Sean Carroll vs. Philip Goff on panpsychism

January 7, 2020 • 10:30 am

Since we’ve been talking about panpsychism lately—that’s the theory that the entire Universe and its constituents are in some way conscious—I thought I’d post a podcast in which two opposing academics hash out the issues.

I’ll be posting a bit more about panpsychism in the weeks to come as I read and learn more about it, but the more I learn, the more I see it as a form of either woo or religion. Its advocates don’t seem to define what it means for matter (like an electron) to be “conscious”, and they admit that there’s no way to test their theory. But they see it as a superior alternative to dualism (i.e., the view that there is material “brain stuff” and nonmaterial “mind/consciousness stuff”) and also to materialism (consciousness is an epiphenomenon of a brain that reaches a certain level of complexity) as way of explaining human consciousness. If the constituents of the brain—and all matter—have some kind of consciousness or some component of consciousness, they argue, then consciousness is inherent in our brain, just as it is in a rock or, as Patricia Churchland put it, in a dust bunny. Ergo, problem solved—or so they think.

I see panpsychism as a cult or a religion: an untestable proposition that adds no explanatory value to neuroscience or non-wooey philosophical approaches to consciousness. And, like religion, its advocates won’t admit of any evidence against their theory (i.e., the many palpable connections between the brain and consciousness), but maintain their hypothesis with no supporting evidence. It’s just consciousness all the way down. And they can maintain it to those who don’t think too hard because there can be no evidence against it—not until they tell us what consciousness means for a rock or an atom.  As philosopher/panpsychism booster Philip Goff says:

I agree that panpsychism cannot be directly tested. But neither can materialism or dualism or any other theory of consciousness.

He’s wrong. We’re already making progress on understanding what neurology requires for consciousness, and how to alter its presence or nature.

Except for free will, I’ve never received as much pushback against what I see as a reasonable, science-based stand as I have for my opposition to panpsychism. I get emails, ticked-off posts by philosopher/panpsychism booster Philip Goff on his website, and even arguments by some readers who favor panpsychism.

Goff himself, in the podcast below, repeatedly states that he’s “heartened” by the increasing (but still minority) view among philosophers that panpsychism is the way to go in explaining consciousness. And others, like physicist Lee Smolin, authors Annaka Harris and Philip Pullman, and philosopher Stephen Law, have endorsed Goff’s new trade book, though this doesn’t mean they all endorse panpsychism. Goff’s claim, in the podcast below and elsewhere, that other philosophers agree with him doesn’t move me, for the number of people who adhere to a falsehood doesn’t increase its truth value.

But on to the podcast: Sean Carroll’s “Mindscape” that you can access by clicking on the screenshot below.  Sean, of course, is a physicist, cosmologist, and author, who knows a lot about philosophy. Debating him is Philip Goff, a philosopher at Durham University and perhaps the most vociferous advocate of panpsychism (he has a new book about it).  Sean states from the outset that he doesn’t accept panpsychism, and that materialism (his view of the world) is perfectly capable of explaining consciousness, though it’s a hard problem and will take a long time to understand.

The podcast is 94 minutes long, and I’ve listened to all of it. I won’t summarize it in detail, but if you want to listen to just the heart of the argument, start at about 1:11:00—71 minutes in.

A brief view of the controversy. Goff avers that materialism won’t help us understand consciousness because all it produces are correlations between brain activity and conscious experience. That, he says, is useless because it doesn’t enable us to get at the heart of consciousness: subjective experience or “qualia”. As he says, “How can you capture in an equation the spiciness of paprika?” (Understanding consciousness won’t necessarily require equations, though.)

In the other corner, on the side of materialism, Sean Carroll, is puzzled at what all the fuss is about. Once he understands how the laws of physics work, he says, we will understand how consciousness arises. (That’s not good enough for Goff, as he says that that “correlational” approach doesn’t tell us what consciousness is, just like Goff says that a definition of mass in physics doesn’t tell us what mass really is.).  Carroll finds this puzzling, since if he has a comprehensive system of understanding how something comes to be, including the real phenomenon of consciousness, then that’s all there is.

(I am summarizing based on one hearing here, and urge you to at least start listening for yourself, at least to the last half hour.)

Carroll’s general response to panpsychism begins about 37 minutes in. In response to Goff’s statement that we need to know what consciousness really is,  Carroll answers he doesn’t really care about the “intrinsic nature of subjective experience”. If you have consciousness and know how it’s produced from neurons and the brain, that’s all there is to know.

As I said, the heart of the disagreement starts about 71 minutes in, when Goff argues that yes, everything is conscious: even the mass, spin, and charge of physical particles like electrons are forms of consciousness: a “limited form of conscious experience.” But that’s about as far as he goes in defining consciousness of inanimate objects. When Carroll asks him if he means that everything is conscious, because everything has physical properties, and whether the the Universe’s wave function is also conscious (Sean talks about that wave function his latest book Something Deeply Hidden), Goff gives a reluctant “yes”. Goff also declares that panpsychism is completely congruent with what physics tell us about the Universe.  Carroll then asks him what panpsychism adds to our understanding of the Universe, and—at least to me—Goff doesn’t produce a coherent answer.

At the end, we see one of Goff’s beefs with materialism when he says that materialism produces a bleak view of life. Instead, says Goff, knowing that “we’re conscious creatures in a conscious Universe” can make us feel better about ourself. It also, he says, will enable us to treat the environment better, for when we realize that plants are conscious, too, we won’t destroy them. (But should we eat them?). But, say I, rocks are conscious as well: does that mean we shouldn’t dig up rocks or pulverize them? Should we split atoms if they are conscious? Is a plant more conscious than a rock?

I am completely with Sean here, as we are both materialists (or “naturalists”, if you will), and I see no explanatory value of panpsychism. But those of you who still adhere to panpsychism might be surprised, as I was, at how poorly the advocates of that theory defend it. It’s not even philosophy, as there doesn’t seem to be much rationality about it.

But click and listen.