Recently, a blog by Tam Hunt was published at Scientific American which provocatively declared that “The Hippies Were Right: It’s All About Vibrations, Man.” Hunt’s claim is that consciousness emerges from resonant effects found in nature at a wide range of scales. This is reminiscent of arguments that have been made since the development of the science of thermodynamics more than two hundred years ago. In brief, very intriguing and surprising characteristics of complex systems have been discovered and rigorously defined with such tantalizing terms as “emergence,” “resonance” and “self-organization.”
These kinds of features of the natural world are so amazing—even uncanny—that they have inspired wild speculation as to their possible implications. Are there deep connections between these phenomena and the more mysterious aspects of our existence such as life, consciousness, and intelligence? Might they even provide us with insight into possible answers to expansively fundamental questions like why there is something rather than nothing?
Speculating on such mysteries is an understandable pastime. Diverse thinkers from physicists to philosophers, psychologists to theologians have written libraries worth of treatises attempting to shed light on the possible answers to these deep questions. Along the way, ideas inspired by scientific results have had varying degrees of success. Concepts such as animal magnetism, vitalism, synchronicity, and quantum mysticism all had their day in the Sun, only to end up debunked or dismissed by skeptics and scientists who either pointed out a lack of empirical data supporting the claims or showed that the ideas were incompatible with what we have discovered about the natural world.
In light of this history, I read Hunt’s piece and the paper he published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. Hunt offers a reimagining of panpsychism, an idea with a storied history, but largely without evidence for or against it. While Hunt’s descriptions of natural phenomena appear largely correct, what I did not see was any convincing connection of these phenomena to a testable scientific framework for explaining the existence of consciousness.
Rather, I think his presentation is more or less a list of concepts that he believes are consistent with panpsychism. But why should this idea be a more reasonable proposal than any other? Is there a way to show Hunt’s idea is correct, and, for example, the idea that consciousness is an illusion is incorrect?
Historically, Scientific American has been dedicated to reporting methodologically careful investigations, but in areas where mysteries remain, I can understand that a bit more fanciful speculation may be permitted. Nevertheless, it is important that novel ideas are presented in a way that subjects them to critique. In my Life in the Universe class at LaGuardia Community College, the students and I spend time evaluating claims made about reality according to the rough heuristics that Carl Sagan outlined in his book, The Demon-Haunted World. In this work, Sagan proposes that we all maintain a “Baloney Detection Kit” with tools meant to help us evaluate whether claims are likely to be correct or incorrect. One of the things Sagan asks us to consider is whether what is being presented is a falsifiable hypothesis.
By my reckoning, Hunt’s proposal fails, minimally, this test. In fact, in his journal article Hunt even seems to acknowledge to this: “..there is no proof possible regarding my proposed framework. But ‘science probes; it does not prove’. We must, each of us, proceed instead on available evidence, inference, and aesthetics.”
It is indeed true that there is never “proof” in science in the sense that there may be in formal logic or mathematics, but, crucially, there is disproof. I submit that Hunt’s idea in its expansive formulation does not provide any means for us to discover that it is incorrect. It is, instead, an example of an ipse-dixitism, a claim that is presented as self-evidently true and unfalsifiable, and, because of this, it crosses over from a scientific claim into one that is something else.
By avoiding demonstrable, measurable predictions, Hunt has an idea that cannot be evaluated in scientific terms. This has the effect of avoiding the risk that it might be subject to the kinds of critiques that have been leveled against other strained speculations about consciousness. For example, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hammeroff proposed that consciousness arises from quantum mechanical coherence effects in neurons, a claim that, at least in its simplest formation, Max Tegmark showed was falsified by rapid quantum decoherence that would occur in the (relatively) high-temperature environment of the brain.
As a scientific proposal, at least Penrose and Hammeroff’s idea has the commendable attribute that it was falsifiable in principle. In contrast, Hunt’s proposal is simply unfalsifiable. It may be an attractive description for some, but it does not provide any means for us to evaluate whether it is true.