Is it the Job of Science or Philosophy to Account for Consciousness?

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The success of natural science over the last five hundred years has been truly mind-blowing. It doesn’t follow, however, that science is well-suited to answering all questions. Sam Harris has suggested that science can answer the questions of ethics as well as our questions about the nature of reality. But like many, it seems to me that there are many ethical questions which are just not suited to being answered scientifically. There’s no experiment that will tell us whether ethics is ultimately about maximizing good consequences or about fundamental rights and duties.

It is commonly assumed that the task of explaining consciousness is scientific rather than philosophical. I think that’s half right. It’s the job of neuroscience (among other things) to establish the neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs), that is, to work out which physical states of the brain are correlated with which subjective experiences. We have a robust and well-developed experimental approach for answering these questions.

However, establishing the NCC is just one half of a theory of consciousness. We also want to explain those correlation, to work out why certain physical states are correlated with experiences. As things stand, I think this is a philosophical rather than a scientific question. Philosophers have offered a number of different answers to this question. Here are three of them:

  • Naturalistic dualism – A subjective experience is a very different kind of thing from a physical brain state, but the two are bound together by natural law. In addition to the laws of physics, there are fundamental psycho-physical laws of nature which ensure that, in certain physical circumstances, certain experiences emerge.
  • Materialism – Each subjective experience has a purely physical nature. Having subjective experiences – feeling pain, seeing red – wholly consists in having certain complex patterns of neuronal firing.
  • Panpsychism – Each physical state has a purely experiential nature. Physical science tells us what matter does whilst leaving us in the dark about what it is. Having physical states – being negatively charged, being a certain pattern of neural firing – wholly consists in having certain kinds of subjective experience.  

All of these theories are empirically equivalent: there is no experiment that can decide between them. That’s not really a surprise, as this is not a purely empirical question. It’s rather a question of why something that is publicly observable (brain activity) always goes together with something that is not publicly observable (subjective experience). This is isn’t the kind of question an experiment can answer, just as questions about the fundamental character of ethics can’t be answered experimentally.

One option is agnosticism. If we can’t decide between these views experimentally, then maybe we should simply say that we don’t know which is true. Another option is to try to decide between them on the basis of non-experimental considerations. In other words, to do philosophy.

If I don’t think explaining the NCC is a scientific question, why is my book subtitled ‘Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness’? The task of explaining the NCC is currently in the domain of philosophy. But when a broad consensus arises as to how to address a question, philosophy turns in to science. The aim of my book is precisely to develop such a methodology for that bit of the science of consciousness which is currently in the domain of philosophy.  

So is it the job of science or philosophy to explain consciousness? As things stand, the task of accounting for consciousness is partly scientific (establishing NCCs) and partly philosophical (explaining the NCCs). If we one day achieve societal consensus on how to address the latter half of the puzzle, the task of accounting for consciousness will move entirely into the domain of science. I think this is starting to happen, but – just as at the start of the scientific revolution – there needs to be some serious engagement with philosophy before we get there.

What ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’ leaves out

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The BBC’s recent documentary of ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’ is worth watching. However, two important details from the history it conveys were missed out:

  1. During 2011, Murdoch was attempting to buy all of BskyB (as reported in the documentary). The then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt was put in charge of assessing ‘on a quasi judicial basis’ whether Murdoch’s plan was compatible with media plurality. In 2012, the Leveson enquiry revealed a lengthy record of emails, texts and phone calls showing a secret communications channel between Hunt and James Murdoch devoted to pushing the deal through and giving Murdoch what he wanted. In one email, Frédéric Michel, James Murdoch’ chief lobbyist, wrote to Murdoch of Hunt ‘He said we would get there in the end and he shared our objectives.’
  • When Prime Minister David Cameron was still refusing to speak out against Murdoch, Labour leader Ed Miliband made the decisive intervention of declaring that Murdoch’s empire should be broken up. This was the first time in a long time a leader of a major political party had challenged Murdoch’s power. Without this detail, the audience is left with the impression that both former Labour and Conservative leaders have been equally subservient to Murdoch.

There was also no discussion of how Murdoch is ensuring his grip on UK politics continues in spite of failing newspaper sales through the establishment of talkRadio and Times Radio (Murdoch is also planning to launch a Fox News-style show in UK, although perhaps this was announced after the documentary was made). We are not left with the awareness that this is still going on and is something we can challenge.

I’ll leave to readers to decide whether the BBC is reluctant to criticise a still prominent Conservative MP or to praise of a Labour leader significantly more left wing than Tony Blair.

Special Issue of ‘Journal of Consciousness Studies’ on ‘Galileo’s Error’

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I’m delighted to announce that there will be a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies on my book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, which will be edited by Alex Moran (Oxford University) and myself. The issue will feature short papers (4-6,000 words) on the themes of the book, contributed by leading physicists, neuroscientists, theologians and philosophers, as well as a response piece by me commenting on each of the papers. Publication will probably be in October 2021. Current contributors are:

Carlo Rovelli, Centre de Physique Théorique de Luminy of Aix-Marseille University

Lee Smolin, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

Christof Koch, Allen Institute

Joanna Leidenhag, St. Andrews

Sara Lane Ritchie, University of Edinburgh

Annika Harris, New York Times bestselling author of CONSCIOUS: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind

Chris Fields, Independent researcher

Alyssa Ney, University of California

Michelle Lui, University of Hertfordshire

Alex Moran, University of Oxford

We have a few other scientists and philosophers tentatively on board time allowing, who I’ll hopefully confirm in due course. Very excited about what looks like it’s going to be a really great, interdisciplinary volume on consciousness!

Response to Bernardo Kastrup

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I have just published a piece in the Institute of Art and Ideas, raising some objections to Bernardo’s Kastrup’s analytic idealism. One aspect of the disagreement between Bernardo and I is whether the following conditional is true: if physicalism is true, conscious states are epiphenomenal (i.e. have no causal effect on the physical world). Bernardo thinks it’s true; I think it’s false. I gave my reasons for thinking this in the IAI piece, but I would also like to counter-respond to some responses Bernardo raised in this blog post. I thought it better not to include this in the IAI piece, as it’s a somewhat peripheral concern. But I would recommend reading the IAI piece before reading the discussion below.

Bernardo argues for the claim <if physicalism is true, conscious states are epiphenomenal> by appealing to the work of David Chalmers on this topic, which is generally taken as canonical. Bernardo said:

“David Chalmers recapitulates the mainstream physicalist argument that, because the physical world is putatively causally-closed, phenomenal states must be physical states. In other words, because they have no causal efficacy, phenomenal states cannot exist as phenomenal states; instead, all the qualities they entail must be reducible to the quantities of physics.”

The first sentence above is correct. The second sentence, however, is not only not a correct interpretation of the first, but it contradicts the first. Again, we’re back to the logic of identity (see the IAI article). If phenomenal states are – are identical with – physical states, it follows – from Leibniz’s law – that, if physical states have causal efficacy, then phenomenal states have causal efficacy. I suspect from what he says elsewhere in the post that Bernardo will think I’m playing academic games. But the laws of logic don’t play games for anyone.

I think Bernardo may be confusing identity with elimination. Some physicalist hold that phenomenal qualities should be eliminated, in which case they don’t have causal efficacy but only because they don’t exist. The more common physicalist position is that conscious states are identical with, or wholly constituted of, physical states, in which case they have causal efficacy because they are identical with/wholly constituted of physical states. Bernardo seems to be trying to get to a middle way option for the physicalist: phenomenal states exist, but they don’t exist ‘as phenomenal states’ because they’ve been ‘reduced’. But what on earth would it mean for a phenomenal state to exist but not to exist as a phenomenal state? When physicalists say that they’ve reduced phenomenal states, they mean that phenomenal states really exist (as phenomenal states, how else would a phenomenal state exist?), but that they’re either identical with or wholly constituted of physical states.

In any case, the mainstream argument for physicalism that Chalmers is discussing claims that if dualism is true, then phenomenal states have no causal efficacy (because the physical world is causally closed), and hence that the only way we can ensure that phenomenal states have causal efficacy is if physicalism is true. I don’t buy that argument as panpsychism also gives us a way of ensuring that phenomenal states have causal efficacy (Chalmers agrees with this, which is one of the main points of the article). But the point is that Bernardo is misunderstanding what the causal closure argument is trying to show. If you don’t believe me, I recommend asking Chalmers, or any other academic philosopher working in this area, on either side of the debate. This is not a point of controversy.

In depth interview for ‘L’Indiscreto’

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I was recently interviewed by Francesco D’Isa for the Italian magazine L’Indiscreto. Here’s the Italian version; below is the English translation:

Why do we feel something? Where does our experience come from? What’s the purpose of consciousness? Could we function without it? These are very difficult questions and not surprisingly consciousness is known as a ‘hard problem’. Well, there’s a theory called Panpsychism that offers an elegant, rational and slightly weird answer: everything is conscious.

The position is held, among others, by Philip Goff, philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University (UK). In his very interesting book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, Goff reviews the most common answers to the ‘hard problem’ with clarity and depth: dualism, materialism and panpsychism. He clearly favors the last one, but since I had the luck to interview him about his book, I decided to explore all the possibilities with him.

Let’s start with dualism. Goff writes, «According to dualism, reality is made up of two very different kinds of thing: immaterial minds on the one hand and physical things on the other». Then, the hard problem for dualism is that «Dualists have to explain why empirical investigation of the brain shows no trace of mind-brain interaction». The so-called interaction problem is an old one and it was already raised by Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia against Descartes. Over time it became more complex, but the issues remains. As he writes,

«Imagine an immaterial mind were impacting on the brain every second of waking life, by initiating physical processes that caused limbs to move in accordance with the wishes of the conscious mind. When the mind wants to raise the right arm of the body, for example, it causes a change in the brain that will begin a causal process resulting in the raising of the arm. Each event that is directly caused by an immaterial mind will lack a physical cause. In this sense, each impact the mind has on the brain will be an anomalous event, a little miracle.»

We know that for some specific neural activity there corresponds a behavior: let’s say that some neurons fires and I raise my left arm. Why should I suppose another link in the causal chain, like a mind that command the neurons to make my arm raise? Arguments like these put dualism in a very difficult position.

FD: Now, pretending to be dualist, could I argue for a different chain: neurons causes both 1) the rising arm 2) the feeling of it. This way a dualist woulnt solve the correlation problem, but could maybe make her position easierwhat do you think about this possibility?

PG: That’s an interesting proposal. In fact, there’s a name for that view: epiphenomenalism. It’s the view David Chalmers used to defend, and others still do. The problem is that it means that consciousness doesn’t do anything, that it has no impact on the physical world. My pain doesn’t cause me to tell you I’m hurting; my conscious thoughts don’t cause my words. Here’s a ways of bringing out how strange epiphenomenalism is: I’ve just written a book about consciousness. If epiphenomenalism is true, my consciousness had no role to play in shaping my thoughts and my writings about consciousness. It could turn out to be true, but it would be better if we could find a way of allowing one’s consciousness to play a role in determining one’s behaviour.

FD: Then we have materialism. «For the materialist, the inner subjective world of experience is to be explained in terms of the chemistry of the brain, in something like the way the wetness of water is explained in terms of its molecular structure». You subject this thesis to an harsh criticism, founded on the idea that materialists have the theoretical obligation to explain how subjective qualities could be accounted for in terms of objective quantities. As the famous thought experiment of Mary points out, it’s hard to accept that I know everything about a state of consciousness – let’s say pain – just with a perfect knowledge of how it works, without having ever felt it. Moreover, as you write, a ‘philosophical zombie’ who looks and behave exactly like us without having any subjective feelings is logically possible – some joke that Daniel Dennett is one of these zombies. Is it your opinion that complete materialist knowledge of pain should be painful? And why do you think so many thinkers are unable to abandon this point of view about consciousness, despite its problems?

PG: The claim of the Mary thought experiment is not that complete knowledge of pain ought to be painful (that’s a nice way of putting it!). Rather, the idea is that if materialism is true, you should be able to have complete knowledge of pain without actually feeling pain, just from studying the relevant neuroscience. Physical information is all the information, if materialism is true. The problem is we do gain new knowledge when we feel pain: we learn what pain feels like, we gain knowledge about the character of the experience. This is information that neuroscience can never convey. And if there’s information that neuroscience can never convey, then materialism is false.

I think we’re currently going through a phase of history when people are understandably blown away by the great success of physical science, and the extraordinary technology it has produced. This leads people to think that the story we get from physcial science is a complete story of the universe. The irony is that physical science has been so successful precisely because it was never intended to be a complete story of the universe. It has always been focused on a quite narrow, limited task: roughly producing mathematical models to predict the behaviour of matter. Explaining the subjective qualities of experience is a quite different explanatory project.

FD: Let’s finally talk about panpsychism, «the view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of physical reality». Panpsychists,

 «…believe that the fundamental constituents of the physical world are conscious, but they need not believe that every random arrangement of conscious particles results in something that is conscious in its own right. Most panpsychists will deny that your socks are conscious, while asserting that they are ultimately composed of things that are conscious. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, panpsychists do not believe that consciousness like ours is everywhere. The complex thoughts and emotions enjoyed by human beings are the result of millions of years of evolution by natural selection, and it is clear that nothing of this kind is had by individual particles. If electrons have experience, then it is of some unimaginably simple form.»

FD: Despite its weirdness, Panpsychism is an elegant and rational solution that avoid all the problems of dualism and materialism. Why should we think that humans (or animals) have the monopoly of consciousness? You discuss evidence of consciousness that there is also consciousness in plants  – and point out that our philosophical arrogance has always turned out to be wrong in the past. The first question that comes to my mind is not around animals or plants, but about the more alien consciousness out there. What does it feel like to be a rock, an atom or a quark? Do spacetime or magnetic fields have consciousness as well?

PG: Most panpsychists will deny that rocks are conscious. The claim is not that everything is conscious, but that everything is made up of things that are conscious. So the rock is not conscious, but perhaps it’s made up of fundamental particles, such as electrons and quarks, that are conscious. Will we ever know what it’s like to be a quark? I think we can know something about the structure of a quark’s experience, as this will correspond to the very simple structure of a quark. I’m not sure we’ll ever fully understand what it’s like to be a quark, as I don’t think we can adopt the perspective of something with so simple a mental life. But that’s a general problem with studying consciousness. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel pointed out, no matter how much we learn about the physiology of bats, we’ll never fully understand what it’s like to be a bat, because we can’t adopt the perspective of a creature that echolocates its way around the world. Our knowledge of the consciousness of others will always be limited by our own limited viewpoint on the world.

Do fields and spacetime have consciousness? Actually, quantum field theory tells us that the fundamental constituents of reality are not tiny particles but universe-wide fields. Particles are then understood as excitations in these fields. If we combine panpsychism with quantum field theory, then we get cosmopsychism. This is the view that the fundamental forms of consciousness are universe-wide fields, and the fundamental conscious mind is the bearer of these fields: the universe itself.

FD: Even panpsychism has its problems, and you dedicate a big part of your book to the biggest of them: the ‘combination problem’:

«How do you get from little conscious things, like fundamental particles, to big conscious things, like human brains? We understand how bricks make up a wall, or mechanical parts make up a functioning car engine. But we are at a loss to understand how little minds could somehow combine to make up a big mind».

Your answers cant be summarized easily, but what in your opinion the strongest response to the combination problem?

PG: It’s a very serious challenge. One easy way of solving it is by postulating basic principles of nature to bridge the gap. So it might just be a basic law of nature that when you have conscious particles arranged in such and such a way, a consciousness corresponding to the whole system emerges. The problem then, however, is that we don’t seem to see signs in neuroscience of these new forms of consciousness popping into existence. In other words, we’re back to the problems of dualism. I’m currently developing a theory according to which there are basic principles of nature which bring into existence new conscious minds, but those new conscious minds inherit experiences which already exist at the level of fundamental physics. My hope is that, if it’s designed in the right way, it can be entirely compatible with the findings of neuroscience.

FD: This is my biggest doubt: I don’t understand when (and if) conscious minds overlap and when one erases the other. In the split-brain example – people who develop two different personalities once their brain’s hemispheres can’t communicate due to the corpus callosum at the centre of the brain being severed, to treat severe epilepsy. – it would seem that one consciousness is substituted by two new ones. But let’s take the example of a tapeworm: this worm probably has a rudimentary consciousness, but once I get it in my intestine it affects my own consciousness, since I get hungrier, I feel pain, I change some habits… in a way, a parasite is a part of my mind, similar to how hormones affect my consciousness. So, do different conscious minds erase each other, or are there a lot of intersections and sub-sets?

PG: It’s a very interesting question and I think different panpsychists would respond in different ways. Many panpsychists do believe there are many differences conscious minds in your body, and perhaps the split brain case is evidence of that. It could be that there is a consciousness associated with your liver, but we don’t think of it as your consciousness, because it has nothing to do with your thoughts and the words that come out of your mouth. But we also shouldn’t underestimate the role sub-conscious cognitive processes play in a person’s psychology, and it could be that some of the phenomena you point to can be explained in that way. How can a panpsychist make sense of the sub-conscious? The brain processes constituting your sub-conscious mental life will be made up of conscious particles, but it doesn’t follow that the brain processes themselves are conscious.

FD: I find interesting how you link mysticism and panpsychism in the fifth chapter. If we take the mystics’ insight as informative about reality, if panpsychism is correct and if there’s some truth in perennial philosophy (a perspective that views all of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth), maybe mystics experience a ‘formless consciousness’, as you put it, something that might turn out to be «the intrinsic nature of spacetime itself, in a way that is not localized but equally present at all regions of spacetime». I wonder if in the panpsychist frame even rocks, atoms and quarks experience ‘formless consciousness’… are all  things illuminated?

PG: Sometimes mystics do claim to experience a spiritual light shining through all of nature. William Blake talked about a world where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy, as the novelist Philip Pullman pointed out to me in our public discussion. I’m still not sure about the rocks. I guess I think a rock isn’t a really a ‘thing’; it’s just a random collection of particles that we think of as a ‘thing’. But if we’re thinking of universe-wide fields of consciousness, then certainly consciousness pervades the whole of reality in a very literal sense. Perhaps mystics just have a deeper insight into the nature of all-pervasive consciousness than the average person. I’ll keep on mediating and maybe one day I’ll find out!

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.  

Response to Pigliucci & Kaufman

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Happy Easter! I hope people are managing to enjoy some leisure and pleasure in these unique circumstances of lockdown. One thing I did was to watch this video of Daniel Kaufman and Massimo Pigliucci raising some objections to the (very different) views of Keith Frankish and I. I enjoyed this and I’m very grateful to Daniel and Massimo for thinking about my work. I’d like share a couple of quick responses.

My first issue is that they reject my version of panpsychism without really articulating what it is. This is especially striking when they discuss the response I gave to Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog post critiquing panpsychism in my public exchange of letters with Massimo. At 28:29, Massimo says that I respond by saying that ‘panpsychism is not about physical properties as we understand them.’ This is at best a massive oversimplification of my response to Hossenfelder and is arguably misleading. Daniel then goes on to criticise me in very strong terms (including accusing me ‘either unresponsive or obtuse’ on twitter…I thought we’d got on on twitter!) for not appreciating I need to offer an account of how certain properties can be ‘elemental properties of matter but not material’ (he contrasts me to his former supervisor Katz, who wrote ‘a whole book’ articulating a view according to which there are entities with both abstract and concrete properties).

The thing is, I do have an account, which I have written two books (one academic and one popular) defending. And that account is built on upon two further books, one by Bertrand Russell and one by Arthur Eddington (or rather, it’s based upon those books and the huge literature that they have spawned). The idea is that the properties physicists refer to – mass, spin and charge – are identical to forms of consciousness, and that we can make sense of this identity because physics only describes the behavioural properties of physical properties and is silent on their intrinsic nature. Now there are all sorts of ways you can criticise that account, and I’m sure some will doubt it’s ultimately incoherent. But I find it bizarre that Massimo and Daniel don’t even describe my view but instead dismiss me on the grounds that I don’t have a view.

Later in the discussion, the issue of empirical evidence comes up. Massimo correctly reports that I don’t think that a case can be made for panpsychism over materialism on the basis of empirical evidence. However, he then goes on to say that when he challenged me on this, I said that ‘the very asking for empirical evidence assumes a physicalist view’ (38:20). This is something Massimo also pressed in this recent popular article, suggesting I put metaphysics before epistemology and that I provide no epistemological justification for my view. I’ve looked back at the letters I wrote, and I have no absolutely no idea how Massimo is reaching this interpretation of what I said.

In fact, for better or worse, I do have an argument for the seemingly odd claim that we have grounds for believing panpsychism despite not having straightforward empirical grounds for believing it. My reasoning is as follows. We tend to think of the aim of science as accounting for the data of public observation and experiment. The trouble is, consciousness is not known about in this way. We know that consciousness exists not on the basis of observation and experiment but on the basis of our immediate awareness of our feelings and experiences. Hence, if we religiously follow the dictum ‘only believe in the things that are known about on the basis of public observation and experiment’, we’d have no grounds for postulating consciousness at all (the illusionists, also discussed in this video, are wonderfully consistent on this point).

Therefore, if we want a science of consciousness, we need to expand our conception of the data science needs to account for. We need to be looking for the simplest theory that can account for both the data of public observation and experiment and the first-person reality of consciousness. I think panpsychism is that theory (partly because I think it can be demonstrated that materialism can’t account for consciousness), and this constitutes the basis of my epistemological justification of it.

Now there are all sorts of things you can attack about the above position, and the very interesting claims Daniel and Massimo make later in the discussion could certainly be used in this way. But if you’re going to discuss my case for panpsychism surely you should at least say what that case is. And the stuff Massimo attributes to me about ‘the request for empirical evidence assumes physicalism’ is wild misinterpretation.

Later in the discussion, Daniel and Massimo agree that idealism is empirically equivalent to materialism, and Daniel mocks Samuel Johnson for trying to refute Berkeley’s idealism by kicking a stone. There is a deep irony here: the Russell-Eddington inspired panpsychism I defend is also empirically equivalent to materialism, which makes Hossenfelder’s post the contemporary equivalent of Johnson’s stone-kicking. Furthermore, given that Massimo accepts that materialism and idealism are empirically equivalent, surely by his own strict empiricism he should be agnostic about which view is true. Perhaps he is, but one doesn’t get that impression.

I’m sure there’ll be lots of people who watch this video and say, ‘Oh my god, Goff defends a view without any evidence, he’s such an idiot.’ But I think anyone fair-minded who’s read, watched, or listened to anything I’ve said on this, whether they agree with me or not, will recognise that my view is not being charitably represented here. In fact, it’s barely represented at all.

Ash Wednesday for a Non-Believer

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People are mystified by how I can be religious without believing. One thing I find incredibly affecting is the Ash Wednesday service: periods of silence, and then having ashes put on your head and being told ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’.

I had a vivid experience this time of realising that, after recent personal success, I’ve started to be a bit reliant on that personal success for my sense of self-worth, which has impacted me morally and spiritually, a little bit. I think this is why it’s hard to be rich and spiritually fulfilled (camels through eyes of needles and all that): because it’s hard not to get reliant on wealth, comfort, and success, for your sense of who you are.

You gotta have hope

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Goodbye decade that politicised me with the lies of austerity and Brexit. As things stand the future doesn’t look good, but I choose to live in hope. It’s been a shit decade for the world, but this is my blog so I’m obliged to report that the 2010s have blessed me with so many wonderful things. I commit to doing what I can to make the 2020s better than the 2010s.

2019: A Great Year for Panpsychism

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When I was first looking for academic jobs in 2006, I was told by well-meaning professors to keep my research on panpsychism to myself. In the thirteen years since, panpsychism has gone from being something that was laughed at in so far as it was thought of at all, to being a well-respected albeit minority position. This year, for the first time in its history, there was a session on panpsychism at the UK’s main annual philosophy conference The Joint Session of the Mind and Aristotelian Society, which featured talks by me, Luca Dondoni, Marta Santuccio and Gregory Miller. In addition, I organised a panpsychism workshop at the Science of Consciousness conference, which this year was in Interlaken, Switzerland (photos from both events below: Angela Mendelovici, David Bourget, Luke Roelofs).

2019 also saw four books on panpsychism published with major publishers, one of which was a New York Times Bestseller:

  1. Conscious: A Brief guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, by Annaka Harris
  2. The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness is Widespread but Can’t be Computed, by Christof Koch (Christof and I will be reviewing each other’s books in 2020).
  3. Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, by yours truly.
  4. The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes Donald Hoffman (Is Hoffman defending panpsychism? If not, something very close to it; I’ll post some on this soon).

The science of consciousness has come a long way in recent history. For much of the twentieth century, consciousness was a taboo topic, not seen as appropriate subject matter for serious science. Those days are long gone, and it is now generally accepted that we must find a way of integrating consciousness into our scientific worldview. However, although the problem is taken very seriously, it is commonly held that we just need to plug away with our standard ways of investigating the brain and we’ll eventually crack the mystery of consciousness. What this fails to appreciate is that consciousness is radically unlike any other scientific phenomenon.

I think the next stage is to persuade the scientific and philosophical community of the unique status of the problem of consciousness. This has been the focus of my public exchange of letters with Massimo Pigluccio, and something I intend to focus on in 2020. It will be the topic of my plenary talk at the Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson, Arizona this April (Hoffman will also be giving a plenary at this conference).

Panpsychism workshop at the Science of Consciousness conference, Interlaken Switzerland, 25th-28th June 2019

Angela Mendelovici

Philip Woodward

Luke Roelofs


Panpsychism session at the 93rd Joint Session of the Mind and Aristotelian Society, Durham University, UK, 19th-21st July 2019

Me again

Marta Santuccio

Luca Dondoni

Gregory Miller