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The Forest Spirits of Today Are Computers

We’ve made an artificially panpsychic world, where technology and nature are one.


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Image credit: Andrey Suslov / Shutterstock.

Years before smart homes became a thing, I replaced all the switches in our house with computerized switches. At first, it was just a way to add wall switches without pulling new wire. Over time, I got more ambitious. The system runs a timer routine when it detects no one is home, turns on the basement light when you open the door, and lights up rooms in succession on well-worn paths such as bedroom to kitchen. Other members of the family are less enthusiastic. A light might fail to turn on or might go out for lack of motion, or maybe for lack of any discernible reason. The house seems to have a mind of its own.

Under the rubric of “ubiquitous computing,” “smart dust,” and the “Internet of Things,” computers are melting into the fabric of everyday life. Light bulbs, toasters, even toothbrushes are being chipped. You can summon Alexa almost anywhere. And as life becomes computerized, computers become lifelike. Modern hardware and software have gotten so complicated that they resemble the organic: messy, unpredictable, inscrutable. In machine learning, engineers forswear any detailed understanding of what goes on inside. The machine learns rather like a dog: by trial and error, with ample treats. Some systems even have features we commonly associate with consciousness, such as creating models of their environment in which they themselves are actors—a kind of self-awareness.

Gradually, we are turning an old philosophical doctrine into a reality. We are creating a panpsychic world.

How Romantic: Few people experience nature red in tooth and claw, or would want to. We romanticize nature, just as we do our advanced technology. So what’s the difference? Credit: Quick Shot / Shutterstock.

Panpsychism—the proposition that consciousness is fundamental and ubiquitous—is one of humanity’s oldest ideas. It has cycled in and out of fashion in Western philosophy and has been enjoying a resurgence of late. For many neuroscientists and philosophers, panpsychism will be an essential feature of a theory of consciousness: Whatever mechanism creates the human mind need not be limited to humans.

But I’m talking about a different kind of panpsychism—artificial panpsychism. All the computers with which we surround ourselves are starting to be endowed with a rudimentary sentience. We are placing minds everywhere and instilling seemingly inanimate objects with mental experience. To my knowledge only one thinker—the computer scientist and science-fiction author Rudy Rucker—has described panpsychism as a phenomena we might create, although even he doesn’t think it very plausible. I would go further and say, not only is it plausible, it is happening. By dispersing intelligent artifacts, humanity is awakening the material world.

Traditional philosophical panpsychism comes in multiple varieties, but all have one intuition in common: that subjective experience can’t be reduced to mechanistic physics. Proponents make three main arguments. The first is that there doesn’t seem to be any principled way to draw the line between conscious and non-conscious. If we are conscious, why not a dog? A paramecium? A protein molecule? A proton? These systems lie on a continuum with no obvious break.

Second, panpsychism would solve the hard problem of consciousness. The objective methods of science seem inherently incapable of explaining subjective experience. The scent of a rose or awfulness of scratching a blackboard is not decomposable into smaller pieces, not mathematically describable, and not experimentally accessible. It seems to require a new feature of reality as deep as anything in physics, or perhaps even deeper. Complex minds are composed of simpler ones—“mind dust,” as William James put it. If so, everything in the universe is conscious to some degree.

We are placing minds everywhere and instilling inanimate objects with mental experience.

Panpsychism might also solve a complementary problem: the hard problem of matter. Philosophers such as Hedda Mørch and Philip Goff argue that physics describes what material objects do, but not what they are—their intrinsic nature. Subjective experience might plug that gap, because it is intrinsic. There is something about scents and screeches that is impossible to grasp by reference to anything else; it must be experienced directly. By this argument, everything in the world has phenomenal as well as material qualities.

Third, several of today’s leading theories of consciousness imply panpsychism. One of the most popular, Integrated Information Theory, takes our psychological unity as its starting point. Our sensations form a seamless whole, and brain activity reflects this coherence. When people are awake or dreaming, their neurons fire in a coordinated way; when in deep sleep or a coma, neural activity is fragmented. The theory surmises that an information processing system is conscious to the extent that its parts act in harmony. Anything with parts—which is to say, anything beyond a structureless elementary particle—has the potential to be conscious by this theory. Another line of thinking, based on the free-energy principle put forward by neuroscientist Karl Friston, observes that any self-sustaining structure has to maintain its boundary against external insults, which requires an internal model of the world. That is a core feature of mind.

Whether or not you buy these arguments, and many don’t, you can foresee two types of artificial panpsychism. If it’s true that mind cannot emerge from mindless atoms and must be a new fundamental ingredient of nature, you can imagine mind engineering: assembling components not to perform some function, but to achieve some type of experience. And if not—if we can make minds out of mindless atoms after all—then artificial panpsychism is a straightforward extension of present technology.

Neuroscientists have some evidence for the latter. Consciousness seems to be a specific cognitive function performed by identifiable brain mechanisms that not all species possess. There was an evolutionary rationale for it to develop; it needn’t have been built in from the start. When experimental subjects become consciously aware of something, certain brain areas change in activity; people who exhibit conscious awareness are able to reason across gaps in time, follow complicated directions, and imagine things that have never existed. When they perform tasks without conscious awareness, as if on autopilot, they are limited to reacting to what is in front of them. Consciousness also helps us socially. We are always trying to fathom other people’s thoughts and motivations, and self-awareness may emerge as we turn this ability on ourselves. Other mammals possess these same brain areas and show analogous behavior.

So, consciousness helps us navigate a complex world. And if consciousness helps us, it could help robots and computers, too, giving engineers a practical reason to design it into their systems. Out of philosophical caution, we might still question whether these systems are conscious. That is perhaps unknowable. But if they act as if they are, people will treat them as such. Thus we have both elements of panpsychism. Engineers have achieved the “pan”—they have embedded computers everywhere—and are working on the “psychic.” Mind dust, meet smart dust.

When debating panpsychism, the question is not whether, but when. Either the world already is panpsychic or it will be.

Rucker has imagined such a transformation. In a short story for Nature in 2006, he speculated that brain-to-brain interfaces might be applied to non-human objects. The protagonist mind-melds with a rock.

In a 2008 physics paper, Rucker addressed an objection to panpsychism raised by Karl Popper and others. A mind needs memory. Without it, organisms could only be reactive; they could have no inner life. Yet basic physics is memoryless. How the universe evolves depends only on its current state; it doesn’t matter how it reached that state. Memory is a higher-level feature requiring large assemblies of atoms. Simple structures lack it. How, then, could they be conscious? Rucker speculated that exotic new physics, such as the dynamics of higher dimensions of spacetime, could endow even the simplest system with memory. The cosmologist Bernard Carr has explored similar ideas.

If we could hear machines converse, they would sound like the squeaking and squawking of a rainforest.

Rucker incorporated these musings into his novels Postsingular and Hylozoic. In Postsingular, the world is infested with nanobots that network together into a hive mind. In Hylozoic, the material world itself springs to life as a result of higher-dimensional physics and ejects the nanobots. Rucker depicts two steps toward artificial panpsychism, technological at first, then anti-technological.

The books paint a fascinating picture of a fully sentient world. People can telepathically communicate not just with friends and family, but with atoms, burbling brooks, and the planet as a whole. If your friends come over for dinner, the group forms a temporary collective mind that you can commune with. Every act becomes a negotiation: You had better apologize to the brook for urinating on its bank and talk nice to your hand tools. Say the right words to the right atoms and you can heal wounds or fly like Superman. On the downside, villains can brainwash atoms, unraveling the fabric of reality.

In the world Rucker portrays, you can see the emotional appeal of panpsychism, how it enchants people who find the world of physics cold and impersonal, and how it would imbue all things with moral status. Environmentalists, in particular, are drawn to that. People maybe wouldn’t pollute streams that could talk back. Artists, too, often speak of their work as a negotiation with their materials. “Art is really a cooperative endeavor, a work of cocreation,” wrote philosopher David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous, one of the most eloquent evocations of this romantic view of panpsychism.

For Rucker, the second stage in the panpsychic transformation is essential. The world of nanobots doesn’t qualify as panpsychic to him. A philosopher might agree. True panpsychism embeds mind within basic physics; it’s not enough to scatter smart chips like seed corn. On his website, Rucker publishes an extensive series of notes about the backstory to his novels. He writes: “Already my car talks to me, so does my phone, my computer, and my refrigerator, so I guess we could live with talking rocks, chairs, logs, sandwiches. But they’d have ‘soul,’ not like chirping electronic appliances, which is really kind of different.”

But is it? If your house is filled with picture frames, vacuum cleaners, and smart speakers that dim the lights, answer your questions, dodge around your feet, and watch over you, it may well be the suburban equivalent of living among forest spirits. It will not matter where the minds come from as long as they are there.

Imagine being a conscious electron. You have some kind of inner life, but no senses, no mouth, no opposable thumb.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature. Agriculture de-wilded the meadows and the forests, so that even a seemingly pristine landscape can be a heavily processed environment. Manufactured products have become thoroughly mixed in with natural structures. Now, our machines are becoming so lifelike we can’t tell the difference. Each stage of technological development adds layers of abstraction between us and the physical world. Few people experience nature red in tooth and claw, or would want to. So, although the world of basic physics may always remain mindless, we do not live in that world. We live in the world of those abstractions.

For now, we can just about maintain the distinction between technology and biology. But what seems like high technology to us now might seem like a law of nature to future generations. Having forgotten the origin of the computers that permeate their world, people might take them to be an innate feature of the universe. Their philosophers might well assume that mind is fundamental. (You might also wonder whether alien civilizations, which could be billions of years ahead of us, are invisible to us because they are so deeply woven in the fabric of our reality.)

Digital panpsychism is rather more plausible than higher-dimensional physics, anyway. Rucker magics away the problem of communicating with other minds by making a hand-wavy appeal to quantum effects. But in an artificially panpsychic world, it’s just a matter of wiring. Brain-to-brain interfaces are already under development. Neuroscientists have linked the brains of rats and of monkeys using implanted electrodes and of humans using scalp electrodes and external magnets. Last year, a team of scientists and visionaries speculated about using nanotechnology. As a proof of principle, some conjoined twins share neural circuits: one feels, tastes, and sees what the other does. It is not outlandish to imagine that brain interfaces could be extended to artificial brains.

A brain could also be linked to an artificial-intelligence system by adapting the “chip test” proposed by Susan Schneider. Scientists would swap parts of your brain for functionally equivalent electronic components to see whether it affects your conscious experience. If not, this would demonstrate that consciousness can be implemented in any substrate and is not specific to brain tissue. But it might also be a way to share subjective experiences with our electronic creations.

For Abram, much of the appeal of panpsychism is that it makes us engage with the non-human; it takes us out of ourselves. Artificial panpsychism is starting to do that. Right now, technology is closely tied to specific human needs. But as machines proliferate, they will have their own needs, which other machines will satisfy. If we could hear them converse, it would sound like the squeaking and squawking of a rainforest. An ecosystem is emerging with its own logic that, for better or worse, is not human logic.

You might well wonder whether that is desirable. My family, driven mad by our smart house, certainly would. But if artificial panpsychism has troubling aspects, so does the natural variety. In all the debates over panpsychism, skeptics concede its romantic aspects. Nobody asks whether they would really want to live in such a world.

A panpsychic world is not a warmly embracing community. Unless telepathy really is possible, most minds would be locked in, forming a vast crowd of atomized individuals. Imagine being a conscious electron. You have some kind of inner life, but no senses, no mouth, no opposable thumb. You feel utterly alone. You will have to endure forever; death can bring you no relief. It sounds like the very definition of hell. Admittedly, the electron’s experience is unimaginable in human terms, and we shouldn’t project our own values onto it. But isn’t that what writers and thinkers do when they romanticize mentality?

And there are other issues. Forget about privacy. You couldn’t so much as take a shower in solitude. Moral considerations could backfire. It’s impossible to reduce our environmental footprint to zero, and depending on what kind of mind you think things possess, your every breath might cause suffering. Vegetarians might find that eating tofu is as morally fraught as carving a steak. And as soon as you tell an artist they have to do something—in this case, respect their materials—they want to try the opposite. They might long for the freedom of an insensate world.

The good thing about artificial panpsychism is that it is our choice. If we don’t want to live in a world surrounded by minds, we don’t need to go there.

George Musser is an award-winning science writer and the author of Spooky Action at a Distance and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory. Follow him at @gmusser.

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This post originally appeared on Nautilus and was published February 27, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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