Philosopher thinks panpsychism (“all matter has mind”) is probably true

March 12, 2017 • 9:30 am

Panpsychism has a long history in philosophy, and is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “the doctrine that mind is a fundamental feature of the world which exists throughout the universe.” In other words, everything has a mind, with some philosophers, like Philip Goff, claiming that objects like electrons and rocks have “an inner life”. . “feelings, sensations, and experiences.”

Goff, an associate professor of philosophy at Central European University in Budapest, puts forth his arguments for panpsychism in a new piece in Aeon magazine, “Panpsychism is crazy, but it’s also most probably true.” His arguments for panpsychism—the existence of mind in matter—has three prongs:

  • We know nothing about the intrinsic nature of “inanimate” matter, so it could have mind.
  • The assumption that matter has mind is more parsimonious than assuming it doesn’t, and that’s for the next reason:
  • The “continuity argument” used by some philosophers. As Goff says of matter, “some of it—the stuff in brains—involves experience.” If the matter in brains can produce mind and consciousness, then the continuity of matter between electrons, rocks, and brains means that it’s more parsimonious to assume that electrons and rocks have minds than to assume they don’t. In other words, this is the assumption that such a continuity means that no real “emergent” properties can distinguish a rock from a mammal.

Just to show you I’m not distorting his argument, this is what Goff says. First he gives his conception of panpsychism:

Rabbits and tigers and mice have feelings, sensations and experiences; tables and rocks and molecules do not. Panpsychists deny this datum of common sense. According to panpsychism, the smallest bits of matter – things such as electrons and quarks – have very basic kinds of experience; an electron has an inner life.

Then he defends its ubiquity:

I maintain that there is a powerful simplicity argument in favour of panpsychism. The argument relies on a claim that has been defended by Bertrand Russell, Arthur Eddington and many others, namely that physical science doesn’t tell us what matter is, only what it does. The job of physics is to provide us with mathematical models that allow us to predict with great accuracy how matter will behave. This is incredibly useful information; it allows us to manipulate the world in extraordinary ways, leading to the technological advancements that have transformed our society beyond recognition. But it is one thing to know the behaviour of an electron and quite another to know its intrinsic nature: how the electron is, in and of itself. Physical science gives us rich information about the behaviour of matter but leaves us completely in the dark about its intrinsic nature.

In fact, the only thing we know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it – the stuff in brains – involves experience. We now face a theoretical choice. We either suppose that the intrinsic nature of fundamental particles involves experience or we suppose that they have some entirely unknown intrinsic nature. On the former supposition, the nature of macroscopic things is continuous with the nature of microscopic things. The latter supposition leads us to complexity, discontinuity and mystery. The theoretical imperative to form as simple and unified a view as is consistent with the data leads us quite straightforwardly in the direction of panpsychism.

In the public mind, physics is on its way to giving us a complete picture of the nature of space, time and matter. While in this mindset, panpsychism seems improbable, as physics does not attribute experience to fundamental particles. But once we realise that physics tells us nothing about the intrinsic nature of the entities it talks about, and indeed that the only thing we know for certain about the intrinsic nature of matter is that at least some material things have experiences, the issue looks very different. All we get from physics is this big black-and-white abstract structure, which we must somehow colour in with intrinsic nature. We know how to colour in one bit of it: the brains of organisms are coloured in with experience. How to colour in the rest? The most elegant, simple, sensible option is to colour in the rest of the world with the same pen.

The fulcrum of this argument is that the continuity argument holds across all matter, so if animal brains be conscious and have feelings, their constituent atoms and molecules (and all matter) must as well. This is a denial of emergent properties, but I find it ill-informed. In fact, I’m astounded that this theory has any purchase at all, or that philosophers have taken it seriously.

First, there is no evidence that any non-evolved objects have minds that have conscious experiences and sensations—at least in the sense we do. Just because we don’t know what a rock or an electron “experiences,” the absence of evidence that it has any experience at all—which includes the absence of sense organs, nerves, or any way to get “qualia”—means that we needn’t even consider the idea. And no rocks have been able to convey to us that they have a mind. If there is no way to test Goff’s hypothesis, then it’s nonscientific, no matter how much philosophical lucubration underlies it.

But the continuity argument seems to me flawed. Mind is an emergent property, but so are many aspects of life that distinguish it from non-life: metabolism, hereditary material, directed movement, an “intentional stance”, and so on. Yes, all of these properties are ultimately reducible to molecules, in the sense that their actions must be consistent with the physics of the constituent atoms. But that doesn’t mean that, at some stage in evolution, emergent properties can arise that are not derivable from the properties of atoms. Mind is one of these, as is metabolism. If you’re going to use the continuity argument for mind, you must use it for all the biological properties of organisms, and that means that “panpsychism” must also be “panmetabolism”: electrons and rocks must be able to produce what they need to exist from matter taken in and then changed by a system of enzymes coded by the hereditary material.

The fact of evolution means that inanimate matter will at some point develop new properties that aren’t present in the precursors. Mind is only one of these. As I said, these properties are consistent with the molecular constituents of organisms, but evolution tells us that they need not be present in the molecular constituents of organisms.

Now I am not a philosopher (though I have published one philosophy paper in a peer-reviewed philosophy journal, which is more than creationists can say about biology!), but I’m truly puzzled at the arguments for and apparent popularity of panpsychism, which apparently has found an exponent in the philosopher Tom Nagel. Perhaps some readers with more insight can explain its popularity. But I would like either evidence or a way to test the idea of panpsychism.

So, if you wish, tell me that electrons and rocks have experiences and an “inner life”, just like human minds. I will then ask you for the evidence from nature, and a philosophical argument is not evidence. If you respond with “well, it could be possible” (Alvin Plantinga’s argument for God), I will say that anything is possible in theory, but if you assert panpsychism without real evidence from nature, then I can dismiss it without evidence. That is, I need not take it seriously until you produce an observation supporting panpsychism or a way to test the idea.

Why was this published? Aeon, it seems, has a penchant for trying to harmonize science and religion, at least according to John Boy in his article “Cyberculture and the integration of science and religion“, where he considers the two sites Aeon and Nautilus:

I chose these two publications not because I think these publications are “the most exciting and productive” examples of such work — they may or may not be — but because they appear to make interesting case studies of work being done to bring together digital media and religion. The two publications, Aeon and Nautilus, are, as I mentioned, science publications, but both are set up in a way that ensures religion is among their chief areas of interest. [JAC: Nautilus is supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation, as well as by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute: what a dog’s breakfast!]

. . . the cases of Aeon and Nautilus indicate that the countercultural, new-age dream of integrating science and religion is also being made a reality by cybercultural productions. The grasping search for viable business models — and the seemingly boundless availability of startup funds for tech ventures — is enabling inventiveness not just in the form but also in the content of digital publications. As such, they appear, at least for the time being, to have the capacity to break down old epistemological conflict narratives.

It seems to me that panpsychism is a numinous concept that feeds into religion by asserting that the whole universe is conscious, which some people consider a religious attitude. Some, for instance, consider the “mind of the universe” to be God—that God is a mind that pervades the entire Universe.

That, at least, could be one explanation for the penchant for magazines like Aeon, or philosophers like Nagel with a teleological bent, to argue for panpsychism.

Philip Goff

152 thoughts on “Philosopher thinks panpsychism (“all matter has mind”) is probably true

  1. Air has pressure; by continuity electrons have pressure. Atoms have orbitals; by continuity so must tau quarks. And why don’t rabbits have orbitals? Shouldn’t continuity work both ways? It must if you rule out emergence. And if you allow emergence then a special exception for minds is not parsimonious.

  2. All this tells me that there is at least one associate professor in Budapest that has an irrational mind. All I see is “I want it to be true, so there” – the philosophy of a spoiled 4 year old.

      1. Certainly the only reason I can see for the rise of the flat earth cult. That and a deep distrust and resentment of the educated and informed.

  3. If you respond with “well, it could be possible” …, I will say that anything is possible in theory.

    I think you are much too generous here. Anything is not possible in theory. Human consciousness requires a central nervous system. There is no room inside an electron for a nervous system, therefor there can be no consciousness for an electron. These ideas are simply idiotic, philosophical credentials notwithstanding.

    1. Vibrations. That’s the answer. Everything in the universe is energy and energy vibrates and it’s the vibrations that make everything one. Oh, and love. Sorted.

      1. My immediate reaction was ‘Bollocks!’

        After some reflection my considered opinion is ‘Bollocks!’

        His assumption (implicitly ‘everything is similar to everything else’) is NOT parsimonious.

        In order to draw analogies between entities, they need to have very considerable properties in common. Otherwise any similarities are purely coincidental and misleading.

        The assumption (‘everything is similar to everything else’) is factually incorrect, leads to demonstrably false conclusions in almost every case and therefore I submit NOT parsimonious.

        And also, of course, even a parsimonious assumption is not necessarily correct.


        1. Sorry, that was supposed to be a comment on its own, to the original post and Mr Goff’s proposition.

          It was NOT a reply to yiamcross’s entertaining comment.

          I hate WordPress….


    2. an electron has an inner life.

      There is no room inside an electron for a nervous system

      As far as physics has been able to determine, electrons are elemental particles; they may not have an “inside” at all.

      1. Using fuzzy logic, it can be deduced that electrons are furry on the inside, and Professor Goof is merely parodying a parody. Let’s all laugh.

        HE killed the noble Mudjokivis.
        Of the skin he made him mittens,
        Made them with the fur side inside,
        Made them with the skin side outside.
        He, to get the warm side inside,
        Put the inside skin side outside;
        He, to get the cold side outside,
        Put the warm side fur side inside.
        That’s why he put the fur side inside,
        Why he put the skin side outside,
        Why he turned them inside outside.

  4. His argument, such as it is, is based on “the only thing we know for certain about the intrinsic nature of matter is that at least some material things have experiences”, something we probably all agree with. Pan psychism follows from wildly speculative assumptions.

    Rhetorical stunt.

  5. …..“Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead. He knows perfectly well what he wants and how to get it. ….. – Samuel Butler, Erewhon, Chp 23 (Book of Machines, 1873)

  6. I suspect that positions like this are held (unconsciously) for the notoriety, and supported by motivated reasoning. But once you’ve been seduced by the prospect of the notoriety you’re forever more trying to defend the indefensible and lost to the cause of rationality (like the religious).

    Also, does “in and of” (“how the electron is, in and of itself”) ever mean anything, or it’s it just verbiage designed to make the argument sound more profound?”)

  7. We suffer pain and die when crushed, then so must limestone and other minerals.
    Therefore concrete is murder.
    Making iron, steel or aluminum is genocide!

    1. Rapidly shaking a child back and for is abuse. But that’s what happens to electrons in circuits when you type keys. Therefore, Prof Goff should stop typing.

      1. And if he’s using a laptop, molecules in the battery are being torn apart. Atoms in the LCD screen are having electrons forced up to higher ‘states’ then allowed to crash back again, with such force that photons are blasted out.

        Never mind the keyboard, the electrons in the CPU are being slammed back and forth at megacycle frequencies…


    2. You missed the bit about being burned at … well, probably temperatures comparable to a cremation furnace.

    3. What about metamorphic rocks? Earthquakes? Volcanic eruptions? The Earth must be in agony.

      I’ve always thought Nature (i.e. the animal kingdom) was pretty savage and barbaric. Do I have to extend that to the whole of existence?

      This is horrific.


  8. On the former supposition, the nature of macroscopic things is continuous with the nature of microscopic things.


    The Macrocosm and the Microcosm? That’s some cutting edge 16th century thinking there. I look forward to Goff’s next piece on the Weapon Salve.

    I suppose part his intellectually parsimony is to look at the question purely from the standpoint of Physics rather than include Biology.

  9. Perhaps some readers with more insight can explain its popularity.

    I’m not sure I have more “insight,” but I can come up with some possibilities.

    1.) Panpsychism, like nondualism, cosmic consciousness, pantheism, animism, and the like are all supernatural beliefs, and they pull their plausibility out of the same primitive instincts, folk intuitions, and psychological motivations as religion. Mind and its products are treated as Skyhooks, primary, irreducible, self-explanatory, and, above all, very, very significant and central to the explanation of anything and everything. We project ourselves into inanimate objects because we are so central and significant to ourselves, and the result feels both familiar and satisfying.

    2.) Look at his arguments. They basically reduce to simplistic bromides like “like comes from like” and “as above, so below” and its converse. These actually count as “common sense” in that they’re the kind of superficial, casual connections we naturally make until we know better. Calling advanced knowledge “common sense,” however, allows the sloppy thinker to feel like they’re bucking the system and going deep.

    3.) All we’ve ever experienced comes from our minds. The temptation is to assume that all we’ve experienced IS mind.

    4.) A lot of intelligent, well-educated people despise organized religion, but want some way to fulfill their longings for the benefits of religious belief. Enter Spirituality, a kind of religion-lite which really isn’t that different than ordinary religion — but it allows the believers to feel sophisticated, enlightened, and nothing at all like the shallow distortions coming from the power-driven blind followers of the established Western hegemony. They trade Western theism for Eastern mysticism and think they’ve broken free.

    1. Based on my discussion with smart people who believe this nonsense it comes down to carving out a space for god. If you reject reductionism then voila a god is almost necessary necessary . So panpsych is a way to wave off reductionism. One guy I debated denies chemistry is reducible to physics!

        1. I think they’d like emergence a lot more of it were woo!
          Seriously, a philosophy PhD so opposed to reductionism he denies that chemistry can be reduced to physics, by explaining the chemical bond in terms of quantum mechanics. I was speechless at that point. He went on. So since NO reductionism is EVER possible there must be mind as an “irreducible ” component of the universe!

    2. I’ve never heard of Panpsychism but Goff produces nothing predictive. The allure to encode intelligence to the university verse has more to do with relationships between entropy and energy and how states of information are present in, potentially, every part of matter.

    3. As is so often the case, you beautifully illuminate the situation in just a few paragraphs. It is always a pleasure to read your comments.

    4. Frankly I think it’s the old motivator for religion: fear of death. If everything has consciousness, we never really die.

    5. I think #3 comes close to explaining why *among philosophers* panpsychism is (not entirely un-)popular.

      But we can say more. Jerry approaches the key point right here:

      at some stage in evolution, emergent properties can arise that are not derivable from the properties of atoms.

      Jerry presumably means that, if you were a physicist just thinking about the properties of atoms, it would never occur to you to characterize a particular cluster of them as “alive” (for example). Or “conscious”.

      To take Thomas Nagel’s case, you don’t know what it’s like to be a bat. More specifically, you can’t call up a memory of echolocating moths while flying by flapping your forelimbs. Moreover, no matter how much you study bat neurology, you still won’t be able to call up that memory. That would require your brain to take a shape that it won’t.

      But that tells us absolutely nothing about the ontological relationship between neurology and experience. Epistemology is not ontology. You’d think philosophers would be too careful to avoid equivocating between relations of ideas and relations of the objects those ideas are about – but no. Examine David Chalmers’s arguments, and you’ll find this mistake. I think it comes down to the over-estimation of the powers of conceptual analysis in philosophy. In general, you can’t determine the reference of words from the armchair.

  10. Recipe for further idiocy:
    1)Accept panpsychism as true for no other reason than you want to believe it
    2)Use panpsychism as an argument to prove the mechanism through which homeopathy works
    3)Use the “proof that homeopathy works” as proof of pansychism
    4)Repeat procedure with belief(s) of your choice

  11. Goff’s argument is precisely like that of many Sophisticated Theologians’ arguments for their god. It is always amazing to me that apparently well educated people can construct such juvenile arguments and believe that they are sound.

    When I first began reading some of the best arguments by the most highly regarded Christian theologians I really was dumbfounded. After reducing down all of the sophisticated and specialized verbiage and got to the actual arguments, I couldn’t believe how childish and stupid they were. I’m having the same reaction to Goff’s argument here. It sounds and awful lot like WLC.

    And “parsimonious?” I do not think that word means what Goff thinks it means.

  12. Can’t wait for the SJW’s to adopt this philosophy. “Equal rights for electrons! They’re the most marginalized of all matter. Check your molecular privilege. Did you get the electron’s consent before you plugged in your computer?”

    1. Can’t wait for the SJW’s to adopt this philosophy. “Equal rights for electrons! They’re the most marginalized of all matter.

      Will nobody think of the neutrinos?

        1. I’m not sure about that, as antimatter is stable with other antimatter. But matter that worked for Eris (Hail!) would cause discord with all mater, not just matter of an opposing type.

  13. When people are giving their reasons for believing something and reason #1 is; “Well, it’s not impossible” you probably don’t need to continue on to reason #2.

  14. It is quite funny!

    It reflexes the echoes of quantum
    consciousness and theory that reality can be reduced to hologram…

    There is on YouTube very interesting lecture of David Tong about quantum fields theory…
    I was waiting for some people to make claims in this direction…
    and they never failed!

    Thank you for bringing forward this example.

  15. This is the fallacy of composition, as I understand it.
    Inferring that because something is true of a part of the whole then it must be true of the whole.

    1. Actually I think it would more correctly be considered a fallacy of division.

      “A fallacy of division occurs when one reasons logically that something true for the whole must also be true of all or some of its parts.” [Wikipedia]

      And, as Gregory Kusnick points out below, it is structure that determines a capacity for consciousness, and I’d suggest specifically a structure suited for doing information processing.

      As AlphaGo and other examples of deep learning demonstrate, networks of neurons (natural or artificial) are eminently suited for information processing.

      1. But we know that consciousness, whatever it turns out to be, is true for some of the parts. We have conscious experiences.

        The inference is that therefore the whole must be conscious.

    2. I think so, too. Given that the part in question is our glorious selves, surely the entire scope of reality must be capable of explaining our glory by being just as personal as we are.

  16. The problem with Goff’s brand of panpsychism is that it attributes all of the explanatory power to microscopic bits of matter, and none of it to structure. On his view, we should expect very large concentrations of matter — mountains, planets, stars — to display even more consciousness than human brains do. But they don’t; they’re as inert as rocks.

    Clearly it’s the structure of the human brain, not its scale, that plays a crucial role in generating consciousness. So the continuity argument (if there is one to be made) ought to focus on aggregations of matter with similar structural qualities. I might be sympathetic to the idea that, say, autocatalytic ribozymes have some (extremely rudimentary) form of self-awareness, by virtue of their ability to recognize their own nucleotide sequence, that human consciousness is a similar sort of self-recognition writ large, and that subjective experience just is a natural consequence of such self-recognition.

    But panpsychists never seem to make that argument, preferring instead to blather about the inner life of the electron.

    1. No, your idea of a kind of proto-consciousness is similar to Daniel Dennett’s intentional stance, a gradual evolutionary chain of cranes building on cranes — and the Spiritual cringe at that sort of naturalistic reductionism. They want a magic Skyhook.That’s the whole point. Minds are so remarkable they couldn’t possibly have their origins in ‘mere’ mindless, purposeless bits of matter and energy. So we have to think Big and give them due respect.

      1. In their defense, I think panpsychists are trying to address a legitimate question: how does a cascade of cranes yield subjectivity? They’re just addressing it from the wrong angle by talking about the atoms of consciousness and the consciousness of atoms. It’s not about atoms; it’s about information and self-representation.

        1. It’s interesting that most Indian philosophies didn’t think of mind as being fundamental. Mind or manas was a composition. It emerges and then returns.
          They did see consciousness as fundamental, and referred to it as Cit. It is otherwise translated as awareness.

          There was the idea that cit didn’t mean self-awareness within material objects, but it was the basis for how matter could interact. It was more analogous to ‘feeling’. How iron filings could feel the presence of the magnet.

          Everything that arose and differentiated from the one ultimate substance always remained one and connected. Structure was a big part of it too, though they referred to it as forms. So cit was the original and underlying field from which all matter/energy/structure arises and would return to eventually. They named this aspect Shakti, which translates as power or energy. But Cit/Shakti were always one.

          From this perspective what we experience as consciousness is only possible because of this Cit, or primal awareness, our consciousness is a particular form, or prodution of cit; it isn’t cit in itself.

          What I find interesting is that there are ideas in physics that are compatible with this. As one paper, There Are No Particles, only Fields says “relativistic quantum physics is about fields and that electrons, photons, and so forth are merely excitations (waves) in the fundamental fields.”

  17. All matter has mind. The mind has natural energy (gluten free, probably) but energy is mass (and vice versa), therefore energy has mind too. Mr Goof’s mind is turtles all the way down.

  18. I can’t say I agree with his theories but it’s hard to argue with the quality of his jazz hands.

  19. I think the idea has some merit, though it’s clearly not scientific as there can’t be evidence for it.

    However, there is no scientific evidence that humans have mind either. We just accept it as true because our own experiences tell us it is.

    A rock lacks a nervous system, so it obviously can’t produce complex thought or emotions, or collect information from different sides ito a central brain. But why at some primal level couldn’t its atoms experience the heat they’re absorbing, similarly to how we experience the more complex thoughts produced by our minds?

  20. Donald Hoffman, Professor of Cognitive Science, University of California, has – apparently on developing computational models of the brain – also come to the conclusion that consciousness is fundamental in the universe.

  21. Well, that is just dumb.
    Its a bit like saying that all things also have short wavelength radiation, or heavy particle radiation. It’s continuity, see?
    Honestly, there are some philosophers that provide useful ways to apprehend the nature of things, but I am not seeing one here.

  22. Because I am a terrible person, I thought terrible things upon reading this. Like eating fruit is murder, and if the fact that all matter has a mind means we need to get the consent of condoms before using them.

  23. “But that doesn’t mean that, at some stage in evolution, emergent properties can arise that are not derivable from the properties of atoms.”

    I may be lost in the sequence of negatives, but shouldn’t that read “emergent properties cannot arise”?

  24. I like it. That means both plants and animals have ‘minds’. So there’s no difference in killing/eating one over the other. So I can continue to be a guilt-free omnivore. A condition which my distant ancestors evolved into.

    Yum, bring on the steak (with a nice side salad).


  25. physical science doesn’t tell us what matter is, only what it does.

    Physical science has also told us that minds do detectable physical things. Which is the basis on which we expect rocks don’t have minds; because we can’t detect them doing any mind-like thing.

    Yes, all of these [emergent] properties are ultimately reducible to molecules, in the sense that their actions must be consistent with the physics of the constituent atoms

    Right, but I think that statement hides the real point that Goff is missing: that “emergent property” is the name we give for properties that arise out of interactions between things. If you have one “thing”, it will show no emergent property. Thus as other posters have pointed out, his “powerful simplicity argument” is really just the fallacy of division: not understanding that the components of a system do not have to individually have all the properties shown by the system.

    Properties like viscosity arise when atoms and molecules interact with each other; the individual atoms and molecules don’t have such a property. Minds, as best we can tell, arise out of the interaction between certain types and configurations of neurons. Thus they are not even reducible to single neurons, let alone the chemical compounds or atoms that make up neurons and other stuff.

    It’s that emphasis on the role interaction plays to produce new properties that Goff is really missing.

  26. There’s a basic informal fallacy lurking here–the Fallacy of Division, which is to assume the parts of a thing have the same attributes of the thing. I think Goff stumbles on to the refutation of his own argument though. It is not true that we know nothing of the intrinsic nature of matter. Particle physics describes the intrinsic nature. Furthermore, we do understand some of the nature of consciousness. Follow the span of a human life and it is quite clear that there are increasing levels of self-awareness as the brain develops. There’s zero indication anywhere that individual particles have consciousness. How would this be falsified? Better yet, how would it be demonstrated? This seems to be to just be another piece of philosophy that so separates itself from empirical reality that it renders itself meaningless, neither provable nor falsifiable.

  27. Even if panpsychism seems (to some) intuitive, many intuitive propositions are false, as witnessed by the demise of Aristotelian physics, and many famous examples of counter-intuitive probability such as the birthday problem and the Monty Hall problem, and many an optical illusion including a few posted here at WEIT.

  28. As others have pointed out, the “continuity argument” has long been known under a different name, the Fallacy of Division. I can read a book, therefore my fingernail must be able to read a book. Right.

    I find it a bit shocking that a philosopher would make this simple conceptual mistake.

  29. Philosophers philosophize.
    There seems to be about the same evidence for panpsychism as there is against it. It’s almost like tryng to prove there is/isn’t a god…Except that
    panpsychism seems more logical, since we can actually detect matter.

  30. The idea that there is a consciousness field (like the other physical fields) seems quite parsimonious. There’s just no evidence it exists.

  31. It seems like “everything is alive” should come before “everything is conscious.” If rocks have experiences, surely they are also alive?

    It is not the least bit parsimonious to decide that everything is having experiences, when all the evidence indicates that being alive is a basic prerequisite, and that having experiences ends when life ends.

  32. He had a pet rock as a child and fondly remembers the conversations they had. Pierre was his emotional rock. He always seemed to understand.
    Could it be that simple?

    1. My pet rock is obviously conscious. I say stay, it stays. I say roll over, it rolls over (as long as it is on an incline.) I say shush , it stays quiet.

  33. 🙂

    It would be cynical to suggest that he felt more comfortable with his intellectual equal.


  34. Hello, it’s Philip Goff here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my article! You ask what the evidence is for panpsychism. But the whole point of the argument is that scientific theory choice is determined by two things: evidence and simplicity. I think you are obliged to tell me why my case for panpsychist vs. non-panpsychist accounts of the intrinsic nature of matter is relevantly different to the case for special relativity over the Lorentzian alternative.

    Panpsychism has nothing to do with religion/spirituality. You’re just working with crude cultural associations. It’s not at all consoling to suppose that electrons have a very basic form of conscious experience. And this kind ad hominem speculation about people’s motivations distracts from the argument.

    1. Well I’m no philosopher, so I can’t speak the lingo, and I may be bringing a knife to a gunfight, but it seems to me that what you’ve got there is Bertrand Russell’s teapot – an idea which is incredibly unlikely, for which there is no known mechanism, no evidence (other than that teapots are known to exist elsewhere), but which is virtually impossible to disprove. I don’t think it’s parsimonious to assume universally distributed teapots. Russell’s point was, of course, that the burden of proof lies on the maker of the unfalsifiable claim.

      As for ‘simplicity’, your assertion requires the existence of some mechanism whereby consciousness could exist in inanimate objects. We know how it exists in us – we have a complicated nervous system. This is not how it could exist in rocks or electrons. Therefore a whole new mechanism would be required. This is not ‘simple’, as I see it.


        1. To repeat: why is my case relevantly different to the case of special relativity? Physics tell us nothing about the intrinsic nature of matter, and the panpsychist proposal is simpler than a non-panpsychist proposal.

          The panpsychist view is that consciousness is a basic property of fundamental particles. If something is a basic property, there doesn’t need to be a mechanism underlying it.

          1. But evidence points to there being a mechanism underlying consciousness. For example, the mechanical process of anesthesia has a dramatic effect on consciousness. How can it be explained that the presence of anesthesia compounds in the brain makes a big difference in consciousness if consciousness is a basic property of matter? Anesthesia doesn’t make the matters of the brain temporarily nonexistent.

            There needs to be some mechanism(s) to explain many aspects of consciousness, so there doesn’t seem to be any advantage to a mechanism free philosophical theory of consciousness.

            1. This suggests a critical experiment where populations of electrons (volunteers of course) are anesthetized. Their subjective reports are statistically analyzed to see if before/after differences are evident. This should be conclusive.

              1. wonderer: Good objection. I would say *human* consciousness is a rich complicated thing, dependent on complex structure, and affected my anesthesia. But that is consistent with the consciousness of more basic physical entities being much more simple.

          2. The panpsychist view is that consciousness is a basic property of fundamental particles. If something is a basic property, there doesn’t need to be a mechanism underlying it.

            I think you’re confusing a simplistic theory with a simple one. Why stop at consciousness? “Life” is a basic inherent property of matter. “Wetness” is an inherent property of matter. So is color, texture, smell, and taste. Like comes from like, with the appropriate aspect manifesting itself from time to time. Let’s cut out all the mechanisms. Nothing could be simpler. Now we don’t have to explain anything at all.

            Panpsychism is a supernatural claim, given a particular definition of “supernatural,” one which identifies it with variations on a theme of Pure Mentality. In which case, it’s a spiritual theory or view. That’s not an insult; it’s an observation.

      1. (Re-posting comment below that might be helpful) The crucial point is that physics doesn’t tell us the intrinsic nature of matter. So we have to postulate something that goes beyond physics. It’s not that the panpsychist postulates something and the non-panpyschist doesn’t. The panpsychist postulates consciousness as the intrinsic nature of particles, the non-panpsychist postulates some completely unknown kind of intrinsic nature. Given that the only thing we know about the intrinsic nature is that some of it (i.e. brain) involves consciousness, the panpsychist proposal is simpler.

        1. It may be that physics does not actually postulate anything one would call an intrinsic nature of matter. It merely creates models of observed behavior. The models are not claimed to be ultimate, but are simply used for advancing understanding and making predictions. So perhaps you have created a straw man through which you attempt to make panpsych seem plausible by comparison.

          1. Rickflick: That’s pretty much exactly my point! Physics doesn’t tell us the intrinsic nature of matter, and I’m not asking it too. Physics has been so successful precisely because it’s just interested in predicting behaviour. In order to speculate about the intrinsic nature of matter we must go beyond what physics says.

        2. That is a meaning of the word ‘simpler’ which had not occurred to me.

          Put it another way, I do not think that word means what you think it means.

          I think it may be the ‘inductive fallacy’ as mrclaw69 commented immediately below.


    2. Scientific TRUTH is determined solely by evidence, and you have none–not an iota–yet you say that panpsychism is “very probably true.” Further, some true theories are not simple, as Sean Carroll has pointed out repeatedly. I think YOU are obliged to tell my what evidence you have for your theory beyond a lame “continuity” argument, which is not evidence but philosophy. And it’s wrong. The burden of proof here rests on you, and you got nothing.

      As for ad hominem speculation, I made NO speculations about your motivations, but about why panpsychism attracts magazines like Aeon. Please note that the bulk of my post addresses your argument, and the speculation about why some people find it attractive is just an add-on, and doesn’t “distract” from the argument at all–except, perhaps, to petulant philosophers.

      1. Of course there can be good complex theories, because complexity is not the *only* consideration. A theory must fit the data, and often the simplest theory consistent with the date is extremely complex. I don’t think Sean Carroll would deny that simplicity has a role to play in theory choice.

        So I take it that the almost universal preference for special relativity in opposition to the Lorentzian equivalent is pseudo-scientific nonsense?

    3. scientific theory choice is determined by two things: evidence and simplicity

      1. It is not ‘simplicity’ to attribute to things properties they show no evidence of having.

      2. You seem to misunderstand the concept of emergent properties. I.e. that the interaction between things (atoms, molecules, neurons, etc.) is observed to create properties these things don’t individually have. It is neither simple nor evidential to infer that atoms, molecules etc. individually have a property that, observationally, looks like it arises out of the interactions between neurons.

      At least, that’s my take on why panpsychism fails. “Certain collections of neurons have mind, therefore atoms have mind” is as fallacious as “certain collections of H2O molecules have wetness, therefore hydrogen atoms have wetness.”

      1. As a P.S., we can even construct examples of your reasoning that are patently false, using the fact that atoms and the molecules they form often have very different spectroscopic properties because when you stick two or more atoms together, the electron ionization energies and quantum mechanical level shell structure changes.

        For a simple example, the molecular absorption spectrum of a H2 molecule is different from the atomic absorption spectrum of an unbonded H atom (for bonus points – figure out why just sending a charge through H2 gives back the spectrum associated with unbounded H atoms).

        Thus your ‘continuity’ argument is demonstrably false, even for the simple example combining just two of the same type of (least complicated) atom.

      2. The crucial point is that physics doesn’t tell us the intrinsic nature of matter. So we have to postulate something that goes beyond physics. It’s not that the panpsychist postulates something and the non-panpyschist doesn’t. The panpsychist postulates consciousness as the intrinsic nature of particles, the non-panpsychist postulates some completely unknown kind of intrinsic nature. Given that the only thing we know about the intrinsic nature is that some of it (i.e. brain) involves consciousness, the panpsychist proposal is simpler.

        1. Consciousness could be an intrinsic property of neural structures only. We have no evidence to suggest otherwise.

          Consciousness isn’t even continuous. I read of research that seems to show that information is processed unconsciously taking about 400 milliseconds, and then gives rise to conscious events. So any continuity of consciousness is illusory. We can only be aware of our conscious moments and our brains stitches them together into an apparent whole.

          If consciousness is the intrinsic nature of particles how do you explain unconsciousness?

        2. The crucial point is that physics doesn’t tell us the intrinsic nature of matter. So we have to postulate something that goes beyond physics.

          No, we don’t. It’s entirely possible that physics is all the ‘intrinsic nature’ there is and no ‘beyond’ is necessary. We don’t need to postulate any unknown kind of intrinsic nature, IOW. You are assuming/asserting dualism instead of giving a solid argument for it.

          We have plenty of examples of how the known physics properties of individual particles such as charge, kinetic energy, rest mass, etc. can interact to generate other, new, secondary properties such as viscosity, pressure, current, etc. We understand both that and how these secondary properties can come about even though the particles in the system don’t individually have them. Absent observational evidence that some new, external, other force is creating ‘mind’, we have no need of the hypothesis that such a new force exists.

          Could physics be wrong about mind being an emergent property of interacting neurons? Yes. It’s possible. But there is no evidence it is wrong. There is no evidence for your alternative hypothesis. And meanwhile, we have lots of evidence that the ’emergent’ hypothesis is viable because we have lots of other examples of it actually occurring.

        3. You have it wrong. It is not simpler. All physical phenomena are explained by particle INTERACTIONS. It is simpler to assume that consciousness is explanined by particle interactions too. The molecules in our brains allow for interactions that the molecules in a rock do not. That is why our brains are conscious and a rock is not.

        4. Your notion of “intrinsic nature” seems question-begging since it presumes that electrons have an intrinsic nature, i.e. there’s something it’s like to be an electron. But that’s the conclusion you set out to prove, so I don’t see how you can cite “intrinsic nature” in support of panpsychism without arguing in circles. They’re just two different names for the same thing.

          1. There’s no circularity in the argument, as ‘intrinsic nature’ is not definitionally equivalent to ‘inner life’. There could be intrinsic natures that have nothing to do with consciousness (we just have no evidence for believing that there are).

            So one option which many above seem to be suggesting is just to deny that matter has an intrinsic nature: that there’s nothing more to an electron than what it does. This is a huge debate. I give a detailed argument against this position in the ‘against causal structuralism’ section of chapter 6 of my book.

            1. I think you’ve had enough comments on this thread; you’ve had your say and I don’t want the discussion to be dominated by the author of the article responding to every criticism

            2. If “how the electron is, in and of itself” is not the same as “what it’s like to be an electron”, then I’m at loss to understand what “intrinsic nature” could possibly mean (if indeed it means anything at all).

              As other have pointed out, there is no tiny kernel of stuff at the heart of an electron to which we can assign intrinsic properties. Electrons are entirely defined by their interactions with other particles and fields. Tegmark goes so far as to say that they’re entirely defined by the mathematics of their interactions, and that the appearance of physical reality is itself an emergent phenomenon and not a fundamental truth.

              If Tegmark is right, we have to accept as a brute fact that certain kinds of mathematical relations yield physics, and certain kinds of physical structures yield subjective experience. But nobody (I hope!) wants to claim that tiny bits of consciousness must therefore inhere in the natural numbers.

    4. I for one have no idea how this is equivalent to special relativity.

      Conscious is a term that has a meaning, that was invented to describe a state that is found in a wake human but not a sleeping or knocked-out one, in a living human but not a dead one, and in a human but not a tree.

      There is no way of claiming that a particle is conscious that does not discard the meaning of the word and all its utility for describing the above mentioned differences. Instead there are only rhetorical gimmicks like (1) the fallacy of division or (2) the claim that because two states are connected by intermediates they are indistinguishable.

  35. It seems to me that Goff is making 2 fallacies in his argument:

    Fallacy by appeal to possibility

    It’s possible that X is true, therefore X is true. (It’s possible that “inanimate” matter has mind, therefore “inanimate” matter has mind.)

    Inductive fallacy

    A sample of Q has attribute A, therefore, all Q has attribute A.

    (Some groupings of matter (ie animals) have the property of mind, therefore all matter has mind)

  36. Sorry to resort to name-calling, but I think Prof. Goff is what Frank Zappa called a ‘philostopher’ & Daniel Dennett calls a ‘mysterian’.

  37. I used to believe that rocks had an inner life and that it would be cool if they could tell us all about where they had been..,
    but then I was eight at the time. I also grew out of my belief in fairies too.

  38. What the hell is “intrinsic nature”. I thought there was only one material nature…What am I missing here?

  39. Until we define our terms, there is nothing to talk about either way.

    What is ‘consciousness’? What is ‘mind’?

  40. I ran across this on youtube — another philosopher making a qualified case for panpsychism. I take him seriously, especially his conjecture about consciousness being fundamental.

    1. It’s one thing to say that consciousness may be “fundamental” in the sense that it’s just a brute fact of nature that some assemblages of matter produce subjective experience.

      It’s quite another to say that fundamental particles must therefore have inner lives.

      Chalmers, to his credit, is careful to make that distinction in this talk. Goff, not so much.

      1. “It’s quite another to say that fundamental particles must therefore have inner lives.”

        An analogy (which breaks down quite quickly) might be that all matter has gravitational effects. The gravitational effect of a single electron is insignificant and undetectable. The inner life of a single electron may also be insignificant. It’s only when there’s a conglomeration of particles in a particular arrangement, say the brain of a bumble bee, that significant consciousness starts to manifest itself. I’m not claiming this is the case but we should always look at the strongest case for any given hypotheses.

        1. But if we observe significant consciousness only in particular arrangements of particles, why should we think it parsimonious to attribute consciousness to the individual particles, when it’s the arrangement that makes all the difference?

          Nobody would take seriously the idea that the meaning of a book comes from the accumulation of tiny amounts of meaning in each particle of ink. It comes from the way the ink is arranged on the page.

          If that’s the strongest case for panpsychism, I remain unimpressed.

          1. I don’t think there is a strong case for panpsychism. It’s radical – with no real evidence to support it. The same could be said for every other proposed explanation.

      2. There is an argument (which I’m sympathetic to) that consciousness is fundamental in the realm of information and the processing of information, quite apart from the realm of matter and brute physics. In this view, information transcends matter and fundamental physics. Evolution is a case in point.

  41. I’m freaking out, thinking about how all the cells in my body have their own little “minds”- WHAT are they thinking about? Are they plotting against me?

      1. 🙂

        Well, they’re plotting in their own interests. They don’t care about you, either way.

        Just don’t get in their way!


  42. The universe is about 13.8 billion years old.

    A spot that lay 13.8 billion light-years from Earth at the time of the Big Bang, the universe has continued to expand over its lifetime.
    Apparently that same spot is 46 billion light-years away now due to the expansion of the universe, making the diameter of the observable universe a sphere around 92 billion light-years.

    I can see the headlines now:

    Scientists discover particles, and therefore the fields of which those particles are quanta, are conscious.

    But because information can only travel at the speed of light parts of the universe have still not received any information from other parts of the universe.

    Our universe is conscious, but severely retarded.

  43. I’d be interested in what you think of the reasons David Chalmers gives (in peer-reviewed academic publications, rather than an essay in a popular magazine) for thinking that panpsychism might be true.

    1. There’s a good summary of the arguments for and against panpsychism here:

      The main contenders (to explain consciousness) are 1) emergentism or 2) consciousness is a fundamental feature of nature.
      I suppose there’s also a 3). Supernaturalism. I’d define this as the idea of disembodied minds (deities, souls, ghosts etc.).

  44. So I guess this means that genes can be selfish after all….

    (Meant ironically, of course — it’s always advocates of ideas like panpsychism who think Dawkins was claiming that genes are selfish!)

  45. So, how would this work in a multiverse? There should be at least one +verse where the intrinsic nature of fundamental particles does not involve experience. Bet such a +verse would look a whole lot like this one.

  46. The point that David Chalmers makes relentlessly, and which is unanswerable by materialism (or naturalism) as currently understood, is: Why does consciousness even exist? What is this weird, subjective internal movie FOR? Why aren’t we all zombies, behaving mindlessly according to deterministic physical laws, lacking free will and a subjective sense of self and qualia? The epiphenomenon of consciousness seems, according to materialism, to be superfluous and pointless. What is the adaptive value, especially in light of experiments that show consciousness to be after-the-fact and irrelevant to our behavior? It isn’t apparent, to say the least. This is the hard problem.

    1. Chalmers’ notion of zombies is incoherent. By definition they (a) lack subjective experience, and (b) are indistinguishable from conscious people. But these two criteria are incompatible. Point (b) entails that zombies must be capable of conversing knowledgeably about the nature of consciousness and subjective experience, which according to (a) they don’t have.

      And it should be obvious that consciousness is not irrelevant to our behavior, since our behavior includes conversations about consciousness such as the one we’re having now.

      1. I’m only pretending to be conscious. I’m actually a zombie, but you can’t tell the difference.

      2. More seriously, I think you’re misconstruing the zombie thing. The point is that they lack only one thing — consciousness. Why, according to naturalism (I’ll use Jerry’s preferred term), should they act any differently? Why shouldn’t they, for example, spend time in online debates about the true nature of consciousness? It’s because the deterministic laws of physics makes them do so, according to the naturalists. The consciousness hypothesis is not required, and not explained.

        1. Suppose I know nothing of (say) Persian romantic poetry. It might well be the case that deterministic events in my brain could cause me to talk about Persian romantic poetry anyway, but it would be a remarkable coincidence if the things I said about it turned out to be true, given my lack of actual knowledge.

          Chalmers’ zombies have the same problem. Deterministic forces could cause them to say all kinds of things about consciousness, but we have no reason to expect the things they say to be true unless they have some actual knowledge of the subject. And by definition, they don’t. This puts severe limits on a zombie’s ability to pass for a real conscious human.

          1. We seem to be talking at cross purposes.

            I’m taking the naturalist position at face value. That we follow the deterministic laws of physics, ending up whoever were are, perhaps discussing consciousness or Persian romantic poetry, without a choice in the matter. No free will, remember? History unfolds, deterministically and inevitably.

            1. Naturalism doesn’t say that we’ll end up discussing consciousness whether or not we’re actually conscious. It says that we end up discussing consciousness because we’re conscious, that consciousness is a natural phenomenon inextricably embedded in the causal web of our behavior.

              This is where Chalmers goes off the rails, by presuming that consciousness can be removed from the equation while leaving the causal web intact. That’s nonsense, since it requires us to believe in a superdeterministic conspiracy theory in which our true utterances about the subjective experience of being conscious are caused by something unrelated to the subjective experience of being conscious.

              That’s why zombies, if they existed, could not pass for conscious humans (or at least not for long), because the causal web of their behavior would lack something that ours has.

              1. Claiming that discussing the nature of consciousness is proof of consciousness begs the question. I don’t doubt that you’re conscious. I’m not claiming, unlike some, that consciousness doesn’t exist or is an illusion. Of course it exists. The point is, WHY are we conscious?

                Naturalism, taken at face value, means that we are incapable of doing anything other than what we actually do, because those things we do are determined by the laws of physics. This is the thrust of Chalmers’s zombies. They obey the same physical laws as we do. Whether zombies could successfully imitate conscious people is beside the point. If anything, if as you claim they couldn’t, that’s a strong indication that naturalism leaves consciousness unaccounted for.

              2. I think you’ve misunderstood Chalmers’ argument, which hinges on the claim that zombies can successfully imitate conscious people, i.e. that all observable human behavior can be accounted for without invoking consciousness as a causal factor. (See the SEP article on zombies.) “All observable human behavior” necessarily includes conversations about consciousness.

                So Chalmers is left claiming that such conversations are caused by something other than consciousness, which is absurd on its face. How would zombies even come to have a word for an experience they have no inkling exists?

                Invoking determinism doesn’t help. Determinism isn’t a license to dismiss absurd coincidences without explanation. If my cat walking randomly across my keyboard happens to spell out coherent English sentences that say true things about the world, and this happens reliably every time the cat walks across, we would want an explanation of how that’s possible, and “the laws of physics” isn’t going to cut it.

                But that’s precisely what Chalmers is proposing with his unconscious zombies that somehow manage to say true things about consciousness, and he hasn’t come anywhere near offering a plausible explanation of how that could be possible.

    2. “What is the adaptive value [of consciousness]”

      How is consciousness related to memory? I don’t think you could have one without the other.

      The adaptive value of memory is surely obvious, in predicting the consequences of actions and situations (which will be similar to previously-observed events). I’d suggest that the process of using memory to predict anything is an inherent part of consciousness.


      1. Memory must be a part of consciousness, but that doesn’t address the hard question. I see no problem explaining memory in the naturalistic, materialistic way, as brain states. No consciousness is required.

        1. Do you have to be conscious to think about things? Remembering ‘that path leads to the river, that one is a dead end’ or ‘there are lots of crocodiles in the deep pools’ or ‘those bushes over there look like the ones with the edible berries’ or suchlike surely has adaptive value. In translating memories into courses of action, I would have thought consciousness was essential.

          (It’s possible our definitions of consciousness could be different and what I think it is, is not what you think it is.)


          1. Would it even be possible to have memories, as we know them, without conscious experiences?

            I could imagine where an unconscious organism could react to a stimulus, as an animal moving along a trail might freeze upon perceiving a predator. But memory allows for reaction to a past stimulus that isn’t present to perception in the moment. So in following that trail in the future the organism could have a readiness to react because through memory the predator is ‘present’ in a sense that is enough to prepare.

            Subliminal learning never worked. All those ideas about listening to information while you slept never went anywhere. Being conscious then is essential for real learning and the memory that goes with it in some way.

            I remember reading about research that showed a big difference between recalling something as opposed to recognising something. The first, the recall of memories into conscious awareness is quite different to recognition, the feeling of knowing something.

            It seems that unconscious cognition might be enough for very simple organisms, but not for complex ones that can learn and change behaviour accordingly.

            1. I think we have fairly direct evidence that consciousness plays a role in at least some kinds of learning.

              We form new habits and break old ones by paying close attention to what we’re doing until the desired behavior becomes automatic or the undesired behavior is extinguished.

              When ballet dancers take a correction, it’s not purely a computational process of integrating new information. The information being integrated is inherently subjective, and involves consciously comparing internal body-position qualia to learn what correct and incorrect posture feels like. Reproducing correct posture requires conscious attention to these qualia during performance.

              More generally, the first step in correcting our errors is often recognizing that we’re making them. If your unconscious finger-drumming annoys someone, the way they get you to stop is by bringing it to your conscious attention.

              If someone wants to argue that all this attention, recognition, muscle memory, and so on can be accomplished without producing any sort of conscious experience, then I think the burden is on them to show how that’s possible.

              1. Yes. You make a good point about unlearning something. Only by consciously attending to something can you stop what has become automatic.

                Then you have the experiments in “split-brain” patients where information is provided to the right hemisphere, like pictures of naked people, and it provokes a reaction like blushing and giggling. When they’re asked why they’re laughing they confabulate, like saying it’s the doctor’s questions that are funny and causing them to laugh.
                So there is perception of the images but it’s not conscious, and they can’t consciously recall seeing what they didn’t experience as a conscious event in the first place.

              2. “Only by consciously attending to something can you stop what has become automatic.”

                Yes. Habit can be surprisingly powerful.

                I frequently listen to my MP3 player in bed and a while back I put on Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ and promptly dozed off. I woke up three tracks later, to my mild annoyance at missing it. So I put it on again – and promptly dozed off again. To my surprise it took me five attempts and extreme concentration to listen right through without automatically dozing off. I obviously didn’t want to doze off but the habit that I’d just inadvertently ‘learned’ was too strong. I wouldn’t have believed it could be that powerful if it hadn’t happened to me.


  47. Since some philosophers are dead it follows by continuity that all philosophers are dead.That article of John Boy is my go to reference why I stay as far away from Aeon and Nautilus as I can.

    If there is an ‘intrinsic’ nature, it is physical laws. They ultimately derive from symmetries without which nature would not exist. And speaking of those laws, we have known for a century now that quantum physics reject the notion of mind and consciousness in elementary particles and their quantum fields. Philosophers should at least try to be as factful as their flights of fancy permits (or tempt ridicule).

    1. … or at least I recognize Boy’s title and the content, but not the layout and did not have it bookmarked. Oh well.

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