The Problem with Materialism and the Explanatory Power of Panpsychism: A more considered response to Seth and Mitchell

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I woke up Saturday morning with a strange, unpleasant feeling in my stomach. I initially thought it was indigestion, but after a certain amount of reflection I diagnosed it as guilt. I feel my last post was a bit dismissive and defensive, and so I’d like to make recompense by giving a calmer and more considered response to Seth and Mitchell.

Response to Seth

I worry my post gave the impression that non-philosophers have no business engaging with philosophical questions (as Mitchell tweeted in response). In fact, I have very much valued Seth’s engagement with philosophy, for example, raising Chalmers’ distinction between the “hard” and “easy” problems and giving his own take on it. I shouldn’t be dismissing his engagement, as I did in my last post, just because he hasn’t read every last detail of Chalmers’ Two-Dimensional Argument against Materialism.

At the same time, I respectfully disagree his position, and I would like to articulate in a bit more detail the source of my disagreement. Seth claims that opposition to materialism is rooted in claims about what can be imagined. If this were all it amounted to, then as he says opponents of materialism would be open to the charge of mistaking a failure of imagination for an insight into necessity. But in my view, the opposition to materialism is rooted in the belief that the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science is ill-suited to the task of capturing the qualities of conscious experience.

Here’s the basic premise on which I’d rest my case:

The Key Premise – A congenitally blind neuroscientist could never, through reading neuroscience in braille, come to know what it’s like to see colours.

It follows that language of neuroscience could never convey the qualities involved in colour experience; if a neuroscientific theory could convey the qualities involved in colour experience, it would be able to teach the blind what it’s like to see colours. And if neuroscience can’t even describe these qualities, then it certainly can’t reductively explain them. For a reductive explanation would involve describing these qualities and then accounting for their existence in terms of physical processes in the brain.

(For those who have looked into this debate in a lot of detail, of course it gets more complicated, requiring responses, for example, to the phenomenal concept strategy, but this is the starting point. The full argument can be found in the first half of my book).

My interest was piqued by Seth’s suggestion that predictive processing might provide resources to bridge this gap. I’d love to hear more details, but from what I know so far about predictive processing I can’t see how this could help. My test would be: Could a congenitally blind neuroscientist come to know what it’s like to see colours by reading about the predictive processing in the brain?

How can I prove that neuroscience alone will never bridge this gap? I can’t, but the conviction that it inevitably will seems to me an unjustified leap of faith. Perhaps the most common defence of this conviction, given by Seth and others, is to appeal to the track record of physical science. The fact that physical science has explained so much of our universe, it is claimed, ought to give us confidence that it will one day explain consciousness.

I have a different way of thinking about the history of science. The rightly celebrated success of the physical science began when Galileo declared that the qualities of consciousness were in the soul and so outside of its domain of natural science, which allowed physical science to focus exclusively on the purely quantitative properties of the physical world. In other words, physical science was designed as an inherently limited project, describing quantities and ignoring qualities. The fact that it has had great success in modelling quantities gives us no grounds for supposing it capable of dealing with qualities. But that’s precisely what a true theory of consciousness would need to do, as consciousness is an essentially quality-laden phenomenon. A reductive theory of consciousness would have to explain the colours, sounds, smells and tastes that characterize our inner subjective lives in terms of the physical properties of the brain.

Seth goes on to argue that people like me are expecting too much from a theory of consciousness:

“As long as we can formulate explanatorily rich relations between physical mechanisms and phenomenological properties, and as long as these relations generate empirically testable predictions which stand up in the lab (and in the wild), we are doing just fine. Riding behind many criticisms of current consciousness science are unstated intuitions that a mechanistic account of consciousness should be somehow intuitively satisfying, or even that it must allow some kind of instantiation of consciousness in an arbitrary machine. We don’t make these requirements in other areas of science…”

In fact, I do not expect anything more than correlations and predictions from neuroscience. But I would expect more from an empirical case for materialism. I think the materialist is obliged to provide reductive explanations of higher-level phenomena. For most other phenomena – life, water, heat – such reductive explanations are available, at least in principle. These explanations are intuitively satisfying. Why is it so hard to reductively explain consciousness? In the case of life, water and heat, what we are looking to explain are functional properties, that is to say, properties to do with how things behave, or how their parts behave. The quantitative language of physical science is well suited to this. But in the possibly unique case of consciousness we are dealing with qualities, and the quantitative language of physical science is simply not up to this task.

I can’t rule out materialism with 100% certainty, but many decades of hard work has, in my humble opinion, produced zero progress in the project of reductively explaining the qualities of consciousness. This is not surprising as the project of articulating the qualities of consciousness in quantitative language is on the face of it incoherent. Moreover, the drive to find a materialist solution to the problem of consciousness is unmotivated. In the 1920s Russell and Eddington did for consciousness science what Darwin did for the science of life (see below): They showed how to fit consciousness into our scientific story of the world. The job has already been done.

Having said all that though, I certainly wouldn’t want to stop materialists trying to explain consciousness in the language of physical science, and it would be a remarkable development if they ever managed to do it. One gets the impression reading Seth’s piece that he thinks anti-materialists are stopping neuroscientists making progress. But in so far as neuroscience is giving us correlations/explanations, it is neutral between materialism, dualism, and panpsychism. The proponents of these views would simply give different philosophical interpretations of the data: the materialist would see the physical states as constituting the conscious states, the dualist would see the physical states as causing the conscious states (in conjunction with basic psycho-physical laws of nature), the panpsychist would see the conscious states as the intrinsic nature of the physical states. In so far as some neuroscientists are trying to reductively explain consciousness, then of course they are pursuing a goal inconsistent with dualism/panpsychism. But a plurality of different theories are pursued in science and philosophy without it being a problem. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Response to Mitchell

Kevin Mitchell took the time to write a lengthy response to my simplicity argument for panpsychism, and I didn’t respond to any of his points in my post (my bad!). So let me say a little more here.

I think I learnt something from the exchange with Mitchell, and that is that my simplicity argument for panpsychism is dependent on my rejection of materialism (In fact, this is clear in my book, but has not been transparent in my non-academic work, such as the piece Mitchell discusses). If a standard kind of materialism is true, then consciousness is to be explained in terms of the (broadly construed) functional features of the brain. But that disqualifies consciousness from being an intrinsic property of the brain. The relevant distinction here is:

Functional properties – Properties that concern the behaviour of an entity, or the behaviour or its parts.

Intrinsic properties – Properties which are not purely functional properties, i.e. their nature cannot be entirely captured in terms of how its possessor is disposed to behave (or how its parts are disposed to behave).

(I appreciate this is a bit of a non-standard use of ‘intrinsic property’, but the usage has kind of stuck in these debates. Really I’m talking about what Derk Pereboom calls ‘absolutely intrinsic properties’, or what Chalmers calls ‘quiddities’.)

Premise 1 of my argument is that physical science tells us nothing of the intrinsic properties of matter: physical science merely tells us what stuff does not how it is. But if consciousness can be explained in terms of the functional properties of physical science, then premise 2 is false: consciousness is not an intrinsic property of the brain. On the other hand, if materialism is false and the properties of consciousness cannot be accounted for in terms of the functional properties of the brain, then conscious states do look like a good candidates for being the intrinsic properties of the brain. Therefore, the simplicity argument has force only if we already have good reason to think materialism is false.

This point is made clear by Mitchell’s analogy of my argument using the property of life. I take it that life is a functional property: for something to be alive is for it or its parts to exhibit various complex forms of behavioural functioning, e.g. growth, reproduction, etc. And for precisely this reason, the ‘panvitalist’ argument Mitchell outlines fails. If consciousness were also a functional property, then my argument for panpsychism would fail for the same reason.

But that’s okay, as I do think we have very strong reason to think materialism is false, as I explained in my above response to Seth. And that doesn’t mean my argument is circular. The argument is intended to show that panpsychism is the best view among the non-materialist options, e.g. dualism, neutral monism, etc. I’m grateful to Mitchell for helping to make this clear; it’s probably led to a lot of talking at cross purposes in the past.

Once the dependence on anti-materialism is made clear, I don’t think any of the other criticisms Mitchell makes have force (he’s welcome to correct me!). There is the common complaint that panpsychism doesn’t ‘explain’ or ‘predict’ anything. I agree that panpsychism can’t be directly tested, simply because consciousness itself cannot be directly observed. This is deep problem that raises worries for any theory of consciousness.

But I would disagree that panpsychism doesn’t explain anything. It accounts for consciousness, in the sense that it provides a place for consciousness in our scientific conception of the universe. We know that consciousness exists, and hence any theory of the world must be able to account for the reality of consciousness. I believe that materialism cannot account for the reality of consciousness and so must be false. Of the anti-materialist options that can account for the reality of consciousness, panpsychism is the simplest, which I think gives us strong reason to think it’s the one most likely to be true. If you like, you can think of it as an inference to the best explanation, as Hedda Hassel Morch suggested in the twitter exchanges. Of course panpsychism does not account for consciousness in more fundamental terms (although it may account for human consciousness in terms of more fundamental forms of consciousness), but the idea that we are obliged to do this seems to me a prejudice of materialism.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.


  1. “I have a different way of thinking about the history of science. The rightly celebrated success of the physical science began when Galileo declared that the qualities of consciousness were in the soul and so outside of its domain of natural science, which allowed physical science to focus exclusively on the purely quantitative properties of the physical world. In other words, physical science was designed as an inherently limited project, describing quantities and ignoring qualities. The fact that it has had great success in modelling quantities gives us no grounds for supposing it capable of dealing with qualities. But that’s precisely what a true theory of consciousness would need to do, as consciousness is an essentially quality-laden phenomenon. A reductive theory of consciousness would have to explain the colours, sounds, smells and tastes that characterize our inner subjective lives in terms of the physical properties of the brain….”

    In my view, this sums it up. The confusion arises from conflating methodology with ontology and epistemology.

    Naturalism is a methodological assumption. Materialism is a metaphysical one. Naturalism doesn’t imply materialism.

    Materialism implies naturalism but materialism lacks foundation other than assertion, which amounts to assumption. Naturalism cannot be used to ground materialism if naturalism is entailed by materialism. And methodological assumptions cannot serve as ontological or epistemological criteria other than by stipulation.

    Scientific method cannot be used to “prove” materialism, since scientific method is based on methodological assumptions that are limiting, purposefully excluding anything but the investigation of “extension” based on data obtained from observation and measurement.

    This method was introduced to exclude not only mythology but also intellectual approaches not based on observational evidence acquired directly through the senses or indirect using instrumentation to extend the reach of the senses. Hume’s fork sums it up.

    Hume took his fork to be self-evident, but it is a methodological framework. In itself, it is an assertion without criteria outside a system of ontological and epistemological assumptions that are stipulated.

    Science is a form of methodological reductionism that is designed to reduce or eliminate subjectivity in a particular area of inquiry as a methodological choice as a convenience.

    This methodological choice based on the pragmatic concerns rather than ontological assumptions, which contradict the scientific project based on scientific method as one instrument for inquiry in humanity’s tool box. This isolates scientific method from theological method and philosophical method.

    Galileo was reacting simultaneously to the Church and Aristotelianism. The Enlightenment that resulted in liberalism can be viewed as a similar reaction. Science and liberalism later became dominant in the West, and the present trend is liberal globalization based on humanism and scientism.

    Science (scientific method) does not address materialism as a type of ontology. Rather, scientists set the boundaries, conditions and criteria for scientific method as “doing science.” This excludes consideration of materialism or physicalism as ontology. Equating materialism or physicalism with naturalism as a methodological assumption conveys no privileged ontological or epistemological standing.

    All ontological theories are based on speculative foundations. Such foundations are neither given nor justified based on criteria prior to the foundation. The foundation is stipulated, regardless of whether its proponents assert it as self-evident intuitively. Scientific method was developed to avoid that trap. But being based on limiting assumptions, scientific method is not comprehensive with respect to possible experience without assuming physicalism.

    Science deals with theories and models that are general descriptions asserting how things stand. They are different from myth, theology, and speculative philosophy in that they can be checked against observational data. However, sense observation doesn’t account for all of experience. Hence, all an account based on sense observation can yield is correlation.

    This doesn’t imply that a causal explanation cannot be developed based on physicalism. It means that any such explanation will be confined to the scope set by the limiting assumptions and the scale and reliability of measurement.

    To conclude, I don’t think that some version of physicalism, (pan)psychism and neutral monism are incompatible. They may fit into an account based on many levels of possible experience and such accounts exist in the world’s wisdom literature, purported based on experience and its interpretation in terms of various models.

    So I see this as a modeling problem, including criteria for corroboration. But that’s beyond the scope of a comment.

    • Thanks, this was really interesting. I guess you think physics tells us even less than I do. I think physics gives you a kind of abstract pattern, and the job of metaphysics is give a picture of reality that realises that pattern. I don’t think you can explain consciousness in terms of the pattern, and hence physicalism — as I understand it — can’t be true.

  2. Thanks very much for this response to my post and Anil’s. It clarifies your position, but I have to say it does little to convince me that panpsychism has any real merit.

    I agree that the subjective, qualitative nature of conscious experience is ineffable, may be undefinable and is not communicable by simply describing in words the material events associated with it. I just don’t think much follows from that (certainly not from the inability to convey it in words), except that the problem is hard – something on which all parties agree.

    However, I don’t think the choice in thinking about an explanation lies only between reductive materialism and dualism. I think nonreductive materialism offers a perfectly plausible and productive alternative framework in which to approach consciousness from both philosophical and scientific angles. You say that a materialist would say that brain states “constitute” conscious states. I would say that they *entail* them, but not in a way that allows the qualities of the conscious states to be reduced to the parameters of the current brain state.

    Moreover, I think the framework of predictive inference described by Anil is indeed an excellent starting point for thinking about consciousness. At some point, as brains added more and more levels over evolution, they may have begun to make inferences not just about objects out in the world or about the internal states of their associated body, but about the processes going on at lower levels of the hierarchy. How or why that kind of recursive inference gives rise to the subjective feeling of conscious experience is another question (though there are arguments to be made for its adaptiveness) and one that remains difficult. But this framework feels like a step in the right direction to me and has the advantage of being amenable to experimental analysis.

    Finally, with regard to “intrinsic properties” I will have to look into the references you cite, as the way you have described it so far seems to define it as something that has no influence on anything else in the universe. You say physical science can only tell us about dispositions, not intrinsic nature. If the intrinsic nature creates dispositions, then physical science can tell us about it. If it does not, then nothing can tell us about it and it will never make any difference to anything because it has no dispositions. Is this not an accurate reading?

    If that is accurate, and consciousness is such an intrinsic property of things, then how could this give rise to or explain consciousness of entities (which does have clear dispositions) if the intrinsic properties do not?

    • Thanks Kevin. It’s interesting that you concede that the language of physical science cannot capture the qualities (I could be wrong, but I don’t think Anil would want to concede this). It seems to me to follow that physical science cannot explain the existence of these qualities and hence that materialism is false. You say that neuroscience may still ‘entail’ their existence…I’m not sure what you mean by ‘entailment’, and surely there must be some explanation of why that entailment holds…and surely such an explanation will involve account for the existence of the qualities in terms of the language of physical science. Otherwise, you just have a brute, unexplained fact.

      On the intrinsic properties, I could have made the point clearer. The idea is that physical properties *just are* forms of consciousness, but that physical science only characterises them in terms of their behaviour. So mass is a form of consciousness, but physics characterises mass not in terms of its real nature (as a form of consciousness) but in terms of what it does, i.e. gravitational attraction and resistance to acceleration. So the consciousness properties don’t sit along side the dispositional properties postulated by physics. Rather, there is just one kind of property: physics characterises those properties in terms of what they do, but in and of themselves they are forms of consciousness.

  3. algons says

    To me, neuroscientists seem a few steps behind in this discussion. Recursive inferences in brain (no matter how many you find) aren’t a mystery. Do we really need to “find” them in brain to start thinking about them? We code all sorts of recursive functions in computers already. Why not exhaust all possible functions that we “might” find in brain? Philosophers considered this already, and the interpretation of those functions keeps the explanatory gap for materialism wide open.

    It strikes me not to be skeptical about materialism, particularly when the laws of physics we base most of our knowledge about objective world is even questioned. For centuries, we took Newtonian physics as a given and with Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, we’re forced to think things differently. I know there are various interpretations of quantum physics but over and over we’re seeing enough reasons to be skeptical about quantitative limitations of a “traditionally physical” approach.

    Prof. Goff, I like your work. I have a few questions for you if you don’t mind. Do you think panqualityism is part of panpsychism paradigm or more part of impure physicalism paradigm? I’ve read your “Against Constitutive Russellian Monism (2015)” and your description of impure physicalism sounds exactly like panqualityism. I actually think you seem to be going easy on panqualityism, when both panqualityism and impure physicalism seem to suffer from similar conceivability arguments (Chalmers 2013 and Goff 2015) made for pure physicalism. Do you think this argument against impure physicalism/panqualityism is as strong as the similar argument against pure physicalism?

    My understanding is; panqualityist approach is so problematic that;
    A) Micro-level unexperienced qualities can’t combine to cause “macro-subject” (which at the same time isn’t actually a subject somehow)
    B) But even if they did, panqualityist would still need to explain HOW and why we (or in this case that somehow combined-quality of “macro-subject” sensa) wrongly perceive argument “A” to be true (when we perceive other qualities correctly). In the end of the day, this “mysterian” approach doesn’t even have a path to demistifying the explanatory gap. Am I right? Thanks in advance.

      • algons says

        What I’m really trying to understand is; is panqualityism pointing to a potential illusion we have and say “this is why we think we are macro-subjects” or are they complete mysterians (as in, not only mysterian on how qualities can cause subjects but also mysterian on what kind illusion that is – and why/how this illusion could be possible)?

      • algons says

        So we accept argument A. But do we accept because of a potential illusion of “what a subject is”?

        I feel like, panqualityists’ mysterian subject-reduction doesn’t put forward “what it is” that’s blocking our perception, according to which we think that “macro-subject” can’t come from micro-level unexperienced qualities.

  4. P. Goff builds his cosmic consciousness theory as if our universe is all of reality. According to many astrophysicists and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, infinite multiverses are more likely the case. With that assumption, whatever *is*, must be some place-time, and there are infinite possibilities. P.G.’s speculation that non-physical somethings are the foundation of reality is no more viable than other leaps of faith of spirituality and mysticism.

    I reviewed M. Rees’ _Our Final Century_ in 2004 for FUTURES, and I pointed out his inconsistency between infinite multiverses and the Anthropic Principle he implied in the book. I also reviewed Reg Morrison’s _The Spirit in the Gene_ which explains the selection of mysticism in our history as a survival mechanism. Unfortunately it has become our Achilles Heel given our 800% population overshoot in 2 centuries. We have become too successful, and are destroying our nest.

    Steven B Kurtz

  5. Mạ Vàng says

    Sorry for my bad english, I am a Buddhist who has gone through a long process of meditating to watch my consciousness think we should apply it as an explanation, Buddhist Have done this over 2500 years ago.
    I know that it is not possible to apply subjectivity to objective science, but that may be one way.

  6. Nick says

    Psycanic Energy Processing refutes materialism about the mind. Psycanic energy operates according to exact laws which makes it testable.
    Consciousness is “made of” energy. It IS material, but only if you include psycanic energy/matter to be material.

    Click to access psycanics_emotion-love-happiness_oct05.pdf

    Chapter 13
    Introduction to Psicanic Energy Processing. How to Discreate Realities.

    Negative identities (NIRs: Negative Identity Realities) are the cause of all negative emotions.
    Every negative emotion indicates the activation of a negative identity.

    BE causes FEEL: IDENTITIES cause EMOTIONS — and are the only cause of emotion. Every negative thought and emotion can be traced to identities. Negative identities that deny or suppress power or value, generate negative emotions. Positive identities, those that affirm power and value, trigger positive emotions. It is impossible to separate emotion (how you feel) from identity (who you are). To eliminate any negative emotion it is only necessary to discreate the negative identity.

    In the center of every moment of emotional pain and suffering there is, always, without exception, a negative identity. Changing an identity—easy to do with Psycanic Energy Processing—will change the entire sequence of emotion, thought, and behavior that is generated by that identity.

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