Even more on panpsychism

As I near the end of Philip Goff’s trade book (Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness), aimed at convincing the public that panpsychism is true, I came across a tweet that led me to an online “letters” conversation between Goff and philosopher/biologist Massimo Pigliucci, which you can read in the second screenshot below. Twitter does have its uses (h/t Matthew Cobb):

In the exchange referred to above, each participant has four short letters, and they argue back and forth about whether panpsychism is a necessary theory, whether it’s a true theory, and whether it’s a scientific theory.

Let me first lay out in a series of numbered statements, which I intended to do before I read this exchange, what I think is Goff’s theory. I’ll then simply quote a few of Massimo’s ripostes, some of which were coincident with my earlier objections, and some other ones which come from his greater expertise as a philosopher. I have to say again that although Massimo and I have had our differences—many, actually—I’ve never hesitated to admit when he’s right, and in this case I think he pretty much takes Goff apart.

But first, here’s what I see as Goff’s theory, which is also the way many people conceive of panpsychism. Remember, this is how I interpret Goff, not what I believe myself. I’ve had to add comments about bits of the theory that I find problematic.

1.) Materialism, the underlying basis of science, is wrong.

2.) Why? Because materialism and the science that uses it rely on quantitative analyses, and if a phenomenon in the Universe can’t be expressed quantitatively, but is still a real phenomenon, then it disproves materialism. (I use the term “naturalism” instead of materialism, as some of the realities of the cosmos, like gravity, aren’t “material” but are nevertheless real phenomena.)

3.) Consciousness is one such phenomenon. No matter how much scientists labor at understanding consciousness—and by that term Goff means “qualia”: the subjective experience of seeing the color orange or tasting salt—no materialistic (scientific) theory will ever explain how that sensation feels. It may provide neurological “correlations” of such experiences, but understanding why the color orange looks as it does, and other subjective experiences, will always elude quantitative explanation. Therefore materialism is false, and it’s false because it can’t explain how we come to “feel.”

4.) Further falsification of materialism comes from its failure to tell us what the “intrinsic nature of matter” really is. All we can do with something like electrons, avers Goff, is to measure how they behave and how they interact with other particles. But we can’t really express what their “intrinsic nature” is. (I have to say that this “intrinsic nature” stuff mystifies me, especially when Goff defines the consciousness of electrons; see below.)

5.) Goff isn’t a dualist, so he doesn’t think that there is “consciousness stuff” separate from matter. Therefore he has a “scientific” theory (see the subtitle of his book) for how we get consciousness. It is panpsychism. Panpsychism isn’t new (Goff mentions Eddington’s version), but Goff (also citing his ex-advisor Galen Strawson) says that there’s a resurgence of interest and acceptance of panpsychism due to his efforts and those of Strawson.

6.) Panpsychism arises because, Goff concludes, we can’t derive a materialistic explanation of consciousness, yet it exists, so it must somehow be inherent in the brain in a way that has eluded us.

7.) Why is it inherent in the brain? Because says Goff—and this is the crux of panpsychism—every bit of matter in the Universe is conscious, and since brains are built of particles, the consciousness is also inherent in the brain. That’s where consciousness comes from—its conscious constituent particles.

8.) So what is the nature of consciousness in particles like electrons or atoms? Goff isn’t clear, but does say they have a rudimentary form of consciousness that differs from the “higher” self-reflective form of consciousness in humans. What form does particle consciousness take? Goff says that, for electrons, for example, it consists of stuff like their spin, their charge, and their mass. (Again I am mystified, as those properties are again detected by quantitative materialistic analysis, the so-called “correlations”. Why they constitute “consciousness” remains for me a mystery, and seems like a semantic issue.) Asserting that particles are conscious, says Goff, finally solves the vexing problem of what the “intrinsic nature” of matter is. It is consciousness. 

9.) Finally, when you get a brain like ours that is built of many semi-conscious particles, somehow you get a massive increase in consciousness, so now the particles can have experiences, see red, and reflect on their experiences. How this happens is what philosophers call the “combination” problem, and so far I have not seen a solution, though I still have about 1/4 of Goff’s book to read.

Here’s a summary from Goff’s first letter of the exchange:

Very roughly, the idea is that physics only tells us about the causal structure of the physical world – what things do – and leaves us completely in the dark about the intrinsic nature of matter that realizes that structure. The Russellian panpsychism holds that consciousness is the intrinsic nature of matter. Why believe this? Well, we know that consciousness exists, and we have to fit it in to our theory of reality somehow. Russellian monism offers us a way of doing this, and I’ve argued at length that it avoids the deep difficulties I believe face the more conventional options of materialism and dualism.

That is the scientific theory of consciousness, but it’s not really “scientific” because, as even Goff admits, it’s untestable. If you assert that electron spin is “consciousness”, you haven’t explained anything.

At any rate, as the letters go back and forth between Massimo and Goff, Massimo gets more and more perturbed, for Goff, like all advocates of panpsychism, is very clever at avoiding specifics (like how spin  = consciousness and how “combination” works) and is good, as Massimo asserts, at sophistry.

Anyway, here are a few quotes from Massimo, given in order. If you want to see Goff’s claims, just click on the link above. I think I’ve summarized them pretty fairly above. Massimo’s quotes are indented:

When you say that neuroscience cannot “express” the quality of consciousness, what exactly do you mean? If neuroscience were one day capable of delivering a complete mechanistic account of how consciousness is made possible, what would be missing? Don’t say “the experience itself,” since that would be a category mistake: we are talking about explaining the experience, not having it.

Here Massimo refers to a critique of panpsychism by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, “Electrons don’t think.

Thanks for clarifying where you think Hossenfelder goes wrong. The problem is, she at least provides a coherent view of panpsychism, and one that would be empirically testable to boot. By contrast, when you say that mass, charge, and spin are forms of consciousness I think you crossed into incoherence, and so I withdraw my provisional assent to (1). What does that even mean? Is there, for instance, a different kind of consciousness that accounts for each of the fundamental properties of matter? How does consciousness account for such properties? Why do physicists think that it is other things, like the Higgs boson, that account for some of these properties, like mass? Are they wrong? What reason do you have to say so?

I applaud the empiricism in the quote below!

Finally, you are not actually giving any evidence for panpsychism, you are simply arguing a priori that it must be the best explanation. But as I wrote last time, I believe first philosophy died with Descartes: we can’t arrive at firm conclusions about how the world works by simply thinking about it. We need evidence. Which means that we need science.

In Goff’s book, one of his major points is that you don’t need to refer to or observe nature to find out what’s true about nature. Rumination is sufficient.  He uses an example of a thought experiment that by itself shows contradictions in the idea that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. Ergo, the idea that all objects fall at the same rate (in a vacuum, absent air resistance) is a conclusion that can be derived entirely from philosophy. But of course that theory needed to be tested, because it could have been wrong, and it was tested.

I can’t think of any conclusions about the universe that would be universally accepted without having been subject to empirical testing. That’s why string theory is in the doldrums, and why panpsychism will eventually wane in popularity. Goff’s claim is, I further suspect, part of a strategy to diminish the hegemony of science in explaining nature, and bring many of those explanations into the bailiwick of philosophy alone.

Finally, after further back and forth, it’s clear that Massimo is getting pissed off.

You insist that panpsychism is coherent, but there too you keep falling into an ambiguity. If by coherent you mean logically so, then sure, we agree. But literally an infinite number of models of the world are logically coherent. That doesn’t help at all. We want coherence with the kind of data and theories we get from science. And that’s where panpsychism spectacularly fails. There is absolutely nothing in modern physics or biology that hints at panpsychism, and you have acknowledged that no empirical evidence could possibly bear on the issue. That acknowledgement, for me, is the endpoint of our discussion: once data are ruled out as arbiters among theories, those theories become pointless, just another clever intellectual game.

And so it ends with this salvo by Pigliucci:

The path you, Chalmers and others are attempting to chart has already been tried, centuries ago, and has brought us—as David Hume put it—nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Now you may say that I’m unfair in quoting only Massimo, but too bad. You can read Goff’s answers at the link above, and if you sign on to panpsychism, Ceiling Cat help you. Truly, I do not understand why apparently smart intellectuals have any truck with this bizarre theory—a theory that is not only untestable, but isn’t even a theory at all since it’s missing key parts, like where does the consciousness reside in an electron?  

A survey of philosophers shows that while a bare majority leans toward physicalism in the mind, more than a quarter are “non-physicalists” when it comes to the mind:

Unlike some other scientists, I don’t dismiss philosophy, as I think it has immense value in teaching us to think clearly. Philosophers are, after all, people trained in spotting logical errors, confusions, and other such muddles. But philosophy is not perfect, and sometimes it goes off the rails in a big way—sometimes because someone is overly ambitious. Panpsychism is a spectacular example of such derailing, and I agree with Massimo that it’s going nowhere. But in the meantime, people actually get paid to limn such theories—if you can call them theories.  It’s more a cult based on bizarre and untested (and untestable) claims, making faith-based assertions about the world.

Why is it so popular? You tell me!

67 Comments

  1. docbill1351
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    First we had Deepity, now we have Goffity? Both seem particularly goofy and not too deep.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      Those two should make guest appearances on the Goop channel. Bet they would do it too.

      • docbill1351
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

        What sound does the Panpsychic Universe make?

        “Wooooooooooooo!”

        • grasshopper
          Posted February 16, 2020 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

          🙂

  2. Posted February 16, 2020 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    “… although Massimo and I have had our differences—many, actually—I’ve never hesitated to admit when he’s right, …”

    Massimo is like Stephen Jay Gould — right half the time, wrong half the time, but definitely worth the intellectual effort of trying to figure out which half!

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      I quite liked his book, “Nonsense on stilts”. tho.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        Or the stomach. It does all kinds of things and just tells the brain.

        • Posted February 16, 2020 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

          It took me a while to work it out, but I guess this is a reply to Jerry’s reply to Mark at #5.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted February 16, 2020 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

            Yes about the liver. I guess it appeared elsewhere. I’ve had migraines for 2 days so I’m surprised I even worked out the word for stomach. 🥴

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted February 16, 2020 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

            Ha ha I just saw where it ended up. So random. I’m impressed you worked out where it belonged.

    • Joe Dickinson
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Coel says it better than I could. My falling out with Massimo was a result of his insistence that a certain scientist’s ideas should be rejected because of his political views. I just doesn’t work that way for me.

    • eric
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      It can be a sign of a good thinker – when they’re wrong ideas are as interesting and thought-provoking as their right ones.

  3. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I can’t get past this “materialism is false“ bit. I understand that the experience of red can be explained but not quantified in its experience but I almost wonder if there is a there there. Perhaps I’m suggesting that consciousness isn’t something we should concern ourselves with because it’s simply a result of the quantifiable neurological processes and that it’s no different than trying to understand why humans find certain things funny: you can explain the joke and why something is funny but laughing at the joke is something else altogether.

    I could be missing the point but more and more I wonder if there really is a hard problem of consciousness and I’m moving more and more into the emergent property camp if there is such a camp.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      I think Pinker is on your side; read the bit on consciousness in the “Humanities” section of Enlightenment Now.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        Oh well at least that’s reassuring. If I want anyone on my side I’d pick Pinker.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      This does invite parodies of the whole wacky idea. Why not assert that all matter contains humor? Elementary particles have knock-knock jokes. Molecules can produce dad jokes, etc.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

        Heh that would be pretty funny. It would have a niche audience but it would kill in that niche.

    • eric
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Yes. I view it sort of like the weak anthropic principle. Wondering why our universe can support living beings, given that living beings could only occur in a universe that can support them = wondering why our brains have a way of experiencing/distinguishing different colors, given that only beings who can distinguish & experience different colors would come up with that question.

    • Posted February 17, 2020 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      I always come back to this question why would adopting another metaphysics *solve the problem*? Once you realize that other general metaphysical views *have the same problem* you realize that the arguments are *not* arguments against materialism.

      As for emergence, I am very simpathetic, but I encourage taking matters (heh) case by case. I do think for example “memory” is “eliminated” in the eliminative materialism sense, and other items are not.

  4. phoffman56
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Non-starter:
    “..if a phenomenon in the Universe can’t be expressed quantitatively, but is still a real phenomenon..”

    (1) Can’t be expressed (yet) by humans?? or,
    (2) Can’t be expressed, period??

    (1) big deal.
    (2) you really know that, do you?

    Philosophy not exactly deep at that point.

    • phoffman56
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Should’ve added: It’s like he’s teaching some bullshit religion in the kindergarten.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      I would argue that, if (2) applies, then that is the definition of not real.

      • phoffman56
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

        As (sentimentally) a supporter of Tegmark’s 4th level of multiverse, the updated Platonism which asserts that nothing exists which is not a mathematical structure (and they all do), I certainly could not disagree!

  5. Posted February 16, 2020 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Well, I can start at the above point #9, where a number of semi-conscious particles are said to get together to form a brain, and from this we get a more advanced, self-reflective form of consciousness…
    There I say A-ha! So an abandoned car tire is also a mass of semi-conscious particles. It too should be at least as self-aware as my brain. My couch that I am laying on should be a tremendous mass of consciousness, and probably is getting annoyed that I am on top of it!

    Or.. consciousness is an emergent property. Period.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      Which makes me wonder now: why isn’t the LIVER conscious?????

      • Posted February 17, 2020 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        According to the panpsychists, it is. Or at least its least parts are. Leibniz at least attempted to explain aggregates – these guys do not, in part because they have no theory of properties. Ironically, Leibniz’ theory of properties (such as can be reconstructed) involves essentially reifying mathematics (calculus) directly, which these “not everything is quantitiative!!!” folks might have a problem with.

    • davelenny
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

      And since car tyres definitely have spin once it starts moving, they and the rest of your car with its various other rotating parts are more conscious than you.

  6. Posted February 16, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    “Why is it so popular? You tell me!”

    Because if people support a Big Idea that conflicts with the mainstream view, then they can kid themselves that they are wise, insightful, and important.

    • uommibatto
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I was going to say something like that.

      Just as with conspiracy theories, there seems to be a tendency for contra-theories to be taken seriously by some people if they tie up some otherwise loose ends. Think of Velikovsky (sp?) and Von Daniekin (sp? for sure) “explaining” stuff like pyramid construction and the Bible “sun stopping in the sky” stories, and getting taken seriously by some people. The appeal of these potential paradigm shifts is strong, and have in the past sometimes been right (e.g., heliocentrism).

      And so “everything is conscious” can explain away the “problem” of consciousness (sorry for all these “quote marks”)and at the same time give us warm fuzzies: why not?

      The fact that such a theory is insupportable empirically, and creates more problems than it solves is apparently lost in the warm glow of the initial “aha!” moment it produces in some people.

      Larry Smith

  7. GBJames
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    sub

  8. Posted February 16, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    To sum up, not only is Russell’s teapot out there between the Earth and Mars, but it’s also conscious.

    • Taz
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      That’s why we can’t find it – it’s hiding!

      • sted24
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps it’s asleep.

        (There is actually a serious point orbiting in there!)

        • Posted February 17, 2020 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

          I think you’re right. Well, you must be, because I can’t disprove it.

          (I recall a Monty Python sketch about a man who can send bricks to sleep, using hypnosis.)

  9. Steve Gerrard
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Step #9 is the “then a miracle occurs” step that needs “to be more explicit,” per the famous New Yorker cartoon.

    The “combination” problem is actually a pretty good description of the hard problem itself – how do a bunch of neurons give rise to feelings?

    Since panpsychism doesn’t explain it either, it is not contributing to any solution, and is not even wrong.

    • sted24
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      A Pedant writes:

      As I recall, the wonderful S. Harris “then a miracle occurs” cartoon appeared in the American Scientist in about 1977. In truth, it is not really the New Yorker’s style, and whatever Google says, and it does finger NY, Google s wrong.

      (In true pedant–cancel that, Truth Seeker–style, I have emailed AS seeking the truth. Will report back.)

      Meanwhile Sidney is still going, now in his 80s or more. His cartoon site is worth a visit:

      //www.sciencecartoonsplus.com

  10. Posted February 16, 2020 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I don’t get why panpsychism is seriously considered. It baffles me why certain folks don’t set consciousness as an emergent priority.

    I do like Philip Goff though. He’s personable and i enjoyed his book. I just don’t buy his ideas.

    Today I published a discussion I hosted with him, on my podcast Proscenium.

    (I hope our host doesn’t mind me publicising that)

  11. Glepsicord
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m fairly certain Goff is basing his thoughts about charge and spin in Schopenhauer’s concept of “things-in-themselves”.

    As those seem to be the major bone of contention, I imagine the discussion would proceed a good deal faster and be rather less frustrating for everyone concerned if it were directed to debating the merits, or lack thereof, of Schopenhauer’s core argument itself:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40097/40097-h/40097-h.html#Pg403

    (sorry for the massive quote, emphasis below is mine)

    JAC: I’ve cut the very long comment because it turns this comment into an essay, and exceeds the word limit I like for comments (see the Roolz). If you can truncate it or, better yet, find a link, please repost. But this is way, way, too long.

    • Glespicord
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      The link I posted is the relevant one, though the page is quite large and may need some time to load before it seeks to the correct subsection.

      There’s a fairly good video summary here:

  12. Posted February 16, 2020 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Any successful theory of consciousness has to explain why I am conscious but the chair on which I am sitting appears not to be: why I complain about how uncomfortable it is, but it never has anything to say about my weight. That’s the interesting question and claiming electrons have some rudimentary form of consciousness doesn’t answer it.

    “Consciousness” is simply a label we apply to certain behaviours that humans and maybe some other animals exhibit. If you say “electrons are conscious”, I’m sorry but you are changing the definition of the word. It’s like me asking “how do birds fly” and Goff saying “all subatomic particles are capable of flight”. It is not answering the question I asked.

  13. Posted February 16, 2020 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Goff’s fundamental problem is that he can’t imagine a mechanism implementing consciousness or perceptual experience. He realizes that the brain is full of mechanisms but none are the seat of phenomenal consciousness. This causes him to look elsewhere. But, if it isn’t in our brains then where could it be? The best that he can come with is “everywhere”. It avoids having to propose some sort of out-of-body seat of conscious experience.

    This lack of belief that perceptual experience can come from a mechanism also leads to his idea that consciousness is some sort of collective property. Add two barely conscious particles together and you get a bigger particle with more consciousness. And just like mass, some things have greater consciousness-density than others. It’s simply denial that mechanism could give rise to consciousness.

    It is hard to argue against lack of imagination. I think the only way to prove that consciousness is a mechanism is for neuroscience to explain it in detail. When this happens, we’ll be able to manipulate it in ways that people like Goff will have to accept.

  14. rickflick
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Goff seems to say consciousness is cumulative. If electrons have a tiny bit of consciousness, and a 3 pound brain has a seriously noticeable amount due to the it’s trillions of electrons, doesn’t that mean that a 75 pound block of granite has even more consciousness? If there is something significant in the organization of the human brain which lifts it beyond mere stone, shouldn’t that organization be the place to look for consciousness and not in lumps of electrons? Before answering that question, consult with any nearby large tree, paving stone, or even a large kitchen appliance.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      To me it is all memory levels built up by ‘living’ organisms, mostly run by primitive nervous systems all the way up mammal brains. From a worm that senses what to do (memorized past experience) to human ability to memorize language, culture, education, parent’s religion or professors philosophy … it is all brain memory … until you’re dead … then your books or music lives on …also explains why rocks and electrons don’t think …

      • rickflick
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        Yes, something like that has to be the answer. Goff is not comfortable with this idea – probably because he’d rather avoid the headache of thinking about something that’s not fully resolved. The ability of people to deal with ambiguity varies across the population. Since the big bang still has many unknowns associated with it, “God did it” can seem satisfying to those who are impatient.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      You may have forgotten that consciousness has a density associated with it. A rock’s mass-density may be high but its consciousness-density is very, very low. LOL.

      • rickflick
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        Naturally.

    • eric
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      A panpsychism defender could answer that the block of granite is conscious, but we can’t tell because it lacks physical mechanisms necessary for communication etc.

      But that brings up the problem of sensory organs; if we say the block of granite needs organs to do things, then obviously it’s lack of eyes, ears, etc.. means it’s consciousness has no ability to sense anything. IOW it’s trapped inside it’s own mind, forever and ever, amen.

      Goff’s theory creates hell.

      • rickflick
        Posted February 17, 2020 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        One could take sympathy on the rock and sculpt some sensory organs. Michelangelo’s David keeps a close eye on the parade of visitors who pass him, noting, I’d guess, their warm and colorful clothing and their babbling utterances.

    • Posted February 17, 2020 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Leibniz solves this problem by permitting that not all monads have the same properties. (In fact, literally none of them are the same, in his view. He was inspired by the Leewenhoek discoveries, biologists can be proud of!) In fact, that’s an essential property of his system: god created the maximum variety consistent with maximum harmony. (Even a modern day *more sophisticated* Leibnizian like N. Rescher can’t figure how that double-maximization is to work, so don’t ask!) These “mere” panpsychists can’t even seem to think through these things.

      • rickflick
        Posted February 17, 2020 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        Think through. Now there’s an idea. 😎

  15. Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    After all this … I tend to agree with Feynman, that philosophy is ‘secular religious wishful thinking’ … and yet Massimo disses Feynman?? For what? Job security? And true … what do we do with thousands of university philosophy departments?

    Like I mentioned before about religion can be also applied to most philosophy …

    Oh what tales we weave …
    When we want to believe …
    Or for job security, must deceive …

  16. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    I fail to see how an ideology that has just 50 % of its believers accept science and empiricism can be regarded as having “immense value in teaching [scientists] to think clearly”. Philosophy was hoist on its own petard.

    Speaking of which, Goff makes himself funny: “… no materialistic (scientific) theory will ever explain how that sensation feels. It may provide neurological “correlations” of such experiences, but understanding why the color orange looks as it does, and other subjective experiences, will always elude quantitative explanation. Therefore materialism is false, …” Never mind awareness of one’s own experiences then: if we cannot understand how deep neural networks come to specific results after training – which we generally can’t – are we expected to follow Goff in proclaiming working computers as evidence for that computers do not work?

    Did Aristotle mean theology with “first principles” [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_principle ]?

    Finally, I think any waning popularity of string theory is not because it can’t be tested, but because its reliance on supersymmetry failed in test at LHC at its natural energy scale (just above the standard particle energy range). Not a complete test but fairly convincing that it remains a toolbox rather than a realized physics.

  17. Sastra
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Why is Panpsychism popular? I can’t speak for the scientists, but the general public seems to be enchanted by the way it re-enchants the world, putting what’s most important to us — our minds — right on the level of what’s most important, period. It’s a weak version of supernaturalism, and only a small push topples it into woo-land.

    Finally, when you get a brain like ours that is built of many semi-conscious particles, somehow you get a massive increase in consciousness, so now the particles can have experiences, see red, and reflect on their experiences.

    And why wouldn’t that work for any complex system— like the planet earth? Panpsychism is a hypothesis which is much beloved by environmentalists who think we’re less likely to harm the earth once we realize it’s conscious, too. Their favorite movie is Avatar, because of course it is.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      Avatar was a cool movie but it would have been better without all the woo.

  18. Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Electrons are not the only thing spinning here… 😳 …and Goffs attempt at giving them a positive spin? god help the proton, we’re gonna have an identity crisis and collapse, no matter, we can have comas instead, consciousness is dead. Solved.

  19. Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    I think the appeal of panpsychism is the appeal of monism. I am surprised, though, that the appeal of monism, which I share, would lead people to believe that rocks are conscious. When any philosophy leads to something that is palpably absurd, you’d think people would can it.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      You would think so, right? I suspect that they suffer from a misapplication of Sherlock Holmes’ dictum, “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” That only works in restricted domains and, even then, it relies on knowing all the possibilities.

      I suspect that philosophers like Goff also perceive a need to make strong statements — stronger than evidence demands — in order to stake some territory for their own in a world with too many philosophers.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      When your philosophy leads to absurdity, you should re-evaluate your philosophy not double down on the absurdity.

      Maybe Philip Goff should write “Electrons are conscious” on his bathroom mirror and leave it there until he understands the implications for his philosophy.

      Of course, saying that electrons have a rudimentary form of consciousness, doesn’t explain the sort of complex self-aware consciousness that has evolved on Earth and that develops in human brains from birth to maturity.

      If Philip Goff is happy for science to explain the evolution and development of consciousness from the rudimentary consciousness of subatomic particles, why does he think that science cannot also explain the origins of consciousness from non-consciousness?

  20. grasshopper
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Consciousness. Why do humans concentrate so much of it? The answer might lie in junk DNA. Somebody should tell Larry Moran.

  21. Mike Anderson
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    He (Goff) uses an example of a thought experiment that by itself shows contradictions in the idea that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. Ergo, the idea that all objects fall at the same rate (in a vacuum, absent air resistance) is a conclusion that can be derived entirely from philosophy.

    What utter nonsense. There’s no way inertial mass could be determined to be equivalent to gravitational mass philosophically.

    Would Einstein have proceeded to develop General Relativity without this foundation established experimentally? I think he might not have.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

      Wasn’t it Aristotle that philosophized that a heavier object would fall faster than a lighter object? I wonder how prevalent that misinformation was before Galileo proved it wrong.

    • eric
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      What utter nonsense.

      What utter postdiction. It’s no better than finding support for some 20th-21st century scientific theory in the bible.

      When it predicts things we don’t currently know, and does so accurately, then it will be interesting.

      But based on the penultimate Massimo quote, it sounds like he (Massimo) already asked Goff about this and Goff has says his philosophy is incapable of doing that. Which makes it scientifically useless – arguably, a fate worse than wrong.

  22. kelskye
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    Consciousness seems to be overwhelmingly functional – our thoughts, emotions, etc. are closely tied to our biological actions, and thus it really didn’t make sense to me to think of consciousness outside of organisms that have that need to evaluate and act in the world. Panpsychism seems to me to violate that, and I’m not sure how a disembodied consciousness could even be the start of a good explanation of consciousness.

    Thorny philosophical problems of consciousness stemming from the incomprehensible nature of our current understanding of the mind aside, of course…

  23. A C Harper
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 3:19 am | Permalink

    Because you can do the ‘work’ (it can be hard work) from an armchair, publish a book about your musings, and gain academic status?

    With minimal risk of being proved wrong – because there is minimal risk of proving your theory.

    It’s a bit like top tier sportspeople (or business persons). *Once* you have made it to the top, it’s rewarding. But there are many more mediocre people (who achieve little public recognition).

  24. Posted February 17, 2020 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    You want crazy re consciousness? See Riccardo Manzotti’s “spread mind” hypothesis, which was featured in a series of NRB interviews with novelist Tim Parks (2nd link below):

    “…by revisiting the nature of the physical world in terms of relative properties, it is possible to reveal a mind-object identity that, in contrast with the traditional mind-body identity, maintains that while consciousness is located in the physical world, it is not identical to brain processes but rather to external objects. In brief, the proposal is that, whenever a subject S experiences an object O, S’s experience is nothing but O itself. O is a relative object where relative reads as in “relative velocity” rather than as in “relative to a subject.”

    https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00063/full

    https://www.nybooks.com/contributors/riccardo-manzotti/

  25. Posted February 17, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Oh, Goff was a student of G. Strawson?? I should have known, Strawson’s _Mental Reality_ is so smarmingly disdainful of the science-oriented philosophers (including, in this case Dennett, the Churchlands, etc) it isn’t even funny.

    Second generation nonsense.

    P. F. Strawson, G. Strawson’s father was much more humble – and well respected, likely because he stayed in bounds. That said, some of that sort of “ordinary language philsophy” is also seriously weird, just not as bad.

    (Descriptive metaphysics: “of whose conceptual scheme and why, kemosabe?” ;))

  26. Posted February 17, 2020 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    the allure of conceits like panpsychism seems to be an example of the jealousy some philosophers suffer towards science’s ability to construct useful models of reality. to be sure, science borrows from philosophy for its goals and direction, but some philosophers stubbornly want to prove that they too are capable of unearthing the cosmos’ deepest secrets — through pure conjecture — without expending the manual labor demanded by empiricism or accepting help from pedantic naturalists.


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