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.
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:
- Conscious: A Brief guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, by Annaka Harris
- 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).
- Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, by yours truly.
- 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
Panpsychism session at the 93rd Joint Session of the Mind and Aristotelian Society, Durham University, UK, 19th-21st July 2019
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.
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.
Massimo Pigliucci and I have had a series of twitter rows on the topic of consciousness and panpsychism. Recently we decided to go old school and write some letters, which you can access here. I’ve just written my second. Subscribe to follow the debate!
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?
- Do you agree that consciousness is unobservable?
- 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)?
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:
- 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).
- 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?
My book ‘Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness’ was published this week. To mark the occasion, I have been involved in putting out a variety of podcasts, videos and articles on its themes. Here is a selection:
Philip Pullman and I were interviewed on the consciousness, panpsychism and the philosophy of His Dark Materials on the BBC’s flagship radio news show (around 1 hour, 22 secs in).
Pullman and I also had a public discussion on consciousness, panpsychism, and the philosophy of His Dark Materials at Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford.
The physicist Sean Carroll and I argued about panpsychism on his podcast.
I debated ‘Does consciousness point to God?’ with the Christian neuroscientist Sharon Dirckx (actually we only debate God in the last 10 mins).
I wrote a piece for Scientific American explaining why I think Galileo is to blame for the problem of consciousness. I also wrote a piece for The Conversation discussing both this problem and my proposed solution. An extract from the final chapter of my book, discussing how panpsychism can help us deal with the environmental crisis, was published in in Nautilus magazine. Finally, on a lighter note, I wrote a piece for Penguin website on five of the best films to explore the philosophy of AI.
I’ve just finished a draft of a new paper, exploring whether reflection on consciousness can help us make progress on foundational questions in quantum mechanics. You can access it here: http://www.philipgoffphilosophy.com/uploads/1/4/4/4/14443634/quantum_mechanics_and_the_consciousness_constraint1.pdf
It’s going to come out with a volume called ‘Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness,’ which will be published with Oxford University Press (edited by Shan Gao). All comments welcome! It’s not incredible accessible, I’m afraid. Below is the first section, which gives the big picture.
Quantum mechanics is one of the best predictive machines humankind has ever produced. Much of our modern technology, from computers to smart phones to GPS, is reliant on its predictive power. The trouble is nobody knows what quantum mechanics is telling us about reality. There are numerous proposals but no consensus on which is most probable. As things stand, the empirical data seems to underdetermine the theory.
In this kind of situation, philosophy has an important role to play, helping us to evaluate the evidential situation with respect to the various hypotheses. But it is generally assumed in this context that philosophy is not able to offer us new data, over and above the scientific data of observation and experiment. The usual expectation is that the philosopher of physics will contribute conceptual clarity and perhaps a cost-benefit analysis of the various interpretations of quantum mechanics in terms of theoretical virtues, such as simplicity, parsimony, non ad-hocness, etc.
In contrast to this standard assumption, I’m inclined to think that philosophy does have new data to offer, and that this data might have bearing on the ontology of quantum mechanics. What I have in mind is data pertaining to the reality of consciousness. Consciousness is not something that we know about through observation and experiment. If we were just going off the data of third person observation and experiment, we would have no need to postulate subjective experiences, as Daniel Dennett (2007) has argued very effectively. Nonetheless, contra Dennett, we do know that consciousness is real: we know that it’s real in virtue of the immediate awareness each of us of our own feelings and experiences. Any theory of reality unable to account for the reality of consciousness is at best incomplete. In this sense, the reality of consciousness is a datum in its own right. I call the theoretical obligation to account for this datum ‘the consciousness constraint.’
I believe that scientists and philosophers of the future will be baffled by the fact that their late twentieth century/early twenty first century ancestors did not make more use of the consciousness constraint. There is a certain phenomenon known to be real with something close to certainty, and yet the ontological implications of that phenomenon are completely ignored by most theoretical scientists, and even most metaphysicians. It is true that the problem of consciousness, broadly understood as the challenge of understanding ‘how brains produce consciousness,’ is now taken to be a serious scientific problem. However, this is generally assumed to be a problem that will go away with a bit more neuroscience. But the problem of consciousness is radically unlike any other scientific problem, not least because the fundamental datum that needs to be accounted for does not come from observation or experiment. Consciousness is something we know about independently of third-person empirical science; as such it is a valuable source of information to be added to the data of observation and experiment.
The bearing of consciousness on quantum mechanics has been
very little explored. Of course, a small number of heterodox thinkers have
tried to make sense of the old idea that consciousness might have a role at the
heart of quantum mechanics (see Chalmers and McQueen this volume). But this has
never been articulated as part of a general approach of working out how the
reality of consciousness constrains theory choice in this area. This paper will
take a first step in rectifying this, by tentatively exploring the question of
whether wave function monism – a popular interpretation of the ontology
of quantum mechanics – is able to satisfy the consciousness constraint.
Panpsychism gets flak from a lot of directions. But a new one on me was John Horgan’s accusation that panpsychists are guilty of ‘geo-centrism,’ the attempt to drag us back to the pre-Copernican view that reality revolves us human beings:
As far as we know, consciousness is property of only one weird type of matter that evolved relatively recently here on Earth: brains. Neo-geocentrists nonetheless suggest that consciousness pervades the entire cosmos. It might even have been the spark that ignited the big bang.
Let us set aside the suggestion in the last sentence that panpsychism has something to do with theism (in my experience, most panpsychists are atheists just looking for the best scientific account of consciousness). Not only would I resist the charge that panpsychism involves geo-centrism, I would go further and say that panpsychism saves us from geo-centrism. For non-panpsychists, consciousness – the source of all that is of value in existence – is to be found on the planet alone, and only in its very recent history. In the immensity of the cosmos, we are uniquely special and privileged. Panpsychists, in contrast, propose a new Copernican revolution, according to which there’s nothing special about human consciousness; it’s just one highly evolved form of the stuff of the universe. Panpsychist Hedda Hassel Mørch put it well in a tweet to Horgan:
Geocentrism says we are special. Panpsychism says we are not special at all – yes, everything is like us, but therefore we are like everything else.
Moreover, Horgan’s approach in this article doesn’t seem to me a good way to deal with scientific questions. He is starting from an a priori assumption as to what reality ought to look like: it ought not to revolve around human beings. This seems to me just as flawed as the proponent of religion who starts from an a priori assumption that the world ought to have us at the centre. Surely we should just look to the evidence and arguments to tell us what reality is like?
Perhaps, as is hinted at in the first line of the above, Horgan would argue that the fact that we find consciousness only in highly evolved systems counts as evidence against panpsychism. As I discuss in my last post, this would count as evidence against panpsychism only if we would expect to find consciousness in particles if it were there (this reflects a standard Bayesian way of thinking about evidence). But given that consciousness is unobservable, we wouldn’t expect to observe consciousness in particles, whether it was there or not. Nor can we observe consciousness in brains. We know about consciousness not through observation and experiment but through the immediate awareness each of us has of her or his own conscious experience.
Of course, before we take panpsychism seriously, we need to have reason to believe it. Hedda and I, and many others, have argued at length that panpsychism offers the best account of how consciousness fits into a scientific worldview. Of course, those arguments can be challenged in all sorts of ways. But to reject panpsychism simply on the basis that it doesn’t reflect how you think reality ought to be is not good science.