eyesPhilip Goff tells us that panpsychism is an appealingly simple view. I do think he has captured an important point, and one which makes a real contribution to panpsychism’s otherwise puzzling ability to attract adherents. But although the argument is clear and well-constructed I could hardly agree less.

Even his opening sentence has me shaking my head…

Common sense tells us that only living things have consciousness.

Hm; I’m not altogether sure such questions are really even within the scope of common sense, but popular culture seems to tell us that people are generally happy to assume that robots may be conscious. In fact, I suspect that only our scientific education stops us attributing agency to the weather, stones that trip us up, and almost anything that moves. It isn’t only Basil Fawlty that shouts at his car!

Goff suggests that the main argument against panpsychism (approximately the view that everything everywhere is conscious: I skip here various caveats and clarifications which don’t affect the main argument) is just that it is ‘crazy’ – that it conflicts with common sense. He goes on to rebut this by pointing out that relativity and Darwinism both conflict with common sense too. This seems dangerously close to the classic George Spiggott argument so memorably refuted in the 1967 film Bedazzled;

Stanley Moon: You’re a nutcase! You’re a bleedin’ nutcase!
George Spiggott: They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud, and Galileo.
Stanley Moon: They said it of a lot of nutcases too.
George Spiggott: You’re not as stupid as you look, are you, Mr. Moon?

But really we’re fighting a straw man; the main argument against panpsychism is surely not a mere appeal to common sense. (Who are these philosophers who stick to common sense and how do they get any work done?) One of the candidates for the main counter-argument must surely be the difficulty of saying exactly which of the teeming multi-layered dynasties of entities in the universe we deem to be conscious, whether composite entities qualify, and if so, how on Earth that works. Another main line of hostile argument must be the problem of explaining how these ubiquitous consciousnesses relate to the ordinary kind that appears to operate in brains. Perhaps the biggest objection of all is to panpsychism’s staggering ontological profligacy. William of Occam told us to use as few angels as possible; panpsychism stations one in every particle of the cosmos.

How could such a massive commitment represent simplicity? The thing is, Goff isn’t starting from nothing; he already has another metaphysical commitment. He believes that things have an intrinsic nature apart from their physical properties. Science, on this view, is all about a world that often, rather mysteriously, gets called the ‘external’ world. It tells us about the objectively measurable properties of things, but nothing at all about the things in themselves. No doubt Goff has reasons for thinking this that he has set out elsewhere, probably in the book of which he helpfully provides an interesting chapter.

But whatever his grounds may be, I think this view is itself hopeless. For one thing, if these intrinsic natures have no physical impact, nothing we ever say or write can have been caused by them. That seems worrying. Ah, but here I’m inadvertently beginning to make Goff’s case for him, because what else is there that never causes any of the things we say about it? Qualia, phenomenal consciousness, the sort Goff is clearly after. Now if we’ve got two things with this slippery acausal quality, might it not be a handy simplification if they were the same thing? This is very much the kind of simplification that Goff wants to suggest. We know or assume that everything has its own intrinsic nature. In one case, ourselves, we know what that intrinsic nature is like; it’s conscious experience. So is it not the simplest way if we suppose that consciousness is the intrinsic nature of everything? Voila.

There’s no denying that that does make some sense. We do indeed get simplicity of a sort – but only at a price. Once we’ve taken on the huge commitment of intrinsic natures, and once we’ve also taken on the commitment of ineffable interior qualia, then it looks like good sense to combine the two commitments into, as it were, one easy payment. But it’s far better to avoid these onerous commitments in the first place.

Let me suggest that for one thing, believing in intrinsic natures poisons the essential concept of identity. Leibniz tells us that the identity of a thing resides in its properties; if all the properties of A are the same as all the properties of B, then A is B. But if everything has an unobservable inner nature as well as its observable properties, its identity is forever unknowable and there can never be certainty that this dagger I see before me is actually the same as the identical-looking one I saw in the same place a moment ago. Its inward nature might have changed.

Moreover, even if we take on both intrinsic natures and ineffable qualia, there are several good reasons to think the two must be different. If we are to put aside my fear that my dagger may have furtively changed its intrinsic nature, it must surely be that the intrinsic nature of a thing generally stays the same – but consciousness constantly changes? In fact, consciousness goes away regularly every night; does our intrinsic nature disappear too? Do sleeping people somehow not have an intrinsic nature – or if they have one, doesn’t it persist when they wake, alongside and evidently distinct from their consciousness? Or consider what consciousness is like: consciousness is consciousness of things; qualia are qualia of red, or middle C, or the smell of bacon; how can entities with no sensory organs have them? Is there a quale of nothing? There might be answers, but I don’t think they’re going to be easy ones.

There’s another problem lurking in wait, too, I think. Goff, I think, assumes that we all exist and have intrinsic natures, but he cannot have any good reason to think so, because intrinsic natures leave no evidence. We who believe that the identity of things is founded in their observable properties have empirical grounds to believe that there are many conscious entities out there. For him the observable physics must be strictly irrelevant. He has immediate knowledge only of one intrinsic nature, his own, which he takes to be his consciousness;  the most parsimonious conclusion to draw from there is not that the universe is full of intrinsic natures and consciousnesses of a similar kind, but that there is precisely one; Goff, the single consciousness that underpins everything. He seems to me, in other words, to have no defence against some kind of solipsism; simplicity makes it most likely that he lives in his own dream, or at best in a world populated by some kind of zombies.

Crazy? Well, it’s a little strange…

6 Comments

  1. 1. Hans Greisbach says:

    How is this any better than dualism? At least theistic dualism normally comes with a story to justify the existence of consciousness.

  2. 2. Jayarava says:

    If you read Justin L Barret’s book “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?”, you get a good idea why animism is the most universal of human supernatural beliefs. It’s important to be able to distinguish agentive from non-agentive movements in the environment because agents are potential prey or predators. So we tend to be over-spec’ed for agency detection. Barrett, being an evolutionary psychologist, assigns this capacity to a “module” in the brain, which he dubs the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device or HADD. Whether its a module or a capacity or whatever is moot. We do see agency everywhere. This makes sense in evolutionary terms. Failing to avoid one real tiger is far more costly than mistakenly avoiding any number of imaginary tigers (though clearly there’s a crossover point).

    So “common sense”, in most cultures, is more than happy to embrace all kinds of non-living things as living, and all sorts of non-sentient, not to mention non-existent, entities as sentient. A recent survey of modern hunter-gatherer cultures found that 100% of them were animists, while only 80% believed in an afterlife. Most cultures are surrounded by a halo of supernatural spirits of various kinds. They play important roles in society, though they require interpreters (aka shamans) to work out what they are saying and doing. In most societies spirits are an epistemically objective fact, so by *local* common sense they are absolutely real.

    The trouble is common sense is that it so often turns out to be *wrong*. Particularly when it comes to common supernatural beliefs. Common sense often mistakes an epistemically objective fact for an ontically objective fact. Like those people who still think that if they show up at the Bank of England waving a £10 note the governor is obliged to pay them out in gold, though this has not been the case since 1694 (the date the BoE was founded). It probably never was the case, but it’s a good story. Common sense tells us that money must be real. But ontologically, money is subjective. Which does not detract at all from its epistemic objectiveness. It *is* money, but only because we agree that it is (and if you doubt this go somewhere with hyper-inflation where people stop agreeing that notes are money). Same with spirits. They “exist” (at least subjectively) because people agree that they do.

    The idea that all matter is conscious is just a Romantic variation on this theme.

    Panpsychism is an understandable belief in a hunter-gatherer. In a philosopher, it is just sad. One suspects that people who resort to dualism and pluralism started out with unacknowledged axioms that state dualism/pluralism as facts, and then they just follow the logic to it’s conclusion without ever having examined the axioms.

    Its ironic that philosophers seem to be the last group to appreciate that reasoning is not an intellectual exercise, but one in which information is weighted according to how we feel about it and usually a group exercise. We sift the available information for salience to our decision making process by emotions. Then having decided, we look for reasons to justify the choice. In every case. If ever a theory was a post-hoc rationalisation of a Romantic fantasy, it is panpsychism.

    Everything seems simple to the person who has strong feeling about a fact they really want to be true. It all seems so simple. So right. So true. Ask any religious person. It’s just common sense, eh?

  3. 3. Arnold Trehub says:

    We will continue on going round and round through the same revolving door on questions like this until we can agree on a working definition of consciousness.

  4. 4. Peter A. says:

    He believes that things have an intrinsic nature apart from their physical properties. Science, on this view, is all about a world that often, rather mysteriously, gets called the ‘external’ world. It tells us about the objectively measurable properties of things, but nothing at all about the things in themselves.

    Yes, that sums up well what the practice of science is actually capable of revealing to us about what we choose to call “the external world”, which is a rather strange expression because it inevitably elicits the question, “external to what“? Without the foundational a-priori assumption that the concept of objective reality is actually meaningful, science never even gets off the ground, and so one cannot actually use it to argue against the belief that “things have an intrinsic nature apart from their physical properties”. As far as we can at this time know, physical entities and phenomena may indeed be more than just their physical form, but science cannot be used to determine this.

    William of Occam told us to use as few angels as possible; panpsychism stations one in every particle of the cosmos.

    No, this is wrong. Occam’s (alternative spelling – “Ockham”) Razor is merely the practice of restricting one’s set of possible explanations for any given process or phenomenon to the bare, minimum amount that is actually necessary in order for one to be able to account for what one is observing. It isn’t the number of “angels” that matter, whether just one or an infinite number, but the postulation of this hypothesis (i.e. angels) in the first place. If something can be accounted for without the introduction of them, then one should do so. This mistake is often made by those who don’t like the ‘Multiverse’ hypothesis (ex. W. L. Craig), because they seem to think that it violates this guiding principle, but it doesn’t; it only introduces one alternative explanation for, for example the fine tuning of the cosmos, not an infinite number of them.

    No doubt Goff has reasons for thinking this that he has set out elsewhere, probably in the book of which he helpfully provides an interesting chapter.

    You didn’t check? That would have been the first thing I would have done, because I would have been looking for the reason(s) why he held the view(s) he did, especially if I disagreed with them (as you do). How can you critique a position you didn’t even bother to examine properly?

  5. 5. Peter A. says:

    Moreover, even if we take on both intrinsic natures and ineffable qualia, there are several good reasons to think the two must be different. If we are to put aside my fear that my dagger may have furtively changed its intrinsic nature, it must surely be that the intrinsic nature of a thing generally stays the same – but consciousness constantly changes? In fact, consciousness goes away regularly every night; does our intrinsic nature disappear too? Do sleeping people somehow not have an intrinsic nature – or if they have one, doesn’t it persist when they wake, alongside and evidently distinct from their consciousness? Or consider what consciousness is like: consciousness is consciousness of things; qualia are qualia of red, or middle C, or the smell of bacon; how can entities with no sensory organs have them? Is there a quale of nothing? There might be answers, but I don’t think they’re going to be easy ones.

    The answer is that we should differentiate the concept of consciousness which, as you rightfully point out, can be modified and even disappear completely during the course of a person’s lifetime (ex. when they are sleeping), from the idea that R. Descartes had in mind (the “I” in his cogito, ergo sum). There appears to be something that persists for the duration of our entire lives, and which does so because it constitutes what we truly are (as opposed to what we seem to think we are – i.e. the sum total of our conscious, lived experiences). We ourselves have what is described above as an “intrinsic nature”, but it isn’t our consciousness. The mistake you make is in assuming it is.

    At every stage of my life, when I was 5, 15, 25, and so on, I was (and now am) the person I am. My physical form has changed over time, and I no longer have the same body I did when I was so young: it is completely gone, transformed into God-knows-what. I also don’t have the same experiences, same patterns of thought, or any of the other aspects of conscious awareness that I had back then, and yet “I” still exist. How, from the philosophical perspective of materialism, can anyone account for that?

  6. 6. Peter says:

    Peter,

    If your view of Occam’s Razor were correct, then once Poirot had declared that it was murder, the hypothesis that a thousand people had conspired would be as attractive as the idea that one dunnit.

    That would have been the first thing I would have done, because I would have been looking for the reason(s) why he held the view(s) he did, especially if I disagreed with them (as you do).

    Then I take it you read everything on this blog before critiquing my manner of proceeding?

    🙂

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