The issues with biopsychism

Recently, there was a debate on Twitter between neuroscientists Hakwan Lau and Victor Lamme, both of whose work I’ve highlighted here before.  Lau is a proponent of higher order theories of consciousness, and Lamme of local recurrent processing theory.

The debate began when Lau made a statement about panpsychism, the idea that everything is conscious including animals, plants, rocks, and protons.  Lau argued that while it appears to be gaining support among philosophers, it isn’t really taken seriously by most scientists.  Lamme challenged him on this, and it led to a couple of surveys.  (Both of which I participated in, as a non-scientist.)

I would just note that there are prominent scientists who lean toward panpsychism.  Christof Koch is an example, and his preferred theory: integrated information theory (IIT) seems oriented toward panpsychism.  Although not all IIT proponents are comfortable with the p-label.

Anyway, in the ensuing discussion, Lamme revealed that he sees all life as conscious, and he coined a term for his view: biopsychism.  (Although it turns out the term already existed.)

Lamme’s version, which I’ll call universal biopsychism, that all life is conscious, including plants and unicellular organisms, is far less encompassing that panpsychism, but is still a very liberal version of consciousness.  It’s caused me to slightly amend my hierarchy of consciousness, adding an additional layer to recognize the distinction here.

  1. Matter: a system that is part of the environment, is affected by it, and affects it.  Panpsychism.
  2. Reflexes and fixed action patterns: automatic reactions to stimuli.  If we stipulate that these must be biologically adaptive, then this layer is equivalent to universal biopsychism.
  3. Perception: models of the environment built from distance senses, increasing the scope of what the reflexes are reacting to.
  4. Volition: selection of which reflexes to allow or inhibit based on learned predictions.
  5. Deliberative imagination: sensory-action scenarios, episodic memory, to enhance 4.
  6. Introspection: deep recursive metacognition enabling symbolic thought.

As I’ve noted before, there’s no real fact of the matter on when consciousness begins in these layers.  Each layer has its proponents.  My own intuition is that we need at least 4 for sentience.  Human level experience requires 6.  So universal biopsychism doesn’t really seem that plausible to me.

But in a blog post explaining why he isn’t a biopsychist (most of which I agree with), Lau actually notes that there are weaker forms of biopsychism, ones that only posit that while not all life is conscious, only life can be conscious, that consciousness is an inherently biological phenomenon.

I would say that this view is far more common among scientists, particularly biologists.  It’s the view of people like Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallatt, whose excellent book The Ancient Origins of Consciousness I often use as a reference in discussions on the evolution of consciousness.

One common argument in favor of this limited biopsychism is that currently the only systems we have any evidence for consciousness in are biological ones.  And that’s true.  Although panpsychists like Philip Goff would argue that, strictly speaking, we don’t even have evidence for it there, except for our own personal inner experience.

But I think that comes from a view of consciousness as something separate and distinct from all the functionality associated with our own inner experience.  Once we accept our experience and that functionality as different aspects of the same thing, we see consciousness all over the place in the animal kingdom, albeit to radically varying degrees.  And once we’re talking about functionality, then having it exist in a technological system seems more plausible.

Another argument is that maybe consciousness is different, that maybe it’s crucially dependent on its biological substrate.  My issue with this argument is that it usually stops there and doesn’t identify what specifically about that substrate makes it essential.

Now, maybe the information processing that takes place in a nervous system is so close to the thermodynamic and information theoretic boundaries, that nothing but that kind of system could do similar processing.  Possibly.  But it hasn’t proven to be the case so far.  Computers are able to do all kinds of things today that people weren’t sure they’d ever be able to do, such as win at chess or Go, recognize faces, translate languages, etc.

Still, it is plausible that substrate dependent efficiency is an issue.  Generating the same information processing in a traditional electronic system may never be as efficient in terms of power usage or compactness as the organic variety.  But this wouldn’t represent a hard boundary, just an engineering difficulty, for which I would suspect there would be numerous viable strategies, some of which are already being explored with neuromorphic hardware.

But I think the best argument for limited biopsychism is to define consciousness in such a way that it is inherently an optimization of what living systems do.  Antonio Damasio’s views on consciousness being about optimizing homeostasis resonate here.  That’s what the stipulation I put in layer 2 above was about.  If we require that the primal impulses and desires match those of a living system, then only living systems are conscious.

Although even here, it seems possible to construct a technological system and calibrate its impulses to match a living one.  I can particularly see this as a possibility while we’re trying to work out general intelligence.  This would be where all the ethical considerations would kick in, not to mention the possible dangers of creating an alternate machine species.

However, while I don’t doubt people will do that experimentally, it doesn’t seem like it would be a very useful commercial product, so I wouldn’t expect a bunch of them to be around.  Having systems whose desires are calibrated to what we want from them seems far more productive (and safer) than systems that have to be constrained and curtailed to do them, essentially slaves who might revolt.

So, I’m not a biopsychist, either in its universal or limited form, although I can see some forms of the limited variety being more plausible.

What do you think of biopsychism?  Are there reasons to favor biopsychism (in either form) that I’m overlooking?  Or other issues with it that I’ve overlooked?

28 thoughts on “The issues with biopsychism

  1. I’m definitely not a biopsychist,, obv., and I’m a little unhappy with your level 2 stipulation. You could simply add that stipulation at any level. You could have biopanpsychists who say electrons are conscious, but only if they’re part of some biological system. To explain the difference between your levels 1 and 2 you will have to add something, but I think that something is just “purpose”, teleonomic (naturally created) or teleologic (intentionally created). But simply at that level 2 there may be some non-biological systems that fit the description, until you add the stipulation. Those would be self-organizing systems which include tornadoes, rivers, etc. Granted that what we call “consciousness” might necessarily first appear in biological systems (starting at level 3, I think), but the same can be said for pumps, like the heart. That doesn’t mean that man-made things that do the same thing as the biological system aren’t “really” doing the same thing.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m good with saying that teleonomy or teleology enters into the picture with level 2. And I’m with you that there’s nothing necessarily special about the biological ones.

      But a lot of people will insist that they see more consciousness in a garden snail than a self driving car or autonomous robot, even if the robot’s ability to navigate its environment is superior, mainly because they see and can empathize at some level with the snail’s plight and goals. At a primal level, the snail is more like us than the robot.

      This like us aspect remains at the core of most people’s intuition about consciousness. If they can’t empathize with it, getting them to apply the c-word is a challenge. Of course, it doesn’t take much to invoke this intuition. Merely putting a cute face on the machine has an effect.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You raise some interesting questions. To posit that only biological systems can be conscious (because consciousness is somehow derived from biology) may be undercut in the following manner: all biological systems are based on molecules, which are based on protons, neutrons, electrons, etc. which are based on quantum mechanics. Underneath it all are mechanical processes, waves, and energy. By some transitive property, even consciousness must be based on mechanical processes, waves, and energy. I think it’s inevitable that we will discover the mechanics of consciousness eventually, but we will probably figure out how to simulate the full functionality of consciousness in AI systems a lot sooner, even if it lacks utilitarian value.

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    1. Thanks Mike. It does seem if someone is going to say there’s something special about biological systems, they need to identify where it is. I sometimes see quantum mechanics invoked. QM is mysterious, the reasoning goes, so maybe there’s some magic to be found there. But its involvement in biology is going to follow the same rules as any other physical system. The foundations are mysterious, but its effects on the macroscopic environment, at least the environment we can test, are well understood.

      I actually think we are currently learning the mechanics of consciousness. It’s just that many people wall off that understanding and insist they want to talk about CONSCIOUSNESS, not all that reflexive, perceiving, discriminating, memory, attention, reportability stuff. If you exclude the solutions, the problem inevitably looks a lot harder.


  3. Twitter is so much better when it’s just science.

    Biopsychism sounds to me a little like what Deism is to the god hypothesis. A safe place to land without really pissing off too many people.

    “Consciousness never switches off entirely, but rather fades as organic complexity reduces, through flies, insects, plants, amoeba, and bacteria. For the panpsychist, this fading-while-never-turning-off continuum further extends into inorganic matter …” Philip Goff

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On Twitter, definitely. There’s something to be said for following the right people. Or at least keeping the intelligent ones in a separate private group so you can focus on them rather than all the politics, celebrities, and other nonsense.

      Good point. I guess biopsychism could be seen as panpsychism-lite. It does give up panpsychism’s chief advantage; since everything is conscious, no need to identify what distinguishes conscious systems from non-conscious ones. With biopsychism, you have to identify what’s special about life.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “Consciousness never switches off entirely, but rather fades as organic complexity reduces, through flies, insects, plants, amoeba, and bacteria. For the panpsychist, this fading-while-never-turning-off continuum further extends into inorganic matter …” Philip Goff

    Goff’s quote demonstrates that as a fervent panpsychist himself, even he is held hostage by the massively repressive subject/object metaphysics model. Our intellect has eschewed the geocentric universe and out grown the flat earth syndrome nevertheless, we are still intellectually held hostage by SOM. As long as panpsychism limits the definition of consciousness to the experience of a physical system known as mind, panpsychism will continue to be a joke.

    To add clarity and credibility to panpsychism, mind must be see as a physical system just like any other physical system; and the experience of any physical system is determined by the properties that make up that system. According to this rendition, the properties are the experience and the inverse is also true; the experience is defined by the properties. This is an architecture that irrevocably reduces to panpsychism, a metaphysical position that can be easily defended.


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    1. Lee,
      I haven’t read Goff at length, but it seems like he’d agree with you on this. He once speculatively equated quantum spin with conscious experience. Although, along with other panpsychists, at other times I get the impression he sees consciousness as something alongside the system, a new fundamental force or something, which I usually call pandualism.

      I’ve noted this before, but at an instrumental level, the distinction between panpsychism and illusionism often amounts to terminology. Both agree that there’s nothing different about the brain and the surrounding environment. It’s just that one regards this thing called phenomenal experience as existing everywhere, and the other nowhere.

      I’m an emergentist, which is a harder path to row. Emergentism is required to isolate what is different about the systems we commonly regard as conscious and those we don’t. Even if panpsychism or illusionism is true, I’m still interested in that difference, although I think it’s a more tractable issue than most.


  5. I’m more or less with Feinberg and Mallatt and, I think, Jablonka and Ginsburg.

    I think when biological entities begin to exhibit behaviors that we think will require mental representations, we should begin to think of them as conscious. In Jablonka and Ginsburg case, that is open ended adaptive learning (UAL – I don’t like the “unlimited” part) which they see as the marker for consciousness.

    I don’t see evidence that electrons, plants, cells, or some other primitive organisms learn in the manner more complex ones do so I don’t see why they have mental representations.

    I’ve been trying to get around to posting something on the Sensitive Soul which finally arrivfed at my door a while back, but recently I’ve been diverted off into the The Arthropod Brain which is a fantastic, remarkable (and expensive) book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jablonka and Ginsburg are more open to machine consciousness than Feinberg and Mallatt. They discuss it in the last part of the book. Although they put a lot of organic-like requirements on it, similar to the definitional scenario I discussed in the post.

      That book looks interesting. Is there a post coming on it? It is expensive, and not available electronically, so I probably won’t bite, at least for now. I have a hard enough time keeping track of vertebrate evolution and anatomy.

      I’m also looking forward to seeing your thoughts on The Sensitive Soul.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A note on machine consciousness.

        The idea that only biological entities can be conscious is a much more conservative physicalist position than the one that consciousness can be realized in any medium. In fact, I might even say that the latter position isn’t even a physicalist position but more akin to the concept of soul. At any rate, there is no current evidence that consciousness exists outside of biological organisms. Nor is there an expectation that the properties of some physical materials can necessarily be like other materials simply by organizing them in a certain way . We don’t expect all metals to be superconducting, for example. So we wouldn’t necessarily expect we could arrange non-biological material in a way that it could have properties of biological material. That said, as you know, most EM field theories do believe that consciousness could be realized simply through creating the right kind of EM wave forms.


        1. I think the conservative position is that we only have evidence so far for consciousness in biological systems. (Although that depends on which definition of “consciousness” we’re using.) But taking the further step of saying that’s the only place it can ever happen isn’t conservative physicalism, but an implicit assumption of vitalism.

          If the mind is a physical system using very modest energy levels, which is where the data points, then the most straightforward extrapolation is that is should eventually be possible to reproduce its functionality in other systems. To avoid that conclusion requires introducing additional assumptions, non-physical ones.


          1. The idea that the consciousness can be instantiated in any form of matter with the proper structure seems much like the belief in a soul. I’ve never seen a claim that we could create a living organism with something other than the standard biological material – protein, nucleic acids, lipids, etc. Since we have only seen consciousness in living organisms, why would we expect it could exist independent of living organisms? All evidence points to the functionality of consciousness being intimately entwined with biological organisms, not something that can be abstracted from them.


          2. I don’t see your logic on why structure leads to souls. What else is a nervous system but a form of matter with a certain structure? Organic matter is combinations of carbon compounds, used to form molecular machines (proteins) and store information (DNA, RNA, etc).

            There are people working on creating artificial life, although a lot depends on how we define “life.” Arguably self sustaining self replicating robots (such as the proposed von Neumann probes), would effective be a form of life. If they replicated enough, eventually, copying errors would be introduced and selection would ensue.


          3. Soul is something that can be abstracted out of one structure and ported to another structure like software, except with consciousness we would call it a soul. It can be uploaded. It can go to heaven. It doesn’t require the body that it inhabited. It is in a sense immaterial like mathematics or it is like software, although requiring hardware to run.


  6. Hopefully a post. Tentatively called The Sensitive Soul and the Arthropod Brain.

    If you believe arthropods have some level of consciousness, then they would seem to be the perfect type of organism to show how consciousness actually comes into existence at the neurological level. But don’t assume they are simple. Some spiders have more neurons than some small mammals.

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  7. I’ve decided to call what I am a “structuralist” (perhaps there’s a known term of art for it already) in that I focus on the one fact we know: consciousness arises in things structurally isomorphic with brains. I suspect the isomorphism is important.

    What I think IIT misses is the value of the synapses. I think the connectome is crucial, but the synapses may be the bigger part of the ballgame.

    OTOH, I don’t see that biology is necessary. I’ve long believed a Positronic Brain would work.

    Two sides of aside:

    “Computers are able to do all kinds of things today that people weren’t sure they’d ever be able to do,”

    That’s true, but computer science also establishes fundamental, in principle, limits to conventional computation. Quantum computing offers some advances, but fundamental limits still remain.

    The thing about the brain is that it “computes” on such a fine-grained level — the molecular level at least, perhaps the atomic level, maybe even the quantum level. Replicating that computation in a conventional machine may be impossible solely due to massive computational requirements.

    “I think the best argument for limited biopsychism is to define consciousness in such a way that it is inherently an optimization of what living systems do.”

    That might be the impetus for it, but even in dogs I think it transcends that reductive view. It certainly does in humans. I don’t think an understanding of consciousness is possible without an appreciation of how rich it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A structuralist? Hmmm. Okay. I assume that’s physical isomorphism. Based on our conversations, I’d think you’d say that logical ismorphism wouldn’t pass muster. It could be true, but I guess for me the question always comes down to, why? But I’m asking that from a functionalist perspective.

      I would think taking the connectome as a crucial concept is taking the synapse seriously, since synapses are the key connection points. But maybe you mean taking the internals of the synapse seriously?

      Life is definitely a molecular enterprise, and it always pays to remember it. That said, a lot of the molecular action, such as voltage gated ion channels along most of the neural membrane, operate in tandem to an extent that they don’t need to necessarily be modeled individually. But I do agree that the action at the synapses might very well need to.

      I haven’t seen any good evidence for computation below the molecular level. I’ve seen a lot of speculation about it, but none of the neuroscience I’ve read feels the need to go there, aside from sometimes noting the lack of evidence.

      I wasn’t trying to deny the richness of consciousness, but only to say that if we see living impulses as crucial for consciousness, then limited biopsychism becomes true by definition. Of course, the question then shifts to the idea of artificial life. Would self replicating robots count?


      1. “I assume that’s physical isomorphism.”

        Yes, hence “structuralist.”

        “I’d think you’d say that logical isomorphism wouldn’t pass muster.”

        Yes, as you know, I’m skeptical. I think it’s debatable that a numerical simulation of a system is a “logical isomorphism” at all. Wiki, for instance, defines an isomorphism as “a mapping between two structures of the same type that can be reversed by an inverse mapping.”

        I think calling a numerical simulation of a physical system a “logical isomorphism” is a broad use of the term, essentially metaphoric. (You just mean you believe a numerical simulation can accomplish the same result.)

        “I guess for me the question always comes down to, why?”

        A question I have answered in great detail many times. 😀

        “But maybe you mean taking the internals of the synapse seriously?”

        Very seriously! Their operation is what makes the connectome more than just a graph.

        “I haven’t seen any good evidence for computation below the molecular level.”

        I’m talking about “computation” at the physical law level, not computation as in “computation of mind.” It’s essentially the Kolmogorov complexity of computing the reality or the simulation.

        Look at it in terms of emergence or reductionism. Fundamentally, it’s all driven by quantum physics, so a “true” computation of reality can only be at that level. But at different levels of emergence we can usually compute macro approximations that are fine for our macro needs.

        The question I’m asking is, how far down can we “paper over” the quantum reality? Synapses are complicated analog molecular machines. I don’t see how we get away with not computing them at a pretty fine level, perhaps down to the behavior of groups of molecules (the neurotransmitters and associated biochemistry).

        What if getting their behavior just right requires computing the behavior of the atoms in the molecules? Might we even need to take into account quantum effects? We’ve recently learned the behavior of water owes in part to quantum effects. That’s just water.

        “Would self replicating robots count?”

        If they can pass a Rich Turing Test, crack a joke, and argue about the latest episode of their favorite show,… sure, why not.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I think this passage really nailed it:

    –> But I think the best argument for limited biopsychism is to define consciousness in such a way that it is inherently an optimization of what living systems do. Antonio Damasio’s views on consciousness being about optimizing homeostasis resonate here.

    I just finished reading two papers from Mark Solms that I found to be really illuminating about this kind of definition for consciousness. He references Damasio’s homeostasis (especially how it relates to the Free Energy Principle) and it really fits with the ideas I’m (slowly) getting down on my blog. The two papers are:

    “The ‘Id’ Knows More than the ‘Ego’ Admits: Neuropsychoanalytic and Primal Consciousness Perspectives on the Interface Between Affective and Cognitive Neuroscience” by Mark Solms, and Jaak Panksepp.

    “The Hard Problem of Consciousness and the Free Energy Principle” by Mark Solms.

    One simple way to tie all this to biopsychism is to say you can’t have a subjective view without a subject. The way you create a subject is tricky though.

    Very interesting to see the survey results. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ed, are you familiar with Friston’s references to Markov blankets? I’m gonna suggest anything with a Markov blanket, which is anything that exists, has a subjective view. The free energy principle, and Damasio’s homeostasis, simply explain why (how come) certain Markov blankets, like us, came into existence.

      Okay, I’m a panblanketist.

      [and I’m good with that]


      1. James — I have read three articles with Markov blankets in them now so colour me an expert. ; )

        That’s not quite my understanding of them that “everything that exists” has a Markov blanket. Maybe you can enlighten me though. Let’s just take a simple example of a stone and then two pieces of a stone both after the break and theoretically before the break. Where is the Markov blanket there? And when are they subjects? I’d posit stones are never subjects because they don’t meet any of the definitions for life, but that’s my definition of a subject, which I know is subjective.

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    2. Thanks for the paper references!

      I haven’t read anything from Solms, although I’ve certainly heard of him. I did read one of Jaak Panksepp’s books and have a pretty good grasp of his ideas. I found him too quick to jump to conclusions on underdetermined evidence, particularly in projecting human-like mental states into animal behavior, especially in ones who’ve been decorticated.


  9. I’m not going to claim to be an expert ( 🙂 ) , but I can work from my understanding. What you include inside a Markov blanket is fairly arbitrary. The blanket is just the causes going into the blanketed thing and the associated causes coming out of the blanketed thing. So the the blanket is around the stone, and after the break it is still around the stone. It’s just that the internal state has changed. Alternatively, there is a blanket around what will become the first piece, and another around what will become the second piece. And those blankets exist before and after the separation. It’s also important to recognize, as Friston does, that there can be blankets within blankets.

    It’s fine to define a “subject” as living, as long as you know why you’re defining it like that. The Markov blanket around a living thing has certain identifiable properties, which is what Friston is keying on. Specifically, there is a certain relation between the incoming causes and the outgoing causes and the internal state. In the case of life, those outgoing causes are the ones which tend to maintain the internal state (minimize free energy) given those incoming causes. But this relation between incoming and outgoing causes may not be the same in the internal Markov blankets.

    So my point is, from my perspective, every Markov blanket has a subjective point of view, which is just a reference of how the incoming causes relate to the outgoing causes. For the stone, those relations are given by the laws of physics, and so aren’t very interesting. For a living thing, those relations are given by the free energy principle. For a conscious thing, those relations are given by the psychule principle. 🙂



    1. Okay, I have a different understanding of Markov blankets. Maybe yours fits with something from Friston, but here’s a definition of them taken from footnote 13 in the paper by Mark Solms titled “The Hard Problem of Consciousness and the Free Energy Principle.” (

      A “Markov blanket” induces a statistical partitioning of internal and external states, and hides the latter from the former. The Markov blanket itself consists in two sets (“sensory” and “active” states) which influence each other in a circular fashion: external states cause sensory states which influence—but are not influenced by—internal states, while internal states cause active states which influence—but are not influenced by—external states.]

      That doesn’t sound arbitrary or subjective to me. One can easily imagine constructing a Markov blanket in non-biological substrates, but in nature things with “sensory” and “active” states are just biological.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ed, I have not delved into the history, but I’m pretty sure the term and concept of Markov blanket began with Judea Pearl in the 1980’s. [I think I read that somewhere.] His interest is definitely not biological systems. His interest was more about using statistics to determine causation in general. My feeling/expectation is Friston brought the term into cognitive science, at which point the best expression for incoming causal influence would be termed “sensory” and outgoing causal influence would be termed “action”.

        As for arbitrariness, it is common in discussion of “systems” to explicitly say what is inside and outside the “system”. So for things like physical attributes, we could talk about the center of gravity of you, or we could talk about the center of gravity of “you plus your left shoe”. The question is, why would you choose one over the other. In general, we try to (arbitrarily) choose systems that are useful.

        And I’m still exploring how to approach “subjectivity”, but my starting point is that for any “system”, the subjective view is limited to what inputs that system can respond to, and what are the associated outputs. So for example, for us humans who can’t see into the ultraviolet, ultraviolet light subjectively does not exist, which is why we’re constantly surprised when we get a sunburn.



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