Sunday, July 31, 2011

Composing the Mind

William Seager, of the University of Toronto, has written a number of interesting papers over the years on the mind, with panpsychism and emergence/reduction included as frequent topics. I’m grateful for his contributions on panpsychism, which remains a neglected option in philosophy of mind.

Seager’s newest offering is “Panpsychism, Aggregation, and Combinatorial Infusion.” This paper includes a very nice summary of how the panpsychist position fits into the debate over mind, including its advantages and difficulties. A central challenge to working out a theory is the problem of composition or combination. Given that human minds are composite objects which seem to clearly depend on lower-level processes, even if one is willing to grant some element of mentality to the parts, how do they come together to comprise our familiar complex yet unified experience? Since the purported advantage of panpsychism over materialism is the avoidance of the latter’s need to posit brute emergence of the experiential from the non-experiential, it is a particular point of vulnerability if panpsychism itself lacks a plausible model of the mind’s emergence.

Clearly a simple aggregation of the properties of the parts won’t do, but what other kind of composition is there? Quantum mechanics offers a distinctive account in the form of coherence/entanglement, but despite recent advances in creating superpositions in larger objects, it still seems unlikely that such effects can be invoked on a scale as large as neuronal assemblies in the brain.

Now, science will continue to shed more light on these matters, and this could take forms which might be friendly to panpsychism (such as further advances in quantum biology). But Seager wants to find a conceptual model, inspired by reflections on panpsychism, which might show how a complex mind could indeed emerge from smaller parts.

Rather than aggregation, a mind must, while assuming its mental character from that of its parts, absorb and supersede the mental states of the parts. This resulting relation of whole to parts should be intelligible, not a mysterious sort of emergence. A model which would meet these goals is labeled “combinatorial infusion.” The whole is simple, yet extended and comprised of parts.

Seager looks for analogues in science. One which he thinks is promising from physics is the classical model of a black hole. Here the properties of the constituents which, when fused, give rise to the black hole are absorbed and superseded by the simple physical properties of the hole itself (mass, charge, and angular momentum). I think examples from condensed matter physics might have served Seager as good examples of this kind of phenomenon as well.

Seager thinks that while we may find a physical analogue to a combinatorial infusion of the mind (observable among the brain’s physical processes), it is not a requirement of his panpsychist theory that this physical instance exists. He thinks that the physical correlate of the effect may not itself be combinatorial infusion per se, but a reflection of it in some other phenomenon: the widespread neural synchrony we observe, for instance. (I tend to think, though, that we should expect an interesting and tight connection between the phenomenon and its correlate).

In any case, Seager’s work helps show that the “combination problem” isn’t adequate reason to rule out a theory which says the complex but unified experience of the human mind is formed by parts which also have a mental aspect. Nature has surely surprised us in greater ways than this.

1 comment:

Thoughts said...

You mentioned that QM coherence might explain binding. I am always a little perplexed by how pundits believe that QM coherence will deal with binding. Although binding involves simultaneity it also involves an ordered arrangement of objects in space and time. Binding is a geometrical phenomenon, not a simple multitude of simultaneous effects.

Studies show that 60% of physics graduates do not understand the physics of simultaneity so it is precisely the point where it is likely that philosophers and neuroscientists are missing the crucial step in the understanding of binding.