Consciousness and how it got to be that way

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Panpsychist Accounts of Consciousness Are Still Testable

One challenge to David Chalmers' account of panpsychist consciousness is that it is untestable. If you argue that consciousness is everywhere (so goes the objection) then no observation can disprove your theory; therefore, it is not a sound theory.

Is this a valid objection? Chalmers is arguing that consciousness is a primitive feature of existence like charge or mass, that dimensional analysis by the four received basic units (charge, mass, distance and time) cannot in any combination "get us to" experience. One manifestation of mass is gravity. It is continuous throughout the universe; it is everywhere. Can gravity not be tested? The laws surrounding gravitation certainly can be, even though there is nowhere that gravity is truly zero.

If consciousness is (at least partly) epiphenomenal and supervenes lawfully on observable patterns in the material world, then these lawful relationships can and should be tested. The powerlessness of consciousness in epiphenomenal accounts (i.e. that our consciousness is caused, but does not cause anything, and we are in effect just along for the ride) is a problem that we've been wrestling with since Descartes and before, but it is a separate one. To argue the universality of consciousness does not make it any more untestable than gravity.


  1. Just because I can express my entire genetic code in terms of AT & CG, doesn't mean I can build myself a new brain.

    Existence might consist of four basic units and we might have the public key (dimensional analysis) but that doesn't mean we've cracked the private key...yet.

    If no observation can test the parts of your theory, it's time to stop working on your theory and start working on improving your observational tools.

    At a certain point, Galileo had to drop what he was doing and build a better telescope.

    blah blah standing on the bootstraps of giant shoulders blah blah untestable theory = laziness excuse blah blah

    I probably only typed this because of the way my quarks were spinning this morning.

  2. That's exactly it. The argument that's often made about panpsychism is that it's not testable, but this is incorrect. A universal, continuous distribution is testable if it behaves lawfully, as panpsychists (like myself) typically argue. Otherwise, gravity isn't a real theory either.

    The next step is to leave the realm of theory and start doing neurology. Don't even wait for computers to get smarter, if they can. Look at the machines that are conscious now, if any are. Some questions have already been solved by finding people with unique combinations of conditions (e.g. colorblind synasthetes have shown that yes, Mary the colorblind or sequestered-in-a-nothing-red-room neuroscientist would in fact have a new experience by actually seeing red).