Panpsychism vs. strong emergence of mind

This one's going on Facebook.

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“The panpsychist conception of mind must be sufficiently broad to plausibly encompass humans and non-human objects as well. Panpsychists typically see the human mind as a unique, highly-refined instance of some more universal concept. They argue that mind in, say, lower animals, plants, or rocks is neither as sophisticated nor as complex as that of human beings. But this in turn raises new questions: What common mental quality or qualities are shared by these things? And why should we even call such qualities “mental” in the first place?” *

It’s surprising to find that panpsychism still has well-read and respected professional philosophers (like p-zombie advocate David Chalmers) adhering to it in the 21st century.

When I took a chemistry course in school, learning about chemical bindings at the molecular level, I toyed with the idea that there might be a tendency for atoms to merge, to build, to multiply – except that atoms can’t multiply – unless they develop into a structure engineered for organic-chemical reproduction. I was quite enamored with the idea, it’s truly lovely to think about; were there even the trace of a consciousness to be found in matter just as such, this is surely what it would do.

But unfortunately, there’s just not even the trace of consciousness to be found in raw matter. If consciousness is an emergent property of its biological substrate, you’ll never get a lifeless thing to produce consciousness, let alone have any before the biological substrate is produced.

So I found an easier solution to the problem of life and the emergence of consciousness in our species: It’s all just accident. Yes, I’m one of those ‘jet-plane in a junkyard’ ontologists Intelligent Design proselytizers warn us about. It doesn’t matter how improbable it is – after we have eliminated the impossible, the alternative, however improbable, must be the case.

Obviously I don’t have much to say about panpsychism – or the Gaia principle, or Lamarckism, or other proposals that nature somehow designs itself (even without the aid of an unnatural intelligence).

However, I’m open to persuasion to any strong theory of the possibility of indeterminism and even chance in the physical universe.

If so, there are phenomena in the universe that may never be completely explained. The emergence of consciousness may be one of these.

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“If one believes that the most fundamental physical entities (quarks, leptons, bosons, or whatever physics will ultimately settle upon) are devoid of any mental attributes, and if one also believes that some systems of these entities, such as human brains, do possess mental attributes, one is espousing some kind of doctrine of the emergence of mind.” **

It must be said here that non-explanation explanations are frequently the best we can do – in science, in philosophy, in daily life. Indeed, consider the very nature of explanation. There are necessary weaknesses in every explanation; yet clearly we crave explanation, to have some sense that we understand the world around us securely, and to plan for contingencies.

Weak emergence is a description; strong emergence is a description that acts as place-holder for explanation. The problem with the all current narratives of the emergence of consciousness as process is that they lack description of the crucial moment when the material organization produces the apparent immateriality of awareness and thought: ‘firing neurons’ is a weak description; rather like saying ‘light through celluloid made Citizen Kane a great film.’

So the problem here is that we do not have an adequate narrative description of how the activity of brain generates the activity of mind. But that doesn’t mean we can fill in the gaps with metaphysical hand-waving and hope for the best. The best might not be anything we can hope for; it may simply define the boundary of our capacity for explanation.

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“Panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories, and has been ascribed to philosophers like Thales, Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz and William James.” This quote from Wikipedia is not precisely accurate. Indeed, as one can see from this brief, somewhat muddled Wikipedia entry on panpsychism ***, one problem here is that panpsychism is often confused with the notion of ‘ensoulment’ per se. In fact, the notion of the ‘soul’ varies from culture to culture, and from one historical context to the next.

From the similarly brief, but more accurate Britannica entry: “Ancient Greek concepts of the soul varied considerably according to the particular era and philosophical school. The Epicureans considered the soul to be made up of atoms like the rest of the body. For the Platonists, the soul was an immaterial and incorporeal substance, akin to the gods yet part of the world of change and becoming. Aristotle’s conception of the soul was obscure, though he did state that it was a form inseparable from the body.” ****

My own interpretation of Aristotle’s theory of the soul, one of the most influential in the West, is that he was trying to find some way to make Plato’s theory of ideal forms – basically, ‘essence’ – compatible with the knowledge he had acquired through empirical observation. According to Plato, every existent material entity is a rough duplication of a perfect idea. For instance, all carpenters build chairs according to some essence of ‘chair’ that all actual chairs will then embody. But this doesn’t fit so well with entities that are not human constructions – what could the perfect idea of ‘rock’ be that every rock would share, since rocks are just found by the way, and seem to have no necessary form?

What Aristotle proposes is that there is an essence that is not an idea, but a distillation of entity’s being, without the presence of which the entity could not exist. This essence ‘informs’ the materiality of the actually existing entity. This is no longer an ‘idea’ (ideal form), but a metaphysical principle – some energy or substance that impresses the matter and being of an entity into its physical form.

Aristotle’s theory is delightfully fascinating – but it’s as dead as a sail-less boat on a wind-less day. A world of atoms, where “e=mc2,” has no place for essence; quanta don’t care for soul, regardless that fringe theorists in philosophy and physics hope they might.

Nonetheless, the interesting thing is that it is not a form of panpsychism. Aristotle is looking for a metaphysical principle of being, he’s not advocating that rocks or plants have mind. (His theory of mind is actually a meta-psychology, a theory of how mind works, not what it is.)

But old myths die hard. Some want Aristotle to be invested in the notion of ‘soul’ as it calcified in the doctrines of Christianity, because they still hope, on some level, that the wisest thinkers in our history will provide us with the argument that some ‘essence’ that is ourselves, our consciousness, will prove separable from our material bodies, and thus survive its inevitable death and decay.

But there isn’t any event of that; and some 5000 years ago, long before the advent of modern science, the Buddha declared the principle of anatman – no individual soul *****. Because this individual soul is a big pain in the butt of life – it may seem to help us get by through the sufferings of daily life, but it hinders us from realizing our full potential in response to those sufferings.

We are not spiritual beings in material bodies. We are just these bodies and what we do with them.

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* http://www.iep.utm.edu/panpsych/

** http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/panpsychism/

*** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panpsychism

**** http://www.britannica.com/topic/soul-religion-and-philosophy

***** http://buddhism.about.com/od/abuddhistglossary/g/Anatman.htm

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5 thoughts on “Panpsychism vs. strong emergence of mind

  1. Hi, excellent post as usual.
    This

    What Aristotle proposes is that there is an essence that is not an idea, but a distillation of entity’s being, without the presence of which the entity could not exist. This essence ‘informs’ the materiality of the actually existing entity. This is no longer an ‘idea’ (ideal form), but a metaphysical principle – some energy or substance that impresses the matter and being of an entity into its physical form.

    brings to mind Kant’s thing in itself and Schopenhauer’s Will as a response to the question of what Plato’s Idea is. In essence, there is a will in everything. Plants have it, animals have it. Stones have it. The only difference is that in higher animals, the well gets expression by help of the intellect.

    I agree we are not spiritual beings in material bodies. We are objects with a brain.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t want to start an argument NSOI, honest, but I would want to say that for me you dismiss ideas very much too easily. The topic is just not this simple. Panpsychism/hylozoism takes many forms and remains a respectable view, there being no counter-evidence. Spirituality is not required for all forms of the theory and is denied by same. Souls are not necessary for panpsychism either, only for certain forms of it, and it is undeniable that all knowable objects are in consciousness. It just isn’t that’s simple to reach the conclusion in your final sentence and it may not even be possible. It’s a bit of guesswork, however well informed. .

    No need for depression then. You have chosen how to vote, but the academic jury as a whole is still out. An object implies a subject, and an object and a subject implies a common origin beyond both. Panpsychism often entails the breakdown of the subject/object distinction and where it does the subtlety of the theory makes it difficult to wave away in this manner.

    I would agree, however, that most forms of panpsychism must be at least slightly wrong since they would be inconsistent.with each other. Btw. have you checked out David Skyrbina?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The problem, it seems to me, is that panpsychist arguments are purely logical elaborations of speculative intuitions. My own position seems to be a safe default; it would always be easier to move away from materialism as a baseline assumption than to give up on the kind of hopes that panpsychism seems to offer. That suggests that the evidential burden here is with the panpsychist.

      I will look into Skyrbina, tho.

      Like

      • “The problem, it seems to me, is that panpsychist arguments are purely logical elaborations of speculative intuitions.”

        This is an interesting sentence. For me ‘intuition’ and ‘speculation’ would be very different things, and a logical elaboration would be a theory.

        ” …it would always be easier to move away from materialism as a baseline assumption than to give up on the kind of hopes that panpsychism seems to offer.”

        I don’t know about easier, but certainly more sensible and intellectually justifiable. It seems to me that it would be dead easy to move away from materialism as a default assumption if we recognise what panpsychism has to offer, even if it is not quite the whole story.

        I think the issue here may be how to define panpsychism. The key issue for me would be whether it would include nondualism. This would determine whether I support it. There is much disagreement about this point, some around a recent blog article against panpsychism by Bernardo Kastrup.

        Either way it would makes more sense than materialism and has more explanatory power. I don’t like the word, however, because it has too many possible meanings. For some people like BK it actually IS materialism.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The problem with the all current narratives of the emergence of consciousness as process is that they lack description of the crucial moment when the material organization produces the apparent immateriality of awareness and thought: ‘firing neurons’ is a weak description; rather like saying ‘light through celluloid made Citizen Kane a great film.’

    Thought is immaterial for the same reason that mathematical entities (such as numbers) are immaterial. We talk about them in a way that requires that they exist, yet they have no physical existence.

    So the problem here is that we do not have an adequate narrative description of how the activity of brain generates the activity of mind.

    I’m inclined to say that it is the activity of the person, rather than the activity of the brain, that leads to the activity of mind. Of course, the activity of the brain is required for the activity of the person, so it gets complicated. I doubt that a disembodied brain could have much of a mind.

    Liked by 2 people

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