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Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).


Panning Panisms

A Reply to Steve Taylor and Rolf Sattler

Andy Smith

While I agree with Taylor and Sattler that materialism has problems, I think both of them are trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Steve Taylor's criticisms of materialism ["Beyond Materialism"] have provoked a lot of discussion here, both pro and con. Most of the arguments against Taylor, particularly by David Lane ["Understanding Matter" and "It's a Matter of Focus"], have focused on a defense of science in general and materialism more specifically, emphasizing that the self-critical approach of science is the best path towards any alternative. As far as I can tell, there has been relatively little direct criticism of Taylor's panspiritism view. David Lane did point out that “if consciousness is indeed a fundamental quality of the universe, I see no compelling reason why it would need 'large and complex' brains to better display it.” Frank commented that panspiritism seemed to have little explanatory power ["'Spiritual Science' is a Contradiction in Terms"].

I will focus here on a more detailed critique of Taylor's views, limiting my discussion to his most recent article, “Beyond Belief: When Science Becomes a Religion”. I also will comment on some of the points made by Rolf Sattler, who has been fairly supportive of Taylor, in "Beyond Materialist Science". As a very brief summary of my conclusions, I will say that while I agree with Taylor and Sattler that materialism has problems, I think both of them are trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater. That is, they are proposing, or implying their support for, far more radical claims than are either required or supported by the relevant evidence.

Mental Matters

Steve Taylor begins by listing several tenets or assumptions of materialism, then claims that there is “a great deal of evidence” against them. One of these claims, he says, is that

According to materialism, the mind is a shadow of the brain—an epiphenomenon, resulting from the interactions of material particles. As a result, the mind should not be able to influence the functioning or structure of matter, in the same way that a shadow should not be able to affect the object that it's the shadow of.

Taylor then presents evidence that the mind can influence the brain. He notes that studies have shown that both the placebo effect and hypnotism can have medical benefits. For example, he states, “believing that you have undergone medical treatment can bring about the same analgesic or healing effects as actual treatment.” He also notes that mental activity can affect the structure of the brain. He summarizes this discussion by concluding:

The point here is that, from the point of view [of] materialism, all of these effects are impossible. For the mind to influence matter, it would be like saying that the images on a computer screen can influence the software or hardware of the computer.

This simply is not true. Taylor—like a great many scientists and philosophers—is conflating mind with consciousness in the hard sense. This is shown particularly clearly at the end of his article, when he posits as a general principle,

Mental phenomena cannot be reduced to neurological activity. There may be correlations between mental and neurological activity, but there is certainly not a one way causal link. Neurological changes can affect mental experience, but mental experience can also bring about neurological changes.

Taylor assumes that “mental phenomena”, “mental activity”, and “mental experience” all refer to the same thing. Mental experiences certainly are one aspect of mental phenomena, but there is more to mental phenomena than experience. They also involve physical processes, activity in the brain. No materialist would ever claim that there is only a one-way causal link between activity in the brain and other physical processes.

Mind—at least in the sense that it is used in the studies that Taylor cites--is consciousness in the soft sense; it refers to the functional aspects of consciousness, not their experiential ones. It is not viewed by scientists as an epiphenomenon, but rather as an emergent phenomenon, arising from the interaction of material processes. Thus there is no reason in principle why it should not influence not only these but other material processes. David Lane makes essentially the same point when he says “empirical scientists don't deny the mind as such, but only that it should be understood as part and parcel of the brain that generates it.”

From this point of view, consider the placebo effect. A doctor tells you that you have been given a drug, when in fact it's a placebo. The words of the doctor activate certain networks in the brain, and as a result of this activity, you have the experience of believing you have been given a drug. Taylor assumes that this experience, this awareness of having a belief—the hard problem of consciousness--must somehow cause the resulting improvement in one's medical condition. A materialist, though, would just say that it was the activity in the neural networks that had this effect. While the way in which this activity does this may not be understood, it's quite explainable in principle. We do know, for example, that there are many interactions between the nervous system and the immune system. These certainly provide one materialist basis for explaining the effect of mental activity on health.

As I said earlier, many scientists and philosophers fail to appreciate this distinction between hard and soft fully. Even David Lane seems to miss it; several years ago he discussed how consciousness could have evolutionary survival value. As I argued with him then, consciousness in the hard sense has no known survival value. There is nothing that a conscious organism could do to enhance its survival that couldn't be accomplished by a zombie, that is, by an unconscious organism manifesting identical behavior.

Survival, by definition, is existence in the material world; so only behavior that has a material manifestation can be relevant to survival. Consciousness in the hard sense has no material manifestation. This, of course, is why no one has been able to propose how it could be related to material processes. But the same conundrum also means that there is also no known way that it could have survival value. The two points are just different expressions of the same underlying problem facing materialists.

It's because of this problem that some scientists and philosophers argue that consciousness in this hard sense must be an epiphenomenon—something that came into being not because it had survival value, but because it was always associated with certain processes that did have survival value. Steve Taylor alludes to this when he describes the materialist belief in mind as an epiphenomenon. I agree with him that there is no apparent way that such an epiphenomenon could affect material processes, and I will return to this point later. But to repeat, materialists do not view mind as an epiphenomenon. Some materialists may view consciousness in the hard sense as an epiphenomenon, and to the extent that consciousness in this sense can interact with material processes, this is definitely a problem for materialism. But evidence of mental effects on health miss the mark entirely. There is no evidence whatsoever that consciousness in the hard sense can have any effect on health. So the studies that Taylor cites are not the problem for materialism that he claims them to be.

Complexifying Complexity

As another major criticism of materialism, Taylor argues that it has been unable to explain fully some aspects of evolution, and in particular, the development of lifeforms of increasing complexity. His alternative to Darwinism is the existence of a universal consciousness that somehow guides material processes to greater complexity. He says:

Life did not come into being through the accidental interactions of certain chemicals, but as the result of the innate tendency of the universe—propelled by consciousness itself—to move towards greater complexity.

Evolution is not an accidental process. Once life forms had come into existence, evolution was impelled by the innate tendency of consciousness to generate greater complexity.

There are several problems with this view. First, most evolution does not result in greater complexity. There has been a trend in that direction: cells are more complex than molecules; multicellular organisms are more complex than cells; and societies, closely associated with more complex brains, are more complex than individual organisms. That is a very important observation, but it represents only one trend in a vast natural world where lifeforms frequently stay more or less the same. Bacteria have been around for billions of years, and have not become more complex. Some marine invertebrates have not evolved in several hundred million years. Why should this be the case, given an innate tendency towards great complexity?

Second, when complexity does emerge, it can be explained without resorting to the effect of some universal consciousness. Complexity is often the result of natural selection, since it provides survival value. The human brain, the most complex organ on earth, is an outstanding example of this. Our evolution from non-human primates was closely associated with a great expansion in the size and complexity of the brain—apparently needed in order to function in increasingly larger and more complex social organizations--and much of this was driven by natural selection. In addition, there are many self-organizing processes that result in greater complexity, not because the new life form has greater survival value, but simply because it is energetically favorable. One of the simplest and earliest examples of this was the association of atoms into the fundamental molecules of life, like water and carbon dioxide. The folding of peptide polymers into three-dimensional proteins with enzymatic or receptor activity is another case in point.

Third, Taylor provides no explanation for how any kind of consciousness would enhance the development of complexity. For it to do so, it would logically have to be more complex than the material processes it was interacting with. If something is going to guide a process towards a particular goal, it must either have some awareness of this goal, or in some sense have already achieved it. An example of the first kind is provided by artificial selection. Human beings can create new varieties of plants and animals, because they have an awareness of what kind of properties they want the animals or plants to have. This awareness presupposes that we have a greater complexity than that of these animals and plants.

An example of the second kind is illustrated by sexual reproduction. The DNA in a fertilized cell helps guide that cell as it develops into a multicellular organism. But that DNA was created by an evolutionary process that also created such multicellular organisms in the first place. The development of a single cell into a complex organism, guided by information in DNA, presupposes the prior existence of these complex organisms.

So panspiritism implies the existence of a very complex form of apparently disembodied consciousness. As I said earlier, David Lane points out one problem with this when he asks Taylor why brains are even needed to receive this consciousness if it already exists. But a much more fundamental and serious flaw with this view is that it begs the same question that intelligent design, and all religions, are confronted with: how did the more complex appear before the less complex? If more complex forms of material existence emerged only as the result of the effect of some universal consciousness, what created the universal consciousness? The problem of the origins of the universe is of course one that science has not yet solved, and it's a legitimate criticism of materialism. But logically, it's far more difficult to understand how the world could have begun with something complex than how it could have begun with something simple. Universal consciousness doesn't make the problem more tractable; it makes it more difficult.

Tangled Logic

So one problem with the notion of a universal consciousness is explaining how it originated. But given that it does exist, how would it function? That is, how would this consciousness be transmitted to the brains of organisms?

Taylor suggests that transmission of a consciousness network might be based on something analogous to quantum entanglement. But there are several fundamental problems with this view. First, entanglement refers to a relationship between two material particles, whereas Taylor's universal consciousness, as I understand it, is disembodied. He says:

Panspiritism suggests that the fundamental reality of the universe is not matter. There is another quality, which is so fundamental that it actually pervades matter. This quality pervades all living beings, and all non-living things, so that they are always interconnected. This quality could be called fundamental consciousness, or spirit.

Any interaction between some non-material phenomenon and matter is very different from quantum entanglement. The existence of the latter provides not even a model for understanding the process of transmission, let alone evidence for it.

Second, even assuming that this universal consciousness could somehow become entangled with material processes in the brains of organisms, why would these brains be necessary? We're returning to David Lane's point, but let's unpack it a little further. If universal consciousness is transmitted through a process like quantum entanglement, it would seem that subatomic particles would be all that was necessary to receive it, not complex brains. What exactly is the complexity of the brain—which a huge body of research demonstrates is in fact necessary in order to manifest complex consciousness—adding to the process? Taylor says brains “canalize”, or receive, this consciousness, but the question remains not only how, but why, that is, what is there about complexity that is required, given that Taylor seems to assume it isn't in the case of the universal consciousness? In fact, given that entanglement, like other quantum processes, only occurs between subatomic particles, not between larger and more complex forms of matter, it would appear that such brains could not participate in the process at all.

At this point, I think Taylor must postulate a process that is quite different from quantum entanglement. In other words, his claim has to become even more radical, even further from established evidence that might be relevant. But even granting that, there is another problem in understanding this transmission and reception of consciousness. If organisms evolved to receive this consciousness, they must have done so either because this consciousness a) had survival value; or b) guided the development of the brains of organisms so that they could receive this consciousness. If the answer is a), this undercuts Taylor's own argument that natural selection is incapable of explaining increasing complexity. If natural selection can't account for larger brains capable of generating increasingly greater consciousness, how can it account for larger brains capable of receiving increasingly greater consciousness?

On the other hand, if the answer is b), how could this consciousness guide the development of larger, more complex brains? The process of entanglement is one in which particles—or in Taylor's far more speculative scenario, more complex organizations of matter—take on a particular configuration because of the action at a distance of other particles, or of some other form of existence. How exactly does this interaction guide the growth of greater complexity? Nothing that we know about entanglement provides any help here.

Simple Gestures, Complicated Explanations

Taylor cites the well-established fact of altruistic behavior as another criticism of materialism, one that again implies that materialism has a flawed or at least incomplete view of evolution. He says:

Theories that altruism is the result of disguised selfishness, kin selection, 'costly signalling' (or the display of resources) or a leftover instinct from when we lived in tribes of extended families seem unnecessarily convoluted. They seem to be attempts to explain away a natural impulse that simply results from our ability to empathise with one another, which itself stems from our fundamental interconnectedness.

I find several problems with this view. First, if there is a universal form of consciousness animating all life, we should feel connected to all life. We should act altruistically not only to members of our own species, but to members of other species as well. Clearly, this is not the case. For most of our history, we have adopted a purely utilitarian attitude towards other species. We have treated them in any way that suits our purposes, from servitude, to a source of food, to outright enemies that need to be exterminated.

A second, somewhat similar, problem for Taylor's view is that we exhibit altruism far more frequently and far more intensely towards people we are closely related to than to those we are distantly related to, or not related to at all. Parents will make enormous sacrifices for their children that they will almost never even consider making for other people's children. This, of course, is consistent with the notion that altruism has survival benefits that can be enhanced by natural selection, given that such selection acts on genes, and that we share some genes with those with whom we are closely correlated. While Taylor may find some of these theories convoluted, the very clear correlation of altruism with degree of kinship appears quite inconsistent with a universal consciousness.

Finally, studies have shown that when we act compassionately towards others, even in situations where altruism is not involved, we may behave irrationally in some respects. For example, most people say they would choose to save one person in some hypothetical situations even at the expense of effectively killing several or more others. It's possible to understand why we feel this way in materialistic terms. Our first impulse or instinct is to save an immediate human life, not to consider the effect of our actions on others. On the other hand, if we are all fundamentally interconnected, this doesn't appear to make sense. We should want to act always in a matter that maximizes the number of people who survive or benefit.

These points aren't necessarily fatal to Taylor's view of panspiritism, but at the very least, they require some modifications or additions to the view. It seems that if there a universal consciousness connecting us with other forms of life, these connections are much stronger in some cases than others. In other words, the view has to become more convoluted, precisely the problem he has with conventional scientific explanations. While scientists often refer to Ockham's razor—the simplest explanation is the most likely one—an explanation has to be an explanation before one can judge how simple it is. If conventional scientific explanations of altruism don't seem particularly simple, that may be because there is no simple explanation.

Moreover, the same point applies to psi phenomena. A discussion of these is beyond the scope of this article, but even the most committed believer in the reality of psi has to concede that they are rather rare. Most of the evidence for them is based on studies showing a significantly greater number of correct guesses in some test than would be predicted by chance. No matter how great the degree of statistical significance, the fact remains that most people, most of the time, do not demonstrate telepathy, psychokinesis, foretelling the future, or other phenomena that seem to demand the existence of a consciousness extending beyond the body.

So again, it appears that believers in psi have to put forth their own convoluted arguments. If there is a universal consciousness, why is it manifested so weakly in some people, and not in all in most? Taylor claims that, “Research has shown that most people believe they have experienced it, and most cultures throughout history have accepted it as a reality.” Most people believe they have experienced it? Really? That's news to me. But in any case, research has also shown that most people believe in God, which they think they have personally experienced. Research has shown that most people don't have even an elementary understanding of statistics. Research has shown, as I noted earlier, that people have an irrational approach to morality. Citing what most people may believe is very poor evidence for the truth of that belief.

Keep it Simple

In this essay, I have been highly critical of Steve Taylor's panspiritist view, and have staunchly defended materialism. But I do agree with him that materialism has serious problems. I think it's entirely fair to challenge it, and I have great sympathy with Rolf Sattler when he says [in "Beyond Materialist Science"]:

In science departments we don't have to waste our time with history and philosophy - so I was told - because the researchers think they know that living organisms are material objects that is the prevailing mentality

As a scientist, I have had a similar experience. When I was younger, I completely accepted the scientific worldview in general, and materialism specifically, and did not feel that I needed to know much about the history or philosophy of science. As I grew older, I began to appreciate how important it is to regard everything, even the bedrock assumptions of science, as needing to be questioned regularly.

That said, however, if one is going to reject or go beyond materialism, one has to have a very good case for doing so. Sattler says:

An example is Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphic fields and resonance [7]. It allowed, for example, to explain and predict that when certain species of animals learn a new behavior it is easier for animals of the same species far away to learn the same behavior [7]. Thus, physical contact or proximity is not necessary. The transmission occurs through morphic fields and resonance. In addition to this phenomenon, Sheldrake's theory allows predictions and explanations for many other phenomena.

I find this very problematic. I'm not aware of any examples of how Sheldrake's theory predicted when animals would learn a new form of behavior, before that behavior was actually observed. In fact, I'm not aware of a single well-established phenomenon that Sheldrake claims his morphic fields hypothesis can explain that can't be explained in materialist terms. He and some other researchers have run experiments designed to test the existence of these fields, seeking new phenomena not recognized by science, but as far as I'm aware, the results have not been very convincing.

Further, there seems to be a major misunderstanding concerning the action of these alleged morphic fields. Sheldrake has touted his views as an evolutionary theory, and discussed at great length how morphic fields could impact evolution. But even if such fields existed, they would be a profoundly conservative, not creative, force. As Sheldrake describes them, they strengthen new forms of animal behavior that first originate from conventional processes—gene mutation, inheritable forms of learning, or cultural memes--making it more likely they would be selected for. They would thus act to suppress other changes, reducing rather than increasing the competition among other variants.

Sattler discusses acupuncture as if it were another serious challenge to materialism, when in fact most controlled studies have indicated little if any benefits. Even if there are such benefits, there are certainly materialist interpretations of them. For many years, I carried out research in the area of opioid pharmacology. Our laboratory published some of the original work on endogenous opioids such as endorphins, enkephalins and dynorphin. Two of the leaders of this group were native Chinese, who were somewhat familiar with acupuncture, and for a while, there was a prevailing theory that it could be explained by the release of such endogenous opioids. This was never established, but the point is, even assuming there is a significant effect of acupuncture on health, there is no reason to hypothesize the existence of energy fields unknown to science. Any physical manipulation of the body is going to affect material processes that in principle could account for the effects.

I think an even more problematic alternative view is homeopathy. Sattler says:

If a person dies because (s)he was treated, for example, homeopathically, it makes headlines in the press. But at the same time hundreds or thousands die every day in hospitals where they have been treated materialistically. What a double standard and what hypocrisy! Although the person who was treated through homeopathy might have been saved by materialist medicine, some of the people who died while being treated materialistically, might have survived by treatment of alternative medicine.

Notice the use of “might”, as a way of implying that homeopathy and conventional medicine are equal. There's no question that people die as a result of spurning materialistic treatments that could have saved their lives. Steve Jobs was probably an outstanding example. There is no evidence I'm aware of that anyone who died while being treated conventionally could have been saved by an alternative treatment. The use of “might have” by Sattler is purely speculative. He adds:

But in any case, why on earth should materialism take precedence over other metaphysical approaches? Why should it be given first option in the effort to explain the world? This is philosophical bias. It is no different to a Christian saying that we should only abandon Christianity and investigate other religions once it has been proven beyond doubt that its tenets are false.

This is just nonsense. Christianity doesn't explain anything at all. Science explains a great deal, and has a long history of predicting phenomena. Of course, we have to believe in something, so one can certainly argue that a scientist who believes in materialism is exhibiting a bias. But Sattler falls into the trap of believing all biases are the same. They aren't. A bias towards a view that has worked in the past is in way comparable to a bias based on wishful thinking.

As I said earlier, I agree that materialism has problems. But I feel that both Steve Taylor and Rolf Sattler are going too far in their criticisms of it. Both of them raise straw men, issues which aren't really problems for materialism, their acceptance of which rationalizes their claim of highly radical views that not only have very little direct evidence to support them, but which even lack a hypothetical explanation based on anything we know.

The central problem facing materialism is its inability to explain the hard problem of consciousness. Period. The effect of mind on body is not a problem. The evolution of complexity is not a problem. Anomalous phenomena, including psi, the kinds of behavior Sheldrake claims in support of his morphic fields, and various undocumented medical claims, are in my view not yet well supported enough to constitute a problem. That could conceivably change, but until it does, I think it's premature to propose theories that are highly dependent on the existence of these phenomena—theories which basically collapse if these phenomena are not in fact real.

Given this position, the most parsimonious explanation is panpsychism, not panspiritism. Panpsychism proposes that conscious experience exists on a spectrum. While we regard our own experience as highly complex, panpsychism claims it can also be extremely simple, and as such, associated with the simplest forms of matter. A crude analogy is light, which can be virtually infinitely bright and intense, such as at the surface of the sun or other star, but can also be almost infinitely weak, in the form of a single photon.

Panpsychism postulates a form of universal consciousness, but unlike that implied by panspiritism, this consciousness is neither a) disembodied; b) complex except in association with complex forms of matter; nor c) transmitted at a distance There are certainly problems with this view—if there weren't, many more scientists and philosophers would take it more seriously—but it avoids all of the problems with panspiritism that I have discussed here. How this simple consciousness originated is a problem, but no more so than how simple forms of matter originated. How it became more complex is explained by its association with material processes, and specifically with brains, that became more complex. For the same reason, there is no problem of transmission, of action at a distance to explain.

Panpsychism remains agnostic on the question of psi phenomena, and any others that suggest an interconnectedness of individual consciousness. Yet it does have room for them. Since in this view, consciousness becomes more complex in association with increasingly more complex forms of material organization, it follows that there could be a higher, more complex consciousness than that associated with the human brain. This would be associated with human societies, which in terms of their organization are structured much like the human brain. It's possible that an individual human, by virtue of realizing to some extent this higher form of consciousness, might have access to phenomena that would not be explainable in terms of individual consciousness. This is speculative, but would be a far more parsimonious explanation of such phenomena, requiring no modifications of materialism other than the basic assumption that matter and consciousness are always associated.

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