Consciousness between Science and Philosophy (response to Philip Goff on panpsychism)

Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (1920)

If you prefer to listen to me read this blog post:

tl;dr Panpsychism = All is psyche, which is to say human consciousness and visible Nature take place within the World-Soul.

Most moderns have accepted as a matter of course that the best people to speak on behalf of Nature are the scientists. Scientists are the people most ideally positioned to study the special ways matter behaves under the experimental conditions of their theoretical gaze. But what happens when the object of scientific inquiry is not just another thing in Nature, not just another organ of the animal body, whether brain or eyes, but the thinking subject herself, the one who sees through those eyes and supposedly comes to know Nature scientifically, that is, consciously?

When the object of study is the conscious subject, science cannot do without philosophy. This is also true when the object of inquiry is Nature as such, or as a whole, that is, as the cosmogenetic process of Natura naturans. Cosmology will never be a purely positive science. There will always be ample room and need for speculative philosophizing beyond what at present can be measured or mathematized. Thus we can say that science becomes philosophical whenever it asks about its own subjective conditions of possibility (“What is consciousness?”) or about the nature of the cosmic process out of which it has emerged (“What is the cosmos?”).

I’ll borrow a tired Kantian trope because it’s late and why not: Philosophy without science is blind, and science without philosophy is empty. If we allow them to remain divorced and at odds, our human capacity to know the actually existing universe will continue to suffer and degrade.

Card-carrying panpsychist philosopher Philip Goff weighed in earlier today on this theme. Rather than invoking the antipodes of consciousness and cosmos as naturally philosophical arenas off limits to scientific reductionism, Goff emphasizes ethics as being forever beyond natural science’s explanatory prowess. When it comes to consciousness, he grants neuroscience at least part of the solution to the puzzle by way of their pursuit of the famed “neural correlates of consciousness”:

It is commonly assumed that the task of explaining consciousness is scientific rather than philosophical. I think that’s half right. It’s the job of neuroscience (among other things) to establish the neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs), that is, to work out which physical states of the brain are correlated with which subjective experiences. We have a robust and well-developed experimental approach for answering these questions.

Philip Goff

I have absolutely no doubt that the careful study of electrochemical activity in the human brain has a lot to teach us about the nature of consciousness. But I do not share Goff’s enthusiasm for this particular methodological approach known as “NCC.” There are other neuroscientific and neurophenomenological research programs that I think warrant our philosophical attention. For example the enactive approach to consciousness as articulated by Alva Nöe and Evan Thompson. They co-authored this paper showing how the search for neural correlates is not well-founded epistemologically or phenomenologically. It assumes certain things about experience as representational “content” and brain “states” that turn out to be philosophically incoherent.

Goff goes on to carve out a place for philosophy in the study of consciousness by reminding scientists that theory is underdetermined by data. In other words, there are multiple rational explanations for the available empirical evidence. In the case of consciousness’ place in Nature, Goff offers three possible accounts:

Naturalistic dualism – A subjective experience is a very different kind of thing from a physical brain state, but the two are bound together by natural law. In addition to the laws of physics, there are fundamental psycho-physical laws of nature which ensure that, in certain physical circumstances, certain experiences emerge.

Materialism – Each subjective experience has a purely physical nature. Having subjective experiences – feeling pain, seeing red – wholly consists in having certain complex patterns of neuronal firing.

Panpsychism – Each physical state has a purely experiential nature. Physical science tells us what matter does whilst leaving us in the dark about what it is. Having physical states – being negatively charged, being a certain pattern of neural firing – wholly consists in having certain kinds of subjective experience.

Philip Goff

I don’t think it is fair for Goff to leave idealism off his map of reasonable philosophical positions. Idealism matters. That said, he is correct that we cannot perform an empirical test to determine which of these four ontologies is true. They are “empirically equivalent” (like Whitehead’s family of alternative bimetric gravitational theories are to Einstein’s Relativity Theory).

Goff goes on to ground his empiricism on a public experiment/private experience bifurcation that I find phenomenologically inaccurate and conceptually confused. If panpsychism is ontologically valid then this Cartesian public/private or res extensa/res cogitans division must be an illusion, no? The need to dissolve the Cartesian split is a consequence not only of panpsychism, but of post-Cartesian phenomenology (especially Merleau-Ponty). Consciousness is not anyone’s private property; rather, consciousness publicly pervades the world. I agree with Nöe: we’ll never understand consciousness until we get out of our heads. Like fish in water, we are swimming in it.

Experience pervades and reverberates through Nature, “inside” and “outside” the mind, and is not bundled up into tiny private particles. The world isn’t that cold. It’s warm and alive, leaving every drop of experience open to be grown into by its internal relations with others. Reality is not fundamentally made of externally related mind dust, each particle watching its own private qualia screen, trapped in its own solipsistic egg shell universe. Rather, reality is made of experiential relations, or prehensions. Whiteheadian prehensions are not just passive feelings: they grow together into subjects who express aims.

Is there aim or value being realized in the non-human cosmos in Goff’s panpsychist vision? The reality of aim is relevant to his defense of ethics from scientific explanation. If there is such a thing as ethics in the universe, it’s because at least some animals have the ability to behave on purpose, that is, to act by launching an intention beyond the immediate moment in the hopes of effecting some ideal change upon the future. If conscious humans are ethical creatures (and ethics is not reducible to Sam Harris’ laboratory experiments), then the universe includes aims, at least in the form of our human actions. Where do these aims come from? I think we are left having to make the same move when it comes to explaining the place of aim in Nature that Goff accepts we had to make to explain consciousness. Aims also go all the way down. They evolve and accrue enhancements upon the way. Humans are just an especially intense expression of something Nature has been doing from the get go.

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.”

Alchemical Consciousness After Descartes: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism as Psychedelic Realism

The following is an essay originally submitted for publication in a book on philosophy and psychedelics. After some feedback from the editors, I realized it is too long and includes too many (I hope interesting!) digressions. I’ll be thoroughly revising my submission for the book, so I figured I’d share this earlier version here. Feedback welcome!

Abstract: The study of consciousness is today’s most exciting philosophical frontier. Such an inquiry provides an obvious example of the relevance of psychedelic experience: what better way could there be for coming to terms with the intimate mystery our own consciousness than through the ingestion of psychedelic—literally, “mind-manifesting”—chemicals? In the chapter to follow, I offer a creative reading of Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, reinterpreting his famous Gedankenerfahrung (“thought-experiment”) as a sort of psychedelic trip through hell and heaven and back again. I next turn to Whitehead’s process-relational reimagining of modern Cartesian philosophy, detailing how his approach more adequately incorporates the psychedelic ground of consciousness. I argue that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism opens up the possibility of a psychedelic realism that would allow us to take the ontologically revelatory nature of these experiences seriously. My hope is that this comparative reading of Descartes and Whitehead opens up a road not taken by modern natural science and philosophy, one leading away from the self-alienation and cosmic disenchantment that have so plagued contemporary science and society. Self-integration and world re-enchantment are possible. Ingested responsibly and in service of philosophical inquiry, psychedelics may act as alchemical catalysts providing an especially powerful medicinal aid in service of this Great Work.

The brain is not a computer, and thinking is not information-processing.

Sharing an email response to a question I received about the possibility of explaining human consciousness computationally, and whether such explanations might be compatible with Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual science.

I do not think the computational paradigm has much to teach us about the sort of Sophianic consciousness Steiner attempted to unveil. I summarized my thoughts on this in an essay back in 2012:

The computational paradigm does have something to teach us, but it is not what proponents of computationalism may intend. What it teaches us, I think, is that human consciousness and the thinking activity at its root cannot possibly be understood as a merely computational or algorithmic operation, or as information-processing. If our consciousness was explainable as computation, then we would not be here to understand the explanation. We’d be robots who only talk as if they are conscious, as neuroscientist Michael Graziano suggests (I address his views and the computational paradigm more generally in my recent journal article on the place of consciousness in the physical world). 

Thinking is a spiritual activity, an intuitive and transformational process, not merely the rearrangement or exchange of information between fixed transistor nodes in a finite network architecture. In other words, thinking is something we know from the inside and freely, not something that can be measured, objectified, or programmed. Even self-programming computers/machine learning algorithms cannot reproduce human consciousness. Human consciousness gives rise to such insights as Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Heidegger’s Dasein, and Berkeley philosopher Hubert Dreyfus’ brilliant refutation of computational cognitive science in light of existential phenomenology (See his famous book What Computers Can’t Do, as well as the follow up, What Computers Still Cannot Do).

Human consciousness or Anthroposophia, like all spiritual entities, is an animate, intelligent, compassionate presence striving to participate in the further evolution of the world-process. Computers might be able to (re)program themselves, but they will never be conscious or be capable of thinking, never have aims other than those given them by their programmers. Computers are a product of thinking, not the other way around.

That said, the more we surround ourselves by screens and computer algorithms, the more our thinking becomes machine-like, the more we begin to imagine ourselves and other people as mere automatons. Thinking is not easy. Emerson as well as Steiner agreed that thinking is the hardest task in the world. But it is the task of our age.