After some months of work, I’ve boiled down the content of three previous blog posts on the measurement problem and consciousness into a 28 minute video.
The video and blog posts came about because modern science still treats the existence of consciousness in a world made only of atoms and energy as unexplained, even mysterious. Some 25 years after first hearing about the measurement problem, I’ve still not come across a credible account of these things using a scientific or materialist panpsychism. Possibly the word itself is the root of the problem – it just sounds as if Ouija boards must be involved! Advocates of philosophies like panpsychism do sometimes promote unproven ideas, like telepathy or astrology, which may undermine otherwise valid arguments for the scientific community.
However if you properly examine our concept of consciousness in the light of recent scientific research, and suspend our inherited tendency to regard human consciousness as the centre of the living world, (something acquired from religion as much as from science or philosophy) a simple philosophical answer emerges without an intelligent creator or a descent into New Agey solipsism. Arguably humans still believe the Universe revolves around human consciousness every bit as much as the medieval Europe believed all of creation revolved around the Earth.
I believe strict materialism leaves science in an 18th century time-warp, where self-conscious beings inhabit a largely mechanical universe, a model long understood to be inadequate for quantum discoveries. Some of the solutions raise as many questions as they provide answers – for example, the cover story on the 11th November 2017 edition of The New Scientist was on serious discussions at prestigious universities, questioning whether fundamental laws of nature exist at all, because we could account for the quantum world if reality were being constantly re-created around us. Perhaps I have misunderstood this article, but no matter how many times I read it I can’t help thinking this is essentially idealism, a world dependent on the human mind. Although idealism is a philosophy with a long pedigree, a world view where the rules can be recreated at any moment is initially liberating, but ultimately impractical.
There is a simple way to account for both consciousness and the measurement problem without belief in the observer effect, and without tearing up the rulebooks written through centuries of philosophical and scientific enquiry. A scientific panpsychism allows us to have our materialist cake and eat it, because the physical world really does exist – it just happens to be a living world rather than a mechanical one.
The weirdness we confront in the quantum world is understood as the plasticity of a universe able at the most basic level to make choices, following behavioural patterns and tendencies, rather than hard and fast mechanical rules. We are part of a living Universe from which clever animals like us are manifest. Or perhaps, as the human race has a tendency to mythologise the importance of its own consciousness I should use a less grandiose description. We are but pimples of the face of an aware universe!
I would characterise idealism as a top down, or maybe complicated out view of the relationship between mind and matter. Strict materialism’s account, that consciousness is generated solely by the human brain is to me an out of nowhere explanation, which is why you’re likely to encounter the phrase “the mystery of consciousness” in so much written and said on the subject. In contrast I would describe a scientific panpsychism as a bottom up explanation of consciousness, because it’s starting point is that we inhabit an essentially living Universe.
This is not an especially clever philosophical argument. My understanding of our universe presented here is for me the simplest possible way to understand the existence of consciousness. Perhaps as they say, as I’m not blown away by the measurement problem, I haven’t really understood it. But often the simplest answers are the best, because they offer a stable framework on which more ambitious structures can be built.
Two thirds of the video is made up of me talking to camera, the remainder is made of stock clips and images which hopefully break up the talking segments while still maintaining a coherent argument. I initially shot the talking segments using an infinite white background, but decided to re-shoot with the screen and room both visible, giving the eye somewhere to rest if the background becomes too harsh. I’ve also used software to limit the background brightness. (I myself have a condition called Scoptopic Sensitivity and struggle with excess contrast).
Hopefully the film reaches a wider audience than long blog posts can, and encourages some discussion. You’re welcome to comment either here or on the video itself.
In the video I should perhaps have addressed the combination problem which I regard as a misunderstanding of panpsychism itself. I describe this in this follow up post.