If I came across a gnome in a forest and he promised an accurate answer to any deep question, but only one (such as the supercomputer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), I would have little doubt regarding it: What is consciousness? The resolution of that mystery could shed light on other questions, such as why there is something rather than nothing, what is the origin and destination of the universe, what is time or whether there is some room for free will.
The English philosopher Philip Goff lives with passion his search for answers in this regard. Russellian panpsychist, Goff proposes to lay the foundations of a post-Galilean science of consciousness that attends to the subjective and internal face of the phenomenon: that of experience, which is not quantifiable because it has only qualitative properties (qualia such as redness, roughness in the touch, bitter taste, pain or pleasure). Because Galileo set the limits of the nascent modern science within the observable and measurable, deliberately leaving out consciousness, which would be the intrinsic nature of matter according to Russell and Eddington’s scheme (a monistic approach, since mind and matter would be the two faces – one internal and one external – of the same thing).
Goff has brought together scientists, philosophers, and theologians for a special issue in October of the Journal of Consciousness Studies aimed at debating his book Galileo’s error, panpsychism and the possible bases of this new science of consciousness: more than half of the 19 submitted essays (written by renowned scientists and thinkers such as Carlo Rovelli, Sean Carroll, Lee Smolin, Anil Seth, Christof Koch, Annaka Harris, Keith Frankish or Galen Strawson) can now be read online. What follows are my comments on much of them, as well as on other theoretical approaches not included. Comments based on a non-deterministic panpsychist monistic vision, which is the one that for some time (I did not believe in free will before) has been most convincing to me.
The “difficult problem” of consciousness, as coined decades ago by the influential Australian philosopher David Chalmers, stems from a perplexity that we should not take for granted: why should consciousness exist? … There could be zombies indistinguishable from us, capable of doing the same but without harboring that thing inside that we all feel so intimate (our mind), that inner subjectivity so undeniable that led Descartes to build all his philosophy on it. Because the only thing we cannot doubt is that we have a conscious mind. The rest having it too (being other than zombies) seems like a very reasonable assumption, but it is impossible to prove. I only have the certainty that I exist: there is no way to prove that you (reader) -as well as the rest of living beings, including Descartes himself- are a mere automaton or organic computer that executes a program. This solipsistic scenario in which one is the only conscious agent in the universe cannot be ruled out, but the existence of a complex network of interacting conscious agents seems to me more likely (this is what Donald Hoffman believes).
We get to the philosophical zombie hypothesis, popularized by Chalmers, when we compare ourselves with a computer, a purely mechanical object that works receiving inputs, processing them according to a program and generating outputs. What need does a computer have for a subjective inner world? But why machines don’t have it and humans (among other animals) do? … Chris Fields’ argument, under an informational panpsychist approach, is that there cannot be zombies because every material entity that processes information is conscious. Computers would be too, of course. And plants. And bacteria. And elementary particles, in their own way. In other words, the question of why consciousness should exist would be the same as why matter should exist. Is there any materialist wondering about the “difficult problem” of matter? … Probably, the only ontological explanations in this regard (why there is something instead of nothing or why qualia exist and are the way they are) are beyond the limits of science, in the realm of metaphysics. Therein lies one of the few points of disagreement between Fields and Goff, in pointing out that his fundamentally ontological (and not so much functional) approach to the problem will be surely fruitless.
As Goff says, panpsychism solves the “difficult problem” in exchange for encountering the problem of combination: how two conscious entities combine to illuminate a higher one without losing its individuality and in such a way that the higher one is perceived as unitary. Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch, architects of the IIT (Integrated Information Theory), ingeniously solve it with their definition of consciousness as the integration of an irreducible maximum of information in a certain place in space. When we are aware, our mind turns on and causes all underlying awareness to turn off. When we cease to be conscious (in deep sleep or in a coma), the agents lower in the hierarchical building of consciousness are re-enlightened. For example, our liver.
Annaka Harris does not see such a problem with the combination (and I agree with her), since it is wrong to speak of a subject of consciousness: what makes an I is memory, as a connector of experiences or qualia. This is an idea that seems taken from Derek Parfit, for whom a person is that coherent connector – he calls it R – over time of different conscious contents. For Fields, the problem is solved if we take into account that experiences are componential, but not the agents who experience them: he makes an analogy with virtual machines in a computation that I find very suggestive.
Annaka uses an orchestra as a simile: the sound of each instrument does not lose its uniqueness as it becomes a component of something superior such as a symphony. Returning to the liver, Annaka tells us that we assume that this organ is not conscious just because we are not conscious of it: but we are not conscious of it because we are not the liver but our emerging mind! The reason why reincarnation seems like a logical absurdity to me is the same: if Zeno of Eleas incarnates in me he is no longer Zeno of Eleas (a certain configuration of matter / mind) but I (another configuration).
Another problem for panpsychism is that of downward causation, that mind can have causal powers over matter. For Sean Carroll, the causal closure of physics makes such top-down causation impossible. It would be different if we assumed a mind-matter dualistic model in which the former influenced the latter in some way. Dualism, which is Descartes’s approach and the religiously rooted intuition of most people, is much less convincing than materialism. But a materialist model is not at all at odds with panpsychism … not even with downward causation: Lee Smolin argues that the latter is possible if the field over which causal closure applies is broadened to include qualia and their still unknown underlying physics. It is tempting to think that emergencies expand the space of possibilities, allowing that causal power. Precisely, Smolin believes that if consciousness has favoured survival (if it has an evolutionary value) it is because it has that power. By the way, Smolin conceives the arrow of time as the direction from the undefined to the defined. Time is not something emergent but an active precipitator of reality that thereby creates consciousness.
Carroll makes a complete rebuttal to panpsychism, since he does not believe that the intrinsic aspects of the mind can introduce modifications in the physical laws that lead to a reformulation of its highly contrasted theoretical framework. But the truth is that panpsychist hypothesis responds to the mystery of strong emergence, the sudden transition from non-conscious to conscious: there would be no such mystery, because consciousness would be inherent to matter, not an emergence from it. Carroll argues against Goff’s idea of electric charge (as any other physical property) being a form of consciousness. It is true that in Russellian panpsychism there is no causal relationship, but rather an identity, between physical and mental properties. But wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that charge, mass and any other physical property are, more than forms of consciousness, parameters that define a form of consciousness?…
Another harsh critic of panpsychism is Anil Seth, who proposes leaving aside the difficult problem and focusing on what he considers to be the real problem of consciousness: that is, going from neural correlates (from “this part a of the brain is activated when I feel b “) to explanations, to the search for the mechanisms underlying experiences. For Seth, the brain is a Bayesian agent, dedicated to constantly updating its expectations or predictions from information coming from both outside and inside the body. In this regard he agrees with Carroll, but Seth also postulates that the brain manufactures a controlled hallucination within which the very self is included. Uncontrolled hallucinations are those dysfunctional for survival, like the ones produced by certain drugs or by states such as schizophrenia: they are not functional because they provide wrong information to safely navigate the world board (it is not a good idea to jump out the window of a tenth floor when seeing, after having a pill of LSD, a soft bed of pink cotton clouds down there).
In his paper, Robert Prentner shares Donald Hoffman’s interface theory of consciousness (conscious realism): the world board would be like the user interface of a computer; and the objects of the universe, their icons on the screen. We do not see the world as it is, but in the way that best serves us to survive: the icons are there as representations that provide information for survival. For Prentner and Hoffman, who like Fields, Tononi and Koch apply mathematics to the study of consciousness and take this as a scientific starting point, there is an external reality shared by all conscious agents (each perceives it through its particular interface), but it would not exist without consciousness. In other words, there is no reality independent of the mind. That is why his theory can be considered as idealistic or immaterialist in the manner of Bishop Berkeley. What is clear is his realism about consciousness: this would not be an illusion (the brain’s self-attribution of an inner private life), as Keith Frankish and others believe.
From a purely materialistic perspective that denies the existence of qualia, Daniel Dennet considers that one day an individual’s consciousness could be downloaded and stored on a non-organic substrate: the important thing would be the structure and not the substrate. But suppose that the digitization of a mind (a task that right now seems Herculean) were technically possible: would that mind in a computer file be the same? … The answer of those who support the idea of embodied mind (like Andy Clark, Francisco Varela, Antonio Damasio or Seth himself) is clear: no, not at all. And this is because the mind is not only built by the brain but also by the rest of the body. In fact, there are studies that show the influence on our psyche of organisms that live inside us, such as the bacterial flora of the intestine. And even of extracorporeal objects such as glasses, a prosthesis or a remote control: it is the so-called extended mind (analogous to the extended phenotype of Richard Dawkins in biology). Consciousness in a hypothetical disembodied state could be something unrecognizable. For both Dennet and Michael Gazzaniga, the mind is not only an emergent (not fundamental) phenomenon but a confederation of modules, a decentralized phenomenon in which there is no headquarters and different narratives compete to prevail. I do not see the latter at odds with a mind that is fundamental rather than emergent.
For Roger Penrose and Stuart Hammeroff, the brain would function like a quantum computer, but with a non-algorithmic component. That component would connect with a kind of Platonic reality beyond space-time, making us see as certain unprovable truths within the closed system of the universe. An organic intelligence would thus be capable of understanding and being conscious, unlike a computer. This non-computational component would allow the mind to self-reference, avoiding the limitation imposed on any system by Gödel’s incompleteness theorem (which proves that not even mathematics is complete, as it contains truths that cannot be demonstrated from within). Because when a conscious being knows something, it not only knows it but it knows that it knows it … and so on in an infinite regress. Douglas Hofstadter precisely defined consciousness as a self-referential “strange loop”.
A convinced anti-reductionist, Gazzaniga believes that brains are machines manufactured by natural selection that have causal powers. And consciousness is a set of symbolic representations linked to that brain machinery: ultimately, an instinct that all living organisms have, alien to artificial intelligence. On the latter I disagree with him and Penrose (John Searle also does not believe that a computer has or can ever have a mind) and align myself more with Dennet’s functionalist vision. Although I obviously go much further than Dennet, by embracing qualia and panpsychism. A non-deterministic panpsychism unlike that advocated by Galen Strawson, which leaves no room for free will.
If the gnome gave a proper answer (I will not admit a 42 as such!) to my question, I suspect that it could also make us clear concepts such as nothing or infinity. Rather, make me… if I were the only consciousness in the universe. I swear I’m aware!
* In my book Between Nothing and Everything: Consciousness and Evolution in the Multiverse I have taken the liberty of including a daring metaphysical elucubration: that there is a universal consciousness (Brahman) that dwells in nothingness and perceives non-nothingness (everything) from all possible perspectives (Atman) materializing thanks to a gigantic multiversal computing.
** Follow Philip Goff (@Philip_Goff) on Twitter if you are interested in panpsychism. Goff and Keith Frankish (antipanpsychist, but no less a friend of Philip) have a highly recommended podcast dedicated to consciousness: Mind Chat.