(ORDO NEWS) — Panpsychism, the view that all of nature participates in consciousness, has for some time remained under scrutiny in science.
But now it is becoming more and more obvious. The New Scientist is one of the last places you’d expect to find a serious, thorough account of panpsychism one that, in this context, amounts to a defense.
However, the editors allowed science writer and filmmaker Thomas Lewton to do just that. On his website, he talks about his own journey: “While studying physics, I thought that telescopes and particle colliders would give solid answers, but instead they generated even more questions.”
And in New Scientist, he explains why:
It may seem that there is an unbridgeable gap between our subjective perception of the world and our attempts to objectively describe it. And yet our brains are made of matter – so one might think that the states of mind it generates should be explicable in terms of states of matter.
The question is how? And if we can’t explain consciousness in physical terms, how can we find a place for it in the overall view of the universe? Thomas Lewton, “A New Place for Consciousness in Our Understanding of the Universe” in New Scientist (March 30, 2022)
This is a delightfully direct presentation of the central problem, the failure of physicalism, the notion that the mind is just what the brain does. As the philosopher David Papineau put it, consciousness is simply “brain processes that feel like something.”
A surprising number of physicists are rethinking all this, “convinced that we will never understand the mysteries of the universe – such as how reality emerges from the fog of the quantum world and what the passage of time really means – unless we rethink the relationship between matter and mind” . Which, they understand, cannot be done simply by excluding the mind from scientific thinking.
Lewton seems ready to make a deal: “Modern physics was based on the separation of mind and matter.” Indeed, it is. And if that doesn’t work, materialism is dead. His approach is spared the “science will explain any minute…” that characterizes so much of the non-fiction literature in the field.
Einstein’s general theory of relativity, according to Lewton, made it possible to create a “view from nowhere” approach to the universe, which allowed the mind to be left aside. Then quantum mechanics came along and introduced a conscious observer whose observation causes the particles to decay from the cloud of improbability into a particular state.
Philip Goff explains: “The irony is that physicalism has been so successful and explained so much precisely because it was designed to exclude consciousness.” But the exclusion of something in principle does not lead to the fact that it ceases to exist.
However, what if…
One option is to assume that some form of consciousness, however fragmentary, is an inherent property of matter. At a fundamental level, this micro consciousness is all that exists.
This idea, known as panpsychism, rips apart the physicalist handbook and offers a simple solution to the hard problem of consciousness, Goff says, bridging the gap between our inner experience and the objective scientific description of the world.
If everything is more or less conscious, we no longer need to explain our experience in terms of non-conscious components” – Thomas Lewton, “A New Place for Consciousness in Our Understanding of the Universe” in New Scientist (March 30, 2022).
Thus panpsychism is an attempt to salvage naturalism (the view that nature is all there is, often referred to as “materialism”) by incorporating the mind into nature rather than attempting to disprove its existence.
Most proposed alternatives to panpsychism sound like…panpsychism. Lewton also sees emergence theory as a competitor to panpsychism:
Emergence is the idea that behaviors and properties that do not seem to exist when we look at the individual components of a complex system suddenly take shape when we see the system as a whole. Emergent phenomena are essentially more than the sum of their parts.
For example, individual water molecules are not wet, and yet wetness is a property of water – Thomas Lewton, “A New Place for Consciousness in Our Understanding of the Universe” in New Scientist (March 30, 2022).
It is not clear what specific problems this solves. There’s also a new entry, authored by cosmologist Lee Smolin, among others, that suggests that the laws of physics evolve:
Near the Big Bang, new events would occur very often. Consciousness would permeate the universe in a picture not like panpsychism. But as the universe ages, unprecedented events become much more rare. Today, however, one potential source of novelty is the highly complex human brain.
Perhaps our brains have evolved to use these new events and their freedom to determine the future, Cortes says. The idea is that our awareness is the result of this creative freedom – Thomas Lewton, “A New Place for Consciousness in Our Understanding of the Universe” in New Scientist (March 30, 2022)
“Doesn’t sound like panpsychism”? It actually sounds like a kind of panpsychism. Similarly, physicist Carlo Rovelli offers a view that is “a very mild form of panpsychism” in which the distinction between subject and object is blurred.
In essence, the scientists Lewton writes about admit that neuroscience does not smooth things over by explaining how or why the brain produces conscious experience. And naturalism cannot go on endlessly talking about “not far off” (promissory materialism).
If the effort to rid science of the human mind is widely recognized as a failure, the world is unlikely to become poorer. But panpsychism is taking science into unknown territory. We must wait to see what comes of it.
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