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Prof: Fine-Tuning in Nature Is Due to the Mind of the Universe

Panpsychism’s take on intelligent design, as expressed in the exquisite fine-tuning of the universe for life, is an interesting new approach

Here’s a fascinating essay from 2018 by philosophy prof Philip Goff, author of Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness (2019). He discusses the fine-tuning of the universe as an argument for cosmopsychism (a form of panpsychism). Ideas like his are becoming respectable in mainstream science venues:

In the past 40 or so years, a strange fact about our Universe gradually made itself known to scientists: the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of our Universe, are fine-tuned for the possibility of life. It turns out that, for life to be possible, the numbers in basic physics – for example, the strength of gravity, or the mass of the electron – must have values falling in a certain range. And that range is an incredibly narrow slice of all the possible values those numbers can have. It is therefore incredibly unlikely that a universe like ours would have the kind of numbers compatible with the existence of life. But, against all the odds, our Universe does.

Philip Goff, “Is the Universe a conscious mind?” at Aeon (February 8, 2018)

Here’s his scholarly article on the topic.

In Goff’s view, the best account of the matter is that consciousness is fundamental to the nature of the universe. This is rather a different approach to consciousness from the usual “Eureka! We have figured out how human consciousness got started! It helped early hominids hunt better!” that one regularly reads in popular science tabloids. He goes on:

However, a number of scientists and philosophers of science have recently argued that this kind of ‘bottom-up’ picture of the Universe is outdated, and that contemporary physics suggests that in fact we live in a ‘top-down’ – or ‘holist’ – Universe, in which complex wholes are more fundamental than their parts. According to holism, the table in front of you does not derive its existence from the sub-atomic particles that compose it; rather, those sub-atomic particles derive their existence from the table. Ultimately, everything that exists derives its existence from the ultimate complex system: the Universe as a whole.

Holism has a somewhat mystical association, in its commitment to a single unified whole being the ultimate reality. But there are strong scientific arguments in its favour. The American philosopher Jonathan Schaffer argues that the phenomenon of quantum entanglement is good evidence for holism. Entangled particles behave as a whole, even if they are separated by such large distances that it is impossible for any kind of signal to travel between them. According to Schaffer, we can make sense of this only if, in general, we are in a Universe in which complex systems are more fundamental than their parts.

Philip Goff, “Is the Universe a conscious mind?” at Aeon (February 8, 2018)

Goff argues for cosmopsychism, a form of panpsychism in which “the Universe is conscious, and that the consciousness of humans and animals is derived not from the consciousness of fundamental particles, but from the consciousness of the Universe itself.” He wrote a book on the topic, Consciousness and Fundamental Reality (2017).

In 2020, Scientific American gave Goff a surprisingly respectful interview, instead of just refusing to air his ideas or airing them only to ridicule them. In 2021, an annual philosophy conference in the United Kingdom held a plenary session on panpsychism, again, treating it seriously. Some don’t like it, including theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder but arguments against it must now offer more than ridicule.

Goff closes with

The idea that the Universe is a conscious mind that responds to value strikes us a ludicrously extravagant cartoon. But we must judge the view not on its cultural associations but on its explanatory power. Agentive cosmopsychism explains the fine-tuning without making false predictions; and it does so with a simplicity and elegance unmatched by its rivals. It is a view we should take seriously.

Philip Goff, “Is the Universe a conscious mind?” at Aeon (February 8, 2018)

Thinkers are taking it seriously. The underlying problem is that the one thing we are most sure of is our own consciousness and there is no reasonable purely materialist account of that. Panpsychism seems to want to rescue naturalism (nature is all there is) by dropping materialism (everything is material).

It will be fascinating to see where that goes.


You may also wish to read: Nautilus offers primer on panpsychism. Noting the growth in interest from science writers as well as neuroscientists and philosophers, the magazine offers four essays discussing current approaches.


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Prof: Fine-Tuning in Nature Is Due to the Mind of the Universe