Two letters to Philosophy Now, one sent in under my 'alias' Thomas Jeffries and the other under my real name.
Published in December 2017/January 2018 edition, Issue 123
The idea of panpsychism is that awareness is inherent in every aspect of matter, even though normally we only recognise it in the animal kingdom. The argument seems to be that because particles have consciousness, we are also able to have consciousness. But no explanation is given of how this may work. It’s a ‘just so’ story.
Our consciousness however means that we are aware of ourselves, and of ourselves in relation to our surroundings. So in what way are the physical properties of sub-atomic particles – mass, spin, charge, etc – in their intrinsic nature forms of awareness, as Dr Goff asserts? Yes, they interact with other particles in precise ways, but that’s not awareness.
Panpsychists argue that it’s a question of degree. So we don’t ascribe human-like awareness to mice or spiders. And so just as we find it difficult to imagine having a spider’s form of awareness, we find it even more difficult to understand the awareness enjoyed by a subatomic particle. And this, they say, leaves open the possibility that it has awareness in some way. This is, however, argument by analogy, which has no logical value. And, more importantly, if the argument is to have any persuasive power, consciousness must be recognisably the same at whatever level it is said to exist. Unless we want to be in Humpty Dumpty land, ‘consciousness’ cannot completely change meaning as it shrinks. Indeed, if panpsychism is the best explanation currently available, I think I shall get out my self-aware Ouija board to see what’s next in line to ‘explain’ consciousness.
The concept of panpsychism (Issue 121) has made me see that invoking the existence of a hitherto undetected-as-universal property to explain the unexplained can be extended to other mysteries. For instance, we are all too ready to believe that our DNA codes give us two legs and two arms. But why? No-one has ever shown in complete detail the biochemical processes by which this happens. Our acceptance of a DNA-based explanation is just another example of a misplaced reliance on physicalism. And in the absence of a complete physical explanation, the origin of our limbs remains unexplained and so should obviously be referred to as the hard problem of limbs.
For a philosopher, however, this problem is simple to resolve. We need only postulate a panlimbist world. Specifically, the reason we humans normally have four limbs is that everything has four limbs, down to and including the smallest sub-atomic particle. Of course we might have to modify our definition of limbs a little bit, and also the meaning of the number 4, in view of the absence of anything actually like limbs forming part of mountains or oceans, or indeed electrons and protons. We can instead say that they have an inherent quality much like, say, mass or spin or the electro-weak force, which we could simply name ‘limb’. We may then assert that this is fundamental to enabling us to have what we would normally describe as limbs – just like the assertion by panpsychists that the existence of consciousness in all matter, although not in a form that fits the definition of consciousness, is the source of human consciousness. Problem solved.
Paul Buckingham, Annecy, France