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

Corbyn not Corbynism was to Blame: My View on UK Election

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There is currently an intense and acrimonious dispute going on within the Labour party over the cause of our recent electoral defeat. Supporters of Corbyn want to put it all down to the fact that traditional Labour supporters wanting Brexit chose to vote Conservative to ensure we leave the EU; opponents of Corbyn claim it was the fault of Corbyn’s far too radical political programme that was always going to end in disaster.

I think both over-simplify. Clearly the Brexit issue was a major factor. But anyone who canvassed for Labour (myself included) can’t deny the intense dislike of Corbyn on the doorstep. However, opponents of Corbyn are conflating dislike of Corbyn with dislike of the policies he was supporting. Poll after poll has shown these policies — including renationalisation of the railways and a Green New Deal — to have strong popular support. The problem was that Corbyn just wasn’t a skilled communicator of those policies. He never wanted to job of leader and never expected to get it. Any Labour leader that tries to challenge the neo-liberal consensus is relentlessly demonised by most of the UK media (including the BBC), and you need to be a larger than life personality to beat this; Corbyn, for all his virtues, just wasn’t up to the job. If we had had someone as articulate and message-disciplined as Bernie Sanders selling this manifesto, I think we could have cut through, although whether that would have been enough to get round the Brexit problem is hard to say.

The aims of the right of the party are clear: to discredit once and for all the programme of the radical left and to push Labour back to the ‘centre’ of politics. The problem with making a virtue of ‘centrism’ is that the centre moves. For the thirty years after the war, the centre of politics involved a commitment to a far more radical programme of state ownership, regulation and high taxes on the wealthy than anything we find in Labour’s recent manifesto. I have a friend in his 70s who is an old school Tory who never got down with the Thatcher programme; his views on the economy are slightly to the left of Corbynism (at least the 2017 manifesto). Thatcher dragged the centre the right, and the neo-liberal establishment now pretend that this is the sacred and eternal place of the centre, and that anyone who questions its fundamental assumptions is beyond the pale.

Moreover, I think a lurch to the centre at this time would be disastrous for Labour. This election was as much about people’s lack of interest in centrism as anything else, as shown by the bad performance of the Lib Dems and the complete collapse of Change UK. Every centrist MP that left Labour and Conservatives in protest lost their seat. As soon as neglected leave voting communities realise that Brexit doesn’t make life better, and there’s still insecure work, in work poverty, collapsing NHS, food banks, neglected communities, etc., there’ll be looking for radical solutions from left and right. Either we inspire them with a radical rethink of the economic model or we’ll get fascists in parliament. I don’t think Labour has a hope of winning back working class seats if it becomes Change UK mark II.

Praying for an Election Christmas Miracle

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My political philosophy is simple and evidence based. For 40 years after the war, we (UK, US and much of Western Europe) had highly regulated capitalism with high taxes on the wealthy, and society become more equal and more prosperous. From 1980s onwards (my lifetime), we’ve had Wild West capitalism, resulting in massive inequality and perennial financial crises, culminating in 2008 when bankers brought the west to its knees. We’ve now reached a point where most of the population know the economic model isn’t working for them and are crying out for solutions from the radical left and the radical right. Either we persuade people the solution to their woes is to ‘take back control’ with a radical democratisation of the economy, or we’re going to get fascists in parliament. I feel tomorrow is the UK’s last chance to go for the former rather than the latter.

I don’t know what’s electorally possible tomorrow. But I’m going to bed tonight praying (A) the youth get out to vote, (B) the tactical voting that’s needed happens (see this), and (C) that people don’t believe the bullshit demonisation that happens every time someone dares to try to make the lives of working people better.

No photo description available.

Jerry Coyne Refuses to Publish my Response

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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)?

Reply to Jerry Coyne

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I’m flattered that Jerry Coyne has once again chosen to respond to my work. I just posted a counter response on his blog.

Thanks for this Jerry. But you haven’t really addressed two central arguments:

  1. Consciousness is unobservable, and hence we can’t straightforwardly test theories of consciousness. The best we can do is map correlations, by asking people what they’re experiencing while we scan their brains. But there are various theories that offer explanations of these correlations: the kind of materialist emergence theory you seem to favour, David Chalmers’ naturalistic dualism, my panpsychism. All of these theories are empirically equivalent, so we can’t distinguish between them with an experiment. We have to turn other methods of theory choice (i.e. do philosophy).
  2. The big problem with the materialist emergence view as that it has a huge explanatory gap at its core: between the quantitative properties of physical science and the qualitative properties of consciousness. Nobody has ever made any progress on closing this gap.

You may say, ‘Well look how successful physical science has been; surely this should give us confidence that it’ll one day crack the problem of consciousness.’ But as I argue in detail, this view results from a misunderstanding of the history of science. Yes, physical science has been incredibly successful, but it has been successful precisely because it was designed, by Galileo, to exclude consciousness. It has done very well focusing on the observable, quantitative features of matter, but this gives us no grounding for thinking it will be able to explain unobservable, qualitative properties of subjective experience.

You have provided no response to this central argument. Moreover, why wait for a theory that might never come, when we already have one that is just as parsimonious as materialism but avoids its explanatory gap?