Coyne against Panpsychism

The evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has long been against panpsychism. He recently published a blog post against the position, or more precisely against an argument raised by Philio Goth in favor of that position. I want to make a few comments on Coyne’s counter-argument. During it, he says –

the absence of evidence that [a rock] has any experience at all—which includes the absence of sense organs, nerves, or any way to get “qualia”—means that we needn’t even consider the idea.

That’s the key point – a rock certainly doesn’t have sense organs, nerves, and so on. But it is quite clear that what’s important about these is not that they’re made of carbon, but rather the (amazingly-complex) information processing they do in the brain. Presumably other types of similar but non-organic information-processing WOULD be conscious. That’s the key idea of modern panpsychism.

No modern panpsychist maintains that tables have a human-like Mind or spirit. They have what conscious content their physical information-processing supports. This clearly doesn’t include anything complicated like vision, pain, self-consciousness, or so on.

Once you accept that information processing is the key, you’re led to try to develop a theory that captures the kind of information processing that DOES lead to consciousness. This theory must fit the consciousness of human brains (that’s the empirical test the theory must meet), yet be general enough to be applicable to any system (if only to say that “this system doesn’t have any consciousness”).

The thing is that once you’re thinking in terms of information processing, you realize a rock DOES engage in some sort of – VERY basic – information processing. So does your theory attribute to it some, VERY low, consciousness?

There are two camps here. One, led by Tononi, maintains a principle of “Exclusion”: noting that a group of humans does not have a shared consciousness, they maintain that we need to identify only the places where the information processing is most concentrated (using the right metric), and there will be consciousness there but not a united consciousness. So that a rock will NOT have a single unified consciousness, just like a group of humans would not, but it would have parts with their own minuscule consciousness – nothing like the complex human mind! – just like that group of humans has parts (the humans) which are conscious.

Others, chiefly Koch, see no need for the principle of exclusion. One can recognize the highly complex consciousness of each individual in the group while also at the same time recognize the flimsy and very weak information processing, and hence consciousness, of the group as a whole. What you end up with is a picture of reality as overlapping consciousnesses – the rock has parts which have a slight consciousness, and also has a slight consciousness as a whole.

I’m more attracted to the latter view. It seems more parsimonious and less arbitrary.

But Cyone’s main attack is against the ‘continuity argument’, which maintains that since human brains are matter that is conscious it’s more parsimonious to assume all matter is. Coyne remarks,

But the continuity argument seems to me flawed. Mind is an emergent property, but so are many aspects of life that distinguish it from non-life: metabolism, hereditary material, directed movement, an “intentional stance”, and so on. Yes, all of these properties are ultimately reducible to molecules, in the sense that their actions must be consistent with the physics of the constituent atoms. But that doesn’t mean that, at some stage in evolution, emergent properties can arise that are not derivable from the properties of atoms.

The problem with this is that “consciousness” is unlike “directed movement”. Directed movement is ultimately physics, at a higher lever of description. It is about physical states and their dynamics. Consciousness is about internal states, about how something feels like from the inside rather than what its physical state is. And that’s gap that just can’t be crossed. Phenomenal properties are not reducible to to physical ones, they are not derivable from the objective (as opposed to subjective, if any) properties of atoms.

That’s why the panpsychists maintain that we need to add a psycho-physical law, in addition to the physical ones – we need to say that such-and-such a system feels like that. The attempt to produce a working panpsychist theory of consciousness (i.e. to make one that does actually make verifiable predictions about the human mind) is the attempt to come up with such a general (and correct) law.

Finally, Coyne also raises the claim that panpsychism is a religious idea.

It seems to me that panpsychism is a numinous concept that feeds into religion by asserting that the whole universe is conscious, which some people consider a religious attitude.

Modern panpsychism is a naturalistic idea – it is the attempt to construct a theory that will explain how consciousness arises in human brains without any appeal to souls, without violating the laws of nature, without any thing supernatural. It may very well be that some adherents of panpsychism, or those pushing it, are doing it for religious reasons, I don’t know, but regardless the theory is fundamentally and strongly a naturalistic attempt at explaining consciousness.

As for the idea of a “conscious universe” – this is diametrically opposed to modern panpsychism. Far-away parts of the universe are causally separated from each other so they engage in no joint information processing and, hence, would have no single unifying consciousness. None at all. If any religiously-minded people are attracted to modern panpsychism because they think it includes a universal consciousness, they are sorely mistaken.


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