Hawking Up Hairballs

Sunday, November 18, 2007


I ran across this little item in the Science section of today's New York Times. Panpsychism. Talk about bunkum. It's yet another instance of a journalist writing about something that he doesn't really understand.

The article is about panpsychism, the notion that all matter, right on down to the smallest of subatomic particles, is possessed of consciousness or mind, at least to some degree. The arguments of the philosoper Thomas Nagel are summarized in the article. They run something like this. The brain is made up of atoms and such. These particles are no different from those making up anything else, yet they give rise to human consciousness. This consciousness can't come from nothing, so it must be inherent in the particles themselves. In short, every little bit of matter in the universe is conscious.

One could tie oneself up into all kinds of sophistic knots in arguing over whether consciousness is merely a consequence of a certain arrangement of atoms, or if it is there in the atoms themselves, but such arguments are fruitless. I don't know whether this Jim Holt who wrote the piece has accurately portrayed Nagel's position but the argument as presented suffers from a fatal flaw. It assumes that consciousness or mind is a thing, something which can be the object of study. It's easy to make such an assumption. Such is the structure of the human brain and its linguistic apparatus that we can take words like "consciousness," words that have no correlates in the world outside of us, and turn them into nouns that can appear as subjects and objects in sentences. When we start using those words that way, we soon begin to assume that a real object is being specified.

The facts are otherwise. "Consciousness" or "mind" isn't a thing. These are merely terms that we apply to beings that exhibit certain behaviors. The only thing that anyone can know first-hand as conscious is himself. When it comes to others, how do we make decisions about whether or not they are possessed of consciousness? By their behavior. It's as simple as that. Consciousness is an inferred property of others. Nagel can't understand how a certain arrangement of atoms produces consciousness. He sees that as a problem worthy of contemplation, but there's no problem there at all. The arrangement of atoms produces certain kinds of behavior. We have invented the term "conscious" to describe those who exhibit those kinds of behavior. Of course, there's still the question of why the arrangement results in that behavior, but that's not a philosophical question. It's a subject for scientific investigation.

Of course, the piece appears in the Times' Sunday magazine, and it's very short, so I suspect that it was written as filler. Still, I hate it when journalists write about things they don't fully comprehend, as is the case with Mr. Holt. Put him on the sports beat or, even better, business. It's all bullshit there anyway.


Blogger Geeby said...

Many good points here. I do not understand why this article is in the science section, as it really has nothing to do with it. "This just in, man disproves the existence of the world. Pack a jacket because it could get a bit nippy in the vast nothingness"

2:53 PM  

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