Thursday, January 22, 2015

Where There Are Rocks, Watch Out!

Oliver Burkeman:

Or maybe it is: in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and Koch among them, have begun to look seriously again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age. This is “panpsychism”, the dizzying notion that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations. Koch concedes that this sounds ridiculous: when he mentions panpsychism, he has written, “I often encounter blank stares of incomprehension.” But when it comes to grappling with the Hard Problem, crazy-sounding theories are an occupational hazard. Besides, panpsychism might help unravel an enigma that has attached to the study of consciousness from the start: if humans have it, and apes have it, and dogs and pigs probably have it, and maybe birds, too – well, where does it stop?

...The argument unfolds as follows: physicists have no problem accepting that certain fundamental aspects of reality – such as space, mass, or electrical charge – just do exist. They can’t be explained as being the result of anything else. Explanations have to stop somewhere. The panpsychist hunch is that consciousness could be like that, too – and that if it is, there is no particular reason to assume that it only occurs in certain kinds of matter.

This seems like a perfect place to link to this Existential Comic about Chalmers and panpsychism, while strongly recommending that you peruse the entire archives and read a new comic there every Monday.

Now, then, you've heard me several times before express provisional agreement with Spinoza's brand of panpsychism, so this time, I'll change it up a little and cite Alan Watts saying pretty much the same thing, that while we commonly think of human intelligence as some sort of alien phenomenon in the universe, stranded in cold isolation as if it were "dropped" here with no hope of rescue, it may be both more comforting and accurate to think of it growing out of the world in the same way that apples grow out of an apple tree. From this viewpoint, conscious thought is a latent characteristic of "dumb, brute" nature, not an absurd aberration. Pile up enough rocks and dirt in the right conditions for long enough, and they'll start "peopling". If that sounds uncomfortably teleological and religious for your taste, well, just keep in mind that if Spinoza had lived anywhere else in Europe besides the Netherlands, he would have probably been executed for the threat his ideas posed to institutional religion, rather than merely being excommunicated and shunned. Entertaining the notion that consciousness could be a fundamental aspect of existence itself doesn't necessarily lead to a belief in gods, souls and holy scripture.