Monday, November 19, 2007

Jim Holt

Is a really interesting writer who has been contributing to the Science Times. His latest piece is about the question of consciousness:
...the part of our world that is most recalcitrant to our understanding at the moment is consciousness itself. How could the electrochemical processes in the lump of gray matter that is our brain give rise to — or, even more mysteriously, be — the dazzling technicolor play of consciousness, with its transports of joy, its stabs of anguish and its stretches of mild contentment alternating with boredom? This has been called “the most important problem in the biological sciences” and even “the last frontier of science.”
He introduces us (not unreservedly) to the concept of "panpsychism":
Perhaps, they say, mind is not limited to the brains of some animals. Perhaps it is ubiquitous, present in every bit of matter, all the way up to galaxies, all the way down to electrons and neutrinos, not excluding medium-size things like a glass of water or a potted plant. Moreover, it did not suddenly arise when some physical particles on a certain planet chanced to come into the right configuration; rather, there has been consciousness in the cosmos from the very beginning of time.
This sounds like some New Age-y "Universal Consciousness," doesn't it? Well, it kinda is. Just with a little more thought put into it.
...the American philosopher Thomas Nagel showed that it is an inescapable consequence of some quite reasonable premises. First, our brains consist of material particles. Second, these particles, in certain arrangements, produce subjective thoughts and feelings. Third, physical properties alone cannot account for subjectivity. (How could the ineffable experience of tasting a strawberry ever arise from the equations of physics?) Now, Nagel reasoned, the properties of a complex system like the brain don’t just pop into existence from nowhere; they must derive from the properties of that system’s ultimate constituents. Those ultimate constituents must therefore have subjective features themselves — features that, in the right combinations, add up to our inner thoughts and feelings. But the electrons, protons and neutrons making up our brains are no different from those making up the rest of the world. So the entire universe must consist of little bits of consciousness.
I bolded the parts of the argument that I find, uh, arguable. Is this the kind of argument anyone is in a position to prove or refute? Or is this another concept for the pantheon of human gods?
How, the skeptics wonder, could bits of mind-dust, with their presumably simple mental states, combine to form the kinds of complicated experiences we humans have? After all, when you put a bunch of people in the same room, their individual minds do not form a single collective mind. (Or do they?) Then there is the inconvenient fact that you can’t scientifically test the claim that, say, the moon is having mental experiences. (But the same applies to people — how could you prove that your fellow office workers aren’t unconscious robots, like Commander Data on “Star Trek”?) Finally, there is the sheer loopiness of the idea that something like a photon could have proto-emotions, proto-beliefs and proto-desires. What could the content of a photon’s desire possibly be? “Perhaps it wishes it were a quark,” one anti-panpsychist cracked.
I bolded "complicated" because this is the most subjective judgment of all. Something is "complicated" when it's at the limits of your abilities. Tying shoes is "complicated" when you're a baby. A bee, going through the rote motions and dances of its life, might find those experiences nuanced and fraught and complicated, because those experiences are at the edge of its abilities. As to his "or do they?" -- I think that's asked with reason: humans, like lots of other animals, put ourselves at great risk of disease and danger in order to congregate with others, and even seek the company of cats, dogs, ponies, peonies, gardenias, etc. It's reasonable to think that there is a force compelling us together, and it might have something to do with our consciousness and changing states thereof. Lastly, none of us can prove we exist, let alone that we are conscious, or that being conscious is outside of the physical. But if something has physical properties, we might-could-maybe look into a way of proving that.

So I ask again, is this just another theism? Well, I say with reservation maybe not. If this is a theory that could lead to a testable hypothesis, and it sounds like it maybe-might-could potentially could (although in the extreme abstract, at least at first), it can't be lumped in with untestable "faith"-beliefs. If, on the other hand, it turns out to be just another faith belief...

If you're going to worship something, why not all existence?

No comments: