Muddled philosopher: Consciousness could not have evolved

Here’s another philosopher who’s wrecked himself on the shoals of reason and logic when trying to deal with consciousness. Not all philosophers screw up when discussing issues of neuroscience, of course (Patricia Churchland and Dan Dennett are among those who are pretty much on the mark), but so often many of them simply look ridiculous, at least to scientists, when they tell us what could be true and what cannot be true. Today’s article, by a philosopher who maintains that consciousness could not have evolved, is a prime example.

The nescience is on view in an article from iai (The Institute of Art and Ideas) that’s wrong in almost every way that it could be (i.e., it’s “not even wrong”). The author, Bernardo Kastrup, is identified as a “Dutch computer scientist and philosopher who has published fundamental theoretical reflections on the mind matter problem.” Click on the screenshot to read (and weep):

Kastrup’s thesis is that consciousness could not have evolved. His alternative view of why it exists seems to be panpsychism: consciousness was always there as a “fact of nature”. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s Kastrup’s train of logic from the article:

1.) Evolution is a materialistic process.

2.) The salient characteristic of materialism is that all entities “are defined and exhaustively characterized in purely quantitative terms”.

3.) Consciousness cannot be characterized in quantitative terms: it is a qualitative and subjective property manifested by qualia: the sensations that inhere in “consciousness” like (classic example) “what it is like to see red” or “what it feels like to hear a Vivaldi sonata.”

4.) Ergo consciousness is not explainable by materialism.

5.) Materialism must therefore not be a universal explanatory schema for understanding nature; as Kastrup says, “Our very sentience contradicts materialism.”

6.) Because experience or qualia are not “materialistic” phenomena, they “cannot have a function under materialism”. Therefore, “It must make no difference to the survival fitness of an organism whether the data processing taking pace in its brain is accompanied by experience or not.” [JAC: note that natural selection is about reproduction, not survival itself].

7.) Therefore, qualia and consciousness could not have evolved by natural selection.

Let’s take these up one by one, but first let me dispose of contention #7 first. Traits can evolve but need not have evolved by natural selection. They could be byproducts (“spandrels”) of other traits that were selected, like the red color of our blood that’s simply the color of hemoglobin, or they could have been “neutral” traits that came to predominate by random genetic drift (much evolution of DNA sequences is of this sort). Or they could even be detrimental, rising in frequency in small populations despite counterselection (the high frequency of genetic diseases in small populations is likely due to this).  Many scientists think, for instance, that consciousness may not have been selected for directly, but is simply an epiphenomenon—a byproduct that appears when neurological complexity reaches a certain level. Our ability to play chess or do advanced mathematics, for example, are epiphenomena of this type, for they certainly weren’t objects of selection. They were things that became possible when our brains got sufficiently large and complex.

So the first error we find is that Kastrup conflates evolution with natural selection.

And if consciousness is either a spandrel, a byproduct of neutral evolution, or the direct object of selection, it is still a property of our brains, for there are many experiments and studies showing that consciousness can be affected or removed or altered by manipulating our brains. If this be true, then consciousness must have evolved one way or another, even if not by selection. But Kastrup thinks that not only is materialism untrue when it comes to consciousness, but also that consciousness is not a property of a sufficiently complex brain, or even of organic matter; rather it is a property of all of nature. While he’s not explicit, he seems to be adhering to panpsychism, the view that all matter—even electrons—have a rudimentary form of consciousness that in some unexplained way becomes a “higher” form of consciousness when enough matter piles on top of each other. Panpsychists think that rocks, dirt, and stars are conscious in some way. They’re nuts.

Back to the contentions, taken in the order above:

1.) Yep, evolution is a materialistic process, though I prefer the word “naturalistic” because “material” implies “stuff”, and lots of nature, like gravity, isn’t “stuff.”

2.) Kastrup is dead wrong that materialism requires all entities to be measurable. Here’s a question: do you have a liver? The answer is based not on measurement, but on observation. I have never heard a definition of “materialism” that requires quantitative measurement, but that’s Kastrup’s definition and it seems to be one he’s confected to rule out consciousness as a material phenomenon, or the result of a material phenomenon. Unfortunately, he rules out a lot of material phenomena that can’t be quantified as well, like “love”. (I’ll let readers quibble about that one.)

Here, for instance is the definition of “physicalism” (which is said to be the same as “materialism”) from authoritative Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (my emphasis):

Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical. The thesis is usually intended as a metaphysical thesis, parallel to the thesis attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, that everything is water, or the idealism of the 18th Century philosopher Berkeley, that everything is mental. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical. Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.

That seems pretty accurate, especially with “supervene on the physical” at the end (for that is what consciousness is), and it says nothing about quantitative characterization. 

Kastrup’s definition of “materialism” is bogus.

3.) It’s not just human consciousness that is the “hard problem” because we find it difficult to characterize. Any sensation in animals, be they bacteria or humans, involves some sort of qualia. For example, what does it “feel like” to the crustacean Daphnia to detect a predatory fish in its pond? We know that Daphnia can detect fish, and some species respond by growing spines to deter predators. And we may even work out the entire pathway of detection and developmental response. But we might be able to do that for consciousness in humans as well! As Patricia Churchland has pointed out, once we work out the pathway that leads to a particular sensation that we can detect (and granted, detection is hard—but not impossible—with human consciousness), then the Hard Problem goes away. We have understood consciousness and qualia, and no further effort is required (see here). As Churchland wrote:

. . .the philosopher may go on to conclude that no science can ever really explain qualia because it cannot demonstrate what it is like to see blue if you have never seen blue; consciousness is forever beyond the reach of scientific understanding.

What is the merit in this objection? It is lacking merit, for if you look closely, you will find that it rests on a misunderstanding. The argument presumes that if a conscious phenomenon, say smelling mint, were genuinely explained by a scientific theory, then a person who understood that theory should be caused to have that experience; e.g., should be caused to smell mint. Surely, however, the expectation is unwarranted. Why should anyone expect that understanding the theory must result in the production of the phenomenon the theory addresses? Consider an analogy. If a student really understands the nature of pregnancy by learning all there is to know about the causal nature of pregnancy, no one would expect the student to become pregnant thereby. If a student learns and really understands Newton’s laws, we should not expect the student, like Newton’s fabled apple, to thereby fall down.  To smell mint, a certain range of neuronal activities have to obtain, particularly, let us assume, in olfactory cortex. Understanding that the olfactory cortex must be activated in manner will not itself activate the olfactory cortex in manner. We are asking too much of a neuroscientific theory if we ask it not only to explain and predict, but also to cause its target phenomenon, namely the smell of mint, simply by virtue of understanding the theory.

4.) Ergo, it’s way premature to say that consciousness can’t be explained by materialism (see Churchland here as well). We already have lots of evidence that consciousness and qualia are in fact phenomena requiring a materialistic brain, and that manipulating that brain can change or efface consciousness. Science is making progress on the problem, and those like Kastrup who assert that this or that problem can never be explained by science are showing their ignorance of the history of science.

5.) I’ve already addressed the claim that materialism can’t explain sentience. That is a “panpsychism of the gaps” argument.

6.) I have no idea whether consciousness is a direct product of natural selection or a byproduct of selection on features like our brain. It could be a direct adaptation or it could be a spandrel. We may never know the answer. But if it does supervene on our physical brain, as the evidence clearly shows, then it has evolved, for our physical brain has evolved.

I can in fact think of ways that subjective sensation could be adaptive and increase reproduction, thereby being favored by selection. The feeling of pleasure that comes with orgasm, for example, is a qualium (is that the singular of qualia?). And that pleasure is what drives many people to copulate, so people able to experience that subjective sensation would copulate more often and leave more offspring. If you were able to experience pain, and it hurt, then you might be selected to avoid situations that could damage you and diminish your reproduction. There are many ways one could think of that the experience of qualia, which is consciousness, could be the target of natural selection.

7.) I’ve already refuted this contention as well. Consciousness shows every sign of being a property that supervenes on our brain, and if that’s the case, it evolved. It need not have evolved by direct natural selection—something Kastrup doesn’t seem to have grasped. In contrast to the evidence from neuroscience, Kastrup’s own theory, that nature has consciousness as an innate property, which seems to be a form of panpsychism, has no evidence supporting it. Nor, as some panpsychists say, can there be any evidence, which makes panpsychism like string theory: a hypothesis that can’t be tested—at least in any way we know now.

There is a ton more evidence for the material origin of consciousness than there is for Kastrup’s foolish contention that consciousness “can only have been there from the beginning as an intrinsic, irreducible fact of nature.” There is, as I said, not an iota of evidence for that claim.

Katrup’s piece is weak, poorly argued, and rests on a logical chain whose center (and edges) cannot hold. The sad part is that it may appeal to those who haven’t read the philosophical arguments against his position, and are also unaware of the data from neuroscience showing that qualia and consciousness are intimately connected with the brain—that they supervene on the physical.

Another philosopher embarrasses himself in public, and you don’t have to be a professional philosopher to see through his arguments.

__________

h/t: Several readers sent me this article, so thanks to you all.

194 Comments

  1. Roo
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I find the argument that something like ‘extreme emergence’ doesn’t exist to be a rational one, even if I’m not sure that I agree – what I don’t understand is how this leads to the idea that consciousness is found in all things. Even if you think it’s irreducible, surely it could be present in any quantity in the universe, including the very tiny? Maybe I’m missing some aspect of the argument that explains this. The only one I can think of is precedent, maybe – other irreducible aspects of the universe tend to be present in all things – energy, for example.

    At any rate, I think whether or not the emergence argument makes sense tends to hinge on how a person views consciousness, which tends to be a matter of intuitions. If a person sees it as categorically different than any of the other ‘stuff’ of the universe, and by a huge margin, then the idea of emergence of consciousness is like saying that you can rub two sticks together and create time, or matter. If consciousness doesn’t strike you as particularly unique, it seems more like rubbing two sticks together and getting a spark.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

      No, energy doesn’t “tend to be present in all things,” it is /fundamental to/ all things. “Stuff” is made up of energy. So energy isn’t an emergent property of things. If anything, matter itself is an emergent property of energy.

      I want to point out that saying all things have a certain property is not proof that ALL properties are present in all things. Even if you had been correct in saying energy is a property that all things tend to have, it would in no way indicate that there aren’t emergent properties.

      Neither oxygen nor hydrogen are wet. They do not contain the property of wetness. Wetness is an emergent property of water. Similarly, atoms are not alive. Neither are time itself or energy. But life emerges with the right arrangement of atoms, energy, and time.

      • Posted February 8, 2020 at 5:16 am | Permalink

        Neither oxygen nor hydrogen are wet. They do not contain the property of wetness. Wetness is an emergent property of water. Similarly, atoms are not alive. Neither are time itself or energy. But life emerges with the right arrangement of atoms, energy, and time.

        This.

        People seem to forget that the arrangement of stuff is as important as – in fact more important than – the stuff itself. Hydrogen and oxygen are not wet. In fact water isn’t wet either in its gaseous or solid states. Carbon isn’t extremely hard or valuable except when it is arranged in a tetrahedral lattice. If you put a frog in a liquidiser and turn it on, the frog will no longer hop about or be able to make tadpoles even though all of its constituent parts are still there.

        How is it that when it comes to consciousness, the idea that it arises from the organisation of a lot of components is suddenly unthinkable?

        • rickflick
          Posted February 8, 2020 at 7:52 am | Permalink

          Let us face the harsh truth of material reality with courage. “if you put a frog in a liquidiser,…the frog will no longer hop about”. 🐸 😟

        • Roo
          Posted February 8, 2020 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          How is it that when it comes to consciousness, the idea that it arises from the organisation of a lot of components is suddenly unthinkable?

          My impression after reading a few of these panpsychist articles is that it’s because the adjectives that apply to about 99.9% of the things we can speak about do not apply to consciousness. Consciousness appears to be in a category of abstraction that contains only a few items, such as ‘time’, ‘space’, ‘information’ etc. (not in that those things are similar, but that they are all things that cannot be described in the usual way.) Almost everything else we can talk about in terms of substance or function.

          I actually understand the panpsychist’s intuition on this one, but I think one has to consider that science is not about intuitions. What seems self-evident to one person could well just be a failure of primate intuitions that didn’t evolve to deal with such matters.

        • EB
          Posted February 8, 2020 at 10:01 am | Permalink

          Yes, organization is key. Nevertheless, for some phenomena, there exists an intelligible explanatory path to get you from the properties of the components, to the properties of the ensemble. I assume explaining the wetness of water (discarding any connotation of qualia) is possible via an understanding of quantum mechanics.

          But what about when no such intelligible path is available, seemingly in principle? That is the panpsychist’s view. It’s hard to imagine what role organization can play except to, ex nihilo, introduce fundamentally new principles that seem like brute facts. I can understand the panpsychist’s eagerness to avoid brute facts emanating from the organization of matter, and simply placing the property of consciousness at the base level of reality. Nevertheless, I am, like Roo, ultimately agnostic on the matter. Not sure how overcome that agnosticism.

          • Posted February 8, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

            In what way is there no intelligible path from neutrons firing to consciousness in principle. If the panpsychist’s argue that, it is an argument from incredulity.

            • EB
              Posted February 8, 2020 at 10:40 am | Permalink

              No knockdown argument is available from the panpsychist, only the suggestion (due to Galen Strawson) that the right kind of analogy for going from non-experience to experience is going from a collection of unextended entities to an extended object. The chasm is not just wide, but impossible to cross. I would add that going from “is” to “ought” is a similar impossible path. Chalmers (a panpsychist, I believe, or at least a fellow traveler) put forward arguments about philosophical zombies which seems like another way of expressing this intuition.

              It is an intuition, not any more or less absurd, to my mind, than the alternative. Of course, it IS the case that neuronal mechanisms give rise to consciousness. It is the epistemic impossibility that plagues us.

            • Roo
              Posted February 8, 2020 at 10:49 am | Permalink

              I think a very rough analogy would be someone saying to you “Here’s a pile of rocks. I want you to keep rearranging them until you make some time. Try to make a few seconds, at least.”

              Your intuitive response would be “That’s ridiculous. You can’t make time, and if in some way you could, certainly not by arranging rocks. How on earth is ‘time’ supposed to appear from rocks? Magic?”

              When the wetness of water emerges, we can talk about it in the usual way. Molecules. Movement. Attraction. These are all things that seem relatively mundane, according to our intuitions. Water doesn’t really do anything entirely unique, it just recombines concepts we are already familiar with.

              When consciousness emerges, we cannot talk about any of the usual things. It appears to be entirely unique, and therefore there is not a clear relationship between any proposed ‘building materials’ and consciousness.

          • Posted February 8, 2020 at 10:31 am | Permalink

            “But what about when no such intelligible path is available, seemingly in principle? That is the panpsychist’s view.”

            Yes, I think that nails their motivation nicely. I view it as a failure of either definition (of consciousness) or imagination. Probably the latter. While we don’t know how consciousness works yet, I imagine we will someday. The panpsychists do not.

            • EB
              Posted February 8, 2020 at 11:06 am | Permalink

              I agree with that, except if I had to bet when “someday” would arrive, I would guess around 1,000,000 AD, after we achieve a sufficiently thoroughgoing reorganization of our brain by random genetic drift, which converts the ‘hard problem’ to an easy one. But I may be off by a few orders of magnitude. I’m pretty sure I won’t around. Sad.

              • Posted February 8, 2020 at 11:20 am | Permalink

                Why so pessimistic? Sure, understanding the brain is hard. It is the most complex structure known to us. However, we are starting to map the connectome of small creatures. We’re making progress every day.

                That said, we may end up understanding consciousness much as we understand how birds fly and use that knowledge to create airplanes. If we can create an intelligence that seems like it has consciousness, perhaps that will be enough for most people.

      • Roo
        Posted February 8, 2020 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        No, energy doesn’t “tend to be present in all things,” it is /fundamental to/ all things. “Stuff” is made up of energy. So energy isn’t an emergent property of things. If anything, matter itself is an emergent property of energy.

        Thanks for cleaning up the semantic meaning by a shade or two of exactness there. My general point, however, was simply that: a) I’m not sure how panpsychist’s reached a conclusion and b) Perhaps it was via precedent. Which may or may not be the case, I’m still not clear on the panpsychist’s thinking there.

        Regarding emergence – yes, again, I see this as the central theme in panpsychism. Essentially, it seems to me that the panpsychist says that consciousness is so radically different in kind from other things that we can talk about, that the idea of emergence is self-evidently irrational. Others think that only extreme complexity could explain a phenomenon as unique as consciousness (there may be a third group in there who think some simplistic mechanism gives us consciousness, but I’m not aware of them.) I consider myself agnostic on the issue.

        • Posted February 8, 2020 at 10:27 am | Permalink

          One thing about emergence. Most seem to use the term to refer to properties that emerge when you detect some property in many of something (homogeneous collections) that you don’t detect in few or one. Wetness and water molecules being the classic. On the other hand, it seems an inappropriate term when applied to properties that apply to collections of unlike things (heterogeneous collections). The ability to go from A to B doesn’t “emerge” when a completed car rolls off the assembly line. This is why I wouldn’t call consciousness an emergent property.

          • Posted February 8, 2020 at 11:00 am | Permalink

            I disagree with both of those issues you have with emergence. Emergence is when something has a property that its constituent parts do not. So it isn’t that water is only wet in multiple molecules, but that it is wet when neither of its atomic ingredients are.

            The “heterogeneous collections” complaint makes no sense to me. Virtually all things are “collections of unlike things.” Atoms are collections of heterogeneous subatomic particles, which in turn are collections of heterogeneous quarks. And atoms have properties (ways of interacting with other atoms, for instance) that individual quarks don’t possess. Molecules are(usually) collections of heterogeneous atoms.

            I don’t know of a property of a car has that its constituent don’t have. It’s making use of the properties of its parts, not creating new ones.

            Life, on the other hand, is a property the individual molecules don’t have. “Life” is an emergent property.

            Similarly, we have no reason to suspect that “consciousness” is a property possessed by atoms and molecules, it only occurs in the specific processes involving many parts.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

      I should note that I’m not arguing with you. You are working through how the philosopher could argue what he did. I’m just responding to the reasoning.

  2. Eduardo
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Reading articles by people like this philosopher just piss me off.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      I keep wondering ‘what is it about some philosophers?’ Sure, there are more serious problems afoot, but still… what is it about some philosophers???

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Whenever they try to construct a case against naturalism, they fall flat on their faces.

        Every. Single. Time.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      Me too. Their main problem, IMHO, is that they base strict logical arguments on fuzzy premises. They take something actually quite complex like evolution or materialism, assume simplistic definitions, and then go to town on them. It should surprise no one that they commit divide-by-zero errors.

      This indictment can be applied to most philosophy. Only a few seem to recognize the problem and work hard to avoid it — Dennett comes to mind. I like philosophy but most of it’s dreck like this.

      • Eduardo
        Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        “They take something actually quite complex like evolution or materialism, assume simplistic definitions, and then go to town on them.”
        This is exactly how I feel.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      It is certainly irresponsible of the philosopher to make up an explanation of reality and provide no evidence. That tends to make people who endorse science a little upset.

    • A C Harper
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      The article is another demonstration that a philosopher can easily make a career (or hobby) from his or her armchair.

      Testing the ideas needs more than more armchair time… and if you can’t or won’t test the ideas you have nothing.

    • Posted February 9, 2020 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Kastrup and Goff are among the worst offenders, I think. Especially with their laughably ignorant view of physics and their constant confident assertions.

  3. Liz
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    This is from the article by Kastrup:

    “’Only our perceptions of them—or so the materialist argument goes—are accompanied by qualities somehow generated by our brain.’”

    He stops asking how at “somehow.”

    I love this entire post.

  4. Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    On the matter of consciousness possibly being a spandrel of our evolution, I remember a passage from Dawkins (I think in his Greatest Show on Earth book) where he speculates on the emergence of our consciousness in some ancestors, long ago. I will very badly paraphrase it, unfortunately: Imagine what it might have been like for those beings who had evolved larger brains by natural selection. At some time in this history, some of them would be able to hear this voice in their head, and it was talking to them.

  5. Christine Marie Janis
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Material processes can alter brain function and consciousness? I’ll drink to that!

  6. sted24
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    QUALE. Perhaps surprisingly, Ngram finds it more frequent than ‘qualia’.

  7. Raph Shirley
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    The red colour of blood is an interesting example because being “simply the colour of haemoglobin” precisely misses that the qualia of red; intense, signifying danger and passion, raising aggression, etc evolved in order to control our response in typical situations where blood is spilt, namely violent ones.

    • Frank
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      You may be reversing the temporal arrow of causation here? We may have evolved to respond to red the way be do psychologically because it can signify danger, violence, etc.

      • Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        +1

      • Chukar
        Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        Frank: You’re exactly right. By whatever name we call the color of blood, it’s appearance as an indication of damage to one’s body is the cause of the emotional response. The emotional response can then be seen as an evolved method of averting further damage, as it moves (e-motion) the organism to do something about it.

      • Posted February 8, 2020 at 5:30 am | Permalink

        I don’t think he is. I think you both said the same thing.

        Blood is red, when you see lots of blood it usually means bad things have happened. Therefore red becomes associated with danger. I’d be interested to know if the association of red with danger is universal in human culture or if, indeed, it is just limited to humans.

        • sted24
          Posted February 8, 2020 at 8:57 am | Permalink

          Red = blood = bad is an appealing idea. On the other hand:

          Blood = killed animal = food might appeal to our hunter ancestors.

          On red in culture, you might want to google ‘red in china’. There it means all kinds of good things, including (but much antedating) Mao’s Little Book.

  8. Bruce Lilly
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I think it’s entirely plausible that consciousness in most animals (including humans) has evolved by natural selection. Mobile animals which need to find food (and avoid predators, as in the Daphnia example) would be at a severe disadvantage without the ability to sense food and danger (and potential mates for sexually reproducing species) and the ability to evaluate and respond to those stimuli. Kastrup’s contention that “phenomenal consciousness cannot have been favoured by natural selection” makes no sense. On the other hand, plants (and a few animals) which derive sustenance directly from the environment without having to actively seek it would have little need for consciousness as we (human animals) know it.

    I’ll leave the philosophers to debate what the “qualia” of phototropism in plants might be, and whether or not some phototropic plants have a primitive form of “consciousness”. Likewise for carnivorous plants.

    • Jonathan Gallant
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      In one of Olaf Stapledon’s classic sci-fi fantasies, he imagines sentient creatures which spend part of their life-cycle as plants. My dim recollection is that he described the “consciousness” of the plant-men as slow, meditative, hedonistic at a low intensity—perhaps like old folk lounging absent-mindedly by the sea-front in Worthing, Sussex.

      • Steve Pollard
        Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        It is said that there used to be a poster at Victoria Station with the slogan: “Newhaven for the Continent”.

        Underneath some wag had written: “Worthing for the incontinent”.

        [NB: that joke has been told about pretty well every coastal retirement town in England].

    • wendell s read
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      “Mobile animals which need to find food (and avoid predators, as in the Daphnia example) would be at a severe disadvantage without the ability to sense food and danger”

      Conceptually it would be very easy to design a “computer” to sense “food” and “danger”. However most of us would not regard such a computer as being conscious.

      • Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but do you think the Daphnia is equivalent to a computer? What about a bat? Remember Nagel’s article, “What is it like to be a bat?” That, of course, assumes that bats have qualia. Do Daphnia? I don’t know, and neither do you.

        • Posted February 8, 2020 at 5:37 am | Permalink

          Yep.

          I think all of those are equivalent to computers. I think humans are as well.

          I think as soon as we figure out what consciousness really is and what the mechanism of it is, we’ll be able to bestow it on computers that we have built.

          • rickflick
            Posted February 8, 2020 at 8:02 am | Permalink

            As computers become more sophisticated, their consciousness will undoubtedly arise spontaneously. It should not have to be deliberately added by humans. Indeed, our computers may be said to be conscious already to a very small degree. There won’t be a point at which computers are unconscious and adding one more microcircuit in just the right place makes it conscious. It will be a lot more like raising a child from infancy.

            • Posted February 8, 2020 at 10:18 am | Permalink

              “consciousness will undoubtedly arise spontaneously”

              I disagree, modulo your definition of consciousness. This seems to follow the school of thought that regards consciousness as some sort of property like mass or wetness. Instead, I believe we’ll have to design in consciousness as it is a kind of self-reflection. It may be the case that we will not have achieved Artificial General Intelligence until we add consciousness, but that’s a different kettle of fish.

              • rickflick
                Posted February 8, 2020 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

                I think you are basing your estimate on current conditions of technology. I think full machine consciousness is a very long way off. At that point it is doubtful anything will be needed to insert self reflection. If you ask a personal question of today’s AI, it could do some fancy look-ups and respond with, “I don’t know the answer.” Simple self reference. In 500 hundred or 1000 years, the look-up will seem more like human contemplation. “Why yes, I would like to vote in the election. I’m a loyal Democrat. And you? Where will you be on Tuesday?”.

              • Posted February 8, 2020 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

                I will rely on some version of the Turing Test and, if I can, I’ll ask it a lot of questions.

              • rickflick
                Posted February 8, 2020 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

                Captain Kirk would ask it to compute the square root of a negative number and check to see if smoke comes out of it’s ears.

            • Mike Anderson
              Posted February 8, 2020 at 11:13 am | Permalink

              As computers become more sophisticated, their consciousness will undoubtedly arise spontaneously.

              I disagree. So much of AI is based on processes found in the natural world (neural nets, genetically evolved populations, swarm intelligence, etc.). People are going to try to simulate processes found in human minds (self reflection, etc.).

              Maybe something like consciousness will arise spontaneously from a flexible adaptable NN system, by my money is on people intentionally trying to create human-conscious-like things making it first.

              • Posted February 8, 2020 at 11:15 am | Permalink

                Mine too.

              • rickflick
                Posted February 8, 2020 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

                People certainly will try to affect full consciousness. I think they will only be simulating it crudely until, one day, when people have failed a thousand times, computers will merge with humanities awareness pretty much on their own. They themselves will likely be responsible for their later stages of development. See also, my response to Paul above. I think I have one good SciFi book in me. 😎

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted February 8, 2020 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

                They themselves will likely be responsible for their later stages of development.

                Yes. There’s an obvious breakthrough point where AI systems can design AI systems better than humans can design AI systems. (This is not “the singularity” as I’m not talking about general AI, it’s a limited purpose AI system, but similar generational concept and perhaps a stepping stone to “the singularity”.)

                There’s tremendous leverage (hence money) sitting at that breakthrough point, so no doubt a lot of resources will be applied to getting there.

              • rickflick
                Posted February 8, 2020 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

                Fun to think about.

      • Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        Why not? It may be a very rudimentary form of consciousness, but if it’s behavior, senses, etc. are comparable in complexity to Daphnia, why wouldn’t we think it would be more or less as “conscious” as Daphnia?

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted February 7, 2020 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        “Conceptually it would be very easy to design a “computer” to sense “food” and “danger”. ”

        Actually that’s quite hard in the real sense, that is of sensing “food” the computer could eat in order to keep itself alive, or “danger” that could harm or kill the computer.

        We usually take the lazy route and say we could make the computer detect food for us or danger to us, which is not at all the same thing, and wouldn’t be headed in the direction of self awareness for the computer.

  9. YF
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    My suspicion is that a strong psychological motivation underlying the misguided promotion of ‘panpsychism’ by some philosophers and scientists is to provide a ‘religion’ for atheists which assures that some aspect of their consciousness will survive their death. Conservation of energy after death? Yes. But conservation of consciousness? No, I don’t think that’s plausible at all.

  10. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the explanation on this article. I read it and confusion sets in but then, a short while later all is well.

  11. Liz
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    sub

  12. Posted February 7, 2020 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t this just Goff’s silly argument again?

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Yes.

      And the same stupid, scientifically illiterate notion of “quality”.

      Hint: if one’s argument stands on one’s theory of properties, one ought to do a lot of work on *that*. J. Kim has the same problem, and I suspect his partial influence here too (in addition to early F. Jackson and D. Chalmers). Kim famously denies that as a philosopher of mind he should bother learning any neuroscience.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Sort of, but not quite. Kastrup of course holds that it is quite different from any flavor of panpsychism. What he does to make it different is to nebulize things even further. Instead of everything having the quality of consciousness there is only cosmic consciousness. Instead of all the itty little bits having the property of consciousness themselves (panpsychism) Kastrup contends that There is only Cosmic Consciousness and that any of the itty little bits (like us) that exhibit consciousness are merely vessels or portals or projectors or receivers, or aspects of or something, of the one and only cosmic consciousness.

      • Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        So the panpsychists believe that the cosmos is conscious because all of its component bits are conscious whereas the idealists think the component bits are conscious because they channel the consciousness of the cosmos? Sounds like a distinction without much of a difference.

        • Posted February 10, 2020 at 11:32 am | Permalink

          Well, the component bits are “unified” somehow, whereas in the other, the Chalmers version, they aren’t – except (?) when lots of them actually get together in some way. (This is the “aggregation problem” we have talked about previously.)

  13. KD
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I’ve said this several times, but “qualia” was invented in the early modern period.

    Before that, you had secondary qualities of matter, which were deemed what we would call objective (attributable to object, not the subject).

    The benefit of this view is that you can “locate” secondary qualities in the world, so you don’t need “minds” or “consciousness”. Also, you can dump representationalism, and you don’t have to worry if there is a “real world” outside of your “sense datum”. You don’t need sense data. The color blue for me is the color blue for you, unless one of us is blind or has some kind of color blindness.

    Note we test for blindness, vision, deafness, color blindness with objective tests, which would be impossible if “sensations” and “qualia” were subjective.

    • KD
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      There is really no justification to prioritize quantities over qualities.

      Sensation involves an object and a sentient organism with a functional organ of sense. There is also perceptual judgment (its a snake, not its a tree root).

      O => S. (“The TV is loud.”)

      Measurement involves a relationship between two objects (the reference standard and the measured object) as well as a sentient organism with a functional organ of sense, as well as the exercise of judgment (is this data, an anomaly or is my laser acting up again).

      O1 R O2 = > S.

      (“Billy is two-inches taller than his father.”)

      Quantitative measurements are capable of standardization, but so are procedures like vision screenings. While we know a bit about how to make people misreport sensations (you can trick people into thinking something is actually hot is cold), sensations are consistent enough for government work.

  14. Posted February 7, 2020 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think Kastrup would agree with your panpsychist characterization. He’s an idealist. In other words, everything is mind. There is nothing material – nothing else to have mind-like quality. It is just all mind.

    I don’t think consciousness is an epiphenomenon. Its seems to be required for learning.

    The Transition to Minimal Consciousness through the Evolution of Associative Learning

    https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01954/full

    And my own thoughts written before the reading the “Transition…” paper.

    https://broadspeculations.com/2020/01/15/evolution-learning-and-uncertainty/

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      “Everything is mind”, and “everything is conscious” are claims of panpsychism. So I stand by what I said, which is the best interpretation of his own words.

      But it doesn’t matter; that alternative is nuts as well, and isn’t even relevant to his claim that consciousness couldn’t have evolved.

      Frankly, I don’t care what his “alternative” is, especially since he hasn’t bothered to clarify it except in one sentence. And PLEASE don’t say, “You have to read Kastrup’s books X, Y and Z to understand.”

      • Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        As I said I think Kastrup would object.

        I think the difference may be a difference without a distinction. Panpsychists typically argue that mind is a sort of extra dimension to physicality – like electrons have some quality of consciousness attached to them. Kastrup dispenses completely with any materiality.

        • darrelle
          Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

          I think you are correct. From the PhilPeople.org profile on Kastrup.

          “Bernardo Kastrup’s work has been leading the modern renaissance of metaphysical idealism, the notion that reality is essentially mental.”

          As one of my favorite commenters, Sastra, has pointed out many times over the years the view that reality is fundamentally mental rather than physical is one of the primary underlying assumptions of all woo from the Desert Dogmas to Reiki crystals.

  15. KD
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I don’t want to attribute a philosophical take to Dr. Coyne, but sometimes he writes as if he is an epiphenomenalist, property dualist, that physical systems given rise to mental properties, like an excrescence.

    The mind is there but it doesn’t do anything, like an architectural flourish.

    The problem with that position in my view is that mental attitudes clearly affect physical systems, for example, the placebo/nocebo effect, as well as the common sense experience of mentally brain-storming a situation, coming up with a plan, and then implementing that plan.

    I think I remember reading the Churchlands attacking this point of view by saying there is no hard evidence of parapsychological phenomenon, but you don’t need ESP or telekinesis if you have placebo. [I have read some skeptic community doubters on placebo, so some are hip that placebo is woo-lite, but its well established, look at our drug approval procedures.]

    • KD
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      Another example, take Gauss, who comes up with all this advanced mathematics, which gets taken up by physicists, which leads to all this advanced physics, and then the physics gets taken up by engineers, which leads to all these advanced technologies, which transform the material world.

      Without the mental activity of Gauss, none of that would have happened, and I’m skeptical of some kind of physiological reduction, because we have lots of physiology, but there has only been one Gauss.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, but when did I ever say that mental activities don’t affect the physical body? That is not a refutation in any sense of what I wrote in the article above, which is that consciousness itself is not “matter”, but comes from matter, and that matter could have evolved.

      I’m not sure whether the statement that you don’t need ESP or telekinesis if you have placebo is your statement or Churchland’s, but it doesn’t make any sense.

      • Posted February 10, 2020 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        Better: you seem to mean (as is in my view the correct position) that consciousness is a property of sufficiently complicated systems, which are, needless to say, material.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      I think your point is a good one. There is evidence from biofeedback that consciousness can affect groups of neurons and even single neurons. So mind – whatever it is and I’m not saying it is not physical – appears to be in the causal path to affect neurons. I think this is likely tied to why consciousness is also apparently closely related to learning.

      • Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        Is that surprising? Neurons clearly influence other groups of neurons and single neurons, etc., and a good portion — I believe a majority — of the brain’s neural connections are entirely within the brain, exciting and/or inhibiting other neurons or groups of neurons. This doesn’t seem to imply that consciousness is anything other than a neural process (in humans, anyway).

        • Posted February 7, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

          I think it is a little more complicated than that.

          Neurons influence other neurons – that is what happens in brains – but the majority of those “influences” are unconscious. Yet learning, in particular, seems to require consciousness.

          So there must be some kind of difference in the type of influence that consciousness provides. My pet theory is that has to do with entraining and/or developing new neural paths.

          • Posted February 7, 2020 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

            How about what the neurons do (some of them anyway) IS consciousness? I don’t see the need to consider consciousness as separate from the hardware and software of the brain.

            • Posted February 8, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

              Tell me what they are doing differently that is associated with consciousness and maybe I’ll concede your point. Until then the idea of neurons firing explaining it completely doesn’t seem too likely since neurons fire during reflexes too.

              • Posted February 8, 2020 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

                I don’t see any problem with neurons being involved in both reflexes and consciousness. Cells in general do pretty much everything in our entire bodies. Neurons are specialized cells but that doesn’t mean they lack the flexibility to perform both tasks.

                There are many different types of neurons. See the Allen Institute for Brain Science website for a summary of their attempt to catalog them. Each is connected to its neighbors in unique ways. Both the type of a neuron and its connections determine the function it performs. While we obviously don’t know the details, it is easy to imagine they do a wide variety of computation and communication tasks.

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 6:39 am | Permalink

                Okay. This i just hand-waving. You don’t have an explanation. Neurons fire, presto consciousness.

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 11:38 am | Permalink

                I’m not letting you off that easy.

                If not neurons that produce consciousness, then what? How can it NOT be neurons that produce consciousness?

                Those that think consciousness lies elsewhere, or feel that it is too fantastic a thing to come from only the interactions of lowly neurons, need to figure out exactly where this sense of wonder comes from. Otherwise it is like looking at a Van Gogh and thinking, “How could a mere human paint this?” I get the wonder but I know that he did paint it and there was no magic involved. I can enjoy the wonder but not let it derail my rational thinking.

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 7:00 am | Permalink

                To be clear, I’m not saying consciousness is unrelated to neurons firing. I’m just saying that explanation by itself is incomplete.

                Consciousness experience is associated with neurons firing in sync. How does the synchronization occur? How does it produce what appears to be a unified experience?

                How do placebos work?

                How does providing feedback on brain activity to conscious person allow the person to change neuron firing?

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 11:57 am | Permalink

                “Consciousness experience is associated with neurons firing in sync.”

                That is no explanation of consciousness. It is just some neuroscientists throwing out something and seeing if it sticks. They are almost as bad as the woo merchants in thinking that consciousness is some kind of collective property of neurons. One could say the same thing about electronic computers. They obviously rely on components that sync. However, that is nowhere near an adequate explanation of how computers work. In fact, there are experimental computers whose components specifically operate asynchronously.

                “How does providing feedback on brain activity to conscious person allow the person to change neuron firing?”

                When you say a person changes neuron firing, it sounds like you are considering thought as separate from neurons firing. Thought IS neurons firing (or doing something). When a person gets the feedback, they are processing it with their neurons. Their state is changing as part of that processing. No thinking is possible without that.

                “How do placebos work?”

                I obviously don’t know but, like consciousness, I think we will figure it out one day. Scientists have just recently mapped the neuron connections of 1/4 of a fly’s brain. This is going to be tough to analyze as we don’t really know how neurons calculate but we do know they exchange signals. It would be hard to believe that their functionality isn’t determined at least in part by that signalling. It is also hard as we don’t even have a catalog of fly behavior. We do know some of its behavior though.

                The point that I am trying to make is that figuring out how the human brain works is, by its nature, a very hard problem. It is easy to see why it is so hard. However, no scientists working on the problem are saying that we’ll never know. They are making constant progress but it will take many years. There’s absolutely no reason to look elsewhere for a solution.

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 8:27 am | Permalink

                “How does providing feedback on brain activity to conscious person allow the person to change neuron firing?”
                Giving feedback is literaly activating sets of neurons through the means of hearing. The rest is based on the inferences constructed patiently by your brain, your neuron networks since your creation, using what looks like a Bayesian approach. Babies can’t locate their own parts, they learn by experience what thing in the surrounding space is correlaced with what internal stimulus (perception, somesthesia), they learn that things are attached to other things and craft a sense of their own body and its boundaries, they learn through signal processing to coordinate their various mobile parts to make precise movements.

                Placebo, or contextual effects, might work the same way: activating neural networks through various perceptions, resulting in hormon releasings and activation of other networks inhibiting perceived pain.

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 9:56 am | Permalink

                Let me quote Bernard Baars:

                “Conscious feedback training provides spectacular examples of the scope of access to almost any neuronal population and even single neurons Single spinal motor units can come under voluntary control with auditory feedback. After brief training subjects have learned to play drumrolls on a single motor unit, with simultaneous silencing of
                surrounding units. There is no evidence that unconscious feedback can do this. Apparently conscious feedback enables control of a very wide range of activities in the nervous system, consistent with the idea that consciousness enables widespread access
                in the brain.”

                If consciousness is physical, there is no reason it couldn’t be in the causal chain, right?

                But if it’s not physical, then you argument makes perfect sense that it could have nothing to do with anything.

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

                I don’t see the point of this line of reasoning. Of course feedback doesn’t work when the subject is unconscious. Feedback requires sensory input that is suppressed when we are unconscious. Of course, we don’t yet know the details of that suppression. It is possible that some kind of feedback might still work on an unconscious person but that would be the surprise.

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

                What you say here about the placebo effect ignores the hard problem (not the consciousness one): why did the placebo effect evolve? If the brain can trigger healing effects, why does it wait to be triggered by a placebo? Any kind of healing that we can do ourselves (immune system, tissue repair mechanisms, etc.) has obvious selective advantage. What selective advantage would there be to suppression of healing responses until a placebo arrives?

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

                Nothing is suppressed, it’s just not activated yet. And no biological system must be perfect or make sense in an engineering way, because it’s not engineered. Stuff evolves and it happens for a given organism that it manages to use it this way or another, to accomplish a given function for which the stuff has not been created; because stuff is not created to do something, stuff is evolving, appearing, randomly, and sometimes ends up being used, sometimes not or in a different way than in another organism.
                Also, your line of reasoning reminds me of this joke, where the man is on top of the flooded house, praying for God to help him, yet dismissing every helpers, from floating branches to helicopter, ending up drowned, then facing the gates of heaven where he laments about Him, and God replying that he sent him all these helpers but the guy wouldn’t accept them. Here you have another way of activating internal systems of mitigation (not really healing), like there are others (rubbing your hand where it hurts for example).
                Basic reminder: not all features of an organism have to provide a selective advantage. Read the article, that’s one point of the rebuttal of Kastrup’s claims.

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

                Until we know the details of the placebo mechanism, “suppressed” is the same as “not activated”. Simply choose your favorite phrase.

                “Basic reminder: not all features of an organism have to provide a selective advantage.”

                That’s certainly true in general but in the case of the placebo effect it has been demonstrated to have real beneficial physical effects many times. Anyone who claims that it wouldn’t render selective advantage has to explain how, since we are measuring that very thing. For it not to give selective advantage to its recipients, it would have to be shown that the health improvement it gives does not lead to an increased chance of passing on one’s genes to the next generation. How could it not?

                “Read the article, that’s one point of the rebuttal of Kastrup’s claims.”

                I’ve read enough of Kastrup to not want to waste my time reading more. He’s a quack.

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

                « I’ve read enough of Kastrup to not want to waste my time reading more. He’s a quack. »

                I was inviting you to read the article we’re replying under… not Kastrup’s piece. Beneficial traits need not to have been positively selected to remain in the pool of traits.

                « For it not to give selective advantage to its recipients, it would have to be shown that the health improvement it gives does not lead to an increased chance of passing on one’s genes to the next generation. How could it not? »

                Read me more carefully. I didn’t say it doesn’t provide any advantage, I said it need not for it to exist. And as it might, given its ability to make you go on your business instead of feeling bad, there you have the possible reason it’s still here, as it was. Because what works is good enough and most of the time need not to be changed (from a biological pov), and modifications of this ability at the root of placebo (learning, cf infra) would probably have unfortunate effects outweighing the potential small amelioration. But beware, the “why” in evolution (why is x having y function) is quite a tricky and tangently unscientific question, especially concerning humans where culture and nature are interwoven; prefer the “how”.

                Placebo might be the result of the reward system (and people spoke of the implication of the hippocampus in another comment): having been to the doctor, having received colorful pills, having felt warm, etc, are learnt to be associated with feeling better afterward. Then, the reward system delivers you endorphins, other substances that tend to mitigate felt pain, make you feel comfortable etc the next time you encounter such events, in anticipation of the actual treatment and to motivate you.

                One thing is important, placebo is no cure, you don’t cure a cold, a bleeding or a cancer with placebo but you reduce knee joints pain, headache, stress, this kind of things. it’s more about subjective experience and feedback loops related to pain and other systemic problems like inflammation, problems that are under control of hormons or neurons.

          • Posted February 7, 2020 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

            You don’t need consciousness to have a role, in order to explain your examples. If consciousness is simply some byproduct of neurons’ activity, then, when you brainstorm, you’re actually experiencing what it’s like to have different sets of neurons interacting with each others.
            When you have placebo effect (also known as contextual effects), that’s the same: some of your neurons analyse the situation, like seeing a lab coat, feeling warm, hearing assertive speech, etc, and by their activation, by their activity, they interact with sets of neurons linked to neuroendocrine or neuroimmune functions, leading to health benefits.
            The same goes with “unconscious” processing, it can be described by the activity of neurons whom, at this particular moment, you don’t experience what it’s like for them to be active and interacting with other sets of neurons.

            This is a coherent approach that doesn’t let slip in the idea of a mind (like its own cause) acting on matter, thus avoiding this unsolvable dichotomy.

            Damien Vasse

            • Posted February 8, 2020 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

              Pretty much same as above. Neurons fire all of the time all over the body yet consciousness doesn’t seem to have much to do with them. So until you can explain a difference between reflexes for example and what we associate with consciousness you don’t really have an explanation.

              Incidentally I’m not making an argument with something non-physical. I’m just asserting an empirical fact that learning, particularly unlimited associative learning, requires consciousness. We don’t learn while asleep.

              • Posted February 8, 2020 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

                “We don’t learn while asleep.”
                I’m not sure the science is settled on this, you can facilitate the processes of memorization happening during sleep using stimuli.

                Consciousness is associated with certain brain waves, that means a certain type of coordinated activity. Hence, not all neural activities are relevant in this phenomenon, and some can be brought to consciousness when usually they’re not part of it.

                And requiring to be conscious to learn doesn’t necessarily leads to consciousness as an actor, a cause. The example of brainstorming applies in the same way: learning requires some sets of neurons to interact, sets of neurons or interactions of a kind that are the cause of experiencing consciousness.

          • Posted February 8, 2020 at 5:56 am | Permalink

            Yet learning, in particular, seems to require consciousness.

            I don’t think that is a proven assertion. I’ve just written a computer program that learns how to play noughts and crosses by trial and error. It’s based on MENACE except it doesn’t even know the difference between a legal and an illegal move at first.

            You may argue that it is not “true” learning but then I doubt you could come up with a definition of “true learning” that does not assume the conclusion.

            • Posted February 8, 2020 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

              I thought we were talking about evolution and biology here.

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 10:23 am | Permalink

                Were we? I thought we were talking about consciousness. It’s far from obvious to me that evolution and biology are necessary for something to have consciousness.

                Furthermore, your claim is that learning requires consciousness. I provided a counter example. The fact that it is not an evolved or biological counter example is neither here nor there.

              • Posted February 10, 2020 at 6:54 am | Permalink

                You’re argument is ridiculous.

                First, I am talking in the context of evolution and biological organisms.

                I said consciousness is learning or, at least, very similar to learning and/or makes use of the same processes.

                But let me grant that your little software game can learn.

                Your argument is something like this. I said a cat is animal. Therefore, I must also be stating that an animal is cat.

                That consciousness is learning for biological organisms doesn’t preclude that an unconscious machine or program might also be able to learn. Consciousness is learning doesn’t mean all learning is consciousness.

              • Posted February 10, 2020 at 7:50 am | Permalink

                It is your assertion that consciousness and learning are identical. I don’t think the definitions of either consciousness or learning are predicated on the thing being conscious or learning has to be biological.

                To me it looks like you are just defining the word “consciousness” as a synonym for “learning”. You can do that if you like, but I don’t think they are the same and you have failed to convince me that they are. Your attempt to restrict the discussion to biological systems seems to me more like an attempt to paper over the cracks in your argument than a serious attempt to test it.

                In the end, the structures in animals that seem to be responsible for both consciousness and learning are computers, computers crafted by evolution, but but computers nonetheless.

            • Posted February 9, 2020 at 9:59 am | Permalink

              Let quote Baars again:

              “The possibility of unconscious learning
              has been debated for decades, but there
              appears to be no robust evidence so far for
              long-term learning of unconscious input.
              Phenomena like unconscious priming
              operate over a range of seconds, and
              cannot account for learning and
              development.

              In contrast, the evidence for learning
              of conscious episodes is very strong.
              A major brain structure, the
              hippocampus, seems specialized for
              learning conscious events. Although
              hippocampus is activated in the
              subliminal mere exposure effect, this is
              unlikely to be its primary function.”

              • Posted February 9, 2020 at 10:32 am | Permalink

                That seems to be talking about humans specifically. Even so, it is somewhat dubious.

                When I first learned to drive, I found it very difficult to operate the controls of the car. However, now I have acquired the “muscle memory”, I don’t really have to think about it at all – at least not consciously. I have no memory of reprogramming the neutrons to, for example, coordinate all the actions necessary to change gear smoothly. I just preactised and eventually I could do it.

                Try this. Somebody trained a neural network to play asteroids. His computer learned how to play an arcade game.It’s not conscious.

              • Posted February 10, 2020 at 7:00 am | Permalink

                “When I first learned to drive, I found it very difficult to operate the controls of the car.”

                Exactly my point. It required attention to learn. After learned, it becomes automatic. Once the neural circuits are created and/or reinforced consciousness isn’t required. Consciousness is largely a serial activity so to achieve parallel processing what is learned needs to made automatic. That’s the evolutionary “reason” for consciousness.

              • Posted February 10, 2020 at 7:19 am | Permalink

                The process of it becoming automatic is an unconscious process.

              • Posted February 10, 2020 at 9:44 am | Permalink

                Maybe, though consciousness does allow us to play things over and roll them around in our minds. It wouldn’t surprise me if consciousness plays a significant role in the automatizing of actions like gear-shifting.

            • Posted February 10, 2020 at 11:39 am | Permalink

              Also, restricted to biological organisms alone it is still false. The clinical neurology literature (including popularizations like that of Sacks) is full of examples of people learning and not remembering (i.e., learning) that they had learned. This is important and is one way into (my) thesis that emergent materialism and eliminative materialism should be taken on a case by case basis. I argued 20+ years ago in a student paper for this using memory specifically: there is nothing in the nervous system that corresponds to the folk psychological notion of memory, so *it* “can be eliminated”. But other putative subsystems or characteristics may be different.

          • Posted February 8, 2020 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

            I see. I think I misunderstood your point, and I appreciate the clarification.

  16. darrelle
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    The first thing I want to know is what are “fundamental theoretical reflections on the mind – matter – problem

    Nobody does self aggrandizement better than philosophers, not even rap artists.

    I was criticizing to myself in just about a point for point correspondence with Jerry’s critique as I read Kastrup’s thoughts on consciousness. I was already composing a reply starting with the obvious and possibly intellectually dishonest false premise of #2 above, but as I should have expected Jerry covered it all much better than I could have.

    In any case, can I please have my doctorate of philosophy now? I do understand academic freedom and 90% of everything is crap, but when so many bona fide philosophers reason so poorly, and possibly so intellectually dishonestly, that’s how philosophy earns a bad reputation.

    This, from Kastrup’s FreeWiki is funny as heck.

    “Kastrup proposes an idealist ontology that makes sense of reality in a more parsimonious and empirically rigorous (my emphasis) manner than main-stream physicalism (=materialism) (my emphasis), bottom-up panpsychism, and cosmopsychism. The ontology proposed by him and some of his colleagues also offers more explanatory power than these three alternatives, in that it does not fall prey to the “hard problem of consciousness”“[1], the combination problem, or the decombination problem, respectively.
    His thesis can be summarized as follows: There is only cosmic consciousness. (NOT my emphasis!”

    This is on the same level as Goop. I couldn’t decide where to stop the quote. It’s all great stuff, go read the whole thing.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      So when Copernicus dethroned us from the solar system it was, I guess, only a matter of time (half a millennia) before people started scrambling to make the whole of the universe conscience and then we are all important and at the center again.

      • Posted February 8, 2020 at 6:20 am | Permalink

        Actually, I would argue it wasn’t Copernicus who dethroned us from the centre of the solar system. Copernicus’s model of the solar system wasn’t as good as the then current Ptolemaic system in the sense that it was better at predicting the motions of the heavenly bodies, and also less complex.

        If it hadn’t been for Kepler whose attempts at matching the model to the orbit of Mars both improved and simplified it and Galileo who provided further observations that showed it to be correct, Copernicus would be as well know to us today as Aristarchus of Samos.

        The point is that, it doesn’t matter how wonderful your hypothesis about the Universe is, unless it is confirmed by observation, it is meaningless.

      • Posted February 10, 2020 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        It didn’t take that long. Berkeley did it in the 18th century.

    • grasshopper
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      That sounds like dialogue from “String Theory And Panspsychism Meet Abbott And Costello.”

    • Posted February 8, 2020 at 6:11 am | Permalink

      You’re right:

      What is special about Kastrup is that he argues very precisely and logically, point by point, and not only appeals to a general a priori understanding or metaphysical convictions. He attaches great importance to the fact that his theory explains the empirical findings both from quantum physics and from neurophysiological research well and simply.

      It really doesn’t matter how logical his arguments are. The only way to tell if his ideas match reality is by comparing them to reality i.e. by observation and experiment. Until Kastrup identifies some experiments by which we might falsify his hypothesis, it’s just talk.

  17. rickflick
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I have always been skeptical about consciousness being “the hard problem”. To me it seems likely it is simply the effect of what the brain/mind does. The human mind is capacious enough to include the concept of “me” and “my mind” and “her mind” and “our minds”. The ability of shuffling abstract notions in the mind is simply an extension of shuffling concrete objects. Where’s the mystery? Qualia are really a phantom. They are simply what we call certain mental effects which are based in physical states of the brain. Correlates, if you will. But, it seems some philosophers milk all the unknowns as a mystery and write articles and papers ad nauseum, not doubt to keep up their publication quota.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      I have always been skeptical about consciousness being “the hard problem”.

      +1. Qualia happens, we’re increasing our scientific understanding of how it happens, but to reproduce experience (e.g. know what it’s like to be a bat) might be technologically infeasible.

      If there is a hard problem, it’s a technological problem, not a scientific problem.

  18. Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    After searching for consciousness.
    He ends up losing his mind.

  19. karaktur
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Maybe he should try drinking a large bottle of vodka then when he regains consciousness he might reconsider the material foundation for it.

  20. Chukar
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    “Not even wrong” is a correct and succinct summation.

    I thought Kastrup ran off the rails with logical step #2, “The salient characteristic of materialism is that all entities “are defined and exhaustively characterized in purely quantitative terms”.”

    Then I read Jerry’s comments following that, and saw that Kastrup began to leave the tracks at #1: “Evolution is a materialistic process.” I very much liked Jerry’s example of gravity as a “naturalistic process” but not a kind of “stuff” as the term “materialistic process” implies.

    I hope Kastrup wouldn’t argue against gravity being an influential factor in evolution. That simply wouldn’t fly.

  21. Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I don’t find Churchland’s argument for dismissing the Hard Problem at all compelling.

    “The argument presumes that if a conscious phenomenon, say smelling mint, were genuinely explained by a scientific theory, then a person who understood that theory should be caused to have that experience; e.g., should be caused to smell mint. Surely, however, the expectation is unwarranted.”

    The conclusion is unwarranted, as she says, but that doesn’t eliminate the Hard Problem. The question of why smelling mint feels the way it does remains. Understanding how our brains process smell is among the Easy Problems. After solving the Easy Problems, the Hard Problem is what remains.

    Where the Hard Problem worriers go wrong, IMHO, is in looking to some kind of woo to solve it. The problem is one of perspective. I doubt we can even imagine what an answer would look like. Even if one subscribes to one of the many woo “solutions”, the question still remains.

    • rickflick
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      The question of why smelling mint feels the way it does remains. Yes, it does, but is it a fair question? “Why”? If you accept that the smell of mint triggers specific olfactory receptors and produces a characteristic pattern of neuronal firings in the brain, then you’re essentially done. For it to “feel like” the smell of mint only says it is a pattern that will always be associated with mint. It’s not really a hard problem unless you insist that “feels like” is something you find mysterious. It’s just correspondence.

      • Posted February 7, 2020 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        The cognitive scientist may be done but the philosopher keeps on going. They seek an explanation of why mint smells like mint and not like hot dogs. I’m just not sure what kind of answer would satisfy them. I agree that it isn’t mysterious. It’s just unknown.

        • rickflick
          Posted February 7, 2020 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

          Yes, but…the part that is unknown is picayune. The smell of mint, or the color blue, simply feel like specific sensations. That’s all that needs to be said. The question of why mint doesn’t smell like hotdogs is an absurd question.

          • Posted February 7, 2020 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

            I agree, there is no substantive question remaining.

            • GEORGE SEPSO
              Posted February 8, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

              One person’s neural etiology in the grasp of a particular concept,(C), or in the thinking of a particular thought, (T), is another’s neural etiology in the grasp of some other concept or in the thinking of some other thought. This is the theory of Functionalism in the philosophy of mind—no less in experimental neuro-psychology. Functionalism holds that there are no “characteristic” neural patterns or neural topographies in token instantiations of concepts or thoughts. Suppose functionalism also holds true for sensory experiences. If one person’s pain, neurologically as well as phenomenologically-speaking, CAN be another’s pleasure, than everything is up in the air. Truly no hope for a science of phenomenal experience. Whew, that was a long way to go for a platitude!

          • Pau
            Posted February 7, 2020 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

            “The question of why mint doesn’t smell like hotdogs is an absurd question.”
            Not necessarily. My father claims to have lost his sense of taste. He says everything tastes like water. That may well be a scientific question that can be answered.

            But I understand your point.

            • rickflick
              Posted February 7, 2020 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

              Water? Interesting. I wouldn’t be hard to lose weight. But, I sympathize.

          • Posted February 7, 2020 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

            I wasn’t arguing that the Hard Problem was an important one to answer right now. In fact, I like Churchland’s suggestion to wait until we understand how the brain works, especially consciousness, and then revisit the Hard Problem, perhaps to dismiss it entirely as explained.

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

              That’s a very reasonable approach. Only, I think, based on naturalism, the result will be simply a more detailed account of what we already can guess.

          • darrelle
            Posted February 7, 2020 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

            +1 on all your comments in this sub-thread.

          • Spacedrace
            Posted February 7, 2020 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

            But why does it smell like anything? Why is there an experience of it? Yes you hook all this stuff up in the right sequence and it produces the sensation, but what property of matter allows for a sensation to begin with. Is consciousness a calculation or phenomenon of the interaction of particular types of matter. How can we conceptualize the sources of the phenomenon in terms of analytical explanation. I don’t think that language works, I don’t think we have developed language enough or even have the perceptual capability to ask the right questions let alone experimentally reveal these occurances.

            • Posted February 7, 2020 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

              The choice is easy. Consciousness is a “calculation” made by our brain based on input from our sense organs. How a particular perception feels to us is something shaped by evolution to enable a behavioral response that facilitates our survival. The feeling is simply the internal part of the response.

              • Spacedrace
                Posted February 7, 2020 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

                All of that is true, but isn’t it reductive to stop at that conclusion at least in terms of discussing the phenomenal experience of consciousness,why does it feel, what is inherent in the physical makeup of our brains that allows it to feel. I think our brains are us, I’m not arguing for a soul, I’m saying that a mere calculation doesn’t explain consciousness. Those calculations move energy and matter, what is in all of that energy(what is energy Btw) that allows for something to do more than just happen.

              • Posted February 8, 2020 at 11:14 am | Permalink

                I understand the sense of mystery at why it feels the way it does to process a sensory perception but I think that it comes from my lack of expectation (knowledge) of what it should feel like. It is hard for me to consider that feeling as strange and needing explanation without having some rational explanation from which the experience differs.

                I go along with Churchland’s advice to wait until we understand how the brain works and then ask the question again, assuming there is still a mystery which there may not be.

              • rickflick
                Posted February 7, 2020 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

                I think the details are not yet fully at hand. But, “why do we feel?”, is like asking why does gravity aggregate matter. Subjective experience is what the brain does. The taste of sugar triggers desire for more sugar. It also causes us to identify, remember, reflect on, what the experience was like. We measure the desirability of sugar in terms of brain states that correlate with the exposure to it. If we did not have a distinct response to sugar, we’d need a chemistry lab to understand it as important to our survival. Nature doesn’t expect us to have a chemistry lab handy. It does what it can.

              • Sebastian
                Posted February 8, 2020 at 7:27 am | Permalink

                You know, guys!
                You’d save yourself a lot of trouble if you’d just read Kastrup’s papers. They’re online for free.

              • Posted February 8, 2020 at 7:31 am | Permalink

                Ah, here we have the courtier’s reply again, something I anticipated. One should be able to read the article without having to read all of his papers, so thanks but no thanks. I was responding to the piece he wrote.

                It’s typical that when someone claims an article was misinterpreted, they send you to read a gazillion other pieces by the author. I am SO familiar with this tactic. If we misinterpreted Kastrup, and I doubt I did, then HE NEEDS TO WRITE MORE CLEARLY AND SAY WHAT HE MEANS.

                It’s pretty clear that he thinks consciousness could not have evolved, and if we’re misinterpreting THAT, the the guy needs writing lessons.

  22. eric
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    #2 and #6 seem the most egregious.

    #2 mistakes the map for the landscape. Science tries to quantify everything in order to model it effectively. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything we attempt to model will necessarily be quantized. Sometimes (*cough* most of the time *cough*), science’s models just approximates nature.

    #6 is probably right (!!), but has no point. Consider plants and trees – lifeforms without brains or nervous systems. I doubt any serious scientist would claim they have ‘experience or qualia’ the way he means it. So yes, he’s right, in that ‘qualia or experience’ are not necessary for survival, descent with modification, mutation, e.g. evolution. But saying “x is not evolutionarily necessary” is a far cry from demonstrating “x could not have evolved.” Wings are not evolutionarily necessary – not all organisms have them. But some do. Consciousness, “qualia” could be like wings.

  23. William Boecklen
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Qualia may be simply an evolved device for organizing sensory information into broad categories that make rapid recall and necessary actions possible.

    The observation that characteristics of qualia may have a phylogenetic signature refutes the notion that they could not be the product of evolution.

    Increasingly sophisticated qualia are likely the result of increasing brain size which is certainly under natural selection.

    • YF
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      I agree. That’s why I don’t think ‘inverted’ qualia are a possibility. Painful stimuli will always feel painful rather than pleasurable (unless, perhaps, one is a masochist). The feeling of pain is a ‘label’ assigned by the nervous system which denotes the survival-relevant significance of the noxious stimulus to the organism.

  24. phoffman56
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    “..Not all philosophers screw up when discussing issues of neuroscience, of course (Patricia Churchland and Dan Dennett are exceptions)..”

    I think you meant, in more detail

    ‘Patricia Churchland and Dan Dennett are among these exceptions)’

    But maybe I’m confused for no reason??

  25. Posted February 7, 2020 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    I would dismiss all this stuff through Feynman’s definition of philosophy as ‘wishful thinking’. Further, consciousness is our super memory in action … and we have a hierarchy of memories that come from experience. As an example, consider lucid dreaming as one of those levels in the hierarchy. Memory also explains why a dead person isn’t conscious anymore … duh.

  26. Posted February 7, 2020 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    First, I doubt the spandrel argument for consciousness. I define consciousness as the ability of an organism to create a dynamic model of its environment and itself acting upon that environment and the possible reaction of the environment in order to achieve its ends. There are many features—the ability to distinguish self from other, the ability to model the consequences of the actions of the self, and even the ability to contemplate its own mental processes or the mental processes of others. That seems so darn useful to the organism in so many ways, it would be surprising if it were a side effect.

    Second, I don’t get Kastrup’s argument that qualia could not come about that by materialistic evolution. Colors are qualia and the advantage of color vision for some species is obvious. As is our desire to eat sweet (quale) things and avoid stinky (quale) things. As long as organisms respond to qualia, and those actions can be advantageous, qualia may evolve as a means to an end. Maybe I am missing something.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      I suspect your version of consciousness includes more brain functionality than most others would. Many of these abilities you mention probably work when we are not consciously thinking about them. Some say that all consciousness does is report on what other brain subsystems do. A lot of this is a matter of how we choose to define the word, of course.

      • Posted February 7, 2020 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        The difference I think is the difference between acting reactively and acting proactively. Acting reactively does not require consciousness, and a lot of what we do is that. But planning requires consciousness I believe (that is what I was trying to describe).

  27. wenismcbeanis
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    “Another philosopher embarrasses himself in public, and you don’t have to be a professional philosopher to see through his arguments.”

    Oh the irony. Jerry, you are in over your head. Kastrup is an idealist not a panpsychist. I hope he responds to this piece of yours; he will crush you.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      You know what, pal, as I said, it’s not important whether he’s a panpsychist or not; that’s not the main weakness of that muddled piece. All I could do was interpret his statement: “Phenomenal consciousness cannot have evolved. It can only have been there from the beginning as an intrinsic, irreducible fact of nature.”

      That in itself is bullshit, but leaving that aside, the rest of his piece is just dumb. To say that consciousness could not have evolved is an extraordinarily stupid statement, even if consciousness wasn’t subjected to direct selection. It’s amazing how arrogant the fellow is about neuroscience, and so willing to tell us what could and could not have evolved.

      No, I’m not in over my head, but you’re out the door.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      Make it so. Kastrup is the one who will be crushed. His position is so ridiculous, he starts half-crushed already. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      Kastrup is relatively easy to knock down because:

      1) his argument against materialism is based on a erroneous definition of materialism
      2) his understanding of “the hard problem” is the traditional, faulty one that assumes there is a hard problem.

      We’ve seen both of these erroneous lines of thought many times before and they never stand up to scrutiny.

      • Posted February 10, 2020 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        3) He develops no theory of properties, despite having to do so.

        (Hint: there are lots of good materialist theories of properties. I like Bunge’s or Armstrong’s, but …)

  28. Frank Spence
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Materialism is structure and function, yes, even for things such as gravity. Gravity is defined by observations of the way objects affect each other. Structure and function. Stuff doing stuff. Describe one materialistic phenomena that can’t be described in terms of structure and function. In fact materialism requires that all observable phenomena be ultimately describable in structural and functional terms, and that everything real be observable either directly, or indirectly by its observable effects.
    Now pay attention to experience – sights, sounds, tactile sensations, emotions, thoughts, etc. Are they actual? Of course (I am speaking for myself and would invite you to do the same). Is there a non-zero possibility that experience does not exist (as suggested by Dennett). No. And to suggest that experience is an illusion (as Dennett has) is frankly silly; illusions ARE experiences. There is zero possibility that experience is not actual. (This is NOT a claim about the veracity but rather the reality of experience. How about the contents or impressions of experience – self, others, world, matter? Yes, there is a non-zero possibility that everything EXCEPT experience is non-real, that they are illusions.
    Now, is there a structure and function explanation at least theoretically for every nuance of observable human behavior? Of course there is. Materialism requires that there be.
    Next, is it fair to say that feeling sensations and emotions and thoughts is at least something more and different from interactions of matter that ostensibly explain the observations? That is, if it weren’t for the absolute first person reality of subjective experience, there would be no logical reason to say that there was such a thing as subjective experience, except as a metaphor for observed structure and function. Stuff doing stuff is all that materialism needs or CAN invoke in its explanations.
    So Dennett is right, sort of, in that, if materialism is correct (and not itself a metaphor to explain impressions within experience), then subjective consciousness is not actual, not real. But I for one cannot deny the absolute reality of experience (even if if what is real is an “illusion”). Interestingly, in contrast to the absolute reality of first person experience, claims about experience in others is subject to the same non-zero chance of non-reality as are materialist claims.
    I don’t know the answer to the hard problem, but there is one, and materialism is definitely not going to yield the answer.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      I’m amused at how assured you are in your last sentence. So what will yield the answer? Surely not philosophy. Maybe GOD???

      Give me a break.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      You misunderstand Dennett. He does not doubt that experiences exist. He’s just saying they are not what they appear to be. Much brain research has shown that our mental models are fabricated by our brains and do not reflect accurately the information brought in by our senses. The classic example is how we experience vision as if it was a camera with good resolution throughout its field of view when, in fact, we only have good resolution in a small section of the field. There are many more like this. All Dennett is suggesting is that consciousness and experience are likely also illusionary in much the same manner.

    • Posted February 10, 2020 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      This is simply wrong. Please review a theory of properties by a contemporary materialist (Armstrong or Bunge might be useful, as they are reasonably science friendly) and explain how your remarks apply.

  29. darrelle
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Seems to me this idea that consciousness is unnecessary for any organism, even vertebrates and the idea that it is not something that could have been selected for are speculations with little evidence to support them. The philosophical zombie concept is completely unconvincing. There is no reason to suppose it has any particular correspondence to reality.

    The truth is that we don’t really know how useful consciousness is for living things and therefore can’t reasonably speculate about how likely it is to have evolved. But the available evidence suggests that consciousness is common, at least among vertebrates, and that it is not digital but a spectrum as most things in real life are. These relatively uncontroversial observations support the view that consciousness does have a benefit that would be selected for, or that consciousness is an inevitable product of the general type of nervous system that evolved on Earth, and perhaps of calculating systems + sensors in general.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      My own view of consciousness is that it is the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking. It’s an attention mechanism directly akin to the one we use to direct our senses but it can also direct attention to our own earlier thoughts. Consciousness allows us to re-experience life events in a different context than we first experienced them. Assuming we survive an encounter with a predator, we can think about it later without the adrenaline pumping and without the time pressure inherent in escape.

      • Posted February 7, 2020 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

        I meant to add that this ability to reflect on earlier thoughts has obvious adaptive benefits. I can think about how I got away from the lion and come up with strategies, beyond simply running for my life, that have a chance of allowing me to survive my next encounter.

      • j bingham
        Posted February 7, 2020 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

        Yes. A wilfull reflection. And preceded by millions of years of dreaming when the unwilled mind still sussed out causes, coorelations and possibilities. That such a form of inner monlogue would arise during waking hours and prove to be evolutionarily advantageous via increasing our predictive capabilities seems reasonable.

      • GEORGE SEPSO
        Posted February 8, 2020 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        With language and “inner speech” there arrived, at least potentailly, a reflective grasp of one’s own thoughts and thinking. A kind of new object of experience upon which we might, if so disposed, think further. Ofcourse, there was the prior potential to reflect upon the thoughts of others, as expressed in language.

  30. Simon
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Good response. A singular of “qualia” is “quale” (read it somewhere.)

  31. Posted February 7, 2020 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    I’ll chime in with Jerry, Chukar, and eric: premise 2 is where the argument goes off the rails. Science need not be quantitative, although that’s always nice. (I doubt that it’s possible even in principle. Qualitative terms like “size”, “duration”, “charge” and the like are always paired with numbers, and there seems no way to define *all* of those away at the same time.) Having a crucial premise just plain wrong, the rest of Kastrup’s argument need not even be evaluated.

  32. Roo
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    After puzzling over this article for a bit, it seems to me that Kastrup is essentially coming back to something like the mind-body problem, and corresponding criticisms along those lines that I’m sure have been lobbed at materialism before (I’m not entirely clear on what point he’s making with evolution. I cannot tell if a. He doesn’t know what a spandrel is, which is my first impression but seems unlikely given his level of education or b. Whatever point he was making about functionality in evolution was lost on me. For example, maybe he meant ‘evolution involves observable change and observable change involves material things, while the act of observation itself is both not observable and does not change.’ If he was getting at something along those lines, though, again, I don’t think it was clear. And probably could have been expressed without invoking evolution, because it seems that mind-body type issues can be expressed against almost any background, so bringing evolution into it seems arbitrary and confusing.)

  33. EB
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    I think the main issue that is plaguing this debate on all sides is that there is no coherent idea of “physical” that can, a priori, say what counts and doesn’t count as as “material”, “physical”, “naturalistic”, etc. The whole strategy of a priori delimitation of the properties of matter has been untenable since the Cartesion “mark of the physical” (extension) was shown to be insufficient by Newton. No replacement has come ever since. Matter is whatever our best theories say it is. Period. If matter entails gravitation, so be it. If matter, in a certain organizaiton, secretes consciousness so be it. Same for free will. Chomsky made this argument very well in a 2009 article- “Mysteries of nature: how deeply hidden”, that I recommend highly.

    Panpsychists, “materialists”, or whoever, that think they can carve off a section of the universe as physical, and the rest as non-physical, need an argument for how they discovered those borders.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted February 7, 2020 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

      Panpsychists, “materialists”, or whoever, that think they can carve off a section of the universe as physical, and the rest as non-physical, need an argument for how they discovered those borders.

      Isn’t the materialists’ position that are no borders? (physical all the way down)

      • EB
        Posted February 7, 2020 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but they carve off what they take to be the non-physical parts, and discard them in the trash heap. What’s leftover at the end is all physical (by fiat), but what’s in the trashcan is non-physical. How someone can make a judgement that consciousness is necessarily non-physical (which some do), or that free will is non-physical (as most do) is what is at issue.

        In Newton’s day, just about all scientists (including Newton) said that gravity is non-physical, and so excluded it by fiat from science. They treated his laws as a mathematical result only, not really attributing them any significance in terms of having any existing physical counterpart, hoping that some form of contact mechanics would be end up being sufficient.

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted February 7, 2020 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

          Yes, but they carve off what they take to be the non-physical parts, and discard them in the trash heap.

          Then they’re not true materialists and they should be tortured until they confess to their blasphemy.

          • rickflick
            Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

            But, tortured nonphysically. Perhaps forced to listen to the accordion.

  34. Justin
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    “Any sensation in animals, be they bacteria or humans, involves some sort of qualia.”

    Philosophers define qualia as subjective experience, the “introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects” of mental lives. Attributing subjective experience to bacteria is pretty contentious.

    https://stanford.library.sydney.edu.au/archives/sum2003/entries/qualia/

  35. Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    I read the article this one is about a few days ago, and had many of the same thoughts as the author. Thank you!

  36. Anna
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this; I couldn’t pinpoint why the article was at first somewhat compelling but bugged me so much as clearly as you did. As a comment said below, arguments against naturalism always seem to misunderstand some aspect of evolution or what scientific explanation is supposed to do. I feel like if I ever find some philosophical theory that satisfactorily counters a naturalist viewpoint, that’ll truly be the day…

  37. Bob Murphy
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Kastrup is a well known crank. He’s been a big proponent of magical thinking (idealism) for years

  38. Todd Foster
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Excellent review and analysis. Ayn Rand commented on the elusiveness of the nature of consciousness, but I don’t have the reference at hand.
    As I recall it, the her point was that the fallacy of composition applies: the idea that study of neurological structures will explain the presence of consciousness is fallacious. Consciousness is a new and primary phenomenon, not merely an assemblage of modules. How it can arise from neurology or other materialist entities is bizarre and mysterious if true, as it seems to be. But then the idea that it’s mere “complexity” that generates consciousness is questionable too. Perhaps which complexity matters greatly.

  39. Ken
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    1. Saying that consciousness is intrinsic to nature is not the same as saying that everything is conscious.

    2. All Kastrup is saying there is that consciousness is inextricable from reality.

    3. By failing to prove that a mind independent reality exists, materialism itself has failed to produce the one piece of evidence that would make it true.

    • Posted February 8, 2020 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      Ah, another person who thinks that there is no external reality: that’s it’s all created by “mind.” It’s a remarkable illusion that there’s an external reality, isn’t there? It even tricks us into thinking that there was a reality that preceded the evolution of any organism.

      You are adhering to a religion, not an evidenced-based philosophy. “Satan made the universe appear as if it were real even before there were minds.”

      Crikey, I’m tired of this palaver. Ten to one you BEHAVE as if there is an external reality. Did you get vaccinated?

    • Posted February 10, 2020 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Recommended additional reading: Bunge’s “New Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous”.

  40. Remain Humble
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Carl Sagan talked about this in the last century.. He is famously quoted for his attempt at explaining dinosaur memory by some kind of universal psyche. This was to explain why so many cultures have pictures or carvings of dinosaurs thought to have been extinct way before Man evolved (there is obviously a more obvious explanation). Nothing new with the concept. But is it true? Is any of it true? We can discuss it as much as we want but if we can’t replicate it, then it remains in the realm of philosophy and therefore subjective. The interesting thing is that the author absolutely calls out the absurdity of the one argument by the absurdity of another.

  41. Cory
    Posted February 9, 2020 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    There are a lot of”ifs” in your explanation. The fact of the matter is that evolution by natural selection cannot explain consciousness. It never will because science without religion is lame and the institution of science has been looking down the wrong paths for so long it’s gonna need a hard reset. How many times do I have to read a sad little paper explaining adaptation as evolution? There are so many holes it doesn’t even have enough proof to be a theory. I would have personally gone back to the drawing board at Darwin’s doubt. But you WANT to believe it.

    • Posted February 9, 2020 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      Of course there are a lot of “ifs” because we don’t understand the answer yet. But to say that “evolution cannot explain consciousness” neglects the fact that consciousness is a product of the brain and the brain is a product of evolution.

      Join all the people who preceded you, pal, saying that the complexity of life, lightning, epilepsy, infectious disease, and so on “cannot be explained by science.”

      As for your view that evolution isn’t even a theory,and your approbation of “Darwin’s Doubt”, these brand you as an ID moron. I accept evolution because there’s evidence for it (I wrote the damn book). You denigrate it because, I suspect, you believe in a designer for which there’s not an iota of evidence.

  42. David Lindsay
    Posted February 9, 2020 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    There is room inside your argument for part of Kastrup’s. You mention what it is like to be a crustacean. One could argue that there is something it is like to be a rock aside from being pretty boring – the force that tends to maintain the rock from becoming something else. Perhaps that supervenes on the physical as well, but it shift the argument to: why are there many things instead of just one big thing? Which cannot necessarily be answered by physicalism/materialism or by panpsychism.

    • Posted February 10, 2020 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      There is a sense in which everything in a light cone is the same thing. There is a sense in which a local hubble volume is the same thing. There is also a sense in which the entire universe (“multiverse” to use the fashionable jargon) is also the same thing.

      A theory of *things* would tell you what is same and different. (And should allow relationalism about spacetime to be true, and also that Bohm may be right, after a fashion. Or a retrocausal view, like Stenger’s.)

  43. Posted March 27, 2020 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    “It [consciousness] need not have evolved by direct natural selection” — I agree. But I think that even if consciousness had somehow just emerged at some point, its impact on behavior would have been so consequential, that it would have been immediately subject to being “sculpted” by natural selection to eventually become like any other trait resulting from this evolutionary mechanism. Totally agree with all the rest! (https://medium.com/@cdelosada/the-emergence-of-consciousness-50d95601eae?source=friends_link&sk=c9db32d9847753a58178506432e55a68)

    • rickflick
      Posted March 27, 2020 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      I doubt consciousness “emerged at some point”. That’s like saying vision emerged at some point. Consciousness is a property that comes in degrees so I’d say it simply emerged over time. A flatworm has a relatively primitive sense of vision, and may be thought of as having a primordial form of consciousness. Thus, natural selection might well have shaped it from very early on, and doubtless did.

      • Posted March 27, 2020 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        I respectfully submit that you’re attempting to split a hair when we can barely see the head from which it sprouts. We don’t even have a good definition of what exactly consciousness is so I’m not sure it really does come in degrees. Some would definitely object to that. It could be something that one either has or not if its key is a particular neural connection. Some ancient creature could have had a mis-wired brain that involved this special connection and it and its ancestors benefitted hugely from it.

        • Posted March 27, 2020 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

          I think that the “come-by-degrees” idea is far more feasible. It seems quite natural (obvious?) that our closest relatives in the animal kingdom also have some sort of consciousness. And why not “lower” animals too. All a matter of degree. We are possible unique in that we also experience self-awareness — we’re conscious of our being conscious. But that too could be considered consciousness of a higher degree.

          • Posted March 27, 2020 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

            I believe that all the mammals are conscious but I can only say that because, IMHO, they all think more or less like we do. That makes it fairly safe to say without having to pin down the definition.

            Many think humans are perhaps an order of magnitude smarter or more conscious than other animals. I believe this to be a mistake. It is our culture that is orders of magnitude more powerful than that of other species. If we could eliminate culture in some human tribe as an experiment, we would find the lives of its members not that much different than those of other apes.

            • rickflick
              Posted March 27, 2020 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

              The problem I see with that is, how do you draw a line between mammal and non mammal consciousness? If you compare the lowest mammal with the highest bird or reptile, you’ll be in a fuzzy zone. It will look more like a continuum. Especially if you look historically at early mammals who emerged from reptiles. If you insist that, by definition, only mammals are conscious, then you’ve arbitrarily defined away the problem.

              • Posted March 27, 2020 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, I wasn’t trying to put the consciousness dividing line between the mammals and non-mammals, only objecting to it put between humans and non-humans. I suspect the dividing line between humans and non-humans is about spoken communication which allows our culture to be so much more than warning the rest of the tribe about snakes and eagles.

                Although I stick with my objection to a lack of definition, if I had to say which animals are conscious, I suspect all the birds, reptiles, fish, squid, octopus, and mammals to be conscious but not insects, though perhaps arachnids.

                If we take the ability to plan ahead as requiring consciousness, then lots of creatures have this. Of course, there’s lots of fuzziness with that too. Does a spider plan to stalk its prey or merely react to the sight of prey? Is there really a difference?

              • rickflick
                Posted March 27, 2020 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

                But, again, if you look at the most conscious insect and the least conscious fish or reptile that ever lived, you come back to the same difficulty. All of evolution is framed by gradualism so that humans have very much in common with creatures that lived a billion years ago, such as basic cell structure and function. So only if you can define consciousness as something insects can’t do, can you insist on such a boundary. You haven’t really achieved much. Whatever consciousness is, it seems to be a characteristic of things that react to the environment. As Dan Dennett says, we should not dismiss the notion that a Coke machine is conscious. If ever so slightly.

              • Posted March 27, 2020 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

                I know this is a hugely controversial area of evolution but isn’t it accepted that not all evolution is gradual? I’m not saying that consciousness wasn’t gradual but that it might not be. Given the brain’s responsibility, it wouldn’t surprise me if a very small change, say a neuronal connection that goes the wrong way, could make a huge difference to what the creature could think about.

                I didn’t define consciousness as what insects can’t do. That wouldn’t be fair to them. 😉

                That said, I agree with Dennett modulo a certain definition of consciousness. Though if coke machines are conscious, so probably are slime molds.

                My own feeling about what consciousness is all about is that it is the ability to introspect. A brain without consciousness feeds perceptions into concepts and then into actions. A brain with consciousness also feeds the concepts back into the perceptual apparatus so that they can be perceived. Conscious creatures are capable of meta-thought.

              • rickflick
                Posted March 27, 2020 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

                “My own feeling about what consciousness is all about is that it is the ability to introspect”

                With that definition you can begin to explore what happened when. Introspection, I’d say, is a pretty late entry into the consciousness game. So, if you define consciousness as introspection, you can think about what introspection really is and who does it well and not so well. It might have been a sudden event, but I really think it arose gradually in early hominids.

              • Posted March 28, 2020 at 1:06 am | Permalink

                I don’t know about that. I think many animals introspect but they have a set of concerns very different from ours. This is exactly what I mean when I say we lack a definition for consciousness. There are so many ways to look at even just a part of it like introspection.

        • rickflick
          Posted March 27, 2020 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

          “definition of what exactly consciousness is…” – true. I was thinking of a commonly accepted notion of being aware of our surroundings.

          It is certainly possible, I suppose, that all animals and early hominids were unconscious zombies and then one day, *bing*, someone said to her partner, “Hey, you know that whack on the head you gave me the other day? I think it rewired my neurons. Start calling me Nancy”, and the rest was history. I just think that’s extremely unlikely given any reasonable definition of consciousness and what we know about how the brain, and evolution work.

          • Posted March 27, 2020 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

            I agree. If there was an abrupt transition to consciousness, it was in a very primitive species. And it wasn’t a bonk on the head but a cosmic ray perturbing some DNA.

            • rickflick
              Posted March 27, 2020 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

              You’d have to describe the before and after behavior in order to show that DNA transition, and you’d need a refined definition of consciousness. There is no fossil record of behavior, so the idea will have to remain at the level of speculation. On the other hand, we do have a very plausible scenario in gradualism, which is the overall paradigm of evolution. What little we do know about past behavior is at least consistent with gradualism.

      • Posted March 27, 2020 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        I very much doubt it too. In fact I wrote in post I linked: “And even in the exceedingly unlikely event that consciousness had somehow emerged spontaneously, like an evolutionary byproduct…” I agree with the rest of your post too.


4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] via Muddled philosopher: Consciousness could not have evolved — Why Evolution Is True […]

  2. […] Muddled philosopher: Consciousness could not have evolved. Here’s another philosopher who’s wrecked himself on the shoals of reason and logic when trying to deal with consciousness. Not all philosophers screw up when discussing issues of neuroscience, of course (Patricia Churchland and Dan Dennett are among those who are pretty much on the mark), but so often many of them simply look ridiculous, at least to scientists, when they tell us what could be true and what cannot be true. Today’s article, by a philosopher who maintains that consciousness could not have evolved, is a prime example. The nescience is on view in an article from iai (The Institute of Art and Ideas) that’s wrong in almost every way that it could be (i.e., it’s “not even wrong”). […]

  3. […] Muddled philosopher: Consciousness could not have evolved — Why Evolution Is True […]

  4. […] Muddled Philosopher: Consciousness Could Not Have Evolved by Jerry Coyne […]

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