Professor Svenonius* came to mind recently as I was reading something about panpsychism. I’m not unfamiliar with the concept; many philosophers recently have considered or advocated it (David Chalmers for example, who has also compiled a list of free online papers on the topic. Nagel has written lucidly on the topic.) The recent emphasis (some would say, over-emphasis) on consciousness as the paramount problem in philosophy has pushed some in that direction.
While in college, I had a persistent thought that I was too embarrassed to discuss with any of my other philosophy professors, but I brought it up to Prof. Svenonius. The thought was that somehow every object in the universe had to somehow know what it was supposed to do. Even an atom exhibited “behavior” in a manner of speaking. Each discrete object or entity followed certain laws and so forth. How does that work? It seemed to me that there was a hidden form of knowledge that was lurking below the materialist surface of everything. I didn’t think rocks and water droplets or gamma rays were conscious, but they exhibited “knowledge” of some kind. I thought it odd that we could “extract” the laws of physics and define them in mathematical and linguistic terms and yet the other objects/entities in the universe were cold lifeless collections of matter that had no “real” features to match our definitions.
It’s an important ontological question, though I may not have realized it at the time. The notion that the very laws that we describe “all the way down” to the level of the quark, do not exist is nonsensical. So what are they? They can’t be mere abstractions of reality that we impose on the world (though that view persists). They also can’t be separate features of the universe like Plato’s ideas. So the conclusion is that they are intrinsic “properties” of the stuff in the universe itself. (I use the term “property” provisionally).
We can call these things “brute facts” which is what I think we end up having to do, but the idea still nags at me.
The thought experiment one is inclined to do is to try to account for the reality of these features of the world in the absence of a conscious observer. It becomes exceedingly difficult to imagine what entities in the universe even are if descriptions of them didn’t exist. It certainly doesn’t follow that I am skeptical of the physical reality of the universe. But without an observer is there a size relation? is there temperature? is there distance? are there any relational features at all? In the absence of a privileged point of reference, it seems to me that these concepts dissolve away.
To preserve them there has to be information, however minimal (even binary) that persists and is inside the entities themselves.
I told Svenonius my idea about information and he listened, looking down at the ground as we walked. He made some kind of affirmative gesture, then laughed nervously, which he did often. That was the end of the conversation, but I was satisfied to have found a PhD in the department who didn’t shoot me down.
Later in my college career I took a seminar on Spinoza, and I was satisfied that he was more or less correct so I stopped thinking about it. But now I don’t know.
*I took symbolic logic with Professor Lars Svenonius who died a few years ago. He was a very good logician; there’s a theorem named after him. A patient instructor, he at least pretended to enjoy teaching introductory logic. He was the personification of the absent-minded professor. In his heavy Swedish accent he would express surprise and delight at odd times, chuckling to himself. I visited his office a number of times. It was a picture of chaos. Not large, and quite dirty in addition to being horribly cluttered.