[Topics: Consciousness, Evolutionary Biology, Panpsychism, Philosophy of Mind]
Mind Turning Backward:

A Critique of My Own Evolutionary Argument in Favor of Panpsychism



Detail from BrainChain by Willem den Broeder - consciousness, panpsychism, criticism

Detail from BrainChain by Willem den Broeder

Several years ago, I wrote and published an article advancing a defense of panpsychism from the perspective of evolutionary biology. It was an explicitly exploratory article, opening with a lengthy discussion of the nascence of serious philosophy and science of the mind—and ending with a declaration that my feeling that panpsychism is a solid response to the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is one of my least resolute and most tentative philosophical beliefs.

Due to this overt humility in the text of the article, I expected readers to see an opportunity to convince me that my arguments failed. Unfortunately, though I have now read many responses to my article in forums and elsewhere, I have been disappointed in the inability of such comments to point out any genuine flaws in my arguments. I say this is a disappointment not out of smug self-satisfaction regarding the arguments in question, but rather because I personally feel that the arguments do have genuine flaws. That my article has flaws was a baseless instinct when I wrote it, which has developed since then into a reasoned position. At any rate, I hoped that I was starting a conversation, but really I seem to have simply given people an opportunity to deliver their stump speeches about why they feel panpsychism is ridiculous without the need for examination (a trend I had hoped to curtail with the way I wrote that article’s introduction).

Although people have generally been more than willing to offer mature critical responses to many of my articles, such responses have not materialized for that article in particular. Thus, over the years, something odd has become clear to me: if I want to see a set of objections that really grapple with the arguments I advance in that particular article, I am going to have to write the set of objections myself. So . . . that exercise in navel-gazing is exactly what I’m going to do now; you might say that this is me writing criticism of a thinker that I truly consider to be my intellectual equal! Let’s get this over with . . .

Confronting the Evolutionary Argument Head-on:

The crux of the argument that Daniel makes (forgive the familiarity; I feel I know him well) rests on two observations: (1) that complexity in the manifestations of consciousness seem to parallel complexity in associated evolved biological structures like the brain, and (2) that it seems impossible to establish a dividing line between two generations in our evolutionary past and declare that the earlier of the two lacks consciousness and the later has it.

Armed with these tools, Daniel eventually concludes that it is therefore reasonable to assume that simpler, less complex entities have simpler, less complex (but crucially: still present) consciousness—and that consciousness did not suddenly spring into existence at some point in our evolutionary past, but was there all along in some form.

It’s a neat argument, but here is the main problem I see with it: just because something develops at an incredibly gradual rate over a massive span of time, that does not imply that it has always existed in some form. We don’t even have to stray away from intangible bodily phenomena like consciousness to find a good example to back up this objection: sight.

Blue Human Eye - consciousness, panpsychism, criticism

Photo by 8thstar

The first-person experience of sight could easily be construed as a part or a piece of consciousness, an experience which can be considered apart from the physical facts and parts of the body which make it up. Many philosophers of mind over the year, grasping for an example of qualia, have grabbed the experience of color as an intuitive one ready-to-hand.

Now, obviously, sight is not something that, say, a rock has. Whatever persistent low note of undifferentiated, non-cognitive consciousness a serious panpsychist philosopher might possibly consider a rock to possess, I’d wager that not a single one would say sight is a part of it. Yet it seems to me that almost the same evolutionary argument from Daniel’s article could be advanced to show that ‘sight’ is something that never ‘hopped on’ in our evolutionary past, but was always there in reality and matter in “some form.” In order to show that something has always existed, however, it is not sufficient to show that it may be impossible to work out its point of origin or to quantify its development.

This situation calls to mind Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, whose fascinating purported defeat of the concept of motion does not seem to have ever stopped anything from moving . . . other than the philosophers who have sat down to think about them. Arguably, developments in calculus (particularly as regards limits and convergent series) have laid Zeno’s paradoxes to rest. There is a chance that in the next 2000 years, as intervened between Zeno and calculus, we will in some sense ‘get around’ the apparent unmeasurability of changes in consciousness from one generation to the next. Perhaps advances in history, anthropology, biology, neuroscience, psychology, and/or some other fields will be able to someday definitely establish the origin and developmental history of subjective first-person consciousness—but the main point here is that that would not be necessary for them to have had an origin and developmental history.

Just as it is patently obvious that entities that lack any apparatus for visual sensation do not experience sight, so it might ultimately be equally obvious that entities that lack even the most rudimentary of cognitive apparatus do not have subjective first-person experiences of any form whatsoever, however simple. In effect, this objection follows from the position that consciousness may be an emergent phenomenon of material interactions or even itself simply an activity that matter can either do or not do (like sight, or running an operating system), rather than a quality or property of matter (like temperature or mass).

Detail from Zeno of Elea shows Youths the Doors to Truth and False by Bartolomeo Carducci or Pellegrino Tibaldi - consciousness, panpsychism, criticism

Detail from Zeno of Elea shows Youths the Doors to Truth and False by Bartolomeo Carducci or Pellegrino Tibaldi

Sight almost certainly has a hazy origin somewhere in simple clusters of photosentitive cells in our primordial past, prior to which it seems fair to say that there simply was no sight happening in the world. And so, along the same lines, it may be fair to say (whether coincidental with an early type of sensation, be it hunger or sight or something else, or developing independently later on) that consciousness too has a starting point, however impossible that point may be to hammer down.

Preempting My Own Rebuttals:

Now, here is where Daniel would shake his head and insist that, though I am making some very good points (thank you, Daniel), I have ventured somewhat away from what he is ultimately arguing in the article in question. After all, he himself proclaims that, “It is clear that we have myriad pieces of physical evidence to suggest that consciousness is something that a body has or does.” His comparison to electricity too seems relevant here, as electromagnetic phenomena could also be described as (following from specific arrangements and interactions of charged matter) ‘an activity that matter can either do or not do.’

This is all clarified in the passage directly following the initial evolutionary argument in the article, when Daniel presents a related sentiment about a spectrum of the complexity of consciousness across all currently existing beings (as if the preceding quotes weren’t enough, prepare for the ultimate patting of one’s own head, the Self Block Quote):

[. . .] at some low level—perhaps when moving down beyond where most fish and insects reside on this spectrum, or perhaps elsewhere—it is no longer useful to the conversation to be using the word ‘consciousness.’ Even if technically we are speaking of the rudiments of the same quality, its behavior is so simplified and so abstracted from the complex consciousness of a human being that it is an explanatory nightmare to carry on calling it consciousness, ultimately doing more to confuse the conversation than to advance it.

And the word ‘consciousness’ being used to describe this quality becomes even less helpful when you get out of animal life and into the realms of plant life and inanimate matter. Thus, even though it’s true that panpsychists are arguing that everything has consciousness, it’s also important to notice they’re arguing that only certain arrangements of matter (seemingly the same arrangements that produce intelligence) are accompanied by the familiar complex expression of consciousness. (Podgorski)

Well, that all seems fair enough, but it summons a question: then why are you calling this rudimentary quality or basic potentiality ‘consciousness’ then? Why reinforce the “explanatory nightmare?” Returning to the example of sight from the preceding section, a parallel argument may say that matter always has the property which may be termed ‘sight,’ but that it only seems to do anything interesting in certain arrangements of matter. This hypothetical pansightist could even invite sympathy by saying that it is regrettable that they must continue using the word sight when moving past some particular point on a spectrum of all complexities of sight that currently exist.

But without the continued usage of the word ‘consciousness’ or ‘sight’ in such circumstances, it would become clear that this is at best a useless clarification, and at worst absurd.

Collected Consciousness by Pete Moorhouse - consciousness, panpsychism, criticism

Collected Consciousness by Pete Moorhouse
(Photo by 14GTR)

Let us interpret Daniel charitably, however, and say that it is a useless clarification. For, if we accept that this rudimentary quality of matter could be called something else, ‘mind-stuff’ or even ‘mindness’ for example, but then clarify that we are now only going to be using the word ‘consciousness’ when we want to refer to what Daniel calls a “complex expression of consciousness” . . . then we could easily rephrase his formulation of panpsychism in the following way: it is possible for matter to be so arranged as to be conscious.

Well, I think you’ll agree that is a fairly obvious thing to say. Thoroughgoing dualists and idealists can still object to it, but pretty much anyone else who reads that sentence and happens to be conscious must perforce accept it. The reader is their own example proving the truth of the sentiment.

So, it’s here that we hit on the really fundamental flaw of Daniel’s argument: if we deal with consciousness and panpsychism in the restricted, scientific manner that Daniel insists upon in the article—then it seems that panpsychism would not solve the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ at all. Recall that the hard problem is to explain how it comes to be the case that there is a first-person, subjective experience accompanying bodily functioning—why there is ‘something it is like to be someone’ apart from the physical interactions and reactions that constitute the working of a body and brain.

Ordinarily, panpsychism’s answer to ‘why’ there is an experience of consciousness is that mind is fundamental; everything has it, so of course we have it. It accompanies everything, not just us. Along those lines, most panpsychists would contend that there is something it is like to be a rock, even if that something would be so simplistic, so muted, so without cognition that it may be unrecognizable to us as being consciousness.

Daniel, however, doesn’t go that far; he argues that it is not mind that is fundamental, but mind-stuff or even just mind-potential. Thus, instead, he contends merely that a rock has the same attribute which, in certain other arrangements of matter (like bodies with brains), causes that matter to be accompanied by what we recognize as mind. But that tells us nothing about why only matter in those certain arrangements is accompanied by “the familiar complex expression of consciousness,” and tells us little about what (if anything) the mind-potential of matter does or is when far outside of such arrangements. In other words, his approach loses the explanatory power that panpsychism is supposed to provide; Daniel leaves all the work of figuring out how his version of panpsychism may actually solve the hard problem of consciousness for future scientists and philosophers.


So, do the arguments in this article mean that panpsychism is false? No, they don’t. The idea that ‘mind is fundamental’ may yet be true.

Nor does leaning toward the arguments presented in the earlier article compel a person to say that panpsychism is true. It may be true, and it may be false. But I felt that, in the absence of someone providing a strong response to that article of mine, the half of that sentiment saying that ‘it may be true’ was emanating too strongly from this site.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little demonstration of how one might respond to some of Daniel’s arguments. I know I’ve enjoyed it; for me, it was sort of like chatting with an old friend.

Work Cited:

Podgorski, Daniel. “A Scientific Defense of Panpsychism: Understanding Panpsychism through Evolutionary Biology and an Analogy to Electricity.” The Gemsbok, 2019. Web.

[Topics: Consciousness, Evolutionary Biology, Panpsychism, Philosophy of Mind]
Mind Turning Backward:

A Critique of My Own Evolutionary Argument in Favor of Panpsychism

was last modified: December 8th, 2023 by Daniel Podgorski
Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed