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“Secrets of Consciousness” Debate

26 Jun

Here is footage of a debate I did at the ‘How the Light Gets In’ Festival at Hay on Wye last month. It got pretty intense (in a nice way…) and was lots of fun. I was defending panpsychism against the illusionism of Nicholas Humphrey and the illusionist/panpsychist position of Susan Blackmore.

Panpsychism Discussed in the Swiss Press

31 May

There was a rather crude attack on panpsychism published last week in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. It contained the usual cliched “arguments” – accusing panpsychists of being anti-science and really just seeking the comforts of religion – without really addressing the roots of the problem of consciousness and the merits of the panpsychist solution. On Friday there was an excellent reply by Godehard Brüntrup, Professor of Philosophy at the Munich School of Philosophy.

It’s to be expected that a proposal that pushes at the limits of our scientific paradigm should meet resistance. The irony is, physical science was never designed to deal with consciousness; indeed it has been so successful precisely because Galileo kicked things off by taking consciousness outside of its domain of enquiry and thereby gave physical scientists a more manageable task (roughly formulating mathematical models to capture the behaviour of matter). We are currently going through a phase of history where people are so blown away by the success of physical science, and the technology that has resulted from it, that they have become inclined to place all of their metaphysical faith in it. But physical science was designed for prediction not metaphysics, and its failure to explain consciousness is just one symptom of this fact.

I guess the reaction panpsychists seem to be getting is evidence that we’re having some impact. As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. In academic philosophy, panpsychism has gone from being laughed at to becoming a respected minority position. My aim now, partly through the book I’m currently working on, is to put the arguments to a general audience. I have little doubt than in twenty years time, the idea that panpsychism can be quickly dismissed as “crazy” will be seen as, well, crazy.

A Change of Heart on Fine-Tuning

24 Apr

I’ve spent the last few months exploring an unorthodox explanation of cosmological fine-tuning, which I discuss in this article and this talk. Part of my motivation was dissatisfaction with the two more conventional alternatives: God and the multiverse hypothesis. And part of the my dissatisfaction with the multiverse hypothesis was rooted in Roger White’s intriguing article arguing that the multiverse hypothesis doesn’t even explain the fine-tuning. As I said in a couple of recent talks on fine-tuning, it wasn’t that I was happy with the theory I’d come up with; to paraphrase Churchill, the view I was considering seemed to me to be the worst explanation of fine-tuning apart from all the others.

However, I think I’ve just changed my mind on the White article. White’s essential point is that what we want explained is why this universe is fine-tuned, whilst the postulation of a multiverse only explains why a universe is fine-tuned (I’m sure many will right now be screaming “But what about the Anthropic Principle/selection effect????”…see my discussion in the talk from 17:50-24:50.). However, at a recent talk I gave on this topic at Rutgers University, a discussion with Eddie Chen made me appreciate that this distinction collapses if the laws of nature are not contingent, that is to say, if our universe had to have the laws it has (and I’m independently attracted to philosophical views in which this is the case). If our universe had to have the laws of nature it in fact has, then it had to be fine-tuned, so long as it exists. This doesn’t mean that the fine-tuning puzzle goes away; it just turns into a different question. The question is not “Why is our universe fine-tuned?” but “Why does our fine-tuned universe exist rather any of the many very similar universes that aren’t fine-tuned?” Crucially, the multiverse theory can explain this: If there is a high enough number of universes, then there is likely to be one which, like ours, is fine-tuned.

So I’m now back to thinking probably some form of the multiverse hypothesis, perhaps the quantum mechanical version, is the best explanation of the fine-tuning. But I don’t regret exploring my “middle way” hypothesis. It’s philosophically important to explore new theories and explanations, and to try things out. After all, philosophers are supposed to question everything. It’s a shame that our intellectual climate makes this difficult. We pride ourselves on being liberal and free thinking, but it was hard to talk about this stuff. I could feel myself been categorised as “religious” or “new age” just for trying out a view.

Of course, we shouldn’t get lost in flights of fancy, but we should examine the arguments without prejudice. This was the enlightenment aim, but somewhere along the way that aim was replaced by dogmatic adherence to an ideological view of what science is “supposed to look like”. I look forward to the day when the enlightenment ideal of rigorous objectivity overcomes, once and for all, such ideologies.

Galileo’s Error: A Manifesto for a New Science of Consciousness

17 Apr

I’m pleased to announce that I now have publishing contracts in US and UK for my new book ‘Galileo’s Error: A Manifesto for a New Science of Consciousness’. The book will be highly accessible and will explore the problem of consciousness and why a growing number of philosophers and neuroscientists are coming to see panpsychism as the best hope for a solution. It will be published in Autumn 2019 by Pantheon in US and Rider in UK. All I gotta do now is write it…

Talk: Did the Universe Design Itself?

29 Mar

Here’s a talk I gave at the Ian Ramsey Centre at Oxford Uni recently:

I’ve somewhat neglected this blog recently…but having come to the end of very busy period should be able to do more updates in the near future…


First review of ‘Consciousness & Fundamental Reality’

14 Feb

The first review of my book ‘Consciousness and Fundamental Reality‘ has just come out, by Daniel Stoljar of Australian National University. It has flattery at the beginning and end with razor sharp critique in between, which is my favourite kind of sandwich! I will write a response as soon as I get a chance, probably at the beginning of March.

Fine-Tuning and Panpsychism

8 Feb

This admittedly speculative attempt to give a panpsychist explanation of fine-tuning just out:

It feels crazy, but I can’t as yet see the problem with the argument…