‘When you die, not a bit of you is gone, you’re just less orderly’

(quote by Aaron Freeman)

I’ve been reading a bunch about the competing theories of consciousness and this is super exciting for me because I actually didn’t know there was any (scientific) competition on the issue.

The main theory you’ll hear talked about is that consciousness, or mind, is an emergent property of non-mind. A bunch of non-mind cells, when combined in the ridiculously complex way ours is, produces the effect of mind, despite no individual part having any quality of mind itself.

The so-far unsolved problem with this (acknowledged by advocates for it) is that there aren’t really any other examples of something coming from nothing. A thing can be more than the sum of its parts, but we haven’t seen anything be totally different from its constituent parts before. (Just because we haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it’s not possible, though; this is super-tricky stuff to study.)

The weight of evidence seems to me to be that all life has some form of consciousness, however impoverished. Plants and fungi experience stimulus and actively respond to it. Even amoebas do that. We used to say anything but an ensoulled human was just responding like a dropped rock does to gravity, but that doesn’t really fit with the fact that evolution typically re-uses all the same bits it can when it creates new organisms.

So now we have the problem of where to draw the line. Why does life have consciousness and non-life doesn’t? It sort of made sense when the origins of life were just as mysterious, just as something-from-nothing. But we now know that simple life (proteins, etc) can be made from non-life. And from a scientific point of view, there’s no single point at which death can be distinguished from life, either. It’s all surprisingly blurry.

And it turns out that quite a lot of (serious, legitimate) people think that this means all constituent parts of the universe must have a quality of mind. The theory is called ‘panspychism’ and it’s basically the only viable alternative to emergentism. Either mind can arise from non-mind, or it can’t, in which case it has to already be there in the parts that the mind is a sum of.

It doesn’t mean each atom has its own fully thinking consciousness, by the way (an amoeba is made of trillions of atoms, so it’s still crazy-complex in comparison). Just that it has some quality of mind. In some ways this is functionally indistinguishable from emergentism – if consciousness only starts to be recognisable to us at certain levels of complexity, then in effect it’s not really any different to an emergent consciousness. (Sorry to have wasted your time.) But somehow it still would matter to me, which turned out to be true.

Panpsychism has flaws, and you’re probably spluttering some of them right now. But so does emergentism – we don’t actually have a viable theory for consciousness. These are the two options we’ve narrowed it down to. Panpsychism solves some of the problems that irritated me about emergentism, but comes with its own problems.

It seems more elegant to me, but maybe it just depends what you’re more irritated by. More info.

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