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Consciousness & Panpsychism

David Cowles

Dec 14, 2023

“Everywhere we look in the biosphere, we seem to find evidence of mental functioning, self-awareness, consciousness, or at least proto-consciousness.”

‘Consciousness’ has been called the ‘hard problem’. It may be the last remaining piece of the ontological puzzle. But it’s a doozie. Over the past 150 years, we’ve ‘discovered’ evolution, relativity, quanta, the big bang, DNA, the human genome, etc. But "consciousness"—how we know these things and how we know that we know them – not so much. 

Traditionally, the ‘problem of consciousness’ has been focused exclusively on Homo sapiens, but recently, that’s had to change. Strong evidence has emerged suggesting that members of many other species could pass a modified Turing Test. And don’t get me started on AI!

Bonobos and chimpanzees are ‘no-brainers’, pardon the pun. Marine animals as well (e.g., dolphins). Corvids (crows and ravens), Parrots, and Cephalopoda (e.g., octopus), very likely. Recent exploration has detected intriguing signs of self-awareness in multiple species of fish, insects, and plants. Now, Nature (11/1/23) has published a study suggesting that the presumably ‘headless starfish’ is actually ‘bodiless’; Max Headroom! 

Everywhere we look in the biosphere, we seem to find evidence of mental functioning, self-awareness, consciousness, or at least proto-consciousness. Recent efforts to reduce consciousness to a ‘neural network’ have failed, both scientifically and philosophically, and recent discoveries make that hypothesis less and less defensible.

Today, mechanism is on the run! The imputed connection between physiology and consciousness is growing ever thinner. Vastly different versions of ‘sensory processing apparatus’ seem to support very similar mental phenomena.

For centuries, science has focused on removing all traces of ‘spirituality’ from biology. No more ‘soul’, no more élan vital. Consciousness was to be mechanism’s final frontier. The locker room was decorated, caterers on site, champagne on ice, but, as it turns out, there’s nothing to celebrate.

Just as people were confidently predicting the final coup, things began ‘slip sliding away’. It’s becoming clear that ‘something’s happening here, and we don’t know what it is’ (Bob Dylan). 

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In a recent issue of Thoughts While Shaving, we outlined our own theory of reflection, self-awareness, and consciousness. We hypothesized that such phenomena are a hard-wired feature of being itself.

We imagine we live in an ‘orientable’ world with 360° symmetry: up is up and down is down and never the twain shall meet. Likewise, we imagine an insuperable barrier separating any two sides: obverse from reverse. But what if these things are true only locally? Or approximately? What if the orientable world we know and usually love is a degenerate case, an abstraction, or an approximation of a wider, non-orientable reality? Take this earth, for example: from here to my horizon (locally), it looks flat, but we know it isn’t (globally). 

We proposed the possibility that our orientable world is embedded in a more general, non-orientable topology with 720° symmetry, where ‘up is up’ only once, at t = 0, and the obverse/reverse distinction does not exist at all. In such a world, after a 360° rotation, ‘up is down’. ‘Up is up’ again only after we complete a full 720° circuit, i.e., after our system returns to its initial state.

Superficially, this model looks appealing, but it has a huge unanticipated consequence: according to this model, all living organisms must be self-aware – not just primates and bees, but sponges and trees…even unicellular organisms like bacteria. 

Objection #1: “How can we ever know what it’s like, subjectively, to be a unicellular organism?”

Answer #1: We can’t! But neither can I know what it’s like to be you. I presume you’d like to be considered ‘conscious,' but if I grant you that courtesy, I have no justification for denying the same courtesy to my ‘brother paramecium’. 

Answer #2: We can! We can just ask: “What’s it like in there? What’s it like to be you?” But tragically, we don’t yet know how to question the unicellular organisms that make up our bodies…and much of our environment. Fortunately, though, we do know how to question human beings…like you, for example. So why not just ask yourself? After all, you were once a unicellular organism! 

Have you forgotten that you were a single cell, the convergence of a maternal and a paternal sex cell? Assuming a normal lifespan, more than 100 trillion cells, each an approximate copy of your single-celled self, will participate in ‘your body’. So just ask any one of ‘you’!

Objection #2: The single cell that was me at conception and has now gone viral is not me. ‘I’ am an emergent phenomenon. So you can’t ask my cells because they’re not conscious, and you can’t ask me because I am something other than those cells, whether taken individually or collectively. 

Answer: Attractive answer! Wouldn’t most of us be only too eager to sign on to this resolution? In fact, it’s hard to see how you could not agree with it, and yet…

This solution may generate more problems than it solves. If I emerge from my cells, not as some sort of social superstructure but as an entirely novel ontological entity…well, bully for me, but how is that possible?

And then, who am ‘I’? At what point in time did I become ‘I’? Did I become ‘I’ gradually (if so, how so) or was there a ‘quantum leap’ (and if so, how…and when)? 

We are on the horns of a dilemma. We face three entirely unacceptable options: (1) Nihilism (there is no such thing as consciousness – it’s a ‘conceptual illusion’); (2) Mechanism (consciousness can be reduced to chemistry); (3) Mysticism (the phenomenon of consciousness is the discontinuous in-breaking of something ‘transcendental’).

I see only one way out of this dilemma: (4) Panpsychism (self-reflection is a fundamental feature of Being – it extends to everything that is). So you suit yourself, but as for me and my tribe, we choose #4.

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