The Physical and Consciousness: One World Conforming to Different Descriptions

Panpsychism is the doctrine that the world’s fundamental physical stuff also has primitive experiential properties. Unlike the physicalistic idealism explored here, panpsychism doesn’t claim that the world’s fundamental physical stuff is experiential. Panpsychism is best treated as a form of property-dualism.

How, one may wonder, is Pearce’s view different from panpsychism, and from property dualist views more generally? This is something I myself have struggled a lot to understand, and inquired him about repeatedly. And my understanding is the following: according to Pearce, there is only consciousness, and its dynamics conform to physical description. Property dualist views, in contrast, view the world as having two properties: the stuff of the world has insentient physical properties to which separate, experiential properties are somehow attached.

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Farmed Salmon May Be Depressed

Researchers find that growth-stunted farmed salmon show chronic serotonergic activity and do not respond to acute stress — a state that could be interpreted as depression.

In the vertebrate brain, serotonin mediated signaling is vital for several key physiological functions such as the body’s energy regulation, neural plasticity, behavioral and emotional control, and responses to stress. However, prolonged serotonin activation is associated with chronic stress and stress-induced pathologies in mammals. Such states include depression-like behaviors. This paper represents the first physiological data, showing that growth-stunted commercially farmed salmon have elevated serotonergic activity; what’s more, this is determined as the main characteristic of the growth-stunted phenotype. Compared to healthy fishes, these salmon are suggested to experience chronic stress. In fact, the researchers show that the fishes’ brains are not responsive to additional acute stress, representing a classic example of when regulatory mechanisms are unable to react to further challenges, indicating a depressive state.

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Where Should Humanity Steer Sentience? Examining 8 Potential Directions

The list of eight options below is not intended to be a complete list. Rather, it is intended to be a reasonably likely list of options that people might discuss in the near term.

For the sake of this article, the word pleasure is being used as a broad term to indicate all preferable conscious experiences, from finishing a great oil painting, to eating ice cream, to reading a good book, to feeling peace of mind, to having sex, and so on – depending one’s personal preferences, cultural background, etc. Suffering, likewise, is used to represent all gradients of unpleasant conscious states, from being dumped in a relationship, to stubbing your toe, to being eaten alive by hyenas.

The circle to the right represents a relative change in the amount of sentient experience in the world (in the increased or decreased or unchanged size of the circle), or in the relative change in the balance of pleasure and suffering in the world (in the changed degrees of red or blue in the circle).

The presence of the right-facing arrow indicates a movement from where we are now in our pleasure/suffering ratio, to one of the eight different directions that we’ll be exploring.

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How a nervous system operates without giving rise to an experience

In our bodies, if our knee is lightly tapped, our leg moves automatically (with no intention on our part) and independently of the experience of the tap that we sense.  The information that originates in our knee, with the tap, splits up and moves through two separate pathways: one path goes to our brain through the spinal cord, where it is processed to produce the corresponding experience; the other path involves a different circuit, going through the spinal cord to the muscles that operate the leg, without ever reaching the brain. In the second path, the information takes a much shorter direct route to enable our body to react quickly to the stimulus (‘reflex arc’). There is a good reason why this dual mechanism exists. There are cases where some part of the body will be endangered by a slow reaction to an external threat. If we had to think about moving because of pain, rather than responding automatically, we might not act quickly enough to avoid harm.

What is relevant here is that the information transmitted through this ‘reflex arc’ is never experienced because it is never processed by a central nervous system. The non-centralized nervous systems of some animals operate just as reflex arcs do. Information is transmitted from the cells receiving certain stimuli to other cells which must be activated, without any involvement of subjective experience. In these cases, there is a merely mechanical transmission of information. Such reactions are not an indication of sentience.

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No binding, no suffering

Plants don’t suffer. Their fictitious misery should not be used to justify the real misery of our nonhuman animal victims. “But how do you know plants don’t suffer?!” says the meat-eater, affecting a touching concern for the well-being vegetables. “Science proves plants feel pain!”

But no. Suppose that consciousness is fundamental in Nature, or at least to individual cells. Plant cells are encased in thick cellulose cell walls. So they aren’t phenomenally-bound subjects of experience. Organisms such as plants without the capacity for rapid self-propelled motion haven’t evolved the energetically expensive nervous-systems needed to support phenomenal binding. No binding = no suffering.

A lot of computer scientists and natural scientists are implicitly epiphenomenalists – though they probably wouldn’t use the term. But epiphenomena don’t have the causal power to inspire discussions on their existence.

Even so, might consciousness be a spandrel? What’s consciousness evolutionarily “for” – other than inspiring useless philosophical discussions? Well, imagine if we were just 86 billion odd classical neurons, as textbook neuroscience suggests. Phenomenal binding would be impossible. So we wouldn’t be able to experience individual perceptual objects. There would be no unity of perception nor unity of the self. We couldn’t run phenomenal world-simulations. Indeed, a micro-experiential zombie would soon starve or get eaten.

Yet how is phenomenal binding possible?

— David Pearce

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Epiphenomenalism cannot be true

In brief, epiphenomenalism cannot be true. Qualia, it turns out, must have a causally relevant role in forward-propelled organisms, for otherwise natural selection would have had no way of recruiting it. I propose that the reason why consciousness was recruited by natural selection is found in the tremendous computational power that it afforded to the real-time world simulations it instantiates through the use of the nervous system. More so, the specific computational horse-power of consciousness is phenomenal binding –the ontological union of disparate pieces of information by becoming part of a unitary conscious experience that synchronically embeds spaciotemporal structure. While phenomenal binding is regarded as a mere epiphenomenon (or even as a totally unreal non-happening) by some, one needs only look at cases where phenomenal binding (partially) breaks down to see its role in determining animal behavior.

Once we recognize the computational role of consciousness, and the causal network that links it to behavior, a new era will begin.

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Can someone debunk Solipsism?

We live as we dream – alone.”
(Joseph Conrad, ‘Heart of Darkness’ (1899))

The sceptical Problem Of Other Minds will be solved by biotechnology. Compare people born without a corpus callosum to connect their cerebral hemispheres, or “split brain” patients who’ve had their corpus callosum surgically severed to treat epilepsy. If one hemisphere entertains doubts whether the other hemisphere is really conscious (aka the Problem Of Other Hemispheres), then currently the sceptical hemisphere can’t prove the sentience of its twin. However, advanced biotech promises corpora callosa grown to order, laying sceptical doubts to rest. More radically, artificially-grown corpora callosa and reversible thalamic bridges will let neurotypical humans partially “mind-meld” like the conjoined Hogan sisters today. So yes, solipsism can, in principle, be scientifically disproved.

Mind-melding won’t be technically easy. Are there other objective tests of consciousness?

This is a contentious issue. On standard materialist assumptions, i.e. the formalism of quantum field theory describes fields of insentience, there is no scientific touchstone of consciousness. If physicists and chemists are correct about the fundamental properties of energy and matter, then we should all be p-zombies. First-person facts shouldn’t exist. One’s own mind is the anomaly. Eliminative materialists bite the bullet and claim that humans are p-zombies – although eliminativists disbelieve in their own minds, too, so they aren’t solipsists. Here let’s assume that science should be empirically adequate; most of us struggle to feign anaesthesia. A monistic materialist ontology – as distinct from monistic physicalist ontology – can’t be reconciled with the empirical evidence, i.e. one’s own experience. Dualism and mysterianism lead nowhere. By contrast, non-materialist physicalism is not just empirically adequate, but also has explanatory and predictive power. I don’t know whether non-materialist physicalism is true – it feels absurd. But speculatively, futuristic cerebroscopes could use molecular matter-wave interferometry to demonstrate the insentience of silicon robots and the sentience of biological nervous systems. On this story, scrambled phase coherence is the hallmark of the zombie. The non-classical interference signature diagnostic of phenomenally-bound minds will disclose a perfect structural match between minds and the formalism of physics. Or rather, I predict a perfect structural match. It’s easy to delude oneself. Yet dualism is crazy too.

Will mind-melding technologies or futuristic neuroscanning (eventually) vindicate common sense?

Not entirely, IMO. Solipsism, i.e. the conjecture one is the only sentient being, should be distinguished from the theory that one inhabits a virtual world populated by zombies. Perceptual direct realists conflate these two theories, so the distinction needs elaboration.

Everyone you meet when you’re dreaming is a zombie. Ascribing consciousness to other organisms on the basis of their similar behaviour is systematically misleading; the argument from analogy fails in dreamworlds. Unless you’re having a lucid dream, you are deceived by phantoms. Dreaming is evolutionarily ancient, so life on Earth supports countless zombie-ridden virtual dreamworlds. What’s more controversial is the nature of waking worlds. The perceptual direct realist believes that waking consciousness confers an ability directly to perceive the local environment, including other people’s bodies – and occasionally their exposed brains, too, in a surgical operating theatre. According to the perceptual direct realist, the observable bodies of other organisms are brute facts about our public macroscopic world; only the consciousness of other organisms in this shared arena is a challenge to prove. By contrast, the inferential realist about the external world believes that awake and dreaming world-simulations alike are populated by zombies. The difference between dreaming and perceptual consciousness is that during waking life the zombies of one’s acquaintance are the avatars of sentient beings whose existence one may infer on theoretical grounds, together with the rest of the cosmos. So the argument from analogy may be invoked with justification, but only to hypothesise other zombie-ridden world-simulations run by minds akin to one’s own, not to anthropomorphise the zombies populating one’s own mind. Kant said as much, though he didn’t talk about zombies. The inferred external world sculpts and partly selects the waking world-simulations run by one’s skull-bound mind. Yet even the seemingly faraway horizon is an intrinsic property of the neocortical matter and energy within one’s transcendental skull. Whereas dreamworlds are autonomous, waking up from sleep reboots one’s world-simulation and brings world-making under tight external control via peripheral nerve inputs. Yet the skull is a windowless prison. “Waking up” doesn’t allow feats of remote viewing or confer any other kinds of psi power. In other words, the solipsist is right to believe that his perceived reality is autobiographical; but he’s wrong to believe he is special. Disposable world-simulations in the guise of external reality are an adaptation of animal life.

Does this diagnosis matter?
Typically, the waking psychosis of perceptual direct realism is better for one’s mental health than inferential realism. In common with e.g. Roko’s Basilisk, the Simulation Argument, Bolzmann Brains and Everettian Quantum Mechanics, the world-simulation model of the human predicament is a meme-hazard. In everyday life, perceptual realism is a healthy psychosis to be encouraged in everyone but the most psychologically robust.

However, intellectually speaking, the conceptual framework of perceptual realism also leads to unfathomable mysteries such as (1) the Hard Problem of consciousness, i.e. how does a lump of neural porridge generate first-person facts? (2) the phenomenal Binding Problem in neuroscience, i.e. why aren’t we micro-experiential zombies composed of membrane-bound pixels of “mind-dust”? and (3) the Measurement Problem in quantum mechanics, i.e. why does the otherwise universally valid superposition principle of QM break down on measurement to yield definite outcomes in accordance with the Born rule? Such mysteries proliferate: they are unanswerable within the conceptual framework of perceptual realism. In my view, scientists should trust the formalism of unmodified and unsupplemented (i.e. unitary-only) quantum mechanics, not folk-realism about perception. Our minds exemplify the superposition principle, not its breakdown. In fairness, this is a controversial position. But when saying anything about consciousness, what isn’t?

Ethically speaking, whether we adopt the conceptual framework of inferential realism or common sense perceptual realism wouldn’t matter if natural selection had optimised our waking world-simulations to mirror things as they are. In some ways, the world-simulations run by scientific rationalists are faithful to the structural-relational properties of inferred extra-cranial reality; hence technological civilisation. In other respects, our world-simulations are egocentric cartoons. Some dark Darwinian minds are probably best left entombed in their skulls. Yet in my view, the reason we should favour the development of mind-melding technologies to breach our solipsistic island-universes isn’t their potential to banish philosophical doubt, or even to overcome semantic solipsism. Rather, the tools of inter-personal and cross-species mind-melding will bring about a revolution in both ethics and decision-theoretic rationality – an artificial distinction born of the skull-bound prison of Darwinian life.

The evilness of suffering

“I believe that most of us tend to underrate the evilness of suffering. The reason is that it is difficult for us, when not actually suffering, to recollect what suffering really is. We employ numerous psychological mechanisms to conceal from our consciousness the true nature or meaning of suffering, to falsify and deny it. We do this without renouncing the word, however. The word comes to designate, in our minds, only a faint copy or superficial image of the real thing; but having forgotten what the original is, we mistake it in the copy. We ascribe to “suffering” a certain gravity of evil; but it is slight compared to what we would ascribe to suffering itself, if we could only recall its true meaning.


The falsification of suffering is everywhere — in movies, in poetry, in novels, on the nightly news. Accounts of disaster routinely veer from a discussion of the agony and plight of the victims (which quickly becomes tiresome) to the description of some moving act of kindness or bravery. Often it is these descriptions that affect us the most and that provoke the greatest outburst of emotion. These are the images we often take away and that become our image of “suffering.” Suffering comes to be closely associated with stirring images of hope in adversity, acts of moral heroism and touching kindness, gestures of human dignity, sentiments of noble sympathy and tremulous concern, the comfort and consolation of tears. It turns into something beautiful. It becomes poetry. People begin to refer to “sublime suffering.” Suffering, in other words, becomes just exactly what it is not.”

– “Suffering and Moral Responsiblity” by Jamie Mayerfeld.

Source: Qualia Computing