Panpsychism again?

November 19, 2021 • 12:00 pm

The latest issue of Nautilus Magazine has a special issue on panpsychism, which means that I’m compelled to read and discuss several articles on this untestable and almost certainly false explanation for consciousness.  Just to refresh you, panpsychism is the view that humans are conscious (and perhaps other organisms) because the matter from which we and our brains are made itself has a rudimentary form of consciousness. And when you assemble all those semi-conscious electrons, protons, and neutrons into the stuff that makes up our brain—presto!—we’re conscious.

This is bogus for several reasons, and I’m quite puzzled why anyone takes it seriously. It is not an explanation of consciousness, but rather fobs the problem of consciousness onto molecules. How are they conscious? How can combining the rudimentary consciousness of constituents lead to “higher level” consciousness in organisms like us? This is a “turtles-all-the-way-down” theory.

Further, you cannot test the “theory”—it is an assertion that is not at present available for empirical assessment. Although in his article in this issue (see below) Christof Koch claims that Integrated Information Theory, a panpsychic “theory” does make testable predictions, I haven’t seen any (I’ve read some of the theory), nor does Koch give any.

Finally, as Sean Carroll has emphasized repeatedly, panpsychism, with its attribution of a new property (rudimentary consciousness) to atoms and particles, violates the laws of physics subsumed under the “Standard Model”. Goff simply has no rebuttal to Carroll’s criticisms (see the article and video here).


There are two big articles on panpsychism in the issue, one by Annaka Harris and the other by Hedda Hassel Mørch—both advocates of panpsychism—and I hope to deal with them in the coming days. Today I’ll make a few comments about the three short pieces collected in the single article below: one by Philip Goff, the “big name” in panpsychism promotion, one by Christof Koch, another advocate of panpsychim at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and Massimo Pigliucci, philosopher and biologist and CUNY-City College in New York. Massimo and I have had our differences, but I have to say that he’s 100% right in his criticisms of panpsychism.

Click below to read for free.

I’ll take the gentlemen one at a time.

Philip Goff.  Goff is deeply confused here. He first claims that entities like rocks and socks aren’t conscious as entities, but their constituent molecules could have a form of consciousness. Well, that’s not necessarily contradictory, but he goes on to impute consciousness to entities like trees.

This view is much misunderstood. Drawing on the literal meaning of the term—“pan”=everything, “psyche”=mind—it is commonly supposed that panpsychists believe that all kinds of inanimate objects have rich conscious lives: that your socks, for example, may be currently going through a troubling period of existential angst.

This way of understanding panpsychism is wrong. Panpsychists tend not to think that literally everything is conscious. They believe that the fundamental constituents of the physical world are conscious, but they need not believe that every random arrangement of those particles results in a conscious subject. Most panpsychists will deny that your socks are conscious, while asserting that they are ultimately composed of things that are conscious.

Okay, but then he says this:

. . . panpsychists believe that consciousness pervades the universe, and is as basic as mass and charge. If panpsychism is true, the rainforest is teeming with consciousness. As conscious entities, trees have value in their own right: Chopping one down becomes an action of immediate moral significance. On the panpsychist worldview, humans have a deep affinity with the natural world: We are conscious creatures embedded in a world of consciousness.

WHAT?  Socks made of conscious particles are not conscious entities, but trees made of conscious particle are conscious entities? How does that work? Is each leaf conscious? How about the roots and fruits? I would like to know what these people are claiming!

Goff then asserts without evidence that rudimentary consciousnesses combine in unknown ways as the complexity of the organism they constitute increases. He never tells us, and can’t, how electrons can be conscious. This fundamental assertion is untestable, and, moreover, violates the laws of physics. All they can do to answer the “combination problem” is to speculate or make stuff up:

Perhaps more importantly, panpsychists do not believe that consciousness like ours is everywhere. The complex thoughts and emotions enjoyed by human beings are the result of millions of years of evolution by natural selection, and it is clear that nothing of this kind is had by individual particles. If electrons have experience, then it is of some unimaginably simple form.

In human beings, consciousness is a sophisticated thing, involving subtle and complex emotions, thoughts, and sensory experiences. But there seems nothing incoherent with the idea that consciousness might exist in very simple forms. We have good reason to think that the conscious experience of a horse is much less complex than that of a human being, and the experiences of a chicken less complex than those of a horse. As organisms become simpler perhaps at some point the light of consciousness suddenly switches off, with simpler organisms having no experience at all. But it is also possible that the light of consciousness never switches off entirely, but rather fades as organic complexity reduces, through flies, insects, plants, amoeba, and bacteria. For the panpsychist, this fading-while-never-turning-off continuum further extends into inorganic matter, with fundamental physical entities—perhaps electrons and quarks—possessing extremely rudimentary forms of consciousness, to reflect their extremely simple nature.

It is possible. . . perhaps. . and maybe soon. There’s nothing here that is testable. We divine consciousness by self-report, and although we can mostly agree that other people are conscious because their brains are the same as ours, and they show signs of consciousness, is that true of a gorilla brain? Probably. But none of this buttresses the theory of panpsychism. We can’t ask an electron or a tardigrade whether it’s conscious.

Let us abandon this mishigas and move on to. . .

Christof Koch.  Koch sees the salvation of panpsychism in “Integrated Information Theory”, which, he says, makes “a number of very precise predictions that philosophical panpsychism was never able to make.” But if that’s the case, why doesn’t he give any? As far as I know, that’s because there aren’t any. If there were, people would be taking panpsychism more seriously. Instead, Koch tells us repeatedly that he doesn’t know how panpsychism works or how it’s instantiated in atoms and subatomic particles:

Panpsychism can be terribly elegant in its simplicity. You don’t say consciousness only exists if you have more than 42 neurons or 2 billion neurons or whatever. Instead, the system is conscious if there’s a certain type of complexity. And we live in a universe where certain systems have consciousness. It’s inherent in the design of the universe. Why is that so? I don’t know. Why does the universe follow the laws of quantum mechanics? I don’t know. Can I imagine a universe where the laws of quantum mechanics don’t hold? Yes, but I don’t happen to live in such a universe, so I believe our universe has certain types of complexity and a system that gives rise to consciousness. Suddenly the world is populated by entities that have conscious awareness, and that one simple principle leads to a number of very counterintuitive predictions that can, in principle, be verified.

In principle? Okay, Dr. Koch, give us some of those predictions! And then there’s this:

What makes systems conscious? Are there any systems that are not conscious? Panpsychism doesn’t answer these questions. But Integrated Information Theory does. It makes some very specific predictions. It says, for instance, all complex neurobiological systems—all creatures that have brains—may well have consciousness, including bees and worms and octopi. It may also be possible that if you build a brain out of wires and transistors, that you find consciousness there, too.

May well have consciousness. I’m prepared to believe that a horse has consciousness, but what about a protozoan or a flatworm? Note that these are not testable predictions, and they’re not really falsifiable either, for if these simple organisms don’t have consciousness, Koch could just say, “Well, I said that they may well have consciousness and it “may be possible that a computer will have consciousness.” This is not evidence, it is assertion trailed by equivocation.

Massimo Pigliucci. Yay, Massimo! He says it straight and true:

Panpsychism doesn’t make any contact with the empirical world. My specialty is philosophy of science and so I tend to be sensitive to the difference between metaphysics and science, and whenever an account or theory makes no empirical predictions, and there is no way to test it, at least no foreseeable way to test it, then to me that’s just not science, it’s a metaphysical construct.

Massimo then notes that parts of real physics are getting pretty metaphysical, like string theory (at present also untestable). But. . . .

But there is a difference between panpsychism and string theory. String theory is built on top of quantum mechanics, which is a very empirically based, supported theory. Panpsychism on the other hand is not rooted in anything. It’s just a way to solve what some philosophers of mind call the hard problem of consciousness—the question of how is it possible that a lump of matter like the brain makes it possible for people to have first-person experiences or conscious experiences. Postulating that consciousness is another mental property of the universe is one way to get around that. But I don’t think it actually solves anything. It just replaces one mystery with another.

I don’t find that convincing at all. I come at consciousness from a point of view of a biologist. To me, consciousness is a highly evolved property of certain biological systems and it does require not only a certain structure, but certain materials. I don’t think that if you could build, for instance, an exact replica of the human brain made out of cardboard, you would have a conscious thing out there, probably not even made of very much more interesting materials like silicon. The reason for that is because biological consciousness, the little we know about it, is made possible by not only certain structures in the brain but also certain chemicals and certain chemical reactions and certain interactions between chemicals.

Consciousness probably evolved for specific reasons because, after all, it costs a lot metabolically to maintain the kind of brain that can engage in conscious thoughts. There must be a reason and it must be advantageous from the point of view of natural selection. I don’t see any reason to think that inert things are conscious. I don’t even see a particular reason to think that a lot of other biological things, like plants, bacteria, things like that, are conscious. But that’s just one perspective and one way to look at it.

I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with panpsychism. It’s probably because I see it as scientific snake oil. It’s philosophy pretending to be science but not behaving like science, for it’s just a bunch of untestable assertions that cannot be falsified. And if a theory cannot be falsified, we cannot regard it as conveying scientific truth. I once had a theory that resembles panpsychism in that way. It was when I was a young child and had a bunch of stuffed animals (including Toasty). My “theory” was that when I left the room, they would get up and move around, but as soon as I was about to peek at them, they’d resume their former positions. (Actually, you could use a video camera to test that, I suppose, but I could invoke the “observer effect” that ESP advocates use to avoid being tested.)

Isn’t it time for us to stop taking this nonsense seriously? I regard panpsychists as I regard theologians: they both make stuff up, nothing they say is testable, and they both actually get paid to foist nonsense on the public.

62 thoughts on “Panpsychism again?

  1. Panpsychism reminds me of the many world hypothesis (that all possible outcomes occur, each in its own universe) and therefore much of the weirdness of quantum theory is explained. And it’s also untestable. But many worlds is more plausible than panpsychism because… Well, I couldn’t explain it but I’m sure Sean Carroll could.

    1. Many Worlds is very different from stuff like panpsychism. The Many Worlds interpretation falls right out of QM. It may be wrong, it may not be, but QM is famously the most precise theory of modern science. We have no idea what it means for all possibilities to be realized in some world, though it certainly sounds bizarre. The naïve interpretation especially. However, pretty much everything about QM sounds bizarre to us.

      In any case, Many Worlds wasn’t something that was pulled out of thin air to explain something we don’t know how to explain yet, like panphsychism. It is a result of the application of equations invented to model certain aspects of our reality and that have been extremely well validated at doing that. Basically it’s the old difference between reaching a conclusion then seeking evidence to support it and seeking evidence then trying to devise a conclusion that explains it.

      1. “Many Worlds is very different from stuff like panpsychism.”

        No, it isn’t. An unfalsifiable, unverified theory by any other name is an unfalsifiable, unverified theory. MWI is a philosophical interpretation of QM with no evidentiary support. Just as panpsychism is is a philosophical interpretation of a biological fact (consciousness) – again, with no evidentiary support.

        Of all the science popularizers out there, Carroll is the most disappointing because he has an almost religious like devotion to the MWI and he’s not willing to admit that it’s just a bunch of speculation.

        “I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with panpsychism. It’s probably because I see it as scientific snake oil.”

        I have an idea why. (Please do not take this disrespectfully, it’s the same reason I am suspicious of it). If panpsychism were true, something like pantheism/panentheism would almost certainly follow. A conscious, thinking universe is a very close approximation to God. If one is inclined towards suspicion of religious claims (as I and most others here are), one is going to be suspicious of panpsychism.

        1. The idea that all unfalsifiable ideas are somehow equivalent is wrong. First, all ideas haven’t been shown to be false until they are. That logically implies that, for a given idea, we may be at a point in time between its inception and the performance of an experiment that proves or disproves it.

          Carroll may believe the MWI worth considering but he doesn’t regard it as forever true without experimental evidence. I suspect he’s willing to talk about the idea in the hope that it will someday become something we can test or that it inspires other new ideas. Ideas often start out with us having no idea how to test them. Later, an idea may morph into something testable or someone may come up with a way to test it that was not immediately apparent. Science is a dynamic process.

          All that said, panpsychism is silly but I remain open to the idea that someone may refine it into something worth keeping but I’m not holding my breath.

          1. “The idea that all unfalsifiable ideas are somehow equivalent is wrong. First, all ideas haven’t been shown to be false until they are. That logically implies that, for a given idea, we may be at a point in time between its inception and the performance of an experiment that proves or disproves it.”

            Cool, but that isn’t what I said. I was referring to “unfalsifiable, unverified” theories. If a theory isn’t falsified, and it doesn’t have any evidence in support of it, it’s an essentially bankrupt idea from a scientific standpoint. It doesn’t mean the idea isn’t worthy of thinking about – perhaps for development of a future theory or idea. But it *does* mean that such ideas are equally unscientific.

            “Carroll may believe the MWI worth considering but he doesn’t regard it as forever true without experimental evidence. I suspect he’s willing to talk about the idea in the hope that it will someday become something we can test or that it inspires other new ideas. Ideas often start out with us having no idea how to test them. Later, an idea may morph into something testable or someone may come up with a way to test it that was not immediately apparent. Science is a dynamic process.”

            When acting as a science popularizer, Carroll behaves as though the MWI of quantum physics is a non-speculative idea. It isn’t.

            “All that said, panpsychism is silly but I remain open to the idea that someone may refine it into something worth keeping but I’m not holding my breath.”


            1. What you say here sounds confused. You claim that some class of ideas are “essentially bankrupt idea from a scientific standpoint” but are still “worthy of thinking about”. Science is a process done by a community. One person’s bankrupt idea is another’s food for thought. One person’s crackpot idea today may be considered a landmark achievement a hundred years later. Let the process happen.

              As far as Carroll’s thinking on MWI, let me remind you that all ideas are speculative in science.

              1. “What you say here sounds confused. You claim that some class of ideas are “essentially bankrupt idea from a scientific standpoint” but are still “worthy of thinking about”.”

                I’m not confused about anything. You remark that some ideas are “food for thought.” Fair enough, but an idea being “food for thought” does not equate to that idea being scientific. Perhaps it the idea can generate new hypotheses, serve as inspiration for problem solving, etc., but that doesn’t make the idea a scientific idea. A theory that has no evidence in support of it and cannot be falsified does not count as scientific knowledge, hence, it they are scientifically bankrupt ideas.

                “As far as Carroll’s thinking on MWI, let me remind you that all ideas are speculative in science.”

                Speculative means “based on conjecture rather than knowledge.” Would you insist that evolution is a speculative idea? What about germ theory? Cellular respiration? Antibiotic resistance? For all practical purposes, those ideas are not “speculative” because they are well supported by evidence, they make testable predictions, are falsifiable, etc. MWI of QM is not supported by evidence, nor does it make testable predictions, nor is it falsifiable. Maybe it’s food for thought but it should not be presented to the public as good science.

                Peter Woit has repeatedly called out Carroll and others for promoting MWI to the public as good science:

                “Using your public platform to tell people that the way to understand quantum mechanics is that the world splits depending on what you decide to do is simply What the Bleep? level stupidity. Those in the physics and science communication communities who care about the public understanding of quantum mechanics should think hard about what they can do to deal with this situation. They may however come to the same conclusion I’ve just reached: best to ignore him, which I’ll try to do from now on.”

              2. Peter Woit is presumably avoiding ALL so-called interpretations of quantum theory for the reason of their ‘unprovability’ as expanded on a few sentences ahead. But, as a different example, he and others similarly, as well as MWI, go right ahead and accept the existence of quantum fields. Where is the naively termed DIRECT evidence for that? (In fact, MWI is the only interpretation which is straightforwardly invariant under relativity, without needing a strained modification, which for at least one seriously considered interpretation has never yet been found, despite big efforts by very talented physicists—see that Wallace book mentioned again below.)

                The only way I can see to supposedly “prove” something like an interpretation of quantum theory, or to actually ‘prove’ the existence of quantum fields, is to have the situation where there is no other acceptable theory whose consequences agree with all the indirect evidence from experiments. That of course is exactly what so far and likely forever is the case for the correctness of quantum field theory, giving a relativistically invariant theory which reduces to the standard non-relativistic quantum theory in the roughly 1925 original theories of Heisenberg and Schrodinger.

                On the other, actually germane, matter here, the advocates of MWI supposedly ‘prove’ it (if you insist on using that word in this sloppy way) by explaining why all the other interpretations are simply logically incoherent. I realize there can be no end to attempts at an even better interpretation, as there should be.

                But if you read carefully that “The Emergent Multiverse” Oxford press book of David Wallace (which I mention in more detail elsewhere in this thread), and spend some time thinking carefully when the EMERGENCE aspect of the many worlds splitting comes out explicitly in that book, I think you and most people will not think the splitting into many worlds of Everett is nearly as bizarre as it seems initially. As Deutsch has said many times, MWI is simply quantum theory without a bunch of logical incoherence (e.g. mysterious wave function collapse) tacked on.

              3. Your discussion of these ideas here proves my point. It’s how science moves forward. Dismissing an idea as “unscientific” or “unprovable” is just a way for someone to express their dislike for it. It might end the conversation but the speaker shouldn’t consider it a win.

              4. I’m at least not more arrogant than Feynman was when I say that Maxwell’s above phrase

                “….public understanding of quantum mechanics….”

                verges on the hilariously self-contradictory, (arrogantly?) ignoring in its five little words the Feynman statement (roughly) “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”.

                Of course Drumpf would claim that he understands all these things better than anybody. But one must realize he is well known by 10s of millions of USians to be virtually a deity, not just a somebody. May he soon become a nobody.

              5. My apologies, it should have been ‘….Maxmillian’s above phrase…”. (not Maxwell’s!)

    2. I would say David Deutsch gives the best argument I can recall, because he points out that, for quantum computing to work, the actual various alternate states exist and interact with each other. I don’t have a complete grasp of his points (I don’t know that mathematics of quantum computing at all) but he gets into pretty good detail in “The Fabric of Reality” and “The Beginning of Infinity.” But even that hasn’t convinced many physicist who DO know the math, so it’s obviously not a knock-down argument. But at least it’s based on empirical effects.

      1. See the Mach-Zehnder interferometer operation as described clearly in those Deutsch books. The number of possibilities needing to be ‘examined in parallel’ can be vastly greater than the number of elementary particles in our visible universe. Deutsch asks where all these parallel quantum computations might have occurred, if not in Everett’s multiverse of many worlds. A proper operation of quantum computation has the splitting coming together again to interact, as opposed to the more common complete splitting. It seems clear that Sean Carroll accepts Many Worlds, and rejects anything like panpsychism as simply contradicting the empirically well established quantum theory.

        As Darrelle above notes, the two are interesting in their decisive contrast, rather than in any imagined similarity.

        David Deutsch believes physicists accepting the Many Worlds are much better spending their efforts advancing fundamental science of that vein, and not waste efforts in debates with advocates, to be blunt, of logically incoherent ‘explanations’ of fundamental quantum theory. See his contribution to the double conference around 2010 which occurred half in Oxford, completed at Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada, with its contributions from both sides recorded in “Many Worlds?” (Oxford University Press).

        Even better, see as well the 1913 (also Oxford) book of David Wallace “The Emergent Multiiverse”. He has been a major contributor, not merely some science popularizer author who seems to misunderstand the whole thing.

        By the way, in my above much shorter one, Pauli of course is not my stupid “Wofgang”, nor was he ‘Coyotegang’, from which the correctly typed name may be easily guessed! Sorry Wolfy if that nickname, from the (Mozart’s middle name) movie, is acceptable.

        1. Thank you, much appreciated. And that definitely recapitulates what I recall reading in Deutsch’s books, which I at least found convincing, for what that’s worth. Thank you many times.

    3. except that many worlds, whether or not it is an accurate understanding of reality, comes out of the math of quantum theory–and math has a long track record of predicting things about the universe that were later confirmed. the idea that all things have ‘consciousness’ is metaphysical theory of mind often as a critique of mind/matter dualism. (the idea that inanimate things have spirits or souls is actually quite venerable and in a way could be one of the original theories of consciousness or volition.)

  2. “I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with panpsychism.” Maybe it’s not you that is obsessed with it, but
    rather your socks.

  3. There is no such thing as “consciousness”. There is only conscious behavior, and conscious behavior is distinguished from unconscious behavior based on publicly observable behavior.

    There is no reason to suppose that consciousness is like some kind of food additive, such that its not really Chinese food unless it has MSG, not matter what it looks or smells like. Further, there is no reason to ascribe consciousness to something that by its nature is incapable of conscious behavior.

    Further, sub-atomic particles could very well be “conscious” without violating the laws of physics, because “consciousness” is about what something does, not what something is.

    1. I think of consciousness (aware of self with much qualia) as an “is”, but not the kind of “is” a pebble could consider, let alone a molecule. I would never believe that consciousness lives outside oneself, or is the cradle of the soul or some such, but can’t consciousness be about both what something does and what something is? Just a random thought…not trying to break physics or anything. 🙂

  4. I don’t want to consider myself an apologist – maybe a devil’s advocate here. I’m thinking of Douglas Hoftstadter’s _Gödel, Escher, Bach_, and some of Daniel Dennett’s discussions on emergent properties and complexity. The overall point is that consciousness emerges in a sufficiently complex system that is able to model itself. Sure, an atom, or a sock, is a model of itself, but still is not sufficiently complex (so yes, there is some ambiguity and goalpost-moving). More complex systems, like an ant hill (Aunt Hillary!), a human, or a society are sufficiently complex and are able to engage in self-modeling. Basically, the sock itself is not conscious, but the sock plays a role in a larger ecosystem that might be conscious. At that point, it does not matter if we consider the sock to be an object, or to be composed of objects (atoms, etc.). Basically, just like you have objects building up subsubsets, subsets, and sets, you could have phychisms within psychisms within psychisms. Human individuals have drives; human organs may have drives (hunger; gut bacteria); multi-human institutions may also have drives (statehood, etc.).

    Anyway, I disagree with a lot of it. However, there is a lot more to be said about the topic than I am inclined to post in a quick response on a well-respected blog.

  5. Why aren’t really massive object, like planets, conscious then? I suppose because mass alone doesn’t do it, but the arrangement of the mass. Yes, I agree, the mass needs to be arranged like a brain.

    1. I’ve read science-fiction novels with conscious planet-sized self-made constructs…and they were usually considered gods by the humanoids “below”. Earth is pretty modular, but nothing like a brain. The Gaia theory had a bit of daylight, and I’m sure it will again, but in the end, Gaia as conscious boils down to panpsychism. Though I did enjoy the flick Avatar where the theory is played out on a distant planet.

  6. I suspect you are obsessed with panpsychism because it is both popular and wrong. You might want to consider renaming your website to “Popular and Wrong” as evolution is not so contested any more. Just kidding.

    1. In the case of panpsychism, and simply stealing from Wofgang Pauli, might it not be better to be ‘Popular and Not Even Wrong’?

  7. What always bothers me is, how does a panpsychist explain what happens to a mind when the body dies? When my heart stops beating my consciousness will cease instantly, even though all my brain’s molecules will be still in place, and each one’s physical properties will be unchanged. And, presumably, each molecule’s consciousness will carry on as before as well.

    1. Its even worse. As a conscious being, I can get drunk, inhale anesthesia, induce a trance, or simply fall asleep and lose consciousness, at least temporarily. Further, I can even die, and lose consciousness for good, sleep without dreams forever. The poor subatomic particles carry the burden of being conscious without end.

    2. At the risk of putting words in a panpsychist’s mouth, there answer is likely to be that the consciousness goes away because the brain’s particles get rearranged starting immediately after death. When you think about it, it’s the very same reason given by the non-panpsychist.

        1. I don’t understand your comment. Yes, the panpsychists think the particle arrangement is important. However, everyone agrees that brain particles’ arrangement starts changing immediately after death so no more consciousness. The magic disappears for both panpsychists and everyone else.

  8. Two thoughts:

    1. From that zoom meeting with Philip Goff, assuming I understood what Goff was saying, he believes that the consciousness force is below, underneath, or parallel (not sure which) to the particles and forces of fundamental physics. This means that any argument about how it would be detectable by physicists is a non-starter. This doesn’t make it believable but there’s no point in making arguments of that type because panpsychists will just tell you that you don’t get it.

    2. IIT has been shown to confer a high value of Phi, thereby indicating that it has a lot of consciousness, to systems that are not conscious by inspection. Even if one ignores these false positives, it seems to say very little about how consciousness is produced or how the brain works. It’s basic thesis is complexity of a certain type is all you need. I can’t prove it but it makes no sense to me. It has been said that the human brain is the most complex structure in the universe that we know of. That may be true (I think it is) but its not enough to tell us how brains work.

  9. WHAT? Socks made of conscious particles are not conscious entities, but trees made of conscious particle are conscious entities? How does that work?

    It works using the same principles as Vitalism. In fact, the belief that “consciousness pervades the universe, and is as basic as mass and charge” is pretty much the same as the belief that “life pervades the universe, and is as basic as mass and charge.” It’s Explanation All the Way Down. And, like Vitalism, Panpsychism is grounded in the rock solid Theory of OMG-we-humans-sure-are-SIGNIFICANT.” They take off like rockets from there.

    As for why you’re so interested in the topic, it could be that it’s a Less Obviously Wrong version of the Supernatural, and therefore more interesting. It’s like the answer to a parlor game: “If you HAD to pick a religious belief, which one would you pick?”

    An atheist picking “panpsychism” is playing the game a bit more fairly than one selecting “Unitarian Universalist.”

    1. Browsing through Wikipedia: The British secular humanist biologist Julian Huxley dryly remarked that Bergson’s élan vital is no better an explanation of life than is explaining the operation of a railway engine by its élan locomotif (“locomotive driving force”).

      Similarly *if* you define consciousness as “the intuitive perception of experience and the flow of inner time.” then there is no reasons for a sock, or a rock, or a clock to be conscious any more than they can be angry.

  10. Since I first came across it I’ve thought that panpsychism is bunk. For some time I’ve withheld full-blown scorn because I didn’t know enough about it and some people I tend to think of as reasonably competent thinkers have been willing to engage with some of its prominent proponents. I was sort of leaving the door open to the possibility that maybe even though it was obviously nuts that there might be some reason I couldn’t see as of yet for bona fide experts to spend some time investigating the idea.

    However, that time has passed. After watching the 3 hour conversation between Philip Goff, Sean Carroll and Keith Frankish I’ve come to the conclusion that panpsychism is every bit as silly and worthy of scorn as I first thought. The only good reason to engage with it is to expose if for the silly idea it is.

    I felt almost painfully embarrassed for Goff. I must say I do admire his courage in inviting someone like Carroll to discuss his views on panpsychism, but he sounded like a child who was inventing rationalizations on the fly to support a fantasy in the face of a much more experienced and knowledgeable adult gently shooting them all down. It was really bad.

    Judging by Goff himself, panpsychism is wholly made up for no good reason. It is an example of professional philosophy at its worst. Pointless navel gazing and ludicrous arguments. Panpsychism is no more convincing than auras or crystals.

  11. Let’s face it. This pan-whatever is lucrative. It seems to be sustaining many careers and selling many books. Just like pan-theism. People are easy to trick. You could probably sell them water in plastic bottles with pretty labels.

  12. In his new book (“Being You: A New Science of Consciousness,” 2021), the neuroscientist Anil Seth writes the following about the integrated-information theory (IIT):

    “…And this leads to a final challenging implication [of IIT]: panpsychism. So long as there is the right kind of mechanism, the right kind of cause-effect structure in a system, there will be non-zero Phi, and there will be consciousness. IIT’s panpsychism is a restrained panpsychism, not the sort in which consciousness is spread out through the entire universe like a thin layer of jam. Rather, consciousness is to be found wherever integrated information – Phi – is to be found. This could be here and there,
    but not everywhere.

    IIT is original, ambitious, and intellectually exuberant. It remains the only neuroscientific theory out there that makes a serious attempt on the hard problem of consciousness. IIT is also most definitely weird, but the fact that something is weird doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Almost everything about modern physics is both weird and less wrong than the physics of the past. But the success of those parts of modern physics that are now established as being less wrong has everything to do with their being experimentally testable. And this is the trouble with IIT. With its audacity comes the heavy price that its primary claim – the equivalence between Phi and conscious level – may be impossible to test.”

  13. “I’m quite puzzled why anyone takes [panpsychism] seriously.” – J. Coyne

    “[W]e know that people can get used to the most crazy philosophical sayings imaginable.”

    (Lewis, David. “Elusive Knowledge.” In Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology, 418-445. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. p. 419)

  14. I read Annaka Harris’s book “Conscious” a while back and found it to be a difficult slog. It wasn’t crazy, but the arguments were incredibly hard to follow. Matters of testability we’re not to be found, if I recall. I’ll be interested in what you might think of her piece.

    I commend you for wading through all this stuff. If the rest of the literature is like Harris’s book, you’re certainly doing a lot of work. Just trying to parse what they are saying is a huge challenge, perhaps because so much of it veers off into fanciful conjectures that make my head spin. Reading Harris’s book was quite enough panpsychism for me.

    1. OK. I’ll reply to myself to say that I gave panpsychism one more try and read Annaka Harris’s piece. Hers is actually more about a specific issue in the panpsychism literature than about panpsychism itself—what she terms the “combination” problem. So her coverage is limited.

      However, in her piece she presents the often-discussed conjecture that consciousness is a previously unrecognized property of matter. Given that conjecture, she follows its consequences. Sadly, there seems to be no provision in her article for testing the conjecture, no tether to something that’s known, and nothing to limit speculation that builds on the premise. It’s almost as if the panpsychics are creating their own playground, complete with its own rides, games, and rules. I mean no disrespect to these scholars, but it seems to me that they are on the wrong track.

      Ultimately, in reading Harris’s piece, I find that I’ve only confirmed my earlier belief that I’ve read enough on this topic. Time to move on.

  15. I get so frustrated when people say things like, “Can I imagine a universe where the laws of quantum mechanics don’t hold? Yes…” because, no, I don’t think they can. They don’t realize that the laws of quantum mechanics as we understand them are required to make the universe we live in stable and coherent, e.g. to keep electrons from spiraling into atomic nuclei mere picoseconds after the Big Bang with nothing ever coming from them or from anything else. Those laws were deduced precisely because they were the only way to make sense of the world around us. It may be possible (in principle) to design and build a universe without quantum mechanics, starting from some other fundamental principles, but I’m all but certain that no human mind can actually conceive of it. Just because one can say the words “I can conceive of a universe where the laws of quantum mechanics don’t hold” doesn’t mean that one actually can do so. Swearing is easy, as at least one movie version of Bruce Lee pointed out.

    This is similar to the notion of philosophical zombies. Just because one can say one can conceive of something that behaves in every single way exactly like a conscious being, including giving self-report of internal states, but it doesn’t actually have any internal states, doesn’t mean that one has actually conceived of it. One has merely said the words. The whole “hard problem of consciousness” and the notion of panpsychism seems to entail this sort of prestidigitation.

    I could describe some object as being “all and solely green and all and solely blue at precisely the same time and in the same way” or claim to imagine 2+2 equaling 5 (not just the symbols but the things those symbols represent) but that doesn’t make these true or coherent statements even about one’s imagination.

    I think the reason the “hard problem” and panpsychism catch anyone’s attention at all, even otherwise very intelligent people, is the persistent, guilty wish for magic, for some possible version of an eternal soul, for humans to be special in some cosmic or fundamental sense that’s outside of “mere” science, and which nevertheless doesn’t place the onus on us to create, maintain, and to protect our special-ness and to earn our self-esteem as individuals or as a species or as a planet or whatever.

    If these people can somehow code a program that does something of what they describe, or otherwise produce some even rudimentary working “model” of a process that is internally coherent and meets the criteria they describe, I’ll look more closely. Until then I’ll deploy Hitchens’s Razor.

    1. “If these people can somehow code a program that does something of what they describe, or otherwise produce some even rudimentary working ‘model’ of a process that is internally coherent and meets the criteria they describe, I’ll look more closely.”

      Hi, Robert. Re the “hard problem,” though not necessarily panpsychism (which I also find ridiculous), I suspect you must familiar with at least some of the many thinkers throughout history who have expounded on the evolution of consciousness and the ability to see the natural world with the imagination—that is, to participate in it from the inside as well as observe it from the outside. This goes back to the ancient Greeks and elsewhere, but a good summary of more recent exponents—i.e., from Goethe to Coleridge to Owen Barfield—is provided by a book called The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination by Gary Lachman. Lachman, among other accomplishments (see, was a founder and bass guitarist for the rock group Blondie, but his grasp of and ability to elaborate on this difficult but “internally coherent” tradition of thought is impressive. (He can also be seen being interviewed about the book here: I don’t think you or many other hard-thinking readers of this blog will converted to woo by Lachman’s defense of ”imaginative knowledge,” but the book is worth a “look more closely” for its lucid explanation of a position that might provide fodder for refuting. Gary

  16. In his (2015; 2016 in English translation) book The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben claims that trees can learn and therefore must store experiences somewhere (probably the roots) arguing that in comparing plants and animals

    Finally, the only other big difference is in the amount of time it takes to process information and translate it into action. Does that mean that beings that live life in the slow lane are automatically worth less than ones on the fast track?

    I’m in no position to judge his claims, but it’s certainly an interesting read. I’m not aware of similar testimony regarding socks though…

  17. Never ceases to amaze me how those rapt by Panpsychism are also fascinated by Solipsism. In the one scenario, everything is conscious, in the other, it’s only them.

    I’d point out to these people that these views are mutually exclusive but I couldn’t be sure that they understand what mutually exclusive means.

    So I don’t even bother.

  18. Panpsychism may well be daft (probably is). That still leaves the hard problem of consciousness. I don’t find the idea that there isn’t really a “hard problem of consciousness” very convincing.
    As Churchill said about something else: it’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

  19. >Postulating that consciousness is another mental property of the universe is one way to get around that. But I don’t think it actually solves anything. It just replaces one mystery with another.

    To push back against this a little bit, this only addresses Goff’s type of panpsychism, not IIT. Goff *posits* panpsychism. IIT concludes it. That, to me, are two different beasts entirely. It’s like the many-worlds interpretation. If all those worlds are posited, everyone would rightfully think it is a ridiculous idea. But they aren’t. They’re conclusions from applying what we know.

    Similarly, if we had a well-attested theory of consciousness that matches our intuitions of what things are conscious (since intuition is the only thing we can go off of in inferring consciousness from behavior), but also predicts that certain simple configurations of matter are also infinitesimally conscious, I’d accept it. I suppose in that case, I’d be a panpsychist.

    The reason why I am not a panpsychist is that IIT is simply not such a theory. IIT predicts that certain mathematical entities would have vastly greater consciousness than us, as Scott Aaronson wrote here: Its predictions of consciousness are all over the place.

    I also find Massimo’s biological chauvinism puzzling. What’s so special about carbon that it alone can make organisms conscious in a way that a simulation of that organism will not be?

    1. In each case, of fundamental physics, and of the theory of the rather flabbily defined noun ‘consciousness’, which is more likely to be approaching the truth: a hardworking former biologist or a hardworking mathematician?

    2. “I also find Massimo’s biological chauvinism puzzling. What’s so special about carbon that it alone can make organisms conscious in a way that a simulation of that organism will not be?”

      As he says in his Aeon article, he considers it an open question. I suspect he’s ruling out simulation of a brain in silicon at the fundamental physics level, as he should since it will likely never be practical. It is still possible that neurons do a kind of processing that will be too hard to implement in silicon without simulating physics but I would definitely not bet on it. So his view of carbon is not so far out, especially for a philosopher.


      Similarly with all mental phenomena, including both access and phenomenal consciousness. Even though there is nothing spooky about it (bye-bye to any form of dualism), specific numbers and arrangements of neurons seem not to be sufficient to generate those phenomena. The involved neurons also need to be made of (and produce) the right stuff: it is not just how they are arranged in the brain that does the trick, it also takes certain specific physical and chemical properties that carbon-based cells have, silicon-based alternatives might or might not have (it’s an open empirical question), and cardboard, say, definitely doesn’t have.

      1. Perhaps not an exact replica, but what about a general AI with human-like behavior? It seems that, if one denies such an AI is conscious, one cannot affirm that they also know other humans are conscious.

        1. We will probably first regard an AI as conscious based on something like a Turing test. If people are convinced that an AI they are conversing with is acting like a conscious human being, then we should call it “conscious” given the current vague definition of the word. On the other hand, when we know a lot more about how the human brain works, we will have a much stronger definition of “conscious” than we do now, perhaps replacing with several related concepts. When that happens, whether those concepts apply to an AI will also become clear.

  20. Why, if you add a third point to two and connect them, you have triangle with new properties, which two points and a line didn’t have. Interaction of such properties leads to patterns, and once they are reactive, to spooky, emergent patterns, as in cellular automata. The patterns are themselves not things, but we still see an arrangement as a gestalt riding on the matter. This direction seems to me far more interesting to eventually understand consciousness.

    That’s where I disagree with both Panpsychists as well as Pigluicci. Trivially, different materials have different properties. The same emergence of patterns do not arise at a scale we would recognise even if the material could create and propagate patterns. You can create extremely powerful patterns made out of just two states, as it happens in every computer. Somehow dumb on-off switches can simulate lush virtual worlds, but you don’t see it staring at a computer circuit. In theory, you could store and run patterns on all sorts of mediums. I believe Dawkins pointed that out that you could store DNA in a series of coloured bottles. Likewise, you could make a computer where the orientation of bottle caps represent on and off, if you had a method to flip them reliably and “read” in which position they are in. The bottle cap computer could run impressive, lush virtual worlds “inside” but you wouldn’t know by looking at the bottle caps.

    I want to show that the more promising direction is about interaction and arrangement of stuff rather than mysterious essences inside particles.

  21. I’m always amused when someone tries to argue that consciousness doesn’t exist. The interesting explorations are happening in the discussions on strong and weak emergence.

  22. I think that all particles may also be alive and that’s how we can explain what life is and where it comes from – everything is alive. It’s very elegant.

  23. Particles are very helpful when it comes to consciousness and fundamental to its existence between our ears.
    Panpsychism is in the eh… woke like mode for, Particles do matter!

  24. IIT could be falsifiable if its proponents are willing to take its predictions at face value. For example, anesthesia. Different anesthetics cause different amounts of lowering of the measure phi, depending on dose. If we find that subjects report more conscious experience on anesthetic A than B, but A causes lower phi than B, IIT is presumably refuted.

  25. It’s becoming clear that with all the brain and consciousness theories out there, the proof will be in the pudding. By this I mean, can any particular theory be used to create a human adult level conscious machine. My bet is on the late Gerald Edelman’s Extended Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. The lead group in robotics based on this theory is the Neurorobotics Lab at UC at Irvine. Dr. Edelman distinguished between primary consciousness, which came first in evolution, and that humans share with other conscious animals, and higher order consciousness, which came to only humans with the acquisition of language. A machine with primary consciousness will probably have to come first.

    The thing I find special about the TNGS is the Darwin series of automata created at the Neurosciences Institute by Dr. Edelman and his colleagues in the 1990’s and 2000’s. These machines perform in the real world, not in a restricted simulated world, and display convincing physical behavior indicative of higher psychological functions necessary for consciousness, such as perceptual categorization, memory, and learning. They are based on realistic models of the parts of the biological brain that the theory claims subserve these functions. The extended TNGS allows for the emergence of consciousness based only on further evolutionary development of the brain areas responsible for these functions, in a parsimonious way. No other research I’ve encountered is anywhere near as convincing.

    I post because on almost every video and article about the brain and consciousness that I encounter, the attitude seems to be that we still know next to nothing about how the brain and consciousness work; that there’s lots of data but no unifying theory. I believe the extended TNGS is that theory. My motivation is to keep that theory in front of the public. And obviously, I consider it the route to a truly conscious machine, primary and higher-order.

    My advice to people who want to create a conscious machine is to seriously ground themselves in the extended TNGS and the Darwin automata first, and proceed from there, by applying to Jeff Krichmar’s lab at UC Irvine, possibly. Dr. Edelman’s roadmap to a conscious machine is at

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