Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Conscious Universe

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Joe Zadeh wrote in Noéma in November 2021:

London was a crowded city in 1666. The streets were narrow, the air was polluted, and inhabitants lived on top of each other in small wooden houses. That’s why the plague spread so easily, as well as the Great Fire. So did gossip, and the talk of the town was Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle.

Cavendish was a fiery novelist, playwright, philosopher and public figure known for her dramatic manner and controversial beliefs. She made her own dresses and decorated them in ribbons and baubles, and once attended the theater in a topless gown with red paint on her nipples. In his diaries, Samuel Pepys described her as a “mad, conceited, ridiculous woman,” albeit one he was obsessed with: He diarized about her six times in one three-month spell.

The duchess drew public attention because she was a woman with ideas, lots of them, at a time when that was not welcome. Cavendish had grown up during the murderous hysteria of the English witch trials, and her sometimes contradictory proto-feminism was fueled by the belief that there was a parallel to be drawn between the way men treated women and the way men treated animals and nature. “The truth is,” she wrote, “we [women] Live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts and die like Worms.”

In 1666, she released “The Blazing World,” a romantic and adventurous fantasy novel (as well as a satire of male intellectualism) in which a woman wanders through a portal at the North Pole and is transported to another world full of multicolored humans and anthropomorphic beasts, where she becomes an empress and builds a utopian society. It is now recognized as one of the first-ever works of science fiction.

But this idea of a blazing world was not just fiction for Cavendish. It was a metaphor for her philosophical theories about the nature of reality. She believed that at a fundamental level, the entire universe was made of just one thing: matter. And that matter wasn’t mostly lifeless and inert, like most of her peers believed, but animate, aware, completely interconnected, at one with the stuff inside us. In essence, she envisioned that it wasn’t just humans that were conscious, but that consciousness, in some form, was present throughout nature, from animals to plants to rocks to atoms. The world, through her eyes, was blazing.

Cavendish was not the only one to have thoughts like these at that time, but they were dangerous thoughts to have. In Amsterdam, the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote that every physical thing had its own mind, and those minds were at one with God’s mind; his books were banned by the church, he was attacked at knifepoint outside a synagogue, and eventually, he was excommunicated. Twenty-three years before Cavendish was born, the Italian Dominican friar and philosopher, Giordano Bruno — who believed the entire universe was made of a single universal substance that contained spirit or consciousness — was labeled a heretic, gagged, tied to a stake and burned alive in the center of Rome by the agents of the Inquisition. His ashes were dumped in the Tiber.

If the dominant worldview of Christianity and the rising worldview of science could agree on anything, it was that matter was dead: Man was superior to nature. But Cavendish, Spinoza, Bruno, and others had latched onto the coattails of an ancient yet radical idea, one that had been circulating philosophy in the East and West since theories of mind first began. Traces of it can be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christian mysticism, and the philosophy of ancient Greece, as well as many indigenous belief systems around the world. The idea has many forms and versions, but modern studies of it house them all inside one grand general theory: panpsychism.

Derived from the Greek words pan (“all”) and psyche (“soul” or “mind”), panpsychism is the idea that consciousness — perhaps the most mysterious phenomenon we have yet come across — is not unique to the most complex organisms; it pervades the entire universe and is a fundamental feature of reality. “At a very basic level,” wrote the Canadian philosopher William Seager, “the world is awake.”

Plato and Aristotle had panpsychist beliefs, as did the Stoics. At the turn of the 12th century, the Christian mystic Saint Francis of Assisi was so convinced that everything was conscious that he tried speaking to flowers and preaching to birds. In fact, the history of thought is dotted with very clever people coming to this seemingly irrational conclusion. William James, the father of American psychology, was a panpsychist, as was the celebrated British mathematician Alfred North Whitehead; the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck once remarked in an interview, “I regard consciousness as fundamental.” Even the great inventor Thomas Edison had some panpsychist views, telling the poet George Parsons Lathrop: “It seems that every atom is possessed by a certain amount of primitive intelligence.”

But over the course of the 20th century, panpsychism came to be seen as absurd and incompatible in mainstream Western science and philosophy, just a reassuring delusion for New Age daydreamers. Karl Popper, one of the most influential philosophers of recent times, described it as “trivial” and “grossly misleading.” Another heavyweight, Ludwig Wittgenstein, waved away the theory: “Such image-mongery is of no interest to us.” As the American philosopher John Searle put it: “Consciousness cannot be spread across the universe like a thin veneer of jam.”

Most philosophers and scientists with panpsychist beliefs kept them quiet for fear of public ridicule. Panpsychism used  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

3 August 2022 at 5:53 pm

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