What it is like to be an Electron

In previous posts I’ve talked a lot about the way reason about consciousness, and I’ve tried to drive towards the view that seems most reasonable to me – that consciousness is the basic essence of reality. And in so doing, obviously, the fact that I’ve been deliberately a bit hand-wavy about what I mean by ‘consciousness’ has been unhelpful, since this is an area where people are likely to have little ability to imagine what sort of positive view I’m talking about. So this post aims to rectify that to some degree.

Perhaps the best way to explain what I mean by consciousness is by talking about contemporary philosophy of mind. One of the big, and long-standing, debates is over, in a sense, what to understand by ‘consciousness’.

On the one side are people who could variously be called behaviourists, functionalists, reductive materialists or eliminative materialists. They suggest that the mind and consciousness are just ways of talking about behaviour or causal structure: to be conscious simply is to act in certain complex ways, to talk or respond to the environment or whatnot.

Against this, the other side, non-reductive materialists or property dualists or just people who aren’t sure of all this stuff, protest that this clearly isn’t a complete account of consciousness, because it leaves out the key issue of experience, of what it feels like to be conscious.

For example, a behaviourist or functionalist would have to say that to explain the perception of pale green requires us simply to state and describe all the different ways that people act when they see something pale green in colour, or to simply describe the physical processes involved in seeing pale green. But the obvious response is “but what about the way pale green looks?”

After all, if a brilliant neuroscientist (called Mary) was to live their whole lives in a black-and-white room, and learned every physical fact there is to know about colour perception and how it works in the brain, when they were first allowed to look at a pale green thing, they would, surely, learn something new?

It’s this notion that I want to focus on. Philosophy of mind in the 20th century has done a good job of isolating that aspect of conscious experience which cannot be reduced to or explained in terms of what we do, how we do it, when we do it, and so forth (it’s been good at this because so many people want to deny or explain away this aspect).

Even apart from all the facts about what we can use the perception of pale green for, or how we physically come to perceive, there is the further issue of what it is like to perceive it. Apart from all the facts about how desires cause us to act, there is the further issue of what it is like to desire something. Apart from all the facts about what produces my feeling of shame and what it causes me to do, there is the further issue of what it feels like to be ashamed. Even things like ‘imagining a cow’ or ‘trying to remember last year’ feel like something.

Can we actually say much about this ‘what it is like-ness’? Well, no, not really. To put it into words we’d need to either have a comparison (it feels very similar to…) or be able to point to an example (it’s like that time when you…) or else talk about effects and causes and hope that the listener has some personal experience that you might evoke. But actually expressing feelings in words is very difficult – precisly because they are a ‘what’, not a ‘when’ or ‘how’ or ‘why’. They just feel the way they feel. And when we feel some new feeling that’s not like any that we remember, we can’t tell people how it feels, and we couldn’t have said beforehand whether such a feeling was possible. It’s just the way it is.

So what I am suggesting is that this is all there is. The whole universe and all of existence is this sort of stuff, this inexpressible ‘what-it-is-like-ness’. That may sound like a very ‘bare’ universe – is there really only this one thing? But that’s just because the endless, unimaginable variations in consciousness can be neither conceived of nor put into words. Over millions of years, some parts of this vast mass developed (by processes which, filtered through human perception and thought, basically amount to what Birthday-Boy said) a sort of organisation and structure that let them distinguish a ‘self’ as a distinct part of the mass, a capacity that developed further and further.

They came to form ideas (a particular evolved sort of consciousness) of things other than themselves, ideas drawing on concepts like colour or taste, drawn from their experience, or drawing on the categories of their thinking, substance and properties, distinct entities carved out of the flux. As far as we know, it reached its highest point in humans, whose selves were able to reflect on themselves and their surroundings, to form theories about what ‘consciousness’ is.

For whatever reason, these ‘selves’, resting as they did upon distinguishing themselves from their environment, acquired the idea that everywhere around them was ‘matter’, a bizarre sort of non-conscious stuff. This wasn’t universal – for much of their history they remained vague and fuzzy on the issue. It was clear that other people were conscious – they had to recognise that in order to deal with them. Similarly, to some extent, with animals. But “inanimate objects” – with them there was no practical value to understanding their nature or being, no practical significance to whether they were conscious or not.

Having evolved to be practical, they thus divided the world roughly into things which required consciousness in order to predict their movements, and things which could be dealt with simply by grasping some rules and laws of motion and so forth.

But (and yes, obviously I’m butchering the actual history of humanity) as they felt the need to be more precise and more logically rigourous, they pushed this into a rigid ontological doctrine – those things which could be understood without any reference to consciousness (a category that was always expanding) were in themselves essentially not-consciousness. When thinking about them, people focused on the type of consciousness they had when they interacted with these things (how it looked, how it felt, how it fit into their concepts) and supposed that this was the whole of it, that this answered all questions about what the rest of the universe was made of. Just as, at various times, they couldn’t imagine how they themselves could be animals, so similarly they couldn’t imagine how they themselves could be matter – or conversely, how matter itself could be what they were, stripped of all its complex functions and abilities.

I know this probably sounds like crazy hippy shit. I can’t really change how it sounds. I think it’s the rationally preferable position. I’ve tried to give some impression as to why in my previous posts on consciousness. Partly it’s particular issues (like that of continuous vs. discontinuous transitions from conscious to non-conscious matter, etc.) But partly it’s just that I don’t see what good reasons there are for embracing any other, more mainstream view – given that it has produced all sorts of philosophical problems and endless debates, what actual arguments are there for it? Given that we have no way of knowing whether a table is conscious(ness) or not,why do we suppose it to be one way rather than the other?

7 Responses to “What it is like to be an Electron”

  1. healingeve Says:

    hmmm… consciousness. Do non-living things have consciousness? Einstein said everything is energy. Not some things or everything but..Conscousness is connectedness. Is the brain where consiousness resides? I don’t think so.
    When I do Reiki on clients here is a very common report. I hear the client snoring. The client hears themselves snoring (some for the first time discovered they snored, because usually that happens when they are asleep (unconsious?)). Yet the client reports being aware in a most different sort of way, but none the less aware of my presence and moving about and so on. They also report seeing different things, some refer to it as dreaming (while aware) or visions etc. They report none of the usual busy mind thinking.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    To be fair, whether things are “energy” is totally beside the point: energy as defined by physics is simply the outcome of an equation, as is mass, charge, or spin. Things being ‘energy’ doesn’t somehow connect with them being consciousness.

  3. freethinker Says:

    I think I get you now after these 2 posts. Your earlier posts make so much more sense.

    But panpsychism has always been a dirty word in academics, and since I don’t see any of the commenters from the earlier posts here, I think they’ve given up on you.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “Your earlier posts make so much more sense.”
    Hurrah! That was the plan.

    “I think they’ve given up on you”
    Their loss, I suppose. I’m open to hearing what they think existence could be if not consciousness, if any of them are listening.

  5. Awais Says:

    This is an excellent discussion of arguments against panpsychism and possible replies from the psychists at Stanford Encyclopedia:

    I would admit that panpsychism is metaphysically possible, and that it is not possible to refute it (at the moment, at least), but there is also no proof that it is true, and hence it remains as one of the many available metaphysical positions one can take regarding consciousness, none of which is refutable.

    My disinclination to accept panpsychism emerges from two reasons:

    1) It is an ’empty’ philosophy from a scientific point of view, since it declares all things conscious, and it makes no empirical difference at all. For a congnitive scientist, panpsychism is of no use.

    2) Panpsychism’s chief claim to validity springs from the inability of other emergentist theories to explain how consciousness emerges, and its biggest defence is “But it’s possible!” We don’t have a scientific theory of emergence of consciousness yet, but if one day this scientific problem is solved, that would be ultimate refutation of panpsychism. As Stanford Encyclopedia says “The panpsychist position would clearly fail if there was a clear and uncontroversial conception of how consciousness emerges, in an ontological rather than epistemological sense, from entirely non-mentalistic physical features, but at present we simply do not possess such a conception.” So, i personally would put my faith in the hope that science would find a theory of emergence rather than extend consciousness to all universe just because we cannot solve this problem. Panpsychism is a philosophical attempt to shove the question of consciousness under the carpet.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I have to say, I think your position, and that which informs much of the argument at the Stanford page, is trying to have its cake and eat it too.

    You first say, correctly, that panpsychism “if of no use” for a cognitive scientist. Of course. It’s metaphysics, not physics, philosophy, not science. I would suggest that the notion of qualitative/phenomenal consciousness (i.e. distinguished from consciousness as access or reflective awareness) is no use to scientists either.

    You then turn round and suggest that “one day” science will solve the problem by finding an ’emergentist’ account of how the non-conscious can suddenly be conscious – i.e. you presume that this is a scientific problem, not a conceptual one, and that scientists will solve it. So on the one hand you use the fact that panpsychism has nothing to do with science as an argument against it, and on the other hand you use the supposition that it has everything to do with science…also as an argument against it.

    (For what it’s worth, I don’t see how on emergence is a scientific issue. We have no problem understanding how complex observable behaviour (which is what science deals in) could emerge from simpler physical components. What we don’t understand is how phenomenal consciousness can emerge from non-consciousness, which is a conceptual issue. If people can’t solve it now, I see no reason to think they will become able to in the future)

    You say it’s an attempt to shove the question of consciousness under the carpet. How does a theory which changes almost everything we believe in some respect count as ‘shoving under the carpet’? What looks more like ‘shoving under the carpet’ is saying “I have faith that at some point, in some unimaginable way, scientists will solve this problem for me.

    As I suggested very briefly at the end of ‘what the hell is matter’, the main argument for panpsychism is not that ‘it’s possible’. The main argument, to my mind, is parsimony/Occam’s razor. If we have the choice between a theory that says ‘everything is made of one type of stuff’, and a theory that says ‘there is one type of stuff but it has two essential natures, which are incommensurable with each other, and yet no sharp dividing line between them can be detected empirically’ – we should prefer the former, because it’s “simpler”.

    It might be felt that panpsychism is very un-simple because ‘postulates lots of extra mental properties’. I don’t think that’s how parsimony works – it’s about fundamental types of stuff, “essences”. For example: the theory that our sun is a vast ball of nuclear-fusing gas, while all other stars are just small glowing lightbulbs, is a ‘simpler’ theory because it doesn’t postulate billions and billions of other suns, billions of planets, billions of moons, etc. But the theory that all the stars are just like our sun, is ‘simpler’ (and hence scientifically preferable) because it only postulates one set up, and says that this set up is replicated billions of times.

    Panpsychism seems analogous to that, as far as I can see. It’s different in that no further empirical evidence will ever become available to settle the question decisively. So our only real argument is what metaphysic would be more theoretically elegant, and a metaphysics of basic unity, of everything being an aspect of the same basic being, seems necessarily more theoretically elegant than one of fundamentally different essences mysteriously becoming one another.

  7. Hopleton Says:

    Great article, and *excellent* refutation of the above comment by Awais.

    I happen to be a panpsychist/idealist, but am impressed more by your excellent argument and counter argument than your position’s reinforcement of my own ideas.

    Really good thinking, expressed really well. This is the sort of thing I aspire to!

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