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Reflections on “Are Atoms Conscious?” and Philip Goff

Can we admit consciousness without giving into theism?

Upon finishing the recent debate with Philip Goff, which I found to be both fascinating and revelatory, I realized that there was much that I could’ve said but didn’t due to time constraints and tactical decision-making. Even more, there are a few things I now wish I said. Here is the debate below for reference.

What I Could’ve Said 

I could’ve highlighted more explicitly the features of the unity of consciousness and drove home why it is in fact that variant naturalisms (including panpsychism) just don’t seem to give us what we need. The Unity of Consciousness rules out naturalistic agents. And, here’s one basic argument as to why this is the case. 

  1. I am aware of my field of consciousness and the components of it as a singular subject all at once. 
  2. A functionally integrated whole system can experience unity, but a set of parts cannot. 
  3. Therefore, my conscious items are an integrated whole rather than a set of parts (i.e., atomism is false). 
  4. The brain, nervous system, and body are not more than a set of physical parts arranged (i.e., holism is false). 
  5. Therefore, the brain, nervous system, and body lack the capacity to function as a whole; it must function as a system of parts. 
  6. Hence, the subject, the self, is not one of these physical things (or the parts composing them). 
  7. The subject is something relevantly different like a soul, an immaterial substance, a mental substance. 
  8. Therefore, the subject is a soul, or contains the soul as a part. 

The basic features exhibited by our consciousness show that there is an objective unity of thought-items, experiential-items, character states, and other parts that render physicalism unlikely. But there is more to say about this argument that demands something stronger like a soul as a part that not only renders new features irreducible to the physical and neural bits of the brain, but something altogether different. The unity is more than the parts coordinated and more than a holistic arrangement. Of course, it is an open question on Goff affirms something akin to a holistic arrangement of the underlying parts (and, for that matter, on a larger scale the universe of discrete parts has a coordinated whole set of parts). Instead, the unity seems to be found in a puntiliar point like soul that stands underneath the bits in one’s consciousness. Though thoughts and experiences, themselves, are not conscious, but it is the actual subject that is conscious of them, and it is this subject that fails to find an explanation in the collection, however tight the relation may be, but rather in a point-like soul, substance that holds all the bits together. In other words, it is less like a flip-book that has different pages that overlap at different points (like items that might overlap in different regions of a brain) of conscious space, and more like a singular point that, somehow, exists all at once at all the items of consciousness. This fits better with the Cartesianism that I advance and less like Goff’s panpsychist option that would merely give us a phenomenal unity of different bits conjoined at some higher-level of reality. 

This is where several have argued that we need some form of emergent state, properties, or substance. However, there are reasons why we should reject a mere emergent state or set of properties as capacities view as insufficient. It is dubious that a version of physicalism or physicalism-akin views can support the kind of unity necessary that integrates all the bits into a unified whole. Physicalist views that affirm that you are an integrated whole must also affirm something stronger, namely, that you are a wholly distinct substance as the bearer of conscious events. 

There remains an overwhelming challenge for the physicalist. Call this the local qualitative-property instantiation concern with emergent physicalism views (and this applies as well, it seems, to emergent physicalism-akin views of which Goff’s view may be). I have no reason to think that, as on physicalism, that when I experience a color, or hear a unique sound, or taste chocolate that the quality itself is instantiated in the physical object because the properties themselves are descriptive of a substance that we know, modally, is different from the body. And, in fact, there is no good empirical reason to believe that the material substance instantiates these phenomenal qualities let alone a scientific proof that could be advanced to show that this is the case. 

For, what we learn from neuroscientific practice, despite protestations to the contrary, is that neuroscientists affirm a form of internalism that differentiates conscious states from their correlating neural events. We could take pain-states to show relevantly the point being advanced here. There are two aspects to pain, at least pain of a physical sort: one is the localization of where the pain seems to be and two the private sensation of pain itself. Both features require some level of analysis. First, as on phenomenological dualism, the fact that I experience pain itself is an intrinsic state of a subject. It is the kind of experience that itself exists only to subjects and while there may be ways to infer that someone is in pain, there is no way to empirically access the pain-state that the person is encountering. There is something about the pain itself that is non-empirical and only accessible by way of a subject, a mind that has access to those states. Furthermore, there are, even, some pain states that have no correlation to physical states. Second, the localization of the pain to a physical region signifies something about the correlative state of the person in pain, and that state may be causally triggered by the physical state, but it cannot be identified with it, reduced to it, or even serve as the internal property instantiated by it. Here we have something altogether without spatial occupation (at least in the normal sense or in the sense that it occupies space in the same way as the physical). 

To the extent that this requires some substance that is altogether new, will render panpsychism relevantly similar to a strong (even very strong) version of emergence that demands that we derive something from what it is not. Assuming this is plausible, requires a tremendous amount of conceivability given what we, in fact, know about physical objects. And, many physicalists and dualists, will agree on this point that for an ontology to require this type of emergence is tantamount to magic. 

But to the points raised, there were other items that I could’ve pressed. I could’ve pressed the metaphysical implications from the phenomenological more pointedly (precisely because the epistemic, in this case, does have ontological implications). And more, I could’ve pressed the point about simplicity that seems to underlie the unity of consciousness. But, while there is more to say and discuss at a later date, there is a case that I wish I had spent more time pressing. 

What I’d like to Say Now 

In keeping with my original line that the criterion of simplicity for determining a theory’s truthfulness is irrelevant if it lacks explanatory power, there is a theme (or set of themes really) that emerged in the course of our conversation that I’d like to highlight now. It became clear that in addition to the felt need of having ‘control’ over our ontology for which a scientific frame is hospitable, the real concern seems to be with the problem of evil. In other words, what is driving Goff to reject theism is the problem of evil. But, in doing this, what he gives up is significant. 

Goff, apparently, thinks that he can have consciousness without giving into theism. The disadvantage for affirming theism, or so it is claimed, is that one must accept that God is an evil being who permits all sorts of horrendous evils, and worse, becomes the sort of devil responsible for evil. 

Granted, he recognizes that there are different variants of theism that would mitigate the concerns he raises. But that’s not really my concern, we had that discussion (and I take it that a free-will defense + soul-making theodicy is sufficient for justifying the permissibility of evil and suffering), and I think what he is wanting is some idealized utopia that is impossible given the fact of free human agents (in his universe or in mine). 

It seems to me that his ontology suffers from an inability to make sense of what it is that we truly care about and what I and others hope is true. In this way, sometimes less is just less and more is more. In this case cosmopsychism is less, and theism is more. And it’s less for two reasons. 

Goff claims the principle of parsimony is on his side, but what he gives us is minuscule in comparison to theism. Theism (with souls) promises that you will, in fact, persist into the afterlife. And, our modal intuitions about the possibility of zombies and ghosts supports the fact that I, and you, will exist apart from the bodies in the grave. Second, recent NDE accounts suggest not just mere survival, but rather an afterlife. An afterlife where we can continue to experience the goods of this life (and more!). And better than that, we will experience the fullness of God’s goodness toward us as he embraces us as his own. 

That sounds like a better deal in the end.

Joshua R. Farris

Joshua R. Farris is a Humboldt Experienced Researcher Fellow and Visiting Researcher at the Ruhr Universität Bochum. He is also Visiting Professor at Missional University and London School of Theology. Previously, he was the Chester and Margaret Paluch Professor at Mundelein Seminary, University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Fellow at The Creation Project, and Fellow at Heythrop College. He has taught at several universities in philosophy, theology, and Great Books. He has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles and chapters in a variety of journals in philosophy, philosophy of religion, analytic theology, systematic theology, historical theology, and interdisciplinary studies. He founded and oversees the Design-Theology Project. He is also published in The Imaginative Conservative, The Christian Post, The American Mind, Mere Orthodoxy, The Worldview Bulletin, Prosblogion, Spiritual Media Blog, Faithlife and Essentia Foundation among others. He has recently completed a new monograph entitled The Creation of Self.

Reflections on “Are Atoms Conscious?” and Philip Goff