I’ve written two critical posts about the ideas of Philip Goff (a philosophy professor at Central European University in Budapest): here and here. In both places (Aeon and NPR, respectively), Goff argues for “panpsychism”—the idea that in some sense the entire Universe is conscious. He waffles on exactly how that consciousness is manifested, or where it comes from, but in a new piece in Aeon magazine, “Is the Universe a conscious mind?“, Goff not only continues his daft arguments, but now claims that a conscious Universe is the best explanation for the “fine-tuning” of the physical constants that make life on Earth possible.
Let us put aside the contentious claim that the laws of physics are fine-tuned for life, since we just don’t know anything beyond the fact that the constant permit life. Goff says that there are three explanations why we are lucky enough to live in a universe where the constants of physics enable us to contemplate our luck: a beneficent being who made the laws, panpsychism, or the multiverse. He neglects two other explanations: we’re just lucky, or that there is some reason we don’t understand why physical constants have to take the form they do.
Goff says that panpsychism is the best explanation because theism is afflicted with the problem of evil, which has no clear solution (true!), and the multiverse hypothesis fails —or so he says—because consciousness in a multiverse is more likely to be instantiated in a Boltzmann brain—a conscious “thing” that formed physically in the universe without evolution—than in evolved creatures that developed consciousness. Conscious evolved creatures, he implies, are much rarer than Boltzmann brains, so he accepts Roger Penrose’s argument that:
. . . by far the most common kind of observer [in the multiverse] would be a ‘Boltzmann’s brain’: a functioning brain that has by sheer fluke emerged from a disordered universe for a brief period of time. If Penrose is right, then the odds of an observer in the multiverse theory finding itself in a large, ordered universe are astronomically small. And hence the fact that we are ourselves such observers is powerful evidence against the multiverse theory.
I doubt that someone like Sean Carroll would agree with that.
I’m not that familiar with Penrose, though I know his ideas aren’t popular, and I know that some readers are familiar with them. But this doesn’t seem a knockdown argument to me. If consciousness evolved even once in a near-infinite number of universes, then the relative likelihood Boltzmann brains versus evolved brains seems irrelevant. But perhaps I misunderstand the argument.
But I do contest Goff’s claim that the universe has a kind of consciousness, and don’t understand at all how even if there were that consciousness, it would explain “fine tuned” laws of physics. Goff proposes two types of panpsychism:
There are two ways of developing the basic panpsychist position. One is micropsychism, the view that the smallest parts of the physical world have consciousness. Micropsychism is not to be equated with the absurd view that quarks have emotions or that electrons feel existential angst. In human beings, consciousness is a sophisticated thing, involving subtle and complex emotions, thoughts and sensory experiences. But there seems nothing incoherent with the idea that consciousness might exist in some extremely basic forms. We have good reason to think that the conscious experience of a horse is much less complex than that of a human being, and the experiences of a chicken less complex than those of a horse. As organisms become simpler, perhaps at some point the light of consciousness suddenly switches off, with simpler organisms having no experience at all. But it is also possible that the light of consciousness never switches off entirely, but rather fades as organic complexity reduces, through flies, insects, plants, amoeba and bacteria. For the micropsychist, this fading-while-never-turning-off continuum further extends into inorganic matter, with fundamental physical entities – perhaps electrons and quarks – possessing extremely rudimentary forms of consciousness, to reflect their extremely simple nature.
Yes, but surely consciousness requires some kind of neurological substrate, and at some point on the journey from humans to quarks, that substrate disappears completely. What kind of consciousness, then, does a photon have, and how is it formed? He never says. Nor does he discuss that idea that consciousness could be an emergent property of life when it’s reached a certain stage of neurological complexity, and need not be manifested on the scale of particles—just as “wetness” need not be manifested on the scale of a single molecule of water. It takes quite a few of them. Wetness is not a property of an individual molecule, but appears when you get a bunch of them together, and is consonant with the laws of physics.
In the end, though, Goff accepts a different form of “holistic” panpsychism:
However, a number of scientists and philosophers of science have recently argued that this kind of ‘bottom-up’ picture of the Universe is outdated, and that contemporary physics suggests that in fact we live in a ‘top-down’ – or ‘holist’ – Universe, in which complex wholes are more fundamental than their parts. According to holism, the table in front of you does not derive its existence from the sub-atomic particles that compose it; rather, those sub-atomic particles derive their existence from the table. Ultimately, everything that exists derives its existence from the ultimate complex system: the Universe as a whole.
. . . If we combine holism with panpsychism, we get cosmopsychism: the view that the Universe is conscious, and that the consciousness of humans and animals is derived not from the consciousness of fundamental particles, but from the consciousness of the Universe itself. This is the view I ultimately defend in Consciousness and Fundamental Reality.
The cosmopsychist need not think of the conscious Universe as having human-like mental features, such as thought and rationality. Indeed, in my book I suggested that we think of the cosmic consciousness as a kind of ‘mess’ devoid of intellect or reason. However, it now seems to me that reflection on the fine-tuning might give us grounds for thinking that the mental life of the Universe is just a little closer than I had previously thought to the mental life of a human being.
But if this cosmopsychism has no mental-like features, why and how would it “fine tune” the universe for organic life? A “mess” couldn’t do that. And what, exactly, does he mean by cosmopsychism? In the end, Goff has to accept something like a God, a powerful conscious entity that has a purpose and resolve to fine-tune the laws of physics. The only difference between the Abrahamic God and Goff’s “conscious universe” is that the latter isn’t as powerful. I quote:
But the cosmopsychist has a way of rendering axiarchism intelligible, by proposing that the mental capacities of the Universe mediate between value facts and cosmological facts. On this view, which we can call ‘agentive cosmopsychism’, the Universe itself fine-tuned the laws in response to considerations of value. When was this done? In the first 10-43 seconds, known as the Planck epoch, our current physical theories, in which the fine-tuned laws are embedded, break down. The cosmopsychist can propose that during this early stage of cosmological history, the Universe itself ‘chose’ the fine-tuned values in order to make possible a universe of value.
. . .How are we to think about the laws of physics on this view? I suggest that we think of them as constraints on the agency of the Universe. Unlike the God of theism, this is an agent of limited power, which explains the manifest imperfections of the Universe. The Universe acts to maximise value, but is able to do so only within the constraints of the laws of physics.
Well, I thought the laws of physics were what was to be explained by the Big Non-Goddy Brain, so it appears that Goff is begging the question. The laws, he says, are already there, and impose constraints on the Universe Brain, so how can they be tweaked for life? At this point the argument appears to vanish up its own fundament, but Goff continues the obscurantism:
Having said that, the second and final modification we must make to cosmopsychism in order to explain the fine-tuning does come at some cost. If the Universe, way back in the Planck epoch, fine-tuned the laws to bring about life billions of years in its future, then the Universe must in some sense be aware of the consequences of its actions. This is the second modification: I suggest that the agentive cosmopsychist postulate a basic disposition of the Universe to represent the complete potential consequences of each of its possible actions. In a sense, this is a simple postulation, but it cannot be denied that the complexity involved in these mental representations detracts from the parsimony of the view.
That’s putting it mildly! But Goff still thinks that an aware Universe wanted to see life evolve over billions of years, and thus twiddled with the laws of physics to do so (while itself constrained by those same laws), and that is more parsimonious than the multiverse or a theistic God. But what is the mechanism of this fine tuning? How does it work?
In the end, the best answer to “why is the universe fine tuned for life” seems to be “We don’t know if it is, and even if it is, there are non-panpsychic and non-supernatural explanations for which there is some evidence. But in the end, we don’t know how to answer this question yet.”
I’m surprised that anybody buys this kind of stuff, because it’s really a form of sophisticated-sounding woo. I guess it gives people solace that there’s Something Bigger Than Us Out There. But why on Earth would Aeon publish two articles about this?
Well, here’s one possibility: a disclaimer at the end of Goff’s piece:
This essay was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton Religion Trust to Aeon and a separate grant from the Templeton funded‘Pantheism and Panentheism’ project to the author. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton Religion Trust.
Yep, Templeton again! But what does it mean that they made this essay possible? Did they pay Goff to write it, or Aeon to publish it, or was it simply part of Goff’s Templeton-funded work? Who knows? But it’s useful to know that Aeon is well ensconced in Templeton’s deep pockets. Caveat emptor!
On the page listing its sponsors, Aeon notes only one “corporate” sponsor:
I suspect Goff’s pieces are two of the “articles and videos bringing to public view important research and deep, new thinking about soceity, religion, and individual development. Oh, those Big Questions!
All I know is that we have two essays on woo at Aeon, which itself is funded by Templeton, and one at NPR; and a competent physicist could take them all apart with ease. Eight words would suffice: “This is all pure speculation unsupported by evidence.”