Retired Neuroscientist Raymond Tallis questions an argument for panpsychism.

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« on: January 15, 2020, 12:48:51 am »
Raymond Tallis questions an argument for panpsychism.

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The case Goff presents for panpsychism is to a considerable extent based on the failure of alternatives – dualism and materialism – to explain consciousness. He devotes excellent chapters to demolishing these views.

According to dualism, there are immaterial minds and there are physical things. Because minds are not located or extended in space, we cannot see minds by peering into brains. This idea, famously mocked by Gilbert Ryle as the notion that we are ‘ghosts in machines’, has many problems. One of the most striking is that it cannot account for the central role the mind seems to play in our ability to do things. How could an immaterial entity influence the behaviour of a material object such as a brain? If a non-physical mind were intervening in the brain, there would be all kinds of things going on for which we would have no neuroscientific explanation. Such anomalous activity is not observed, so there is no such intervention, Goff argues.

Materialism fails because there is nothing in the brain as objectively (neuroscientifically) observed that is remotely like subjective experience. Here Goff’s critique mobilizes some of the well-known thought experiments in recent philosophy. Among them is Frank Jackson’s story of Mary the genius neuroscientist. For reasons that are not made clear, she has spent her entire life in a black-and-white room, where she has mysteriously acquired complete objective knowledge (whatever that may mean) of the science of colour. When she is liberated from the room into the outside world, she acquires something new: awareness of colours. This is often (incorrectly) described as additional ‘knowledge’, although it is in fact experience. The point however is upheld: experience is not reducible to or captured by objective knowledge. More specifically, what neuroscientists observe in the brain and nervous system does not get anywhere near subjective, qualitative experience. More generally, science-based materialism does not account for, or accommodate, consciousness – least of all the consciousness that is manifest in the ‘what it is like to be’ of a conscious subject.

The elusiveness of experience has persuaded some materialist philosophers to deny that experience is real. They argue that consciousness is an illusion. But this claim does not withstand a second’s thought; for in order to fall victim to the illusion of consciousness, one would have to be conscious of it.

Panpsychists step into the explanatory gap left by the failure of both dualism and materialism to make sense of the relationship between the mind and the brain. They correctly recognize that this is not just a little local difficulty to be resolved as brain science advances. What is needed is a radical rethink of the place of consciousness in the order of things.

Goff draws on arguments put forward by the physicist Arthur Eddington, developing ideas advanced by Bertrand Russell, to the effect that the physical sciences tell us nothing about the intrinsic nature of the ‘stuff’ that makes up the world. They describe only the manner in which bits of the stuff interact with each other. We know what they do, but not what they are. There is, however, a place where the veil of scientific appearance is torn; namely our own brains. We know from first hand experience that brains are conscious. Indeed, consciousness is the only fundamental feature of which we can be certain. If brains are representative of the stuff of the world, it is therefore reasonable to conclude that such stuff has consciousness as one of its fundamental features. (Indeed, Goff holds that the physical properties of particles – mass, charge, spin etc – are themselves forms of consciousness.)

Goff defends this extraordinary extrapolation from brains to the entire universe on the grounds of simplicity of explanation – grounds that, after all, drive science. It is more economical to propose that matter has one kind of intrinsic nature rather than two. But the suggestion that everything in the universe is like the brain raises an obvious question: what it is about the brain that makes it seem to be uniquely associated with subjective consciousness? Why do you and I have viewpoints underpinning integrated worlds, while socks and clouds and pebbles apparently do not?

One manifestation of this puzzle is the so-called ‘combination problem’: “How do you get from little conscious things… to big conscious things, like human brains?” Here we seem to have replaced one explanatory gap with another at least as wide. In the hope of making the combination problem a topic for ‘a new science of consciousness’, Goff translates it into the question of how a disunified brain, made of trillions of conscious particles, becomes a unified brain with a single consciousness. He hints that quantum entanglement might provide a model for such unification, but is not able to indicate what is or might be distinctive about the brain that it uniquely makes use of such entanglement. So long as this ‘emergentist’ model lacks details, it is only a promissory note. Worse problems arise out of the fact that observation – that is, observation by a conscious, macroscopic subject – is required to confer definite values on the quantum elements that go into the making of the brain, and which are supposed to help solve the combination problem.