Well, Scientific American has published an article that, while on a subject of questionable interest, is at least neither woke nor wrong. The topic is panpsychism, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines this way:
Panpsychism is the view that mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world. The view has a long and venerable history in philosophical traditions of both East and West, and has recently enjoyed a revival in analytic philosophy.
The old and new forms of panpsychism were advanced because of our present failure to completely understand where consciousness comes from. Thus panpsychism offers an easy way out: we’re conscious because everything is conscious. That, of course, doesn’t solve the “hard problem” of how a brain-carrying organism can be conscious. Our failure to completely understand where consciousness comes from, say the panpsychics, is because we’re working on the wrong level: we just need to show that all bits of the universe are inherently conscious. Problem solved!
No, not solved!
First, a failure to understand something doesn’t mean that we’re taking the wrong approach; it could just mean that the problem is a difficult one. We don’t know where and how the first self-replicating organism evolved, but we don’t say that every bit of the universe has a form of replication, and thus the problem is solved.
In the “revival” forms of panpsychism (about which I’ve written many posts), promulgated most vociferously by Philip Goff, the claim is that every bit of the universe has some form of consciousness, however rudimentary. This includes particles like electrons. (They never specify the form of consciousness enjoyed by, say, electrons.) When the particles, though evolution, are assembled into a creature like a human, this assembly somehow makes the entire creature “conscious” in the way we think of (go here for a discussion of what consciousness is; I’m just referring to the common construal: self-awareness and the ability to perceive sensations).
But there has been no progress in understanding whether panpsychism could be true since it was proposed a long time ago, and that’s for several reasons:
- We know no way of demonstrating that inanimate objects, like rocks and neutrons, have some form of consciousness.
- We know no way of showing that the combination of rudimentary consciousnesses, as in the constituent particle of our brain, will somehow, when assembled in an organism, make it conscious. This is called the “combination problem.”
- As far as we know, consciousness requires a complex nervous system in a living organism, which isn’t present in inanimate constituents of the universe or in dead individuals.
- We are making progress in the conventional view of consciousness, e.g, it’s either a byproduct of having a sufficiently complex nervous system or an evolved condition in which the brain was selected to create the phenomenon. (In both cases it’s a material phenomenon connected with how neurons are arranged.) We can change consciousness with brain stimulation, use psychological tricks to fool people into thinking they’re doing something consciously when they’re not, or vice versa, and we can take away or restore consciousness with drugs (e.g., anesthesia).
It’s because of these issues that panpsychism has made no scientific progress while the “materialistic” view of consciousness, the one that doesn’t assume that particles themselves are conscious, has made progress. Panpsychism, in my view, is promulgated by philosophical grifters, who crave the attention they get from propounding novel and counterintuitive theories. And surely on some level they must realize that there’s no way to go any further with their scientific program. They keep singing the same old tune without adding any words, i.e., evidence.
At any rate, the Sci Am piece below, by science journalist Dan Falk, gives an account of the arguments in favor of and against panpsychism made at a recent meeting at Marist College, a college founded as a Catholic school (but now denying any religious affiliation) in Poughkeepsie, New York. The meeting was organized by panpsychist proselytizer Philip Goff, who found it all too easy to get funding from the John Templeton Foundation, which loves stuff like panpsychism because it’s anti-materialistic and conjures up the numinous (“an electron is conscious?. Weird!”)
Goff, of the University of Durham in England, organized the recent event along with Marist philosopher Andrei Buckareff, [JAC: he seems to be a philosopher of religion as well as religious] and it was funded through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. In a small lecture hall with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hudson River, roughly two dozen scholars probed the possibility that perhaps it’s consciousness all the way down.
You can read the article for free, though if you know about panpsychism, you don’t need to. But if you don’t know about it, it gives a good summary of the arguments against it (there are no arguments for it except its claim that everything is conscious). As usual, physicist Sean Carroll injects some sense into the discussion; he also had a big debate with Goff, as he has several times before (see below):
The crazy part of this all is that a lot of philosophers accept panpsychism, despite its numerous problems and scientific intractability. From the article (my emphasis):
Yet panpsychism runs counter to the majority view in both the physical sciences and in philosophy that treats consciousness as an emergent phenomenon, something that arises in certain complex systems, such as human brains. In this view, individual neurons are not conscious, but thanks to the collective properties of some 86 billion neurons and their interactions—which, admittedly, are still only poorly understood—brains (along with bodies, perhaps) are conscious. Surveys suggest that slightly more than half of academic philosophers hold this view, known as “physicalism” or “emergentism,” whereas about one third reject physicalism and lean toward some alternative, of which panpsychism is one of several possibilities.
How can philosophers fall for a panpsychic grift? I suppose it’s because they don’t really understand science, want to do down science (yes, some philosophers have that motivation), or apprehend the value of evidence in supporting or weakening a theory. Here’s more (my bolding):
Many philosophers at the meeting appeared to share Goff’s concern that physicalism falters when it comes to consciousness. “If you know every last detail about my brain processes, you still wouldn’t know what it’s like to be me,” says Hedda Hassel Mørch, a philosopher at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences. “There is a clear explanatory gap between the physical and the mental.” Consider, for example, the difficulty of trying to describe color to someone who has only seen the world in black and white. Yanssel Garcia, a philosopher at the University of Nebraska Omaha, believes that physical facts alone are inadequate for such a task. “There is nothing of a physical sort that you could provide [a person who sees only in shades of gray] in order to have them understand what color experience is like; [they] would need to experience it themselves,” he says. “Physical science is, in principle, incapable of telling us the complete story.” Of the various alternatives that have been put forward, he says that “panpsychism is our best bet.”
First of all, those philosophers seem to be ignorant about how real scientists (as opposed to philosophers) are attacking the problem of consciousness and understanding its physical basis. More important, I think Goff would (and believe has) said that panpsychism is a physicalist theory. We just don’t know, physically, how the consciousness of electrons works. If it’s not physicalist, then it’s supernatural. But if you claim it’s an inherent property of matter, that’s a physicalist assertion, for one then needs to show how it’s an inherent property of matter. If you can’t, find another line of work.
Here’s some critique of the theory from the article (there’s no evidence offered in support of the theory except that it sounds good):
But panpsychism attracts many critics as well. Some point out that it doesn’t explain how small bits of consciousness come together to form more substantive conscious entities. Detractors say that this puzzle, known as the “combination problem,” amounts to panpsychism’s own version of the hard problem. The combination problem “is the serious challenge for the panpsychist position,” Goff admits. “And it’s where most of our energies are going.”
Others question panpsychism’s explanatory power. In his 2021 book Being You, neuroscientist Anil Seth wrote that the main problems with panpsychism are that “it doesn’t really explain anything and that it doesn’t lead to testable hypotheses. It’s an easy get-out to the apparent mystery posed by the hard problem.”
. . . During a well-attended public debate between Goff and Carroll, the divergence of their worldviews quickly became apparent. Goff said that physicalism has led “precisely nowhere,” and suggested that the very idea of trying to explain consciousness in physical terms was incoherent. Carroll argued that physicalism is actually doing quite well and that although consciousness is one of many phenomena that can’t be inferred from the goings-on at the microscopic level, it is nonetheless a real, emergent feature of the macroscopic world. He offered the physics of gases as a parallel example. At the micro level, one talks of atoms, molecules and forces; at the macro level, one speaks of pressure, volume and temperature. These are two kinds of explanations, depending on the “level” being studied—but present no great mystery and are not a failure on the part of physics.
Bringing up the gas laws was a smart thing to do, showing emergent physical properties that do not demonstrate a failure of physicalism. The gas laws may not be predictable from the laws of physics, but are consistent with the laws of physics. One more critique:
Seth, the neuroscientist, was not at the workshop—but I asked him where he stands in the debate over physicalism and its various alternatives. Physicalism, he says, still offers more “empirical grip” than its competitors—and he laments what he sees as excessive hand-wringing over its alleged failures, including the supposed hardness of the hard problem. “Critiquing physicalism on the basis that it has ‘failed’ is willful mischaracterization,” he says. “It’s doing just fine, as progress in consciousness science readily attests.” In a recently published article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Seth adds: “Asserting that consciousness is fundamental and ubiquitous does nothing to shed light on the way an experience of blueness is the way it is, and not some other way. Nor does it explain anything about the possible functions of consciousness, nor why consciousness is lost in states such as dreamless sleep, general anaesthesia, and coma.”
It’s clear that I think panpsychism is a big philosophical grift, and although I could be more charitable, I get angry when a philosophical equivalent of creationism, which is what panpsychism is, gets popular. Perhaps Goff and his colleagues really believe it, but unless they’re thick-headed they surely realize that there is no evidence in its favor and they haven’t offered a solution to the most crucial part of their theory: the combination problem. I predict with some confidence that panpsychism will go nowhere. As the Encyclopedia notes, the theory has a “long and venerable history”. I’d disagree with the “venerable” part, but the fact that its history is long, but yet no progress has been made in documenting or understanding it, shows that it’s an intellectual dead end.
Here’s a three-year old video, which I believe I put up before, giving an audio debate between Carroll and Goff. There’s no doubt that the physicist is the winner; Goff comes out licking his wounds.
When I first read the Sci Am piece, I had the following email conversation with Matthew, also a critic of panpsychism:
Me: Why not a symposium on flat-earthism?
Matthew: I bet Templeton funded it. Good guess. I mean, it’s right up their street. Imagine the real good they could do with all their dosh if they funded sensible things!
I hadn’t read the article when I had this exchange, but, sure enough, Matthew was right: the sticky fingers of Templeton are all over this symposium. To wit:
But I’ve had some second thoughts about Sci Am publishing this article, and don’t oppose it now. Panpsychism is not precisely equivalent to “flat earthism”, but only because a lot of people still believe in panpsychism, and if you pay attention to intellectual currents you’ll have heard about it. In my view, though panpsychism is nearly as scientifically worthless as flat earth theory or the “Loch Ness Monster” hypothesis, the public needs a place to understand what panpsychism is. Author Falk fills that bill, also showing (necessarily) panpsychism’s profound weaknesses. In that sense, Falk has done a good job, and I can’t fault Scientific American for publishing his piece.