Home > consciousness, conversation, cosmology, discussion, phenomenology, philosophy > Evan Thompson Live! Consciousness Live! S4 E12

Evan Thompson Live! Consciousness Live! S4 E12

September 27, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

From Richard Brown’s YouTube channel.

A great conversation so far. As usual, I have extensive comments…

> 13:32 Richard Brown “…in terms of phenomenal consciousness, there’s something that it’s like to be a cell?

“Evan Thompson “We can put it that way if we want. I mean, that locution sometimes bears more burden than it should, but for our purposes we can feel free to use it I think, sure.

> RB “OK, good. Alright…and there’s something that it’s like to be me, and I am composed of billions of cells”

Notice that the assumption made here closes the explanatory gap without any explanation. I would say that I am experiences: Thoughts, feelings, ideas, memories, sensations…some of those sensations include a body, which I understand to be composed of billions of cells.

We do not know that the cell or the body of cells is the being that is conscious. Just as my face only reveals a tiny fraction of my conscious experience, so too does the structure and function of a cell reveal only a tiny fraction (maybe a greater fraction) of the content of any conscious experience that might be associated with it.

As far as we can tell, the interior of cells or bodies are just more objects – organelles and fluid made of organic molecules. None of that would reasonably entail anything like felt experience, and if it did, we should reasonably only expect those experience to correlate to certain specific types to physiological conditions. What we feel through our body does tend to be about the body and the world of the body, but we also have conscious experiences that would require extremely tortured reasoning and Just-So Stories to rationalize as an extension of physiology. Rather than projecting the appearance of the cellular world as geometry and chemistry, those structures and functions may, like our own face, be a kind of avatar/mask/lensing that summarizes only certain features related to the sharing of experience. If someone were somehow born without any sense of touch or sight, they could not conceive of objects or bodies. They could in theory live a full life of thoughts, feelings, flavors, sounds, etc all without ever suspecting that they could be connected to any such thing as a body. In the same way, the world of cell processes may not relate to us personally any more than the grammatical and syntactic features of this sentence are generating the meaning that I am trying to express personally.

The paragraphs of this post did not evolve from characters in the Latin alphabet. Its contents are not explained by the psychology of how language evolved to serve brains or bodies. In the same way, the microbiological world does not, in my view, exist to support a macro scale experience at all, and it may be much more like our own conscious experience than we would guess – a world of sensations and response that are largely unrelated to our own.

> 19:42 ET “…whereas the Panpsychist arguments, at least in the case of someone like Philip Goff, they’re based on intuitions like phenomenal transparency, which you know, I don’t want to start an argument there. By that I mean I don’t want to make that a premise of an argument. I think, it’s not obvious to me that there is any such thing as phenomenal transparency.”

I think it this is an example of what Raymond Tallis described as “cutting off the branch that you are sitting on”, that is, it is a perception, based on an intuitive sense of phenomenal transparency that intuition and phenomenal transparency cannot be trusted. I think that needs to be reversed. We should understand that we are always relying on some degree of assumed phenomenal transparency to conduct any sort of reasoning. Our only contact with truth, including truths about phenomenal transparency, begins and ends with an implicit assumption of phenomenal transparency. Of course, truth and phenomenal consciousness are, for humans, very complex, so there are many overlapping and contrasting dimensions of truth and sense, so it is not enough to unquestioningly follow our first intuitive, but neither is it enough to unquestioningly follow our first counter-intuitive impulse.

I think that modern science and philosophy have evolved through a dialectic shift in the Early Modern Period in which the idea of the primacy of super-subjective (theological) properties under Scholasticism was eclipsed by the antithesis idea of the primacy of super-objective (materialistic) properties of nature. I strongly suspect that now, a few centuries after that shift in the era of Descartes, Copernicus, Galileo, and Locke, we are now meeting ourselves at the other end of the fork in the path and encountering a similar but antithetical crisis in our understanding of the universe and our place in it. I think that the current crisis ultimately calls for a synthesis of subjectifying and objectifying modalities of sense and sense making that takes us beyond the previous approaches. The fear that questioning materialism will lead us into a pathological repetition of theological fundamentalism is so powerful that we are blinded and dragged into the opposite pathology, where the limits of objectifying sense appearances are denied to the point of anti-realism (MWI, simulation theory, Interface theory). That’s where I intend my ideas (Multisense Realism) to come in. Once we have understood why panpsychism is an imperfect but meaningful improvement over physicalism, then we can begin to develop some hypotheses that pick up where panpsychism leaves off. In my understanding, the inflection point of the future of that synthesis is sense. Sensation. Detection. Aesthetic presentation. Qualia. At this point, it does not seem that many thinkers share this view and the fact of qualia is constantly overlooked in favor of theories that stress the role that qualia may play for an organism or a system of computation. To me, this oversight is astonishing. It is comparable to saying that magic wands could grow on trees, since a tree with a magic wand would have a survival advantage.

There’s a great part around 24:00 where RB and ET disagree about the difference between biological cells and the types of technologies that we have developed so far. ET says that he thinks there is a fundamental qualitative difference between the organization of something like a bacterial cell and that of any artifact we have ever engineered. I agree with ET at 24:49 that we have glimmers of how we can synthesize aspects of the self production and self regulation of a living cell in a lab, but that we are nowhere near being able to generate autonomous, freely interacting, free standing self-productive entities. I do not, however see that as the cause of the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness.

I think that, pre-biological interactions are, in their own frame of reference as irreducibly aesthetic and participatory as those of our own conscious interactions, and that the appearance of those interactions as anesthetic-mechanical events is an artifact of how the universe of conscious experience segregates itself for maximum development of aesthetic novelty. I think that segregation includes a logarithmic recapitulation of biology from organic chemistry and organic chemistry to physics such that both of those steps are tantamount to a second and third Big Bang, but I think that the cosmological fabric in which those Bangs arise is sensory-motive from the start, rather than unexperienced forces and fields.

Like Evan, I think it is an illusion that we could engineer a biological cell or organism from the bottom up, and that we will have better results trying to condition, constrain, and hybridize existing cells. I don’t think we’re going to achieve a duplication of biology inorganically, only a production of recombinations and prostheses for existing cell processes. I don’t think we’re going to create a new first living organism.

In suggesting a cosmological hierarchy of recapitulation that parallels the teachings of many mystical traditions and echoed in more modern efforts such as Integral theory, I understand that there is a lot of resistance. I think that Recapitulation theory got a bad rep from how it was conceived by Haeckel and his association with it, but I think that rejecting the entire theme of encapsulating previous conditions in developing a cosmogony, and is a mistake. Our eyeball is strikingly similar to an aquarium of the conditions of the Precambrian Era. Vertebrates do share a common morphology during gestation that seems to reflect the phylogenetic history of the final organism. That’s not how we make machines. We don’t grow computers from manual typewriters. We don’t create conditions where they grow by themselves. When we build machines, we assemble fully formed parts that have no other relation to each other than the one we provide by forcing their temporary attachment to each other. Left to their own devices, machines fall apart. What we see in cell division may be not be fully explained in 3d + 1 spacetime terms. We may only be seeing/touching one surface of an event that envelopes and permeates visbility/tangiblity in the same sort of way that our personal awareness envelopes and permeates all of our subpersonal modes of awareness (sight, sound, touch, etc)

While the seeming mystery of biological life is amazing and important to us as conscious experiences with biological bodies, I think that it is a red herring distraction to understanding what qualia is, and the relation of qualia to concrete formation and abstract information. The relation that I propose is that the category of aesthetic-participatory perception is the universal parent to all anesthetic-mechanical processes of objects and concepts. I propose that objects and concepts are always and only appearances derived from a relativistic lensing of universal sensitivity/permittivity/empathy that goes all the way down. Consider the astrophysical-atomic world as a first playground for panaesthetic primordial experience, upon which a geological-molecular world evolves as a second recapitulation superimposed on the first. The eco-organic-genetic world is a third. The biological-cellular is a fourth. The zoological-somatic is a fifth. The vertebrate-neurological is a sixth. The antropological-technological is a seventh. These are all nested scales of size and frequency of events from which our concepts of space and time emerge. They are vehicles that consciousness inhabits for pleasure and for pain. It is not only for the cosmos to ‘know itself’ but to feel, see, do, and redo itself.

Around 32:00 Evan talks about rejecting the idea of zombies or consciousness as epiphenomenal/irrelevant to the function of the system based on the idea that the body is able to do what it does in relationship to the environment because it “feels itself in doing so”. I disagree with this justification as I think that it is a post hoc or retrospective justification that smuggles our conscious experience into an explanation of itself. In other words, if we use modus tollens, prospective logic instead of modus ponens retrospective logic, there would be no entailment for feeling. The physical functions of an animal’s body could evolve statistically over immense time spans by random mutation, just as we might expect geological chemistry to develop. The reproduction of simple bacteria is not much of a stretch from inorganic crystal growth in which organic molecules are incorporated that enable more types of similar crystals to persist for longer periods under more environmental conditions.

I like to point out a hole in the ‘zombie’ terminology for it’s implication of an ‘undead’ status of a randomly mutating reproductive structure rather than the more parsimonious ‘never alive in the first place’ status. A universe of molecules that evolve automatically and unconsciously would yield a world of reproducing organizations that are more like dolls than zombies. The Homo sapiens equivalent in an unconscious universe would be a species of sculptures that move each other around in repeating cycles – unwitnessed, unfelt, unseen. Behind these uexperienced tangible events would be equally unexperienced intangible mathematical relations. I would argue that even tangible shapes and intangible math require an aesthetic-participatory engagement to appear in any sense, but for argument’s sake, let’s say that shapes can “exist” and collide without any rendering by a sense of touch-feel. I can’t imagine how that would really be possible or why a functionally redundant sense rendering would develop parallel to that, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

All of this to say, Evan, don’t think of zombies that seem exactly like living people, think of dolls that “talk” and “cry”, not out of emotion or feeling their environment, but out of mechanisms to control bodies operating physically in space – lubricating eyelids, vibrating neural actuators, etc. The things that consciousness and sensation do for US are not functionally necessary to explain what a body would do and how it would evolve in a universe where sense and consciousness were replaced by automatic force and field.

The fact that we do feel ourselves in the world as a body does not stop us from looking at much more complex protein interactions and saying that they would not need to feel themselves in the world to be able to do that. Since I do think that all fields and forces are actually ranges of sensory-motive interaction on the pre-physical level, I do think that chemistry is a primitive scale or appearance of conscious experience, but if we want to try to hold on to physicalism and deny consciousness, then there’s no reason why the activities of human bodies are any different from the activities of molecular or cellular bodies. None of them functionally require awareness to exist if any of them don’t require it.

I completely agree with Evan when he says, around 33:25, that there is no reason to think that life could look like it does if it weren’t driven by consciousness. The difference is in the modus ponens/tollens flip. I think that zombies can’t exist because physics is actually a form of consciousness, whereas he, like many others, think that zombies can’t exist because consciousness is obviously so pervasive and useful in biology, zoology, and anthropology. He’s asking “why should consciousness be any different from biology?” and I’m asking “why should chemistry and physics be any different from consciousness?”.

At 34:00 Richard brings up the subject of the discovery of the unconscious and unconscious processing. From my perspective, the key is to understand that just because our personal consciousness receives guidance or can be overridden by processes that are beyond our personal scope of awareness, does not mean that those processes are not themselves subpersonal conscious experiences. Just because those experiences are rendered to us as brain activity does not mean that the structure and function of that activity is the cause rather than the symptom of the processing.

The shapes of these letters and the order that they are in are not creating the English language, and the English language is not creating this conversation, but rather the appearances are symptoms of other layers of sense and sense-making that happen to be under the hood of our personal awareness and experience. English has developed through idiosyncratic and unprecedented conditions of lived conscious experience – as an accumulation of consequences not as a cause of thinking and communication but as an effect of physiology and socially shared feelings about experiences.

At 39:55 Richard lays out an example of the hypothalamus monitoring the salt content of the blood and asks Evan if he thinks there is “something that it is like” to undergo that process. First, I point out that by conceiving of the process as something that the hypothalamus does, we have already loaded the question with a physicalist bias. The hypothalamus is a rendering in our sense of touch and sight, and our cogitative sense of understanding. I suggest instead that the actual process and monitoring (sensing and motivating effects) is not physically tangible. It is subpersonal awareness. It is an experience that is not being had by an organ or cell, just as our personal experience is not being had by a body, rather the body and cell are experiences that “we” are having. It makes sense to me that what cells and organs are doing is a result of experiences that we are not normally able to access directly, but instead are approximated in our personal awareness as feelings, sensations, urges, etc that identify themselves as closely coupled with our animal level experience. The fact that we can’t access it directly in our personal consciousness doesn’t mean the process is literally unconscious in its own frame of perception, only that our frame’s rendering of that frame’s rendering of itself is limited to the sight and feel of tangible shapes moving around under a microscope.

I’m going to stop there for now and take a break before listening to the second half. 


  1. Joseph McCard
    September 28, 2021 at 6:24 pm

    Closing the Gap. The living system just Is a Gestalt of conscious energy. A pattern composed of Consciousness units, what you have been calling “micro-units”. What Leibniz called monads. A living system is a pattern of conscious energy, and all that implies.

  1. September 28, 2021 at 10:31 pm

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