Science has a habit of asking stupid questions. Stupid, that is, by the standards of common sense. But time and time again we have found that common sense is a poor guide to what really goes on in the world.
Surely we can just say that the future does not affect the past because (duh!) it has not happened yet? Not really, for the question of where time’s arrow comes from is more subtle and complicated than it seems.
What’s more, that statement might not even be true. Some scientists and philosophers think the future might indeed affect the past – although we would only find out when the future arrives. And it may be able to due to an emergent property of quantum mechanics.
The traditional view puts forward the idea that the vast majority of what there is in the universe is mindless. Panpsychism however claims that mental features are ubiquitous in the cosmos. In a recent opinion piece for “Scientific American” entitled “Is Consciousness Universal?” (2014), neuroscientist Christof Koch explains how his support of panpsychism is greeted by incredulous stares–in particular when asserting that panpsychism might be the perfect match for neurobiology (see also his piece for Wired in 2013):
“As a natural scientist, I find a version of panpsychism modified for the 21st century to be the single most elegant and parsimonious explanation for the universe I find myself in. … When I talk and write about panpsychism, I often encounter blank stares of incomprehension.” (Koch, 2014, n.p.)
Yet despite abundant skepticism, in the end of 20th century, panpsychism has seen nothing short of a renaissance in philosophy of mind–a trend which is also beginning to be mirrored in the sciences: Physicist Henry Stapp’s “A Mindful Universe” (2011) embraces a version of panpsychism heavily influenced by the works of Harvard mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.
Panpsychism has a long, albeit unfortunately sometimes forgotten tradition in the history of philosophy. Philosophers including Giordano Bruno, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Teilhard de Chardin, and Alfred North Whitehead have embraced different forms of panpsychism, and indeed the presocratic Thales of Miletus claimed that “soul is interfused throughout the universe” (Aristotle, De Anima, 411a7).
In in his seminal 1979 work “Mortal Questions,” NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel put forth the idea that both reductive materialism and mind-body dualism are unlikely to be successful solutions to the mind-body problem. Specifically, a reductive world-view leaves the mind lacking any purpose, while a dualist conception deprives the non-spatial Cartesian mind of any connection to spatial matter. Additionally, the idea of an emergent mind seems inexplicable, even miraculous; it merely puts a label on something that otherwise remains completely mysterious. Thus some version of panpsychism might be a viable alternative–and may even be the “last man standing.”
Yet it was not until David Chalmers’s groundbreaking “The Conscious Mind” (1996) that debates on panpsychism entered the philosophical mainstream. The field has grown rapidly ever since.
Panpsychism is the thesis that mental being is an ubiquitous and fundamental feature pervading the entire universe. It rests on two basic ideas:
(1) The genetic argument is based on the philosophical principle “ex nihilo, nihil fit”–nothing can bring about something which it does not already possess. If human consciousness came to be through a physical process of evolution, then physical matter must already contain some basic form of mental being. Versions of this argument can be found in both Thomas Nagel’s “Mortal Questions” (1979) as well as William James’s “The Principles of Psychology” (1890).
(2) The argument from intrinsic natures dates back to Leibniz. More recently it was Sir Bertrand Russell who noted in his “Human Knowledge: Its Scope and its Limits” (1948):
“The physical world is only known as regards certain abstract features of its space-time structure – features which, because of their abstractness, do not suffice to show whether the world is, or is not, different in intrinsic character from the world of mind.” (Russell 1948, 240)
Sir Arthur Eddington formulated a very intuitive version of the argument from intrinsic natures in his “Space, Time and Gravitation” (1920):
“Physics is the knowledge of structural form, and not knowledge of content. All through the physical world runs that unknown content, which must surely be the stuff of our consciousness.” (Eddington, 1920, 200).
Panpsychism is a surprisingly modern world-view. It might even be called a truly post-modern outlook on reality–mainly for two reasons:
On the one hand, panpsychism bridges the modern epistemological gap between the subject of experience and the experienced object, the latter of whose intrinsic nature is unknown to us. Panpsychists claim that we know the intrinsic nature of matter because we are familiar with it through our own consciousness. Freya Mathews argues in her “For the Love of Matter” (2003):
“… the materialist view of the world that is a corollary of dualism maroons the epistemic subject in the small if charmed circle of its own subjectivity, and that it is only the reanimation of matter itself that enables the subject to reconnect with reality. This ‘argument from realism’ constitutes my defense of panpsychism.” (Mathews, 2003, 44)
On the other hand, panpsychism paints a picture of reality that emphasizes a humane and caring relationship with nature due to its fundamental rejection of the Cartesian conception of nature as a mechanism to be exploited by mankind. For the panpsychist, we encounter in nature other entities of intrinsic value, rather than objects to be manipulated for our gain.
I’ve been fortunate enough to go to some TEDx events and I have to admit I enjoyed myself. However, I think I enjoyed myself in the same way I did when I was a kid going to church with my parents. There were smiles all around, mock pleasantries, lots of people who looked like me and had my tastes while we all got to marvel at the moral uprightness or genius of the speakers.
Debate of the matter at hand would have been inappropriate and shoo’d away like poor behavior at a dinner party. The speakers were sincere and trying to communicate an idea, a business model, or whatever, to those of us who were willing listeners. It wasn’t pretentious or insincere but it really wasn’t challenging either. Who isn’t against novel ideas of ending poverty? Who wouldn’t like to see a mildly disturbing (but nottoodisturbing) academic discussion on sexual tastes? It must be a comfortable venue for der letzte Mensch to enjoy.
The problem is that the presentation and milieu has all the authenticity of a dinner party taken out of an Oscar Wilde script. I sense that behind the utmost sincerity is something of an evangelical spirit that technology, right politics, and right reason are the way to the promised land. That seems particularly evident in the drama surrounding three talks that were banned. All three of them are unique and actually challenge the audience. They make us think and question some of the preconceived worldviews with which we entered the arena of ideas. I wish we had more of these.
One special talk I had the chance to see live was extraordinarily well done while also being challenging. It was Rick Steves’s on travel. Marvelous and bold.
The three that were banned call us to question some basic presuppositions. Like them or not, they are great representations of the type of discussion we should be having in the public square. Here they are:
First coined in 1995 by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, this ‘hard problem’ of consciousness highlights the distinction between registering and actually feeling a phenomenon. Such feelings are what philosophers refer to as qualia: roughly speaking, the properties by which we classify experiences according to ‘what they are like’. In 2008, the French thinker Michel Bitbol nicely parsed the distinction between feeling and registering by pointing to the difference between the subjective statement ‘I feel hot’, and the objective assertion that ‘The temperature of this room is higher than the boiling point of alcohol’ – a statement that is amenable to test by thermometer.
At the Royal Society Annual Dinner (June, 1900), it is reported that Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thompson) essentially stated that the Law of Thermodynamics pretty much explained all there was in the world of nature. However, there were still two little clouds of uncertainty remaining, namely: (1) the ultraviolet catastrophe and (2) luminiferous aether. As we know, these two unsolved mysteries at that time were quite important as one led to relativity and the other to quantum mechanics. At a time when science was at its most confident in worldview and method, these two little anomalies were simply waiting to upend all traditional models.
Today we also have two little problems that have not been solved. One is called “qualia” and one is called “quanta.” Qualia refers to inner experience, the sense of awareness and consciousness while quanta refers to the quantum measurement problem where the physical world seems to respond to measurement in some strange way. This coupled with demonstrations of entanglement and other anomalies could be putting us in the same state of false confidence that Lord Kelvin had at that dinner over 100 years ago.
I suspect it will become clear through experimentation and logic that traditional means of sensory, empirical, and materialist knowing will be seen as only a partial picture of how we come to understand our world. This will then dramatically influence metaphysics and our notion of the self. It seems that our current neat little Cartesian package of the “self” that “knows” the world in which it resides will be seen for what it was: a point in time theory when distinctly modernist humanity was just starting to grapple with issues that had been addressed (though not as systemically) by others before them and by others after them in our current post-Newtonian world.
Nietzsche had said that he was doing “philosophy with a hammer.” Often (and I even heard this in grad school) that was taken to mean that he was conducting a brutish and forceful assault on Western thought. However, I like to think of his method as using a small tuning hammer to tap on ideas that ring hollow or are well past their time. I think his hammer would find our predominant worldview of scientific materialism to be hollow, aging poorly, unsound, and crumbling.
Michael Graziano is a neuroscientist, novelist and composer. He is Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University in New Jersey. His latest book is Consciousness and the Social Brain(2013). Edited by Ed Lake
The brain is a machine: a device that processes information. That’s according to the last 100 years of neuroscience. And yet, somehow, it also has a subjective experience of at least some of that information. Whether we’re talking about the thoughts and memories swirling around on the inside, or awareness of the stuff entering through the senses, somehow the brain experiences its own data. It has consciousness. How can that be?Continue reading →