Sean Carrol spoke to philosopher Patricia Churchland last year on his Mindscape podcast, where the two of them discussed the relevance of Churchland’s work in neuroscience to morality. Churchland argues that if we want to understand morality (and, I think, pretty much everything relating to mind), we need to understand the brain. This approach has resulted in her being shunned by her philosophy contemporaries, even as she has been welcomed by her neuroscience ones. In this article, I will investigate neurophilosophy, a term Churchland herself coined, as she discusses it in this podcast (to be fair, I haven’t read any of her books on the subject, so my comments in this article are restricted to the podcast), and discuss whether Churchland has been wrongly (or justly) excluded from her philosophical peers.
This is my second article related to Sam Harris’ Waking Uppodcast #124, a discussion with physicist Sean Carroll, about reality, physics, freewill, and a whole bunch of stuff in between. In this article I want to critically examine the tendency among physicists these days to base their understanding of reality on mathematical models they construct about that reality.
The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics
The many worlds interpretation, first suggested by Hugh Everett in 1957, is an attempt to make some sense of the quantum mechanical assertion that unmeasured, or unobserved, quantum systems don’t actually exist in any particular state. Rather, they exist in multiple possible states at the same time and it is only once the system is measured, or observed, that one of those possibilities becomes actual. The many worlds interpretation holds that, at the moment of measurement, rather than one of these possibilities becoming actual, the universe splits into multiple branches, so that each possibility actually actualises, just in different universes.
The two topics I discuss in this article, downward causation and panpsychism, both come from Sam Harris’ Waking Uppodcast #124 in which he sits down with physicist Sean Carroll to discuss… well, reality. Rather than working through these ideas in any detail, what I will mainly do is respond to Carroll’s criticism of them as “…attempts to wriggle around basing reality in stuff obeying the laws of physics [which] don’t quite hold together”.
Early on in the podcast, Carroll brings up downward causation, which is the idea that activity at a macroscopic level can somehow feed back and affect behaviour at the microscopic level in a way you wouldn’t understand if you were only studying the microscopic. With this, he is taking aim at the idea that consciousness can affect any of the ‘real’ physical constituents and processes from which it emerges. Now, if you start with the idea that the ‘real’ is the world as described by physics, which, by definition, means elementary particles and the physical laws that govern their behaviour, then Carroll is obviously right. But is this apparently reasonable claim as reasonable as it seems?