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ENLARGING THE EMPIRE OF CONSCIOUSNESS - STRAWSON

One of those who may still be haunted by it is Galen Strawson. Strawson, who has advanced the cause of 'panpsychism' (that consciousness must be understood as an intrinsic property of matter) may be one of the people Dennett has in mind when he says: 'the defenders of the ghost and its kin today are ever more on the defensive (though their sallies, from their ever more precarious toehold in common intuition, have become desperately extravagant)'. (para 8) Strawson in his turn [20] complains that 'Dennett is a prime example' of those who 'are so in thrall to the fundamental intuition of dualism, the intuition that the experiential and the physical are wholly and irreconcilably different, that they are prepared to deny the existence of experience, more or less overtly, because they are committed to physicalism, or physicSalism.' (p.5) 


[20] Galen Strawson et al: Consciousness and Its Place in Nature - does physicalism entail panpsychism?, Exeter and Charlottesville (Imprint Academic) 2006.


'Physicalism' is Strawson's term for materialism. He maintains that he is himself a physicalist. He says 'I am happy to say, along with many other physicalists, that experience is "really just neurons firing", at least in the case of biological organisms like ourselves' but 'there is a lot more to neurons than physics and neurophysics record (or can record).' (p.7)

He complains that for Dennett, physical reality, or matter, is confined to what can be understood through the laws of physics, ie that it is non-experiential. Strawson calls this physicSalism. Dennett, he says, claims to recognise the existence of consciousness ('his term for experience') but 'In the case of experience, to say that it exists but is really just something whose nature can be fully specified in wholly non-experiential, functional terms, is to deny its existence ... this particular denial is the strangest thing that has ever happened in the whole history of modern thought.' (p.5)

Strawson's dilemma is that, like everyone else we have been discussing, he wishes to consider himself a 'monist' not a 'dualist', yet he believes that 'experience' is radically other than non-experiential matter. He cannot believe that it could have emerged out of non-experiential matter:

'You can get liquidity from non-liquid molecules as easily as you can get a cricket team from eleven things that are not cricket teams. In God's physics [I must stress that Strawson, as determinedly and aggressively as Dawkins, doesn't believe in God - PB], it would have to be just as plain how you get experiential phenomena from wholly non-experiential phenomena. But this is what boggles the human mind' (p.15). 'The experiential/non-experiential divide, assuming it exists at all, is the most fundamental divide in nature (the only way it can fail to exist is for there to be nothing non-experiential in nature)' (pp.17-18).

Hence he argues for 'panpsychism' - that all matter must be in some sense 'experiential'. This does not mean, however, that he attributes experience to stones, tables and mountains: 'I don't believe this for a moment.' (p.26) Human consciousness hasn't emerged out of stones, tables and mountains but out of the particles of matter human beings share with stones, tables and mountains - electrons, protons, neutrons and the like: 'I believe that one could in principle create a normally experiencing human being out of a piano. All one would have to do would be to arrange a sufficient number of the piano's constituent electrons, protons and neutrons in the way in which they are ordinarily arranged in a normal living human being. Experience is as much a physical phenomenon as electric charge.' (p.187)

I'm not sure how (or if) Strawson envisages the subjective experience of an electron, proton or neutron. He uses the term SESMET (subject of experience that is a single mental thing, p.247) and favours a principle he calls 'smallism', saying 'the causal effect of anything on anything will have an experiential aspect, will indeed be experiential, and that is why even microsubjects - ultimate sesmets - may be said to have sensation and may even be said to have intentionality ...' hence 'there is no more difficulty in the idea that ultimate sesmets have sensation and intentionality and represent things than there is in the idea that one particle exerts attractive or repulsive force on another - for those are in fact the same thing.' (p.260)

I don't entirely understand why Strawson on the one hand and Dennett and Dawkins on the other should be quarrelling with each other (though from what I've seen the polemic is mainly on Strawson's side). It seems obvious that Strawson's panpsychism would remove the most obvious objection to Dawkins' 'selfish gene' - that the replicator, in wanting to survive and reproduce itself, is behaving in a way we normally associate with consciousness. The addition of the sesmet could only facilitate the evolutionary scheme proposed by Dawkins and its extension into the realm of consciousness proposed by Dennett.

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