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  • Borislav Ivanov

Does Consciousness Weave into the Universe's Fabric?

Over four centuries ago, Galileo demonstrated that many common occurrences, like a sphere descending a slope or a pendant oscillating in a cathedral, follow exact mathematical principles. Recognized often as the pioneer of contemporary science, Galileo also acknowledged that not all phenomena could be quantified. He believed that sensations like colours, flavours, and aromas "exist merely in perception." According to him, these attributes are not truly external but are constructs of perceiving beings. He posited that without sentient beings, these sensations would vanish.

Galileo Galilei; Wikimedia

From Galileo's era, the realm of physical sciences has advanced, deciphering phenomena from minuscule quarks to vast cosmic structures. Yet, understanding experiences "solely in perception" remains elusive. While neurologists have pinpointed several neural markers of consciousness, the genesis of consciousness from matter remains a mystery. Philosopher David Chalmers famously termed this enigma the "hard problem" of consciousness.

Experts recently assembled at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for a seminar on panpsychism. This theory suggests that consciousness is as intrinsic to reality as properties like mass or charge. Tracing back to ancient thinkers like Plato, this notion has garnered support from figures like psychologist William James and philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell. The concept has gained traction, especially after philosopher Philip Goff's 2019 book "Galileo’s Error," which champions this perspective.

Philip Goff; Wikimedia

Goff, from the University of Durham, co-organized the seminar with Marist's Andrei Buckareff, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. In a scenic hall overlooking the Hudson, scholars delved into the idea of universal consciousness.

Panpsychism's allure lies in its potential solution to Chalmers' question: consciousness might have always been a universal trait. Chalmers himself has gravitated towards panpsychism, suggesting that even elementary particles might possess rudimentary consciousness. Neuroscientist Christof Koch, in his 2012 book "Consciousness," posits that if consciousness isn't tied to specific materials, then the cosmos might be teeming with awareness.

However, panpsychism challenges the prevailing belief in science and philosophy that consciousness emerges from intricate systems like the human brain. This perspective, termed "physicalism" or "emergentism," is favoured by a slight majority of philosophers. Panpsychism is among the alternatives that a third of philosophers lean towards.

During the seminar, Goff argued that traditional physics overlooks the essence of our inner experiences. He believes that theories should be compatible with consciousness, a known reality. Many attendees echoed Goff's sentiment that physicalism struggles with consciousness. The challenge lies in bridging the gap between the tangible and the intangible. Yanssel Garcia, a philosopher from the University of Nebraska Omaha, believes that physical facts alone fall short in explaining consciousness. He views panpsychism as the most promising alternative.

However, panpsychism has its sceptics. Critics argue that it fails to elucidate how fragmented consciousnesses combine to form more complex conscious beings. This "combination problem" is seen as panpsychism's Achilles' heel. Others challenge its explanatory depth. Neuroscientist Anil Seth contends that panpsychism lacks empirical predictions and doesn't truly solve the "hard problem."

The seminar also featured physicists Sean Carroll and Lee Smolin, and cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman. Carroll, a staunch physicalist, often found himself at odds with the majority. In a public debate with Goff, their contrasting views were evident. Goff critiqued physicalism's limitations, while Carroll defended its merits, drawing parallels with gas physics.

Goff also highlighted the ethical implications of our understanding of consciousness, using the example of fish pain perception. He argues that understanding an animal's inner experiences is crucial. Physicalists like Carroll, however, believe that feelings and behaviours are intertwined.

Seth, although absent from the seminar, expressed his stance favouring physicalism. He believes it offers more empirical substance and has shown progress in consciousness studies. He argues that simply deeming consciousness as fundamental doesn't clarify its nature or function.

Even panpsychism's proponents sometimes express reservations. As Garcia mentioned, despite the enchantment of a conscious universe, "I'd be relieved to be convinced otherwise."

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