Do electrons behave differently when they’re in brains? Sean Carroll takes Philip Goff apart on panpsychism

November 12, 2021 • 9:15 am

I’ve written a fair amount on this site about panpsychism,, the view that everything in the Universe, including electrons, rocks, and organisms, have a form of consciousness. The “conscious” molecules and atoms are supposed to combine, under certain unspecified and mysterious rules, into brains that have a higher-level consciousness.  Voilà: the “hard problem” of consciousness explained!  Philip Goff, one of the three discussants in the video below, is the primary exponent of this theory.

Panpsychism is, I think, pure bunk, and you can read my earlier posts to see why. One of those posts highlights a paper by Sean M. Carroll that, in my view, demolishes the idea of panpsychism because it grossly violates the laws of physics—of the “complete” description of the world that “the core theory of physics” presents. In the very long video below (3 hours 14 minutes!), there’s a mano a mano verbal exchange in which Sean, in his usual polite but firm way, tells Goff that he’s simply wrong about panpsychism and that Goff is too stubborn to admit it.

This is a lot more fun than reading the paper, especially watching Goff as he sees his whole theory crumble under the relentless onslaught of Carroll’s physics. Sean’s views are similar to those given in his paper, but I like seeing the exchange between a physicist and a panpsychist (Goff is the person most closely associated with this crazy theory.)

Also in the discussion is Keith Frankish, a British philosopher of mind. Wikipedia notes of him: “[Frankish] holds that the conscious mind is a virtual system, a trick of the biological mind. In other words, phenomenality is an introspective illusion. This position is in opposition to dualist theories, reductive realist theories, and panpsychism.”

Now, you don’t have to watch the entire 3-hour video to see the exchange about the value of panpsychism as an explanation of consciousness. If you click on the screenshot below, you’ll go to the YouTube video starting 6 minutes in, when Sean gives his view of consciousness as an epiphenomenon of evolution rather that will eventually be explained. (This is also my view, though I’m neither philosopher nor physicist.)

There’s then a philosophical digression, and the discussion of consciousness begins again at 7:50.  This discussion and its putative explanation by panpsychism ramps up gradually with detours into lucubrations about emergence and related matters.

In my view, the discussion starts reaching its apogee starting at about 1 hour and 25 minutes in, when Goff says that the “core theory’s” success doesn’t lay a hand on panpsychism, which requires a different or supplemental theory of physics. (You may want to start the video here.) Carroll disagrees strongly and is “blunt” about telling Goff he’s just dead wrong. Goff tries to impute his views to a colleague rather than himself, but that’s not correct. He’s using another panpsychist like a ventriloquist uses a puppet.

At 1 hour 30 minutes in, things get a bit heated, and it’s time to get out the popcorn. Goff even floats the idea that the laws of physics differ between electrons in the brain and electrons everywhere else! (This is part of his view that panpsychism cannot be accommodated by the core theory.) Frankish is on Carroll’s side, but doesn’t speak as much as the other two.

I watched only until an hour and 45 minutes in, so I can’t tell you what happens in the rest of the discussion. But if you watch up to that point, and listen to Sean’s eloquent and patient explanations, and see the sweating panpsychist professor try to prop up his crumbling ideas, you will not be any more enamored with panpsychism than you were before. In other words, you’ll see that it’s a theory without substance.

h/t: Paul

101 thoughts on “Do electrons behave differently when they’re in brains? Sean Carroll takes Philip Goff apart on panpsychism

    1. Thanks for posting this Jerry. It was a thought provoking exchange.

      A few points:

      I take anything Sean Carroll says with a grain of salt. Carroll holds to a number of unscientific positions that cause concern; chiefly, he rejects falsifiability as a criterion of a good scientific theory and he maintains an almost religious-like devotion to multiverse mania. So color me unimpressed with his promotion of (his) physics as a complete description of the universe. As any competent physicist will tell you, we’re not anywhere near having a complete description of the universe. Far from it. Unless Carroll has an empirically verified explanation for who the classical world emerges from the quantum picture (or has falsified General Relativity), he isn’t fooling anyone.

      Carroll only needed to point out that Goff’s theory as stated is unfalsifiable in principle and if pressed further, he could have easily shown that Goff’s has not made a core claim worthy of refutation. That would be the most “scientific” approach to refuting Goff. Instead, Carroll countered with an equally dubious point that requires unwarranted auxiliary hypotheses. The use of an unsupported scientific hypothesis to refute an opposing unsupported scientific hypothesis results in this debate being a trivial draw. Carroll could have – and should have – performed much better.

      That said, these debates about consciousness are going nowhere until our understanding of physical information is better developed. Integrated information theory (which strictly speaking is not panpsychist in Goff’s sense) is currently a leading contender for a theory of consciousness. According to IIT, consciousness is what it “feels like” when information is processed. If that turns out to be the case, then it is within the realm of possibility that the arrangement of physical matter in patterns unlike the biological brain might lend conscious experience to other entities that current scientific theories do not comprehend. In fact, if IIT is correct, physical fields could in principle be conscious. But that is a big if.

      1. IIT has been debunked by many. For example, it has been shown that it produces a high consciousness quotient, or whatever they call it, for made up systems that can’t possibly be intelligent. IIT is the prime example of adding mathematics to a theory in order to trick some into respecting it.

        I don’t believe that Goff’s theory is unfalsifiable in principle but unfalsifiable right now. The first thing he needs to tackle is to precisely define consciousness. He gets off scot free with some by leaving the definition vague. When we wonder how a rock can possibly be conscious, it’s subject to his definition of consciousness which, conveniently, he can’t give you.

      2. “Carroll holds to a number of unscientific positions that cause concern; chiefly, he rejects falsifiability as a criterion of a good scientific theory . . .

        No, he does not. He thinks Popperian falsifiability can be insufficient to reject something in certain circumstances. For example, if one part of a theory can not be, or has not yet been able to be, tested, but most of it has been repeatedly tested and verified then there is good reason to give credence to that untested part too.

        “. . . and he maintains an almost religious-like devotion to multiverse mania.”

        No, he doesn’t. I’m not sure if you really mean specifically multiverse cosmological hypotheses or if you actually mean many worlds, something quite different. But it neither case does he have anything like a religious devotion.

        “So color me unimpressed with his promotion of (his) physics as a complete description of the universe.”

        Wrong. There is no Sean Carroll physics and he does not claim that physics, any kind of physics, can offer a complete description of the world. I you want to understand what he actually says you might want to actually read and or watch what he has said about this in its entirety, as opposed to out of context snippets or mere opinions of others.

        “As any competent physicist will tell you, we’re not anywhere near having a complete description of the universe. Far from it.”

        Yes, and Carroll often says just that, and goes much further. He says that physics can’t ever, except ‘in principle,’ give a complete description of the universe because it is the wrong tool for many categories of phenomena.

        “Unless Carroll has an empirically verified explanation for who the classical world emerges from the quantum picture (or has falsified General Relativity), he isn’t fooling anyone.”

        I find it hard to believe that you have ever taken a serious look at anything Carroll has said or written on the issues you raise. The degree of wrong is beyond misinterpretation.

        1. “No, he does not. He thinks Popperian falsifiability can be insufficient to reject something in certain circumstances. For example, if one part of a theory can not be, or has not yet been able to be, tested, but most of it has been repeatedly tested and verified then there is good reason to give credence to that untested part too.”

          Sorry, you’re wrong. Carroll has been taken to task on this in the past. Your characterization of Popper’s views on falsifiability may be your views, but they are not Carroll’s however much you may wish they are.

          “No, he doesn’t. I’m not sure if you really mean specifically multiverse cosmological hypotheses or if you actually mean many worlds, something quite different. But it neither case does he have anything like a religious devotion.”

          The multiverse is an unscientific hypothesis that belongs in the realm of philosophy as does the MWI. He is unwilling to admit this and often presents the case as though it is a settled fact. Again, trying to imply otherwise does nothing to change the nonsense Carroll has pulled in the past.

          “Yes, and Carroll often says just that, and goes much further. He says that physics can’t ever, except ‘in principle,’ give a complete description of the universe because it is the wrong tool for many categories of phenomena.”

          His words say otherwise. Goff could have been easily refuted by pointing out that his theory is hollow, unsupported, and unfalsifiable. That would have been sufficient. Instead, Carroll attempts to use his approach to physics to refute Goff. That is where he fails.

          “I find it hard to believe that you have ever taken a serious look at anything Carroll has said or written on the issues you raise.”

          Too bad. Not everyone agrees with you. Such is life.

  1. I love Sean Carroll, but I don’t think I would have the patience for this. The nonsense of panpsychism just infuriates me; it strikes me as a notion that’s “not even wrong,” in the sense that it adds nothing whatsoever to the study of consciousness, and is no more useful than elan vital or phlogiston* to our understanding of biology and thermodynamics. In fact, it’s a distraction, if anything. If anyone edits this into a video of Sean’s points only, someday, I MIGHT have the patience for it, but my blood pressure goes up too much (figuratively speaking, as far as I know) when people argue for panpsychism. I’m sure Sean’s arguments are elegant and patient and quite correct and clear, but I’ll probably just have to stick to his books and his podcast. Glad to see that he is refuting this silliness, but good Ceiling Cat, I’m sorry he had to put his time and effort into it.

    *In this I disagree with Sam Harris who says that the “hard problem of consciousness” is different in character from the problem of living versus nonliving matter, for instance, but I’ve not heard him give any convincing reasons why this would be so. He doesn’t appear to endorse panpsychism, but I sometimes feel he teeters upon the verge of at least considering it POSSIBLE. Perhaps I’m doing him a disservice.

    1. A frame of mind I tend to use that can make it tolerable to listen to someone like Goff argue for something silly like panpsychism, is to think of it as similar to a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode. His arguments really are so obviously bad in exactly the same way that, for example, everything about a movie like, say, Star Crash is. So cheesy that surely no one could take it seriously? And if they do all you can do is laugh at them.

    2. Strawson explains it quite well, I think. The principle of parsimony has it all the other way around. Those who think some things are conscious but that other things are not conscious need to provide evidence for the latter. There is clearly a lower information requirement (i.e. more parsimony) if there is only a single set, and everything is in it, i.e. everything is conscious. The creation of a second set requires evidence, and there is none.

      1. I know. I tried to listen to the audiobook and could not get through it, though it’s quite short. I got too frustrated. I think the proper response to panpsychism is basically, “Well, enjoy yourself with that, if that’s what you’re into,” and no more. When they bring evidence or even a credible process, I’ll reconsider.

    3. It is different to life because life turned out to be ultimately reducible to various biological functions. Biological functions can always (even if presently just in theory for certain cases) be explained in reductive mechanistic terms.

      This is not true of consciousness. Consciousness is not a function or functions, nor is it a behavior. It is categorically different to every other part of biological systems. There’s no reason to expect any explanation of brain activity or neurobiology to ever provide a reductive explanation for the having of conscious experiences.

      And the thing with life is that at least part of what made life so mysterious was actually consciousness itself. The explanation of life of course had nothing to day about consciousness, and so unless you think zombies are logically possible, the explanation of life is equally valid for non-conscious organisms like plants. And plants being alive seems a lot less mysterious than humans being alive. Which means solving the mystery of life was considered as a comprehensive solution and got all the credit as such, when in reality understandly didn’t solve part of what made life so mysterious in the first place.

      So the only way the analogy is valid is if the explanation for consciousness is categorically unlike the explanation for life, and the problem turns out to be much simpler than thought but for utterly different reasons than reducibility to functions. The fact that we found a neat reductive explanation for life in no way necessarily means that one will be found for consciousness, especially since the people claiming there will be one tend to be the people who fail to understand consciousness and appreciate why it is categorically different to everything else.

      1. “There’s no reason to expect any explanation of brain activity or neurobiology to ever provide a reductive explanation for the having of conscious experience.” Well maybe YOU have no reasons, but people have said that over and over again in the history of science, and have been proven wrong over and over again. The best reason to hope for and look for a reductive explanation is that naturalism is the only game in town. Just because we must ascertain it from self-report does not mean it’s intractable; it means it’s a hard problem. And what’s the alternative? God? We already know how to take away or alter consciousness with operations or drugs, which means it it a phenomenon affected by physical interventions, ergo likely a physical phenomenon.

        I guess you are the one person who understands consciousness, eh? And that enables you to tell us that reductive explanation is impossible. Sorry, but I disagree.

        1. I don’t know if this is what Brett meant but there is a sense in which consciousness may forever lie out of science’s reach: the sense talked about in Nagel’s book, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”. Even when we know exactly how human and bat brains work, it still won’t give us the experience of being a bat. Perhaps Brett’s mistake is calling the unreachable part “consciousness” instead of “experience”.

          The problem with the panpsychists is that they attach too much significance to the unreachability of experience. Rather than some fundamental magic in the universe, it is simply a perspective issue. You can’t experience some other person’s (or animal’s) experience because your experiencer (brain) is busy experiencing you. It’s a psychological divide-by-zero.

  2. Sounds a lot like the nonsense spewed by Rupert Sheldrake. His son, Merlin (what a great name), on the other hand has a Ph.D. in tropical ecology and is a first-rate science writer (Entangled Life).

  3. I may have forgotten basic points in this debate, but what about a less crazy form of pansychism where rudiments of consciousness are found not in elementary particles, but “up” several notches, beginning at the level of single celled organisms? It is there that we see basic simple responses to external stimuli, including drives toward favorable environments and away from unfavorable environments.

    1. If I understand you, I don’t think it is the same thing or even analogous. In panpsychism consciousness is a fundamental property, like mass or spin.

      Unless you back a proponent into a corner. Then, rather than just having a certain quantity of the stuff to have human-like consciouness it matters how the stuff is arranged too. Which is exactly the same as ordinary matter that when arranged just right, like in a human nervous system, gives rise to consciousness. Which reveals that panphsychism brings nothing of value to the table.

      1. Of course we must begin with some description about what is consciousness.
        The description one comes across is that its is your awareness of your own mind versus the world around you. I take that division to mean that one is aware of a separateness. there is a ‘you’, and everything else outside of that.
        Hard to argue that a cell has that experience, but I don’t know what its like to be a single cell.

        1. To me, panpsychism surely must involve at least some non-living objects somehow having consciousness, not merely ‘tiny’ living objects (even viruses?).

          So the analogue of your original question would be the claim that though elementary particles, and some ways ‘upwards’, cannot be conscious, maybe a rock could be, maybe even a molecule, not connected to life is any obvious way, but involving hundreds or many more atoms.

          (If an igneous rock supposedly can be conscious, one must wonder about a big pool of pressurized magma, about to spew out of Mt. St. Helens or Stromboli, … !)

          Still sounds like utter bullshit to me, and to you also perhaps, and utterly without the slightest evidence, much less even a reasonable definition of the word ‘conscious’.

  4. Which funding bodies support panpsychism “work”, and how? Is it funded by popular book audiences buying the boooks? Parents and students who pay for their kids’ college education?

    I delight in the examination as only Carroll can do, but someone has to pay for it…. I mean, besides us facepalming ourselves….

  5. Physics is a complete description of the world? So how many Starbucks franchises will be located in the United States in November, 2021, based on physics, since that will be part of the description of the physical world? Or is Starbucks coffee an introspective illusion?

      1. I don’t know what Carroll means. Poincare, give me the initial conditions of the universe and I can predict the future, in his view, at the time of the second coming of physics, physics would ultimately be able to predict the number of Starbucks franchises.

        Part of the issue with Caroll’s schtick is he takes a very literalist interpretation of physics models, and says its not in the model, ergo it is not. But the models are never exact, any more than the plans you draw up for a machine are completely identical to an actual prototype. His points are sensible if you accept naive realism, but it is not clear that there is any reason to do so. [In general, engineers probably make better philosophers than physicists, because engineering is about adapting some kind of ideal into something actual that works, whereas physics dwells in a land of abstract idealized abstractions.]

        BTW, do not take these comments as an endorsement of panpsychism. But my guess is that there is more on heaven and earth than can fit into Dr. Carroll’s models.

        Going back to “consciousness”, you have phenomenon that emerge from relations of parts in wholes, for example, entropy is a property of a system, and a function of the relations of all the parts within the system. If you had only one thing in the universe (if that were possible), there would be no entropy, and no laws of thermodynamics. Entropy is not some additional force in the universe, nor does it require postulating some new particle, it is an emergent property of a particular type of system, and is probably responsible for the direction of time.

        Now I don’t know what people mean by “consciousness”, but I would suspect that conscious behavior is an emergent property of a particular type of system, and that this does not violate any purported completeness property of physics, and doesn’t require the invention of new laws or particles. On the other hand, you do have entities such as “dark matter” that have just been made up whole cloth to make the equations work out, and so you can’t rule out the need to resort to something ad hoc with respect to consciousness.

        1. Okay, but my only point is that if you know enough about Carroll’s views to say, “Part of the issue with Caroll’s schtick . . .,” then that leads me to think you likely have misinterpreted him.

          True, Carroll has more than once pointed out that (paraphrasing) while modern physics doesn’t have it all figured out yet it does know about all of the fundamental physics that occurs at the scales and temperatures that humans experience and that if there were any forces or particles that could possibly be a necessary mediator for something like consciousness, telepathy, whatever, that at a minimum modern physics would know that something was there, even if it’s properties were not yet understood. However, he also has pointed out many times that this obviously does not mean that modern physics has or even can explain all phenomena. Knowing the fundamentals does not mean that you therefore know and can explain all of the phenomena that occur based on those fundamentals.

          Carroll is also widely known for his view that physics is not the best tool to use to understand what he calls higher level phenomena. Exactly opposite of the overly reductionist view you seem to be attributing to him.

          Regarding dark matter, it is definitely not something made up of whole cloth. Not remotely. It’s an example of what I mentioned above. We can see that something is there, but we don’t yet know what it is other than a few basic general properties. This hole in the model has been tagged with the term ‘Dark Matter.’ Modern physics is working to fill in the hole and a variety of hypotheses have been formulated. Something unknown has been discovered and figuring it out is a work in progress. No one in physics thinks that dark matter has been figured out, but the very large consensus is that there is definitely something there, whether it’s a new type of matter, normal matter or an unknown aspect of gravity. That there is nothing there at all, that it’s just a mistake of some sort, has become highly unlikely as more and more observations have been made.

    1. “Physics is a complete description of the world?”

      Surely you are aware of the distinction between the claim that some theory in physics implies everything that can happen in some particular ‘sphere of observation’ versus the claim that humans have the ability to completely calculate any such happening within that theory?

  6. I like Philip’s comment at 1:34, “I suppose the only time it would make a difference is if you are investing high-level dynamics in the brain or something…”


    First a quibble: a hypothesis that predicts different electron behavior in the human brain almost certainly predicts different electron elsewhere too. It would be pretty hard to come up with a hypothesis about electron behavior that only applies to human brains, particularly without looking ad hoc about it.

    But the main point is, this is a giveupski. Correct, creationists can do chemical synthesis. Soul-believers can dig up rocks. Panpsychics can study friction. It’s a bit of a no-brainer that counter-scientific beliefs only conflict with science when they do.

    1. Yes, if you are willing to add enormous complexity to your “theories”, you can “defend” anything. (On the other hand Goff may be advocating a different error. See the other comment I’m about to write.)

  7. Thank you Robert Elissar for your clarity and honesty on this theme of panpsychism which, by the way, is still celebrated by Deepak Chopra. Chopra tries to have it both ways with his blending science with his conviction that individual molecules are conscious. Indeed, the whole universe in his theory is “”conscious”. Praise Richard Dawkins for his stamina and patience in refuting this nonsense in the 2013 debate presented by the Dangerous Ideas podcast with Dawkins and Deepak (and his diamond studded glasses). As for issues concerning consciousness the best and clearest account is still Daniel Dennett’s seminal book, ”Consciouness Explained” c1991.

      1. Too bad those conscious glasses couldn’t talk. Then maybe, quite clearly and loudly in English for all to hear, his glasses would tell Deepak that he’s full of shit, each and every time (well just about always) he was committing diarrhea of the vocal chords.

        1. Human beings tell him this all the time, perhaps in more languages than just English.

          Goff says electrons might behave differently in the brain. But he is reluctant to call this new physics. So he limits the domain of physics with his ‘philosophical interpretation’. He comes across as an apologist who passionately wants to believe. It seems like a reluctance to admit ignorance, something I often see in religious people. If you don’t know, just say you don’t know — not a big deal.

          1. Yes, I said English because that seems to be the chief language of Deepak’s verbal diarrhea. But those glasses might not only understand physics, but speak fluently many languages.

  8. Frankish’s “illusionism” (a euphemism for eliminativism) about phenomenal consciousness (aka subjective experience) is as silly as Goff’s panpsychism.

    “By a “silly” theory I mean one which may be held at the time when one is talking or writing professionally, but which only an inmate of a lunatic asylum would think of carrying into daily life. …It must not be supposed that the men who maintain these theories and believe that they believe them are “silly” people. Only very acute and learned men could have thought of anything so odd or defended anything so preposterous against the continual protests of common-sense.”

    (Broad, C. D. The Mind and its Place in Nature. London: Kegan Paul, 1925. pp. 5-6)

    1. I suspect you don’t understand illusionism. You may think it is “silly” but you don’t defend your position here. As far as I know, Frankish’s illusionism is the same as (or similar to) that of Daniel Dennett, a very respected philosopher. Do you disagree with his view on this subject also? Are you in the “qualia are real objects” camp?

      1. Philosophical idealism contends that the material world does not exist, and yet philosophers of this stripe do not play in traffic.

        Eliminative materialism contends that mental states and things like meaningful propositions (being a mental phenomenon) do not exist, yet philosophers insist on using language and appeals to mental states to persuade people they are correct, in addition to generally suffering from illusions like desire, loneliness, addictions, love, hate, depression.

          1. To many, eliminative materialism seems like a silly position, and if you actually believed it was true, you would stop engaging in the illusion of persuasive speech to convince illusory other minds to adopt your illusory doctrines.

  9. Although I don’t believe in panpsychism in the slightest, I do feel that Goff needs some defending here. If I understand him correctly, he believes that consciousness lies below fundamental physics in terms of description levels and emergence. He believes fundamental physics emerges from consciousness. And, since everything we know emerges from fundamental physics, consciousness underlies everything.

    In this view, that electrons in the brain behave differently from other electrons is not unreasonable. Carroll disregards the idea based on the fundamental physics assumption that the rules operate the same everywhere. Physics can’t really prove that or even prove that electrons in the brain don’t operate differently. I imagine it would be hard to fully test brain electrons in situ. Just like Penrose and Hameroff’s theories about quantum effects in the brain, it is a theory that is not going to be tested any time soon.

    The problem with Goff’s theory is that it can’t be tested. It’s a radical proposal for many reasons and for which there is no evidence. The “turtles all the way down” theory seems as supportable. Similarly for the “universe is a simulation” theory.

    1. >In this view, that electrons in the brain behave differently from other electrons is not unreasonable. Carroll disregards the idea based on the fundamental physics assumption that the rules operate the same everywhere. Physics can’t really prove that or even prove that electrons in the brain don’t operate differently. 

      This is incorrect. Quantum field theory says that all electrons are the same because they are excitations of the same field, the electron field. And because electrons are identical (and have half-integer spin, they obey the Pauli exclusion principle, which means no two electrons can exist in the same state. This is what allows electrons to form electron shells around atomic nuclei. Otherwise, they’d all collapse down to hydrogen-like sizes. And by the fact that chemistry works regardless of whether it is in the human body or not, electrons are the same inside and out.

      1. I was explaining things based on Goff’s theory, which I don’t believe, whereas you are assuming the version of physics that most physicists believe. Or am I missing your point?

        1. You are missing *a* point, which is that Carrol is correct that Goff’s “electrons in the brain behave differently” requires a change in the fundamental rules of physics, because according to the rules as we currently understand them, electrons cannot behave differently just in the brain.
          Goff even somewhat concedes this point later, when he says that,okay, his “ceteris paribus” way of describing panpsychism IS equivalent to (Carroll’s preferred phrasing) ‘current physics has it wrong’ – but that he really wants to avoid the negative label that comes with saying the latter. So that’s why he doesn’t say that – to avoid the negative public perception or label.

          1. Seems like you didn’t read my earlier comment. Goff believes that consciousness underlies fundamental physics. That’s an even bigger “change in the fundamental rules of physics” than you or Carroll are imagining. Goff’s theory is totally bonkers as far as I’m concerned, but criticizing it based on standard physics predictions that electrons behave everywhere the same is just missing (or ignoring) Goff’s thesis.

            1. I’ll admit I skipped around in the video. Where in it did they talk about Goff’s ‘underlying physics’ idea?

              The bits I heard were of Goff claiming panpsychism isn’t saying physics has it generally wrong, just ‘ceteris paribus’ (in some conditions) wrong about electron behavior in the brain, with Carroll replying that yes this is to say that physics has wrong.

              1. Goff goes on a tear starting about 57:30 where he acknowledges that his kind of consciousness isn’t a “publicly observable phenomenon” which seems to be important to his thesis.

                At about 1:27:30, Goff starts talking about how consciousness and the laws of physics “codetermine how the universe evolves, or how that part of the universe my brain occupies”, or something like that. I think they get into the relationship of consciousness to physics after that.

                I hope this helps. I will resist further attempts to make me watch this again. 😉

            2. But Goff’s thesis essentially says that electrons in the brain are different from electrons elsewhere, and that has to reduce to the standard model unless he’s literally calling the standard model wrong.

              1. I don’t think he’s saying that at all. He’s saying that consciousness underlies physics so it contributes to how all electrons behave. Of course, that contribution doesn’t have to be the same everywhere. Clearly he believes it makes a bigger contribution in the brain. That doesn’t make the electrons in the brain different from other electrons.

    2. If Goff wants the idea that electrons behave differently needs to start by explaining why PET scans and MRI’s work exactly as predicted and reliably yield accurate images of human brains.

      I guess he could argue that neither tests electrons specifically but would then need to explain why other particles are not affected. Regardless, PET scans and MRI’s offer solid evidence that the physics occurring in human brains is in line with established science.

      1. We have no reason to believe that PET and MRI record the behavior of electrons actually involved in thought. Instead, they are picking up activity that is somehow correlated with thought. There are a lot of electrons in the human brain so until we know how it works, we won’t know which electrons are involved based on Goff’s theory.

        Again, Goff’s theory is completely without evidence but physics hasn’t proved him wrong anymore than Goff has proved him right.

  10. FYI Carroll gives his position on the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ at around the 1:50 mark, with Keith Frankish introducing it for a few minutes earlier.

    My take/summary: Carroll isn’t sure whether the idea of qualia and the ‘hard problem’ will turn out to be like phlogiston (just plain wrong and not useful) or more like NM (a useful approximation in some circumstances).

  11. In Sean Carroll’s November AMA on his podcast, he answers a question about Goff. If I understand correctly, Goff doesn’t want to say electrons behave differently in the brain. He wants to spear himself on the OTHER horn of Sean’s dilemma, the one where “consciousness” does nothing to explain our actions. The answer starts around 3h:29m in Sean’s AMA podcast.

  12. Not physics, but in economics you have the paradox of thrift: if I cut spending and save money, I end up better off. In contrast, if everyone cuts spending and tries to save money, demand collapses, people get laid off, and you get a vicious circle.

    The behavior of a whole (like a national economy) is not the same as the behavior of an individual in terms of effects. The macrocosm is NOT the microcosm, and hence the macrocosm can never be explained by chopping it up into little pieces and explaining how each little piece behaves, for example, postulating a menagerie of subatomic particles and four forces.

    1. I do not think your example supports your point. Explaining what each person saves does indeed predict what the economy will do, once one understands that collective behavior is not merely the summation of individual behavior. Thus it’s about the rules the system runs by too.

      I’d say your example is analogous to iron atoms and magnets. Every individual atom has a magnetic moment; but the question of whether a chunk of iron is a magnet depends additionally on how they are aligned and other factors. One can indeed predict whether the whole will be magnetic based on what you know about the individual atoms…and the other system info that is relevant to the question.


      A more important point is that – and Carroll says basically this, in the video – panpsychics are welcome to tell science their testable hypothesis that better explains and predicts the macrocosm of the brain. What is that hypothesis? They don’t seem to have one. They have statements and ideas, but no testable scientific hypothesis.

      1. As with multiple universes, the multiverse, or Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe theories, science can and should tolerate untestable hypotheses, at least for a while. That they are untestable now is not enough to declare a theory as unscientific. An untestable hypothesis may inspire further thought. Perhaps we’ll think of a way to test it in the future. Perhaps the theory will evolve into one that’s testable. A theory can’t stay untestable forever but we shouldn’t stop all thought on a subject at the first cry of “untestable”.

        1. “Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe theories, science can and should tolerate untestable hypotheses”

          This might be testable, depending upon the nature of information and the relationship between mathematics and information!

          1. I don’t know if the universe is mathematical but the question of why there is anything is very interesting. The theory does somewhat answer that question because mathematics is nothing but relationships which are less substantial than matter or energy. Still seems like something is missing though.

      2. There is never going to be a “testable hypothesis” of consciousness. If I claim “I am in chronic pain,” in the real world, by what process would you determine I am lying. [For example, the insurance company digs up pictures of me playing frisbee I posted on facebook.] Note that the basis for determining whether I am lying is not “falsification”, in contrast to “It is raining”. Note that if I misrepresent my mental state and I get caught, it reveals that I am a liar, it reveals something about me, whereas if I tell a fib about the weather, if I get caught, it would reveal something about the weather. If you treat the concept of “consciousness” like the concept of “point mass”, you will become confused and be tempted to make up theories. What I truly am or what others think I truly am will never be a “testable hypothesis”. This leads to eliminative materialism temptation, because it is true that the usage of the first person language will never be reducible to third person impersonal observation statements. Of course, that doesn’t mean that first person language doesn’t have a perfectly fine use, and its something of a blindness to believe we have to jettison all concepts that cannot be reduced into third person impersonal observations statements.

        1. In the closed system of the universe, there is no inside. Accordingly, what is hidden is hidden in plain sight, and what people take as deep is merely something extremely shallow that gives the appearance depth. The hard problem of consciousness. Eyes are the windows of the soul.

        2. “If I claim “I am in chronic pain,” in the real world, by what process would you determine I am lying.”

          This may well become possible fairly soon, if not already. I don’t have the reference, but experiments have shown that lying is detectable with a fairly high reliability. It would seem like something as all-consuming as chronic pain would be detectable in a similar way. It’s probably going to be a while before the world is ready to use such mechanisms in a court of law. Perhaps it’s initial public use will be by wives testing their husband’s claim that he was working late.

          But more seriously, we will likely someday know enough about how the brain works to be able to detect thoughts and interpret them. We won’t be seeing those thoughts directly but that is not a problem for science. We don’t really ever see electrons or photons but their effects on other things. Same for chairs when you think about it. It’s all just interaction, nothing is real. 😉

  13. In modern biology, life is defined functionally, what living things do, and nonliving things don’t do those kinds of things. We make an ontological distinction between animate and inanimate objects, living organisms, dead organisms, and nonliving things. This doesn’t mean that living things need to be composed of some magic stuff that nonliving things lack, rather you are talking about a system that does certain functions.

    All the discussion of consciousness is just a reformulation of the vitalism debate, except the vitalism discussion involves the third person, and consciousness debates try to confuse things by injecting the second and first person.

    Eliminative materialism doesn’t make any sense, dualism means you need new physics because the mental realm needs to have some kind of ability to affect the physical world and vice versa via some kind of force, and panpsychism is supposed to solve the problem, but does not.

    1. The opposite is true. Occam’s razor favours the solution that has the fewest degrees of freedom. There is clearly a category of stuff that is conscious (because you are) and there is no evidence for a category of stuff that is not conscious (how could there be, by definition), so the most parsimonious explanation is that everything is conscious. I’m not sure why the explanation is ever more complicated.

        1. I’m not sure anyone who supports panpsychism has ever made that claim, but if they have, they were probably wrong. Rocks are not conscious. But a panprotopsychist would say that rock (as distinct from *a* rock) is micro-experiential. The spatiotemporal extent of that experience is unknown, but it seems highly improbable that it is defined by the air-rock boundary.

          Anyway, the more important response here is that you have it the wrong way around. Do you have any evidence that rock is not conscious? I appreciate that you might think you do, and given the definition that anaesthetists use that would not be unreasonable. But behavioural measures of consciousness are only indicative, as sufferers of locked-in syndrome will attest. Whether an entity experiences phenomena is famously unknowable (see p-zombies etc.) based on our present understanding. Given that you know that consciousness is a feature of the world, inventing a second feature, not-conscious, without any evidence for it, is where the mistake comes in.

          1. This “rock” vs. “rocks” distinction is, frankly, ridiculous. Somehow the collection of all the rocks in the universe is conscious but a subset of these rocks isn’t? If I grind up my pet rock into dust, or burn it up by throwing it from space through our atmosphere, do I extinguish the consciousness of “rock”. And why is “rock” meaningful here. Is the same true for “pebble” versus “a pebble”? “Precipice” vs. “a precipice”? “Oak” vs. “an oak”? You’re getting yourself snarled up in details of language, nothing more.

            Do you have any evidence that I don’t have an invisible giraffe in my basement?

            You’re making theological apologist-style arguments. There’s no difference between panpsychism and pantheism.

            1. One does rather get used to the accusation of making theological arguments but no-one ever says what is wrong with the information-theoretic point about parsimony. Care to have a go?

              Re the invisible giraffe, technically no, but there are lots of tests we could do, like listening, or moving around in the room. That’s not true for consciousness, where there is presently no reliable test. It’s an important distinction, because it means the absence of giraffes is provable, whereas the absence of consciousness, presently at least, is not. Arguing that something is not conscious is, I am afraid to say, unscientific. (Cue wrath!)

              Re the rock vs a rock point, the issue is the spatiotemporal extent of the putative subject of experience. I think a person arguing for a thing does usually get to define what he’s arguing for. You ask about pebbles etc. In general, yes, the same applies. Let me put it the other way around. For a panprotopsychist, a rock has mind (or more accurately, it is mind), but it does not have *a* mind. The number of minds is unknown but it is highly improbable that it is one, and far more likely either that tiny minds flicker in and out of existence rapidly, or that the relevant mind is smeared out over a large space and time. As you rightly point out this is all wonderfully speculative, despite being the best interpretation of the evidence. The case of the oak is even more so, so it’s best I stop there.

              1. You panpsychists better hope that the definition of consciousness remains vague and controversial. As soon as it gets locked down properly, your mindful rocks go right out the window.

              2. ”where there is presently no reliable test”

                The naturalist responds to this by saying “not yet, perhaps we can find it”. The theologian responds with “god did it”. The pantheist responds with “rock has consciousness”.

                You and the theologian can sit in a room for weeks tripping over each other’s obscurant language. The naturalist doesn’t pretend to know what he/she doesn’t.

              3. Paul, so long as the definition does remain vague, panprotopsychism is the best conclusion. Naturally, if the definition of the terms used in the question changes, that might cease to be the case. I think your comment gets to the heart of the disagreements. (PS, better to say ‘mindful rock goes out of the [mindful] window’, and possibly better still, ‘rockful mind’, although now I’m being deliberately annoying.)

                GBjames, but that’s the problem. The ‘naturalist’ does pretend to know. Specifically, the naturalist knows that consciousness is a feature of the world and pretends to know it only exists within certain boundaries. It’s the panprotopsychist that leaves the question unanswered by saying, I know it’s a feature of the universe, but I have no idea if there are boundaries around its extent, so I’m not going to assume any.

              4. This, Nobody, will be my last comment here. I’ll simply object to your conflation of “I don’t know, there’s a good chance we’ll figure it out and it will be compatible with naturalism” vs. “I don’t know so therefore there must exist something that is outside the reality that we know exists.” If you can’t tell the difference, there’s no hope of resolving the discussion. You believe in a god for which no evidence exists.

      1. There is clear evidence of consciousness as a phenomenon, and there is no evidence for consciousness in any non-biological things. To postulate some “stuff” of consciousness in all things is no more parsimonious than it is to postulate a Creator God of the universe because the universe exists. You have all the explaining left to do still, i.e. what is this consciousness stuff, what is its nature, how is it constituted, how do we measure it, what does it even mean to have conscious electrons, etc.? Just because one can say the words that there is consciousness in all stuff, doesn’t mean that the words have any validity nor that they explain anything. Also, Occam’s Razor is not a law of nature, it is merely a guideline for thought, and it is double-edged. Sometimes the world is actually complex, and the places where consciousness happens sure seem to be among the most complex places. But we have rather good evidence that consciousness is associated with nervous systems, as everything we can be pretty sure is conscious seems to have one of some kind (or is at least processing information in sophisticated ways). We don’t yet know enough about the details of nervous systems to be able to explain it all…but that shouldn’t surprise anyone, as they are the most complicated things we know of in the universe. Again, I invoke Hitchens’s Razor over Occam’s here: “What can be proposed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

        1. Yes, Occam provides merely a guideline for thought, but that is not a reason to toss him out when you don’t like his conclusion. It remains the case that you have evidence *for* consciousness, but you have no evidence *against* it. On that basis it is pure speculation to draw a boundary anywhere and say that within this boundary there is consciousness and outside of it there isn’t. All you can reliably say with the information available is that consciousness is a feature of the world. It does seem reasonable to say it is in brains, but where it isn’t is unknown. The best inference is that it is everywhere. That is the basis of panprotopsychism.

  14. Well, that was a long but mostly interesting listen!

    Goff’s hypothesis, if that’s what you want to call it, strikes me the way Sophisticated Theological arguments go. Wrap yourself up in complicated and obscure language and insist on the legitimacy of assumptions for which there is no evidence at all. Sean Carroll cuts through it with clear and simple argument. I don’t see much difference between panpsychism in the face of the unknowns of life and “I don’t know, so God did it”.

  15. It’s unfortunate that the discussion isn’t about panprotopsychism. Really, nobody serious about this idea believes that a rock is conscious. A rock is not a subject of experience. But rock (as distinct from *a* rock) is perception. They are equivalent. That is the inevitable consequence of physicalism, as Strawson has so eloquently shown.

  16. It’s interesting that at 1:55:00 Sean agrees with Frankish and Dennett’s illusionism and eliminativism: that there are no qualia, no phenomenal feels to conscious experience, we only *think* there are, and so we have to radically revise our conception of consciousness.

    What’s strange is that in agreeing about illusionism here, Sean contradicts his characterization of consciousness in his reply to Goff in the Journal of Consciousness Studies issue on panpsychism. In it, Sean mentions “qualitative experience” and “qualitative features,” that is, phenomenality, when adverting to consciousness. This is realism, not illusionism, about qualia.

    In explaining consciousness, it would help if Sean clarified his conception of the explanatory target that he thinks will fall to weak emergence. But on the assumption that it’s the standard, not revised, conception he has in mind, his “poetic naturalism” may not do the trick,

    1. The argument over qualia and the hard problem, whether they’re “real” or not, often boils down to questions about what “real” means and individual preferences over what we should spend time worrying about. While I mostly agree with the illusionist perspective, it is a terrible word to use. It’s the philosophers’ “defund the police”. Many assume it means that qualia don’t exist. (Some philosophers probably do mean that.) Instead, it just recognizes that whatever we perceive qualia to be may not be what they actually are, assuming we knew which we don’t.

      As I see it, our internal experience merely correlates with input from the world. In fact, that’s its whole purpose. There is a function that maps that input to our experience. Knowing how the brain works is partly knowing that function. We have a long way to go. Arguing about whether qualia are real, whatever that means, seems beside the point.

      Sean mentions here and elsewhere that he expects that we’ll understand the brain works someday and, when we do, these questions about consciousness will likely be resolved or simply evaporate. I think this is similar to Patricia Churchland’s position. Carroll doesn’t want to make any heavy bets on how it plays out.

      1. “Many assume it means that qualia don’t exist. (Some philosophers probably do mean that.) Instead, it just recognizes that whatever we perceive qualia to be may not be what they actually are, assuming we knew which we don’t.”

        If you look at their papers (available online). Frankish and Dennett categorically deny the existence of phenomenal, qualitative states (qualia) in conscious experience. A more moderate position is to acknowledge the first-person reality of qualia, as does Goff, and then look for an explanation of why they should accompany certain neural goings-on. Panpsychism seems to me a complete non-starter, but representationalist approaches have more going for them. About which see Anil Seth’s great new book Being You, which I’ve reviewed pretty positively.

        1. I believe what Frankish and Dennett are saying is that qualia don’t exist to the extent that Goff et al believe. In the case of the blue/black dress, for example, they seem to claim there is some mental object that has the perceived color as a property. I’m sure to Dennett that smacks of the Cartesian Theater. Instead, some signal in the brain, or collective neuronal state, represents its color. It may only be a difference in words but that’s all philosophers really work with anyway. The “qualia” term may be useful but giving it more reality than it deserves is not. That’s all Frankish and Dennett are saying, I think.

            1. Here’s what Dennett says in the conclusion of the paper you reference:

              When there is a red stripe in the world, the redness is a complex physical property of the stripe; when there just seems to be a red stripe in the world, that very same property is represented as being present by some team of brain agents that are the cause of your false conviction. The eternally tempting mistake is to fall for this chain of inference:

              1. It seems to me as if there’s a red stripe projected out onto that
              wall, but there is no such red stripe out there,… so it must be in

              2. And even when there is a red stripe out there in the world that I
              see, my seeing it must involve an intermediary ‘phenomenal’
              red stripe in my consciousness.

              As I said in my earlier comment, Dennett (and I) believe that the red stripe is represented in the brain but not as an actual red stripe. He is denying that the internal red stripe exists. Instead, it’s an illusion.

              1. For Dennett to say that there is no phenomenal red in consciousness is to deny the existence of qualia and phenomenology, which was one of the main claims in his book Consciousness Explained. If indeed the red stripe is represented in the brain, then its redness is a bit of representational content, and contra Dennett and Frankish, it’s no illusion that it’s *qualitative* content. About the red stripe, see “Dennett and the reality of red” at

              2. I don’t want to go down the philosophical rabbit hole on this. What Dennett said in the reference you gave seems clear to me. I’m going to accept that at face value.

                I’m not a philosopher but come at this from a computational point of view. The internal representation of something in a computational system (a computer program or a brain) does not have to directly represent what it perceives. It is a big problem, in fact, in modern AI. Software is trained to perform some discrimination task accurately but we’re then unable to deduce from its internal representation what exactly it’s doing in a way that makes sense to us. The same is true of the brain. We see human behavior and know that it is the brain performing a task but we still can’t figure out how it does it. We look for the “redness” or “red stripe” signal and can’t find it. Of course, our understanding of our own brains was never a goal of evolution so it shouldn’t be too surprising.

  17. “consciousness isn’t a “publicly observable phenomenon” ” strikes me as oggity-boogity. No different than the “intelligent design” creationists who are unable define design, or the mechanism or even the designer. Hint: It’s odd-gay. Shhhhh.

    I do agree with Goff that under his definition my cat is conscious. I’ve always known that. It also explains why my Roomba sets off a 3AM all by itself. Clearly it has a strong sense of duty.

    1. I think all he means is that if I claim to be offended, you can’t really know whether I am or not. Even though we may agree that the dress is blue, there’s no objective way (yet) to know whether our experiences of blue are the same. This gets in the way of doing objective science on the experiential aspects of consciousness. There’s no publicly shared perception of results.

      1. Right, this gets at what should be one of the main explanatory targets of consciousness research: the fact that it’s subjective, not publicly accessible in the way that brains are. Were experiences observable, there would be no hard problem about consciousness.

        1. All claims made under the flag “the hard problem of consciousness” are not scientific claims. Our experiences are in principle observable if the standard model of physics is right. If they are illusions we could discover the mechanism that creates these illusions, if they are not illusions we could observe them more or less directly.

          Disproving our best tested scientific theory is not an easy task and even if the Standard model of Physics is wrong or replaced by a more fundamental theory it would not make dualism automatically a viable option for explaining the nature of reality.

          1. “Our experiences are in principle observable if the standard model of physics is right.”

            One hypothesis is that experiences are qualitative representational contents carried by the neural vehicles of a predictive self-in-the-world reality model (see Anil Seth’s book Being You and Thomas Metzinger’s books The Ego Tunnel and Being No One). As a general rule, we don’t and won’t see content (concepts, propositions, numbers, and qualia) in the spatio-temporal world they participate in representing, only the vehicles. This might explain what seems to me the categorical privacy of consciousness, *and* it would be consistent with Sean’s core theory.

            Integrated information theory (IIT) also takes subjectivity as an explanandum to be accounted for: “An experience is thus an intrinsic property of a complex of mechanisms in a state. In other words, the maximally irreducible conceptual structure specified by a complex exists intrinsically (from its own intrinsic perspective), without the need for an external observer.” (Oizumi, M., Albantakis, L., & Tononi, G. (2014) From the phenomenology to the mechanisms of consciousness: integrated information theory 3.0., PLOS Computational Biology 10 (5). – available online.)

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