Idealism and emergent spacetime

"The Rip in Spacetime," by Selene's Art. Used with permission.
Yesterday, a very interesting essay was published on Scientific American by philosopher Susan Schneider. It offers an argument against panpsychism—the notion that experience is a fundamental aspect of all matter—based on the fact that new quantum gravity theories indicate that spacetime is emergent, instead of a fundamental scaffolding of nature.

The key claim in the essay is that experience presupposes time; that the sense of flow we have in experience requires a pre-existing temporal scaffolding. Schneider's intuition informs her that "Timeless experience is an oxymoron." Therefore, if experience depends on time, and time is itself emergent instead of fundamental, then experience cannot be fundamental. Ergo, panpsychism is false—or so the argument goes.

Schneider does take into account the possibility that the flow of time is an illusion, a serious idea in physics cemented by Einstein's Relativity Theory. She writes:
Here, the panpsychist could retort that our ordinary sense of time is an illusion. ... This Einsteinian picture has been called a static, “block universe” view of spacetime because it lacks any sense of a flow or passage of time. As Einstein wrote, upon the passing of a close friend, “For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Could the panpsychist appeal to this block universe picture to argue that time is an illusion? If so, perhaps panpsychism and quantum gravity are not at odds, after all.
This admission would seem to refute Schneider's own initial argument: if time is an illusion, then experience—nature's sole given—cannot ultimately depend on it, as she initially assumed. In such a case, experience would actually be timeless, the impression of flow being itself merely a particular, timeless phenomenal state; a cognitive construct in consciousness (there's actually lots of evidence for this). But then she continues:
Suppose that our ordinary sense of duration is just an illusion, and reality is timeless. If this is the case, the point shouldn’t be that the fundamental layer of reality is experiential. The point should be, instead, that fundamental reality is nonexperiential.
I scratched my head with this passage at first, for its conclusion seems to me to contradict the preceding discussion. But upon re-reading the passage, Schneider's intended meaning became clear to me: for her, if time is an illusion, then experience itself must also be an illusion, since in her view experience presupposes the passage of time. And then, if experience is an illusion, the universe must be fundamentally non-experiential—or so her argument goes.

"The trouble with this," in the words of Galen Strawson, "is that any such illusion is already and necessarily an actual instance of the thing said to be an illusion." In other words, the alleged illusion of experience would already itself be an experience, so the claim actually reaffirms the primacy of consciousness: there has to be something experiential preceding the illusion of time, wherein the illusion itself could arise.

Consequently, the implication Schneider is attempting to establish—namely, that if time is an illusion reality must be fundamentally non-experiential—doesn't actually hold. Schneider unknowingly begs the question already with her very first intuitive assumption: that timeless experience is an oxymoron (I shall attempt to help you see through this faulty intuition below; for now, please bear with me).

Although I don't think Schneider's particular argument here works, I do think it is valid, in principle, to use physical reasoning to question the tenability of panpsychism. I say this because, by positing that experience is a property, or the categorical basis, of matter, panpsychists are trying to insert experience into an evolving theoretical framework in physics. As that framework evolves, valid arguments against panpsychism may congeal.

The more important question for me, however, is this: Does Schneider's argument threaten, in any way, my own idealist view—elaborated upon extensively in my new book, The Idea of the World—that the physical world itself is a phenomenon of, and within, universal consciousness? The answer is no. Allow me to elaborate briefly.

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Schneider's main premise—which she posits as an axiom of intuition, without further justification—is the notion that experience presupposes time; that experience unfolds in time. For an idealist, however, time is itself a quality of experience. In other words, for the idealist time is in experience, not experience in time. This is the precise opposite of Schneider's axiom. So idealism lives or dies for reasons entirely unrelated to Schneider's argument. The latter does not apply to idealism.

As a matter of fact, the entire physical universe—spacetime, matter, energy, fields, the whole shebang—unfolds, for the idealist, in universal consciousnessas a phenomenon of universal consciousness. Unlike the panpsychist, the idealist is not inserting consciousness in the physical universe, as a fundamental aspect of the latter, but inserting the physical universe in universal consciousness, as a manifestation of the latter. The challenge for the idealist is to make this work in a parsimonious, logically consistent and empirically robust way, as I've tried to do in The Idea of the World.

Therefore, the possibility that time is emergent is not at all a problem for the idealist: time emerges within consciousness as a particular class of phenomenal states, consciousness itself being fundamental. Although quantum gravity theories are speculative today, the possibility of their success poses no new issue for the idealist. In fact, these theories help establish a key tenet of idealism: that the spacetime scaffolding is not fundamental.

Nonetheless, since Schneider invokes the intuition that experience presupposes time—think of the sense of flow inherent to experience—my assertion above may sound counterintuitive at first: How can time be merely a quality of experience, if experience itself seems to unfold in time?

Well, think of it: Where's the past? Is it anywhere out there? Can you point at it? Clearly not. So what makes you conceive of the idea of a past? It is the fact that you have memories. But these memories can only be referenced insofar as they are experienced now, as memories. There has never been 'a moment' in your entire life in which the past has been anything more than memories experienced now.

The same applies for the future: Where's the future? Is it anywhere out there? Can you point at it an say "there is the future"? Clearly not. Our idea of a future arises from expectations and imaginings experienced now, always now, as expectations and imaginings. There has never been 'a moment' in your life in which the future has been anything more than expectations and imaginings experienced now.

So the past and the future are just qualities of certain experiential contents experienced now, timelessly. The 'past' is the qualities of definiteness, unchangeability, low resolution, etc., characteristic of memories experienced now. The 'future' is the qualities of openness, uncertainty, vagueness, etc., characteristic of expectations and imaginings experienced now. Past and future and, therefore, time itself, are but qualities of experience insofar as we can directly reference them. Time is a cognitive construct, a story we tell ourselves now. Any other view of time is theory and abstraction, themselves constructed in consciousness.

Timeless experience is not, as claimed by Schneider, an oxymoron. Instead, timelessness is precisely an intrinsic, fundamentally unavoidable property of every possible experience. To see it, one just needs to introspect and reflect a little more carefully and rigorously than ordinarily.

I have elaborated more extensively on this crucial relation between spacetime and idealism in The Idea of the World. There, I also tackle the apparent contradiction between the notion that spacetime is experiential and the analogy I often make between experience and excitations of universal consciousness (after all, excitation, which we usually visualize as vibration, seems to require an a priori spacetime framework within which to unfold).

The ontological status of spacetime is an important issue for idealism; one that is seldom discussed. I try, for the first time, to rigorously and explicitly address it in The Idea of the World. That Schneider now published an essay touching precisely on this issue was a welcome synchronicity, which will hopefully bring more attention to the issue in academic circles.

The remarkable criticism of Massimo Pigliucci

Apparently I am becoming impossible to ignore. Professor of philosophy, former podcast co-host and self-proclaimed skeptic, Massimo Pigliucci, has now written an essay titled "Does the universe suffer from multiple personality disorder?" in which he attempts to criticize my ideas. In this post, I shall comment on Massimo's essay. I stress the word 'comment' because this isn't really a rebuttal or response: there is little of substance in Pigluicci's essay to actually rebut or respond to.

As a matter of fact, I hope Pigliucci's essay is widely read, for it will likely be taken by thoughtful and honest readers—those I care about and cater to—to constitute evidence for the solidity of my ideas. For if the best a well-known philosopher and public intellectual—who is so clearly motivated to criticize me—can do is that essay, what else do I need to argue? I even feel tempted to remark at this point, though I don't really mean it, that with adversaries like that, who needs supporters?

Unlike Pigliucci, I shall comment based on substance. Yet, I shall also comment vigorously and honestly, not through a smokescreen of passive aggression. My motivation is to highlight what Pigliucci's essay illustrates about the state of our culture today, when it comes to anything that contradicts physicalist intuitions. This is particularly significant here because Pigliucci is an active member of academia and, as such, should be held to higher standards than the ranting online bloggers from whom one would expect this level of criticism.

Pigliucci starts his essay by implicitly labeling my philosophy a form of panpsychism. Whereas this might be justifiable under stretched definitions of panpsychism, I think this classification is inaccurate. Broadly speaking, panpsychism is the notion that all matter is conscious. I, on the other hand, hold to the view that matter is in consciousness, as an excitation of consciousness, insofar as it is only known as a particular category of experience (namely, perception). As a matter of fact, I have even written an essay in this blog denouncing panpsychism as a threat.

Pigliucci derogatorily labels my views "crazy." He "can’t believe [my paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies] passed peer review." Make no mistake, this is a serious accusation: it not only accuses me of incompetence, it accuses a renowned journal of incompetence as well. Coming from a practicing academic, one would fully expect such an accusation to be backed up by substance. So what does Pigliucci back it up with? Amazingly little. Let's look into it.

Of the 1685 words in his essay, he uses 770 (46%) to agree with and/or quote me. After you then exclude the preliminaries, the 578 words left (34%) constitute the actual attempt at criticism. It is based on two extremely general points that could be used against any non-physicalist ontology, and which touch on none (no, really, none) of the particulars of my view:

  1. Pigliucci thinks that there is no 'hard problem of consciousness.' Therefore, any attempt to resolve or circumvent the hard problem is, allegedly, redundant and violates Occam's proverbial Razor.
  2. There is allegedly no empirical evidence for there being consciousness associated with anything but living organisms.
These points don't constitute an attack on my particular views any more than they constitute an attack on any non-physicalist view to begin with. As such, they contradict a huge body of peer-reviewed work in philosophy spanning at least since Nagel's seminal 1974 paper (to speak of modern academic philosophy alone). Therefore, I hardly need to spend any effort rebuking them. Nonetheless, I shall comment, because I think Pigliucci's attempt is revealing in another way. Bear with me.

Regarding point 1, if Pigliucci thinks that there is no hard problem, then the burden is on him to explain how one can deduce, at least in principle, the qualities of experience—what it feels like to see red, to fall in love, to have a belly ache—from abstract, relational physical quantities such as mass, charge, spin and momentum. If he can't do it, his only alternative is some form of eliminativism: the absurd notion that the qualities of experience actually do not exist.

Pigliucci's appeal to Occam's Razor here is painfully ironic: by postulating that there is a whole ontological class outside and independent of experience—existence's sole given—it is physicalism that violates the principle of parsimony insofar as there are coherent alternatives that avoid such inflationary postulate. I have elaborated extensively on it in another academic paper that Pigliucci would, I guess, also not believe passed peer review (it did).

Regarding point 2, Pigliucci's demand for differentiating evidence for panpsychism or idealism seems to misunderstand the point of these ontology exercises, which is remarkable for a professor of philosophy. You see, ontology is an attempt to interpret all available empirical evidence from a categorical perspective. As such, under ideal circumstances, the evidence is the same in all cases: physicalism, panpsychism and idealism are all attempting to make categorical sense of the world we perceive, including the outcomes of scientific experiments.

And that such a thing as experience exists is also empirical evidence that needs to be made sense of: in fact, it is arguably the only evidence we have, existence's sole given. So one can easily turn the appeal to evidence against physicalism: How does physicalism explain the qualities of experience, which are all we ultimately have? It is not enough to simply dismiss the 'hard problem' or, absurdly, deny that experience exists. As argued above, one needs to offer a coherent logical link between physical quantities and phenomenal qualities; at least in principle. I challenge Pigliucci to do so.

All this said, there is indeed vast amounts of the exact kind of differentiating, scientific evidence that Pigliucci is looking for, to support my views. I have elaborated extensively on it in my new book, The Idea of the World, but will briefly summarize it here by reference to yet other peer-reviewed academic papers I've published.

For starters, if the individual consciousness of a living organism is indeed a dissociated alter of universal consciousness, one would expect certain types of impairment of brain function to correlate with an expansion of the organism's phenomenal field. In other words, an impairment of dissociation should render the dissociative boundary more porous. And indeed, there is a broad pattern of observations confirming this, as discussed in this paper. In another paper, I've argued more explicitly why these observations contradict physicalism, with reference to the effects of psychedelics. Moreover, if—as I argue—all matter is the extrinsic appearance of inner experience, then one would expect the universe at its largest scales to be, in some structural sense, similar to an organism's nervous system. After all, we know empirically that the latter is the extrinsic appearance of conscious inner life. As it turns out, there are indeed unexplained, "stunning" structural similarities between galaxy networks and neuronal networks. Finally, there are now over 30 years of evidence from quantum mechanics that call into question the tenability of any ontology other than idealism, as discussed in this and this popular summaries on Scientific American of an argument more broadly made in The Idea of the World.

I am elaborating on all this not to rebut Pigliucci's points—as I said earlier, they require no rebuttal—but to give context to the key question of this post: Given all the above, how can an academic and public intellectual go as far as to claim, without any specific substantiation, that he "can't believe" a published paper in a respected journal passed peer review? I don't think this should be taken lightly. There is an ethical issue here.

Moreover, although I am charitably assuming that Pigliucci actually read my full JCS paper—would he really claim it shouldn't have passed peer review if he had not even read it?—his essay offers troubling signs that he didn't. For one, he only quotes from my Scientific American article, which is a popular summary of the key ideas, not an academic piece. He never quotes from the actual paper. Secondly, he conspicuously mistakes the title of the paper (it is "The Universe in Consciousness," not "The Universe is Consciousness"). One could attribute this, of course, to an ordinary and innocent typo. But then, thirdly, there is the fact that he fails to address any specific point of my technical argument, staying with broad generalities applicable to anything that isn't physicalism. I would imagine that, upon having actually read the technical paper, he would unavoidably have something specific to say about it.

Indeed, Pigliucci calls my ideas "crazy" without offering a smidgen of specific substantiation. What gives him the confidence to do so? What makes him believe that he can get away with it, as an academic and public intellectual? I will tell you: it is the brute fact that, given our cultural context today, he can get away with it. Watch it as he does.

The standards do not apply equally here. While I have to publish 13 peer-reviewed papers and a 312-page book laboriously elaborating on explicit and detailed arguments and swaths of evidence—from disciplines as distinct as physics, neuroscience, psychiatry and analytic philosophy—a self-proclaimed skeptic physicalist feels entitled to fire a missive from his armchair, having hardly spent the effort it takes to come to a minimally fair and professional assessment of what I am saying. This says something about the self-proclaimed skeptic; not about my views.

We live in a world wherein physicalists, despite the problems of their position, and while embodying a paradoxical combination of slackness and arrogance, feel entitled to dispense with thoroughness and respect when criticizing other views. Yet, as any thoughtful reader will discern in Pigliucci's hack job, the joke is on them.

To close this post, allow me to address Pigluicci: Massimo, did you actually read my JCS paper? Do you have anything specific to say about its salient points? If so, please do and tag me, so I can react. I do not take lightly the unsubstantiated statements you made about the paper and, indirectly, about the respected journal that published it. I think it is academically irresponsible and reprehensible. Indeed, I call on you to either substantiate your statements with specifics, or publicly retract them.

Better yet, debate me in a neutral online platform, so people could better judge, for themselves, the merits of our respective views. This would give you a much more credible opportunity to show the "craziness" of my position. If we do it online, you can surely find some time in your schedule to participate from the convenience of your own home. I propose, for instance, the Patterson in Pursuit podcast, whose host is well versed in philosophy and is neither a physicalist nor an idealist, so he could be a neutral moderator. I haven't spoken to Steve about it, but I am confident he would accommodate, if we both were willing to do it.

I am.