Panpsychism makes a sneaky return

Panpsychism is the theory—or rather, a hypothesis, since there’s not a shred of evidence supporting it—that every bit of matter in the Universe is conscious in some way.  Given the lack of evidence, though, that atoms, rocks, and buckets of water are conscious, we must ask why this crazy hypothesis was proposed, and why it’s undergoing a bit of a resurgence.

I believe it’s because of the “hard problem of consciousness.” That is, so far we don’t understand how the material workings of the brain and body produce the sensations (“qualia”) that consciousness comprises. Now I’m confident that we will one day understand this, but that day is a long way off. (Matthew agrees with me in his new book on the brain.) In light of the difficulty of this problem, people have, as they are wont to do, tried to fill the gap with God or with woo. Goddies, or other dualists, posit that consciousness does not have a material origin: it is not, as Matthew and I believe, an epiphenomenon that results (or becomes possible via natural selection) when neurology reaches a certain state of complexity. Dualists posit that God gave us consciousness, or that there is a “consciousness” force that is not produced by the laws of physics acting on matter.

If you’re not a dualist, you can solve the hard problem with a verbal sleight of hand: you just posit that all matter is conscious. That is, consciousness is a property inherent in every atom, and so the collection of atoms we call our brains are conscious because all their constituents are all conscious. There is, of course, no evidence for this, and that evidence would be hard to get anyway (how would we know if a photon is conscious?). But since stuff like rocks and ice don’t have any kind of brains or neurons, which so far seem to be essential for consciousness, asserting that nonliving matter is conscious is just making stuff up. As Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Panpsychism is the Bigfoot of neuroscience.

In addition, there’s the First Cause issue. In other words, like the famous “turtles all the way down” riposte, advocates of panpsychism say it’s “consciousness all the way down.” But just like positing an infinite tower of turtles, this leaves aside the problem of exactly how consciousness came to inhere in all matter in the first place. There’s nothing in quantum mechanics that says matter has to be conscious.

Panpsychism used to be popular, and I think its comeback is an expression of the frustration some philosophers have—it’s mostly philosophers who broach this crazy idea—that we haven’t solved “the hard problem” of consciousness. The answer will of course not come from philosophy but from neuroscience, but some philosophers have enough hubris to think that they have a monopoly on this problem.

One of the philosophers who dines out on his theories of panpsychism is Philip Goff of Durham University, whom we’ve encountered several times before. He’s published a number of articles on panpsychism, and I’ve criticized every one I’ve seen. (Goff has a thin skin, and tries to respond on this site, but he has his own website for that.) Now, as I learn from Patricia Churchland’s tweet below (h/t: Matthew), Goff has written a whole book on panpsychism (Galileo’s Error), and it’s been reviewed by philosopher and writer Julian Baggini in the Wall Street Journal. (Usually paywalled, but judicious inquiry might get you a copy.)

Here’s the book, which gives in its Amazon review a partial summary:

Now, Philip Goff offers an exciting alternative that could pave the way forward. Rooted in an analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of modern science and based on the early twentieth-century work of Arthur Eddington and Bertrand Russell, Goff makes the case for panpsychism, a theory which posits that consciousness is not confined to biological entities but is a fundamental feature of all physical matter—from subatomic particles to the human brain. In Galileo’s Error, he has provided the first step on a new path to the final theory of human consciousness.

 

Fortunately, we have among us smart philosophers like Churchland and Baggini who espy the lack of clothes on Goff’s emperor. While I haven’t yet read Goff’s book, I intend to (with a beaker of Pepto-Bismol beside me), but I don’t expect, seeing the Amazon excerpts and having read Goff’s articles, that there will be much I don’t know. At any rate, you can see the beginning of the review by clicking on the screenshot below; and if you have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, you’re golden:

A couple of excerpts. First, Baggini notes that Goff is not a dualist, but neither is he a materialist:

Mr. Goff is less generous toward the second solution, materialism. He seems to be convinced that materialism entails the belief that reality can be exhaustively described in material terms only and so there is nothing left to be said once physical science has completed its work. On this view, consciousness is an illusion — an absurd claim.

Mr. Goff’s version of materialism, however, is misleadingly crude. Indeed, any number of materialists will be furious at how Mr. Goff portrays them. He is particularly acerbic about Patricia Churchland, the author of the influential “Neurophilosophy” and many other books, whom he compares to “a fearsome firebrand preacher”. . . .

And Goff’s Big (Non)Solution:

With dualism and materialism supposedly dispatched, Mr. Goff is left with a third option: panpsychism. This is not a new theory at all but a very old one. Panpsychists maintain that consciousness is a fundamental property of all matter. There is therefore no problem of how physical stuff gives rise to consciousness, because physical stuff is already conscious. Having been laughed out of court for decades, this theory is winning adherents again. A small band of respectable philosophers are getting behind it, most eloquently Mr. Goff’s one-time teacher, Galen Strawson.

Mr. Goff acknowledges that most people find panpsychism barmy. The biggest problem is also the most obvious one: What does it even mean to say that an atom is conscious? It clearly isn’t making plans for tomorrow or remembering how exciting the big bang was. So the theory seems to be replacing one mystery with an even bigger one: Stuff is conscious in some way, but we have no idea in what way.

If we could be persuaded of the truth of panpsychism, Mr. Goff says in his final chapter, it could transform our worldview. Realizing that we are all part of one, single conscious universe could make us less egotistic and less concerned about death. The planet would have a greater chance of surviving the climate crisis if we grasped that we are not apart from nature but fully in it.

This section of Mr. Goff’s argument warms the heart more than it persuades the mind. . .

And it goes on, with Baggini being, I think, way too kind to Goff.

People like Goff seem constitutionally unable to accept that consciousness can be an emergent property not inherent in all of its constituents. After all, a water molecule is not by itself “wet”, nor can it freeze. It takes a collection of molecules to evince those properties as emergent phenomena. Nor is a molecule of quartz hard and transparent: It takes an organized crystal to show those things.

Likewise with the brain. In fact, consciousness shows every sign of being an emergent property of the brain, for you can manipulate consciousness simply by manipulating the brain. You can take it away with anesthetics, for instance, and restore it by removing anesthetics. Matthew describes plenty of examples in his book of the connection between brain and consciousness, including the famous “split brain” experiments conducted on epileptics who have been treated by dividing their brains down the middle. That produces a split consciousness.

But I don’t want to waste any more time on this nonsense. Goff, who’s been spanked by Baggini, Churchland, and now by me, will undoubtedly try to defend his withering turf. As for the “respectable philosophers” who embrace this theory, I think that their frustration has made them barmy, too.

***************

Supplementary Material:  Matthew gave me permission to add some extracts from his upcoming book (release in March in the UK, April in the US), The Idea of the Brain, showing how the issue of panpsychism often comes up when people try to understand the nature of consciousness and realize that they can’t. “What’s so special about the atoms (or the cells) that make up the human brain?”, goes the argument. I’ve put the extracts below the fold (click “read more”):

Extracts from The Idea of the Brain by Matthew Cobb, all showing the recurrent appearance of panpsychism: (Matthew chose these bits as well as the headers):

In the 17th and 18th century:

“Another thread of opposition to thinking matter flowed from the growing conviction that the universe is composed of particles. the argument went like this: given that all matter is made of atoms, then the atoms involved in thinking matter must have some special quality; but all atoms must be fundamentally identical, so the stuff that makes up the brain cannot be special in any way. this paradox was seen by many as a killer argument against thinking matter – either all matter could think, or none of it could. According to Richard Bentley, in a 1692 lecture to the royal society entitled Matter and Motion Cannot Think, belief in thinking matter led to ‘monstrous absurdities’: ‘every stock and stone would be a percipient and rational Creature … every single Atom of our Bodies would be a distinct Animal, endued with self-consciousness and personal sensation of its own.’  Some thinkers embraced this possibility – the english physician Francis Glisson argued that a fundamental feature of all matter was irritability (responsiveness might be a modern synonym), which was also the basis of perception and implied that the whole universe was in some way sentient.”

Or again in the 19th century:

After Darwin’s death in 1882, evolutionary biologists appeared to lose confidence in the material link between brain and mind. The scientist who was widely seen as Darwin’s successor, George Romanes (now forgotten except to historians), soon developed a view that was not far from panpsychism – the idea that all matter is somehow conscious – and abandoned natural selection as the motor force of biological adaptation. Not only did romanes think that ‘the association between mind and matter is one which is beyond the reach of human faculties to explain’, he even questioned whether natural selection could explain complex instincts. He was particularly struck by the case of Sphex wasps, which dig holes and then bury a paralysed caterpillar alongside their eggs. this caused Romanes to doubt that nature ‘could ever have developed such an instinct out of merely fortuitous variations’.

Or down to the present day, when dualism isn’t fashionable any more:

Although few scientists currently working in this area have followed Sherrington, Eccles and Penfield and openly adopted dualist positions, some have been happy to embrace other solutions to the mind-brain problem that were first clearly proposed in the seventeenth century, in particular the suggestion that all matter might be somehow conscious – panpsychism (Tononi claims that his theory vindicates some of the ‘intuitions’ of panpsychism; other researchers prefer to hypothesise that only living matter, from single-celled organisms onwards, is conscious). This has the great advantage of not requiring any specific explanation of the existence of the human or animal mind, but it explains nothing, and often leads to untestable mystical beliefs as seen in Koch’s claim that integrated information theory has teleological implications – he suggests there is some kind of urge in matter to become conscious, and enthusiastically references the Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin.  It is hard to imagine Crick appreciating such company.

And the conclusion:

These views are really a confession of despair, for we know even less about hypothetical immaterial substances or speculative exotic states of matter and how they might or might not interact with the physical world than we do about how brain activity produces consciousness. Not one piece of experimental evidence directly points to a non-material explanation of mind. And above all, the materialist, scientific approach contains within it an investigative programme that can in principle resolve the question through experimentation. this is not the case for any of the alternatives.

 

134 Comments

  1. GEORGE SEPSO
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Jerry, you have got to read, V.S. Naipaul in,”The New Yorker”, on, “The Strangeness of Grief”!

    • Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      I would need you to give me some reasons to read it!

      • GEORGE SEPSO
        Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        Trust me.

        • Posted January 5, 2020 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

          No can do. I have tons of stuff to read, so I need a reason/explanation.

          • GEORGE SEPSO
            Posted January 5, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

            It’s about the death of a beloved cat.

            • GEORGE SEPSO
              Posted January 6, 2020 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

              Naipaul is getting on in years, but this a beautifully written piece, and wonderfully affecting. As you said about Joyce’s, “The Dead”, I will brook no dissent on the matter.

  2. GBJames
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    sub

  3. Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    A no-brainer that Goff is simply wrong.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      The no-brain wouldn’t even have to be conscious.

  4. Roo
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    On the return of panpsychism’s popularity – I wonder if this is related to increasing enthusiasm about psychedelics, particularly in intellectual circles. Isn’t this one of the oft reported effects, the sudden ‘insight’ (quotes because it’s perceived as an insight, but that does not speak to it’s validity) that nearby plants and such are conscious, or that all the world, including inanimate objects, is ‘alive’ in some way?

  5. Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Stuff is conscious in some way, but we have no idea in what way.

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

  6. KD
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    It doesn’t make much sense to say “Man is a thinking reed” if other reeds can think as well.

    Part of the “problem” is grammatical. “I am in pain”, “I like the taste of ice cream”, these are statements in the first person. Even saying “ice cream tastes good”, while appearing to be a third person description of a thing presupposes a relationship between a thing and conscious agents with food preferences.

    A scientific description is always in the third person impersonal tense. “A water molecule is composed of an oxygen atom and two hydrogen molecules”. A description of brain activity or brain architecture is no different.

    If you composed a book of all the third person impersonal descriptive statements since the beginning of the universe to its end, its not clear that it contains anything about me or you or us (or it ever will). It could contain behavioral descriptions, but it would run up against the same problems that beset psychological behaviorism (you can’t suppose that a monk doesn’t like meat because you don’t observe them eating meat during Lent).

    If you look at child development, the first word is usually “Mom” or some variant. The most primitive forms of linguist expression presuppose human agents and I-Thou dyads. Only well after that development can you get children to make 3rd person descriptions, and only well after that can you train someone to make scientific observation statements. Those later statements presuppose the more primitive architecture of the first (which is why they develop later).

    Its not clear to me that anyone will succeed in “proving” that all statements not in the third person impersonal will ultimately be fully translated into third person impersonal descriptions, since the first are more primitive linguistically than the second.

    What we have here is not a “problem” of consciousness, it is a limit of language. You don’t solve the “problem” of the first or second person by reducing everything into the third person (materialist reductionism), nor do you solve the problem by trying to translate everything in the third person into the second and first person (panpsychism). You simply need to leave everything as it already is (you don’t need a “theory” at all), while remaining conscious of the limits of what can be said. I can confidently say this from my arm chair because it is simply a reflection on the grammar of certain expressions.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Very interesting angle of attack, KD.

  7. Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Panpsychism has to be the worst theory in history. It explains absolutely nothing and then lands you with a vast number of new problems to explain.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Perhaps Goff heard this Ted Talk about cosmic dust bunnies: “The Dust Bunnies that Built Our Planet” https://www.ted.com/talks/lorin_swint_matthews_the_dust_bunnies_that_built_our_planet?language=en#t-183867.

      As Dr. Frankenstein cried, Goff echoes about dust bunnies, “It’s alive. … It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!” Victor Moritz replied : “In the name of God!”

      • rickflick
        Posted January 5, 2020 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        I’m not absolutely sure dust bunnies are alive, but they breed like rabbits.

        • JezGrove
          Posted January 5, 2020 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

          Only when I’m delegated the household cleaning, apparently :o( Btw, you’re on great form today rickflick – I’ve laughed out loud to two of your comments in this thread so far.

          • rickflick
            Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

            Happy to be of service. 😎

    • Sastra
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Ah, but Panpsychism successfully explains why we have always believed our ability to think and feel was somehow, in some way, central to the very existence of the entire universe.

      It is! Just as we predicted!

  8. Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    The kids these days will say just about anything for a splash of cognizance ex machina.

  9. Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    To me, the argument for Panpsychism can be simplified to the following:

    – Humans have consciousness, whatever that is. The definition is fuzzy so we can let it float free.

    – Non-human animals have consciousness too but less of it.

    – There’s a complexity continuum that goes from the human brain down to the fundamental particles of physics.

    – It’s a short mental step from the above to imagine there’s a value, an amount of consciousness, that can be assigned to everything. It takes its greatest value in the human brain and goes down from there, perhaps to zero in the fundamental particles of physics.

    While I can see how panpsychists get to their destination, it is a pretty silly place to be.

    • A C Harper
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      So… if some consciousness is found in smaller and smaller elements is the Sun (at 1.989 × 10^30 kg) really really conscious? If not, why not? Such are the difficulties introduced by Panpsychism.

      • Posted January 5, 2020 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Although I am not at all a believer in panpsychism, I’m guessing they would say it’s not the physical size but its complexity. The sun is big but not so complex. Still, it does contain a huge number of particles. On yet another hand, it’s really only in our minds that the sun is a single object. Perhaps it’s just a lot of little consciousnesses all pulling together. 😉

  10. Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    To me, the faith that somehow consciousness will be explained by current science within a materialistic paradigm is at least as unlikely to be ‘true’ as is panpsychism. In short, the subjective cannot be explained by the objective.

    • Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      Your error is semantic: you define consciousness as “subjective” (i.e. something that is experienced by an organism), and therefore make it seem something that isn’t within the ambit of science. You give no reason why consciousness can’t be an epiphenomenon of neurological complexity.

      I think you’re dead wrong.

      • KD
        Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        No, its grammatical. The first person versus the third person.

        Quantification requires the measurement of one physical system (ruler/clock) against another physical system, and some degree of intersubjective agreement on those measurements. Its not clear how you can have a “quantification” of first person or second person descriptions (although you can have a protracted discussion of the methodological problems besetting psychology).

        • KD
          Posted January 5, 2020 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          Look at the methodological problems around IQ. IQ in essence measures one person’s test results against the measured norm of a group of test takers, and has some measure of correlation with real world outcomes (in terms of who becomes the DEO scientist and who becomes the janitor at the DEO lab). Does anyone really think it measures “intelligence”?

          Sure we may develop correlations between IQ and brain architecture and brain development, and maybe we will be able to predict IQ results, and then maybe scans of brain anatomy replace IQ tests if the economics make sense. At the end of the day though, I am not my IQ, any more than I am my best time on the 100 meter dash. Because people care about IQ because of its correlation with social performance.

          You can’t imagine a similar process unfolding in relation to self-reports of pain. If you could correlate brain states or brain architecture to self-reports of pain, the benefit would be to expose malingerers, and you would simply have a philosophical debate about about whether malingers are really malingering.

          That is because the primary reason people are concerned with pain is because it is subjectively unpleasant. Whether you are a person of compassion or a complete sadist, that is why you care about pain.

          The brain scan would only be useful because of its correlation to an unpleasant subjective experience. I suppose if you could flip a neurological switch and make sensations of pain suddenly pleasant, that would be an important result, but it would change the entire nature and role of pain in the lives of human beings, and it wouldn’t change the fact that pain has significance because of its subjective impact on an organism.

          • Post
            Posted January 6, 2020 at 5:55 am | Permalink

            Pain matrix
            https://www.mdmag.com/medical-news/questioning-the-pain-matrix

            I find most fMRI studies to be worse than panpsychism. Millions of dollars wasted on the idea of a pain matrix.

            • Posted January 6, 2020 at 7:28 am | Permalink

              Matthew severely criticizes fMRI studies in his upcoming book. They are not without value, but are way overrated.

            • KD
              Posted January 6, 2020 at 10:19 am | Permalink

              The point of my remarks is that hypothetically you could have a material reduction with respect to measures of IQ, shifting from a behavioral performance to simply an anatomical measurement, and the first would be as good as the second (because of the social function of IQ testing).

              Its not clear that you could ever have a material reduction of pain, because even if you could tell if someone was in pain based on some kind of brain measurement, it would just tell you they were in pain (the brain activity is not referent of the word the “pain”). The reason we care that someone is in pain is that it is subjectively awful. [This is a little silly, because if someone comes to the ER with an open compound fracture, I know they are in pain unless they have been seriously drugged, and I have a good idea “where the pain is” without asking them.] This doesn’t mean you have to posit some “thinking substance” that is the location of the “pain sensation”, but you do have to distinguish between the organism and the components of the organism.

              • Posted January 6, 2020 at 10:26 am | Permalink

                While it would be stupid to ask someone with a compound fracture whether they are in pain but there are many other situations where it makes sense. If we had some objective measurement of pain, I would think it would be very useful to medical practitioners. It would be difficult to prove its accuracy, though.

    • Posted January 5, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      The objective part of consciousness is likely to be explained by science. We’ll eventually understand how the network of neurons in our brain work together to create our conscious experience. But there’s no explanation of consciousness that would explain, say to an intelligent alien, what it feels like to be a human. Or explain to you what it feels like to be me.

      We can understand completely how a bat works but still not be able to experience what it is like to be a bat. Even if we could reconfigure our brains to that of a bat’s for a few minutes, then switch back to human, it is hard to see how the human would then process their bat experience without their humanity getting in the way.

      • Posted January 5, 2020 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        This. There’s ontology, and then there’s epistemology. They’re different. What experience is, and who can explain it to whom, are different topics.

      • KD
        Posted January 5, 2020 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        There is an interesting aspect of living things, specifically what I would call “identity”, in that a cell has a cell wall, and makes “decisions” about what goes in and out of the cell wall, and attempts to preserve the cell wall as well as reproduce and create similar cells.

        Taking it to “pleasant” and “unpleasant” sensations, it makes sense from the standpoint of survival that organisms could distinguish between food and poison, for example, and that food would taste good, and poison bad.

        In terms of “consciousness”, whether we say cells or ants or whatever living thing is “conscious” or not, presumably consciousness when it emerges had its “cash value” in relation to furthering the organism’s ability to survive, resist disease and poison, find food, and reproduce, all of which relates to preserving its identity in some fashion.

        A cell is clearly distinct from its components (in that if broken apart, you don’t have a cell anymore), but the idea that you need the components of a cell + fairy dust to explain living things is repugnant to my thinking. At the same time, it appears that there is more to the story than just putting the components together, you have an active, on-going process in a living thing.

  11. Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    The problem with Goff’s view is that panpsychism, by their proponents’ own words, necessarily do not differ from any predictions made using physics. That is its greatest strength, but also its downfall. The panpsychist is admitting that physics alone can explain all the observations we have of consciousness, and therefore by Occam’s razor, should be preferred.

    The panpsychist might argue that it doesn’t explain consciousness itself, and thus their explanatory powers are unequal, but panpsychism doesn’t explain consciousness either: How do these consciousness-elements combine to form consciousnesses without interacting? No answer.

    -Ryan

    • Sastra
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      Panpsychism is like theism, in that both are explanations which try to eliminate any need for a mechanism. It just works because that’s what it is — a thing which works. No process, no components, no development from something-it-wasn’t to something-it-is; it’s basically the opposite of that definition of evolution that says “everything is the way it is because it got that way.”

      Nope. Not this. No work to explain the explanation, either.

      This is pure Supernaturalism, which steals its common sense plausibility from the fact that it feels as if our minds are suspended above matter.

      • Mark R.
        Posted January 5, 2020 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        It also reminds me of theism since many gods are written to be omni-beings who are infinite, timeless and everywhere and in everything.

  12. grasshopper
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    If consciousness is an illusion, then the unconscious must be in a state of perfect understanding. So set ’em up, Joe: I drink, therefore I am.

  13. Posted January 5, 2020 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Psilocybin mushrooms are also making a comeback at exactly the same time. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Drop out, turn on, tune in!

  14. Posted January 5, 2020 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I see on major problem where panpsychism can very quickly become a semantic game, when proponents not define clearly what exactly the secret sauce is, and how one can identify it even in small traces. It must be especially staked out against other views that see conciousness arising in emergent complexity, but without the secret sauce of psychism.

    For example, I believe people, and other animals are rather on a continuum which we call “concious” on one extreme side. I agree with Douglas Hofstadter who argued that conciousness is a matter of degrees also among humans, with e.g. infants having less of it than average adults.

    I don’t assume a secret sauce. But at once, I think, given enough complexity of a material arrangement, any machinery or contraption can be concious in the same way we claim it for ourselves.

  15. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    If rocks have consciousness then I guess the next thing is they have religion? So does the rock’s religion allow same sex marriage or gay ministers? They should resolve this right away and avoid the jam Methodists are experiencing. Rock on…

    • grasshopper
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Rock religions only permit plutonic relationships between star-crossed lavas.

  16. wendell s read
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    To me the most interesting question is: Will we some time in the future be able to make a machine [computer] which is conscious? Passing the Turing Test would not in itself be an indication of being conscious.

    If so, then we would completely understand consciousness – we made a conscious entity.

    If making a conscious machine is truly not possible, then we would need to try and understand why.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      wendell you write:

      “Will we some time in the future be able to make a machine [computer] which is conscious? [..] If so, then we would completely understand consciousness – we made a conscious entity…”

      [1] How would we ever know we have built a conscious machine? We have no definition of consciousness, I don’t know of a list of the properties of the state we call consciousness & there is no consciousness detector device. [there’s baby step advances in ‘detectors’ to do with vegetative state patients, but still down to a fallible doctor’s opinion]

      [2] I KNOW that I’m conscious, but I don’t know that anyone other human is – I can only assume that others humans are because I believe it when they claim they are. [philosophical zombies & all that ball of wax]

      [3] If a machine claims it’s conscious how do we know it is? The machine might have a different interpretation of the term, in the same way as we can’t know what it’s like to be a bat. [T. Nagler]

      [4] If somehow we overcome [1], [2] & [3] above it does not follow that we will be able to understand WHY the proven [somehow] conscious machine we built is conscious. We don’t understand at all how our current world expert Go player [a machine by Google] can beat the leading Go champion, but it can. And that machine is a dunce that can do nothing else & if it becomes a chess expert it will be useless at Go – if we can’t understand that machines strategy, then consciousness will be likely orders of magnitude harder to understand. For all we know the internet as a whole may be conscious today – we built it & yet there’s no reason to suppose we’ll ever know it is nor why it is.

      [5] Some people believe that conscious entities can’t be built like a computing device & then a program is simply loaded = consciousness. It might be that you have to grow such a being & have it interact with reality – like a baby has a very limited [or none?] consciousness which develops over time. It might not be possible to 3D print a copy of the grown version & have it work.

      • wendell s read
        Posted January 5, 2020 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        The points you make are of course correct. How do I know my dog is conscious? I don’t. But he truly SEEMS conscious. If we could make a machine that seemed to be conscious in the same way my dog seems to be conscious, it would be a huge step forward. But yes, we’d still have a long way to go.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted January 5, 2020 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

          We already produce machines that in a limited regime [say a back-and-forth email conversation] are convincingly conscious in that they’re indistinguishable from human people. It doesn’t help us understand consciousness, whatever that is, one bit. It’s just Turing’s imitation game & is not a proof of consciousness.

          Alan Turing asked “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?” [the Turing test] so as to answer the question can machines think? And of course Turing thought that, yes, one day machines will think – and by Turing’s definition some of them do think today. BUT consciousness [whatever that is] is a different kettle of fish.

          We are in sore need of a definition of consciousness that gets around the subjective aspect of qualia – something that leads to a definable set of properties [brain wave types etc] that don’t require us to get the subject to answer a questionnaire. I would suppose consciousness is on a scale rather than on/off so it’s always going to be fuzzy, but we have to distinguish between mere thinking & auto-responses to stimuli & whatever consciousness is.

          I think 🙂

          • rickflick
            Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

            Dan Dennett has dealt with the issue extensively. From my recollection his notion is that any computer or even a coke machine may be considered to partake of consciousness, which is present in degree, not kind. He defines it roughly as a computational relationship between a subject and it’s perceptions. So, the coke machine receives coins and algorithmically decides to dispense a product. This can be all that is required. Except, of course, that the more complex human brain produces an emergent sense of self. Something like that.

            • Michael Fisher
              Posted January 5, 2020 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

              Bloody coke machines & nickels eh? John Searles’ Chinese room argument claims a digital computer can’t have the properties we refer to collectively as consciousness no matter how fangled & I love that idea & think I understand the plot.

              But I also hold to the opposite naturalistic Dennett explanation of “consciousness” & I even read his book – which could have been a pamphlet really if he’d given his readers more credit in the brain dept. I’d be reading a chapter & waiting for the revelation & it didn’t appear – just DD adding another plank of obviousness to a bridge named “obvious” running over the River Obvious with planks on planks of obvious already present in abundance.

              His lectures are like that too, he needs to cut to the chase before his Santa beard touches his toes! 🙂

              I actually do see the value of both Searle & Dennett on this. It’s a Brain Buster.

              • rickflick
                Posted January 5, 2020 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

                I think Dennett’s point is, it’s probably not a Brain Buster unless, like Searle and others, you define it to be the “hard problem”. Maybe it’s just early times. I think consciousness is 100% physical and emergent. There is plenty of evidence in neurology for that conclusion. There is also a lot of philosophical woo going around that keeps us guessing.

            • Posted January 6, 2020 at 7:52 am | Permalink

              And some people want to attribute consciousness/intelligence to a mechanical thermostat.

              The only intelligence involved is that which the people designing and manufacturing the thermostat used.

              Which is not to say that, with enough logical switches and connections, consciousness cannot arise. As a materialist, this is, I think, exactly what happens in human brains.

              But to attribute intelligence to a thermostat is like calling a single device state on an IC a very small computer program.

              It’s Monday morning, I’m probably not making sense.

      • A C Harper
        Posted January 5, 2020 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        Re [2}… how can you tell whether or not you are a philosophical zombie too? You might be programmed/constructed to act as if you were conscious and the memory of your actions supplies you with a narrative to explain them to yourself and others.

        A bit like determinism and free will.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted January 5, 2020 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

          Good point that I agree with. 🙂

      • tomh
        Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

        @ Michael Fisher

        Re: [4]
        In a way, it’s understandable that a computer program finally defeated champions of go and chess, for these are complete information games. IOW, all the information of the game is known, and (in theory) all possible information could be known.

        However…now we have an AI program, Pluribus, that has beaten the world’s top poker players, in six player, hold ’em poker, the most popular poker game in the world. This is an entirely different kettle of fish, for this is an incomplete information game, i.e., no one knows what cards are held, whether a player is bluffing, etc. Decisions must be made without information, bet sizing, whether to bluff, or call others’ bets, and such. Not saying the program is conscious, of course, but looking at the game from the outside, no one would know the difference.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted January 5, 2020 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

          I get your point Tom, but a computer can’t ‘see’ far into the future of even a complete information game when it’s as large as a 19×19 go board. The go machine in that sense is working with incomplete information because the decision paths diverge exponentially into the future.

          I play online NL 6-max myself at Pokerstars [the Zoom fast fold version] & I use Holdem Manager to collect data on player tendencies & in a way it’s easier than go, because most opponents are lazy [at my low level] & have bet sizing tells – they simply don’t balance their game so as to be unreadable. I can make money just by noticing who is playing new school [relatively] GTO & who isn’t.

          It is my understanding that Pluribus uses a lot less CPU than the go machine & I would guess that over a session human performance degrades much quicker in poker [even with pros] than in one-on-one go – Pluribus has an easier job in the fifth hour of play of poker with all that extra data it has accumulated on styles of the opponents.

          As a side note: Pluribus is fascinating in its unusual frequency of donking – far more than people do it, & the seemingly wild bet-sizing [too large by conventional thinking] & it’s made players think about donking more themselves. The game has become noticeably harder as players use Pleurisy in their training. Less fun for me as I’m not prepared to invest the time to keep up.

          • tomh
            Posted January 5, 2020 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

            I take your point about go — I’ve played go for 40 years, at a 4 dan level in my younger days, (age takes its toll) and I thought a computer could never reach championship level, for that very reason. Chess could be mastered with a brute force strategy, but not go. Playing out the games between AlphaGo and Lee Sedol was an eye-opening experience.

            Poker still seems like a different animal to me, but perhaps that’s just my old age talking.

    • phoffman56
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

      “Passing the Turing Test would not in itself be an indication of being conscious.”

      Is it not the case that Turing himself would have decisively disagreed? If so, once I’d read what he, essentially the inventor of the (universal classical) computer said in his paper on that very topic, I’d very likely be inclined to agree with him, not you. Have YOU read what Turing himself wrote before pontificating on the Turing test?

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted January 5, 2020 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

        Turing didn’t consider consciousness in that 1950 paper.

        He wrote “I propose to consider the question, Can machines think?” & ran into definitional difficulties regarding what counts as thinking [e.g. is multiplying two numbers thinking?]. Thus he set up his analysis as the imitation game – can a machine fool a human into thinking it is human too – that was the closest he could get to his target of investigating “can machines think?”

        • phoffman56
          Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

          Is there truly a difference between ‘acting consciously’ and “thinking”?

          • Mike Anderson
            Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

            I think so.

            • rickflick
              Posted January 5, 2020 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

              I don’t.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

            Yes. that’s the whole point I would say – this consciousness thing is about qualia & the integration of the external world into an internal model that also contains a model of yourself. [that’s my attempt at defining consciousness]

            If you don’t have the model of yourself in your internal representation of the world then you can still act on the world, but not be aware you are there. You’re a zombie.

            Let us say the conscious experience of anxiety, depression & general emotional discomfort brought on by The Archers on BBC Radio 4, drives you to turn off the radio or smash it against the wall. Is that the same as a calculation by a thinking machine that chooses to turn off the same programme? A machine that thinks, but doesn’t ‘know’ or ‘feel’ anything about itself or the data that’s coming in to it? Can’t we program a machine to match you in every decision you make about whether to watch that football game, without it knowing what football is?

            My guess is that the answer would seem to be “yes” regarding most [or all] machines today – machines can react to external stimuli with zero understanding that there’s a world beyond their inputs or that they even exist. They think, but no internal symbolic life is occurring.

            • rickflick
              Posted January 5, 2020 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

              “integration of the external world into an internal model that also contains a model of yourself.”

              But I’d say that IS the explanation of consciousness. It isn’t something magical and “hard”. It’s simply that we have evolved to think in terms of models. Those models naturally include ourselves. Within a social context in which others think as we do, it is completely mundane that we should come up with a term called “consciousness” and then endeavor, at length and ad nauseam, to explain what we mean by the term. It can’t be proved that there isn’t another, more esoteric explanation, but it seems obvious to me that this controversy is much ado about nothing.

            • phoffman56
              Posted January 6, 2020 at 7:49 am | Permalink

              Michael’s reply is interesting as is rickflick’s response. However I do not see Michael offering any scientifically experimentally falsifiable difference between consciousness and thinking. It is probably clear that those who think there is a difference, not just a matter of degree, would say that not all thinking is conscious but all consciousness is a ‘higher’ form of thinking. Maybe I misunderstand.
              As to getting down to brass tacks, is there a biological object such as a worm which thinks but is not conscious? Or a machine? If someone is willing to give such an example can they come up with some sort of general criterion from which their example may be sort of deduced to be one?
              I feel very naive on all this. Maybe I should get Dennett’s ‘Consciousness Explained’ off my bookshelf and see whether he has answers which are convincing.

              • Posted January 6, 2020 at 8:04 am | Permalink

                Looking at animals, it’s pretty clear to me that there are degrees of thinking.

                A wasp that visually records its surroundings on leaving its nest and uses them to relocate the nest is running a program, it’s thinking at some level. But does that mean it is conscious?

                I think Michael is correct in that consciousness must contain the element of self-awareness. Do dogs have some level of self-awareness. They sure seem to. But, from its external aspects, it seems much less powerful (I’ll say) than a fully-competent human consciousness.*

                *Watching my father descend into dementia over many years was eye-opening on the nature of consciousness.

              • Posted January 6, 2020 at 10:20 am | Permalink

                We’re all “running a program”.

            • Posted January 6, 2020 at 10:11 am | Permalink

              You seem to be saying that consciousness is equivalent to “an internal model that also contains a model of yourself”. I don’t think that’s strictly true. Many computer programs have internal models of their own existence. Having an internal model seems like a necessary condition for consciousness, regardless of how we define it, but not a sufficient one.

      • Posted January 6, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

        As I recall, the Turing Test doesn’t say anything about consciousness, just that human-level intelligence has been achieved. Of course, some maintain that one can’t have one without the other. In other words, there are no zombies that have human-level intelligence but aren’t conscious. I suspect that’s the case but we can’t say definitively until we understand consciousness, or at least define it well enough that we can invent a consciousness test that works for humans and machines.

    • phoffman56
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

      “If making a conscious machine is truly not possible, then we would need to try and understand why.”
      Do you really think there may be a “machine” which goes beyond a (universal) computer [in principle. not efficiency, so quantum versus classical is not in play]? Or do you use the phrase “making a..machine” somewhat loosely in the sense of creating software?

      • Posted January 6, 2020 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        So far, there is no accepted theory of computation that is more powerful than that of a Turing Machine or its equivalent computational models. Scott Aaronson, who has been mentioned here many times, devoted a blog post to this topic a month or two ago.

  17. W.T. Effingham
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    This makes me want to revisit Dr. Daniel Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained” and look forward to Dr. Cobb’s book.🙇

  18. Jon Gallant
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    In the folklore of the NW coast natives, rocks, trees, and animals were not only conscious at one time, they could also speak.
    I’ve long felt this theory of panspeechism to be very attractive. Unfortunately, the story has it that the situation changed when Raven, a prankster and unintelligent designer, came through: Raven took away from the rocks and trees and animals their power of speech, and, in a fit of absent-mindedness, he created the human species, which alone retained speech.

    • phoffman56
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

      So chimps, for example, lost speech and (therefore??) have no consciousness?? For those natives (so called–isn’t it time USians started to use big words like ‘indigenous’ and ‘aboriginal’?), maybe I should have used dogs not chimps.

  19. Mike Anderson
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I just can’t imagine how anyone could posit a definition of consciousness that doesn’t require computation. So I would like to ask Goff the simple question: “does consciousness require computation?”

    Just read a couple of his articles and he doesn’t touch on that question. If anyone knows of a place where he addresses this, I’d appreciate a pointer.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      I am guessing that he would say yes, but take 10,000 words to say so. But it would be harder to pin him down on WHERE the computation occurs – Goff is most accurately described as adhering to cosmopsychism where the universe itself is conscious & that matter, dark matter & thus us drink from the well of a universal consciousness.

      I have read his stuff & it majors on jargon under which many sleight-of-hand semantic tricks may be at play – it looks & smells like theology. Try this Goff word salad on for size & see what you think: DID THE UNIVERSE DESIGN ITSELF?

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted January 5, 2020 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

        First 2 sentences:

        Many philosophers and scientists believe that we need an explanation as to why the laws of physics and the initial conditions of the universe are fine-tuned for life. The standard two options are: theism and the multiverse hypothesis.

        Already I’m exasperated. To think we need an explanation of why the life that occurs in this universe is compatible with the properties of this universe – that’s a fallacy, IMO. Goff starts with a fallacy and builds on it for 100 pages.

        Conclusion:

        I have argued not only that agentive cosmopsychism can explain the fine-tuning, but that it offers an explanation superior to its two main rivals: theism and the multiverse hypothesis. Those who accept the need to explain fine-tuning ought to take the view seriously.

        He has solved the non problem, but at least he has the good sense to realize that some might consider it a non problem.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted January 5, 2020 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think he’s got tenure yet at his current gaff so maybe he’s just publishing papers [trained, tame typing monkeys by the thousand hidden away playing cosmopsychism bingo] until he somehow gets to be an indispensable authority. Or he’s waiting for the Templeton fools to notice – he’s not had a penny from them yet & it must be grinding his teeth down to the bone. He’s some kind of fraud IMO.

          Sean Carroll politely ripped him a new one re fine tuning – easy to find & quite entertaining. How does Carroll manage to hover over the fray the way he does?

          • phoffman56
            Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

            “Sean Carroll” the physicist not the biologist I assume. Where can I find this?

            • Posted January 6, 2020 at 3:44 am | Permalink

              His podcast, Mindscape, I assume. Though i forgot that detail in their conversation.

              -Ryan

              • Torbjörn Larsson
                Posted January 6, 2020 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

                And I searched it, is pointed to the podcast and can’t find such a discussion – maybe that is why you think you forgot it?

                Admittedly, I was browsing for the most part, it is basically philosophy and precisely that episode is incoherent to boot. But I was pleased to catch up on discussions of the multiverse, despite the philosophic leanings of some discussions.

                Goff on finetuning in the link claims that Boltzmann Brains serves to reject the multiverse. But we can go back to physicist Brian Greene in the podcast series, that notes it is an open question.

                [Just to put it in context in case yet another view is interesting, I am simple minded and try to see where the simplest physics takes us. Today quantum particle fields holds “almost everywhere”. If we assume symmetric collapse – which is hard to get away from even in the outer layers when you try to model supernovas, it is an intrinsic property of gravity – the fields can reach all the way into black holes and up to Planck scales. Accordingly we can now see papers on “mass inflation” or dark energy filled black holes. Planck scales is where gravity as a linearized field theory crashes. There is a heuristic argument by Weinberg why elementary particles can easily have spin 0, 1/2 (Higgs, matter); somewhat more finetuned to have 1, 3/2 (EM, supersymmetry); and “just so (GR)” to fulfill gravity vs everything else at spin 2.

                Conversely, I can start with eternal inflation and generate an infinite number of multiverses. Weinberg predicted from survival bias that the LCDM universe is habitable if dark energy is in the range of what we see to about 10,000 times larger. This fits that inflation with near scale invariant quantum fluctuations would spawn universes like a random Poisson process (which is how cosmologists model their creation).

                Just running with the simple then, when physicists do renormalization to get statistics of physics on various scales right, they solve the local scale first for observed parameters, then the next larger scale and so on. If we try that, since we know that the local scale is a Poisson process, remaining statistics of problems such as “Boltzmann Brains” and “youngness” gets pushed to larger scales to be solved, or not solved. The remaining finetuning – in fact the whole LCDM, perhaps including inflation to start with too – becomes just random outcome.]

              • Posted January 7, 2020 at 11:49 am | Permalink

                That’s the only conversation between Philip Goff and Sean Carroll that I am aware of, so that’s why I assumed it was that episode.

                -Ryan

  20. Ted Walter
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    This sounds similar to the several news stories in just the last week or so about the comeback of astrology, especially among younger generations.
    I thought that stuff went out with voh-dee-oh-doh and poo poo pee do.

  21. Posted January 5, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    If you’re not a dualist, you can solve the hard problem with a verbal sleight of hand: you just posit that all matter is conscious. That is, consciousness is a property inherent in every atom, and so the collection of atoms we call our brains are conscious because all their constituents are all conscious.

    That argument doesn’t solve their problem because it’s fallacious. If every member of the football team is married, does it mean the football team is married?

    • rickflick
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      Bertrand Russell defined that fallacy. It’s exemplified by Russell’s Paradox: According to naive set theory, any definable collection is a set. Let R be the set of all sets that are not members of themselves. If R is not a member of itself, then its definition dictates that it must contain itself, and if it contains itself, then it contradicts its own definition as the set of all sets that are not members of themselves. This contradiction is Russell’s paradox.

      • phoffman56
        Posted January 6, 2020 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

        “If every member of the football team is married, does it mean the football team is married?”

        I’m pretty sure this question was written by Jeremy with the ‘yes’ answer as an obvious falsehood, nothing subtle that might be called a fallacy, much less a paradox. (And so nothing subtly wrong in Goff, just plain stupidly wrong). E.g. a set consisting entirely of negative integers is clearly not itself a negative integer, or even a positive one except for some very unusual particular choice of foundations, or even any sort of number at all.

        Probably in rickflick’s reply it would be clearer if he expanded “contains itself” to ‘contains itself as an element’, since ‘A contains B’ is always used by mathematicians to mean ‘B is a subset of A’, not ‘..an element of..’

        And I really don’t see Russell’s paradox as having much of anything to do with this. R. p. is surely deeper, by far.

        But Russell himself, whose work I strongly admire, did fail to emphasize the apparent need for ‘levels’, perhaps more generally in logic than just in set theory. Before the famous ‘Principia Mathematica’ with Whitehead, there was even a period where identifying a one-element set with that element itself was considered seriously–identifying the empty set with the set whose only element is the empty set gives the undesirable 1=0 immediately by counting the numbers of elements in the two sets.

        Different but related, there is somewhere in Godel’s writing a complaint about Russell and Whitehead not clearly separating the formal language from the metalanguage in their logic, something which Frege had been very clear about already 20 years earlier. But Russell was much more creative than Frege, and caught him with Russell’s paradox, which I think had been discovered independently by Zermelo.

        Even Russell’s justly famous old essay ‘On Denoting’ from 1905, very often quoted even now by philosophers as though it is still in some ways ‘the latest thing’, can be vastly simplified with a bit of symbolism, mathematical thinking, and particularly clarity about levels of language. Later, Russell should have paid more attention to Hilbert and Godel, much less to Wittgenstein. The latter appears to never have understood Godel incompleteness, despite modern day attempts to rescue Wittgenstein’s idiocies on mathematical foundations in his 1930’s work (a bit like theologians with their mythical re-interpretations!)

        In any case, thinking about a human as simply a set of molecules, or some other particles, is ludicrously simplistic. Quite apart from quantum theory’s entirely different thinking, a human might for some purposes be regarded some kind of complicated mathematical structure in which an underlying set of objects are these molecules. But the naivety in Goff’s writing is astounding. Maybe that’s why it’s always a book, never a refereed publication, if I understand correctly. I don’t know whether big league publishers like Cambridge Press actually pay much attention to other philosophers as referees when it comes to books. They at least seem to do that in math and physics. But for philosophy, one suspects it is more often the sales department with the weight for publication acceptance versus rejection.

        • rickflick
          Posted January 6, 2020 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

          You clearly know this subject well, and I defer to your interesting incites. Book publishing always seems to me vulnerable to a quick buck. If all books had to pass a sanity review, there would be many fewer books and fewer publishers. Readers would welcome less wasted time.

  22. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    “Now, Philip Goff offers an exciting alternative that could pave the way forward.”

    More like a new ship that slides off its slipway after its christening, immediately lists over on its side, and sinks.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

      One of those is the Vasa, a Swedish warship built between 1626 and 1628. The ship foundered after sailing about 1,300 m (1,400 yd) into its maiden voyage on 10 August 1628.

  23. Posted January 5, 2020 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    “. . .or rather, a hypothesis, since there’s not a shred of evidence supporting it [panpsychism]”

    Ditto for the hypothesis that we will one day “understand how the material workings of the brain and body produce the sensations (‘qualia’) that consciousness comprises”—unless you’re proposing that your and Michael’s confidence that this will come to pass constitutes evidence. So this too, seems to me, falls under the hatchet of Hitchens’ dictum that “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

    No need to tell me you think I’m dead wrong.

    • Posted January 5, 2020 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      My statement that we will understand how neurons produce consciousness is a PREDICTION, not a hypothesis. But before the universe ends we will not whether it is true or false. That would be the evidence.

      Sorry, but I can avoid telling you once again that you don’t seem to understand how science works. You will not post about panpsychism any longer on this site because, frankly, I’m tired of having to correct you and argue with you when you are eternally obtuse. Persistent flogging of dumb ideas is a reason for banning on this site, so I’m giving you just this one warning. If you want to bang on about panpsychism, please go over to Goff’s site; he’ll love you.

      Your last comment is snarky, and yes, you are dead wrong.

      • Mike Y
        Posted January 6, 2020 at 8:47 am | Permalink

        Jerry,

        You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. A little less hostility would go a long way.

        • Posted January 6, 2020 at 8:59 am | Permalink

          And what makes you think that. If I was nice to Goff, as I have been in the past, would he be more likely to be persuaded? You’re living in a dream world, pal. There’s no way he’s going to give up his theory. It’s just like those people who tell me (or who told Dawkins or Hitchens), “If you just weren’t as shrill about religion and its adherents, you’d persuade more people to be atheists.” Dream on!

          And don’t tell me what to do; that’s a Roolz violation.

          • Mike Y
            Posted January 6, 2020 at 11:11 am | Permalink

            ““If you just weren’t as shrill about religion and its adherents, you’d persuade more people to be atheists.” Dream on!

            And don’t tell me what to do; that’s a Roolz violation.”

            Relax, I’m a long time fan, not an adversary. There is a lot of pseudoscientific woo being passed off as legitimate science. The nice thing about it is that a one-two punch can knock it out. I think it would be great if someone delivered that punch on a site like this where journalists can pick up on the quick, decisive blow to this nonsense.

            • Posted January 6, 2020 at 11:13 am | Permalink

              As I said, please don’t tell me how to write, or what tone to take. If I were to go after panpsychism, I would do it in a place that gets read more widely rather than here. And I’m thinking about doing exactly that.

              • Mike Y
                Posted January 6, 2020 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

                That’s great! You always do a great job advocating for the cause of science and it is appreciated by many.

        • GBJames
          Posted January 6, 2020 at 9:34 am | Permalink

          People who use this old “You catch more flies with honey” trope display profound ignorance.

          Flies are not attracted to honey. You can, however, make a great fly trap with vinegar.

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted January 6, 2020 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          But as Woody Boyd in Cheers pointed out, you can catch the most flies with a dead squirrel.

          • rickflick
            Posted January 6, 2020 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

            Hey, buster! Leave the squirrels alone! 😉

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      I have never stated any level of confidence that we will some day “understand how the material workings of the brain and body produce the sensations (‘qualia’) that consciousness comprises” as you put it. You are very much the arrogant troll Gary & I despise your style of argumentation for it is dishonest – to be clear I believe you are reasonably intelligent & you are deliberately misrepresenting the statements & opinions of others rather than misunderstanding them.

      Despicable.

      • Posted January 6, 2020 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        “. . .for it is dishonest. . .”

        Actually, Michael, it was an honest mistake: I meant to write “Matthew’s confidence,” not “Michael’s.” My response was not directed toward you. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      When you claim “X cannot be understood”, I’d argue the onus is on you to explain why it can’t be understood.

      We (humans) understand things, and everyday more of what we experience succumbs to our efforts to understand them. What is the secret sauce that impenetrably shields something from our understanding for all time?

  24. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I think you are too lenient to call it a hypothesis.
    On the graded scale of: theory, hypothesis, speculation and crackpottery, I’ say it falls close to the last category. Nothing to support it, and quite a bit against (eg your anesthesia example).
    We should also get an idea of what ‘consciousness’ means, the notion of light in an euglena certainly could be argued to possess some form of ‘consciousness’, but I think the big problem most are referring to is self-consciousness.
    Although it is called the big problem I do not see why it is so big (compared to ,say, what is time, and related what is existence, or mass -real hard problems).
    I think that evolutionary psychologists have more or less nailed it. In social animals your behaviour influences your environment, ic your group members, and their behaviour towards you. In such situation it is advantageous to have a mechanism that can judge how other group members see you: self-consciousness emerging.

  25. FB
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    “Some kind of urge in matter to become conscious” is possible, I think, if that “urge” is just some undiscovered law or process that emerges from the laws of physics. I don’t see anything mystical or teleological in that hypothesis, and it’s untestable only because our knowledge about life and consciousness is restricted to life in one planet.

  26. Mark R.
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I’d be embarrassed if I were Goff at the amount of time wasted in writing such piffle. The only thing panpsychism is good for is a mediocre band name: The Panpsychists.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

      Gets him a paycheck doesn’t it? 😎

  27. Posted January 5, 2020 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    • Posted January 5, 2020 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      The real ANW is of course dead; this is sone woo-loving ringer, and why would you post that tweet?

      • Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

        ANW may be dead, but that does not mean he isn’t conscious, and apparently still able to tweet.

        • Roger
          Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

          Maybe he’s a zombie. Hey, progress is always a transcendence of what is obvious. Nothing wrong with a healthy less than obvious zombie hypothesis.

  28. Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    You’re quite right about the explanatory poverty of panpsychism, as most commentators here agree. It’s an extreme case of trying to objectify consciousness, which (although real) I don’t think will ever yield to observation. Or so I argue in this Journal of Consciousness Studies paper just out:

    https://naturalism.org/sites/naturalism.org/files/Locating%20Consciousness_0.pdf

  29. Charles Sawicki
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    To believe there is a “hard problem” you need to be extremely impressed by subjective experience. How else can an animal ever relate to and act in the external world but through evolved subjective experience of some sort? All that the living can sense must be subjective. No “hard problem”.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

      I’m with you on that. As a complete philosophical novice, I read about this looking for the CliffsNotes conclusion and I’ve just not been impressed with any of the sky-crane explanations. It’s noticeable that many are deeply taken by subjectivity. I just see it as a likely emergent effect. Those who think otherwise owe us a detailed explanation. They don’t offer it. All they ever say is, wuuuuuuu! It’s spooky.

  30. another fred
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I find the hypothesis that consciousness emerges from homeostasis to be quite satisfying. The problem (for some) is in drawing the line at which there is enough “effort” and or “decision” by an organism to call its status conscious.

    To me consciousness arises when there is a preference for a state other than the state imposed by the environment, and when the entity expends energy to achieve the preferred state – e.g. a water molecule does not prefer to be solid, liquid, or gas, nor does it care if it is dissociated by a caustic, it just flows to the energy state imposed by the environment, therefore it is not conscious.

    Obviously, I would draw the line for consciousness with living organisms.
    The problem that we cannot draw a line where replicating molecules become “alive” does not bother me. It’s semantics.

    I think what new really care about is suffering, but I don’t think a sane man worries about the “suffering” of amoebae in rain puddles as they dry.

    • another fred
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      “…what WE care about…”

  31. Posted January 6, 2020 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    Is not our experience that awareness has always been present? When you are unconsciousness aren’t you still aware, but offcourse you brain is not recording experience so you believe you where unaware in deep sleep or under anesthetics? Is it not awareness of awareness the only ever non-material/matter experience that is always present..is tthete not enough anecdotal evidence out there to support that we are made if awareness? And matter is just a way if seeing? If you remove all the senses, perceptions, thoughts, feelings is it not awareness that remains? When did awareness ever start or finish?

    • Posted January 6, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Now you are getting into the nuances of consciousness. We sometimes use the word such that a sleeping human, or one under anaesthesia, is virtually the definition of “unconscious”. On the other hand, a sleeping human obviously has some awareness and, during dreams for example, some self-awareness. This is just one of the problems in defining consciousness. There are many more.

  32. Posted January 6, 2020 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    MATERIALISM PROMPTS BETTER NOVELS

    Good day Mr. Coyne!
    As a novelist, I take umbrage at those who keep on enlisting me and fellow sufferers into their dualist, panpsychic or ‘spiritual’ schools. Though I made it my business to be informed by science––your excellent books on evolution and religion, among many others––I am no scientist. In order to tell stories that aren’t boring (dullness being a ‘cardinal sin’), I reserve the liberty to imagine, think, feel, evoke… the natural, social, and historical world my characters find themselves in; which are merely other parts or extensions of the space-time I inhabit.

    Atoms and void, as Lucretius used to say – whose magnificent 7600+ line poem managed to entertain me two millennia after it was written, without heroes, narrative ploys, or nonmaterial entities that last from cover to cover. And Lucretius knew that atoms don’t really laugh, even if he toys with this image for comic or satiric purposes.

    Both ‘De rerum natura’ and Turgenev & co (to skip a very long list) strongly suggest that fiction needn’t be on the same page with spiritual rubbish. In so far as it is, the narratives tends to rely on spurious Forces of Good and Evil; Tolkien’s trilogy being a case in point.

    To write well isn’t enough. One has to think well too––if one is to yoke beauty to depth and cutting-edge human drama.

    • Pim Wiersinga
      Posted January 6, 2020 at 4:07 am | Permalink

      Postscript

      …extensions of THE TINY BIT OF space-time I inhabit… would be a better way of putting it.

  33. Lord_Acesco
    Posted January 6, 2020 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Before getting into the debate, I would like to point out that the seemingly antagonist positions expressed in this article ( and comments ) are the consequence of a very poor definition of the word “consciousness” itself.
    Depending the definition we attach to this word, a whole construction and vision of the world comes with it.
    Unconsciously ( no pun intended ), we tend to associate the word “consciousness” with the higher order system of representation existing in our own minds, as humans.
    If, – just for the sake of the example -, we would consider the lowest level of consciousness to be identical to the principle of energy conservation, – (therefore identifying “consciousness” to be an extension of a principle in nature which opposes entropy, leading to complex structures as ourselves), – the debate would become less antagonist. Of course, one might argue “but this is not what consciousness is”. And this would just highlight my point: could we agree on what is consciousness ?
    My “guts feeling” is that we need to embrace a bit more flexibility and open-mindedness when dealing with such issues 🙂

    • Posted January 6, 2020 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      I’m assuming that “consciousness” is the same kind of self-awareness that we have, though maybe in lower degree, but advocates like Goff never characterize it as anyother OTHER than self-awareness. Since it is they who make the claim, I think the onus is on them to say exactly what they mean when they assert that an atom or a rock is “conscious.” I await that response.

      • lord_acesco
        Posted January 7, 2020 at 5:35 am | Permalink

        Thank you for your answer. Indeed, “self-awareness” il already a feedback loop in terms of representation, a very complex process ( the awareness of the awareness ). However, there is a kind of “state-awareness” of any physical object or system which tends to maintain its existence through space-time; considering soap bubbles: seen as a physical system, it optimizes pressure in order to maintain the coherence of the system while minimizing the energy spent to do so; mathematically speaking, it’s a marvel.
        Now, the system reacts as a whole, implying a very basic “sense” of “awareness” of its shape, at least as a physical object different from its environment. This can be explained by chemical, physical and mathematical means. And indeed that’s it, given this perspective. We don’t need more, but it doesn’t tell us everything neither. What else is missing from this picture?
        The answer might seem at a first glance metaphysical, however it’s the elephant in the room, its physical reality being difficult to ignore: it’s us, making sense of this process. Obviously, none of this would make any sense if we weren’t here to look after a meaning, whatever this meaning is.
        Please be aware ( just a figure of speech 🙂 that the tautological argument is not the one I’m providing here, but the one implying that consciousness itself emerges spontaneously at a certain degree of complexity. I definitely agree that this is the case for “self-awareness”, however the case for consciousness might be more interesting, assuming a broader and extended definition of what consciousness might be. And once again, thanks for bringing this important and passionate topic (!) in the light 🙂

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted January 6, 2020 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      See my comment below, there is no longer any room for such a principle at the quantum level. (I.e. the interactions are right out the window since two years, due to quantum physics advancement. Overarching principles like entropy are constrained by precisely entropy AFAIK, which is an older thing from statistical physics, so that is decades old – I remember seeing it way back.)

      • Lord_Acesco
        Posted January 7, 2020 at 5:55 am | Permalink

        Thanks, I get your point; nevertheless, let’s not forget that the absence of proof is not proof of the absence.
        AFAIK, Bell’s inequalities implies the absence of hidden variables as long as the universe in NON LOCAL; which has some deep implications, as our perspective of the universe is local, bound by space and time in a very causal setup; not exactly what Bell inequalities describe. ( if this topic interests you, check Juan Maldacena’s research // ER = EPR hypothesis and AdS /CFT correspondance )
        Fundamental physics is going right now through a major turmoil, as our models cannot account for too many aspects of reality, as we experience / represent it. The deeper we going into math explanations with our models, the deeper the math drags us, becoming incredibly complex and meaningless. This could be an indication that our perspective on the problem we try to solve is incorrect, or at least incomplete. We have nothing to loose, scientifically speaking, in exploring different hypothesis, as long as we keep the correct approach.

  34. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted January 6, 2020 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    So its conscious turtles all the way down?

    But panpsychists can equally say that there is “love” and “redness in tooth and claw”, everything that is sufficiently complex such as “wetness” as mentioned here, all the way down.

    That problem with all that is that we know from Bell test experiments that there are no hidden variables in quantum mechanics. If particle fields of the standard model of baryon matter has no (say) “consciousness” – and they haven’t according to the Higgs completion, that netted a Noble Prize – there is no “consciousness” at that level. (And, as I have often noted, no residual room for “souls” at such levels either.)

    If it wasn’t barmy before, panpsychism seems impossible since 2017 when Brian Cox and other involved particle physicists publicly claimed the standard Higgs model was sufficiently tested.

    Panpsychism used to be popular, and I think its comeback is an expression of the frustration some philosophers have—it’s mostly philosophers who broach this crazy idea—that we haven’t solved “the hard problem” of consciousness.

    Which is a problem of their own device, in their own area. “Consciousness” is an introspective experience that people like to put on top of observable (self) awareness, and I’m very suspicious of the area. Personal incredulity, say, philosophers before their own experienced sensations is not a permissible analysis. Awareness is of course a bag of worms on its own, so there is no cheating in trying to make sense of it.

    To wit, “scientists are still debating just how to reliably determine whether someone is conscious. This question is of great practical importance when making medical decisions about anesthesia or treating patients in vegetative state or coma.

    Currently, researchers rely on various measurements from an electroencephalogram, or EEG, to assess level of consciousness in the brain. A Michigan Medicine team was able to demonstrate, using rats, that the EEG doesn’t always track with being awake.

    “EEG doesn’t necessarily correlate with behavior,” says Dinesh Pal, Ph.D., assistant professor of anesthesiology at the U-M Medical School. “We are raising more questions and asking that people are more cautious when interpreting EEG data.””

    “Then, “we took the EEG data and looked at those factors that have been considered correlates of wakefulness. We figured if the animals were waking up, even while still exposed to anesthesia, then these factors should also come back up. However, despite wakeful behavior, the EEGs were the same in the moving rats and the non-moving anesthetized rats,” says Pal.”

    “Pal notes that there is physiological precedent for an EEG mismatching behavior; for example, the brain of someone in REM sleep is almost identical to an awake brain. “No monitor is perfect, but the current monitors we use for the brain are good and do their job most of the time. However, our data suggest there are exceptions.”

    Their study raises intriguing questions about how consciousness is reflected in the brain, says Pal. “These measures do have value and we have to do more studies. Maybe they are associated with awareness and what we call the content of consciousness. With rats, we don’t know-we can’t ask them.”

    [ https://www.technologynetworks.com/neuroscience/news/how-to-tell-if-a-brain-is-awake-328828 ;my bold.]

  35. KD
    Posted January 6, 2020 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    The whole problem of “consciousness” is that the proper usage of words depend on intersubjective, public criterion supplied by existing linguistic norms.

    If someone is slumped out on a couch and snoring, and I say they are “conscious”, if we are not doing philosophy, you are going to ask me if I am mistaken as they are exhibiting the public behavior of someone who is unconscious. Likewise, when you go under for anesthesia, the way they tell if you are out is based on counting backwards. When you can’t count, you are out.

    The fact that deception exists (one can pretend to be unconscious, or in pain or drunk) does not mean we have to go seeking some imaginary ontological entity divorced from the characteristic behavioral patterns related to that concept that determines if we are “really” that way. In fact, mimicry is only possible because there are stereotypical behaviors associated with “subjective experience”. It is parasitic on the fact that subjective affect is intrinsically correlated with certain behaviors. We’re all zombies.

    • Posted January 6, 2020 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      “We’re all zombies.”

      That’s a typical zombie point of view.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted January 6, 2020 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        Well, it is alive.

        At least Goff made me realize that zombies versus qualia are just medieval “qualities” dressed in a zombie suit. Like KD I tend to see evolution at work. There are various optical systems, even cnidarians that resolve threats and hideouts with their whole body, where numbers of colors change. We can take away or add color opsins seamlessly in models such as rats. And we see individuals that have unusual color visions.

        Goff becomes ridiculous when he argues a philosophic Mary. Also bigoted it seems to me: I just read about an astronomer that was born (I think) blind. Tell her that she isn’t as good an expert on stars or planets, because she is blind, like Goff wants to say.

        • Posted January 6, 2020 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure what Goff has to say about it but scenarios involving Mary, the color-blind color theorist, are quite interesting and useful. There is a real difference between knowing every objective fact about color and perception and actually experiencing color vision. No woo involved, of course.

      • KD
        Posted January 7, 2020 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        Obviously there is a difference between being in pain, and pretending to be in pain. One is mostly involuntary (but subject to conscious suppression), the other is completely voluntary. Presumably, the two can be distinguished anatomically at some point.

        Another instinctual human behavior is laughing, and with laughing, there is really laughing and pretending to laugh. But you don’t see people going on about the “qualia-of-a-joke-being-funny”. Obviously, because the social importance of humor versus physical pain is so different. But the instinct to ontologize “pain-qualia” has everything to do with the social importance of pain, and nothing to do with the phenomenon of pain. Its important so we pour holy water on it, and it becomes sacred, instead of just the profane territory of the zombies.

        • KD
          Posted January 7, 2020 at 9:42 am | Permalink

          To clarify, what I mean is there are clearly two different neurological processes going on in an organism between shouting because your hand is being crushed in a fork lift versus a Hollywood actor shouting in a scene because they are pretending their hand is crushed in a fork lift.

          But we don’t have to posit the existence of an ontological entity (a “qualia”) to explain the difference. You have two distinguishable biological processes.

          The Zombie problem presumes that there can be an absolute break between characteristic human behaviors and mental states. There cannot, or we would not be able to communicate based on public, intersubjective norms about those mental states. If I met the real Commander Data, he would be a human in my book, not a zombie, because of the way he behaved and responded.

          • KD
            Posted January 7, 2020 at 9:51 am | Permalink

            What you have in an organism being burned is a loop, an outside stimulus (hot stove) damaging tissues, stimulating the nervous system, stimulating the brain and the nervous reflexes and ultimately the organism responds.

            What you have in language is a model of a discontinuous thing (“I” or “Bill”) and an other. I am in pain, I burned my hand on the stove. With deception, you get this question of whether the pain is in “I” or not, and you posit the qualia. But you will never find it, because you have a loop in the organism. One would be tempted to posit qualia in the “mind” (the thinking substance), but why do you need to find it in the first place? Dualism always has trouble connecting mental states to the physical anyways.

            • KD
              Posted January 7, 2020 at 10:06 am | Permalink

              Moving on from zombies to corpses, why not mutilate grandpa? Because of the importance of the role grandpa played in our life (or perhaps we mutilate grandpa’s corpse as some act of revenge because of who grandpa was in life). We don’t have to literally posit that grandpa has a spirit who would get angry at his corpse being desecrated, although you could understand why such folk beliefs would get started. Corpse desecration of community or family insiders (at least) undermines social cohesion (to put it mildly).

              Ancestral spirits are just another version of qualia, and I suppose you could have people and zombies, and then people who have ancestral spirits and people who simply die (spiritual zombies). But the only way that would work out in the real world is that there would be one group who’s corpses would be respected and one group who’s corpses could be desecrated. That is to say, the consequences would be in terms of social norms (zombies are simply humans in a social order assigned the role of a de-humanized other and their subjectivity doesn’t matter).

  36. Posted January 8, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I thought Jeremy England at the MIT has settled the argument three years ago.

  37. Posted January 8, 2020 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    England has proposed an interesting hypothesis about abiogenesis but he has hardly “settled the argument.”


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