Thinking with Carlo Rovelli: The Physics of Consciousness

Last summer, I traveled to the Gran Sasso Institute in L’Aquila, Italy to participate in a conference bringing physicists and philosophers together to rehash the famous debate in 1922 between Einstein and Bergson. My paper (which should be published soon) brought quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli and Whitehead into the mix.

Yesterday I came across this recent lecture by Rovelli offering some thoughts about the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness (a framing Rovelli dismisses).

I shared some initial thoughts in response on Twitter:

Then shared more in a series of YouTube videos:

In short, I applaud Rovelli’s brilliant analysis of the ways in which biological and psychological phenomena are perfectly compatible with physical processes. But there is some ambiguity in his account, as it is unclear whether he believes he is offering some sort of causal explanation of consciousness in physical terms, or just a correlation between, e.g., conscious information-processing or decision-making and free energy/negentropy in the brain. When he speaks as a physicist, he seems to think he is explaining consciousness in physical/efficient causal terms. But when he praises Spinoza the pantheist philosopher, he would seem to be acknowledging a mere correlation or parallelism between material and mental phenomena.

Science and the Soul of the World: Participatory Knowing in Goethe and Whitehead

I’m teaching for Schumacher College again, this time online. This course focuses on two towering exemplars of the organic approach to science, the German poet and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).

The course will run via live video conference on Saturday mornings (PST) for six weeks beginning in late January. Visit the Schumacher College website to register (before Jan 10, 2021). Here’s a short interview I did to introduce the foci of the course:

The course begins in the late eighteenth century by setting out the revolutionary cultural, philosophical, and scientific context within which Goethe developed his participatory understanding of Nature. Goethe is still primarily known as a poet, but students will come to see how the rise of Newton’s clockwork vision of the cosmos and the development of Kant’s nascent theory of living organization led Goethe (with help from the German Idealist Friedrich Schelling) to imagine a more organic and relational way of doing science. The course then turns to explore Goethe’s novel approach to the study of light and colour, geology, plant metamorphosis, and animal morphology.

During the nineteenth century, Goethe’s participatory way of doing natural science was largely forgotten, especially in the English-speaking world. Modern physics and biology followed Descartes and Newton’s lead by becoming increasingly mechanistic, while organic ways of thinking were dismissed as childish pre-modern holdovers. But at the turn of the twentieth century, physics underwent a series of revolutions that upset the mechanistic world-picture. It was the relativistic and quantum paradigm shifts that brought Whitehead out of mathematics and into metaphysics and cosmology. The course examines the reasons for the breakdown of the mechanistic view of Nature and unpacks Whitehead’s organic alternative, placing him alongside Goethe and Schelling as part of a legacy of participatory thinkers.

The course culminates in an exploration of organic science in our own day, looking at the enduring influence of participatory thinking in physics, biology, and spirituality. Students will be invited to reimagine the scientific world view in the context of an ensouled universe.

This course is designed for students of intellectual history who are fascinated by subversive streams of thought that have not yet been given their due. Some background in the history of European philosophy and science will be helpful, but the lecturer will attempt to make the ideas accessible to everyone.

Recommended reading prior to course start date:

1) The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World View By Rudolf Steiner (77 pages, available free online)

2) Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology By Matthew Segall (130 pages, available free online)

Parsimonious Panpsychism? (response to Julian Walker)

This following is copied from a Facebook post Julian Walker made in response to Bruce Alderman’s defense of panpsychism (in the “Integral 2.0” group). I wanted to weigh in (my comments are below): 

“PANPSYCHISM is not more PARSIMONIOUS than EMERGENTISM (Reply to Bruce on his thoughts about the David/Matthew debate)

In a way I hear you very eloquently restating Matthews stance.Which to me reifies the concept of consciousness and then makes it seem like this impossible emergent property.

But if what we mean by “consciousness” is rather a collection of evolved adaptive responses that gradually become not only more complex, but more self reflective? then it is not so unreasonable to see reactions to acid/alkali or light or other stimuli leading to moving one way or another etc eventually leading to more complex sensorimotor dynamics.

Biology is physical, and consciousness emerges as an expression of how physical organisms interact with their environment. It’s embodied, not ethereal.

Those sensorimotor dynamics emerge out of necessity and have survival value; eventually differentiating and complexifying into visual, auditory, sensate, olfactory organs with their own inputs and processing, and their own implications in terms of what they “mean” and how we should behave in response.

There did not have to be a ghost in that machine or some nascent form of “consciousness” already there waiting to perceive and reflect on these stimuli —it all co-emerges.

(Professor VS Ramachnadrans incredible 9 minute answer to the question of Self, Qualia, and Consciousness from the TSN interview with Roger Bingham up on YouTube, is for me the best exploration of this process. )

In a way I think this is why I and others intuit some kind of initial dualist underpinnings in panpsychism, or maybe why idealists and those with religious metaphysical affinities can migrate over to panpsychism.

Likewise I think “interiority” is again being reified as a literal space or dimension, instead of as increasing self reflective awareness, along with a deepening capacity to learn via memory, and plan via imagination etcAwareness doesn’t really happen “inside” in some literal way… it just seems like it because of how the brain evolved.

It is a perhaps as quixotic task to go in search of an ultimate explanation or origin of this interior space or entirely new ontological dimension as it is to try assert that music existed at the Big Bang, or else how could it just arise out of nowhere as this incredible phenomenon with rhythm, tempo, melody and harmony.

Similarly, meaning, emotions, language, and abstraction all ride on these adaptations and become elaborated into what we now see and experience in terms of human consciousness and culture.

On this view postulating something called “consciousness” in places where it has not been evolved via adaptation seems incoherent and unnecessary.

The argument that panpsychism is more parsimonious because otherwise how can we explain the “sudden appearance of interiority “ etc is to me just an argument from incredulity, combined of course with these reification/semantic mistakes.

It’s also a kind of question begging, because you’re left having to explain:

1) why we only see evidence for consciousness in living organisms.

2) why else that consciousness becomes more complex as brains do the same.

3) why brains that are damaged or intoxicated are reduced or distorted in their processes.

4) how exactly consciousness could be present in the early universe, but unexpressed.

Does water have to be present in hydrogen and oxygen prior to the conditions being right for it to emerge? What about all the elements that only became possible as the universe cooled and got larger, were they already there before they emerged? Protons and electrons were not interacting in ways that gave rise to the entirely new chemical reactions elements make possible once they did, and the intuition that therefore those elements were either already there or are part of some intelligent design with an inevitable teleology that implies pre existing sentience can’t help but seem like creationism. We can have an incomplete answer (emergentism) whilst being grounded in what all the evidence, and I do mean all the evidence, we have so far suggests.

My response:

To begin with, the charge that emergentism is more parsimonious assumes that we have a theoretical mechanism for how emergence occurs that is simple/economical. No such theory exists that I am aware of. So how do we know it is more parsimonious? It seems at least as probable to me that interiority and exteriority are equiprimordial, and on this assumption, no theoretical gymnastics are required later on down the evolutionary road to explain how surfaces could become persons. In fact, as William James was among the first to point out, evolution starts to make a lot more sense and require fewer leaps if interiority goes all the way down. So which ontology is really more parsimonious?? Julian might admit the lack of a theoretical mechanism for emergence is an IOU, and claim that lots of smart neuroscientists are working on it as we speak. But to my mind, this is not just another “easy” problem for the scientific method to resolve. If we accept Chalmers’ “hard problem” framing, then the question of whether there can be a theoretical mechanism that explains the emergence of interior wholeness/a psychological point of view out of exterior parts/the point-instants of materialistic physics is in fact an ontological or metaphysical one, rather than a strictly scientific one. Julian probably doesn’t accept Chalmers’ framing, though I’d like to see him argue against the rather elaborate and analytically tight case the Chalmers has published. Of course, the hard problem framing assumes we accept a standard materialist ontology of simply located material particles floating in empty space and directionless time. This ontology is highly suspect, not because woo woo philosophers challenged it, but because reductionistic physicists brought about the quantum and relativistic revolutions in the early 20th century. Physicists no longer hold to the old 19th century form of materialism, but unfortunately many in biology and cognitive science are still presupposing such an ontology. Why? Because 100 years of positivist anti-philosophy have created a situation wherein very few philosophers were willing to risk their reputations doing metaphysics at precisely the time when natural science needed a new metaphysics. Whitehead was among the exceptions. In any event, once we let go of the old materialistic ontology that not even physics still holds, new avenues are opened up for resolving the now softer hard problem of consciousness.

Julian complains that panpsychists “reify the notion of consciousness,” when as many neuroscientists will point out, it is actually a collection of a whole bunch of different capacities. “Consciousness” is certainly a suitcase term that allows those who use it to carry around all sorts of baggage. For the purposes of philosophy of mind, however, we can and must extract the essence of these various capacities: some call it “phenomenal awareness,” others call it “qualitative experience,” and still others “something it is like to be.” The point is that, for the purposes of understanding the ontology of mind, all the various modes of consciousness can be boiled down to some sort of “feeling” that provides their condition of possibility. Of course, we can take a behaviorist approach and try to explain how all the capacities that supposedly imply “consciousness” can actually be explained mechanically as just sophisticated input/output computations. But this amounts to a form of epiphenomenalism where the conscious “something it is like to be” plays no role whatsoever in the behavior of the organism. We are then left having to admit that consciousness is just an illusion and cannot evolve, since in order to be selected for it would have to confer some advantage to the organism in question. We are thus left with a ghost in the machine that should not exist. Julian wants to say consciousness evolved, so clearly the behaviorist approach to explaining it in terms of blind neural computations is not going to work. If consciousness exists, if it is part of the actual world and influences the behavior of our organism, then we will need to pursue other explanations for it than neural computation. Even if such mechanistic approaches were exhaustive in their explanations of organismic behavior (they aren’t, but let’s go with it for a second), that would still leave some sort of illusory consciousness to explain. Saying consciousness is an illusion doesn’t help us, because as Descartes was already well aware, the fact that consciousness “seems to be” is essential to its very nature. Consciousness could be defined as “seemingness.” So the question I’d have for the computational neural reductionist is “why do we seem to be conscious?” I’m left wondering who is really guilty of reification here…

Julian claims panpsychism is dualist. There are forms of panpsychism, particularly those growing in popularity among analytic philosophers of mind at the moment, that are indeed dualistic. These are the approaches that say consciousness or its proto- forms are a kind of “intrinsic property” of matter. These analytic panpsychists claim that physics tells us only about the relational or structural aspects of matter, and that the intrinsic nature of matter is, in fact, some sort of proto-consciousness. This is one way to avoid the hard problem of consciousness, but unfortunately it leads to another problem: the combination problem (also first pointed out by William James, who we should all really be reading more of, as so many of the problems endlessly debated to this day were brilliantly dealt with more than a century ago). James offered a possible solution to this problem, and Whitehead followed through on its development in his process-relational ontology. Whitehead’s process-relational panpsychism is unlike the dualistic substance-property panpsychism of the analytic school (e.g., Philip Goff and Galen Strawson). Whitehead avoids dualism by pointing out the way interiority and exteriority are dialectically entangled. You literally cannot understand what you mean when you posit one as existing without implicitly assuming the reality of the other. As Alan Watts put it, the simple but profound fact of the matter (and the mind!) is that “every outside has an inside, and every inside has an outside.” Whitehead’s metaphysical rendering of “experience” is not simply an account of the “inside,” but an account of how interiority and exteriority oscillate in a wave-like way through phases of potentiality and actuality. Each experient begins by inheriting a public past, then enjoying it in a private present, and finally perishing as a public intention for the future. So experience has an object-to-subject-to-object (or “superject”) pattern to it. It is not simply interior but rather an attempt to account for the ontologically basic dialectical entanglement of interior and exterior.

Julian claims we only see evidence of consciousness in living organisms. What evidence is that, exactly? Certain kinds of behavior we commonly associate with mental capacities? Ok, but this is behavior, not consciousness. Certain kids of neural activity that self-reports suggest is associated with consciousness? Ok, but again, this is all behavior. My point is that if we get stuck in the “only exteriors are really real” paradigm, to be consistent we are forced to say that, actually, there’s no evidence for consciousness ANYWHERE in the physical universe. It simply doesn’t add anything to physical reality to posit its existence. Of course, as human beings, this sounds absurd. But I don’t know how to avoid this theoretical conclusion given the premise that a reified understanding of exterior physical reality is in fact *all* of reality.

Julian’s claim that the emergence of consciousness is just like the emergence of water from H and O atoms is the result of a common confusion of the ontic and the ontological. Interiority is not just a new state of matter like liquidity. If matter is imagined in the Cartesian way as extended bits of stuff in mechanical motion, then experience or interiority is a new domain of Being and not just another being among beings.

In short, the IOU theory of the emergence of consciousness from matter is not so much “incomplete” as it is incoherent.