John Horgan’s article in “Scientific American” on Panpsychism

John Horgan published an essay in Scientific American a few days ago criticizing Tononi’s integrated information theory of consciousness.

In The Beginning Was Quantum

I don’t understand Integrated Information Theory well enough to defend it, but I applaud the effort to make progress toward a scientifically operationalizable definition of consciousness. But it seems to me that part of the problem with all the confusion around IIT is a lack of philosophical clarity about concepts like “mind” and “matter.” So for better or worse we need more philosophy first before we can study consciousness scientifically. Otherwise we don’t even know what we’re studying. I’d echo another commenter on Horgan’s article who made the very helpful statement: “Alfred North Whitehead.” No one has developed a more sophisticated, coherent, and adequate account of panpsychism than he. If we want to understand the conceptual lay of the land, his books Science and the Modern World, Process and Reality, Adventures of Ideas, and Modes of Thought are a good place to start. Whitehead was led to a variety of panpsychism because of his deep appreciation for the implications of quantum and relativity theory. In other words, he was led to panpsychism because of and not in spite of the best physics of his day.

Whitehead’s scheme is sophisticated enough to be able to make distinctions between classes of things like chairs and paperweights on the one hand and living cells and human beings on the other; which is to say that, for Whitehead, rocks are not conscious entities, they belong to a class of entities called aggregates that are not self-organizing and so do not possess consciousness in and of themselves (though their self-organizing components may). So Mr. Horgan, let’s please stop throw rocks at panpsychism as though that were some kind of adequate refutation.

Horgan’s skepticism about panpsychism is understandable, of course, but referring to it as “metaphysical baggage” itself reflects a metaphysical bias. Behind this statement is the assumption that metaphysics is somehow optional, as if we could frame a scientific theory that didn’t make any metaphysical assumptions. Whitehead’s version of panpsychism has cleared up a ton of otherwise confusing conceptual problems for me (including the hard problem), so I prefer it to idealism, materialism, and dualism. It also allows us to avoid the sort of anthropocentrism that leads Horgan to make comments like this: “If all the humans in the world vanished tomorrow, all the information would vanish, too.” Really? Other lifeforms don’t interpret information?

I tried to lay out the philosophical stakes regarding how to understand consciousness in the presentation below. I think for logical consistency we have to choose either panpsychism or eliminativism. There is no middle ground here. Either consciousness (or proto-consciousness/non-conscious experience) is intrinsic to all self-organizing material systems, or it is a mere linguistic artifact that science needn’t bother itself about. That said, there are clearly important criteria other than just logical consistency: experiential adequacy seems to me to demand that we reject the eliminativist claim that somehow what we know so intimately (our own consciousness, or that of those we are close to*) doesn’t actually exist.

[Update 12/7: Comments to this post are unfolding on reddit; also, John Horgan has posted my reply on his blog at Scientific American]

*A reddit commenter argued that “The only conscious entity we can be absolutely certain of is our own.” I’d dispute this claim on ethical and phenomenological grounds. Descartes was phenomenologically mistaken, a mistake since corrected by thinkers like Fichte, Husserl, Levinas, and Buber.  I am no more certain of my own consciousness than I am of someone else’s. Subjectivity is always already intersubjectivity. Our own self-consciousness depends upon recognition by other self-consciousnesses. There is no theoretical “problem of other minds,” at least not in our concrete bodily experience of life as an organism among other organisms in an evolving ecology (which is not to deny the practical problem of carving out an existence among others). We don’t deduce or infer the existence of our lovers, of our friends, of our siblings and parents. We intuit them directly, at least as directly as we intuit ourselves. As Whitehead puts it in Process and Reality, “A young man does not initiate his experience by dancing with impressions of sensation, and then proceed to conjecture a partner. His experience takes the converse route” (pgs. 315-316). The “problem of other minds” is only a problem for dualism, materialism, and idealism. It is not a problem for Whitehead’s panpsychism.