Monday, May 12, 2014

George Williams - Psi and the Problem of Consciousness

I am not convinced of anything we might call psi, and even if I was convinced I doubt it could solve the problem of consciousness. Despite my reservations and cynicism, this is an interesting paper from the Journal of Mind and Behavior.

Full Citation:
Psi and the Problem of Consciousness. Journal of Mind and Behavior; 34(3-4):259-284. 

Psi and the Problem of Consciousness

George Williams
Journal of Mind and Behavior 34:259-284 (2013)


In this paper, I consider what the growing evidence in parapsychology can tell us about the nature of consciousness. Parapsychology remains controversial because it implies deviations from the understanding that many scientists and philosophers hold about the nature of reality. However, given the difficulties in explaining consciousness, a growing number of philosophers have called for new, possibly radical explanations, which include versions of dualism or panpsychism. In this spirit, I briefly review the evidence on psi to see what explanation of consciousness might best be supported. After a brief survey of the evidence, I conclude that the best explanation would probably be neutral monism. I then explore a framework for neutral monism, using well-known features of quantum mechanics, to develop a ground or bridge between consciousness and matter. This framework, which I believe helps explain the psi evidence, suggests that a non-local proto-conscious field of potential or seed stuff underlies both matter and consciousness.


As many theorists have noted, consciousness, while both familiar and intimate, remains deeply mysterious. The problem of explaining consciousness persists despite all attempts from the pre-Socratic Greeks to modern day philosophers at illuminating this perplexing subject. Throughout history many great thinkers supported the notion that consciousness or some sort of spiritual reality is distinct from matter, and indeed might be the fundamental source of all reality. However, the dominant view in the twentieth century settled on a more materialistic argument: consciousness most likely emerges from complex biological processes, which in turn are based ultimately on complex interactions between subatomic particles.

This view remains unsatisfactory for some philosophers of mind. While advances in neuroscience have led to improvements in our understanding of how processes within the brain work, we still are no closer to understanding experience at the most basic level. This is what Chalmers (1995) has termed the “hard problem” of consciousness. According to Chalmers, materialistic explanations of consciousness would be consistent with a world populated by zombies acting like people in the world, yet devoid of interior experience. Tackling the hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers argues, likely requires abandoning a purely materialistic view of consciousness.

The various theories of consciousness can arguably be grouped into five categories: materialism, dualism, panpsychism, neutral monism, and idealism. As noted above, the current mainstream view looks for materialistic explanations. This typically takes the form of arguing that consciousness must be a higher level activity that has emerged from lower level processes, such as complex biological processes. Another view, associated with Dennett (1991), is that explanations toward the “what is it like” aspect of consciousness are inherently misguided; hence, emergence explanations are unnecessary. Critics of this view insist that qualia and inherently subjective experiences are necessary data that require explanation.

Dualism has historically been the most important alternative to materialism, at least since Descartes. Material dualism holds that matter and consciousness are two substances that differ fundamentally in a number of ways.[1] This and other differences lead to the perhaps unsolvable problem of how such fundamentally different substances can interact. Historically, support for dualism fits well with such religious notions as the soul or supernatural agency. Dualism has attracted fewer adherents, however, as philosophy gravitated toward more naturalistic explanations.

Two closely related alternatives are panpsychism and neutral monism. Panpsychism holds that matter and mind are joined as one. The usual view of panpsychism holds that all matter, even electrons, has some aspect of mind, albeit at a rudimentary level. While panpsychism has relatively few adherents today, this class of explanations has had a long history in philosophy, being a close relative to animism that was common in early cultures (Skrbina, 2007). Neutral monism holds that matter and consciousness are aspects of some more neutral and fundamental reality. The two primary objections for these two categories of explanations are (1) the unappealing implication that non-biological objects such as rocks possess some level of “what it is like to be” and (2) the perplexing question of how small units of consciousness might combine to create richer, unified conscious experiences.

One last alternative is idealism, which holds that the physical universe is composed of mind. The Berkeleyan version of idealism is that the foundation of physical reality requires an observing agent. The existence of galaxies far beyond our perception would require something like a god. Theist philosophers or ancient believers in a pantheon were drawn to some version of idealism. Of all the alternatives, idealism is viewed as the least compatible with naturalistic explanations and hence has few proponents today.

While a majority of scientists and philosophers currently favor materialism, most who study this problem acknowledge the great difficulty in attempting to understand how non-conscious particles of matter can somehow lead to subjective experience. Searle (1992) provides a critical review of various versions of materialism which evolved over the course of the twentieth century. These include logical behaviorism, type identity theory, token identity theory, functionalism, strong AI, and eliminative materialism. Searle (1992, p. 53) argues that none of these explanations has anything to say about the subjective experience of mind. He argues in favor of a theory of biological naturalism, where consciousness is a natural product of complex biological processes. While he admits that we do not know how consciousness could have emerged this way, he argues that such an explanation must exist and we must therefore persevere until we have it.

While many probably share Searle’s view, his metaphysical assumption that consciousness must be based solely from biological processes is not sufficient given the profound depth of the explanatory gap. Chalmers (1995) has argued that a naturalistic version of substance dualism is a possible candidate for making progress on the hard problem. McGinn (1991) presents a more pessimistic argument that the human mind is likely to be innately unable to understand the origins of its own subjective experience. Griffin (1998), Strawson (2006), and Nagel (2012) have argued that the emergence explanations will not succeed, given the inherent differences between matter and consciousness, and therefore more radical explanations are required.[2]

Nevertheless, most scientists and philosophers are understandably reluctant to give up on materialistic explanations, given its overall success throughout the physical sciences. Further, technologies and empirical methods are continuing to advance in neuroscience, which should provide important revelations for our understanding of consciousness. Indeed, the history of philosophy and science has been unequivocal on one central point: the crucial role that empirical methods must play in advancing our understanding of the world. However, there is one especially relevant category of empirical investigation that has played virtually no role in mainstream debate on consciousness: psi phenomena.

It is curious that those debating the nature of consciousness rarely consider the evidence on psi. Such evidence is surely relevant on the question of whether reality is best described by materialism, dualism, or something else. Of course, evidence on the existence of psi remains controversial, especially among academic psychologists. Despite the substantial empirical studies investigating psychic phenomena, serious discussion of parapsychology remains taboo among many circles of philosophers, scientists, and psychologists. Although the reasons are not clear, perhaps it’s likely that many critics of psi are strong believers in a materialistic worldview and tend to believe that research findings consistent with psi must therefore be invalid (Alcock 2010; Hyman 2010). Many of the most hostile critics are firm believers in a materialistic worldview and understandably expend great effort to undermine, if not ridicule, those who advocate that psi is real.

However, those who are genuinely interested in comparing the arguments for different views on consciousness and are not too invested in materialistic explanations may wish to consider the evidence for psi and what this evidence might imply for the discussion on the nature of consciousness. If we accept the difficulty of the problem at hand, we could conceivably benefit from research that does not more or less assume from the outset that physical particles and processes must account for all reality. I will provide a summary of some of the psi evidence below. This is followed by a discussion of the current debate on the nature of consciousness. I then consider what light might be shed from this evidence.

1. Property dualism is another form of dualism, where mind and matter are two distinct categories of a single underlying substance of the physical type. Thus property dualism can be considered another version of materialism.
2. Griffin (1998) and Strawson (2006) both favor panpsychic explanations. Nagel (2012) argues in favor of neutral monism.
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