Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
open eye in space
open eye in space

A Darwinian Biologist Resists Learning To Live With Panpsychism

Jerry Coyne makes two things quite clear: He scorns panpsychism and he doesn’t understand why some scientists accept it

Jerry Coyne, a traditional Darwinian evolutionary biologist and author of Why Evolution Is True, is having a hard time understanding why anyone would even consider taking panpsychism seriously. His bafflement over the growing acceptance of the idea that every living thing (or everything) is conscious to some extent may shed light on some new features of the changing science landscape.

His jumping off point is a recent three-way debate/discussion, sponsored by MindChat, between panpsychist philosopher Philip Goff, naturalist theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, and physicalist philosopher Keith Frankish, who views the mind as an illusion created by the brain — or, as Coyne puts it, “a trick of the biological mind.”

Coyne, as a metaphysical naturalist (nature is all there is), is quite sure that panpsychism is “bunk” and that Carroll won the debate:

I watched only until an hour and 45 minutes in, so I can’t tell you what happens in the rest of the discussion. But if you watch up to that point, and listen to Sean’s eloquent and patient explanations, and see the sweating panpsychist professor try to prop up his crumbling ideas, you will not be any more enamored with panpsychism than you were before. In other words, you’ll see that it’s a theory without substance.

Jerry Coyne, “Do electrons behave differently when they’re in brains? Sean Carroll takes Philip Goff apart on panpsychism” at Why Evolution Is True (November 12, 2021)
Jerry Coyne

But speaking of theories without substance, a commenter, “Maximillian,” writes to note that Carroll is a proponent of the multiverse, itself a contested idea, deemed unfalsifiable. The commenter also points out a fact that Coyne appears reluctant to take into consideration:

Maximillian: Integrated information theory (which strictly speaking is not panpsychist in Goff’s sense) is currently a leading contender for a theory of consciousness. According to IIT, consciousness is what it “feels like” when information is processed. If that turns out to be the case, then it is within the realm of possibility that the arrangement of physical matter in patterns unlike the biological brain might lend conscious experience to other entities that current scientific theories do not comprehend. In fact, if IIT is correct, physical fields could in principle be conscious. But that is a big if.

“Maximillian” (November 15, 2021) at Jerry Coyne, “Do electrons behave differently when they’re in brains? Sean Carroll takes Philip Goff apart on panpsychism” at Why Evolution Is True (November 12, 2021)

Yes, that’s right. Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is a “leading contender for a theory of consciousness.” Would it likely be a leading theory if cranks, kooks, and charlatans were driving the bus?

In a later post, Coyne railed against last year’s special issue of Nautilus (February 27) on panpsychism:

I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with panpsychism. It’s probably because I see it as scientific snake oil. It’s philosophy pretending to be science but not behaving like science, for it’s just a bunch of untestable assertions that cannot be falsified. And if a theory cannot be falsified, we cannot regard it as conveying scientific truth. I once had a theory that resembles panpsychism in that way. It was when I was a young child and had a bunch of stuffed animals (including Toasty). My “theory” was that when I left the room, they would get up and move around, but as soon as I was about to peek at them, they’d resume their former positions. (Actually, you could use a video camera to test that, I suppose, but I could invoke the “observer effect” that ESP advocates use to avoid being tested.)

Isn’t it time for us to stop taking this nonsense seriously? I regard panpsychists as I regard theologians: they both make stuff up, nothing they say is testable, and they both actually get paid to foist nonsense on the public.

Jerry Coyne, “Panpsychism again?” at Why Evolution Is True (November 19, 2021)

Again, “Maximilian” appears (November 20, 2021), offering to help:

Maximillian: I have an idea why. (Please do not take this disrespectfully, it’s the same reason I am suspicious of it). If panpsychism were true, something like pantheism/panentheism would almost certainly follow. A conscious, thinking universe is a very close approximation to God. If one is inclined towards suspicion of religious claims (as I and most others here are), one is going to be suspicious of panpsychism.

“Maximillian” Jerry Coyne, “Panpsychism again?” at Why Evolution Is True (November 19, 2021)

“Maximillian”’s inference would help account for Coyne’s intemperance and inability to grasp the issue: Naturalism is not providing answers. In a 2015 paper attempting to account for the evolution of consciousness, we are informed that consciousness may be a spandrel (“a by-product of some other trait that has adaptive value although consciousness itself has no adaptive value of its own (or may even be dysfunctional)”).

Christof Koch

Coyne may regard that sort of thing as the voice of science but many others think it provides more conundrums than insights.

Influential materialist philosopher Michael Tye moved to panpsychism, as did another materialist philosopher, Galen Strawson. It makes more sense to start with the fact that our own consciousness is the thing we are most sure of than to try to explain it away. Both of these philosophers — and some prominent scientists as well — would likely be happy to just accept naturalism if its answers worked

Panpsychism — of which there is a number of varieties — is not a dualist viewpoint. It assumes that consciousness is present in some sense in all of nature (Christof Koch) or at least in all or most living entities (Bernardo Kastrup). It is most fully present, to date, in humans.

Whereas naturalism is reductive (human consciousness is an illusion or a spandrel, for example) panpsychism is expansive. It doesn’t claim that electrons (or socks) have opinions (contra the jokes) but that our own ability to have opinions is a natural, gradual, and quite real development of the components from which we are constructed.

The difference between naturalism and panpsychism may seem a subtle one. But Coyne’s reaction shows that it is significant: The naturalist says, “Human consciousness developed simply because it helped primates hunt better” or “Human consciousness developed as a byproduct of other changes in the brain.” The panpsychist says, “Human consciousness is an inevitable development, given the greater complexity of the human than of the amoeba, which experiences it at a primitive level”).

The panpsychist must do more than that to account for our human consciousness, of course. But he is free of the need to explain it away. Meantime, here’s a question worth thinking about:

Why do we assume that all science advances will support naturalism?

Carroll’s epiphenomenalist approach (“the mind is what the brain does”) relies on promissory materialism, as his recent paper illustrates: “Even as neuroscience makes impressive advances in understanding the brain, it seems prudent to anticipate that we have a number of conceptual and technical breakthroughs yet to come that could bear in important ways on the question of consciousness.” – Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2021. In other words, he makes the assumption that science advances will be advances for naturalism (or materialism or physicalism). Thus, science advances will make panpsychism, dualism, and idealism less credible. Why?

As a matter of fact, pretty much the opposite has happened in neuroscience. It was neurosurgery that showed that people with split brains could lead normal lives. Brain imaging showed that people with half a brain or even less can do the same. Neuroscience studies have also provided confirmation of free will. Naturalism hardly predicted any of that.

Panpsychism, whether one accepts it or not, is entertained for rational reasons: Thinkers are trying to understand the sources of information, intelligence, and consciousness in the universe and promissory materialism seems, to many people, less like the obvious right answer than it used to. Stay tuned.

You may also wish to read: Philosopher: Panpsychism is not in conflict with physics at all. Responding to criticism from physicists Sabine Hossenfelder and Sean Carroll, Philip Goff points out that panpsychism is not a dualist perspective. Philip Goff sees panpsychism (consciousness pervades all nature) as offering a simpler view of physics than dualism, with fewer gaps than materialism.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

A Darwinian Biologist Resists Learning To Live With Panpsychism