3

Panpsychism, in the general sense of everything in nature has some sort of consciousness (and I know, this is highly dependent on the way we define consciousness, but I want to talk about panpsychism in the general term, so, if it's ok, I'll let the answers to determine what definition of consciousness is used). Sometimes it's defined as multiple levels of consciousness, sometimes as one consciousness acting "behind" everything.

My question would be, can panpsychism, in any way, have some scientific (/empirical) testable meaning? In other words, is this line of thought worth exploring in science?

I know panpsychism is mostly metaphysical, and the idea of metaphysical to be tested in the science realms is often rejected, but maybe some aspects of it can be.

  • 1
    One problem is that even if we can come up with a widely-agreed-upon definition of 'consciousness', there's the issue of how 'fast' a given consciousness is. How do we know that, for example, the universe isn't 'talking' to us right now, but at a rate too slow for us to perceive? That it saying "Hello!" is a process that takes dozens of human lifetimes to complete? – Alexis Feb 19 '18 at 11:48
  • 1
    It would be arrogant for us to assume that the metabolic rate of humans universally defines the rate of communication between conciousnesses, but it does somewhat impose limits on hypotheses testable via observations. – Alexis Feb 19 '18 at 11:52
  • At this point nothing in particular seems to be on offer, although it is conceivable that phenomenal consciousness might have empirical consequences. Even if it does not the idea may have legitimate theoretical uses. After all, efficient causation also has no empirical consequences, as Hume eloquently explained, all we observe is one event following another, not the "causing" of it, yet it is widely used to organize our theories around causal laws. – Conifold Feb 20 '18 at 22:40
  • 1
    I can't speak for the literature, but I find approaches like panpsychism to be very effective at pinning down what sorts of definitions of consciousness science might be permitted to admit. The Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness (IIT) is one such example. It's defined in a way which permits some testing, but defines consciousness on a gradient, rather than discrete levels, so it could be adapted to panpsychism easily. – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Feb 21 '18 at 0:03
  • No theory of consciousness can be tested in the natural sciences. It is not an empirical phenomenon. For science consciousness is a theoretical entity, unprovable and untestable. Quite why scientists so often fail to see this might be a good question for the forum. – PeterJ Feb 21 '18 at 12:42
3

Gregory Matloff has been attempting to scientifically test panpsychism by using the anomaly in stellar motions in Parenego’s discontinuity. Certain types of stars do not follow their expected paths based on gravitation theory.

One could attempt to find panpsychism by looking for agents. One looks for agents where determinism breaks down and one is forced to consider randomness. Given randomness if it is not uniform, such as flipping a coin, something more needs to be explained. One explanation is that an agent is present. So testing panpsychism involves looking for non-uniform randomness. Whether anyone accepts this as science would be influenced by social mood more than metaphysics. At the quantum level this randomness is present and could be used as a justification for agency and hence panpsychism although one can easily ignore the whole issue.

  • Panpsychism, absurd as it is, at least does not presume everything has physical agency. And on the topic of quantum mechanics, one must certainly avoid the trap of quantum mechanics and consciousness are both weird and therefore equivalent. – Veedrac Feb 24 '18 at 13:51
  • @Veedrac It is good to note that panpsychism needs to distinguish between what has agency and what doesn't. There will be different theories based on what the theory claims has agency. One can cover up that agency by talking about randomness as the graphic story that you linked said, "classical events have probabilities and quantum events have amplitudes". There are multiple ways to build a theory on data. The most data can do is attempt to falsify a theory and even then a theory's supporters can modify it to slip out of a falsification. – Frank Hubeny Feb 24 '18 at 15:35
  • @FrankHubeny correct, I just read an article in relation to panpsychism, and for every little specific distinction, there's a philosopher who built an entire theory around that. It's funny, but it's very important work. – Yechiam Weiss Feb 24 '18 at 17:15
  • @YechiamWeiss David Skrbina's Panpsychism in the West provides a survey of the ideas and philosophers. – Frank Hubeny Feb 24 '18 at 17:38
  • @FrankHubeny thanks. I've read Chalmers' Idealism and the Mind-body Problem which summed up some of those nicely, I'll definitely read Skrbina. – Yechiam Weiss Feb 24 '18 at 18:00
2

The brain is an instrument already suited to the problem of measuring and inspecting consciousness. We know this to be true because people are aware of consciousness. Consciousness is thus observable, just like any other physical property, and it is obviously bidirectionally causal given that consciousness varies by social environment and whether you stick a steel rod through someone's head.

Some people hypothesize a separate aspect of consciousness that is causally unrelated to physical reality; this allows for things like philosophical zombies. However, we can dismiss this argument (stronger variants too) on scientific principles: if consciousness was acausal (or unidirectionally causal) there would be no evolutionary pressure for it, so it would have to arise purely by coincidence. By the theory's proponents' own admission, any arguments you hear for it can at best be true by coincidence, since if it were true any argument for it would be uncorrelated with it. Finally we note that this argument wouldn't even solve the problems it purports to; any such causal model in which this true consciousness lives would be just as susceptible to the hard problem as the original universe.

Since fairly basic logical reasoning shows us that consciousness is a physically observable, causal system, we can conclude that studying the nature by which the brain interacts with consciousness at least plausibly leads us to an understanding of the processes and systems which underlie conscious experience. This leads to an understanding of panpsychism the same way local studies of gravity and local observations of light fields (through telescopes) have allowed us to discover black holes. With high likelihood we can apply the same understanding and inspective capability that applies to our brain to other, non-brain systems.

  • +1 The "bidirectionally causal" aspect of our own consciousness is interesting. Do you have a reference or link to more information? – Frank Hubeny Feb 24 '18 at 15:42
  • 1
    I don't see how this is related to panpsychism, when you claim that consciousness is purely physical. – Yechiam Weiss Feb 24 '18 at 17:20
  • 1
    @FrankHubeny I don't know who to credit for these ideas, sorry. I do know David Chalmers admitted to most of those, despite somehow holding the contrary position: "Because this explanation applies to a zombie, the existence of consciousness will play no essential role in the explanation." (aka. Should consciousness be acausal, we cannot have evidence that it acausal.) Why he goes from demonstrating that he cannot possible know consciousness is acausal, to certainty that he does, I cannot say. – Veedrac Feb 24 '18 at 17:22
  • @YechiamWeiss Only the last paragraph is an answer to your question; the first two just preempt likely objections, like "we can't just measure consciousness because it's acausal." – Veedrac Feb 24 '18 at 17:22
  • @Veedrac so the idea is that physical observation will lead to mental findings? I'm not sure how one could produce the other, and am also not sure about the comparison made to light fields and black holes, and they are both physical, not compared to the first case. It'll hit the same problem as the classic macro-idealism (Chalmers) emergent problem - how can physical lead to mental. – Yechiam Weiss Feb 24 '18 at 17:27
0

It will be when we have a clearer idea how consciousnesses arise.

There are proposals to formulate physics solely in terms of information, which could be described as treating things as constitutec of mind.

Models like the P2P simulation hypothesis make concrete predictions, or at least aimed to explain specific observations https://www.p2p-simulation-hypothesis.com

Pansychism historically has not been a niche view, but the majority view. Materialism seems to have arisen out of dualism and reductionism, given stature by their great success in making it easier to do science. Systems, synergies & holisms are perhaps only in very recent times, on the table for science.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.