Friday, July 06, 2007

Are Atoms Conscious?

Galen Strawson is a philosopher famous for his espousal of panpsychism. This is a spirited attempt (pun intended) to answer the hard problem of consciousness. The hard problem, of course, is the need to explain how we can have subjective experience in an objective world. In fact, there are many other formulations, but they all ask effectively the same thing – what is consciousness?

Strawson takes the hard problem seriously. For good, but not quite watertight, reasons, he rejects most common attempts at an explanation. Consciousness is real, he says, and cannot be written off as an illusion. He also rejects the idea of consciousness ‘emerging’ from unconscious matter by some mysterious process. Finally, he rejects dualism. All matter is the same and there is no special spiritual substance from which conscious minds can be constructed.

His solution is simply stated: everything is conscious. Consciousness is a fundamental property of matter which makes itself felt when it is combined in certain ways. Thus each of the atoms that make up our brains brings a little bit of mind to the party. With enough atoms interacting in the right way, the party turns into an orgy of consciousness.

The obvious rejoinder to this would be if atoms are conscious, what are they thinking about? More seriously, is panpsychism plausible at all? Most people would say not, but actually nailing Strawson’s arguments is rather more difficult than you might suppose. A recent book, Consciousness and Its Place in Nature, contains an essay by Strawson, lots of comments by unconvinced philosophers and responses by Strawson to the comments. It is sympathetically reviewed by Jerry Fodor for the London Review of Books. Fodor is no more convinced than most other people but can see that the hard problem does things to our assumptions such that categories like ‘plausible’ don’t really apply to suggested solutions.

I find Strawson’s ideas have some merit. Although I am not a physicialist, I do think that the physical is an essential prerequisite to the mental. Brains seem to be doing something very obscure to generate conscious experience and I think it is something rather more basic than just producing epiphenomena. Atoms may not be conscious, but they must have some property that allows them to combine into things that are.

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1 comment:

IlĂ­on said...

If all matter is conscious, then does this not mean that all living things -- simply by virtue of being living things -- are immoral, being morally and logically akin to slavers?