2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Mathematician, Computer Scientist; CyberPunk Pioneer; Novelist; Author, Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to be Happy
Mind is a universally distributed quality

Panpsychism. Each object has a mind. Stars, hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper, flakes of skin, molecules — each of them possesses the same inner glow as a human, each of them has singular inner experiences and sensations.

I'm quite comfortable with the notion that everything is a computation. But what to do about my sense that there's something numinous about my inner experience? Panpsychism represents a non-anthropocentric way out: mind is a universally distributed quality.

Yes, the workings of a human brain are a deterministic computation that could be emulated by any universal computer. And, yes, I sense more to my mental phenomena than the rule-bound exfoliation of reactions to inputs: this residue is the inner light, the raw sensation of existence. But, no, that inner glow is not the exclusive birthright of humans, nor is it solely limited to biological organisms.

Note that panpsychism needn't say that universe is just one mind. We can also say that each object has an individual mind. One way to visualize the distinction between the many minds and the one mind is to think of the world as a stained glass window with light shining through each pane. The world's physical structures break the undivided cosmic mind into a myriad of small minds, one in each object.

The minds of panpsychism can exist at various levels. As well as having its own individuality, a person's mind would also be, for instance, a hive mind based upon the minds of the body's cells and the minds of the body's elementary particles.

Do the panpsychic minds have any physical correlates? On the one hand, it could be that the mind is some substance that accumulates near ordinary matter — dark matter or dark energy are good candidates. On the other hand, mind might simply be matter viewed in a special fashion: matter experienced from the inside. Let me mention three specific physical correlates that have been proposed for the mind.

Some have argued that the experience of mind results when a superposed quantum state collapses into a pure state. It's an alluring metaphor, but as a universal automatist, I'm of the opinion that quantum mechanics is a stop-gap theory, destined to give way to a fully deterministic theory based upon some digital precursor of spacetime.

David Skrbina, author of the clear and comprehensive book Panpsychism in the West, suggests that we might think of a physical system as determining a moving point in a multi-dimensional phase space that has an axis for each of the system's measurable properties. He feels this dynamic point represents the sense of unity characteristic of a mind.

As a variation on this theme, let me point out that, from the universal automatist standpoint, every physical system can be thought of as embodying a computation. And the majority of non-simple systems embody universal computations, capable of emulating any other system at all. It could be that having a mind is in some sense equivalent to being capable of universal computation.

A side-remark. Even such very simple systems as a single electron may in fact be capable of universal computation, if supplied with a steady stream of structured input. Think of an electron in an oscillating field; and by analogy think of a person listening to music or reading an essay.

Might panpsychism be a distinction without a difference? Suppose we identify the numinous mind with quantum collapse, with chaotic dynamics, or with universal computation. What is added by claiming that these aspects of reality are like minds?

I think empathy can supply an experiential confirmation of panpsychism's reality. Just as I'm sure that I myself have a mind, I can come to believe the same of another human with whom I'm in contact — whether face to face or via their creative work. And with a bit of effort, I can identify with objects as well; I can see the objects in the room around me as glowing with inner light. This is a pleasant sensation; one feels less alone.

Could there ever be a critical experiment to test if panpsychism is really true? Suppose that telepathy were to become possible, perhaps by entangling a person's mental states with another system's states. And then suppose that instead of telepathically contacting another person, I were to contact a rock. At this point panpsychism would be proved.

I still haven't said anything about why panpsychism is a dangerous idea. Panpsychism, like other forms of higher consciousness, is dangerous to business as usual. If my old car has the same kind of mind as a new one, I'm less impelled to help the economy by buying a new vehicle. If the rocks and plants on my property have minds, I feel more respect for them in their natural state. If I feel myself among friends in the universe, I'm less likely to overwork myself to earn more cash. If my body will have a mind even after I'm dead, then death matters less to me, and it's harder for the government to cow me into submission.