Some Points Against Anil Seth’s Criticism of Panpsychism
On 1st February 2018 neuroscientist and ‘public science communicator’ Anil Seth wrote a disparaging article against panpsychism on his blog,1 in response to a pop article about the theory from Quartz.2
There are quite a few problems with Seth’s polemic, some of which I have roughly noted below in this quick informal response.
– Seth’s title, “Conscious spoons, really? Pushing back against panpsychism”, already betrays the fact that he is unfamiliar with the literature, basing his post on a mainstream Quartz article of the doctrine. No panpsychist would say a spoon as such had consciousness – Bruno had in the sixteenth century already forestalled this notion. Academics should know better than to criticize a theory based on a mainstream media article. As such Seth’s attack is predominantly a pushback against a Straw Man.
– Seth writes, “Nor need [panpsychism] be [taken seriously], since consciousness science is getting along just fine without it.” Two points to consider here:
- Despite Seth’s remark, consciousness science is not getting on that well considering it cannot explain mental causation in relation to causal closure, epiphenomenalism in relation to evolution, the determination of multiple realization of correlates of consciousness, emergentism as anomalous in terms of transordinal nomology, neuropsychological identity theory as paradoxical, the hard problem of consciousness, etc., etc. With regard to the last, Seth writes: “consciousness science has largely moved on from attempts to address the hard problem … . This is not a failure, it’s a sign of maturity.” Instead of immediately justifying that claim of maturity, Seth claims that the hard problem is based on the Conceivability Argument (which he then mischaracterizes as a prosaic fallacy). But the Conceivability Argument is only a single basis of the hard problem (others include the nature of supervenience, the consistency of upward and downward causation, etc.). Secondly, it does not explain why moving past a problem without solving it is a sign of maturity. In truth, on the contrary, not acknowledging and facing one’s problems is a sign of immaturity.
- There is an implicit assumption that panpsychism would be encompassed within the remit of ‘consciousness science’. As far as matters of mind are concerned, routes to knowledge transcend the confines of current science and are thus concerns of metaphysics. One of the reasons for believing in panpsychism is the limited nature of current science in terms of its concern for structure rather than immanence (as Russell, Whitehead, et al., wrote). If one believes mechanistic science to be the sole route to truth, one must then give up any notions of mathematical or logical truth. Seth betrays an epistemic naïvety here.
– Next Seth writes that “[in] practice, scientists researching consciousness are not spending their time (or their scarce grant money) worrying about conscious spoons, they are getting on with the job of mapping mechanistic properties…”. Not only is this a performative contradiction, it is also as encouraging as Theresa May’s bot-like trope that she is “getting on with the job” of screwing up the United Kingdom via Brexit, in spite of any logical reasons that might point to the fact that she’s committing a fundamental error by pursuing a job that can only end in failure. May and Seth use the same trope and aptly suffer the same fate. “Thinking about conscious spoons just doesn’t cut it in this [current scientific] regard”, Seth continues, mistaking metaphysics for science, and spoons for scythes.
– The next section is where Seth tries to defend the possibility of understanding mind by mechanism. He doesn’t at all say how this understanding will happen, he just says that it might – by the same principle one may as well say that panpsychism, dualism or idealism might be true even though one doesn’t know how it could be. Seth’s paragraph here is an example of ‘promissory materialism’ that contains the following sparks of mechanist hope of explaining mind (in but one single little paragraph): we must “wait and see”, the “hard problem may dissolve”, “everything may remain mysterious”, “if we can explain … perhaps we are getting somewhere”, “[s]uch concepts can help”, and finally, again, “as we move further along this road the hard problem may lose its lustre”. Well that’s promising! Maybe there is an aether after all; maybe there are gods made of strawberries; maybe time is an evil umbrella. Continued failure of explanation of consciousness is not a good sign for your so-called ‘consciousness science’, and as such does not stand in the way of more logical explanations.
– Following all these hopes and conditionals, Seth writes, “As long as we can formulate explanatorily rich relations between physical mechanisms and phenomenological properties, and as long as these relations generate empirically testable predictions which stand up in the lab (and in the wild), we are doing just fine.” But formulating these “explanatorily rich relations” is exactly what Seth has just admitted has not been achieved! A wild Promissory Materialism is not a doctrine that is ‘doing just fine’. Only faithful acolytes could deceive themselves into such a belief – and do not doubt that such materialism is a faith position. There is no agnostic viewpoint in mind-matter doctrines. In these matters one must not commit the sin of cum hoc ergo propter hoc (“with this, therefore because of this”) – correlation does not per se imply causation (nor identity), just as the correlation of the morning opening of flowers with bird song implies no such relation. Why certain material activities correlate to mental events is the question not the answer.
– Undeterred Seth now re-awakens the old spectre of vitalism in order to argue that what was once deemed a hard problem of life was resolved through a mechanistic account. Firstly this is an argument by analogy. Thus one could just as easily pick another analogy against mechanism, where mechanism failed to explain a phenomenon, such as the double-slit experiment. So this acknowledged cliché of overcoming vitalism by mechanism has no power against panpsychism. Furthermore, as ‘being alive’ entails being sentient for a panpsychist, the claim that being alive was sufficiently explained by mechanism commits the fallacy of petitio principii (begging the question) against panpsychism: Seth assumes that much life is insentient to claim that much life is insentient.
– Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is now tackled. Seth has a lot of respect for its creators and its form, but does not like the fact that its creators (Tononi, Koch, et al.) take it to be a panpsychological theory. But fortunately for Seth, he has created his own variant that is not panpsychological, but he calls it IIT nonetheless. He should have simply renamed his mechanical theory ‘panpsychism’ and thereby resolved the whole problem by the use of redefinition.
– Now Seth deals with what he thinks is “the main problem with panpsychism. It’s not that it sounds crazy, it’s that it cannot be tested. It does not lead to any feasible programme of experimentation. Progress in scientific understanding requires experiments and testability”. Firsty, panpsychism is a metaphysical theory, not a scientific one (though it is not contrary to science, but only to scientism). In mind-matter theories we rely more on abduction (inference to best explanation) than on empirical verification (likewise in history, geology, evolution, etc.). A chef may as well say that the “main problem” with the Pythagorean theorem is that one cannot eat it. Secondly, this is not panpsychism’s “main problem” (which again betrays the fact that Seth is unfamiliar with the literature). Thirdly, experiments and testability can be done upon spatiotemporal phenomena that can be perceived. But one cannot directly perceive another’s sentience, a private phenomenon that in its essence cannot be described spatially (it would be a category mistake to ask what the shape of pain was). Seth is using the wrong tool for the job he is supposedly getting on with – one cannot determine the validity of a syllogism using a screwdriver.
I should retort with these questions: if panpsychism were true, what scientific experiments could test it and lead to a “feasible programme of experimentation”? How could we even use the scientific method to test whether an insect, plant, bacterium, or robot, were sentient? One must be aware of the limitations of one’s method. Physics, biology, mathematics, logic, metaphysics, archaeology, history, etc., all have their own tools for knowledge acquisition and so one should be wary of demanding the tools of one field for the job of another. A historian specializing in the Roman Inquisition would not get far using a scientific “programme of experimentation”.
In sum, Anil Seth shows in his blog post that he has little understanding of what panpsychism is, what its main arguments are, what its main problems are – and he displays (at least here) a very naïve epistemology. Thus he must now get on with the job of finding the right use for his wooden spoon, which he is awarded.
(2nd February 2018; Morrab Library, Penzance)
For an example of my own advocacy of panpsychism, see my recent public article here: http://highexistence.com/panpsychism-3-reasons-why-our-world-brimming-sentience/
(Audio Version of my panpsychism article: https://youtu.be/B7B_RmZQp5Q)
This response as a public Facebook Note: https://www.facebook.com/notes/ontologistics/some-points-against-anil-seths-criticism-of-panpsychism/1942312155797602/