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A Sympathetic Account of Panpsychism

Image source: Mind Matters News.

Panpsychism, the view that all nature participates in consciousness, has been growing under the radar for some time in science. But it is now coming into plainer view. New Scientist is one of the last places one might have expected to find a serious, long-form account of panpsychism — one that, in the context, amounts to a defense.

Yet that’s just what science writer and filmmaker Thomas Lewton has been permitted by the editors to do. Writing at his own site, he tells us about his journey: “Studying physics, I thought telescopes and particle colliders would offer firm answers, but instead they raised more questions.” 

And at New Scientist, he tells us why:

It can seem as if there is an insurmountable gap between our subjective experience of the world and our attempts to objectively describe it. And yet our brains are made of matter — so, you might think, the states of mind they generate must be explicable in terms of states of matter. The question is: how? And if we can’t explain consciousness in physical terms, how do we find a place for it in an all-embracing view of the universe?


The Central Problem

That’s an admirably blunt statement of the central problem, the failure of physicalism, the view that the mind is merely what the brain does. That, as philosopher David Papineau puts it, consciousness is just “brain processes that feel like something.”

A surprising number of physicists are rethinking all that, “convinced that we will never make sense of the universe’s mysteries — things like how reality emerges from the fog of the quantum world and what the passage of time truly signifies — unless we reimagine the relationship between matter and mind.” Which, they realize, can’t be done simply by eliminating the mind from science thinking.

“Any Minute Now…”

Lewton sounds prepared to deal: “Modern physics was founded on the separation of mind and matter.” Indeed, it was. And if that doesn’t work, materialism is dead. His approach is shorn of the “any minute now, science will explain… ” that characterizes so much popular science writing in this area.

Einstein’s General Relativity theory, in Lewton’s view, enabled a “view from nowhere” approach to the universe that could leave the mind out. Then quantum mechanics came along and introduced the conscious observer, whose observation causes particles to collapse from a cloud of improbabilities into a definite state. 

Philip Goff explains, “The irony is that physicalism has done so well and explained so much precisely because it was designed to exclude consciousness.” But excluding something in principle does not cause it to cease to exist.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.