertarian free will decisions by converting them to the free will EM homuncular code in brains! Animals and humans would likely only use a subset of the complex instruction set of the dark matter particle for sense information and a subset of free will output commands available! Humans would use a lot of homuncular codes that animals don’t, but a lot of animals will use codes that are not used by humans but could be used when designing artificial bodies — thus allowing artificial bodies to have more senses and available free will actions than natural human bodies!

    Let’s say you had a dog that you deeply loved that died and you wish to uplift the dog to be a human with an artificial body and adopt as your child! You could take the dark matter particle with surrounding EM wave focusing crystal from the dead dog’s brain and put it in an artificial human body! The artificial human body can implement a lot of the advanced olfactory and auditory homuncular codes that the dark matter particle used to enjoy as a dog giving the new child extra capabilities that children with real human bodies don’t have! The child, previously a dog, can have a very high IQ because virtual brains in artificial bodies could be designed that way! He could also be a hero to his peers because he can smell dangerous chemicals that real children can’t thus saving their life!

  4. Hi Philip,

    I think you have different ideas in mind for what it means to “take credit for behaviour”.

    Sean simply means that we won’t get any insight into why we behave the way we do by considering that consciousness grounds everything. This includes our reports and beliefs regarding our putative phenomenal consciousness, and so undermines our reasons for believing that consciousness grounds everything.

    I think he would agree with you that if panpsychism is true, and consciousness grounds everything, then consciousness gets credit for the fact that anything physically exists at all. Just not for our behaviour specifically.

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