The Simplicity Argument for Panpsychism

18 Mar

I recently published an article in Aeon magazine defending what I call ‘the simplicity argument for panpsychism.’ This is a shorter version of the argument I develop in at length in my forthcoming book Consciousness and Fundamental Reality (the book is not very accessible to non-specialists; I’m currently working on a book aimed a general audience). I’d like to take the opportunity to respond to a few of the objections that came up repeatedly in the comments.

1st objection: You don’t give any evidence for panpsychism

I agree that I don’t give any evidence for panpsychism. But scientific theory choice depends on (at least) two things: (i) evidence, (ii) considerations of simplicity and parsimony. For any set of data, there are an infinite number of theories that fit the data, and we must choose between them on the basis of simplicity and parsimony.

Don’t believe me? Take the standard model of particle physics: call that theory ‘T’. Now add the postulation of one epiphenomenal angel (i.e. an angel that can’t affect the physical world) and call the resulting theory ‘T*’. Then add the postulation of two epiphenomenal angels to make a third theory, call it ‘T**’. Then add the postulation of three angels, to make a fourth theory T***, and so on ad infinitum. All of these theories will make exactly the same predictions. How should we choose between them? On the basis of parsimony: we can dump the angels without loss of predictive power.

Often the simplest theory consistent with the evidence is obvious (as would be the case in the above example), which can make it seem as though Ockham’s razor isn’t doing any work. But sometimes the mere formulation of a simpler theory can result in a major scientific change. This was the case with special relativity. Special relativity is empirically equivalent to the Lorentzian theory it replaced, but it gave a much simpler explanation of the data, and brought greater unity to physics. Similarly, panpsychist theories of the intrinsic nature of matter are empirically equivalent to non-panpsychist theories of the intrinsic nature of matter, but they are to be preferred on grounds of simplicity.

2nd objection: The supposition that electrons have consciousness is less parsimonious than the supposition that they don’t

The crucial starting point of my article is that physics only tells us how electrons behave; it tells us nothing of the intrinsic nature of electrons. Assuming that an electron has an intrinsic nature, we must go beyond physics in speculating about what it is. We can either adopt the panpsychist hypothesis that the intrinsic nature of an electron is constituted of some very basic form of consciousness. Or we can adopt the non-panpsychist hypothesis that electrons have some entirely unknown intrinsic nature. The former hypothesis is much simpler than the latter: we already know that the intrinsic nature of some physical entities (i.e. brains) involves consciousness; why postulate two kinds of intrinsic property when you can make do with one?

So it’s not like the panpsychist postulates something and the non-pansychist doesn’t (in that case non-panpsychism would be simpler). Both panpsychist and non-panpsychist theories of the intrinsic nature of matter go beyond physics. The only question is which is the more parsimonious extension of physics.

3rd objection: The most parsimonious view is that electrons don’t have an intrinsic nature at all

This is an interesting response, and I certainly agree it would be simpler to simply deny that matter has an intrinsic nature. On this kind of view, there is nothing more to an electron that how it behaves; an electron is not so much a being as a doing.

However, I think there are two considerations that count strongly against the denial of intrinsic natures:

  1. The reality of one’s own consciousness is itself a datum, in addition to the data of observation and experiment. And I think there are good arguments (e.g. the knowledge argument) for the view that consciousness is an intrinsic property. Therefore, assuming (on parsimony grounds) that dualism is false, we know that brains have an intrinsic nature (constituted of their conscious experience). It would lead a radically disunified theory of reality to hold that brains have an intrinsic nature but all other material entities (including the parts of brains) lack an intrinsic nature. (To be honest, I don’t even know what such a theory would look like).
  2. I think it can be demonstrated that the denial of intrinsic natures leads to a vicious regress, and that it follows that that such a view is unintelligible. Can a mere philosophical argument have such a strong conclusion? Well, Galileo refuted Aristotle’s view that heavier objects fall faster with a purely philosophical argument. Bertrand Russell and others gave versions of this argument; I give mine in the ‘Against causal structuralism’ section of chapter 6 of my book.


Galileo, Panpsychism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness

28 Jan

Panpsychism and the hard problem

It is sometimes said that consciousness is a mystery in the sense that we have no idea what it is. This is clearly not true. What could be better known to us than our own feelings and experiences? The mystery of consciousness is not what consciousness it is but why it is.

Neuroscience has made considerable progress in understanding the physical mechanisms underlying human behaviour and associated internal functioning. But no one has even the beginnings of an explanation of why some physical systems, such as the functioning brain of a waking human, have experiences. Modern brain imaging techniques have provided us with a rich body of correlations between physical processes in the brain and the experiences had by the person whose brain it is. We know, for example, that a person undergoing stimulation in her or his ventromedial hypothalamus feels hunger. But no one knows why these correlations hold. It seems perfectly conceivable that ventromedial hypothalamus stimulation should do its job in the brain without giving rise to any kind of feeling at all. This is the difficulty David Chalmers famously called ‘the hard problem of consciousness.’

Materialists hope that we will one day be able to explain why consciousness exists in terms of wholly non-conscious physical processes in the brain. But this project now has a long history of failure. The problem with all extant materialist ‘solutions’ to the hard problem is that they always end up redefining consciousness. They start off by declaring that they are going to solve the hard problem: to explain experience itself. But somewhere along the way they suddenly start using the word ‘consciousness’ to refer not to experience but to some complex behavioural functioning associated with experience, such as the ability of a human to monitor its internal states or to process information about the environment. Explaining complex forms of behaviour is an important scientific endeavour. But the hard problem cannot be solved by changing the subject.

I am drawn to an alternative research programme. Instead of trying to explain consciousness in terms of utterly non-conscious brain processes analytic panpsychists hope to explain biological consciousness (i.e. the consciousness of humans and other animals) in terms of simpler forms of consciousness. These simpler forms of consciousness are then postulated to exist in basic forms of matter, ultimately the smallest constituents of the brain (whatever they turn to be). The panpsychist hypothesis is that the ultimate constituents of the physical world, perhaps quarks and electrons, have very basic forms of experience and that the complex experience of human and animal brains is grounded in the simple experience of basic matter. Twenty years ago panpsychism would have been immediately dismissed by scientists and scientifically minded philosophers, if indeed it was thought of at all. More recently, perhaps because of the dismal track record of materialist explanations of consciousness, a growing minority of philosophers and neuroscientists have been seriously exploring the potential of panpsychism to solve the hard problem.

This is not to give up on the hope for a scientific account of consciousness; analytic panpsychism is a scientific project in its own right (albeit at a very early stage of development). Of course the most basic forms of consciousness do not themselves end up getting explained. But, as Wittgenstein said, explanation has to end somewhere. Every theory must have its primitives. The only question is whether and how well they account for the data.

The philosophical foundations of physics

Most philosophers and scientists still hold out hope that consciousness can be explained without postulating additional entities, whether souls or micro-level consciousness. This hope is commonly supported with a bold narrative about the successful history of the physical sciences. At every point in this glorious history, it is claimed, philosophers have declared that certain phenomena are too ‘special’ to be explained by physical science – light, life, chemistry – only to be subsequently proven wrong by the relentless march of scientific progress. There is every reason, then, to expect that consciousness will go the same way, despite the naysaying of philosophers.

However, there is a different way of thinking about the history of physical science and its undeniable and rightly celebrated success. Perhaps the most important move in the scientific revolution was Galileo’s declaration that mathematics was to be the language of natural science. But he felt able to do this only after he had revolutionised our philosophical picture of the world. Before Galileo it was generally assumed that matter had sensory qualities: tomatoes were red, paprika was spicy, flowers smelt sweet. But it’s hard to see how these sensory qualities – the redness of tomatoes, the spicy taste of paprika, the sweet smell of flowers – could be captured in the abstract, austere vocabulary of mathematics. How could an equation capture what it’s like to taste spicy paprika? And if sensory qualities can’t be captured in a mathematical vocabulary, it seemed to follow that a mathematical vocabulary could never capture the complete nature of matter.

Galileo’s solution to this problem was to strip matter of its sensory qualities and put them in the soul. The sweet smell isn’t really in the flowers but in the soul of the person smelling them; the spicy taste isn’t really in the paprika but in the soul of the person tasting it. Even colours, for Galileo, aren’t really on the surfaces of objects but in the soul of the person observing them. And if matter had no qualities, then it was possible in principle to describe it in the purely quantitative vocabulary of mathematics. This was the birth of mathematical physics.

But of course Galileo didn’t deny the existence of the sensory qualities. Rather he took them to be forms of consciousness residing in the soul, an entity outside of the material world and so outside of the domain of natural science. In other words, Galileo created physical science by putting consciousness outside of its domain of enquiry. If Galileo was to time travel to the present day and be told there is a ‘hard problem’ of how to explain consciousness in terms of physical brain processes, he would no doubt reply, ‘Of course there is, I created physical science by taking consciousness out of the physical world!’

This does not, in itself, constitute an argument that there will never be a purely physical account of consciousness. But it does undermine arguments which appeal to the historical success of physical science in order to support the claims that physical science will one day solve the hard problem. The fact that physical science has done extremely well since consciousness was set outside of its domain of enquiry gives us no reason to think that it can adequately account for consciousness itself.

Is consciousness a datum in its own right?

It is twenty years since David Chalmers declared consciousness a ‘hard problem’. Although there is broad agreement that it is, this is often accompanied by vague statements that the problem will go away if we just do a bit more neuroscience. It’s time philosophers and scientists decided whether or not consciousness is a datum in its own right, on equal footing to the data of third-person observation and experiment.

Philosophers like Daniel Dennett and Keith Frankish deny that consciousness exists. This is their solution to the hard problem, and it’s a consistent (if rather implausible) view. Most philosophers believe that consciousness exists but refuse to make postulations in order to account for its existence. They try instead to squeeze it into the world of things we already believe in, things postulated to explain the data of observation and experiment. This research project hasn’t gone well.

If we believe in consciousness, we have to be prepared to make postulations in order to account for its existence. Panpsychism looks to be the most promising way of doing this, avoiding the well-known difficulties associated with the postulation of souls. Perhaps it won’t ultimately work out. But at the moment the serious interdisciplinary work needed to find this out is being hampered by an ideological insistence on the materialist paradigm; an ideological insistence not so dissimilar to that experienced by Galileo from the 17th century Catholic Church.

Are the Hosts in Westworld conscious?

7 Dec

I wrote this:

Torn on Corbyn

20 Sep

The most important thing about Jeremy Corbyn is what he symbolises to the tens of thousands of people who have joined the Labour party since he became leader. After years of soulless Blairite pragmatism without principles, Corbyn represents a return to conviction and hope for radical change. In the unlikely event that Corbyn were to lose this week, most of these new members would probably break ties with Labour, and return to disillusionment and a sense of impotence. I don’t think the numbers inspired by Corbyn are enough by a long shot to win an election; but it’s still a huge number of people, and their energy and conviction could be a crucial part of a broader election winning strategy.

But the fact that Corbyn is genuine, and has political views we might like, should not blind us to the fact that he has proved extremely bad at the practical skills of leadership. After many years of being a backbench rebel, he has not taken well to the business of putting out press statements, formulating soundbites, putting together a simple narrative that gives people a sense of the party’s positive vision, etc. Of course, for those of us who like Corbyn, this rejection of conventional media just increases his personal appeal. But I’m afraid in the real world these are things you need to do if you want to cut through to the vast proportion of the electorate who don’t follow lefty politics on social media, and get their news by catching the odd line on the television or radio news.

This is all well-documented in Owen Jones’ heartfelt expression of concern. For me two things summed up Corbyn’s public relations problem. Firstly his demand the day after the EU referendum to immediately trigger article 50. This was a big moment, an important statement, and he clearly hadn’t thought it through, as he now admits. Secondly, in his interview with Owen Jones, Corbyn was asked what he could do to appeal to older voters, for whom Labour is not popular. His immediate response was that older people should be invited into schools to meet young people. At this point I was screaming at my laptop.

And the polls bear out the PR failure. I believe that someone with Corbyn’s politics could cut through and win an election, especially in these post 2008 times when people are seeking radical alternatives. But the reality is that Corbyn has not been on course to do this. Even before the leadership challenge Labour were consistently behind in the polls (occasionally neck and neck, very occasionally a point ahead), and Labour lost seats at the local elections and did significantly worse than under Miliband at the same point in the electoral cycle. An opposition needs to be way ahead at this stage to have a shot at winning. Under Miliband Labour was ten points ahead of the Tories mid-parliament, and still went on to badly lose the election. And Corbyn has had the worst personal ratings of any opposition leader ever. Yes, there has been a media bias against Corbyn. But that’s what’s going to happen if you propose radical alternatives, which is precisely why a radical opposition leader needs to have a high level of skill and ingenuity, especially regarding her or his media strategy. My concerns with Corbyn are not about his politics but his abilities.

And so I’m left not knowing who to vote for. I don’t want to halt the growing people’s movement that Corbyn represents. But I don’t think flesh and blood Corbyn himself is very good at his job. In my ideal scenario, Corbyn would voluntarily hand over the leadership to Clive Lewis in the near future, thus securing the movement under more capable leadership. But unfortunately that option isn’t on the ballot paper. 26 hours left to make my mind up…


Quantitative Analysis of Labour’s Leadership Problem

20 Jul

Guest post by Tom McClelland (a fellow consciousness comrade from the University of Manchester).


Did Blair Lie?

10 Jul

Last week the long awaited Chilcot report on the Iraq War finally came out. I’m sure everyone’s read enough commentary. All I have to add is this wonderful poem by Graham Danzein.


Did Blair lie?

You should expect most politicians’ lies.
And it is such a clanging word to use –
when fibs and fiddles come in every size –
for registering complaint of our bad news:
complicity with criminality;
attraction to intrusive action red;
to fixed intelligence a casualty;
hundreds, then thousands, reliably dead.
To talk of lies belies the truth, for thought
was Op-Ed stated: tyrants, like disease,
no longer shall refuse the western shot,
since freedom disinfects the needle holes.

You should expect most politicians’ lies,
and never trust them to philosophise.

The EU and Democratic Control of Capitalism

21 Jun

I am extremely busy at the moment, finishing my book and giving talks in UK, but I just wanted to write something short in support of the UK remaining in the EU.

My view is that the essential problem of our age is a crisis of sovereignty:

Although in many countries (imperfect) democracy has been achieved at a national level, global capital runs the show at a global level.

Countries are not free to set tax rates and regulation as they choose, because multi-national corporations pit nation and against nation in a race to the bottom. Our economic sovereignty has been handed over the market. The only way to reverse this trend is international co-operation, though institutions such as the EU. The forces of aggressive international tax competition keep economically feasible tax rates artificially low. If countries were to co-operate rather than compete –what I call ‘fiscal solidarity’ – we could eliminate these forces, ensuring a vastly greater proportion of profits go to schools, hospitals, infra-structure and education.

It is true that this is not the direction the EU is currently going in, but visionary economists such as Thomas Picketty (in particular read this manifesto) and Yanis Varoufakis are campaigning for such a radical re-imagining of the EU project. We should remain in and fight for this vision.

In the aftermath of the second world war Europe and the US took small but significant steps moved towards the democratic regulation of capitalism, including (relatively) high income and business taxes and strong regulation of markets. It worked, and lead to the most rapid period of growth experienced in human history, the so-called ‘golden age of capitalism’. People got richer, society got more equal, the 60s happened.

Then came the Thatcher/Reagan ideology. The idea was that if we set capital free by cutting taxes and regulation, we’ll all get richer. The result was huge inequality, mass homelessness, and a string of financial crises culminating in the crash of 2008. The Global Financial Crisis should have been the decisive end of uncontrolled capitalism, just as the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of state run communism in 1989.

But the lessons of the crash were not learned. And we are now living in scary times with people flailing wildly looking for answers outside of the mainstream, from UKIP to Golden Dawn to Donald Trump. The only solution in my view is to revert to the project of the post-war period: democratic control of capitalism. This project requires a radically re-imagined EU. A long shot, but I can’t see any other way forward.

This is why I’ll be voting remain.