Panpsychism Does Not Solve the Problem for Naturalists

Zhuangzi Dreaming of a Butterfly, by 18th century Japanese painter Ike no Taiga

Last week, I wrote about how consciousness is a huge problem for naturalists. I gave the thought experiment of a mechanical computer (created from water channels) somehow becoming conscious and how ridiculous the idea is on the surface. I noted that this would not be a natural evolutionary next step but a step in another direction (a magical one).

After posting that, I read 'Conscious' by Annaka Harris. It is an interesting read and certainly worth checking out. I am not sure if Harris is an atheist or not but her book certainly rejects any supernatural explanations for consciousness. And, interestingly, she largely agrees with my criticisms of most naturalistic explanations for consciousness. She expresses reservations about the idea of consciousness coming as part of evolution and even does a similar thought experiment to my mechanical computer analogy (using robots instead). But, as I said, as a committed naturalist, she also does not follow me that some sort of supernatural (non-atheist) solution must be appealed to.

Instead, she appears inclined toward an explanation called "panpsychism." Panpsychism is the idea that consciousness is not the result of evolution but instead is inherent in all matter. Every atom has some sort of awareness of being. She is careful to distinguish between a general consciousness and complex thought. A rock might have some level of awareness but, she would argue, it would take a brain (and the senses that come with the human body) to start forming any sort of complex thought. The rock might not think, "I am a rock," but it does have some sort of self awareness. Everything does.

Harris argues that if panpsychism is true, then some sort of evolution of our consciousness is possible with the conscious and complex thought coming as the brain evolved and is able to process that inherent self awareness into thoughts and ideas.

First, I want to say that I appreciate Harris's recognition of consciousness as the huge problem that it is for naturalists. I am continually surprised by how many people miss this and happily assume that complex systems/computers will inevitably become conscious. She knows this is faulty thinking.

I also wanted to express appreciation for her observation of how hard it is to tell if other things have consciousness. She notes the 'zombie' thought experiment. In this experiment, she notes that it would be possible to have a robot or automaton that can act like humans (expressing grief over the passing of a friend and wonder at the beauty of the rising sun) that is simply following functions designed by its programmer. All the things we typically assume point to as evidence of conscious thought (a frown, a smile, a furrowed brow) are not actually signs of consciousnesses but simply descriptions of behavior that happen to coincide with our own experience of consciousnesses. Consciousness is then completely unobservable and invisible to outside minds. The fact that other people have conscious thought cannot actually be proven. We have to take it for granted (ie I have consciousness thought so others must).

Finally, she does a great job of explaining how idiotic the idea of consciousness being an illusion is. This strange attempt to get around the problem does not work because an illusion is, by definition, something that deceives a conscious mind. Definitionally, the idea is flawed. Further, as she explains, the consciousness is an illusion solution doesn't actually answer any questions. Where did the illusion come from?

The book is helpful if for no other reason than to show the flaws of many of the traditional naturalistic arguments.

But I would argue that her attempts at providing her own solutions fall flat. Panpsychism is very problematic for reasons I will detail below. But before I do, I should also note that Harris is tentative with her endorsement of panpsychism. She says at various times that the goal of her book is more to ask questions than to provide solutions. Other times she seems open to some sort of combination of panpsychism and more traditional naturalistic explanations. But one thing she does not appear open to is any sort of traditional religious answer to the question. And I think that this problem will continue to be a problem until that is considered.

The case for panpsychism goes something like this:

1) We are conscious
2) This appears to be fundamental to who we are and cannot be explained by evolution
3) Therefore, if consciousness is inherent in ourselves, it might be (must be?) inherent in all things

It does not take a logician to see that #3 does not follow the premises #1 and #2.  No. #3 can only be taken as an article of faith. Panpsychism is not the result of reason or logical deduction. It is an article of faith.

That doesn't mean it is not true of course but it does mean that we should not take it as a logical argument. It is possible Harris is the only conscious thing in the universe. It is possible that there is no universe and this is all her imagination. It is possible that she is a butterfly dreaming she is a human.

Like rationality the existence of other souls (consciousnesses for the atheists out there) needs to be assumed. It cannot be proven.

A second problem with panpsychism is that it solves an incredibly mysterious problem with human existence by saying, it was always there. I would argue that this is the scientific equivalent to creationism. Creationists believe that the complexity of the world was there at the beginning. Rather than being built by steps, God created it in the beginning. Her argument is similar. This incredibly complex and mysterious thing that seems hard to build step by step can be explained by saying it was always like that. It is inherent.

Okay. Fine. Take that on faith. But explain to me why the Aristotelian or Platonic arguments for the existence of God are any less scientific.

Finally, the problem with panpsychism that is most commonly listed is the combination problem. If consciousness is an inherent property to every atom (electron? proton? quark?), why does being close to another thing suddenly create one consciousnesses? Why would a dog be consciousness (as a complete being) but not each individual atom of the dog (or each quark or whatever)? Why is it that a human losing a leg or an arm (part of our system) does not appear to change our sense of consciousness?

Now, she does try to answer this in two ways. First, she speculates that maybe the areas of the human body that do not appear to be conscious (kidneys for example) are conscious in some way but simply are unable to communicate it and that our brains (being computers capable of complex thought and able to take in senses and express thoughts through language) are able to develop the complex thought and express it internally and through language. But this does not solve the combination problem. We still have constituent parts of the brain acting appearing to join together in a single consciousness.

She attempts to answer this more difficult problem by suggesting that the problem lies with the illusion that consciousness and self are tied together. She references split brain experiments in which, in order to stop seizures, patients had the two hemispheres of their brain separated and they appeared to become two separate consciousnesses. The left hand would fight with the right hand. The left side would do something and the right side would (wrongly) explain why. Further, she discusses LSD experiments where people are conscious but lose their sense of self altogether.  She then goes on to speculate that perhaps if you could meld two brains together that they might become a single consciousness. Without self being attached to consciousness, she argues, the combination problem goes away.

This is an interesting effort but it does not really solve the problem. First, the hemisphere studies show behavior that might seem like two separate consciousnesses but as she is good at pointing out, consciousness cannot be observed. So all we can say from these studies is that the patients displayed characteristics that typically would be associated with consciousness that appeared to be split. But to know for sure they were split, you would need to be that person. The person might have had one sense of consciousness that was malfunctioning in various ways. And the LSD studies might give the patients some sort of sense of losing a sense of self and yet their conscious thoughts did not actually combine with any other brain or any other being. In short, the experience reported is still a human being reporting something that they felt or sensed. It is a self reporting feeling selfless.

But her attempt to detach self from consciousness brings up a problem with much of what she has to say about consciousnesses as a whole. Her definition of consciousness is something quite different from what most people experience and know. Consider the following quote:

"Once again, it's important to distinguish between consciousness and complex thought when considering panpsychic views. Postulating that consciousness is fundamental isn't the same as suggesting that complex thoughts are fundamental and magically result in a material realization of those ideas-a common misinterpretation of panpsychism."

Rather than what we usually think of when we think of our own consciousness, she distills down to the sense of, "what it is like to be something."

But this is not what Descartes meant when he argued that the most fundamental element of knowledge was, "I think therefore I am." This is not what we think of when we talk about our own minds. This is a definition that is quite distinct from what almost everyone means when we talk about consciousness. When we talk about our own mind, we are talking about self by definition. We are talking about the idea, "I am someone," that comes into our mind.

But her definition (even taken for what it is) does not explain how we get to, "I am someone." She connects many little senses and says somehow (thanks to being in a brain?) it becomes the complex thought, "I am someone." But it is this very question that we are looking for. How doe we go from being electrons flowing through neurons to being a being that says, "I am someone?" panpsychism doesn't answer this question.

Go back to my water channel analogy from my previous post on this subject.  Imagine we create a mechanical computer using an almost infinitely large river. We create a massive series of channels with gates and switches that follow a particular set of rules depending on the inputs given. If we attached this river to a screen and audio speaker we could make it do everything a regular computer could do right up to simulating human behavior. But would we expect that river at any point to think, "I am a river?" No. We would not. It would be the same river it always was. Crafted in particular order that we crafted it. Following the rules of physics that govern all rivers. If it were to suddenly think, "I am a river," that would be magic. Not the natural outworking of a bunch of individually conscious parts of the river thinking together.

There is no thought experiment that can bring these things together. And there is no way to measure or even observe them (as she perceptively explains).

She ends her book by acknowledging that perhaps science is not equipped to give us the answers.

I commend her for this admission. I would argue that science cannot. Something that she (rightly) admits cannot  be observed cannot be studied using a method that requires observation. 

A Way Forward
Naturalism is not science. Science is a process of steps (e.g. Hypothesis, experiment, analysis, conclusion). Naturalism is the assumption that there is no such thing as the supernatural and that what exists must be explained without reference to the Divine. Most scientists in history were not naturalists. In the early days of science, almost all the scientists were committed Christians.

To say that something cannot be explained via natural processes then is not anti-science. In fact, science requires observation. As Harris convincingly argues, consciousness cannot be observed.  That means by definition the study of the soul must be moved from the scientific realm to the philosophical (or theological) realm.

With science, new almost always equals better. The latest research is better to read than a study from fifty years ago. But with philosophy, the opposite is usually true. Philosophy depends on logical arguments and rational deduction. The longer a principle stands, the stronger it appears. Something that has stood the test of time is likely true (ie countless philosophers took shots at it and failed).

With this in mind, let's consider whether any old solutions to the problem of consciousness make sense.

What about the religious idea of soul?

Harris dismisses this based on scientific research. We cannot have a soul she says because when we mess with the brain (via parasites, brain surgery, brain damage, and etc) weird things happen (our conscious understanding of our actions malfunctions and misinterprets and does another strange things). She even questions whether the conscious mind has any control over our actions at all (noting experiments that show our body knows we are going to do something before our conscious mind decides to do it).

This is an effective defeater of a particular understanding of soul. Specifically, this is an attack on Plato's idea of the ghost in the machine. Plato (with his shadows flickering in the cave) thought that matter was unimportant and evil. The mind was fundamentally separate from the physical. To the extent that human minds are affected by the body, Plato argued, the effects are negative. The ideal state is disembodied bliss. Heaven, to Plato, is to lose your body and to be a free soul, unencumbered by the physical.

But Harris notes that this view runs into major problems based on the scientific experiments on the brain. Our conscious thought, far from being a ghost in the machine, appears to be part of the machine.

Harris uses this to dismiss the idea of a soul. But I wonder if she is aware that the Platonic view of the soul is not the Biblical view? The soul as seen in the Hebrew or Christian bibles is quite different. The biblical idea of soul is not one of a ghost in a machine. I highly recommend that Harris read NT Wright's "Surprised by Hope"  to understand what the Bible actually says about body and soul. I should note here that her confusion is understandable given that many Christians misunderstand this as well (so, everyone, please read Wright). In that work, Wright (a retired Anglican Bishop and New Testament Scholar at St Andrews) explains that the Jewish/Christian hope has always been one of embodied existence. Humanity was created from matter (Genesis 1) and our final state will not be as ghosts but as resurrected (and embodied) humans on the last day (read 1 Corinthians 15). We worship a creator-God (one that delights in the physical and even became physical himself). If there is a disembodied state at all, it is only for a very temporary period as saints wait for the final resurrection. Elsewhere, Wright argues that rather than a ghost in a machine, a better analogy is software on hardware.  In, "For All the Saints," he quotes another bishop stating that when we die, "God will download our software on to his hardware, until the day comes when he gives us new hardware on which to run our software once more.”

If Wright's understanding of the soul is taken, Harris's critiques of the soul fall apart. Take a computer, mess with the hardware and the software will malfunction, wrongly diagnose, and otherwise do weird things. In short, we would act very much like the humans in the many studies she cites act. Our souls are not ghosts driving machines. Humans are integrated beings like computers. Our souls, like software, need hardware to work properly and malfunctioning hardware messes with our software.

What about Harris's citing of studies that undermine free will? Well, it should be noted that many Christians (Reformed/Calvinists for example) deny the existence of free will also. Read the classic Jonathan Edwards work, On the Freedom of the Will, for an explanation of this view. Further, while the reformed view of the will maintains a freedom by placing it on the divine (God freely ordains), the naturalistic determinism that her view would appear to mandate is philosophically untenable. If humans are simply mechanisms that respond to stimuli than our thoughts cannot be considered rational at all and rational arguments must be illusory.

This creates a huge philosophical problem for naturalists and is inherently nonsensical. I posted an article on this earlier today but there is no non-circular way to prove that our brains are rational. As soon as you start to provide rational reasons (arguments, logic, etc) you are committing the logical fallacy of "petitio principii" - assuming the thing you are trying to prove. For a system of thought to be rational therefore, it cannot undermine rationality as something that can rightly be assumed. This is a problem for naturalism generally but especially for any sort of deterministic naturalism.

So, the biblical view of soul appears to solve all the problems with consciousnesses. We are conscious because God gave us minds to know him. We are free to the extent that God made us free (and to the extent that we are not, he is). This is not a naturalistic solution. But it does not conflict with science, it is strong philosophically, and it lacks any fatal flaws.

Naturalism does not work for many reasons. Consciousness is just one of the most glaring holes. 


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