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Consciousness and Its Place in NatureReview - Consciousness and Its Place in Nature
Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?
by Galen Strawson et al.
Imprint Academic, 2006
Review by Ed Brandon
May 22nd 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 21)

When I learnt philosophy in the late '60s, I think it is fair to say that most philosophers were very much still under-labourers, in Locke's phrase, clearing away the nonsense that besets our thinking but not advancing many novel ideas of their own.  Now, however, they explore realms of supposedly actual possible worlds, or even impossible ones; they contemplate the possibility that some contradictions are true; maybe some even count the number of angels on the end of a pin.  This volume presents arguments for and against another bizarre, but strangely prevalent idea: panpsychism, the notion that the fundamental stuff of the universe is somehow conscious.

Commonsensically, we think of consciousness or sentience as a matter of having a specific and very complex set of physiological structures.  We can map the sensors that are responsible for our tastes, say, and we can discover that cats lack a sense of sweetness.  (I am indebted to Arthur Bowen's website for what little I know about the physiology of taste.)  When things lack such features, we take it that they lack any form of consciousness.  We deny that stones can think about Vienna, to take logical positivism's example of nonsense, or can even have any sort of awareness of "what it is like to be a stone."  Even less are we inclined to think that whatever may be the ultimate stuff of the universe is characterised by any sort of consciousness.  Importantly, but perhaps easily overlooked, is the fact that we also think we are sometimes not conscious: when anaesthetised, perhaps also when in a deep sleep or severely inebriated.

But that is common sense.  Things begin to look different when philosophers start messing around.  Galen Strawson, advancing beyond Tom Nagel's (1979) cautious revival of interest in the view, has in recent years moved from a familiar naturalistic stance regarding our mental life to embrace and here argue very extensively for a form of panpsychism as the only sensible option for anyone who takes reality seriously.  This volume, which seems to be the Journal of Consciousness Studies Vol.13, No.10-11 in all but name, contains an introductory essay by Strawson, followed by 17 commentaries and then an almost 100-page reply.  (A detailed list of contents can be found here.  Thanks to Leopold Stubenberg's review for the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.)  There is much too much here to be covered in this review: I shall concentrate on Strawson's arguments and what seem to me the major objections raised against them.

Strawson starts from what few would deny: the existence of conscious experience.  If we are physicalists we must then include conscious experience among the things that are real, that we hope to capture in our explanatory theories of how things are.  Here he distinguishes his own physicalism from that meant by most who use the term: that present-day physics and the other sciences have got the full range of things that concretely exist pretty much right.  Since human experiences are signally absent from what physics and the rest account for, such physicalists are then confronted with an apparently insoluble problem of fitting experience within the physical world so understood: the well-known mind-body problem.  Strawson suggests that one reason for this stance is that most card-carrying physicalists think they know quite a lot about the nature of physical reality; but they don't.  All we have are mathematical structures; we have no idea what the intrinsic nature of physical stuff is like.  The only case where we do have some sort of access to the intrinsic nature of something is our own being, and voilà, that is conscious.  Strawson follows Eddington in claiming, rightly, that there is therefore no incongruity in supposing that all the stuff of the universe shares such a feature.

Of course, the common sense view refrains from such a gigantic leap.  It supposes some sort of emergence: to use Strawson's example, just as liquidity at normal human temperatures is a feature of water but not of its component molecules, so consciousness attaches to the complex neurological structures I mentioned earlier but not to the individual cells or atoms or quarks or … that make them up.  So Strawson's next move is to argue that we can make no sense of such a case of emergence.  The key difference between these examples is alleged to be that in the case of the liquidity of water we can specify how the mathematically expressed properties of individual molecules lead to the mathematically specified state of liquidity, so while liquidity is a new, emergent property in one sense, it is really just the resultant of fundamental properties in another.  But in the case of consciousness, we have no way of doing anything similar.  There is no way we can derive consciousness from the physiological, chemical, physical or other acknowledged properties of human or feline tissue.  And, Strawson argues, we cannot just say, well that's how it is.  Emergence cannot be brute -- "there being absolutely no reason in the nature of things why the emerging thing is as it is" (p. 18).  Strawson notes that the emergence of Y from X is usually now assumed to involve the supervenience of Y on X: a lawlike correlation between the two features.  Brute emergence would imply that there is nothing about X in virtue of which Y should emerge from or accompany it.  It would, he thinks, be some sort of miracle, but paradoxically a lawlike one.

So, he concludes, any emergent mental phenomena must emerge from something that is itself in some way mental.  He admits to the difficulty that still remains of adding up many subjects of experience to become a single subject of experience such as we are, or at least seem to be.  But he allows himself the out that we may never understand such things.  Still, they constitute the only metaphysically respectable type of account that we could accept.

Or do they?  15 of his 17 commentators don't think so.  As one would expect of Philosophy, virtually every move I attributed to Strawson, and several I omitted, are questioned by his commentators. 

None deny his starting point, but several question his interpretation of it (Peter Simons floats the idea that there is no common feature that our 'experiences' share, p. 149).  While our senses reveal their connection with, if not their dependence on, various parts of our bodies, ordinary thinking and awareness of what it is like to be us does not do so.  Thus Aristotle could hold that thinking depends more on the heart than the brain, and indeed that some thinking could occur without any material basis, and nothing in the phenomenology of thinking would reveal his error.  Strawson's assurance that this apparent separation of mental properties from anything physical, their non-derivability from the non-experiential physical word (though not their actual interdependence on such things as brains), is in fact a revelation of the actual situation depends, as Philip Goff (pp. 55-7) and David Papineau (p. 102) argue, on his assumptions that thinking is transparent, and that it reveals not only the truth, but the whole truth, about itself, at least in this regard.  It is for Strawson one of the main intuitions rather than conclusions in his overall argument.  George Rey appeals to phenomena such as blindsight (p. 115), and also refers us to experiments on visual illusions (pp. 111-112), while David Rosenthal mentions priming experiments (pp. 119-120), to suggest that our reflective grasp of our mental life is not in fact as reliable as Strawson supposes, and thus that it could in fact be rooted in the physical without undue strain.  Carruthers and Schechter, for their part, offer a way of indirectly getting around the gap between the experiential and what common sense regards as non-experiential:  most of our concepts are tied up with others and reflect our complex bodies of beliefs about the world, our phenomenal concepts, however, are purely recognitional and so float free; no other sorts of concepts will entail descriptions using them, so we can easily but mistakenly suppose that consciousness itself is floating free of the rest of the world, not the kind of thing that could ever be physical.  They go on to argue that the same fact about phenomenal concepts undermines Strawson's hope for panpsychism as a way of bridging the gap, in principle if not in actual detail: however much sentience we attribute to the bits that make us up, we could always wonder why we end up sentient. 

Several other commentators appeal to the seeming impossibility of adding up sentient bits to yield the kind of consciousness we know.  Goff (p. 54) claims that Strawson cannot avoid the bruteness he rejects in his own hope for some such emergence.  Sam Coleman, one of the few willing to follow Strawson in embracing panpsychism, suggests that it would be easier to reject the notion that experience requires a subject of experience (pp. 49-50), but he also has to accept that the emergence in question remains problematic. 

Most of the commentators who mention it agree with Strawson's appeal to Russell and Eddington on science's inability to say anything about the intrinsic nature of its fundamental entities.  Rosenthal, however, questions it, by saying in effect that we should take physics to be saying 'electrons are such that they obey these mathematical regularities'.  Others wonder whether the fundamental entities might not simply have relational properties without any intrinsic nature to go with or ground them.  William Seager reminds us of the difficulties in specifying informatively what intrinsic properties might be, contrasts mathematical examples where occupying a particular place in a structure seems plausibly to exhaust the nature of the abstract entities in question with the case of physical or concrete objects, and concludes with several strong objections to the structuralist view of such things.

Does Strawson's rejoinder take us any further?  It certainly sets out to revise the standard view of Descartes, with quite a lot of discussion of Locke, Leibniz and Spinoza as well.  It also allows Strawson to enunciate some of his metaphysical views such as, using Kant's words, 'in their relation to the object, the properties are not in fact subordinated to it, but are the mode of existing of the object itself' (p. 198).  It shows Strawson's doubts about the utility of many common metaphysical notions and draws attention to the very weird things scientists have said about the nature of physical reality, of space-time, etc., from which obscurity he hopes perhaps to garner at least the right to respect for his own pet theory.  He makes many rejoinders to his commentators and provides reformulations of the basic arguments, but my own reaction was that none of these really take us much further to being able to agree that some sort of emergence is utterly impossible.  Emergence is perhaps the core issue that gets short shrift in his lengthy reply, an explicit decision since none of the commentators really explored its problems, though many admitted that work needs to be done (Simons says "emergence is one of the most eel-like of metaphysical concepts…. There has to my knowledge never been anything approaching a decent analysis of what it means" [p. 147]).  One might note, however, that the explanatory properties of our fundamental entities will have brute properties (we just have to accept that electrons have spin, say; if strings now explain spin they in turn will have properties that we just have to accept as doing what they do, in a lawlike way but, I would say, unmiraculously).  I suspect we need much more detailed examination of cases of what we take to be emergence (Seager, for instance, claims that we don't yet understand how high temperature superconductivity emerges, though we have ideas about how it must go [p. 134]) before we can conclude so readily that emergent properties cannot be brute in the same or some other way.

Another respect in which detailed examination of the scientific facts might be pertinent can be seen by noting that the commonsense ideas I started with are hardly ever mentioned and certainly not systematically explored.  But it seems to me that one of the lessons of discussions of realism, say, in the philosophy of science is that we don't want (even if we could produce) all-embracing general metaphysical arguments, but rather empirical arguments about particular cases: we have good reasons for thinking atoms are real, but those reasons do not tell us anything about a sea of virtual particles. 

Overall I think one can agree with various commentators that Strawson has put panpsychism on the table as a view that needs to be acknowledged and that those inclined to naturalism have to contend with.  As a book version of a journal this volume comes with a pretty good, but by no means complete, index. 

References

Nagel, T., 1979. 'Panpsychism' in Mortal Questions: Cambridge University Press.

© 2007 Ed Brandon

Ed Brandon is, by training, a philosopher, and now is working in a policy position in the University of the West Indies at its Cave Hill Campus in Barbados.


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