A bit on Panpsychism—part 2: Why the idea is basically problematic, and what could be a different (and hopefully better) alternative

I continue from my last post. While the last post was fairly straight-forward, the subject-matter of this post itself is such that the writing becomes  meandering.

The basic trouble with panpsychism:

The primary referent for the concept of consciousness refers to one’s own consciousness. The existence of the same faculty in other beings is only an inference drawn from observations. If so, and in view of the two facts discussed in the last post, why can’t a similar inference be extended to everything material, too?

Well, consciousness is observed to exist only in those beings that are in fact alive. Consciousness is fundamental, sure. In Ayn Rand’s system, it even is a philosophical axiom. But qua a metaphysical existent, consciousness also happens to be only an attribute, and that too, of only one class of existents: the living beings.

Here, we will not get into the debate concerning which species can be taken as to be truly conscious, i.e., which species can be said to have an individualized, conscious grasp of reality. Personally, I believe that all living beings are conscious to some extent, even if it be only marginal in the more primitive species such as amoebae or plants.

However, regardless of whether plants can be taken to be conscious or not, we can always say that material entities that are not alive never show any evidence of being conscious. Your credit cards, spectacles, or T-shirts never show any evidence of being engaged in a process of grasping reality, or of having a definite, internal and individualized representation of any aspect of reality—no matter in how diluted, primitive or elementary form it may be posited to exist, or how fleetingly momentary such a grasp may be asserted to be. Consciousness is an attribute of only those beings that actually have life. You can’t tell your credit card to go have a life—it simply cannot. For the same reason, it can’t have the faculty to know anything, speaking literally.

Now, coming to the phenomenon of life, it is delimited on two different counts: (i) Life is an attribute possessed by only some beings in the universe, not all. (ii) Even those beings which are alive at some point of time must eventually die after the elapse of some finite period of time. When they do, their physical constituents are no different from the beings that never were alive in the first place. (This “forward-pass” kind of a logical flow is enough for us here; we need not look into the “backward-pass”, viz., the issue of whether life can arise out of the purely inanimate matter or not. It is a complicated question, and so, we will visit it some time later on.)

The physical constituents of a living organism continue to remain more or less the same after the event of its death. Even if we suppose that there is a permanent loss of some kind of a *physical* constituent or attribute at the time death, for our overall argument (concerning panpsychism) to progress, it is enough to observe and accept that at least **some** of the physical aspects continue to remain the same even after death. The continued existence of at least a part of physical constituents is sufficient to establish the following important conclusion:

Not all physical parts of the universe are at all times associated with living beings.

Given the above conclusion, it is easy to see that to speak of all parts of the reality as possessing consciousness is an elementary error: Not all parts of reality are alive at any point of time, and consciousness is an attribute of only those beings that are alive.

An aside related to reincarnation:

Even if reincarnation exists (and I do believe that it does), what persists in between two life-times is not consciousness, but only the soul.

In my view (derived from the ancient Indian traditions, of course, but also departing from it at places), the term “soul” is to be taken in sense of an individual (Sanskrit) “aatmaa.” An “aatmaa,” in my view is, loosely speaking, the “thing” which is neither created at birth nor destroyed at death. However, it is individual in nature, and remains in common across all the life-times of a given individual. Thus, I do not take the term “soul” in the sense in which Aristotle and Ayn Rand do. (For both Aristotle and Ayn Rand, the soul comes into being at birth, and ceases to exist at death.) Further, in my view, the soul has no consciousness—i.e., no feelings, not even just the desires even. For more details on my view of soul, see my earlier posts, especially these: [^][^][^].

The important point for our present discussion is this: Even if the soul were to be an attribute of all parts of the entire universe (including every inanimate objects contained in it), we still couldn’t ascribe consciousness to the inanimate parts of the universe. That is my main point here.

Another idea worth entertaining—but it is basically different from panpsychism:

Following the above-mentioned analysis, panpsychism can make sense only if what it calls “elements of consciousness” is something that is not in itself conscious, in any sense of the term.

The only idea consistent with its intended outcome can be something like a pre-consciousness, i.e., some feature or attribute or condition which, when combined with life, can give rise to a consciousness.

But note that such a pre-condition cannot mean having an actual capacity for being aware; it cannot represent the ability to have that individualized and internal grasp of reality which goes when actual living beings are actually conscious of something. That is the point to understand. The elements that panpsychism would like to have validated cannot be taken to be conscious the way it asserts they are. The elementary attributes cannot be conscious in the same sense in which we directly grasp our own consciousness, and also use it in our usual perceptions and mental functioning.

Even if you accept the more consistent idea (viz., a pre-conscious condition or a soul which may be associated with the non-living beings too), panpsychism would still have on its hands another problem to solve: if consciousness (or even just the pre-consciousness) is distributed throughout the universe, then for what reason does it get “concentrated” to such glaringly high degrees only in the living beings? For what metaphysical function? To allow for which teleological ends? And, following what kind of a process in particular? And then, what is the teleological or metaphysical function of the elements of consciousness?… From what I gather, they don’t seem to have very good ideas regarding questions and issues like these. In fact, I very much doubt if they at all have _any_ ideas in these respects.

Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder [^] notably does touch upon the animate vs. the inanimate distinction. Congratulations to her!

However, she doesn’t pursue it as much as she could have. Her main position—viz., that electrons don’t think—is reasonable, but as I will show below, this position is inevitable only when you stay within the scope of that abstraction which is the physical reality. Her argument does not become invalid, but it does become superfluous, when it comes to the entirety of existence as such (i.e., the whole universe, including all the living as well, apart from the non-living beings). To better put her position in context (as also those of others), let us perform a simple thought experiment.

The thought experiment to show why the panpsychism is basically a false idea:

Consider a cat kept in a closed wooden box. (Don’t worry; the sides of the box all carry holes, and so, the cat has no problem breathing in a normal way.) Administer some general anathesia to the cat, thereby letting her enter into a state of a kind of a deep sleep, being physically unresponsive—in particular, being unresponsive to the external physical stimuli like a simple motion of the box. Then place the cat in the wooden box, and tie its body to a fixed position using some comfortable harnesses.

If you now apply a gentle external force to the box from the outside, the cat-plus-box system can be easily described (or simulated) using physics; some simple dynamical evolution equations apply in this case. The reason is, even though the cat is a living being, the anaesthesia leads it to temporarily lose consciousness, so that nothing other than its purely physical attributes now enter the system description.

Now repeat the same experiment but when the cat is awake. As the box begins to move, the cat is sure to move its limbs and tail in response, or arch its body, etc. The *physical* attributes of her body enter the system description as before. However these physical attributes themselves are now under the influence of (or are a function of) an additional force—one which is introduced into the system description because of the actions of the consciousness of the cat. For instance, the physical attribute of any changes to the shape of its body are now governed not just by the externally applied forces, but also out of the forces generated by the cat itself, following the actions of her consciousness. (The idea of such an additional physical force is not originally mine; I got it from Dr. Harry Binswanger.) Thus, there are certain continuing physical conditions which depend on consciousness—its actions.

Can we rely on the principles or equations of physical evolution in the second case, too? Are our physical laws valid for describing the second case, too?

The answer is, yes. We can rely on the physics principles so long as we are able to bring the physical actions produced by the consciousness of the cat into our system description. We do so via that extra set of the continuing conditions. Let’s give this extra force the name: “life-physical force.”

Next, suppose the entire motion of this box+cat system occurs on a wooden table. The table (just as the wooden box) is not alive. Therefore, no special life-physical force comes into the picture while calculating the table’s actions. The table acts exactly the same way whether there is only a box, or a box with a non-responsive cat, or a box with a much meowing cat. It simply supplies reaction forces; it does not generate any active action forces.

Clearly, we can explain the actions of the table in purely physical terms. In fact doing so is relatively simpler, because we don’t have to abstract away its physical attributes the way we have to, when the object is a living and conscious being. Clearly, without any loss of generality, we can do away with panpsychism (in any of its versions) when it comes to describing the actions of the table.

Since panpsychism is a redundancy in describing the action of the table, obviously, it cannot apply to the universe as a whole. So, its basic idea is false.

Overall, my position is that panpsychism cannot be taken too seriously “as is”, because it does not discuss the intermediate aspect of life (or the distinction of living vs. non-living beings). It takes what is an attribute of only a part of the existence (the consciousnesses of all living beings), and then directly proceeds to smear it on to the entirety of existence as such. In terms of our thought experiment, it takes the consciousness of the cat and smears it onto not just the wooden box, but also onto the wooden table. But as can be seen with the thought-experiment, this is a big leap of mis-attribution. Yet a panpsychist must perform it, because an entire category of considerations is lacking in it—viz., that related to life.

What possibly would a panpsychist have to do to save his thesis? Let’s see.

Since consciousness metaphysically is only an attribute of a bigger class of entities (viz., that of living beings), the only way to rescue panpsychism would be to assert that the entire universe is always alive. This is the only way to have every part of the universe conscious.

But there are big troubles with such a “solution” too.

This formulation does away with the fact of death. If all beings are always alive, such a universe ceases to contain the fact of death. Thus, the new formulation would smear out the distinction between life and death, because it would have clubbed together both (i) the actions of life or of consciousness, and (ii) the actions of the inanimate matter, into a single, incoherent package—one that has no definition, no identity. That is the basic theoretical flaw of attempting the only way in which panpsychism could logically be saved.

Now, of course, since we have given a lifeline (pun intended) to the panpsychist, he could grab it and run with it with some further verbal gymnastics. He could possibly re-define the very life (i.e. living-ness) as a term that is not to be taken in the usual sense, but only in some basic, “elementary,” or “flavour”-some way. Possible… What would be wrong with that?

… The wrong thing is this: There are too many flavors now blurring out too many fundamental distinctions, but too few cogent definitions for all these new “concepts” of what it means to be a mere “flavour.”… Realize that the panpsychist would not be able to directly point out to a single instance of, say the table (or your T-shirt) as having some element of same kind of live which actually is present with the actual living beings.

If an alleged consciousness (or its elementary flavor or residue) cannot perform even a single action of distinguishing something consciously, but only follows the laws of physics in its actions, then what it possesses is not consciousness. Further, if an allegedly elementary form of life can have unconditional existence and never faces death, and leads to no actions other than those which follow from the laws of physics alone, then what it possesses is not life—not even in the elementary sense of the term.

In short, panpsychism is an untenable thesis.

Finally, let me reiterate that when I said that a pre-condition (or pre-consciousness, or “soul”) can remain associated with the inanimate matter too, that idea belongs to an entirely different class. It is not what panpsychists put forth.

Comments on what other bloggers have said, and a couple of relevant asides:

For the reasons discussed above, Motl[^]’s “proof” regarding panpsychism cannot be accepted as being valid—unless he, Koch, Chalmers, or others clarify what exactly they mean by terms such as “elementary” consciousness. Also, the elementary bits of “life”: can there be a \Phi of life too, and if yes, how does \Phi = 0 differ from ordinary loss of life (i.e. death) and the attendent loss of the \Phi of consciousness too.

As to Hossenfelder‘s post, if a given electron does not belong to the body of a conscious (living) being, then there exist no further complications in its physical evolution; the initial and boundary conditions specified in the purely physical terms are enough to describe its actions, its dynamical evolution, to the extent that such an evolution can at all be described using physics.

However, if an electron belongs to a conscious (living) being, then the entire of consideration of whether the electron by itself is conscious or not, whether it by itself thinks or not, becomes completely superfluous. The evolution of its motion now occurs under necessarily different conditions; you now have to bring the physical forces arising due to the action of life, of consciousness, via those additional continuing conditions. Given these additional forces, the system evolution once again follows the laws of physics. The reason for that, in turn, is this: whether an elementary particle like the electron itself is conscious or not, a big entity (like a man) surely is conscious, and the extra physical effects generated by this consciousness do have to be taken into account.

An aside: Philosophy of mind is not a handmaiden to physics or its philosophy:

While on this topic, realize that you don’t have to ascribe consciousness to the electrons of a conscious (living) being. For all you know, there could perhaps be an entirely new kind of a field (or a particle) which completely explains the phenomenon of consciousness, and so, electrons (or other particles of the standard model) can continue to remain completely inanimate at all times. We don’t know if such a field exists or not.

However, my main point here is that we don’t have to exhaust this question without observation; we don’t have to pre-empt this possibility by arbitrarily choosing to hinge the entire debate only on the particles of the standard model of physics, and slapping consciousness onto them.

Realize that the abstraction of consciousness (and all matters pertaining to it or preceding it, like the soul), is fundamentally “orthogonal” to the abstractions of physics, of physical reality. (Here, see my last post.) You don’t commit the error of taking a model (even the most comprehensive model) of physics, and implicitly ask philosophy of mind to restrict its scope to this model (which itself may get revised later on!) Physics might not be a handmaiden to philosophy, but neither is philosophy a handmaiden to physics.

Finally coming to Schlafly‘s post, he too touches upon Hossenfelder’s post, but he covers it from the advance viewpoints of free-will, mind-body connection, Galen’s argument etc.[^]. I won’t discuss his post or positions in detail here because these considerations indeed are much more complicated and advanced.

Another aside: How Galen’s argument involves a superfluous consideration:

However, one point that can be noted here is that Galen fails to make the distinction of whether the atom he considers exists as a part of a conscious (living) being’s body, or whether it is a part of some inanimate object. In the former case, whether the electron itself is conscious or not (and whether there is an extra particle or field of consciousness or not, and whether there is yet another field or particle to explain the phenomenon of life or not), a description of the physical evolution of the system would still have to include the aforementioned life-physical force. Thus, the issue of whether the electron is conscious or not is a superfluous consideration. In other words, Galen’s argument involves a non-essential consideration, and therefore, it is not potent enough to settle the related issues.

Homework for you:

  • If panpsychism were to be true, your credit card, spectacles, or T-shirt would be conscious in some “elementary” sense, and so, they would have to be able to hold some “elementary” items of cognition. The question is, where and through what means do you suppose it might be keeping it? That is to say, what are the physical (or physico-electro-chemical-etc.) correlates for their content of consciousness? For instance, can a tape-recorder be taken to be conscious? Can the recording on the tape be taken as the storage of its “knowledge”? If you answer “yes,” then extend the question to the tape of the tape-recorder. Can it be said to be conscious?
  • Can there be a form of consciousness which does not carry a sense of self even in the implicit terms? As it so actually happens, i.e., in reality, a conscious being doesn’t have to be able to isolate and consciously hold that it has self; but it only has to act with a sense of its own life, its own consciousness. The question asks whether, hypothetically, we can do away with that implicit sense of its own life and consciousness itself, or not.
  • Can there be a form of consciousness which comes without any mind-body integrating mechanisms such as some kinesthetic senses of feedback, including some emotions (perhaps even just so simple emotions such as the pleasure-pain mechanism)? Should there be medical specializations for addressing the mental health issues of tables? of electric switches? of computers?
  • Could, by any stretch of imagination, the elementary consciousness (as proposed by panpsychists) be volitional in nature?
  • Should there be a law to protect the rights of your credit card? of your spectacles? of your T-shirt? of a tape-recorder? of your laptop? of an artificial neural network running on your laptop?
  • To those who are knowledgeable about ancient Indian wisdom regarding the spiritual matters, and wish to trace panpsychism to it: If a “yogi” could do “tapascharyaa” even while existing only as an “aatmaa” i.e. even when he is not actually alive, then why should he at all have to take a birth? Why do they say that even “deva”s also have to take a human birth in order to break the bonds of “karma” and thereby attain spiritual purity?

More than three thousand words (!!) but sometimes it is necessary. In any case, I just wanted to finish off this topic so that I could return full-time to Data Science. (I will, however, try to avoid this big a post the next time; cf. my NYRs—2019 edition [^].)

A song I like:
(Marathi) “santha vaahate krushNaa maai”
Lyrics: Ga. Di. Madgulkar
Music: Datta Davajekar
Singer: Sudhir Phadke


One thought on “A bit on Panpsychism—part 2: Why the idea is basically problematic, and what could be a different (and hopefully better) alternative

  1. Pingback: [Short Updates] Results of a simplest possible extractive text summarizer | Ajit R. Jadhav's Weblog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.