Panpsychism and layers of consciousness

The Neoplatonic “world soul”
Source: Wikipedia

I’ve written before about panpyschism, the outlook that everything is conscious and that consciousness permeates the universe.  However, that previous post was within the context of replying to a TEDx talk, and I’m not entirely satisfied with the remarks I made back then, so this is a revisit of that topic.

I’ve noted many times that I don’t think panpsychism is a productive outlook, but I’ve never said outright that it’s wrong.  The reason is that with a sufficiently loose definition of consciousness, it is true.  The question is how useful those loose definitions are.

But first I think a clarification is needed.  Panpsychism actually seems to refer to a range of outlooks, which I’m going to simplify (perhaps overly so) into two broad positions.

The first is one I’ll call pandualism.  Pandualism takes substance dualism as a starting point.

Substance dualism assumes that physics, or at least currently known physics, are insufficient to explain consciousness and the mind.  Dualism ranges from the traditional religious versions to ones that posit that perhaps a new physics, often involving the quantum wave function, are necessary to explain the mind.  This latter group includes people like Roger Penrose, Stuart Hammeroff, and many new age spiritualists.

Pandualists solve the mind-body problem by positing that consciousness is something beyond normal physics, but that it permeates the universe, making it something like a new fundamental property of nature similar to electric charge or other fundamental forces.  This group seems to include people like David Chalmers and Christof Koch.

I do think pandualism is wrong for the same reasons I think substance dualism overall is wrong.  There’s no evidence for it, no observations that require it as an explanation, or even any that leave it as the best explanation.  The only thing I can see going for it is that it seems to match a deep human intuition, but the history of science is one long lesson in not trusting our intuitions when they clash with observations.  It’s always possible new evidence for it will emerge in the future, but until then, dualism strikes me as an epistemic dead end.

The second panpsychist position is one I’m going to call naturalistic panpsychism.  This is the one that basically redefines consciousness in such a way that any system that interacts with the environment (or some other similarly basic definition) is conscious.  Using such a definition, everything is conscious, including rocks, protons, storms, and robots, with the differences being the level of that consciousness.

Interestingly, naturalistic panpsychism is ontologically similar to another position I’m going to call apsychism.  Apsychists don’t see consciousness as actually existing.  In their view it’s an illusion, an obsolete concept similar to vitalism.  We can talk in terms of intelligence, behavior, or brain functions, they might say, but introducing the word “consciousness” adds nothing to the understanding.

The difference between naturalistic panpsychism and apsychism seems to amount to language.  (In this way, it seems similar to the relationship between naturalistic pantheism and atheism.)  Naturalistic panpsychists prefer a more traditional language to describe cognition, while apsychists generally prefer to go more with computational or biological language.  But both largely give up on finding the distinctions between conscious and non-conscious systems (aside from emergence), one by saying everything is conscious, the other that nothing is.

I personally don’t see myself as either a naturalistic panpsychist or an apsychist, although I have to admit that the apsychist outlook occasionally appeals to me.  But ultimately, I think both approaches are problematic.  Again, I won’t say that they’re wrong necessarily, just not productive.  But their unproductiveness seems to arise from an overly broad definition of consciousness.  As Peter Hankins pointed out in an Aeon thread on Philip Goff’s article on panpsychism, a definition of consciousness that leaves you seeing a dead brain as conscious is not a particularly useful one.

Good definitions, ideally, include most examples of what we intuitively think belong to a concept while excluding those we don’t.  The problem is many pre-scientific concepts don’t map well to our current scientific understanding of things, and so make this a challenge.  Religion, biological life, and consciousness are all concepts that seem to fall into this category.

Of course, there are seemingly simple definitions of consciousness out there, such as “subjective experience” or “something it is like”.  But that apparent simplicity masks a lot of complex underpinnings.  Both of these definitions imply the metacognitive ability of a system to sense its own thoughts and experiences and to have the capability and capacity to hold knowledge of them.  Without this ability, what makes experience “subjective” or “like” anything?

Thomas Nagel famously pointed out that we can’t know what it’s like to be a bat, but we have to be careful about assuming that a bat knows what it’s like to be a bat.  If they don’t have a metacognitive capability, bats themselves might be as clueless as we are about their inner experience, if they can even be said to have an inner experience without the ability to know they’re having it.

So, metacognition seems to factor into our intuition of consciousness.  But for metacognition, also known as introspection, to exist, it needs to rest on a multilayered framework of functionality.  My current view, based on the neuroscience I’ve read, is that this can be grouped into five broad layers.

The first layer, and the most basic, are reflexes.  The oldest nervous systems were little more than stimulus response systems, and instinctive emotions are the current manifestation of those reflexes.  This could be considered the base programming of the system.  A system with only this layer meets the standard of interacting with the environment, but then so does the still working knee jerk reflex of a brain dead patient’s body.

Perception is the second layer.  It includes the ability of a system to take in sensory information from distance senses (sight, hearing, smell), and build representations, image maps, predictive models of the environment and its body, and the relationship between them.  This layer dramatically increases the scope of what the reflexes can react to, increasing it from only things that touch the organism to things happening in the environment.

Attention, selective focusing of resources based on perception and reflex, is the third layer.  It is an inherently action oriented capability, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it seems to be heavily influenced by the movement oriented parts of the brain.  This layer is a system to prioritize what the reflexes will react to.

Note that with the second and third layer: perception and attention, we’ve moved well past simply interacting with the environment.  Autonomous robots, such as Mars rovers and self driving cars, are beginning to have these layers, but aren’t quite there yet.  Still, if we considered these first three layers alone sufficient for consciousness, then we’d have to consider such devices conscious at least part of the time.

Imagination is the fourth layer.  It includes simulations of various sensory and action scenarios, including past or future ones.  Imagination seems necessary for operant learning and behavioral trade-off reasoning, both of which appear to be pervasive in the animal kingdom, with just about any vertebrate with distance senses demonstrating them to at least some extent.

Imagination, the simulation engine, is arguably what distinguishes a flexible general intelligence from a robotic rules based one.  It’s at this layer, I think, that the reflexes become emotions, dispositions to act rather than automatic action, subject to being allowed or inhibited depending on the results of the simulations.

Only with all these layers in place does the fifth layer, introspection, metacognition, the ability of a system to perceive its own thoughts, become useful.  And introspection is the defining characteristic of human consciousness.  Consider that we categorize processing from any of the above layers that we can’t introspect to be in the unconscious or subconscious realm, and anything that we can to be within consciousness.

How widespread is metacognition in the animal kingdom?  No one really knows.  Animal psychologists have performed complex tests, involving the animal needing to make decisions based on what it knows about its own memory, to demonstrate that introspection exists to some degree in apes and some monkeys, but haven’t been able to do so with any other animals.  A looser and more controversial standard, involving testing for behavioral uncertainty, may also show it in dolphins, and possibly even rats (although the rat study has been widely challenged on methodology).

But these tests are complex, and the animal’s overall intelligence may be a confounding variable.  And anytime a test shows that only primates have a certain capability, we should be on guard against anthropocentric bias.  Myself, the fact that the first four layers appear to be pervasive in the animal kingdom, albeit with extreme variance in sophistication, makes me suspect the same might be true for metacognition, but that’s admittedly very speculative.  It may be that only humans and, to a lesser extent other primates, have it.

So, which layers are necessary for consciousness?  If you answer one, the reflex one, then you may effectively be a panpsychist.  If you say layer two, perception, then you might consider some artificial neural networks conscious.  As I mentioned above, some autonomous robots are approaching layer three with attention.  But if you require layer four, imagination, then only biological animals with distance senses currently seem to qualify.

And if you require layer five, metacognition, then you can only be sure that humans and, to a lesser extent, some other primates qualify.  But before you reject layer five as too stringent, remember that it’s how we separate the conscious from the unconscious within human cognition.

What about the common criteria of an ability to suffer?  Consider that our version of suffering is inescapably tangled up with our metacognition.  Remove that metacognition, to where we wouldn’t know about our own suffering, and is it still suffering in the way we experience it?

So what do you think?  Does panpsychism remain a useful outlook?  Are the layers I describe here hopelessly wrong?  If so, what’s another way to look at it?

83 thoughts on “Panpsychism and layers of consciousness

  1. Panpyschism is appealing primarily at an emotional level; a paliative measure which addresses existential despair. Buddhism, after all, is built around a panpyschism core. Intellectually, it appears to be somewhat all-over-the-shop.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I can see that. In that way, it’s similar to the existential comfort I get from some aspects of the Epicurean outlook. My concern in this post is whether it gives us insight into the workings of minds and which systems warrant moral concern.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Hey Mike, nice post. Unfortunately for you and your audience, this is where all my philosophical thinking for the last four years has landed, and so I have pages and pages to say. I apologize in advance for what follows.

    I am squarely in the naturalistic panspychist camp. Actually, having read Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture”, I claim to be a poetically naturalist panpsychist. To answer your questions, the panpsychist outlook is obviously useful, as I will attempt to explain below, and the layers you describe are far from hopelessly wrong. I’ll go with very close, but wanting some adjustment (so, no cigar yet).

    As you put so succinctly, consciousness is all about interacting with the environment. This can be restated as a formula for the basic consciousness-related event:

    Input –[agent]–> output,

    such that the agent (approximately) remains and is capable of repeating the process. I call this formula of an event a “psychule”, as it is the minimal description of a consciousness-related event, just as a molecule is the minimal division of a substance while remaining to be that substance. This formula can be rigorously formalized (and has been by David Deutsch’s Constructor Theory).

    So for an example consider an electron as the agent, and the event being a collision with another electron. The input would include the velocity and angle of the other electron relative to the agent electron before collision and the output would be those values after the collision relative to the agent electron.

    Now, as many people have noticed, outputs from one agent can be connected as inputs to another agent. Some (Deutsch) call this networking, some (Eric Hoel) call this black-boxing, i.e., putting the internal psychules into the black box that you’re not allowed to look into. Thus, we can consider an example of a billiard ball as an agent (having lots of atoms as internal agents) and the input being another billiard ball with velocity and angle, etc.

    So to put this in terms of the levels you, Mike, propose, we would have to make a zeroth level which is simple reaction like billiard balls.

    When we start combining agents into higher order agents, we can start getting emergent types of psychules. That’s how we get into information processing, and that’s your first level. In order to give a full explanation of this level, you will need to provide a rigorous definition of “information”, “meaning”, “causal history” (and so, “causation”), and possibly “knowledge”. For now, we can say that level one involves psychules that use information as input.

    The level two which you describe involves a newly emergent kind of psychule wherein the output constitutes memory which is then available to the same agent as future input. Models and predictions almost certainly involve re activation of previous memories of similar inputs. I should point out that there are also reflexive (type one) responses to sights and sounds.

    Your level three introduces a system outside of the agent which moderates the actual input that reaches the agent. “Emotions” count at this level, as they result in levels of hormones, etc., that can effect both the input and output of the agent.

    I have some quibbles with your description of the fourth level. I don’t think operant conditioning requires imagination. I think it’s more like a learned reflex, so a level 2 memory that generates a level 1 response. That said, I will speculate that level four, imagination, involves a combination of high level agents, perhaps one that triggers memories of actions taken, and the output from the triggering of those memories become the input for another agent which triggers memories of the results of such actions, and so on. My point here is that the identification of agents and associated psychules involved in imagination seems a worthwhile approach.

    Finally, I will say that an explanation of level five will involve the ability to take arbitrary concepts as symbolic inputs and generate outputs which count as symbols of such arbitrary concepts. Thus, we can associate arbitrary sounds (“Bob”) to arbitrary objects (a chair?) giving “Bob the chair.”

    I’ll stop there, even though there’s much more to explain. My bottom line is that the psychule, an inherently panpsychist concept, seems like a useful tool for tweasing out the particular capabilities we associate with consciousness.

    (I should point out that in none of these examples would I call the agent in a psychule conscious. The consciousness of a system refers to the internal repertoire of psychules performed by that system.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks James! I love discussions, so no need to apologize for laying out your ideas.

      Reading through your post, it seems like we agree but just use different language. Your description of a psychule (a homophone of “cycle”?) sounds a lot like a process to me, which has inputs and outputs, and is typically centered on a processor (in a generic sense, not necessarily that of a CPU). (If a psychule is not a process or processor, then please do set me straight.)

      In biology, this could be a protein, a molecular machine that takes chemical inputs and produces chemical outputs. It could be a neuron, which sums its electrochemical signals and if a threshold is reached, outputs its own signals to its outbound synapses. It could also be a neural layer or a region of the brain or nervous systems responsible for certain functions.

      In computer science, we call this black boxing concept “levels of abstraction”. It’s a crucial strategy for keeping hardware or software engineering a manageable endeavor. Unfortunately, biology’s relation to this concept seems…haphazard. Biological processes have to work, which does result in functional compartmentalization, but evolution doesn’t care if the resulting mess is comprehensible. Why should it? It implemented them with no comprehension.

      But I’d agree that cognition is built on these types of processes. For me, this means that consciousness is ultimately composed of non-conscious processes, just as life is ultimately composed of non-biological chemical processes. But I’d agree these are matters of perspective, on where we want to draw the line between these concepts and their underlying mechanisms.

      On operant conditioning, I typed a paragraph defending my position, then realized I didn’t have confidence in it. You might be right, perception and reflex might be sufficient. (I need to give this more thought.) I feel more confident about behavioral trade off reasoning requiring imagination since it seems inherently about simulating various courses of action. Behavioral trade off reasoning has been observed all the way down to fruit flies.

      You’re probably right that symbolic thought requires metacognitive abilities. (The paper I linked to on animal metacognition has a discussion on this.) The fact that only humans seem to be comfortable with symbolic thought, such as language and art, may be telling. Chimpanzees can apparently be taught rudimentary sign language, but it never seems to rise to the level of what a four year old human can do.

      Your final point is what makes me think we agree but are just using different vocabulary. But if you disagree, I’d be interested to know where the differences are.


      1. I agree that we agree, with a possible exception. I think the psychule (sighkyool) truly is a panpsychic concept. I think all processes that have an identifiable agent are psychules, and when you refer to unconscious or subconscious processes, you are almost certainly referring to other psychules (with their own agents) which are simply prior to, and so supplying input to, or otherwise internal to a given agent.

        (Plato said to exist is to have causal power. Another way to say this is to say something exists if it has a psychule repertoire of at least one.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It seems like the way you are using the words “agent” and “psychule” mean that everything is an agent and a psychule? But didn’t you note above that not all agents / psychules are conscious? Or did you mean they don’t have human level consciousness but do have a lower level of it?

          If so, it seems like the difference between us is how broadly or narrow we use the word “conscious”, which of course is the whole panpsychism question.


          1. I’m saying every “thing” is an agent, as per Plato, but the jury is out as to whether every event is a psychule. The question is whether there are any events that do not have an agent which is necessary and remains essentially unchanged. An example may be a stick falling to the ground, but I think in that case the earth is the agent, and the stick at a distance is the input, or vice versa. Can you think of any counter examples?

            Whether the agent is considered “conscious” is a little tricky. We could simply say that it is by definition, but I think most philosophers would have a problem accepting that without further explanation. I think philosophers expect/require something which is conscious to “have” an experience, but by definition the agent remains essentially unchanged by the event. I think an experience is “had” by whatever system created the agent and got value from the output. But simple psychules, for example collisions of air molecules, aren’t usually associated with the idea of value. Value (and meaning), and so experience, doesn’t enter the picture until you have living systems (or things created by such systems). Consider a bacterium and chemotaxis. Let’s say the bacterium has a cell surface receptor for glucose which causes the bacterium to move in the direction of a higher concentration of glucose. [I have no idea if there are any such bacteria.] The receptor is the agent which recognizes glucose and causes some response which eventually leads to movement, but I don’t think I want to say the receptor has the experience of recognizing glucose. I think I would associate the experience with all of the things that happen inside the bacterium as a result of the recognition of glucose by the receptor.

            Alternatively, we could simply define the consciousness of an agent as the psychule repertoire of that agent, but I think I know at least one philosopher who would say that idea “leaves [him] cold.”


            Liked by 1 person

        2. James,
          Ah, okay. So a psychule is a process and the agent is the processor. Got it. (Unless I don’t?)

          Can I think of anything that isn’t an agent? With that definition, I can’t since it seems like everything processes something.

          Your discussion about whether an agent is conscious and the definitional issues makes me wonder if you are actually a panpsychist. At the very least, you seem to have an appreciation of why most people would struggle with the idea of every agent being conscious.

          Although, interestingly, I had a conversation with a panpsychist several years ago who made a distinction between consciousness and sentience. It was sentience he defined as interacting with the environment, which avoided the definition issues with consciousness. Of course, the definition of sentience immediately became an issue.

          My understanding is that there are single celled organisms that move along chemical gradients toward food and away from noxious elements. For me, this meets the reflexive level 1 I described in the post, essentially a system responding programatically, but not really any of the higher ones.


          1. If I may jump in, you could argue it’s “higher” given that movement can be scored by the organism as either positive or negative, hence it knows at some basal level if it is suffering, which is defined as a negative emotional state which derives from adverse physical, physiological and psychological circumstances (Nuffield Council on Bioethics, Ethics of Research Involving Animals, May 2005, pp 70).

            Here we’re returning to consciousness (the body of consciousness) being little more than degrees of awareness.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. To me, that’s too much of a reduction for the word “know”. It’s like saying my spinal cord “knows” to jerk the knee when the patellar ligament is struck. In neither case is there any information about the current environment within the system, any selective focusing of resources, or any simulation of the consequences of various actions. Unless I’m missing something?

            There are some single celled organisms that undergo simple classical conditioning, a primal type of learning. I might could see the word “knowledge” there, but then we’d have to call muscle fibers that grow stronger in response to physical stress as knowing something. Use of “know” in these cases feels metaphorical to me rather than literal.

            Liked by 2 people

          3. Yes, you’ve got it, and I did not consider myself panpsychist until just very recently (last few months). It’s just that all conscious events can be described by psychules, and it’s just a matter of choosing which kinds of psychules you’re willing to count as “conscious”. My purpose in coining the term “psychule” is very much to compare it to the term “molecule”, i.e., to find the minimal unit of the thing. When I found what I thought was the minimal unit, and I stepped back and pondered, it was clear that it went all the way to the bottom.

            Having found the bottom (or so I think) we can start working upward and see how various other features emerge when agents are combined in various ways. I think the very next step involves value/meaning/purpose, but that step requires explaining information and life and knowledge. That gets us to the bacterium. Various other features emerge as we develop multicellular creatures, special purpose symbolic communication agents (neurons), etc. But at each stage, the emergent capability can be described as a psychule with specific features.


            Liked by 1 person

          4. James,
            Your description of agents and psychules reminds me of another programming concept, an object. In traditional programming, there are structures, which are just inert data operated on by execution code, but in object oriented programming we have the concept of an object class, which is a data structure and the execution code that manipulates it grouped together into a unit. Each instance of a class is called an object. Classes can contain other classes, as can objects other objects, and they can link to and communicate with each other.

            Again, it’s all about building levels of abstraction. If we were building a computer simulation of the concept you described, we’d likely code a class for each type of agent, with its instantiated objects representing each actual agent and doing the simulated psychule. So we might have a neuron object containing protein, DNA, RNA, and lipid objects, which would contain molecule objects, atom objects, sub-atomic particle objects, etc.

            Nothing here necessarily relevant about panpyschism. I just thought it was another interesting way to think about it.


    2. Why does it get down to, in your own words, a zero level which is like billiard balls hitting each other, but still refer to some idea of panpschism? It just seems a category error – for example, one could say a clockwork toy is just a series of molecules interacting, which is valid but we call it a clockwork toy all the same. But obviously we don’t go down to the molecular level of the toy and having seen that, say that there is panclockworktoyism? So when we take consciousness and go down to zero level, why are we saying there’s consciousness there at zero level and panpsychism? When it comes to the clockwork toy we don’t go to level zero and say there is panclockworktoyism there.

      Like the notion of a clockwork toy breaks down at the raw molecule to just a bunch of molecules interacting, why doesn’t consciousness break down for you at the raw molecule level? As much as clockwork toys are just an idea rather than an actual thing, why isn’t consciousness coming up as just an idea? Too much of a matrix moment to consider oneself virtual rather than an actual thing?


      1. That is a very good question. See my most recent reply to Mike above for part of the answer. So to put my concept in terms of clockwork toys, I would ask what is the minimal requirement for something to be “clockwork”? What do all clockwork toys have in common? Gears?

        When I asked that question about conscious events I got “interaction with the environment”.



        1. The idea of a ‘clockwork toy’ doesn’t unravel for you? That there is no minimum requirement any more than there is a minimum requirement for a unicorn or dragon? Where would that minimum requirement come from itself, for example? Doesn’t any answer to that apart from ‘It’s just a made up requirement’ seem less than plausible?


    3. James,

      If molecules interactive make a psycule, and I’m made of of trillions of them, to what extent do these form part of the consciousness I’m aware of in myself?

      From another perspective, take solipsism. If solipsism is true, are we separate solipsist minds? Or is there just one mind – mine – and what you perceive as your conscious mind is in fact just one part of mine that I have invented for amusement?

      Back in this world, why does my conscious awareness not seem aware of all the psychules of which I’m composed? Not only that, why can’t I communicate in an aware manner with other subsystems? My liver has many psychules in it, yet we don’t seem to be ‘consciously’ talking to each other. In fact, our interaction seems very non-conscious.

      What about me and my pet? He’s made up of many psychules, that form more complex psychules, that form more compex psychules … that form him. But we interact. Is that interaction yet another psychule?

      It sounds very much to me that you have simply taken all of basic physics (and its more complex description as chemistring, and biology) and slapped on the label psychule, for no beneficial purpose. None of the psychules you describe bear any resemblance to what we have cusomarily called consciousness.

      And still, psychules don’t explain anything new about ‘consciousness’ of humans that we didn’t have already.

      It seems to be far more sensible to me to adopt materialism as a fair working descrption of the world. A human brain is just some such stuff, but happens to operate with the following characteristics:

      1 It interacts with the world, both as inputs and outputs.

      2 It processes in complex ways the information it receives, in deep-time feedback, such that it acquires a consistency, an identity, that can be recongised by other such systems.

      3 It observes its own processes to a high level degree (when we think we cannot ‘feel’ our individual neurons ticking).

      4 It observes itsself observing – it is not only self aware of its own body (forehead spot test) but also observes, is aware of its own brain processes.

      5 It has some limited authonomous control of its own brain processes – it can direct its own thinking.

      6 But ALL of that operates within the bounds of basic physics. No conservation law is broken. Astral planing and other hocus pocus is nothing more than appearances, illusions. Just as an optical illusion can make wtwo identical lines appear to be different lengths, so the closed eyed ‘mental’ processes can give the illusion of an ‘expansion’ of consciousness, but not any actual physical transcendence outside the brain.

      In fact it sounds very much like a religion: invent a notion, and then, using wishful thinking, look to explain everything that already has other adequate explanations, in terms of this imaginary phenomenon.

      I don’t see any evidence of consciousness being anything other than a behavioural problem: how very complex systems behave when they have enough internal feedback mechanisms to perform high level processing of high level processing processes …


      1. Ron, there is much too much here to respond to. My view is very much a materialistic view, thus “naturalistic panpsychism” as opposed to the “pandualism” which Mike describes in the original post.

        You haven’t completely grasped the relation between psychules and agents, as evidenced by statements like “My liver has many psychules in it”, but you are forgiven for this. It took some back and forth with Mike before he got it. See the discussion above.

        Any grouping of matter can be considered an “agent”. It’s just that we tend to be interested only in certain groupings that are useful, such as individual human beings. And for any agent, we’re interested in the psychule repertoire of that agent. So considering myself (the person wrapped in this skin), I have a certain repertoire of psychules (inputs and outputs, the agent remaining the same) which does not include responding intelligently to questions posed in Italian. Now when you consider the combination of me and my smartphone as the agent, my psychule repertoire expands considerably and includes those questions in Italian.

        Now you raise the issue of your “self” and your “mind” as if that’s exactly one thing. Damasio has recognized at least three selves in a person, and the self you are referring to is almost certainly what he calls the autobiographical self. That is the self that has access to language, and memories, and thoughts, etc. My theory says there is a specific agent that can be identified with that self, and that agent is a specific subset of your brain. My speculation is that the agent responsible for the autobiographical self is the thalamus and basal ganglia. For this agent, the entire neocortex is environment: the source of inputs and the target of outputs. Mike believes, I think, based on prior discussions, that parts of the prefrontal cortex should be included as part of that agent as opposed to being the environment. But my main point here is that this question is a scientifically testable question, and is best posed in terms of agents and psychule repertoires.



        1. I agree there might be multiple ‘selves’, but this becomes circular with the definition of a ‘self’. Are these other ‘selves’ aware of themselves as distinct selves? Or is it that neuroscience can identify partly autonomous sub-systems.

          In fact the language of ‘systems’, including ‘sub-systems’ is already well developed in a number of disciplines – particularly in control system engineering.

          Until you get to animals, from biology, and into AI as it develops, I’m not sure I see any justification for the prefix ‘psych’ to any of it – and certainly no evidence of anything they could remotely be considered ‘psych’ in ‘panpsychism’.

          I see ‘psych’ as being a prefix for a set of systems that are self-aware at least, and self-aware of their self-awareness with some autonomous control over the physical process, from a high level ‘executive’ perspective.

          Again, I can’t control specific neurons intentionally simply by thinking. I can engage in thoughts that indirectly cause a limb to move, but I have no conscious control or feeling of the individual neurons involved.

          It seem this apparent separation of ‘thoughts’ and action that has given us the whole notion of ‘mind’, which with lots of uninformed speculation over millennia has resulted in a range of mistaken ideas: soul, mind, life after death, ghosts, gods … and panpsychism.

          I find zero evidence to support any of it. So it amounts to speculative philosophy at best, woo when someone like Deepak Chopra starts to peddle it and make money from it.


    4. For what it’s worth, on further thought, I may be willing to relinquish my claim to panpsychism. [I’ve only had that claim for a few months after all]. While I still think the psychule is the basic unit of events, it may be reasonable to consider consciousness-related events to be a strict subset of psychules, just as organic molecules are a strict subset of molecules. I would then propose the criteria to identify consciousness-related events as those events involving information processing.

      Thanks for the discussion.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the post Mike. I don’t see any need to pick a single definition of consciousness. Some philosophers use “simple consciousness” for levels 1-3, and “self consciousness” for the full 5, and I’d like to see that catch on. And I must say that, in my humble opinion, most of the joy of human life leans little on level 5. (Except as a means to other ends.) And the bat may not know what it’s like to be a bat, but its life can still go well or badly – for the bat. The lights are on and somebody’s home in the bat, even if those lights aren’t shining reflexively on the bat.

    Metacognition isn’t really implied in the concept of consciousness, any more than consciousness is implied in the concept of a tree. We can’t recognize a tree without consciousness, but that doesn’t mean we need to associate consciousness with trees. We shouldn’t make the parallel mistake about metacognition and (simple) consciousness either.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Paul. I agree that picking one definition isn’t necessary. In my mind, it’s more important to understand the levels. I’ve seen the lower levels referred to as “sensory consciousness” and the upper level as “self awareness”, although the last term conflates perception of one’s body and life with perception of one’s thoughts, a subtle but crucial distinction.

      But I suspect metacognition may be very entangled in our version of consciousness, not just when we’re being explicitly introspective. It means we have to be careful about projecting our own experience on other animals. When you say “the lights are on” in a bat, what do you mean by that? What’s the mechanism of the light? Who’s seeing what it illuminates? The bat? If it doesn’t have metacognition, what light are we talking about? What gives it a light that a self driving car doesn’t have?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Lights are on” just means the bat has sensory consciousness. The self-driving car has some functionally similar properties, but I care more about the bat’s psychology because it’s more like the other psychologies (human) that I care about. It’s an anthropocentric view, but we’re anthropos – where else should we be centered?

        Since words are invented by human beings and there are many fewer words than objects or properties in the universe, it makes sense to use words to pick out the things we care about. That includes the word “consciousness”.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Definitely we’re going to feel more sympathy toward a fellow living thing than we would toward a self driving car, which doesn’t ask for our sympathy or care about its own survival. I think that’s another part of our intuition of consciousness. The show Westworld’s view of consciousness, similar to most AI fiction, seems to be focused primarily on this aspect.

          On “light’s on”, I’m not sure sensory consciousness matches most people’s intuitive meaning of that phrase. I suspect it inherently means consciousness like we have it, including metacognition. At least that’s the result I get when I introspect my own feeling of it 🙂


          1. On html tags, it does, if you decide the effort is worth it. 🙂

            There’s a lot of material at that link. I address one of the studies below, but let me know if there’s another one that is more relevant?

            The folk psychology of consciousness one tested what behavior caused people to attribute consciousness to something. I’ll grant that people’s intuition of another consciousness is easy to trigger. We once saw consciousness in rivers, storms, volcanoes, and all sorts of other phenomena. But I wasn’t referring to what triggers people’s intuition of another consciousness, but their intuitive sense of what is in that consciousness.

            I think once people intuit that there is a consciousness there, they instinctively project their own experience of consciousness on it. The human experience of consciousness includes self reflection, I suspect whether we’re currently conscious of that self reflection or not. I can’t see that we can turn it off, except maybe with deep sleep, anesthesia, or brain damage. Indeed, we seem to categorize any cognition that happens outside of the view of that self reflection, that metacognition, as the subconscious, no matter how sophisticated it might have been. Where does that leave an entity that doesn’t have that self reflection? (I’m not asking to be argumentative, but to try to see if there are aspects of this I’m missing.)


          2. Thanks Mike. I had somewhat misunderstood your claim, then. I still think that in the everyday conception, experience is one thing, meta-thoughts about experience are another. But the experiments either haven’t been done yet, or I haven’t dug them up.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Like I gave in an example of in another post, if you take the idea of a clockwork toy and go down to the molecular level, it’s just molecules in a particular patter. There is no essential ‘clockworktoyism’ amongst the molecules and no one would expect anyone to think there is some essential clockworktoyism amongst the molecules. But we have consciousness and…there’s some notion if we go down to the molecular level, that for some reason although we wouldn’t attribute clockworktoyism at that level, it somehow makes sense to attribute consciousness/panpscyhism at that level?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hear hear! I like to use the metaphor of cherry pie, instead of clockwork toy, because it leads to the delicious pun of “cherry pions” at the micro-level. And I call it the “cherry pion fallacy.” That’s more fun than “fallacy of division” and “fallacy of composition”, and anyway we’re talking about a particular sub-genre of those traditional fallacies.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Well said. It’s the organization, the structure, that makes a clockwork toy, not it’s lowest level components.

      On mind copying and children, a lot of people see their children as their chance at immortality. But your child won’t have your childhood memories. They won’t feel like they are you, and may or may not have your philosophy and attitudes. Your copy will, at least at the beginning. If I’m my deathbed, the copy seems more like survival to me than children.

      But in the future, copying yourself might come with serious responsibilities similar to having a child. The copyer will likely be legally required to ensure the the copyee has the resources they need to survive and move forward. Which raises the possibility of deadbeat copyers.


      1. But your child won’t have your childhood memories.

        I don’t think the copy will, either. If I take the mona lisa and molecular 3d print a copy, it’s not the mona lisa. Nor is a copy of childhood memories 3d printed the original memories.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. So, I’m sure you’ve heard before that all the atoms in the brain get recycled every few years Ship of Theseus style, meaning our childhood memories are already copies of the long lost originals. (At my age, copies of copies of copies…) Or would you say there’s a difference between gradual versus wholesale copying?


          1. Nope, I’ve heard the brain stops growing at about age 20, so the whole ‘your body is replaced every 7 years’ thing seems one of those folk sayings along with ‘you only use 10% of your brain, what if you used the full 100%!?’ notions.

            People with brain damage don’t find that after a few years the damaged areas are ‘recycled’ and replaced. How do you know you’re being replaced so thoroughly, when the brain can’t regenerate from brain damage?

            I will say that I’ve heard accessing memories requires rewriting those memories. But it’s still the same issue – if the mona lisa was mechanical, it wont be the mona lisa if you print off a copy of those mechanics.


        2. You’re right that neurons don’t turn over like many of the other cell types in the body (although apparently adults can grow a limited number of new neurons in the hippocampus), but each neuron is still doing ongoing maintenance and repair. Memories are encoded by synapses, which form in the neural membrane. Those membranes are constantly recycling their proteins, lipids, and overall molecular machinery.

          On brain damaged patients, they generally can’t replace damaged or destroyed neurons, but they can rewire the synapses between the existing ones, which is why many of them can often regain some lost functionality. Rewiring the synapses involves growing or discarding their molecular components.

          “How do you know you’re being replaced so thoroughly, when the brain can’t regenerate from brain damage?”
          The earliest evidence came from scientists in the 50s injecting people with radioactive particles. Due to their radioactivity, they were able to track the population of particles as they became thoroughly embedded in the people’s biology, and then observe as 98% of them, along with the surrounding atoms, were cycled out over the course of a year. This is corroborated by modern microbiology, which has learned a lot about how cells work including the cycles of repairing and replacing cellular components.

          And you’re right, even aside from all that, the information that makes up the memories are constantly in flux. A lot of it is because the linked concepts change over time. For instance, my memory of a childhood event involving a car is going to be altered by the way my conception of cars has changed over the decades.

          We are information, dynamic information that is constantly being copied. We just haven’t had to deal with two complete copies being around at the same time before.


  5. In my opinion panpsychism should be an explanation of last resort. We are not at the end of science and scientific discovery yet. The next 100 years will clear up a lot of things about the brain of course. But what is the fun of just waiting. We can talk and have interesting discussions about consciousness now.
    But I’m not going to accept panpsychism as an explanation in my lifetime yet. Unless science really discovered otherwise.
    Also Sean Carol outright rejected panpsychism. I’m not a physicist but it had something to do with degrees of freedom and if matter was also happy or sad, in other words have an extra degree of freedom, no physics would work the same as it would now. So saying that you are a poetic naturalist panpsychist is maybe to say you are a religious atheist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally agree that we shouldn’t reach for last resort explanations yet. It’s why I’ve grown leery of the emergence explanation. I also see it as an explanation of last resort, one we shouldn’t reach for until we’ve isolated things down to that explanation, as has been done for the relationship between thermodynamics and particle physics.

      I really need to read Sean Carroll’s latest book. A lot of people are discussing it’s contents, and I’m increasing getting the feeling that I’m missing out.


  6. Hi Mike,

    I enjoyed this post and finding your own trackback to the previous on the subject. In this piece I particularly enjoyed your observation about naturalistic panpsychism being ontologically equivalent (maybe with inverse coloring) to apscychism. I think there is something really interesting about that apparent unification, as for me truth and paradox are often lurking nearby to one another.

    The equivalence you’ve noted seems like it is a specific case example of the larger idea that everything and nothing are not distinguishable from one another. Everything we’re attempting to describe is somewhere in between the two, and yet there is nothing that is truly discrete and so if we follow all the threads we end up back at everything and nothing. For a definition of consciousness to be useful it’s got to draw a line somewhere between everything and nothing, and that is really not easily done. I think in part that’s because everything in the middle is related to a whole bunch of other things in the middle, in such a way that drawn lines fracture the whole in some way, and we understand that. Examples at the extremes are easy: the rock should be on one side of the line, the human on the other. It gets stickier the closer we get to a practical definition.

    So a useful definition of consciousness is inherently a relational one: it can only function through an act of comparison, through defining layers of phenomena and differences between them that only ever come into being in temporarily existing systems. They are never manifest absolutely.

    We might ask ourselves if existence is real, and in an effort to answer that ask ourselves what it means to exist. We could come up with all kinds of definitions: existence is the ability to cause an effect, or existence is what it means to be perceivable by other beings, or we might suggest existence in another being’s mind, as memories or dreams, is a form of existence, or even in a computer simulation provided certain parameters are met. But in all these definitions we’d find ourselves needing to draw that line we’re going to call existence somewhere in the middle between everything that exists and nothing exists. Which means a defined existence is always relational and dependent upon conditions that exist in one case but not in another, none of which are really permanent. Is temporary existence truly existence? I guess it all depends on the definition, but I think it would be difficult, like it is with consciousness, to draw a consistent and clear line between existence and non-existence.

    We might be left with the unsatisfactory conclusion that the only thing that reallyexists is everything–or equivalently nothing. We won’t like that, so we’ll go for something in the middle. But is it dualism to suggest that everything/nothing, and the world of the in-betweens, cannot exist except mutually? Is it dualism to suggest that dimensionlessness and dimensionality cannot exist, except as one “with” the other? And if this is so, much of this argument about panpsychism boils down to a special case of the larger problem of trying to treat the in-betweens to the exclusion of the everything/nothing, and vice versa. Another example might be, can there be a system of numbers without zero and infinity? Or, if we were all uploaded into the computer, what would the consciousness of the computer be?

    I do think some form of awareness is everything/nothing, and that all differentiable forms of consciousness take place in-between it. But this of course, is not very useful either. It will never be useful to try and resolve an absolute with the relative, but this is I think what we are trying to do. It is perfectly acceptable to focus on the relative, but I agree it will not be helpful as a way of explaining either for or against anything that may exist absolutely.

    Which of course is nothing at all.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Michael. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed your comment!

      On everything and nothing, my feeling is that whenever we’re trying to understand a concept and our current attempt at that understanding is leading us to say it’s everything, that we’ve encountered a situation where either that thing doesn’t actually exist, that it can be explained with other generic terms we have for labels for already, such as “thing”, “object”, “system”, etc, or that we still don’t really understand the concept.

      With existence, I agree that the word “exist” must, by its nature, be used relatively. Or it must be qualified, just as the words “good”, “bad”, or many other terms have to be. So we can talk about something physically existing, or mathematically existing, or existing in our imagination, but if we try to pretend that “exist” means the same absolute thing in each of those circumstances, it seems like we’re obscuring rather than clarifying.

      Ultimately, a huge proportion of reality depends on our interpretation of it. If we insist only on absolutes, then there may be nothing more that fermions, bosons, and the patterns they form, and even those might eventually turn out to be our interpretation of strings, branes, or some other underlying reality. Many people find this distressing, especially when they grasp that it pertains to things like consciousness, morality, and many other cherished concepts.

      Personally, I find it interesting. But I’m weird. For consciousness in particular, after preparing this blog post, I’m leaning toward equating it with metacognition, but I fully realize that metacognition itself is something that will be open to interpretation. Can’t get away from it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re not weird, Mike. If you are, then somewhere along the way the definition of weird picked up a few nuances it didn’t used to harbor, like thoughtful and concerned and good… For me, I can’t imagine fermions and bosons (my spellchecker strongly prefers bison) as absolutes. But you’ve reminded me of one of the ideas of Lee Smolin from that last, wild chapter of a physics book when conjecture is tolerated, and he said there was a way to reframe the physics so that there was only one particle in the whole universe. Something like that. Don’t quote me on it b/c it’s been a while. But that would be as close as I could imagine a tiny blob of energy as being absolute!


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks Michael. Maybe weird was the wrong word, since I didn’t mean to invoke any necessarily negative connotations. But I’m grateful for your kind words.

          I’ve heard variations of that Lee Smolin idea from other physicists. Sean Carroll has described the entire universe as having a single quantum wave function, which sounds like the same thing as Smolin’s single particle. My reaction to that is that I think any single wave function or particle would have to have a universe of complexity within it, so it might come down to where we decide that one particle / wave ends and another begins.

          In some ways, it might be easier to think of the universe as information, with what we normally call particles or waves being differentiations that encode information. Whether we consider any one differentiation as a particle or a detail of a larger particle or wave might be a matter of semantics.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderful post Mike, and for me it was quite timely as well. The day it came out I was already considering how to approach an article about a paper from Erik Hoel over at Massimo’s site. One of the co-authors was none other than the famous panpsychist Giuliano Tononi, which after reviewing your post made this association simple for me. Hoel’s theory is that a seperate form of causality emerges by means of macro structures, thus explaining consciousness and all sorts of strange stuff. He even claims to have the math to back this hocus pocus up! (Of course it’s impossible for math alone to back up any real world phenomena.)

    It was also nice to be able to give your post a plug over there ( Similarly for anyone here who isn’t familiar with professor Pigliucci, you might enjoy checking out my link above to his site. He’s a notable biologist who then became a notable philosopher, and he’s been an extremely active blogger and podcaster from the early days of it.

    The strange thing is that I believe you’ve mentioned Giuliano Tononi to be of the naturalistic form of panpsychist, when I presume Erik Hoel to be of the pandualist variety given that he theorizes a second form of causality that emerges in macro structures. I’m starting to feel that sensible thought is being outnumbered today by both supernaturalists (Hoel), as well as general failure in epistemology (Tononi).

    I do have plenty of substantial things to say about this post as well, though I thought that I’d start off this way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Eric! I’m grateful for the plug. Definitely agree that people should check out Massimo’s blog.

      To be honest, I’m not sure where Tononi himself falls between pandualism and naturalistic panpsychism. IIT, taken by itself, seems like an inherently naturalistic panpsychist theory. In it, anything that integrates information is conscious, with the amount of consciousness correlated to the degree of information integration. I probably slotted Tononi into the naturalistic camp based on his interaction with Scott Aaronson when Aaronson pointed out that IIT would classify a complex circuit board as conscious. Tononi’s reply was along the lines of, yes, yes it would, and that he saw that as feature rather than a flaw.

      But that paper definitely sounds like it has a pandualistic perspective. In truth, a lot of pandualists use naturalistic panpsychist arguments, depending on the forum and context. But get them talking long enough, and the pandualism starts to become evident.

      I suspect many pandualists would object to the distinction I make in the post. They would argue that pandualistic language is just a different perspective on naturalistic panpsychism. But in my mind, once they start talking about new but undetectable fundamental forces or alternate causal frameworks, they are making ontological propositions. I agree with you that it often amounts to describing the supernatural but obscuring it with language. If they claim these concepts follow from naturalistic panpsychism, then I think that assertion should be justified.

      I’d love to see any other thoughts you have on the post.

      (BTW, I did get your email and do plan to read through what you sent, but want to make sure I have enough quiet time to do it properly.)

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Mike,
      I suppose that we needn’t go on and on about something that we’re so agreed upon. Next would be to ask how things might be improved? Here we can describe what it is that founds our convictions, and so hope to propagate such sentiments in general. This is my take:

      As you know I have tremendous respect for René Descartes, the worlds first great (?) academic dualist. Notice that unlike the backhanded academic supernaturalists that we see today, he was quite plain about his position. But given how extensively the institution of science has demonstrated the merits of causality since the time of Descartes, I choose naturalism. Magic has slowly been evaporating due to this advance, though it’s still perceived in areas such as consciousness that remain highly speculative. (Note how much sense this makes!)

      Even the physics community is apparently not immune against the seduction of magical notions. Apparently we must measure very small things as either particles or waves, but because matter seems to exist as neither but rather both at once, a basic uncertainty is displayed in our measurements that we apparently cannot overcome. That’s fair enough in a causal universe, but most physicists today go beyond the uncertainty that’s displayed here to metaphysically speculate that there must then be a void in causality itself! Thus here they theorize two kinds of stuff — the regular causal variety, as well as another that doesn’t apply. So even in the “hardest” science we resort to magicical notions once things get sufficiently strange to us. At least the great Albert Einstein was not arrogant enough to believe that we idiot humans somehow understand.

      Regarding naturalistic panpsychism, I suspect that my first principle of epistemology will some day help straighten this out. People currently seem to believe that consciousness is something which exists to be discovered. No, no, no! Consciousness is nothing more than a humanly fabricated term that doesn’t otherwise “exist”. So define it as you like, and with full assurance that you can’t possibly be wrong. The only question is, have you developed a useful definition? Thus when people throw around all sorts of complex information integration notions and whatnots, they simply can’t be providing us with useful consciousness definitions. What they’re instead doing is unwittingly exploiting modern failure in the field of epistemology, since in practice it’s thought that there’s a true definition out there to be discovered.

      I have developed what I consider to be an extremely useful model of mind, non-conscious mind, and conscious mind. Furthermore as an architect I provide absolutely no account of how such a machine is physically built. Nevertheless finally achieving a useful model for this idea should be crucial for psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists and so on to effectively do their jobs. Then at that point it should become effective for neuroscientists to move in and say, “Okay given that we finally have useful definitions to consider, can we make neurological sense of this?” To effectively service ourselves we will need useful models of our nature — the rest is cake.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Eric,
        I do remember your high regard for Descartes. I actually have a high regard for him myself. I think he was wrong about some things, but given how early in the scientific age he lived, he did an amazing job figuring things out. And if I didn’t know about cells (much less neurons), electricity, or computation, the idea that the mind is a physical system might look implausible to me too. And it’s worth remembering that he’s the same guy who came up with Cartesian mathematics and astronomical insights.

        I’m less harsh in my judgment of the physics community. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re as fully capable of chasing butterflies as anyone. But quantum physics has been puzzling everyone since the 1920s, and the one thing we can say about it is that trying to apply classic physical rules to it simply doesn’t work. No matter which interpretation you favor, you’re forced to give up some fundamental aspect of how the world is supposed to work. It’s why I’m mostly agnostic now on interpretations until we get more evidence or someone can come up with a testable one.

        On the conscious vs non-conscious mind, I’m working my way back to thinking that the real distinction is introspection. If we can introspect something, it is within consciousness, if we can’t, it’s in the subconscious or non-conscious realm. This seems to imply that consciousness is introspection or metacognition, whether we’re currently introspecting about our introspection or not. But its power only comes from all the other layers (simulations, attention, perception, etc) it’s built on. It might be bringing me back to a pretty tight outlook on what is conscious.

        BTW, the article amanimal highlighted below is well worth checking out. It suggests that a more accurate name for humans might be homo-prospectus.

        Liked by 1 person

    3. Mike,
      I’m actually accusing the physics community of far worse than simply chasing butterflies. I’m accusing it of not effectively interpreting Heisenberg’s wonderful Uncertainty Principle, and so (it seems to me) gleefully disrespecting the greatest physicist who ever lived. (Here I mean Einstein. Heisenberg obviously was great, though I consider him to have also misinterpreted the nature of his own principle.)

      A couple of years back a physicist at Massimo’s site did publicly take exception to my QM perspective, but mostly stopped commenting afterwards. Since then when I’ve brought this matter up I’ve noticed that other known physicists there suspiciously say nothing at all. If it’s my own perspective that happens to be off, then why not publicly straighten me out? Given my high esteem for Sabine Hossenfelder over at Backreaction, I suppose that I should ask her about this. In the meantime if you or others here have some thoughts about my position, then please do let me know.

      Again it seems to me that even though we humans interpret matter as either particles or waves, that’s not exactly right. Therefore the more perfectly that we try to measure something in one way or the other, the more confounded that we become. It’s kind of like using a tape measure to record time. I don’t believe that my perspective gives anything up, but rather that it emphasizes something which I’d rather us not forget — we’re quite ignorant about reality.

      Conversely as I understand it the physics community believes that a fundamental violation to causality itself must be what explains the uncertainty found in our measurements. Of course this metaphysics may be correct — like Cartesians solipsism I’m not imprudent enough to pass judgment. Nevertheless this explanation is inherently dualistic, and even though physicists generally like to consider themselves monists.

      Given the amount of time that the physics community has trashed the name of Albert Einstein in this regard, I’d like to see the following happen. I’d like for this community it to either change its QM interpretation to the one that I’ve mentioned above, as well as apologize for defaming their greatest theorist, or formally state that that it instead endorses a dualistic position.

      Regarding your tight outlook for consciousness, just note that if you do go the full “metacognition” route, then you seem to be classifying our pets and all sorts of things that we sympathize with, to be either subconscious or non-conscious. Of course I do support your definitional freedom to do so, though you might find it more useful to be a bit less stringent and then use a separate way to distinguish “us” from “them”.

      You’ve mentioned symbolism several time here in this regard, and this is where I like to make this distinction. From here other animals can be conscious, though without a symbolic form of thought. This is also where I like to distinguish the human from its hominid ancestors — by definition they didn’t have the tool of language at their disposal. Furthermore it disturbs me to say that a modern “feral child” has no consciousness, though I don’t mind saying that it has no ability to think abstractly, or thus the capacity for metacognition.

      Regarding the article that Amanimal has offered, it would seem that he has the same interests that Professor Pigliucci has — this was one of Massimo’s recent weekend suggestions. I enjoyed it then as now. Still to really address it properly I must get pretty deep into my theory. This can get confusing given that only I have a full grasp of my models. Still I will say that the article seems to demonstrate that the scientific community is moving in my direction.

      I’ll also say that technically I define consciousness to concern present rather than future (or past) states of being. It’s the positive feeling of present hope about the futute, as well as the negative feeling of present worry about the futute, that motivate us to do what we do. Also they mentioned evidence that children aren’t able to imagine future scenes until they’ve gained the ability to recall personal experiences, which seems to happen between the ages of 3 and 5. I’ll say that it isn’t their mastery of memory that gives children this ability, but rather their mastery of language. And I would hope that this tends to occur at more like 3 years than 5!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Eric,
        On the physics community, I think it’s worth noting that they don’t all agree on the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics. A plurality still favor Copenhagen, but not a majority.
        Some do favor deterministic interpretations. Of course that determinism comes at a price, locality in one interpretation, a definite singular history in another, etc.

        I’d be careful about idolizing Einstein. Yes, he was a brilliant physicist, but he wasn’t infallible. He couldn’t accept an expanding universe until it was forced on him, because it implied a beginning to the universe, a metaphysical complication he didn’t want to wrestle with. He discovered entanglement, but thought it was a reductio ad absurdum against quantum physics, but now we know that entanglement is real, and it’s used in quantum computing. But my main point here is that no thinker gets everything right. That’s too high a standard to set for any human being.

        On my outlook for consciousness, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that mammalian pets aren’t conscious. As I noted in the post, testing for metacognition is very difficult. When an animal passes a rigorous test for it, that means they probably have some form of it, but failure to past the test doesn’t guarantee they don’t have it since there may be confounding variables.

        But it does raise the probability that they are far less conscious than we intuitively perceive them to be. We regard anything that happens in our brain that we can’t be aware of to be outside of consciousness. What does that mean for an animal that has a much smaller capacity for being aware of its own experience, or none at all?

        I think I’ve noted before that I made up my mind years ago to pursue truth, even if the implications aren’t pleasant. I won’t shy away from it here because of the pets I’ve had and loved over the years. But I’m also not about to stop having sympathy for dogs, cats, or other animals if they don’t have metacognition. I’m just not cold enough for that, even if their experience of suffering ends up being nothing like ours.

        On feral kids, I think they are conscious. Yes, they may have missed a critical development period for picking up language, but I don’t think language is required for consciousness, even the human variety. What is required is metacognition. Our degree of metacognition may be what makes symbolic thought possible, and a specific application of symbolic thought is language. But language being absent shouldn’t negate all the underpinnings.

        The question of when language and symbolic thought started in human evolution is a controversial one. Some archaeologists insist that the evidence for it only goes back around 50,000 years, long after anatomically modern humans came on the scene, but I think there’s enough evidence to push it back to ~160,000 years. Paleo-anthropologist John Hawks has pointed out that part of the problem may be that the older material evidence just hasn’t lasted. All we can say for sure is that since chimpanzees don’t have symbolic thought to any significant degree, it had to happen sometime after our lineages diverged 6-7 million years ago.

        Liked by 1 person

    4. Mike,
      Well I didn’t mean to imply the Einstein was always right, and that goes for Descartes, and that goes for myself. My point however is that if reality is not ultimately determined, then this mandates that there is both causal stuff and non-causal stuff out there. I’m aware that many if not most physicists today accept quantum indeterminacy in an ontological sense (rather than the simple epistemological sense) but do not also accept the title that goes along with it, or dualism. I can’t say that they’re wrong about this, though I would like them to be open about the nature of their beliefs. From my physics courses back in the 90s I recall being told of “natural uncertainty”, as if phrasing it this way would counter a supernatural element. It doesn’t.

      I’d be interested in your take on the costs associated with determinism? I’m currently under the impression that this position is not only parsimonious, but that it merely sacrifices flawed human notions such as ultimate freewill.

      Regarding your recent metacognition requirement for consciousness, I fully support your right to define the term this way. Here something needn’t be conscious to justifiably be given sympathy however, since sentience will then clearly exist both inside and outside the realm of the conscious. So don’t worry if a pet isn’t conscious from one particular definition of the term — it will warrant sympathy as long as it’s sentient. Most of us presume sentience to life such as mammals, birds, reptiles, and marsupials. Personally I also suspect that fish are sentient and I wouldn’t be surprised if most insects have some level of this as well. So then would you classify sentient life which doesn’t quite reach the metacognition standard, as subconscious rather than non-conscious? That works for me anyway.

      I certainly agree that human language must have evolved well over 50,000 years ago. This just wouldn’t be enough time for language to change us into what we are today. It’s as if these scientist consider language to simply be a tool that aids communication. Well yes that may be an important use for it, though I consider language to do something far more substantial as well. I consider language as a second form of thought which is potentially far more advanced than standard thought. I’d say that the feral child can think, as can the bird, as can the fish, but obviously not by means of a natural language like English (and certainly not a language that we didn’t evolve to speak, such mathematics). To emphasize this I’ll provide a bit of evolutionary psychology of my own.

      Have you ever noticed that beyond the uniqueness of our languages in the animal kingdom, there is also the amazingly dexterous human face? Why did no other animal, including primates, develop such faces? Language it would seem, but why would language bring the need for highly dexterous facial displays? Was it simply to help us enunciate words? I suspect something more.

      Language should have brought far more complex societies, as well as the potential for us to explicitly deceive others in more effective ways. Even though this tool must have provided an amazing new form of thought, I suspect that associated deception wasn’t entirely helpful. My theory is that we evolved to automatically display extremely complex emotions through our faces, in order to help us understand the mentality people around us, as well as counter the effects of our more effective deception. This way we could get a better sense of each other, and so potentially act somewhat more appropriately.

      Of course it should have taken a while for these facial muscles evolve, which puts this speculation in line with your thought that language probably emerged much further back in our history than we’re able to confirm.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Eric,

        “I’d be interested in your take on the costs associated with determinism? I’m currently under the impression that this position is not only parsimonious, but that it merely sacrifices flawed human notions such as ultimate freewill.”

        I agree it’s parsimonious for classical physics. Assuming causality, locality, a unique history, and observer independence, in other words the mechanistic philosophy developed in the 17th century, is the simplest approach to understanding things at the macroscopic level.

        But in quantum mechanics, that paradigm frays. To explain observations, you have to throw one or more of those precepts out. Each interpretation decides which it will keep and which to throw overboard.
        Myself, I’ve started wondering if the interpretations aren’t vain attempts by us to try to squeeze quantum mechanics back into the classical mold. Ultimately, we might have to admit that our deepest intuitions about how the world works are emergent from a realm where things work very differently, and concepts like particles and waves are simply our monkey brains trying to find an analogy for something that may have no classical analogies. Not that I advocate that people stop trying, but most working physicists eventually have to say, “Shut up and calculate”, to avoid being paralyzed by the philosophical logjam.

        “Regarding your recent metacognition requirement for consciousness, I fully support your right to define the term this way.”

        Thanks, but I think I’m backing away from that now. I read another paper this morning which presented some empirical evidence that made me reconsider. This paper made a distinction between consciousness and metaconsciousness, pointing out that humans could be engaged in conscious activity but wait to reflect on it until later, but that we wouldn’t regard the activity before we reflect on it as being unconscious. The observed characteristics of that activity closely matched level 4, imagination, the simulation engine I described in the post. What this line of exploration is telling me though, is that human consciousness includes an extra layer that most animals likely don’t have in their version of consciousness, which represents a qualitative difference in how we experience the world versus how they do.

        On sentience, definitely. I think anything that can feel is going to have my sympathy to at least some degree. Its feeling may not mean to it what a similar feeling means to us, but that doesn’t mean it’s not having the sensation.

        On language, I think some of what you might be attributing to it is actually better attributed to symbolic thought overall, of which language is just one example of. Others are art, math, music, or just about any analogy or metaphor. Symbolic thought is what gives us our ability to understand things well outside of our everyday environment. It’s a capability that other animals don’t have. One that may be crucially dependent on metacognition.

        On facial expressions, I’m sure it has something to do with being a social species. As I understand it, other social species have their own emotional (or affective) cues, most of which we miss (such as smell). Human babies come out of the womb intensely interested in looking at human faces. Each species is probably prewired to perceive the cues of their respective species. Although it wouldn’t surprise me of human cues are the most complex.

        Liked by 1 person

    5. Mike,
      “Myself, I’ve started wondering if the interpretations aren’t vain attempts by us to try to squeeze quantum mechanics back into the classical mold. Ultimately, we might have to admit that our deepest intuitions about how the world works are emergent from a realm where things work very differently, and concepts like particles and waves are simply our monkey brains trying to find an analogy for something that may have no classical analogies.”

      Yes I’ll go along with that. I actually object to physicists getting into ontology whatsoever. I believe that they should consider themselves as epistemologlists, though some seem to get arrogant and fancy themselves as more. From our amazingly imperfect perspectives some decide that they understand reality itself, and then from there some even presume that the principle of causality needn’t be respected. Thus to me the “Shut up and calculate” line doesn’t seem to be a fully sufficient rebuke. Of course I agree, but it doesn’t seem to hold people accountable for the implications of their beliefs. Classifications of monism and dualism however, seem to have more bite.

      As I’ve said I consider there to be only one process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out. It takes what it thinks it knows (evidence), and uses this to test what it’s not so sure about (theory). As a theory seems to remain consistent with evidence, it tends to become nothing more than believed.

      I’m happy that an article has led you to back away from holding consciousness to the full metacognition standard. I mentioned my support for your right to make such a definition, though I personally prefer to use less stringent definitions. But yes regarding that, I consider it possible to remember existence in the conscious realm, though not in the non-conscious. Then we may take memories from past conscious experiences as inputs from which to metacognize. Still I consider conscious life in general to think about past experiences and so to reflect. This should be how conscious life learns, whether through symbolic representations or through the lesser stuff that a pet (and the human) might use.

      By language I was actually referring to symbolic thought in general. This includes the natural languages that we evolved to speak, gestures and sign language, mathematics, computer languages (if we “speak” them), and representations in general. I’m not quite as sure about art and music however, except to the extent that meaning happens to be derived from these sorts of constructs.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Eric,
        On physics, when you talk about dualism, do you mean the dualism between quantum mechanics and classical mechanics? As I understand it, quantum decoherence theory somewhat smooths that out, where it’s interaction with the environment that ends superpositions, or at least our ability to observe them, not conscious observation. There is no sharp break between the quantum realm and the macroscopic one. The macroscopic rules just emerge from all the constant decohering of superpositions. It’s why quantum computers have to be run near absolute zero Kelvin, to minimize disruption from the environment.

        On metacognition and consciousness, the paper I read was actually a chapter in the “Sage Handbook of Social Cognition”. In case anyone’s interested:

        I first read about the concept of symbolic thought in a paleo-anthropology context, where anthropologists were trying to figure out when humans developed behavioral modernity, for which symbolic thought is crucial. Note that symbolic thought is any use of symbols as a stand in for some other mental concept or concepts, whether it be other symbols or primal perceptions or actions. It includes words, numbers, music, pictures, and ornaments. Ornaments, a type of art, are actually the oldest evidence for symbolic thought. Cave art was another early sign of it, as were things like wood flutes.

        Other animals do make tools, but none of them use these kinds of symbols. It seems to be humanity’s secret sauce. It’s how we can talk about things like the big bang or subatomic particles, by relating them to more primal aspects of our direct experience. A subatomic particle is nothing like any particle we can actually visualize (such as a dust mote), but calling it a “particle” helps us conceptualize it using a metaphor, a symbol, for the actual reality, whatever it is.

        Liked by 1 person

    6. Mike,
      Actually I’m good with classical mechanics emerging from quantum mechanics. No dualism that I can see there. What I mean by dualism is a void in causality itself. This may be conceptualized as ultimate dice playing. If QM is not fully determined in the end, then it just can’t be fully causal. That implies the existence of natural stuff (the causal part) and non-natural stuff (the non causal part). Still this may reflect how things actually work so that’s not my beef. I’d simply like QM non determinists to be plain that they are thus referring to a dualistic position, or supernatural, if they happen to be speaking ontologically — this distinction needn’t be made regarding epistemological observations.

      Cheers to the Sage Handbook. I’ll have to check that out.

      I now see what you mean by art as symbolic representations. Ancient cave drawings certainly demonstrate symbolic representations, or thus language. And since those sorts of things are the only evidence we have of ancient language, we should tend to focus on that. But it could be that these early humans were using gestures such as pointing, as well as oral communication in various capacities long before our evidence is able to document. That’s actually what I’d expect.

      And yes we seem to come full circle when we notice that our terms for things like “particles” and “waves” are only symbols to help us try to understand, but nothing more. There are no true definitions. Someone recently asked me, “What the hell is an untrue definition?” which I found to be an interesting demonstration that my EP1 is a tautology. But it’s one that I don’t believe that is sufficiently appreciated — violations of it seem common. Thus I believe that my EP1 could help academia a great deal.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Very difficult stuff for me to grasp but I do think humans have self – awareness which must have evolved way back in prehistoric times.
    I know Julian Jaynes believes that the modern mind only began to appear about 3000 years ago and evolved from the bicameral brain but not many believe this. Morality must be linked to this self – judgement and the formation of the human conscience. Freud put it very neatly ‘ we are at war with ourselves ‘ . Genesis puts it neatly we should never have eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We no longer fit into an amoral universe all around us is brutality of tooth and claw. Steven Pinker points out we are not blank slates but carry a huge evolutionary baggage from the barbaric animal world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      The bicameral mind was an interesting hypothesis, but 3000 years always seemed far too recent to me for such a crucial development. If I recall correctly, it was supposed to coincide with Homer and the Odyssey, and I guess spread out from the Hellenic world.

      But that implies the ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids weren’t conscious, nor the Sumerians, which I think is hard to maintain for anyone who’s seen their art, read their inscriptions, or their (admittedly limited) literature. As you noted about prehistory, it’s also hard to maintain when looking at cave art from tens of thousands of years ago. It would also imply that primitive natives today who hadn’t received the cultural meme yet aren’t conscious, which also seems very difficult to believe.

      Self awareness is a complex topic, one that I’m thinking might need its own post in the near future. It’s very easy to confuse awareness of ones’s body with awareness of one’s thoughts. I think the first is pervasive in the animal kingdom, but the latter may only be available in humans and some primates.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Thankyou for your reply and comments I will look out for any post on self-awareness. Julian Jaynes does make the point we may well not be self -aware as much as we think since we cannot know when we are not self-aware.
    The other interesting speculation is children when do they become self-aware? and how does this happen , do we teach them the art of self-awareness? The atheist Sam Harris claims the self and free will are illusions but then goes on to use his character and will to convince us of the truth of this speculation. I m 75 and not ready to be rubbed out before I die although I do not claim to have made much of a mark.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point about us not being conscious of when we’re not conscious. We not aware of the gaps in our awareness.

      Teaching self awareness? Interesting idea. I’ve heard speculation that self awareness may be linked with language, which we undoubtedly do teach. Although I think I read somewhere that kids left alone where none of them know each other’s language tend to spontaneously create a small pseudo-language to communicate. So we teach our birth language, but the capacity for language is innate. It might be the same for self awareness. Maybe parents teach a specific cultural version of it, but some form of it will take regardless.


  10. Hi Mike, regarding layer 4, imagination/simulation:

    ‘We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment’

    Prospective psychology – interesting 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting indeed. I had totally missed that article. Thanks!!!

      One thing it doesn’t discuss is how, aside from increased intelligence, we think so far into the future. I think the answer is symbolic thought. Other animals may think about the minutes ahead, some may even have a concept of a day, but only humans have weeks, months, years, decades, etc, along with language, it gives us a mental framework to slot in our expanded understanding of the past and future. Symbolic thought seems to require metacognition, and the fact that only humans do as much as we do, may be telling us how little animals self reflect, if non-primates do it at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. the inspiration for panpsychism is to make consciousness a basic part of the natural order and not a miracle which only magically pops into existence in complex brains and then for no reason at all. William James said consciousness provides flexible means to achieve a goal. If consciousness is natural, efficacious and widespread where would we expect to find it? I speculate here:


  12. Hi Mike,
    I found this post to be very interesting and clear to the point. I feel I agree with a lot of what you have said, however, I do wonder about the ‘Imagination layer’ and whether it is necessary for operant learning. As I understand it operant learning occurs by reinforcement. An action/ behavior which leads to a reward gets reinforced (and vice versa). This appears to be purely behavioral in nature like a positive or negative feedback loop. The problem is in trying to speculate what constitutes a reward and why? In humans, we can link that to a positive feeling like happiness but what happiness is in of itself (in a phenomenal sense) is difficult to describe and work out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Fizan.

      On operant learning, I’m not as sure about it as I was when I wrote that part of the post. But my thoughts were on the characteristic that distinguishes operant learning from classical conditioning (which definitely seems purely behavioral), that the organism has to understand the consequences of an act. Understanding that act X leads to consequence Y seems like a sequence that must be thought through. Depending on the complexity of the sequence, this may not involve extensive imaginative simulations, but it does seem like it would involve at least an incipient version of it.

      From what I’ve read, happiness is a complex emotion, which is something of a constructed model in the cerebrum based on more primal subcortical reward circuits. Admittedly, the lines here are blurry.


      1. The lines do get blurry. I don’t know if the consequences are thought through because the actions aren’t planned, that’s why it’s also called operant ‘conditioning’. The processing happens more at an implicit level. For example drug users get a rush of dopamine in the reward pathway which leads to a reinforcement of the drug taking behaviour. This can start off as a normal ,thought of and planned activity but when it becomes more implicit is where the operant conditioning is happening, (like a feedback loop). The person has an intense urge and crave to do this (with reduced ability to judge the consequences) and neurological studies show a shift towards a more basal ganglia (limbic) level processing with a decrease in the pre-frontal (reflective) processing.
        In animals for example where the pre-frontal is much much smaller to begin with most of the processing is limbic anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Definitely, operant conditioning involves imagined outcomes.  There is a classic animal experiment that shows this.  Researchers trained rats in two phases.  In phase 1, rats learned to press a bar a number of times to receive a food reward.  There were 3 groups of rats; group A received 1 food pellet for this amount of work; B received 16; C received 32.  (Not sure about the exact numbers.)  In phase 2 of the training, all rats received 16 pellets per this amount of work.  Behaviorist theory predicted that group C should work the hardest, because they’ve had the most cumulative reward for the task, while group A should be less well-trained to press the bar. But no.  In phase 2, rats in group A radically increased their bar pressing work, becoming the hardest workers of all.  Why?  A natural explanation, which highlights the commonalities between our fellow mammals: because these rats were pleasantly surprised.  They got more than they expected, and that was very motivating. Later research has analyzed the brain activity of rodents trained in such tasks, and finds that when they are (by the above hypothesis) anticipating future results, memories of the past experiences are being activated – exactly as you would expect, if they are anticipating.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I think a lot depends here on whether the learning is reflexive or nonreflexive. Reflexive is going to be pretty much straight basal ganglia / limbic processing. For non-reflexive, we need to involve the prefrontal cortex and at least a smidgen of imagination.

            Looking more closely at Feinberg and Mallatt’s material on this, they specify that their criteria is:

            “Learning a global, nonreflexive operant response based upon a valenced result”

            Feinberg, Todd E.. The Ancient Origins of Consciousness: How the Brain Created Experience (MIT Press) (Kindle Locations 3664-3665). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

            It’s not clear if the “nonreflexive” label is meant synonymously or as a qualifier here. Looking at their cited papers, at least one seems to mean it synonymously.

            “Non‑reflexive (operant) measures: Measures of behaviours that require spinal‑cerebrospinal integration, which are lost after decerebration. The use of operant measures specifically requires a learned, motivated behaviour that terminates exposure to the noxious stimulus.”
            Jeffrey S. Mogil (2009). Animal models of pain:progress and challenges

            So, I’m not clear if this is talking about all operant learning which is all nonreflexive, or if they’re talking about a subset of operant learning that is nonreflexive. In any case, from now on when talking about this, I’m going to say “nonreflexive operant learning”, just to be safe.


Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.