Science

Beyond Physicalism

Philosophy has taken a beating lately, even, or especially, from philosophers, who are compulsive critics, even, especially, of their own calling. But bright young women and men still aspire to be full-time truth-seekers in our corrupt, capitalist world. Over the past five years, I have met a bunch of impressive young philosophers while doing research on the mind-body problem. Hedda Hassel Mørch, for example. I first heard Mørch (pronounced murk) speak in 2015 at a New York University workshop on integrated information theory, and I ran into her at subsequent events at NYU and elsewhere. She makes a couple of appearances—one anonymous–in my book Mind-Body Problems. We recently crossed tracks in online chitchat about panpsychism, which proposes that consciousness is a property of all matter, not just brains. I’m a panpsychism criticshe’s a proponent. Below Mørch answers some questions.—John Horgan

Horgan: Why philosophy? And especially philosophy of mind?

MørchI remember thinking at some point that if I didn’t study philosophy I would always be curious about what philosophers know. And even if it turned out that they know nothing then at least I would know I wasn’t missing anything.

One reason I was attracted to philosophy of mind in particular was that it seemed like an area where philosophy clearly has some real and useful work to do. In other areas of philosophy, it might seem that many central questions can either be deflated or taken over by science. For example, in ethics, one might think there are no moral facts and so all we can do is figure out what we mean by the words “right” and “wrong”. And in metaphysics, questions such as “is the universe infinite” can now, at least arguably, be understood as scientific questions. But consciousness is a phenomenon which is obviously real, and the question of how it arises from the brain is clearly a substantive, not merely verbal question, which does not seem tractable by science as we know it. As David Chalmers says, science as we know it can only tackle the so-called easy problems of consciousness, not the hard problem. 

Horgan: Did you have any odd experiences of self-awareness as a child, like those described in this column, or mystical experiences? And if so have they influenced your philosophy?

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MørchWhen I was maybe 12, I remember sitting on a bus and suddenly being very struck and puzzled by the fact that I am me and not someone else. That sounds like the same kind of experience as you had, though not as intense. I’m not sure how it influenced me, but it might have made me more inclined toward to deflationary views of the self along the lines of Derek Parfit, Galen Strawson and Buddhism. The experience represented the self as very hard to make sense of, and if so it makes sense to deflate it as much as possible.

Horgan: I’ve called integrated information theory an example of neo-geocentrism, in which we project human traits onto nature. Am I being too critical?

MørchIIT implies a form of panpsychism, which projects consciousness onto nature, and this might seem geocentric or anthropocentric. But one person’s anthropocentrism is another person’s anti-exceptionalism. If everything is conscious, then humans and animals are not special exceptions to the rest of nature, in the sense of uniquely possessing the rare property of consciousness; rather, we are just like everything else. From this perspective, panpsychism is more in the spirit of the heliocentric revolution than a step back to geocentrism. 

I should also clarify that neither IIT nor panpsychism in general project advanced consciousness, such as human-like cognition or self-awareness, onto most parts of nature, only extremely simple qualities. Projecting advanced consciousness would be unreasonable and perhaps geo- or anthropocentric. But projecting simple consciousness, in my view, actually contributes to an elegant solution to the mind-body problem which removes all the “epicycles” generated by physicalism and dualism—just like heliocentrism did to geocentrism.

Horgan: Okay, maybe I have been too critical. But can you tell readers, briefly, why they should take panpsychism seriously?

MørchPhysicalism and dualism are the two main alternatives to panpsychism. 

Physicalism implies that consciousness doesn’t exist. Physical science cannot capture what it’s like for someone to have conscious experiences, such as seeing red or being in pain, or any of the qualitative or subjective features of consciousness. So if consciousness is physical, it’s not qualitative or subjective, and therefore not really consciousness after all. 

Dualism implies that consciousness doesn’t matter. Physical science shows no sign of any non-physical forces causally influencing the brain or body—everything seems explainable in neurological, electrochemical, or other physical terms. So if consciousness is wholly distinct from the physical world, as dualism says, it probably doesn’t influence our actions at all; it’s purely epiphenomenal. 

Panpsychism avoids both of these consequences. Put very simply [more details here], according to panpsychism, science only describes matter from the outside: it tells us how physical things relate to each other and to us, not how they are in themselves. But every outside needs an inside. We know the inside of one physical object, namely ourselves, and this inside is consciousness. Why not think other things have the same kind of inside as well? If so, consciousness gets to play an essential role in the physical world, without being reduced to something purely physical. 

Horgan: Okay, but will science ever find a solution to the solipsism problem?

MørchOne might think panpsychism solves this problem, because it tells us that all physical things are conscious. But panpsychism does not imply that all things are conscious as a whole. Human brains (or certain parts of it) are conscious as a whole, but tables and chairs are probably not—they should rather be regarded as mere collections of conscious particles. The question is whether the same holds for, for example, insects, jellyfish and plants.

Credit: Michael Donovan

To solve this problem, we should of course look at empirical correlations between human consciousness and physical properties of the brain. From this, we can reasonably infer that animals fairly similar to us are also conscious (as a whole), but when it comes to organisms like jellyfish, which are very different from us, I think we cannot determine in a principled way whether they are similar enough to also be conscious (as a whole). Therefore, it seems that empirical studies alone cannot give a full answer.

I think IIT has a promising approach to this. It says that not only must we study correlations between consciousness and brain properties from the empirical, third person or objective perspective, we must also consider the structure of consciousness as it appears to us from the first-person or subjective perspective, and infer the physical criteria of consciousness from this. This is known as the axiomatic argument for IIT [more details here]. One might object to the specifics of this argument, but as a general approach it seems to me like the only clear way forward, assuming the problem can’t be solved in a standard empirical way.

Horgan: I’ve argued that we will never find a single solution to the mind-body problem. What do you think?

MørchI think we already found it, the problem is just to convince more people!

Horgan: What about quantum mechanics? Does it have anything to do with consciousness?

MørchAs I said, science only captures the physical world “from the outside”, or more precisely, in terms of its relational structure, and this also holds for quantum mechanics. Some seem to think quantum structure is more likely to be connected to consciousness than classical structure, perhaps because features such as indeterminism and non-locality are perceived as distinctively mentalistic. But as I see it, any kind of physical structure is equally in need of an “inside” or an intrinsic, and therefore conscious, basis. 

One might think quantum entanglement has something to do with mental combination, that is, with how simple particle consciousness combines into complex human and animal-type consciousness. This is roughly because an entangled system is irreducible to the sum of its parts similarly to how combined consciousness seems to be, and perhaps also because, within a conscious mind, information seems to be shared instantly between all its parts, which can also be seen as similar to how entanglement works. One problem with this idea, though, is that our combined consciousness is confined to the brain, but entanglement is not, insofar as evidence suggests that the whole universe is an entangled system. 

Horgan: Thanks, for a comment on quantum mechanics and consciousness, that’s surprisingly clear. Do you believe, and perhaps hope, that science, even if it cannot understand the mind, might transform it through brain chips or other technologies?

MørchI’m not very informed about this, but it seems to me that the brain is so complex that it might be difficult to drastically interfere with it such that consciousness changes in an interesting way rather than just breaking down. I also think there are so many interesting experiences available already, so I don’t strongly hope for it. 

Horgan: Do you believe in free will?

MørchI don’t know—William James puts it nicely when he says that the question of free will is undecidable in theory, and so, “craving the sense of either peace or power”, we can only choose to believe in it or not on pragmatic grounds.

I also like Galen Strawson’s view (from his book Freedom and Belief) that although we have good reason to think free will is impossible, most of us are still psychologically incapable of not believing in it, but maybe with practices such as meditation we can eventually become capable of not believing it. But it seems to me perhaps the opposite could also happen: if we develop our minds in a certain way maybe we can come to understand how some kind of freedom is possible after all.

Horgan: What about God?

MørchNot really. But there is a religious view I find interesting, which is pandeism: the view that God used to exist, and be the only thing that existed, and then transformed himself into the universe, and so no longer exists. The reason God did this was basically for fun, or to see what happened. And maybe at some point the universe will transform itself back into God—that would be like nirvana or heaven. But then eventually God would get bored again and start the cycle over. As I understand it, this is close to some parts of Hindu cosmology.

It might also resonate with your psychedelic vision of God that you’ve written about? Though this version seems less depressing.

Horgan: I like that! I think I’m a pandeist! What’s your utopia?

MørchI suspect that true utopias are impossible, because all pleasure will eventually get boring, and to avoid boredom one must take the risk of pain. As Schopenhauer says, “Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom”, except the pendulum also swings through their opposites, pleasure and fun, which at least makes the cycle more bearable, and worth partaking in. This is also partly why the pandeistic view I just described appeals to me. 

But until boredom sets in, I would probably like to spend some time in the garden of Epicurus, where they lived a simple life focused on avoiding pain and enjoying simple food, philosophy and friendship. I especially like Seneca’s description here.

Further Reading:

Mind-Body Problems (free online book, also available as Kindle e-book and paperback)

Meta-Post: Posts on the Mind-Body Problem

Can Integrated Information Theory Explain Consciousness?

The Rise of Neo-Geocentrism

What Is Philosophy’s Point?, Part 1 (Hint: It’s Not Discovering Truth)

A Buddhism Critic Goes on a Silent Buddhist Retreat

See also Q&As with Scott Aaronson, David Albert, David Chalmers, Noam Chomsky, David Deutsch, George Ellis, Marcelo Gleiser, Robin Hanson, Nick Herbert, Jim Holt, Sabine Hossenfelder, Sheila Jasanoff, Stuart Kauffman, Christof Koch, Garrett Lisi, Christian List, Tim Maudlin, James McClellan, Priyamvada Natarajan, Naomi Oreskes, Martin Rees, Carlo Rovelli, Rupert Sheldrake, Peter Shor, Lee Smolin, Sheldon Solomon, Amia Srinivasan, Paul Steinhardt, Philip Tetlock, Tyler Volk, Steven Weinberg,  Edward Witten, Peter Woit, Stephen Wolfram and Eliezer Yudkowsky.

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