NPR descends deeper into woo; ineffectually discusses panpsychism

July 13, 2017 • 11:00 am

UPDATE: Some of the numinous-o-philia might be explained, as reader Michael noted in the comments, by Gleiser’s possession of two Templeton grants worth a total of $3,7 million.


The Republicans are calling for National Public Radio (NPR) to be de-funded because of its liberal bent. Well, perhaps it has one, but—with the exception of Krista Tippett, who is so unctuous that her words could grease a skillet—I enjoy its programming and news analysis. If it’s to be chastised, it’s not for liberalism, but for its penchant for woo. NPR hasn’t seen anything numinous that it doesn’t like—ergo Ms. Tippett and “On Being.”

I’ve posted about panpsychism before, and said this:

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 Aeonmagazine, “Panpsychism is crazy, but it’s also most probably true.

In that post I dissected and criticized Goff’s piece, and I needn’t reiterate the arguments against panpsychism here. But the whole concept of universal consciousness, which seems to be based more on wish-thinking than evidence, has reappeared in an NPR cosmos & culture essay called “Is the universe conscious?” by Marcelo Gleiser. Curiously, Gleiser is a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, so I’m puzzled by his desire to even discuss this stuff numinous. And the answer to his title question seems to be “I dunno.” Yet he speaks approvingly of panpsychism:

Is this coherence [the fact that the laws of physics apply everywhere in the Universe] an accident or the product of something deeper, perhaps some kind of proto-consciousness that permeates the universe and gives it purpose? This is the question many physicists, cognitive scientists and philosophers have been asking lately, leading to a sort of reawakening of panpsychism. [JAC: They’re all wasting their time!] Panpsychism is an ancient belief that has been an essential aspect of many religions, from the Old Testament’s omniscience and omnipresence God to the Brahman of Hinduism, “the single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists in the universe” (see Page 122 of An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism.) In a nutshell, panpsychism states that mind (psyche) is everywhere (pan). Cognitive scientist Christof Koch has written a poignant defense of panpsychism as a possible explanation for subjective experience.

What has pushed Gleiser towards entertaining a nonmaterialistic, teleological view of the universe (he cites Tom Nagel and David Chalmers as saying that there’s some teleogical “purpose” in the Universe) and thinking that there’s something more to our cosmos than the laws of physics? Well, this is above my pay grade, but Gleiser says you can at least test that idea in this way:

But how could one test such an unorthodox idea? Recently, New York City College of Technology physicist Gregory Matloff published a paper offering a potential empirical test. He argued that cool stars (like the sun) circle the center of our galaxy in a sort of fast volitional motion propelled by interactions between their molecules (they have a few) and the vacuum energy fluctuations that permeate the universe. This motion, he suggests, could explain the effects that astrophysicists currently attribute to dark matter, a hypothetical type of matter that only interacts with ordinary matter (like us and planets) through the gravitational force. For Matloff’s out-there idea to be viable, cool stars would need to have this unidirectional jet not just near the center of the galaxy, but everywhere, something he hopes the European Space Agency Gaia satellite will be able to clarify as it finishes measuring the positions of about 1 billion stars by 2018. Matloff hopes that future observations will show that the jets are not happening only in our galaxy, but in all galaxies that have dark matter. This actually seems plausible due to the coherence effect we mentioned above. There’s nothing special about the Milky Way, given that the same laws of physics apply everywhere within the known universe.

The key question here, of course, is why should one correlate unidirectional jets of stars with some kind of proto-consciousness at the galactic level? Couldn’t there be a more mundane explanation for the effect? The fact that there isn’t a good explanation now doesn’t mean one should invoke something as far-fetched as a galactic consciousness. The same logic applies to UFO sightings, more easily attributed to odd atmospheric phenomena or experimental flying machines than to visiting intelligent aliens from another stellar system.

Now I haven’t read that paper, and I’m gonna ask our Official Website Physicist™, Sean Carroll, what this is about, but I’m dubious that any directed motion would be “volitional”, and, as Gleiser points out himself, what we don’t understand doesn’t mean there’s some purpose behind the Universe, much less some kind of Universe-permeating consciousness. Gleiser then discusses the weird concept of quantum entanglement, which people like me can sort of understand but not on the level that physicists do. He says that doesn’t suggest panpsychism. No, up to this point Gleiser isn’t fully on board with panpsychism. But wait! There’s more! For then he dives into the Woo Pool:

To me, what’s fascinating is that consciousness is what makes the universe exist. Just think that before humans came to be, and discounting other potentially smart creatures out there, the universe was just doing its thing, expanding, stars being born and dying, entropy increasing overall. But as matter organized itself into living things in our planet, it eventually reached a level of complexity that allowed for self-awareness, the ability to know that thyself is a self.

This emergent picture of animal consciousness is the one that is meaningful to us, as it places humans back in the driver’s seat of existence. We will never know all things about the universe, but we have the amazing capacity to always learn more. If the cosmos had us as a plan, it surely hasn’t told anyone so far. But now that we are here, everything is different because we are able to figure things out on our own. This surely makes my day.

This is a mess, coming close to Deepak Chopra’s insistence that the Moon doesn’t exist when you’re not looking at it. What does it mean, exactly, to say that “consciousness is what makes the universe exist”? The Universe existed before there was any consciousness on our planet, and so perhaps Gleiser means that “we’re conscious of the Universe because we have consciousness, and that consciousness gives us a map of the Universe in our brains.” Well, that’s true, but it’s trivial. And it doesn’t deny the objective, human-independent existence of the Universe, much less say that our consciousness extends to rocks and planets.

Further, “matter doesn’t organize itself”, it just obeys those pesky laws of physics. And those laws allowed evolution, and eventually the evolution of consciousness. Surely that’s not teleological, and has nothing to do with panpsychism. Nor does the fact that some species on Earth (and probably elsewhere) evolved consciousness. And how does that “place humans back in the driver’s seat of existence”? Nothing has changed about the Universe since we evolved the ability to understand it, except perhaps that we’ll destroy the one planet we inhabit.

Looking over the piece, with its provocative but unanswered question, it comes down to a farrago of seemingly profound statements that add up to the simple conclusion that “Hey! We understand the universe! Isn’t that cool?”

It’s a writer’s responsibility, when posing a question like Gleiser’s to answer it, and give a coherent case supporting his answer. He does neither. The piece is a woo-ish dog’s breakfast, and even I could have done better—but my text would have contained but a single word: “No!”

27 thoughts on “NPR descends deeper into woo; ineffectually discusses panpsychism

  1. I think Gleiser is fascinated by the universe having developed the ability to think about itself via humans, but it’s certainly unclear. (As he himself said, the universe was just doing its thing long before we were here…)

  2. Now I haven’t read that paper, …

    Having just skimmed that paper I’d say that it can be summarised by the word “crackpot”.

    (And the journal it is published in is the “Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research”, which appears to be a crank journal.)

  3. It seems to me this is bordeline woo. I think we’re in a position to say in outline what consciousness is. Brains are information processing systems to respond to different environments. When the brain is sufficiently complex to include itself in its calculations, along with different possible responses and future environments, thats the begining of consciousness. The network of interactions among stars simply doesn’t do this.
    Its a shame. If it were true Natasha McIlhone might suddenly appear in my house.

  4. Those who marvel at complexity and self awareness in humans forget that we are one species among millions of “less” complex creatures, most of whom lack self awareness. These creatures do not walk, crawl or fly around wondering how life and the planet came into being. If humans disappeared, there would be no more inquiry into these essentially insoluble problems. The adherents of woo seem unaware of the existence of all these other creatures….for whom woo doesn’t exist. Parapsychology, teleology and the supernatural are side effects, even aberrations, of our complex brain, just as
    artistic talents are. The human imagination is a marvelous thing but it ism, like all our other attributes and traits, a product of our
    brain, which is a product of evolution. This doesn’t mean we have to take every fantasy or
    delusion seriously or develop a new theology out of it. Astrology is fun for some people, just as listening to music is for others. Indulging in these doesn’t make us geniuses,
    scientists or philosophers. Tragically some people want to turn their personal imagination into a universal theology or
    “theory of everything”. Most of the time this is harmless and perhaps fun. Sometimes it is
    exasperating and infuriating. Let’s just pat these people on the head and let them go home and ruminate, as long as they don’t expect everyone to take them seriously.

  5. Well, I’m not sure if this is BS or fertilizer, but that said…

    I’m not sure that panpsychism requires electrons and rocks to be conscious in the sense of having a memory which is a substratum of a self.
    One could limit oneself to saying that have an energy which entails a potential for consciousness which is nonetheless only catalyzed by a central nervous system of some kind.
    As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, “Unsurprisingly, each of the key terms, “mind”, “fundamental” and “throughout the universe” is subject to a variety of interpretations by panpsychists, leading to a range of possible philosophical positions.”

    And if you are talking about consciousness pervading the cosmos, then to say “consciousness makes the universe exist” does NOT particularly entail Chopra’s (clearly lunatic – both literally and figuratively) position that the moon (known as ‘luna’ to the Romans) does not exist when we don’t see it.

    But if there is no way of testing panpsychism, then the question is as Star Trek’s Spock said in a novel “operationally meaningless”. What does it “pan out” (pun intended!) to??

    As Darwin said defending his agnosticism about God “A dog might as well try to understand the mind of Newton”.


    Serious thoughts aside, the only image I could come up with as a pun on panpsychism is this photo of fortune cookies being baked in a frying pan

  6. I am not the first to point out that the Universe seems far to large to be fit for purpose or to have any purpose.
    As it was in the beginning a single planet was once quite large enough accommodate all the usual plethora of gods, miracles, pan psychisms etc.
    As we have come to understand more of nature so the confines of cozy old earth have become far less accommodating to these ancient ideas.
    So what happens to them?
    Well they go into space.

    1. Maybe it was objective before LHC showed that you cannot have Chalmer’s zombies or qualia, all you can have in a human body is biochemistry. That result draw a very thin line between nature and woo.

      1. LHC??? Large Hadron Collided?

        How is the impossibility of philosophical zombies shown?

        (Not that I consider P-zombies possible, I am just missing the relevance of LHC.)

  7. Instead of being placed in the “drivers seat of existence” it might be better said that humans are simply back seat passengers of a driverless vehicle.

  8. Perhaps they are right, but not in the way they think. If our psyches are only reactions to physical forces, other than complexity, what differentiates a psyche from stars reacting to gravity?

    1. Well, for one thing there are many more emergent (but not spooky) effects and more forces in play. (Also, psyches are events (or processes) not things, so strictly speaking they would react differently than stars to any of them.)

  9. PCC[E]: “I’m puzzled by his desire to even discuss this stuff numinous”

    Puzzle no more prof – he has a major dose of the Templetons. I searched his name here:

    He has had two awards, as project leader, from The John Templeton Foundation. Total value $3.7 Millsky

    July 2014 – June 2015
    Informational Complexity of Physical Reality
    Natural Sciences

    July 2016 – June 2019
    The Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth
    Philosophy and Theology

    On a side note… Dr. Marcelo Gleiser is [or was] on the editorial board of the bloody awful National Geographic magazine

  10. I think I have said it before, but Gleiser’s willingness to propagate woo is why I stopped reading NPR.

    The workings of the biochemical machine of our bodies and the workings of basic physics are so sufficiently known that I do not need to go over that. But I find it curious that Gott and Gleiser still promotes that after the LHC showed that – as Cat Physicist Sean Carroll often points out – everyday physics does not allow for our minds being numinous.

    Suspiciously Matloff’s paper seems to be trying to hide that, since the abstract speaks of a field that somehow ‘control’ generally weak Van der Waal forces which would then sneak under the LHC constraint. Also suspicious is that it describes an astronomical mechanism but is not published among peers, and that the purported mechanism relies on a color based observation which can have many systematic errors.

    Coel opened the paper and summarized “crackpot”, which would be my guess based on above data. I am not sure I want to give it click scores – or time – after that…

    When did Gleiser start risk his reputation?

    1. July 2016 when he got his Templeton grant? Or a year earlier when he sold his soul to make the bullshit application?

      1. Well … Secterian religions are *supposed* to not be (open) crackpotism …

        But I can go with that. Yet another observation of how religion is harmful for your mind.

    2. My question on Gleiser is of course partly answered by Michael’s comment, I forgot to update before posting again. But even with a whiff of Templeton on his hands, why stink with crackpots?

  11. This seems to me to be wish thinking. It doesn’t make sense. (I have no scientific knowledge so this won’t sound as smart as the rest of you.) To me it’s basically saying the laws of physics are conscious. That’s like that theory, the name of which currently escapes me, that when there are too many people there will be a war or a pandemic to thin the ranks. Or Steve Bannon’s crackpot theory that we’re at the culmination of an 80 year cycle. Or God is real. No. Just no.

  12. I think there is a problem with our perception of consciousness. Quite often it is argued that the complexity and connectivity of the brain gives us consciousness. Fair enough, but then say the connectivity and complexity of large community does that have consciousness? Possibly on a different time scale? Now it is impossible to know (I think) whether this community is conscious or not.

    While I don’t buy this argument, I do think our perception of consciousness is suspect. I can recommend Susan Blackmore’s “Am I conscious now?” as a starting point.

  13. At this point I’m beginning to wonder if NPR doesn’t get an occasional financial shot in the arm from Templeton. Not everyone at NPR can be this foolish. I’ll bet some are just resigned to having to put on a dog’s breakfast once in a while.

  14. Experiencing oneself AS the universe IS possible. Everyone has glimpses of this, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes facilitated by meditation or psychedelics, but it is hard to sustain, and ignorance is quickly re-established. By ignorance, I mean the false (but very sticky) assumption that consciousness is local, limited and personal. No-one participating in this discourse – not Jerry, not Gleiser, not Blackmore, not Chopra, none of these commentators, and not me either – has an abiding experience of BEING the universe, moment-to-moment. But there are those who enjoy this reality, and having contact with them can help the rest of us to recalibrate our perceptions.

    I recommend Francis Lucille as particularly suitable for this audience: he was a nuclear physicist, then taught physics, so his mode of expression will be (somewhat) familiar.

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