Panpsychist Physicalism

[Written partially as a response to some discussion over in The Skeptical Zone]:

Physicalism is the idea that the universe is fundamentally composed of entirely blind, deaf, dumb–DEAD–particles in purposeless motion through empty space. For some reason, these dumb particles follow the orders of a system of eternal mathematical laws that, for some reason, the human mind, itself made of nothing more than dumb particles, is capable of comprehending.

If you accept this definition of physicalism and this rendering of the project of natural science, and if you avoid the question of the transcendental conditions of physics, then a coherent non-dualistic physicalist ontology requires that what we call “life” and “consciousness” both be explained away as mere appearances reducible to the mechanical collisions of particles. On this definition of physicalism, “life” and “consciousness” are just words we have for epiphenomenal illusions with no causal influence on what happens. “Life” is a genetic algorithm and “consciousness” is a meme machine, in Dawkins’ and Dennett’s terms. We are undead zombies, not living persons, on this reading of physicalism.

On the other hand, if you see consciousness and life as realities that are impossible to deny and that are in need of explanation *on their own terms*, either as emergent holistic processes with downward causative influence or as intrinsic capacities of phusis itself (my view), then clearly modern physicalism (or what Whitehead calls “scientific materialism”) must be mistaken.

If consciousness and life are not mere illusions with no hand in what happens but active participants shaping the evolutionary journey of the universe, then “physical stuff” like molecules and atoms, stars and galaxies, is not at all what the modern mind has been imagining for several centuries. Matter is not a heap of extensional lumps floating in homogeneous reversible time. That idea of dead matter has always been an idealistic abstraction. Concrete actually existing matter is infinite energy caught in a creative process of spatiotemporal evolution. This energetic expression is experiential through and through, and our special human form of conscious experience is just one of the universe’s many forms of spatiotemporal affection.

#PanpsychistPhysicalism

 

26 Replies to “Panpsychist Physicalism”

  1. Great points, but what is the reason for retaining the word “physicalism?”

    I’ve talked to dozens of self-proclaimed “physicalists” and have yet – over more than 8 years on the Journal of Consciousness Studies forum, among others – to find a single person who can provide a coherent definition of the word “physical” (except to say, “it’s whatever physicists study.”

    Does it add anything to “panpsychism” to say “panpsychist physicalism” except to placate the physicalists (or, if not placate, at least not scare them quite as much)?

    1. Great comment. I’m not sure that physicists, per se, have a coherent system of interpreting physics. There are are least 10 interpretations of quantum theory alone and no unified theory of everything. Yet, thousands of pseudo=skeptics worldwide are willing to take the leap of faith that physicalism must be the correct interpretation of reality, since it supports their world view. In my view that’s the definition of a religious dogma.

      1. Thanks Roy. But I think what you’re talking about is physicists’ interpretation of physics, rather than the metaphysical understanding of the term “physical” (an understanding which is entirely outside the training of most physicists).

        Actually, there is a widespread definition of “physical” – but it’s implicit, rather than explicit. So if you look at the philosophic definitions of the word “physical” – it always ends up being “it’s whatever physicists study,” which, of course, is meaningless, if not incoherent.

        But the actual meaning was basically admitted to us by biologist Richard Lewontin, who said, no matter how irrational materialism may seem to be, we must defend it because the alternative (religion?) is so much worse.

        Spelling it out, here’s what “physical” means when you examine how it is actually used:

        PHYSICAL: definition: Something that is lifeless, utterly lacking in intelligence, wholly unconscious, without meaning or purpose or sentience of any kind. It is the ultimate source of all life, intelligence, consciousness, sentience, and apparent meaning or purpose.

    2. I like the historical connotations of “phusis,” which for the ancient Greek physiologists implied something living, growing, etc. Not dead stuff. Hence “panpsychist physicalism” would’ve been redundant for them. In our day, it needs to be spelled out.

      1. Thanks Matt. That’s very helpful.

        By the way, you just gave a **rave** review as a philosopher from a friend with a half century of philosophic experience who I trust very deeply on philosophic matters (I don’t want to swell your head too much by mentioning this person’s name).

        Looks like I’ll be spending more time going through your writings!

  2. By the way, just as I think the Democrats would do well to re-vision many terms (right off the bat, they could start by calling themselves the “pro-life” party; then on with “pro second amendment,” and have as their basic description the goals of strong defense, limited government and personal responsibility. That would blow some folks’ minds), it wouldn’t be bad to simply start using the term “panpsychist physicalism” and simply assuming something living, growing, etc (with the occasional need for spelling out, of course).

    A bit of subversive philosophizing!

  3. even if we accept yer critique of modern science we don’t have any evidence for this sort of theological speculations “Concrete actually existing matter is infinite energy caught in a creative process of spatiotemporal evolution. This energetic expression is experiential through and through, and our special human form of conscious experience is just one of the universe’s many forms of spatiotemporal affection.” which is fine as such but why not own this?

      1. well if that means filling in blanks in knowledge with imaginative speculations than yes, to move from matter to “energy” isn’t a metaphysical move (begs all the same questions about origins and the like) if yer just pointing to physics, if by energy you mean something else (as is suggested by all the qualities you give to it) more akin to say:
        http://www.iupui.edu/~arisbe/menu/library/bycsp/evolove/evolove.htm
        than well enough but let’s not confuse that with induction. You folks should have Robert Corrington out sometime if he’s still traveling.

      2. Peirce is certainly relevant here, especially his idea of abduction as the source of scientific discovery. But Whitehead’s method of imaginative generalization is really what I understand myself to be performing here. My aim is to find an account of experiential reality that is inclusive of both the observed facts and most robust theories in physics as well as the presuppositions of conscious human life. Expanding our metaphysical conception of what energy is (beyond the mathematical formalisms of physics) is part of this effort. Clearly the natural world is not simply made of equations.

      3. Matt, first, wonderful (and elegant!) reply.

        I’ve watched – over several decades – the physicalists argue in favor of “emergence” as an “explanation.”

        It is so transparently not an explanation (and nothing I’ve seen written convinces me otherwise) that I find it baffling to imagine how to convey this.

        Ultimately, I don’t think this is a philosophic, but rather, a psychological problem.

        “Physical” is not really a word with a positive meaning, but rather, a place holder with a purely negative purpose – to deny life and consciousness as having any ultimate place in the universe. Almost every physicalist, when push comes to shove, will admit this – under duress.

        Similarly, emergence has no coherent meaning; it is simply a word (one psychologist friend refers to it as a “weasel word”) which has no other purpose but to deny the ultimate nature of life and consciousness.

        It ultimately comes down to what Sri Aurobindo called “exclusive concentration.” This cognitive/affective/volitional process is how we got to the place where Hawking asked, “What is it that puts fire into our equations?”

        What puts fire into our equations is everything that was left out when we exclusively concentrated on purely measurable, quantitative phenomena (the same problem is at the root of the now insuperable problems with many of our social and economic mechanisms).

      4. sure I’m meant his genre not his ideas, yer not just creating such an inclusive account of ” experiential reality that is inclusive of both the observed facts and most robust theories in physics as well as the presuppositions of conscious human life” that’s why when you frame this as just what it would be to do science while keeping metaphysics in mind it rings false, you go far outside of the research into the kinds of imaginary accounts one finds in theology which is fine but is something other than science+metaphysics, you are filling in blanks with images that you resonate with or speak to you or somesuch.
        Reminds me of Wittgenstein observation was that Freud’s error was to mistake his vital creations for discoveries, echoes I think of Stengers vs Freud on mesmerism.

      5. DMF: you’re not actually addressing the content of what Matt is saying but projecting your own ideas.

        Can you try to actually address what he is saying?

      6. To elaborate (for DMF), surely you know there are an increasing number of world-class neuroscientists (Koch comes to mind immediately) who are following along the same path Matt is presenting – Matt, I may not have this right; i have no background training in philosophy, but I”ll give it a try:

        The emerging panpsychist view is simple – even life and intelligence show up “later” in time, “emergence” is simply empty (not in the Buddhist sense!) as an explanation of how they show up. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable (and consistent with all scientific data, though inconsistent with rigid materialist philosophizing) to say that life and intelligence are inherent to matter.

        Rather than going off on another tangent, can you address specifically what you think is wrong with Koch’s reasoning, and if you can’t find any flaws, then as far as I can see, that would mean you implicitly agree with Matt.

      7. didn’t Matt say ““Concrete actually existing matter is infinite energy caught in a creative process of spatiotemporal evolution. This energetic expression is experiential through and through, and our special human form of conscious experience is just one of the universe’s many forms of spatiotemporal affection.”
        where do you find this in neuroscience?
        panpsychism is far from simple (which doesn’t mean it’s wrong just not yet in evidence).

      8. by the way isn’t Koch still working with Tononi and Tegmark on computation/information?
        Matt as I understand him isn’t at all interested in these sorts of mathematical speculations.

      9. I’m very interested in integrated information theory. I think information theory in general has a lot of relevance, but I read this approach in realist semiotic (Peirce) or panexperiential (Whitehead) terms. From my perspective, describing physical processes in informatic terms counts as a variety of panpsychism, since information implies interpretation (with no interpretant there is no “data”), and interpretation implies a meaningful experiential horizon.

      10. hey Matt IIT is the of a kind with the math stuff you rejected earlier not that sort of semiotics which is why I suggested someone like Corrington who embraces a sort of cosmic semiosis, cheers

  4. Matthew,

    I really do want to follow what you’re presenting here (and have for a number of years, actually). You are the person who inspired me to read Whitehead with seriousness, after all.

    But I have a question (so I can follow more closely)…

    In the idea you’re presenting, if you were to step outside of all of this and take the “human” out of the equation (while retaining your ability to observe)…

    … then do you make your case exactly the same way as you did here, with no changes? (Remember, no “human” – just observation)

    1. Joseph – I don’t understand. Where in what Matt wrote is there a critique of “science” per se? He is critiquing what legitimately could be called a theological catechism which, like a leech, has attached itself to modern science and is – you can choose whether it’s figuratively or literally – sucking the life blood out of it.

      A few days ago, I posted a somewhat detailed description of the catechism of the great fundamaterialist religion of Emergence. DMF: Please tell me if you can find a scintilla of empirical evidence for any of the “truth” claims of this religion (note – that was a rhetorical question – even Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg, like Richard Lewontin, and in their better moments, Dennett and the Churchlands, admit there is no empirical evidence for their views).

      please note, as it gets tiresome to keep repeating it, the following is NOT a critique of science, but rather – and yes Jerry Coyne, there IS such a thing – of “Scientism.”

      ****************************

      I often start a conversation with atheists by saying, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in.” It’s often a helpful start.

      But sometimes so-called “skeptics” aren’t really skeptical enough. They believe in a bizarre fundamentalist faith whose origins are lost in the mists of time, but the modern version of it was born in the 19th century. The fathers of this faith were irredeemably lacking in even the most basic philosophic intelligence, and thought it to be an ‘explanation” to say things like,

      “Oh, the universe, it just happened.”

      “Oh, yes, there was chaos, inexplicable chaos, for a few billionths of a second after the big bang but then elementary particles and elements began to form.”

      How, you ask?

      “well, they “emerged.”

      Thus the great god Emergence was born.”

      How did the elements form over the first 360,000 years of the universe, 13.7 billion years ago?

      “They emerged.”

      And what about the patterns we ignorantly refer to as “laws of nature’ (originally named that because they were thought to be set by a Divine Lawgiver, vehemently rejected by the religion of Emergence)?

      “They emerged.”

      And what sustains these “laws,” why don’t they just stop, or change?”

      “Well, that’s how they emerged, and they just keep doing what they’re doing.”

      How?

      “They just do” (lest you think I’m kidding, Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg wrote a famous – or infamous – essay for the New York Review of Books in which he said exactly what the Emergence Catechism above said)

      And our most eliminative materialist philosophers believe life and intelligence and joy and love are NOTHING BUT (“nothing BUTTISM” is one of the great mantras of the Emergence faith) dead, stupid, meaningly, purposeless, movements of physical ‘stuff’ – and please don’t ask what “physical stuff” is – it’s what physicists study – if you look up tautology, you may even find this as the prime example – physical stuff is what physicists study – oh, right, now I get it)

      So how did sentience, and intelligence and emotion come on the earthly scene?

      They have a good answer for that too.

      “It emerged.”

      People who think religions are superstitions, you should look closely at this – in all of human history, no more fantastic, nonsensical, absurd, irrational, superstitious, contradictory and ultimately utterly incoherent religion has ever arisen than the religion of Emergence.

      The latest priests of the Emergent religion tells us the physical universe doesn’t even exist as we perceive it. No, it is our brain constructing what we perceive out of vibrations affecting our sense organs, but we have no real idea what is “out there” (in fact, even what we call “brain” and “senses” and “body” is a construction.”

      If you follow the Emergence religion far enough down their rabbit hole, this universe couldn’t possibly exist; it would be an utter irrational impossibility.

      And they call others superstitious!!!

      ***********

      Think about it. you think the sky is blue, the grass is green? Purely a construction of the brain. There is no blue, no green, no sound, no taste, no smells, no feeling, nothing but dead, meaningless vibrations of something we know not what, “matter” and ‘energy” and “time” and “space” being dead concepts we cling to because we know not what is really ‘there.’

      This, folks, is the religion of Emergence. if you really truly commit yourself to this religion, you will find yourself quite soon with a bed at Copestone, the local psychiatric ward at Asheville, North Carolina’s Mission Hospital.

      And yet, this is the implicit religion of the modern world, Left and Right, conservative and liberal, religious, agnostic and atheist. As the physicist Jeffrey Satinover once put it, we “drink it in with our mother’s milk,” so much so that we are unaware that we express it with our every purchase, our choice of work, our choice of food, entertainment, living quarters, relationships – all are colored by the faith of this bizarre religion of Emergence.

      But that religion is dying, and the world around it, which only seems to be dying, is really struggling for a rebirth out of this insane faith which has dominated the world – really, at least since the axial age of 500 BC, but particularly so in the last 300 years.

      Time for rebirth!

      *******

      Follow up thought: If you look up “Iain McGilchrist” and his talk at the Blake Society (and if you want more, the RSA Animate cartoon of his ideas) and add to that Culadasa’s explanation of the neural networks supporting two very different kinds of attention (selective attention and peripheral awareness) and finally, study Sri Aurobindo’s chapter on “Exclusive Concentration” in “The Life Divine”……

      hey, I didn’t say this was an easy homework assignment:>)))

      if you do that, you’ll have all you ever need to know to understand the modern era (including Trump).

      But you won’t have to watch or read anything.

      Notice how, in one mode of attention, you block out everything but the thing you’re focused on, and notice too, how many conceptual layers and dead images are being superimposed on what you are experiencing.

      In a very different mode of attention (sometimes popularly called being in the zone, or in flow – a glimpse of a truly “integral” mode of attending) you are profoundly connected to what you are attending to, with all the different aspects of your being, physical, vital, emotional, analytic, intuitive, etc wholly engaged, to the point where you are united with that which you are attending to – an utterly different world is revealed, and all that the modern age “disenchanted” comes flooding back.

      I believe that the apparent “dying” that is occurring globally is a dying to this separative, overly conceptualized attention (not that conceptualization is “bad” but that conceptualization which covers over intuition, imagination, physicality, life, and non dual knowing/feeling/being) and the rough, painful yet joyful, amazing, awe-ful un-folding of an utterly new and truly integral mode of attending/knowing/feeling/wiling/Being.

  5. I think it is incorrect to suggest that ‘modern physicalism must be mistaken.’ Special relativity describes systems where velocities approach the speed of light but reduces to classical mechanics when speeds slow down. In a similar way, an emerging model accounting for life must reduce to modern physicalism whenever there is no involvement of any entity with agency and interest. So modern physicalism is not wrong, it just has limited application.
    A scientific model accounting for life and agency must show how it is that inclinations and intentions of organisms can help determine physical outcome. Furthermore, since inclinations, in order not to be random, must be the result of both an agenda and sense data about local conditions, it is necessary to account for the existence of an agenda for every organism that makes choices.
    Close inspection of activities embodied by organisms reveals that the majority, if not the totality, consist of recurrent, patterned, goal directed physical processes. An oak tree, for example, embodies processes of growing roots, a trunk, and leaves, producing cones annually, photosynthesis, respiration, and so on, all of which are characteristic of this type of organism.
    Each of these recurrent processes has presumably evolved to its present form through a series of repetitions according to a process of natural selection. In order for the individual rendition of such a process to be successful, there must often be improvisation taking place. The spider, for example, inherits a capacity for spinning a particular type of web, but she must adapt this process according to the topology of the site she chooses. So the embodiment of a characteristic process requires an agenda and some acquired data about local circumstances. Perhaps it is this capacity for improvisation that represents a basis for agency in the world.
    An emerging model accounting for organisms with agendas, an ability to embody inherited recurrent processes, a capacity for improvisation, and agency must reduce to the very successful model of modern physicalism in systems where there are no agents with power who are invested in outcome.

    1. The assumption that there are particles or entities or existents of any kind, anywhere in the universe, that are dead, deaf, dumb and blind, is a non-empirical speculation, – at the VERY least as ‘speculative” as anything Matt has written. It is an assumption that is in no way required for any scientific theory or experiment, and it is the single greatest obstacle today to the advancement of science. Since there cannot be, by definition, any proof of the absence of life, sentience, intelligence, and since no philosopher has ever put forward a coherent explanation of how life, sentience, etc can “emerge” from a purely dead, insentient “stuff” (or “physical” stuff if you want to use an utterly meaningless word), the burden is on the person proposing to use physicalism (in the way that Matt suggests, as claiming the ultimate “stuff” to be dead, deaf, etc) to give us at least one single reason why we should consider a non-provable, non-empirical speculation which contradicts virtually all the facts of our experience.

    2. Physicists are after a “final theory,” a “grand unifying theory,” a “theory of everything,” which they believe would come in the form of some equation that would explain everything. My understanding is that there is a consensus among physicists that life and consciousness are irrelevant to this theory. We could learn nothing more about these latter phenomena and still explain the universe by reduction to an equation that manages to unify gravity and the standard model of particle physics. (I asked physicist Alan Lightman about this a few weeks ago, and he confirmed my sense of the consensus among physicists on this point: https://youtu.be/Lqt3w4A6Arw?t=1h1m49s). I find this incredible. I have no problem at all and am in fact deeply fascinated by the various research programs in the physical sciences. I am not criticizing these research programs. I am criticizing the metaphysical claim that somehow life and consciousness are irrelevant to the search for a “final theory.” If there is truly a “theory of everything,” it must also address the realities of life and consciousness. Physicists can bracket these phenomena to focus on a more limited slice of reality, but as soon as they attempt to reduce or explain these other domains away, they are no longer doing good physics, they are doing bad metaphysics.

      One of the principles that guides my speculative philosophizing is coherence. The idea that creative agency and experiential interiority could accidentally “emerge” at some point in a physical universe that is otherwise devoid of any trace of such capacity strikes me as incoherent and irrational. Perhaps we live in an irrational universe where ultimately anything can “emerge” at any moment because of new strange arrangements between fundamentally dead, inert particles/fields. I do not understand how this could be possible, but perhaps the universe is not ultimately comprehensible. My wager as a speculative philosopher is that the universe is comprehensible.

  6. In reply to DMF’s comment:

    didn’t Matt say ““Concrete actually existing matter is infinite energy caught in a creative process of spatiotemporal evolution. This energetic expression is experiential through and through, and our special human form of conscious experience is just one of the universe’s many forms of spatiotemporal affection.”
    where do you find this in neuroscience?

    ****

    I was just listening to Matt’s intro to process philosophy in which he references Whitehead’s call for “assaulting the finite” limits of conventional thought (my paraphrase; i think i got it right!).

    If you take that to heart, then I’ll ask you this DMF

    Find me one single sentence in any neuroscience text that does not – implicitly, an important caveat – reference “infinite energy caught in a creative process of spatiotemporal evolution.”

    If you’re looking for texts where this is more explicit, look up NYUs non duality neuroscience lab. A great place to start. Then work your way back to the great neuroscience texts of the late 19th century. Once your eyes (or more important, your attention) are opened, you’ll see it everywhere.

    Meanwhile, try this:

    Listen to the thoughts arising in your mind as sounds. This will take some time, letting go of the superficial conceptualization associated with the sounds, and just hearing them as sounds.

    After some time, listen to “sounds” coming from the environment.

    After some more time, look as hard as you can at what you conceive to be “boundaries’ between sounds (thoughts) “in” “here” and thoughts “out” “there.”

    When you can’t find the boundary, look back at what Matt wrote and then back to the neuroscience text.

    Finally, when you look at the non duality research from NYU, you’ll be tempted again and again to say, “but that’s only the individuals’ “subjective” description of their “private” “experience.”

    But that’s just what is being questioned here.

    Another experiment: Find a precise phenomenal existent which can prove to you you are not dreaming at this moment. (Hint, you can’t. If you think you can, you haven’t looked closely enough – and this experiment is not meant to prove there is no difference, it’s only meant as an aid in assaulting those finite conceptual limitations)

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