Late last week, there was a clash between philosophers on Twitter over panpsychism. This was followed by Philip Goff, an outspoken proponent of panpsychism, authoring a blog post arguing that we shouldn’t require evidence for it. This week, Susan Schneider did a (somewhat confused) Big Think video arguing that panpsychism isn’t compatible with physics, and Annaka Harris did an interview Singularity Hub on her new book, which argues for panpsychism.
Panpsychism, the view that consciousness pervades the universe, seems to be in the air. Everyone is talking about it. Christof Koch, another panpsychist, has a new book coming out later this year, which I don’t doubt will expand on his views. And we’ve discussed David Chalmers’ fascination with it.
Panpsychism, in the dualist sense that most of these people are conceiving of it, seems to come from two conclusions. First, that conscious experience cannot be explained in terms of physics, that no explanation will ever be possible to bridge the gap between mechanism and subjective experience. As a result, experience must be something irreducible and fundamental.
And second, that there is no evidence that the physics in the brain are fundamentally different from the physics anywhere else.
If you accept these two precepts, then panpsychism seems like a reasonable conclusion. Experience is seen as a fundamental force, latent in all matter, with concentrations of it higher in some systems, such as brains.
It’s a view that’s extremely easy to strawman, to derisively talk about conscious rocks, protons, or thermostats, as though the view implies that these objects have the same kind of experience that humans or animals have. Most panpsychists would say that they’re not saying that. What they describe is an incipient level of experience, a low level quantity in most matter that exists in much higher levels in brains.
This common view seems to fit more with what Chalmers calls panprotopsychism, the view, not that consciousness pervades the universe, but that proto-consciousness does. Panprotopsychism seems in danger of just being reductionist physicalism by another name, but panprotopsychists point out that they’re not saying that experience reduces to physics, but to proto-experience, which itself remains irreducible to physics.
I personally don’t buy the first precept above, about experience not being explainable in physical terms. In my view, as I’ve explained before, the conviction arises from failing to appreciate that introspection is unreliable. Just as our senses can be adaptive but inaccurate, our inner senses can as well. Explaining why we have an inaccurate intuition of a non-reductive essence is much easier than explaining the non-reductive essence.
But if I were convinced of the first precept, I could see the appeal in panpsychism (or panprotopsychism). And I do sometimes wonder if attacking panpsychism is warranted, since if panpsychism gets people out of looking for magic in the brain, that’s a good thing. Optimistically, a functionalist and a panpsychist could bracket their metaphysical differences and then assess scientific theories about the brain together.
Except that panpsychists and functionalists often assess theories in a different manner. If you think consciousness is unexplainable and irreducible, then you’re not going to really expect scientific theories to provide a full explanation. That might be fine if by “experience” you mean something ineffable and separate from any of the contents and functionality of consciousness. But based on several conversations I’ve had, there tends to be disagreement over exactly what is and isn’t function.
I think that’s why IIT (Information Integration Theory), which doesn’t really attempt to explain functionality, seems plausible to many panpsychists. But for a functionalist, an identity theory like the strong metaphysical version of IIT, is utterly unsatisfying. A functionalist not only believes that a functional account is possible, they won’t be satisfied with anything less.
That’s aside from the fact that there’s simply no evidence for dualistic panpsychism. Goff points out that we can never observe consciousness, not even in brains, therefore, he contends, it’s unreasonable to require evidence for it anywhere else. I’m tempted to use Hitchen’s razor here, that what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without it. But it’s better to just note that consciousness is only a concept for us because we can infer it, Turing style, in some systems, and not in others.
I’ve sometimes been accused of panpsychism for noting how subjective this inference is. But I’m closer to illusionism than panpsychism, although I’ve noted before that the line between illusionism and naturalistic panpsychism may only amount to terminology preferences. (I’m also not a fan of the “illusion” label, preferring instead to say that consciousness only exists subjectively.)
Another big issue for panpsychism is that it seems to require epiphenomenalism, the idea that consciousness has no causal effects on behavior. Harris in her book seems to largely bite this bullet, although she does admit that our ability to talk about conscious experience is a problem for this view.
But she also describes what appears to be an increasingly common move from panpsychists, to point out that we don’t really know what matter intrinsically is. Maybe its intrinsic nature includes consciousness, and maybe this affects its causal properties. If so, it might allow panpsychists to evade the epiphenomenal trap.
Except this doesn’t really work. To begin with, what exactly do we mean by “intrinsic nature” when referring to matter? Matter at what level? Something’s “intrinsic” nature seems like the extrinsic nature of its components.
And physics has managed to reduce matter down to elementary particles and quantum fields. At that level, its behavior appears to rigidly follow physical laws. There’s no room for any conscious volition. Even quantum randomness smooths out to complete determinism with large numbers of events. I think this was the point Schneider was trying to make. (Although physicist Sabine Hossenfelder handled it much better a few months ago.)
So panpsychism is built on a questionable intuition (albeit one everyone troubled by the hard problem shares), lacks evidence, can skew evaluation of scientific theories, and seems to either require epiphenomenalism or has problems with physics.
From my point of view, its main virtue is in getting people out of the mindset that there’s something spooky happening in the brain. But I’m not sure if that’s enough.
What do you think? Are there arguments for dualistic panpsychism I’m missing? Or panpsychism overall?