Tagged: electric fields theory of consciousness

A Reply to Strawson: Physicalism Does Not Entail Panpsychism

By R.N. Carmona

Why a blog post and not a proper response in a philosophy journal? My very first journal submission is still in the review process, close to two months later, for one. Secondly, blogging allows me to be pedantic, to be human, that is, to express frustration, to show anger, to be candid; in other words, blogging allows me to be myself. Probably of highest priority is the fact that I do not want my first publication in the philosophy of mind to be a response. I want to eventually outline my own theory of consciousness, which is strongly hinted at here, and I prefer for that to be my first contribution to the philosophy of mind. I do not find panpsychism convincing and I think there is another theory of consciousness, similar to panpsychism in ways, that is much more cogent. I have outlined some qualms I have with panpsychism before; to people new to the blog, you can read here. In any case, I will be responding to a number of points in Strawson’s Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism. Here I will outline refutations that should leave panpsychism unresponsive once and for all as it is not a productive theory of consciousness, i.e., it does no explanatory work and does not illuminate further research; it gives us no real direction to go in.

Strawson states: “You’re certainly not a realistic physicalist, you’re not a real physicalist, if you deny the existence of the phenomenon whose existence is more certain than the existence of anything else: experience, ‘consciousness’, conscious experience, ‘phenomenology’, experiential ‘what-it’s-likeness’, feeling, sensation, explicit conscious thought as we have it and know it at almost every waking moment” (3). Strawson not only sounds like an absolutist, but he has, no doubt intentionally, boxed out real physicalists like the Churchlands and Daniel Dennett. For my purposes, I deny none of these things. I am not an eliminativist though in the past I have called myself such when I lacked a better term for my own point of view. Now, I believe I have located a better term and so, I call myself a recontextualist. I do not deny qualia. What I strongly deny is what panpsychists think they entail: usually a version of nonphysicalist panpsychism or even covert substance dualism in where mental phenomena are ethereal. In light of this, I suggest that qualia are physically reducible in obvious ways already known to us and in currently non-obvious ways yet to be discovered or understood; we simply have to do the work of demonstrating how what-it’s-likeness is physically reducible. I do not think Strawson dodges recontextualism and this will become clearer as we move on.

He explains: “It follows that real physicalism can have nothing to do with physicSalism, the view — the faith — that the nature or essence of all concrete reality can in principle be fully captured in the terms of physics. Real physicalism cannot have anything to do with physicSalism unless it is supposed — obviously falsely — that the terms of physics can fully capture the nature or essence of experience” (4). I think the word physicSalism is clunky and so, I will exchange it for the word physicsism, which I think ties nicely to its predecessor scientism. There is not a chasm between someone who thinks science is the only way of knowing and someone who thinks physics is capable of explaining everything. Strawson makes the mistake of thinking physics stands alone among the hard sciences, as if it is the ground level of scientific explanation. I think chemistry joins physics in that department and as such, real physicalists can be physicsists if they are also chemistrists, the idea that a great number of physical phenomena are reducible to chemistry. If monism, that there is only one substance, and physicalism, that this one substance is physical in nature, are true then it is incumbent on Strawson to address the notion that science cannot apprehend certain physical phenomena. Strawson, therefore, is guilty of the same dualistic tendencies he accuses Dennett of (5), and he seems to bite the bullet on this in offering his “‘experiential-and-non- experiential ?-ism’” (7). Per his view, there are actual physical phenomena explainable by science, especially ground level hard sciences like physics and chemistry. On the other hand, there are quasi-physical phenomena in where Strawson feigns at physicalism while also betraying the fact that he means nothing more than nonphysicalism. This has to be qualified.

So, let us grant that Strawson would qualify the sense of sight as uncontroversially physical. Now, he claims that the what-it’s-likeness of seeing red is also physical and yet, science has no account for this per his claims; not only does science have no current account, but it can never have a viable account because, in his own words, “experiential phenomena ‘just are’ physical, so that there is a lot more to neurons than physics and neurophysiology record (or can record)” (7). I am a real physicalist and I strongly disagree with this statement. For starters, I think his statement is informed by a conflation some people tend to make: if something is explainable by science, it lacks existential meaning and so, anything that is explained by science enables nihilism. In other words, if we can explain the origin of morality without recourse to God, morality is suddenly meaningless in the so-called ultimate sense and just is relativistic or subjectivistic. This is wrong-headed. Explaining the what-it’s-likeness of red would not change the fact that red is my favorite color; nor would it change my experience of seeing a blood red trench coat hanging in a clothing store, as if begging me to purchase it. In a naturalistic world, meaning is decided by us anyway and so, nihilism does not follow from the fact that science explains something. Love is not any less riveting, captivating, and enrapturing if science somehow explained every detail about falling in love, loving one’s children, loving the species one belongs to, and loving species entirely different from oneself.

This aversion to science eventually explaining qualia reeks of nonphysicalism and to my mind, just is nonphyiscalism being labeled as physicalism, which is really just a nominal label that is so far failing to cohere with what is normally meant by physicalism. The notion that physics, chemistry, genetics, and neurophysiology can never record those aspects of neurons that account for qualia is incompatible with physicalism. If science can apprehend physical substance, and qualia are a physical substance as Strawson claims, then science can apprehend qualia. To say otherwise is for Strawson to admit that what he means by physical in the case of qualia is actually not physical at all. It is covert dualism and nonphysicalism. I have no qualms with scientists fully understanding why red is my favorite color. This does not then dampen my experience or make it meaningless.

Likewise, I know that sexual attraction reduces to mostly superficial, properly aesthetic, considerations and pheromones that induce a reaction in my brain, which then translate to a host of bodily reactions, e.g., feeling flush and then blushing, feeling either nervous, excited, or some combination of both, feeling a knot in my stomach. This does not accomplish making my attraction meaningless or, at least, making it less meaningful because, in truth, while I understand the science of attraction, it does not register when I am in the middle of experiencing attraction. These considerations factor even less when I have fallen in love. I do not think, “well damn, scientists have me pegged and I am only feeling all of these sensations because of serotonin and dopamine releases in my brain; love is ultimately meaningless.” What gives vibrance to experience is the experiencer.

Experience is akin to aesthetics, hence why we find some experiences pleasurable while there are others we can describe with an array of negative words and connotations. Science can also explain why a lot of people hate waiting for a long period of time, why just as many people hate the feeling of being out of breath, and why pretty much anyone hates going to work after a night of inadequate sleep. Science explaining these experiences does not change the interpretation of the experiencer; science does suggest why we have very common associations between most experiences, from pleasurable to painful to everything between, and that speaks to us being one species. So, experience can be explained by science and science can even predict the interpretation of this or that experiencer, but science does not dampen phenomenal experience. Panpsychists confuse that we have phenomenal experience with that we interpret phenomenal experience. Physicalism is not opposed to science fully explaining either of these and in fact, it has done much in the way of explaining both. Strawson tries to avoid this and yet claims: “If everything that concretely exists is intrinsically experience-involving, well, that is what the physical turns out to be; it is what energy (another name for physical stuff) turns out to be. This view does not stand out as particularly strange against the background of present-day science, and is in no way incompatible with it” (8). Well, if indeed it does not stand out as particularly strange against the background of present-day science, then all concrete things can be explained by science. This entailment seems uncontroversial and obvious for anyone identifying as a physicalist.

Strawson stipulates that “real physicalists … cannot deny that when you put physical stuff together in the way in which it is put together in brains like ours, it constitutes — is — experience like ours; all by itself. All by itself: there is on their own physicalist view nothing else, nothing non-physical, involved” (12). This is patently false as it alludes to mind-brain identity theory. It is not just atoms coming together in brains like ours. Human consciousness is compound reductive. In other words, human consciousness is not reducible to just one physical, macro aspect about our biological structure. That is to say that it is not reducible to just our hands or just our feet or just our brains. Strawson’s conflation of physicalism, as usually construed, and mind-brain identity theory leaves out crucial elements of experience, namely our central and peripheral nervous systems; the parts of the brain because anyone versed in the pertinent science knows that when it comes to the brain, the parts are more integral to consciousness than the whole; sense apparatus like our eyes, noses, pain receptors, and so on; and finally, external objects that provide the mind with data to process, interpret, make sense of, and so on.

From the perspective of differential ontology, and given that I have been thoroughly disabused of flippant idealism and solipsism, I know that my thoughts are not organically generated as if in a vacuum, within my brain. My thoughts are invariably and intimately connected to whatever I am occupied with, in the present time by Strawson’s various claims about what physicalism entail. If he had never written his thoughts, then I would not be countering his claims with my own. Perhaps I would be thinking about lunch at 12:26 pm ET, but alas, I am not. The point being that when I do start to think about having lunch, my thoughts about what to eat will be influenced by hunger pangs that amount to a feedback loop between my brain and my gut, again demonstrating the importance of organs other than just the brain in accounting for my experience, and pretty much any human being’s experience, of hunger. That feeling would take priority over my desire to respond to Strawson. Deciding what to eat amounts to constraints, like what food I have in my pantry and refrigerator and a desire not to spend money on takeout. So, I can only end up eating what is already available to me; in this case, only unexpected factors can change this course. Perhaps a neighbor or a relative is decided on bringing me baked lasagna and since I currently do not know that they have these plans, that option does not feature in what I am thinking of having for lunch. In any case, what has become clear is that phenomenal consciousness reduces, in part, to a litany of physical objects, some of which are not even in your vicinity. What is also clear is that the brain alone does not account for phenomenal consciousness.

Strawson and other panpsychists are looking in one of the right places, to be sure, but understanding phenomenal consciousness is like understanding a crime scene, and as such, we have to be aware of various factors that make the crime cohere, from blood spatter patterns to the murder weapon to point of entry (and whether or not it was forced entry) all the way up to possible motive. If we stop short at the murder weapon, then we can conclude the person was stabbed, but we cannot make any conclusions as to how many times, in what areas of the body, by whom, and for what reason. Phenomenal consciousness, uncontroversially, is exactly like that! Strawson and panpsychists sit out on the porch of the brain and do not venture into a mansion with many rooms, light switches, outlets, and the such. Neurons, synapses, neurogenesis, neurodegeneration, memory formation, recollection, confabulation, and so on are critically important in accounting for certain experiences. We cannot say the what-it’s-likeness of déjà vu is due to the fact that particles are conscious. That tells us nothing, does not help us elucidate on this experience, and ultimately, lacks explanatory power. It is simply a vacuous claim. Real physicalists can enter the many-roomed mansion and start to explain why this experience feels a certain way, and why some of us interpret it the way we do; for instance, there is a delay between seeing and being aware that we have seen, and so, in those small intervals of time, we can fool ourselves into thinking we have already seen what we just realized we saw. In other words, your brain “knows” what you see before you realize you have seen it. Generally, however, scientists think that déjà vu is tied to memory, so if we are sitting on the porch, trying to explain what it’s like to have this experience, we are in the wrong part of the house. We have to venture into the hippocampus, for instance (see Hamzelou, Jessica. “Mystery of déjà vu explained – it’s how we check our memories”. New Scientist. 16 Aug 2016. Web.).

I will free to skip the entire section on emergentism because while I find this account intriguing, it is implausible and has, what I think, are obvious commitments. Strawson defines it as follows:

Experiential phenomena are emergent phenomena. Consciousness properties, experience properties, are emergent properties of wholly and utterly non- conscious, non-experiential phenomena. Physical stuff in itself, in its basic nature, is indeed a wholly non-conscious, non-experiential phenomenon. Nevertheless when parts of it combine in certain ways, experiential phenomena ‘emerge’. Ultimates in themselves are wholly non-conscious, non-experiential phenomena. Nevertheless, when they combine in certain ways, experiential phenomena ‘emerge’. (12)

If this is the case, then emergentism is committed to idealism and to solipsism, “sometimes expressed as the view that “I am the only mind which exists,” or “My mental states are the only mental states”” (Thornton, Stephen. “Solipsism and the Problem of Other Minds”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). The obvious drawback here is that there is no way to pin down where these properties emerge from. The source will vary from one first person point of view to the next or, to put it facetiously, from one person under the illusion that they have first person perspective to another person under the same illusion. I will claim that all that exists is my mind while someone else can lay claim to their own mind existing. I will then claim that all else emerges from my mental states while the next person makes the same claim. Then the question becomes, when we are both shopping for clothes, why do we both see a blood red trench coat for sale and why is it that my mental state of wanting to buy it does not emerge from his mental state of barely noticing the coat? How can these same properties group together to become the same object from two people under the illusion that their respective mental states are the only mental states? Emergentism, with respect to consciousness, does not evade these problematic commitments.

To understand the next couple of sections in his paper, in where Strawson’s claims go off the rails and get even wilder, the following have to be kept in mind:

  • The non-experiential thesis: “[NE] physical stuff is, in itself, in its fundamental nature, something wholly and utterly non-experiential” (11)
  • Real Physicalism: “[RP] experience is a real concrete phenomenon and every real concrete phenomenon is physical” (12)
  • P-phenomena: “the phenomena of liquidity reduce without remainder to shape-size-mass-charge-etc. phenomena” (13)
  • “The central idea of neutral monism is that there is a fundamental, correct way of conceiving things — let us say that it involves conceiving of them in terms of ‘Z’ properties — given which all concrete phenomena, experiential and non-experiential, are on a par in all being equally Z phenomena” (23)

Setting aside Strawson’s side-stepping of chemistry, which easily shows how liquid water can “emerge” from two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, the reason we cannot have Z phenomena is because the question of how consciousness can come from non-consciousness is itself reducible to a scientific question that has yet to be fully answered: how did life arise from non-life? Consciousness, as we know, is found in living things, so per the combination problem, what criteria need to be met for a consciousness like ours to take shape? Is it size, mass, shape, charge? Buildings and mountains are far more massive than us and by extension, are larger and have more particles generating what should amount to greater charges; and yet, mountains and buildings do not appear to be conscious at all. This is a critical clue because clearly, the haphazard combination of particles when a mountain forms or when a building is erected does not accomplish giving rise to consciousness like ours. Briefly, the combination problem can be formulated as follows:

Take a hundred of them [feelings], shuffle them and pack them as close together as you can (whatever that may mean); still each remains the same feeling it always was, shut in its own skin, windowless, ignorant of what the other feelings are and mean. There would be a hundred-and first-feeling there, if, when a group or series of such feelings where set up, a consciousness belonging to the group as such should emerge. And this 101st feeling would be a totally new fact; the 100 feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together; but they would have no substantial identity with it, not it with them, and one could never deduce the one from the others, nor (in any intelligible sense) say that they evolved it. 

Goff, Philip, William Seager, and Sean Allen-Hermanson. “Panpsychism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Summer 2020. Web.

To do away with Strawson’s assertions concerning consciousness coming from experiential ultimates, I summon help from an unexpected source. Though the neo-Aristotelian uses this thought experiment for different purposes, it is enough to show that basic organization does not consciousness make. Jaworski, no doubt inadvertently, presents a version of the combination problem that cuts deeply into Strawson’s thesis. He explains:

Suppose we put Godehard in a strong bag — a very strong bag since we want to ensure that nothing leaks out when we squash him with several tons of force. Before the squashing, the contents of the bag include one human being; after, they include none. In addition, before the squashing the contents of the bag can think, feel, and act, but after the squashing they can’t. What explains these differences in the contents of the bag pre-squashing and post-squashing? The physical materials (whether particles or stuffs) remain the same — none of them leaked out. Intuitively, we want to say that what changed was the way those materials were structured or organized. 

Jaworski, William. Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind: How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 9. Print.

Intuitively, I do not say that what changed is just the organization or structure of these materials. That dodges Jaworski’s neo-Aristotelian commitments. I also add that the spark of consciousness is what changed. There is, in this case, irreparable damage to the claustrum, thus making consciousness impossible to turn back on, so to speak (see Koch, Christoph. “Neuronal “Superhub” Might Generate Consciousness”. Scientific American. 1 Nov 2014. Web.). Furthermore, there is irreparable damage to other pivotal organs that make it possible for us to make any claim to being alive. The liver, heart, stomach, etc. have all lost their function. The matter is still there, but the electric fields that make us conscious are permanently off. This is why I am conscious and an inanimate object, equal in size and weight to me, perhaps a boulder, is not conscious. Non-experiential things can be used to design other non-experiential things or can naturally form into other non-experiential things given that organic compounds and electric fields are entirely absent. The question of how consciousness arises from non-consciousness just is the question of how life arises from non-life. Just because we currently do not have a fuller, more detailed picture does not mean we have license to offer theories like panpsychism, which possess nothing in the way of explanatory power. The panpsychist and neo-Aristotelian think they are headed in some definite direction, but they are both quickly approaching dead ends.

Electric fields theory (EFT) of consciousness, indeed similar to panpsychism, at least prima facie, is where panpsychists should place their chips. Tam Hunt elaborates:

Nature seems to have figured out that electric fields, similar to the role they play in human-created machines, can power a wide array of processes essential to life. Perhaps even consciousness itself. A veritable army of neuroscientists and electrophysiologists around the world are developing steadily deeper insights into the degree that electric and magnetic fields—“brainwaves” or “neural oscillations”—seem to reveal key aspects of consciousness. The prevailing view for some time now has been that the brain’s bioelectric fields, which are electrical and magnetic fields produced at various physical scales, are an interesting side effect—or epiphenomenon—of the brains’ activity, but not necessarily relevant to the functioning of consciousness itself.

A number of thinkers are suggesting now, instead, that these fields may in fact be the main game in town when it comes to explaining consciousness. In a 2013 paper, philosopher Mostyn Jones reviewed various field theories of consciousness, still a minority school of thought in the field but growing. If that approach is right, it is likely that the body’s bioelectric fields are also, more generally, associated in some manner with some kind of consciousness at various levels. Levin provided some support for this notion when I asked him about the potential for consciousness, in at least some rudimentary form, in the body’s electric fields.

Hunt, Tam. “The Link Between Bioelectricity and Consciousness”. Nautilus. 10 Mar 2021. Web.

While I am committed to monism, the idea that only physical substance exists, and am therefore committed to physicalism, I am not committed to the idea that particles are the kinds of ultimates that attend to consciousness. Cells are the ultimates that attend to conscious beings like ourselves. This is the reason why the boulder lacks consciousness despite weighing as much as I do. Intuitively, the boulder should have roughly the same amount of particles in its structure as I do, but of utmost priority here is determining what I possess that the boulder does not. I am, as it were, activated by electric fields, receptive to my environment, can respond and adapt to it. The boulder, on the other hand, cannot do this. One might want to ask why, when the boulder finds itself gradually eroding under a small waterfall, it does not simply relocate itself? If, like me, it has a rudimentary spark of consciousness, why does it resign itself to a slow death, i.e., erosion? Bioelectric fields account for why I will move out of the way of an oncoming vehicle while the boulder remains idle under the waterfall, slowing eroding as time goes on.

This is probably the most damning response to Strawson: various domains of science are needed to understand consciousness. If EFT is accurate, and I see no reason for it to be inaccurate, cell biology is just as crucial as physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology. This makes for a comprehensive understanding of consciousness, comprised of the convergence of all our domains of knowledge. Philosophy of mind no doubt has a role to play, but not when it ventures far and wide from what science suggests. There is already a fundamental distinction between non-life and life, between inanimate objects and people. It follows, therefore, that if consciousness is inhered in living things, then it cannot be attributed to non-living things. This smacks of common sense and yet, philosophers are willing to occupy the fringes with popular theories like panpsychism. Some pretty anecdotes have come from this idea. Some say we are the universe experiencing itself, but if the universe already had all the makings of phenomenal consciousness, why does it need overrated chimpanzees who are preoccupied with reality tv, social media, violence against one another, and all manner of mundane and superficial nonsense to understand itself? If any composition at all, even absent bioelectric fields, are enough to account for consciousness, why not just configure itself into a Boltzmann brain that has no potential to develop the silly prejudices and biases humans tend to have?

My account starts to make clear how I can be committed to NE and RP and lead us in the right direction as it concerns Z phenomena. P phenomena are well-accounted for as they pertain to inorganic compounds. Of course, it begs the question to say that we have not quite nailed P phenomena as they concern organic chemistry. To reiterate, our ignorance with respect to how inorganic compounds become organic compounds that are essential to life does not give us license to make as many wild assumptions as we please. Any hypothesis, even within philosophy, especially if it encroaches on the territory of science, has to demonstrate awareness of scientific literature or at least, incorporate science wherever it is germane to one’s theory. Claiming that particles are actually experiential entities that account for why we are conscious pushes the buck back. Panpsychists have moved the goalposts and if they were correct, we would still be tasked with comprehending the consciousness of things utterly unlike ourselves. Thankfully, we do not have to do that and we can focus our energy on understanding why there is a what-it’s-likeness to our experiences. Again, there are important clues: for instance, people who were born blind cannot see while dreaming:

When a blind man is asked if he dreams the answer is immediate: ‘Yes!’ But if we ask him if he sees anything in the dream, the answer is always doubtful because he does not know what it is to see. Even if there were images and colours in his brain during the dream, how could he recognize them? There is, therefore, no direct way, through the dream reports, to evaluate the presence of visual activation in the dream of congenitally blind subjects.

Carr, Michelle. “Do Blind People See in Their Dreams?”. Psychology Today. 29 Dec 2017. Web.

If experiential particles give rise to sight, then why do particles seem entirely dependent on eyes? Why do they not simply configure themselves in another way in order to circumvent the blindness of the eyes? It is quite telling that in the absence of a sense, the corresponding phenomenal aspect of experiences associated with that sense are also absent. My compound reductive account predicts this; this is unsurprising on my theory of consciousness whereas on Strawson’s account, and any panpsychists account, there is no way to account for this. Severe retinopathy is usually what causes people to be born blind. There are millions of light-sensitive cells within the retina, along with other nerve cells that receive and process the information that is sent to your brain, by way of the optic nerve. On EFT, therefore, blindness is damage within the electric fields that result in sight. The cure for blindness is to restore the electric fields within these cells so that communication between nerve cells is possible. That would then restore any corresponding phenomenal experiences. The mere organization of particles clearly does not accomplish this. EFT seems to have far more explanatory power than panpsychism does and if we took pains to assess just our five ordinary senses, we would be able to see that like blindness, anosmia, aguesia, deafness, and things like neuropathy, hypoesthesia, and CIP (congenital insensitivity to pain) are all reducible to nerve cell damage in the nose, mouth, ears, and extremities respectively. In simple terms, bioelectric pathways are damaged and thus, turn off communication to the brain, and in turn, cut off the corresponding qualia. This is essentially what I mean by recontextualizing qualia and Strawson clearly does not dodge that bullet.

Ultimately, I think EFT should supplant panpsychism in popular circles. I can agree with the notion of conscious cells because they are among the smallest structures atoms have assembled into within living things. I disagree with the idea of conscious particles because when they organize into air fryers, thermostats, buildings, mountains, and sand dunes, despite having comparable mass, size, shape, and charge to living things, none of these objects appear to be conscious; in other words, none of these objects appear to be aware, awake, attentive, and most importantly, alive. I can knock on a fish tank and the fish with the blankest stare in the tank can respond to a stress signal and move away from that area in the tank. I can throw a rock repeatedly into a harder material and it will continue to remain idle; put another way, I can take a geologist’s hammer to sediment over and over again, whether for a dig or in a fit of sustained rage, and the sediment will remain idle, allowing me to crack and break it as much as I please. Conscious beings, on the other hand, have a bias toward survival and retention of their structure. To use as humane an example as possible, if you were to do something that caused an insect pain, perhaps sending minor electrical charges into one of its legs, its automatic response will be to try to escape the situation. The insect, like you, wants to survive and ensure that it is not crushed or, in this case, burnt to a crisp. The same cannot be said of the myriad, non-experiential macro objects around us day in and day out. Strawson and panpsychists, aside from co-opting terms like physicalism when they really do not mean physicalism, would do well to renounce panpsychism and accept a better theory of ultimates: electric fields theory of consciousness. Then they can come to my pluralist physicalist account that allows for compound reductionism. To my mind, this is the only real way to study consciousness.