Monday, 25 November 2013

Panpsychism by Thomas Nagel

I opened the inside cover page of Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel in a second-hand bookshop in Dublin and there I saw the name of someone whom I knew that had died last year. ‘You’re really dead when your library is broken up’, I thought and I felt an intimation of mortality. He as a teacher had dined on the subtle air, the prana, of the book and invited his students to that feast. The essay Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness is extensively marked with underlining and occasional annotation. In the anatomy of the grave you have achieved your formal identity.

In the panpsychist view you are perhaps reduced to your elements and await re-location. The essay by Nagel on Panpsychism, unmarked by previous owner, has no thoughts on Molly’s ‘methimpikehoses’ or any other translation but he continues to admit the puzzle of how neural traffic becomes memories, dreams and reflections. This is the chit jada granthi of the advaitin, the knot between the inert and the conscious. Their position is that the mind itself is inert but being pervaded by Chit (Consciousness) shines with it and individualises it. Nagel stays close to the aporetic and to me his thoughts on Nonemergence are to me quite interesting as they state in his own very clear way the doctrine known as satkaryavadasatkaryavada by vedantins. He puts it:

There are no truly emergent properties of complex systems. All properties of a complex system that are not relations between it and something else derive from the properties of its constituents and their effects on each other when so combined. Emergence is an epistemological condition; it means that an observed feature of the system cannot be derived from the properties currently attributed to its constituents. But this is a reason to conclude that either the system has further constituents of which we are not yet aware, or the constituents of which we are aware have further properties that we have not yet discovered.

Nagel of course does not have the pervasion analogy of the Vedantins who also run a saturation analogy cf.salt solution in the Chandogya Upanishad. He looks to properties but seems to me to be a little tentative in his discussion of fundamental particles that possess them. He is quite opposed to Hume’s theory of causality.

Ture causes do necessitate their effects; they make them happen or make them the case. Uniform correlations are at best evidence of such underlying necessities.

Consciousness then does not emerge in a flash at a certain point without those underlying necessities. Material complexity would not bring out consciousness unless it was somehow present in earlier simpler states. He refers to his ‘what it’s like’ notion of felt consciousness which is beyond a mere physical explanation of functional states.

His final paragraph is a fair indication that he is not afraid to challenge the dominant materialism of contemporary philosophy:

But we know so little about how consciousness arises from matter in our own case and that of the animals in which we can identify it that it would be dogmatic to assume that it does not exist in other complex systems, or even in systems the size of a galaxy, as a result of the same basic properties of matter that are responsible for us.

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