THOSE who are convinced of the futility of philosophy are fond of pointing to its history and claiming that there is no progress to be discerned there. In no area of philosophy is this claim easier to support than in philosophy of mind, the history of which, when viewed through a wide-angle lens, appears to be a fruitless pendulum swing from Descartes' dualism to Hobbes’ materialism, to Berkeley’s idealism, and then back to dualism, idealism and materialism, with a few ingenious but implausible adjustments and changes of terminology. The innovations of one generation have been rescinded by the next so that despite a growing intricacy of argument and a burgeoning vocabulary of abstruse jargon, supplemented in each era by the fashionable scientific terms of the day, there have been no real and permanent gains.Of course since that was written 40 years ago it could all of changed - maybe the problem of the mind has been solved, but I don't think so.
The question that defined the pendulum is what the relation is between mind and body, and the problem that set the pendulum in motion was Descartes' dilemma of interaction. If, as seems plausible at first glance, there are minds and mental events on the one hand and bodies and physical events on the other, then these two spheres either interact or not.
"Content and Consciousness", D. C. Dennett, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1969
Information surely lies at the boundary of these two spheres.
In the London Review of Books there was recently a review of a work by the philosopher Galen Strawson . There's lots of really intriguing ideas in there, like the suggestion that
...the subjective experience of the self does not require that it persist beyond the lived present, which lasts for less than a secondso not only am I not that same person when I wake up in the morning as the person who went to sleep the night before, but I am a different person from one second to the next.
Not only does the self not persist across gaps in consciousness; it also doesn’t persist across the shifts in the content of consciousness that occur constantly in the course of waking life.
But that's not really what I wanted to highlight here. What I want to raise (which I have just discovered was not in that LRB article, but in an earlier one !) is Strawson's panpsychism:
Strawson ... stands revealed as a panpsychist: basic things (protons, for example) are loci of conscious experienceHaving been reading about native American religions over the Christmas it is quite nice to come across a (modern, Western) philosopher with an argument that might support the idea that trees, rocks and rivers might be conscious, but it is a lot to swallow and I'm not quite there yet!
One of the steps in the argument that leads Strawson to panpsychism is that he doesn't believe in emergence. So, since we are conscious, so too must the stuff we are made of also be conscious. And since that stuff is the same stuff that trees, rocks and rivers are made of, so too might they be conscious. Well, I think that is where I can point to a straightforward disagreement: I do believe in emergence. I think information is an emergent property. The information carried by the bits in a digital communication channel is not in the bits, but 'emerges' from the order in which they are put together.
1 The I in me, Thomes Nagel, review of Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics by Galen Strawson, London Review of Books Vol. 31 No. 21 · 5 November 2009 pp33-34
2 Headaches have themselves Jerry Fodor review of Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism? by Galen Strawson et al, LRB v29 n10 24 may 2007)