The Bizarre Theory That Claims Your Cellphone Is Conscious

The Bizarre Theory That Claims Your Cellphone Is Conscious

By: Oliver G. Alvar -

Panpsychism is a rather strange view that claims everything, from subatomic particles to brains, has an inner life. But perhaps panpsychism is not that crazy, and many brilliant minds do take it seriously.

If I were to ask you, which of these two things are conscious: a human being or a rock, what would you answer? The former? The latter? Both? Neither? Well, of course most people would say human beings. In fact, you’d probably outright mock my question, wouldn’t you? I wouldn’t blame you if you did. What I would do is urge you to think outside the box and entertain all possibilities for a second, even if at first they seem crazy. That’s the mark of an open mind, after all. So, what if I told you that there are many very bright and educated experts who do take seriously the idea that, say, an atom or a thermostat is a conscious being? I'm indeed talking about a popular and fascinating theory in the philosophy of mind, called panpsychism.

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Consciousness is a really hard nut to crack. It’s intimately familiar yet deeply mysterious. On the one hand, we are immediately conscious; everything we are and do and think revolves around this very fact. On the other, however, we have no actual clue of what consciousness truly is, and our tools to find out are surprisingly limited. Even a basic and intuitive definition of consciousness is problematic. 

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In our time, we are very much inclined to look for scientific—or, at least, naturalistic—explanations for any given phenomenon. We have good reason to do so: science and reason have led us to otherwise unimaginable heights, and they have consistently proven to work. And although we've found explanations for many ancient problems and everyday events, there’s still much that eludes us. 

Consciousness is one such elusive issue. More specifically, the most difficult questions that resist our attempts at explaining consciousness are also the most basic ones: what it is, and how it comes about from regular matter (if it comes about at all). Philosophers have dubbed this issue “The Hard Problem of Consciousness” (yeah, philosophers are that original).

At any rate, several answers have been given. Dualists, for example, claim consciousness doesn’t come about from matter at all. They think both are completely separate and fundamentally different things: matter is, well, material, whereas consciousness is immaterial. One you can see and touch and hear, and the other you can’t. Physicalists, on the other hand, think consciousness is entirely material. So, which one is right? 

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There are several problems with both views. Dualism provides us more with a mystery than with an explanation: if mind and body are two fundamentally separate kind of things, how could they possibly interact with one another? It may be true that the problem here is not how mind arises from matter, but we still have a similarly difficult problem, namely, how the mind could possibly be related to its body

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In the end, dualism doesn’t solve the issue, it merely shifts it to a different place. Additionally, it has the disadvantage of giving us a very fragmented picture of the universe: a universe that’s fundamentally “broken,” divided, fractured. Over the centuries many people have wondered whether our belief in this costly schism is in fact warranted. Thinking it is not, and dissatisfied with the dualist picture of the world, physicalists have leaned towards the other extreme.

But physicalism also has concerning problems. According to physicalists, we should be able to understand and describe all there is about the mind through its purely physical features, such as the material states of our brains or through sentences involving third-person reports of consciousness. To use the traditional philosophical example, physicalists would typically claim that our experience of pain is identical with the firing of c-fibers in the nervous systems, which physically account for painful sensations. But how could that be? How could my description of c-fibers firing capture the essence of my experience of pain? Something seems wrong here.

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To illustrate the problem, let’s talk about Mary. Mary lives happily in a black-and-white room where she sees no colors other than, you guessed it, black and white. But Mary is also a prodigious scientist who knows all there is to know about the theory of color. She knows all the scientific books by heart, she has all the third-person descriptions and information anyone could possibly have.

Then, one fine day, the room’s door is opened, and Mary takes a step into the world of color. For the first time in her life, she sees red and blue and yellow. The question is: did she learn something new just then? It seems she was missing some key elements about red if she never saw the color, just like an anthropologist will alway miss something about a population if they never once studied it in person, from the inside

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For these reasons, physicalism hasn’t been able to solve The Hard Problem of Consciousness. Perhaps it could one day, but so far we have some reason to suspect it won’t, just because the issue is so conceptually intractable. As Bertrand Russell once claimed, science doesn’t tell us what matter is, only how it behaves. So, maybe, a scientific physicalism could never tell us the true nature of the mind; it could only ever explain what consciousness does

And this is where panpsychism comes in. Panpsychism is an alternative, a sort of middle ground between dualism and physicalism that aims to unify both extremes. But it also comes at a cost. It seems like a bizarre and outright crazy view. Panpsychists believe that everything, from atoms to brains, is conscious. Everything has an inner life. Protons, electrons, and other particles are supposed to have a kind of very primitive experience of the world. Things like your cellphone (or the atoms therein) would, by this standard, be conscious beings, so do be careful what you do around them! 

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There’s something attractive about panpsychism. It offers a continuous and elegant view of the world, one that doesn’t require us to sacrifice unity. Consciousness is never “created” out of matter; instead, matter is always conscious. It tells us not how atoms behave, but what they fundamentally are: conscious beings. For all its virtues, however, panpsychism also challenges our common sense beyond what most are willing to accept. Other than elegance and simplicity, why would we ever believe that our cellphones or rocks or atoms have an inner life?

The truth is that we don’t know. Neither science nor religion nor philosophy has been able to give a satisfying and rigorous solution to The Hard Problem of Consciousness. All views have problems, some more than others, but it’s at least interesting to know what kind of possible answers are out there. What do you believe? Does panpsychism sound appealing or crazy? Let us know what you think in the comments below. 


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