Monday, January 29, 2018

Electrons may be conscious

From a Quartz essay:
Consciousness permeates reality. Rather than being just a unique feature of human subjective experience, it’s the foundation of the universe, present in every particle and all physical matter.

This sounds like easily-dismissible bunkum, but as traditional attempts to explain consciousness continue to fail, the “panpsychist” view is increasingly being taken seriously by credible philosophers, neuroscientists, and physicists, including figures such as neuroscientist Christof Koch and physicist Roger Penrose.

“Why should we think common sense is a good guide to what the universe is like?” says Philip Goff, a philosophy professor at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. “Einstein tells us weird things about the nature of time that counters common sense; quantum mechanics runs counter to common sense. Our intuitive reaction isn’t necessarily a good guide to the nature of reality.”
I am not sure if this is nutty or not. We do not have a scientific definition of consciousness, so there is no way to test the ideas in this essay.

Nevertheless, there appears to be such a thing as consciousness, even if we cannot give a good definition of it.

Assuming you are a materialist, and not a dualist, the human brain is the sum of its constituent parts. Do those parts have a little bit of consciousness, or does consciousness only emerge after a certain cognitive capacity is reached? Both seem possible to me.

If consciousness is emergent, then we can expect AI computers to be conscious some day. Or maybe those computers will never be conscious until they are made of partially conscious parts.

There is an argument that decoherence times in a living brain environment are sufficiently fast that quantum mechanics cannot possibly play any part in consciousness. I do not accept that. The argument shows that you do not have Schroedinger cats in your head, or at least not for very long, but you quantum mechanics could have a vital role in decision making. We don't understand the brain well enough to say.

It may also turn out that consciousness will never be defined precisely enough for these questions to make sense.


  1. I find it a fascinating exercise in narcissism to listen to a scientist talk about how people don't have consciousness...while predictably excluding themselves and the person they are trying to convince from their own conclusions.

  2. It is a leap of faith to assign consciousness to matter, animal, vegetable or mineral, which has no inherent need for it for the purposes of survival. That it is not a unique feature of human experience is a straw man argument. From an evolutionary perspective, consciousness is a survival mechanism which facilitates sensory experience, instincts and emotions to achieve its purpose: the lion is hungry and is driven to seek food; the gazelle does not want to become food and runs for his life in fear of the lion. To perform and survive as an organism above some level, consciousness would be necessary, but not for an amoeba or a tree or a stone.