A Surprise Point of Agreement With Sean Carroll

comments 15

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.

  5. It seems like he agrees with the argument from reason against a reductive/eliminative materialism but then goes on to insist that consciousness is emergent (whatever that means) and still nothing but neurons firing. An appeal to magic?

  6. I would like to ask has there been any neuroscience study in which a person with exceptionally trained attentional skills is put in an fMRI machine and asked to (at his own pace) direct his/her mental attention on different regions of the brain – and while the test person is doing these tasks neuroscientists would check whether the blood flow increases in the corresponding areas of the brain tissue. (For example person could first direct his/her mental awareness on the area of the left hemisphere of the brain for 10 seconds, then on the right hemisphere, then maybe on the area of frontal lobe and also back of the brain). This test is not about thinking about these brain regions but directing one’s mental awareness to those physical regions of the brain tissue.

    I have never heard of such study, yet I think it would be fairly simple to do if laboratories would just find persons with stable and well-trained attention skills. If the results would show that blood flow indeed increases in those areas of the brain tissue where the mental awareness is focused, would it not indicate primacy of the mind over brain?

    I am aware that it is an established and examined phenomena that directing ones attention e.g. to the area of one specific finger, blood flow indeed increases in that finger (capillaries open etc.) but I wonder has similar test ever been done with directing one’s attention to different areas of brain tissue. An experienced meditator with well-trained attention skills and a good sense of neuroanatomy would be able to focus his/her attention fairly precisely on different distinct regions of the brain. He/she could also be able to move his/her focus from front to back seamlessly, at different paces (slowly or fast), from left to right, right to left, from periphery to the mid-brain and so forth, with an intent to see if the blood flow increases accordingly.

    I have been pondering this and have not yet found any neuroscientist – or philosopher – to ask about it.

    If an increased blood flow would correspond to the area this test person – at his own pace without a stimulus being given outside of him/her – is directing his/her attention, how would such phenomena be explained in neuroscience or in philosophy?

    All the best and thank you for the research that you do and for the discussion you engage with.

    • While I guess there’s no harm in trying the experiment, I really doubt we would see increased blood flow to brain regions just from thinking of those brain regions. What you would see is increased blood flow to the parts of the brain that are involved in thinking about parts of the brain.

      Supposing it’s true that you can increase blood flow to a finger by focusing on it (I haven’t heard this, but I’ll accept it for the sake of argument), then this is not all that shocking. The conscious mind needs to know how to move your finger and how to interpret nerve impulses coming from your finger, so in a sense it has to know where your finger is, how to “talk” to it. But it doesn’t really have the same kind of relationship with parts of brain anatomy. You don’t consciously manipulate or directly observe your brain the way you do your fingers. I don’t intuitively know which part of my brain is activated at any given moment. This is something we only learn through fMRI and neuroscience.

      The way you would increase blood flow to parts of the brain is not by thinking about those parts of the brain but by using those parts of the brain. Someone who really knew their neuroanatomy could exploit this by knowing that they should e.g. imagine playing piano if they want to increase blood flow to a part of the brain associated with fine motor control.

      But yes, if the experiment did give the kinds of results you anticipate, then that would be surprising and something that would be difficult for neuroscience to explain.

      • Thank you for this response, although perhaps you missed the last sentence of the first paragraph in my comment: ”This test is not about thinking about these brain regions but directing one’s mental awareness to those physical regions of the brain tissue”.

        (To think about something and to direct one’s mental awareness on different things are different functions of the mind. If one is not familiar with mind training the difference might not be clear, that’s why this experiment would necessitate test persons to whom that difference is very clear).

        No harm done though. Exactly as you mention that regards to a finger a ”nerve impulse” explanation would/could apply, I (likewise you) don’t think it would apply similarly to a brain tissue. (And again, placing one’s mental awareness is not about thinking or looking at something with vision).

        In general, I think we need lots of new nuances and subtlety if we are going to make the consciousness-neuroscience studies progress. And such subtleties can come from people who train their introspection and metacognitive faculties to new levels of precision. For such people subtle functions of the mind become all the time more clear, robust and stable, thus more easily also verifiable by neuroscience. (Would we measure limits of human physiology with a lay person or with an olympic athlete? Difference is similar what comes to people having trained their minds and not having trained their minds).

  7. volitiontheory says

    It is strange that it is the 21st century and we still don’t know what we are! The common assumption of science is that we are just a collection of ordinary matter that evolved to self-replicate after billions of years of evolution on Earth. That helps explain the body but not the mind! Pleasure, pain, visual perception, audio perception, somatosensory perception must be part of physics if we claim that physics is the ultimate queen of science that fundamentally explains everything!

    In order for physics to include visual and audio perception I think what is needed is high mass mind particles with libertarian free will! These particles would not have appeared by accident! Mind particles would also be the result of a long evolutionary history — but this time of universe evolution! Universes that are very good decision makers with exceptional sensory perception and an enormous way of responding to perceptions with libertarian free will will be more successful in universe reproduction! The idea is that the universe has a genetic code and is alive and reproduces using big bangs! Libertarian free will can be justified if we imagine a whole partially controlling its parts because the whole has a higher time perception — sort of like an alpha particle has a higher time perception (mc^2/h) than the two protons and neutrons that make it up!

    Ordinary matter while very good for constructing bodies and machines doesn’t seem sufficient for the minds we have since it is so simple and quantum decoherence is so fast and unpredictable! I think dark matter is a good candidate for a mind particle since they could be very high mass baby universes that communicates with a brain. Dark matter in outer space might not have an electrical charge because it is not part of a brain and there is nothing to communicate with! I think dark matter might have an electrical charge in an awake brain and communicate with the brain using an EM homuncular code that evolved over many universe generations and you are a virtual homunculus in a virtual holodeck in a dark matter baby universe particle in your brain!

  8. araybold says

    I cannot speak for Sean Carroll, but, having read what he has written about the matter, I can say something about how I interpret his statements.

    Firstly, Carroll seems to have made it quite clear that he regards consciousness as underlying behavior simpliciter, so there is no concession in saying this would be so (even if) panpsychism is true.

    His ‘substrate independence’ argument strikes me as being a “so what?” response to your analogy, rather than a rejection of it. I think this is clearer if we look a couple of paragraphs earlier, where he talks about iron chairs and wooden chairs holding up coffee cups. Sure, the iron in the one chair is ‘playing a role’, but the specific fact that it is made of iron is beside the point in any theory explaining why chairs can support coffee cups (personally, I think an even more rhetorically satisfying analogy would involve the question of why both wooden and iron boats float, as one could make a useful analogy out of the question “How could an iron boat float, when iron sinks?”)

    Carroll is forthright in saying that he believes consciousness to be (weakly) emergent[1] from the ‘Core Theory’ of physics. From this view, I think even a reduction of consciousness to particles and fields would be a regression, as far as explanation is concerned. Here’s an analogy which may explain this: unless you are a creationist, there is a reductive, physical version of the history of life on Earth which tracks all the chemical reactions and other physical processes occurring from the first living thing (and before) to you and me. There is also an emergent theory of that story: Darwinian evolution. I would argue that, of these two, only the latter is comprehensible as an explanation of our origins, and that having the complete reductive history would not help unless you reversed course and abstracted a history of organisms, species and ecologies from it.

    The hardware vs. software comparison is trickier than it seems at first sight, as there is a difference between a program and a process (the latter being an executing program.) If you want to understand a program, examine its algorithms and data structures. When you come to run it, the hardware introduces other concerns, such as how well it will perform, or whether it will run at all, that are orthogonal to understanding its algorithms. I don’t think Carroll’s ‘substrate independence’ arguments are irrelevant because, for example, a dead brain isn’t conscious (or is it, if panpsychism id true?)

    All of this should be considered in the light of another of Carroll’s positions, as fleshed out in ‘Consciousness and the Laws of Physics’, that you cannot introduce panpsychism in a way that explains consciousness without also changing the Core Theory, at least unless you also throw out the notion that consciousness has causal influence in the physical world. His position seems to be that panpsychism is a physical theory trying hard not to be seen as one.
    [1] Personally, my inner curmudgeon grates at the way the use of ‘weak emergence’ has been forced on us by the too-eager acceptance of ‘strong emergence’, which should have been called something like ‘inexplicable emergence.’

  9. Pingback: A Surprise Point of Agreement With Sean Carroll – Conscience and Consciousness - Nobodys word

  10. araybold says

    Your reply to Sean Carroll, in ‘Putting Consciousness First’, appears to give additional support to the view that panpsychism, at least as you describe it, is a physical hypothesis. In fact, you do not seem to leave any room for an alternative when you write “hence, according to panpsychism, the Core Theory describes the causal dynamics of fields and particles as determined by the forms of consciousness they instantiate. Rather than physics not leaving room for consciousness to have an impact, the entire story of physics is the story of what consciousness does.” Here, you are describing panpsychism as one would describe a string theory, if or when some version turns out to provide a more reductive and complete explanation of the causal dynamics of fields and particles than they appear in the Core Theory. You actually emphasize this point when you insist that you are not just drawing an analogy when you say that charge is one form of consciousness.

    You go on to say “Of course, when you’re doing physics, you don’t know that’s what you’re studying. But that’s just because physics is only concerned about causal dynamics and abstracts away from the nature of the things underlying those dynamical structures.” This is only because panpsychism has not been developed to the point of saying how, or in what way, consciousness does determine the causal dynamics of fields and particles (or to the point of showing any evidence that it does, for that matter.)

    Despite saying “If strong emergence is true, [the application of the current Core Theory] will make some false predictions about the locations of the particles in my brain at t+1”, you insist that this leaves the Core Theory unchanged as a “complete theory of the inherent causal capacities of particles and fields.” Such discrepancies would be discoverable through experiment, however, and if we did so, we would have proof that the Core Theory is incomplete! This would be so regardless of whether it is the case that causal dynamics of fields and particles are determined by, as you propose, the forms of consciousness they instantiate, or, instead, by a string theory or something else (or that they are fundamental, for that matter.)

    The passage I quoted above mentions strong emergence specifically, but that seems to be a red herring, as strong and weak emergence differ only in whether the emergent properties can be explained in terms of that which allegedly gives rise to them. Consequently, if, as you say, strong emergence has observable physical consequences that deviate from the predictions of the Core Model as it stands today, then so too does weak emergence.

    To be clear, the argument that panpsychism is a physical hypothesis is not predicated on the proposition that you cannot have panpsychism without touching the Core Theory, but once you have recognized the former, it takes some semantic gymnastics – insisting there’s only one way of looking at the question when the alternative is more straightforward – to avoid the latter. It is not as if panpsychism’s physicalism can be denied by calling the Core Theory a ceteris paribus one, as, even if we accept that it is, there would be another, more complete, theory to replace it, one that takes into account how the causal dynamics of fields and particles are modified by consciousness.

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