Rovelli on Panpsychism

In his 2020 book Helgoland, in which Carlo Rovelli outlined his theory of “relative relevant information”, or relationalism, and its derivation from quantum physics, he discussed briefly the concept of panpsychism—the idea that the basis of consciousness is somehow intrinsic to the universe. At the time he wrote, “I don’t find. . . ‘pan-psychism’ persuasive in the slightest.” But in a short contribution to the October 2021 Journal of Consciousness Studies, he amended his position somewhat:

I point out in this note that 20th Century physics has already vindicated a—very mild—form of panpsychism. This is because of the profoundly relational aspect [of] this physics, manifest in general relativity, but especially in quantum mechanics. 20thCentury physics is not about how individual entities are by themselves. It is about how entities manifest themselves to one another. It is about relations.

As Rovelli explains, nothing exists in pure isolation. For an entity to have any detectable properties at all, it must interact with something else. Elucidating this in Helgoland, he invokes at some length the Tibetan Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna; and putting the idea succinctly in the same terms, we may ask, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” (—notwithstanding Bart Simpson’s single-handed deflation of the ancient koan).

Rovelli concludes that reality is therefore perspectival: to experience it at all, we must experience it from a particular viewpoint or perspective. For this insight he draws on the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics, invoking Neils Bohr’s emphasis on the role of the “observer” (or more properly, the equipment involved in an observation) in defining what is observed. We might say with Thomas Nagel that there is no “view from nowhere,” or to use an older expression, no “Archemidean point.”

To the extent that “the world is not described from the outside; it is always described relative to a physical system,” Rovelli recognizes similarities between relationalism and panpsychism. But he still does not find panpsychism persuasive. In fact he believes that relationalism allows us to discount it, more or less in the manner of Occam’s Razor:

This is perhaps not panpsychism, because there is nothing specifically psychic or mental in the relational properties of a system with respect to another system. But there is definitely something in common with panpsychism, because the world is not described from the outside: it is always described relative to a physical system. . . this very relationalism may suffice to resolve the very problems that motivated panpsychism in the first place: do we really need elementary physics to include more aspects in common with the mental world than this?

Rovelli believes that the problem motivating panpsychism is Chalmer’s “hard problem of consciousness.” He regards this problem as “based upon an intuition: that subjective experience, the ‘first person perspective’, must be incompatible with the world as we describe it now in physics.” Using an image also found in Helgoland, he compares this to “the compelling ‘intuition’ that lightning and thunder are evidence of the rage of Odin.”

Rovellli’s interpretation of the hard problem as some kind of pre-rational intuition we have about our experience does not quite do it justice. It isn’t at all about attributing a “ghost in the machine,” to use Gilbert Ryle’s well-known phrase. The hard problem is about the phenomenon of experience itself, and the fact that any complete account of the physical world, as currently conceived, can get along perfectly well without it. The true application of Occam’s razor, from the point of view of physics, is that we can dispense with phenomenal experience altogether and get exactly the same results. Yet as a moment’s introspection shows, our phenomenal experience not only exists; it is all we know. It stands as an incontrovertible reality, for which our current physical science has no place. This is “the hard problem.”

Once this confusion is cleared up, Rovelli’s relationalism looks less like a “very mild” form of panpsychism, and more like something called “pan-experientialism,” or perhaps “pan-proto-psychism,” flavours of panpsychism that postpone ideas of consciousness or other advanced expressions of phenomenalism, but still place some kind of experiential interaction at the heart of reality. Rovelli is quite right to point out that “All phenomena of which I am aware that are more related to psyche or mind are connected to a brain, a neural system, sensory organs, feedback loops or the like. I cannot imagine anything even vaguely more like psyche or mind, without some structure like those.” Yet he drifts very close to panpsychism more broadly conceived, when he writes that “the existence of a subjective perspective is precisely the generic situation in physics: how systems ‘appear to one another’.”

To put “appear to one another” in quotes is to distance himself from the idea that there might actually be some quality of “appearing” involved; yet this is the crux of the matter. The project of panpsychism is not to revive some “ghost in the machine,” but to ask whether, at the very finest and most atomic level, the activity of relations with respect to one another is somehow purposive rather than “purely physical” — by which latter is usually meant, dismissively, “mindless” in a very loose sense. If, following Whitehead, we restore to reality some fundamental form of agency, a sensitivity he called prehension, we are ultimately in a better position to include the raw fact of our own phenomenal experience in our account of the world—although it is still a long way to get to consciousness, a journey involving something called the “combination problem.”

Further to his reflections on Odin and the thunderstorm, Rovelli writes:

. . . the intuition of a tension between mental and physical is based on two assumptions. The first is that the subject of experience is an irreducible entity. The second is that the material world is formed by substances having properties. . . Both these assumptions seem to me to be wrong. There is a vast philosophical literature about the first and I will not go into it. Rather, I focus here on the second.

But Whitehead’s thought, like Rovelli’s, pointedly dispenses with the second assumption. I cannot help feeling that, in neglecting Alfred North Whitehead, Rovelli is missing something very important to his own ideas.

Related Topics

Rovelli and Whitehead: Path Blocked, Interference Destroyed
Wittgenstein, Spinoza,and Rovelli: Language and Intelligibility
Alfred North Whitehead on Experience
The Reality of Caring
Dawkins and Subjectivity

Additional Resources

Relations and Panpsychism (Carlo Rovelli)
Facing Up to the Hard Problem of Consciousness (David Chalmers)
Bart Simpson on the sound of one hand clapping: see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FU6gQWnetQ

9 thoughts on “Rovelli on Panpsychism”

  1. Yes, I think he eventually cops out in an Occam kind of way – he doesn’t need or want to go there, but without saying so, he is a kind of pan-proto-psychist.

    I notice you mention the “Combination Problem”. I’ve seen is a not a real problem, much like the Hard Problem isn’t. Only a problem if you start from narrow physicalist assumptions. Be interested in your take on the combination problem.

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  2. OK, but in that post, like I do, you’re really saying these aggregate properties are emergent in some way. ie there isn’t really any combination problem? It’s only a problem to reductive viewpoints that see aggregation only as simple addition.

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    1. Good point about it not being simple addition. Aggregation may be chaotic, in which case relations might express order as fractals. But in talking about the mathematics of the emergence of, say, conscious beings, we cannot lose sight of the principle that so-called “psychic” elements themselves simply exist, rather than emerge.

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      1. Yep, the psychic (informational) components exist, but things like self-consciousness or intelligence (say) emerge to exist as higher patterns.

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      2. Yes, only I have trouble with understanding “informational” as applied to the psychic elements. They are the primitives from which information arises.

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  3. Anyway, you make my point – to a pan-(proto)-psychist – there is no combination problem.

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  4. Information is the primitive from which all else arises 🙂

    BTW in the recent Rovelli exchanges you dismissed Bogdanov as “a Bolshevik”. The point was he was advising the Bolshevik’s against a naive use of information in systems of governance. They ignored him and went for centrally planned regime. The reality of information is the common theme here.

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    1. I admit I have trouble understanding how information can exist without some sort of medium to inform. I plan to start a section in the Philosophy section of my blog called “Information” to explore this.

      The reference to Bolsheviks wasn’t intended as a dismissal of Bogdanov, although I see how it could be taken that way. It was meant to suggest Rovelli’s wide range with respect to quantum physics. He spoke of Bogdanov and Mach and others while explaining the instrumental or observational approach that underlies the development of quantum mechanics; I thought that was his purpose, besides being informative and entertaining. Against Bogdanov, he pitted Lenin. If Bogdanov had any other critics, I hope they were better qualified. Still, I didn’t think Rovelli was making a political comment.

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