“Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor. Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of ‘God’ to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstnatial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.” ~ Freud, The Future of an Illusion
Monthly Archives: January 2013
In my review of Giulio Tononi’s book Phi, I accused him of being a panpsychist. Apparently, Tononi does not consider himself a panpsychist. Why? Because he doesn’t think every single thing in the universe is conscious, including every quark or electron. I think this is a slightly disingenuous move considering we only need to lighten the restriction from literally all things to merely organic things in addition to some inorganic things. I quote several passages throughout the book where Tononi suggests that his theoretical criterion for ascribing consciousness (integrated information) would ascribe it to many different inorganic entities, including a meager photodiode.
In order to distinguish this weaker but still very strange view from fullblown panpsychism I have coined the term inorganicism, which is the view that consciousness exists in the organic realm and in some but not all inorganic entities. If you ask a layperson to provide a list of things that are conscious, it’s likely the list will just be a list of living creatures like cats, dogs, babies, people, etc. My guess is that the average person would find it strange to think of a lowly photodiode as conscious (putting aside worries about whether laypersons even have a single concept of consciousness that corresponds to the philosophical notion of phenomenal experience). I also want to bracket questions about Strong AI, because the question of whether it’s plausible that artificial brain or brain-like systems of enormous complexity would count as conscious is much different than the question of whether a simple inorganic entity like a photodiode is conscious.
For this reason I don’t think Tononi’s theory really counts as a garden variety version of functionalism because most functionalists think that the relevant functions are functions carried out by things that are similar to brains, particularly human brains. Whatever function a photodiode is capable of, it is a far cry from the intelligent reactivity of organic life that compels us to ascribe intentionality and mindedness. Even peering through a microscope at an amoeba “hunting” its small prey around a petri dish would elicit these feelings more readily than studying an inorganic hunk of matter like a photodiode.
With that said, I don’t think human projections of intentionality are really a good way to do fundamental metaphysics of mind. Personally, I like Alex Rosenberg’s way of putting it: all that exists are fermions and bosons, or [insert the future Peircean consensus on theoretical physics*]. We just have to begin the arduous task of aligning our manifest image with the cold hard truth that the completeness of physics implies. Often we will be completed deluded that we “have minds” (like we “have a car”), or that there is “something-it-is-like” to be us (whatever that means). But when we really sit back and think about it, we will realize that there are no such things as thoughts. Neurons cannot possibly have the extra quasi-magical function of being “about” something (even if it does not exist!) in addition to have all the causal-functional roles of rearranging space-time by performing cellular work. So brains are not about anything at all. They, like everything else, are just highly complex configurations of fermions and bosons. A brain or subset of brain activity could no more be “about” anything than a rock could. All such talk about minds, consciousness, beliefs, desires, psychology, emotions, representations, feelings, etc., is just that: talk. But just as we cannot help but persist in seeing visual illusions even after we know they are illusions, we cannot help but persist in believing in these metaphysical illusions. So why do we not all become panpsychists? Well, simply put, it’s because it’s more conceptually productive to use psychological/mentalistic constructs to refer to a limited class of animal and animal-like entities.
*I want to emphasize an underscored difference between Peircean and Jamesian forms of pragmatism as applied to the quest for scientific truths. The crucial difference is that whereas Peirce thought the Truth crashed to Earth will rise again, James thought there was no such guarantee. The difference underscores Peirce’s commitment to a more robust realism than James’ “Will to believe” allows because Peirce maintained that if human society crashed, and life evolved again future scientists would come to more or less similar conclusions as our least disconfirmed theories (like evolution by natural selection). In other words, the process of trial and error in experimentation will eventually “force” future scientists to confront the same mind-independent reality that we humans face. The false will fall away and the truth will rise, or at least be approximated within an agreeable range.