Philosopher Philip Goff is an advocate for cosmopsychism, the viewpoint that the universe itself is conscious and that we partake in some fashion in this universal consciousness. It’s a variant of panpsychism — the view that everything has consciousness of a sort.
I don’t believe that either panpsychism or cosmopsychism is true. But I have some sympathy with people who hold those views. They take consciousness seriously in a way that materialists don’t. There is no doubt that consciousness is a fundamental property of existence, at least of animal and human existence. As Descartes observed, to even ask about consciousness is to exercise it.
Goff explained the problem to an interviewer recently:
Materialism can’t account for the reality of consciousness, which I think is a datum in its own right. We know that consciousness is real and so it has to fit into our worldview somehow. If there’s a supposedly complete theory of reality that can account for all of the data of observation and experiment but that can’t account for the reality of consciousness, then that theory cannot be true.Tam Hunt, “Is the Universe Conscious? A Conversation with Philosopher Philip Goff” at Noozhawk
I agree. A metaphysical perspective that doesn’t explain consciousness is untenable up front.
Modern materialism, from which our denial of consciousness springs, was formulated by Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and his immediate predecessors in the early modern era. They denied the reality of formal and final causes in nature. They argued that science could only deal with material and efficient causes — stuff hitting stuff, basically.
This is a diminished view of nature, as quantum mechanics has made painfully obvious. It is also entirely unnecessary. Scientists who wish to focus their research on material and efficient causes are free to do so. They can do good (if not profound) science with these impoverished tools. But it is another thing entirely to deny that formal and final causes exist. They most certainly do exist — nature is incomprehensible if we do not take into account formal and final causes.
For example, the universe obeys intricate mathematical laws (formal cause) and biological systems obviously have purposes (final cause). Studying the dynamics by which the heart pumps blood, for example, inherently means taking into account formal and final causation. Formal and final causes are everywhere.
Final and formal causes in nature are mirrored in the human mind. My intellect is the formal cause of my abstract thoughts. My will is the final cause of acts that follow from my intellect. Formal and final causes are part of who we are; both the human mind, and nature as a whole are incomprehensible without them.
Panpsychists and cosmopsychists like Goff are right about this: Consciousness of some sort permeates the universe and is at the core of our humanity. Materialism is a kind of madness — it is the denial of the most undeniable thing about reality.
But the universe itself is not conscious, nor are inanimate objects. Whether plants are conscious in any sense is doubtful, I think, but it is at least debatable. Animals are obviously conscious, as are we. What cosmopsychists like Goff see correctly is that fundamental reality is more like a Mind than it is like mindless matter. Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, and countless other philosophers have made the same point.
How can Mind be so fundamental to the universe but the universe itself remain inanimate? A theist will answer (correctly) that the universe is created and held in existence by a Mind. Augustine and many other theologians have proposed that creation is a thought in God’s Mind, which strikes me as true.
The universe, contra Goff, is not a mind, but it is in a Mind, and it (and we, especially) carry the marks of the Mind that holds us in existence.
Further reading on plants, animals, the universe, and consciousness:
Why some scientists believe the universe is conscious
Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug
The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking — a necessary tool for abstraction — and humans are the only animals who think abstractly (Michael Egnor)
Can plants be as smart as animals? Seeking to thrive and grow, plants communicate extensively, without a mind or a brain. But, plant scientists say, they are not conscious; there is a critical distinction between complex communication systems and self-awareness.