At Nautilus, evolutionary biologist Tam Hunt asks us to consider the “General Resonance Theory of Consciousness,” which he has been developing with psychologist Jonathan Schooler — “a framework with a panpsychist foundation. It may, he thinks, “at least in theory, provide more complete answers to the full array of questions the hard problem of consciousness poses.”
Hunt’s quite clear about the panpsychism (the view that everything in the universe participates in consciousness):
Since I came up in philosophy, rather than neuroscience or psychology, for me the easy part was deciding the philosophical orientation. Schooler and I duked it out over whether we should adopt a materialist, idealist, panpsychist, or some other position on our way to a complete answer. I am, as I’ve written in Nautilus before, a card-carrying panpsychist, inspired by Alfred North Whitehead, David Ray Griffin, David Skrbina, William Seager, and Chalmers. Panpsychism suggests that all matter has some associated mind/consciousness and vice versa. Where there is mind there is matter, where there is matter there is mind. They go together like inside and outside.Tam Hunt, “The Hard Problem of Consciousness Has an Easy Part We Can Solve” at Nautilus (September 8, 2021)
Before we get to the Hunt–Schooler theory itself, first, let’s begin by noting a remarkable fact: Panpsychism seems to have triumphed in the area of theories of consciousness. Christof Koch’s well-regarded theory of consciousness is also panpsychist. And no one blinks.
Are there serious materialist theories of consciousness even out there any more? There are. But it is unclear how many of them are taken seriously (except, possibly, in pop science mags)
One of the best known materialist theorists is Tufts University prof Daniel Dennett, who says things like “What we think of as our consciousness is actually our brains pulling a number of tricks to conjure up the world as we experience it. But in reality, it’s all smoke, mirrors, and rapidly firing neurons…”
In response to this kind of thing, philosopher Howard Robinson of Central European University noted in From the Knowledge Argument to Mental Substance: Resurrecting the Mind, Dennett’s general method . . . is what might be called the “Jericho method”: he believes that if he marches around a philosophical problem often enough, proclaiming what are, plausibly, relevant scientific truths, the problem will dissolve before our eyes. (Cambridge UP, 2016, p. 22.)
Now, what’s the new Hunt-Schooler theory? It relies on the general idea of resonance:
Things that resonate in proximity to each other will, under certain conditions, achieve a shared physical resonance, and thereby a combined consciousness. This shared resonance refers to frequencies, or cycles per second. And it’s looking more and more likely, as data comes in, that the key frequencies at issue for human and other animal consciousness is electromagnetic field resonance of various types. This is measured by tools like electroencephalography and magnetoencephalography. By achieving a shared resonance, the bandwidth and speed of information flows increase remarkably, allowing far more energy and information to flow between the constituents. This will, all else equal, result in a new higher-level consciousness. Where before there was a lack of resonance and rather chaotic energy and information flows, now there is a smooth transfer of energy and information. We call this “the shared resonance conjecture” in our theory.Tam Hunt, “The Hard Problem of Consciousness Has an Easy Part We Can Solve” at Nautilus (September 8, 2021)
Of course, the problem of melding the material and the immaterial remains, as Hunt admits,
What do boundaries even mean in the context of a seemingly immaterial thing like consciousness? What we’re referring to is the boundary of the physical energy and information flows that provide the content of consciousness. It’s something like axiomatic that for any information (like perceptions or internally-generated thoughts) to become part of consciousness, in each moment that information needs to reach the physical geography generating that consciousness. This would be the brain, in the case of humans and other animals (though not exclusively the brain, as we’re learning).Tam Hunt, “The Hard Problem of Consciousness Has an Easy Part We Can Solve” at Nautilus (September 8, 2021)
The researchers are testing their theory. They start with the advantage that they are not trying to explain away the most obvious fact of human life — the mind. And they are talking about information.
Note: Hunt and Schooler provide more technical information in an open access paper in Frontiers of Human Psychology.
You may also wish to read: The final materialist quest: A war on the reality of the mind. Going to war with the very concept of the mind is an approach even George Orwell did not think up. When Orwell wrote 1984, he addressed destroying minds, not denying their possibility and changing the language associated with them.