Philip Goff gives a brief but persuasive new look at his case for panpsychism (the belief that experience, or consciousness in some form, is in everything) in a recent post on the OUPblog site. In the past, he says, explanations have generally been ‘brain first’. Here’s this physical object, the brain – and we understand physical objects well enough  – the challenge is to explain how this scrutable piece of biological tissue on the one hand gives rise to this evanescent miracle, consciousness, on the other. That way of looking at it, suggests Goff, turns out to be the wrong way round.  We don’t really understand the real nature of matter at all: what we understand is that supposedly mysterious consciousness. So what we ought to do is start there and work towards a better understanding of matter.

This undoubtedly appeals to a frustration many philosophers must have felt. People at large tend to take it for granted that what we really know about is the physical external world around us, described in no-nonsense terms (with real equations!) by science. Phenomenology and all that stuff about what we perceive is an airy-fairy add-on.  In fact, of course, it’s rather the other way round. The only thing we know directly, and so, perhaps, with certainty, is our own experience; the external world and the theories of science all finally rest on that first-person foundation. Science is about observation and observation is ultimately a matter of sensory experience.

Goff notes that physics gives us no account of the intrinsic nature of matter, only its observable and causal properties. We know things, as it were, only from the outside. But in the case of our own experience, uniquely, we know it from the inside, and have direct acquaintance with its essential nature. When we experience redness we experience it unmasked; in physics it hides behind a confusing array of wavelengths, reflectances, and other highly abstract and ambiguous concepts, divorced from experience by many layers of reasoning. Is there not an argument for the hypothesis that the intrinsic nature of matter is the same as the intrinsic nature of the only thing whose intrinsic nature we know -our own experience? Perhaps after all we should consider supposing that even electrons have some tiny spark of awareness.

In fact Goff sees two arguments. One is that there simply seems no other reasonable way of accounting for consciousness. We can’t see where it could have come from, so let’s assume it has always been everywhere. Goff doesn’t like this case and thinks it is particularly prone to the compositional difficulties often urged against panpsychism; how do these micro-consciousness stack up in larger entities, and how in particular do they relate to the kind of consciousness we seem to have in our brain? Goff prefers to rest on simplicity; panpsychism is just the most parsimonious explanation. Instead of having two, or multiple kinds of intrinsic natures, we assume that there’s just one. He realises that some may see this as a weak argument far short of proof, but parsimony is a strong and legitimate criterion for judging between theories; indeed, it’s indispensable.

Now I’m on record as suggesting that things out there have one property that falls outside all physical theories – namely reality.  Am I not tempted to throw in my lot with Goff and suggest that as a further simplification we could say that reality just consists in having an intrinsic nature, ie having experience?  Not really.

Let’s go back a bit. Do we really understand our conscious experience?  We have to remember that consciousness seems to have two faces. To use Ned Block’s terms, there is access or a-consciousness; the sort that is involved in governing our behaviour, making decisions, deciding what to say, and other relatively effable processes. Then there is phenomenal or p-consciousness, pure experience, the having of qualia. It seems clear it is p-consciousness that Goff, and I think all panpsychists, are taking about. No-one supposes electrons or rocks are making rational decisions, only having some kind of experience. The problem is that though we do seem to have direct acquaintance with that sort of consciousness, we haven’t succeeded in saying anything much about it. In fact it seems that nothing we say about it can have been caused by it, because in itself it lacks causal powers. Now in one way this is exactly what Goff would expect; these difficulties are just those that come up when talking about qualia anyway, so in a back-handed sort of way we could even say they support his case. But if we’re looking for good explanations, the bucket is coming up dry; no wonder we’re tempted to go back and talk some more about the relatively tractable brain-first perspective.

In addition there are reasons to hesitate over the very idea that physical things have an intrinsic nature. Either this nature affects observable properties or it doesn’t. If it does, then we can use its effects to learn about it and discuss it; to naturalise it, in fact, and bring it within the pale of science. If it doesn’t – how can we talk about it? It might change radically or disappear and return, and we should never know. Goff rests his case on parsimony; we might counter that by observing that a theory that fills the cosmos with experiencing entities looks profligate in some respects. Isn’t there a better strategy anyway? Goff wants to simplify by assuming that apparently dead matter is in fact inwardly experiential like us: but why not go the other way and believe that we actually are as dead matter seems to be; lacking in qualic, phenomenal experience? Why not conclude that a-consciousness is all we’ve got, and that the semblance of p-consciousness is a delusion, as sceptics have argued? We can certainly debate on many other grounds whether that view is correct, but it seems hard to deny that dispensing with phenomenal experience altogether must be the most parsimonious take on the subject.

So I’m not convinced, but I think that within the natural constraints of a blog post, Goff does make a lucid and attractive presentation of his case.

(In another  post, Goff brings further arguments to defend the idea of intrinsic natures. We’ll have a look at those, though as I ought to have said in the first place, one should really read his book to get the full view.)


  1. 1. Tom says:

    Delusion cannot be used as an argument that there is no phenomenal consciousness, because delusion IS phenomenal consciousness.

    I think the place of consciousness in the world really boils down to the fact that the only sensible metaphysical picture of the world is that of things and relations between them. Like qualia, the things themselves are indescribable because we can only describe their relations to other things (to their properties, parts or other things). That’s also what science does. But things themselves are inseparable from their relations. If a thing’s relation changes so must the thing itself. For example, if there is a specific relation R of similarity between thing A and thing B, and now R changes while A remains the same, then B must change too.

    To some extent, we can learn what the things themselves are by our sensory causal interaction with them. The causal interaction, which is a kind of relation, creates a representation of the external thing in our mind, with both its relational properties and the indescribable properties of the thing itself. But it is only a representation, so just as there are similarities between the thing and its representation there are also differences. The representation of a flower in our mind is not an actual flower, but it is similar, in a significant way, to an actual flower.

  2. 2. Paul Torek says:

    “If it doesn’t [affect observable properties] – how can we talk about it? It might change radically or disappear and return, and we should never know.”

    That’s putting it too mildly. If there are two properties that might otherwise fit the bill of “what people are talking about”, but only one of them has ever causally interacted with the people in question, *that’s* the property they’re talking about. That’s a main lesson of the “twin earth” thought experiment in philosophy of language. Why do the twin-earthers refer to XYZ, and not H2O, when they say “water”? It’s because XYZ was causally involved in all their learning of the word, and H2O was not.

    If p-consciousness were causally inert (which it’s not), then we would be unable to talk about it.

    The theory that “The only thing we know directly … is our own experience” is a scientific/philosophical theory, and not a very good one. It’s not something we know directly. A better scientific/philosophical perspective puts internal and external world knowledge on an epistemic par to start with, deems them mutually revisable, and allows coherence considerations to re-weight their credibility.

  3. 3. Philip Goff says:

    Thanks Peter. My main response to this is: I can see no reason to accept that phenomenal consciousness is lacking in causal power. What’s the argument for this? I would say that, unlike a-consciousness, its nature cannot be completely analysed in causal terms. For example, you can’t completely describe what it’s like to see red in causal terms. But that doesn’t mean that red experiences don’t have causes and effects.

    Btw there’s a sequel to the post you’re talking about:

    In terms of your view: I’m not clear what you mean by ‘reality’. I guess everyone thinks things in the world exist, but presumably you mean something more than that?

  4. 4. Peter says:

    Many thanks, Philip.

    If phenomenal consciousness has causal powers, then we can measure them, add phenomenal effects to the physical account as necessary and naturalise them. They are no longer of metaphysical interest. Physics needn’t be silent about them the way you suggest it’s silent about intrinsic qualities.

    Certainly red experiences (if we equate them with neuron firing, etc) can have causal effects, but can their purely phenomenal aspect? What causal effects does a red quale have?

    I posted about your follow-up post, too, incidentally.

    I’m not sure I have a really clear idea of what I mean by ‘reality’ either, I’m afraid. It may actually be impossible to discuss, because as soon as we start talking about it we start talking about its conceptual counterpart. Or I may be talking nonsense, not for the first time! But to me phenomenal experience is just real experience. It’s theoretically intractable because of course theories don’t contain real entities.

    But this post is about your views, not mine, so let’s not go down that rabbit hole…

  5. 5. Tom says:

    “Certainly red experiences (if we equate them with neuron firing, etc) can have causal effects, but can their purely phenomenal aspect? What causal effects does a red quale have?”

    Well, the phenomenal aspect of the red experience (of the pattern of neuronal firings) is what the experience is in itself. You seem to be admitting that a thing can have causal effects but questioning whether the thing’s (intrinsic) identity can have causal effects. But you cannot separate a thing from its identity. The confusion may stem from the fact that every thing has two kinds of identity. One is the intrinsic identity – that which the thing is in itself. And the other is the thing’s relational/structural identity – the parts or properties of the thing. The parts or properties are not what the thing is in itself, because the thing is not identical to any of its parts or properties; the parts or properties are other things which stand in specific relations (composition or instantiation) to our thing.

    But both kinds of identity constitute the same thing. So if you accept causal properties of the thing’s structure you might as well accept causal properties of the thing’s intrinsic identity.

  6. 6. Vincent Wilmot says:

    Physics can allow of all matter having some simple consciousness as being involved in eg action-at-distance forces like magnetism and gravity. This was first proposed in the attraction or remote-control signal-response physics of William Gilbert which got some backing from Isaac Newton. Read my recent improved English translation of Gilbert’s 1600 Latin ‘De Magnete’ free at or buy book at

  7. 7. Patrick Caton says:

    There are three sorts of reasons for thinking all things are conscious. One is universal obedience to natural law, or how does an electron know what to do? Some form of consciousness must be present to explain the behaviors and the connectedness of nature’s otherwise unconnected parts. A second reason can be explained using universal gravitation as an example. When Newton saw the apple fall, his genius realized that the same force tugged on the moon over his head and acted throughout the cosmos. Similarly our consciousness, like the falling apple, is an indication that what we experience on a small scale has a universal sweep. The third reason is metaphysical and is more fully explained in Crux (see website) but can be summarized by saying that our subjective consciousness (pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness, etc.) motivates us to strive–often successfully–for an increase in our being; that our world and universe has so much being points to some similar subjective conscious mechanism underlying it.

  8. 8. John Davey says:


    If phenomenal consciousness has causal powers, then we can measure them, add phenomenal effects to the physical account as necessary and naturalise them.

    Why can’t you ? I see no reason why, other than the fact there is as yet no quantitative theory of mental phenomena. It’s a dogma to claim there never will be, although I suppose it has to be considered a possibility. If one takes a broader view of the meaning of cause – accepting that to limit the meaning of the word ’cause’ to that which physics works with is a bit dogmatic – then qualia have important causes. They stop us from driving into walls, burning our hands on the stove and having sex with sheep by accident. If you start talking yourself out of these examples simply because a few thousand theoretical physicists haven’t worked it out yet, you need to look at how rationalist propaganda is shaping your beliefs. Rationalism should include doubts about the integrity of all things, including physics, but rarely does. Unbelievable blind faith in physics seems to suggest most humans really do struggle with doubt.


  9. 9. Peter says:

    The problem is that a number of thought-experiments in philosophy of mind, notably Mary the Colour Scientist and Chalmers’ Zombie Twin, are meant to convince us that phenomenal experiences – qualia – are entirely and permanently outside the account of the world given by physics. Many people are so convinced, but of course not everyone. Myself I’m inclined, with one significant qualification, to disbelieve in qualia and think everything can be covered, if not literally by physics then by some orderly scientific and rational account: but in discussing philosophy of mind we have to accommodate the fact that most people do not see it that way.

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