Jerry Coyne Refuses to Publish my Response

comments 8

Jerry Coryne occasionally publishes these slightly ranty blog posts on my work. He approved my first comment on the latest (I published this comment as my last blog post) and responded; I counter-responded over a week ago, but my counter-response hasn’t appeared on his blog. I thought I’d publish it here:

I agree that panpsychism cannot be directly tested. But neither can materialism or dualism or any other theory of consciousness. There is a deep problem at the heart of consciousness science: consciousness is unobservable. You can’t look inside an electron to see whether it’s conscious, but nor can you look inside someone’s head to see their feelings and experiences. This puts strict limits on our capacity to investigate consciousness experimentally.

What we can do is establish correlations between brain activity and experiences; this relies upon the fact that we can ask people about their private experiences that we can’t observe directly. This is very important data but it’s not a complete theory of consciousness; what we ultimately want from a theory of consciousness is an explanation of those correlations. Why is it that certain kinds of brain activity are associated with certain kinds of experience? As soon as we try to answer that question we move beyond what can directly be tested; we essentially start doing philosophy. The various options — physicalism, dualism, panpsychism — are empirically equivalent, and so we have to move to other methods of theory choice to decide between them.

Can I have some straight answers to some straight questions?

  1. Do you agree that consciousness is unobservable?
  2. Do you agree that (1) makes the problem of consciousness importantly different from any other scientific problem (science is used to postulating unobservables, but in the unique case of consciousness the explanandum is unobservable)?

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. Jerry Coyne is probably not an interlocutor worthy of your time, Philip. He’s pretty stuck in a very narrow ideological view of what science is, what evolution is, and certainly, what consciousness is. It is important for unorthodox thinkers like us to have worthy opponents, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve seldom seen Coyne engage in good faith or show any capacity to step outside of the view he has already determined is the only rational one.

  2. Lee Roetcisoender says

    “As soon as we try to answer that question we move beyond what can directly be tested; we essentially start doing philosophy.”

    Phillip, I agree one hundred percent with your assessment that the hard problem of consciousness will only be solved by the disciplines of philosophy and metaphysics. Unfortunately, I have not seen any of the academic champions of panpsychism, be it yourself, Hedda Hassel Mørch, and/or David Chalmers display through their writing that they are capable of doing philosophy or metaphysics. All I see demonstrated is the practice of philosophology, the regurgitation of the same old arguments. In agreement with your greatest blog critic Steven Evans, you folks are not giving us anything new. If you folks need help, then get help. Do not be so arrogant that you are unable to swallow your own pride. You know how to get in touch…


  3. Bill Hill says

    Dear Philip

    Are you aware of the work of your fellow regular Jerry Coyne sparring partner Edward Feser?

    He is a philosopher who mainly works on the thinking of Thomas Aquinas and his contemporaries, and his primary research project is translating that tradition into modern analytic philosophical terminology so it’s more easily comprehensible to modern audiences.

    What I find very interesting about your theories (based on your posts here and public summaries elsewhere, as I have not read your full argument in your book) is that a lot of your observations about the history of modern science and its achieving success as a result of essentially deferring the question of what physical objects *are* in order to focus exclusively on the quantitative properties of what they *do* dovetails really neatly with some of the anti-materialist arguments he has been making for years, for example here:

    (He’s also (in my opinion) very good at answering dismissive objections from physicists and neuroscientists who don’t understand philosophy as well as they think they do)

    Obviously, as a devout Roman Catholic he draws *very* different conclusions from these arguments than you do (and I should give you fair warning: his political views are pretty much the exact polar opposite of yours) but I think that if you can look past all that to focus on his arguments, there is actually a lot more common ground between your position and his than you might think.

    You never know, it might be just possibly be grounds for a productive “adversarial collaboration”…

    Best Wishes


  4. Bill Hill says

    Thank you for your reply. I’ve been reading through some of your older posts and came across your back-and-forth with Anil Seth and I’m curious, did you ever get around to reading deeper into predictive coding as a theory of consciousness? And if so, what (if any) implications do you think that theory might have for panpsychism?

    Personally I’m not convinced that whatever mechanism the brain happens to have evolved to process sensory signals has any metaphysical significance either way. But then again I have what I understand is a rather “old fashioned” understanding of metaphysics as something that’s true across all possible universes regardless of which facts turn out to be true in *this* universe, so maybe there’s nothing empirical that could convince me either way!

    Best Wishes


  5. Hi, I have happened up on this blog post and thought I’d drop a comment and link here… I tend strongly toward panpsychism but I feel that your “consciousness is unobservable” notion relies on an overly limited notion of “observation.” Please take a look at where I explore how brain-computer-interfacing, brain-brain interfacing and such may allow different sorts of “direct experiential observation” of other entities’ consciousness states…

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