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Panpsychists believe that everything, no matter how small, has consciousness. This micro-perspective ...
2019-10-27 09:00:00

The Dilemma of an Electron
Do Elementary Particles Have Consciousness?

The Dilemma of an Electron

The possibilities are roiling and frothing – depending on which option prevails, the particle will be either attracted by an atom and ultimately bind itself to it, or will opt instead for freedom.

Read in 17 minutes

Children do it all the time: they talk to toys, objects, clumps of dust. So do poets, for that matter. Even adults, sensible people, sometimes curse treacherous keys that have wilfully misplaced themselves, or pat a loyal car that has successfully started despite subzero temperatures.

But childhood, poetry and annoyance are one thing, whereas measured consideration of any and all evidence for or against such a view is quite another issue. In the latter case, those who quite seriously conclude that all matter in the universe can feel, think and be conscious are not merely eccentrics – they are panpsychists.

A metaphysical glitch

On the face of it, the hypothesis is simple, even childishly so: everything has consciousness; everything thinks and experiences. But panpsychism is one of those ‘isms’ that is easier to say than to defend, explain, or even understand.

The most honest thing would probably be to say that panpsychism is kind of like a hangnail on one’s finger – a tiny little problem that may turn troublingly pathological if you keep picking at it obsessively. In this case, the ripple in our otherwise healthy and smooth picture of the world is the question of the mind’s place within it. Most philosophers agree, even today, that this problem has yet to be resolved.

The thing is that the mind is kind of… odd. When we look around, we intuitively start reconstructing what is called the external world, which consists of cups, chairs, clouds, atoms, planets, galaxies and everything else. All of these objects have a couple of nice features in common – they have mass and a specific location in space, and they interact physically through pushes and pulls. Even if we add somewhat more problematic creations (such as light or a magnetic field) to this merry group, it will still be a consistent set of things that form a very sensible ‘external physical world’.

But if we look within ourselves, focusing on what forms the stream of our consciousness, we come across objects and events of a completely different type. For example, pain, which can be throbbing, stabbing or dull. We also come across thoughts, which can be precise, fully expressed in language, and glide across the mental space in the form of sentences, but can also be vague and unclear, slithering under the border of awareness like lazy leviathans. We also find emotions (disgust and boredom, joy and peace) and sensual experiences (medicinal bitterness, warm strawberriness and unpleasant roughness). This is a completely different world: the world of consciousness that is mine always, and never someone else’s; a stream in which phenomena appear and disappear.

Importantly, none of these phenomena have any mass or location in space – as they are experienced before they are interpreted – and decent scientists have embarrassingly little to say about them, preferring to immediately move on to describing the objects of the former world. A scientist, when asked about joy or the colour red, will be eager to tell us all about hormones and neurotransmitters. Sooner or later, they will cough up the magical words ‘700 nanometres’, reportedly corresponding to the colour red, but it is really hard to agree that there is any obvious link between a peptide composed of 31 amino acids (β-endorphin) and the amazing euphoria we feel after running a few kilometres. An endorphin molecule weighs 5.75 zeptograms. Can we determine the mass of euphoria? These are quite simply completely different things that belong to completely different worlds. Consequently, we are tempted to reduce one of them to the other, so that we can live in just one world, instead of two. Indeed, should there not ultimately be just one reality?!

There is no space here to dig through the history of that agenda. Suffice it to say that the development of the sciences dealing with the brain, light and emotions only seems to be making the problem increasingly profound. Researchers of concrete matter say with growing irritation that there is no way of pleasing these mind-maniacs; that those who insist on some first-person phenomena are simply morons. The defenders of the experiential world, on the other hand, say with growing irritation that you cannot obtain anger or the colour blue out of the structure of a neuron, even if you study it down to the last quark, and those who do not understand this are, in fact, the morons.

To make a long story short, this annoying ‘hangnail’ of sorts was picked at so systematically for so many ages that it has turned into a solid, festering wound, one to which we have become accustomed, just like we get used to feeling mild yet chronic pain, or to having one leg shorter than the other.

Panpsychism is an attempt to stitch up this debilitating gap between matter and mind. “There is not even the slightest problem with the emergence of consciousness from the physical world,” panpsychists say calmly, “because the world, the whole world, has both of these characteristics at the same time. Everything that exists (hence the ‘pan’ element) contains a certain psychic component. So anyone who has a problem with how the sensation of coldness or a hungry thought about pickles could emerge from ‘stupid electrons’ should simply assume that those electrons are not stupid in the first place.”

Seeds, bulges and vortices

The simplest version of this view could be described as ‘naïve panpsychism’, which claims that everything has in fact its own first-person, experiential aspect. A stone? Yes. A towel? Yes. A galaxy? Yes. Frankly speaking, there has probably never been a panpsychist so naïve. It is sometimes argued that the ancient Greeks flirted with this vision of the world, with the accusatory finger being pointed at Anaxagoras, who claimed that “everything is in everything” and that “there is a share of everything in everything”, which was meant to prove that elements of mind were present in everything.

In reality, Anaxagoras rather believed that there are ‘seeds’ – so-called ‘homoiomeries’ – in every object, and that all of a given object’s features manifested themselves in a simple form in those seeds. Today, we would refer to this variety of psychism as ‘micropsychism’: the mind of a human (or a crow, as will be explained later) emerges from the harmony of ‘mircominds’ present in its components. By the same token, a towel would be also characterized by the presence of microminds, or more accurately ‘the mind aspect’ of the microscopic elements of a towel, but the towelness of a towel relies on the particularly clear strengthening of ‘microsoftness’ and ‘microfluffiness’, which creates macroscopic softness and fluffiness. The microminds in the towel, having no common ‘vector’ (perhaps a common purpose?), nullify one another. Nice, isn’t it? For a micropsychist, we are all surrounded by a cloud of tiny minds, and we are also made of such a cloud, which is why the philosopher Sam Coleman called this vision of the world “smallism” – also, of course, because every philosopher must come up with at least one new ‘ism’.

An alternative to smallism is the view called cosmopsychism, which holds that all the manifestations of consciousness I listed earlier are grounded in one global consciousness, and human minds have the status of, well, sub-components. The philosopher Itay Shani, who published a paper passionately defending cosmopsychism in 2015, puts it even more forcefully: in reality, there exists fundamentally above all the whole of the Cosmos, and any divisions are secondary, unnecessary and arbitrary. In other words, there is only one thing that is conscious and thinking, and we are conscious and thinking simply because we are part of it.

Funnily enough, Shani’s paper starts very professionally and calmly with references to numerous sources, even with the ritual formulation of some of the author’s own theses in a very smart-looking predicate calculus with lots of serious mathematical symbols. After just a few pages of considerations on the issue of panpsychism, however, poetry wins out when it comes to the description of how ‘vortices’ of human consciousness emerge from the ocean of thoughts. Shani writes:

“Consider […] the most elementary ‘vortices’. As mentioned before, such systems are dynamically differentiated, and therefore demarcated, from their oceanic ambience. [...] as a result of such demarcation, the sentient medium inside the ‘vortex’ becomes uniquely regimented. […] Hence, as the ‘vortex’ becomes differentiated from its surroundings its experiential dynamics separates too – forming patterns which reflect, and respond to, the system’s conditions. This localization process consists, then, in the intensification and ordering of experience, as well as in the concentration of focus, within limited and relatively well-defined boundaries – creating a knot, or bulge of consciousness with an appearance of self-containment, which serves to separate the system’s inner reality from the inner reality of the ocean surrounding it.”

Finally, let us add that, in the spirit of the planned production of ‘isms’, the philosophers Terence Horgan and Matjaž Potrč described that vision as “blobjectivism” – a view holding that there really is one big object, namely one big cosmic blob.

Little comearounds

Let us not blame Itay Shani. It is hard to refrain from using the language of poetry when there is talk of such a dreamy vision as panpsychism. Probably the most powerful illustration of this principle is offered by Process and Reality, the manifesto of a great metaphysical vision hazarded by Alfred North Whitehead. Unlike many contemporary philosophers, who use the formal language of mathematics only as make-up to be worn at conferences, Whitehead was an excellent mathematician who could hardly be accused of thinking in a way that lacked precision. He spent the years 1910–1913 with his student, Bertrand Russell, writing Principia Mathematica, a three-volume treatise in which the foundations of mathematics are proven step by step from the elements of logic. However, he quickly concluded that when it came to studying the foundations of reality, logic was as useful as spelling rules are when one is writing Great Literature – it is nice to follow them, but nothing truly constructive comes of it, so the job can essentially be left to editors. What actually matters is one’s vision.

For Whitehead, the elementary components of reality are not so much ‘little minds’ as “drops of experience”, which come to be and then perish. Whitehead’s ‘drops of experience’ could be also called ‘little comearounds’ or ‘microawakenings’, but only in the sense that they perish immediately after they come into being; they are not fragments of one global consciousness. There is no such whole there, Whitehead says, and the only things that exist in this fullest, most concrete sense, are these individual small ‘entities’.

How does such a small entity experience reality? By gradually orienting itself in what is happening around, looking around the world and reacting to it, and then becoming an independent subject, which means defining itself more precisely (the entity asks itself the question “Who will I become?” while looking at different abstract possibilities). After that, there is complete self-determination and becoming concrete. From that moment onward, this actual entity no longer exists as a subject. At best, it can be watched, now as an object, by the future generations of similar ‘little entities’.

This process of becoming always includes a certain element of freedom and creativity.

According to John Cobb (one of the few people who probably understood Whitehead), there are only two components of reality that could be described without reservation by Whitehead’s ‘microprocess’. One of them is a moment in a person’s stream of consciousness, the other is the microscopic period of life of an elementary particle.

Let us take a look at a brief moment from the life of Whitehead’s entity, using two simple examples: the temporary coming into being of an electron, and my own ‘coming into being’ in this same short period of time, say one-fifth of a second. First, there is ‘looking around the world’, which Whitehead describes as a “phase of physical feelings”. The electron begins to realize a magnetic field here, an atom there. I start to notice that things are soft, a little sleepy, I can see a dog from the corner of my eye. But these feelings are not neutral. We both react to them. The electron is attracted to the field, and the atom seems alluring yet distant. I feel the softness as something nice, but I am somewhat irritated by the sleepiness, because it is not even that late. The dog, for now, is inconspicuous. I see it as neutral.

It is here (or rather now, because everything is happening at the same time) that ‘ideal possibilities’ come into play: all those feelings, whether negative or positive, are overlapped by pure possibilities. For example, the electron could become a valence electron of that atom, but it could also remain a free particle, and that is a completely different life! I could be a writing man, a sleeping creature, or even an evening companion during a dog’s walk. All these possibilities are bubbling and frothing and interacting animatedly with evaluations. Depending on what wins out, the electron will either feel ultimately attracted to the atom, and they will become bound together, or opt instead for freedom. Possibilities also scintillate within me until the last moment. Finally, it happens: the ‘complete determination of fact’. The electron jumps onto a free orbital. I continue to write by the force of conviction as much as by inertia.

That is just a rough approximation. Whitehead’s metaphysics has many nooks and crannies, which the available space here unfortunately prevents us from visiting. I will mention only one, whose ingenuity was unfortunately hidden under a disastrous name: God. In Whitehead’s process philosophy, there is a God, but he has essentially nothing in common with any of the gods we know. He is not personified, he did not create the world, he cannot talk to us, and he does not care about people or grant requests. Whitehead’s God, apart from playing other subtle metaphysical roles, marks his presence at the stage at which a becoming entity is confronted with the aforementioned ‘ideal possibilities’.

As I mentioned, every actual entity is faced with many of them: they are ‘pure potentialities’, which I like to imagine as cards arranged in a beautiful, even row on a long table. Who can I be? What could I do? All of them are open, and I – obviously pushed constantly by the necessities of the world – can always take one of them, which will make me view the same facts from a different perspective a moment later. Needless to say, the winds of change will soon knock this card out of my hand, but then I will reach for another one.

And what about God? God nudges one card about an inch forward. He does not say anything, nor does he command or argue. He simply nudges one of the cards forward with his divine finger and leans away from the table with a mocking smile, whistling innocently under his nose, watching to see what I will do. Of course, I have no idea if the choice will be good for me. I may end up rich or dead. But this choice is different, distinctive, special. A few seconds later, a different card might get pushed forward. Or two of them, but only slightly so. What is the purpose of all of this? God keeps a close eye on the whole world, and what he has at heart is the intensity of experiencing. God is into vibrant colours and strong contrasts, powerful winds of history and difficult choices, unfettered emotions but also the great silence that follows them. If he is the Creator, then this is only in the sense that he serves creativity. In fact, God is a rather demonic entity, because following his suggestions may be linked to the annihilation of millions of creatures. However, Whitehead’s God is unintrusive, and the only thing he does is to tempt us, discreetly influencing what is ultimately our free choice.

A piece of mind-stuff

Philosophical visions are in a sense like trends in art: they cannot be assessed purely in terms of their utility. Rather, one appreciates them for their ingenuity, performance, aesthetics, connotations, or the pure ‘wow’ effect. On the other hand, philosophies are supposed to tell us something about reality. Once we are captured by a certain vision, it is worth looking around soberly from time to time. Is the world really like this? Does today’s solid knowledge of reality include anything that should push us towards panpsychism? Let’s face it, after all, the philosophical motivations listed at the beginning are highly non-obligatory.

In the world of exact sciences, panpsychism is not a very common belief, though a small group of scientists have supported it. Among the physicists, one person often named in this regard is David Bohm, one of the main architects of quantum mechanics (although most physicists now believe that his views on the nature of the quantum world were mistaken, or treat them with a pinch of salt at best). In his Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Bohm describes his strenuous efforts to pinpoint the difference between thought (marked as ‘T’) and ‘non-thought’/ ‘reality’ (‘NT’), finally concluding that “[a]ll is both T and NT (i.e. the two merge and flow into each other, in a single unbroken process, in which they are ultimately one).” In a sense, another panpsychist was the 19th-century mathematician William Clifford (anyone who has studied physics has probably come across Clifford algebras), who wrote: “A moving molecule of inorganic matter does not possess mind or consciousness; but it possesses a small piece of mind-stuff.” That vision has been likewise defended by the contemporary neurobiologist Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, one the world’s largest neuroanatomy research institutes (established thanks to money from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen). His version of a defence of panpsychism can be found on YouTube.

The paragraph above is largely a rhetorical trick – an ‘authority-backed argument’ intended to reassure us that there are panpsychists not only among mad philosophers but also among ‘decent scientists’. In the landscape of present-day science, however, are there are any really good reasons to look for consciousness everywhere? I think there are, and here I will name two.

First of all, the scope of the reality that proves to be equipped with consciousness has been growing for years. In the 20th century, we finally admitted that animals could feel pain, rather than just writhing mechanically, giving out sounds like wind-up toys. In recent decades, the list of mental phenomena whose existence is suspected in some animals – especially primates, but also whales, octopuses and corvids – has been extended to include curiosity, gratitude, jealousy, care, mercy, distrust and amusement. And that is not necessarily the end. Maybe the existence of consciousness does not require an animal’s nervous system. After all, all living organisms conduct signals, react to the information they receive, have their own likes and dislikes.

The second reason is the indeterminism of the world of elementary particles, discovered back in the early 20th century and increasingly confirmed by every decade of experiments. Some 150 years ago, physicists were convinced that the world consisted of ‘dumb balls’. However, it turned out that the elementary components of the physical reality were not automatic switches. There is an element of indeterminacy in the process of ‘choosing’ between two possibilities. For example, the electron that may, but does not have to, bind itself to an atom. It appears that the behaviour of an electron really does not follow clearly from the state of the world at the moment it makes ‘decisions’. Physics offers an answer: what happens in the sphere outside determination is pure coincidence. Well, statistically, yes. Of course, the safest thing is to assume that there is a random number generator inherent to the world. That is the safest assumption, but is it the most interesting one?

What if we assumed, just for the sake of intellectual fun, that we are always surrounded not so much by objects as by entities, and that we are in fact never truly alone?

 

Translated by Daniel J. Sax

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