Electrons don’t think (or suffer)

by shminux1 min read2nd Jan 201911 comments


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There is an EA fringe that talks about suffering in elementary particles. Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder reminds her readers why this panpsychist idea is nonsense.

TL;DR: "if you want a particle to be conscious, your minimum expectation should be that the particle can change. It’s hard to have an inner life with only one thought. But if electrons could have thoughts, we’d long have seen this in particle collisions because it would change the number of particles produced in collisions."

The whole post and the comments are an entertaining read.

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While I agree that the suffering of electrons is unlikely to matter or be real, this post seems to only attack a weak strawman. Obviously a single electron isn't conscious in the same way a human is, but a large collection of atoms and electrons obviously can be (as is demonstrated by the human brain). The argument for electron suffering is that there is no simple binary conscious/non-conscious distinction, that there are gradients, and that while any single electron might not be much of a moral patient, there sure are a lot of them and they might add up (similar to how insect suffering might outweigh human suffering, given the sheer number of insects).

Mild addenda: my current understanding is that a single electron can't suffer because electrons don't have states that vary (and I agree with at least that bit of the OP that things need to have different states for moral patient-hood), but it's at least possibly-plausible that a small group of electrons could be a (low weight) moral patient.

Electrons have physical properties that vary all the time: position, velocity, distance to the nearest proton, etc (ignoring Heisenberg uncertainty complications). But yeah, these variables rely on the electron being embedded in an environment.

Nod. I don't know if I can articulate this rigorously, but I have a sense that for a thing to suffer, the thing needs to have "internal variable state". So a system-containing-electrons can (possibly) suffer but an electron can't.

Moreover, they can vary with changes to the environment that aren't changes to the electron. They aren't proper or intrinsic to the electron, but intuitively ones qualia are intrinsic.

How do you know that they aren't intrinsic to the electron?

Seems people are really confused about the statements made in the linked post.

1. Individual elementary particles have no internal states beyond mass/charge/spin etc. and therefore are incapable of thinking, feeling or suffering, as this would require, at a minimum, processes changing those states.

2. Human-shaped collections of underlying physical constituents clearly have the sensations of feeling something.

3. We do not currently know where the boundary is, as in, what kind of physical or logical structures are needed to support qualia.

I disagree with 2. I know that at least one human has qualia (or at least that the universe has at least one qualia-experiencer which seems localized in one human), but I have no operational definition or test which would allow me to share that knowledge OR to detect it outside myself.

I don't think I've seen people mention whether change over time is a factor in thinking/qualia/suffering? If so, then even elemental particles change in the fields they experience and react to.

Amusing, but kind of meaningless - there is no territory behind that map. Replace "particle" with "collection of particles" and you get roughly the same argument. Replace with "large collection of particles" and it starts to fall apart. Replace with "person" and you get a very different conclusion, with no real change in the fundamentals.

Particles have behaviors, it's just that they're simple enough to model really well. As collections get bigger, models get more statistical and error-prone. Where is the line between "unmodeled behavior" and "choice"?

Until you give me an operational test for thinking or suffering, I can't answer what things are capable of it.

Replace "particle" with "collection of particles" and you get roughly the same argument.

Not really. A collection of particles can occupy any of an astronomical number of states, while two "distinct" electrons are demonstrably identical in almost every respect. So an electron really can't have an inner life. It's pretty surprising that physics answers this question as decisively as it does, it's only possible because exact identity has a distinguished role in quantum mechanics (basically, two sequences of events can interfere constructively or destructively only when they lead to exactly identical outcomes, so we can test that swapping the location of two electrons literally doesn't change the universe at all).

That said, I basically agree with habryka that the OP doesn't really address the possible view that simple physical operations are responsible for the vast majority of moral weight (expressed here).

Even if something like an electron has some weird degraded form of consciousness, I don't see why I should worry about it suffering. It doesn't feel physical pain or emotional pain, because it lacks physical processes for both of them, and any talk of it having "goals" and it failing to reach them means it suffers just reeks of anthropomorphism. I just don't buy it.