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Published on 29th November 2018

What Empirical Research means for Physicalism and Panpsychism


        I want to start off this paper by saying how much of a struggle talking like a philosopher is for me. There were several times during my Philosophy of Mind course where I would think to myself, “What does any of this even mean?” or end up just frustrated with how the thought process was going during the discussions. I do well with what I can see, and I can’t physically see concepts like panpsychism or even different aspect of physicalism. My mind looks at these abstract concepts and locks up to an extreme extent, where as neuroscience lets me see what I can work with and lends itself to tangible results. This isn’t to discredit the field of philosophy in any way; it’s just not my brain unfortunately. I look with jealousy towards my peers in the class that seem to grasp it as a much better understanding than I do.

            I want to talk about the not falsifiable theories that have popped up in our discussions throughout the semester. I think that the discipline of philosophy deserves a higher standard of arguments and theories. Maybe it’s my ultimately inherent bias as a scientist, but having a theory you can’t even try to prove wrong just seems lacking in a whole lot of areas. It’s like trying to bring the idea that everything in the world popped into existence last Thursday. You can’t prove it wrong, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the right option to believe in. I would also like to begin this argument by saying that of course consciousness exists, and to say that it doesn’t is denying probably the most basic human activity or experience anyone will ever have.

            I don’t necessarily think that the sciences can answer every question that is asked in this world, (there needs to be philosophers for a reason!) but the field of neuroscience is continually delving more and more into what seems to be a hard state of consciousness. This statement seems to lend itself to the ideas of Paul and Patricia Churchland, but I think that humanity is extremely less robotic and algorithmic than the Churchland’s believe that we are. The Churchland’s are by far part of the extreme line of thinking about the structure of consciousness. Quite often in the world though, in an argument you have two supposedly dividing extremes, and the actual solution is found directly in the middle. I do not akin to what Galen Strawson would call “physicsalism,” which is the belief that the study of physics holds all of the answers to the universe. Anything that physics can answer only holds so much weight and changes too often anyways. We thought Isaac Newton had given us all of the answers of gravity, but then Einstein came along and basically gave a giant middle finger to Newton’s work on gravity. Now there are physicists who think that gravity might not exist as we even understand it today at all! There is even the delightful problem in physics, where scientists can’t figure out for certain how a bike stays up. If you believe in the brand of physicalism that should be called physicsalism, then you ascribe to a set of beliefs that is constantly changing with new research, which means what you believe right now is probably completely wrong, and a genius in the future will prove you wrong about beliefs about the world. I do not remember the source of this quote, but the quote itself has stood with me throughout my collegiate career as a scientist. The quote goes, “Science answers the what, philosophy answers the why.” Trying to use the natural sciences to answer all of life’s questions is like going on an ice rink with roller skates on your feet. In theory it can work, but you’ll look incredibly foolish in your efforts when you have way better options to choose from.

Consequentially, it’s the research that I’m most intrigued by that I will be mentioning the most, which tends to happen when people talk about their ideals. Before I really delve into what the research is, I have to define what an ‘engram’ is. In neuroscience, an engram is the term assigned to the physical allocation of a memory that is located within neurons. The German zoologist Richard Semon of all people first coined the term ‘engram’ in the early 1900’s. When you remember what it was like to smell the ocean air on the coast of specifically Maryland rather than Alabama, your brain fires very specific neurons to bring up that memory for you to either gag at the smell of dead fish or the warm coastal breeze. In much better terms than I could ever say, according to Dr. Steve Ramirez an engram is “memory—an enduring change in the brain that results from a particular experience and whose underlying physical substrate can remain dormant until the appropriate external and/or internal cues result in its direct reactivation, thereby leading to retrieval (Ramirez 2017).”

I should also put a disclaimer that while neuroscientists use the term engram quite liberally in research papers, an engram hasn’t been directly observed by anyone for all of our efforts. Even though we haven’t necessarily completely observed an engram, we know enough out of the empirical data to know that an engram is there, but it’s basically playing hide and seek it seems, or searching for an engram has been much like how you cannot actually see wind, but you can see the effects of it. A human being would look incredibly foolish to make the statement that wind doesn’t exist simply because you cannot see it the actual manifestation of the wind.

The amount of linguistic gymnastics that would need to be performed to refrain from using the word ‘engram’ is exhausting, so thus the term ‘engram’ has become a part of common neuroscientific language. As a side note with that train of thought, language of philosophy and conscious has fascinated me throughout the semester while I have also been reading a book by Andrea Moro titled, “Impossible Languages,” where he explores what makes a language possible or completely not able to exist in a functioning society. With the classic “Mary in the Black and White Room” thought experiment for the sake of simplicity right now, Mary knows everything that she can know about the concept of color, but she cannot see color in the black and white room. When she walks out, she gains a new acquaintance, according to Howell, that she didn’t have before. In this argument, we of course use the concept of language that we have today. Mary of course speaks one of the human languages that we can talk to her with that is only evolved to the state that language is today. Language has evolved over the course of about five thousand years, which is still relatively brand new if we look at the scale of the universe. Things have been evolving for millions of years before language even started happening in the first place in humans. Who is to say where language will evolve towards in the thousands or millions of years in the future? I understand the weight of the boldness of this statement, but hear me out. At some point in the future, there could be a point in both our brain’s evolution, and the evolution of language, where a certain combination of words, letters, or sounds creates an experience of mind that creates the visual image of red in a person’s, or whatever we have evolved into in the future, conscious state. To say that we have reached the limit of what language can achieve is ignorant to say the least, because just looking at how much language has changed over the past thousand years shows advancement. Also, trying to read a legitimate document from even a few hundred years ago will leave you scratching your head at how to understand what seems like gibberish. Research in the area of linguistics and the brain also points out how the words we have in our specific languages can perceive how we picture and perceive the universe. In a study at MIT, the researchers compared English speakers who only have one word for the color “blue” with Russian speakers who have two words for what we call “blue” in English. Since the Russians had multiple words for those colors than the English speakers, they had a much easier time identifying different colors (Winawer 2007). This research was also done with a tribal group from Namibia, who don’t have a word for blue in their language, but have several different words for different shades of green (Roberson 2005). They were able to correctly identify the different shades of green, while I stared at it for probably five minutes trying to see what the difference was. Putting these results together leads to show how differently we see the world based off the words that we speak. Language is imperfect.

In what may be a cop out answer, I do think that with the evolution of language we will get closer to quantifying abstract concepts in philosophy. I don’t see that statement as outlandish at all, but an exploration of where language will be able to take us as humanity continues to advance. As research on language continues, that research may hold one of the keys to extracting the sources of consciousness because of the paradoxical nature of both consciousness and language. To quote Impossible Languages, Andrea Moro says,

“Here – as it seems to me – we face one of the most striking and destabilizing paradoxes of nature and surely the one that pertains to us most: a finite object shaped by evolution (the brain) expresses a code that generates infinite discrete structures and that cannot evolve by definition (syntax). Once more, human language reveals itself as the constant scandal of nature.”

The seemingly ‘scandalous’ nature of language shows a striking similarity to the perception of consciousness. Consciousness seems to be an almost infinite and abstract concept deriving from a code from something completely finite. Is language as we know it tied to our consciousness? Does studying language hold a key to the daunting task of finding the answers about the sources of our consciousness? I would hypothesize that research in these areas would have the possibility of opening some of the doors to the answers of consciousness.

Following the path of research and consciousness, looking at engram research as mentioned earlier may point in the right direction to answer questions about consciousness. Right off the bat, once you start analyzing engram research, the idea emerges that you may be looking at the source of consciousness, or at least the base layer of conscious behavior. So much research has come out just in the last five to ten years in engram research to suggest that you are playing with someone’s consciousness when you do this research. Most of it has been done with mice, but the pictures of these active regions in the brain show the active neurons. Now some philosophers that are way more educated than I am, would scream, “Panpsychism!” when you first look at the pictures of the individual neurons that are activated, and at first glance it does lend itself to that viewpoint.

Panpsychism according to Nagel, Strawson, and other people that support the theory would look at the neurons that light up in the picture above as evidence that each cell must have a little bit of consciousness. Everything has an inherent intrinsic nature about it, and the way that our neurons are structured lead to the formation of a conscious mind (Strawson).  This theory seems to have been backed by this neuroscientific research, because if you can alter these neurons and affect someone’s state of mind, then that must be altering the neurons to alter the person’s consciousness. But is the engineering of the brain really affecting the consciousness? Sure certain chemicals are released after different external triggers, but what makes phenylethylamine be released in my brain, while it might not be released for another?

If you ask Galen Strawson about this, he would surely see the evidence of panpsychism in the engram research. In his article about panpsychism, Strawson says that physicalism entails panpsychism, and this research seems to show that. Consciousness seems to be closer to a physical entity than ever after this research has begun. Dr. Steve Ramirez was even able to manipulate these memories, and he has a host of papers supporting these ideas. This research is still in it’s relative infancy, which means that there are way more questions than answers, but if this research keeps continuing the way that it seems to be going, then what does that mean for consciousness?

I also took the time to ask the person who does this research, Dr. Steve Ramirez, what he thinks about consciousness and these memory engrams, and he actually responded to my email! This is what he said to me,

“In humans at least, our vivid memories of the past seem always tied to that "experiential" component from within. In animals it's always impossible to tell what they're truly "reliving," but I imagine that it's like trying to study locomotion in them: some parts of locomotion are similar and some are different between rodents and humans. Consciousness I think probably operates analogously.”

            It seems to me that Dr. Ramirez would call himself a panpsychist; thanks to his quotes he graciously gave me. When you look at altering individual neurons and you can see the difference it really makes, panpsychism is attractive. Lets delve into how consciousness would exist in individual neurons, if panpsychism was correct though. The ethics of this memory alteration would be staggering, and it would change how day-to-day conversations happened and even disciplines like therapy.  The goal of medicine is to fox the problem, not the symptoms, and that’s what this research is doing for diseases like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease. These diseases are directly linked to consciousness altering diseases, since they’re so connected to the neurons. Changing the architecture of the brain seems to change the conscious state of the person occupying that consciousness.

            In Dr. Ramirez’ research, the experiments have only been done on mice so far, but what if we were able to do this on humans? What would the difference be? Would the observed responses of the mice be similar to ours or radically different? The answers to those questions could hold the answer to the common problem about non-human animals having consciousness or not. If the results in humans show up as similar to the results in mice, then it would be evidence that other animals do have some sort of consciousness, and that there are layers to consciousness, almost straightforwardly proving panpsychist beliefs. Would it even be ethical to even try to change someone’s conscious state though? Doing these experiments could fundamentally change who someone is if you believe that you are actually changing their state of consciousness. There would need to be massive control on this technology, or I believe that things could spiral out of control.

            I don’t know if I’m ready to commit to panpsychism. It may be looking more attractive with each passing study, but there still seems to be something lacking with the final answer that the combination of this research and panpsychism points to. Strawson’s “real physicalism” seems to tie it all together with the research, but it brings up the problem that everything is really inherently conscious. A rock, or the column in front of me having a state of consciousness doesn’t make common sense. There have to be more rules about what specifically about the neuron brings about consciousness, and maybe we will find it. Who’s to say that it isn’t quantifiable? There are plenty of particles in physics that we have mutual agreement actually exist and function in the universe, but they have never been observed. Maybe one of these evasive particles exists in our neurons to make consciousness happen, but those particles do not exist in skin cells. This research is bringing us closer to the event horizon of consciousness, because right now all of our speculation is skirting around the edge.

References:

Denny, C. A., Lebois, E., & Ramirez, S. (2017). From Engrams to Pathologies of the Brain. Frontiers in Neural Circuits,11. doi:10.3389/fncir.2017.00023

Howell, R. J. (2017). Consciousness and the limits of objectivity: the case for subjective physicalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moro, A. (2016). Impossible languages. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Ramirez, S., Liu, X., Macdonald, C. J., Moffa, A., Zhou, J., Redondo, R. L., & Tonegawa, S. (2015). Activating positive memory engrams suppresses depression-like behaviour. Nature,522(7556), 335-339. doi:10.1038/nature14514

Roberson, D., Davidoff, J., Davies, I.R.L., & Shapiro, L.R. (2005). Color Categories: Evidence for the Cultural Relativity Hypothesis. Cognitive Psychology,50(4), 378-411.

Seyfarth, R. M., & Cheney, D. L. (2017). The Social Origins of Language. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ Pr.

Strawson, G. (2008). Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism. Real Materialism,53-74. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199267422.003.0003

Winawer, Jonathan, Witthoft, Nathan, Frank, Michael C., Wu, Lisa, Wade, Alex R., &

            Boroditsky, Lera. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color

            discrimination.(Author abstract). Proceedings of the National Academy of

            Sciences of the United States,104(19), 7780-7785.



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