Panpsychism: an interview and a critique

January 17, 2020 • 11:30 am

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:

  1. We don’t understand the intrinsic nature of matter.
  2. Some forms of matter are alive.
  3. 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!

h/t: Harry

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

Panpsychism makes “Scientific American”!

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.)

106 thoughts on “Panpsychism: an interview and a critique

  1. We ‘memorize’ and whatever that is … and which needs study by the neuroscientists. We memorize by experience our youth, school studies … sometimes, our problem solving abilities, careers, hobbies, language, culture, religion, philosophy, science … until death. Sometimes accomplishments get written down for others to get a head start on, like the Bible? or music, or fiction or non-fiction.

  2. If you think it is meaningful to ask “What IS the intrinsic nature of matter,” you have to first say what you exactly mean by that question. What COULD it be that would be the intrinsic nature of matter? What options for the intrinsic nature of matter might there be? Providing examples along these lines would help to illuminate exactly what is meant by that question.

    But I think that’s ultimately a fool’s errand. If, for instance, you hypothesized that matter might actually be little hard balls of stuff, and that is its intrinsic nature, it would not be its intrinsic nature because you’d have to answer the question, “But what is the intrinsic nature of of those little ball?”

    I have no idea how you get to intrinsic.

    1. The description that seemed good to me was that elementary particles of matter are very small, highly curved areas of space. That intuitively seems a bit more intrinsic. But of course one could rightly argue that this just moves the goal posts about the intrinsic nature of things.

      1. In talking about whether or not science has an answer to the wave / particle duality conundrum of matter (is matter really waves or really particles), Sean Carroll has said, “Yes, science has answered that. The answer is that it’s all fields.”

      2. What’s the intrinsic nature of space? That is how you can keep on going.

        Rather, what we can determine is how things behave – what they do.

    2. It sounds weird because we already have an answer to the question. Goff is just making stuff up – a theory of electrons tells us the intrinsic and relational properties of electrons, etc. Similarly, Galileo does not put “qualities” outside of science, merely assert (correctly, as it happens) that some are what we would now call secondary and tertiary qualities, not primary, and hence not for *physics* (as understood now).

  3. “The qualitative experience of consciousness cannot be understood by a program of scientific materialism.”

    I think that’s true but not for the reasons Goff gives. It’s because the scientific method does not allow us to study our own experience with objectivity. It can study the mechanisms that give rise to experience but not the experience itself. I don’t remember what Galileo said about this but my guess is that this is also what he was talking about.

    While experience itself is inaccessible to science, I like Churchland’s idea of understanding the mechanisms first and then seeing what’s left to explain.

    Taking another angle of attack, what would a solution to the “hard problem” even look like? What exactly are they seeking to learn? Until we learn more about the mechanisms, subjective reports of what experiences are like are about all we have and, I believe, all we’ll ever have.

      1. For sure the “objective study of subjectivity” is a thing, but reading someone’s pain questionnaire doesn’t really tell you what the pain feels like to that person. It’s better than nothing and perhaps it is all we have right now. I can imagine a day when we can get some sort of direct readout of pain from someone’s brain. It seems likely to involve more than just a number from one to ten. It still wouldn’t tell you what it feels like though I guess it would come closer, especially if the observer had experienced pain with similar parameters.

        1. It still wouldn’t tell you what it feels like

          I think nothing short of replicating the experience can tell you what it feels like.

          I’m beginning to thing replicating experience is technologically infeasible – it would be like replicating the entire state of the Mississippi river. You can’t just pull a segment of one river (complete with currents, eddies, ripples, electrical charges, etc.) and relocate it in another river.

          Many of the philosophers we criticize here seem to hold that the inability to replicate experience is a failure of science (or naturalism or materialism or whatever) – my position is is that it’s not a failure of science, just technologically intractable.

          (Of course given the technology proposed by simulation theory, it wouldn’t be intractable.)

          1. Exactly! This is what I’ve been saying here. There is a “hard problem of consciousness” but it isn’t a scientific one. I suppose that doesn’t stop philosophers from struggling with it but they make too big a deal out of it, IMHO.

    1. That’s either REALLY cool, or REALLY terrifying.
      Either way, I for one welcome our reproducttively successful concrete overlords!

  4. Goff might want to learn who Karl Popper is.

    There is an eight year old down the street who says “God is love”. I asked, “How do you know?” He said, “Because that’s how it is!” I slink away quietly remembering Feynman to myself: “We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is no learning.”

  5. One word that defeats the certainty of panpsychism:

    You can’t yetcapture these kinds of qualities in the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science.

    My further comment is that for electrons or anything else to have ‘experiences’ requires some sort of memory of previous events otherwise you are confounding ‘consciousness’ with ordinary cause and effect.

    There’s a test of the panpsychism hypothesis… can you show any modified behaviour of basic particles that cannot be explained by cause and effect? Humans learn from past events. Sea cucumbers ‘learn’ from past events. Do rocks ‘learn’? Do atoms ‘learn’? I don’t think so.

  6. Goff: “So it turns out that there is a huge hole in our scientific theory. The proposal of the panpsychist is to put consciousness in that hole.” Hmmm, it is generally advised that should one find oneself in an argumentative hole, he ought to resist the temptation to keep digging. Goff, recommends, on the other hand, not only to jump into the hole, but to keep digging. I suspect he might dig himself to China and find his explanatory nirvana in Buddhism.

  7. I just finished listening to a podcast over at Rationally Speaking:

    Here’s that episodes description:

    “Philosopher of mind Keith Frankish is one of the leading proponents of “illusionism,” the theory that argues that your subjective experience — i.e., the “what it is like” to be you — is a trick of the mind. It’s a counterintuitive theory, but Keith makes the case for it in this episode, while explaining the other leading theories of consciousness and why he rejects them.”

    Not sure what to make of all of this. It seems that Julia is in the same boat.

    1. Thanks, Keith Frankish explains very well how we can make sense of consciousness without referring to some kind of magic. As a hard-core-materialist I strongly sit in the illusionist-camp.

      Unfortunately it means that we humans (me included) are wrong about some of our most strongly held beliefs. So be it.

      Debates will continue until science finally solves the hard problem of consciousness.

  8. After some reflection, I think I understand the reasoning behind the panpsychist’s argument a bit more. When we think of the universe, we generally use two verbs – “move” (energy) and “be” (matter / mass). (It may be more accurate to say that everything is energy, but for the moment I’ll set that aside.) Any example of emergence we can think of is generally describable using those two verbs as descriptions. We may build vastly different things or feel we see emergent properties, but in the end they can still be described in terms of matter and energy. They move in some way or they exist in some way.

    I suppose what the panpsychist is saying is that it should be self evident to anyone who has experienced it that consciousness is a third category that is not encompassed by either of those concepts. When framed that way, I can see why they would then conclude that the law of “can neither be created or destroyed” would likely apply. This applies to energy and, if I understand correctly, mass, so if you see consciousness as self-evidently existing as a third category of foundational universal verbiage, I suppose it makes sense to assume the same would apply. If consciousness is in fact irreconcilably, categorically different than either energy or mass, I might be inclined to agree… I’m not yet convinced, however, that consciousness doesn’t fall under ‘energy’. It seems that if one had to choose a verb to describe consciousness, ‘reflect’ might apply, for example. If consciousness is more or less an exponentially large number of reflections converged within a single person, then it could be described in terms of movement.

    1. As I think PCC(E) mentioned in and earlier post about panpsychism, emergence can still account for consciousness even though everything before that level of emergence is matter and energy. He used the analogue of the wetness of water, which is nowhere to be found in either oxygen atoms nor hydrogen atoms. It’s inherent in the very concept of emergence that higher levels show phenomenon that are not present in the lower constituent levels. Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture” addresses this more than in passing.

      1. It seems to me that the wetness of water can be described in terms of energy and matter, however. There are the water molecules (matter) and the way they move (energy). There is no indescribable concept in that mix.

        I think, again, after reflection, that what panpsychists are saying is that consciousness does not seem to fall into either of those categories. Consciousness is not movement / energy, neither is it a ‘thing’. We can’t really even talk about it in those terms. I think the proposal in panpsychism is that it is a category unto itself, ergo it must be fundamental.

        1. I think of consciousness as simply part of brain function. We have specialized areas of the brain for hearing, vision, speech, etc. Consciousness is just another specialized facility for self-reflection or meta-thought. I will admit that we don’t know it well enough to precisely define its function and we certainly don’t know how it works but we don’t know much more about hearing and vision either. I just don’t see the motivation behind making consciousness some kind of fundamental force in the universe. It’s a mystery but not the miraculous kind.

          1. Well, try this “matter or energy intuition test” regarding consciousness:

            – Does it move?

            – Is it a ‘thing’?

            I would say the answers are ‘no’ and ‘no’ for consciousness. Now try to come up with literally any other example of something in our world where the answer for both is ‘no’. There are a few – so far I’ve come up with ‘time’ and ‘information / formulas’, and there may well be more. But they seem sparse enough that of all the stuff we can conceive of in the universe, you could probably name these things on one hand.

            What this means, if anything, is up for debate. But the panpsychist position at least made more intuitive sense to me once this occurred to me. I still think it’s a leap to assume consciousness is a property of matter (which I believe is what panpsychists believe), but at least the proposal doesn’t seem entirely arbitrary to me now.

            1. I don’t find this thing/move test very compelling. Both words have many interpretations. Is a concept like parenthood a thing? Does it move? It seems way too slippery to be useful, IMHO.

              1. To me it’s a helpful test of common intuitions, to see why consciousness appears to be categorically different to some people (that only tells us that there is understandable grounds for it to be intuitively different, of course, not that it actually is different). As with all things subjective, of course, your mileage may vary on this one. I found it helpful regarding the panpsychist perspective though.

            2. Well, try this “matter or energy intuition test” regarding consciousness:

              – Does it move?

              Yes, neurotransmitters move. Elections move. Information processing is a physical process.

              1. Yes, but your conscious experience is not equal and equivalent to that. You don’t feel like an electron zipping around. And even if you did, you’d have to describe that using the self-referential (to consciousness) word ‘feel’. Which leave the question “What do you mean by ‘feel’?

    2. Interesting.
      Consciousness seems to imply some sort of duality.

      Something that is conscious and something that the consciousness is conscious of.

      When you say reflect do you mean the process of the interaction between the two or the state of the consciousness as it apprehends the other or perhaps a process of being conscious of the initial consciousness and reflecting on that.

      Reflect seems to describe a process one level up(?) from the basic interaction between the consciousness and that which it is conscious of. A state of more pure apprehension.
      Or do we need that extra step to really mean consciousness?
      Some sort of self-referential thing.

      1. I mean reflect in the most basic sense, as in what a mirror does. It seems to me that if this process was multiplied by infinity, it is possible that the outcome could be consciousness. Perhaps not. But to me, if I try to find some notion of consciousness that isn’t entirely self-referential (‘consciousness is just… consciousness’,) reflection feels as if it is the closest cousin. Just my intuitions, however. My general point, though, is that I haven’t ruled out that consciousness is not an illusion that is simply very, very difficult to see through. Not an illusion in that it doesn’t exist… that is a different topic, but here I just mean that it could still be comprised of matter and energy, but that this is not immediately apparent to us. If this were the case, perhaps it would be possible, eventually, to come up with some sort of trick that would allow us to momentarily experience consciousness as a whirlwind of energy, thus dispelling the intuition that it is categorically different from the other stuff of he universe.

    3. Matter and mass are not the same! Matter (some of it – bodies) *have* mass.

      Energy is a property – consciousness is a process, though people have thought it to be a stuff. (Objective idealists, like Hegel, for example.)

  9. a review is worthwhile, here on a Friday afternoon :

    “In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.”

    chapter 7, “Seeking New Laws,” p. 156 [as presented in edited book]

    source :

    … I see no effort in this bizarre fad to propose the simplest experiment. Perhaps string theory is also unverified by experiment, but this fad is not exactly the string theory of philosophy.

  10. Reading how Goff twists and turns to try to dodge the inevitable is demonstration enough that this whole thing will go in the same pile as Intelligent Design, ghosts, and fairies. A hypothesis based entirely on special pleading and other kinds of fallacies is dead on arrival.

    The “unobservable” looks exactly like the “non-existent”.

    1. The “unobservable” looks exactly like the “non-existent”.

      This got me thinking: a physicist can explain how things beyond an event horizon are unobservable (and it’s not a great mind twister once you accept constant speed of light) – can any of these philosophers explain how any of their claimed unobservables are unobservable?

      My guess is they can, but the explanation will be woo-full and not nearly as satisfying as a physicist’s explanation of event horizons. But maybe I’m wrong.

  11. Panpsychism is, and I say this as a long time meditator and pseudo-Buddhist, nothing more than an invitation to visit the town of boring town of ‘Maybe/Maybe-Not’s-ville’.

    You could spend an entire career in that village of the dammed without moving a single step in any direction at all, while convincing anyone who’ll listen, that such a step might, hypothetically be possible under certain unspecified circumstances.

  12. Goff: “So it turns out that there is a huge hole in our scientific theory. The proposal of the panpsychist is to put consciousness in that hole.” A generally reliable kind of counsel, however, has it that one should resist any temptation to hurl oneself into holes. Further, should one find oneself in this or that argumentative hole, for whatever reason, it is generally better to resist the urge to dig.—-Goff, I suspect, would not be unhappy should he dig himself to China, and ultimately to Buddhism.

    1. Ah, and what he is doing there, by putting his ‘baby’ into the hole of ignorance is making damn sure that no one can take its measure and disprove it. “You can’t falsify my hypothesis”, he would say.
      Just like any flogger of woo and mumbo-jumbo.

  13. I am not hopeful that neuroscience will explain the subjective aspect of consciousness. It’s not that I don’t think it has a physical cause or that I am a dualist. I just think it is intrinsically subjective and can’t be fully described objectively in the language of science. I don’t see how understanding more about the brain (which will mostly consist of facts similar to those we already know) will explain why one neuronal pathway feels like “this” and not like “that.” Or really why it feels like anything at all! Why are any of the activations of neural pathways accompanied by an experience? Why aren’t we just automata that look and act like humans, but with no inner mental life of any kind? Qualia also don’t seem like they are needed to explain anything about behavior since it is the neural pathways themselves that causally determine our behavior. But if that’s true it is also hard to understand how we can even talk about our qualia! I think panpsychism is wrong but I think they make some good points. I do not think solving the “small problems” gets us closer to solving the hard problem.

    1. Why are any of the activations of neural pathways accompanied by an experience?

      What if the neural activation is the experience? Not a cause/effect, not an accompaniment, but the same exact thing, just 2 different ways of talking about it?

      Is this a dead end or a handwave? (Is this explaining consciousness away?)

      1. I think that’s right. I like to reverse the question. Given a complex thinking machine like the brain, what do you think it feels like to be that brain? Ok, that’s consciousness and those colors you see are qualia.

        1. But the experience leaves a record – we remember experiences. So when we analyze an experience, when we think about an experience, we’re consulting that record, not the actual experience.

          All we know about experience (through introspection) comes from those experience recordings, and we don’t know how accurate those recordings are. The recordings could be embellished or 100% fabrications.

          1. I’m not convinced our knowledge of experience is solely from memory. If so, it is only because we define “knowledge” as information we can remember. Looking at it another way, we really only think we are recording our experiences. it is well known that this is highly inaccurate and inconsistent. How our brains actually process information may have little resemblance to how we see it via introspection. The visual system, for example, presents a detailed image that experiment has proven to be an illusion. Our perception of our own decision-making is that it occurs in a conscious instant though Libet’s experiments show that that is not at all what really happens.

            1. How our brains actually process information may have little resemblance to how we see it via introspection.

              Yes, I was trying to make that point. Without the help of science, we really don’t know how credible the results of introspection are.

      2. That’s the correct position, IMO, and the common core of functionalism, emergentist materialism (sensu Bunge and most psychologists and neuroscientists) and eliminative materialism.

  14. Aside from Goff’s discussion of intrinsic natures, perhaps the major appeal of panpsychism seems to be that the framework avoids invoking the outre notion of “radical emergence”, whereby at some level of complex organization, basic entities entirely lacking some astonishing property (e.g. qualia) can be organized into a larger entity bearing that property. Goff’s advisor, I think, was Galen Strawson, who held that panpsychism is the only real materialism, since a non-reductive materialism would need to invoke radical emergence in order to account for consciousness. In other words, unless one is an eliminativist regarding consciousness, then the only kind of reductive physicalist is a panpsychist.

    The non-eliminativist side of the debate therefore seems to be about whether (1) fundamental physics needs to be overhauled at the root, with consciousness added to matter, or (2) whether additional physical laws than those at the base level can come into existence depending on the arrangement of matter into complex forms. Neither view seems particularly palatable, and neither does eliminativism.

    Nevertheless, I share Jerry’s lament regarding the lack of empirical adjudication of these issues, which may be a permanent state of affairs if our species simply lacks the conceptual toolkit to deal with these issues productively. A fortuitous path of genetic evolution, spawning the ability to come up with new conceptual frameworks for scientific inquiry would likely be our only way beyond the impasse.

    1. “… the outre notion of “radical emergence”, whereby at some level of complex organization, basic entities entirely lacking some astonishing property (e.g. qualia) can be organized into a larger entity bearing that property.”

      My car has many properties that its individual parts lack. One really important one is its ability to go from A to B. That property doesn’t need any “radical emergence” to explain its presence. It is not a property that all or any of its parts have. The brain and consciousness is the same but evolution was the designer rather than a team of mechanical engineers. In short, consciousness doesn’t come from a brain’s atoms like wetness comes from the properties of water molecules.

      I think this is the fundamental mistake that leads people like Goff to seek fantastic explanations like panpsychism.

      1. Yes, but nothing about your car leaves you gobsmacked about how such an entity can have the properties it has. That’s a kind of a humdrum emergence that is ubiquitous in a macroscopic world. But that seems rather different than the leap from non-experience to experience. We can’t help but be astounded by that. Perhaps the leap from the quantum to the classical world is another example. It just seems like some crucial aspect is missing from our physical picture, either at the basic level, or higher up.

        1. I guess I am not gobsmacked in that I think we’ll figure out how consciousness works and it won’t involve any miracles. I think it is the gobsmacking that we have to take issue with it as it makes some people look to woo-ish solutions like panpsychism.

          1. Here’s a (perhaps) simpler case that might be baffling – it is so weird that most philosophers don’t even know about it. But: analyze the idea (present in chemistry) that *shape* is an emergent property. Not *that* shape, but *shape* in general – small, simple systems *have no shape*. Big ones (large enough molecules) do.

            Also, another exercise: read through Kim’s _Physicalism or Near Enough_, and read it with chemistry instead of minds and psychology in mind. It sounds ludicrous, and shows how even he engages in special pleading.

            (Of course, Kim is the guy who thought that neuroscience was irrelvant to philosophy of mind. 🙁 …)

            1. Mass an emergent property too. That fact is one of the most mind-blowing indications of the significance of emergence in the natural world.

              To all those pushing panpsychism: if mass can be an emergent property, why can’t consciousness be emergent?

    2. Now that you mention it, it is interesting that panpsychism mirrors materialism so closely. I wonder what the rationale was for supposing consciousness is an aspect of matter, vs. being akin to something more abstract like ‘time’ or even ‘information / formulas’? If consciousness is a ‘thing’ that ‘is’, I don’t know that presupposing the place to find it would be amidst matter makes the most sense.

    3. The philosophy espoused here makes the comment a hard read, but I think that (2) is a claim that Mitchell’s reference to emergence is somehow problematic.

      It is not, modern physics needs it, see my longish comment on renormalization. Essentially, to map the Lagrangian action that codifies your local laws of a field or other system, you need to handle each scale according to renormalization methods. They work, and they give you different emergent theories on various scales.

      1. It depends on the type of emergence we are talking about. For instance, an individual lynx and a snowshoe hare do not exhibit repeatable oscillations in population numbers, but a collection of lynxes and hares does. It is obvious why the basic entities can’t have that property and why the complex system can. So that is something emergent, but not radically so.

        The problem comes when emergent properties are brute facts about the system. That is, when a property is radically emergent, there is no intelligible explanatory route to get from the basic entities lacking some property P to a complex system exhibiting P. Essentially, under this scheme, the existence of P is taken to be an additional law of nature that pops into existence at a higher scale, rather than something that is, in principle, derivable from the properties of the basic entities. This is highly unpalatable to panpsychists (and everyone else, I suspect).

        I’m not sure which form of emergence is the case regarding renormalization, the subject being beyond my ken. If it is of the radical sort, then it seems important for physicists to publicize such cases to the philosophical community. I am under the impression that most philosophers (and physicists) would think there are zero such cases. Not having polling data on hand, I may be wrong, of course.

  15. ” But he’s a slippery arguer, changing his positions from article to article and refusing to be pinned down.”

    Sorta like trying to find the exact position of an electron. The more you try to pin it down, the more it jiggles.

  16. You know, it is good that various prominent persons in philosophy have come out here and there against this wacka-a-loon idea. But what they need to do is really put it down. Shoot it. Put it out of our misery.
    I suppose the way to do that is with a letter to a major journal that is co-signed by a lot of heavy-hitters in the field.

  17. At least Goff is a realist about consciousness, not an illusionist like Dennett and Keith Frankish, who claim it only *seems* like we experience qualitative sensory states like pain, the redness of red, etc. They deny that, as Goff puts it, “consciousness is an essentially quality-involving phenomenon.” Goff’s qualia (quality) realism seems to me far more plausible.

    I think he’s also correct to say that experience isn’t the sort of thing that can be observed, which is to say that not all of what’s real (if one is a realist about qualia) is intersubjective in the way physical objects generally are. Rather, experiences only exist for the subject undergoing them – they are subjective, not objective. Qualitativeness and subjectivity are the two essential characteristics of conscious experience that make life tough for physicalists.

    One possibility is that qualia (the qualities of experiences) might be the content of certain sorts of representational processes, as for instance in Jesse Prinz’s attended intermediate representations (AIRS), or in Michael Tye’s Poised, Abstract, Nonconceptual, and Intentional Content – (PANIC) hypothesis, or the content carried by neurally-instantiated predictive processing (PP) as suggested by Karl Friston, Andy Clark and others (see “Bayesing Qualia” in the Journal of Consciousness Studies). Since representational content is not the sort of thing that one sees looking at the content vehicles, this might help explain subjectivity: the content is only available to the instantiating system.

    Thomas Metzinger self-model theory of subjectivity (see his books The Ego Tunnel and Being No One) can perhaps help explain qualitativeness as a function of what he calls “auto-epistemic closure.” A complex behavior-controlling representational system must close off what would be a paralyzing representational, epistemic regress, thus necessarily deploy representational elements that it can’t *further* represent. These perforce become cognitively impenetrable and non-decomposable, one of the hallmarks of qualities. At any rate, all this is to suggest the hard problem might find solutions on a representationalist, not standardly physicalist, level. Goff is way too pessimistic in his unevidenced leap to panpsychism.

    1. “At least Goff is a realist about consciousness, not an illusionist like Dennett and Keith Frankish, who claim it only *seems* like we experience qualitative sensory states like pain, the redness of red, etc.”

      Dennett and Frankish do not deny the existence of experience and qualia, as you imply here, they only say that they are not what they seem to be. I think this is a problem partly caused by their choice of word and partly due to the motivation of their detractors to take the wrong interpretation of “illusion”.

      1. Frankish in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS) denies that experiences have any qualitative content (phenomenal properties, phenomenality):

        “The third option is illusionism. This shares radical realism’s emphasis on the
        anomalousness of phenomenal consciousness and conservative realism’s rejection of
        radical theoretical innovation. It reconciles these commitments by treating phenomenal
        properties as illusory. Illusionists deny that experiences have phenomenal properties
        and focus on explaining why they seem to have them.”

        Dennett concurs in his JCS paper “Illusion as the obvious default theory of consciousness”:

        “…you can’t be a satisfied, successful illusionist until you have provided the details of how the brain manages to create the illusion of phenomenality, and that is a daunting task largely in the future.”

        Qualia (experiential qualities, phenomenality) are unequivocally denied by illusionists – that’s why their claims are so controversial. It’s a brand of eliminativism with respect to consciousness.

        1. According to Wikipedia’s “Qualia” page:

          ‘Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett once suggested that qualia was “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us”.’

          I think you’ll find that Frankish says something similar. I’m sure both of them have long-winded statements of their exact position on this subject but the gist I get from what I’ve read is that they object to Chalmers and others like him that regard qualia as first order objects instead of just a high-falutin name for experiential feelings. I think Dennett would say (and perhaps he has said) that qualia have a Cartesian Theater feel to them.

          1. If you read Dennett’s work over the years, including the article I linked to, there’s no doubt about his illusionism wrt phenomenal consciousness, and Frankish is equally clear on this (see his paper). It’s interesting how fans of Dennett (and I’m one, just not on consciousness and free will) sometimes resist acknowledging his illusionism. Having attended his seminar on consciousness last year, I can report that there is no equivocation on his part concerning experiential qualities: they only *seem* to exist, he says. For a reply contra illusionism, see “Dennett and the reality of red.”

            1. I have many books by Dennett on my shelves and one by Frankish. I didn’t deny their illusionism but questioned your interpretation of what they mean by the word. They don’t deny sensory perception and experience but don’t put qualia on a pedestal like Chalmers does.

              As Frankish says in “Quining diet qualia”:

              “There is no phenomenal residue left when qualia are stripped of their intrinsicality, ineffability, and subjectivity. Thus, if we reject classic qualia realism, we should accept that all that needs explaining are ‘zero’ qualia — our dispositions to judge that our experiences have classic qualia. Diet qualia should, in Dennett’s phrase, be quined.”

              It’s treating qualia as first-class objects with their own properties that is the illusion to which they refer.

              1. Dennett and Frankish may not deny sensory perception or experience but *are* denying what most folks and philosophers think is essential to conscious experiences – their qualitative feel or phenomenology. As Frankish puts it, there are no classic or “diet” qualia (experiential qualities like pain or red), only our dispositions to judge that they exist – “zero” qualia – that is, none. “There is no phenomenal residue left,” nothing qualitative about experience, according to Frankish and Dennett.

              2. When they say “nothing qualitative about experience”, they mean that only the observed objects outside our bodies have properties, not the qualia themselves. In other words, physical properties are real but phenomenal properties (qualia) are an illusion concocted by our brains.

              3. “In other words, physical properties are real but phenomenal properties (qualia) are an illusion concocted by our brains.”

                The red of an afterimage, or hallucination, or the red experienced in a dream, is just as real a quality of experience as the red of an apple you see – there’s nothing illusory about it. But this is what D & F are denying exists.

              4. There IS something illusory about the red in an afterimage, at least. They are not denying the experience but that there’s something red. It only seems red.

                I am not really defending illusionism here but I don’t think qualia should be placed in a position of such significance that it becomes a mystery that must be solved.

              5. Why is “red” an illusion and “solid” not? We all agree the rock is solid. We all (unless color blind) agree the traffic light is red. Why is one more “real” than the other. All experience is subjective.

              6. Alternatively, recall Dennett’s discussion of Santa Claus, which we have discussed on this site wrt Jesus mythicism.

                Once you are wrong about sufficiently many properties of something, how are you still talking about the same thing as you started? (To put it in semantic terms.)

                “Santa’s real! His name is Fred Dudley, he’s a cleanshaven skinny man who lives in Miami, hates children and never gives gifts.”

  18. There’s a curious piece by Norton Nelkin in, “The Journal of Philosophy”, entitled, “Pain and Pain Sensations” (1986). It’s a superior inquiry into the micro-phenomenology of a surprisingly layered mode of experience. This is conceptual analysis and disciplined introspection at their best—informed, ofcourse, by no small measure of science. But, at least with respect to this one essay, philosophy carries above and beyond the argumentative day. Even if Philosophy cannot have the last word on “qualia”, it might yet have the penultimate word.

  19. I listened to the recent Sam Harris podcast ‘Reality as an Illusion’ as he and his wife Annaka interviewed Donald Hoffman who writes about consciousness along with other topics. Annaka seemed to suggest that she has moved away from panpsychism.
    whyevolutionistrue posted: “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”

    1. From what I’ve heard of Donald Hoffman’s theory, it makes perfect sense to me. One of the most interesting things I’ve heard in a while.

  20. Some people might be interested in reading the following.

    “Beyond crazy” usually doesn’t slow philosophers down, especially in the modern academy, where there are professional incentives to make sure every possible position in logical space is occupied. The only way to settle this matter is with a poll, of course. So please rank order these philosophical positions from most to least preposterous.

    UPDATE: Philosopher Michael Strevens (NYU) writes: “I think that panpsychism is likely to come out looking much better if you let everything vote, not just people.” Good point! Same goes for letting possible people in other possible worlds vote!

  21. When someone says “science can not tell us…” they are about to make a God of the gaps argument.

    Only grifters can tell us what science can not.

  22. The articles on the WEIT site on subjects like consciousness, free wiil, religion, and science in general are fascinating. Throw in cats, wildlife, photos, food, and stuff that happened today makes a perfect website. Plus a lot of great books (besides WEIT and FvF) that have been recommended here help keep my mind active. The first portion of Behave by R. Sapolsky describes a lot of the correlates of conscious and a pretty good approximation and course for how we can understand consciousness. As for panpsychism, what gives the property of consciousness to the fundamental properties of particles of the universe? This seems like the teleological argument with a potentially infinite regression of first causes. I spend a certain part of each day unconscious so how do I rouse those slacking properties? We can dramatically alter consciousness with a couple of mgs of Fentanyl or a couple of hundred mcgs of LSD. How can these infinitesimal quantities of chemicals bludgeon the essential properties of an entire brain? Altering the physical structure of the brain can dramatically alter consciousness but I am not sure that changes any of the basic properties of elementary particles. It’s late for my old brain. Time for a little lack of consciousness.

  23. Panpsychism or not, the main problem is that phenomenal experience exists, and science tells us that reality is blind and experienceless in any conceivable way, here is the heart of the problem.
    Just by saying when we detect the part of the brain that is correlated with consciousness then we understand is a naive statement, the redness ofred is not related what so ever to the particles that build the brain, so either consciousness is external, or it has some fundamental existence in our reality, this problem is unescapable and unsolvable by our current knowledge and science about reality.

    1. Consciousness could be as fundamental in vertebrates as 4 legs are, just a product of evolution. See Mitchell on emergence (which we now know applies, see my longish comment below).

      Again, my favorite example on the “not even wrong” concept of philosophical “qualia” such as redness is that we can now add or knock out color opsins in rat models. They do not seem to have a conscious [sic] problem with adapting to the new experience. (And how else would the brain ‘know’ what red is as color? The teleological thinking is showing.)

  24. “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.”

    So Goff wants a math that handles qualities? “The language of category theory has been used to formalize concepts of other high-level abstractions such as sets, rings, and groups. Informally, category theory is a general theory of functions. … with the goal of understanding the processes that preserve mathematical structure.” [ ]

    But besides the “not even wrong” observation there is also the generality that Mitchell points out, as did Carroll, that we have emergence – despite Goff:

    “… renormalization of mass and fields appearing in the original Lagrangian is necessary. … Renormalization specifies relationships between parameters in the theory when parameters describing large distance scales differ from parameters describing small distance scales. … on the basis of the breakthrough renormalization group insights of Nikolay Bogolyubov and Kenneth Wilson, the focus is on variation of physical quantities across contiguous scales, while distant scales are related to each other through “effective” descriptions. All scales are linked in a broadly systematic way, and the actual physics pertinent to each is extracted with the suitable specific computational techniques appropriate for each. Wilson clarified which variables of a system are crucial and which are redundant.”

    [ ; my bold.]

      1. Personally, I don’t really find the details of Frankish’s arguments very compelling. I get the “illusion” part but it seems just too steeped in philosophical cobwebs for me.

  25. “… her unaccountable penchant for panpsychism“

    A thought just occurred to me – could this be explained by something in the publishing process? For example, the publisher’s guidance is to put some in because it will appeal as a product to certain consumers, while Harris herself might have agreed in order to get it published, or a favor, etc., but wasn’t going to defend it tooth and nail.

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