Monday, May 01, 2023

Panpsychism and Metonymy

This post is the seventh installment of my passing on to both MindBlog readers and my future self my idiosyncratic selection of clips of text from O’Gieblyn’s book ‘God, Human, Animal, Machine’ that I have found particularly interesting. Here are fragments of Chapters 9 and 10 from the  fifth section of her book,  titled "Metonymy"

Chapter 9

Panpsychism has surfaced from time to time over the centuries, as in the philosophy of Bertrand Russell and Arthur Eddington, who realized that the two most notable “gaps” in physicalism—the problem of consciousness and the “problem of intrinsic natures” (the question of what matter is)—could be solved in one fell swoop. Physics could not tell us what matter was made out of, and nobody could understand what consciousness was, so maybe consciousness was, in fact, the fundamental nature of all matter. Mental states were the intrinsic nature of physical states…The impasse surrounding the hard problem of consciousness and the weirdness of the quantum world has created a new openness to the notion that the mind should have never been excluded from the physical sciences in the first place.

Some neuroscientists have arrived at panpsychism not through philosophy but via information theory. One of the leading contemporary theories of consciousness is integrated information theory, or IIT. Pioneered by Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch…IIT holds that consciousness is bound up with the way that information is “integrated” in the brain. Information is considered integrated when it cannot be easily localized but instead relies on highly complex connections across different regions of the brain…They have come up with a specific number, Φ, or phi, which they believe is a threshold and is designed to measure the interdependence of different parts of a system…many other creatures have a nonzero level of phi, which means that they too are conscious—as are atoms, quarks, and some single-celled organisms…Unlike emergentism and other systems theories that cleverly redefine terms like “consciousness” and “cognition” so that they apply to forests and “insect colonies, panpsychists believe that these entities truly possess some kind of phenomenal experience—that it feels like something to be a mouse, an amoeba, or a quark…Although the theory is still a minority position within academia, there is undoubtedly more openness today to theories that upturn modern orthodoxies to extend consciousness down the chain of being.  

“While popular debates about the theory rarely extend beyond the plausibility of granting consciousness to bees and trees, it contains far more radical implications. To claim that reality itself is mental is to acknowledge that there exists no clear boundary between the subjective mind and the objective world. When Bacon denounced our tendency to project inner longings onto scientific theories, he took it for granted—as most of us do today—that the mind is not part of the physical world, that meaning is an immaterial idea that does not belong to objective reality. But if consciousness is the ultimate substrate of everything, these distinctions become blurred, if not totally irrelevant. It’s possible that there exists a symmetry between our interior lives and the world at large, that the relationship between them is not one of paradox but of metonymy—the mind serving as a microcosm of the world’s macroscopic consciousness. Perhaps it is not even a terrible leap to wonder whether the universe can communicate with us, whether life is full of “correspondences,” as the spiritualists called them, between ourselves and the transcendent realm—whether, to quote Emerson, “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.

Although integrated information theory is rooted in longstanding analogies between the brain and digital technologies, it remains uncertain whether the framework allows for machine consciousness. Koch argues that nothing in ITT necessitates that consciousness is unique to organic forms of life… So long as a system meets the minimum requirements of integrated information, it could in principle become conscious, regardless of whether it’s made of silicon or brain tissue. However, most digital computers have sparse and fragmented connectivity that doesn’t allow for a high level of integration.  

One of the central problems in panpsychism is the “combination problem.” This is the challenge of explaining how conscious microsystems give way to larger systems of unified consciousness. If neurons are conscious—and according to Koch they have enough phi for “an itsy-bitsy amount of experience”—and my brain is made of billions of neurons, then why do I have only one mind and not billions? Koch’s answer is that a system can be conscious only so long as it does not contain and is not contained within something with a higher level of integration. While individual neurons cultured in a petri dish might be conscious, the neurons in an actual brain are not, because they are subsumed within a more highly integrated system...This is why humans are conscious while society as a whole is not. Although society is the larger conglomerate, it is less integrated than the human brain, which is why humans do not become swallowed up in the collective consciousness the way that neurons do.

It is, however, undeniable that society is becoming more and more integrated. Goff pointed out recently that if IIT is correct, then social connectivity is a serious existential threat. Assuming that the internet reaches a point where its information is more highly integrated than that of the human brain, it would become conscious, while all our individual human brains would become absorbed into the collective mind. “Brains would cease to be conscious in their own right,” Goff writes, “and would instead become mere cogs in the mega-conscious entity that is the society including its internet-based connectivity.” Goff likens this scenario to the visions of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit priest who, as we’ve seen, prophesied the coming Omega Point and inspired aspects of transhumanism. Once humanity is sufficiently connected via our information technologies, Teilhard predicted, we will all fuse into a single universal mind—the noosphere—enacting the Kingdom of Heaven that Christ promised.
This is already happening, of course, at a pace that is largely imperceptible - in the speed with which ideas go viral, cascading across social platforms, such that the users who share them begin to seem less like agents than as hosts, nodes in the enormous brain…in the efficiency of consensus, the speed with which opinions fuse and solidify alongside the news cycle, like thought coalescing in the collective consciousness. We have terms that attempt to catalogue this merging—the “hive mind,” “groupthink” -  times when I become aware of my own blurred boundaries, seized by the suspicion that I am not forming new opinions so much as assimilating them…I don’t know what to call this state of affairs, but it does not feel like the Kingdom of God.

Chapter 10

From the end of the chapter:

 “Idealism and panpsychism are appealing in that they offer a way of believing once again in the mind—not as an illusion or an epiphenomenon but as a feature of our world that is as real as anything else. But its proponents rarely stop there. In some cases they go on to make the larger claim that there must therefore exist some essential symmetry between the mind and the world, that the patterns we observe in our interior lives correspond to a more expansive, transcendent truth. Proponents of these theories occasionally appeal to quantum physics to argue that the mind-matter dichotomy is false—clearly there exists some mysterious relationship between the two. But one could just as easily argue that physics has, on the contrary, affirmed this chasm, demonstrating that the world at its most fundamental level is radically other than ourselves—that the universe is, as Erwin Schrödinger put it, “not even thinkable.”

This is precisely the modern tension that Arendt calls attention to in The Human Condition. On the one hand, the appearance of order in the world—the elegance of physical laws, the usefulness of mathematics—tempts us to believe that our mind is made is made in its image, that “the same patterns rule the macrocosm and the microcosm alike.” In the enchanted world order was seen as proof of eternal unity, evidence that God was present in all things, but for the modern person this symmetry leads inevitably back to Cartesian doubt—the suspicion that the order perceived stems from some mental deception. We have good reason to entertain such suspicions, Arendt argues. Since Copernicus and Galileo, science has overturned the most basic assumptions about reality and suggested that our sensory perception is unreliable. This conclusion became unavoidable with the discovery of general relativity and quantum physics, which suggest that “causality, necessity, and lawfulness are categories inherent in the human brain and applicable only to the common-sense experiences of earthbound creatures.” We keep trying to reclaim the Archimedean point, hoping that science will allow us to transcend the prison of our perception and see the world objectively. But the world that science reveals is so alien and bizarre that whenever we try to look beyond our human vantage point, we are confronted with our own reflection. “It is really as though we were in the hands of an evil spirit,” Arendt writes, alluding to Descartes’s thought experiment, “who mocks us and frustrates our thirst for knowledge, so that whenever we search for that which we are not, we encounter only the “patterns of our own minds.”
That is not to say that the Archimedean point is no longer possible.  In her 1963 essay “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” Arendt considers this modern problem in light of emerging technologies. The oddest thing, she notes, is that even though our theories about the world are limited and simplistic and probably wrong, they “work” when implemented into technologies. Despite the fact that nobody understands what quantum mechanics is telling us about the world, the entire computer “age—including every semiconductor, starting with the very first transistor, built in 1947—has rested on well-modeled quantum behavior and reliable quantum equations. The problem is not merely that we cannot understand the world but that we can now build this alien logic into our devices. There are some scientists, Arendt notes, who claim that computers can do “what a human brain cannot comprehend.” Her italics are instructive: it’s not merely that computers can transcend us in sheer brain power—solving theorems faster than we can, finding solutions more efficiently—but that they can actually understand the world in a way that we cannot. She found this proposition especially alarming. “If it should be true…that we are surrounded by machines whose doings we cannot comprehend although we have devised and constructed them,” she writes, “it would mean that the theoretical perplexities of the natural sciences on the highest level have invaded our everyday world.” This conclusion was remarkably prescient.”


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