The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #59418   Message #2688527
Posted By: Amos
27-Jul-09 - 11:30 PM
Thread Name: BS: The Mother of all BS threads
Subject: RE: BS: The Mother of all BS threads
In other news, an essay from sometime ago in the NYT Magazine, entitled Mind of a Rock suggests panpsychism.

"The doctrine that the stuff of the world is fundamentally mind-stuff goes by the name of panpsychism. A few decades ago, the American philosopher Thomas Nagel showed that it is an inescapable consequence of some quite reasonable premises. First, our brains consist of material particles. Second, these particles, in certain arrangements, produce subjective thoughts and feelings. Third, physical properties alone cannot account for subjectivity. (How could the ineffable experience of tasting a strawberry ever arise from the equations of physics?) Now, Nagel reasoned, the properties of a complex system like the brain don't just pop into existence from nowhere; they must derive from the properties of that system's ultimate constituents. Those ultimate constituents must therefore have subjective features themselves — features that, in the right combinations, add up to our inner thoughts and feelings. But the electrons, protons and neutrons making up our brains are no different from those making up the rest of the world. So the entire universe must consist of little bits of consciousness.

Nagel himself stopped short of embracing panpsychism, but today it is enjoying something of a vogue. The Australian philosopher David Chalmers and the Oxford physicist Roger Penrose have spoken on its behalf. In the recent book "Consciousness and Its Place in Nature," the British philosopher Galen Strawson defends panpsychism against numerous critics. How, the skeptics wonder, could bits of mind-dust, with their presumably simple mental states, combine to form the kinds of complicated experiences we humans have? After all, when you put a bunch of people in the same room, their individual minds do not form a single collective mind. (Or do they?) Then there is the inconvenient fact that you can't scientifically test the claim that, say, the moon is having mental experiences. (But the same applies to people — how could you prove that your fellow office workers aren't unconscious robots, like Commander Data on "Star Trek"?) Finally, there is the sheer loopiness of the idea that something like a photon could have proto-emotions, proto-beliefs and proto-desires. What could the content of a photon's desire possibly be? "Perhaps it wishes it were a quark," one anti-panpsychist cracked.

Panpsychism may be easier to parody than to refute. But even if it proves a cul-de-sac in the quest to understand consciousness, it might still help rouse us from a certain parochiality in our cosmic outlook. We are biological beings. We exist because of self-replicating chemicals. We detect and act on information from our environment so that the self-replication will continue. As a byproduct, we have developed brains that, we fondly believe, are the most intricate things in the universe. We look down our noses at brute matter.

Take that rock over there. It doesn't seem to be doing much of anything, at least to our gross perception. But at the microlevel it consists of an unimaginable number of atoms connected by springy chemical bonds, all jiggling around at a rate that even our fastest supercomputer might envy. And they are not jiggling at random. The rock's innards "see" the entire universe by means of the gravitational and electromagnetic signals it is continuously receiving. Such a system can be viewed as an all-purpose information processor, one whose inner dynamics mirror any sequence of mental states that our brains might run through. And where there is information, says panpsychism, there is consciousness. In David Chalmers's slogan, "Experience is information from the inside; physics is information from the outside."

But the rock doesn't exert itself as a result of all this "thinking." Why should it? Its existence, unlike ours, doesn't depend on the struggle to survive and self-replicate. It is indifferent to the prospect of being pulverized. If you are poetically inclined, you might think of the rock as a purely contemplative being. And you might draw the moral that the universe is, and always has been, saturated with mind, even though we snobbish Darwinian-replicating latecomers are too blinkered to notice."