New Scientist touts panpsychism

April 30, 2020 • 2:30 pm

“As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.”
Proverbs 26:11

Matthew sent me a link to this new article in New Scientist. Yes, yet another credulous git has fallen for panpsychism. Click on the screenshot to read just the first three paragraphs (it’s paywalled, though the content of this rag isn’t worth paying for):

Below are the first three paragraphs, touting the panpsychist view that I’ve criticized before: everything in the Universe, right down to electrons, has a form of consciousness. This is supposed to solve the “hard problem” of consciousness: how you get subjective sensations from nerve impulses and brains. How does this crazy suggestion solve it? By sleight of hand: if every constituent of the Universe is conscious, then when you build a nervous system and mind out of atoms and molecules, it will be EVEN MORE CONSCIOUS! Because its constituents are conscious, so it must be too—big time!

Isn’t that delightful? In this U.S. we call this a “carny trick”.

From New Pseudoscientist:

THEY call it the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. Physicist Eugene Wigner coined the phrase in the 1960s to encapsulate the curious fact that merely by manipulating numbers we can describe and predict all manner of natural phenomena with astonishing clarity, from the movements of planets and the strange behaviour of fundamental particles to the consequences of a collision between two black holes billions of light years away. Now, some are wondering if maths can succeed where all else has failed, unravelling whatever it is that allows us to contemplate the laws of nature in the first place.

It is a big ask. The question of how matter gives rise to felt experience is one of the most vexing problems we know of. And sure enough, the first fleshed-out mathematical model of consciousness has generated huge debate about whether it can tell us anything sensible. But as mathematicians work to hone and extend their tools for peering deep inside ourselves, they are confronting some eye-popping conclusions.

Not least, what they are uncovering seems to suggest that if we are to achieve a precise description of consciousness, we may have to ditch our intuitions and accept that all kinds of inanimate matter could be conscious – maybe even the universe as a whole. “This could be the beginning of a scientific revolution,” says Johannes Kleiner, a mathematician at the Munich Centre for Mathematical Philosophy in Germany.

If some hapless reader wants to ferret out the rest of the article and read it, be my guest. I would bet a substantial sum that “doing the maths” does not show that the Universe is conscious. How could it? Only empirical investigation could possibly show that.

When I asked Matthew why so many apparently smart people believe in this palaver, he simply drew four capital “S”s with vertical lines through them and then made a pungent remark about how it’s garbage but it sells.

Panpsychism is quack philosophy, and New Scientist is the National Enquirer of science.


Panpsychism: a big bag of nothing

February 21, 2020 • 9:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shall we call it a pseudophilosophy?


Even more on panpsychism

February 16, 2020 • 12:15 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I applaud the empiricism in the quote below!

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

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

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

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

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

And so it ends with this salvo by Pigliucci:

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

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

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

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

Why is it so popular? You tell me!

A philosophical red flag

February 11, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Okay, I took the bait and am now reading Philip Goff’s trade book on panpsychism, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. (Why do I let myself repeatedly fall victim to the Courtier’s Reply? I am a sucker.) It hasn’t convinced me so far that matter is somehow conscious, and yet there seem to be a fair number of people who buy into what is essentially a form of religion, since there’s no evidence for panpsychism, its propositions are bizarre, and yet the belief remains fervent. (Some of its adherents, like Goff, also claim that their theory, like religion, vouchsafes us a new form of reassurance and joy.)

And I can’t tell you how many angry and nasty emails and comments I’ve gotten from people who revile me for criticizing panpsychism—all of which convinces me even more that it’s a form of religion. Many of these comments and emails strikingly resemble those I get from religious believers who damn me for going after faith.

And one of the signs of a desperate faith is the claim that belief in your faith is spreading. When you see a statement like the one in the penultimate sentence in this screenshot, you may suspect that you’re dealing with woo (p. 23 from the book). You hear the same kind of claim from Deepak Chopra and from Rupert Sheldrake:

I’m not sure whether I’ll engage further with this form of woo, as it’s like fighting with Ken Ham: panpsychotics are true believers. But I do predict that the idea will die, and in the future people will wonder, “why did they ever entertain such a crazy notion?”

In the meantime, I’m still wondering why people who seem to have a respectable titer of neurons do entertain it. The attraction mystifies me. Why not say that all matter, from electrons and rocks on up, is alive and therefore life (whose origin we still don’t understand) is simply what happens when a combination of “living” inorganic atoms get together in a body? No need to explain the origin of life—it’s already part of everything in the universe!

I’m steeling myself for another onslaught of opprobrium, but I have a fine Bordeaux to drink tonight.

UPDATE:  The termites have already started chewing: here’s a comment that won’t appear:

UPDATE: Readers pointed out that the comment above may actually be a joke about panpsychism. I was too obtuse to see that, so I take back my disapprobation, and have removed the person from moderation. My bad.

But there are lots of other past comments and emails that simply cannot be interpreted charitably at all.

Panpsychism: an interview and a critique

January 17, 2020 • 11:30 am

Yes, we’re gonna have more on panpsychism today, and, after I read Goff’s book (coming via interlibrary loan) I think I’m pretty much done.

I’ve now finished Annaka Harris’s book book Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, and, as I said yesterday, it’s a good read but suffers from her unaccountable penchant for panpsychism, the view that animals like us are conscious because bits of the universe are conscious—not necessarily like us, but in the fact that they have “experiences.”

Harris gives the same two justifications for panpsychism as does Philip Goff in the interview below: there is no way to understand how subjective perception (“qualia”) can arise from purely materialistic phenomena in the brain (this is the “hard problem of consciousness”, and, second, because science cannot tell us what the real intrinsic nature of matter is. Supposedly philosophy can, and that intrinsic nature includes consciousness. How philosophy alone can supply this conclusion baffles me.

But on to Goff, who’s busy flogging his new book on panpsychism Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. As part of his publicity campaign, he has an interview with Gareth Cook in Scientific American, where Goff is a regular columnist. You can see the short interview by clicking on the screenshot below.

First, Goff assures us that panpsychism doesn’t mean that rocks and electrons have the same kind of subjective experience we do. Rather, their consciousness is instantiated this way (my emphasis):

It might be important to clarify what I mean by “consciousness,” as that word is actually quite ambiguous. Some people use it to mean something quite sophisticated, such as self-awareness or the capacity to reflect on one’s own existence. This is something we might be reluctant to ascribe to many nonhuman animals, never mind fundamental particles. But when I use the word consciousness, I simply mean experience: pleasure, pain, visual or auditory experience, et cetera.

But there are two ways to understand “experience”. First, it’s just the things that could happen to an electron: it could go through a slit, travel into outer space, collide with another particle, travel through a wire, and so on. But that’s just a restatement of what an electron does, not what it is. One could also posit that the “experience” had by an electron is something it somehow perceives. But then we’re back to qualia. And if an electron has “pleasure, pain, or visual or auditory experience,” well, that means it does experience subjective sensation. Defining consciousness in that way means that Goff really does think that particles and inanimate objects have a kind of subjective sensation. But he’s a slippery arguer, changing his positions from article to article and refusing to be pinned down.

Then Goff raises the Two Big Arguments for Panpsychism:

1.) The qualitative experience of consciousness cannot be understood by a program of scientific materialism.  I indent Goff’s quotes:

Despite great progress in our scientific understanding of the brain, we still don’t have even the beginnings of an explanation of how complex electrochemical signaling is somehow able to give rise to the inner subjective world of colors, sounds, smells and tastes that each of us knows in our own case. There is a deep mystery in understanding how what we know about ourselves from the inside fits together with what science tells us about matter from the outside.

While the problem is broadly acknowledged, many people think we just need to plug away at our standard methods of investigating the brain, and we’ll eventually crack it. But in my new book, I argue that the problem of consciousness results from the way we designed science at the start of the scientific revolution.

A key moment in the scientific revolution was Galileo’s declaration that mathematics was to be the language of the new science, that the new science was to have a purely quantitative vocabulary. But Galileo realized that you can’t capture consciousness in these terms, as consciousness is an essentially quality-involving phenomenon. Think about the redness of a red experiences or the smell of flowers or the taste of mint. You can’t capture these kinds of qualities in the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science. So Galileo decided that we have to put consciousness outside of the domain of science; after we’d done that, everything else could be captured in mathematics.

This is really important, because although the problem of consciousness is taken seriously, most people assume our conventional scientific approach is capable of solving it. And they think this because they look at the great success of physical science in explaining more and more of our universe and conclude that this ought to give us confidence that physical science alone will one day explain consciousness. However, I believe that this reaction is rooted in a misunderstanding of the history of science. Yes, physical science has been incredibly successful. But it’s been successful precisely because it was designed to exclude consciousness. If Galileo were to time travel to the present day and hear about this problem of explaining consciousness in the terms of physical science, he’d say, “Of course, you can’t do that. I designed physical science to deal with quantities, not qualities.”

Other philosophers disagree, and I think that, first, consciousness doesn’t have to be described in equations; many phenomena, such as evolution, can be understood without many (or any) equations. If you can find a way to detect consciousness—and we are arriving at ways of doing that—then you can study mechanistically how it arises. And when you do that, as Patricia Churchland argued in 2005, you have understood the mechanics and origin of consciousness. It is simply what you get when a certain neuronal pathway is followed. As she argues, you don’t need to experience the results of the experiment personally (consciousness) to study how it arises.  This first argument for panpsychism is simply an argument from ignorance, whose solution is the Particle Consciousness of the Gaps.

2.) Only panpsychism, deduced through pure philosophy, tells us what the intrinsic nature of matter is, and that matter has a form of consciousness. 


 But what philosophers of science have realized is that physical science, for all its richness, is confined to telling us about the behavior of matter, what it does. Physics tells us, for example, that matter has mass and charge. These properties are completely defined in terms of behavior, things like attraction, repulsion, resistance to acceleration. Physics tells us absolutely nothing about what philosophers like to call the intrinsic nature of matter: what matter is, in and of itself.

So it turns out that there is a huge hole in our scientific story. The proposal of the panpsychist is to put consciousness in that hole. Consciousness, for the panpsychist, is the intrinsic nature of matter. There’s just matter, on this view, nothing supernatural or spiritual. But matter can be described from two perspectives. hysical science describes matter “from the outside,” in terms of its behavior. But matter “from the inside”—i.e., in terms of its intrinsic nature—is constituted of forms of consciousness.

The claim that there is an intrinsic nature of matter not accessible to empirical study but to philosophers alone defies belief. It is both obscurantist and infurating. What is that intrinsic nature, given that most physicists don’t think anything is missing from our description of particles, nor that there are “intrinsic” properties of matter in principle inaccessible to science? To Goff, those properties apparently comprise consciousness. But how do we test whether matter, the Universe, or the Big Wave Function are conscious? This is what interviewer Cook asks Goff, and Goff simply gives no answer. Look how he avoids the question:

Do you foresee a scenario in which panpsychism can be tested?

There is a profound difficulty at the heart of the science of consciousness: consciousness is unobservable. You can’t look inside an electron to see whether or not it is conscious. But nor can you look inside someone’s head and see their feelings and experiences. We know that consciousness exists not from observation and experiment but by being conscious. The only way we can find out about the consciousness of others is by asking them: I can’t directly perceive your experience, but I can ask you what you’re feeling. And if I’m a neuroscientist, I can do this while I’m scanning your brain to see which bits light up as you tell me what you’re feeling and experiencing. In this way, scientists are able correlate certain kinds of brain activity with certain kinds of experience. We now know which kinds of brain activity are associated with feelings of hunger, with visual experiences, with pleasure, pain, anxiety, et cetera.

This is really important information, but it’s not itself a theory of consciousness. That’s because what we ultimately want from a science of consciousness is an explanation of those correlations. Why is it that, say, a certain kind of activity in the hypothalamus is associated with the feeling of hunger? Why should that be so? As soon as you start to answer this question, you move beyond what can be, strictly speaking, tested, simply because consciousness is unobservable. We have to turn to philosophy.

The moral of the story is that we need both the science and the philosophy to get a theory of consciousness. The science gives us correlations between brain activity and experience. We then have to work out the best philosophical theory that explains those correlations. In my view, the only theory that holds up to scrutiny is panpsychism.

So Goff evades the question, not telling us how or even whether panpsychism can be tested. Very slippery!

So we have two alternatives: First, like Goff, assert that the problem of consciousness is completely inaccessible to science, and the solution relies on philosophical propositions that are untestable. Alternatively, one could say, “Well, we don’t yet understand how consciousness arises, but we’re going to plug away at the problem with science and hope to answer it. After all, we’ve already made progress.” I don’t know about you, but I find the second program far more promising.

Finally, at Wiring the Brain, genetics/neuroscience professor and writer Kevin Mitchell levels a harsh critique at panpsychism, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot.

You can read Mitchell’s incisive critique for yourself, but I’ll give just one excerpt that, to my mind, reveals the big flaw of panpsychism:

Goff claims (here) that panpsychism “solves the hard problem of consciousness” – the mystery of how mere physical matter can give rise to subjective experience. This would be pretty remarkable, if true, given that is one of the deepest mysteries left for science to even begin to resolve. The “solution”, however, is simply to assert that consciousness is a fundamental property of all matter. There’s no real reason to think that is the case – certainly no evidence that it is. Nothing follows from the assertion. It makes no predictions, testable or otherwise. It doesn’t explain the nature of subjective experience that a rock may be having or how that property comes to be. The hard problem remains just as hard – harder even, as now we have to ask it about electrons and photons too.

Indeed, you can make exactly the same series of arguments with respect to “life” instead of “consciousness”, highlighting the absurdity not just of the claim, but of the logic:

  1. We don’t understand the intrinsic nature of matter.
  2. Some forms of matter are alive.
  3. It is therefore parsimonious to conclude that all forms of matter are a bit alive.

Again, that’s a simple statement, but it’s not a simple theory, because it’s not a theory at all.

If you would counter that “life” is too nebulous a concept for this comparison to be apt, I would argue that though the boundary between living and non-living is fuzzy at certain points, if you think about the boundary between living and dead, that makes it pretty clear that being alive is a real, definable property of some things, under some conditions, and not others.

More broadly, the comparison with life highlights a huge unstated premise – the hidden assumption – that underlies this chain of logic. It is that the properties of organised, complex, dynamic systems derive solely from the properties of their components (or at least may do so). Though Goff refers to the theory as “non-reductive”, I can’t think of anything more reductive than claiming that the most crucial property of what may be the most complex system we know of – the human brain – inheres in its simplest components.

The answer to the mystery of consciousness – and it remains very much a mystery – surely lies in a nonreductive physicalism that recognises that complex, even seemingly miraculous properties (like consciousness, or life itself), can and do emerge from the dynamic interactions of matter when it is organised in certain highly complex ways, not from the bits of matter themselves. In this view, consciousness is a property of a process (or of many interacting processes), not of a substance.

So, after due consideration (maybe more than it is due), I will stick by my assessment, that panpsychism is not even wrong. But I remain willing to be convinced that it is.

I had thought of the life analogy as well, and to some extent it merges with the supposed problems of consciousness because a.) we don’t understand how it evolved, and b.) there is something it is like to be alive. But nobody raises the “hard problem of life” the way they do the “hard problem of consciousness.”

I’m convinced that panpsychism is the Emperor’s New Clothes moment of modern philosophy, for it’s simply an untestable assertion, supported by no evidence at all, that many people are buying into. Fortunately, people like Pigliucci, Mitchell, and especially Churchland, some of whom are philosophers like Goff, are pointing out the follies of panpsychism.

Remember, an assertion that is both untestable and purports to explain everything is not only an unscientific claim, but one that we can ignore. Give us some evidence, panpsychists!

h/t: Harry

Addendum by Greg Mayer:

Brian Leiter, a legal philosopher at the University of Chicago, has also caught wind of the upsurge in panpsychism, and seems to be both amused and appalled. In the first vein, concerning Goff’s article detailed by Jerry above, he wrote yesterday

Panpsychism makes “Scientific American”!

What’s next, intelligent design? (OK, bad joke.)

Today, he asks “Which currently fashionable philosophical view is the most preposterous?“, and is holding a poll among six philosophical views. The candidates include panpsychism, external world skepticism, and libertarian free will. (Jerry will like inclusion of the latter!) Philosopher Michael Strevens, tongue firmly in cheek, suggests to Leiter that “I think that panpsychism is likely to come out looking much better if you let everything vote, not just people,” to which Leiter replies that voting by possible people in possible worlds might affect the result, too.  You can follow the link to Leiter’s site and the poll, and can click to see the results (even if you haven’t voted). Although done in good fun with no expectation of a scientific polling result (as his exchange with Strevens shows), I think Leiter’s original idea was to get his philosopher readers to respond to the poll, so I would advise not voting unless you’re a philosopher. (I didn’t vote.)

A good critique of panpsychism but a lousy alternative

January 14, 2020 • 11:00 am

The article at hand was published by the Institute of Art and Ideas, a British organization that I hadn’t heard of but is described by Wikipedia thusly:

The Institute of Art and Ideas is an arts organisation founded in 2008 in London. Its programming includes the world’s largest philosophy and music festival, HowTheLightGetsIn and the online channel IAI TV, where talks, debates and articles by leading thinkers can be accessed for free, under the slogan “Changing How The World Thinks.”

I then remembered that they invited me to that festival a few years back, but expected me to pay my own way, which I won’t do just to help them fund their endeavors. But I will point to this article on their website by Bernardo Kastrup, identified as a “Dutch computer scientist and philosopher who has published fundamental theoretical reflections on the mind matter problem.” I have to say that if you go to his site, which is the link at his name, you will find a considerable amount of hubris! But amuse yourself later.

Kastrup is quite critical of panpsychism, and for good reasons. But then, near the end of his piece, the whole argument goes south. For Kastrup, while saying that panpsychism can’t help us understand the “hard problem of consciousness”, also claims that materialism can’t solve it either, and we need to posit that the entire universe (or, as Sean Carroll would say, the Big Wave Function) is conscious. And, like panpsychism, that’s crazy and untestable. It’s weird that a philosopher can so deftly dispose of a crazy theory but then fall under the spell of a different crazy theory. But read by clicking on the screenshot:

Kastrup’s beef is with the “combination problem” that I’ve highlighted before: how does the semi-consciousness of elementary particles (people like Philip Goff posit that the spin, charge, mass, and other properties of these particle are aspects of their “consciousness”—a semantic trick) combine to provide the “high level” consciousness of animals such as ourself? So far I haven’t seen a solution to this problem from panpsychists, only a bunch of handwaving.

Kastrup highlights the combination problem in a more physical way, involving the recognition that particles are not discrete, but aspects of the Big Wave function:

You see, I can easily accept that my cats are conscious, perhaps even the bacteria in my toilet. But I have a hard time imagining—especially when I am eating—that a grain of salt contains a whole community of little conscious subjects. The panpsychist’s motivation for wanting even the humble electron to be conscious is to treat experiential states in a way analogous to how physical properties are treated in chemistry. As the physical properties of particles combine in atoms, molecules and aggregates to give rise to emergent macroscopic properties—such as the wetness of water—the panpsychist wants the experiential states of particles in our brain to combine and give rise to our integrated conscious inner life. The idea is to fold experience into the existing framework of scientific reduction and emergence. Therein resides most of the appeal and force of panpsychism.

To do so, the panpsychist takes subatomic particles to be discrete little bodies with defined spatial boundaries. This way, their respective experiential states are thought to be encompassed by such boundaries, just as our human experiences seem to be encompassed by our skull. Indeed, since each person’s consciousness does not float out into the world, but is personal in the sense that it is limited by the boundaries of the person’s body, so subatomic particles must be understood as discrete little bodies, each containing separate and independent subjectivities.

The panpsychist then posits that the inherent subjectivity of different particles can combine into compound subjects if and when the particles touch, bond or otherwise interact with one another in some undefined chemical manner. Notice that this approach makes sense only through analogy with physical properties. The mass of an electron is ‘held’ within the electron’s boundaries, therefore it’s only logical—the argument goes—that its experiential states should also unfold within the same boundaries. Or is it?

The problem is that subatomic particles aren’t discrete little bodies with defined spatial boundaries; the latter is a simplistic and outdated image known to be wrong. According to Quantum Field Theory (QFT)—the most successful theory ever devised, in terms of predictive power—elementary particles are just local patterns of excitation or ‘vibration’ of a spatially unbound quantum field. Each particle is analogous to a ripple on the surface of a lake. We can determine the location of the ripple and characterize it through physical quantities such as the ripple’s height, length, breadth, speed and direction of movement, yet there is nothing to the ripple but the lake. We can’t lift it out of the lake, for the ripple is merely a pattern of movement of the water itself. Analogously, according to QFT, an elementary subatomic particle is just a pattern of excitation or ‘vibration’ of an underlying quantum field. Like the ripple, we can determine the particle’s location and characterize it through physical quantities such as mass, charge, momentum and spin. Yet, there is nothing to the particle but the underlying quantum field. The particle is the field, ‘moving’ in a certain manner.

The only way around this issue, says Kastrup, is to posit that what is really conscious is the field that creates the particle itself. He explains why the panpsychist can’t coherently argue why experiential states belong to particles themselves, but then his argument begins to fall apart. Why? Because Kastrup says that even if the quantitative aspects of particles could combine to produce consciousness, they would produce consciousness only as a quantitative property, but consciousness is a qualitative property—the problem of quality:

. . . deducing quality from quantity is something entirely different. Experiential states are qualities; they cannot be exhaustively described in quantitative terms. No numerical parameter can tell someone with congenital blindness what it feels like to see red; or someone who never fell in love what it feels like to, well, fall in love. Indeed, this is precisely the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’ that plagues mainstream materialism and motivated the creation of panpsychism in the first place. One cannot make an unconscious quantum field give rise to a conscious particle for exactly the same reasons that one cannot make an arrangement of matter give rise to experience.

Dr. Kastrup doesn’t seem to realize that some day I think we’ll be able to stimulate blind people’s brains in the right way and then they will see red! We can already give them a very rudimentary experience of vision. Why is he so sure that the qualia of “red” is beyond scientific understanding?

As I wrote five days ago, on similar bases Patricia Churchland has pretty much knocked down the idea that we can’t understand the origin and mechanism of subjective sensations through a materialist paradigm. I refer you again to her excellent 2005 paper in Progress in Brain Research, “A neurophilosophical slant on consciousness research”,  available free at the link. Churchland thinks, and makes a persuasive case, that just because “qualia” (sensations) are “subjective”, that doesn’t put them beyond the reach of materialist explanation. The whole “consciousness is subjective and thus can’t be understood by a materialistic approach” argument is, it seems, a red herring.

Kastrup deep-sixes the panpsychism explanation, at least in terms of the constituents of the brain having some form of consciousness, but comes a cropper (I love that phrase!) when he tries to replace panpsychism with his own theory. For that theory is simply this: the entire universe—the “quantum field”—is conscious. This, he thinks, avoids the “combination problem.” He doesn’t seem to realize that it raises another problem: testability. Also, he looks a bit foolish when he criticizes materialism, which is the only way we have ever been able to understand the universe. Here’s what he says (I’ve put his definition of a “reduction base” at the bottom):

To circumvent materialism’s failure to explain experience, the panpsychist simply adds experience—with all its countless qualities—to the reduction base. Arguably, this is a copout. Inflated reduction bases don’t really explain anything; they just provide subterfuge for avoiding explanations. A good rule of thumb is that the best theories are those that have the smallest base, and then still manage to explain everything else in terms of it. On this account, panpsychism just isn’t a good theory.

Good alternatives to materialism are those that replace elementary particles with experiential states in their reduction base, as opposed to simply adding elements to it. We call this class of alternatives ‘idealism.’ And then the best formulations of idealism are those that have one single element in their reduction base: universal consciousness itself, a spatially unbound field of subjectivity whose particular patterns of excitation give rise to the myriad qualities of empirical experience. Under such a theory, a unified quantum field is universal consciousness.

There is nothing absurd about this theory; the common impression that there is is just a knee-jerk reaction of our current intellectual habits. As a matter of fact, the theory is arguably the most parsimonious, internally consistent and empirically sound view yet devised. Importantly, as I have extensively discussed elsewhere, idealism—unlike panpsychism—can explain how our private, personal subjectivities arise within universal consciousness. I therefore hope that the momentum gathered by panpsychism in both academia and popular culture is transferred, intact, to this uniquely viable avenue of inquiry, before the inherent shortcomings of panpsychism discourage—as they are bound to eventually do—those seeking an alternative to materialism.

So now we don’t have the combination problem nor the untenable idea that each particle has some unique consciousness or apprehension of the universe. All we need posit is that the entire universe is conscious.  But that nagging little problem remains: “In what sense is it conscious?  Oh, and there’s another issue: “How do we test your theory, Dr. Kastrup?”  For a theory that can be neither tested nor falsified is a theory that can be ignored, for it’s not a scientific or empirical explanation.

Now in the passage above Kastrup links to a big book he wrote, and I’m sure he’d point me to that to show why the Universe’s wave function is conscious. But I’m not reading it—not yet. For all I anticipate there is just another species of gobbledygook, or, as Churchland calls it, “hornswoggling.” If you want to read it, by all means do so and report back here.

I wonder why so many people these days are dissatisfied with materialism and science and are drawn to metaphysics, e.g., Tom Nagel, Tom Wolfe, Philip Goff and now Kastrup. You tell me!  One thing I know: Kastrup is in good company. These are from his website:



How Kastrup defines the “reduction base” of theory (I’d call it the “turtle at the bottom”):

But because we can’t keep on explaining one thing in terms of another forever, at some point we hit rock-bottom. Whatever is then left is considered to be our ‘reduction base’: a set of fundamental or irreducible aspects of nature that cannot themselves be explained, but in terms of which everything else can. Under materialism, the elementary subatomic particles of the standard model—with their intrinsic physical properties—constitute the reduction base.

h/t: Paul

Another panpsychist flogs a dead theory

January 10, 2020 • 9:30 am

Sorry, I’m not yet done with panpsychism. The more I read about this theory, the more I’m puzzled that seemingly rational people accept such a grossly benighted view of consciousness. Seriously! Especially atheists, for panpsychism resembles theology in several ways:

  • There is not a shred of evidence supporting its tenets.
  • It was invented to plug a supposed gap in our empirical knowledge that, it’s said, can never be filled by science or empirical study alone. Theologians still try to promulgate God of the Gaps arguments, while panpsychists tout The Conscious Particles of the Gaps.
  • Panpsychists will accept no criticism of their theory—even the true one that there is no evidence for it. They are enthusiasts, like evangelical Christians, and simply don’t listen.
  • Like theologians, they constantly refer you to other discussions of their theory if you find fault with some of them. It’s always: “Wait! You haven’t read these other five books and papers on our theory. All your objections are answered there.” (They aren’t, of course.) It’s an endless chase down a rabbit hole, like dealing with Edward Feser or Alvin Plantinga.

There are other parallels, but I digress. The last point, involving my post on the hourlong BBC show in which three philosophers (Philip Goff, Hedda Hassel Morch, and Eccy de Jonge) defended panpsychism, is instantiated by a comment made by Morch on this site. Her comment appeared after my BBC post, and here’s what she said (with the link):

A BBC show on panpsychism once again shows that there’s no ‘there’ there

A comment by Hedda Hassel Mørch:

Thanks for sharing your criticisms! I understand the view might not sound plausible to everyone from the short presentation we gave. I wrote about the case for panpsychism in more detail here, which addresses some of your points:

We also didn’t get the chance to talk about the combination problem (the hard problem of panpsychism as you call it). I agree this is a very serious problem for the view, probably the most serious one. However there are arguments to support that it’s not as hard as the original hard problem for physicalism (Philip, I and many others have given such arguments and suggested possible solutions) so I don’t think it’s a knock-down of the view.

So, dutifully, I read Morch’s piece in Nautilus magazine (the site is funded by Templeton, of course, who must eat up panpsychism because of its numinous and woo-ey tinge). And, sadly but predictably, Morch didn’t really answer any of my objections, much less that of the “combination problem”: how particles with no subjective consciousness but with properties defined as consciousness—like electron charge—somehow create a humanlike subjective consciousness when you put enough of them together.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Read the article and then I’ll give my take. In my view, the Nautilus piece simply repeats what we’ve already dealt with in analyzing Philip Goff’s views; there’s nothing new here except, perhaps, her assertion that maybe there is a rudimentary type of subjective experience in particles:

Once again we deal with the same erroneous or untestable contentions. Morch’s views (and quotes from others) are indented. Morch’s main contentions are in bold:

Consciousness is a unique problem that can’t be solved with empirical research. I’m referring here to the “Hard Problem” of consciousness: “How do the workings of a material brain produce the subjective feelings, the ‘qualia’, that are an important part of consciousness. The panpsychist view is that, from the outset, the Hard Problem is not only hard and unsolved, but cannot be solved—except, perhaps, by philosophy alone. (It defies me how an empirical problem can be solved by mere rumination alone, with no predictions, test, or evidence.)

Here’s how Morch frames the supposedly empirically insoluble nature of consciousness:

This problem is distinctively hard because its solution cannot be determined by means of experiment and observation alone. Through increasingly sophisticated experiments and advanced neuroimaging technology, neuroscience is giving us better and better maps of what kinds of conscious experiences depend on what kinds of physical brain states. Neuroscience might also eventually be able to tell us what all of our conscious brain states have in common. . . But in all these theories, the hard problem remains. How and why does a system that integrates information, broadcasts a message, or oscillates at 40 hertz feel pain or delight? The appearance of consciousness from mere physical complexity seems equally mysterious no matter what precise form the complexity takes.

Nor would it seem to help to discover the concrete biochemical, and ultimately physical, details that underlie this complexity. No matter how precisely we could specify the mechanisms underlying, for example, the perception and recognition of tomatoes, we could still ask: Why is this process accompanied by the subjective experience of red, or any experience at all? Why couldn’t we have just the physical process, but no consciousness?

Other natural phenomena, from dark matter to life, as puzzling as they may be, don’t seem nearly as intractable. In principle, we can see that understanding them is fundamentally a matter of gathering more physical detail: building better telescopes and other instruments, designing better experiments, or noticing new laws and patterns in the data we already have. If we were somehow granted knowledge of every physical detail and pattern in the universe, we would not expect these problems to persist. They would dissolve in the same way the problem of heritability dissolved upon the discovery of the physical details of DNA. But the hard problem of consciousness would seem to persist even given knowledge of every imaginable kind of physical detail.

Yesterday I highlighted a paper by neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland showing that intractability does not mean we need a radical new theory. Just because we can’t even conceive of what a solution would look like now doesn’t mean that we should defer to the radical and untestable hypothesis of panpsychism. It could mean only that the problem is hard. (Churchland gave examples of scientific problems that once seemed intractable because we didn’t even know how to approach them. And then the tools arrived!) The supposedly “intractable” problem outlined by Morch, Goff, and others, is taken apart in this 2005 paper by Churchland, which you can get for free by clicking on the screenshot:

Here’s how Churchland disposes of the idea that consciousness will forever be refractory to empirical study simply because it involves subjectivity (we’ll have more on this within a few days):

. . . Pursuing this point further, the philosopher may go on to conclude that no science can ever really explain qualia because it cannot demonstrate what it is like to see blue if you have never seen blue; consciousness is forever beyond the reach of scientific understanding.

What is the merit in this objection? It is lacking merit, for if you look closely, you will find that it rests on a misunderstanding. The argument presumes that if a conscious phenomenon, say smelling mint, were genuinely explained by a scientific theory, then a person who understood that theory should be caused to have that experience; e.g., should be caused to smell mint. Surely, however, the expectation is unwarranted. Why should anyone expect that understanding the theory must result in the production of the phenomenon the theory addresses? Consider an analogy. If a student really understands the nature of pregnancy by learning all there is to know about the causal nature of pregnancy, no one would expect the student to become pregnant thereby. If a student learns and really understands Newton’s laws, we should not expect the student, like Newton’s fabled apple, to thereby fall down.  To smell mint, a certain range of neuronal activities have to obtain, particularly, let us assume, in olfactory cortex. Understanding that the olfactory cortex must be activated in manner will not itself activate the olfactory cortex in manner. We are asking too much of a neuroscientific theory if we ask it not only to explain and predict, but also to cause its target phenomenon, namely the smell of mint, simply by virtue of understanding the theory.

Churchland continues with the argument, so read the rest, but this seems to me to pinpoint the error of the Panpsychic Program. If we can reproduce the phenomenon of an odor, or of conscious awareness, with a theory that is testable, and we understand which neurons are involved, how they fire, and why, then we have understood consciousness. Its subjectivity is not necessarily a problem (Pigliucci calls it an advantage), because we can still report and thus study consciousness. We may not be able to know what it’s like to be another person, but we can study what phenomena are required for consciousness in both us and others who have the ability to report consciousness in some way.

Beyond that problem, there’s another problem that’s scientifically intractable: the intrinsic nature of matter.  


One might wonder how physical particles are, independently of what they do or how they relate to other things. What are physical things like in themselves, or intrinsically? Some have argued that there is nothing more to particles than their relations, but intuition rebels at this claim.

. . .Roughly speaking, Newtonian physics says that matter consists of solid particles that interact either by bumping into each other or by gravitationally attracting each other. But what is the intrinsic nature of the stuff that behaves in this simple and intuitive way? What is the hardware that implements the software of Newton’s equations? One might think the answer is simple: It is implemented by solid particles. But solidity is just the behavior of resisting intrusion and spatial overlap by other particles—that is, another mere relation to other particles and space. The hard problem of matter arises for any structural description of reality no matter how clear and intuitive at the structural level.

Like the hard problem of consciousness, the hard problem of matter cannot be solved by experiment and observation or by gathering more physical detail. This will only reveal more structure, at least as long as physics remains a discipline dedicated to capturing reality in mathematical terms.

This seems to me to be a manufactured problem, and in fact a meaningless problem. What, exactly, does Morch mean by “what physical particles are“? Once you’ve described everything about them that you can, and how they interact with other particles, what remains to be asked? What is the elusive essence of physical particles, the elusive “Ding an sich” that they’re supposed to have?

Well, of course they say the answer is “consciousness”, but that’s not an answer because it explains nothing. They like that answer, though, because if you say that every bit of matter in the universe has consciousness, then you don’t have to posit a scientific explanation for “higher” consciousness beyond what I call The Lego Argument: if you put together a lot of conscious particles, you get even more consciousness. But that problem—the issue of “combination” that I singled out yesterday—isn’t solved, either, for there’s supposedly a qualitative difference between the consciousness of an electron and that of a human being.

But is there?

Goff says “yes”: that the consciousness of electrons is not like human self-awareness with qualia. Rather, it consists of their unique properties: their spin, their charge, their mass, and so on. But here he’s just renaming observable properties as aspects of “consciousness,” which not only kicks the entire problem of panpsychism out the window, but also trashes the problem of finding an “intrinsic nature” of particles that eludes science. If “spin” and “charge” are part of that intrinsic nature, then it’s not only not eluded science, but we already understand the particles!

And here is one aspect in which Morch diverges from Goff:

Particles do have a rudimentary consciousness that’s not encapsulated in their observable characteristics. That is, they are wee “thinkers.”

It’s hard to tell what these people believe, for their arguments are slippery, but Morch says this:

 Some simple, elementary forms of experiences implement the relations that make up fundamental particles. Take an electron, for example. What an electron does is to attract, repel, and otherwise relate to other entities in accordance with fundamental physical equations. What performs this behavior, we might think, is simply a stream of tiny electron experiences. Electrons and other particles can be thought of as mental beings with physical powers; as streams of experience in physical relations to other streams of experience.

But in what sense can electrons be thought of as “mental beings”? Morch doesn’t tell us. Nor do we learn what kinds of “experience” they have, for it must be a kind of experience that stays with an electron over time, just like consciousness stays with us over time. But that’s not how electrons are!

Ergo, neither Goff nor Morch have solved the two problems they’ve set for themselves.

What remains is the “combination problem”—the one that, in her comment above, Morch characterizes as tractable and one to which she and Goff give solutions. How, exactly, do electrons without a real consciousness get together to produce brains with full consciousness? That problem is not automatically solved by the central tenet of panpsychism. And, at least in this piece, Morch doesn’t give an answer, either. Here’s all that she says:

A second important objection is the so-called combination problem. How and why does the complex, unified consciousness of our brains result from putting together particles with simple consciousness? This question looks suspiciously similar to the original hard problem. I and other defenders of panpsychism have argued that the combination problem is nevertheless not as hard as the original hard problem. In some ways, it is easier to see how to get one form of conscious matter (such as a conscious brain) from another form of conscious matter (such as a set of conscious particles) than how to get conscious matter from non-conscious matter. But many find this unconvincing. Perhaps it is just a matter of time, though. The original hard problem, in one form or another, has been pondered by philosophers for centuries. The combination problem has received much less attention, which gives more hope for a yet undiscovered solution.

If you can find a solution to the “combination problem” in there, you’re a better person than I. All she says is that it’s easier to get a conscious brain from conscious particles (but how?) than from non-conscious particles. In the meantime, I’ll continue my search for the solution, which means that you will be afflicted as well.

And then the final sell job:

The possibility that consciousness is the real concrete stuff of reality, the fundamental hardware that implements the software of our physical theories, is a radical idea. It completely inverts our ordinary picture of reality in a way that can be difficult to fully grasp. But it may solve two of the hardest problems in science and philosophy at once.

I’m not buying. If panpsychism were an Amazon product, I’d give it just a single star.


Pigliucci on panpsychism and Churchland on “intractable problems”

January 9, 2020 • 12:00 pm

I’ve had several public disagreements with Massimo Pigliucci (I believe he considers me a philosopher manqué), but I’m not so set in my ways that I can’t give him kudos when he writes a good paper or has some good ideas. And his new piece on Medium, which is largely a critique of panpsychism, is good. Pigliucci is almost uniquely qualified to critique panpsychism—at least in terms of his street cred—since he’s a working philosopher who used to be a working biologist. He also sees through bullshit easily but calls it out politely, though in the present article he can’t quite contain his distaste at the end!

I guess the new piece on panpsychism stems from his continuing published dialogue with Philip Goff, whom Pigliucci calls “one of the leading supporters of the idea.” (That’s true.) I haven’t yet read the dialogue, but I give a link below. In the meantime, below is an essay in which Massimo incisively critiques panpsychism. Some of his points we’ve dealt with before, but it’s good to see them in one place, and he makes some new points, as well as situating panpsychism within the history of philosophy.

Massimo’s critique makes two main points. The first is that the “hard problem of consciousness” (how it mechanistically arises from our brain) only looks hard because it’s early days and we aren’t yet close to a solution. His response, which is echoed by Patricia Churchland in the older article below, is that the “hard problem” is composed of several “easier problems” that we’re solving right now, and when those are done we will either understand the origin of consciousness or have a better idea of how to attain that understanding. He, like Churchland (and like me) sees nothing uniquely intractable about “the Hard Problem”. To wit:

First, Massimo quotes philosopher David Chalmers, and then rebuts him (Chalmers’s words in italics):

 “. . . . .It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”

No, it doesn’t seem “objectively” unreasonable at all. It depends on one’s own metaphysical assumptions (more on this later). Now, if there is a hard problem of consciousness, surely there are “easy” problems. Sure enough, Chalmers gives us a list:

The ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
The integration of information by a cognitive system;
The reportability of mental states;
The ability of a (brain) system to access its own internal states;
The focus of attention;
The deliberate control of behavior;
The difference between wakefulness and sleep.

I have suggested elsewhere that the problem Chalmers is so concerned with is based on a category mistake, and that it dissolves into a number of sub-problems, all of which he refers to as “easy.” Once (if, really, since there is no guarantee in science!) neuroscience and evolutionary biology will have answered the easy problems of consciousness, there won’t be a hard problem left, above and beyond the easy ones.

Pigliucci then deals with the “Mary’s room” argument for the irreducibility of consciousness (you can read that for yourself), and then dismantles Goff’s view that the very properties of inanimate matter like particles comprise their “consciousness”.  He argues further against the irreducibility of the Hard Problem and supports the view that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, and considers panpsychism a form of “property dualism” in which matter arranged in a certain way aquires brand-new properties (“higher” consciousness):

All sorts of new physical properties “emerge” when matter is organized one way or another. For instance, the wetness of water does not exist at the level of individual molecules of H2O. It emerges only when there is a large number of such molecules, and when they interact with each other within certain ranges of pressure and temperature.

What makes property dualism a kind of dualism is the further stipulation that consciousness is ontologically irreducible to neurobiology and physics. But why? If we simply stipulate this, we are engaging in a massive instance of begging the question. If, instead, we are invoking irreducibility just on the ground that science hasn’t arrived at it yet, then we are making an argument from ignorance. Either way, things don’t look good for dualism.

After dealing with these higher-level issues of whether or not a problem is tractable, Massimo gets back to panpsychism. And he makes his second point—that the idea is incoherent—using Goff’s own characterization of what “consciousness” means when it’s applied to particles. Here’s an excerpt, with Goff’s statements again italicized, while Massimo’s response is in plain text (emphases mine):

“I think Hossenfelder misunderstands the view she’s attacking. When one first hears about panpsychism, one thinks it’s the view that in addition to its physical properties — mass, charge, spin — a particle also has non-physical consciousness properties. That kind of panpsychism would lead to the kind of problems Hossenfelder points to, because we’d want to know what the consciousness properties of particles are doing over and above their physical properties. But Russellian panpsychism is very different: the view is that mass, charge and spin are forms of consciousness. If that makes sense (which we’re currently assuming), i.e. if micro-level forms of consciousness are identical with the properties invoked in the standard model, then clearly it’s mistaken to wonder what these forms of consciousness do over and above the properties of the standard model (because this implies that they’re distinct, when ex hypothesi they are identical).”

Goff is seriously mistaken here. First off, Hossenfelder is most definitely not assuming that consciousness is a non-physical property. If it were, she wouldn’t expect it to show up in physical experiments.

Second, I simply don’t know what it means to say that “mass, charge and spin are forms of consciousness.” Notice that Goff says that this is assumed ex hypothesi, that is, a priori. Problem is: this assumption is precisely what is under scrutiny, so one cannot take it as foundational. Are there any empirical reasons to think it holds? No, by definition. Are there any philosophical arguments to support it? Well, Philip continues:

“But how on earth could mass, charge and spin be identical with forms of consciousness? … You seem to suggest that the postulation of intrinsic natures is incoherent if particles are elementary. I’m happy to accept that quarks and electrons are fundamental, but we still need to ask about the nature of their properties. In my view, physics tells us what mass, charge and spin do (or more precisely the behavioral dispositions they endow to their bearers) but does not tell us what they are. Hence, it is coherent for the panpsychist to suppose that they are forms of consciousness.”

No, it isn’t. For a number of reasons. First, the panpsychist has to come up with a good argument for why there should be anything to say about electrons, quarks, etc. above and beyond their physical properties. The search for essences — which is what Goff is talking about — should have ended sometime during the Middle Ages, with the demise of the Scholastics. Second, even if we entertain the possibility that particles have essences, then we need to be told what such essences would look like, and how we could discover them. Last, but not least, the panpsychist would still have to come up with a positive reason for why the essence of particles is consciousness. Oh, and after all of that, we still wouldn’t know why human beings have first person experiences and rocks don’t. Or do they?

Like Massimo, I’m perplexed, because when you ask Goff to tell us in what sense electrons are “conscious”, he just redefines their properties—spin, mass, charge, and so on—as consciousness. But if you pull that trick, then explaining human consciousness just becomes a purely physical problem, given Goff’s addendum that when you bundle enough conscious atoms and molecules and neurons together, you get a human brain. In other words, why isn’t consciousness then an epiphenomenon of the collection of molecules that make up the brain?

Further, Goff seems to think there is some “intrinsic nature” of matter that isn’t given by its behavior and observable properties. But to a physicist, the described properties of an electron completely characterize an electron for any purpose that we want. And if you call those properties “consciousness” and say that when there are enough conscious particles in a lump you get “higher” humanlike consciousness, then you’re saying nothing beyond describing what neuroscientists are already trying to do. There are no essences beyond what we can observe. Or, if there are, Goff can’t tell us what they are, though he strains mightily to do so.

In the end, Massimo accuses Goff of practicing a form of metaphysics, or “first philosophy” of the brand emitted by Decartes. Finally, patience exhausted, Massimo sticks in the knife. But he’s right to perform that act of intellectual evisceration, because he’s already refuted panpsychism but the proponents persist:

The problem is that Goff not only is going back to first philosophy, he actually thinks that it can provide the underpinnings of a whole new science! His book is tellingly entitled Galileo’s Error. Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. But Galileo did not make the error Philip is charging him with. And there is no such thing as a science based on statements that are entirely empirically untestable. The error isn’t Galileo’s, is that of some modern philosophers who insist in creating problems that don’t exist, and then spend a lot of time “solving” them in a way that rolls human understanding back four centuries.

Perhaps another piece of advice from Wittgenstein comes handy here: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” (Tractatus, 7)


Patricia Churchland is a prominant “neurophilosopher” who wrote a paper in 1996 about whether the Hard Problem was in principle permanently intractable to normal scientific investigation. Back then she didn’t deal with panpsychism, though she does now—and finds it pretty ludicrous. And she’s been slugging it out with Goff on Twitter (go see for yourself). To wit:

Anyway, Churchland’s 1996 paper on hornswaggling is largely about her view that the Hard Problem, while hard, isn’t in principle intractable, and doesn’t call for new methods of inquiry. Like Massimo, she writes about Mary’s room problem,  and the breaking down of the higher problem into more tractable sub-problems which, when solved, might give us the key to the mechanism of consciousness. You can get the paper for free by clicking on the title below:

I’ll give just one quote from Churchland:

The point is this: if you want to contrast being able to imagine brain mechanisms for attention, short term memory, planning etc., with being unable to imagine mechanisms for consciousness, you have to do more that say you can imagine neurons doing one but cannot imagine neurons doing the other. Otherwise one simply begs the question.

To fill out the point, consider several telling examples from the history of science. . .

. . . Consider now a biological example. Before 1953, many people believed, on rather good grounds actually, that in order to address the copying problem (transmission of traits from parents to offspring), you would first have to solve the problem of how proteins fold. The former was deemed a much harder problem than the latter, and many scientists believed it was foolhardy to attack the copying problem directly. As we all know now, the basic answer to the copying problem lay in the base-pairing of DNA, and it was solved first. Humbling it is to realize that the problem of protein folding (secondary and tertiary) is still not solved. That, given the lot we now know, does seem to be a hard problem.

What is the point of these stories? They reinforce the message of the argument from ignorance: from the vantage point of ignorance, it is often very difficult to tell which problem is harder, which will fall first, what problem will turn out to be more tractable than some other. Consequently our judgments about relative difficulty or ultimate tractability should be appropriately qualified and tentative. Guesswork has a useful place, of course, but let’s distinguish between blind guesswork and educated guesswork, and between guesswork and confirmed fact. The philosophical lesson I learned from my biology teacher is this: when not much is known about a topic, doní’t take terribly seriously someone else’s heartfelt conviction about what problems are scientifically tractable. Learn the science, do the science, and see what happens.

Finally, I’ve put a link below (click on screenshot) to the exchange between Goff and Pigliucci. I’ll read it ASAP, but give it here for your delectation.

I realize I’m posting more about panpsychism than I intended, but it’s because I keep looking for a more tangible explanation of how the properties of inanimate matter are supposed to comprise “consciousness” in a way different from how physicists have described those properties via materialism. And I keep looking for a mechanism whereby molecules that have only rudimentary components of consciousness, like spin and charge, are supposed to get together and produce human consciousness in a way that differs from my own view that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of neuronal organization that has reached a certain level of complexity.

I have found no answers, and am concluding that, with panpsychism, there is no “there” there. It seems to be a hornswoggle—an intellectual equivalent of the shell-and-pea game. (“Nope. Consciousness is over there—under that shell!”) And yet serious people take the view seriously. It’s baffling. Are they falling for a “panpsychism of the gaps” argument?