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A conscious universe

Panpsychism vs idealism

20 07 09.goff.ata

At HowTheLightGetsIn Online 2020 Philip Goff, Bernardo Kastrup and Sophie Grace Chappell debated the fundamental nature of reality. Here, Philip defends panpsychism against the criticisms outlined by Bernardo in that discussion, and presents his own arguments against analytic idealism. Read Bernardo's response here.

For me, the highlight of the recent HLTGI festival was a two-hour discussion I had with Bernardo Kastrup, Sophie-Grace Chappell, and a number of festivalgoers on the Sunday evening. Bernardo defends a form of idealism: roughly the view that the physical world is grounded in a more fundamental, mind-involving reality. I have been meaning for a while to take a deep dive into his papers and really work out what I think of the view, and this event gave me a good excuse.

Although I ultimately don’t quite buy Bernardo’s idealist view, I still think it’s a really important contribution to the science and philosophy of consciousness. It’s early days in the science of consciousness, and the more worked out options we have on the table, the better.

Panpsychists aspire to account for human and animal consciousness in terms of more fundamental forms of consciousness.

Bernardo is an idealist and I’m a panpsychist. Both of us think the fundamental nature of reality is constituted of consciousness. But there are important differences. The main difference is that whilst panpsychists think that the physical world is fundamental, idealists think that there is a more fundamental reality underlying the physical world.

HTLGIPhilosopherheader5 Leading philosophers at HowTheLightGetsIn Global Read more How can a panpsychist think both that the physical world is fundamental and that consciousness is fundamental? The answer is that we believe that fundamental physical properties are forms of consciousness (more on how to make sense of this here). There are two ways of construing this: micropsychism and cosmopsychism. The micropsychist works within a particle-ontology interpretation of physics, and identifies basic forms of consciousness with the physical properties – mass, spin, charge, etc. – of fundamental particles. The cosmopsychist, in contrast, works within a field-ontology interpretation, and identifies fundamental forms of consciousness with universe-wide fields. According to micropsychism, the fundamental conscious subjects are particles, such as electrons and quarks. According to cosmopsychism, there is one fundamental conscious subject: the universe itself.

The fact that panpsychism admits of these two interpretations already deflects one of Bernardo’s criticism, namely that it employs a particle ontology, which Bernardo takes to be utterly refuted by contemporary science. Regarding the physics, I think things are not as cut and dried as Bernardo thinks. Whilst many physicists do prefer to think in terms of fields, there are empirically adequate particle-based interpretations of physics. But in any case, the point is moot as a panpsychist  need not commit to particles. In fact, in my first book I defended a cosmopsychist form of panpsychism and the view I am currently developing is a form of cosmopsychism.

According to analytic idealism, at the fundamental level there is a single conscious subject: the universal mind.

Panpsychists aspire to account for human and animal consciousness in terms of more fundamental forms of consciousness. There are broadly speaking two ways of doing this: reductionist and non-reductionist. Non-reductionists postulate basic principles of nature to bridge the gap from more fundamental to less fundamental forms of consciousness. For example, it might just be a basic law of nature that when you have conscious particles arranged in certain ways, consciousness corresponding to the whole emerges. Or if we’re thinking in terms of cosmopsychism: a basic law of nature that when the conscious universe is in a certain state, consciousness corresponding to certain of its parts emerges. Reductionist panpsychists, in contrast, hope to account for human consciousness without postulating special laws of nature. We don’t need special laws of nature to bring statues into being; you just need to mold the clay in the right shape and – bingo – you’ve got a statue. Similarly, the reductionist panpsychist thinks you just have to arrange conscious particles in the right way and – bingo – you’ve got a conscious brain.

Most of the objections Bernardo has put forth against panpsychism seem to be directed at the reductionist version. Again, I’m not convinced that things are so cut and dried. The objections he raises are certainly powerful challenges, but there are some very good responses to these kinds of challenges, and these responses have not been conclusively refuted. Having said that, I’m less and less sympathetic to reductionist panpsychism as time goes on. What I haven’t heard from Bernardo is an objection to non-reductionist panpsychism.

I turn now to Bernardo’s own view: analytic idealism. According to analytic idealism, at the fundamental level there is a single conscious subject: the universal mind. There are obvious similarities to cosmopsychism, but the difference is that for the analytic idealist the universal mind is a reality which underlies the physical world, whereas for the cosmopsychist the universal mind is the physical universe.

Before human and animal subjects emerged, on Bernardo’s view, all of the experiences of the universal mind were cognitively integrated, in something like the way the experiences of a human mind are cognitive integrated. As Bernardo puts it (p. 140 of this):

If we take the human psyche as a representative sample of how cosmic consciousness operates — which is the best we can do, really — we can infer that, ordinarily, these phenomenal contents are internally integrated through cognitive associations: a feeling evokes an abstract idea, which triggers a memory, which inspires a thought, etc.

Bernardo then tries to account for human/animal consciousness in terms of disassociation, a process through which a subset of the universal mind’s experiences cease to be cognitively integrated with the whole whilst remaining cognitively integrated with each other. This disassociated set of experiences, in virtue of its disassociation from the universal mind, then becomes a conscious subject in its own right.

Theories of consciousness aim to remove explanatory gaps: bits of the theory where you move from one fact to another without giving an intelligible account of how the transition happens. Bernardo and I both reject physicalism because we don’t think it can bridge the gap between the purely quantitative facts of physical science and the qualitative facts of consciousness. My concern with analytic idealism is that there seem to be two explanatory gaps at its core.

Firstly, the fact that subset of a conscious subject’s experiences become disassociated from the rest of its experiences does not seems to me to necessitate the existence of new conscious subject. Afterall, cognitive integration is just a matter of causal relationships (Bernardo confirmed this in our discussion). Why would the fact that some of my experiences become causally connected up in a certain way entail that a new conscious subject appears? Bernardo points to real-world cases of disassociation and suggests that they do seem to involve distinct subjects within the one person. That may well be correct; I’m not familiar with this literature. But that fact is compatible with many theories of consciousness. David Chalmers’ naturalistic dualism, for example, accounts for consciousness by postulating special psycho-physical laws that bridge the gap from the physical to the mental. If it is a fact that disassociation gives rise to multiple subjects, then a naturalistic dualist will simply tailor the psychophysical laws to account for that fact. Bernardo can’t assume without argument that dissociation alone is sufficient to produce a new subject because that would be to assume without argument the truth of his view.

In our discussion at the festival (which you can watch some of on Bernardo’s YouTube channel here), Bernardo responded that disassociation doesn’t bring into being a ‘fundamentally new’ subject, as organic subjects are not distinct from the universal subject. I regret that we didn’t get a chance to discuss this more, as I think this response misunderstands my objection. My objection wasn’t that disassociation doesn’t entail the existence of a new fundamental subject, or a new subject disconnected from the universal mind. My objection was that disassociation doesn’t entail the existence of a new subject in any sense. If there was just one mind, and that mind came to have certain of its experiences inferentially isolated from the others, all that would logically follow – in the absence of some further principles of nature – is that there is one mind with certain experiences inferentially isolated from the others. In other words, disassociation doesn’t entail that there is more than one mind. And yet we know there is more than one mind: there are at least 7.5 billion of them. Again, perhaps in real world cases, dissociation does lead to new subjects; but, again, that doesn’t show that disassociation alone accounts for the emergence of those new subjects (as opposed to, say, underlying psycho-physical laws of nature). I would argue that it can’t do, precisely because I don’t think disassociation alone entails the existence of a new conscious subject (by ‘new’ I simply mean that there are now two rather than one).

I reject materialism as much as Bernardo does. I don’t think we can make sense of an identity between a qualitative state of consciousness and a purely quantitative physical state. But I don’t think it helps our cause to misrepresent the view we oppose.

The second explanatory gap concerns an aspect of Bernardo’s view I haven’t mentioned yet, and this is that the transition from universal mind to organism mind involves a move from thoughts to sensory qualities. On the face of it, this is a transition between two radically different categories of phenomenology. It’s hard to see how there could be an intelligible transition from abstract thoughts to the rich qualities of sensory experience: colours, sounds, smells and tastes.

Bernardo tries to account for this transition by giving an evolutionary account of the survival pressures that necessitate compressing complex thoughts into simpler sensory qualities. That’s all fine as it stands, but giving an evolutionary account of the adaptive value of the emergence of sensory consciousness isn’t the same thing as giving an account of how the emergence actually happens. In his book Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel refers to the former as a historical explanation and the latter as a constitutive explanation, and gives a compelling argument for the necessity of both. It would have been great for survival if organisms had evolved magic powers, but sadly magic can’t intelligibly emerge from the kind of universe we live in. Similarly, if there were no intelligible way for sensory qualities to emerge from what came before, then they wouldn’t have emerged, no matter how useful for survival their existence might be. Of course, in contrast to magic, we know that sensory qualities have emerged, and hence there must be an explanation of how they came into existence. My claim is that Bernardo has not provided us with that explanation.

I think Bernardo ought to agree about the importance of giving constitutive as well as historical explanations. Afterall, if it was sufficient to give a historical explanation of the emergence of a given phenomenon, in terms of the adaptive value of its emergence, then how could we object to a materialist accounting for consciousness in such terms? A materialist might point to the adaptive value of consciousness: sensory experiences help us to navigate the world, pleasure and pain encourage us to seek what is good for our survival and avoid what is bad. Again, that’s fine as it stands, but we would still need a constitutive explanation of how consciousness comes into existence from purely physical states of affairs. Similarly, it seems to me that Bernardo owes us an explanation of how sensory consciousness comes into existence from thought-like states of consciousness.

In our debate, Bernardo responded to this point by saying that, according to materialism, consciousness has no causal efficacy, and hence its presence could not possibly be conducive to survival. This is factually incorrect. All physicalist theories I’ve ever come across hold that consciousness does have causal powers. Standardly, physicalists hold that:

(A)   Conscious states are identical with physical brain states
(B)   Physical brain states have causal efficacy

These two commitments, in conjunction with Leibniz’s law (if X and Y are identical, then X and Y share all of their properties), entail that conscious states have causal efficacy:

(A)   Conscious states are identical with physical brain states
(B)   Physical brain states have causal efficacy
(C)   if X and Y are identical, then X and Y share all of their properties
(D)  Therefore, conscious states have causal efficacy.

Bernardo objects that none of the equations of physics refer to qualities, which he takes to entail that: if physicalism is true, qualities have no role to play in the causal story of the universe. But if physicalism is true, the qualities of consciousness are identical with certain physical brain properties: the qualities and the brain properties are one and the same thing, just as water and H2O are one and the same thing. The identity of water with H2O entails that water has all the same causal powers H2O has. Similarly, if qualitative pain is identical with quantitative c-fibres firing, then qualitative pain has all the same causal powers that quantitative c-fibres firing has.

To be clear: I reject materialism as much as Bernardo does. I don’t think we can make sense of an identity between a qualitative state of consciousness and a purely quantitative physical state. But I don’t think it helps our cause to misrepresent the view we oppose. Consider the following analogy. Christians believe that God became man, and hence that God had a physical body. Many Muslims believe that it’s impossible for God to become man. Suppose they’re right about that. It’s still the case that according to Christianity God had a physical body. Similarly, even if Bernardo and I are right that the kind of identities physicalism espouses are incoherent, it’s still the case that if those identities were true, consciousness would have causal efficacy.

(Bernardo continued this disagreement in a blog post he wrote following our debate; I have counter-responded in this blog post.)

In his post-discussion blog post, Bernardo gave some interesting responses to my charge of an explanatory gap between thoughts and sensory qualities:

We witness the modulation of qualities by other, different qualities every day: our thoughts constantly modulate our feelings, and the other way around. Thoughts feel completely different than feelings, so there is an obvious qualitative transition taking place when this modulation occurs. Yet, we know that it does occur; all the time. Therefore, it is entirely plausible that transpersonal states qualitatively different from colors and flavors could give rise to the colors and flavors on our screen of perception, through some form of modulation.

I’m not 100% sure what ‘modulation’ means. Attending to our experience, it is clear that we are cognitively set up such that sensory experiences are followed by certain thoughts and vice versa. But merely attending to our experience doesn’t reveal to us the metaphysical underpinnings of our being set up in this way (just as empirical reflection on cases of dissociation doesn’t reveal to us its metaphysical underpinnings). It could be that naturalistic dualism is true, and there are fundamental psycho-physical laws governing this transition.

There’s a good chance that none of the theories currently being proposed are correct. It doesn’t follow that we’re wasting our time.

The crucial question for deciding whether there is an explanatory gap from X to Y is: could we can deduce Y from X? To say that there is an explanatory gap from the quantitative to the qualitative is to say that we cannot deduce qualities from quantities. In claiming there is an explanatory gap between thoughts and sensory qualities, I am claiming that one could not deduce sensory qualities from thoughts. Bernardo directly addresses the issue of deducibility in the next paragraph:

In our own personal minds, the qualities of the thoughts induced by certain feelings are certainly deducible from the feelings: for instance, the feeling of fear will lead to conservative, pessimistic thought processes and accompanying decision making. Similarly, the qualities of personal perception (such as, say, pleasant warmth and white hues) could, at least in principle, be deduced from the transpersonal phenomenal states they are associated with (such as e.g. peaceful feelings of kindness). There is no fundamental barrier of deducibility as in the hard problem.

There is a cultural association between warmth/white and thoughts of peace/kindness. But it doesn’t seem to me at all plausible that the former could be deduced from the latter. Surely someone who is born blind will never form the idea of white, no matter how much they meditate on peace and kindness. Indeed, the most influential argument against physicalism, the knowledge argument, would seem to support me in this contention. The core thesis of that argument is that Mary in her black and white room cannot deduce what it’s like to see red no matter what physical information she has. It’s equally plausible that she won’t be able to deduce red no matter what thoughts she has. It’s only when she actually has a red experience that she can gain this knowledge. I maintain, therefore, that there is a profound explanatory gap at the heart of Bernardo’s view.

Both of these explanatory gaps could be removed by postulating basic laws of nature to bridge the gap. For example, it could just be a basic law of nature that in cases of dissociation new subjects emerge. That’s an interesting proposal. But I think it would need to be considered alongside other proposals as to the necessary and sufficient conditions for organic consciousness, for example, those suggested by integrated information theory or the global workspace theory. In the absence of some reason to think dissociation gives us an explanation of the emergence of organic subject, my bet would be on theories in neuroscience that seem to have more empirical support. 

I have some criticisms of Bernardo’s view (philosophers always do), but I continue to think it’s a novel and thought-provoking contribution to the debate. There’s a good chance that none of the theories currently being proposed are correct. It doesn’t follow that we’re wasting our time. As consciousness researchers, we can hope that the theories we sketch today are precursors that the final theory of consciousness will build on. Whilst I don’t think Bernardo’s theory is correct, it certainly provides rich resources for future generations to build upon.

Bernardo and I are booked in to debate the Consciousness Live YouTube channel later this summer. I’m really looking forward to continuing the discussion!

See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
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Jeffrey Anderson 12 July 2020

Physicalism is the belief system of Artificial Intelligence..... we must cling to notions of inner consciousness and unpredictability like all life itself depends on it...as it does!

Dana Lomas 9 July 2020

There certainly seems to be some irreconcilable differences between BK's premise and PG's own. It's actually quite straight forward, in that BK's premise is that there is a realm outside of personal mentation, but that realm is entirely mental in nature, and what we experience as 'matter' is nothing but a experiential representation of transpersonal mental states. Whereas, PG's premise is that there is a realm out there, but that realm consists of some notion of a detectable substrate, as in QFT, that inherently has consciousness. And therein lies the essential difference, for under BK's idealism any such detectable substrate would still be an experiential representation of transpersonal Mind's' mentation, and thus not inherently conscious -- i.e. there is no such detectable substrate that is not an experience within consciousness. So while it's fine that the dialogue remains open, it seems somethings got to give.