Some questions on consciousness and panpsychism

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The March edition of Investigación y Ciencia, the Spanish edition of Scientific American, published a translation of my Scientific American article ‘Galileo’s Big Mistake‘. In June it published my answers to a couple of questions from readers. Below is the English translation of the questions and my replies.

First Letter: In “Galileo’s Big Mistake,” Philip Goff argues that, in order to scientifically confront the problem of consciousness, one should overcome Galileo’s scientific viewpoint based on limiting the explanation of the natural world to its quantitative properties. This conclusion is based on the fact that consciousness only manifests itself when the subject confronts the qualitative —not quantitative— properties of natural entities.

However, when considering the natural world from the perspective of a conscious subject, all of it boils down to consciousness, since even the mathematical laws used by Galileo to quantify natural phenomena are nothing but ideal entities: they need a subject who thinks about them, and as such they don’t belong to the realm outside the subject. In fact, if the philosopher George Berkeley was right with his motto “esse est percipi,” nature itself wouldn’t exist in the absence of a conscious subject perceiving it.

In summary, what a subject can know about consciousness will always be limited to their own conscious activity. And it doesn’t seem possible for the empirical science to establish what consciousness is by means of experiments carried out outside consciousness itself, beyond the mere correlations mentioned by the author between the various mental tasks and the neural activity of certain brain regions.
JOSÉ ENRIQUE GARCÍA PASCUA; Torrecaballeros, Segovia (Spain)

My Reply: I certainly agree that all knowledge of mediated through consciousness, and that consciousness is the only thing we know for certain is real. But if I only believe in things I’m utterly certain of the existence of, then I’ll be quickly led to solipsism: the view that my conscious mind is the only thing that exists. We cannot know for certain that other people exist, or, as Bertrand Russell observed, whether the world was created more than five minutes ago. In order to live life, we need to trust our memories, and we need to trust that the people our sensory experiences seem to put us in touch with are real. 

It could be that these other people are non-physical conscious minds, as George Berkeley supposed. But the trouble with Berkeley’s view is that we require some explanation of the commonalities and regularities in our experiences. Why is it that when my wife and I look in the same direction, we both have an experience of a table. Berkeley postulated a constantly intervening God to make sense of this, but this seems to me an extravagant and inelegant postulation. Michael Pelczar and Donald Hoffman try to make sense of this without God, and their work is really interesting. However, it seems to me much more simple and straightforward to postulate a shared physical world to account the commonalities and regularities in our experience. Why do my wife and I both experience a table? Because there’s a table out there in physical reality, and it causes our experiences by impacting on our bodies. 

However, in order to avoid Galileo’s Big Mistake, I adopt a panpsychist, rather than a materialist, conception of physical reality. There is a physical world out there, but it’s infused with consciousness. This is the positive bit of my book ‘Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a new Science of Consciousness.’

Second Letter: The general idea behind Goff’s article stems from the thesis implied by the example of the tree: “When a tree comes crashing down in a forest, the crashing sound isn’t really in the forest, but in the consciousness of an onlooker. No onlooker, no consciousness, no sound.” However, I don’t agree with such viewpoint: the sound produced when the tree crashes doesn’t depend on whether an observer is present or not, since the pressure waves exist anyway, also in the absence of an observer.

In Galileo’s time, the existence of neurons and brain functionalities wasn’t known, and therefore it didn’t make sense to talk about modelling internal perceptions of any kind. But today we have mathematical models that are able to determine the effect of the sound when, in the form of neural pulses, it reaches the various brain regions and activates them in specific ways. Therefore, and at least up to this point, a scientific model based on mathematics would still be valid.

The fact that we are still ignorant about the origin of consciousness doesn’t mean that consciousness cannot be modelled mathematically. It’s true that such a modelling may be impossible, but we won’t know until we learn about the nature of consciousness and try to detect it and measure it.

My reply: It depends what you mean by ‘sound’. If you mean ‘vibrations in the air’, then, yes, there is sound out there, independent of the observer. But if you mean ‘the qualitative sound we seem to encounter in our experience,’ then I would disagree that this exists out there in the physical world.

Galileo’s contemporaries had crude theories of brain mechanisms. We certainly have a much better understanding of the mechanisms of the brain. But none of this has made the slightest difference with respect to the problem of consciousness. The problem is that physical science, whether the science of Galileo’s time or are own, works with a purely quantitative vocabulary, and you can’t capture the qualities of consciousness in these terms. The language of physical science can’t convey to a colour blind neuroscientist what it’s like to see red. I agree that we can model consciousness in mathematics, and such models are useful. But they abstract away from the qualities involved in consciousness, and hence only tell a partial story. It’s a bit like how mathematical models in economics are very useful, even though they abstract away from the specific details about individuals and their labour. 

I believe we are currently going through a phrase of history in which we are blown away by the success of physical science, and this leads us to think that physical science is the only source of knowledge, that everything else is superstition. The irony is that physical science has been so successful precisely because it was designed to be a partial description of reality, abstracting away from those aspects of reality that can’t be captured in mathematics.  

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. It also depends upon whether or not trees are able to “hear”. If our ability to “hear” is just an interpretation of a vibration, why is not possible that other trees, or animals to have the same ability to interpret the vibration as a sound? Or an insect or a blade of grass, or anything else for that matter. In other words, If consciousness is everywhere in the universe, it would follow that perceptive powers are everywhere as well. Which also begs the larger question: which comes first, the material universe or the conscious universe?

  2. Lee Roetcisoender says

    “If you mean ‘vibrations in the air’, then, yes, there is sound out there, independent of the observer. But if you mean ‘the qualitative sound we seem to encounter in our experience,’ then I would disagree that this exists out there in the physical world.”

    Your assessment that the qualitative sound we seem to encounter in our experience does not exist out there in the physical world is incorrect, and that erroneous conclusion is exemplary of your lack of understanding about the phenomena we refer to as consciousness.

    It’s perfectly acceptable that your understanding of consciousness is incomplete and is constantly changing. That is a good thing; nevertheless, any evolving theory is limited and subsequently constrained by the metaphysical foundation upon which the theory is grounded; get the grounding metaphysics wrong and the entire theory becomes untenable and will come crashing down. It’s a basic engineering principle Philip, the foundation has to be built upon solid bedrock, not shifting sand.

    Your grounding metaphysics is subject/object metaphysics (SOM), a model we inherited from the Greeks. I have yet to encounter anyone who fully grasps what SOM actually is let alone the profound implications of such a grounding ontology. I would be willing to wager that you are just as clueless about SOM as everyone else I have encountered, as clueless as Chalmers, Coleman, Frankish, Kastrup, Hoffman, Carrol; the list goes on and on and on.


    • bob bob says

      All you’ve managed to do here is criticize a worldview without providing any substance to your criticism. You have not offered up an alternative, nor given any reason to believe that your criticism is valid. If everyone else is so clueless about the profound implications of the ontology, why not enlighten us all?

      • Lee Roetcisoender says

        First: I’m no god dam messiah bob bob, so it’s not my job to enlighten the world. Second: I’ve written a book that succinctly and explicitly explains my ontology. Nevertheless, it is a book that has not be released to the public for the following reasons:

        First: My experience with blogging has taught me that people are only interested in their own narrow world view, being absolutely satisfied with subjective experience, an experience that irrevocably reduces to solipsism. Second: What I’ve learned is not proprietary, it is freely accessible to anyone who is truly interested in an objective experience, one that does not reduce to solipsism.


  3. Steven Evans says

    Phillip Goff,
    You are just telling plain lies again.

    ” this leads us to think that physical science is the only source of knowledge, that everything else is superstition. ”
    This is simply not the case. That empirical physical sciences have been successful is simply a fact. But it is absolutely not an ideology. You are welcome to show truths about the universe.

    “The irony is that physical science has been so successful precisely because it was designed to be a partial description of reality, abstracting away from those aspects of reality that can’t be captured in mathematics. ”
    As far as we know, everything in the universe, including conscious experience is “weakly emergent” from Standard Model matter + GR spacetime (+ maybe dark matter and dark energy).

    You are welcome to provide evidence or reasoning to contradict this, but have singularly failed to do so.. In your claimed theory of an ontology of matter and conscious experience associated with a brain, you have failed to provide a single fact about matter or a single step towards explaining conscious experience. Your theory explains diddly-squat.

    You are a liar, a crank and an academic fraud. You are in breach of your employment contract because you are knowingly telling lies.

    • There are many in this world who would disagree with Stevan Evans in his reply to Phillip Goff. First simply because he is resorting to name calling in the attempt to validate his statements, and secondly, because he himself fails to see that science is just as much a dogma as any religion or philosophy. Religions have certain fundamental beliefs upon which sit their basis of how reality is put together, and science is no different. The biggest dogma of science being that science is the ultimate authority of objectivity.

      • Steven Evans says

        G Arthur Weidman (@arthur_weidman) says June 15, 2020

        It is not name calling, it is stating the facts based on the clear arguments I have provided. Words like “crank”, “liar” and “academic fraud” have specific dictionary definitions. He is a crank because he ignores current knowledge; he is a liar because he clearly can’t believe this nonsense himself; and, he is an academic fraud because he is publishing fraudulent research.

        Science is not a dogma. It is a collection of careful, repeated observations. Science simply records what has been observed. If you think any of those observations are mistaken then write them down here. Otherwise you have no argument and are just spouting nonsense.

        Is the observation of electricity induced in a magnetic field not true? But then how is the electricity supply for your house produced?
        Is the observation of the quantum behaviour of the electron not true? But then how do the billions of transistors in your PC work?
        Is the observation of general relativistic time dilation not true? But then why does the Satnav in your car need to take time dilation into account to correctly calculate your geographic position.

        Of all the trillions and trillions of phenomena that have been observed in the universe, not one is known not to be emergent from physical phenomena (the Standard Model + GR + possibly dark matter and dark energy).

        If you disagree, provide a counter-example. Just one, out of trillions. Off you go.

      • Steven Evans says

        But lies do get you everywhere, I’ll give you that. You are a cunning narcissist.

        You have failed to provide a single fact about matter despite claiming to have an ontology of matter, and you have not provided a single step to explaining conscious experience in a brain you claim is composed of “panpyschic” matter, despite claiming to have a theory of consciousness.

        Whatever physicists find out in the future about matter or neuroscientists find out about the brain, you will agree with it, because you have a null theory that imposes no constraints. You publish this blog on consciousness, your academic speciality is consciousness, and yet you know nothing about it.

        You are a “philosopher” of the gaps, hiding where you think you are safe from Physics.

    • bob bob says

      “Of all the trillions and trillions of phenomena that have been observed in the universe, not one is known not to be emergent from physical phenomena (the Standard Model + GR + possibly dark matter and dark energy).”

      Okay, everything you’ve said demonstrates a fundamentally flawed understanding of how our knowledge has developed. You are essentially taking the current set of fundamentals in our model of the universe and saying that everything we know about can be explained in terms of those fundamentals. I mean, duh? Setting aside the fact that consciousness is an obvious exception to this, how do you think we discovered what all of those fundamental things were?

      When did we ever directly observe dark matter, for example? We didn’t, we observed its effects and then postulated the existence of some invisible mostly-undefined thing that is responsible for those effects.

      When did we ever directly observe gravity? We didn’t, we observed its effects and then postulated the existence of some invisible thing that is responsible for those effects.

      When did we ever directly observe a photon? We didn’t. We observed its effects and then postulated the existence of some invisible thing that is responsible for those effects.

      The same is true for literally everything except for our experiences.

      Back when our model of reality had no gravity, why was it okay to postulate the existence of some invisible thing that is impossible to directly observe? What evidence did we have that it was gravity causing those effects as opposed to those effects just being an emergent phenomena of the known physical fundamentals of the time? The answer is because when we encounter mysterious effects that our current model cannot account for, it is perfectly acceptable to suspect that your model is missing a fundamental piece. If no combination of your current fundamentals can coherently account for the mystery, then you can postulate the existence of a new fundamental and explain the mystery in terms of that. Upon doing so, both your mysterious observation and your newly-added fundamental become part of the set of “physical” things that we accept exist.

      Identifying something that does not conform to the current list of known physical things and suggesting that we might need to modify our model to account for it does not mean that you are mystic. It means that you believe that we have an incomplete model (which you would be borderline insane to not believe). A particle physics formulation of panpsychism accounts for the mystery of consciousness by adding a new fundamental property or ability to matter. Dualism accounts for the mystery of consciousness by adding a new entity. Materialism does not account for the mystery of consciousness, but asks us to move forward with the faith that one day it will.

      To account for an observation that does not conform to our current model, all of these approaches are viable. Whether it is modifying the entities in the model, adding a new entity to the model, or keeping the model the same until we understand all of its implications better, none of these approaches are fundamentally better than the other. Each one has unique advantages, and all of them are worth open-minded consideration.

      • Steven Evans says

        Simply writing that it is “obvious” that conscious experience cannot be emergent from a physical brain is not an argument. It is an assumption.

        The physical brain evolved over hundreds of millions of years. As far as we know it is the complex structure of brain matter which exhibits conscious experience. Similarly a foetus is made only of matter and develops into matter which is capable of conscious experience.

        If you think otherwise then you need to provide a slightly better reason than “it’s obvious”. The point is that there probably is no mind-body problem, it’s just people not understanding the power of gradual change over billions of years to produce complex forms of matter. Darwin showed the mind-body problem to be a non-problem, as far as we know from empirical evidence.

        You should try to write much less and try to include an argument for your claims. Then you might make some sense.

    • Ryan Clark says

      Are Christoph Koch and Giulio Tononi also liars, cranks, and academic frauds? Because last I heard, they were among the most respected, accomplished, and well-known neuroscientists in the world. They’re also advocates of Integrated Information Theory, arguably the top theory of consciousness right now among neuroscientists and other experts. IIT also happens to be a theory that presupposes a form of panpsychism. In fact, I believe that Hedda Hassel Mørch, a panpsychist philosopher and a colleague of Goff’s, has at times worked with Tononi on the theory.

      So maybe panpsychism isn’t quite as fringe as you’re assuming, and maybe Goff is not actually an “academic fraud”…just maybe?

  4. Also…I’m not sure it’s conceptually possible to unknowingly tell lies…if you know you’re telling an untruth it’s not a lie…I think the ‘unknowingly’ is redundant…

    • Steven Evans says

      Philip Goff say June 15, 2020

      “Also…I’m not sure it’s conceptually possible to unknowingly tell lies…if you know you’re telling an untruth it’s not a lie…I think the ‘unknowingly’ is redundant…”

      The “knowingly” is redundant, I think you mean. Even attempting this pathetic dig you fall flat on your face. Your whole research career is redundant, that’s the point.

    • Steven Evans says

      Phillip Goff,

      Is it fair to say that you are intellectually terrified of taking me on in argument? Just like your fellow crank, Luke Barnes.

      • Alan says

        There’s evidence for reincarnation, over 40 years of cases and still ongoing from the Univ. of Virginia and other researchers. That cannot be explained by the electroweak model (this is unified) + QCD (together called the Standard Model but not truly unified) and general relativity. You’d need some theory of consciousness for that. Good luck with that, honestly.

  5. Kevin Pryor says

    A very massive particle homunculus would solve the binding problem, the neurons would send/receive the electromagnetic homuncular code by using the microtubules of neurons as antennas. It is a lot easier to believe in libertarian free will is in fact real in a quantum coherent homunculus since it is so unified.

    If all this is true it would be extraordinarily good news — the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will walk and even the dead raised! The blind will see and the deaf hear because when the wireless code the brain sends to the homunculus is decoded then all that would be needed to be done is to mount a camera/microphone on glasses that have a chip that converts the images/sounds to the homuncular code and an electromagnetic emitter to send the images/sounds to the homunculus. The lame would walk and the dead can be raised because when we know where the homuculus is and the wireless interface code, a new industry will be possible, the artificial body industry! Simply move the homunculus to an artificial body and power up, the homunculus will receive all the sense information and control the body with its free will. I think the artificial body industry will be the biggest industry and because of mass production available to all! I think eventually artificial bodies will be better than natural bodies and they can be designed for the environment of many planets, moons and the vacuum of space!

  6. Steven Evans says

    Alan says July 8, 2020

    “There’s evidence for reincarnation,”

    You are mental. Seek professional help.

    • Alan says

      The researchers at DOPS, Univ. of Virginia, certainly aren’t and you should ponder that. Apart from that, yourself, myself and others don’t sound and act like meat computers which is the only position left for materialism. We all sound and act like beings with something more than that, a spirit, soul, that which helps to make you what you are. If this is true, why do some like yourself actively argue against such a truth. Why does an “ensouled” being do this? To what end? And I don’t understand the anger.

  7. Pan Darius says

    Re: Solipsism

    The claim that anything in the world can be proven to be true or to exist, independent of awareness of that thing, is unfalsifiable.

    Falsifiability, as defined by Karl Popper:

    “In the philosophy of science, falsifiability or refutability is the capacity for a statement, theory or hypothesis to be contradicted by evidence. For example, the statement “All swans are white” is falsifiable because one can observe that black swans exist.”

    The evidence we have for the existence, of anything, is mediated through our first hand conscious experience of that thing. Even if we independently verify the truth or existence of a thing, there’s no way to independently verify that the first verification was actually independent of our awareness of it.

    In other words, all empirical experiments to prove anything about the world could, in the eyes and rues of empiricism and falsifiability, themselves be mere mental constructs and not independently existing objective realities in themselves.

    This is the unassailability of solipsism. Solipsism, as we know, is an irrefutable argument.

    And, as the author points out, it’s also not a particularly useful one, either. While logically true, there’s not a whole lot you can do with it.

    I can make the statement that “It is impossible to prove the existence of anything independent of an awareness of the existence of that thing”, but what can I do with that truth? It is not a claim that independent, objective existence doesn’t exist, but rather that it cannot be proven, which is correct.

    But science has never really dealt with Truth to begin with. That is to say that science is less interested in declaring that something is true than it is in finding out, of the possible truth statements, which are the most probabalistically likely. I can say, “Nothing can be shown to exist independently of awareness, and therefore the claim that anything does exist independently of awareness is unfalsifiable, and therefore also unscientific and un-empirical, but I’m pretty sure when I close my eyes the grocery store doesn’t cease to exist.” And that’s a perfectly fine and logical statement to make.

    Like the author, I begin with the unassailability of the solipsist position, and then move on to the practicality of attempting to describe the world in the best way that fits the evidence I do have, which itself includes the knowledge that solipsism is an irrefutable, if ultimately pointless, argument. And from that point I can extend my thinking into panpsychism, which itself is a kind of explanation for solipsism (as from the panpsychist viewpoint, everything that exists does in fact exist integrated with some form of mind, even if not “my” mind specifically…which is kind of solipsist with caveats).

  8. I’m sorry, but I think “materialism” is just a word people like Deepak Chopra and mystic New Agers love to hurl at others (like neuroscientists) who have questioned or shaken their deeply held beliefs (dualism and mysticism) or claims. I did the same thing when I was a New Ager myself.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that’s what you people are doing. Nor am I saying you are all woo-woo mystic New Agers deep down or in disguise.
    But just note that every time there’s a claim or “evidence” against “materialism”, it always comes from New Age woo woos and their websites, pseudoscientific sources, books, blogs, and scientists that are medical doctors or physicists (AKA not educated or in the field of neuroscience). Not from neuroscientists, peer-reviewed papers, journals or anything along those lines.
    You don’t hear a neuroscientist say “materialism” is false and consciousness is immaterial.

    • I appreciate the concerns about maintaining rigour and getting lost in nonsense. However, there’s one academic discipline you’ve missed out here: philosophy. Whether or not materialism is true is a philosophical, not a scientific, question. The empirical data of science is entirely compatible with materialism, dualism, panpsychism, idealism, etc. And academic philosophy has standards kept up by peer review. So I think you can avoid this worry by taking academic philosophers seriously whilst rejecting random stuff on internet. Of course, these matters are incredibly controversial, so it’s not like there is an agreed consensus among experts. Nonetheless, it is still possible to identify credible specialists on this topic.

      • Thanks for reading. I can understand being OPEN to more than just materialism. Many scientists are and that’s natural. I am too.
        And yes, I’m well aware that materialism is philosophical.
        It’s just that my “woo-woo detector alarm” goes off whenever someone starts saying stuff like “move beyond materialism” or “shake the limited materialistic view”, especially on a constant basis and OUTSIDE of science/neuroscience books, peer-review papers, and other rational sources.
        It gives me the feeling that they care more about the idea of materialism being false and looking through a worldview that seems to help them sleep at night, than they care about truth or reality (not saying that materialism is the ultimate reality).

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