Sean Carroll vs. Philip Goff on panpsychism

January 7, 2020 • 10:30 am

Since we’ve been talking about panpsychism lately—that’s the theory that the entire Universe and its constituents are in some way conscious—I thought I’d post a podcast in which two opposing academics hash out the issues.

I’ll be posting a bit more about panpsychism in the weeks to come as I read and learn more about it, but the more I learn, the more I see it as a form of either woo or religion. Its advocates don’t seem to define what it means for matter (like an electron) to be “conscious”, and they admit that there’s no way to test their theory. But they see it as a superior alternative to dualism (i.e., the view that there is material “brain stuff” and nonmaterial “mind/consciousness stuff”) and also to materialism (consciousness is an epiphenomenon of a brain that reaches a certain level of complexity) as way of explaining human consciousness. If the constituents of the brain—and all matter—have some kind of consciousness or some component of consciousness, they argue, then consciousness is inherent in our brain, just as it is in a rock or, as Patricia Churchland put it, in a dust bunny. Ergo, problem solved—or so they think.

I see panpsychism as a cult or a religion: an untestable proposition that adds no explanatory value to neuroscience or non-wooey philosophical approaches to consciousness. And, like religion, its advocates won’t admit of any evidence against their theory (i.e., the many palpable connections between the brain and consciousness), but maintain their hypothesis with no supporting evidence. It’s just consciousness all the way down. And they can maintain it to those who don’t think too hard because there can be no evidence against it—not until they tell us what consciousness means for a rock or an atom.  As philosopher/panpsychism booster Philip Goff says:

I agree that panpsychism cannot be directly tested. But neither can materialism or dualism or any other theory of consciousness.

He’s wrong. We’re already making progress on understanding what neurology requires for consciousness, and how to alter its presence or nature.

Except for free will, I’ve never received as much pushback against what I see as a reasonable, science-based stand as I have for my opposition to panpsychism. I get emails, ticked-off posts by philosopher/panpsychism booster Philip Goff on his website, and even arguments by some readers who favor panpsychism.

Goff himself, in the podcast below, repeatedly states that he’s “heartened” by the increasing (but still minority) view among philosophers that panpsychism is the way to go in explaining consciousness. And others, like physicist Lee Smolin, authors Annaka Harris and Philip Pullman, and philosopher Stephen Law, have endorsed Goff’s new trade book, though this doesn’t mean they all endorse panpsychism. Goff’s claim, in the podcast below and elsewhere, that other philosophers agree with him doesn’t move me, for the number of people who adhere to a falsehood doesn’t increase its truth value.

But on to the podcast: Sean Carroll’s “Mindscape” that you can access by clicking on the screenshot below.  Sean, of course, is a physicist, cosmologist, and author, who knows a lot about philosophy. Debating him is Philip Goff, a philosopher at Durham University and perhaps the most vociferous advocate of panpsychism (he has a new book about it).  Sean states from the outset that he doesn’t accept panpsychism, and that materialism (his view of the world) is perfectly capable of explaining consciousness, though it’s a hard problem and will take a long time to understand.

The podcast is 94 minutes long, and I’ve listened to all of it. I won’t summarize it in detail, but if you want to listen to just the heart of the argument, start at about 1:11:00—71 minutes in.

A brief view of the controversy. Goff avers that materialism won’t help us understand consciousness because all it produces are correlations between brain activity and conscious experience. That, he says, is useless because it doesn’t enable us to get at the heart of consciousness: subjective experience or “qualia”. As he says, “How can you capture in an equation the spiciness of paprika?” (Understanding consciousness won’t necessarily require equations, though.)

In the other corner, on the side of materialism, Sean Carroll, is puzzled at what all the fuss is about. Once he understands how the laws of physics work, he says, we will understand how consciousness arises. (That’s not good enough for Goff, as he says that that “correlational” approach doesn’t tell us what consciousness is, just like Goff says that a definition of mass in physics doesn’t tell us what mass really is.).  Carroll finds this puzzling, since if he has a comprehensive system of understanding how something comes to be, including the real phenomenon of consciousness, then that’s all there is.

(I am summarizing based on one hearing here, and urge you to at least start listening for yourself, at least to the last half hour.)

Carroll’s general response to panpsychism begins about 37 minutes in. In response to Goff’s statement that we need to know what consciousness really is,  Carroll answers he doesn’t really care about the “intrinsic nature of subjective experience”. If you have consciousness and know how it’s produced from neurons and the brain, that’s all there is to know.

As I said, the heart of the disagreement starts about 71 minutes in, when Goff argues that yes, everything is conscious: even the mass, spin, and charge of physical particles like electrons are forms of consciousness: a “limited form of conscious experience.” But that’s about as far as he goes in defining consciousness of inanimate objects. When Carroll asks him if he means that everything is conscious, because everything has physical properties, and whether the the Universe’s wave function is also conscious (Sean talks about that wave function his latest book Something Deeply Hidden), Goff gives a reluctant “yes”. Goff also declares that panpsychism is completely congruent with what physics tell us about the Universe.  Carroll then asks him what panpsychism adds to our understanding of the Universe, and—at least to me—Goff doesn’t produce a coherent answer.

At the end, we see one of Goff’s beefs with materialism when he says that materialism produces a bleak view of life. Instead, says Goff, knowing that “we’re conscious creatures in a conscious Universe” can make us feel better about ourself. It also, he says, will enable us to treat the environment better, for when we realize that plants are conscious, too, we won’t destroy them. (But should we eat them?). But, say I, rocks are conscious as well: does that mean we shouldn’t dig up rocks or pulverize them? Should we split atoms if they are conscious? Is a plant more conscious than a rock?

I am completely with Sean here, as we are both materialists (or “naturalists”, if you will), and I see no explanatory value of panpsychism. But those of you who still adhere to panpsychism might be surprised, as I was, at how poorly the advocates of that theory defend it. It’s not even philosophy, as there doesn’t seem to be much rationality about it.

But click and listen. 


112 thoughts on “Sean Carroll vs. Philip Goff on panpsychism

  1. Another voice in the panpsychism revival is Annaka Harris, as described in her new book: Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind. She is married to Sam Harris.

    1. Sam Harris’s ‘Waking Up’ podcast with his wife some months back was a disappointment. They got pretty prickly with one another, but, most amazingly, both Annaka and Sam are on board with panpsychism. Yes: the same Sam Harris that says belief has to mount with evidence when he’s talking about religion. I can’t understand how this is possible.

      1. I don’t think that is quite right, in “The Reality Illusion” podcast more recently they both stated that they weren’t on board with panpsychism. I didn’t follow the whole episode so I may be bit off though.

        1. Agreed, I think they said at most that they were open to the idea but I don’t think they ever talked about being ‘on board’ with any particular philosophy of why things exist.

  2. I listened to this podcast as soon as it was published and was struck by the difference in clarity and precision in the way the two conversants explained their positions. Philip Goff flailed around for most of the dialog trying to express what exactly he meant. If one really wants to believe in panpsychism, or any other Deepakian woo, I guess any verbiage will do the trick.

  3. It’s interesting that Sean Carroll is now a proponent of the multiple universes (multiverse) explanation of quantum mechanics. This theory is woo-adjacent in that it is not testable and postulates the existence of entire universes for which we have no evidence at all. To be fair to Carroll, he acknowledges the craziness of it and seeks ways to prove it is the right theory. I believe he only accepts it because it is the simplest explanation of quantum mechanics.

    As I’ve pointed out here before, just because a theory is untestable now doesn’t mean it will always remain so. I suppose it is possible that one could prove a given theory untestable in principle but, even then, it would only be relative to our current state of knowledge.

    I wonder if the current seriousness with which the multiverse theory is taken somehow enables other untestable theories to gain attention and avoid ridicule. Not only do we have panpsychism taken seriously by a fair number of serious people, we also have the related Integrated Information Theory which proposes a computational complexity measurement of how conscious a system is. It skips right by any explanation of how consciousness works or even a definition in terms of brain function. It falsely gains seriousness points by using a fair amount of math. The best I can say about it is that it detracts from legitimate consciousness research.

    1. MWI is not “woo-adjacent”. We choose theories based on parsimony, that is, we minimize complexity. Minimizing complexity means reproducing our observations with as few bits as possible.

      It is obvious then, how parsimony favors MWI over all other interpretations of quantum mechanics: You simply do the math, realize that quantum systems entangle with each other, and you get MWI. Other interpretations are less parsimonious since they posit wavefunction collapses and hidden variables. MWI is not woo-adjacent. Not any more than quantum mechanics is woo-adjacent.


      1. Fine but what about all those unobservable universes? You conveniently don’t mention them.

        Perhaps “woo-adjacent” was too strong but I do go on to say that it is still worth exploring and I certainly am not accusing Carroll of being a woo-monger.

        1. Those universes are implied but unobservable to us, as is the universe beyond the observable universe. The observable universe is finite because the speed of light and the age of the universe are finite, but do we think the universe just stops some 46 million light years from here? No, it makes sense to think that the laws of physics imply that beyond the horizon that limits what we can observe is more of the same.

        2. Those aren’t unobservable universes. They are just the other parts of the state vector which, again, comes from taking everything as quantum systems. It’s exactly what happens when two electrons interact with each other, only instead of two electrons, it’s an electron and a human.

          It’s like you have a theory that describes a rotating vector. (Quantum mechanics simply swaps them out for their complex counterparts.) What MWI does is insist that the theory says the vector rotates. Copenhagen, pilot wave interpretations, etc. say that, no, the vector doesn’t rotate when we look at it, it gets projected onto one of the axes. MWI asks why we have to postulate a completely different rule to describe what we see when we already can describe what we see with what we have.

          I do think Sean Carroll is too hung up on the idea of “worlds” instead of emphasizing the bit people keep misunderstanding: MWI doesn’t postulate many worlds. To do that would be to complicate it and make it much less parsimonious, probably even less than Copenhagen or pilot wave interpretations. However, they aren’t postulates. They are derived from the fact that QM says a system is a complex vector doing the complex equivalent of rotating. MWI simply doesn’t say QM is inapplicable somewhere.


      2. Here’s how out of touch I am: what is “MWI”? Google tells me the most likely candidate is a veterinary supply company.

        Well, why not … makes as much sense as this panpsych foolishness.

    2. Carroll gives some interesting reasons for supporting the MWI in his latest book “Something Deeply Hidden”. It’s worth a read even if there is a lot of speculation.

    3. The many-worlds that Sean Carroll champions is not at all the same thing as the multiverse hypothesis. The former is an interpretation of quantum mechanics based on parsimony. The latter is the claim that there are “universes” that are causally unconnected to our own and therefore unobservable.

        1. No, they really aren’t the same thing. Given that they are both attempts to explain our reality it is conceivable that some time in the future we might discover that they both had been pointing to the same thing, but they are distinctly different theories (or interpretations).

          Here’s Sean Carroll addressing your very concerns about MWI, Why the Many-Worlds Formulation of Quantum Mechanics Is Probably Correct
          Posted on June 30, 2014 by Sean Carroll

          A couple of excerpts, though I encourage you (anyone) to read the whole post if your’re at all interested.

          “Our only assumption was that the apparatus obeys the rules of quantum mechanics just as much as the particle does, which seems to be an extremely mild assumption if we think quantum mechanics is the correct theory of reality. Given that, we know that the particle can be in “spin-up” or “spin-down” states, and we also know that the apparatus can be in “ready” or “measured spin-up” or “measured spin-down” states. And if that’s true, the quantum state has the built-in ability to describe superpositions of non-interacting worlds. Not only did we not need to add anything to make it possible, we had no choice in the matter. The potential for multiple worlds is always there in the quantum state, whether you like it or not.”

          . . .

          “There are other silly objections to EQM, of course. The most popular is probably the complaint that it’s not falsifiable. That truly makes no sense. It’s trivial to falsify EQM — just do an experiment that violates the Schrödinger equation or the principle of superposition, which are the only things the theory assumes. Witness a dynamical collapse, or find a hidden variable. Of course we don’t see the other worlds directly, but — in case we haven’t yet driven home the point loudly enough — those other worlds are not added on to the theory. They come out automatically if you believe in quantum mechanics. If you have a physically distinguishable alternative, by all means suggest it — the experimenters would love to hear about it. (And true alternatives, like GRW and Bohmian mechanics, are indeed experimentally distinguishable.)”

          1. I’m sorry but Wikipedia seems to think they are the same thing. In fact, their Multiverse page ( lists Sean Carroll and Hugh Everett among its proponents. The Many-worlds interpretation page ( also says that theory began with Hugh Everett. If they aren’t the same thing, they have a serious branding issue.

            I’m no expert but I think the only difference is the emphasis. Physicists like Carroll don’t go looking for the other worlds or universes. They’re concerned mainly with how quantum states evolve.

            From Sean Carroll himself:

            “Now, MWI certainly does predict the existence of a huge number of unobservable worlds. But it doesn’t postulate them. It derives them, from what it does postulate.”


            1. “I’m sorry but Wikipedia seems to think they are the same thing. In fact, their Multiverse page ( lists Sean Carroll and Hugh Everett among its proponents.”

              That’s weak. A wikipedia page that lists Carroll and Everett isn’t dispositive.

              Many Worlds on the one hand, and the Multiverse on the other, derive from entirely different motivations and physical principles.

              If nothing else, Many Worlds emphasizes parsimony, simplicity, and resistance to hypothesize anything that isn’t supported by observation. The multiverse hypothesis, by contrast, is extravagant in all the opposite features.

              1. Multiverses is the least constrained – most likely – outcome of the eternal inflation that Planck saw 2018.

                It is “least extravagant” in the same way that quantum fluctuations of the vacuum is the “least extravagant” quantum field state. Don’t confuse number of laws or types of objects with number of constraints or number of objects (i.e. parsimony vs possible outcomes).

            2. At 11:11 AM: “This theory ..postulates the existence of entire universes..”

              Now at 3:39 PM: “Sean Carroll himself: ‘… it doesn’t postulate them. It derives them..’..”
              with which you now seem to agree.

              Glad to see you’ve come round (I think) and have become convinced of a very crucial point about the Everettian quantum theory.

              Different point:
              In many responses re use of words such as “multiverse”, “many worlds”, etc., there does seem some confusion, or at least vagueness. Certainly the multiverse of most (not all) versions of inflationary cosmology versus the same word used for this deduction above in Everettian theory seem to be almost entirely distinct, although I know of at least one paper trying to make a connection. The first is somewhat connected to string theory, and the second also, but just sort of trivially in that string theory is of course always formulated as a quantum theory.

              Probably easiest to see detail in popularized form is Tegmark’s book “Our Mathematical Universe”. There,

              inflationary is

              both Tegmark’s #1 multiverse (eventually all observable) and

              is also his #2 multiverse (mostly never observable, and related to landscape/strings), and

              Everettian is #3 multiverse, and

              #4 is ‘all is mathematical structures, Plato without any nonabstract stuff; never forget man, you are just a math substructure of a rather bigger mathematical structure!!’.

              1. You have to define your multiverse, since they are interchangeable.

                You can have string theory vacuums that are not inflationary and inflationary vacuums that are not string theory vacuums (like eternal inflation field theory). Or you can mash them together like string theorists want (since field theories can be subsumed under string theory, if it is a fact of nature).

                Tegmark’s recurrence (multiverse level #1) depends on statistics of eternal inflation, and we don’t have that except on the local scale (Poisson process). So I think that is premature, I think of it as a problem (since I don’t grok it) like the Boltzmann Brain and youngness problems.

                His #4 is platonism, but it is a a trivial observation that math is constructed as a tool. (There is lots of math that go unused or even forgotten.)

                #3 is interesting, but it is one of several possible quantum physics theories. We need testing to know if it applies. (I don’t think it does, right now I think quantum field theory is enough and it has non-locality that can make it act like Copenhagen “collapse”.)

              2. Interesting reply by Torbjorn. Just one added remark to his
                “His #4 is platonism, but it is a a trivial observation that math is constructed as a tool. (There is lots of math that go unused or even forgotten.)”
                There are also mathematical structures sort of opposite, in that mathematicians invented them out of pure mathematical curiosity (best examples might be 1/ Hilbert space and 2/ the Spin groups) prior to any known connection to physical science, though the quantum pioneer(s) were even unaware beforehand of 2/. This is really what Wigner meant by his “..unreasonable effectiveness..”. Tegmark’s #4 surely answers Wigner very effectively–pardon the pun.

              3. To improve the pun, please replace “very effectively” by ‘with great effectiveness’.

        2. They aren’t the same thing. The multiverse exists in spacetime. The many worlds exist in Hilbert space. 🙂

        3. As I see it, the “many worlds” of MWI are an implication of QFT which is an exquisitely tested theory, whereas the multiverse is an implication of the so-called inflaton field which is not a tested theory. So we should give greater weight to the possibility of many worlds than the multiverse.

          However, Carroll seems to love both. I don’t think there is a multiverse theory Carroll doesn’t like, including the string theory multiverse.

          1. Inflation as process is considered well tested by some of the young generation of astrophysicists though, despite that the one outstanding possible test of primordial gravity waves imprinted on the cosmic background remains. (IIRC it is in Matt Dowd’s PBS series – Dowd is one of those young astrophysicists.)

            Eternal inflation field among other possible inflation variants were tested 2018 by Planck collaboration when they finalized the dust removal filters and added some other radio telescope data: it is eternal slow roll with natural exit [Planck Legacy Archive].

    4. “It’s interesting that Sean Carroll is now a proponent of the multiple universes”

      I think “now” may be a non-trivial number of years, and IIRC he has never been a proponent for any of the alternative interpretations of quantum mechanics.

      “This theory is woo-adjacent in that it is not testable”

      With your implication there, it seems likely that you claim to have testable experiments for some or all of the alternatives. (Or are Bohr, Heisenberg, deBroglie, Bohm, etc. also woo-masters?) Verification of such a claim might get you a Nobel eventually, so it would be very interesting to hear about.

      “…postulates the existence of entire universes..”

      On the topic of postulation, firstly to [roughly quote David Deutsch’s humour] a couple of times:

      [The many-worlds theory in a state of denial], i.e. deBroglie-Bohm, postulates a so-called pilot wave which is never observed. It DEpostulates the additional emergent semi-classical worlds which it seems to imply, much as below with Everett. (That’s the “denial”). It seems so far to resist attempts at a decent relativistically invariant version (compatible with quantum field theory, unless I misunderstand), but maybe that can now be done if you have a brand new way of looking at it.

      [The philosophical fig leaf] i.e. Copenhagen, postulates collapse of the state function, instantaneous apparently, totally mysterious, and, in Bohr’s words, more-or-less denies the existence of the electron itself and just about everything else at the quantum level; only the classical world really exists, etc. etc. still now after an entire century which includes a few minor inventions such as the transistor. Do you have an experiment that could falsify that interpretation as explanation but not show that transistors etc. are actually impossible i.e. not contradict quantum mechanics simply as a predictor of experimental results, merely contradict Bohr’s explanation of the world?

      I am aware there are other possibilities from 1st rate physicists. So at least tell us which is the one which to you is obviously preferable to Everett.

      If you carefully read David Wallace’s 2012 thorough ‘text’ on Everettian quantum theory, [namely, The Emergent Multiverse–Oxford Press–530 pages], my understanding is that you will find that these many worlds are not postulated, but rather the existence (emergence)of many semi-classical worlds is deduced. They do not claim that the quantum state function of ‘everything’, formerly known as ‘the universe’, is what is multiplied–notice carefully the word “Emergent” in the title above. You will find a chapter, pp. 46 to 112, dealing with the preferred basis problem, and another three, pp.113 to 257, dealing with probability and the Born rule. “Woo”, in your words, has never seen so much non-trivial and correct mathematics and physics, quite apart from careful discussion of most of the so-called paradoxes of quantum theory.

      As a serious philosopher once said: I do not know how argue against an incredulous stare, unaccompanied by a single word to detail the objection. Again to be unoriginal, this time Everett himself, the common man’s intuitively attractive dismissal of Copernicus’s moving earth is quite analogous to the intuitively attractive dismissal of Everett’s many worlds.

      “for which we have no evidence at all”

      But do you have such evidence for the philosophical fig leaf and/or many worlds in a state of denial, for what they postulate, as I’ve reminded you above?


      I doubt that, if Sean Carroll actually used those words, either he or the late lamented Richard Feynman feel any less a sense of craziness in the actual facts of the quantum world, as revealed by experiment, quite independently of any comprehensive explaining theory.

    5. Atom theory was considered untestable for a long time, see where it is now.

      But let’s head over to astronomy:

      “Many galaxies” theory was considered superfluous philosophy, see where it is now.

      “Many stars” theory was considered bad theology, see where it is now.

      “Star” theory – as in Sun was a planet, and Earth was the center of the universe – was considered bad theology, see where it is now.

      Multiverses is the least constrained – most likely – outcome of the eternal inflation that Planck saw 2018. It is “physics-adjacent”.

      Whether multiverses will be a useful possibility remains to be seen. And that many old cosmologists don’t like it is, like Jerry says, not relevant to its fact status.

      1. “Whether multiverses will be a useful possibility remains to be seen.”

        Yes, that’s pretty much what I said. Perhaps my saying “woo-adjacent” was misinterpreted. I was only suggesting that many woo-mongers have borrowed the multiple universe idea and run with it. Serious scientists need to be careful not to get caught up in it.

  4. “Once he understands how the laws of physics work, he says, we will understand how consciousness arises.”

    Not necessarily – we may have imperfect knowledge of the boundary conditions – hence also imperfect knowledge of the emergent properties needed. But he is right that there is no good reason to suppose that materialism is false (and many good reasons against the contrary).

    The “more” conscious has always been my way in with these folks – what sort of *effects* do the psychic properties of wee electrons have?

    Also, the “but that’s not what mass is like in itself” is a *severely* wrongheaded argument – we *do* know, to some degree, what that property is like: consult a physical theory that includes it (e.g., Newtonian mechanics), that *tells* you. This elementary point is still lost even on some physicists (so it gets mangled and badly done in textbooks).

  5. It is just amazing to me how any reasonably well educated person thinks that panpsychism in an answer or explanation in any way. It is so juvenile, I just don’t get it. It’s as primitive as explaining all material things as combinations of the elements air, fire, water and earth. Perhaps more so.

    Can any of the proponents of panpsychism offer any guesses that are remotely plausible about how all the itty little bits of consciousness of all the quarks, strings or whatever elemental parts they may wish to start with, that make up a human body work together to create human level consciousness? Any mechanisms to propose? Any already described phenomena analogous to this additive quality of an innate property that they propose to at least suggest panpsychism could, maybe, be remotely plausible?

    This reverence for the mystery of subjective experience that so enamors some philosophers (and others) seems to me to be very much like theology. A big to-do over something that, though perhaps amazing for us, should not be surprising at all. Just like theologians they create the awe and mystery by simply saying, and demanding, that it is so. Then they spend countless words revering it, composing the most impressive prose they can contrive using the most impressive words they know, and just like theology when you strip it all down to see what has been said you are left with little but a simplistic conjecture that might be interesting if it were the product of an ancient society from the early iron age.

    1. Indeed – a theory of mass, for example, tells you what happens when two bodies of masses M and M’ are juxtaposed. A classical such theory tells you that you get a body of mass M+M’. In a theory that accounts for nuclear reactions, of course it is more complicated.

      (Incidentally, this shows how one needs *factual hypotheses* if one wants to “apply” arithmetic.)

  6. You guys are being unfair.

    Obviously, any definition you could come up with for the concept of “consciousness” if based on ordinary usage would make it immediately apparent that rocks and atoms and skyscrapers are not conscious. So when a panpsychist uses the concept of “consciousness”, they are using it in a completely vacuous sense, sort of like feminists stating all heterosexual sex is rape, the concept of rape here is vacuous and completely divorced from its ordinary or legal definition of what a rape is.

    Next, you beat up on the panpsychists because their “theory” (really a new rule for the vacuous usage of “consciousness”) explains nothing. Well, of course not, its vacuous. But like “rape” having all those negative connotations, “consciousness” has all those “expansive” connotations, and allows us to look at the universe in an “expansive” way.

    Granted, Goff would do better as a poet than a philosopher, but it sounds like a good book to talk about coming down off shrooms.

    [In terms of Carroll, the idea that if scientists understand how language emerges from the human brain, we will suddenly be able to understand Arabic just based on understanding the biology, no Rosetta Stone necessary, well, he should look at linguistics. Likewise, I imagine human forms of life relating to consciousness et. al. would be unknowable to a non-human intelligence that simply knows physics. You don’t need woo, just autonomous social praxes.]

    1. Carroll’s contention is the equivalent of saying that if you understand the physics that explains how chess pieces move, you understand completely the rules of chess and are an expert on how the play chess.

      I don’t think he would actually say that about chess, so I don’t know why he says it about consciousness.

      1. No, he would say that if you understood a human brain that knows how to play chess, you would understand what the rules of chess are. And if you understand the brain of a chess expert, you would understand how to play chess as an expert.

        Come on, you can do better than that!

        1. The claim is that you “understand” consciousness if you understand:

          how it’s produced from neurons and the brain

          Remember, from my perspective, “consciousness” is a concept in our language that is related to forms of our common social life, not something mysterious hidden in the mind or the brain.

          Understanding “consciousness” is like understanding a one-way traffic sign. [Why do we care about consciousness? Criminal law, what to do about people in persistent vegetative states, maybe animal rights and abortion ethics, etc., legal and ethical and political questions that emerge out of complex societies.]

          You could perfectly well know how to manufacture a one-way traffic sign from materials, without knowing what the sign means or what to do with it. You could imagine a production engineer in China manufacturing traffic signs without understanding what the signs mean, or even comprehending the characters on the sign.

          My point is you wouldn’t “understand” how to play chess even if you know how chess behavior is produced from neurons and the brain, whether that person was an expert or not. The same way you wouldn’t know the value of a currency by knowing how currency is manufactured. [The solution is not dualism or panpsychism to the rescue, either.]

          Lets say you could induce an electroshock that would cause a person to make a particular chess opening through your knowledge of how brains cause behavior. It wouldn’t tell you why anyone would want to make that opening or why chess players commonly use that opening.

          Most educated people understand that languages are autonomous, and you can’t translate a language unless you already have a partial translation (Rosetta Stone). If you knew how Arabic statements were produced from neurons and the brain, you wouldn’t be fluent in Arabic, any more than you would understand an Arabic newspaper just because you knew how to produce one. You might be able to make an Arabic speaker say a certain phrase in Arabic (perhaps), but you can already make a newspaper say whatever in Arabic.

          A person is “conscious” when they behave in conscious ways. If you “understood” how the brain causes this behavior, then you could potentially use this understanding to make them behave in a particular way. You still wouldn’t understand why they would behave that way or why it mattered if they were conscious or not (because that is all related to a social context).

        2. Your model here is that “how to play chess” is somehow “stored” in the human brain.

          What if the brain were based on mnuemonics? Certainly, more efficient for storage, but KPCOVGS doesn’t tell you much unless you have a context.

          I suspect its more a set of behavioral triggers than anything else.

        3. You do not even need to understand a human brain. Deep Blue can beat any human so all you need to understand is Deep Blue, which we do since we built it (by “we” I don’t mean me.)

          1. How do you teach someone to play chess?

            Why don’t you have to teach them physics and how the brain works first?

            If Calculus explains Differential Equations, then you would study Calculus before you could make sense of DEQ. If French is an autonomous study from mathematics, then you wouldn’t have to study Calculus before you learned French. Nor would you expect to derive answers to French Examinations from doing applied Calculus.

            I am confident the brain plays an important role in understanding how humans behave the way that they do (as does the muscles, the sense organs, the skin). I perfectly happy to view the organism as a complex skin bag without conceding that “consciousness” is explained or exhausted by understanding how the brain elicits behavior (while conceding that the latter forms the scientific basis for understanding consciousness).

            1. I suppose it is possible in principle to learn to play chess starting with basic physics and working up, although we do not have that ability now, nor would it be practical if we did. When we do obtain a materialist understanding of consciousness, I expect it will come from higher level disciplines like neuroscience and computing science. I doubt that there is any “new physics” in our brains.

              1. Isn’t it interesting that the laws of physics are not context-based (they apply everywhere, without variation) whereas say rules of usage, etiquette, religious rites, all require context (or what you call pragmatics in logic).

                Can you model a two dimensional space in one dimension? Can you derive a set of context-based rules from invariant laws? I can pound the table and declare it is so, but there needs to be more than hand-waving.

                What is the evidence for my claim? That laws, customs, rites, etiquette are all context-based, and the laws of physics are not, and its not clear how the first could ever be derived from the second, any more than if people try hard enough they can model a 4 dimensional space with three dimensions.


                What is the evidence for the reductionist claim? It is only the prophesy that in the second-coming of science, all will be revealed. At very least, you have to show me one demonstration of how a context-based rule can emerge from a physical law.

              2. “At very least, you have to show me one demonstration of how a context-based rule can emerge from a physical law.”

                A collection of atoms of the same kind (iron, say) has properties that emerge from that context. Iron conducting electricity seems to require a certain context.

              3. Why do we need judges to interpret laws, when nature seems to run along in accordance with physical laws without the need of litigation?

              4. For the record, I’m not opposed to naturalism or naturalistic explanations, but I’m not terribly impressed with reductionism.

                Sure, laws within boundary conditions approximate context-based rules, but you have constant adjudications and re-adjudications of the boundary conditions (in a praxis like law). However, its the very fact that rules are open-ended that makes the need to impose boundary conditions, whereas naturalistic laws are closed.

                Crystals are self-replicating, probably important for giving us some insight into the origins of life. I’m not sure that applying an electro-magnetic field to iron fillings is a “context” because the iron fillings can’t get it wrong, whereas if I am introduced to someone in Japanese, I can use the wrong etiquette and offend someone.

          2. If you look at Skinner, Skinner loved reflexes. His program was training created reflex-like responses in the subject (which makes sense, you have muscle memory from learning to play an instrument which becomes very much like a reflex).

            The problem is that a reflex is context invariant, so the whole thing broke down because human behavior is not context invariant.

      1. Guilty as charged. But at the same time, if you could create the desired effect with a good poem, it would be laudatory. He’s got the wrong medium.

        1. You do poetry an injustice because you do or seem to reduce it to woo. There’s a lot of poetic woo out there, but good poetry for me, whatever flights it takes, is grounded in substantive things and can be explained and defended, even the numinous stuff.

          In this regard, in a previous comment you wrote that reading Goff might be good coming down from psychedelic mushrooms. I say, what a waste of a good trip. Not everyone who takes psychedelics becomes a woomeister, either. I’d say that those with certain wooish predispositions would, and they’d also write woo poetry. I’ve indulged in both and I don’t think I’ve become wooish because I’ve taken psychedelics or that my poetry is woo. It may be execrable poetry but it ain’t woo.

  7. Sean Carroll is a brilliant interviewer. How he can navigate this is beyond me.

    An electrochemical potential is driving cellular function. That’s how things happen. When the cells are at equilibrium, they’re dead. Like a bucket of water with a tube on the bottom, there’s a potential. It’s all inanimate, but raise the bucket up and water starts flowing.

    Isn’t the confusion that is panpsychism akin to looking at the water flowing from the bucket and claiming that because it qualitatively looks alive because it’s moving, there’s something special about it? The bucket is just raised up, producing a potential. Cells are more complex, but there’s still a potential.

  8. I feel embarrassed for Goff going up against Sean Carroll. Goff comes off (hmmm…rhymes) as a anemic thinker as Carroll rolls him around the table like a nervous pool ball. At a few points Carroll’s amused distaste gets the better of him and he lets out a little chuckle.

  9. As far as I can tell Panpsychism is a straight up “God of the gaps” argument. The claim is that panpsychism can explain a phenomenon that materialism can not explain. For the questions science has yet to provide a clear answer, things like God and panpsychism step in to save the day.

    But ask a panpsychist what panpsychism does for us and the conversation goes rather quiet. As Jerry points out the idea that it will make us act better towards animals and plants is asinine. Will we then act better towards rocks and dirt?

    Panpsychism arrises like any other lefty-loo-woo. Start with the idea that humans suck and how can we make them such less? Then hypothesize something like panpsychism because you think that will do the trick. Then craft an argument for it that is immune to scientific inquiry, but answers questions science can not. Presto.

    I’m sure Goff is a nice guy who wants the best for humanity. But as a philosopher or as a commentator on science, he is as delusional as any other religion or woke woo.

    1. “Goff is a nice guy who wants the best for humanity”
      Perhaps he’s a guy who wants tenure in his philosophy department.

  10. When Carroll asks him if he means that everything is conscious, because everything has physical properties, and whether the the Universe’s wave function is also conscious (Sean talks about that wave function his latest book Something Deeply Hidden), Goff gives a reluctant “yes”.

    So panpsychism accounts for everything, but explains nothing?

    (This is where Sean Carroll should make like Yossarian by letting out a respectful whistle and saying, “That’s some hypothesis you got there, Doc, that pansychism hypothesis.”)

  11. ” . . .  rocks are conscious as well: does that mean we shouldn’t dig up rocks or pulverize them?”

    As I understand it, the adherents of the Jain religion in India actually do believe this: to them, destroying a rock or other inanimate object is a sin, although a lesser one than killing an animal or a human. Maybe Philip Goff is a crypto-Jain?

    1. Strangely, I do feel some qualms when I cut down a tree. It’s a living thing, just sitting there rooted in the earth, photosynthesizing and creating new cells when—boom!—it is sitting in my front room, dead and decorated with lights and tinsel.

      1. You could always just dig it up and plant it out again on 12th Night 🙂

        Only partly joking. We did this for 6 years in the 80s, when we lived in a house out in the sticks.

      2. Plants may yet represent their future states. Hence have interests, hence also have their interests frustrated. (This is one way people argue for vegetarianism or veganism, so herein lies a difficult discovery were it made!!)

  12. I think it’s especially interesting that Carroll doesn’t meet Goff’s definition of “materialist”. (I think the word in question was “materialism”, but I’ll have to double-check.) Goff defined a “materialist” as someone who believes that causality is a fundamental property (or relation) of the universe. Sean Carroll, being a brilliant physicist who has mastered thermodynamics, doesn’t believe that (and for good reason).

    1. From the transcript (PG = Philip Goff, SC = Sean Carroll)

      PG – The way I would define materialism actually, I don’t know whether you sympathize, is that the fundamental nature of reality can be captured with a purely quantitative vocabulary involving just mathematical and causal terms. …

      SC – … it strikes me as odd because we’re trying to define materialism and the operative words in your definition were things like math and quantitative. … my definition, whatever it would be, and I don’t claim to have the world’s most perfect definition, but stuff obeying the laws of physics, and that’s a complete description.

      …much later…

      SC: I’m not a big fan of causal terms [in]* fundamental ontology.

      PG: … I think maybe we’ve been talking slightly at cross purposes, because that argument [PG was just making] is more an attack on people who want to take causation as a fundamental feature.

      * – I changed “and” in the transcript to “in”; Sean said “in” there.

  13. Philosophers have been arguing about such things for ages. It’s just another example of the old sorites paradox:

    A single grain of sand isn’t a heap, and there’s no specific number of grains that provides a demarcation between a non-heap collection and a heap.

    A single water molecule isn’t wet, but a large enough quantity of liquid water molecules exhibit wetness; again, there’s no magic number where this emergent property emerges.

    Likewise, a single neuron (biological or artificial) can’t be said to exhibit consciousness (which is as ill-defined a term as a heap or a quantity of wet water), and there’s no magic number where it emerges.

    This is reminiscent of the old theological (theology is a branch of philosophy) arguments about the number of “angels” that could dance on the head of a pin. There’s not much point; it’s argument about vague, ill-defined concepts for little more than argument’s sake.

    1. “There’s not much point; it’s argument about vague, ill-defined concepts for little more than argument’s sake”

      The main point is regularly to defend that other ways of doing research are needed because the “materialist paradigm” prevent a cherished pet-theory to be accepted as scientific.

      Not too long ago, some researchers with affinities towards paranormal “science” published a “Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science” (Beauregard et al., 2014, Explore 10: 272-274). In that text, they exposed a kind of panpsychism (without using that term) based on the assertion that:
      “Mind represents an aspect of reality as primordial as the physical world. Mind is fundamental in the universe, i.e., it cannot be derived from matter and reduced to anything more basic”
      They do not give a clear definition of “Mind” nor rational arguments supporting that it is a fundamental property of the universe (but quantum physics is alluded to, obviously).

      The irony is that the author start their pleading by accepting that materialism gives a fertile ground to scientific research:
      “4. Scientific methods based upon materialistic philosophy have been highly successful in not only increasing our understanding of nature but also in bringing greater control and freedom through advances in technology.”
      The following passages makes clear that if they want to trash this “highly successful paradigm”, it is because scientists generally do not accept the author’s personal ideas as scientifically sound.

      And those who disagree with them are dogmatic materialists, obviously:
      “6. Science is first and foremost a non-dogmatic, open-minded method of acquiring knowledge about nature through the observation, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena. Its methodology is not synonymous with materialism and should not be committed to any particular beliefs, dogmas, or ideologies.”
      Even if their manifesto is a long pleading for introducing subjectivity, beliefs (with a religious influence), and ideologies, in science.

      1. It’s unclear what “other ways of doing research” are desired. A start would be an answer to the question “what measurement or observation would settle the question of whether (or not) rocks possess consciousness?”

        If the answer is “writing books that simply assert so”, then I’ll just smile pityingly and move on.

        Mike Adler explained why in his classic 2004 essay:

      2. Costa de Beauregard is an example of someone who should know better, as far as I can tell. He seems to actually know something about quantum mechanics, but like Eddington, Bohr (sort of), etc. he goes all subjectivist (and idealist) anyway.

  14. Normally I do not like rejecting an idea based solely on personal incredulity, but I am sorry—the idea that rocks have even a smidgeon of the property we call “conscious” is just too crazy for me to waste my time on.

  15. While I was impressed with the intelligence and respect on both sides of the debate, I was disappointed (unless I missed it) that neither Carrol nor Goff expounded on the distinction between atomistic panpsychism, which claims that the smallest, indivisible entities of the universe are conscious, and holistic panpsychism, which claims that the universe, taken as a fundamental single whole, is conscious. As a pantheist, my interest lies in the latter, though I can’t claim that I understand exactly how or if pantheism and panpsychism (a relatively new concept for me) intersect at all.

    1. You apparently didn’t listen to the podcast. As I said in my post (you seem to not be reading them), Goff did express the view that the smallest entities of the universe, electrons, have a form of consciousness. But he also implied that the whole Universe is conscious, too.

      Yes, you missed it. And it’s clear that Carroll doesn’t think that consciousness is a property of either particles or of the Universe.

  16. As far as I can see, panpsychism adds even less to the subject of consciousness than phlogiston added to thermodynamics or elan vital added to the science of biology. It doesn’t seem actually to produce any understanding or insight beyond what we already know, and posits some unjustified and not very well-defined notions to boot. It seems that people think that because THEY experience something (qualia) it must be something “special,” because…well, just because of their feelings/experience. As if nerves put together in highly complex systems weren’t adequate, in principle, for explaining the fact that we experience things with out nerves.

  17. How about this:
    According to the panpsychists, certain kinds of brains (big ones) demonstrate that they are ‘conscious’. Ergo, everything that is simpler than a big brain also has consciousness, only to lesser degrees.
    But then why not also claim:
    Certain kinds of Big Metal Objects (called jet planes) can fly real high and real fast. Ergo, everything can fly, but they don’t fly as fast or high. I am flying, only it’s real slow and close to the ground. So is this laptop computer.

    1. Yes, this is a common theme among the woo-mongers. If X has property Y, then perhaps everything has property Y only to a different degree. It’s a reasonable pattern to think about but not for long in the case where Y is consciousness.

      1. So if X weighs 150 kg., but X’ weighs 70 kg., then everything weighs both 150 and 70. Woo-mongers are usually easy to dismiss, but not always that easy.
        OK, I know you said “degree”!

    2. My laptop computer is running Microsoft Windows right now. If I smash the computer into grains of dust, each particle of dust will still run Microsoft Windows to some degree because Microsoft Windows in a fundamental property of all personal computers! Q.E.D.

      Maybe I can money from the Templeton Foundation.

      1. That’s funny but I think there’s a distinction that panpsychism attempts to account for that a computer illustrates well. Programs are written to run on hardware. Both are in principle tangible- a program could be written on paper, for instance. But it’s when the program is running where things go awry, philosophically. A program that is running, I think (and I’m just me), still just a program. It’s analogous to consciousness- consciousness is a process, not materials. Both are interesting to think about. But panpsychism is confusing a process with something- experience? Don’t know.

  18. Darn. I was looking forward to listening to this podcast, then came to the sudden realization that my brain is no longer fully functioning after weeks without more than three consecutive hours of sleep at a stretch. I had a hard time focusing on more than the fact that Sean Carroll sounds a lot like Howard Stern. I’m not clear, for example, on the significance of all the talk about the Mary’s Room thought experiment, as it relates to panpsychism. Whether or not Mary experiences something categorically different upon seeing red, how does this relate to the entire universe being made up of consciousness? Is it meant as an argument against materialism but not ‘for’ panpsychism, exactly?

    I think the difficulty with panpsychism is that, from the most technical perspective, the world as we experience it is, in fact, 100% made up of consciousness. It’s like saying “everything you see is made up of sight, and everything you hear is made up of hearing”. Because this is the one and only medium we have to know about things, we cannot step outside of it. And, that being the case, we can never know if we are learning about the properties of a world ‘out there’, or the properties of the consciousness that perceives it. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s likely that some sort of evidence that appears to support panpsychism does exist, in the same way that all the things we can see share certain qualities and all the things we can hear share certain qualities. It seems entirely plausible that all the things we can be conscious of, then, also share some sort of intrinsic quality. But all this would tell us, of course, is that this quality allows things to land in consciousness, and if there are parts of the universe that lack it, we would by definition never know about them.

  19. This is a test if you think for yourself or take advice uncritically. My expectation that there will be no responses.
    Theories about panpsychism, free will,qualia and the like share some important characteristics: they cannot be demonstrated empirically, are of no utility to almost anyone and no one cares or takes notice. There is a tiny personal gain to the proselytizers. There is a name for that: grift

  20. In front me is a piece of Swiss cheese with a hole in it. Apparently Goff theory ==> the hole is conscious, if it can manage to stay awake.
    That is not unrelated to his reluctant agreement that the state of a quantum system is conscious. I’m unsure what Bohr would have said about a state function having a nap for awhile.
    Too late for an old fart to produce decent humour, sorry

  21. Knowledge has only one purpose. It’s for predicting the outcome of our future actions so that we know what actions will achieve our desired goal. Therefore knowledge is only useful if it has predictive power in that way. And panpsychism has no predictive power in that way. It can not help us predict the outcome of future actions. It is therefore useless to us.

    The quickest way to end an argument with a panpsychist is to ask them to explain what it can do for us. They don’t have an answer for that question. Goff’s only answer so far is that it might, just might, make us treat trees better. This of course belies the real reason for the philosopher’s absurd hypothesis.

    What WILL make us treat trees better is understanding their function in, and importance to our habitat and biosphere.

    I like Dennett’s take on it. “Okay so let’s say panpsychism is true. Now what?” That’s a paraphrase I don’t know the exact quote but the idea is; what is actionable about panpsychism being true?

    1. “Knowledge has only one purpose. It’s for predicting the outcome of our future actions so that we know what actions will achieve our desired goal.”

      Surely, in my advanced state of elderly decrepitude, acting on my intense desire to understand, before my oblivion, at least a small amount of quantum field theory, and get a bit of knowledge of it, say understanding slightly how it’s possible to measure, then deduce, and get agreement to 1 part in ten billion, is not a complete waste of my and everybody else’s time.

      Two purposes, please? Surely Goff would rightly answer ‘satisfying our curiosity, our desire for understanding’. It’s just that he’s completely wrong in his puported explanation of the world.

      1. I didn’t say it was a waste of anyone’s time. I said it’s not knowledge and so it is of no use.

        As for “satisfying our curiosity” that a good reason to do science, not a good reason to posit incoherent philosophical theories. As for our “desire for understanding” that desire only exists because “understanding” helps us predict the future.

        If Goff satisfied his curiosity or came to a better understanding of the universe by positing this theory he is truly delusional.

        But if he is enjoying the attention or gets tenure it was clearly not a waste of his time.

  22. Alan Watts talks about an unintelligent (conscious) universe being unable to produce something intelligent (us). He points to the Bible’s (I know. Poor choice of documentary evidence.) new testament where it is said that a grape cannot grow from a thorn, nor a fig from a thistle (or something like that). The same goes for the world in which we live. Alan states that rocks are just a rudimentary form of our more complicated consciousness, the main difference being the extent of the consciousness we all have within us as an extension of universal consciousness. Forgive me if this sounds like woo, but the issue is whether our consciousness stops where our skin stops or if the universe is an extension of our bodies with no difference between the two in terms of consciousness.

      1. I’d say it is woo if you see yourself as a skin encrusted ego with an inside of you that looks out on an outside of you. If you see yourself as a manifestation of the universe, then it wouldn’t be woo. It’s just a refection of how you view yourself in relation to the universe.

        1. I’m sorry to say, Tim, that while those words are formed into grammatically correct sentences, they don’t really say anything as far as I can see. Sort of like reading the label on a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap. ALL-ONE!

            1. The dead don’t ‘talks’ about anything. But, it is an interesting aspect of the language in which we may speak about an author as if he/she was alive, even if departed, since his/her writings survive.

    1. If I concede that something conscious cannot arise from something lacking consciousness, will you concede that something conscious cannot arise from something with proto-consciousness? The protean conscious rock is as much of a thorn as the non-conscious rock, neither explains the grape.

      The illustration on the Sistine Chapel is as good a picture (not a theory) as any other picture we have that this time. The reality is we don’t know at this time how life came to be, we just have a lot of speculations. We only have an incomplete understanding of how cells work, albeit that understanding is filling in over time.

    2. To me, this is like saying that something with arms cannot grow from something without arms. (And I don’t know of any “rudimentary arms” in gametes.)

      In other words, it seems like special pleading for conciousness over any other trait of living beings.

  23. I’m not sure they discussed it, but I think a lot of the apparent fascination with panpsy— ..with panpsyc— with … (do I have to say it?) … comes from experience with meditation. There might be interesting and useful *personal* insights from meditation, and challenging thought experiments (I guess) which are perhaps categorized as deliberately shifting one’s own *personal* perceived viewpoints and looking for changes in the experience. And so on. That’s all find and good, but perhaps somewhere in that experience – an experience completely untethered by data recordings – unusual thoughts could occur to the meditator. I say this because I first caught wind of pan-woo-ism listening to the Harrises one podcast – to my dismay.

    That’s what I’ll go with – pan-woo-ism. Thank you whomever pointed out the woo. Or maybe frying-pan-psychism.

  24. I wonder if proponents of panpsychism have offered mechanisms for phenomena like general anesthesia? If you can turn off consciousness by physical means (as those of us who have been under anesthesia know), how do pansphychists explain this? Does the anesthetic’s own consciousness “cancel out” the brain’s, or what? And as the anesthesia wears off and one regains consciousness, what do they think is happening?

  25. “surprised, as I was, at how poorly the advocates of that theory defend it.”

    What you fail to appreciate sufficiently is that what you heard is not a poor defense but, sadly, the best defense. Panpsychism is merely a conjecture born from not understanding the concept of emergent properties and the fallacy of division. Sam Harris makes identical errors in his defense of hard determinism. He’s constantly looking for the homunculus in the hurricane and doesn’t realize that it’s the hurricane that is conscious.

    Truly, it’s a slap in the face to the extraordinary complexity and beauty required to generate *any* degree of consciousness, wrenched, as it were, over eons of deep time from the cold grasp of a universe that is at every point hostile to life itself. To say consciousness is ubiquitous, cheapens the impossibly rare opportunity we have to contemplate and experience subjective qualia at all.

    Consciousness, as far as we know, is only found in brains. The human brain is the most complex object we know of in the universe and it is the product of over 600 million years of eukaryotic evolution. During that time a breathtaking array of degrees of consciousness has emerged, been snuffed out, evolved and preserved to what we have today. I can think of no greater natural wonder that attests to the potential for evolution and natural selection to generate not just adaptations beyond our imagination…but imagination itself.


Leave a Reply