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Scientific American Explores Panpsychism… Respectfully

This is a major change. At one time, a science mag would merely ridicule the idea of a conscious universe

Panpsychist philosopher Philip Goff, author of Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, explained panpsychism at Scientific American earlier this week in a surprisingly respectful interview:

Human beings have a very rich and complex experience; horses less so; mice less so again. As we move to simpler and simpler forms of life, we find simpler and simpler forms of experience. Perhaps, at some point, the light switches off, and consciousness disappears. But it’s at least coherent to suppose that this continuum of consciousness fading while never quite turning off carries on into inorganic matter, with fundamental particles having almost unimaginably simple forms of experience to reflect their incredibly simple nature. That’s what panpsychists believe.

Gareth Cook, “Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?” at Scientific American (January 14, 2020)

Essentially, panpsychists solve the conundrum of consciousness by ascribing consciousness to everything. Yes, consciousness remains a mystery but it is now subsumed into the mystery of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Examining questions like that from a science perspective takes us away from practical research programs and into the dark interior of theoretical physics. As Goff (right) puts it,

Despite great progress in our scientific understanding of the brain, we still don’t have even the beginnings of an explanation of how complex electrochemical signaling is somehow able to give rise to the inner subjective world of colors, sounds, smells and tastes that each of us knows in our own case. There is a deep mystery in understanding how what we know about ourselves from the inside fits together with what science tells us about matter from the outside.

Gareth Cook, “Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?” at Scientific American (January 14, 2020)

He’s right about that. We have no idea what consciousness even is. Views on the subject range from “consciousness is an illusion” through “consciousness is a material thing,” never mind claims that everything is conscious. Consciousness studies has been described in Chronicle of Higher Education as “bizarre.” And, in the midst of it all, prominent consciousness researcher Christof Koch boldly asserts “There is little doubt that our intelligence and our experiences are ineluctable consequences of the natural causal powers of our brain, rather than any supernatural ones.” Given how little we know, that is a statement of sheer, reckless faith, not a finding of science. Goff tells Scientific American:

Yes, physical science has been incredibly successful. But it’s been successful precisely because it was designed to exclude consciousness. If Galileo were to time travel to the present day and hear about this problem of explaining consciousness in the terms of physical science, he’d say, “Of course, you can’t do that. I designed physical science to deal with quantities, not qualities.”

Gareth Cook, “Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?” at Scientific American (January 14, 2020)

If he is right, questions like “Can machines be given consciousness?” or “Should robots have rights?” are mere distractions. We know neither what consciousness is nor whether machines could achieve it. Our educated guesses are useful but they aren’t science.

Make no mistake, panpsychism—as Goff elucidates it—is a purely naturalist view (“nothing supernatural or spiritual”). But, unlike the village atheist, he goes on to ask, but then what is nature? Matter is all there is? But what is matter? It turns out, no one really knows:

There is a profound difficulty at the heart of the science of consciousness: consciousness is unobservable. You can’t look inside an electron to see whether or not it is conscious. But nor can you look inside someone’s head and see their feelings and experiences. We know that consciousness exists not from observation and experiment but by being conscious.

Gareth Cook, “Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?” at Scientific American (January 14, 2020)

All that said, it’s not clear how panpsychism would help much with the conundrums of consciousness. If fundamental particles have “almost unimaginably simple forms of experience,” they shed no real light on human experience, which is often too complex to be easily described. If inanimate objects come to be seen as having intentions, wouldn’t we simply be bringing magical thinking into science? But many will be glad to give Goff credit for insisting that the the Hard Problem of consciousness really is a hard problem, not one that can be resolved by a contest, let alone a philosopher’s portentous announcement that it doesn’t really exist.

Further reading on panpsychism:

Why materialism fails as a science-based philosophy: I don’t believe that either panpsychism or cosmopsychism is true. But I have some sympathy with people who hold those views (Michael Egnor)

Are electrons conscious? If they are, the uncertainty principle means that they will never make up their minds. 😉 (Michael Egnor)

Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug. Materialists have a solution to the problem of consciousness, and it may startle you.


Why some scientists believe the universe is conscious

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Scientific American Explores Panpsychism… Respectfully