Panpsychism: a big bag of nothing

February 21, 2020 • 9:00 am

I was suckered by the Courtier’s Reply of panpsychists like Philip Goff, and so have finished his popular (i.e., trade) book, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. I am not going to summarize it or review it at length, as it says little beyond what I’ve summarized previously. It has not convinced me that there’s anything to panpsychism: in fact, it’s turned me away from it, since it seems bundled up with all kinds of mysticism as well as additional bizarre and untestable views.

What is new in the book is Goff’s proposed “solutions” to the “combination problem”: How do atoms and particles with rudimentary consciousness, when they get together in a human brain, suddenly produce “higher”, self-reflective consciousness able to have subjective experience (“qualia”)? This is the “hard problem” of panpsychism, but there is no good solution. (Of course, it’s insane to accept at the outset that atoms and electrons are conscious, anyway.)

Goff offers two solutions, but neither makes sense. The first invokes experiments with “split brain” patients, which, he says, have “two consciousnesses” when you divide the corpus callosum. (I think neuroscientists would take issue with the “two separate consciousness” bits, for the patients, while having some aspects of their consciousness divided, don’t perceive of themselves as two distinct people.)  But Goff goes on to extrapolate downwards: if you divide the brain in two and get two consciousnesses, then eventually, if you keep dividing, you will get down to atoms or molecules that are also conscious. I kid you not. I repeat: the logic is that if you get two consciousnesses by dividing a brain in two, you’ll get trillions of consciousnesses if you keep on dividing. A quote (it’s a screenshot from Google books and there was yellow in my capture because I searched for a phrase:

Yeah, there are all those pesky dead people that have conscious atoms in their brains but inconveniently lack consciousness themselves! So there’s yet another problem to be solved.

And, of course, this doesn’t solve the problem at all, it’s just a “top down” way of saying that the consciousness of the brain’s material constituents manifests itself in a “higher” consciousness of the brain. “Reverse this process, and you’ve got mental combination” is simply a misleading way of restating the combination problem, not solving it.

Goff’s second solution involves something called the “Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness (IIT), proposed by his colleague Hedda Mørch at the University of Oslo. But that boils down to saying that when a system of atoms and molecules is sufficiently integrated (as in our brain), you get “higher” consciousness as an emergent property. I won’t go into the details of IIT, but there is no “there” there: what we have is just an assertion that at a certain level of “maximum integration”, consciousness appears. This is not a theory but merely a claim based on armchair speculation of the empirically uninformed sort. Here’s a bit of Goff’s discussion:

This isn’t a solution to the combination problem, but a form of magic that simply puts the problem into fancy words, invoking “basic principles of nature” (i.e., magic).

There’s a lot more I could say and criticize, but I have neither the time nor the will. Just let me mention one more issue: free will. Despite the assertion of some readers here that nobody really believes in “you can do otherwise” libertarian free will, Goff in fact does. He thinks that not only humans can decide at any given moment to behave in several different ways, so can particles! He posits a brain having particles that are not only conscious, but have free will of a sort, so they can “decide” what to do based on their “inclinations.” These inclinations appear free from the laws of physics:

This then is a form of pan-free-willism.  Particles aren’t compelled to act by the laws of physics, but via their own rudimentary consciousness.

But is there anything in the laws of physics that claims particles act on their own volition? Could you argue that when a radioactive atom decays—and that is unpredictable in principle—that the particle is decaying under its own volition? But of course it’s unwise to rest libertarian free will at a higher level on quantum mechanics, because we have no evidence that our decisions rest on indeterminate quantum events, and no libertarian wants to argue that their choosing fish rather than steak was based on a quantum event at the molecular level.

Goff’s explanation of libertarian free will makes no sense to me, unless he’s simply renaming “quantum unpredictability” as “the inclinations of particles.” And even so, the combination problem still obtains on the macro level: how is the so-called libertarian free will of particles translated into the libertarian free will of our brain? Remember, Goff is not a compatibilist like Dennett; he is a libertarian when it comes to free will. He’s also not a dualist, and so has to explain libertarian free will in purely physical terms. He does this by claiming that we’re made up of particles that have free will.  I needn’t dwell on the intellectual vacuity of that solution, nor on Goff’s annoying penchant of anthropomorphizing particles by saying that they have inclinations and pressures to behave in certain ways. 

At the end, the book degenerates into mysticism and the idea that the world may not be real but all a figment of our occupying a Matrix, but I’ll leave you to fry your brains on that bit.

To me, panpsychism remains a religion, which, though not accepting a deity, accepts a number of fiats for which there is no evidence, and yet is promulgated by fervent believers like Goff. (“Good afternoon. Do you have some time to talk about the consciousness of electrons?”)

Shall we call it a pseudophilosophy?


59 thoughts on “Panpsychism: a big bag of nothing

  1. After reading the excerpts from Goff, I had to come to one of two conclusions. The first is that he is so profound that it is beyond the capabilities of my little brain to understand him. The second is that he is pure bullshit. I concluded to go with choice two.

    1. But all that bullshit can be broken down into smaller and smaller particles, still containing bullshit.

      Panbullshitism as it were.

      1. Those smaller particles are conscious. Those particles are always striving to be heard. This is why bullshit is so prevalent.

        1. It’s also why we keep saying it and responding to it – acting on bullshit inclinations at the sub-atomic level.

    2. As I’ve posted before, Goff’s panpsychism is mostly a rehash of Schopenhauer’s idealism. Goff just happens to be a lot worse at communicating than Schopenhauer.

        1. Schopenhauer has one virtue sorely lacking, particularly in Kant and later German philosophers – clarity.

          He’s clear enough to be easily seen to be ludicrously wrong in places.

          For example, he says that core personality will *never* be changed by head injuries, as of course to a Kantian like idealist, your head is just a phenomenon. I.e., is basically mental itself!

  2. So if the idea of dividing a brain into smaller and smaller bits still showing ‘consciuousness’ is true, then my whole brain must consist of all the tiny bits of consciousness previously existing in worms, bacteria, and other previously living organisms.

    But my consciousness doesn’t feel ‘previously owned’… so something else must be in play.

    1. I guess if you seem to be “an old soul” it’s because of all the past worms that made up your consciousness.

  3. “I’m not sure whether this view is true. But it seems to me to be the view you ought to go for if you believe in free will.”

    I don’t want to sound harsh because Goff sounds like a nice person. But, my god. Given that we’re talking about trying to figure out aspects of reality, this is horrible. Decide what you want your explanation of reality to look like, so that it supports a cherished belief, before you go looking?

    I’m in the wrong line of work. I should have been a philosopher.

  4. IIT is actually the brain-child of Giulio Tononi, not Hedda Mørch. She acknowledges this on her home page:

    IMHO, IIT is an attempt to mathematize consciousness. The basic idea is that if you connect enough things together with the right kind and number of connections, you get consciousness. It is quite a popular theory though it has also been shown to allow some ridiculous conclusions. As it says on its Wikipedia page: “IIT proposes conditions which are necessary for consciousness, but are not entirely sufficient.” That’s a big understatement.

    1. The basic idea is that if you connect enough things together with the right kind and number of connections, you get consciousness.

      That seems trivially true to me. Functional braincells are things and if you connect enough of them together with the right kind and number of connections you get consciousness.

      1. Sure, but when I said “things” I mean any things, not just neurons. From Wikipedia:

        “According to IIT, a system’s consciousness is determined by its causal properties and is therefore an intrinsic, fundamental property of any physical system.”

        Proponents of IIT are saying that the way in which things are causally connected is all that matters. I suppose they are thinking of neurons and some kind of computer component as typifying units with “causal properties” but I’m not sure. Do atoms have “causal properties”?

        Regardless of the details, IIT seems to fall flat in my estimation. It is basically saying that it doesn’t matter what algorithms the network implements, the connectedness and complexity alone are all that is needed. Like panpsychists, IIT believers seem to have grown impatient with brain science and want to take a shortcut.

        1. It’s still trivially true. We know it works for neutrons and the atoms they are made of. For anything else the phrase “the right kind of connections” could be hiding a lot of magic.

          For example, Mount Everest clearly contains more atoms than my brain and yet its level of consciousness is almost certainly far below mine. It doesn’t have “the right kind of connections”.

          By using this phrase “the right kind of connections” you are handwaving away a lot of detail, in fact you are hand waving away the important and interesting detail.

          (I use “you” in a general sense. I’m not accusing you – Paul Topping – of making this argument).

          1. I know you weren’t really accusing me of hand-waving but I actually was, in the sense of summarizing what I know of IIT. Since I think it is a silly theory, perhaps I’m not the best one to summarize it. However, “the detail” is also missing in IIT.

            IIT may be trivially true as you say. It can’t easily be proven wrong until we understand how the brain works. Even then, perhaps it says so little that it is still true. I suspect its authors consider that a feature rather than a bug.

  5. This quote:

    “In the absence of living, cognitive processes going on within it, the consciousness of the particles is not bound together in a single, unified experience”

    … is an admission that panpsychism is literally vacuous, since it admits that what *actually* matters for producing the “experience” of consciousness is the “cognitive process” in the brain.

    And once you’ve conceded that, Mr Goff, you’ve got nothing: panpsychism adds diddly squat.

  6. “IIT is the brainchild of the neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, and is also vigorously defended by Christof Koch[.]”

    (Goff, Philip. Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. New York: Pantheon, 2019. p. 33)

    See Koch’s new book “The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread
    but Can’t Be Computed” (MIT Press, 2019). He writes that the combination problem is “a problem that IIT has squarely solved.” (p. 163)

    On IIT:



  7. Why do leg amputees not experience damage to their conscious?
    Why do organ donors not experience the consciousness of the donors, as in so many bad movies?

    I wonder if there are any vegetarians or vegans who are also panpsychists and do they flagellate themselves for the untold horrors they inflict on conscious plants?
    Perhaps they become breatharians?

    1. “Whilst not appealing directly to “rights”, Matthew Hall has argued that plants should be included within the realm of human moral consideration. His “Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany” [published by SUNY Press] discusses the moral background of plants in western philosophy and contrasts this with other traditions, including indigenous cultures, which recognise plants as persons—active, intelligent beings that are appropriate recipients of respect and care. Hall backs up his call for the ethical consideration of plants with arguments based on plant neurobiology, which says that plants are autonomous, perceptive organisms capable of complex, adaptive behaviours, including the recognition of self/non-self.”

  8. Religion you’re born into – I special because my mommy said so.

    Religious recruitment – Join us and we’ll tell you how special you are.

    Panpsychism – You’re not just special, you’re extra special and subconsciously connected to the whole universe!

  9. Weird,

    In the section about Free Will, Geoff seems to be moving along fairly carefully and I was thinking “hold on, maybe he’s not making exactly the bad argument he’s accused of.”

    But then he goes off the rails in just the way Jerry identifies. Weird.

    BTW, just to clarify in response to this:

    Despite the assertion of some readers here that nobody really believes in “you can do otherwise” libertarian free will,

    For my part: I certainly acknowledge many people, especially the religious, believe in a Libertarian Free Will-type theory.

    I would just argue it’s a mistaken explanation about human choice-making, which arises from a misdiagnosis of how we are thinking when reasoning in any specific situation that “I have a choice.” And that, as with concepts like “Morality, Life, solidity” about which many people have *some* false ideas mixed in, we shouldn’t mistake a faulty theory for the reality of what it’s trying to explain. We can explain it better.

    So: Yes, there are people with a Libertarian, metaphysical theory about free will, that is wrong.

    But, no, we are not typically thinking in terms of those metaphysics when actually involved in deliberating between options and having choices.

    (That was just to clarify…no intent to go further over old ground).

    1. What I meant, and should have been clearer, is that readers claim that the common view of free will is not the libertarian view of free will but some kind of compatibilist view. I disagree, and yes, believers but also nonbelievers tend to have libertarian views. I think they’re a lot more common than readers here suspect.

      1. “… readers claim that the common view of free will is not the libertarian view of free will but some kind of compatibilist view.”

        The claim we readers make is more that the “common view” of free will is a confused mash of different things. Many (most?) people do indeed believe in a dualistic “soul” that is really “you” and which makes the decisions.

        But, equally, in everyday life, people will often exhibit a more pragmatic and grounded concept of “choosing” that is compatibilist.

  10. I kid you not. I repeat: the logic is that if you get two consciousnesses by dividing a brain in two, you’ll get trillions of consciousnesses if you keep on dividing.

    I’m reminded of my philosophy advisor in college. Great guy, knew his material, but beyond everyday math, practically innumerate. I think philosophers who dabble in science, really need to have the mathematical chops to understand the models being used. You want to philosophize about QM, be able to solve particle in a box. You want to philosophize about neural processes, you need to understand nerve cells at the very least.

    [ITT] boils down to saying that when a system of atoms and molecules is sufficiently integrated (as in our brain), you get “higher” consciousness as an emergent property.

    As a 10-second simplification of a very complicated idea, I have no issue with that description. I think consciousness does in fact boil down to the pattern of activity in the brain, which is itself made possible by how atoms and molecules integrate together (into neurons, then specific collections of neurons, etc.).
    But I certainly wouldn’t call it a theory. Or even an hypothesis. Because there’s not much you can do with that statement. The proposers would have to come up with some quantified model and testable predictions if they want it to be a theory.

    Particles aren’t compelled to act by the laws of physics, but via their own rudimentary consciousness.

    That seems easily contradicted by the evidence. How does Goff explain away the fact that particles observationally appear to always follow rules?

    Could you argue that when a radioactive atom decays—and that is unpredictable in principle—that the particle is decaying under its own volition?

    Radioactive decay also follows rules, something easily confirmed by many observations. It’s just statistically predictable rather than individually predictable. It’s analogous to statistical mechanics in that way: the likelihood of a pound of radioactive material not decaying consistent with it’s half-life and other properties is similar to the likelihood of all the oxygen atoms in the room suddenly shifting to one side: mathematically non-zero, but practically zero.

  11. I can’t imagine Goff really thinks his program will spawn a new science. What steps can a scientist take after reading his tract? The only thing to do is to go back to work, in the ‘Galilean’ tradition. The foundations of a new science would need some non-trivial framework to get started, and we haven’t left triviality. In some ways, it’s a regression, since his muse, Russell (a ‘neutral’ monist), did not place consciousness at a fundamental level, as far as I know.

    On pan-libertarianism, there actually is a non-trivial result, due to John Conway and Simon Kochen (two undeniably smart cookies), called the Free will theorem. Although one has to accept the premise that free will exists in order to get to the conclusion that particles have freedom. They do admit that there is no way to prove free will.

    1. What steps can a scientist take after reading his tract?

      Go to a local bar or restaurant and gleefully consume roughly 10E20 conscious entities. Then, have another. 🙂

  12. I told my wife that all of my electrons went out on strike.

    “Are you sure,” she asked?

    I said, “I’m positive.”

  13. Please, panpsychism is not religion.

    Spinoza was a panpsychist, your American pragmatists were panpsychists, your German idealists were panpsychists, Mach and Haeckel were panpsychists.

    But most of all, Bertie Russell came around to panpsychism:

    Perhaps Russell’s clearest statement came in his Portraits from Memory (1956). Memory is “the most essential characteristic of mind, … using this word [memory] in its broadest sense to include every influence of past experience on present reactions” (pp. 153-4). As before, memory applies to all physical objects and systems:

    This [memory] also can be illustrated in a lesser degree by the behavior of inorganic matter. A watercourse which at most times is dry gradually wears a channel down a gully at the times when it flows, and subsequent rains follow [a similar] course… You may say, if you like, that the river bed ‘remembers’ previous occasions when it experienced cooling streams. … You would say [this] was a flight of fancy because you are of the opinion that rivers and river beds do not ‘think’. But if thinking consists of certain modifications of behavior owing to former occurrences, then we shall have to say that the river bed thinks, though its thinking is somewhat rudimentary (p. 155).

    It perfectly possible that something can be philosophically wrong without being a religion.

      1. Not liked it, professed it as a philosophical doctrine.

        Spinoza got kicked out of his Synagogue for atheism, Russell, well enough said on this blog, Schopenhauer is not widely regarded as “religious”, Herder, Goethe and that crowd were more “German” than Lutheran.

        C.S. Pierce was drug addict who married a prostitute, no one mistook him for a man of the cloth.

        Mach and Haeckel were hardly theologians, they were real scientists even if Haeckel had some strange ideas.

        Granted, Whitehead and Hartshorne developed into process theology, so maybe its kind of “religious” but process theology isn’t actually “Orthodox” from a Classical Theist perspective, so a maybe here,

        BUT, the Christian Creed invokes the notion of substance and person, ideas coming out of Greek philosophy. I don’t think I am per se “religious” in any sense just because I use the concept of substance or personhood.

        Obviously, Aristotle and Plato weren’t Christians, and I wouldn’t call “Ousia” is religious, even if Christians have to affirm some notion of “ousia” per their Creeds.

        I would put panpsychism as being Woo-adjacent, but its not per se religious (in contrast to say reincarnation).

          1. No, if we are talking about a concept, say the concept of “religion”, then usage establishes the meaning of the concept.

            Even if we look at the dictionary, dictionary definitions are based on usage:

            1a: the state of a religious
            a nun in her 20th year of religion
            b(1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural
            (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
            2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
            3archaic : scrupulous conformity : CONSCIENTIOUSNESS
            4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

            Not seeing panpsychism here either, with the exception noted above, panpsychism has a role in one niche of academy theology.

            Obviously, one can try to stretch a concept to metaphorically apply in a situation outside of ordinary usage, for example, saying panpsychism is religious.

            One cannot “disprove” a metaphor, but one can point out concrete dissimilarities between the metaphor and the actual thing. Why are philosophers who are the paradigms for anti-religion, such as Russell, as well as people like William James, who was more or less agnostic, espousing panpsychism if it is to be viewed as religion.

            Further, panpsychism is not inconsistent with the non-existence of supernatural agents. The claim is that natural entities possess consciousness, not that supernatural entities exist. [We can’t say “consciousness” is supernatural, because people are conscious, and then people would be supernatural and presumably require supernatural causes.]

            1. I suppose you could say “panpsychism” is “religious” in the sense of “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held with ardor and faith”, but on a website entitled “Why Evolution Is True”, that would quickly turn into “Darwinian evolution” is “religious”, which is just crap for the similar reasons to panpsychism.

            2. I’m not talking about panpsychism. I’m talking about your argument that panpsychism isn’t a religion because certain people accept it. That’s not a logical argument and is fallacious.

            3. I’m not talking about panpsychism. I’m talking about your argument that panpsychism isn’t a religion because certain people accept it. That’s not a logical argument and is fallacious.

        1. I’d rather that people analyze what scientific metaphysics actually needs, and one concludes (and hence carries forward as a regulative ideal) that materialism is correct.

          (This has already been done by D. M. Armstrong and M. Bunge, amongst others, in different ways.)

    1. KD, I agree with you on panpsychism not being a religion, though it definitely hovers near absurdity. And it should be mentioned that the philosophy is just a couple syllables away from an eminently sensible version: pan-protopsychism, which states that fundamental particles carry properties which can elicit mentation, given the proper configuration of those particles; that is they are said to have proto-phenomenal properties (which is not to be confused with consciousness itself). Hard to take issue with that claim, trivial though it may be.

      1. Adding to my own comment: The reason it’s not a religion is because there is certainly a logical rigor to philosophical argument, even when some practitioners go down absurd-seeming paths like panpsychism. The field is an investigation of entailments. If such and such holds, this and that follow. If the entailment is illusory, then pointing that out is par of the course. Evidence rarely adjudicates philosophical issues, since questions amenable to evidentiary reasoning wouldn’t be called philosophy in the first place.

  14. Goff’s explanation of libertarian free will makes no sense to me, unless he’s simply renaming “quantum unpredictability” as “the inclinations of particles.”

    Goff doesn’t sound like he’s talking about libertarian free will. In the part you quoted, he contemplates that complex animals – presumably this includes humans – may be “in principle” “entirely predictable”. (His words, not mine!)

    So it’s not “quantum unpredictability” that’s getting renamed. It’s the laws of nature that are getting renamed as “the inclinations of particles”. Which fits in with the rest of his panpsychism: take some perfectly ordinary physical phenomenon and try to cram a mental quality into the same exact place and role.

    1. lI didn’t quote the other places in the discussion where he does think humans can have libertarian free will. And yes, as far as particles are concerned, he admits that they COULD be determined, but doesn’t say this absolutely. This doesn’t solve the problem, though, about humans having free will (he does not include humans under “complex animals”).

      1. So, “complex animals” may be in principle entirely predictable, but humans could still have libertarian free will? So much for Goff’s claim to be entirely consistent with science; sounds like he’s trying to inject some magic, made especially for humans.

      2. Sorry to reply twice, but I missed something earlier. Goff writes:

        In this case, particles at earlier times do not *compel* later particles to act; they create a set of inclinations that pressure future particles to behave in a certain way,

        But in describing the view he wants to move beyond, he’s starting off from bad physics. Particles don’t *compel* each other in any case. The laws of physics at the fundamental particle level are bidirectional in time. It would make just as much (as little) sense to say that particles at later times *compel* earlier particles to act. You can do a mathematical derivation in either direction. You can’t have a master-slave relationship in a situation of equality.

        So you don’t need panpsychism to reject particle-compulsion. Ordinary physics will do just fine.

        By adding mental “inclinations” to particles, Goff gives them “will”. But not “free”, since their behavior is “inevitable”. This is pointless: humans obviously have will, and we don’t get more of it if our particles also have it.

  15. I think your comment about dead people with conscious atoms in their brains may just have solved the credibility problem for fans* of The Walking Dead.

    *If there are actually any fans left, of course.

    1. Ha ha I envisioned zombies as well & thought of how Hershel kept the zombies locked up in his barn because he felt they were just sick humans.

      New season of Walking Dead starts tonight. I’ve watched all of them but I think it’s time for it to conclude.

  16. There is a solution to solve those mads: conclude that, if particles have a self-consciousness then all and every animal and vegetal have theirs, turning stupid the biblical division in “rational”, son of god, owner of the nature and the other life being.
    Finish of the discussion: the bible belt will end the discussion.
    Is really funny to see how religions defend their mad lies with whatever crazy possible theory to avoid science, evolution and atheism…

  17. The only reason I’m tempted to entertain panpsychism is to explain questions like “why does evolution seek survival?”, “why does the universe seek order?”, and “why do universal constants exist?”.

    You presented an clear summay of why Goff’s definition of panpsychism is false. However I would tackle panpsychism from a different angle – the-collective-consciousness angle.

    It seems like there is a higher consciousness that drives particles and species to behave in a certain way (or strive for a universal objective) that is difficult to explain from a purely materialistic or particle-based analysis. The search continues.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this stellar essay.


    1. Ummm. . . . even Goff doesn’t suggest that panpsychism answers those questions. Do you want to try telling me why, for instance, panpsychism explains the existence of universal constants. And evolution doesn’t “seek survival” (of what?). It doesn’t seek anything.

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