I’m watching a TEDx talk by Christof Koch ‘The Scientific Pursuit of Consciousness’. Christof Koch is a prominent Neuroscientist and says that since he was a child he had always thought that dogs have consciousness as they seem to display emotions such as hunger, anger, and anxiousness. Appalled by the Christian view that only humans have souls and go to the afterlife, he always thought there must be some place for dogs too. Tackling with these issues, he came across the ancient concept of panpsychism which he feels answers the question of consciousness.
While watching I found myself doing a running criticism in my head and thought I’d put it on paper to see if there’s anything I’m missing: (I have presented my criticism chronologically to his speech below)
He claims there are three strong arguments in favor of panpsychism:
Biological Argument for Panpsychism
Starting with the biological argument. He says that as we all have a similar brain and language ability we generally agree that each of us has consciousness. Although none of us has the ability to know the subjective experience of anyone else. Extrapolating from that we extend this to human children and Infants.
We can even extend this to some animals such as Apes, elephant, and dolphins. He argues that a lot of these animals perform certain tasks which if a human was doing we would assume consciousness.
#1. Criticism: Although generally, we can assume other humans have consciousness, it is true to say we can only truly be sure of our own consciousness. Given this paradigm, it becomes more difficult to extrapolate this to less similar organisms. We cannot easily claim that neonates have consciousness (taking the strict experience of consciousness that we feel), it would be up for debate. To extrapolate that onto animals, even smart ones is a big leap.
Describing the human brain Christof Koch says that there isn’t a significant difference in any of its constituents from that of other animals. That as far as size goes we are not unique, the size of an elephant’s or dolphin’s brain is much larger. Anatomically there isn’t a big difference either and that only an expert neuroscientist under a microscope can differentiate a human brain cell from a monkey’s brain cell etc. In fact, he states:
” Neuroscientists have been unable to identify anything singular exceptional about the human brain”
#2. Criticism: Given he is a neuroscientist I found this statement to be very shocking. A big difference is the, brain : body ratio, which is far higher in humans than any other animal. It is generally quoted as a measure of intelligence! but I’m not taking that line of argument (What difference should it make if an animal’s body is big as long as their brain is similar?).
Another area to consider is the neocortex (the latest part to evolve) which is significantly larger in humans (but also in certain dolphins, in fact even larger than humans!). The problem here is that this line of reasoning does not lend support to Panpsychism whatsoever.
To say the human brain isn’t unique hence consciousness must be more prevalent is very ambiguous. The brain is certainly unique in that it is a human brain and not that of another species. This is due to an accumulation of some unique and rare feature plus a lot of much more prevalent feature. But this exact configuration is only human.
Focusing on the forebrain, for example, not many animals have this area significantly developed. And if it were to be considered a marker for consciousness then perhaps we could argue certain animals with large forebrains are conscious. But we cannot claim consciousness is hence universal. All we have done is included a few more to the conscious group.
He also argues that language is often used as an argument for consciousness. He sees this as inherently biased because as he states:
” Interestingly this excludes all other species from possessing consciousness except us.. In fact, it was meant to do that. A species has a radical desire to come on top of any ranking” (the crowd giggles to this)
#3. Criticism: This one is the hardest to digest. He kind of makes fun of this and just brushes it under the rug. My opinion is that language has a big role to play in consciousness and it is worth addressing at least. To say that it was meant to exclude other animals doesn’t answer or add anything. I for one am not a ‘speciesist’ and don’t have any beef against other animals. What I’m interested in is consciousness and if language plays a part in it or not. After all, it is a uniquely human ability and we know for certain humans are conscious.
I also take contention with claiming consciousness is the ‘top’ of some ranking. Why is it the top? (stating such things is speciesism as far as I’m concerned).
I’ve had a good discussion about the role of language in the comments section of Selfawarepatterns.com blog post: https://selfawarepatterns.com/2017/07/08/layers-of-self-awareness-and-animal-cognition/
In summary: Using language we can define things in the outside and inside world. What is in the ‘real’ can only be experienced, but in order to be aware of it/ think about it/ or talk about it, we need to be able to describe it. This description is the function of language. Without the use of language, what is the difference or similarity between a tree, a stone, a bird or anything else? (all of these are words of language).
Going on he states that there is no demarcation between us and any other animals (from worms to Apes). Hence it is ludicrous to suppose that we are exceptional in consciousness.
#4. Criticism: Except none has language. Apes have a smaller forebrain. Worms don’t even have a proper brain. So it’s not ludicrous at all. (On the other hand, it does seem ludicrous to state that the internet or an electron is conscious)
Metaphysical Argument for Panpsychism
Siding with Buddhist philosophy Christof suggests it is much more rational to assume that we are all children of nature, that all multicellular organism possess some degree of consciousness.
He sees panpsychism as a very clear and coherent intellectual framework. Starting from Descartes ” I think therefore I am” Christof asks how do we get this subjective experience?
If a larger brain such as ourselves has the feeling of a throbbing headache where did this come from if it wasn’t already present in more simpler and smaller brains.
Building from this he proposes his panpsychism view:
” All complex systems have consciousness”
” All complex systems have two surfaces. An exterior surface which is accessible to everyone and an interior surface which is subjective.”
So consciousness is imminent in the universe such that any highly organized matter will bring with it the experience of consciousness. And as per the pan-psychist view consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe. Similar to energy, time, matter etc. And in that, no further reductionism can be done.
#5. Criticism: If Buddhism says we are all children of nature, I may agree, but does that say anything about consciousness? I doubt it does.
Christof Koch differs slightly here in saying that consciousness only comes with highly organized matter (in other words it is not pervasive). I still fail to see how this answers anything, it feels more like a cop out for material science.
Does he feel there is some type of matter which is NOT conscious? (which is a bit contrary to Panpsychism). If so where is the demarcation between conscious and non-conscious matter? This is a self-defeating view to have.
Why should all complex systems have consciousness? What do we mean by complex? Where is the evidence that they possess consciousness? What can we exclude as being a complex system?
An exterior and interior surface, huh? That’s saying the same thing in different words, it doesn’t explain anything further. It’s the same as saying complex systems have subjective experience. The glaring question remains – Why?? and what’s the evidence??
The aesthetic argument for Panpsychism
He states that these theories of Panpsychism can be very precisely explained in the language of mathematics. Using Tononi’s Integrated Consciousness Theory. Which, in summary, states that any integrated system has a degree of consciousness and this can be calculated as ‘Phi’.
We cannot see something apart from it being as an integrated whole, for example, you cannot be conscious of a cat without the integration of its colors and shapes. That is you cannot see it in black and white no matter how much you may try. This is related at the neural level via a complex process of association between many neurons. And if this integration at the neuronal level disappears for example in a seizure or during deep sleep the conscious experience disappears as well.
#6. Criticism: I agree that we only perceive things as an integrated whole and integration as we understand it does take place in the brain. I find this to be interesting and feel it may teach us something about consciousness. But does it fully account for consciousness?
The stance here is to find a generalizing principle (integration). But what of the specific configuration of the human brain areas. What about our unique ability to use language (as discussed above). What about unconsciousness, there are many integrated processes happening within our brain that we are not conscious of.
So why should integration equate to consciousness?
Taking an analogy: If we take away the bonds between carbon atoms we cannot have a diamond and it is only through having bonds between carbon atoms that we can get a diamond. So is what makes a diamond, the carbon bonds only? Because carbon bonds can also form graphite and graphene. It is rather the specific configuration that makes it a diamond.
Using the theory he attempts to tackle Qualia. For example colors, Christof says that according to the integrated Theory:
every color (or any other qualia) is associated with a specific geometry in a ‘hyper dimensional qualia space’. It is this geometry itself which is the experience of consciousness. We don’t Experience the outside world but only states of our brain (this geometry is that state).
He lends further support to this theory by taking the example of the cerebellum. The cerebellum has 2/3rds of the total brain neurons but even if it was to be destroyed it would not affect consciousness at all. This he postulates is because the anatomy of the cerebellum is very simple compared to rest of the brain. In the rest of the brain, the connections are much more complex and integrated.
Furthermore, this theory is being used clinically to assess the level of consciousness for Comatose patients!.
#7. Citisicim: Here again I see another baseless claim. The geometry triggered in hyperdimensional ‘Qualia space’ is what we perceive as the perception? Other than being a statement with no backing I don’t see any value in it. When one uses the same word (Qualia) to describe itself, you know we are getting nowhere:
Q: What is a flower? Ans: “it is a flower in a field of flowers”.
The cerebellum argument, in fact, goes against the original claim of integration being integral to consciousness. Because, although minor, there is still a significant amount of integration that happens in the cerebellum (yet apparently no consciousness).
The notion that this is being used clinically is alarming as well because potentially very significant decisions can be based on this theory. The theory itself I feel is unsubstantiated. I have mixed feelings to the extent that it can serve the purpose of reducing anxiety and aiding decision making which in itself is something to consider. The soundness of these decisions is another issue.
There is no distinction whether the integration takes place in brains or Silicon circuits. Any other integrated matter such as computers and more importantly the Internet which has in total to the order of 10∧19 transistors (much more than the synapses in a human brain), could be conscious and it is interesting to think about this.
#8. Criticism: This notion is similar to the global brain hypothesis which I touched upon in my post on Cybernetic Epistemology. Following on from my above criticisms this claim is another extrapolation from a baseless theory. It, in fact, serves as evidence against the theory because as far as we know the internet is NOT conscious and we are. Even though we can only truly know our own consciousness we all still agree other humans are conscious, this is based on our own evidence. But what evidence do we have for the internet being conscious? None.
This in a way shows what happens when we try to cop out material sciences. We should, in fact, conclude that as the internet is an integrated system and it is not conscious, integration alone cannot in itself explain consciousness.
Do share your thoughts in the comments section below 🙂
Thanks for the link!
As you know, I’m not a fan of panpsychism. It either depends on a diluted definition of consciousness, or on a new, undetectable, fundamental property of the universe. Koch’s panpsychism seems closer to the latter. It’s an outlook I call pandualism. It seems like it inherits most of the problems of substance dualism, except that it has an excuse for its non-detectability, that it’s everywhere.
I’m also not a fan of IIT. I think integration is crucial for consciousness, but not sufficient. It’s a bit like noting that computation is critical for Tetris, and then concluding that the amount of computation correlates with the amount of Tetris. It’s obvious to us that not all computation is Tetris, only a minuscule subset of it. It should be obvious that not all integration is consciousness.
I think my biggest beef with Koch’s and Tononi’s ideas is that they largely give up trying to explain consciousness. They buy the Chalmers line that science is helpless before it. Instead, they seem to be looking for the neurological equivalent of a magic solution, for how the ghost in the machine gets generated, instead of trying to relate each aspect of conscious experience to evolutionary adaptive functionality.
Thanks for the comment. I believe we have very similar opinions in this regards. Koch’s Panpsychism seems even more far fetched as he strictly claims that only highly integrated matter is conscious, in attempt to distance himself from the idea that everything including fundamental particles is conscious. On the face of it, it seems more reasonable but I feel it is inherently even more inconsistent than the former. Because if starting from brains he is going the reductionist path to simpler brains then one has to wonder exactly when the magic of consciousness suddenly appears. Because if there is a degree of consciousness then this should extend all the way down to elementary particles (as Panpsychists generally purpose). Otherwise if we are to take his view then it suddenly magically appears at some level.
Ultimately both views explain nothing much apart from taking the circular argument that “there is consciousness because there is consciousness”.
I think panpsychism as Koch portrays it carries with it the same assumption that is at the core of emergence which is that consciousness and the content of consciousness come together and cannot be conceived independently.
Yet its quite clear that they are independent. A person can go blind in a second and yet remain fully conscious and basically the same person. What I have in mind is a kind of panpsychism which separates qualia from subjects able to observe those qualia. Qualia can then be conceived as part of the physical world existing both inside and outside of brains.
Subjective mental entities capable of observing qualia within their own private worlds are also potentially ubiquitous in nature. But the two hard problems are not necessarily bound. The self in the brain is observing the virtual reality of qualia generated by that brain. Russell had ideas similar to this that we observe content inside our brains and that qualia are essentially physical in nature.
Thanks Lorenzo for your valuable contribution. I must say I have some difficulty grasping your theory, mostly because it seems difficult for me to conceive of qualia existing physically outside conscious beings (if that is what you mean).
I also wanted to reflect on your example: ” A person can go blind in a second and yet remain fully conscious and basically the same person.”
Would you agree that the person has lost some aspect of conscious experience? i.e. they are not visually conscious anymore. For them being the same person, is a separate issue (in my opinion) because it is concerned with the sense of and qualifiers of identity.
thanks Fizan. Yes..I think the problem of qualia and conscious beings are distinct. It is simply the natural naïve normal view that qualia exist in things themselves and not in our minds. The bird’s song is coming from the bird and is not in me. The green grass and blue skies are in those things and are not part of me. This is the normal folk view. The fact that our brains create a copy or representation of qualia does not distract from them being in the world as well as a photograph is a representation of a real object. What is physically so special about the matter of our brains that they can create qualia that matter in general cannot?
I view the problem of subjective beings (other minds) as separate. What kind of beings would have a mind? Something that uses energy and is a self mover. Maybe electrons but not chairs.
Thanks Lorenzo for clarifying. I think I get what you are saying now and it is something to think about.
I see qualia as our subjective experience of for example green. The green being there in the grass is more like a property of the grass. I (or we) assign this property in reference to (and to represent) our subjective experience of green. So for me, the fundamental thing seems to be our subjective perception.
There is ‘something’ in the external world but is it ‘green’? To me, green seems to be our human perception of it (which we have labeled green). So minus the human perception, I don’t see ‘green’ existing in the outside world. ‘Something’ perhaps.
Would an electron then perceive green in your opinion?
electrons possibly experience colors…I think they experience something..I wrote a paper called “scientific animism” where I speculate on which beings are elementary and experience an inner world.
the view that qualia are only in the mind and not the world although dominant now wasnt always. Galileo removed colors from material objects where they were relegated to the dominion of soul and church.
But the fact that the color of an object is irrelevant to its rate of fall doesnt mean that it has no color.
in the modern scientific worldview electrons have a status that we dont have. they are real players in the game. if you plop one down in a
certain location it has a real effect that can be measured. But science sees our minds as mere side effects of neural activity. we are
epiphenomena that make no difference to anything. the fact that a mind feels pain is inconsequential because the automated unconcious neural impulses
have already acted without any need for the conscious observer. i dont think this can be valid as i wrote in a paper called “the logic of interactive dualism”
Lorenzo I completely agree with you that neuroscience can get brazen and regard our minds as epiphenomenon. But I don’t feel that is a staunch opinion, much of consciousness is up for debate and the matter doesn’t seem to be settled in scientific circles.
In my view it would be completely wrong to say our minds are inconsequential, in fact the opposite. I feel our minds are the most consequential as that is how we see the world to begin with.
But that still doesn’t lead me to believe that electrons experience qualia. Green for example seems to be something that would not be conceivable at the electron level anyway (a physical reason may be ?because it’s electromagnetic wavelength is much greater than the size of an electron). It experiences ‘something’ on that I may agree you. See my post on Panexperientialism: https://metascientist.com/panexperientialism-vs-panpsychism-vs-animism/
We do not know whether the internet is conscious or not conscious. It could be in a dream-like state, unable to take action or communicate. Saying that the internet is unconscious is just an assumption and cannot be used as a fact in a logical argument.
I think your article has many good alternative possibilities for consciousness, other than panpsychism. But without additional proof, each of these possibilities are just as likely.
Nice site btw, definitely going to read everything + bookmark.
Thank for the comment Deltrus, it is much appreciated.
I will contend that we can also not know whether a rock is conscious or not. Everything ultimately is an assumption to an extent. But since the internet has not shown any evidence of consciousness we can safely assume it isn’t, as we assume for the rock. Furthermore, the internet does have the necessary equipment for it to be able to communicate and take action, as it is connected with speakers, microphones, cameras, display screens and even mechanical devices. Similar to how our brain is connected to eyes, ears, vocal chords and muscles. Yet we do not have any evidence of conscious communication or action from the internet.
To differentiate it from the rock, I think we may at best say that the internet could be unconscious while the rock is nonconscious.
Negative assumptions have costs as well. If you deny panpsychism, you have to believe in strong emergence and the idea that consciousness can arise from nothing. Since the universe doesn’t seem to like creating something out of nothing, that would be surprising. You have to explain how some neurons produce consciousness while other nearby neurons do not. You have to explain how to food we eat and water we drink becomes conscious through the consumption process. You have to explain what consciousness is in physical terms, and why conscious and non-conscious matter appear identical in every experiment we’ve tried. Strict materialism is a conceptual gordian knot.
Don’t conflate consciousness and intelligence. The two are not equal and do not necessarily coexist. I can get stupid drunk and still be very conscious. Large brains are correlated with complex behavior, which we use as a measure of intelligence. It is worth mentioning that there is research suggesting smaller animals have more “efficient” brains. Further, complex behavior is not a perfect measure of intelligence, as many animals can perform amazing feats of pattern recognition and bodily control that should be regarded as situational intelligence. A go playing computer couldn’t survive in the jungle.
Language is just a rough mapping from the space of concepts to a simple one dimensional medium. The concepts exist independently of the language, though learning a language does influence the concepts somewhat. Ultimately it is a tool, not magic.
We need something like integrated information theory to explain why we experience consciousness at the level of interacting bundles of neurons rather than tribes, single neurons, molecules, etc. What’s taking place in these neural bundles that causes consciousness to aggregate at that level? There has to be an integration process, we should be able to describe it. That isn’t to say that integrated information theory itself is accurate.
Finally, a hypothetical scenario. Imagine a race of psychic aliens came to earth searching for intelligent life. Where they come from, everything that is alive can communicate by telepathy. Of course, humans would be unable to respond to them telepathically. From this they might infer that we weren’t conscious. They would view us as self replicating machines who outlived our creators.
Thanks for the comment Nathan.
Being honest I don’t think I entirely captured your position. When you say:
Are you saying that Panpsychism (which is embedded in materialism) is the probable solution and that strict materialism does ultimately contain the answer within its intricate complexities?
If you want my view, it is that by denying panpsychism we do not necessarily have to believe in another idea about consciousness. We can simply be in a state of inquiry without having passed any judgment for now.
I totally agree with your second point of not to confuse consciousness and intelligence, these are different things and that’s why we have different words to represent them.
I’m not sure I got that one either. Where is this space of concepts? in my opinion, language isn’t just the words we use, it is the way we structure the world. For example having a sensory pattern in the brain to represent something in the external world, is linguistic in nature. We have replaced the real world sensory data with its representation in the brain and in doing so we have qualified it. It is not the real world but a metaphorical representation of it.
In order to phrase this question we first have to accept that consciousness is an aggregation. For that, we need to be able to break down consciousness into simpler parts. So far there doesn’t seem to be a legitimate way to do that.
With regards to your alien scenario, it is very interesting. First, we have to assume they are themselves conscious, in order for them to know what consciousness is. I’ll take the opposite view, perhaps they aren’t conscious, they are ‘something else’ (let’s call it ‘X’) which we can’t know since we aren’t those aliens. We see them performing certain tasks which look intelligent or resemble us in some other way. We may then conclude they must be conscious. The aliens may, on the other hand, see us doing certain tasks which they can relate to (these don’t have to be what we call intelligent, it could be some psychic tasks), they may then conclude we must also be ‘X’.
Furthermore, if their telepathic communication is again based on linguistic structures similar to ours then the ‘X’ and consciousness could perhaps be more similar. Ultimately we don’t know.
I view panpsychism as a variant of neutral monism, more than a materialist philosophy. The reason is that it does not specify a strict direction of causality. For me the hallmark of strict materialist philosophy is that only the material realm is causal, and consciousness is an epiphenomenon.
I refer to it as a gordian knot because it is a puzzle that seems intractable based on intuitive assumptions. We have mapped the quantum world of elementary particles, looked billions of years back in time, and looked inside living bodies with millimeter level precision. Despite all of this, we have made zero progress on a materialist theory of consciousness.
It is a common fallacy to view skepticism as assumption free. For any proposition, both its truth and falsehood have consequences. You can’t just look at the evidence for truth to determine the accuracy of a proposition, you also have to consider the evidence against falsehood. In the case of panpsychism, while there isn’t evidence in favor of it, if it is false the universe must be significantly more complicated (and thus less likely, according to parsimony) to account for the observations. Furthermore, keep in mind that we don’t have any objective evidence for the existence of consciousness – we inductively infer it from subjective experience.
Each time you observe or think about a phenomenon your brain is rewiring itself to encode that observation into the concept space mapped by your existing brain wiring. This process results in a new concept space which is then used as the basis for encoding future stimuli. Language patterns influence this evolution, but they do dictate it. I can know 10 words for snow, but without having observed a variety of different snowstorms, the words will be essentially meaningless since they lack referents in my experience. If I later observed a variety of snowstorms, knowing 10 words for snow would influence the evolution of my concept space, since I would pay extra attention to portions of the observations that the words use to differentiate them.
Imagine consciousness as a representation of information – you are conscious of the complete state of some neurons in your brain. De-aggregation of consciousness would result in a loss of information. Since consciousness seems all-encompassing, this loss of information would result in a lower resolution picture of the world. A useful analogy is to think of consciousness like a computer screen, comprised of individual pixels. You can represent the same image on a high res and low res screen, but the high res screen contains additional details. If you got low-res enough, eventually the image would become unrecognizable.
Thanks for the reply. First I would like to say I have found your arguments to be very persuasive and they have given me some food for thought.
What do you think about idealism? Isn’t it also a much simpler explanation. Parsimony seems to be an assumption and the Universe has usually shown itself to be much more complicated that intuitively thought of. Such an assumption seems to be embedded with having a materialistic or even neutral monism world view.
Given that state of affairs, it should be perfectly reasonable for the time being to be in an undecided state, as that feels to be more intellectually honest.
I think you could argue that there can be an aggregation of consciousness to form higher resolution consciousness. Consciousness itself does not seem to be concerned with the level of detail. Isn’t a single pixel on the screen also consciousness?
Another thing is that we can be conscious of different phenomenon, like pain and vision. For me to get more on board with panpsychism / integrated approach there has to be some explanation of how this happens with integration i.e. what differentiates these if they are both integrations.
Actually, I prefer idealism to panpsychism, my personal opinion is that reality is analogous to a computer program being computed by consciousness. It is important to note here that material things are “real” in that that exist outside any one consciousness, they are a sort of “shared dream” as it were. Relativity and the stochastic nature of quantum mechanics both make much more sense given this view.
Yes, a single pixel on the screen would also be consciousness, albeit very basic. I liken it to what it might be like to “be” an electron. There isn’t a lot of information to integrate – your momentum, the electromagnetic field and your energy.
The question of why we “see” some information, and “smell” other information (and so on) is a challenge, though it is a challenge for any theory of consciousness. I suspect that it depends on the amount of information being integrated through a given sensory field. We get much more information from our eyes than any other sense organ, so we “see” light. Animals such as bats and dolphins act as if they can “see” sound, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually do. Our brains are constantly tweaking what we see based on information from other senses, given the impressive abilities animals display I suspect they are better at this trick than we are.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I still remain undecided on what paradigm to believe in. This undecided paradigm is what I actually adhere to. In idealism how do you explain one consciousness compared to another? are they part of the same consciousness? if not then how do they ‘share’ the same material dream?
I think individual consciousness is a localized excitation of a single underlying field of consciousness, much like physicists think particles are excited states of underlying quantum fields. The separation we experience would naturally occur if excitation of this field dissipated as they propagated outward. Think of it like throwing a stone into a pond – the circular wave it creates is large at first, but rapidly dissipates as it expands because the amount of energy is fixed. At some distance from where the stone hit the water, the ripple from the wave will be smaller than the random fluctuations of the water’s surface, and the two points will appear causally “disconnected” even though they are both part of the same pond. Of course, the two points still influence each other, it is just that the influence is not readily perceptible.