How could the electrochemical processes in the lump of gray matter that is our brain give rise to — or, even more mysteriously, be — the dazzling technicolor play of consciousness, with its transports of joy, its stabs of anguish and its stretches of mild contentment alternating with boredom? This has been called “the most important problem in the biological sciences” and even “the last frontier of science.” It engrosses the intellectual energies of a worldwide community of brain scientists, psychologists, philosophers, physicists, computer scientists and even, from time to time, the Dalai Lama.
So vexing has the problem of consciousness proved that some of these thinkers have been driven to a hypothesis that sounds desperate, if not downright crazy. Perhaps, they say, mind is not limited to the brains of some animals. Perhaps it is ubiquitous, present in every bit of matter, all the way up to galaxies, all the way down to electrons and neutrinos, not excluding medium-size things like a glass of water or a potted plant. Moreover, it did not suddenly arise when some physical particles on a certain planet chanced to come into the right configuration; rather, there has been consciousness in the cosmos from the very beginning of time.
The doctrine that the stuff of the world is fundamentally mind-stuff goes by the name of panpsychism. A few decades ago, the American philosopher Thomas Nagel showed that it is an inescapable consequence of some quite reasonable premises. First, our brains consist of material particles. Second, these particles, in certain arrangements, produce subjective thoughts and feelings. Third, physical properties alone cannot account for subjectivity. (How could the ineffable experience of tasting a strawberry ever arise from the equations of physics?) Now, Nagel reasoned, the properties of a complex system like the brain don’t just pop into existence from nowhere; they must derive from the properties of that system’s ultimate constituents. Those ultimate constituents must therefore have subjective features themselves — features that, in the right combinations, add up to our inner thoughts and feelings. But the electrons, protons and neutrons making up our brains are no different from those making up the rest of the world. So the entire universe must consist of little bits of consciousness.
Nagel himself stopped short of embracing panpsychism, but today it is enjoying something of a vogue.
If you are poetically inclined, you might think of the rock as a purely contemplative being. And you might draw the moral that the universe is, and always has been, saturated with mind, even though we snobbish Darwinian-replicating latecomers are too blinkered to notice.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
The concious rock
I have been fascinated by the relationship between neuroscience and the existence of God since reading Jonah Lehrer's "Proust was a Neuroscientist." Sunday, the New York Times added to this inner dialogue my mind has been having with the self. The article was titled "Mind of a Rock," and, no, it was not a profile of, say, Keanu Reeves.