Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Philosophy of Mind: The Case for Panpsychism

Recently, I have had the opportunity of learning about panpsychism or panexperientialism from process philosophy, and from some discussions with a friend that believes in it. I thought I would take some time reviewing my qualms with the position. Perhaps I can discover my own bigotry or biases along the way! I was once struck with panpsychism’s aesthetic sense and novelty, but when I tried to bring it down to life I found the concept broke down. I am resistant to panpsychism because after reading and thinking about the philosophical discussion regarding it (much of which I will paraphrase below; I ought to have given due credit to those who make these points and cite them carefully, but bare with me), I do not know what it really even means or explains. We can be poetic and attribute "inner experience" or "mentality" to objects (which kinds of objects by the way--what about properties, states of affairs, numbers, relations, space-time? Do these also have inner experiences? Or are panpsychists restricting their domain of discourse to the “physical” universe; or are they nominalists--these things have only semantic existence?), but we don't mean anything like human consciousness. Consciousness in human systems is brought about by neurobiological processes that quarks don't have. The purported analogical basis between human consciousness and other objects appears purely imaginative. So we must suppose there is this "inanimate mentality" in other objects--but what that is, no one makes clear. What would its inner experience be? And can it have experience--what does it mean to receive conscious experiences if one has no memory? And since people like to build freedom out of panpsychism, what does it mean to choose if you have no concept of an action to choose from, or obey when you have no conceptual understanding? The motivation behind panpsychism seems to be in offering some sort of continuity between ourselves and nature. Yet it seems wildly implausible to attribute anything much like our consciousness to all things; if the "mentality" attributed to them is different enough from ours for such attribution to look plausible, that difference will have to be so great that it will undermine the sense of continuity between us and the rest of nature.

So I don't think panpsychism comes any closer to bridging the "explanatory gap" or problem of emergence. Typically, people think physicalists have the problem; we can never explain how conscious experience emerges from physical processes. If we would just assume that human macro consciousness is nested in a greater micro consciousness, all will be well. There is a sort of argument for A V B (physicalism or panpsychism); ~A because of the emergence problem, therefore by DS, B. But what about other alternatives? There are a lot of metaphysical worldviews out there; should panpsychism be strictly favored because it is monistic which somehow solves interaction issues and because it supposedly solves the emergence issue? I don't think so, because I think many of its supposed strong points promise more than they can deliver. Take for instance, the explanatory gap.

If we assume that there is human consciousness and the wider quasi-consciousness that all (again what we mean by all is difficult here; let us say the constituents of the universe--quarks or strings, or "puffs"--whatever it is) at a minimum experiences, we have two different ways for phenomenon to be experiential. Can human consciousness be explained by this wider quasi-consciousness? How could trillions of thinking-particles constitute what feels like a single, unitary subject of experience (This is known as the combination problem)? There is the epistemological problem of not being able to know anything about the experientiality of the ultimates composing me. I surely can't introspect into my hair's or toe nail's conscious experience. And yet if I can't introspect or empirically observe their conscious behavior, how could I ever in principle get any evidence as to the nature of these properties? If I can't get to these properties, how can I ever know if my human consciousness emerges out of them? As some philosophers have pointed out, with water I can look at H2O molecules and their properties and from there deduce the liquidity of water. But if I can't know the experiential properties of the "puffs," I can never provide a philosophical explanation of human consciousness in terms of them. In my opinion, no hypothesis should be adopted that cannot possibly be tested (unless it can make a transcendental argument; but this is a weak kind of argument, since any sight of proof to another theory will be superior to the transcendental. Furthermore, I have wondered that with there possibly being a multiplicity of transcendental arguments that can explain the same facts without evidence--which one is to be preferred and why?). I personally find it puzzling when it is not possible to answer the question "Is the panpsychist position true?"

But for the sake of argument, let us say that the quasi-conscious properties of these "puffs" are known in their complete detail. Would that help explain the emergence problem? Unfortunately, no. If one imagines the thought-particles interacting in ways that mirror the human consciousness' components, it is still possible that the resulting complex being lacks consciousness. To suggest otherwise would be to commit the fallacy of composition. In which case no amount of knowledge of the quasi-conscious aspect of particles could ever explain phenomenal consciousness in the way that knowledge of the component particles of water and their interaction explain liquidity. If one replies that they act in some unknown complex way, cannot the physicalist (and any other metaphysical worldview for that matter) make the same argument?

Perhaps one wants to make a weak claim: since everything is of the same metaphysical type (constituents and the human consciousness), should not this indicate that panpsychism might render the latter (human consciousness) more explicable? No; we don't have any idea how the quasi-conscious properties possessed by one entity or set of entities might contribute to a reductive explanation of the human consciousness. So panpsychism has provided no explanation for phenomena that it has promised to deliver. Thus to the great step from non-living to living matter corresponds a great step from inner experiences to the human consciousness. Even on the panpsychist account, something totally new enters with world.

Physicalists have made attempts to dissolve the explanatory gap that should not be brushed off hand, as observed by the enormous articles and books on philosophy of mind. And Karl Popper has made some interesting points here too. To insist something must be mind-like and that it can be attributed even to quarks is misleading. There are processes of nature which are emergent in the sense that they don't lead gradually, but leap to a property not there before. "We know crystals and other solids have the property of solidity without solidity being present in the liquid before crystallization."

Are there any other reasons for panpsychism to be appealing? There seems to be a multiplicity of metaphysical explanations in theology to explain free will, divine agency, etc. that are not unique to panpsychism, so I cannot see that benefit. I am amused at the state of philosophy on the issue of mind: while some are trying to understand how it is even possible that other minds or my own mind exists, others are dead set that everything possessing a mind!

Forgive me for rushing through these arguments and not giving some due citations on many of the points that have convinced me against panpsychism.