Neuro-Fundamentalism and the Importance of Philosophy

2 Feb

In recent academic philosophy, panpsychism has gone from being an object of public ridicule to being a respected minority view. A recent article by Olivia Goldman covered this development. A couple of neuroscientists, Anil Seth and Kevin Mitchell, have written strongly worded articles in response. There is a lot I could say in counter-response to Seth and Mitchell, but given time constraints I’ll restrict myself to making a few points:

Neither Seth nor Mitchell show any awareness of the reason academic philosophers have recently taken an interest in panpsychism

This is in fact due to the recent rediscovery of certain ideas from the 1920s of the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the scientist Arthur Eddington. In the public mind physics is on its way to giving us a complete account of the nature of matter. But what Eddington argued, building on Russell, is that physics is not a mirror of reality but a tool for prediction. The equations of physics do not tell us what physical properties – mass, charge, space, time – are, and if you try to extract for physics a definition of any physical property you’ll quickly find yourself looping back in a circle. But even if we don’t know the nature of physical properties, we can recognize them in the world, and by applying the equations of physics we can predict with great accuracy how matter will behave.

What has all this to do with consciousness? What Russell/Eddington are drawing our attention to is a huge gap in our scientific picture of the universe: physical science tells us nothing of the real nature of physical properties (there are corresponding gaps in higher-level physical sciences, assuming the properties of such higher-level sciences are ultimately constituted of the properties of physics). Eddington’s insight (again building on Russell) was that we could fill that gap with consciousness, by holding that consciousness properties are simply the real nature of physical properties.

It was previously thought that there were only two options for accounting for consciousness: physicalism (consciousness is to be explained in terms of physical science) or dualism (consciousness is something extra to the physical properties of the brain). Both of these views face profound problems (see the next point). Eddington’s panpsychism is attractive because it avoids the deep difficulties facing the other two options. It is not strictly speaking testable, simply because consciousness itself cannot be observed, but if it offers a more parsimonious and less problematic account of consciousness than its rivals, then this gives us strong reason to take it seriously (As I often point out in this context, special relativity is empirically equivalent to the Lorentzian view that preceded it, and yet the scientific community almost universally embraced it because it brought greater internal unity to physics).

The hard problem is, in the first instance, a philosophical problem.

The hard problem is rooted in a number of arguments, such as the knowledge argument and the conceivability argument, that purport to show that physicalism is incoherent. I can’t get into too much of the details here (although see the first half of my book for the full story), but the basic idea is that the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science is not suited to characterising the qualitative properties of consciousness. You could not convey in the language of neuroscience what it’s like to see red (if you could, then the congenitally blind could in principle know what it’s like to see colours through reading neuroscience in braille); and if neuroscience can’t even convey these qualities then it certainly can’t explain them.

To be fair, Seth does say something about the conceivability argument, but what he says reveals deep confusions about how it’s supposed to work. Seth claims that it’s all about what can be imagined. But in the versions defended in the academic literature, e.g. by David Chalmers or myself, the focus is not on imaginability but on logical coherence. Logical coherence is not the kind of thing you can test in a lab or observe through a telescope. It’s the proper domain of careful philosophical reflection.

Which brings me to my third and final point:

This is symptomatic of the casual rejection of philosophy in contemporary culture

I would never dream of wading in and casually dismissing the views of Seth and Mitchell without careful engagement with their empirical work. Any yet they think they can casually dismiss the conclusions of academic philosophers without careful engagement with their arguments. This contrasts strongly with the attitude of Eddington. As Seth points out, Eddington is one of the most important experimental scientists of the 20th century. And yet he was also a keen reader of the leading philosophers of his day, while expressing due humility about it not being his own area of specialization (an attitude also exemplified by the contemporary physicist Sean Carroll, who – from the opposite side of the debate to me – bothers to give a careful examination of the philosophical arguments on consciousness in his recent book). I love the following quote from Eddington, concerning the work of his philosophical contemporary Alfred North Whitehead:

“Although this book [Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World] may in most respects seem diametrically opposed to Dr. Whitehead’s widely read philosophy of Nature, I think it would be truer to regard him as an ally who from the opposite side of a mountain is tunnelling to meet his less philosophically minded colleagues. The only thing is not to confuse the two entrances.”

What a beautiful image to capture the spirit of collaboration that ought to exist between philosophers and scientists. And yet what we find in the twenty first century is scientists like Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodniow beginning a book by declaring that ‘Philosophy is dead’, before going on to do incredibly crude philosophy in later chapters. I love science; in fact I’m a huge fan of Seth’s work. But philosophy is important too. Let’s tunnel together.










6 Responses to “Neuro-Fundamentalism and the Importance of Philosophy”

  1. Donovulse February 2, 2018 at 12:56 pm #

    A physicist might say the same thing about you. You’ve cherry picked examples that make it seem like physics can’t get at this “innateness”, but gravity just IS the curvature of space-time. Mass, your own example, just IS matter interacting with the Higgs field. So, not being a physicist, you’ve got the physics wrong and there is no reason to not expect that physics will continue to uncover the way the natural world is. Eddington was simply mistaken.

    And then, of course, waiting on physics seems like as vastly better research program than adopting panpsychism.

    • conscienceandconsciousness February 3, 2018 at 9:13 am #

      @donovulse The fuller argument for the thesis that physics tells us nothing the intrinsic nature of matter, including reference to general relativity, is here:

      • Donovulse February 3, 2018 at 7:15 pm #

        Ah, I see. Having read all that I’d say that you made the mistake of relying on philosophical theories about physics and not actual physics and that my counterexamples still work. If you asked a community of physicists about it (rather than relying on just one, Eddington) they would tell you you’re wrong. You keep claiming you want to know what a thing IS not what it does. Gravity IS the curvature of spacetime. Mass IS matter interacting with the higgs field (and some other stuff). These are statements of identity that pretty much any current physicist would agree with. You should REALLY go talk to some. I’m obviously not going to go get a bunch of citations, but I’d suggest that in the spirit of intellectual honesty you go make sure that what you claim is lacking in physics is really lacking.

        Because it’s not lacking, it seems like a justified inference from science figuring out what things are now to science doing the same in the future and then leaving consciousness to them, rather than adopting panpsychism.

        I’m also curious… This all just seems like a rehash of the Leibniz and Newton debates and Leibniz’s monadology as the response to that seems almost identical to panpsychism. Newton said he had figured out gravity, Leibniz said all he had done was figure out how to measure it, not what it really IS. Monadology was supposed to give us answers about what things (including consciousness) really are. But that didn’t work. There is no way to get at Monads, no Monad test, so Monads are just a God of the gaps. Empty placeholders for those things we find inexplicable. Why do all of this over again if we’ve essentially tried it and it failed?

        Sorry if this posts twice. I had WiFi issues.

      • conscienceandconsciousness February 4, 2018 at 10:24 am #

        I don’t think most physicists have an opinion on this matter. It’s not an issue of physics but of the philosophical interpretation of physics. And there is pretty much universal agreement among philosophers of physics that physics just give you causal structure of matter: tells you only what matter does. With reference to your specific examples, I think it’s more accurate to say that gravity arises from the curvature of spacetime, but in any case the point is: What is spacetime curvature? What is the Higgs field? All of these entities are chracterised in terms of what they do; physics tells us nothing about their underlying nature. The Higgs field, for example, is characterised in terms of its causal interactions with particles.

        The problem with your narrative about what we should infer from the success of physical science is that from Galileo onwards physical science has just been in the business of mapping causal structure: describing what stuff *does*. The success of this limited project gives us not grounds for thinking physical science will be able to beyond telling us what stuff does.

        There is precedent in Leibniz (although not as fully worked out as in Russell/Eddington). In what sense did Leibniz’s theory ‘not work’? I’m not saying it was perfect, but we didn’t abandon it because it ‘didn’t work’. We basically just stopped trying to find out the intrinsic nature of reality, after Hume and Kant. I think the success of physics has created in people’s minds the idea that it’s giving us a complete story of reality. But to the contrary, its success is premised on the fact that that’s not what it’s doing. I admit trying to work out the most likely truth about the underlying nature of physical reality cannot be tested, as the only aspect of physical reality we can directly access is the intrinsic nature of our own brains (via our immediate awareness of our conscious experience). But I think it’s worth trying to find the simplest theory consistent with what we know. I think that would be the best guess of which human beings are capable.

        My view is laid out in more detail here if you’re interested:

  2. Stephen Pritchard (@SCPritch) February 2, 2018 at 11:02 pm #

    Hi Prof Goff, thanks for writing this, here is my response. (ps. a bit about me. I currently work as a data scientist, but have a PhD in cognitive science (the answers are in the mind, baby, not the brain! :-)), and took a strong interest in consciousness and the philosophy of cognitive science over my PhD)

    The intrinsic nature of matter:
    Appealing to this concept does not solve the problem of circularity identified in our physical understanding of causes and predictions. I can simply ask: “What meta intrinsic nature is it that gives intrinsic nature its intrinsic nature?” And if you answer that, I can ask about the meta-meta intrinsic nature, etc. Rather than denying intrinsic nature, its most parsimonious to simply leave it out of any attempt at explanation unless it is required. And since appeals to intrinsic nature do not avoid the circularity problem, this appeal can do no useful work, and is not required here.

    Imagine a really incredible computer game, in which the characters are conscious. A conscious computer game character might endeavour to discover the intrinsic nature of its world and itself. However, no matter how hard it looks, the character will never be able to look down deeply and see the computer circuits in our world on which the simulation depends. The simulation is encapsulated from our world and the computer. The character will only see the play of causes and effects at the level of the simulation it is a part of. To the conscious character, the computer hardware is close to completely irrelevant, all the character can do is muse about what might be driving its world (simulation), it can’t determine anything about it. It can’t jump out of the simulation it is a part of to look at the simulation from a perspective outside.

    In the above example, I assumed that the conscious character gets its consciousness within the simulation, not from some intrinsic property of the computer or our world. Is this possible? The question is: is consciousness a part of the intrinsic nature, or is it to be found at a level within the simulation itself?

    This is the same question we are debating. We are like this in our own world.

    Is consciousness to be found in the pattern of causes and effects that we can see from within our world, of would you have to be outside of the simulation to be able to understand what consciousness is? I believe that the former is the case (more detail below), and if the latter is the case, then conjecturing about the nature of what is beyond our grasp is not knowledge, its conjecture only.

    Knowledge Argument: The problem with this is a level conflict. We do our thinking using brains that exist in our universe and operate according to the microphysical truths of our universe. It is logically impossible for a thinking-machine composed of microphysical truths to possess knowledge of all microphysical truths, because all this knowledge includes the subset of knowledge concerning the operation of the thinking-machine itself. A good analogy is of a snake attempting the impossible task of completely eating itself. Eventually it will fail, because it can’t eat its own eating apparatus and still continue eating.

    No matter how powerful a mind that exists in our universe you imagine, you can’t get around in this logical impossibility – the bigger the mind, the bigger the problem of trying to reflect completely on itself.

    So Mary, using her own physical mind, can never get compete insight about how her physical mind will respond to actually seeing colour, just by trying to study her own mind. No matter how smart she is, she can’t do this. And if she can’t possess all physical facts, then the Knowledge Argument’s premises are kaput, and the whole argument fails.

    Conceivability argument:
    “P&~Q is the statement that everything is microphysically as in our world, but no-one is phenomenally conscious. In this version, P&~Q says that the world is a zombie world.”

    This is not conceivable. Phenomenal consciousness has functional properties*, and so it is not conceivable that a philosophical zombie could act exactly the same – down to microstructure – in precisely the same way as a conscious person. To assume that it is conceivable is to assume rather than prove that materialism is false.

    Is it conceivable:
    1. Assume P&~Q is conceivable
    2. Any person I meet could be a zombie, and I wouldn’t know
    3. I could be a zombie, carrying the false belief that I am conscious, and I wouldn’t know
    4.Zombie me is indistinguishable from conscious me, to anyone else, and also to me
    5. Therefore P&~Q is not conceivable

    #3 is the difficult point. I am suggesting that my belief (whether a true belief or a false belief) that my own phenomenal consciousness is real, just is my phenomenal consciousness.

    #3 and the * need more space than I have here. However, I will say this: we go about our business in the world assuming that we hold coherent beliefs and we (individually) are perfectly intelligent. But a cursory glance at literature from cognitive science, neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology etc, (not to mention common sense about others!) suggests that false beliefs – even false phenomenological beliefs – are commonplace. There are even people (Cotard delusion) who carry the false belief that they are dead! I think it is not just conceivable, but close to obvious (and I believe it is the case) that we carry the belief that we are phenomenally conscious because our behaviour would not be well adapted if we did not believe that our experiences were real and compelling, our world was real and compelling, our own existence is real and compelling. It is not relevant (or possible to know) whether this belief is true or false, because this question can only be answered from outside the system, a perspective we do not have but incorrectly imagine that we do have it). A notional zombie could not act just like a conscious counterpart – if it did, it would be conscious, and thus not a zombie.

    Given I don’t find either the knowledge argument of the conceivability argument to be robust, I stick to the view that the Hard Problem can be answered within the confines of physicalism.

    For what its worth, I disagree with Anil Seth that the Hard Problem is a distraction (, and I think it is hand-waving a bit when philosophers such as Daniel Dennett claim that solving all the easy problems will solve the hard problem. I also reject the language of illusionism used by Dennett and Keith Frankish even though I share a lot of their views. I think describing consciousness as an illusion has too many misleading connotations. I think Galen Strawson is caricaturing/misreprenting illusionists when he marvels that they try to disbelieve in phenomenal consciousnessness or explain it away, but can hardly blame him given the language used. Daniel Dennett in my view has focussed overly much on explaining that the magic show is not reliant on real magic. But now we need to explain in detail the mechanics of how the tricks actually work – there is a difference between stating that there are tricks, and explaining those tricks. And in explaining the tricks, the real magic (purely physical!) will again be apparent.

    I think we can be more specific about phenomenal consciousness than saying that the hard problem is solved by solving all the easy problems, and think it can be done by first understanding the why (functional properties of phenomenal consciousness), and then the how (level jumping within a mind that can reflect on and also operate/tinker on itself).

    Biased opinion: it’s cognitive science that will be front and centre in this task, not neuroscience or cognitive neuroscience 🙂

  3. Alan February 4, 2018 at 6:41 pm #


    Einstein said “Space and time are modes in which we think, not conditions in which we exist”.
    When you discuss space and time you use mathematical tools to get world lines and we label it space-time but what is in the space between the world lines? Emptiness. An emptiness in the mathematical diagram. You’ve seen these world-line “webs”. There’s not even space because it’s the world lines and points where they cross (representing particle interactions and events) that are important. The description is an abstraction from what is actually there in reality and we don’t know what that is.
    General relativity describes the effect of matter on world lines (gravity), you could start with a flat space-time (mathematical abstraction again) and introduce a mass or perhaps an EM field (representing mass-energy) giving a R4 Riemann space but you can see we’re already a level up from what is really going on. There IS an observable effect in reality corresponding to the equations but this reality is not the equations. The territory is not the map.

    When you say “gravity just IS the curvature of space-time” you’re assigning a tool to *be* the reality.

    So this goes with “Space and time are modes in which we think, not conditions in which we exist”. So what actually are the “conditions in which we exist”? What, intrinsically, is running through me now. Through every particle.
    We can apply the same problem as to what actually are electrons, quarks, other particles beyond the mathematical description. But the example above for gravity gives a clear view of the problem (by showing the confusion between the map and the territory). Same problem for particles.

    I remember this about particles having “free will” where they have an indeterminism qualitatively different from randomness (randomness is like throwing a dice which is a classical physics problem only). If we’re talking about something intrinsic to matter then this seems to be it. An intrinsic free will in every elementary particle and we have free will too. There’s more to particles but there is this free will which seems to at a level below its other properties. This *could* (ok?, could) have relevance here as quantum particles have something intrinsically different from classical particles

    Finally, in relation to particle physics, the quantum vacuum is thought to be an absolutely fundamental medium and this, you may know, is everywhere in “space”.

    I thought I’d mention this. Have you heard of remote viewing and the US Government’s STARGATE program re this? Well known. With RV being real this means you could say that what space *actually* is has something “mind-like” about it. So then people can “see” over what physics calls distance and time. Whatever is “between” the receiver and the object must have something mind-like about it otherwise no RV could work. A kind of continuum of mind-likeness over space. This could be beyond quantum physics as there seems to be no tail off of information over distance – no 1/r2 law. Finally there is a perfectly respectable and well known cosmologist in the UK who knows about this and related work and has suggested in great detail that an information-space idea can explain these results. Something extra added on to the physics. A kind of consciousness in the large and I’m trying to be precise with the idea conveyed.

    In relation to Einstein’s pantheism (well known) Einstein also said “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.” He did not believe in a Christian god.
    He actually replied to a schoolgirl in 1936 about being a scientist and religious at the same time and his answer seems to have bearing on all the above, and in relation to his pantheism. In full …

    “My dear Dr. Einstein,
    We have brought up the question: ‘Do scientists pray?’ in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered. We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for? We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.
    Respectfully yours,

    Einstein replied shortly after

    “Dear Phyllis,
    I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:
    Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.
    However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.
    But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
    With cordial greetings,
    your A. Einstein”

    Pantheism? Is something else running through and through all the universe. What do you think this could be? Something mind-like, consciousness-like? It’s right that science should investigate this.

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