The debate over the origin and nature of consciousness in the universe, in my analysis, boils down to this:
Panexperientialism vs Panmechanism
We must consider whether it is likely that
- Experience is possible without a mechanism.
At first consideration, many people will immediately disagree.
- We are the only thing in the universe which has experience,
- we know that experience relies on a brain,
- and we know that a brain is a biological mechanism.
Or is it?
That position seems to inevitably also adhere to the view that there can only be one competing hypothesis; naive idealism. This is typically summed up as “So, if you die, then the universe disappears?” or “So, the Moon disappears if you aren’t looking at it.”*
The implicit assumptions behind this rebuke of idealism are:
a: Human consciousness is the only form of consciousness possible, and
b. Matter itself functions with no possibility of awareness.
- Mechanism is possible without some form of experience.
Whether it is planets orbiting the Sun or atoms colliding in a void, there is a logical pattern that can be observed. Rather than every object falling through each other, or turning into an unexpected form, there is a strict coherence of interactions. We speak of ‘Laws of Physics’.
If we were to summon a statement of naive counter-idealism, it would take ‘Law’ literally and demand to see the Parliament and legislature, the law enforcement apparatus, and most of all, the law-abiding agents who have received, understood, and retain a capacity to follow ‘laws’ to the letter. In the absence of any proposal for the mechanism of physical law itself, It would seem that the presumption of law is little more than a pacifier for the mind. There are simply things, and they simply do what they do.
This puts the proposition of experience-without-mechanism (EWM) on exactly the same level of religious faith as mechanism without experience (MWE), however the difference is (and it is an important difference), that we personally can verify our own experience and cannot verify the lack of experience in another. We can have a hunch, by the rigor mortis for example, that Zed’s dead, but we still have a cadaver, full of microscopic tributes to the wonder that was Zed’s body. If we want to get really hippie, we can say too that the Earth still has another crumb of lovely fragrant organic matter with which to fertilize the air and soil. Zed is no more, but the body formerly known as Zed is still part of the many stories of biochemistry, history, anthropology, etc that remain.
It seems to me that the assumption of Laws which govern a universe of existence without experience is actually more likely a function of our own naive assumption that our experience relies on automatic laws. In fact, when we turn that assumption on its head, we find that once we let go of the idea of being the only active participant in the universe, any law of physics can easily be understood as a sensory-motor experience, and the dream of pristine non-witnessed mechanism may in fact be the more comforting psychological blanket compared to the brave new universe of en-ploding meaning and significance..
- Anything can be proved or if it matters.
All that the foregoing suggests is that we may be wrong to assume that the capacity to experience appears out of matter, and that it is wrong because such an appearance makes no sense at any point in the history of the universe. We assume that experience is complex or emerges from ‘complexity’ itself, but that may be because our human awareness is complex. In reality, without awareness, there is no quality of ‘complexity’ in the universe. Something has to be able to interpret a given pattern as complex for it to be distinct from just ‘lots and lots of simplicity’. We assume that simple forms of life or matter have no experience, but how would we be able to tell the difference?
The answer to whether it matters if we are an accidentally conscious body in a meaningless machine or a human experience in a universe made of meaningful experiences is to me, an obvious yes. The implications of the former vs the latter radiate out in every direction of our personal and social lives. Are we automatons who inexplicably dream of freedom, or are we free agents who are sensibly bound to a multitude of other experiences interdependently?
Since it is potentially such an important issue (really what more important issue for the world as a whole could there be in the long run?) and that the answer could reconcile science, philosophy, and religion if properly understood, the issue of proof is important. Just as modern rationality has become accustomed to the unquestioned assumption of panmechanism, so too have we become accustomed to the corresponding assumption of pan-objectivity.
Like the laws of physics, our law of proof is a disembodied soldier with no home. We have become subjects of proof rather than provers of fact. Having turned the most miraculous epistemological tool in our arsenal on ourselves, we have found a way to lose sight that it is we ourselves who are doing the proving. We have lost our orientation and now face ourselves through our own human idea of a stranger’s eyes. The eyes of a neuron, of collections of cells and ion channels, of spike trains and action potentials. These, we state confidently, are what we really are. These strange microworlds are reality, while the only reality which humanity has ever known before this, has been mere advertisements for the hidden processes that really matter.
A closer look, however, at that history which we used to think was real and we find the roots of objectivity itself – not handed down by fiat by the unmovable object of matter but by thousands of years of thinking and reasoning, philosophy and mysticism. From the alchemist’s flasks to the monk’s viniculture, and from the astrologer’s star maps to Galileo’s telescope, it has all been a process of human discovery – of trial and error but also of intuition and insight. We have come to this place in history as a function of agreement and disagreement, not of a single inevitable monolith of unquestioned fact or faith.
*this Strawman seems to be based on a misinterpretation of Idealism, perhaps handed down from the successively more superficial readings of George Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710)
23. But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it; but what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your mind certain ideas which you call BOOKS and TREES, and the same time omitting to frame the idea of any one that may perceive them? BUT DO NOT YOU YOURSELF PERCEIVE OR THINK OF THEM ALL THE WHILE? This therefore is nothing to the purpose; it only shows you have the power of imagining or forming ideas in your mind: but it does not show that you can conceive it possible the objects of your thought may exist without the mind.
As Berkeley’s ideas rippled and meandered through the minds of writers and thinkers over the decades, they crossed over from philosophy to science. By 1884, Scientific American echoed Berkeley’s idealism, stating
“Sound is vibration, transmitted to our senses through the mechanism of the ear, and recognized as sound only at our nerve centers. The falling of the tree or any other disturbance will produce vibration of the air. If there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound.”
(reblogging from my If A Philosophical Cliche Falls In A Forest)