BLTC Research logo Naturalistic Panpsychism?

Golden House-Sparrow Book Of The Week

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by Michael Lockwood
(ISBN 0-631 16183-X)

Does introspection grant us privileged insight into the intrinsic nature of the stuff of the world? Michael Lockwood's startling answer is yes. Quantum mechanics may indeed supply a complete formal description of the universe. Yet what "breathes fire into" the quantum-theoretic equations, it transpires, isn't physical in the traditional sense at all.

        Alas, books with such portentous titles as Mind, Brain and the Quantum have a habit of finding themselves filed in the New Age section of bookstores. Orthodox materialists of a mischievous bent might unkindly place Michael Lockwood's work there themselves. Yet Mind, Brain and The Quantum is scientifically-informed philosophy at its very best. It marshals quantum theory, neurobiology, cognitive science and the philosophy of perception to attack the mysteries of consciousness from a daringly original perspective. Unsurprisingly, the assault on our ignorance ultimately fails. Rarely has a failure been more potentially fruitful nor so painstakingly honest.

        The intellectual stakes are high. For natural science, dubiously assisted by its unwelcome ally, contemporary analytic philosophy, is grappling with an ostensibly impossible dilemma even in its time of triumph.

        On the one hand, quantum mechanics seems to offer a mathematically complete and empirically all-encompassing description of the physical world. QM was originally conceived to account for the failure of the classical Newtonian paradigm to cope with the domain of the very small. Yet a multitude of quasi-independent but convergent strands of evidence leave little doubt that an appropriately relativised Schrödinger Equation exhaustively describes the behaviour of the stuff of the world on the macro-level as well. In fact many cosmologists nowadays treat our pocket universe itself as a quantum event. By current lights, we're the inflated product of a spontaneous fluctuation of the quantum vacuum, "just one of those things that happen from time to time".

        Indeed the more exacting and inventive the tests that are thrown at QM, the greater the clouds of intellectual glory it trails in its wake. Modern technology in large measure depends on its extraordinarily fertile formalism to make it all happen. If QM were to be jettisoned, or even downgraded to some instrumentalist tool-kit, then only conspiratorial or miraculous explanations would remain to account for the technological success-story of modern civilisation.

        And yet...

        On the other hand, the completeness of QM seems completely at odds with the intrusive existence of subjective first-personal experience. It is not just that consciousness plays no role in the interactions mediated by the forces of nature as understood by the standard model or its more speculative extensions. It also eludes even the most bombastically handwaving attempts to reduce it to anything less disreputable to the third-person ontology of the natural sciences as a whole.

        As standardly interpreted, the equations of physics could have generated a universe whose distribution of matter and energy was type-identical to our own but which was populated instead by sub-Dennettian-style zombies. Consciousness grafted on to such a zombie-world could only be a redundant excrescence. Sentience of any kind would be a purely arbitrary add-on which could only spoil the elegance, simplicity and ontological economy of its unified theoretical description.

        Yet of course the real world isn't like that. Instead the equations of QM serve to model a different sort of beast altogether. They model a fantastical but familiar world where, according to conventional materialist wisdom at any rate, some fields of matter and energy ("brains") are what-it's-likeness; and a lot aren't. Given that one electron, say, is precisely identical in its physical properties to any other electron, it's bizarre, to say the least, how such a particle can, for instance, participate as an insentient constituent of an equally insentient extra-neural carbon atom in a packet of rice noodles on one day; and then, the day afterwards, literally become part of a mind/brain's post-prandial experience of finding a joke funny.

        Mass, charge and spin, however complexly they're configured, and however different the properties of the proverbial whole from its parts, just don't seem by any right to lend themselves to composing the experience of finding anything e.g. subjectively funny; or sad, or beautiful, or poignant, or anything touchy-feely in any degree whatsoever. Experience resists all attempts to derive it from anything else; or to show how it could logically "supervene" from a complete specification of the microphysical facts. For simple electrons aren't supposed to be any "hairier" in their properties than a black hole; and the physicist would vehemently dispute that anything had been left out of their minimal list of defining attributes. So there's not in any obvious sense an extra magic ingredient one might hope to smuggle in with which to pull qualia out of the magical hat. Yet every second, dotted all over the world, according to the orthodox materialist credo at least, a bizarre discontinuity occurs: the miraculous intra-uterine metamorphosis of a bundle of insentient nerve cells into the rudiments of foetal awareness. "The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile", in the words of one enthusiastic reductionist. How, what, where, when, why - and who - are details left unexplained.

        The notion that adding a few simple molecules to developing nervous tissue can instantaneously switch on the light-bulb of elementary sentience, as it were, should strike all but the most complacent materialist as incomprehensibly weird. But the world's [allegedly] most drastic and discontinuous state-transition of all tends to be passed over in embarrassed silence by the scientifically pious, not least by the otherwise militantly triumphalist band of Dawkins-style evangelical materialists. And we might just as well ascribe the switch-on to the tooth-fairy for all the illumination natural science provides. By analogy, if one accepts the existence of, say, personal God, then swallowing the Doctrine of Transubstantiation, for instance, or the mystery of the Trinity, ought really to be pretty small beer for any True Believer. Yet given the canonical ontology of physical science, the daily [re-]incarnation of consciousness in living flesh amounts to a miracle-and-a half.

        This won't stop scientistic philosophers calling the process "naturalistic". Such verbal placebos are soothing to the troubled rationalistic mind. Their frequent repetition shouldn't delude us into thinking that we've a clue as to what's actually going on. The breathtaking pace of technological advance notwithstanding, the unexplained phenomena of what-its-likeness in the world ought to tell us there's something horribly wrong at a very basic level with our stock repertoire of scientific verities. For whether one is dreaming or awake, communing with elfin extraterrestrials on DMT or with a good book on a cup of warm cocoa; whether it's subtle and allegedly cognitive; raw and searingly painful; or whether it's spectacularly audiovisual and sensual in texture, the generic property of what-it's-likeness has as great - and arguably greater - claim to being an irreducible feature of he world as anything. A more scandalously exotic cast of anomalous phenomena can scarcely be imagined.

        It's important not to trivialise what's intellectually at stake here in the hope the dilemma can be bypassed. For arguably consciousness is the most significant feature in the known, and quite possibly unknown, universe. This is because it ontologically generates, not just the capacity to ascribe significance, but phenomenologically significant states in the first instance. Such an unCopernican perspective sits uncomfortably with one's rival intimations of insignificance in the great scheme of things. It may also offend one's notions of ontological respectability. Yet a state of mind can no more merely seem to matter than merely seem to hurt; since the seeming is the very phenomenon itself. There are plenty of notional possible worlds or A-life simulations where nothing matters or has any significance; in these fantasy realms, such terms just wouldn't refer. Alas in our world, where they do refer, the only things that inherently matter, and some of which matter quite frightfully, are scientifically inexplicable.

        When mind is analytically denatured by philosophers and treated at the purely formal and syntactic level, the explanatory picture may admittedly seem much less bleak. Some sort of programmatic functionalism, whether micro or macro, narrow or teleo-, promises to deliver an information-theoretic account aimed at naturalising the purely computational aspects of mind in a Darwinian setting. It is here that the pretence that consciousness can marginalised - or bracketed off from anything else - can at times seem tantalisingly fruitful.

        Yet even here, the question whether, for instance, semantic content can really be naturalised, or alternatively whether it can be intelligibly denied as non-natural, is of course moot. At least formal models of mind can issue a series of (badly depreciated) promissory notes. But if none of the component disciplines of science can explain, or give the ghost of an explanation for, the myriad flavours and generic phenomenon of conscious mental life, then how can science ever hope to be ontologically unitary and theoretically complete?

        In this desperate impasse, something has to give. The options at face value all seem quite hopeless.

Interactive dualism violates the well-attested conservation of matter and energy. It offers no workable idea how, why or where mind and matter stage their dubious liaisons; nor how a dualistic ontology could be reconciled with the principle of evolution by natural selection and the whole neo-Darwinian synthesis.

Epiphenomenalism, though popular with many practising scientists, can't explain how its putatively causally impotent epiphenomena could get one to worry about the mystery of their existence in the first instance.

Idealism in the traditional unscientific sense is unrefutable. Unfortunately, it reduces the existence of the mind-independent world to an astoundingly self-consistent but unmotivated con-job by God or unknown aliens.

Eliminative materialism implicitly demands an untenable direct realist theory of perception. This is needed to extrude otherwise undeniable sensory experience from the individual sensorium into the material world itself. It also exacts a crippled capacity for introspection or emotional literacy, and at first blush it requires an ability to feign anaesthesia that surpasses all rational understanding.

Emergentism is a wordy form of smoke-and-mirrors obscurantism. It elaborately restates the problem of consciousness but goes no way to solving it.

        There are other, still less promising, proposals. What is Michael Lockwood's solution?

Mind, Brain and The Quantum first catalogues the by now well-rehearsed limitations of functionalism when construed, unwisely, as yielding a solution to the phenomenology of mind rather than as a fruitful attempt to work a way around it. There follows a splendid synoptic review of contemporary neuroscience, followed by a wide-ranging discussion of relativity and quantum field theory.

        Lockwood emphasises that for all the formidable empirical and formal-theoretic successes of the material sciences, the inherent nature of matter is no less inscrutable than that of consciousness. This inscrutability doesn't, as critics of quantum theory's relevance to consciousness allege their opponents are claiming, entail that the two mysteries must somehow automatically cancel each other out, solving the World-Knot in one fell swoop. But given (what may blandly be described as) the intimacy of matter and consciousness, it would be odd indeed if the ultimate explanation of their nature didn't exhibit a deep link between them at worst; for mysteries should not be multiplied beyond necessity.

        For reasons to be explained, Mind Brain and the Quantum argues for a fundamental redefinition of what it is to be "physical". The formalism of physics and its usual interpretation must be decoupled.

        Just what is that formalism normally taken to signify at present?

        Ironically for an academic trade which prides itself on definitional clarity and intellectual rigour, analytic philosophers have long been lax to the point of vacuity in their embrace of physicalism and naturalism as the royal route to epistemic legitimacy. In practice such categories exclude little of any great substance - and promiscuously let in all sorts of queer stuff in consequence. "Physical" and "naturalistic" are epithets applied to whatever the fundamental equations are deemed by the theorists to describe. Yet insofar as one visualises what the QM equations mean, one's visualisations will be wrong. Even with the aid of tortuous or supposedly popularising analogy, the quantum world doesn't lend itself to mental pictures or their allied concepts at all. That doesn't mean it's possible psychologically to stop oneself doing it; it means merely that in practice one can't stop deluding oneself, even when protesting otherwise.

        This analysis isn't just an exercise in idle psychologism. How seriously one takes Putnam's pessimistic meta-induction - that since all previous scientific theories failed to refer, most likely ours will too - depends on one's choice of focus. One either concentrates on the natural sciences' track-record for successful reference (dismal on any straight descriptivist, as distinct from emptily causal, account of our referential practices); or one focuses instead on the development of the sciences' formal apparatus, and the technical triumphs it yields. Newton's law of gravity, for instance, may have been subsumed and technically superseded by the general relativistic field equations, and they in turn by superstring [M-theory etc] theory; but Newton's inverse square law isn't ever going to be replaced by an inverse cube law. It's still approximately true.

        Not so Newton's ontology; and probably not so ours either. For the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics is matched by the unreasonable ineffectiveness of our conceptual capacity to understand what the equations should be telling us.

        However, from a psychological perspective once more, there's usually more to materialist prejudice than ill-considered physics-envy. For the notion that matter is somehow more familiar and better understood than mind is bound up in practice with direct realist theories of perception. Direct realism involves the intuitive, implicit but hard-to-sensibly-formulate idea that mind is somehow in direct contact with extra-cranial physical objects. By way of outright contrast, Lockwood defends a quasi-Russellian account of perception. He explicates Bertrand Russell's notorious remark that one never sees anything but the inside of one's own head; and his much-ridiculed claim that what a physiologist sees when he examines someone else's brain is really part of his own. Russell was essentially right, though one has to be careful here. It's important not to swallow the direct realist's conception of "the brain": if only an inferential realism about the rest of the world is possible, then one might better speak of the mind-dependence of brains than the brain-dependence of minds. "Perception" is a systematically misleading term. So too is "observer" (For one twist to the tale, see Alone Amongst The Zombies, section 2.15 of The Hedonistic Imperative.)

        Then comes the key move in Lockwood's argument. One may have been expecting a distinction was going to be drawn between, on the one hand, a knowable but possibly deceptive phenomenology of perception; and, on the other, an unknowable realm of semantically and epistemologically problematic things-in-themselves that lies behind it. But this is to situate the mind-brain as outside the world rather than in it. And we are as much a part of the world as is anything else. Crucially, Lockwood argues that we can know the intrinsic properties of at least one part of the world as they are in themselves in the form of the processes of our own mind/brains. We do in fact have privileged access to the one part of the cosmos not hidden behind the veil of perception. Such quite literally palpable good fortune has been overlooked. This has been because it transpires that the intrinsic properties of at least this one small part of the world are radically at variance with what our na´ve interpretations of physical theory might have led us to expect.

        In one of the few deliberately provocative observations in an otherwise soberly-written book, Lockwood remarks that introspective psychology has lessons to teach fundamental physics. This is a suggestion which seems unlikely to be welcomed with deferential humility by practising physicists.

        The proposal isn't, however, quite as outrageous as it sounds. For it's easy to slip indifferently between talking of brain states as being (type- or token-) identical with mental states; and talking of brain states as causing mental states. But identity is not a causal relationship; nor can causes operate between mere humanly-contrived levels of description. One's occurrent mental state of, say, experiencing a sharp, jabbing pain is not caused by one-and-the-same brain state with which it is identical; any more than it is causing that concurrent brain state. It simply is an intrinsic and ontically subjective property of the noumenal world.

        As it stands, this is a boldly imaginative but curiously unsatisfactory way of reconciling mind and matter. For Lockwood ascribes to the stuff of the world a mutating, hybrid nature. Sometimes it's supposed to be intrinsically and self-disclosingly subjective. This is when it's transiently instantiated in the functional architecture of a mind. Sometimes instead it's supposed to be insentiently physical in the traditional sense. In his ensuing long, interesting and densely-argued examination of quantum mechanics and time, Lockwood nowhere (unless I've misunderstood him) really gets to grips with exactly how or why this duality of properties is resolved. Nor is it clear from Lockwood's account precisely how quantum theory sheds light on the issue. He rightly finds the panpsychist suspicion that what-its-likeness is the stuff of the world "preposterous", even though his self-disclosure proposal lends it corroboration. But in pardonably mistaking the implausible for the improbable, he doesn't subject panpsychism to the sustained critical analysis it demands. This failure is unfortunate in a field where viable options are in short supply.


"Mathematics may be defined as the subject where we never know
what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true."

Bertrand Russell

It's hard to do justice to a position which any Western sophisticate finds so far-fetched. Nonetheless here's an effort to do so, if only because its tenets lack the incoherence of the rest of a bad bunch of candidates.

        Orthodox materialism is itself implicitly committed by a mind-brain identity theory to granting that consciousness can be described, in principle, by a set of equations. For if mental states are (at least token-) identical with brain states, and if brain states are described by the connection and activation evolution equations of a nervous system in turn ultimately reducible or replaceable by the mathematical formalism of QM, then by definition what-it's-likeness is subject to the same mathematical encoding too. Thus a world of first-person facts, or minimal what-it's-likeness ["microqualia"], may be formally captured in third-person scientific equations. This relationship holds even if it is methodologically infeasible and heuristically useless for us to begin any such ascription of numerical values and systematic relationship-mapping of microqualia in practice.

        Now combine this insight with two others.

        First, if pressed, most physicists, when wearing one hat at least, would probably concede with Hawking that physics itself offers no guide to "what breathes fire in the equations and makes there a world for us to describe". Or, in Wheeler's variant metaphor, "what makes the Universe fly?"

        But if, second, Lockwood's argument that one does apprehend directly the intrinsic properties of at least part of the world, in the form of the current state of one's mind/brain, can be sustained, then one really does know something of the fire in the equations, albeit not something derived from a study of physics as currently understood.

        Let's assume that one is composed exclusively of the same fundamental building blocks as everything else in the Universe. Though these building blocks are indeed configured most distinctively, one is not ontologically separate in one's substance from bits of stuff elsewhere. If so, then a radically conservative and ontologically parsimonious hypothesis is simply that a minimal, uninteresting and unreflective what-it's-likeness is itself the noumenal stuff of the world which the field-theoretic [etc] equations describe. Mathematical physics is really about patterns of consciousness.

        From this radical monistic idealist standpoint, there is no need to sacrifice the completeness of quantum mechanics, assuming, of course, that its formalism is construed, for now, "topic-neutrally" rather than as endorsing insentient material matter in the traditional sense. Instead, the solutions to the QM equations - usually beyond us to solve admittedly - yield the precise values of the different modes of subjectivity. It's these different microqualia that the QM formalism algorithmically compresses. Although we don't in practice know how to just read those subjective values off from the solutions to the equations, let alone understand the structural relationships between their diverse textures that the formalism encodes, there are no extra hidden variable(s) that need to be added. We merely have to find the right interpretation - i.e. the right encoding and decoding scheme - for those we've got. The huge diversity of field-theoretic [etc] values encodes the huge diversity of phenomenal values of consciousness in a way that the simple building-block particles of orthodox materialism can't hope to match. For materialism doesn't just have to explain the generic phenomenon of consciousness. It must also account for, and mathematically quantify, its immense diversity and precise textures. And the orthodox ontological tool-kit is a singularly sparse and impoverished affair that simply isn't up to the job.

        Recast for sloganeering purposes in computational terms, consciousness is the hardware on which the Universe runs; while its different values are akin to its software. Since functionalism in its purest form couldn't care less about mere stuff, this novel conception of the world's natural substrate shouldn't pose a problem for information-theoretic approaches to mind. Hence the insights of functionalism can be retained. This is so even though its habitual materialist ally of convenience is dropped.

        Disconcertingly, an ontologically subjective substrate to the world is consistent with Darwinism too. Evolution through natural selection acting on random genetic mutations is typically regarded as a pre-eminently materialist theory. This is due to its subversion of ancient religious dogma on the divine origin and nature of Mankind. Yet Darwinian principles are substrate-neutral. They govern information-bearing self-replicators which are, for instance, newly-seeded A-life patterns in silicon computers; and they govern self-replicating patterns of micro-subjectivity too. According to scientised panpsychism, after millions of years of evolution, the differential reproductive success of some such micro-self-replicators was enhanced when they stumbled on code for vehicles hosting simple experiential manifolds (minds/egocentric virtual worlds). These dynamic, (almost) real-time simulations have developed into systems of an awesomely well-orchestrated complexity. But the development process doesn't, and couldn't, involve the inexplicable and effectively magical feats of ontological transmutation that materialist orthodoxy dictates. To describe this water-into-wine trick as "anomalous" taxes one's capacity for intellectual charity to its limits and beyond. Consciousness is not an anomaly for materialism; it's a refutation.

        Now consider the most fundamental level of all. Fields/superstrings/branes (etc) in physics are usually defined, and can certainly be construed, purely mathematically. So a panpsychist ontology shouldn't of itself really be a problem here either. The word "physical" isn't doing any useful work. Indeed when maths and materialism get muddled by their hybrid physicist practitioners, it is tempting to(mis)quote Kant: [fundamental] science is only as good as its mathematics. "Maxwell's theory [etc] is Maxwell's equations"; and not his ontological commitment to the ether. Or perhaps: "fundamental science is just metaphysics with numbers". For sure, panpsychism and relativistic quantum field theory don't immediately spring to mind as natural bedfellows. Yet possibly this is more a reflection of human psychology than any deep-seated incompatibility.

        So what might be the arguments against naturalistic panpsychism construed as the ontological fire in the equations of a formally complete QM? I'll briefly note six and outline the likely tenor of potential rejoinders.

FIRST, it will be alleged, naturalistic panpsychism doesn't explain consciousness at all. It just shifts the problem elsewhere.

This is misleading. Positing a fundamental field-theoretic subjectivity as the stuff of the world doesn't explain why there is something for the equations to describe rather than nothing whatsoever. That might be over-ambitious. [I still have a stab at the fundamental problem in Much Ado about Nothing.] What the subjectivist posit does instead, however, is to dissolve the otherwise intractable mind/brain problem by reconstruing mind as a gene-driven organisational triumph rather than an ontological novelty. Human exceptionalism has its limits; and this is one of them. For the monistic idealist, the so-called Explanatory Gap doesn't even arise. It's an artefact of materialist metaphysics.

        Perhaps our intellectual dizziness-factor when trying to integrate mind-models and brain-models is so high because of our [false] implicit folk-theory of perception. We experience (or more commonly, recall pictures of) classical grey porridge-like lumps ("brains"). We therefore find it impossible to imagine how they can spawn pains, gorgeous sunsets, nostalgic memories, etc. Yet classical grey porridge brain-lumps exist only in the mind of the observer (strictly, only as data-driven virtual world-simulations in different minds). There are no mind-independent brains. Even so, the equations we use to capture the behaviour of the micro-stuff composing those ill-begotten monstrosities are still substantially correct. This is because the formalism field-theoretically describes the independently-existing minds that have evolved over millions of years of natural selection; hence the successes of modern neuroscience and neurological medicine.

SECOND, naturalistic panpsychism is presumably committed to the notion that things like tables and chairs are conscious. This is absurd.

Absurdity is a lame, inductively disconfirmed and psychologistic truth-criterion. One tends to invoke it when unable to think up a decisive or indeed any argument against something with which one reflexively disagrees.

        But no, naturalistic panpsychism isn't saying that tables and chairs have minds. It is their constituents that are posited [on the panpsychist analysis] to be bits of uninteresting and minimally organised what-it's-likeness. Effectively they're just aggregates. In fact tables and chairs qua tables and chairs have no mind-independent existence; though, lest this claim be misunderstood, it should be noted that light reflected from the humanly-engineered distribution of matter and energy in the local environment naturally leads our mind/brains to carve up their resultant world-simulations in this particular way. Humanly-constructed categories or otherwise, items of furniture lack the functional and/or phenomenologically-bound integrity prerequisite of minds. Critically, they don't form the QM-coherent states needed for experiential manifolds. In a monistic panpsychist world, our linguistic terms for furniture are just picking out distributed fields of brute what-it's-likeness instead.

        This sounds daft. But ascribing what-it's-likeness to constituents of tables isn't much dafter than its ad hoc ascription to complicated lumps of cellular porridge. Their elemental primitives are the same in each case.

THIRD, naturalistic panpsychism ignores the demonstrably non-conscious nature of much mental processing. One of the safer results from cognitive science and experimental psychology surely consists in the proven inaccessibility of much of what goes on in our brains to conscious mind. From our performance of, say, mental arithmetic to the phenomenon of spuriously rationalised post-hypnotic suggestion, and from everyday linguistic processing and sentence-production to blindsight, subjects just aren't aware of most of what's going on in their heads or how they do it. The mind isn't transparent to itself; it's largely opaque. Only the odd, murkily translucent and often misguided hints from introspection - heavily contaminated by folk-theory - give us a clue to the brain's workings "from the inside".

This objection rests on a confusion of two separate questions. One issue turns on how it is possible for the tightly integrated but in some respects functionally autonomous modules of a mind-brain can come to participate in, or have access (or otherwise) to, each others' contents in an apparently unitary experiential manifold. When they don't, or do so incompletely, this disunity leads to, but can't answer, a second issue. Do the multiple micro-constituents of our mental modules jointly and/or severally instantiate (a quite possibly functionally irrelevant) what-it's-likeness? This question isn't easy to determine experimentally. One may sincerely report having no awareness of something (as in blindsight experiments). Yet if the speech-generating mechanism [and indeed other parts of a composite psyche] doesn't have access to the properties of the relevant micro-experience, then the sincerity of such avowals is irrelevant.

        By investing all modules with rudimentary consciousness, panpsychism might appear to overpopulate the world with minds. Yet this too rests on a misconception. It is minimal what-it's-likeness, not mentality, that is ubiquitous. There is no need for the panpsychist, any more than for the carbon-chauvinist, to ascribe phenomenal minds even to, say, sophisticated silicon robots. This is because unless silicon circuitry ever sustains functional isomorphs of the extraordinary binding relationship and its proposed K40 mechanism characteristic of our organic mind-brains, [or the hypothetical warm coherent quantum states formally describing experiential manifolds needed to defeat Sellars' "grain problem"?] then inorganic automata may lack any unitary phenomenal awareness no less than does, say, a table. Even if tomorrow's robots don't host futuristic quantum computers - a moot point - this won't preclude the behaviour of mature third-millennium silicon robots from being systematically interpretable as more intelligent than our own efforts. It's just that each of their functional counterparts of our organic mind-brains will be phenomenologically punctate rather than unitary. Inorganic robots may be intelligent, but "not as we know it".

FOURTH, the notion of ownerless experiences is incoherent. Pains, thought-episodes, tickles and the like can't be free-floating. To exist, they must be part of a person. Persons aren't ubiquitous, so neither is experience. So panpsychism is false. QED.

The metaphor of "ownership" is hard to unpack here, but it's worth a try.

        On a subjectivist ontology, sometimes what-it's-likeness is organised into composite functional minds; and sometimes it's not. Over the aeons, thanks to the playing out of non-equilibrium thermodynamics (psycho-dynamics?!), certain information-bearing, self-replicating punctate patterns of what-its-like-ness ("genes") generate organised mind/brains/egocentric virtual worlds. Adaptive virtual worlds that are informationally sensitive to their local environment will serve as disposable vehicles for our genes' continued self-replication. The clonal 100% genetic identity - and consequent (technically selfish) cooperation - of the neuronal constituents our genes manufacture helps to sustain the illusion of the ontological primacy of persons - and personally-"owned" experience - rather than their constituent mind-dust. Maladaptive rather than fitness-enhancing misattribution of experience is characteristic of schizophrenia and other psychotically disturbed states. But in general the DNA regime offers only a remorselessly gene-moulded way of ordering experience. There will be others.

        For example, consider this particular pre-fronto-cortical thought-episode; or your functional equivalent. It isn't literally owned by anything external to itself, except in the sense that we are all parts of the Universal QM Wavefunction. Though that fleeting self-reflexive thought happened to be embedded in a composite mind, it didn't have to be so; something type-identical could ultimately be synthesised and endlessly replayed in a test-tube. A linguistically-clothed self-referential thought might seem to be the unique pinnacle of evolutionary development; but it's not fundamentally different from a self-intimating, self-referentially painful experience found way down the phylogenetic tree. Sophisticated if still wrong-headed concepts of enduring self-identity came late in evolution. Analogously, there's no reason to think that pain suddenly springs into being only when an infant starts conceiving itself as a bona fide proto-person.

FIFTH, surely it isn't seriously being maintained that atoms or, heaven help us, superstrings, n-branes etc, are conscious? For a start, they're simply too small.

One can be travelling for miles through the open countryside. Then one wakes up in one's armchair. The prodigious expanses of one's recent dreamworld are quickly reinterpreted as the electrochemical firings of a few cubic centimetres of nervous tissue. If there's a problem with panpsychism, it's not the issue of size. Well within the bounds of materialist orthodoxy, it may be conceded that the physically small can encode the phenomenally large.

        The naturalistic panpsychist will still wish to postulate a minimal size to the fundamental psychon, as it were, of subjectivity. After all, consciousness must be quantised strictly in accordance with the QM formalism if the rationale of the scientifically naturalised doctrine of panpsychism is to be preserved. Yet small, high-energy systems may conceivably exemplify intense subjective states no less than their large low-energy counterparts.

        As to the notion of atoms being conscious, it rests on an misconception of the problem. It invites one first to conjure up a fuzzified, notionally superposed, but in practice still classical image of an atomic mini-solar system, a model one formally disavows. Next one mentally adds on to this materialist cartoon a tiny experiential tickle. There is clearly a mismatch. One then tends to rebel at the sheer preposterousness of the juxtaposition. Quite rightly.

        On the modern-day scientific panpsychist account, there are no atoms in the ordinary sense of the word. The equations that describe [and allow us to manipulate] what we construe as atomic matter are instead encoding something whose intrinsic nature consists in microqualia - fields of what-it's-likeness itself.

        This isn't mere instrumentalism. It isn't being suggested that the equations are a mere calculational device used to "save the phenomena". The equations are exhaustively describing the behaviour of real, mind-independent stuff; though if one's predilections are sensibly nominalist, then the abstracta of the formalism can in principle be converted into something ontologically innocuous. But this is topic-neutralism with a vengeance. Quantum theory needs to be rescued from the clutches of the physicists.

        There's clearly a lot more to be said. Here I'll just tackle one FINAL point.

Naturalistic panpsychism doesn't yield any new, testable predictions. So why should we take such a metaphysic seriously?

Perhaps indeed we shouldn't. Yet our usual, and notionally materialistic, hybrid metaphysic isn't testable either. The idea that some bits of the world are devoid of subjectivity is no less metaphysical than its converse. Unlike panpsychism, however, orthodox materialism doesn't confine itself conservatively to extrapolating from a known phenomenon - i.e. one's own experience, however (mis-)interpreted. Instead it wildly conjectures the existence of a new ontological category. This is a mode of mass-energy that is also insentient. Such a conjecture lacks supporting empirical evidence. Indeed it has no testable consequences. It has only an overpowering sense of plausibility to back it up.

        So what remains is the mind-boggle factor. Panpsychism just doesn't feel right to most of us, whether its guise is austere, quantitative and quantum field-theoretic as defended here; or instead wild, woolly and blooming with New Age Cosmic Consciousness. Hence the temptation to lapse into ridicule or deliver the quick one-line put-down is rarely far away.

        Now I suppose it's epistemically possible, just about, that the solution to the mystery of consciousness will turn out to be of the retrospectively obvious, now-why-didn't-I-think-of-that variety. Yet a darker suspicion would be that we'll be very lucky indeed if the answer to the conundrum is merely as mind-wrenchingly implausible as a quantum-mechanical panpsychism.

        Just as likely, I fear, is that McGinn and the New Mysterians are right, and that the solution may transcend our conceptual resources altogether.

photo of baby elephant and its mother

Talks 2015
Video Interview
Some Interviews
Social Media 2016
Utopian Pharmacology?
Much Ado About Nothing
Cosmic Consciousness for Tough Minds
Quantum computing: the first 540 million years
Physicalistic Idealism: a Testable Hypothesis (2016)

E-mail Dave

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