Neuro-Fundamentalism and the Importance of Philosophy

2 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to my third and final point:

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

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

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

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










Responding to some recent criticisms

30 Jan

It was great to see lots of responses in the latest edition (December/January) of Philosophy Now magazine to the edition I recently edited on ‘Radical Theories of Consciousness’. Of course, not all are sympathetic! I’d like to take the opportunity to respond to some of the objections and criticisms which were raised.

John Radcliffe thought that the range of articles was too narrow, as ‘all four contributors, to varying degrees are sympathetic to panpsychism.’ In fact, only two of the authors defend panpsychist views (myself and Morch), one (McQueen) has as far as I know expressed no sympathy for panpsychism, and another (Coleman) is positive hostile to it. Overall, I thought we got a wide-range of anti-materialist views. I’m curious to know which positions John thought we had neglected. Perhaps we should have included something on idealism. Or perhaps John thought we should have had some form of materialism, but materialism – as the dominant worldview – is very widely represented; the point of this edition was to explore alternatives. The rest of the letter generally ridiculed panpsychism, but without saying anything about the arguments I put forward for it in my piece. Does John disagree with me that physics fails to reveal the intrinsic nature of matter? Does John disagree with me that the simplest theory of matter’s intrinsic nature consistent with what we know is panpsychism? Instead of saying where my argument goes wrong, he simply repeats the familiar line that panpsychism is analogous to vitalism and will go the same way. However, in my editorial I argued for an alternative perspective on the history of science which I believe undermines this analogy. John says nothing about this argument.

Thomas Jeffreys accuses me of making an ‘argument from analogy, which has no logical value’. However, neither of the arguments I make in the piece is an argument from analogy. One of the arguments defends panpsychism on the grounds of its potential to explain human/animal consciousness, the other on the grounds that it is the simplest theory of matter’s intrinsic nature consistent with the only thing we know about matter’s intrinsic nature (i.e. that some matter has a consciousness-involving nature). Jeffreys says nothing in response to these arguments. He does, however, offer an interesting argument of his own: (A) human consciousness is a matter of our being aware of ourselves and our relationships with our surroundings, but (B) it is implausible to suppose that basic particles are aware in this sense, and therefore (C) either I’m changing the meaning of the word ‘consciousness’ when it comes to basic particles or panpsychism is false. I think the problem here is that the word ‘consciousness’ is a bit ambiguous. I don’t use it as a synonym of ‘awareness’, but rather to refer to the more basic property of experience. Although all forms of awareness involve experience, not all experience is a form of awareness; the feeling anxiety, for example, does not involve awareness of any features of reality outside of the feeling itself. Perhaps it’s incoherent to imagine that electrons have awareness, but it is not incoherent to suppose that they have experience, of some unimaginably simple form (Of course it’s a further question whether such a view is plausible, but I have offered arguments that have not been responded to).

I enjoyed Paul Buckingham’s letter (I can take a joke!). But to respond to the implicit argument contained therein: There is an important difference between the project of explaining the emergence of limbs in terms of our DNA, and the project of explaining the emergence of consciousness in terms of brain processes. In the former case, we are trying to explain one causal structure in terms of another, and even if we haven’t completely worked out the details yet, there is no in principle reason to think it can’t be done. But in the latter case, we are trying to explain the qualities of experience in terms of causal structure. As I argued in my editorial, the success of physical science is due to the fact that Galileo took the qualities of experience out of its domain of enquiry; from that point onward physical science has been in the business of mapping causal structure. The fact that the project of mapping causal structure has gone well gives us no ground for thinking that this project could adequately deal with the quality-rich phenomenon of consciousness. Moreover, as I argue at great length in the first half of my book Consciousness and Fundamental Reality, there are powerful philosophical arguments for the conclusion that Galileo was perfectly correct in thinking that the qualities of consciousness cannot be captured in the purely qualitative language of physical science. There are no analogous arguments applying to limbs or to life. Of course these philosophical arguments may not be sound, but Buckingham provides no reason to think this.







Could the Force Really be With Us?

9 Jan

The last thing I wrote in 2017 was something (here) on Star Wars and panpsychism, to give me an excuse to see the film during work hours. My lovely 6 month sabbatical is now over…managed to write 2/3 of a pop book on consciousness and lots of articles…actually, I’m a bit sick of writing in bed and looking forward to getting back to teaching…starting tomorrow…

Bono and Global Tax Justice

5 Dec

I recently published a piece in The Guardian on the Paradise Papers tax revelations concerning Bono. This led to three interviews on this topic: one in the Swiss newspaper “Tages-Anzeiger” (here), one with the Greek newspaper “Εfimerida ton Syntakton” (here), and one that was used as research for an open letter to Bono in the German “Die Zeit” (here). I have always been careful not to make this all about demonising Bono, and so was a bit disappointed with the letter in Die Zeit. The initial headline for the Swiss article quoted me as saying “I don’t know if Bono will go to Hell” (I was just trying to make the point that it’s not about whether Bono’s a good or bad person), but I emailed them about this and they very kindly changed it.

I still have this huge balloon (9ft wide, 24ft high) resting in my father in law’s garage…I should probably put it on e-bay…


Closing Loopholes Will Change Little

28 Nov

With the publication of the Paradise Papers the public has once again been shocked by the extent of tax cheating by the wealthy elite. But precious little of the coverage has focused on what needs to be done stop it happening. Where there is such discussion, it has almost exclusively focused on closing loopholes. Whilst this is important, in the context of the billions siphoned off to tax havens every year, it amounts to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. The problem is that the system is broken.

I’m not talking about capitalism itself, but rather the system of international tax law that was created by the League of Nations in the 1920s. The system operates by the Arms-Length Principle, according to which sister companies of transnational corporations are supposed to behave as though they were separate entities, for example, by trading goods at market prices. The problem is that the world of the 1920s is very different from the world of the 2010s. Technological connectivity and globalised finance has rendered the Arms-Length Principle impossible to police and profit shifting is rampant. By paying extravagant fees for use of trademarks, or by paying interest on huge loans, a company in one location – say, Britain – is able to move profits to its sister company in a low-tax jurisdiction – say, Ireland. In reality, these “two” companies are not distinct entities but our tax laws allow them to behave as though they were. The result is that profits generated in Britain are booked for taxation in Ireland, or shifted on to another tax haven. Economists at the University of California, Berkeley, have estimated that six European tax havens alone (Luxembourg, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Malta and Cyprus) shift €350bn of profits every year.

In broad outline, the solution to this problem has been known to both political scientists and policy makers for some time, but in the absence of pressure from the public progress is slow. The first priority is greater transparency: profit shifting thrives in a climate of secrecy. More specifically we need Automatic Exchange of Information – whereby countries are legally obliged to share all of their tax information with each other – and Country-by-Country reporting – whereby a transnational corporation is obliged to give a single figure for their worldwide profits and a breakdown of how much was generated in each country of operation. With such increased transparency, the public would be able to see the system for what it is, and demands for change will grow.

The ultimate goal is to move to a system of Unitary Taxation, which would ensure that transnational corporations are taxed in each jurisdiction in which they operate according to the real economic activity they conduct in that area. This would end once and for all the farce of companies such as Starbucks and Amazon being able to pay miniscule levels of corporation tax that bear no relation to their sales or employment figures. This is not Utopian. Such a system is used within federal countries such as Canada, Switzerland and the United States. And the EU has worked out a proposal for a Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base, which would go a long way towards a system of Unitary Taxation within the EU. So far implementation has been blocked not only by the countries most guilty of systematic profit shifting, but also by the neo-liberal government of the UK.

With the political will, profit shifting could be resigned to history. Labour should rise to the challenge and pledge that in government they will lead negotiations towards a new system of global tax law fit for the realities of the 21st century. It’s time to make globalisation work for everyone.

Never Happier to be Proven Wrong

23 Oct

Most people I speak to either love Jeremy Corbyn for his politics or hate Jeremy Corbyn for his politics. I previously found myself in the rarer group of being strongly in favour of his policies, whilst having severe reservations about his political skills and his ability to cut through to the public. Before the campaign of the recent UK election when Labour was languishing in the polls I despaired of Labour ever gaining ground.

How much can change in a short space of time. I was overjoyed when the election campaign transformed Labour’s fortunes, proving wrong my pessimistic predictions. Labour didn’t win, but with 40% of the vote nobody can now say that the party is ‘unelectable’ with Corbyn as leader. And with May adopting Labour policies previously denounced as communist by the Tories, such as an energy price cap, the political centre of gravity has certainly shifted leftwards.

Whilst I doubted Corbyn’s ability to pull it off, I certainly never doubted the importance of a more radical economic agenda. Globalisation is no longer working for ordinary people in UK. The Thatcherism of the 1980s was savage on working class communities and massively increased inequality, but it co-existed with increasing wealth for a fairly large proportion of the electorate. But since the crash of 2008 the vast majority have suffered the worst squeeze on living standards since the 1750s. In contrast the wealthiest have seen their net worth double. We now live in an economy shaped by and for the interests of the top 1%.

People in Europe and the US are seeking radical alternatives, from both right (Trump, Le Pen, PIS in Poland) and left (Podemos, Sanders, Corbyn). If the left can’t persuade the public that a radical reshaping of the economic model is the solution to their woes, I fear that we’re going to find more fascists in parliaments.

Do Electrons Dream of Electric Sheep?

19 Oct

I’ve written quite a few articles recently outlining my ‘simplicity argument’ for panpsychism. One persistent questions is, ‘Why on earth should we suppose matter has an intrinsic nature????’. In this article for LSE’s ‘The Forum’ I try to layout the article in a bit more detail. It’s an old and much discussed argument. I think my slight addition to it is the response to holism.