Panpsychism

Panpsychism

I recently read Philip Goff’s delightful little manifesto for panpsychism, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. Goff wrote this work for the non-specialist and admirably condenses the key debates in the analytic philosophy of mind to their essentials. He does this to explain and motivate an emerging position which would have been viewed as insane not long ago, the view that consciousness is a ubiquitous feature of the natural world.

To understand the panpsychist position, consider the case of perceiving a blue flower. It is relatively uncontroversial in our culture to maintain that, in perceiving a blue flower, I (or my brain) undergoes an experience with a particular qualitative character. I may see something blue, smell something sweet, touch something soft, and group them all together cognitively under the concept of flower. When seeing the flower, I am in a state that is both subjective (constituting a unique point of view on the world) and qualitative (instancing phenomenal or “what-it’s-like” properties). Panpsychism agrees that we have such conscious states, but disagrees that they should be confined to human subjects (or to their brains). Instead, for the panpsychist consciousness pervades all levels of reality. Not only do I experience the flower, but the flower also in some sense experiences me (as do the particles that compose it). This claim will most likely strike one as bizarre, if not ridiculous. Goff’s book is an attempt to make this initially crazy sounding claim a bit more plausible.

Goff argues that panpsychist position seems ludicrous to us because of the conception of natural science we have inherited from Galileo. Galileo invented our modern scientific world picture when he asserted that mathematics should be the language of science. According to Galileo:

Natural science “is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.”[1]

Goff points out that previous thinkers had resisted this idea, since (1) the natural world appears to contain qualitative features, and (2) these qualitative features do not appear to be capturable within the quantitative language of mathematics. Mathematics by itself thus could not suffice to provide a full description of the natural world, a world that includes both quantity and quality.[2] Galileo’s response was to simply redefine the natural world as that which is capable of mathematical description (i.e. a world containing objects characterized solely by their shape, size, location, and motion), and to evict the qualitative features of experience into a different realm, the realm of the soul. In this manner, Galileo created modern problem of consciousness.

This problem of consciousness has generated what Goff takes to be two unsatisfactory accounts of the mind: dualism and materialism. Goff suspects that dualists can overcome the traditional problem of interaction[3] by appealing to the resources of quantum mechanics.[4] Nonetheless, he believes that dualism violates the principle of parsimony. This principle, also known as Ockham’s razor, stipulates that if two theories have equal explanatory power, then the theory that posits the fewest kinds of entities should be preferred.[5] Goff thinks that by positing the immaterial mind as another kind of entity, dualism suffers a disadvantage in comparison to simpler monistic theories. If neuroscience can explain the causes of a particular brain state in purely material terms, then it would be superfluous to posit the soul as an additional cause of that state.[6] Goff then argues that materialism, on the other hand, suffers from being conceptually incoherent in claiming that the subjective and qualitative can be reduced to the objective and quantitative.[7] We are thus left with two bad options in attempting to account for consciousness.

Goff believes that this impasse can be avoided by rejecting Galileo’s definition of the natural world and adopting panpsychism. Panpsychism can retain the advantages of the traditional positions while also avoiding their disadvantages. Like dualism, it can accept the reality of conscious experience, but, unlike dualism, it does not posit a different kind of substance. Because the panpsychist refrains from positing a different kind of entity than those posited by natural science, the panpsychist does not fall afoul of the parsimony requirement. Likewise, by including consciousness within our definition of physical reality, the panpsychist can avoid the logical contradictions generated by materialism. Thus, what initially seemed like an insane proposal, viz. that all of reality is permeated by consciousness, ends up in a theoretically advantageous position when compared to its rivals. Panpsychism may be a crazy position, but it’s substantially less crazy than any of the other options.

Goff goes on to provide a second argument for panpsychism, the simplicity argument. He begins by observing that, contrary to popular opinion, physics tells us nothing about the intrinsic natures of the entities quantified over in its theories. Goff explains:

“The subject matter of physics is the basic properties of the physical world: mass, charge, spin, distance, force. But the equations of physics do not explain what these properties are. They simply name them in order to tell us about the relationships that obtain between them…. [Internal to physics] there is nothing beyond the equations, and hence no resource with which to define what ‘mass,’ ‘charge,’ etc., are. Mathematical physics simply does not have the resources to tell us what the basic features of the physical world are.”[8]

Instead, physics provides us with a set of laws that map out the causal relations between entities. These laws prove extremely useful in predicting how objects will behave in the natural world, but they tell us nothing about the intrinsic natures of those objects. “Physics confines itself to telling us only what an electron does”, not what an electron is. “Yet intuitively there must be more to what an electron is than what it does.”[9]

By failing to account for the intrinsic natures of things, natural science leaves a massive and fundamental gap in our knowledge of physical reality. Goff observes:

“This takes a while to absorb. We are used to thinking that physical science is telling us about the ‘stuff’ of the world. When we learn that water is H20, or that heat is molecular motion, we are inclined to think that we are discovering the real nature of water and heat. This is partly because chemistry characterizes these phenomena by identifying their atomic components, and so we feel we are learning something when we come to know that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. It is only when we get down to the physical explanation of what ‘hydrogen’ or ‘oxygen’ are that we discover (i) that chemistry characterizes hydrogen and oxygen entirely in terms of their physical components, but also (ii) that physics tells us absolutely nothing about the intrinsic nature of those components. There is a very real sense in which we have no idea what hydrogen and oxygen are, and hence we have no idea what water is!”[10]

This problem of intrinsic natures allows Goff to articulate a different argument for panpsychism. Following the physicist Arthur Eddington, Goff notes that in one particular case we have access to the intrinsic nature of matter: we know that consciousness is the intrinsic nature of our brains.  “Far from being a mystery, consciousness is the only bit of physical reality we really understand. It is the rest of the physical world that is a mystery.”[11] The panpsychist then proposes that we generalize from the case of our brains to the rest of the material world. Just as consciousness is the intrinsic nature of the matter composing my nervous system, so it is also for all natural kinds. Goff thinks that the only alternative to the panpsychist solution to the problem of intrinsic natures is to follow Locke positing an “I know not what” as the essence of matter. Given these two options, panpsychism is the simpler, since it posits only one kind of intrinsic nature, viz. consciousness. Goff explains:

“Eddington’s starting point is as follows: I) Physical science tells us absolutely nothing about the intrinsic nature of matter, and II) the only thing we know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it, i.e., the matter inside brains, has an intrinsic nature made up of forms of consciousness.

            It is hard to really absorb these two facts, as they are diametrically opposed to the way our culture thinks about science. But if we manage to do so, it becomes apparent that the simplest hypothesis concerning the intrinsic nature of matter outside of brains is that it is continuous with the intrinsic nature of matter inside our brains, in the sense that both inside and outside of brains matter has an intrinsic nature made up of forms of consciousness. To deny panpsychism one would need a reason for supposing that matter has two kinds of intrinsic nature rather than just one.”[12]

In addition to offering arguments in favor of panpsychism, Goff also speculates about the possible cultural effects of accepting such a view. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the book. Goff offers the following conjectures:

  1. Environment. Goff suggests that pansychism can help to address our current environmental crisis. Both dualism and materialism support the mindset in which the term “tree hugger” is used derisively. According to the materialist, a tree is just a mechanism, and it makes no sense to hug a mechanism. The same goes for the dualist. A tree is just a mechanism in the natural world; it lacks a soul, and is thus an unfit object for embrace. The panpsychist, in contrast, can recognize that trees are conscious beings and thus possible objects of empathy. Goff even goes on to point out how scientists are showing that plants do indeed act as if they are conscious. They are subject to Pavlovian conditioning, can communicate with each other, and share resources in incredibly sophisticated ways.[13]
  2. Freedom. Goff speculates that panpsychism can provide space for free will in the natural world.  “It is worth noting that panpsychism, unlike materialism, is in principle able to preserve its reality [i.e. the reality of free will]. The materialist assumes that everything that happens in the physical world has a prior cause, which either determines precisely what will happen or—in the case of quantum indeterminacy—determines the objective probability of what will happen. But for the panpsychist, a different model is possible. It could be that past events pressure physical entities in the present to behave in a certain way but that it is always up to present physical entities whether or not to accept that pressure…. Clearly particles don’t rationally deliberate, and hence don’t ‘choose’ in the sense that human beings ‘choose.’ But it could be that they act through responsiveness to inclinations, inclinations produced in them by prior states of affairs. In this case, particles at earlier times do not compel later particles to act; they create a set of inclinations that pressure future particles to behave in a certain way, but it is the future particles themselves (at the moment they become present) that opt to follow those inclinations.”[14]
  3. Spirituality. There may also be spiritual implications to the panpsychist position. Mystics of various religions have claimed to experience formless consciousness as the fundamental ground of reality. Goff speculates that the panpsychist is capable of accepting this claim and locating it within the natural world by assigning formless consciousness to spacetime itself.[15] Two further implications would follow from this: First, there would be an afterlife in some sense, given that formless consciousness would remain even after our human experience ends. Second, it could ground morality, explaining what makes moral truths true.[16] “Selfish conduct is rooted in the belief that we are wholly separate and distinct individuals…but according to the mystics, this belief in the total separateness of people is false. There are distinct conscious minds, but they are not wholly distinct; your mind and my mind overlap. Indeed, the most basic element of my mind—the formless consciousness which forms the backdrop of each experience—is identical with the most basic element of your mind.”[17]
  4. Re-enchantment. Goff also points to the way that panpsychism might reanimate the disenchanted world of modernity (and postmodernity) and give us a renewed sense of meaning in life. “On the panpsychist view, the universe is like us; we belong in it. We need not live exclusively in the human realm, even more diluted by globalization and consumerist capitalism. We can live in nature, in the universe. We can let go of nation and tribe, happy in the knowledge that there is a universe that welcomes us. My hope is that panpsychism can help humans once again to feel that they have a place in the universe. At home in the cosmos, we must begin to dream about—and perhaps make real—a better world.”[18]

Overall, Goff’s book is both an exceptionally clear introduction to the analytic philosophy of mind and a powerful exposition of a potentially revolutionary intellectual framework. If we are indeed in the beginnings of a panpsychist turn in contemporary culture, I would like to one day argue for a few additional points. First, if one accepts panpsychism, then Husserl was correct and phenomenology should be considered as first philosophy (foundational science). Second, if we are really to think through the panpsychist position, it must ultimately be accounted for in terms of Absolute Idealism.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] Loc cit., Goff, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness (New York: Pantheon Books, 2019), 15-16.

[2] Goff, Galileo’s Error, 16.

[3] The problem of interaction is that, given that body and soul are two radically distinct kinds of substance, it is unclear how they could causally interact with each other. How could a decision of my immaterial soul change my physical brain state? Likewise, how could my brain being in a particular state cause my soul to see or feel something of a particular nature?

[4] Goff, Galileo’s Error, 39-48.

[5] I’m a bit more skeptical than Goff regarding the preeminence of parsimony. What does it mean for two theories to be explanatory equivalent? Why think of simplicity in terms of only the entities posited, and not, for example the principles employed? Even if simple theories are pragmatically advantageous, why think that simplicity reflects the underlying nature of reality? Won’t that be a bit of non-empirical philosophical speculation? And, once we allow for that, don’t we open the door for other kinds of theory formulation and validation?

[6] I’m skeptical that neuroscience explains as much as he thinks it does.

[7] He relies on the standard knowledge and conceivability arguments to make this point. Goff, Galileo’s Error, 69-96.

[8] Ibid., 124-125.

[9] Ibid., 126.

[10] Ibid., 127.

[11] Ibid., 131.

[12] Ibid., 134.

[13] Ibid., 192-193.

[14] Ibid., 203-204.

[15] Ibid., 208.

[16] Ibid., 212.

[17] Ibid., 213.

[18] Ibid., 217

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