By Mathew Goldstein
Philosophers David Chalmers, Galen Strawson, and Philip Goff, among others, have defended versions of panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is a basic property of our universe, like forces and matter (bosons and fermions). Some scientists, including Adam Frank, a Professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester in New York, and Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, have aligned themselves with these philosophers. They are the sophisticated authors of this recent article in Aeon magazine The Blind Spot who, along with the third author philosopher Evan Thompson, work at The Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth which is an “Aeon partner” that “receives generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation.” The John Templeton Foundation gives out millions of dollars each year and one of their priorities is funding, and thereby promoting, arguments for theism by professors within otherwise secular academic institutions. Panpsychism is not theism, but it can be construed as being consistent with theism in the sense of god being the conscious foundational precursor and basis for everything else.
We can logically derive mechanical action, such as walking and talking, and memory storage and retrieval, from the activity of neurons based on energy and matter alone. Panpsychism deems energy and matter alone to be insufficient to explain the self-perceptions of color, of sound, etc., the feelings of hunger, pain, etc., and the ability to be consciously self-aware. We not only have no explanation for our ability to experience our own perceptions, feelings, and self identity, we also currently have no clear ideas how it could be possible to have experiences like these. Therefore, advocates for panpsychism conclude consciousness needs to be added to the lowest level description of our universe as another of its most basic components.
But is it really true that consciousness is impossible within the constraints imposed by the existing core theories of physics? There are many examples where emergence has more tricks up its sleeves than our simple and limited imaginations allow for. There are multiple theories/languages/vocabularies/ontologies that we appropriately use to describe the world at different levels of coarse-graining and precision. We now have explanations for phenomena that not only were previously unexplained, but that we also previously lacked even an ability to attempt to explain within the constraints of the information we previously had to work with.
For example thermodynamics (fluids, energy, pressure, entropy) resides at a higher level relative to the lower level kinetic theory (collections of atoms and molecules with individual positions and momenta). There are two ways of communicating how our universe functions here, each entirely valid within a domain of applicability, with the domain of one theory (thermodynamics) living strictly inside the domain of the other (kinetic theory). Crucially, the emergent higher-level theory exhibits features that are absent from the lower-level theory. Thermodynamics has an arrow of time defined by the Second Law (entropy increases in isolated systems), whereas the microscopic rules of the lower-level theory are completely time-symmetric. Directional time appears as an emergent macro level property of our universe that (to the best of our current knowledge) has no presence at the lower micro level. There is no doubt that our future understandings of how the universe functions will continue to transcend our past imaginations of what is possible.
Meanwhile, while our limited imagination fails us, while there is still no path to explaining what we observe from our current state of knowledge, it can be tempting to assign a property from a higher level description of our universe to the lowest level, basic building blocks description of our universe. This approach intuitively appears to provide us a sensible and reasonable path to explain the sudden appearance of an otherwise unexplained emergent macro level property. But human history does not support this intuitive approach for determining how the universe operates to be useful. We should not take such shortcuts to try to bypass the need for anchoring our conclusions in empirical evidence.
We have no empirical evidence for the presence of consciousness anywhere outside the context of biology, let alone at the lowest level description of how our universe functions. Higher level phenomena often exhibit new features not found at the lower level from which they emerge and sometimes these new features are unexpected and difficult for us to account for. Accordingly, the best fit with the available empirical evidence is that consciousness and related phenomena are still mysterious macro levels emergent properties from within biological contexts. Therefore this conclusion is more likely to be true than Templeton Foundation promoted speculations like panpsychism.
We may continue to encounter formidable obstacles to solving this particular mystery. We do not know when we will obtain an answer. There are no guarantees that we can solve all such mysteries, including this one. An expectation that we can, and will, fully understand all phenomena of our universe, even given much more time, is itself not well justified. We lack full access to all information. Humanity is arguably like a blind person trying to describe an elephant by examining only its front side. Nevertheless, we have been remarkable successful and the slow, arduous, imperfect, and error prone effort required to obtain and follow the empirical evidence is by far more productive than idle speculations that bypass this process The Templeton Foundation money is not being well spent.