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Consciousness All the Way Down?

October 18, 2020

A popular view in the 21st century in the philosophy of mind has become the perspective of Panpsychism. Galen Strawson argued that this position follows, paradoxically at first sight, even for those who claim to be physicalists. His reasoning is that the physicalist is ultimately committed to a unified perspective of ontological reality, and given the blunt ontological fact of personal conscious experience, such a unified perspective will have to contain psychic entities at all levels. For if there is some basic level where entities are not psychic you have the task of trying to explain how consciousness can emerge from nothing at more complex levels, and there seems to be no physicalist way to do this.

The view has been used to argue for so many positions in recent times. Some argue it leads to idealism, others claim it fits in line with the view of neutral monism, developed some time back by Bertrand Russell and others. While for a third camp of people such as Galen Strawson the suggestion is to naturalise psychic entities, in a way that to my mind removes from the notions of mind and consciousness any meaningful content.

In general, an issue for panpsychism that I want to raise today, is the fact that on the quantum level, particles are literally identical. Every Photon, Electron etc is interchangeable with any other Photon or Electron, and indeed this interchangeability of them due to being identical is a key fact or axiom at the heart of Quantum Theory. So, given this fact, my personal claim is that to attribute psychic or mental qualities to entities that are internally literally identical is in some way logically incoherent. I don’t think it makes any sense to talk of attributing internal qualities to things that are known to have no internal qualities due to being identical, interchangeable and indistinguishable.

We could, of course, abandon Quantum Theory as an explanation of reality, but I am not for now going to pursue that line of thought. I am going to presume Quantum Theory is correct, at least about the identical nature of quantum particles, and I am also going to assume it is correct to say that it is logically incoherent to attribute internal qualities to things that by definition have no internal qualities. As a result, we have a problem for panpsychism. Panpsychism is claimed to follow from physicalism. Yet Quantum Theory also currently follows from physicalism, as does the logic which states that identical things can only be distinguished externally, i.e. based on their spatial position. In which case, they have no internal properties, i.e. such as mentality. This means that panpsychism thereby is stuck in a paradox, where if it is true it must ultimately be false. At least for the version supported by Galen Strawson that is claimed to be entailed by physicalism.

My own suggestion for how to interpret this situation is to say the simple and obvious position, for long held by many in relation to philosophy of mind, which is that mentality emerges at some level of complexity in entities. For, it is only with complex entities that the notion of consciousness has a meaningful attribution. Now this notion, can be made consistent with versions of panpsychism that move away from that doctrine to some extent towards a neutral monist position. It is only the Strawson position that is undermined I believe by this line of thought.

This view of course has all the usual problems of where to draw the line at which mentality emerges, but we have the exact same problem still existent in quantum theory as to how to draw the line as to what counts as a measurement in quantum systems to distinguish the quantum level from the regular macro level of phenomena (i.e. to determine at precisely what point and scale the wave function is collapsed). So it is perhaps to be expected that this would be a difficult problem to solve. And perhaps, as in the persistence of the copenhagen interpretation, we would do well to keep open the possible interpretation of ultimate reality, before we are sure what is going on here, as if we take a dogmatic stance such as, “all is matter”, or “all is mind”, we are committing ourselves to an ontology that may turn out to be inconsistent with reality. I think maintaining our connection with reality is more important here than deciding a mind-body problem preemptively that will only be giving us a false sense of security.

[An interesting little side note which I am going to pursue in another post, the two main types of identical quantum particles are Bosons and Fermions. The two have quite fascinating complementary properties. Fermions, such as electrons, in line with the Pauli exclusion principle tend to exclude each other, and so create spatial separation, while Bosons, such as photons, tend to hang around with each other. It is the reason why in empty space, even with light travelling through it there is no resistance encountered, because photons are Bosons and do not exclude things spatially in the same way that electrons and other Fermions, such as neutrons and protons do. An interesting part of this is actually something critical to Roger Penrose’s recent ideas about a cyclic cosmos. He postulates, that once all Fermion matter has been decayed in black holes, there will be nothing left to keep things spatially apart in a meaningful way, just the left over radiation in the form of photons, but photons are all bosons. So, in a sense at this time space would cease to exist again, and you would have a new singularity that would represent the start of a new universe in a cyclic pattern.]

From → Poetry

One Comment
  1. Awesome post. A good reflection about the connection between mind and quantum mechanics is a rare thing, people usually abuse it to prove things that just aren’t. Well done!

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