Yes, we’re gonna have more on panpsychism today, and, after I read Goff’s book (coming via interlibrary loan) I think I’m pretty much done.
I’ve now finished Annaka Harris’s book book Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, and, as I said yesterday, it’s a good read but suffers from her unaccountable penchant for panpsychism, the view that animals like us are conscious because bits of the universe are conscious—not necessarily like us, but in the fact that they have “experiences.”
Harris gives the same two justifications for panpsychism as does Philip Goff in the interview below: there is no way to understand how subjective perception (“qualia”) can arise from purely materialistic phenomena in the brain (this is the “hard problem of consciousness”, and, second, because science cannot tell us what the real intrinsic nature of matter is. Supposedly philosophy can, and that intrinsic nature includes consciousness. How philosophy alone can supply this conclusion baffles me.
But on to Goff, who’s busy flogging his new book on panpsychism Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. As part of his publicity campaign, he has an interview with Gareth Cook in Scientific American, where Goff is a regular columnist. You can see the short interview by clicking on the screenshot below.
First, Goff assures us that panpsychism doesn’t mean that rocks and electrons have the same kind of subjective experience we do. Rather, their consciousness is instantiated this way (my emphasis):
It might be important to clarify what I mean by “consciousness,” as that word is actually quite ambiguous. Some people use it to mean something quite sophisticated, such as self-awareness or the capacity to reflect on one’s own existence. This is something we might be reluctant to ascribe to many nonhuman animals, never mind fundamental particles. But when I use the word consciousness, I simply mean experience: pleasure, pain, visual or auditory experience, et cetera.
But there are two ways to understand “experience”. First, it’s just the things that could happen to an electron: it could go through a slit, travel into outer space, collide with another particle, travel through a wire, and so on. But that’s just a restatement of what an electron does, not what it is. One could also posit that the “experience” had by an electron is something it somehow perceives. But then we’re back to qualia. And if an electron has “pleasure, pain, or visual or auditory experience,” well, that means it does experience subjective sensation. Defining consciousness in that way means that Goff really does think that particles and inanimate objects have a kind of subjective sensation. But he’s a slippery arguer, changing his positions from article to article and refusing to be pinned down.
Then Goff raises the Two Big Arguments for Panpsychism:
1.) The qualitative experience of consciousness cannot be understood by a program of scientific materialism. I indent Goff’s quotes:
Despite great progress in our scientific understanding of the brain, we still don’t have even the beginnings of an explanation of how complex electrochemical signaling is somehow able to give rise to the inner subjective world of colors, sounds, smells and tastes that each of us knows in our own case. There is a deep mystery in understanding how what we know about ourselves from the inside fits together with what science tells us about matter from the outside.
While the problem is broadly acknowledged, many people think we just need to plug away at our standard methods of investigating the brain, and we’ll eventually crack it. But in my new book, I argue that the problem of consciousness results from the way we designed science at the start of the scientific revolution.
A key moment in the scientific revolution was Galileo’s declaration that mathematics was to be the language of the new science, that the new science was to have a purely quantitative vocabulary. But Galileo realized that you can’t capture consciousness in these terms, as consciousness is an essentially quality-involving phenomenon. Think about the redness of a red experiences or the smell of flowers or the taste of mint. You can’t capture these kinds of qualities in the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science. So Galileo decided that we have to put consciousness outside of the domain of science; after we’d done that, everything else could be captured in mathematics.
This is really important, because although the problem of consciousness is taken seriously, most people assume our conventional scientific approach is capable of solving it. And they think this because they look at the great success of physical science in explaining more and more of our universe and conclude that this ought to give us confidence that physical science alone will one day explain consciousness. However, I believe that this reaction is rooted in a misunderstanding of the history of science. Yes, physical science has been incredibly successful. But it’s been successful precisely because it was designed to exclude consciousness. If Galileo were to time travel to the present day and hear about this problem of explaining consciousness in the terms of physical science, he’d say, “Of course, you can’t do that. I designed physical science to deal with quantities, not qualities.”
Other philosophers disagree, and I think that, first, consciousness doesn’t have to be described in equations; many phenomena, such as evolution, can be understood without many (or any) equations. If you can find a way to detect consciousness—and we are arriving at ways of doing that—then you can study mechanistically how it arises. And when you do that, as Patricia Churchland argued in 2005, you have understood the mechanics and origin of consciousness. It is simply what you get when a certain neuronal pathway is followed. As she argues, you don’t need to experience the results of the experiment personally (consciousness) to study how it arises. This first argument for panpsychism is simply an argument from ignorance, whose solution is the Particle Consciousness of the Gaps.
2.) Only panpsychism, deduced through pure philosophy, tells us what the intrinsic nature of matter is, and that matter has a form of consciousness.
But what philosophers of science have realized is that physical science, for all its richness, is confined to telling us about the behavior of matter, what it does. Physics tells us, for example, that matter has mass and charge. These properties are completely defined in terms of behavior, things like attraction, repulsion, resistance to acceleration. Physics tells us absolutely nothing about what philosophers like to call the intrinsic nature of matter: what matter is, in and of itself.
So it turns out that there is a huge hole in our scientific story. The proposal of the panpsychist is to put consciousness in that hole. Consciousness, for the panpsychist, is the intrinsic nature of matter. There’s just matter, on this view, nothing supernatural or spiritual. But matter can be described from two perspectives. hysical science describes matter “from the outside,” in terms of its behavior. But matter “from the inside”—i.e., in terms of its intrinsic nature—is constituted of forms of consciousness.
The claim that there is an intrinsic nature of matter not accessible to empirical study but to philosophers alone defies belief. It is both obscurantist and infurating. What is that intrinsic nature, given that most physicists don’t think anything is missing from our description of particles, nor that there are “intrinsic” properties of matter in principle inaccessible to science? To Goff, those properties apparently comprise consciousness. But how do we test whether matter, the Universe, or the Big Wave Function are conscious? This is what interviewer Cook asks Goff, and Goff simply gives no answer. Look how he avoids the question:
Do you foresee a scenario in which panpsychism can be tested?
There is a profound difficulty at the heart of the science of consciousness: consciousness is unobservable. You can’t look inside an electron to see whether or not it is conscious. But nor can you look inside someone’s head and see their feelings and experiences. We know that consciousness exists not from observation and experiment but by being conscious. The only way we can find out about the consciousness of others is by asking them: I can’t directly perceive your experience, but I can ask you what you’re feeling. And if I’m a neuroscientist, I can do this while I’m scanning your brain to see which bits light up as you tell me what you’re feeling and experiencing. In this way, scientists are able correlate certain kinds of brain activity with certain kinds of experience. We now know which kinds of brain activity are associated with feelings of hunger, with visual experiences, with pleasure, pain, anxiety, et cetera.
This is really important information, but it’s not itself a theory of consciousness. That’s because what we ultimately want from a science of consciousness is an explanation of those correlations. Why is it that, say, a certain kind of activity in the hypothalamus is associated with the feeling of hunger? Why should that be so? As soon as you start to answer this question, you move beyond what can be, strictly speaking, tested, simply because consciousness is unobservable. We have to turn to philosophy.
The moral of the story is that we need both the science and the philosophy to get a theory of consciousness. The science gives us correlations between brain activity and experience. We then have to work out the best philosophical theory that explains those correlations. In my view, the only theory that holds up to scrutiny is panpsychism.
So Goff evades the question, not telling us how or even whether panpsychism can be tested. Very slippery!
So we have two alternatives: First, like Goff, assert that the problem of consciousness is completely inaccessible to science, and the solution relies on philosophical propositions that are untestable. Alternatively, one could say, “Well, we don’t yet understand how consciousness arises, but we’re going to plug away at the problem with science and hope to answer it. After all, we’ve already made progress.” I don’t know about you, but I find the second program far more promising.
Finally, at Wiring the Brain, genetics/neuroscience professor and writer Kevin Mitchell levels a harsh critique at panpsychism, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot.
You can read Mitchell’s incisive critique for yourself, but I’ll give just one excerpt that, to my mind, reveals the big flaw of panpsychism:
Goff claims (here) that panpsychism “solves the hard problem of consciousness” – the mystery of how mere physical matter can give rise to subjective experience. This would be pretty remarkable, if true, given that is one of the deepest mysteries left for science to even begin to resolve. The “solution”, however, is simply to assert that consciousness is a fundamental property of all matter. There’s no real reason to think that is the case – certainly no evidence that it is. Nothing follows from the assertion. It makes no predictions, testable or otherwise. It doesn’t explain the nature of subjective experience that a rock may be having or how that property comes to be. The hard problem remains just as hard – harder even, as now we have to ask it about electrons and photons too.
Indeed, you can make exactly the same series of arguments with respect to “life” instead of “consciousness”, highlighting the absurdity not just of the claim, but of the logic:
- We don’t understand the intrinsic nature of matter.
- Some forms of matter are alive.
- It is therefore parsimonious to conclude that all forms of matter are a bit alive.
Again, that’s a simple statement, but it’s not a simple theory, because it’s not a theory at all.
If you would counter that “life” is too nebulous a concept for this comparison to be apt, I would argue that though the boundary between living and non-living is fuzzy at certain points, if you think about the boundary between living and dead, that makes it pretty clear that being alive is a real, definable property of some things, under some conditions, and not others.
More broadly, the comparison with life highlights a huge unstated premise – the hidden assumption – that underlies this chain of logic. It is that the properties of organised, complex, dynamic systems derive solely from the properties of their components (or at least may do so). Though Goff refers to the theory as “non-reductive”, I can’t think of anything more reductive than claiming that the most crucial property of what may be the most complex system we know of – the human brain – inheres in its simplest components.
The answer to the mystery of consciousness – and it remains very much a mystery – surely lies in a nonreductive physicalism that recognises that complex, even seemingly miraculous properties (like consciousness, or life itself), can and do emerge from the dynamic interactions of matter when it is organised in certain highly complex ways, not from the bits of matter themselves. In this view, consciousness is a property of a process (or of many interacting processes), not of a substance.
So, after due consideration (maybe more than it is due), I will stick by my assessment, that panpsychism is not even wrong. But I remain willing to be convinced that it is.
I had thought of the life analogy as well, and to some extent it merges with the supposed problems of consciousness because a.) we don’t understand how it evolved, and b.) there is something it is like to be alive. But nobody raises the “hard problem of life” the way they do the “hard problem of consciousness.”
I’m convinced that panpsychism is the Emperor’s New Clothes moment of modern philosophy, for it’s simply an untestable assertion, supported by no evidence at all, that many people are buying into. Fortunately, people like Pigliucci, Mitchell, and especially Churchland, some of whom are philosophers like Goff, are pointing out the follies of panpsychism.
Remember, an assertion that is both untestable and purports to explain everything is not only an unscientific claim, but one that we can ignore. Give us some evidence, panpsychists!
Addendum by Greg Mayer:
Brian Leiter, a legal philosopher at the University of Chicago, has also caught wind of the upsurge in panpsychism, and seems to be both amused and appalled. In the first vein, concerning Goff’s article detailed by Jerry above, he wrote yesterday
What’s next, intelligent design? (OK, bad joke.)
Today, he asks “Which currently fashionable philosophical view is the most preposterous?“, and is holding a poll among six philosophical views. The candidates include panpsychism, external world skepticism, and libertarian free will. (Jerry will like inclusion of the latter!) Philosopher Michael Strevens, tongue firmly in cheek, suggests to Leiter that “I think that panpsychism is likely to come out looking much better if you let everything vote, not just people,” to which Leiter replies that voting by possible people in possible worlds might affect the result, too. You can follow the link to Leiter’s site and the poll, and can click to see the results (even if you haven’t voted). Although done in good fun with no expectation of a scientific polling result (as his exchange with Strevens shows), I think Leiter’s original idea was to get his philosopher readers to respond to the poll, so I would advise not voting unless you’re a philosopher. (I didn’t vote.)