Thursday, June 12, 2008

Following Chalmers, Rosenberg, Stoljar and Nietzsche (via Hales and Wilber)

Experience, Information, Panpsychism from Zaadz: Anands blog

At the recently concluded Toward a Science of Consciousness conference, I presented a poster on a new physicalism that can accommodate experience. The reception was fast and furious from some and wacky and weird from others. I'll summarize after explaining what the poster was about.

Following Chalmers, Rosenberg, Stoljar and Nietzsche (via Hales and Wilber), I've been wondering for a while regarding a non-reductive physicalism that can accommodate experience. Since physicalism is still up for grabs (so to speak), the plan of action is simple: Expand physicalism so that experience is a natural by product. In particular, avoid assuming that experience is fundamental as the panpsychist, neutral monist or dual-aspect theorist typically does. if the result is panpsychism, at least it is a posteriori and not a priori.

You would think that this essentially simple idea would find plenty of supporters. Instead, it simply raised controversy among the attendees who came by the posters and others to whom I explained the basic idea. Below, I'll do a caricature and response to the questions:

1. Physicalism is really materialism and experience is a result of neural firings in the brain.

Response: There's an explanatory gap between neural firings and experience. Also, the brain is not a fundamental physical object. Furthermore, you're being Cartesian in correlating one subject to one brain.

2. Strawson has shown that physicalism entails panpsychism and if I had time I would destroy your position.

Response: This is an almost exact quote. It is extremely disturbing that some people are already driven to panpsychism as the one and only way out. In any case, the whole problem with panpsychism is that it posits intrinsic properties like experience as basic and doesn't tell us where the boundary came from to demarcate intrinsic from extrinsic. In other words, panpsychism takes objects in the world as unproblematic and this is precisely the problem in basic physics where there are currently no such boundaries. Unfortunately, Strawson's clout is such that it is quite likely that we'll start seeing panpsychism bigots and it's not a bad idea to start watching out for them from the start.

3. The universe is really quantum information processing and there are no such things as selves (subjects).

Response: Not sure what you're really trying to say. If the universe is really information, then information is physical (by my definition of physicalism). There will then be an explanatory gap between information and experience. In addition, information can be parsed as in-formation (as opposed to out-formation) and this implies a boundary of some sort with in-formation being contextualized relative to the boundary. In that case experience is information in-formation :-) [Sorry, but that's actually pretty cute. Perhaps, I'll make that the title of my next paper.]

4. The universe is really One without a second - a perfect unity in diversity with Love holding it all together.

Response: Mysticism is not a scientific option for me (despite its many benefits including love and compassion). If that statement is unpacked as idealist, then the burden of proof is on you to show why this particular opening in awareness with experiential content that exists right here and right now is actually Oneness of some kind.

5. Your approach of focusing on a momentary physical boundary that separates one "portion" of the universe from the rest can explain why experiences are private. It doesn't explain why experiences are qualitative.

Response: Kudos to the best question so far. It is quite likely that there are overlapping boundaries like the traditional Venn diagrams. Imagine that the overlapping aspect creates a shared language and this explains our verbalized thoughts which are usually expressed in some language. When there is no overlap, then there is no language of any kind and from this you can get the qualitative aspect of experience. This has to be carefully worked out obviously.

Overall, I was both elated and crushed. Elated that there were many people who saw the value in what was being presented, crushed that there weren't more in depth questions except from a small minority.

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