In a recent interview, Durham University philosophy professor Philip Goff told contributing editor Ricky Williamson at IAI News that panpsychism, for which he is famous, “has gone mainstream.” That is, the idea that consciousness is real and that perhaps all life forms (or the whole universe) share in it is increasingly considered a reasonable idea. Thus Goff is now tackling the concept of purpose behind the universe in a forthcoming book, Why? The Purpose of the Universe (Oxford University Press, 2023).
He’s right about the mainstreaming of panpsychism in the last few years. When New Scientist can write a sympathetic account of panpsychism and University of Chicago biochemist James Shapiro, can tell us in a prestigious science journal that all living cells are cognitive, that’s pretty mainstream. At the same time, eliminative materialism, the view that all consciousness — including human consciousness — is just an illusion, naturally selected to help us survive, seems to be declining in popularity. So, if this trend continues, what might it portend?
Even via the title of his new book, Goff implicitly defends another position that is routinely denounced in the mainstream: the idea that the universe could in fact have a purpose.
Goff has given up on the multiverse
Goff will be discussing/debating his views with philosopher Hilary Lawson and condensed matter physicist Suchitra Sebastian in a panel, “The Mystery of Emergence,” at the upcoming music and philosophy festival, HowTheLightGetsIn, sponsored by Institute for Arts and Ideas (IAI). Williamson, of course, had some questions for him.
Goff admits that he used to feel comfortable accounting for the fine-tuning of the universe for life by assuming that there is an arbitrarily large number of universes out there that do not host life. But now, he says, “All we’ve observed is this one universe. And whether or not there are other universes out there has no bearing on whether the one universe we’ve observed is fine-tuned.” And then he says,
For these reasons, I’ve been dragging kicking and screaming to the conclusion that fine-tuning points to cosmic purpose, to some kind of goal-directedness at the fundamental level of reality. I don’t feel comfortable with this; I still feel silly talking about ‘cosmic purpose,’ and wish I didn’t have to. But I don’t think we should let these cultural feelings stop us following the evidence where it leads. At the end of the day, it’s just too improbable that the right numbers for life came up just by chance. – Ricky Williamson, “Fine-tuning points towards a cosmic purpose,” IAI News, September 11, 2023
He’s right, of course. The fine-tuning of our universe is just too improbable to be mere chance. But that’s the mainstream science view right now. If Goff doesn’t want to get dropped from the list of people who are taken seriously, he must find a way to talk about purpose in the universe without talking about God. As we might expect, Williamson raises that very topic… And Goff replies,
It’s certainly not the ‘omni-God,’ i.e. an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good creator. I think the argument from evil and suffering against the omni-God is one of the most compelling philosophical arguments there is. Cosmopsychism improves on the traditional idea of God in two ways. Firstly, it’s a much more parsimonious hypothesis, because you’re not committing to anything supernatural. But more importantly, the problem of evil is avoided altogether because this isn’t an all-powerful conscious mind. On the view I develop, the laws of physics track the limited capacities of the universe. Theists can’t explain evil and suffering; atheists can’t explain fine-tuning. Only cosmopsychism can accommodate both of these data-points. It sounds a bit weird, but it’s actually the simplest theory that can explain all of the data. – Williamson, “Fine-tuning, IAI News
Will cosmic purpose be mainstreamed as easily?
Nice work. Goff cleverly positions cosmopsychism (his version of panpsychism) as avoiding the weaknesses he identifies in the two other positions. The chief difficulty, of course, is that if there is nothing beyond nature (i.e., supernatural), how do we account for nature coming into existence at all? If there is no consciousness beyond nature, how do we account for the existence of a conscious universe? But only people who are already prepared to consider the possibility of a consciousness beyond nature will likely ask such questions.
Many of the people he is trying to reach may be mollified to discover that he thinks that it makes no sense that psychedelics are illegal and that he is convinced that “Brexit wouldn’t have happened if psychedelics were de-criminalised.”
In closing, Goff tells Williamson,
There’s only so long we can keep ignoring the evidence for cosmic purpose, or keep pretending we’re mechanisms. Physical science is confined to describing the behaviour of matter. And so physicalism only makes sense if you think being conscious is just a matter of how you behave, or how the bits of your brain behave. But that’s just not what we mean by ‘consciousness.’ When I say my wife’s in pain, I’m not just making a claim about her behaviour or the behaviour of her inner parts. I’m making a claim about how she feels. This is not that difficult to see if you’re not in the grip of an ideological conviction that physicalism has to be true. – Williamson, “Fine-tuning, IAI News
Well now, the crux of the matter is that most gatekeepers in science media are in the grip of “an ideological conviction that physicalism has to be true.” As far as they re concerned, physicalism is science and science is physicalism. So, challenged, they are likely to defend it with the ferocity of a bear defending its kill.
Panpsychism has snuck under their radar (so far) by not directly challenging key doctrinal commitments. That’s most likely because of what panpsychism does not claim. For example, panpsychism does not claim that human consciousness is exceptional, Quite the opposite; panpsychists hold that many life forms possess more consciousness than we have supposed. The gatekeepers of science are lulled into accepting that view as acceptable because it denies the exceptionalism of humans. But they don’t seem to grasp its underlying implication: Consciousness is real, as well as pervasive; it cannot be explained away as a mere glitch in the brain that somehow aids survival.
Can Goff get the gatekeepers to accept fine-tuning in the same way, simply by slamming traditional religion? If he does, we will certainly know that things are changing.
You may also wish to read: Why is science growing comfortable with panpsychism (“everything is conscious”)?
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