I bought a book written by Sam Harris' wife, Annaka Harris, because the title appealed to me (Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of Mind), and I wanted to see if she'd disagree with her husband -- a noted atheist neuroscientist whose Waking Up guided meditations I listen to every morning via an iPhone app.
As I suspected, this little (110 pages) book didn't contain much that I didn't already know. But Harris did discuss consciousness in an appealing fashion, and had an interesting take on the possibility of panpsychism.
Here's how she distinguishes between prescientific notions of all matter being imbued with consciousness in some sense, and modern versions of panpsychism.
Some versions of panpsychism describe consciousness as separate from matter and composed of some other substance, a definition reminiscent of vitalism and traditional religious descriptions of a soul.
But while the term has been used to describe a wide range of thinking throughout history, contemporary considerations of panpsychism provide descriptions of reality very different from the earlier versions -- and are unenumbered by any religious beliefs.
One branch of modern panpsychism proposes that consciousness is intrinsic to all forms of information processing, even inanimate forms such as technological devices; another goes so far as to suggest that consciousness stands alongside the other fundamental forces and fields that physics has revealed to us -- like gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces
Harris prefers the second idea, that consciousness is fundamental to matter. This is a simpler concept than assuming that consciousness emerges at a certain stage of complexity in information processing.
After all, I find it hard to accept that the thermostats in our house are conscious, even though they do process information about the temperature in our home, comparing it to the temperature we desire, and "acting" accordingly. It's a bit easier for me to envision that my iPhone is conscious, though this also is a big leap of faith.
The main problem with studying consciousness is the definition Harris uses, which is founded on Thomas Nagel's famous paper, "What is it like to be a bat?"
An organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism.
Now, obviously this doesn't entail a self, soul, or such. All that's required to be a member of the Conscious Club is there being something that it is like to be you. Or me. Or anybody. Or anything.
Because we humans have a finely honed sense of what it is like to be ourselves, and love to describe that sense in words, music, poetry, and so many other ways, we reasonably assume that our fellow Homo sapiens also are conscious. However, there's no way that we can be sure of this, since there is no way any conscious being can know what it is like to be another conscious being.
(Thankfully, really. My wife and I have been married for 29 years. We're still learning about each other, which makes life interesting, given that neither of us has access to the other person's subjective side.)
This makes consciousness seem mysterious, even though it also is the most obvious and familiar thing we know, given that all of our experience, every bit of it, is known by consciousness. A robot could be programmed to answer "Yes" if asked the question, "Are you conscious?" Yet this wouldn't prove it was conscious.
Thus consciousness has to be inferred in every being other than the entity that directly knows what it is like to be what it is.
I'm virtually 100% certain that our dogs are conscious. Ditto for the squirrels, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and other creatures that inhabit our neighborhood. In fact, I can envision almost every living thing being at least minimally conscious, even a starfish or an ant.
As Annaka Harris notes, the problem arises when we try to establish a firm dividing line between conscious living beings and unconscious living beings. Plants respond to stimuli and have an awareness of their surroundings. Is the oak tree in our yard conscious?
Maybe. But since I can't fathom what it like to be a bat, in no way could I even begin to fathom what is like to be a tree, assuming there is anything it is like to be a tree.
Rocks and other inanimate objects almost certainly lack consciousness in the What is like to be.. sense. Yet they are composed of atoms and molecules that obey the laws of nature. How are they able to do this? Or, does that question even make sense? It does if panpsychism is accepted.
Near the end of her book, Harris writes:
It's important to clarify a few points regarding the distinction I continue to draw between two categories of questions -- those pertaining to how deep in the universe consciousness runs and those about the brain processes that give rise to our human experiences - along with the value I place on each of them.
First, although I'm defending panpsychism as a legitimate category of theories about consciousness based on what we currently know, I am not closed to the possibility that we might discover, by some future scientific method, that consciousness does in fact exist only in brains.
It's hard for me to see how we could ever arrive at this understanding with any certainty, but I don't rule it out. Nor am I discounting the possibility that consciousness is something we will never fully grasp.
Those are pleasingly open-minded sentiments. I just wish religiously-minded people had the same uncertain attitude.