Galen Strawson’s Panpsychism

This Strawson piece just appeared in the NY Times.

It’s a position that I found attractive long ago.  FWIW, I preferred Strawson’s father as a philosopher but I give the son some credit for consistently pushing this position for years.  (IIRC, correctly, he also has no sympathy for compatibalism, and is an old-fashioned hard determinist.

What do y’all think?

An excerpt:

Every day, it seems, some verifiably intelligent person tells us that we don’t know what consciousness is. The nature of consciousness, they say, is an awesome mystery. It’s the ultimate hard problem. The current Wikipedia entry is typical: Consciousness “is the most mysterious aspect of our lives”; philosophers “have struggled to comprehend the nature of consciousness.”

 

I find this odd because we know exactly what consciousness is — where by “consciousness” I mean what most people mean in this debate: experience of any kind whatever. It’s the most familiar thing there is, whether it’s experience of emotion, pain, understanding what someone is saying, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or feeling. It is in fact the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know. It is utterly unmysterious.

(Edited by Neil Rickert, to avoid possible copyright problems).

195 thoughts on “Galen Strawson’s Panpsychism

  1. CharlieM: And I’m happy with the fact that cellular function can be explained in material terms. But I do not agree that this encompasses the whole story of living substance. I regard thoughts as immaterial and my example of breathing in a recent post demonstrates a difference not accounted for by purely material forces

    Except that increased cortical inhibition of automatic reflexes does explain our ability to hold our breath (to a degree). It seems to me that what you’re interested in here is mindfulness: our ability to attend our breathing.

    I do think that “the hard problem of consciousness” will persist even after it has been liberated from the Myth of the Given. To the question, “can the hard problem of consciousness be solved without positing an immaterial mind?”, I think the best answer is, “no one knows”.

    However, I do think that positing an immaterial mind creates far more problems than it solves, because doing so requires mind-body causal interaction, and that in turn violates the principle of the causal closure of the physical universe, which is highly confirmed.

    In fact it is even worse than that, because we do not have any idea how to make sense of the very concept of causation when one of the relata is in principle undetectable by any publicly verifiable observations.

    Apart from the hard problem of consciousness, there is far more support for the proposition that all mental contents — both intentional contents like beliefs and desires and non-intentional contents like sensations — supervene on brain-body-environment transactions than there is for the proposition that any mental contents supervene on a wholly “immaterial” substratum.

  2. http://www.oregonlive.com/sherwood/index.ssf/2016/05/something_needs_to_be_done_par.html

    To convict a suspected child abuser of felony assault or criminal mistreatment, the article explained, prosecutors must prove that the victim suffered a “physical injury” under Oregon law. That means proving the child experienced “substantial pain.”

    But appellate rulings have made that hard to prove if victims can’t talk about the extent of their suffering. Prosecutors say children younger than 5 often aren’t able to articulate “substantial pain.” The same can be true for older children with developmental disabilities or those who don’t want to speak out against their abusers.

  3. Mung: You should read more philosophy.
    Aristotle’s Theory of Soul

    Why? It would seem that several thousand years of philosophy have simply stirred the murk. Although the Cliff Notes version of Aristotle seems largly consistent with the assertion that souls are embodied in just right configurations of matter.

    What is the value added by the philosophy?

  4. I don’t know too much about Aristotle or stupid court decisions in Oregon, but very few philosophers in the last couple hundred years have denied that mammals generally or human babies in particular feel pain. My suggestion would be to ignore bad philosophy and stupid case law in Oregon.

    I mean you could indict philosophy or courts generally, but that would be kind of dumb I think.

  5. When talking about souls, it’s generally a good idea to be informed about them. Or at least discuss them so as to learn about them.

    There are largely three views about souls. First is the spiritist view about ghosts. This is normally the only view atheists and materialists are willing to consider.

    Second is the Aristotelian view of the soul as “form” of human being. On Aristotelianism, “form” needs “matter” (i.e. a body) to become “substance”, i.e. a human being is properly body+soul in good harmony. Aristotelian-Thomist professor Feser says, “The soul is after death in a radically diminished state.”

    Third is the (in Western context originally probably Platonic) view of the soul as the essence of human being. The soul is essential to human being, everything else is reducible. The physical body is just deadweight appended to the soul, but it’s appended for reasons like God’s plan of creation and salvation. The soul doesn’t need to be in harmony with the body, since the assigned body is ultimately random, but it’s indispensable to be in accord with God’s decree, the overall order of things, because bad things follow from discord. These are things atheists want to hear nothing about.

  6. Erik: These are things atheists want to hear nothing about.

    Nobody with much sense would want to hear much about any of that–atheist or not–unless he or she had a ton of time to waste listening to silly ideas.

  7. Erik: These are things atheists want to hear nothing about

    I definitely do. That would make for a great movie trilogy: all three souls fighting evil atheists for world dominance in a post apocalyptic civilization. Then maybe a mutant batman arrives from Krypton and joins the atheists just when they seemed defeated for an epic final battle against the souls, who merge into a mega powerful super-soul to beat the crap out of Krypto-Batman and fulfill god’s plan bible in hand.

    Blockbuster!

  8. It could be a zombie movie, since zombies’ bodies are dead, they must be animated entirely by souls.

  9. walto: Nobody with much sense would want to hear much about any of that–atheist or not–unless he or she had a ton of time to waste listening to silly ideas.

    Right. So instead of wasting a ton of time listening to silly ideas you participate in a discussion about panpsychism.

  10. dazz,

    dazz: I definitely do. That would make for a great movie trilogy: all three souls fighting evil atheists for world dominance in a post apocalyptic civilization. Then maybe a mutant batman arrives from Krypton and joins the atheists just when they seemed defeated for an epic final battle against the souls, who merge into a mega powerful super-soul to beat the crap out of Krypto-Batman and fulfill god’s plan bible in hand.

    Blockbuster!

    Yeah, you’re right. That sounds like it might be really fun. I withdraw my earlier remark.

  11. petrushka:
    It could be a zombie movie, since zombies’ bodies are dead, they must be animated entirely by souls.

    Excellent point! 🙂

  12. No way! No zombies please. These are my souls and they’ll do what I want them to.
    FFS, at least discuss them so as to learn about them first!

  13. petrushka: It could be a zombie movie, since zombies’ bodies are dead, they must be animated entirely by souls.

    Zombies have vegetative souls and sensitive souls but lack intellectual souls. They’re like the opposite of ghosts; ghosts are intellectual souls but lack vegetative and sensitive souls.

    Not that anyone asked me, but I actually find that Aristotle’s bio-psychology in De Anima is the part of his system that best stands up to the best of time. His logic has been superseded by symbolic logic (though this is perhaps debatable), his physics certainly has been, his ethics has some deep sights but is unable to accommodate ideas like moral progress, his politics is inexcusable, and whether his metaphysics can be liberated from any or all of the above is open to serious doubt. (I do not think it can be.)

    But his largely descriptive account of biological and psychological functions and goals in De Anima is largely independent of that. This is because the “morphe” in the hylomorphism are just proper functions, and that’s consistent both with a neuroscientific account of how those functions are causally implemented and with an evolutionary account of how functions are generated.

  14. Kantian Naturalist: But his largely descriptive account of biological and psychological functions and goals in De Anima is largely independent of that. This is because the “morphe” in the hylomorphism are just proper functions, and that’s consistent both with a neuroscientific account of how those functions are causally implemented and with an evolutionary account of how functions are generated.

    Many people cite this as the reason why they respect Aristotelianism, but for others this is an important reason to reject Aristotelianism. Hylomorphism describes the natural functions, but the philosophical ideal is to explain the functions. Hylomorphism pretends to explain the functions by concocting notions like “dogness” and “chairness”, but it’s transparent enough why this is mere pretension.

    All that said, you managed to put zombies surprisingly well into Aristotelian perspective. Let’s see if anyone has a response other than “lol” or “wtf”.

  15. walto: Thanks. Both the first paper and the last one look interesting. I don’t think Pautz gets Russell right in a couple of recent papers of his, but he’s a very good young philosopher IMO, who has just been rewarded with a gig at Brown.

    I hope their live streaming capture works better than for other videos on the site.
    I have been reading some Pautz papers; I’m try to puzzle out his brand of intentionalism (if that is a fair label).

  16. BruceS: I hope their live streaming capture works better than for other videos on the site.
    I have been reading some Pautz papers; I’m try to puzzle out his brand of intentionalism (if that is a fair label).

    Yes, that seems to me a good label. I like his perspective, but some of his papers are a bit hard to get through–for me, anyhow.

  17. Kantian Naturalist: Zombies have vegetative souls and sensitive souls but lack intellectual souls. They’re like the opposite of ghosts; ghosts are intellectual souls but lack vegetative and sensitive souls.

    Definitely need to have them square off against each other at some point in Dazz’s script.

  18. Erik:
    The soul doesn’t need to be in harmony with the body, since the assigned body is ultimately random, but it’s indispensable to be in accord with God’s decree, the overall order of things, because bad things follow from discord. These are things atheists want to hear nothing about for which no objective, empirical evidence has ever been provided.

    Fixed that for you.

  19. BruceS: I hope their live streaming capture works better than for other videos on the site.

    Their other videos have poor sound quality. They should make the presenters speak into the mike or plan the placement of the equipment better.

  20. Strawson should have spent fewer words on his pet peeves, and more on establishing just what it is that he means. His tacit assertion that everyone knows what he means when he equates consciousness with experience is garbage. He presumably distinguishes consciousness from perception. But there’s no way to tell from the article how he does that.

    What I refer to as consciousness is my experience of myself experiencing. I regard that as hugely different from what Strawson wrote. But I cannot begin to say how he would respond — not on the basis of the article.

  21. petrushka: What is the value added by the philosophy?

    Mung: For people who want to make remarks about the Soul, absolutely nothing.

    For most (not all) Christians, the main features of their dogma regarding the soul are due to Origen and Augustine, who drew from Plato.

  22. walto: Don’t want to criticize the *great* Plato, so I’lljust say that I don’t care for his philosophy much more than I do for that music vid I linked.

    No doubt they both have their virtues, but…just not my thang..

    The virtue of the Plato video is that it tells you how the theory of the soul gives you the theory of ethics. No soul, no virtue. But I understand, not your thang.

  23. Erik: The virtue of the Plato video is that it tells you how the theory of the soul gives you the theory of ethics.

    Chuckle. I guess youtube videos count as peer-reviewed as they have comments on them, eh?

  24. Erik: The virtue of the Plato video is that it tells you how the theory of the soul gives you the theory of ethics. No soul, no virtue. But I understand, not your thang.

    Wrong. You should have written that Plato tells one incorrect story about the nature of ethics, according to which, no soul, no virtue. It’s not my thang because I think its a confused story. Your mileage differs apparently. But you should try to write more accurately anyhow.

  25. walto: Wrong. You should have written that Plato tells one incorrect story about the nature of ethics, according to which, no soul, no virtue. It’s not my thang because I think its a confused story. Your mileage differs apparently. But you should try to write more accurately anyhow.

    I’m going to defend Plato here. Firstly, when Plato is talking about “the soul” in Republic and Phaedrus (to some extent also in Gorgias) he is recognizably doing what we today call moral psychology. In fact, I think that moral psychology and moral education are central concern of Plato’s that motivates many other things that he says.

    Secondly, the moral psychology that he gives us isn’t really that bad. There’s a part of us that is compelled to acquire and consume, a part of us that yearns to take action, and a part of us that wants to understand. Being a morally good person involves using our desire for understanding and for taking action to keep our compulsion to acquire under control, so that we don’t succumb to violence.

    I’m not saying that there are no problems here, but it strikes me as a deeply plausible view about how to cultivate moral goodness in oneself. I don’t follow Plato in all the particulars but years of reading and teaching Republic have been influential on my moral practice.

  26. Kantian Naturalist: Except that increased cortical inhibition of automatic reflexes does explain our ability to hold our breath (to a degree). It seems to me that what you’re interested in here is mindfulness: our ability to attend our breathing.

    Cortical inhibition of automatic reflexes plays a part but it does not explain its initiation in any way. Besides, holding our breath is only one small way in which we can control our breathing.

    I do think that “the hard problem of consciousness” will persist even after it has been liberated from the Myth of the Given. To the question, “can the hard problem of consciousness be solved without positing an immaterial mind?”, I think the best answer is, “no one knows”.

    However, I do think that positing an immaterial mind creates far more problems than it solves, because doing so requires mind-body causal interaction, and that in turn violates the principle of the causal closure of the physical universe, which is highly confirmed.

    In fact it is even worse than that, because we do not have any idea how to make sense of the very concept of causation when one of the relata is in principle undetectable by any publicly verifiable observations.

    Well lets just concentrate on causal closure of self conscious breathing. I say it has its source in my thinking ego. Where do you say it begins?

    Apart from the hard problem of consciousness, there is far more support for the proposition that all mental contents — both intentional contents like beliefs and desires and non-intentional contents like sensations — supervene on brain-body-environment transactions than there is for the proposition that any mental contents supervene on a wholly “immaterial” substratum.

    Well I would say that thinking is beyond the concepts material and immaterial. It is only through thinking that we arrive at these concepts in the first place.

    I do not hold to Cartesian dualism. It is not due to reality but to our organisation that we experience the world divided into two spheres, the world “out there” and our inner life “in here”. If you want to give me a label then I am a monist in that I believe reality to be a unity. Most of us only experience the duality because of the stage we are at in the evolution of consciousness. But we all have the potential to attain higher consciousness and experience the unity. And modern physics is leading us into areas where the concept of physical substance is dissolving. Modern physics would mave us believe that there is no such thing as solid matter.

    I would agree that without brain-body-environment transactions, as you put it, we would not become conscious in the first place. But what is this material environment? My belief is that it is condensed spirit. I hesitate to use the term spirit because of all the judgements and prejudices it conjures up in our minds.But I think it is the most appropriate word.

    What I write here is my belief about reality and I am not declaring it as fact. IMO thinking is a spiritual process. So we constantly experience spirit interacting with matter. When we observe the achievements of architects, designers and inventors we are witnessing spiritual processes affecting material substance. Thought processes in a mind result in the coming together of various material substances to construct a physical entity.

  27. CharlieM,

    Firstly, I would agree with Dennett, McDowell, and others in distinguishing between personal-level descriptions and subpersonal-level descriptions. What we talk about at the person-level, in terms of reasons, beliefs, desires, intentions, and so forth is going to be distinct from what we talk about at the subpersonal level in terms of the cognitive machinery that implements those personal-level states and processes. So I would not introduce a person-level concept into the description of the subpersonal-level processes. I think that talking about a “thinking ego” as initiating a causal chain of cortical and subcortical processes is a serious confusion.

    Secondly, I think that biological causation generally, and esp neuronal causation, is not going to be a linear causation, like a falling row of dominoes. It is going to be circular and nonlinear. Neuronal assemblies behave more like attractors, both embedded within and coupled to other attractors, easily perturbed by some energies and resilient towards others.

    Given those commitments I guess I don’t really know how to answer the question, “what causes us to control our breathing?” — except that I’m skeptical that positing an ego or any other homunculus is going to be a satisfying explanation.

    In terms of ‘ultimate ontology’, I subscribe to process metaphysics: “being is dynamic and that the dynamic nature of being should be the primary focus of any comprehensive philosophical account of reality and our place within it . . . [and] aspects of persistence to be the regular behavior of dynamic organizations that arise due to the continuously ongoing interaction of processes”. In particular I think that process ontology coheres nicely with embodied cognition:

    Embodied cognition: The turn to “embodied cognition” in cognitive science provides another strong motivation for the turn to process in metaphysics. The standard model of cognition as the computation of symbolic representations fits well with the assumptions of substance metaphysics and suggested a pleasing analogy to classical atomism: mental operations effect relational change of cognitive atoms. But the first rivals to the standard model, connectionism and the so-called “Dynamic Hypothesis” (Tim Van Gelder), were constructed along largely process-ontological lines, replacing the classical conception of cognitions as discrete abstract objects that represent concrete things outside the head with a dynamic conception of cognitions as modes of functionings of a neural net or of process organizations. Recent results in embodied cognition research seem to tip the balance further into the direction of a process-based philosophy of mind, since they suggest that the bodily interaction of an organism plays a constitutive role in cognition. Some proponents of embodied cognition or “interactivism” insist that the new focus on organism-environment interactions makes any talk about representations obsolete, while others argue for a naturalist account of emergent representational processes and emergent normativity (Mark Bickhard). A key notion for the ‘embodiment thesis’ is the concept of “structural coupling,” a phase in the co-temporaneous development of two systems (e.g., organism and environment) where mutual dynamic dependencies unfold across system boundaries. Critics argue that the embodiment thesis might only hold for some form of cognition, but whatever the scope of the thesis might be, the fact remains that a more detailed description of the notion of structural coupling requires a process-ontological framework.

    However, I think that recent work on reconceptualizing representations as action-guiding (Michael Wheeler, Andy Clark) and affordance-detecting (Mark Rowlands) shows pretty clearly how to liberate representationalism from traditional computationalism.

  28. Kantian Naturalist:
    CharlieM,

    Firstly, I would agree with Dennett, McDowell, and others in distinguishing between personal-level descriptions and subpersonal-level descriptions. What we talk about at the person-level, in terms of reasons, beliefs, desires, intentions, and so forth is going to be distinct from what we talk about at the subpersonal level in terms of the cognitive machinery that implements those personal-level states and processes. So I would not introduce a person-level concept into the description of the subpersonal-level processes. I think that talking about a “thinking ego” as initiating a causal chain of cortical and subcortical processes is a serious confusion.

    Are you being serious? This is taking reductionism to extremes. Human actions and will are constantly initiating bodily molecular processes. Every time you eat you set in motion a host of these bodily processes.

    Imagine two people both with the same level of the feeling of hunger but neither are feeling particularly hungry, both with the same tastes in food, being offered the same tasty snack. One eats the snack while the other declines. The only difference here is will power, health awareness and the body consciousness of the individual.

    Secondly, I think that biological causation generally, and esp neuronal causation, is not going to be a linear causation, like a falling row of dominoes. It is going to be circular and nonlinear. Neuronal assemblies behave more like attractors, both embedded within and coupled to other attractors, easily perturbed by some energies and resilient towards others.

    Given those commitments I guess I don’t really know how to answer the question, “what causes us to control our breathing?” — except that I’m skeptical that positing an ego or any other homunculus is going to be a satisfying explanation.

    I agree that positing a homunculus is adding an unecessary abstraction but why do you deny your own self? Am I arguing with a person or are we just molecules interacting? Why do you assign greater reality to molecules than to people?

    The rest of your post will take me more time to consider. I may respond further providing I get a clear understanding of what you are saying.

  29. CharlieM: Are you being serious? This is taking reductionism to extremes. Human actions and will are constantly initiating bodily molecular processes. Every time you eat you set in motion a host of these bodily processes.

    Imagine two people both with the same level of the feeling of hunger but neither are feeling particularly hungry, both with the same tastes in food, being offered the same tasty snack. One eats the snack while the other declines. The only difference here is will power, health awareness and the body consciousness of the individual.

    I agree that positing a homunculus is adding an unnecessary abstraction but why do you deny your own self? Am I arguing with a person or are we just molecules interacting? Why do you assign greater reality to molecules than to people?

    Whether we’re talking about persons, or cells, or molecules just amounts to a difference in pragmatic coping. If I engage with you as if you’re a person — what Dennett calls “adopting the intentional stance” — then that commits me to a set of rules and strategies that wouldn’t be in place if I were to adopt a different strategy.

    When my blood sugar is low, I adopt a biological stance on myself — I just need to eat something that will brink me back up without spiking. A physicist who is trying to get me into orbit doesn’t need to consider my hopes and dreams — she just needs to know my mass, and Newtonian mechanics does the rest.

    As a process ontologist, I don’t think that any of these stances is more real or more fundamental than any others. But I think there’s a strict parallelism between the personal stance and the subpersonal stances (teleological, mechanistic, etc.), too. Any differences at the personal level will be implemented by some differences at the subpersonal level, though not necessarily detectable given existing technology.

  30. Kantian Naturalist: Whether we’re talking about persons, or cells, or molecules just amounts to a difference in pragmatic coping. If I engage with you as if you’re a person — what Dennett calls “adopting the intentional stance” — then that commits me to a set of rules and strategies that wouldn’t be in place if I were to adopt a different strategy.

    Are you saying that the stance you adopt is totally random? That you could adopt any stance whatsoever without any inherent loss of quality in the situation of communication? Without any loss of adequacy and relevance? Your sense of reality would be the same regardless?

    Let’s say you can adopt any stance whatsoever. Doesn’t this presuppose that there’s someone making a mental choice among various potential stances and adopting one? You can’t escape your homunculus, you know, because the homunculus is yourself.

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