Panpsychism and vitalism about stellar objects: a response to Matloff

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That’s Mr. Golden Sun to you

According to an influential argument for mind-body dualism, it is conceivable that there could be creatures that are structurally identical to us and behave identically to us, but entirely lack consciousness (inner experience, or qualia). In the philosophical vernacular, these creatures are known as philosophical zombies, or p-zombies. From the mere possibility that there could be such creatures, it follows that consciousness must be distinct from the physical structures with which it seems to be so strongly linked (including, at the very least, the physical structures of the brain). Irreducibly mental properties or substances are necessary to explain consciousness, even if these properties or substances are invariably connected at a very deep level with physical properties or substances.

According to most dualists, such connections are extremely rare. Descartes, for example, argued that only human brains are linked with mental substance. Other dualists grant the possibility that animals and sufficiently complex computers might also have mental properties. But some dualists take the extreme view that wherever there is matter, there is bound to be mind, if only in an extremely rudimentary form. This is panpsychism (which I’ve discussed in a number of previous entries, including here, here and here).

In an article at NBC, Corey S. Powell reports that a physicist, Gregory Matloff, has published a paper arguing that the behaviour of cooler (and therefore more structurally complex) stars can be explained by attribution of rudimentary consciousness. Cooler stars’ galactic orbits are faster than those of hotter stars; Matloff’s hypothesis is that this is explained by cooler stars’ deliberate choice to orbit the galaxy at a quicker pace, perhaps by means of emitting a unidirectional particle jet of a kind observed in young stars. Matloff calls this the volitional star hypothesis. If the volitional star hypothesis finds further support, he argues, panpsychism could emerge from philosophy to become a part of the natural sciences, like astrophysics.

One problem with this approach is that it contradicts the conceivability argument. Matloff’s hypothesis requires that some stellar behaviour cannot be explained by physical structure alone. It follows from this that there could be no stellar p-zombies — stars that are structurally and behaviourally identical to normal stars, but lacking even rudimentary consciousness. If one believes that physical structure alone cannot account for even the simple behaviour of stellar objects, then it would be unreasonable to believe that physical structure alone could account for the far more complex behaviour of human beings. Matloff’s reasoning commits him to a kind of non-physicalism, but it is a kind that is significantly less popular these days than any variety of mind-body dualism.

It seems clear to me that Matloff’s hypothesis is not dualist in the ordinary sense of the term. The puzzle dualists are concerned with is consciousness, not behaviour. But the puzzle Matloff’s hypothesis addresses is a puzzle about stellar behaviour, and consciousness itself seems to play no role in the proffered explanation. The volitional star hypothesis is better understood as a kind of vitalism rather than dualism, I think. Unlike dualists, vitalists think that a non-physical explanation is needed for certain physical behaviour, namely biological phenomena. Matloff may not be a vitalist about biological phenomena, but he does seem to be a vitalist about astrophysical phenomena.

I find it unlikely that there is any more merit in vitalism about stars than there was in vitalism about plants and animals. Explaining the behaviour of cooler stars may require some new physics, but I can’t see why no physics (no matter how radically revised) could explain this behaviour. A stellar élan vital is, at best, nothing more than a placeholder for whatever future physics fully explains stellar behaviour (and at worst, pure pseudoscience); assuming that physics remains a realm of fully impersonal facts, we should assume that this placeholder is also fully impersonal.

This is not to say that Matloff is wrong to ascribe some rudimentary consciousness to stars. Panpsychism is, in my view, far more plausible than any alternative explanation of consciousness in humans, and it may well imply that some stellar objects have some limited kind of consciousness. The point is simply that in the search for an explanation of stellar behaviour, ascribing consciousness to stars is neither necessary nor helpful, and in the search for an explanation of consciousness, observations of stellar behaviour have nothing to contribute.

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